Birthday Reviews: Iain M. Banks’s “A Gift from the Culture”

Friday, February 16th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Paul Rickwood

Cover by Paul Rickwood

Iain M. Banks was born on February 16, 1954 and died on June 9, 2013. At the time of his death, two months after he was diagnosed with cancer, he was the Author Guest of Honor for Loncon 3, the seated Worldcon. Banks wrote both within the genre and outside the genre, using his middle initial, “M.” do designate science fiction works.

His first three books, beginning with The Wasp Factory, were more mainstream, although two of them, The Bridge and The Wasp Factory, would go on to win the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis. Banks has twice won the British SF Association Award for Best Novel for Feersum Endjinn and Excession. The latter also earned him an Italia Award and another Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis. His fourth Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis was for Use of Weapons, while Inversions earned him another Italia Award. Many of his works are set against the background of The Culture, an advanced society made up of several interbred species combined with sentient AIs.

“A Gift from the Culture” was originally published in the Summer 1987 issue of Interzone, number 20, edited by Simon Ounsley and David Pringle. Banks included it in his 1991 short story collection The State of the Art. It was later included in the anthology Cyber-Killers, edited by Ric Alexander, and David G. Hartwell included it in The Space Opera Renaissance. Most recently, it was reprinted in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s massive anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection. The story has also been translated into German, French, and Italian.

In “A Gift from the Culture” Banks presents just enough information about what the Culture is so the reader is not at a complete loss, but the society as a whole remains something of a mystery within the confines of this short story. Wrobik is down on his luck and living in Vreccis Loew City, in debt to a couple of mobster types, Kaddus and Cruizell, who are willing to forgive him his debt if he’ll do one little thing for them. With no good choices before him, Wrobik agrees to take a gun, which is designed to only work for people who are biologically part of the Culture, and use the weapon to shoot down an incoming space craft.

One of the main deciding points for Wrobik is concern that Kaddus and Cruizell will harm Maust, Wrobik’s boyfriend. While Wrobik has a job to carry out, he doesn’t particularly want to do it and tries to figure out a way around it which will not put Maust into danger. While the story is a dramatic look at Wrobik’s choices, an understated humor is introduced by the monologue carried out by the gun, in which it continuously describes itself and how to use it to Wrobik, an audio instruction manual.

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Birthday Reviews: Jack Dann’s “Rings Around the Moon”

Thursday, February 15th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Jay Lake

Cover by Jay Lake

Jack Dann was born on February 15, 1945. His novels include The Man Who Melted, The Memory Cathedral, and The Silent, among many others. Dann has edited several anthologies, often in conjunction with Gardner Dozois, Janeen Webb, or George Zebrowski. He edited the Jewish science fiction anthology Wandering Stars in 1974 and followed it up with More Wandering Stars.

Dann won the Nebula Award for Best Novella for his 1995 story “Da Vinci Rising” and has won the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology twice, for Dreaming Down Under, edited with Janeen Webb, and Dreaming in the Dark. His anthology Ghosts by Gaslight, edited with Nick Gevers, won the Shirley Jackson Award and the Aurealis Award. He also won the Aurealis Award for his short story “Niagara Falling,” written with Webb, and his novel The Memory Cathedral. “Niagara Falling” also earned him his first Ditmar Award, which was followed up with anthology awards for Dreaming Down Under, Dreaming Again, and Dreaming in the Dark and a short fiction award for “The Diamond Pit.” In 2004, he received the Peter McNamara Award for a professional working in the Australian SF field.

“Rings Around the Moon” was originally published in Polyphony 3, edited by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake. It was later reprinted in Dann’s collection Promised Land: Stories of Another America. “Rings Around the Moon” is part of Dann’s “The Rebel” cycle, which includes several stories as well as the 2004 novel The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean. The story was nominated for the Darrell Award for best Mid-South science fiction, fantasy, or horror.

Mostly told from the viewpoint of a young Elvis Presley, “Rings Around the Moon” opens in Memphis on the evening of September 30, 1955, around the time his career was starting to take off. Unfortunately for Elvis, his burgeoning touring career, and the rumors of his sexual escapades, are putting a strain on his relationship with Lizzie, his girlfriend. As the two are trying to figure out what their relationship is, Gladys Presley informs them that the actor Elvis is always talking about, James Dean, has been injured in a car accident.

