Monday, December 9, 2019

MORE FREE SF! Two stories from 1957 to read in line, while waiting for the gift wrap or at the P.O.

Shopping and wrapping and waiting, oh my! Shopping and wrapping and waiting, oh my! Fire up the browser on your phone, let's get some free reads for the line.

SF blogger Joachim Boaz decided to do a project where he will review a sampling of the Golden-into-Silver Age short fictions about generation ships. The first review, and story, I read was Spacebred Generations by Clifford D. Simak. Then I read his Judith Merril review; he was pretty stoked while I, welllll, maybe not quote so much. But the reads as a whole I'd call a success, so why not follow along?

I went back to the first one, then got ahead again...comme d'habitude.


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
July 1957 issue, free

Rating: 3.5* of five

What better time is there to give yourself a booster shot of resistance to Faux Smarmy Cheer? Here it is, readers, a tale of how irredeemable Humanity is! A good part of my mingy rating, and for an author whose work I have always liked before!, comes down to this:
As a matter of fact, Bob was the closest thing to a friend he had ever had. There had been a few girls, but that was different.
It's hard for me to choose which thing to object to the most here: Bob's relegation to not-friendship despite clearly behaving as a friend, or the appalling-to-me notion that "girls" can't be a male's friends. The assumption that men are either studs or cucks (though I don't think Professor Oliver, deceased 1993, would've used those terms, I know he'd "get" them right away), and that studs are always tall and strong and a little bit ugly, is reductive and objectionable in today's landscape. It's also wrong, both factually and conceptually.

From there, the logical lapses just built and built...why would the designers of a closed system allow books that contained Earthly images like ships, seas, clouds in reach of people for whom those words mean nothing? if the movie the people saw on Founding Day has images of Earth, how would the first-time viewers know what they were looking at? Sam comes across space suits, things he's never seen before, and just knows what they are HOW?!...but all that pales into insignificance held against The Big Reveal.


I assume you're curious enough to read the darn thing yourself but I'll say this much: Oliver's low opinion of Humanity didn't start late in life. He was only thirty-ish when this tale, and the more famous Transfusion of 1959, appeared. Even famously cynical SF writer and fellow Austinite Howard Waldrop got nothin' on the bitterness of this tale, or the cynical outrage at the pusillanimity of our species. I might not be thrilled by the read, but I am in sympathy with it, being as bleakly unimpressed by the inner workings of Humankind as Oliver was before me.


Science Fantasy
December 1957 issue, PDF read-only link above

Rating: 4.5* of five UPDATE 11 DECEMBER 2019 Distinguished SF blogger James W. Harris reviews this generation-ship tale.

This is a Brunner story I haven't read before! He's an old favorite of mine (see my review of Times Without Number, others came before I was reviewing). So when Joachim Boaz posted the link to this story, well, I don't have much impulse control when it comes to reading....

Like Judith Merril's story reviewed below, this one takes place as things are reaching a crisis or inflection point; in Brunner's case, opposite to Merril's, the point-of-view was adult...well, aged Earthborn people, the ones who started the trip to a new world that was planned by a visionary called Yoseida, so obviously a Japanese person. This sort of surprised me. Japan was on the come-up in 1957, but it wasn't the economic and technological powerhouse it would become. But Yoseida was the money-man as well as the macher behind this effort to colonize a new world. Prescient, or very lucky? I suspect Brunner himself wouldn't know now.

Franz Yerring is the head of the ecological section of the generation ship. He's Earth-born, aging out of his position, hoping that he won't have to deliver bad news to Captain Magda Gomez about their steep decline in food and air availability looming within a month. Wish granted, Franz, the ship will now be in orbit over Trip's End around Tau Ceti in about two weeks!

Then the fecal matter impacts the rotary ventilation enhancement device in quantities previously undreamed of.

The shipborn aren't much interested in getting off the ship.

You see, this development would (in less devious hands) set the rest of the story onto the rails of conflict and Clifford D. Simak's Spaceborn Generations, reviewed in November...but no, our lad John takes that expectation and shakes it hard, until its wallet falls out and disgorges the serious gelt. There is no conflict between the spaceborn and their elders. They aren't interested enough in the Earthborns's issue, planting a colony, for it to matter enough to cause a fight.

Read the story, the real conflict is much, much higher stakes than passive resistance to The Plan. A lot scarier, too. But the problem is that the ending relies on science that seemed more plausible in 1957 than it's proven to be in modern times. The issue it raises is bleeding-edge current, and the problem it posits is also bleeding-edge current. It's a wonderful way to bring up a painful discussion in sociopolitcally polarized families. But the central premise is debatable in its form presented.

I'm getting dangerously close to irretrievable spoilers here. Let me say this to you, dear readers: The story is free at the link provided and it will richly reward the 30min you spend reading it with hours of rumination.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

TIMES WITHOUT NUMBER, an old-school (read: No effin' majgickq!) Alternate History by John Brunner


Gateway Essentials
$1.99 Kindle/ebook edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: If the past is tampered with, the present might be totally transformed. So the whole fabric of reality depends on the watchful efforts of the Society of Time. Don Miguel Navarro is a junior officer in this force dedicated to defending the Spanish Empire and the mother church from the results of meddling in history by time-travellers.

But he begins to wonder just how dedicated the Society really is when he has to deal with a case of corruption involving fellow officers...

After he has to rescue the entire court from death at the hands of Amazon warriors brought through time, his greatest trial becomes unavoidable. Facing a threat to the most vulnerable event in his world's history, can the young Don prevent catastrophe?

Or will the glorious triumph of the Spanish Armada never have occurred?

My Review: That was a nice ride. It took me several days to read its 156pp due to a 2017 siege of thrice-damned migraines. Loaded onto your device, however, it's a long-post-office-line's worth of interruptable reading.

The ISFDB entry on the book describes it as a collection of three stories, only loosely interconnected. I don't feel argumentative, so I'll stipulate that the book started out that way and, in the 1969 edition I read, was made into a reasonable stitch-up.

Brunner wasn't the best-loved British SF writer of his day but he was popular in the US because of Stand on Zanzibar (1969 BSFA Award for Best Novel as well as the Hugo that year), and The Sheep Look Up (1972). It appears to me that the UK readership liked his third famous book, The Jagged Orbit, which won the 1970 BSFA Award for Best Novel best of all, as the US reviewers simply chewed it up for continuing the typographical trickery of its elder sibling. Something got up their collective British nose, mutterings about Brunner being too American. For what, one wonders; his writing was at the peak of its development and uniformly of high quality; that seems to me to be without a nationality. What do I know, I like good wherever I find it from Gwyneth Jones (criminally underknown-to-US Welsh author) to Jo Walton (Canadian by way of Wales) to Elisabeth Vonarburg (Francophone Canadian also criminally underknown and seldom translated).

This book is a minor entry into the Brunnerverse, it's true, but it's one I'll treasure now that I've read it because I*AM*MORTALLY*SICK*OF*ALT*HIST*ABOUT*WWII (this from a big fan of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, whether PKD's novel or his daughter Isa Dick Hackett's TV series) and/or the US Civil War. Good Kleio above us! History contains so incalculably many stories with so incalculably many potential outcomes! Get y'all's heads outta Hitler's stinkin' ass and away from fuckin' Gettysburg! It. Has. Been. Done. To. Death.

The Spanish Armada succeeding is a wonderful, refreshing change of PoD. I suspect that the idea occurred to Brunner when he needed something to fulfill a deadline, because he does not do anything like justice to the potential for the story's effects. The ending of the third part feels as though it was in his mind from the moment that the idea was's a true ending, in other words, not a stopping point...but the immense amounts of fatty, yummy, bacony story left cavalierly on the butcher's block...! The merest hints of the Northern Native American nations's development without a United States resulting from Protestant pollution of these shores alone could fill a trilogy.

Well, anyway, I read it, I liked it, it's O.P. in print though not on your ereader platform of choice in the Gollancz SF Gateway series. Hunt it up, alt hist fans. Civilians...well, it's got the virtue of being short, so maybe it's a good quick intro to the idea that History isn't A Story but really and truly His Story.

