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The Scottish Play: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The Scottish Play: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be king hereafter!

Macbeth, ACT I, SCENE III

Looking back on my second time around here at Black Gate, I saw that each for the first two summers I’d undertaken the enjoyable, if somewhat pointless task, of writing about a Shakespeare play (for what can I possibly bring to such an effort). First, there was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then The Tempest. I skipped last summer because a sense of inadequacy for the task had me struggling to finish my piece about T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (pt. 1, pt. 2).

Having already missed last month’s installment of my column due to an ongoing run-in with a  5 mm kidney stone, I decided getting back to Shakespeare might be just the thing to get me moving. But what to read? I’ve only read fourteen of his thirty-nine plays, so I don’t know which of them have fantastical elements. And, then, it smacked me on the head, Macbeth. Not only is it my favorite of the plays I’ve read, but it’s suffused with magic, all black and malign. Then, there are all the movie versions, including a recent one starring Denzel Washington and France McDormand. So, let me begin.

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A to Z Reviews: “Signs and Symbols,” by Vladimir Nabokov

A to Z Reviews: “Signs and Symbols,” by Vladimir Nabokov

A to Z ReviewsVladimir Nabokov originally published “Signs and Symbols” in the New Yorker on May 15, 1948, although the editor, Katharine White, switched the order of the title to “Symbols and Signs.” Nabakov changed it back for subsequent publication, as well as reverting other changes White had made to the story. In 2020, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer included the story in their massive anthology The Big Book of Modern Fantasy.

A couple is trying to do their parental duty by visiting their son for his birthday. Despite loving their son, the fact that he suffers from referential mania and lives in an asylum makes them vaguely uncomfortable in visiting him as they are never quite sure what to expect, whether he’s having a good or bad day, and how well he will interact with the real world.

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We Are All Time Traveling Together: The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

We Are All Time Traveling Together: The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley


The Ministry of Time (Avid Reader Press, May 7, 2024)

Perhaps second only to space travel, science fiction is obsessed with time travel and in particular the paradox that if we go back to the past, how do we affect the future; can we inadvertently or purposely alter our “present”? Sometimes the answer is that your somehow being in the past is essential to determining your present (e.g., Kindred by Octavia Butler where the protagonist travels back to antebellum South to ensure an ancestor stays alive). Other times the innocent butterfly effect (e.g., Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder) has disastrous consequences; even attempting something seemingly good, such as thwarting a presidential assassination, proves catastrophic (e.g., Stephen King’s 1/22/63 ). Then there’s the question of how visitors from the future to our present seek to change future events (e.g., the Terminator movie franchise).

H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine is a canonical SF work because it offers a technology, rather than magical intervention, that enables time travel (hence the title). In addition to its social criticism, The Time Machine is a quintessential adventure tale. The hero enters a strange land populated by equally strange different beings nonetheless still sort of like us, whose use of advanced technology causes disaster. The hero manages escape, but then mysteriously disappears, perhaps in search of something better than what awaits back home.

Which brings us to Kaliane Bradley’s Ministry of Time, in which she reverse-engineers a number of these time travel and adventure tropes.

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A Year of Demonic Public Service: The Fallible Fiend by L. Sprague de Camp

A Year of Demonic Public Service: The Fallible Fiend by L. Sprague de Camp


The Fallible Fiend (Signet/New American Library, February 1973). Cover uncredited

This is another in my series of looks at fairly obscure SF from the ’70s and ’80s. In this case, I rescued a book that I had bought used decades ago from the chaos of my bookshelves. Most of the other writers I’ve discussed so far have been somewhat forgotten (or were never really known at all) but L. Sprague de Camp is an SFWA Grand Master, and a writer I and many others remember with great affection.

De Camp (1907-2000) began publishing SF in 1937 with “The Isolingual,” and was from the beginning a popular and prolific writer. He wrote both Fantasy and Science Fiction, though by the end of his long career the bulk of his work was Fantasy. His preferred mode was lightly cynical humor — this imbued his SF such as the Viagens Interplanetarias series, and his Fantasy beginning with his Incomplete Enchanter stories written with Fletcher Pratt.

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A to Z Reviews: “Know Your Target Audience,” by Dan Mygind

A to Z Reviews: “Know Your Target Audience,” by Dan Mygind

A to Z Reviews

In 2010, Carl-Eddy Skovgaard selected several examples of Danish science fiction to be translated into English. The stories were published in the anthology Sky City and included Dan Mygind’s “Know Your Target Audience,” which originally appeared in 2007 as “Kend din målgruppe” in Skovgaard’s anthology Lige under overfladen: en dansk sf originalantologi.

Mygind’s story is set in a futuristic world five decades after a dirty bomb exploded in the Copenhagen subway system, leaving the city uninhabitable. Straight Talk is an entertainment and news, or perhaps propaganda, organization that has just had a major success running the World Song Competition. While celebrating, Straight Talk CEO Ole Kraft finds himself cornered by Peter Nielsen, one of the company’s employees who has a tendency toward believing in conspiracy theories.

