Birthday Reviews: Ian R. MacLeod’s “Starship Day”

Monday, August 6th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Bob Eggleton

Cover by Bob Eggleton

Ian R. MacLeod was born on August 6, 1956.

MacLeod’s novella Song of Time won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2009. His novella “The Summer Isles” won the World Fantasy Award and the Sidewise Award in 1999 and the novel length version also won the Sidewise Award in 2006. He won a third Sidewise Award for Wake Up and Dream in 2012 and a second World Fantasy Award for “The Chop Girl.” He has collaborated with Martin Sketchley on one story.

“Starship Day” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in the July 1995 issue, edited by Gardner Dozois. The following year, it was translated for the German edition of the magazine and also appeared in MacLeod’s collection Voyages by Starlight and was selected by Dozois for his The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirteenth Annual Collection. In 1997, it was translated into French for inclusion in Cyberdreams 11: Illusions technologiques, edited by Sylvie Denis. John Joseph Adams most recently reprinted the story in the February 2017 issue of Lightspeed.

Stories about generation ships or interstellar voyages usually focus on those who are traveling on the ships. If they deal with the people left behind, it is generally as an afterthought. In MacLeod’s “Starship Day,” people living on a ravaged Earth a generation after a starship left are waiting to hear what the voyagers will find when the finally come out of cryosleep in orbit around a distant planet. In the village of Danous, everyone is sitting on pins and needles waiting to see the transmission with the exception of Owen, the village doctor, who is adamant that it is just another day.

Owen goes out of his way to make the day normal, seeing patients in the morning, having lunch with the latest in a long line of mistresses, who uses the opportunity to break up with him, going home to listen to his wife play her cello before the two go to a viewing party, where Owen considers starting an affair with his wife’s sister, and eventually going to check up on Sal Mohammed, a friend and patient he had seen that morning who failed to attend the party.

When Owen discovers that Sal has committed suicide, possibly in part because of Owen’s own dismissive attitude during their morning appointment, the situation begins to unravel. The message comes in from the starship that there is no planet for them to land on. While everyone else seems to take this in stride, it brings up a variety of emotions for Owen regarding his own lost daughter.

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The Big Little SF Magazines of the 1970s

Sunday, August 5th, 2018 | Posted by Rich Horton

analog-aug-74-smallAn earlier version of this article was published in Black Gate 10.

These columns are focused on the history of SF – and so far that has turned out to mean mostly discussion of 50s oriented subjects, with some leakage into nearer years. But now I’d like to take a look at a rather more recent, and rather less celebrated, period. The 1970s. The time of wide ties, leisure suits, and disco. And also the time I discovered SF, and the SF magazines.

My first look at real SF magazines is a moment I remember with a continued thrill. Sometime in late July 1974, in Alton Drugs in Naperville, IL, I wandered by the newsstand and my eyes lit on three magical covers: the August 1974 issues of Analog, Galaxy, and F&SF. That day I bought Analog. The cover story was “Enter a Pilgrim” by Gordon R. Dickson, with a striking, odd, John Schoenherr painting, featuring an alien with a lance and ceramic-appearing armor (a sort of Schoenherr trademark, that ceramic-like surface).

I read that issue quickly and the next day I bought Galaxy, which featured “The Day Before the Revolution,” an Ursula K. Le Guin story that would win a Hugo, as well as parts of two different serials – The Company of Glory by Edgar Pangborn and Orbitsville by Bob Shaw. Of course that issue was also read before the day was out, and the next day I bought F&SF – a very important issue in its own way: it featured John Varley’s first published story (or perhaps his co-first story, as we will see later.) It wasn’t long before I had added Amazing and Fantastic to the roster. Soon I was subscribing to several magazines, and buying the others each month at the newsstand.

Those five were all the major, well-distributed, magazines there were by 1975. Alas, I just missed seeing If, Galaxy’s long time companion: it was discontinued at the end of 1974, and for some reason my local newsstand didn’t carry it, at least not those last few months.

