Hither Came Conan: Jeffrey Shanks on “A Witch Shall Be Born”

Monday, June 17th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_WitchTreeofWoeEDITEDThree stories to go! This week, Robert E Howard Foundation multiple time award winner, Jeffrey Shanks, takes on “A Witch Shall Be Born.” That ain’t exactly an easy task. See what he’s got to say about this one.

Thou Shalt Not Suffer “A Witch Shall Be Born” — Or Maybe You Should?

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is not usually on anyone’s list of the top tier Conan stories – despite containing what could arguably be the most powerful and iconic scene in the entire series. The tepid reception to “Witch” is not entirely unfounded – the novella-length yarn is heavy on exposition, awkwardly constructed, poorly paced at times, and somewhat anticlimactic in its dénouement. And yet it has moments in which Howard’s powerful vision shines through the flaws. Howard Jones and Bill Ward noted in their recent REH Re-Read series  that it feels a bit like a draft, and I tend to agree. The story was written hastily in just a few days as Patrice Louinet has noted, and feels a little like a piece of choice meat that is a bit undercooked – It could have used another minute on the grill, but it’s still pretty damn tasty.

“Witch” was published in Weird Tales in the December1934 issue. As with “Black Colossus, it is a Hyborian version of one of Howard’s blood and thunder, Harold Lamb-style “Oriental” tales, in the same vein as the Crusades yarns he had been writing a few years earlier. The small kingdom of Khauran in which much of the story is set is something of analog to the historical Crusader kingdom of Outremer, a Western (Hyborian) polity precariously set on the fringes of the Eastern steppes.

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Vintage Treasures: Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham

Sunday, June 16th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Out of the Deeps John Wyndham-small Out of the Deeps John Wyndham-back-small

Del Rey / Ballantine edition, 1977. Art by Vincent Di Fate

John Wyndham is best remembered these days for his classic SF horror novels The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Chrysalids (1955), and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) (filmed twice as Village of the Damned, the second time by John Carpenter). But he had a lengthy career in the pulps, publishing dozens of stories in Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, and other places under the name John Beynon Harris and John Beynon. Much of his early pulp fiction was collected in Sleepers of Mars (Coronet Books, 1973) and two volumes of The Best of John Wyndham (Sphere Books, 1973).

He published seven novels under the name John Wyndham between 1951 – 1968, starting with The Day of the Triffids, and these are the books that made his reputation. The second was The Kraken Wakes (1953), published in the US as Out of the Deeps. Like most of his Wyndham material, it has been continuously in print for most of the past six decades. In a 2009 review at Tor.com, Jo Walton wrote:

I’d remembered it as being a cosy catastrophe where the world is destroyed by sea monsters, and rather second-tier Wyndham, but I’d done it an injustice. The Kraken Wakes is quite an unusual cosy catastrophe, and really much more interesting than I’d remembered it.

To start with, it’s an alien invasion. The first things are “red dots,” fiery meteors landing in the deep sea, which are actually alien craft. It’s speculated that they might come from Jupiter or Neptune and like living at high pressure under water, and it’s speculated that humanity could share the planet with them, since they need different things. The rest of the book is a series of attacks by the aliens, never called krakens in the book, culminating in the scene that starts the novel where rising sea water and icebergs in the Channel have entirely changed the climate and landscape of Britain and the protagonists are trying to escape. This is essentially the story of how some very unusual aliens conquer the world in 1953, and it’s much closer to The War of the Worlds than it is to Wyndham’s other novels.

I never managed to acquire a copy until two weeks ago, when I tracked down the handsome Del Rey reprint above, with the fine Di Fate cover (Del Rey reprinted several Wyndham paperbacks at the same time, including The Midwich Cuckoos, which I discussed here). The Del Rey edition is a nice slender book (182 pages), and looks like a perfect summer read. It’s been too long since I’ve read Wyndham, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

New Spec-Fic of a Cold, Hard Type

Sunday, June 16th, 2019 | Posted by Frederic S. Durbin

Paradigm Shifts Typewritten Tales of Digital Collapse-small Escapements Typewritten Tales from Post-Digital Worlds-small

In the 21st century we were connected, interconnected. We had efficiency, convenience, escapist entertainment as real as life. We soared through a glowing cosmos of information, faster and faster. We knew it all, saw it all; we were everywhere at once, and nothing seemed beyond reach.

And then it all went away.

