Are Some “Classics” Best Neglected?: Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier

Thursday, August 27th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly


Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell; Magazine version: Unknown, March 1939.
Cover art H. W. Scott. (Click to enlarge)

Sinister Barrier
by Eric Frank Russell
UK: World’s Work (135 pages, 5/-, hardcover, 1943)
US: Fantasy Press (253, $3.00, hardcover, 1948)

Here’s an early “classic” of science fiction that I came across in a used bookstore in Oakland early last year. I say “classic” with quotes because I had heard of the title for years, but hadn’t recalled ever seeing a copy. Indeed, the invaluable indicates that while it was included in an omnibus from NESFA Press in 2001, there hasn’t been a separate English language edition of the book since Ballantine Del Rey issued it in 1986, nearly 35 years ago. Hmm, why would this be?

Well, because it’s a terribly written book, dated both in language and in plotting and in its sexual and racial attitudes, exhibiting all the worst features of pulp writing, and far worse than the works of, say, Asimov and Heinlein that have survived from that era. That would be the reason modern publishers haven’t kept it in print. If it’s a classic in any way, it’s for its striking conceptual premise, and then only in its historical context. More on that in a bit.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: No One Suspects the Spanish Inquisition (Wasn’t That Bad)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020 | Posted by Greg Mele

The Bird King Willow Wilson-small

G. Willow-Wilson author photo by Amber French for

Since this column began this year, we’ve looked at the visual continuity of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (and why, ironically, it does a better job of wordlessly telling the sweep of Middle Earth’s history than Tolkien’s millennia-long, cultural stasis does), authenticity (and lack thereof) in The Witcher, and talked about the commonalities and differences of historical fiction and fantasy with several, excellent authors who work in both arenas. Along the way, I’ve coined a few loose terms (or rather, put existing ones into a hierarchy):

  1. Historical Fiction — Stories set in our world, but in generations prior to ours, generally just on the edge, or earlier, of living memory.
  2. Historical Fantasy — Stories set in the same milieu as the above, but with fantastical elements, sometimes very subtle (a lot of magical realism falls in here), sometimes not so — urban fantasy set in bygone eras, alternate history with vampires, or magic works, or orcs, etc. The world is clearly our own, so the fantastical elements can’t too dramatically upset that balance.
  3. Low Fantasy — Stories set in a secondary world, that is “realistic” to varying degrees but generally follows the real world in terms of technology, laws of physics, etc. A great deal of old-school Sword & Sorcery, and modern Grimdark fit in here.
  4. High Fantasy — sky is the limit. The secondary world has its own peoples, its own laws, and it is whatever the author wishes it to be. Anything from Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Zelazny’s Amber, the worlds of Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan all fit here.

In the future, we’ll look at these “big themes” and interviews with authors once more. But it’s time to look at how actual works play with these ideas, to varying degrees of success. And here is the trick: success as a novel, does not necessarily mean success as history. In these next two columns, I’m going to look at two authors whose work I really enjoy — and talk about why a particular work of theirs just didn’t work for me. In one case, because of a failure of historical authenticity; in the other, because of too much slavish devotion to it.

First up, The Bird King, by G. Willow-Wilson.

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Unbearable Utopias and Harrowing Adventures on Alien Planets: The Best of Jack Williamson

Sunday, August 16th, 2020 | Posted by James McGlothlin

The Best of Jack Williamson-small The Best of Jack Williamson-back-small

The Best of Jack Williamson (Del Rey, 1978). Cover by Ralph McQuarrie

The Best of Jack Williamson (1978) was, according to my research, the fifteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Frederik Pohl (1919–2013) provided the introduction (his second in the series, he also did the intro for The Best of C. M. Kornbluth). Jack Williamson (1908–2006), who was still living at the time, does the Afterword. The famous sci-fi artist Ralph McQuarrie (1929–2012) provides his first (and only) cover in the series.

Jack Williamson’s writing career spans close to a century! He began professionally writing all the way back in the Hugo Gernsback “scientifiction” pulps, and continued all the way up to and beyond the Star Trek/Star Wars science fiction popularization of the late Twentieth Century. In addition to winning several awards such as the Hugos and Nebulas, the Science Fiction Writers of America named Williamson its second Grand Master in 1976, the first being Robert Heinlein (1907–1988). Also, in 1994 Williamson received a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement and in 1996 he was part of the inaugural class of inductees into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. He received various other awards before his death in 2006 at the ripe old age of 98.

