Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
November 2018

Title: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018
Editor: N. K. Jemisin
Series Editor: John Joseph Adams
Publisher: Mariner Books

Readers of this column may not be surprised to find me once again covering this year's installment of what I consider the par excellence genre reprint anthology series. As with previous entries (see here for my review of the 2016 volume; here for my take on 2017's), to assemble this set of tales John Joseph Adams read over a thousand stories and selected his top eighty; then, stripping the stories of their bylines, he passed them on to our volume-specific editor--in this case none other than record-triple-crown-Hugo-winning luminary N. K. Jemisin--who in turn chose her favorite twenty. Thus, this fourth book in the series preserves an overall sense of aesthetic continuity with those that came before, while also being emblazoned with Jemisin's bold editorial stamp. The result is an excellent array of work that wonderfully celebrates diverse voices and styles, ranging far and wide in ideas and approaches but consistently delivering on quality.

There are six stories that I found exceptional, but because I've already reviewed one of them in this space--Peter Watts's mind-bending "ZeroS," originally published in Jonathan Strahan's Infinity Wars--I'm going to limit my discussion here to the remaining five. Kate Alice Marshall's "Destroy the City with Me Tonight" may be the most innovative "superhero" story I've ever encountered; in fact, I only viewed it through that lens the second time around. My first sense of it was as an exquisitely moody meditation on illness, memory, and identity, dramatized through a fictional disease, Caspar-Williams Syndrome, which bridges the distance between the external world and the interiority of our flesh: "The city is mapped on her bones, to lines that wrap ribs, tibia, mandible. A dense knot of streets engraves her sternum; a lonely road carves a notch in her clavicle." Marshall's writing is as tight as the physicality she describes, and is in perfect equipoise with the story's pervasive nostalgia and psychological disintegration. A reference to a variation of the disease being a possible "pathology," along with some other touches, add a Ballardian overtone.

In a more overtly fantastical vein, Maria Dahvana Headley's "The Orange Tree" supremely colorizes and modernizes, as a Historical Note explains, the legend "of the wooden golem created by the Andalusian Hebrew poet Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-ca. 1058);" at the story's outset, Solomon arrives in Málaga, his place of birth, "in a last attempt to heal himself. He's saltfish. Something's climbed beneath his skin, creating scabrous ridges on the sides of his ears and lips, and a cough, sometimes bloody." His true foe is loneliness, which Headley catalogs in ingenious ways, and the consequences of his creation of a female golem are likewise rendered in vividly gruesome and memorable detail. It has taken the gifts of a modern-day poet and literary conjuress like Headley to rightfully animate this ancient story.

Samuel R. Delany's "The Hermit of Houston" is a long, deliberately paced, utterly absorbing marriage of logical near-future extrapolation with splashes of bizarre liminality and chilling moments of understated transgression. It opens with the following words: "'First off,' I remember the Hermit's assistant told us, 'you can't tell the entire story.'" And yet Delany manages to give us a whole narrative, demonstrating his attention to language in the ways we've come to expect, and making every page compelling despite the lack of a clear plot and some purposely inscrutable worldbuilding elements.

Maureen F. McHugh's "Cannibal Acts" is as grim, if not grimmer, as her title suggests, but it is also incredibly precise: "There's a difference between dissection and butchering. Dissection reveals, but butchering renders." McHugh, equally skilled at ideas and sensory immersion, forces us to ponder whether we, if in her big-virus-ravaged world, would count ourselves among the abstainers or the eaters. The concluding lines highlight the possible pointlessness of such distinctions.

And finally, for a change of pace, I want to single out Rachael K. Jones's "The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant," perhaps the only comic piece in this selection, and very welcome for it. Jones creates a delectably absurdist scenario wherein cyborgs who have stolen a ship must cater to humans drawn to its food shuttle beacon; said cyborgs, using their own flesh in the preparation of meals, get hooked on the notion of earning higher star ratings for their service. Jones's comedic chops are impeccable, but there's more than clever juxtapositions and snappy word choices here, as the story concludes on a memorably poignant note.