Friday, December 6, 2019

VINTAGE 1954, a time-travel jeu d'esprit with heart and mischief for all

(tr. Jane Aitken & Emily Boyce)
Gallic Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$14.95 all editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: When Hubert Larnaudie invites some fellow residents of his Parisian apartment building to drink an exceptional bottle of 1954 Bordeaux, he has no idea of its special properties.

The following morning, Hubert finds himself waking up in 1950s Paris, as do antique restorer Magalie, mixologist Julien, and Airbnb tenant Bob from Milwaukee, who's on his first trip to Europe.

After their initial shock, the city of Edith Piaf and An American in Paris begins to work its charm on them. The four delight in getting to know the French capital during this iconic period, whilst also playing with the possibilities that time travel allows.

But, ultimately, they need to work out how to get back to 2017. And the key lies in a legendary story and the vineyards of the Chateau St Antoine...


My Review
: There's a lot to be said, in this Giddy Season, for retreating to your phone and reading something unchallenging, fun, and still...outside the norm, able to show you something you wouldn't expect to get while being fluffed. This story, by a born-and-bred Parisian (it's like being a multigeneration Manhattanite is in the US), is a time-travel fantasy about les jadis. First we must have The Couple. They are Julien, grandson of a man who saw a flying saucer...twice!...and Magalie, a Goth chick. Both are born and raised in Paris, though not of Old Families. They're perfect for each other. They just don't know it yet. They live in little apartments at 18, Rue Edgar-Charillier; Magalie has a studio on the ground floor where she plies her trade as an antiques restorer. Julien is a mixologist at Harry's New York bar, a legendary watering hole and now tourist spot. They're the modern young Parisians, not beholden to bureaucracy or Big Business, but nimble gig-economy hustlers.

Then we have Tradition. He (of course) is duty, honor, and boredom personified in Hubert Larnaudie. He is also a bombastic old Gaul:
‘Because of my position as chairman of the management committee, and my family history, it falls to me to defend … our patrimony!’ he concluded emphatically.
Hubert, dreary sort that he is, owns an apartment in a building once his own family's. But that means he has a LOT of stuff in his various storage spaces. This will become important. He is a bureaucrat, mais naturellement, a property management managerial drone; he also sits on the apartment house's board. But of course.

Then, to balance our wheel, we must have The Stranger. Bob from Milwaukee is, well, a very Euro vision of the Good-Hearted American:
‘Didn’t the Americans take Lafayette’s cash during the War of Independence?’ ‘Yes …’ Hubert conceded. ‘Well, consider me your Lafayette,’ Bob said resolutely.
He's in Paris without his deeply beloved wife, Goldie, whose coma is irreversible and who, countless people tell him, would insist he use the tickets to Paris that they'd intended to use for their anniversary. Alone in Paris, desperately sad, Bob's Airbnb apartment is in the building...and thus are our time travelers assembled.

What happens is the dream of a UFOlogist's dream. Julien's grandfather's fame resulting from his 1954 UFO encounter in a Saint-Antoine vineyard is family lore; but Larnaudie happens to have a bottle of it in his cellar (from which he has only that day needed rescuing by the American and his two fellow tenants). The four share the bottle, totter off to their separate couches...and awake in the same building, only somehow in 1954! They leave the 21st century as they step outside.

Audrey Hepburn. Harry's New York Bar, with Harry MacElhone in it. Robert Doisneau. Les Halles intact, just as Napoleon III saw them last. Piaf and Gabin having dinner together!! What a bloody glorious bottle of wine! Of course the time travelers are utterly bumfuzzled, broke, and homeless. This problem is resolved by Bob the American changing his American money, famously unchanged in looks for generations, into the old francs in use in 1954. (Never mind the big-head portraits on the bills we've got now! Go with it.) And Hubert knows the apartment across from his grand-père, now his own, is empty because family lore says the cousin it belonged to was in Chile...for twenty-five years! All Hubert needs to do is get the key from the concierge by pretending to be the cousin. Shelter = solved.

Only the concierge remembers the cousin...she proves to be elozable, though, so some francs later the four get to lay their weary heads down. And from there...the problem of how to get back to 2017 (why would they want to, I wonder) looms large until Julien recalls a fictional 1950s absent-minded professor called Charles Arpajon, whose 1955 (not a typo) book on UFOs as time-travel machines not space-travel ones he has read. The Scooby-group hotfoots their way to the train for the Saint-Antoine vineyard where the UFO sighting is about to take place....

I don't need to tell you the rest, you know we're all going to be okay in the end. The suspense here is minimal at best. What the point of this read is: Comfort. Four 2017 people Forrest-Gump their way through 1954 Paris, then the lost agrarian joys of the pays et temps perdu. It is a gentle and delightful caper through time, if not space. The author, whose previous whimsical works I would now like to read, is very Britishly translated into vernacular British..."sellotape" says it all...with four foul, reeking w-bombs to ruin my read. Why on this wide green Earth are there still people using "to w-i-n-k" as though it meant something clever? It's creepy.

But aside from that cavil, my thoughts on this book's appeal center on its ability to lull your anxiety centers and soothe your story cravings while delivering resolutions to all problems for all the people we've invested our three hours in. Really welcome in the Silly Season of family gatherings, work parties, and suchlike exhaustions. Load the Kindlebook onto your phone for $9.50, read it in bits and'll recall everything because it's all right there.

Satisfying, savorable civet for your ease and delectation.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

RAIN AND EMBERS, an immigrant poet and artist comes clean and goes clear


Kindle edition
$8.00 ebook or paperback, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The (Self-)Publisher Says: A poetic story of survival, Rain and Embers touches on far-reaching themes of migration, forgiveness, and love.

An urgent and necessary study in dualities, Ali Nuri offers a migrant's perspective on what it means to be torn between East and West, sun and moon, the past and the present. Following the story of a refugee in a constant state of flux, Rain and Embers encapsulates the human condition--one where a sense of belonging is elusive amidst an ever-changing landscape.

Above all, Rain and Embers is an exploration of fractured identities, acceptance, and finding a place to call home. When all the ashes wash away, beauty remains in the wreckage, waiting to bloom once more.

this dance of you and I
is the flickering of flames
a fire raging in the dead of night

to be yours
is to be entangled
with the source of poetry

the letters shape themselves
line after line they assemble
from a fountain of ink

your love
is a mother to words
a parent to poetic purpose

but alas
what is to remain
of kindling if not ash?

My Review: How does an Arab immigrant to the US, living in Las Vegas...possibly the most American place on Earth's surface, parched and dry and hot and gaudy...process his fragmented identity?
Who is he, why is he that person, and most of all...why should you care?

Because identity as an American is front and center in the life of the country in the 21st century. Because the answers to those questions matter more than ever. Historically immigration has stirred violent passions in the hoi polloi as the lower classes seek to be better than someone, anyone at all, and the upper classes seek to ensure their fiscal and social stranglehold on the national discourse that it may never be allowed to stray into a real, egalitarian call for justice.

This is what you see before you right now, theydies and gentlethem. The latest salvo in a long-running war against ordinary people by those who profit from their labor. And Ali Nuri, disadvantaged in this country by several layers of identity, has prospered, is contributing to the society that would turn on him in a heartbeat because he's darker skinned than the ideal held up to all who enter this closed and inbred culture. He works to make our American lives more easeful in the vehicle automation sector. People like me will benefit greatly from the increased mobility the eventual rise of the driverless car will enable. And this young poet, this artist with a tender heart and a cold, insecure perch among us, gifts us all with his most intimate thoughts and observations.

Make no mistake: Outsiders are the best poets. Ali Nuri's eyes are looking at the same landscape your eyes are, fellow Americans and foreign readers, but they're seeing what those not here and those whose place here is unquestioned can not see. Then he tells us what we look like, but manages to be kind about it. (Most of the time.) So what drove his family out of Iraq? He tells you directly here, and a more damning indictment of our nation's inhospitable welcome of those in need you won't read soon.

Ali gifted me a copy of his book. He's a photographer as well as a poet, and he understands the human costs of making art deeply and indelibly. His experience of the life of an incomer to a closed world, one whose love and whose life aren't valued by those around him, informs every line and every frame of his work.