Elvis decides he needs to visit Dean and asks Lizzie to go with him. The set up allows Dann to explore the blessings and curses of fame through a fictitious meeting between two of the most legendary individuals of the burgeoning 1950s youth culture. James Dean lying in his hospital bed recovering, and the young Elvis having his first taste of stardom listening to what Dean has to say.

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Birthday Reviews: J.T. McIntosh’s “Hermit”

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by John Schoenherr

Cover by John Schoenherr

J.T. McIntosh was born James Murdoch MacGregor on February 14, 1925 and died some time in 2008 or late 2007. He used a variation of his primary pseudonym for most of his writing, occasionally spelling it MacIntosh or M’Intosh. When he wrote in collaboration with Frank Parnell, they published as Gregory Francis, and he used Stuart Winsor for works written with Jeff Mason.

His first story, “The Curfew Tolls” appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950 and three years later he published his debut novel, World Out of Mind. In addition to his science fiction, he also wrote a couple of detective novels and in 1956 he collaborated on the screenplay for the film Satellite in the Sky. He retired from writing in 1979 after publishing the novel A Planet Called Utopia.

Tom Godwin’s short story, “The Cold Equations” was published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Over the years, many authors have written stories which attempt to resolve the dilemma that Godwin described. In the June 1963 issue of Astounding Science Fact Science Fiction, J.T. McIntosh wrote a story which in many ways was reminiscent of Godwin’s original piece.

“Hermit” is the tale of Experimental Station Officer Duncan Clement, on duty at Station 47 for ten months of a year-long stint. Located in a secluded area of space, his orders are to destroy any terrestrial ship that attempts a landing. When he hears a distress call from a lifeboat with a single young woman on board, he decides to rebel against his orders.

The woman turns out to be, or claim to be, Lesley Kay, the seventeen year old daughter of a Senator. The gender politics of McIntosh’s story are dated and somewhat jarring. Although Clement’s age is never revealed, McIntosh continuously tries, without much success, to build up a sexual tension between the two characters and many of Clements actions, which McIntosh himself notes, are the result of the fact that the lifeboat’s passenger is female.

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Vintage Treasures: The Snail on the Slope by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

The Snail on the Slope-back-small The Snail on the Slope-small

Russian science fiction writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky are the authors of a pair of acknowledged classics, Hard to Be a God (which Zeta Moore reviewed for us here) and Roadside Picnic (1977). Their books were introduced to a broad audience in the US in the 1970s by Donald Wollheim at DAW Books. Over a dozen of their novels have been translated into English, including The Ugly Swans (1972), The Final Circle of Paradise (1976), Monday Begins on Saturday (1977), Prisoners of Power (1977), and The Time Wanderers (1987).

When I recently discovered there was a Strugatsky paperback I didn’t have, The Snail on the Slope, it was bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s always a delight to find a new object of interest. On the other hand, copies on eBay started at $30, and on Abe Books anywhere from $40 and up. (I suppose I can’t be too cranky. The vast majority of genre paperbacks from the 70s and 80s have declined in value over the past 40 years; it’s good to see the vintage paperback market has at least a few hot spots.)

But what’s the deal with the skyrocketing prices for a pair of relatively obscure Soviet-era science fiction writers? Fifteen years ago you could have had virtually any of their paperbacks for a song.

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The Courage of the Question: Tuck Everlasting

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018 | Posted by Thomas Parker

Tuck Everlasting-smallIf you have children at home, you know their propensity for asking questions. “Can I have some more?” “Why not?” “Are we there yet?” “Do I have to?” These questions and many others are familiar to everyone who deals with children, and they (the questions, that is) usually don’t pose much of a problem. (In my house, we have long had a standard reply to this kind of query, taken from a Ring Lardner short story: “Shut up, he explained.”)

Not all childish questions are so easily disposed of, however. The hard ones can range from the mathematical, such as “What if there was no such thing as five?” to the epistemological, like “How do you know?” The roughest ones are literally life and death: “Why did my puppy, why did my friend, why did my Grandpa have to die?” When faced with these, too often the adult impulse is to brush the child off with a pat answer that answers nothing, or better yet, to quickly change the subject.

Tough questions don’t cease to be questions, though, just because we grow too experienced, too jaded, too busy, too complacent, too disappointed, too bored — too old to be willing to ask them ourselves.