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Christopher Moore and His Very Dirty Job

Christopher Moore and His Very Dirty Job

When talking about banning books, nobody mentions Christopher Moore. No doubt Moore is upset about this, because he’s out to offend pretty much everybody. The fact that he does this with glee, panache, and massive gobs of bathroom humor probably doesn’t signify, and certainly won’t save his neck when the book-banning trolls finally come for him. The fact is, he’s funny, and there’s nothing the book-banners hate more than a healthy sense of the absurd.

An excellent case in point is Moore’s A Dirty Job, in which unassuming Charlie Asher, a second-hand dealer in San Francisco, becomes a “death merchant,” a sort of dogsbody for Death, who, it seems, has left the field, possibly never to return. It’s Charlie’s job to match dying people with their “soul vessel,” usually some knick-knack or other with sentimental value, in part so that the dead can find rest, and in part to prevent Orcus, lurking in the sewers, from eating up the soul vessels and rising again to usher in an age of darkness and doom.

That’s right, Orcus. Our old friend from the original AD&D Monster Manual. Etc.

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A Lovely Work of Magic & Mystery: Vinyl Wonderland by Mark Rigney

A Lovely Work of Magic & Mystery: Vinyl Wonderland by Mark Rigney


Vinyl Wonderland (Castle Bridge Media, June 25, 2024). Cover artist unknown

Vinyl Wonderland is Mark Rigney’s new novel. It’s told by an older Brendan Purcell, about some strange happenings back when he was 17, having just dropped out of high school for… reasons. Which will become clear. His life is a mess — his mother died suddenly, his father is drinking terribly, and has lost his job. And Brendan too is drinking constantly, and has also lost his job. But he has a new one — helping out at Vinyl Wonderland, a used record store. This is 1984, when records were still the primary means of buying music. (It’s also a time I was haunting used record stores!)

Shortly before Christmas, Vinyl Wonderland owner Karl asks Brendan to take over for a few days while he tends to his hospitalized mother. And he warns him — have nothing to do with the “Elvis door” — a locked door behind an Elvis cardboard standup in the rear. And for a while, Brendan complies, even though some people, including the town’s mayor, importune him to let them through the door. Meanwhile both Brendan and his dad are drinking even more, and we learn a bit about Brendan’s life — he’s a good soccer player, but other than that not much of a student, and apparently a terrible person. How much of this — the drinking, the bad attitude, the downright mean stuff he admits to — is in reaction to the loss of his mother, and how much was already part of him, isn’t clear.

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A to Z Reviews: “The City of Silence,” by Ma Boyong

A to Z Reviews: “The City of Silence,” by Ma Boyong

A to Z Reviews

Over the past several years, the Anglophonic worlds has become more aware of the science fiction being published in modern China. This is due, in part, to the work and outreach being done by Science Fiction World, a magazine from China with a circulation of more than 130,000 as well as publishers like Neil Clarke who have sought out Chinese fiction to publish in translation.

Ken Liu, who has won multiple Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, and a World Fantasy Award, has also worked to bring Chinese science fiction to English readers with his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and the publication of the anthology Invisible Planets, which offered translations of a dozen short stories by seven Chinese authors. One of the authors included in the book is Ma Boyong, represented by his story “The City of Silence,” which Ken Liu translated into English.

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A to Z Reviews: “The Butcher of Darkside Hover,” by Jonathan Sean Lyster

A to Z Reviews: “The Butcher of Darkside Hover,” by Jonathan Sean Lyster

A to Z Reviews

Jonathan Sean Lyster only has two published stories, the first appeared in 2020 and the second, “The Butcher of Darkside Hover,” appeared in the  October 2022 issue of Analog. There is a strong resonance between “The Butcher of Darkside Hover” and the classic story “The Cold Equations,”  by Tom Godwin.

The story is set on a base located on the farside of the moon, although as the story progresses, it becomes clear that it is actually in orbit over the farside of the moon, which is one of the issues with the story. Lyster slowly provides details of his world, but never fully and in a manner that means the reader is putting together the pieces to get an idea of what his world looks like. The process means that the reader’s perception is constantly changing regarding the setting when it should be more focused on the problem presented for the characters and their solution.

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The Wit and Wisdom of Connie Willis

The Wit and Wisdom of Connie Willis


Asimov’s Science Fiction, December 2011, containing “All About Emily,” and the Subterranean
Press hardcover edition (January 31, 2012). Covers by Duncan Long and J.K. Potter

Far too often, the best among us are roundly ignored. This can hardly be said of Connie Willis, who has collected an astonishing array of Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards, yet her name somehow doesn’t seem to ring from the battlements. Perhaps I’m simply attending to the wrong battlements, but when I hear discussions of the great women of science fiction, I tend to catch the names LeGuin, L’Engle, Butler, and, now, Jemisin. Willis seems to come up less frequently.

Better yet, let’s just leave gender entirely out of the equation.

Willis’s name deserves to come up front and center in any discussion of top-tier sci-fi, first and foremost because she is very funny.

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