I don't like poetry. I do like Ali Nuri's writing. I learned to love his depths and snort tolerantly at his shallows. I learned to think of him as Ali, not as "the immigrant poet guy." Do the same, you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

FREE SF short story from 1958! Only it's GOOD!


The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Free on the Internet Archive

Rating: 3.5* of five

SF blogger Joachim Boaz (link is to his review) decided to do a project where he will review a sampling of the Golden-into-Silver Age short fictions about generation ships. The first review, and story, I read was Spacebred Generations by Clifford D. Simak. That read was a success, so why not follow along?

I got ahead instead.

In this December 1958 tale of a generation ship much more under its crew's control that Simak's, and on a much shorter voyage as well...there are people on Merril's ship who were born on Earth!...we're re-introduced to the hell that is adolescence and the agonies of first love.

We're also seeing the ship's life much more intimately than we did in Simak's story. For one thing, Sheik (Toshiko, our PoV character) is a boy in a world run by women. All the officers are women. The men, like Sheik's maybe-dad Bob, are laborers and technologists. Sheik's mentor as well as other maybe-dad is a plant specialist, Abdur or Ab, the one responsible for maintaining the biodiversity of the ship's air supply. Eventually, of course, when the ship lands Ab will be the one who teaches the whole community to grow plants for their food. And Sheik is his shadow, his willing and joyful amanuensis, already teaching the next generation about the miracle of plant life.

So we join the fun when Sheik's wretched over Naomi's mean and cutting comments to him, ruminating over how unfair it is that she'll always be in charge over him and she's just mean! Also why won't Sarah, like him the oldest in her generation, Notice Him? So far, so standard...but times are a-changin' and Sheik isn't about to let a little thing like being forbidden to listen in on adult stuff stop him.

Kids are kids. Don't care who's in charge, daddy or mama, a kid's gonna rebel. This time, what he hears is something so HUGE he almost can't believe it! And add to that Sarah's sudden, um, Noticing Him, and you have Sheik's birthday and Christmas come at once. (Heh.) Add on top of all that the men's secret council regarding the Big News, a discovery about what men and women really do together, and a sleepless night will pass for Sheik. Probably Sarah, too.

I gave this story three and a half stars because it's not the revelation that it would've been sixty-one years ago to have women in charge. There's a decent chance that'll happen in the USA in 2020, or so I hope. It's also a very small story, a slice of adolescent life; that's not all that interesting to me personally. It's fine as a story, it has good things to say about equality and the arbitrary nature of society and the fairness doctrine is far fleshier for its 1958 readers than it would've begun by being.

Just...slight. Homey. Not meant to be more, and published in December so it was probably meant as a holiday tale, one of the lighter fare that most entertainment venues specialize in presenting as North Americans head into the Winter Holidays with their feasts and decorations and gift-wrapping-fests. It's not badly written. It's just not my personal taste. Heck, the read is free, try it out.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

STARLIGHT, third in Lisa Henry's DARK SPACE trilogy, ends Cam and Brady's outer space adventure in style

(Dark Space #3)
Lisa Henry
$5.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Brady Garrett is back in space, this time as an unwilling member of a team of humans seeking to study the alien Faceless and their technology. It’s not the first time Brady’s life has been in the hands of the Faceless leader Kai-Ren, and if there’s one thing Brady hates it’s being reminded exactly how powerless he is. Although dealing with the enigmatic Faceless might actually be easier than trying to figure out where he stands with the other humans on board, particularly when one of them is his boyfriend’s ex.

Cameron Rushton loved the starlight once, but being back on board the Faceless ship forces him to confront the memories of the time he was captured by Kai-Ren, and exactly how much of what was done to him that he can no longer rationalize away. Cam is used to being Brady’s rock, but this time it might be him who needs Brady’s support.

This time Brady is surrounded by the people he loves most in the universe, but that only means their lives are in danger too. And when Kai-Ren’s fascination with humanity threatens the foundations of Faceless society, Brady and Cam and the rest of the team find themselves thrust into a battle that humans have very little hope of winning, let alone surviving.


My Review: It's time for the ride to end, it seems. The third and possibly final outing in the Dark Space series dropped on 1 December, and I was up all night devouring it. Author Henry, all is forgiven for the FOUR-YEAR WAIT you subjected us to.


The ride to Kai-Ren's homeworld, or so the men and the audience assume, is on the Faceless battle-regent's (heh; the joke makes sense after this book, promise)...vessel...that has an atmosphere shareable by humans if not particularly pleasant to them. It's also downright inimical to their tech. (A thing I'd think Cam, accustomed to the vessel as he must be, might've mentioned was a possibility, but we're never told such happened.) Luckily, Cam's ex and Brady's object of derisive jealousy Chris Varro thought ahead and brought pencil and paper notebooks! (Although how the paper stays inscribable is somewhat beyond my ready comprehension.) And he's prowling Kai-Ren's...vessel...making copious notes and poking around wherever he can find to go. All unmolested by the Faceless.

In fact, they appear to have no particular interest in the human passengers, not troubling themselves to provide food and water and sanitary arrangements. Of course, the men (and Lucy) brought some food and Doc and Brady brought cigarettes (ickptui and why hasn't the devastated Earth stopped growing the noxious resource-hogging tobacco plant?!), but no one knew how much they'd need. They're in the, um, third month? how does one accurately measure time in an alien environment? of a voyage without a set duration. Where they're going is unknown, how long it will take is unknown, how the...vessel...propels itself is unknown...lots to learn by Humanity, and Chris is the only one we actually see doing the work of figuring it out.

No wonder Brady hates him. He's like Cam: The omnicompetent hero-guy, only this one doesn't care about Brady so he must be a jerk. And why was it again that Cam left him, or he left Cam, or however that was?
And if it was weird for me to be sharing a room with my boyfriend’s ex, how fucking weird was it for him to see us together? At least he didn’t try to pull rank on me anymore, and I didn’t try to stab him in the throat with a screwdriver. We were a work in progress, Chris and me.
These thoughts are part of Brady's ruminating (in the psych-problem sense) about how much he's a waste of space on this trip while simultaneously, and redemptively in my eyes, worrying about the bright spark that is Lucy. Is she developing properly in this weird environment? Is her bright, inquisitive nature going to make her into a Cam instead of her rage-inducing reffo (refugee to us 21st-century Murrikinz) background making her into a Brady? It is a sign of Brady's growth as a person that he's worried about Lucy's personhood on this voyage into the utterly unknown:
Here, Lucy was with me. I was looking after her, just like our dad had wanted. I had Cam as well, and he was more than I’d ever dared to hope for. Cam saw better things in me than I ever saw in myself.
Knowing that someone else sees you differently from the way you see yourself, for better or worse, is a sign of increasing self-awareness and hope, and not a second too soon in Brady's case. His ragey adolescent acting out is touched on in this book but not seen in action. Thank goodness. I was way over that after Darker Space, I must say.

So the routine, set largely by the Doc and his analog clock, abetted by Chris-the-eternal-officer, ticks along until after about three months of relatively unchanging conditions Something Happens. Kai-Ren's...vessel...has finally revealed its true nature to the men's combined observational powers. It is a spoiler to mention it, so I won't, but suffice it to say that the entire purpose of this trip has been to take the humans with the Faceless to a place in the galaxy where the Faceless can begin a new generation. Kai-Ren's position in the inscrutable hierarchy of the Faceless is bolstered and enhanced by the presence of the humans and he shows them off to the lower-ranking Faceless in some humiliating ways. The humans aren't in any position to fight against this, or back after things happen; the Faceless are simply not killable in any ordinary way.

Extraordinary ways have a way of happening quite extraordinarily often in fiction, have you noticed?