A deafening silence followed like a sleep, a seed gone into the ground. A death and rebirth. In the stillness, the isolation, we learned to see and hear again, to think and feel as if for the first time. The way forward was the way back. In the strange new world, our fingers found the old keys; the typeslugs found ribbons newly inked, and words formed again.

Cold Hard Type, a two-volume fiction anthology just released from Loose Dog Press, depicts a changing season for humankind. Volume 1, Paradigm Shifts: Typewritten Tales of Digital Collapse, imagines the end of the internet, the demise of smartphones, and the impact of this new reality on those determined to survive. Volume 2, Escapements: Typewritten Tales from Post-Digital Worlds, continues to follow the inhabitants of the new analog age in their struggles and triumphs.

The twist: all the stories and poems in these books are typewritten — on typewriters — by contributors from coast to coast and from around the world. Each manuscript page was scanned, so that the pages themselves are works of art — each a personalized and nostalgic window into the past of the printed word. Even the page headings and cover lettering were mechanically typed. Stark grayscale photos and artwork illustrate this imaginative portrait of a future that may be arriving even now. Format underscores content, for the unifying element in the stories is typewriters — typewriters clacking again in the post-apocalypse.

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Derek and his Niece Binge Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur

Saturday, June 15th, 2019 | Posted by Derek Kunsken


My son and I are travelling with my brother and his family. I have taken the opportunity to read with my 8-year old niece, who has virtually no experience with super heroics, although a few years ago, I did read several trades of Tiny Titans to her.

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A Celebration of Classic British Horror: Gaslight, Ghosts & Ghouls by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, edited by Stephen Jones

Saturday, June 15th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Gaslight Ghosts & Ghouls-smallIn a May 30 Facebook post, Stephen Jones announced a major new career retrospective of British horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes, who died in 2001. Chetwynd-Hayes published early fiction in The Pan Book of Horror Stories in the sixties, and wrote the classic The Monster Club, the basis for the 1980 film starring Vincent Price and John Carradine.

Jones was Ron’s co-editor for two posthumous anthologies, Great Ghost Stories (2004) and Tales to Freeze the Blood: More Great Ghost Stories (2006). He also helped him compile several collections, and published Ron’s fiction in multiple anthologies. He’s the perfect man for the job of assembling a “Best of” survey of the five-decade career of one of the great names in 20th Century British horror. Here’s Stephen:

R. Chetwynd-Hayes… was one of the most important horror writers and editors working in Britain. Not only was he happy to write about such genre standards as ghosts, demons, ghouls, vampires and werewolves, but he also delighted in making up his own bizarre monster variations that managed to stretch the imaginations of both author and reader alike…

Ron published an impressive twenty-four collections of short fiction, twenty-four anthologies (including twelve volumes of the influential Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories series), thirteen novels and more than 220 short stories. His work was adapted for the movies, television, radio and comics, and reprinted in various languages around the world. One of his publishers described him as “Britain’s Prince of Chill”, and his volumes of ghost stories and humorous tales of terror once filled the shelves of nearly every public library in the UK…

With the centenary of his birth fast approaching this year, I decided that it was time to finally compile the “Best of” collection… as it was such a monumental occasion to be celebrated, we decided to go well beyond that — to create a volume that truly did justice to Ron’s work and his enduring legacy… Gaslight, Ghosts & Ghouls: A Centenary Celebration contains sixteen of Ron’s highly original tales of terror and the supernatural, which invariably combined horror and humour in equal measure, giving them a style that was uniquely the author’s own. These not only include a rare reprint of one of his novellas featuring “the world’s only practising psychic detective” Francis St. Clare and his vivacious assistant Frederica (“Fred”) Masters, but also two tales that have never been reprinted since their original publication, plus a vampire novella that is appearing in print for the very first time!