Given this long and illustrious career, it beggars no disbelief that the fourteen stories in The Best of Jack Williamson represent over fifty years of his writing. Presented in chronological order, the earliest stories are pure juvenile pulps and progress up through the “New Wave”-ish/Harlan Ellison era to darker themes and more mature stories. Though The Best of Jack Williamson is clearly the work of one science fiction writer, it can also be seen as a sort of panoramic history of science fiction in the Twentieth Century in general. Williamson was diverse but various themes seem to recur.

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The Fate of Intelligence: Chad Oliver’s The Winds of Time

Thursday, August 13th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly


The Winds of Time by Chad Oliver; First Edition: Doubleday, 1957.
Cover art Dick Shelton. (Click to enlarge)

The Winds of Time
by Chad Oliver
Doubleday (192 pages, $3.95, hardcover, April 1957)
Cover art Dick Shelton

This science fiction novel from 1957 is by an author known for anthropologically informed works (Wikipedia; SFE). He was an anthropologist himself, and thus one of the few science fiction writers who was also a scientist.

Oliver published nine novels from the early 1950s into the 1990s, not all of them SF. His work is currently in print only through several titles in the UK Gateway line and in three omnibus volumes from NESFA Press.

The present volume is currently available as a Gateway e-book (not listed on the SF Gateway page linked above), and in a 1997 omnibus of three “time travel” novels for White Wolf/Borealis, Three in Time, edited by Jack Dann, Pamela Sargent, and George Zebrowski, which is currently available on Amazon. I note this because generally I try to cover in these reviews only books that are readily available in some current, unused edition, and the last title serves to qualify this Oliver novel. (Though I broke this rule with my look back at Silverberg’s Collision Course a few months back.) In any event, I think it’s fair to say that Chad Oliver, while still remembered, isn’t remembered as among the Great SF Authors of all time, or even of the 1950s. Yet this novel is interesting nevertheless for its display of the standard SF furniture of the 1950s (as I discussed with Silverberg’s novel), and also for its anticipation of the quandary behind Fermi’s celebrated Paradox.

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The Alternate History You’ve Been Waiting For: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry

Sunday, August 9th, 2020 | Posted by Steve Case

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians-smallA Declaration of the Rights of Magicians
H.G. Parry
Redhook (545 pages, $28 in hardcover/$14.99 digital, June 23 2020)
Covered designed by Lisa Marie Pompilio

Susanna Clarke’s monumental Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell created a believable history of English magic and interwove this history into the story of her main characters. In A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, H. G. Parry attempts to do something similar. Whereas Clarke’s book was set during the Napoleonic Wars, Parry’s takes place in the decades leading up to this, chronicling the abolitionist movement in England, slave revolutions in the Caribbean, and the French Revolution. And whereas Clarke invented her own eponymous characters, Parry brings actual historical actors to life in her magical alternate history.

In 1779, the trade in African slaves flourishes. Besides the horror of kidnapping and the Middle Passage, in Parry’s history slaves are also force-fed alchemical substances that make it physically impossible for them to resist commands. They are imprisoned in their own bodies. In England, where only the aristocracy can use magic freely, the young member of parliament William Wilberforce is working with his close friend and eventual Prime Minister William Pitt to pass legislature outlawing the slave trade. In France, meanwhile, magic is even more tightly regulated, with commoner magicians forced to wear bracelets that burn when they illegally use their magic. (For commoners, this means any time they use their magic.) This system of control exists because of the Vampire Wars of the previous centuries, when vying vampire sovereigns used Europe as their personal chessboard. When the vampires were defeated, dark magic was banished outright and nations signed a concord to never use magic in war again.

This is the background against which Parry’s novel follows three main strands of revolution: a revolution of slaves in Haiti through the eyes of Fina, a former slave learning she has a unique magic; the French Revolution, triggered by the desire to give commoners the right to practice magic but quickly becoming something much darker; and the idealistic revolution for abolition Wilberforce and Pitt are pursuing in the halls of the British Parliament. The plot has the feel of a gathering storm, as our characters realized someone is pulling strings to plunge Europe back into war.