As we're entirely in Brady's head during this trilogy of books, we don't see anything from Kai-Ren's PoV and we don't get any non-Brady-level views of Faceless society. But the events that form the climax of the book are all Brady all the time, from the shocking and unexpected moment that disaster strikes, to the intense and exciting ways that disaster gets amplified, and thence to the cause and the resolution meeting in a scene that left me slightly weakened from clenching and sweating. Faceless society has been dealt a major surprise, and Kai-Ren is the vector of and the victim of it. Humanity's role? Casualties, of course, because whether elephants fight or fuck, the grass suffers. Not entirely powerless at last, possessed of a secret weapon that absolutely no one could've predicted would exist, Brady (especially), Chris, and Cam all unite in purpose to get themselves to safety...possibly at long last not illusory!

Thus does Author Henry leave us after around six hundred pages of Brady and Cam's life together. It's barely the beginning of the journey, that much we're sure of:
And after that he kissed me, and told me that he loved me, and the universe shrunk to just the two of us.
I would never understand where Cam found his faith, not if we were together for an eternity.
...Cam’s freaky prescience...I think that was all him. Or I was as easy to read as book. The sort with pictures that popped up.
Brady's learning how to conceptualize a future that has Cam in it. He's even admitted out loud that he needs to get psychological help when they get home. He's growing up at last, and he's lucky enough to have someone to grow with who is willing and able to grow along side him.

The surprises in this book are too spoilery to go into. But I very, very much want you to know that they make the future for Humanity a lot more interesting, and I hope very strongly we get more views of that world.

He hinted broadly.

DARKER SPACE, second Brady-Cam-and-Faceless space opera, good gay SF

(Dark Space #2)
Lisa Henry
$4.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Brady Garrett is back on Earth. He’s living with his partner Cam and they’re raising his sister Lucy together. Life is better than some feral reffo from Kopa has any right to hope, and Brady knows it. He’s even grateful for it, most of the time. He loves Cam, even though he’s afraid that he’s not good enough for him, and he’s still having nightmares about the alien Faceless.

Cameron Rushton loved being a pilot once, and he still feels the pull of the starlight. He’s building a life with Brady now, and with Lucy. Life is good, even if it’s not without its complications. Both Brady and Cam are dealing with the endless cycle of interviews, tests, and questions that the military hierarchy hopes will reveal the secrets of the aliens who could very easily destroy humanity. They have each other though, and together they’re making it work.

But from out in the black, Kai-Ren is still watching and everything Brady and Cam think they’ve won, they stand to lose all over again.


My Review: Pretty much all four stars are for the last 50% of the book. It isn't necessary to grind us into Brady's deeply boring late-adolescent angst for an entire half of the book. At least Brady and Cam are hilarious together. Cam's so patient with Brady's annoying-as-fuck oppositional disorder! What he has to put up with...
“Crewman Garrett,” Stockade Sam said when the MPs dumped me in his custody again. “Your usual room?”
It's hilarious, spot-on, and deeply telling. But I guess when a man has kept you alive by sharing his literal heartbeat with you, allowances get made.

The story's heartbeat, you should forgive the wordplay, is the love shared by Brady the fuck-up and Cam the saintly patient grown-up. He's there, steady and solid and accepting, as Brady acts out again and again and again. As Brady's the one telling us the story again, it's not all that surprising that he's giving us his own slant on the action...but what a jerky kid he is. I know we're all jerky when young, but good lord Author Henry please give us surcease from Brady's solipsism in the next book!

Cam, because of their indelible link established when he needed saving in the first book, knows Brady's past as intimately as if it was his own. He seems to be able to make that work in their love's favor, where Brady is not quite so self-aware or so well-adjusted or something. He knows as intimately as Cam does what was done to the returned...prisoner? captive? plaything?...that Kai-Ren the Faceless battle-regent, um, modified shall we say in his own image.

Don't try to tell me that won't come back to bite him in the ass. (And yes, the antecedent is vague there, by design I assure you.)

So we get a chance to see what life is like for the new family, which now includes the resilient and plucky Lucy. Cam, in his saintly way, makes no objection to Lucy entering his new pair-bond with Brady. I can't help wondering if it had been Cam's sister, how Brady the bratty would've reacted.... Anyway, the couple is tentatively thriving, the world is still spinning, and then *BAM*

Kai-Ren and the Faceless are back.

Suddenly the mentally linked men in Humanity's midst are a Threat to Security. Suddenly the hands-off approach the authorities took to the people wearing the identities of Returnee and Mate is revoked and the fact that they share a mental bond that also includes Kai-Ren and the Faceless is too much risk of exposure to ignore. Let's not forget that this is an Earth whole population was literally decimated by the Faceless not so very long ago. Their caution, well...I'll never really get it, this Security State mindset, but I recognize its reality. What exactly can be done against the Faceless is what is never clear. Their weapons are simply too far advanced for Humanity to defend itself against, so what sense does it make to try?

Well, anyway, there we are and there Brady and Cam are in prison and there Lucy is with Cam's also-saintly parents and the story becomes a seriously exciting ride. I was breathless as Kai-Ren came back back to Earth to invite, for want of a better term, Brady and Cam to see his culture. It is just about lethally frustrating that we don't get to go there as soon as the ship arrives. Kai-Ren's essential alienness is a thing we're allowed to hope, by the end of this story, will be a bridgeable gap. Brady is scared to go back into space, as who wouldn't be when only bad things have happened to him there. Cam is...ambivalent, but honorable, and desperate to stop the extermination of his species. The military men who clutter up this installment in the series include Cam's first love, Chris Varro. Who, for a wonder, Brady falls in love with via his shared memory with Cam...until Chris (unsurprisingly) simply doesn't see Brady.

Ouch! Your beloved doesn't even see you! But can he...he doesn't know you from a hole in the ground. He was in love with your lover, they were first-loves, not you.


So of course, this being a Lisa Henry novel, Varro is on Kai-Ren's vessel with Brady and Cam. And Lucy, who simply will not be left. Not that Brady wants to leave her; nor does he want to take her into the unknown, the blackness of space; but he can't, in the end, feel like he's depriving her of Family (a thing he treasures as only one who's never had it can) potentially forever. Along for the ride comes Doc, whose caretaking of Brady while he was a raggedy conscript on Defender Three no doubt saved his life and most certainly enabled him to save and enter Cam's life.

The gang's all here. How long until Darkest Space comes out?!?

DARK SPACE, first in a series of gay SF space operas: Humanity vs the Faceless

(Dark Space #1)
Lisa Henry
$4.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Brady Garrett needs to go home. Brady’s a conscripted recruit on Defender Three, one of a network of stations designed to protect the Earth from alien attack. Brady is angry, homesick, and afraid. If he doesn’t get home he’ll lose his family, but there’s no way back except in a body bag.

Cameron Rushton needs a heartbeat. Four years ago Cam was taken by the Faceless — the alien race that almost destroyed Earth. Now he’s back, and when the doctors make a mess of getting him out of stasis, Brady becomes his temporary human pacemaker. Except they’re sharing more than a heartbeat: they’re sharing thoughts, memories, and some very vivid dreams.

Not that Brady’s got time to worry about his growing attraction to another guy, especially the one guy in the universe who can read his mind. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just biochemistry and electrical impulses. It doesn’t change the truth: Brady’s alone in the universe.

Now the Faceless are coming and there’s nothing anyone can do. You can’t stop your nightmares. Cam says everyone will live, but Cam’s probably a traitor and a liar like the military thinks. But that’s okay. Guys like Brady don’t expect happy endings.



My Review
: Grimdark story of Humanity with its back against the wall. It's set on a rustbucket improvised and patched-together space station where the only thing for its conscripted grunt crew to do to wile away their mandatory ten-year hitch is wait for the Faceless to decide to kill them and everyone else on every other station then destroy earth's population.

The Faceless have already attacked Earth, destroyed our large cities, and left a bare billion alive on the whole more like the mid-19th century in population terms...and although it's not stated, the planet's horrifying losses came after global warming was biting. I infer this from the altered climate of Australia, where Brady Garrett is a reffo, that's refugee to us 21st century Amerikinz. He's living a life of near-slavery in a camp where his father mines unstated minerals and is dying from the un-labor-lawed nightmare conditions. Then he's conscripted to serve aboard a space station laughingly called "Defender Three." His ten-year stint starts when he's sixteen...child soldiery is not new nor will it be eradicated from the face of the Earth in any future I can see...and also just as his twelve-years-younger sister Lucy is about to be orphaned by his father's inevitable death. So he's facing a lot.