Gaslight, Ghosts & Ghouls: A Centenary Celebration also contains the longest interview with Ron ever published, conducted by Jo Fletcher and Jones, a detailed Bibliography, a full-color portfolio of covers by Les Edwards, rare photos, endpapers by John Bolton and Graham Humphreys, and a back cover painting by Walter Velez. It will be published by PS Publishing in three formats, including a jacketed hardcover, signed slipcase, and deluxe limited edition. The unsigned hardcover is offered at £25.00. It will premiere at FantasyCon in Glasgow, Scotland, October 18th–20th. The cover, “The Monsters Escape,” is by Les Edwards. Pre-order copies of the book here.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Saturday, June 15th, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards have been presented by the British Science Fiction Association since 1970 and were originally nominated for and voted on by the members of the Association. The Media Award was created in 1979, when it was won be the original series of the radio show The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In its first three years, the award was won by the first and second series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show as well as the record. The award was presented annually until 1992, when the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day won the final award.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was originally a radio show which aired on the BBC from March 8, 1978 to April 12, 1978, with an additional episode (called a fit) airing on December 24, 1978. The show was so popular that a stage show based on the radio show ran from May 1-9, 1979 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The first four episodes of the radio show were also adapted (with some alterations) for release on a double LP set in 1979 (released in the US and Canada in 1982). The recordings used the original scripts, but cut some sections for timing while adding in alternative lines that were cut from the radio shows (including one that I really enjoy). Most of the original radio cast returned for the record, although Susan Sheridan, who had voiced Trillian, was unavailable since she was recording the voice of Princess Eilonwy for Disney’s animated film The Black Cauldron, and was replaced by Cindy Oswin, who had performed the role in the ICA stage production.

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New Treasures: The Outside by Ada Hoffmann

Friday, June 14th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

The Outside Ada Hoffmann-smallJune has some great SF and fantasy headed our way, but the title that’s grabbed my attention this month has already arrived: Ada Hoffman’s debut novel The Outside. Karin Tidbeck calls it“a fresh and mind-bending mix of cosmic horror and space opera,” and Publishers Weekly says it’s “a breezily told adventure that bursts with sheer fun… [a] beautifully smart, uncynical space opera.”

But my favorite review was a rave from Kate Sherrod at The Skiffy and Fanty blog. Here’s a snippet.

With a boffo combination of hard science fiction, cosmic Lovecraftian horror, both cyber- and god-punk, some ridiculously charismatic aliens, and a fascinating female protagonist somewhere on the autism spectrum, Ada Hoffman’s The Outside feels like it was made to order for us here at Skiffy and Fanty!…

In The Outside, Humanity has colonized the galaxy, but it hasn’t done it alone: our first step to the stars involved creating a dozen or so artificial intelligences so vastly powerful that they’ve come to be regarded as gods. These gods are served by a hierarchy of cybernetically-enhanced human “angels” who help them run the teeming variety of human-inhabited planets… Dr. Yasira Shien is a scientist-engineer, the finest student of a famous physicist who disappeared after the pair laid most of the groundwork for a new kind of reactor… Before we know it, disaster strikes on the station. In the chaotic and tragic aftermath, Yasira is torn from the small island of comfort she’s created for herself… haunted by a hundred deaths from her reactor’s mysterious failure, Yasira is whisked away by a stern batch of angels to go find her erstwhile mentor, Dr. Evianna Talirr, whose dimension-bending heresies may be a threat to Reality Itself™…

I enjoyed the roller coaster ride that is the plot, the feast of challenging ideas, and the fascinating characters. I also relished the mystery of the Outside, which could easily have become just another alternate space teeming with monsters but here balances on the more abstract and cerebral side even as it entertainingly warps reality… The Outside is quite possibly the best book I’ve read so far this year. Mad respect, Ms. Hoffman!

The Outside was published by Angry Robot on June 11, 2019. It is 400 pages, priced at $14.99 in trade paperback and $9.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Lee Gibbons.

See all our recent New Treasures here.

In 500 Words or Less: The Gossamer Mage by Julie E. Czerneda

Friday, June 14th, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

The Gossamer Mage-smallThe Gossamer Mage
By Julie E. Czerneda
DAW Books (416 pages, $27.00 hardcover/$12.99 eBook, August 6, 2019)

In the words of the great Mr. Spock, Julie Czerneda’s forthcoming novel The Gossamer Mage is fascinating.

To be fair, everything I’ve ever read from Julie is fascinating in some way. But Gossamer is a different brand of cool than either The Clan Chronicles or Web Shifters. Not only is it a jump from science fiction to fantasy, but it brings along the intricate detail and clever wordplay that you can find in any of Julie’s other works.

What mainly fascinated me here was the magic. I’m not the sort of reader or writer who needs a magic system to have strictly defined rules that can’t be broken and need to see explained in detail (although I enjoy that when it’s done well, like in The Dresden Files). What I definitely need, though, is magic that has consequences, so you don’t need to come up with complicated reasons to prevent mages from laying waste to every opponent. Julie’s presented a really cool brand of consequence: magic that siphons years off a mage’s life, aging them as they perform their works, in this case through ink and parchment.