Other heavy hitters are A. Merc Rustad's "Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn," a graceful space opera about a sentient ship--Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang comes to mind--that takes on a young girl stowaway, with momentous consequences; Kathleen Kayembe's Congolese horror-extravaganza "You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych," an eerie take on paternal betrayal as told through three distinct first-person voices; Charlie Jane Anders's "Don't Press Charges and I Won't Sue,, which urgently warns against future attempts at transgender, and more broadly identity, erasure; Carmen Maria Machado's "The Resident," a richly atmospheric character journey that doubles as artful subversion of the madwoman-in-the-attic trope; Gwendolyn Clare's "Tasting Notes on the Varietals of the Southern Coast" establishes a heart-rending equation linking cultural hedonism with genocide, and concludes with a particularly striking, wine-besotted image; and finally Micah Dean Hicks's "Church of Birds," whose protagonist swan boy frames a nuanced contemplation on being an outcast and having one's desires profoundly, and tragically, misunderstood.

The remaining work, by Lettie Prell, Caroline M. Yoachim, Cadwell Turnbull, Jaymee Goh, E. Lily Yu, Maria Dahvana Headley (a second story), Tobias S. Buckell and Charles Payseur is of high caliber, often clever, and thoroughly moving and bittersweet in its allegorical value and its literalization of present-day issues. Several of these stories were up for major awards and you may prefer them over my own personal picks.

My only quibble, if I have one, with this anthology on the whole is that I'm not sure I'd rate the opening and closing pieces, enjoyable as they are, as surefire sells for prospective readers. But perhaps an argument can be made for their greater accessibility. Regardless, there is no doubt that if you want to get a sense of how far contemporary science fiction and fantasy can stretch, reading the annual The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy has become de rigueur.

Title: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction
Author: Alec Nevala-Lee
Publisher: Dey Street Books

It doesn't take the kind of prophesying that many readers of Golden Age science fiction came to see as synonymous with that period's most venerated magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, to predict that Alec Nevala-Lee's four-way biography of John W. Campbell, the magazine's most prestigious editor, and Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard will for the foreseeable future represent the standard reference on this time and subject. Nevala-Lee spent several years poring through the primary literature--including voluminous correspondence--tracking down special collections and source documentation related to Astounding's heyday and the lives of his four subjects, and interviewing those with first-hand testimony about Campbell. The result is an engrossing, sweeping, and far-reaching chronicle of one of the most fascinating chapters of American science fiction and the technologically fecund period of American history in which it was nestled. The book's opening section begins in 1907, its fifth and concluding part running through 1971, but the heart of the text revolves around "the golden age of science fiction, which ran roughly from 1939 to 1950."

Given the significance of the Golden Age, it would be naïve to think it hasn't been covered before, indeed by some of its very shapers and movers. Asimov's lengthy two-volume autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, along with the latter recapitulating I. Asimov, remain relevant, as do Frederik Pohl's The Way the Future Was, Donald Wollheim's The Universe Makers, Damon Knight's The Futurians, Jack Williamson's Wonder Child, and van Vogt's Reflections of A. E. van Vogt; additionally, William H. Patterson's more recent two-volume Robert A. Heinlein, and Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief remain must-reads for anyone interested in the period and in the trajectory of Asimov's, Heinlein's and Hubbard's lives. But what if you've already read all of the above? Beyond what turns out to be an elegant synthesis of these various overlapping narratives, does Nevala-Lee offer anything fresh?

Yes, in two important ways. First, there's no single book-length overview of Campbell's life and work, and Astounding/Campbell are Nevala-Lee's consistent focal points. This proves invaluable. By better understanding Campbell as a human being--his upbringing, his early non-literary ambitions, his writing, and, perhaps most relevantly, first his parental and later his marital relationships--we receive new insights into the bonds he forged with Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard, and why he acted the way he did. Campbell's involvement in helping to develop the Three Laws of Robotics, for example, is well-documented, as was his general penchant for suggesting ideas and plots to his writers. I was surprised, though, at how Jack Williamson, under Campbell's direction, in his stories "Backlash" and "Breakdown," anticipated two key concepts of Asimov's other popular series, the Foundation stories: namely the idea of a Foundation itself, and a precursor of psychohistory.

Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard started their careers by having to go through Campbell, not the other way around, and this had long-term consequences on how and what they wrote. Even when they departed from Campbell's sensibility, they made specific choices to do so. "Science fiction became an ongoing collaboration between writers and fans, and the most convincing proof of Campbell's success," Nevala-Lee astutely observes, "is the fact that he lost control of it."