Add in some rape, some torture, oh yeah and the aliens have one of us they've held for four years! But now he's back! Cameron Rushton arrives on Defender Three in a weird alien...thing, a pod of some sort, and it falls to Brady as the station doc's chosen assistant-cum-trainee to decant him from it.

Hijinks ensue.

Cam damn near dies because no one understood how to operate the Faceless tech that brought him "home." In fact, he's dying in front of Brady, who uses the empathy he'd vigorously deny possessing to reach out and comfort Cam in his last moments. Strangely enough this is enough to establish a psychic connection between the men, and allows Cam to live...with wildling Brady as his literal, soon metaphorical, heartbeat. It's quite a turn-up, poster boy Cam the Captive returning from the tender mercies of the Faceless (awkward!) and then getting hitched to a low-class lowlife reffo as his sole means of staying alive (embarrassing!), as well as bearing word from the Faceless battle-regent Kai-Ren that the enemy is calling off their insect-extermination level "war" with Humanity. Funny thing how he's less popular now than when he was enduring...whatever it was he was enduring at the hands of an enemy so little understood our name for them is "the Faceless."

Humanity is, as always, irredeemable. The Faceless are right to exterminate us.

The world-building is excellent, but the sex scenes...*serious* non-con, very explicit rough play...will send the straight boys screaming. Too bad, too, because there's good space opera in here. I'll read the second one for sure, especially after the ending of this one.

This was a group read in the Goodreads Gay SF group. Thanks y'all for bringing this book to my attention.

Monday, December 2, 2019

GAIA, QUEEN OF ANTS is a rollicking good, weird, uncomfortable time

(tr. Shelley Fairweather-Vega)
Syracuse University Press
$19.95 trade paper, available 13 December 2019

August is Women In Translation Month! The publisher has a special sale: Save 50% on print copies through their website! Use code 05WIT22 at checkout for your discount.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From Uzbek author-in-exile Hamid Ismailov comes a dark new parable of power, corruption, fraud, and deception. Ismailov narrates an intimate clash of civilizations as he follows the lives of three expatriates living in England. Domrul is a young Turk with vague and painful memories of ethnic strife in the Uzbekistan of his childhood. His Irish girlfriend Emer struggles with her own adolescent trauma from growing up in war-torn Bosnia. Domrul is the caretaker for Gaia, the eighty-year-old, powerful wife of a Soviet party boss with a mysterious past.

One of Ismailov’s few novels written in Uzbek, Gaia, Queen of Ants offers a rare portrait of a complex and little-known part of the world. A plot centered on political corruption and ethnic conflict is punctuated with Sufi philosophy and religious gullibility. As Ismailov’s characters grapple with questions of faith, power, sex, and family, Gaia, Queen of Ants presents a moving tale of universal themes set against a Central Asian backdrop in the twenty-first century.


My Review
: Corruption is universal, I suppose we can now agree. Politics and power corrupt innocents and attract the corrupt. Purity fetishists would do well to contemplate what their insistence on viewing all signs of corruption in a person wielding or seeking power costs, as well as being utterly unhelpful, bordering on destructive, in seeking a government. Then there is Gaia Mangitkhanova, the central powerful figure of the novel; she is Kali, the destroyer-to-create-again goddess of Hindu myth; she is also Gaia, Greek goddess of Creation, who parted Chaos to summon all order and logic into being. These divinities use their femaleness, their existence as sexual as opposed to unsexed divinities, to create and to destroy entire races; Gaia (or Goia, as we also learn to think of her) is very explicitly made in their mold.

We meet her in the lift of her geriatric-care home in Eastbourne, a new-by-English-standards resort town on the Sussex coast that's near Brighton. Like many seaside towns, Eastbourne houses a lot of the elderly who are waiting for God to notice them die, that is...and among them was Friedrich Engels. You know, the codifier of Communism, together with that other German fellow...what was his name...well, anyway, here's Gaia:
Bringing with it the smell of mouse, the lift came for her, moving as ponderously as the old folk it carried. Old Lady Gaia pressed the G button and peered into the mirror. Her hair stuck out in clumps, and her eyelids were swollen. But what really broke her heart was that her mustache had thickened.
Her carer, here in the England of today, is Domrul. He is an Uzbeki refugee, whose childhood there was blighted by inexplicable (to him) agonies of threat and loss. His aunt carried him to the safety of England with a few stops in between, Istanbul and Cyprus among them. England accepted the family, and Domrul is now a thirtyish British citizen. Let's meet him:
He knew he was a very patient and tolerant person, but still, as he descended in that malodorous lift ride from the heavens to the earth, from the distant tongue of his childhood a curse came to him. F... yes fuck her, even if she is a begum!
Angels bless both good words and bad, as they say, and this absolute shame indeed came to pass in their second meeting.
Author Ismailov, Uzbeki political refugee and banned writer, is a deeply cruel person. Domrul's young life is about to go totally out of control again, and just when his prospects were looking up. He's floated through life meeting amazing people, about whom he feels as Forrest Gump is presented as feeling: "Oh, there you are, hi and welcome." He has had menial jobs, as an immigrant to England will have had, as well as been the darling of some powerful older peoples' lives. His bosses and his gurus have led him on a meandering path that culminates at the door of Gaia Mangitkhanova. It is here that this Turkic Uzbeki exile to the rainy cold of England will gain the energy to rocket home to Uzbekistan, to find the woman he thinks he loves, Emer the evangelical, and rescue her from imprisonment in the underworld of...

But you know...the story is best left for you to experience, its digressive and discursive style is less suited to a recapitulation or a review than it is to experiencing it directly, engaging with its storytelling and its layered meanings left to you to pick apart. The novel's charm, and it is plentifully endowed with charm, is in its voices. The storyteller, the novel itself, has a voice that breaks the fourth wall to address the reader in a conspiratorial first-person plural "we." I very often inveigh against that usage; here it felt appropriate, almost inevitable. Myths aren't best told at a narratorial remove. They're shared experiences of power and its victims, they're cries of outrage and triumph and unbearable, peak feelings. Domrul's young, virile body servicing Gaia's cronehood in body and in soul is a cruel and horrible perversion of lust's purpose: Connection to the Other is not easily attained but the shortest route is through the sexual acts—and what connection worth the name can be made between spent ending and burgeoning middle?

It will disturb some readers to know that Gaia exerts power over Domrul, her literal servant, in sexual terms. But think of the myths, the root stories of all cultures. Think of the Mother Goddesses who create all things and then, somehow, have husbands...modern squeamishness elides the glaringly obvious fact: Mother beds son. Goddess enfolds creation in her sacred body. Gaia fucks Domrul, and in the process, sets her life into a crystalline clarity of pattern. Remember, when you're reading these squirmy uncomfortable scenes, to contextualize the actions Gaia and Domrul take in mythic not quotidian terms. Goia Mangitkhanova is Gaia Calligeneia, the Maker of Good, the Good Mother of All. In the generative process, she creates Domrul to destroy him. In the process of creation, she carries the meaning of the novel in her vagina: Creation and destruction, joy and shame, sex and birthing, are sides of a coin that we all must use to pay the ferryman at the end.

This is very much a novel about endings, about the end of life, about how to end the agony that is emptiness. I disliked the character Emer most strongly. She is an evangelical christian and she is an utter void of a being. Her trajectory is tragic, but to me it felt more satisfying than pathetic, evoking pathos that is. Her last act in the book isn't credible, at least not to me; Domrul is the focus of it, and that takes away the power of her presence as the young Gaia-Creatrix. It is a sour note from a sour person, and I was expecting better of her story. But that was the last of my woes while reading. (There are far too many w-bombs dropped in this book, as seems to be a developing norm in litrachure. This cartoonish means of expressing...what? what is expressed in a wink that can't and shouldn't be expressed in another way?...must die in fire.) The other stories, of Gaia and Domrul, end in ways much less simple. They feel, therefore, more satisfying, more the thing the reader earned by confronting the uncomfortable use of sex as metaphor for destruction. This is where the story was meant to go. That it reaches the harbor, not a safe one, of the divine destruction wreaked on Gaia and Domrul together, is a satisfying payoff to a complex and unsettling journey.

