Reviews, April 2015

Leigh Brackett’s Mars (Part Three)

Martian Quest — Leigh Brackett
Leigh Brackett's Solar System, book 5

There’s certain measurable chance that the title for this review will be “still stuck on Mars.” To be perfectly frank, I just don’t get the obsession with Mars, not when the Solar System is filled with bodies just as interesting. Leigh Brackett was certainly interested in Mars. This collection of short stories, Martian Quest, is drawn from the many stories she published over her long writing career.

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The Great Explosion — Eric Frank Russell

Military speculative fiction doesn’t have to be all pew-pew-pew and Stern People Who Do What’s Necessary. There’s lots of room for other approaches, including satire. The (or at least a) master of military satire was, of course, Eric Frank Russell, a British SF writer active mainly in the 1940s to the 1960s. His milSF story “Allamagoosa” won the very first Hugo Award for Best Short Story, in 1955.

Inaugurating my series of reviews of MilSFF That Does Not Suck with a classic like “Allamagoosa” strikes me as a necessary antidote to the blind military-worship that all too-often characterizes the genre. There are two catches: I actually inaugurated the series last week with Cook’s The Dragon Never Sleeps and I have already reviewed “Allamagoosa.” Here, have another worthy Russell work: 1962’s The Great Explosion.

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The final Silence

The Empress of Earth — Melissa Scott
The Roads of Heaven, book 3

Continuing yesterday’s theme of third books in trilogies that are also the final books in trilogies, today’s review is of the third and final volume in Melissa Scott’s Roads of Heaven trilogy, 2012’s The Empress of Earth.

Empress of Earth is a revision of 1987’s The Empress of Earth. Despite owning both editions, I didn’t reread the first version, so I cannot say how significant the differences are.

When we last saw our heroine, star-pilot-turned-magus Silence Leigh, she had played a vital role in toppling the old Hegemon of the Hegemony. As a result, she was owed a great boon by the new Hegemon, Adeban. As usual, there was a problem. Because the Hegemony is egregiously sexist, Adeban couldn’t publicly acknowledge his debt without risking being toppled from power by outraged Hegemonic aristocrats. Still, there’s every reason to expect Adeban to act as an indulgent patron for Leigh, her husbands Denis Balthazar and Julian Chase Mago, her mentor Magus Isambard, and their effort to reach long lost Earth.

Adeban is indeed willing, but, as is so often true with patronage from heads of state, there’s a catch.

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End of the Story

The Wanderers — Paula Volsky
Veiled Isles, book 3

For readers joining us late, confused why the cover says the author is Paula Brandon but this review credits the book to Volsky, Brandon was a pen-name forced on the author, just one of many methods used by Spectra to undermine sales.

2012’s The Wanderers is the third and final volume in Paula Volsky’s The Veiled Isles trilogy [1]. At the end of volume two, things were not going well for our cast of characters:

  • the world was on the brink of a vast magical cataclysm;
  • Magnifico Aureste Belandor had just, for reasons that seemed sensible at the time, murdered Vinz Corvestri, one of the handful of adepts on whose shoulders the fate of the world rested;
  • Aureste’s daughter Jianna Belandor was fleeing her malevolent husband Onartino, dodging him through the streets of occupied Vitrisi;
  • Jianna’s one true love Falaste Rione was waiting execution for his part in the assassination of Vitrisi’s Taerleezi governor.

It gets worse.

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Back to Asimov

Nightfall and Other Stories — Isaac Asimov

Blame my fondness for old timey radio for this review. I was re-listening to my archive of X Minus One (a 1955–1958 radio program featuring SF content) and was suddenly overcome by an urge to re-read this Asimov collection, an old favourite, after listening to their adaptation of Hostess.

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Ineluctably American SF

The Android’s Dream — John Scalzi
The Android's Dream, book 1

2006’s The Android’s Dream takes us to a near-future where the Earth is unified (in the sense that the US does whatever the hell it wants and the rest of the planet has to live with the consequences), Earth is among the most minor of the minor powers belonging to the galaxy-spanning Common Confederation. Given that Earth is to the mightiest powers of the Galaxy as modern Paraguay is to NATO, the sensible course of action for Earth as a whole is to concentrate on maintaining a low profile while building up its economy and military.

Of course, there’s often a huge gulf between what’s good for a polity as a whole and what’s good for individuals within it.

