Reviews, May 2019

The Only One

Ordinary Jack — Helen Cresswell
Bagthorpe Saga, book 1

1977’s Ordinary Jack is the first volume in Helen Cresswell’s YA Bagthorpe Saga.

The Bagthorpes are perhaps the single greatest collection of geniuses the world has ever seen. At least, that is what the Bagthorpes would say … and if you cannot trust the single greatest collection of geniuses the world has ever seen, whom1 can you trust?

Jack Bagthorpe is the sole exception. Poor Jack is exceptionally unexceptional.

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Lost in the Wilderness

Search the Sky — Frederik Pohl & Cyril M. Kornbluth

1954’s Search the Sky is a standalone(ish) science fiction novel. It was the second novel-length collaboration between Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth,.

Ross has lived his whole life on Halsey’s Planet. Somehow he senses what his fellows cannot or will not: population levels are slowly, inexorably declining. The future will be grim.

Halsey’s Planet is just one of many worlds settled by humans. Contact with its sister worlds is intermittent, carried out by sublight longliners, smaller versions of the ships that delivered the original colonists to Halsey’s Planet fourteen centuries earlier.

A longliner arrives with an inbred crew of happy idiots bearing an enigmatic message and doleful news about the other human worlds. Another Halsey merchant, Haarland, asks Ross to come meet with him. This is odd, as Ross works for a rival firm. It turns out that Haarland has some bad news to share.

 Spoilers….


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Have You Brought Me Hope

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH — Robert C. O’Brien

Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a standalone children’s SF novel. O’Brien wrote no sequels.

Mrs. Frisby (a mouse) and her children (mice) have taken shelter in a cinder block near one of the fields owned by farmer Fitzgibbons. Winter is over and plowing season is approaching. The widow Frisby must move her children before a plow smashes into their home.

In previous years, Mrs. Frisby had no trouble relocating her family before plowing season. This year is different.


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When You Believe

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns — Julie C. Dao
Rise of the Empress , book 1

2017’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the first volume in Julie C. Dao’s Rise of the Empress series.

Xifeng has been raised from birth to marry Emperor Jun. It is a lofty ambition (very much so given that Xifeng is a poor orphan) but it is not entirely unreasonable. Xifeng’s abusive aunt Guma claims to possess magical powers; she insists that one day Xifeng will be great and powerful. Also, Xifeng is an unparalleled beauty, which should smooth her rise to empress .

Tired of Guma’s beatings, Xifeng flees with Wei, a young soldier who is utterly besotted with Xifeng. Alas for Wei, she is not besotted with Wei. Xifeng has a plan. A plan that involves the emperor.


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Run Run Run

Sorata Akizuki
Snow White with the Red Hair , book 1

Sorata Akizuki’s Snow White with the Red Hair (Akagami no Shirayukihime) is an ongoing shoujo manga. It is very, very, very loosely based on the folktale of Snow White.

Prince Raji of Tabarun decides to take herbalist Shirayuki as his next concubine. Why? Because her hair is the colour of red ripe apples. It does not occur to him that Shirayuki might have her own thoughts about the matter. He dispatches a summons and awaits his new red-haired lover.

Rather than submit to being a spoiled prince’s momentary pastime, Shirayuki cuts off her long red hair, leaving it for the prince who valued it so much, then decamps for the neighbouring kingdom of Clarines. Along the way she takes shelter in an abandoned mansion, one that is not so empty as it appears.

Enter another prince.


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Family Portrait

The Changeover — Margaret Mahy

Margaret Mahy’s 1984 The Changeover is a standalone YA fantasy novel.

Schoolgirl Laura Chant lives with her divorced mother Kate and her younger brother Jacko. One morning she wakes with a premonition that life in the quiet Christchurch suburb of Gardendale is about to change for the worse. She knows from past experience that her premonitions are trustworthy. However, there seems to be nothing she can do to prevent whatever fate is looming. She must carry on as normal and hope for the best.

She does not get the best.


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Cops and Robots

The Caves of Steel — Isaac Asimov

1954’s The Caves of Steel is the first of Isaac Asimov’s novels that feature Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw.

Elijah is a human. R. Daneel is a robot. They fight crime!


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The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream

The Girl From Everywhere — Heidi Heilig
The Girl From Everywhere, book 1

2016’s The Girl From Everywhere is the first volume in Heidi Heilig’s YA time-travel series, The Girl From Everywhere.