Translator Fairweather-Vega is to be praised for her fidelity to the structure of a myth. She didn't impose a spurious order on her words, she clearly felt the power of this story and went to the full extent of her powers to render its soul in English prose. She had, I must surmise, more trouble with the baxshis' poetry-cum-songs (a baxshi is more or less a bard, the book tells us), as the inevitable complexity of expressing in poetry what prose is purported to be unable to carry weighs her efforts down:
A drunken nightingale took this road,
a land of flowers it found,
On it went with a flower,
goblets and good cheer did abound.

Finally it spoke the truth; in my ear I heard the sound,
Saying the sorrow was gone now,
but still no peace could be found.
Okay. Well. That's just perfectly corking, isn't it. It's not *bad* per se, but it's not something I'd seek a lot more of. That cavil aside, I encourage y'all to seek out the novel and to explore the end, the ending, and the process of ending a pattern.

Friday, November 29, 2019

THE FORBIDDEN STARS, third and presumed to be last of the Axiom trilogy...but plenty o' room for more!

(Axiom #3)
Angry Robot Books
$8.99 mass market paperback, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The ancient alien gods are waking up, and there's only one spaceship crew ready to stop them, in this dazzling space opera sequel to The Wrong Stars and The Dreaming Stars.

Aliens known as the Liars gave humanity access to the stars through twenty-nine wormholes. They didn't mention that other aliens, the ancient, tyrannical - but thankfully sleeping - Axiom occupied all the other systems. When the twenty-ninth fell silent, humanity chalked it up to radical separatists and moved on. But now, on board the White Raven, Captain Callie and her crew of Axiom-hunters receive word that the twenty-ninth colony may have met a very different fate. With their bridge generator they skip past the wormhole, and discover another Axiom project, fully awake, and poised to pour through the wormhole gate into all the worlds of humanity...


My Review
: We're not under any illusions about the Axiom anymore, are we? They're the xenocidal monsters of which nightmares were first brewed, they're cruel and thoughtless and smugly, scratch that, they're oblivious to lesser life's reality and so find nothing or no one convincingly sentient except themselves. They're even working, while in hibernation, on changing the fundamental constants of the Universe! And all so they can prolong their own nasty existences (and those of some slaves to do the scut work, one supposes) in complete disregard of the fact that this fundamental alteration would destroy whatever life there already is in it. In spite of all that, here's Captain Callie Machedo and Ashok the engineer, the White Raven's Scotty, met in the middle of blowing the (apparently awakening, shudder) Axiom's shit up some more!

Some people don't want to live.

Or rather, some people are willing to risk death so that the Universe and its untold trillions of life-forms can, and will, live. An altogether more noble formulation of the same set of behaviors, no? Callie and Ashok are in an Axiom travel hub to destroy it for the Benefactor, and in the process steal something they really, really shouldn't have. The final day of the war is upon us. (That reference will make sense when you read the book.) Do your utmost and be happy with that, not certain of any particular outcome. That's working well for Callie and Elena in their settling-in love affair, for Ashok the 27th century's version of a tattoo addict, for Lantern the double-agent Liar, for Drake-and-Janice the Universe's most unusual conjoined beings.

That makes for a happy and fun read, right? Well...mostly...I'm never going to reconcile myself to the infodumping that the series contains in abundance, but what I realized about that is that the info is entertaining and necessary there one is. It's a fact that cannot now be changed. I am still happy with the low-heat romance between Callie and Elena, since I read other subgenres of space opera for the sexytimes I crave on occasion. I was pining for more of Lantern, to be honest, but the story couldn't hold more of "her" without being seriously baggy at the knees. We're introduced to the Benefactor through his servant Kaustikos, "the one who burns," in the form of a floating basketball...I was picturing Sputnik the whole time and quietly chuckling...that delivers excellent intel exactly once and then goes into minor-character mode. The purpose of this itchy lapse becomes apparent. It wasn't a joy, waiting so long for it to eventuate, but it did and I got it. No other way to accomplish that plot thread's resolution.

But most of all, I've been pining for some details about Drake-and-Janice, the mashup person. How did this weirdness occur? How, in practical terms, did two humans get spliced into one (hitherto invisible in-story) entity? That, my friends, is the subject of an extended infodump delivered from page 269 to page 304. It wasn't necessarily deft, but it was *fascinating* and I enjoyed the Drake-and-Janice story as much as I'd hoped to. So much was clearer about how human individuality and individuation seems utterly natural to us but would present a serious puzzle for truly alien beings...rather like we humans find it puzzling to look at fossils and reconstruct the dead being's life from them. Drake and Janice were still within spitting distance of being alive after a nasty space accident; the life they share now was granted them by miracle-working super-healer white Liars who happened to be in the right place at the right time to reconstruct them. Only they got it wrong, and for the first time we're let in on how that felt all around, what that meant to Drake-and-Janice as entities made one but still alive, what identity and practical problems that's presented them.

One big coincidence, no, the passing immortals with a healing jones being there? But that's how Life is sometimes. Stuff, weird random stuff, happens; you're never the same afterwards, but you're well and truly alive and now what? Hence the melded pilots' skills being used by a very live-and-let-live Captain whose essential human decency means they're safe and they're respected for their skills but left alone to live as they like and/or can.

But wait, there's more! Callie and the White Raven are tasked by the Benefactor, whose contact with them is always through different cloak-and-dagger means, with the solution of the silencing of the Vanir system. Planets that the Liars, those "truthteller" cultists secretly still in service of their departed Axiom masters, had sold the humans rights to colonize, which subsequently went out of touch with the rest of humanity. When supply ships, then rescue missions, then military forces all vanished into the silent system, the system was pretty much written off. Human curiosity hates dangling threads...Callie gets the Benefactor's huge pre-payment for expenses...the crew agrees that their unique possession of a wormhole generator not, like the gateways the Liars sold them, fixed to any particular part of spacetime, will make this expedition both satisfying and enriching. What could possibly go wrong? They hold all the surprise-dealing cards!

Nope. Nothing goes easily...for long, anyway...and more Liars, singularly unappealing red specimens yclept "the Exalted," are slavering to get hold of the fresh specimens that Callie and Co. represent in their grand master plan to make the now-ailing as well as hibernating Axiom safe and sound in the newly dangerous Universe they plan to cooperatively destroy together. Excitement ensues, and I won't detail it as this is the whole point of reading space opera.

Suffice it to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and the goodwill of super-healers is a great thing to have in your back pocket. The ending, the point at which the conflicts end, was deeply satisfying, and the main villain's purpose and identity is at the root of Evil's Comeuppance. That's always a recipe for satisfaction in my book.

The series' threads are woven together satisfyingly. Callie will be one busy human lady for, well, ever; Elena her beloved xenobiologist-turned-medical-doctor will be there with her; the crew, from newly repaired though still conjoined Drake-and-Janice to Ashok the body-modder's ultimate modification to Lantern the Liar to Shall the AI, the White Raven and Glauketas, their asteroid home, will act as nucleation points for a whole new world of free and potent humans. It's a pretty satisfying way to say farewell to the world of the Axiom.

Unless, of course, we're treated to more after Author Pratt's had a lie-down....

Thursday, November 28, 2019

TWO free-to-read online short stories for US folks' trip home from overeating & fighting with relatives!

Author Joshua Ferris reading; from his Facebook page

Good Legs by Joshua Ferris (visit his website!)

Rating: 3.5* of five

Read it here free. You get four free reads a month from The New Yorker; this one is worth burning one of them.

See this? The Old Flame isn't worth the stress:
Then my old flame graduated early and was gone. There were rumors of a new boyfriend and a life in Ireland. I didn’t miss her. By then, I was in this terrible on-off thing with Sisyphus, who kept dragging me up a pretty blond hill and hurtling me down.
Because there's always another Old Flame. Author Ferris, winner of the 2008 PEN/Hemingway Award for Then We Came to the End, clearly has thought the modern condition through; he writes the voice of the Millennials faultlessly, musically, and honestly. The obsession of a young man is not (solely) sex, it's the being-ness of his sex partners, the odd and quirky and endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of characteristics and qualities that occur and recur in his solipsism's background. He maintains through it all a sense that The Other is just ever so slightly unreal, is reducible to A Title. Like most all the young men I've ever known, from every generation I've ever met.

