Friday, December 18, 2020

Dan Reviews Books, Part 6

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 

Bit of a short post this time, but Dangerous Visions is large and worth the discussion, at least.

Sorcerer of the Wilddeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson

Excellent novella. The world is sketched out in vibrant living color and sound. It is alive, resembling but nor mirroring our own, spiraling outwards to imply things much vaster and greater that are of no concern of ours here and now but are nonetheless interesting enough to remember. Variances in dialect pull immense weight in characterizing the brothers, giving glimpses of backstory where the narrative has no time to dawdle. 

My one concern is the very end, which is both incredibly sudden and quite disorientating - intended, clearly, but I am never a fan of having to re-read the ending of a story to make sure that I have the sequence of events correct.

The Secret Tomb, Maurice Leblanc

On hiatus, potential DNF at 44%

The more I reflect on this book, the less I know what to say about it. It's a nice little adventure story, bonus points for a story of this time period,having a leading lady who is an active protagonist. Double bonus points for how she goes waltzing up to the fairground shooting range with the big rich muckamucks and nailing six bulls-eyes with a rusty revolver and ending it with an advertisement for her circus. That's some goddamn S-tier hustle. There's a mystery and a hidden treasure and a bunch of war orphans in a traveling circus and it has all the pieces of a nice little entertaining story. 

So I don't really know why I stopped. Perhaps it felt like there were too many coincidences, or it was dragging its feet just a but too much. Couldn't say.

It would be nice if Leblanc could figure out how old the main character is. When first introduced she's described as 15-16, but then we are given her birthday and she's 19 for a couple chapters before apparently being in her early 20s. The chronology is whack.Part of that gives it a certain timeless feeling (it supposedly takes place in the 1920s but it feels like almost a century before for most of it.

Night Watch, Terry Pratchett

Reading this book in 2020 is...certainly something. The good kind of certainly something, when you find a book that was not written specifically about the events of here and now, but it remains relevant because it is dealing in truth.

It's also damnably hard to review in 2020, a year where it well and truly sunk in that we are living with Lord Winder, that the Unmentionables are afoot, that Snapcase will not save us, that our own Glorious Revolution is a delicate thing.

Damnably hard to review. If you were there, you know, and if you need to ask, you weren't there.

Night Watch is a book about police that extols the virtues antithetical to the idea of police, and it's a book about revolution that knows the difference between The People and the folks you'll actually be dealing with. In typical Pratchett fashion, it is a book about people being people. Good, bad and otherwise. It does not fall to despair. The Republic of Treacle Mine Road lasts for a single night, but it was not for nothing.

(It's also about time travel and probably the only such novel I can really get into because of correctly using quantum to avoid loops and paradox silliness) 

I do think that the time monks might have aged a bit poorly  - even calculating in charitable interpretation - but I do still like the gag about them being the "Men in Saffron".

Good book, very good book. 

How do they rise up, rise up, rise up...

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

I do not recommend reading Dangerous Visions. Let it sit in your mind as a great unknown, some hidden masterpiece that you just cannot quite find a copy of, filled with movers and shakers.

As it turns out, the book is mostly introductions, followed by short stories of mostly middling to poor quality, with some outliers in both directions. Many of these stories have not aged particularly well, and the least dangerous ones tended towards the better quality.

The story-to-story flow is incredibly awkward; the collection starts with one of the weakest stories, blows its load on shocking imagery in the first third (interrupted by an interminable and incoherent 80 page novella by Philip Jose Farmer), and then proceeds to introduce gradually better stories. The collection makes its first impression with repetitive shock value attempts that don't particularly say all that much: Some things are simply too radical for Dangerous Visions. Like addressing race (exception being "The Day After the Day the Martians Came") or maybe treating women with a modicum of respect, or maybe trying to do something that isn't sexual assault. 

It is a cultural artifact first and foremost.