This is one of the reasons children can keep you feeling young… when they’re not making you feel ancient. It’s also why reading great children’s literature can be such a wonderful, renewing experience; such books are addressed to an audience that hasn’t yet gotten into the fatal habit of thinking that all questions have either already been answered or are unanswerable. Such books are themselves like fearless, inquisitive children; they’re willing to speak their minds, whatever the consequences. Books like this are assured of long lives…books like Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 children’s fantasy, Tuck Everlasting.

In the little town of Treegap, in the first week of August in the year 1880, ten year old Winnie Foster feels like life’s possibilities have already dried up. Her overprotective family won’t let her roam, won’t let her experience all that she wants to; her world is cruelly circumscribed by the white picket fence that keeps her safely penned in her front yard. Before the hot August days are over, though, Winnie will have an encounter that will change her life forever, and she’ll be faced with a momentous and irrevocable choice.

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The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

The Book of Three-smallBear with me for a bit. With the death of Ursula K. Le Guin a few weeks ago, I began thinking about her Earthsea books. They were among the earliest non-Tolkien fantasy books I read. I loved them as a kid, I’ve read them three or four times since, and have fond memories of them. I’ll be looking at the first, A Wizard of Earthsea, next time. Thinking about those books got me thinking about a series I actually read even more times and have even fonder memories of: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.

Beginning with The Book of Three (1964), Lloyd Alexander created what has to be one of the first genre-fantasy uses of Celtic mythology (yes, Alan Garner had turned to Celtic themes in his Alderly Edge books, but those books are set in contemporary Britain, not a secondary world). Specifically, he drew on that complex and complicated compendium of Welsh tales, the Mabinogion, for inspiration and names. In this book, the four that follow, and a later collection of short stories, Alexander reworked the idiosyncratic legends into something any modern reader of fantasy would recognize immediately. Gone are the stories of women made from flowers, a human prince trading places with the god of the afterlife, and a king who is gigantic enough to wade to Ireland, and instead, a much more straightforward of a boy learning about the perils and responsibilities of heroism. Considering his intended audience was elementary school readers, it makes perfect sense to simplify, and to introduce a greater degree of coherence. I also imagine many young readers, like I was, were intrigued enough by Alexander’s books to track down the real legends.

In addition to being one of the earliest glosses on Celtic themes, The Book of Three is one of the first times Tolkien’s dark lord trope seeped into the genre. Instead of being a fairly benign lord of the afterlife as he is in the Mabinogion, Arawn is reconfigured as a mostly standard issue dark lord. The original’s mythic paradise, Annwn, is reconstructed here as a dread realm. Rereading The Book of Three for the first time in at least ten years, I was quite happy that I still enjoyed it, but seeing it with older eyes exposed gears and wires I hadn’t paid a mind to before.

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Birthday Reviews: Maureen F. McHugh’s “Ancestor Money”

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Erwin Blumenfeld

Cover by Erwin Blumenfeld

Maureen F. McHugh was born on February 13, 1959. She published her first story, “All in a Day’s Work,” in Twilight Zone using the pseudonym Michael Galloglach, the only story published using that name.

McHugh won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 1993 for her debut novel China Mountain Zhang, which also won the Locus Poll for Best First Novel and the Lambda Award. In 1999, it also received the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. She won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1996 for “The Lincoln Train,” which also won that year’s Locus Poll. Her collection After the Apocalypse: Stories received the Shirley Jackson Award.

“Ancestor Money” was first published in the October 1, 2003 issue of Sci Fiction, edited by Ellen Datlow. It appeared in the following year’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Edition and was included in McHugh’s collection Mothers & Other Monsters: Stories. Diane Severson read the story for PodCastle PC036 in 2008 and it was against reprinted in Peter S. Beagle’s anthology The Secret History of Fantasy. Its most recent appearance was in Paula Guran’s Ghosts: Recent Hauntings. McHugh received a Nebula nomination for “Ancestor Voices.”

In “Ancestor Money,” Rachel Ball died at the age of 35 and has been existing in the afterlife for seven decades, content in her secluded world, occasionally seeing the spirit of her husband’s uncle, Speed, until Speed delivers a letter to her. The letter, which informs her that her granddaughter, Amelia Shaugnessy, has made an offering in Rachel’s memory and she can claim it by visiting a temple in Hong Kong, pulls Rachel from her idyllic afterlife.

