RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Richard Chwedyk, our new reviewer, sold his first story in 1990, won a Nebula in 2002, and has been active in the field for the past twenty-nine years.

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GETTING CLASSY

The other day, one of my students was looking through a copy of Locus and asked me why some of the women at the Hugo Awards ceremony were wearing “fancy” dresses.

I explained that for some folks, the Hugos were a very classy affair. And, in all fairness, some of the men were wearing fairly classy duds too.

“But look at these people next to them.” She pointed to another photo from the same event. “They’re not dressed up at all.”

“Everybody gets to be classy in their own way. That’s what science fiction and fantasy is all about.”

The books mentioned below, I hope, will demonstrate some of the varieties of classy work our field is currently offering to readers.

***

Shadows in the Stone
by Jack Dann
IFWG Publishing International
ISBN: 978-1925956252

This novel arrived pre-loaded with a generous pair of endorsements from Kim Stanley Robinson and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, not to mention some subtle encouragement from our editor—not that any nudges were needed to secure my attention. I have been reading Jack Dann’s work long enough to embarrass both of us, back in the days when Ted White was editing Amazing and Fantastic. His novel, Junction (1981), started there as a novella in 1973 and grew into a work I continue to love and admire. The Memory Cathedral (1995) features an alternate history version of the Renaissance, where Leonardo da Vinci builds many of the wondrous inventions sketched in his notebooks. This brilliant journey into the mind and soul of a genius prepares us for the current novel.

Almost prepares us, but not quite. The Renaissance of this novel is rife with high order angels, here called aeons, who often behave like demons (though don’t confuse them with real demons, like Azazel). Many of them are creations of the demiurge Yaldabaoth—better known as Jehovah. Yes, that Jehovah. And none of these beings are very shy about influencing and interfering with human activity, especially with Gian Dei (aka, John Day, Jack Day, or John Dee—yes, that one) around to conduct various “experiments.” In fact, it may serve better to say that the humans, including a couple of Borgias (one of them here a bastard son of a Pope Alexander VI, whose Holy See has been moved to Venice) Pico della Mirandola (you can’t venture far in any version of the Renaissance without running into Pico), Dominican soldier-priests, and ninja nuns, are influencing and interfering with the aeons.

They could have had me with the ninja nuns, but wait, there’s more.

The narrative is dense and labyrinthine (I would say byzantine, but that might confuse the issue), though it moves with assuredness and dexterity throughout its brief 345 pages and never leaves us, if you’ll excuse the expression, in the dark. Much of that is due to Dann’s dual protagonists, Lucian and Louisa, whose innocence and inexperience make them the perfect sets of eyes through which to discover this fantastic universe.

As is often the case with Dann’s writing, it is its clarity that strikes us first more than its incredible inventiveness, though both are present in every sentence:

As Louisa climbed the rope ladder that was vibrating in the soot-stinking wind, she looked up at the gondola of the airship. It was attached to the keel frame of the hull envelope and was some two hundred feet in length. The envelope above it was thin and long and didn’t look like any balloon Louisa had ever seen. In fact from below, the gondola looked like the hull of a carrack with open gun ports. Shrouds were attached to dead eye blocks fixed to the gondola and the envelope, and what could only be described as a bowsprit projected from the front of the gondola. A half-deck was suspended from below and behind the bowsprit, and what looked like retractable masts were fastened to the gondola; their webbed rigging snapped in the wind. Aft was a large triangular lateen sail that could be a rudder. Ropes and stays connected the gondola with the envelope…and the balloon—if, indeed, that’s what it was—was covered with some gauzy material that seemed to shimmer and glow like heated metal.

This is the papal airship, Ascensione, at once majestic and dangerous. And its most wondrous, and fearful, facet is that it remains aloft not from hot air, or hydrogen, or helium—but from lost souls. An archbishop tells Louisa, “Souls may perish, but they cannot die; and once perished—accursed—they cannot be restored to what they were…although they are without salvation, they can at least be made to serve those who seek it.”

At heart, I believe, Dann is a science fiction writer, which is why his alternate worlds of magic and wonder are so unquestionably vivid. He scrutinizes angels and demons as if they were aliens from a newly-discovered world. He creates his own physics to allow for magic, and follows its rules fastidiously. And, like many a good science fiction writer, he measures the consequences of great power practiced by we ever-fallible humans. It’s what we do.

And Jack Dann does it brilliantly.

Into the bargain, we get a phantasmagorically brilliant cover by ever-reliable Bob Eggleton.

Now that’s class.

***

Muses and Musings
by Edward M. Lerner
Phoenix Pick, an imprint of Arc Manor (trade paperback)
September 2019
ISBN: 978-1612424408

People who don’t read Analog have a perfect idea of what they publish. Perfectly wrong, but there are few certainties more powerful than ignorance. Certain authors fit the mold, but many do not.