A second achievement here is our unprecedented understanding of these writers' personal interdynamics. The aforementioned bios are all steeped in individual subjectivities, while this book doesn't foreground one subjectivity over another--with one possible exception in the credibility department, relating to L. Ron Hubbard. Nevala-Lee makes clear that Asimov and Heinlein, in their individual ways, were prone to self-aggrandizement, but Hubbard's proclivity for self-mythologizing is of a different order of magnitude. Regarding an early incident, we're told, for example (italics mine): "The only source for this story is Hubbard himself, which is reason enough to be skeptical of it." Besides this distrust of Hubbard's claims, Nevala-Lee is also unafraid of making moral assessments about his subjects, and likewise enthusiastically proffers his personal evaluations of much of the work discussed. Eric Frank Russell's Sinister Barrier, for example, according to Nevala-Lee, "still deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written." These types of pronouncements are likely to provoke hearty engagement with the book, which is certainly better than the alternative. Despite their deep flaws and often problematic attitudes and behaviors--Asimov's constant harassment of women in particular is difficult to stomach--Nevala-Lee's quartet is essentially shown in an empathetic rather than condemnatory light, and certain moments of vulnerability prove touching. Consider the following from Heinlein: "During the past eighteen months there have been more times when I wanted to be dead than there were times when I wanted to go on living." In having pieced together and analyzed complementary and at times contradictory records, Nevala-Lee has also performed a historian's duty and demythologized events written about elsewhere, often in comparatively unexamined ways. Case in point, his account of Cleve Cartmill's story "Deadline" and Campbell's role in its publication, the best coverage of this episode I've seen.

Though this is a long book, Nevala-Lee's writing style is smooth, and he tackles the profusion of historical detail with a sprightly touch, so that it never feels overwhelming. It's actually hard not to find something diverting on almost every random page. Here's a sprinkling of items that struck my fancy:

  • Campbell wrote his first story, "Invaders from the Infinite,, "as fast as he could because he needed the money"--for a Model A Ford. T. O'Connor Sloane, then-editor of Amazing, accepted it. Unfortunately, Sloane misplaced the manuscript, and since Campbell didn't keep a carbon copy, the manuscript is irretrievably lost. (Campbell later re-used the title for a different story).

  • Campbell's second published story, "When the Atoms Failed," contains "one of the first descriptions of a computer in science fiction."

  • In his youth, Asimov loved long walks in the cemetery, the latest issue of Astounding in hand, and he'd sometimes whistle, so that one day "the caretaker had to ask him not to disturb visitors who might be there to mourn." This too is telling of his character: "Asimov's idea of indulging himself after moving to Philadelphia had been to consume a huge bottle of soda on his own, which only made him sick."

  • Unbelievably by today's standards, "Blowups Happen" earned Heinlein a check from Campbell that "allowed him [Heinlein] to pay off his mortgage."

  • Henry Kuttner once "jokingly threatened to kill him [Ray Bradbury] if he didn't stop writing so much purple prose."

I will say, the book's last one hundred or so pages are pretty agonizing stuff, not through any fault of Nevala-Lee's, but due to the sheer grimness of how things turned out. To paraphrase Isaac Bashevis Singer, "There's a long way between declining and death," and this may be the ultimate sf-related measure of that distance. Psychological derailments, health issues, mounting bitterness, embattlements and fallings out: the giants, especially Campbell himself, truly had a long way to fall. It's difficult not to be saddened by the parade of bad decisions and heinous ideas, by the self-delusions and isolationism, of such brilliant and talented minds. As early as 1949, for instance, Campbell wrote a letter to Heinlein claiming that he had a technique to "cure cancer." Things only get weirder. In the end, perhaps Asimov--despite the travails caused by his HIV infection through a tainted blood transfusion--emerges as the most truly content of the lot, but even in his case the legacy of his son David adds a sad postscript to a remarkable story.

No matter. Despite the unfortunate-cum-tragic fates of some of these players, most notably Campbell and Hubbard, this is an irresistible story, and a model study in how to narratively interweave the lives of individuals with complex personalities and entangled interrelationships. Theodore Sturgeon, whose own dealings with Campbell are described in the book, once wrote a story about a gestalt consciousness arising through the telepathic connection of disparate minds, and Nevala-Lee's Campbell-Asimov-Heinlein-Hubbard consciousness almost takes on a similar supra-individualistic quality, at least for a while. The Sturgeon book in question is More than Human--which makes me wonder if we might not be justified in thinking of Nevala-Lee's volume as More than Astounding.

Rich Larson's debut collection is one of the strongest--first or not--I've encountered in years. His prose is consistently taut and supple, muscular but playful. Read this collection and marvel at the range of styles, tones, ideas; at the outrageous yet plausibly conceived scenarios and the invitingly torn characters peopling them. And then find your mind further boggled by the fact that these twenty-three pieces represent but a mere sampling of Larson's vast and ever-expanding body of short fiction (over a hundred and fifty stories so far), and that he's still in his twenties. Many other fine pieces, available online--a personal favorite is "The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy"--would be worthy of their own collections, and I guarantee that you'll crave these virtual delights once you've consumed the tales between these covers.