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Return to the Dipple

Judgment on Janus — Andre Norton
Janus, book 1

1963’s Judgment on Janus returns to the Dipple, that oubliette for refugees. Life in the Dipple is so wretched and horrible that young Naill Renfro considers it only sensible to sell himself as a contract labourer—a slave—so he can earn enough money to buy his dying mother a fatal overdose of drugs. Naill can do nothing to make her life in the Dipple bearable; dreaming herself to death is the only escape possible for his mother.

Naill at least manages to trade the Dipple for a new life on Janus, although given what he finds on that backward world, it’s not clear he got the better of the deal.

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Leigh Brackett’s Mars (Part Two)

Shadow Over Mars — Leigh Brackett
Leigh Brackett's Solar System, book 4

Old-timey planetary romance authors sure loved them some Mars. Not the Mars of science, but the slowly dying Mars of fiction: crisscrossed with ancient canals and full of strange relics and degenerate remnants of once-great civilizations. 1944’s Shadow Over Mars takes us to one of those Old Marses, where we join Earthman Rick Urquhart as he flees through the streets of Ruh, trying to escape the ruthless press gangs of the Terran Exploitations Company.

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It’s a Cook book! It’s a Cook book!

The Dragon Never Sleeps — Glen Cook

The odds are fairly good that if you’re aware of Glen Cook, you know him for series like Garrett and Black Company; if you’re of a certain vintage, you might have read his early Dread Empire books, or perhaps the Starfishers space operas. The Black Company (novel, not series) would have made a fine inaugural book for my new review series, Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. However, it happens that I prefer SF to fantasy [1], so I will review something that (thanks to Stupid Publisher Tricks back in the Late Reagan) was unjustly obscure: 1988’s The Dragon Never Sleeps.

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Silence in Solitude — Melissa Scott
The Roads of Heaven, book 2

1986’s Silence in Solitude is the second volume in the Roads of Heaven trilogy (and Scott’s fourth novel overall, if the ISFDB is to be trusted [1]).

The story begins six months after Silence arrives on Solitudo Hermae to begin her training as a magus. She is working under the supervision of Magus Isambard, an old ally.

As a female pilot in a fanatically patriarchal society, Silence was already unusual; her new career as a female magus makes her virtually sui generis [2].

This is not such a good thing, as the Hegemon has put a price on Silence’s head. Hard to be an inconspicuous fugitive when you are notably unique.

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My First Piper

Little Fuzzy — H. Beam Piper
Little Fuzzy, book 1

I had never heard of H. Beam Piper when I spotted the Michael Whelan cover on the 1976 reprint of Little Fuzzy. Of all Piper’s novels, this is probably the one that readers remember most fondly; it was certainly good enough to get me hooked on his fiction.

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Bigger Rocks

The Ruined City — Paula Volsky
Veiled Isles, book 2

2012’s The Ruined City is the middle volume of Paula Volsky’s (or as the cover would have it, Paula Brandon’s) Veiled Isles trilogy. It begins on a somewhat hopeful note: not only has Jianna escaped from Ironheart, but the adepts of the Isles finally seem to be doing something about an existential threat that makes all lesser conflicts, political, military or domestic, entirely beside the point.

This is the middle volume of the trilogy, so it’s not going to be that simple.

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The Return of Hosteen Storm

Lord of Thunder — Andre Norton
Beast Master, book 2

1962’s Lord of Thunder is a sequel to The Beast Master, picking up pretty much where The Beast Master left off. Hosteen Storm has lost his birth planet and his people [1], but Arzor has given him a new home, a new family, and a new life.

(spoiler warning)

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Leigh Brackett’s Mars (Part One)

Sea-Kings of Mars — Leigh Brackett
Leight Brackett's Solar System, book 3

1949’s Sea-Kings of Mars (also published under the title Sword of Rhiannon) takes us the world most frequently featured in Brackett’s Solar System: the red planet of Mars. In this novel, Mars is an ancient, worn-out world, its peoples and cultures much reduced from their heyday a million years ago. The novel’s protagonist, Matthew Carse, is also much reduced, having fallen from the lofty status of archaeologist to that of criminal. As the book opens, he is merely one of the many disreputable characters lurking in the streets of the Martian city of Jekkara.

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Nor are jerks

Moongather — Jo Clayton
Duel of Sorcery, book 1

My terrible confession: until now, despite buying Jo Clayton’s novels with the intention of reading them at some point, despite being aware enough of her work to have picked up significant details of the Diadem series through cultural osmosis, I have a horrible feeling that this is the first Clayton I have actually read.