She goes one better to make that aging somewhat up to the whim of the Deathless Goddess, to which (almost) every scribemaster gives their allegiance. And then on top of that, she’s layered a complex world built around the idea of mages who literally spend their life to achieve success. Scribemaster Saeleonarial, for example, worries that every new magical script will make him a decrepit old man, and looks down on young people who burn through that youth too quickly going after glory. There’s a vested interest in producing new mages through promoting powerful bloodlines, but the power to control that rests with the hold daughters, who represent the Deathless Goddess who allows magic to exist. And so on.

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Big, Ambitious and Experimental: BBC Culture on John Brunner

Thursday, June 13th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Stand on Zanzibar-small Stand on Zanzibar 1976-small

John Brunner was one of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th Century. Unlike many of his peers, however — like Philip K. Dick. Ursula K. Le Guin, Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein — his star has dimmed considerably since his death in 1996, and virtually all of his fiction is now out of print. So I was very pleased to see this May 10th feature story on Brunner at the BBC Culture site, focusing on his uncannily on-target predictions, especially those in his brilliant novel Stand on Zanzibar.

If some of his predictions now read like wacky sci-fi clichés, others have proven spot on. For instance, in his 1962 novella Listen! The Stars! he conjured up the ‘stardropper’, an addictive portable-media-player-like gizmo. In 1972, he published one of his most pessimistic novels, The Sheep Look Up, which prophesies a future blighted by extreme pollution and environmental catastrophe. And his 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, created a computer hacker hero before the world knew what one was. It also envisaged the emergence of computer viruses, something that early computer scientists dismissed as impossible. He even coined the use of the word ‘worm’ to describe them…

[Brunner] won, too, almost every sci-fi prize worth winning, including the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel, which had never before gone to a Brit. Nevertheless, Brunner’s gripes about heavy-handed editing and in-fighting within the claustrophobic sci-fi scene gave him a prickly reputation. By middle-age, much of his work had fallen out of print in the UK, and he’d been forced to sell his London home and move to Somerset… Today, his name is little known beyond sci-fi aficionados, and he’s chiefly remembered for Stand on Zanzibar. Big, ambitious and formally experimental, it’s a science-fiction thriller that depicts a world confronting population control. By 2010, Brunner declared, the world’s population would top seven billion (he was a year out – this actually happened in 2011).

In his June 2 article on classic dystopias here at Black Gate, Joe Bonadonna made some similar observations.

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Sentient Mining Robots, Interstellar Warfare, and an A.I. Revolution: The Corporation Wars by Ken MacLeod

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

The Corporation Wars Trilogy-smallScottish writer Ken MacLeod is the author of Cosmonaut Keep, The Cassini Division, Newton’s Wake, and roughly a dozen other science fiction novels. His books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, and British Science Fiction Awards. His Corporation Wars trilogy (Dissidence, Insurgence, and Emergence) is a fast-paced space opera told against a backdrop of interstellar drone warfare, virtual reality, and an A.I. revolution. In his review of the second volume at Locus Online, Russell Letson said:

MacLeod manages big Ideas (po­litical and futurological) and propulsive action without short-changing either side of that classic science-fictional tension-of-opposites, a trait he shares with Iain M. Banks and Charles Stross. I’m going add one more name and then duck be­hind the sofa: Heinlein.

I was sloppy about picking up the originals when they first appeared; that usually means I have to painstakingly track down out-of-print copies. But not this time! Orbit came to my rescue with a gorgeous (and gorgeously economical) 879-page omnibus brick: The Corporation Wars Trilogy. If you’re interested in an acclaimed space opera from a modern master, this is an excellent gift for yourself. Here’s the description.

In deep space, ruthless corporations vie for control of scattered mining colonies, and war is an ever-present threat.

Led by Seba, a newly sentient mining robot, an AI revolution grows. Fighting them is Carlos, a grunt who is reincarnated over and over again to keep the “freeboots” in check. But he’s not sure whether he’s on the right side.

Against a backdrop of interstellar drone combat Carlos and Seba must either find a way to rise above the games their masters are playing or die. And even dying might not be the end of it.

The Corporation Wars was published by Orbit on December 11, 2018. It is 896 pages, priced at $19.99 in trade paperback and $13.99 in digital formats. The cover was designed by Lisa Marie Pompilio.

If you’re in the market for fine value in reading, check out our recent coverage of fat omnibus editions here.

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