I had formed an opinion, based on received conventional wisdom, that the “Big Three” of SF magazines had been Astounding/Analog, F&SF, and Galaxy since 1950: certainly that was the case in 1975. (You will get an argument for many years prior to that, however: there are partisans for Startling Stories in the early 50s, for If at various times, especially during Frederik Pohl’s peak editorial period in the mid-60s, and for Amazing and Fantastic under Cele Goldsmith’s editorial hand in the early 60s.)

Galaxy, however, was in some financial trouble. Under Jim Baen’s editorship it enjoyed a couple of years as a truly wonderfully enjoyable magazine, but when he left the decline was swift. However, Galaxy’s place in the “Big Three” was quickly taken by Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. And throughout the 70s, the sister magazines Amazing and Fantastic, edited by Ted White, were the other major prozines.

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Birthday Reviews: Rick Norwood’s “Portal”

Saturday, August 4th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Todd Lockwood

Cover by Todd Lockwood

Rick Norwood was born on August 4, 1942.

Norwood published his first piece of fiction in 1972, following up with several stories in 1982, and then began publishing fiction again in 2003 with “Portal.” He was active in the nderground comic scene, editing God Comics and writing essays and articles for various comic magazines and websites. He also earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics and has taught since the early 1980s.

“Portal” appeared in the sixth issue of Black Gate magazine, released in Fall 2003 and edited by John O’Neill. The story has not been reprinted.

Ostensibly, “Portal” is the story of Ian, an escaped serf who is eluding capture and working temporarily at a fair for Stolnesserene, who runs a Blade Maze, a chance for people to try to reach into a box containing a series of razors and blades to retrieve a sword. However, rather than focus solely on Ian, the stories jumps between him, his boss, Ian’s friend Tod, and Carver, an art dealer who is also on the fair circuit and is intent on retrieving the blade from the maze.

Norwood follows each of these characters to some extent, but in a manner that indicates there is more to the story than he is sharing, not necessarily in background, although that clearly has depth, but in the future. As such, “Portal” almost comes across as a vignette rather than a full story. The title takes its name from an ability that Ian has to create portals that open to other worlds. These portals are not fully understood by the inhabitants of Ian’s world and when he first opens one accidentally, his father berates him. In the course of “Portal,” Ian enters one of the doorways he creates, which may be the first time someone has gone through and come back, further pushing the idea that this story is part of a larger whole.

“Portal” has the feel of the opening chapter of a much longer work, whether a series of short stories set in the same world or a novel. Norwood introduces several characters as well as their situations and includes prediction about Ian and Tod without showing how their fate will play out or even if they will live up to the expectation laid before them. Ian’s backstory opens “Portal,” and although his concern at being captured runs through much of the story, it isn’t picked up again, further providing the feel that Norwood is positioning this story as the opening of a novel.

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Vintage Treasures: Conquerors from the Darkness by Robert Silverberg

Friday, August 3rd, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Conquerors from the Darkness Master of Life and Death Silverberg-small Conquerors from the Darkness Master of Life and Death Silverberg-back-small

1979 Ace edition, paired with Master of Life and Death. Cover by Frazetta.

Robert Silverberg’s novella “Spawn of the Deadly Sea” appeared in the April 1957 issue of Science Fiction Adventures. He expanded it to novel length in 1965, retitling it Conquerors from the Darkness in the process. It wasn’t one of Silverberg’s more successful novels, at least from a commercial standpoint. Today it’s considered a juvenile, and it was reprinted only a handful of times, including a 1979 Ace paperback in which it was paired with Master of Life and Death and given a typically colorful Frank Frazetta cover (above).

In his introduction to the Ace edition Silverberg talks about Robert E. Howard, and it’s one of Silverberg’s few early SF novels with a clear Howard influence. Perhaps as a result, the book certainly has its fans. Here’s an extract from James Reasoner’s enthusiastic review on his blog.