  1. "Evensong" (Lester del Ray) - Inoffensive and tepid. If you are gonna attack and dethrone God and reach heaven through violence, put some pizazz in it.
  2. "Flies" (Robert Silverberg) - There's shock, but it doesn't really go anywhere. And because it doesn't go anywhere the shock is lessened after the initial reading to a rather forgettable paste.
  3. "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" (Frederick Pohl) - While not, I don't feel, one the best-written of the stories in terms of quality, it is the only one - the only one! - that has the cajones to deal with race in America.
  4. "Riders of the Purple Wage" (Philip Jose Farmer) - Fuck this story. A raving, incoherent nightmarescape that coalesces into the sort of shape that makes you feel better off when it was gibberish. Up its own ass far enough to inspect the back of its throat. Also, sexual assault played as comedic.
  5. "The Malley System" (Miriam Allen deFord) - I can see where she was going with it - there was something being said here. That said, I don't consider it particularly effective in the end, and the opening is certainly going to put a lot of folks off their lunch for very good reason.
  6. "A Toy For Juliette" (Robert Bloch) - The kinda clever twist at the end (Surprise! It's Jack the Ripper!) makes sense as the follow up to "hey the main character is a sadist who rapes and murders loads of people for fun", but recognizing the narrative appropriateness doesn't mean I like it.
  7. "The Prowler at the City at the Edge of the World" (Harlan Ellison) - Sequel to the above. I sure hope you like gore because holy shit there's a lot of gore in this, in very specific detail. The worst part is the afterward, where Ellison tries to pull the "but it is YOU, the VIEWER, who is the real monster!" bullshit.
  8. "The Night That All Time Broke Out" (Brian Aldiss) - A generally serviceable, if a bit muddy in presentation, little short about time becoming a home utility, and the disastrous side effects, utterly ruined by Aldiss deciding that an offhand reference to the main character being a sexual predator was something he should add.
  9. "The Man Who Went To The Moon - Twice" (Howard Rodman) - Hardly even science fiction, but it channels the Bradbury school of short story, and for that reason it has aged particularly well compared to others. It is a nice, mild little story.
  10. "Faith of Our Fathers" (Philip K. Dick) - This story, unlike many of its colleagues, actually captures and maintains a sense of tension and forward movement throughout. It feels like a branch story of Man in the High Castle, so there's a guide if you will like it or not. Also, the only story in this collection that deals with God in a way that did not immediately initiate eye-rolling.
  11. "The Jigsaw Man" (Larry Niven) - A not-bad story, made utterly hilarious in hindsight. It reads like a Fox segment describing socialized medicine.
  12. "Gonna Roll the Bones" (Fritz Leiber) - More of a folk tale than a sci-fi story, but entertaining enough (sans the racism part). But it's got a nice seedy casino and a lot of technical language about shooting dice.
  13. "Lord Randy, My Son" (Joe L. Hensley) - Was this the first "messianic figure is intellectually disabled child" story? Maybe it was more shocking back in the day.
  14. "Eutopia" (Poul Anderson) - Anderson builds an excellent alternate universe (two of them, actually) in a limited space, and gets a golden Good Noodle Star for having the setting actually inform the shocking twist at the end in a logical manner, and a second one for having a twist that actually holds up over time. (The twist ending, of course, being that since the main character comes from a timeline still dominated by Hellenist culture the Nikki he is returning to is...
  15. "Incident in Moderan" (David Bunch) - Not much here. Short. Good absurdist imagery of a plastic landscape ruled over by robots engaged in forever war for the hell of it. Not much to say beyond that. it's gonzo, it's neat, I will remember it.
  16. "The Escaping" (David Bunch) - Incoherent nonsense.
  17. "The Doll-House" (James Cross) - Lots of goodreads reviews compare this to a Twilight Zone episode, and I agree with that. Decent story, all around. The burjwazee prove once again the tools of their own self-destruction, when their problems could be mitigated if they just stopped fucking consuming for five goddamn seconds.
  18. "Sex and /or Mr Morrison" (Carol Emshwiller) - I spent essentially the entire time trying to figure out if the narrator actually existed (it was quite muddy). Also got some real big TERF vibes from author's note at the end. The existence of Deviantart really takes the wind out of the sails here.
  19. "Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" (Damon Knight) - I actually really liked this one, but the idea that a story about God having to cancel the apocalypse because humanity nuked itself into oblivion beforehand is a dangerous and daring vision instead of a nice little punchline is baffling.
  20. "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (Theodore Sturgeon) - I skipped the ending of this one, though I already knew what it contained from osmosis. Dangerous Visions has finally provided something that warrants the name.
  21. "What Happened to Auguste Clarot?" - This was a nothing story. I guess there was a twist, but it was a nothing twist, and felt like a joke whose cultural context has been entirely lost. Like finding some obscure riddle in hieroglyphs - you know the words and what they mean, but the punchline makes no goddamn sense.
  22. "Ersatz" (Henry Slesar) - Imagine you are writing for a collection intended to push the envelope, in the genre built upon the vast potential of human imagination, and the most shocking thing you can think of, the most daring and envelope-pushing and drag-the-medium-kicking-and-screaming-into-the-century-of-the-fruitbat is garden variety transphobia. Not in the sense of peeling off the mask and going "hey, this whole transphobia shit is terrible and inhumane, fucking stop" but just "what if I, me myself, and this story, was transphobic." It would literally be a more dangerous vision if it was less bigoted!
  23. "Go Go Go, Said the Bird" (Sonya Dorman) - Imagine The Road, but shorter and you don't have to wade though Cormac McCarthy doing whatever it is that he does. Snappy, haunting, and horrific.
  24. "The Happy Breed" (John Sladek) - Automated systems controlling our lives with the intent of making us happy accidentally infantilize the species. Decent enough, I suppose.
  25. "Encounter With A Hick" (Jonathan Brand) - Another  terribly low-quality "but what if God was actually X" story, which, like the others, does barely anything with the science fiction and absolutely nothing with the religion aspect beyond the most superficial and bleaugh.
  26. "From the Government Printing Office" (Kris Neville) - Mixed feelings on this one. On  the one hand, it's POV of an infant and goes into the idea of how children are taught poorly at a young age into forgetting their curiosity and how parents do not foster meaningful teaching. On the other hand, there's something in there about this being a future where children are taught by being shitty to them and that really didn't need to be there A because the parents were just normal shitty and filled the same role and B it's not developed at all, because the POV is of a toddler.
  27. "Land of the Great Horses" (R.A. Lafferty) - "What if the Romani diaspora was because aliens stole their homeland for study, and now they've returned it?" Gets points, at least, for actually using the proper name for the people, though not all the way through. 
  28. "The Recognition" (J. G. Ballard) - A Twilight Zone episode with a terribly predictable ending. Not terrible on the whole, though not terribly engaging either.
  29. "Judas" (John Brunner) - What if a robot founded a religion on itself? Another bloody bland take on religion, though likely the best one besides the PKD story. Still, it's amazing to get this look into an era where there was lack of creativity when dealing with a topic of immense breadth, depth, and weirdness.
  30. "Test to Destruction" (Keith Laumer) - This one has a nifty premise (man is under dual mind probes, one from aliens and one from fascists) that is marred by some truly atrocious dialogue writing.
  31. "Carcinoma Angels" (Norman Spinrad) - Another recipient of the one-sentence what the fuck award. The main character comes across as something of a sociopath from go, but it's limited to just being nigh-robotic in his ability to take advantage of business situations. Then he gets to the point in his life when he wants to Do Good (capitals in the story) and then quote "organized a birth control program that sterilized twelve million fecund Indian women" excuse me what the actual shit. You were doing perfectly fine with the story of a man who succeeds at everything in his life facing the undefeated foe of cancer and then...what. Why. It's just a throwaway sentence! A fragment of a sentence! The core of the story arc is entirely intact without it! Why is it here?
  32. "Auto-da-Fe" (Roger Zelazny) - Finally some good fucking food. There's no big idea or moral lesson to be had, here. Just a short story of a future matador who, instead of fighting bulls, fights vintage automobiles. By concept alone, I give it top billing. Finally. Some good fucking food.
  33. "Aye, and Gomorrah" - The premise is rock-solid: first-generation spacers are neuter in both gender and sex, due to the modifications they undergo to be able to survive in space. This has led to a subculture of fetishists back on Earth, that the spacers must the navigate. So you've got a main character who is, through no doing of their own, stuck as a sort of perpetual outsider among people who care about them only as an object, rather than as a person. The fact that Delaney is a queer black man writing science fiction in 1967 clearly, obviously, has absolutely nothing at all to do with this.