Jo Clayton (1939–1998) was, I believe, another one of Donald Wollheim’s discoveries. Her debut novel, 1977’s Diadem from the Stars, was the 235th book DAW published [1]. The Diadem universe books made up a large fraction of her output and are probably her best known works. That said, the Diadem books were not the whole of her thirty-five book bibliography. The book I have in hand, 1982’s Moongather, first in the Duel of Sorcery trilogy, is completely unrelated to the Diadem series. It is a fantasy rather than science fiction.

It begins with a shocking betrayal

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Introducing Tula Bane

Tin Star — Cecil Castellucci
Tin Star, book 1

One of my minor hobbies is keeping an eye out for new examples of unabashedly SFnal entry-level SF, the stuff that draws new readers in and guarantees that there will be an SF of a particular sort decades down the road. While it’s true the young adult genre is filled with clearly SFnal novels, it seems to me that many publishers market Young Adult fiction as its own category, not as science fiction, while bookstores are careful to shelve YA well away from SF. I don’t think it is because they are afraid SF will catch YA cooties. I think the truth is much less complementary to SF: YA is too successful right now to risk it being associated with SF, which only accounts for some 2% of fiction sales.

IMHO, 2014’s Tin Star is in many ways the sort of book SF needs. Think of it as the juvenile SF novel an inexperienced C. J. Cherryh might have written if she’d decided to go full-bore Heinlein juvenile. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but the problems that bugged me could be easily corrected if the author could be convinced that correcting them would be worth her time. As it is, this is still worth consideration as a gift for young proto-SF readers.

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Attack of the Rootless Cosmicpolitans!

The Fleet of the Springers — Kurt Mahr
Perry Rhodan, book 22

I’ve missed a couple of weeks worth of translated works; I need to catch up. On the other hand, people seem to enjoy my Tears reviews. Here is one intersection of the two types of review.

Perry Rhodan: Peacelord of All the Planets! Unifier of Earth! Guardian of the Galaxy Milky Way! A character who makes me wonder if the German language lacks a word for the concept of subtext!

The first weekly Perry Rhodan novella appeared in 1961; the ongoing series passed the 2700-episode mark in 2013. Obviously, Perry Rhodan is the Coronation Street of large-scale space opera.

What it isn’t is … much good,

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After the Company Wars

Merchanter’s Luck — C.J. Cherryh
Company Wars, book 4

C. J. Cherryh was one of Donald Wollheim’s discoveries; DAW published Cherryh’s debut novel Gate of Ivrel in 1976. Wollheim being Wollheim, he not only insisted she be C. J. (and not Carolyn Janice), he added an H to her surname, Cherry, so it would not seem too girly.

Works like Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth won her the Campbell in 1976 and her short story “Cassandra” won her first—but not last!—Hugo Award in 1979. She is still a prolific and popular author. If SFWA were in the habit of giving the Grandmaster award to women, I would say Cherryh had an inside chance of winning it at some point.


1982’s Merchanter’s Luck is a sequel to her 1981 Hugo winner, Downbelow Station. Downbelow Station introduced readers to the Company War, a long, bitter war of independence pitting an avaricious Earth Company against a malevolent Union; hapless smaller merchants were caught in the middle. As this book begins, the war has concluded and most of the survivors are ready to set old grudges aside to begin rebuilding the interstellar economy.

For Sandor Kreje of Le Cygne, that’s an impossible task.

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Enter the Dipple

Catseye — Andre Norton
Dipple, book 1

1961’s Catseye takes us to the Dipple on Korwar, a slum filled with refugees and their children, despised reminders of the pointless but vastly destructive War of Two Sectors. There are very few ways out of the Dipple and someone trapped there, someone like Troy Horan, might go to any extreme to escape.

They might even agree to work at a pet store.

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Leigh Brackett’s Venus

The Swamps of Venus — Leigh Brackett
Leigh Brackett's Solar System, book 2

In Brackett’s version of the Solar System, Venus, the second world out from the Sun, is not the hellworld scientists now know it to be. Brackett’s Venus, while hostile to human life, is home to a wildly diverse assortment of life forms. Maybe too diverse from the point of view of desperate Terrans and Martians hoping to find new homes on an eternally shrouded, fervid swamp world. As a general rule, if something isn’t trying to eat you on Venus, it’s trying to run you through with a spear.

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Tesla Versus Fascists!