Conquerors from the Darkness is exactly the sort of vivid, galloping action yarn that made me a science fiction fan in the first place. At first it seems like a heroic fantasy novel, set in some totally different universe than ours. The oceans cover the entire planet except for a few floating cities. The only commerce is between those cities, and keeping the seas safe for the merchant vessels is a Viking-like group known as the Sea-Lords. The hero of the novel, a young man named Dovirr, lives in one of the cities but wants to be a Sea-Lord and take to the oceans. He gets his wish and rapidly rises in the ranks, and along the way the reader learns that this is indeed Earth, a thousand years after alien invaders flooded the planet for reasons known only to them, preserving a little of humanity in those floating cities… the alien Star Beasts return to take over the planet again, and Dovirr and his comrades have to find some way to stop them with swords and sailing ships.

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Birthday Reviews: Clifford D. Simak’s “Observer”

Friday, August 3rd, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Leo Ramon Summers

Cover by Leo Ramon Summers

Clifford D. Simak was born on August 3, 1904 and died on April 25, 1988.

Simak won the Hugo for Best Novelette in 1959 for “The Big Front Yard,” for Best Novel in 1964 for Way Station (a.k.a. Here Gather the Stars), and in 1981 for Best Short Story for “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” which also won the Nebula Award. He also won a Retro-Hugo in 2014 for the novelette “Rule 18.” His novel City won the International Fantasy Award in 1953. He won the Jupiter Award for the novel A Heritage of Stars. Simak was the Guest of Honor at Noreascon I, the 29th Worldcon, held in Boston in 1971. He was inducted into the First Fandom Hall of Fame in 1973 and in 1977, SFWA named him a Grand Master. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writer’s Association in 1988.

Simak published “Observer” in the May 1972 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, edited by Ben Bova, although it is possible the story was originally purchased by John W. Campbell, Jr. before his death. Simark included it in his 1988 collection Off-Planet and it was reprinted in Eternity Lost, volume 1 of the Stories of Clifford D. Simak published by Darkside Press. The story has most recently been reprinted in the Open Road Media collection of Simak’s work The Big Front Yard and Other Stories

“Observer” appears throughout most of its length to be a story without a human protagonist. The narrator is some sort of sentient who wakes on a planet and begins to figure out where he is and what his purpose is. The story is serious in nature, but the reader can’t help comparing the observer to the unlucky sperm whale called into existence in Douglas Adams’s The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It also becomes clear to the reader that the observer’s purpose is to check out new planets to determine if they are suitable for human settlement, and it has explored several planets over the years, although it doesn’t recall any of its previous existences. Reading the story in 2018, the sentient’s quest to figure out its purpose seems routine, although it quite possibly was fresh when Simak originally published the story.

The biggest question for a modern reader is the exact nature of the observer. In a modern story, it would be some form of AI, but in a story published in 1972, the observer was more likely to be some sort of robot or computerized probe. Simak eventually does reveal its nature and origin, but does so in a manner that feels anticlimactic and raises more questions than it answers.

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Birthday Reviews: Raymond A. Palmer’s “Diagnosis”

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Robert Gibson Jones

Cover by Robert Gibson Jones

Raymond A. Palmer was born on August 1, 1910 and died on August 15, 1977.

Although Palmer wrote short stories and novels, he was best known as an editor. From 1938-1949, he edited Amazing Stories and from 1939-1949 he edited Fantastic Adventures as well for Ziff-Davis, resigning when they moved production from Chicago to New York. He formed his own company, Clark Publishing, and began publishing Other Worlds Science Stories from 1949 to 1957, during which time he also edited and published Fate Magazine, Universe Science Fiction, Mystic Magazine, Science Stories, and Space World. His assistant in the early 1950s, and often times credited co-editor, was Bea Mahaffey. Palmer is perhaps best remembered for publishing the fiction of Richard Shaver and promoting Shaver’s stories as non-fiction. In 1961, comic author Gardner Fox paid tribute to Palmer by using his name for the DC character the Atom.

Palmer published “Diagnosis” in his magazine Other Worlds Science Stories in the March 1953 issue. The story has never been reprinted.

