Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
February 2006

Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell
Tor, 2006, $24.95

Humanity came to Nanagada via a wormhole centuries ago and populated it with a mélange of cultures. Colonists built a great society, but it fell in a terrible war that resulted in the loss of centuries of technological advancement and the destruction of the wormhole, cutting the Nanagadan's off from Earth. Now, centuries later, people speak reverently of the "old-fathers"—the original settlers and masters of the ancient and forgotten technologies.

Two alien races, thought of as gods, manipulate humanity into doing their will. On the eastern side of the Wicked High Mountains, the Caribbean peoples worship the Loa; the ferocious Azteca to the west are ruled by the Teotl, and the Teotl demand blood.

A man named John deBrun washed up on the shores of a town called Brungstun twenty-seven years ago with no memory of who he was or how he got there. He knows he's different, however; he doesn't look or sound like the natives, who are of Caribbean-descent—not to mention that he has a hook instead of a left hand. Though tormented by his amnesia, he stayed in Brungstun and made a new life for himself; he settled down with a wife and had a child. But his peaceful new life comes to an end when an airship crashes into a large mango tree behind his house, and the pilot bears an ominous warning: the Azteca are coming.

deBrun gets his family to safety, but is himself captured by the Azteca, and is dragged away to a clearing, where he and several local warriors known as mongoose-men are to be sacrificed to the Teotl. deBrun watches helplessly as the other prisoners are executed, and is resigned to his fate as he's dragged to the sacrificial stone. Just when he thinks all hope is lost, he's saved by an Azteca called Oaxyctl who is a spy working for the mongoose-men, teaching them about the Azteca and their ways. Although deBrun is grateful to Oaxyctl for saving his life, he's not sure that he can trust him—and with good reason. Oaxyctl didn't stumble upon deBrun by chance; he was sent on a mission to retrieve information about the Ma Wi Jung, an ancient artifact of the old-fathers—information which supposedly only deBrun possesses. But with no other options, deBrun travels to Capitol City with Oaxyctl in the hopes of joining the fight against the Azteca, whom he can only assume capture and made slaves or sacrifices of his wife and son.

Meanwhile, a man from deBrun's past comes looking for him, who is also after the Ma Wi Jung, though with a different agenda in mind. This man, Pepper, knows more about deBrun than deBrun himself knows, and like Oaxyctl, his motives and true nature are not easily identified. When deBrun and he finally meet, deBrun is anxious to ask the man questions about his past, but like Oaxyctl, he doesn't know if he can trust him. And with the fate of his people seemingly being in his hands, he must tread carefully.

Things come to a head when deBrun mounts an expedition to the frigid north to retrieve the Ma Wi Jung. The Loa, who had retreated to underground temples of Capitol City for years, return and claim that the artifact can be used as a weapon, and it seems to be the Nanagadan's only hope against the Azteca hordes. But retrieving the artifact won't be as easy; the journey will be arduous and through hostile terrain, and not everyone on the expedition wants deBrun to succeed.

Nanagada is full of rich, cultural heritage, from the authentic Caribbean dialects the characters speak in, to the vividly-depicted bloodthirsty Azteca society, Buckell has created a world that feels very real and unique. And though it is a hard trick to pull off, he makes the development of this from-the-ashes society seem logical and believable. It's gratifying to see a futuristic SF novel that's not entirely peopled with white men and/or revolves around a society which is American-based.

While the cultural diversity of Crystal Rain is one of the things that makes it most distinct, that's only the starting point, for this novel has much to praise. The characters are all well-drawn and engaging; deBrun in particular is a compelling and memorable hero, with the mysterious Pepper serving as an intriguing and savage counterpoint. The aliens are similarly complex and impressive, and along with the Azteca, make for a terrifying and terrific antagonist.

It's hard to believe that Crystal Rain is a first novel. It's so polished and tightly-plotted, with such original and human characters, it seems like the work of a veteran writer. Also, the prose is finely-honed, and Buckell keeps the story moving along at a breakneck pace. Of course, it's not entirely surprising that the book is so good; Buckell has published a number of excellent short stories over the years, was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and was a Writers of the Future winner.

Crystal Rain is fresh and innovative, with enough action, adventure, and gosh-wow sense of wonder to keep any reader frantically turning the pages: an exciting, first-rate debut.

The first third of the novel and related short fiction are available as a free downloads at Crystal-Rain.com.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
Del Rey, 2006 (re-issue), $12.95

SFWA Grandmaster Robert Silverberg, winner of four Hugos and five Nebulas, certainly needs no introduction. But while most genre fans are aware of Silverberg's science fiction and fantasy contributions to the field, how many are aware of this brilliant contemporary horror novel—one that rivals the best of horror masters Stephen King and Peter Straub? This novel has been in various stages of Hollywood development since the '70s, and until very recently was slated to finally be coming to the silver screen, courtesy of legendary Exorcist director William Friedkin, but a shakeup at the studio has nixed those plans once again. But thanks to the mere possibility of a movie, Del Rey has reissued the long-out-of-print classic, making it available to a whole new generation of readers.