Sixteen-year-old Nix Song has seen more of the world than most people. She has spent most of her life on her father’s ship, the Temptation, sailing the seven seas … and the timestream. Her father, Slate, is a Navigator. His special powers mean that all of recorded history is within reach.

There is of course a catch.


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To a Brighter Sunny Day

Velocity Weapon — Megan E. O’Keefe
Protectorate, book 1

Megan E. O’Keefe’s upcoming 2019 Velocity Weapon is the first volume in her projected Protectorate series.

In the 22nd century, Alexandra Halston’s invention of Prime gave humanity the Casimir Gates and access to the stars. By the 36th century, Prime spans many systems. Prime’s Keepers carefully maintain the network and all that is necessary to create more gates, in return for which they impose tariffs on the goods shipped from system to system. Everyone who matters agrees that this is a just arrangement — save for the planet of Icarion.


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March of the Volunteers

The Wandering Earth — Frant Gwo


2019’s The Wandering Earth (Chinese: 流浪地球) is a 2019 Chinese film adaptation of Liu Cixin’s novella of the same name (which I have not read). It is directed by Frant Gwo and stars Qu Chuxiao, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Zhao Jinmai, Wu Jing, and Qu Jingjing. A major hit in China, it was stealth-released on Netflix on May 6, 2019.

Bad news for Earth! The Sun is transitioning from a main sequence star to a red giant five billion years ahead of schedule. Life within the Solar System will soon become impossible.

There’s an alternative to extinction, at least for humanity. Simply move the Earth to the Alpha Centauri system.


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Nobody Loves The Hulk!

Wild Cards — George R. R. Martin
Wild Cards, book 1

1987’s Wild Cards is the first volume in George R. R. Martin’s ongoing superhero shared-universe project of the same name.

Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the anthology (i.e. the table of contents).


“Prologue (Wild Cards I)” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin

Thirty Minutes Over Broadway! • novelette by Howard Waldrop

The Sleeper • novelette by Roger Zelazny

Witness • novelette by Walter Jon Williams

Degradation Rites • novelette by Melinda M. Snodgrass

“Interlude One” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin

Shell Games • novelette by George R. R. Martin

“Interlude Two” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin

“The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato” • short story by Lewis Shiner

Transfigurations • novelette by Victor Milán

“Interlude Three” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin

Down Deep • novelette by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper

“Interlude Four” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin

Strings • novelette by Stephen Leigh

“Interlude Five” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin

Comes a Hunter • novelette by John J. Miller

“Epilogue: Third Generation” • short fiction by Lewis Shiner

“The Science of the Wild Card Virus: Excerpts from the Literature” • short fiction by Victor Milán

For the most part, the interludes are pretend non-fiction pieces intended to flesh out the worldbuilding.

The planet Takis and 1940s Earth are both inhabited by humans. Why this is so, the Takisians do not know, but it does mean that backwater Earth is an ideal test site for a biological weapon. The man Earth will come to call Doctor Tachyon does his best to prevent the delivery of the weapon to Earth; he fails. Others, including war hero Jetboy, do their best to prevent the detonation of the device; they fail as well.

Those inhabitants of New York who don’t reach shelter in time are exposed to the Wild Cards virus. Ninety percent of the people who contract it die horribly. Of the ones who survive, ninety percent are horribly transformed. These are the Jokers. This is an era that values conformity; any sort of physical imperfection or unusual appearance is enough to turn someone into a pariah. Shunned, Jokers congregate in their own slums.

That leaves the final ten percent of survivors. These lucky few are transformed in ways society finds acceptable: good-looking, super-powered, they can become celebrities. Some even try their hands at being heroes. These last are repaid for their good deeds in the usual fashion: they’re often ignored, sometimes punished, infrequently rewarded.

 ~oOo~

Shared universe anthologies were a popular format in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Examples include Thieves World, Heroes in Hell, Liavek, Wild Cards, and Man-Kzin Wars, and many many others. I’m reviewing Wild Cards because it was competently done and it’s still on-going.

Well, actually … I was thinking of doing the Liavek series and even purchased an ebook. Alas, I discovered that my new ebook does not include all of the original stories1.

Whereas the current edition of Wild Cards has more stories than appeared originally. I’m reviewing the1987 edition, not the expanded edition.

Revisiting this series after thirty-three years….