It's wonderful to read the thoughts I've had all my life, the wonder and the bewilderment and the anxious unreality of existence, come from another brain. It's incredible to me that anyone can read a short story of this economy and precision and not instantly fall in love with the form.


from the August 1953 edition of Science Fiction-Plus magazine

Spaceborn Generations by Clifford D. Simak

Rating: 3.5* of five

Not for nothing was Simak a journalist/popularizer of science. This generation-ship tale is short, so doesn't go into a lot of details about *how* a thousand-year voyage through space would be accomplished without human maintenance of its workings, and how it came to be that twentieth-century English was the lingua franca of the Ship, and whether the Ship's breeding program took account of skin color variations, and why The Little Woman was still in her place...the list goes on.

But what I see in Simak's story is the basic story I read SF for. It is about the tiny little prisons Humankind builds and calls Paradise. It is about the unquestioning and overly trusting way we accept what is given and hunger only for more, not radically and materially different. Novelty is more important than innovation...gossip more important than erudition. Wake up, Author Simak shouted at the Folk of 1953 who read this story, Life is short so wake up!

His fix-up novel, City, was in much the same vein. The Earth is subject to disasters and cataclysms, but savvy Humankind was somehow or other ready for that and hijinks ensued. As I think we can imagine, since Simak lived through the Cold War (died only three years before it ended, if we take 1991's collapse of the Soviet Union as The End), that was more a triumph of hope over experience. But his fiction, never precisely deft in execution, was always aimed at making a point about doing your own best, convincing others to do theirs, making the best of the stuff you had to hand. Teddy Roosevelt's formulation would've appealed to Simak, I think: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

And that's all the Folk on the Ship in this story have done. It isn't a perfect world, at least not to us looking in at it, but they're still alive, and Humanity can always chug along somehow. But Mr. Simak, what I wouldn't give to ramp your ideas about women above the helpmeet/homemaker/uterus bearer. Mary Hoff, who is Mrs. Hero and no more than that, sees a whole new world spread before her barely comprehending eyes and her first thought is, "can we have a baby now?" She's *asking*permission*from*her*husband* to have a baby on a wide-open new planet. That's just...ICK is nowhere near strong enough a response.

Feminists are duly warned: Probably not enough substance here, in storytelling terms, to outweigh the deep, dark, dank cave of regression Simak lived in. I'm not resentful that I read the piece. I won't go out of my way to urge you to. But Simak's view of Humanity seems to accord with mine: Pretty damned lazy, really happy to remain stupid, and full of hate and spite, but love 'em or leave 'em.

Does the Shipping News cover off-planet departures?

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

It's #Booksgiving again! A combination of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and Advent and Jolabokaflod!

As 2019 wanes, taking with it another in an apparently unending annual flotilla of boatloads of misery, trouble, strife, and negativity, let's focus on something much more fun: #Booksgiving! Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, I'm here to suggest some literary delights whose (not always) joyful tidings will make the Night Before Christmas a bit less frenetic: Give everyone in your gift-giving circle a special book to read right then and there, in the midst of life, all together.

Wikipedia gives us a wee bit of background on the Icelandic custom of giving a book as a gift to your family and friends at Yuletide. Like here, at least among those I call my friends and family...the difference is the Icelandic friends and family like the custom. Decidedly not like many, many people I know.
Iceland isn't like the US in any way that I can think of: no mass shootings, low poverty, socialized medicine, but most importantly the fact that, in a lifetime, one in ten Icelanders will write and have published at least one book. Appearances and Kindle sales to the contrary, that can't happen in the US or there would 35 million writers getting their stuff published. Think of the deforestation implicit in that thankfully unrealized statistic. Agents and publishers will sigh exasperatedly and moan "there already ARE 35 million Americans writing books and they all have MY address!"

I promise that it only feels that way.

Iceland also has an annual book catalog, according to a 2018 Books from Scotland article, which explains the idea as follows:
Every year since [the end of World War Two], the Icelandic book trade has published a printed catalogue – called Bókatíðindi (‘Book Bulletin’, in English) – that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November during the Reykjavik Book Fair. People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas.

During the festive season, gifts are opened on 24 December and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland.
I got nothin' on the (appropriately named, IMO) non-alcoholic ale. I mean, why bother? But hey, that's just me.

But is the US actually so different? Most books in our market are published around gift-giving holidays, too. Look up any statistical source you can think of and you'll see the jaw-dropping surge in sales in each and every segment around Yuletide. Black Friday got its name from more than the salesdroids' moody misery on the horrible, horrible day; it's the day that almost all retailers stem their losses and go into black balance-sheet ink. And at least one organization in the US is is setting out to move the Book Flood tradition Stateside.
And it's not like there are no initiatives to encourage the bookish to share their addiction in the Holiday season. Take Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which is described in this here piece. An initiative that Dolly, fourth child of twelve, began to give children in the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, and Australia one book of their very own each month. It's curated carefully to be age appropriate, and it's an admirable extension of a program she began in 1995 for kids in her home patch of Eastern Tennessee. I suggest that you all put some money into this, or any other, outreach for underserved children to get books. After all, the Jesuits' founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, famously said, "Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man." Knew his onions, did that old guy. He stole from the best, seeing as Aristotle said it first. You can tell because there's neither hide nor hair of "woman" in there, nor any sign that either of those old white men even sensed their absence. I'd recast it as "...I will give you the adult," but purists would be as vocal as feminists in their scorn. One cannot win.

But let's dream big. The tradition of giving a book as a much-desired present...the encouragement to read it that very night...there are some of us who want that family life and now we have a model for how it should look.
Why shouldn't we, book lovers, embrace this vaguely distasteful-in-the-aggregate behavior of being good little consumers? Let's repurpose it. Let's take one tiny facet of Iceland's excellent book culture and bring it here. The Christmas Book Flood isn't directly translatable, and anyway focuses on the end of the process, the gifting that's always so fun.

Let's celebrate the process, shall we? Let's have Booksgiving! Starting on *shudder* Black Friday, let's think about what books we'll flood the tree skirt with on Book Flood Eve. I'll give you some ideas from my 2019 and earlier reading to include in your purchases. Simply click on the tag #Booksgiving" below and the entire list from all years will magically chronological order, never fear.

Happy Booksgiving!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A VIKING FOR YULE, silly fun for the gingerbread-latte drinkers


Self published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: AFTER SAM'S GRANDFATHER nearly died in a blizzard one year ago, Sam has panic attacks in snow storms. So where does his friend Jackie propose they spend the holidays, as the last stop on their trip around the world?

Iceland. Of course.

But there's more in Iceland than snow. When Arnar, a handsome Icelandic man, offers to escort Sam on a several-day tour of the beautiful countryside, they soon find themselves drawn to each other. But Arnar is firmly rooted in his native soil, and Sam has to return to the US in a week to care for his ailing grandfather.

Suddenly, Yule can’t last nearly long enough.

NOTE: Though this novel includes characters from A Cop for Christmas, it is a standalone adventure. It isn’t necessary to read A Cop for Christmas first.

My Review: So sweet little (he's like 5'4") punkin Sam, a bit player in Author Fessenden's prior book A Cop for Christmas, gets his own love story! Jackie, the series (loose, but still counts) non-resident Auntie Mame, whisks Sam away on a world tour after some terrifying stuff happens to him (revealing what is a spoiler for the first book). True to Auntie-form, she hurls him at any number of eligible gay men in the various countries they visit. His timidity and inexperience with the world's many ways of being are, by the time the pair wash up on Iceland's shores for Yuletide, worn into a certain facility if not comfort with the strangeness he's now expecting and encountering.

But there at the international airport is Arnar. Long blond hair, studly muscles, surly attitude...even towards his "Aunt Jackie," whom he's known most of his life. And, if Sam's sharpening gaydar is any guide, a Friend of Dorothy's. Lovely! In every sense. Well, except the whole surly part.