Eli Steinfeld, a student of early medieval philology, discovers an ancient manuscript during the course of his studies. This manuscript, known as The Book of Skulls, tells of a ritual which, if performed properly, grants immortality. The trouble is, the ritual requires four people to participate, and only two of the four will become immortal, while the other two must die. Despite this macabre caveat, Eli tells his three college roommates Ned, Oliver, and Timothy of The Book and convinces them to take a road trip across the country to the obscure temple in Arizona where the ritual must be performed. So they set off, none of them sure they entirely believe in the ritual at all, and when they arrive, none of them are prepared for the rigors they must endure.

Told from the first person viewpoints of each of the four roommates in a breathless, stream of consciousness style, the narrative paints an intimate portrait of the four protagonists, plumbing the depths of each one's soul, right down to their deepest, darkest secrets. The pacing is brisk and relentless, keeping the reader frantically turning the pages until all is revealed…which leads up to an ending that is both extraordinarily grim and yet extraordinarily satisfying.

Simply put: a must-read masterwork of horror.

Primal Tears by Kelpie Wilson
North Atlantic Books, 2005, $13.95

Sarah Carrigan is a school teacher in Bethel Bay, Oregon. Or at least she was, until she's fired for teaching the "ungodly lies" about evolution to her class; the school's bible-thumping principal uses budget cutbacks as an excuse to get rid of her. Infuriated but powerless to do anything about it, Sarah retreats to her home at Savage Ranch and sinks into a bit of depression. She's wanted to have a baby for quite a long time, but her husband Kevin is against the idea of having their own child when there are so many orphaned children in need of parents; the two decided on adoption, but that didn't take away Sarah's yearning to give birth. Teaching at the school helped fulfill some of Sarah's want to mother, but now that her job is gone, she feels a void.

All that changes when a friend of hers tells her about a new procedure being done in a nearby research facility which studies bonobos, or Pan paniscus—a type of chimpanzee that is humanity's closest ape relative. Because bonobos are an endangered species, the scientists at the research facility are also involved in a bonobo conservation program—they breed bonobos in captivity in the hopes of keeping the species alive. They're breeding the bonobos as fast as they can, but it's not fast enough—there are only approximately 1,000 bonobos living in the wild. To accelerate their conservation efforts, the scientists have launched a bonobo surrogate mother program, in which human women are implanted with bonobo embryos then carry the babies to term. Sarah is initially surprised by this, but quickly warms to the idea; it seems to be a perfect fit for she and Kevin—it allows her to experience childbirth while not adding another human child to the already overpopulated world. After talking it over, she and Kevin agree that she'll carry the bonobo child, and then adopt a baby to raise themselves.

But things don't go exactly as planned. Sarah becomes pregnant, but not with a bonobo child; instead, she finds herself carrying a human-bonobo hybrid. The embryo was somehow not fertilized properly, which resulted in viable bonobo sperm being inserted into Sarah's uterus along with the embryo.

The scientists at the research facility declare that the fetus must be aborted, but Sarah recoils from the idea. She's not just carrying the baby of two anonymous bonobos—it's her own child. Sarah cannot be swayed to reconsider, so she carries the baby to term and gives birth.

The child is fairly human in appearance, with an exaggerated brow ridge, a wide and flat nose, and fine, downy hair on her arms, legs, back, and buttocks. Sarah and Kevin name her Sage, and decide to raise her as their own.

As Sage grows up, it's very clear that she's different from other children; her mother tells her and others that she has "Fletcher's Syndrome," a fictional disease used to deflect attention from the child's abnormalities. But she's different not only in appearance; she also has trouble reading and writing, though she learns to speak fluent English and is otherwise a smart and healthy child.

But when a local hate group, the Kristian Kommand, learns of Sage's existence, they get a right-wing congressman (of an "American Morals Committee") to authorize a federal agent-raid on the Carrigan residence, prompting Sage and her family to flee into the wilderness. After returning to civilization for a medical problem, Sarah and Kevin get captured and arrested, but Sage manages to get herself free and escapes into the wild.

In the wild, cut off from everyone and everything she ever knew, Sage scavenges food, shelter, and clothing from the various unoccupied cabins located throughout the forest and manages to survive, and continues to do so for over two years. Eventually, Sage stumbles across a group of forest preservationists who take up residence in the forest to prevent the trees from being cut down. In this group is one of her childhood friends, Carver. Carver introduces her to the group and Sage soon becomes one of them. While there, with the Tree Nation activists, Sage begins exploring her sexuality in earnest, and making new friends and lovers.