Things click right into place with "All That Robot Shit." If you think Robinson Crusoe could have benefitted from some robot companions, think again, or at least heed the possibility that they might evolve their own creation myths and consequently not be compelled to help you. The idea of an artificial sentience developing an origin story that denies humans' role in the creation of such an intelligence harkens back at least to Isaac Asimov's classic story "Reason," but Larson innovates and expands the theme in intriguing ways, not least of which is the vernacular. Despite--or perhaps because of--the fundamental role of reception among this story's players, the ending, with the deliberate uncertainty of its final line, is memorably poignant.

I confess that the more introspection-laden, quietly emotional stories tend to be my favorites by Larson, and following suit from the collection opener we encounter "Atrophy"'s artful splintering of reality: "She'd been walking Addy to the school, crossing the bridge. Then something split the top of her head open. She'd stumbled against the railing but the vines turned to metal under her hands, and when she looked down the bright clear canal had no water, only brackish sludge, and something pale and red-spotted was lying in the mud." Technology is here applied to literally redress one's perceptions of a haunted wasteland. The details and descriptions are pitch-perfect, and I enjoy how this story continues a conversation to which have contributed Chris Beckett's similarly sense-bending "The Perimeter" and "Piccadilly Circus," as well as Elizabeth Bear's bleak "The Hand is Quicker".

Basketball, a sense of family legacy, and youthful ambition powerfully gel in "Meshed," which sees a star-athlete-in-the-making refuse a popular procedure that would allow others to experience his virtuosity from the inside. It's hard to conceive of two better opening lines: "In the dusked-down gym, Oxford Diallo is making holo after holo his ever-loving bitch, shredding through them with spins, shimmies, quicksilver crossovers. He's a sinewy scarecrow, nearly seven foot already, but handles the ball so damn shifty you'd swear he has gecko implants done up in those supersized hands."

The notion of consciousness-piggybacking crops up again in the touching "Your Own Way Back," in which a grandfather shares the skull of his grandson while waiting for a new cloned body, until he doesn't. The bridging of generations by means of an assistive technology made me recall Xia Jia's "Tongtong's Summer." More manic in pacing and brazen in its execution, "Let's Take This Viral" inexorably follows the logic of experiential innovation for non-human minds, and arrives at an arresting--no pun intended--conclusion regarding their ultimate pleasure.

The time travel moral quandary of "Every So Often" may be less ingenious than some of Larson's other ideations, but its assured grimness more than makes up for that. In addition to these highlights, The Tomorrow Factory contains three flash stories and one poem, not without their own soulful sizzle. "The Sky Didn't Load Today" manages both chilling precision and surrealism; "Chronology of Heartbreak" wields a perfectly-sharpened, irony-propelled blade to the chest. "Datafall," by comparison, well, falls short of the mark for me. But "I Went to the Asteroid to Bury You"--with its clever connection to "The Ghost Ship Anastasia"--is as good an excursion into space-travel poetics as you're likely to find.

Larson is also very good in the thriller, cyberpunk-quasi-body-horror and action modes. Enter the exhibit with the cunning hijinks of "You Make Pattaya," the Predator-esque "Extraction Request," the space operatic "The Ghost Ship Anastasia," the Venom-ous "Brute," and the prison yarn "Capricorn." The mechanized violence of "Ghost Girl" is grounded in a sensitive backstory, as is the systematized alienation of "Edited" (which contains a nice bit of continuity with "Meshed"). Linguistic mischievousness, and a colorful adolescent patois or three, inform, among others, the aforementioned "Brute," as well as the social-media-inspired "Razzibot," which posits that rawness will always be more seductive than performance. Several other stories I'll leave entirely for you to discover, though I can't resist the phrase "sentient train." Finally, "Innumerable Glimmering Lights," with its rigorous investigation into the clash between science and culture in a thoroughly alien aquatic setting, is quite literally a show-stopper.

Because Larson is a master of many trades, and the range of his effects is so considerable, the thoughtful collocation of these stories should itself be praised, and forms its own narrative. I therefore recommend proceeding in sequential order. And enjoy the candid, self-deprecating, contextually revelatory "Author's Notes," too. They may make you revisit a story or two, and with work of this caliber, that's not a bad thing.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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