Donald Jensen and Mary Mason are working on experiments trying to map the subconscious to the conscious mind. Although both are brilliant scientists, Jensen still manages to be condescending to Mason and dismissive of her at times due to her gender. He also gives her a hard time about dating someone named Brannan. Mason puts up with his garbage, but at the same time she pushes back, reminding him that she is competent and capable and that what she does when she isn’t working isn’t really any of his business.

When they decide to reverse the experiment, and try to read Jensen’s brain patterns instead of Mason’s, the machine provides an actual picture of what he is thinking rather than simply the wavy lines that it usually reports and when it becomes clear to Mason that Jensen’s subconscious is picturing her naked, she slaps him and the machine shorts out, leaving both of them unconscious. Upon awakening, they check the record and learn that Jensen’s subconscious took them through a fantasy world adventure in which Dahnjen Saan had to rescue Marima Saan from the evil priest Bra Naan.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – May, 1934

Monday, July 30th, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne

BlackMask_May1934

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Last week, we looked at an article on writing from famed Black Mask editor, Joseph ‘Cap’ Shaw, which appeared in the May, 1934 issue of Writer’s Digest. What? You didn’t read that post? Well, click on over, do it, and then come back here and continue! Yeesh..

Done? Okay, let’s continue.

May, 1934 featured yet another solid issue of Black Mask under Shaw’s direction. The cover art was by J.W. Schlaiker, who had about fifty covers from 1929 to 1934. I don’t know why he abruptly stopped drawing for Black Mask. He served in France during World War I and was the War Department artist during World War II. He did portraits of Eisenhower, MacArthur and Patton.

Carroll John Daly carried the cover with Race Williams’ “Six Have Died,” which became part of the novel, Murder in the East. There were two more stories in this serial, which featured  The Flame. There would be one more story (“The Eyes Have It”) in November, and then Race Williams was no more in Black Mask. Williams would appear twenty-one times in Dime Detective but his successful career was in decline by May of 1934.

George Harmon Coxe’s Flashgun Casey was the subject our the very first post in this column. The hardboiled newspaper photographer was in the midst of appearing in seven consecutive issues; this story being “Two Man Job.” I like Casey, who was replaced by the more genteel Kent Murdoch.

From 1927 to 1934, Horace McCoy wrote thirteen stories about Captain Jerry Frost, leader of a group of Air Texas Rangers nicknamed ‘Hell’s Stepsons.’ They were basically a special ops team and Frost was a hardboiled problem solver. “Flight at Sunrise” was the second-to-last Frost story. I don’t believe that McCoy’s air tales have every been collected.

Of all the pulpsters, none may have had greater pretensions to greatness than McCoy. He’s best remembered for his novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which became a successful film after his death. McCoy was a member of ‘The Fictioneers,’ which was an informal social club consisting of southern California pulpsters, including, at various times, Raymond Chandler, Norbert Davis, William Campbell Gault and W.T Ballard.

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Birthday Reviews: Reginald Bretnor’s “Cat”

Monday, July 30th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Ed Emshwiller

Cover by Ed Emshwiller

Reginald Bretnor was born Alfred Reginald Kahn on July 30, 1911 and died on July 22, 1992.

Bretnor’s short story “Earthwoman” was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1968 and his story “The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” was nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2001. His non-fiction book Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future was nominated for a Retro Hugo in 2004. Bretnor may be best remembered for his series of short shaggy dog stories about Ferdinand Feghoot and published under the pseudonym Grendal Briarton, an anagram of Reginald Bretnor.

“Cat” was originally published in the April 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas. It was translated into French as “Langue de chat” and published in 9th issue of Fiction in August 1954. Annette McComas included it in her 1982 anthology The Eureka Years and it was the first story in the Bretnor collection The Timeless Tales of Reginald Bretnor, edited by Fred Flaxman in 1997. The story also appeared in The Second Cat Megapack: Frisky Feline Tales, Old and New, edited by Robert Reginald and Mary Wickizer Burgess.