Sage stays with Tree Nation until her parents, after learning she was still alive, arrange for a wealthy activist to set up a place where Sage can be kept safe. Once back in civilization, Sage, her parents, and a group of businessmen determine how best to plan Sage's future. Sage wants to launch a crusade to save the bonobos, but that will take much money and effort, and there are people who don't want to see her succeed. Meanwhile, scientists studying Sage's unique biology determine that her hybrid pheromones might have a beneficial effect on regular humans, and if it can be harnessed, it might just change the way the world works.

Though barely science-fictional—it's not a huge leap to imagine that bonobo DNA and human DNA really are compatible—Primal Tears truly feels like science fiction in ways other than the science; it's very forward-looking, is extremely socially-conscious, and looks for a way to a better future while highlighting some of the things that are holding us back in the now.

This is Wilson's first novel, but she writes with a steady and assured hand, with well-crafted prose and natural-sounding dialogue. Primal Tears covers a wide variety of contentious topics, from wildlife conservation to environmentalism to feminism; it is a bit didactic at times, and Wilson certainly has an agenda, but Primal Tears a good story first, and the fusion of message and narrative comes together nicely.

Sage is a memorable and original character—a sort of nature girl (in more ways than one). Some of the scenes involving her communing with bears in the forest and interacting with her genetic father at the bonobo conservatory are among the most touching in the book. Although she is not fully human, Wilson makes it feel like she is. Likewise, the supporting cast is similarly well-rounded; this, along with the novel's vivid Pacific Northwest setting, combine to make Sage's world feel very real, and makes the future depicted here seem very plausible.

This is a book that deals with serious issues and is unwavering in all of its explorations. Top-notch near-future ecological speculation.

The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein
Read by Patrick Lawlor

Blackstone Audio, 2006, $29.95, 7 hours, MP3-CD (unabridged)
Also available in cassette and CD from Blackstone Audio (for purchase or rental)

A recent Wall Street Journal article, "A Cold Calculus Leads Cryonauts To Put Assets on Ice," describes how people planning to be cryonically preserved have used estate planners to create "revival trusts"—trusts that keep your money safe and accrue interest while your frozen body awaits reanimation. The article doesn't mention The Door into Summer, but it certainly sounds as if these cryonauts have read Heinlein's classic.

In the novel, electronics engineer and brilliant inventor Dan Davis is down on his luck—he had a successful business, but his partner betrayed him and his girlfriend left him (for the partner). Dan tries to drown his sorrows with alcohol, and his drunken line of reasoning leads him to a cryonics facility. He signs up for "the long sleep," and is set to come back the next day to undergo the procedure. He figures the future has got to be better than this; plus, with the modest sum of money he's got now, interest might turn his savings into some serious cash.

But when Dan sobers up, he decides against the long sleep and goes to confront his greedy partner Miles and former-fiancée Belle. But when he arrives, things get out of hand, resulting in Belle drugging Dan. With him in his drugged and malleable condition, Miles and Belle conspire to get Dan into the long sleep after all.

Dan wakes up in 2000 as a penniless, obsolete engineer. Belle and Dan didn't set up any estate planning for him, so all Dan has to start his new life with is the standard few bucks the facility gives to sleepers. Undeterred by this setback, Dan is determined to take revenge on Belle and Miles, and to get back some of what's rightfully his. After exploring his new future and figuring out exactly happened during his sleep, Dan eventually discovers that time travel has been invented during his slumber, which enables him to go back in time to try and make things right.

Some audiobook narrators are just plain bad, and some are just a bad fit for a particular audiobook. Narrator Patrick Lawlor is a great fit for The Door into Summer, but my first experience him was his narration of Creepers by David Morrell—which was a bad fit. For that book, his cartoonish voices were all wrong, as Creepers is supposed to be a prosaic haunted house tale—the mood should have been dark and serious rather than…Scooby Doo. But in The Door into Summer, Lawlor's shtick works excessively well—his jovial and enthusiastic narration is ideal for this pulpy (and somewhat cartoonish) tale.

The Door into Summer is much beloved by genre fans, and is often cited as readers' favorite Heinlein novel. I can't say the same—to me, his best work is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress—but The Door into Summer is a fun and elaborately-plotted temporal tale that mostly makes up for its lack of verisimilitude with its earnest attempt at speculation about the future and the intricate mechanics of its time travel.

Though I can't say I loved the novel, it is a fun read, and I can recommend the audiobook version without reservation.


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