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In 500 Words or Less: Dominion: An Anthology, edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Friday, August 7th, 2020 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

Dominion An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora-smallDominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and and the African Diaspora (Volume 1)
Edited By Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
Aurelia Leo (270 pages, $18.99 paperback, $8.99 eBook, August 17, 2020)
Cover by Henrique DLD

Dominion is a tough one to accurately summarize. During the Kickstarter way back, the editors said they were looking for speculative fiction about “the legacy and future of Africa and the African diaspora.” As I read, I had to remind myself how complicated that legacy is – which is reflected in these myriad and complicated stories.

I should warn you that some of its stories are rough. I choose that word carefully, and for multiple reasons. There’s a lot of dark fantasy and horror in here, some of it graphic and hard to read. But it reflects horror and darkness that’s real, making for some powerful stories.

“The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh, for example, doesn’t pull its punches examining oppression of women, specifically through a problematic arranged marriage that can’t be easily escaped, even through supernatural means. Neither does Michael Boatman with “Thresher of Men” – a story that felt viscerally angry to me, channeled through a goddess of vengeance set upon an American town with a deep history of racist violence.

As a reviewer, it was interesting to find a balance of lighter stories, too – or at least stories where the issues the characters face are more microscopic and focused. Nicole Givens Kurtz ‘s “Trickin’” is still bloody but also kind of delightful, following a half-forgotten trickster looking for tributes on Halloween night. (Also love the mystery of the post-downturn city where it’s set – what happened there, Nicole?) “Sleep Pap, Sleep” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa is fabulous Africanjujuism (I believe “The Unclean” fits that genre, too), in this case weaving the understanding that you shouldn’t grave-robbing a blood relative with a young man’s guilt about his father’s death and how he treats his closest friend.

On the science fiction side, one of my favorites is Marian Denise Moore’s “A Mastery of German” about a young up-and-comer at a research firm, assigned to evaluate a project on transferring learned memories. There’s a neat implication discussed about ancestral memory and slavery, told through Candace’s relationship with her history-hunting father (which is an adorable sidebar, by the way). But the focus is mostly on ethics: is it all right to pay someone to take their memory of learning German (for example) and then do whatever you want with it? No easy answer there.

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Tales of Attluma by David C. Smith: A Review and Oron Series Tour Guide

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020 | Posted by SELindberg

Tales of Attluma-small Tales of Attluma-back-small

David C. Smith was the 2019 Guest of Honor at Howard Days 2019 for good reason, having written the acclaimed Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography in 2018 to complement his decades of writing Sword & Sorcery (he has 26 novels written or co-written, including the Red Sonja series with Richard L. Tierney, the Oron and The Fall of the First World series, and more). He crafts his own flavor of adventure-horror with his Tales of Attluma (teased earlier at  Black Gate), heavily influenced by Robert E. Howard (REH) and Clark Ashton Smith (CAS). Attluma is an island continent inspired by the mysterious Atlantis. These sixteen tales cover its cursed history and doomed end. Many entries were written in the 1970’s and are gathered now in one place for the first time.

The collection fits the Sword & Sorcery label, with an emphasis on Sorcery, specifically necromancy and demon summoning. These are fantastically dark and exciting stories, a true blend of REH’s action and CAS’s dreaded atmosphere. On Attluma, ancient gods live in mountain temples and underground. Humans struggle to survive on the surface and intrude on land made for, and by, demons. Excerpts are the best way to share the poetic, dark conflict readers should expect:

“Dressed in scarlet wounds and running with blood, here was my mother, her face beseeching mercy, gashes across her face and body. There came my father, hobbling on a split foot and one arm gone, strings of meat and tendon trembling from the open shoulder. Here was my brother, once a strong and handsome man, now in death a broken thing with no legs, pulling himself forward with his arms, his wife beside him, on her belly and kicking her feet as her head rolled beside her.” — from “The Last Words of Imatus Istum”


“And there was Yadis, The All Mother, the hag with one eye and triple teats whose spittle had made the stars and whose defecation made the earth. Her mad singing had awakened humans to life; we crawled from the muck and ever since wondered about the dark heart of life.”  — from “Dark Goddess”