Readers of this magazine should be familiar with Edward M. Lerner’s byline. A number of the stories in Muses & Musings were first published right here in Galaxy’s Edge. He is also a frequent Analog contributor. The mold has yet been fashioned that can fit him. He is science fiction down to the bone, but he very often takes the “serious” stuff not so seriously. Or he does, but he still squeezes a modicum of wit and whimsy into his subjects. He can catch a salient point in a couple of pages or explore a well-trodden road like AI with new insight.

What I like best about his writing, in general, is his way of directly addressing his readers. Whether he is working in first-person or third-person mode, you always feel he is directly speaking, or writing, to you. His stories communicate on a one-on-one basis. Lerner may not be at the top of anyone’s list of literary practitioners, but he produces reliable and readable work of the kind science fiction still does best, and that seems pretty classy to me.

Full disclosure: Phoenix Pick is an imprint of our publisher. My response to this collection is not affected by that association.

***

Supernova Era
by Cixin Liu
translated by Joel Martinsen
Tor (hardcover)
October 2019
ISBN: 978-1250306036

I confess to approaching this novel with caution. In some ways, I found The Three Body Problem overwhelming. Not by any fault of its author, but it made me fear that my poor old mind couldn’t stretch anymore to new voices (new to me, at least) and new ways to envision science fiction. It was like trying to view every facet of a jewel simultaneously, confounding my mental geometry, and I feared I would become one of those old duffers sitting in a basement man-cave with a stack of Perry Rhodan paperbacks, complaining that sf isn’t what it used to be. Nothing classy about that.

To my delight, and relief, this novel grabbed me and didn’t let go until the very end. It addresses cosmic questions on a human scale, and does so in an engaging manner. The scenario is a familiar one: radiation from a supernova initially kills off every human over the age of thirteen. The inheritors must rediscover and redefine the legacy of humanity. And if that were an easy task, there wouldn’t be a reason for this novel.

But there is.

If you haven’t read Cixin Liu’s work before, I can think of no better place to start. The stage is immense, but the scale is very human, and Liu demonstrates a generosity of spirit and depth of compassion that I find in the best of science fiction.

***

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse
by K. Eason
DAW (hardcover)
October 2019
ISBN: 978-0756415297

Praise aplenty has been heaped upon this novel even before its release, and one can’t help wondering if it’s all hype or well-deserved. Obviously, from the title and the packaging, the intention is to play upon our expectations. Is it an sf novel disguised as a fantasy? Is it a fairytale with trappings of science-fictional lingo and lore? Is its wit playfully well-intentioned or an arrogant stab at sff readers who like their marvels neatly labeled and neatly contained like the peas in a plastic tray for a frozen dinner?

Even more important: does it hang together as novel, or is its structure an excuse to play with the conventions of several literary forms and mix them all up? Or appeal to the fans of Adams, Pratchett, Holt and Wong combined? Or is it, as we used to say a half century ago, its own thing?

Whatever it is, count me in. The praise is not unfounded.

At bottom (and top as well), what counts to me more than categories and cleverness and wit and humor and more-hipster-than-thou-ness is a good story, and all that entails. It doesn’t always have to make sense. It doesn’t even have to always be well written, though K. Eason is an outstanding writer; her years in the trenches teaching freshman comp have served her well. What it needs above all is to be a good story, and at that Rory Thorne succeeds admirably.

Rory Thorne, princess, heir (at least for a while) to an interplanetary conglomerate, is gifted/cursed to see and hear the truth past every utterance of vanity, blandishment, passive-aggression and just outright bald-faced lying. She has also re-charted the Hero(ine)’s Journey to points heretofore considered too outrageous to be countenanced by any major publisher in the field.

And here it is, put out by DAW, a publisher considered, rightly or wrongly, a purveyor of more sober and traditional brands of sf and fantasy. To cynical bibliophiles of the twenty-first century: miracles still happen. DAW is a class(y) act.

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse is a fairytale hidden within a high fantasy epic stuffed into an interplanetary romance inserted into a rite of passage adventure. Along with her other gifts, Eason knows that a little goes a long way, and keeps this shimmering journey to a manageable 408 pages. Cleverness for its own sake can be a U.N.-prosecutable offense against readership, but Eason bravely traces that thin line without stumbling over into realms of excess, even when she delivers a sentence like: “Rory strangled a laugh in the back of her throat and stuffed it into a dark corner where its body would never be found.” We sure as heck don’t need that line to advance the story, but it’s fun to have around.

The realities of modern publishing dictate that no book will be published if it can’t be sequeled to infinity. For once, we may be grateful for mindless corporatism, for it promises that Eason, and Rory, may have a few more multiverses to destroy in their futures.