Reginald Bretnor’s title “Cat” refers less to the animal and more to the language spoken by those animals, which Dr. Emerson Smithby and his wife, Cynthia, not only claim to have learned, but also claim they can translate and teach. Their claims wreak havoc for Professor Christopher Flewkes, the head of the language department at Bogwood College, who must try to maintain the college’s reputation amidst Smithby’s spectacular claims and the other professors’ refusal to work in the same department as a man they view as a charlatan.

While “Cat” may not be as humorous as the Papa Schimmelhorn stories of the Feghoots for which Bretnor is best known, it does have its moments of humor as Flewkes and one of the professors in his department, Witherspoon, try to either expose Smithby or place him into compromising positions with the aid of a private investigator. In the end, their attempts to subvert Smithby and his wife prove to be their own undoing.

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Birthday Reviews: Jayge Carr’s “The Lady or the Tiger”

Saturday, July 28th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Jael

Cover by Jael

Jayge Carr was born Margery Ruth Morgenstern Krueger on July 28, 1940 and died on December 20, 2006.

In addition to her writing career, Carr worked as a nuclear physicist for NASA. Following her death from cancer, her remains were launched into orbit by Celestis.

“The Lady or the Tiger” was published by Charles C. Ryan in the Fall 1993 issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction after the magazine switched formats from a tabloid to a quarto format (standard magazine). The story has not been reprinted.

A missed stop of a city bus puts Alia in danger of being gang raped by a bunch of teenagers. When one of the teenagers momentarily objects, she is rescued by the timely arrival of the police, who take her savior into custody even as the other boys flee. In turn, Alia takes the boy under her wing and applies the Pygmalion treatment to him. However, as is quickly revealed, Alia is not what she appears and the situation is much more complex than anyone could guess.

All of Alia’s actions regarding Benny, as well as her responses to Rod O’Rourke, the police officer who first helped her and later wooed her, seem to be governed by a pair of aliens who are testing the humans. It eventually becomes evident that Alia is one of the aliens, trying to figure out if humans can subvert their own violent tendencies.

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Birthday Reviews: Gary Gygax’s “At Midnight Blackcat Comes”

Friday, July 27th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Dennis Kauth

Cover by Dennis Kauth

Gary Gygax was born Ernest Gary Gygax on July 28, 1938. He died on March 4, 2008. Although Gygax tried his hand writing fiction, he was best known as one of the creators of Dungeons and Dragons.

Gygax was inducted into the Origins Award Hall of Fame in 1980. In addition to Dungeons and Dragons (and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) and various modules and accessories, Gygax also had a hand in creating the role playing games Boot Hill, Cyborg Commando, Dangerous Journeys, and Lejendary Adventure.

Gygax wrote “At Moonset Blackcat Comes” as an introduction to the character Gord the Rogue, about whom he had already written the novel Saga of the Old City, which would be published later. The story appeared first in the 100th issue of Dragon, edited by Kim Mohan. Accompanying the story were the rules to the game Dragonchess, described in the story. Although Gygax published a series of five Gord the Rogue novels, plus the short story collection Night Arrant, “At Moonset Blackcat Comes” was not included in the collection and has not been reprinted elsewhere.

The story introduces the main character and his barbarian companion while also trying to give the reader a feel for the way the City of Greyhawk, alluded to in many of Gygax’s AD&D articles and modules, is set up. Rather than exploring the city, however, Gygax quickly separates Gord from his companion and the city, setting the action, such as it is, in a sporting house, with Chert the barbarian going off to find female companionship while Gord settles in with Rexfelis to learn to play a chess alternative.

While Gygax is clearly trying to make Gord a likable character who is extremely competent and sure of himself, he comes across as arrogant, placing his own amusement and desires above those, like Chert, with whom he has surrounded himself. Although Gord is on guard against being taken in the game of Dragonchess, it is clear that Rexfelis had been playing Gord throughout the evening with the eventual end of using Gord to rob Rigello the arch-mage, a task Gord readily accepts.

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