Rachel travels from the Heaven she knows to the strange Heaven of San-qing, the afterlife for Hong Kong. Along the way, she has a constant sense of unease as she is pulled further and further from her natural place and understanding of the world. McHugh describes Rachel’s journey, which involves a mundane seeming airplane, with a sense of unease that mirrors what Rachel is experiencing as she leaves her heavenly version of Kentucky.

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Incendiary Conspiracy Theory Suggests Possible Collusion Between She-Ra: Princess of Power and Hordak

Monday, February 12th, 2018 | Posted by Nick Ozment


The 1985 cartoon She-Ra: Princess of Power was a spin-off of He Man and the Masters of the Universe aimed at young girls. It ran for 2 seasons, 93 episodes, and was canceled in 1986. Both series were produced by Filmation in conjunction with toymaker Mattel.


This is a partial transcript of video obtained from the memory files of one of Hordak’s captured Hover Robot spies. It has never been declassified or released on Etheria or Eternia, and we are publishing the audio transcript here at Black Gate at great personal risk, like the brave souls in the movie The Post. You’re welcome, people of planet Earth!

FLUTTERINA: “Well, since we’re dishing gossip, lemme tell you guys — totally off the record — lemme tell you what bothers me about this whole She-Ra charade. I saw her lift a whole lake once.”

LOO-KEE: “Huh?”

FLUTTERINA: “A whole lake. With the bedrock beneath it — like a bowl, ‘cuz you can’t just lift a body of water — and toss it like a mile through the air. A lake. That puts her at what power level? Like a hundred He-Mans? So why doesn’t she just stamp out The Horde?”

KOWL: [flaps his ear-wings and hovers excitedly] “Yeah! Every time she ‘defeats’ Hordak, she just lets him slip away. Sometimes she sees him off with a shake of her finger and a ‘Don’t you ever get up to this sort of mischief again’!”

FLUTTERINA: “It is kind of demented, isn’t it? Like she just likes toying with him, dragging out a cruel game for her own perverse pleasure.”

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Birthday Reviews: Terry Bisson’s “Scout’s Honor”

Monday, February 12th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Greetings and Other Stories-small Greetings and Other Stories-flap-small

Cover by John Picacio

Terry Bisson was born on February 12, 1942. In addition to writing his only original novels and short stories, including Fire on the Mountain, Voyage to the Red Planet, and The Pickup Artist, Bisson has written several media tie-in novels and completed Walter Miller, Jr.’s Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

He has won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story twice, for “Bears Discover Fire” and for “macs.” Both stories also won the Locus Poll. “Bears Discover Fire” also received the Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. “macs” received the Grand Prix l’Imaginaire and the Xatafi-Cyberdark Awards for translations. In 1993, Bisson received the Phoenix Award from DeepSouthCon.

“Scout’s Honor” was first purchased by Ellen Datlow for the online ‘zine Sci Fiction, where it appeared in the January 28, 2004 issue. It was reprinted the next year in both the Hartwell/Cramer and the Dozois Year’s Best anthologies. Bisson included the story in his collection Greetings and the story was translated into Italian in 2008. It was short-listed for the Theodore Sturgeon Award.

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Robots, Telepathy, and Alien Anthropology: Rich Horton on Time Thieves by Dean R. Koontz/Against Arcturus by Susan K. Putney

Saturday, February 10th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Against Arcturus Susan K. Putney-small Time Thieves Dean Koontz-small

The Ace Doubles were published between 1952 and 1978, though it’s chiefly the early D-series, with their delightfully vintage covers by Emsh, Valigursky, and others, that have become truly collectible. Budgets were cut after Ace was sold in 1968, and founder Donald Wollheim left in 1971 to found DAW Books. Occasionally, however, the later Ace Doubles still published authors of quality after Wollheim’s departure, including novels by Jack Vance, Samuel R. Delany, Doris Piserchia, Neal Barrett Jr, and Philip K. Dick.

At his website Strange at Ecbatan Rich Horton looks at one example from May 1972: Susan K. Putney’s Against Arcturus, paired with an early novel by Dean R. Koontz, Time Thieves.

This is one of the latest Ace Doubles, appearing about a year before the program ended. Don Wollheim and Terry Carr had both left Ace a year earlier. Fred Pohl was editor until June 1972, about when Time Thieves/Against Arcturus appeared, so presumably he acquired these novels.

Note that Rich dates the end of the Ace Double era as 1973, when the publisher stopped releasing back-to-back novels in the classic format. But the imprint officially died in five years later (see the complete list of Ace Doubles here.)

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