Silver Bullet — Melissa Scott & Jo Graham
Order of the Air, book 3

2014’s Silver Bullet is the third novel in Scott and Graham’s Order of the Air series. The Great Depression is three years old and President Roosevelt’s victory over Hoover has taken place just three days before the book opens. As a result, some Americans are filled with hope and others with a grim, fanatical rage.

Thanks to the events of the previous novel, the gang at Gilchrist Aviation (Alma Gilchrist, Mitch Sorley, Lewis Segura, Jerry Ballard, and recent hire Stasi Rostov) are more financially secure than many Americans. The prize money they won, as well as their alliance with millionaire Harry Kershaw, mean that none of them are wondering where their next meal is coming from … though they do have to budget carefully.

Harry seems to have given up collecting eldritch artifacts of mystical doom. This time, our gang is threatened only by weird super-science machines and roving gangs of armed fascists.

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Bitter Laughter

I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed — Kyria Abrahams

I don’t generally do autobiographies [1] and I don’t generally do books on religion [2], which makes 2010’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed, an autobiography of a woman raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, an odd fit for me. Still, I found this an interesting read. Some of this is specific to Jehovah’s Witnesses, but a lot of this is universal.

The cover tells us right off that Kyria Abrahams became disenchanted with her family’s religion. No suspense there. What one might wonder is how this unfolded. As I see it, there are a few likely ways one might react to religious disillusionment: anger at being duped, sorrow at the loss of faith, or amusement at one’s own folly. Abrahams opts for the third.

Mind you, it’s a bitter amusement.

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Before he was a Psi-cop

Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester — Alfred Bester

The fact I own this book shows that my terrible memory, while often a bother, can sometimes work in my favour. I was aware of Bester as the author of two classic novels The Demolished Man, which I had read, and The Stars My Destination, which I had not read. Until I picked up this collection I had never knowingly read his short fiction. The only reason I bought this collection was because I had a vague memory of having read the title story and liking it. I thought there was a chance I would like the rest of his work just as well.

I soon realized that I was actually thinking of another story entirely, Mark Clifton’s “Star Bright”. (Clifton, author of the Hugo-award-winning novel They’d Rather Be Right, seems likely to be mentioned a lot in the next few days.) Clifton and Bester sold to some of the same markets, but the two authors were as unlike each other as chalk and cheese a cynical, witty drunk sneering at some kid’s bad taste. Of course, in the good old days of the1970s there wasn’t all that much SF being published. We didn’t abandon a book just because it turned out not to be the sort of book we expected. Fans of the 1970s weren’t delicate flowers who had to retreat to their languishing couches whenever confronted with novelty.

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​”This is the Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone… Mayday, Mayday…”

Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future — Mark Miller

This is the Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone. Mayday, Mayday.”

If roleplaying games had made it out to Waterloo Oxford District Secondary School in the 1970s, nobody told me. My first exposure to RPGs (or rather, the fact that RPGS even existed) was 1979’s [1]”On Tabletop Universes,” an essay by a then twenty-year-old John M. Ford, published in Asimov’s. I thought the whole idea sounded pretty stupid.

Actual exposure to RPGs had to wait until fall 1980 and my first year in university, when I was introduced to Game Designers Workshop’s [2] Traveller. I blame this game for the thirty-plus years I’ve spent playing the damn things, not to mention the twenty-plus years I spent and working in various capacities in the RPG industry.

And the three little black books looked so innocent….

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Enter Hosteen Storm

The Beast Master — Andre Norton
Beast Master, book 1

1959’s The Beast Master is the first novel in Norton’s Beast Master series.

Hosteen Storm is one of a select group of people, that handful of Terrans who had the luck (good or bad, depending on your point of view) not to be on Earth when the alien Xik bombarded that world in one final desperate attempt to prevent defeat at the hands of the humans. Many of the other survivors have gone mad from grief, but Storm is protected by a promise made to Storm’s Dineh grandfather; Storm cannot rest until he wreaks the vengeance that the old man never could.

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Leigh Brackett’s Mercury

Mercury’s Light — Leigh Brackett
Leigh Brackett's Solar System, book 1

Brackett’s Mercury is a world sun-baked on its eternally sunward side and frozen on its eternally shadowed side. It is a world isolated from the rest of the Solar System by fierce geomagnetic storms. Most of the planet is uninhabitable, but there are tiny pockets of habitability in the deep valleys of the twilight zone, islands of life where desperate people can hope for riches or at least refuge.

What they will probably find, of course, is death.

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