Of the entire collection, I would only recommend , "Faith of Our Fathers", "Eutopia", "Go Go Go, Said the Bird", "Auto-da-Fe", and "Aye, And Gomorrah" as stories worth reading on their own.

Ventus, Karl Shroeder

In progress at 24%

I love finding a free ebook I have never heard of and being pleasantly surprised by it, which has been my experience so far with Ventus. It's the sort of sci-fi that wears the dressings of fantasy of the era (here is our young male lead of humble beginnings and not that much characterization who has stumbled onto Great and Terrible Portents of a Wider Plot), before pulling off the sheet and revealing the sci-fi elements (the nanoswarms used to terraform the planet went haywire and didn't recognize the colonists, so there's a wild, uncontrolled machine ecosystem on the planet and the swarms will wreck any machines they don't like / didn't make). There are nifty little moments, quite regularly, that go a long way to making it a nonstandard setting in both genres. Pacing is brisk, writing quality is overall quite good, and I find that it does not make its 600 pages burdensome. Big recommend.


  1. Rider of the Purpose Wage makes me legit angry. 80 pages! Some of the other stories are shorter than their introductions!

  2. I read a bit of Jewels of Aptor a while back, not enough to write a review of it, but have been meaning to get into more of his work.

  3. I reread Nights watch recently too. Sometimes you need a good cry. I assume you meant Lord Winder, not Keel?

  4. I haven't read Night Watch in ages, but I'd forgotten the little republic. I wonder if it has a little The Napoleon of Notting Hill in it? I also wonder how that book has aged since I last read it.