Interestingly, there are no Oron tales, Oron being the warrior protagonist (i.e., the heroic “Conan” of Attluma) that the original Zebra series was named after. Yet he is not needed here. Attluma is saturated with lore and conflict, armies of ghosts, lost loves seeking retribution, and hungry demons just looking for some attention. The last several stories ramp up the demonic uprising (or retaking) of the island continent. “The End of Days” finale is epic in scope, a sprawling battle with loads of mayhem and militant sorcery.
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The Responsibility of Progress: Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow

Thursday, July 30th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly


The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett; First Edition: Doubleday, 1955.
Cover art Irv Docktor. (Click to enlarge)

The Long Tomorrow
by Leigh Brackett
Doubleday (222 pages, $2.95, hardcover, 1955)
Cover art Irv Docktor

This novel, first of all, is one of a handful of highly regarded 1950s novels that deal with the aftermath of nuclear war, a theme very much of concern in that post-World War II era. Others include, of course, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz; John Wyndham’s Re-Birth aka The Chrysalids; Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, not to mention analogous novels about life after pandemic (George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides) or alien invasion (John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes/Out of the Deeps), and so on.

Second of all, this novel is by a writer otherwise not known for serious science fiction; Brackett wrote some detective novels and did some notable film work (see for details SFE), but she was known in the SF field for a large body of “planetary romances” in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mode, tales of sword-and-sorcery and romance on Mars or equivalent worlds. (Several volumes of these stories have been published by Haffner Press.) The Long Tomorrow, in contrast, is a sober post-apocalypse novel about rural survivors of nuclear war, a couple generations on, and how they deal with that legacy.

The novel was a Hugo finalist in 1956 (Heinlein’s Double Star won). If it were published today, it would be classified as YA, young adult, since the protagonist, as the story begins, is 14 years old; even though the themes of the book are about the most adult conceivable — the fate of the human race in the face of unavoidable technology.

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These Two Books Are Not the Same: John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes and Out of the Deeps

Thursday, July 16th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

The Kraken Wakes

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham; First Edition: Michael Joseph, 1953
Cover art uncredited

The Kraken Wakes
by John Wyndham
Michael Joseph (288 pages, 10/6, hardcover, 1953)
Cover art uncredited

Out of the Deeps
by John Wyndham
Ballantine (182 pages, $2.00, hardcover, 1953)
Cover by Richard Powers

John Wyndham was an English author, popular for five or six major novels published in the 1950s and 1960s, among numerous other books. The first of his famous novels was The Day of the Triffids (1951), about murderous walking plants and a meteor shower than causes most of humanity to go blind. Several following novels were also catastrophes of various sorts, and were published both in the UK and the US, though sometimes with variant titles. The second of these was The Kraken Wakes (UK 1953), about aliens who settle into Earth’s oceans, attack cruise liners, and subsequently wreck the climate and the world economy. It was published in the US by Ballantine as Out of the Deeps (also 1953). What I discovered only recently was that the two books are of course very similar but not identical, and nothing in either edition (in particular the US edition, presumably the second published), indicates any such differences. In fact Ballantine’s copyright page claims “This novel was published in England under the title The Kraken Wakes” which is, in fact, not literally true.

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Humanity Uplifted: Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

Brain Wave Poul Anderson

Brain Wave by Poul Anderson; First Edition: Ballantine Books, 1954
Cover art by Richard Powers

Brain Wave
by Poul Anderson
Ballantine Books (164 pages, $0.35, paperback, June 1954)
Cover by Richard Powers

Poul Anderson was a prolific writer of both science fiction and fantasy from the late 1940s to his death in 2001. He was especially known for a couple space opera series, one about the Psychotechnic League and others about Dominic Flandry and Nicholas Van Rijn (I have not read any of these). But his best novels, reputedly, were his singletons, like Brain Wave (1954), The High Crusade (1960), Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961), and Tau Zero (1970), and later works like The Avatar (1978) and The Boat of a Million Years (1989), from decades when everyone’s novels got much longer.

Brain Wave was Anderson’s third novel, after juvenile SF Vault of the Stars in 1952 and fantasy novel The Broken Sword earlier in 1954. The first part of Brain Wave appeared in Space Science Fiction in 1953, but the magazine went out of business before serializing the remainder.

I reread this book recently not to extend a series of reviews of first — or almost-first — novels, but because I wanted to revisit its striking premise. I think I’ll revisit Tau Zero soon, for the same reason.

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