Arnar, for his own part, is mourning the end of his relationship with Stefan (never met but despised by all Arnar's friends). He's hurting but he's a man, so he Notices Sam, being utterly charmed by his ears (of all things)...just not ready to let go of his sadz over the jerk Stefan.

The usual hijinks ensue, as they must in category romances. The Icelandic countryside and December weather play huge roles in the action. The elements are a big part of Arnar and Sam's falling in love with each other. The adventure that, as is ordinary for men, serves to bond them to each other, is largely dependent on weather. It is December in Iceland, after all. And the trope of hero-faces-down-fears is very much present.

But here we come to the crux of my problem with this lovely little bagatelle: By the numbers-ness. I don't believe for a second that, in this book's first draft, these men were the ages they're presented as being, ie thirtyish. They act like early-to-middle twentysomethings. They have packs of friends, just like early-to-middle twenties folk do; they have sullen fits, which frankly know no age but are usually less prevalent in the thirtyish bracket. They Have Adventures, not planning to do things that'll put them at risk like one does in the earlier twenties; they make HUGE life decisions on a whim, and that my dears is a dead give-away that they're nowhere near thirty. Sam has his sole remaining family member, ill and frail Grampy, to care for and about. He has also gone on an around-the-world trip for pretty much a year, at Jackie's behest and on her dime. I don't know about y'all, but that would make me wonder about the sanity of a thirtyish man; not a hair turned in a, say, twenty-five-year-old's case.

And the ending. Hm. While we need the de rigueur HEA, this one strikes me as...forced. It'd be a great last scene in a film. There's an epilogue that contextualizes it, but that's just needs context.

Still! I can't say I read these books for their monumental and earth-shattering insights into character or innovations with the style-book. I read them for fun, and because I can tick off the trope boxes, I don't need to work at comprehending what I'm reading. This is a huge help to me while I'm in the process of getting this miserable apnea problem handled.

Friday, November 22, 2019

TAINTED WITNESS: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, or #MeToo didn't just *happen*

TAINTED WITNESS: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives

Columbia University Press
$21.99 various ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The tainting of Hill and her testimony are part of a larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say. The Anita Hill case shows how a tainted witness is not who someone is, but what someone can become.

Why are women so often considered unreliable witnesses to their own experience? How are women discredited in legal courts and in courts of public opinion? Why is women's testimony so often mired in controversies fueled by histories of slavery and colonialism? Tainted Witness takes up these questions within a rich archive, including Anita Hill's testimony as well as Rigoberta Menchú Tum's account of genocide in Guatemala; Jamaica Kincaid's literary witnessing in Autobiography of My Mother; and news coverage of such stories as Nafissatou Diallo's claim that Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped her. Bringing together legal, literary, and feminist frameworks, Leigh Gilmore provides provocative readings of what happens when women's testimony is discredited. Throughout, Gilmore demonstrates how testimony crosses jurisdictions, publics, and the unsteady line between truth and fiction in search of justice.


My Review
: This is an academic work of depth and authority on the ever-vexing topic of what leads Society (my capital) to treat a woman's word as suspect, especially about her own experiences and her own life.

Essentially, women are treated with contempt and rage by men in general. Their words, therefore, when spoken about men and to other men, must be considered in that context...why would she lie, versus when she speaks, she lies. I am *grossly* oversimplifying the latter, and the author does not present her facts about the former, but this is a formulation that gets to the heart of my take-away from the book.

The additional "defect" of Blackness mars a woman's credibility within the white patriarchal systems of "justice" and "fact-finding" because "you know how they are," the loudly quiet evocation of all the slurs, lies, and oppressions used to discredit Black people. Anita Hill's accusations against Clarence Thomas are delved into with some depth. Thirty years later, I still boil when I think of Dr. Hill's vile treatment by the conservative Old Boys' Club in the Senate. (I assert most, if not quite all, Senators are conservative, or were in 1991 anyway.)

Perhaps the most cogent argument Author Gilmore presents in service of her case against social attitudes towards women's bearing witness is the case that neoliberal culture has privileged stories of Overcoming, of Beating the Odds, the System, as opposed to the more realistic way of viewing the System as flawed, broken, unfair, all by design. That design is put in place to keep the powerful protected, and the powerful are white and male. Narratives examining the system's failures are downplayed where they can't be dismissed or vilified. It's that women/the disadvantaged aren't trying hard enough! Look at {insert neoliberal here, eg JD Vance or James Frey}! They overcame their obstacles! Try harder, Jamaica Kincaid, Rigoberta Menchú!

This is balderdash, of course, and the author briskly defangs the "arguments" for it. A pair of examples of this, as well as the author's academic writing style:
A tainted witness is not who someone is but who someone can become in the process of bringing an account into the public sphere.
Tying the evolution of #BlackLivesMatter primarily to its responses to a series of killings of African-American men and boys by police officers, as some articles have, obscures the feminist focus on {B}lack lives broadly. By refusing a presentist framing of the event, #BlackLivesMatter is not, as its founders make clear, only about what happened but about how to frame it, how to bear witness to histories of the present, and how to look at images of death, grief, and protest as a form of ethical engagement.

These are not unclear or grammatically flawed statements; neither are they elegant, nor rhetorically exciting. They are true, unsparingly honest, and effective in making their cases.

I longed for more than that. It wasn't an easy read, it was in many ways an unpleasant book to read due to its trenchant indictment of privileged peoples and people's cynical, lazy, and cruel means of disempowering and devaluing The Others to maintain their privilege. I'm seeking a rousing call to arms, though, and while I wasn't promised this when I chose this book to read and review, I had set my hopes on it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

GHOSTLY DEMARCATIONS: Stories, linked novel-in-stories with the Halloween Spirit


Sagging Meniscus Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: Everyone is constantly admonishing our narrator to keep quiet: "You're full of bull hockey, college boy...Shut up and drink your beer." Or, "'Shut up,' Michelle replied. 'Shut up,' Michelle repeated." Or, "Don't look up. At least don't shout when you do. She's here, on the balcony." Or, "'Shit.' Sarah spit this out like a too-hot cinnamon ball, pulled me off the dental chair, and led me to the closet with the skeleton, shushing me with her fingers." Or, "Hush, be still. Tacete, tacete." Everyone admonishes him, when all he wants to do is shout the wonders, the horrors, the terrors that he and his older adoptive brother Galen face as one spiritual incursion after another manifests in their lives, moving from trickster poltergeists to forlornly wandering ghosts to intent fetches to avenging revenants. Perhaps, instead of admonishing him, everyone would do better to heed his early, youthful deliberation: "I never heard his voice again after that night. If we humans could always recognize the last words we were ever to hear from each person we knew or even met, our lives would perch as fragile indeed, gathering tragedy every listening moment to lean over a dark cellar of dark farewells."


My Review
: A further disclaimer: I've known Joe for over a quarter century. As he will somewhat sniffily tell you, this has never stopped me from letting him have it with both barrels if he dares to do less than his best. So, everybody clear on who did what to whom? Good. Let's begin:

This is a storytelling format that I'm fond of, the linked short-story collection or "novel in stories." Joe plays with identity in a lot of his fiction, and this format allows the issue to develop without ever making its presence feel forced.

As is my wont, I will use the time-honored and very efficient Bryce Method to view the stories as they come.

Galen's Mountain Child starts right off with creepy hillbilly ghosties of abandoned burned-alive kids, mothers without maternal instincts, and *retch* kittens.
His mom had been dating men starting the year after Galen's dad died and she hadn't been the gospel of kindness. Or maybe she was the gospel to the men, but not even the epistle to Galen.
True voice, I'm old enough to have heard exactly those locutions from older relatives. 4 stars

I Am the Egg

Kids Know

Angel's Wings


Madonna on a Country Road

Faithful Companion

The Mansion, the Chandelier, and the Belle


A Red Phase

Tit for Tat

The Perfect Ghost Story, Plus One

The Widow with the Hookah

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Louie, Louie and the Blonde Hippie

Ms. Sylvia's Home Care

Truly Mine