As I recall, the Wild Cards project grew out of Martin and chums’ fondness for the roleplaying game Superworld. Gaming was taking time away from writing, as astounding as that may sound in an era when no author ever allows themself such distractions. Wild Cards was not just an attempt to jump on the shared universe bandwagon; it was an attempt to monetize time otherwise wasted on mere enjoyment.

It turned out that Martin’s fellow gamers were pretty good writers. Can one generalize? Is the sort of imagination you need to be a good RPG player also the kind of talent you need to write compelling stories? I would argue that it’s not surprising that the skills exercised when creating RPG campaigns and characters can be applied to prose writing2.

It may be significant that the specific game Martin and company played (and that inspired their setting) was Superworld. Chaosium’s Superworld used a point-based design in which the total number of points available was equal to the sum of the characteristics the player randomly rolled. This meant that there was considerable variation in the power level available to characters. As well, because this was a BRP/Runequest-derived system, even tough characters could be … fragile. Regular folk can be squashed or dismembered with ease. It’s a nasty world out there.

Rather than explaining superhero origins with a lot of disparate incidents (lab accidents, rescue rockets, etc.) this world explains them all with one event, the release of the virus. The variable effects of the virus allow for the creation of pretty much any kind of character the players and writers could imagine.

Thanks to the lookist bigotry of the society, it’s easy to forgive characters who live on the wrong side of the law3. They needn’t be bad … but all too often they are. Some of the most memorable characters in this series are also the least likeable. Super-pimp Fortunato is a champ at grooming women for prostitution. The prodigiously powerful Great and Powerful Turtle spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.

The series is often violent. Martin is fond of using rape as a plot-engine. The series is often not fun to read. It gets tedious. But there are exceptions. When I first read these stories, I found a number of them impressive (Sleeper, Witness, Shell Games in particular). Rereading established that yes, they were memorable, and yes, they were still quite good.

The Wild Cards shared universe has survived for three decades (while competitors died) and at least three changes of publisher, all thanks to its discerning editors. They picked talented writers and good stories. Too bad about the violence and rape.

Wild Cards is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca). If Chapters-Indigo has it, their terrible search engine successfully hid it from me.

1: The Amazon listing does make this clear, but I was insufficiently diligent.

2: This sort of cross-over must be pretty common. Members of my own gaming group, which the mediocrity principle suggests is unlikely to be exceptional, have garnered five spots on Hugo finalist lists, not to mention nomination for the Nebula, Locus, Sunburst, Campbell, and the Tiptree awards. Members have also served as jurors for awards like the Tiptree and the Diverse Writers Award.

3: The fact that Marvel’s Magneto thought “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” was a good name for a superhero collective suggests that those mutants could have done with Don Draper and Peggy Olson’s help. Perhaps a concerted campaign against ableist and lookist prejudice? Of course, successful campaigns would erase one of the appeals of the superhero genre: identifying with protagonists who are unappreciated, who may hide behind an everyday identity, but who are still worthy of love and admiration. Who hasn’t felt like that?

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I Started a Joke

Mindswap — Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley’s 1966 Mindswap is a standalone SF comedy.

Interplanetary travel is prohibitively expensive. Interstellar travel even more-so. Bad news for Marvin Flynn, a small town young man with the travel bug.

Even though travelling in person is far too expensive for Marvin, there exists an affordable alternative. Simply dispatch his mind to some waiting body on a far-off world. What could go wrong?


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And When I Walked

Natural Selection — Malinda Lo

2013’s Natural Selection is an ancillary work to Malinda Lo’s Adaptation1.

Amber was born on distant Kurra before moving with her parents to Earth. She looks human enough to pass without notice. None of Amber’s schoolmates know that an alien is among them2.

This piece describes two rites of passage: one on Kurra (obligatory for Imrians like Amber) and one on Earth (not a formal rite of passage, but nonetheless a formative experience for Amber). Amber’s Earth experience takes place two years before her Kurra rite.


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All Night Long

Kim Eun-hee & Kim Seong-hun
Kingdom, book 3

Kingdom is a 2019 South Korean television series. It was written by Kim Eun-hee and directed by Kim Seong-hun. There are six episodes in season one, of which this is the third. The primary cast are (from Wikipedia):

Prince Yi Chang, crown prince of Great Joseon, is trying to discover just what is going on with his father, the king, who is secluded in his palace. The prince is opposed by his stepmother and her Haewon Cho clan. As a result, the prince is now a wanted man. Oh, and the kingdom is threatened with zombie apocalypse.


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