***

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019
Edited by Carmen Maria Machado
Series Editor: John Joseph Adams
Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
October 2019
ISBN: 978-1328604378

“Best of the Year” anthologies have been around for at least as long as I have. They have always been a good place to check out what’s happening in the field and perhaps discover a few new voices one has not before encountered. Editors like Judith Merril, Terry Carr and Donald Wollheim exercised distinct tastes and perspectives. More recently, Gardner Dozois and the late David G. Hartwell each produced series of quality, though I preferred the Hartwell (and Kathryn Cramer) volumes because they were mass-market size, more manageable and economical for my students to handle. It didn’t hurt that Hartwell and Cramer had exquisite taste. Many authors whose work I treasure and cherish, I first discovered in these annual assemblages.

A new wrinkle to the scene has been provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who produce a veritable posse of “Best of” anthologies, including ones for short stories, poetry, essays, sports writing, travel writing, mysteries, comics (!!!!) and even a category called “nonrequired reading.” Since 2015, science fiction and fantasy have been added to the omnium gatherum. I won’t get into the issue that we’re supposed to be grateful that HMH thinks enough of our fields to believe we have a “Best of” to present at all. There was a time not along ago when science fiction and fantasy would not have made it past the bouncer stationed at the door to these hallowed literary halls (aka, a “classy joint”). John Joseph Adams, longtime editor, founder of Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines, and namesake for a whole imprint of books, is the series editor here, and our buddy. Whisper his name and the bouncer will raise the velvet rope.

The emphasis in this collection leans to the “literary” (whatever that means anymore, but it apparently means something to someone), though that hardly excludes some highly enjoyable work. It’s also apparent that the editors have done their utmost to present as diverse a selection of voices as we would like to believe our field represents. Readers of Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Future Tense Fiction, Nightmare and Tor.com will encounter a number of familiar names: Adam-Troy Castro, Seanan McGuire, Sofia Samatar, N. K. Jemisin, Usman Malik, Daryl Gregory, Kelly Robson and Annalee Newitz. Those readers, and readers of almost any background, will also encounter a number of names new to them—they won’t be “new” for long.

The introduction by the volume’s editor, Carmen Maria Machado, provides a perspective that is worth considering in a world that has become so defensive and divided. Science fiction and fantasy are no strangers to these divisions (which may be my year’s greatest understatement). Machado reminds us (via Kelly Link) that with the exception of assigned readings in academic workhouses, we read for “the promise of pleasure” (Link’s phrase). Pleasure comes in many flavors, some of which are familiar and comforting, some that are new and surprising to our taste buds.

The beauty of this collection is that any readers willing to take a few steps out of their comfort zone—and even those unwilling to do so—will find stories here that may answer that promise of pleasure, and even raise you one or two.

***

American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s
Gary K. Wolfe, Editor
Library of America, Penguin Random House
September 2012
ISBN: 978-1598531572

My “blast from the past” selection in one respect does not venture very far back (2012), and in another respect dips generously into the period many believe to be a renaissance in science fiction, maybe even the renaissance of American science fiction. It is also a product of the distinguished Library of America series.

When you go classy, go all the way.

American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s also provides a perfect opportunity for me to cheat: as it says above, nine novels, including five of my all-time favorites (I’ll let you guess which of them they are).

You may find copies of most of these novels (many of mine are old mass-market paperbacks of the era), but here you have them in sturdy, well-bound volumes printed on acid-free paper with text in reader-friendly fonts. Some of the accompanying notes may be old news for the seasoned sf reader, but they’re well written and for the most part accurate.

The novels were selected by Gary K. Wolfe, who not only has been reviewing sf and fantasy for decades, and has been associated with Locus magazine for an almost equal duration, he is also professor of humanities at Roosevelt University. Which is to say—he knows his stuff from both sides of the street.

I applaud his choice of Algis Budrys’ Who? over the better-known Rogue Moon because in many ways it is equally brilliant and perhaps even more tragically poignant. I was also gladdened to see Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time, and James Blish’s A Case of Conscience make the cut because they are all brilliant works everyone talks about and few apparently have read.

Unquestionable choices like The Stars My Destination (some think the greatest sf novel ever), More Than Human and The Space Merchants are here.

Heinlein enthusiasts may dicker over the choice of Double Star as being his best, or most representative, novel of that decade. But for an editor, it’s a no-win situation to try to make everyone happy, especially Heinlein fans. The good news is that REH wrote so much as to make the choice tough, and may send many readers unfamiliar with his work to search out more.

The revelation, for me at least, is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, which has rarely seen print since it was used as the basis for the better-known film, The Incredible Shrinking Man. The novel differs from the film on several levels and confirms Matheson’s insightful mastery as America’s chronicler of postwar anxiety.

The icing on the cake is that these two volumes feature cover artwork by the legendary Richard Powers. It would be no exaggeration to say that, in his way, Powers’ work in this era proved almost as influential as any of the written work included herein.

Okay, Ed Emshwiller too. Both of their work set a mood and tone for a generation in love with possible futures and a future of possibilities.

More recently, Mr. Wolfe has performed a similar service for sf novels of the 1960s, but that’s another excursion for another classy (and classic) time.

Copyright © 2020 by Richard Chwedyk