Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Magazine Review: Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971

Magazine Review: Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971 edited by Sol Cohen

Science Fantasy was a short-lived (this is the final issue) reprint magazine from Ziff-Davis Publishing, which should not be confused with the long-running British magazine of the same title.  The stories in this issue come from the late 1940s/early 1950s, and reader tastes had changed considerably by the early 1970s, which may explain why the magazine didn’t last very long.  The cover and interior art are uncredited, although some of the illustrations are signed, and Virgil Finlay’s stuff is unmistakable.  Let’s take a look at the eight stories featured.

Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971

“Medusa Was a Lady” by William Tenn:  Perennial sucker Percy S. Yuss probably should have been more suspicious about the apartment being so cheap to rent, especially as the last few tenants hadn’t taken their stuff with them.  But he’s on a shoestring budget since being talked into buying a half-share in a failing restaurant.  So he takes the place, then tries to take a nice relaxing bath.  Except that when he opens his eyes, the tub is in the ocean, a long way from shore!

Percy soon learns that he has somehow been cast in the lead role of the myth of Perseus.   Now he must avoid being executed by the tyrannical King Polydectes, rescue a beautiful woman from a monster and slay Medusa of the Gorgons, with the help of Hermes.  But is the Olympian being entirely honest about what’s going on?

Pulp SF did a lot of “explain mythology with science fiction” stories, and this novella is firmly in that camp.  “Cyclical history” is involved, and we are told by one character that events don’t have to repeat exactly as they were reported before.  The ending suggests he might be wrong.

This story is also somewhat satirical, with Percy noting the absurdity of his situation several times.  This may also account for minor character Tontibbi, a “Negro girl” who clearly has more common sense than anyone else on the island of Seriphos and is described as being from a more advanced civilization in Africa.  Sadly, she is in the wrong culture, so is reduced to one of Polydectes’ concubines, and no one listens to her sensible suggestions.

(Versions of the Perseus story also appear in The Blue Fairy Book and Greek Myths: A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, which I have previously reviewed.)

“One Guitar” by Sam Merwin Jr.:  Lew Harlow, jazz guitarist, falls in love with singer Diana Wray.  She’s got the talent for the big time, but refuses to leave the small city she was born in.  It seems that every time she tries to leave, horrible accidents happen to those around her.  Also, there’s her bedridden mother to consider.  Lew decides that he likes Diana well enough despite their short acquaintance to marry her and stay in town too.

This triggers a confrontation with his new mother-in-law, who’s been hiding secrets about both herself and her plans for her daughter.  Lew will need both his knowledge of science and guitar-playing skills to get out of this one intact!  The story has a black character as a servant to Mrs. Wray, who has a stereotypical accent in her brief appearance.

“You Take the High Road” by Stephen Marlowe:  A Terran spaceship has crashlanded on a distant world and needs steel for repairs.  Unfortunately, negotiating with the natives has proved fruitless as they react with violence to all attempts to communicate.  After two crew members vanish, Doug Chambers decides to try something different.  As spoiled by the tagline, it turns out that the Murkies only respect fighters, and Chambers makes friends by beating them up.

“There’s No Way Out” by William P. McGivren:  An absurdist tale of an insurance agent who’s lured to an address with no building on it–until suddenly there is.  The building directory has no floors or suites listed with the names, and Sidney Wells is baffled by the contradictory directions he gets from the inhabitants.  Oh, and the elevators only go up, to the lobby.  Things just get worse from there.  No explanation in this one, Mr. Wells just finally accepts his situation and possibly goes insane.

“Witness for the Defense” by Paul W. Fairman:  This story was apparently a reply to one that had a decidedly negative view of the future of humanity.  Three bums pass time by holding court as to whether humankind is worth allowing to live; there’s a surprise witness who turns out to be a carpenter from Galilee.  Very short, and some readers may strongly disagree with the witness’ conclusion.

“Checkmate to Demos” by H.B. Hickey:  Dave Harkness, now effectively the world champion of chess, must play against an alien overlord for the fate of Earth.  But Dave has a dark secret; he’s not actually the best chess player in the world, merely the front for that person.  And when he can’t contact Binky, Earth is doomed.  This is a science fiction story until suddenly it becomes fantasy just long enough to give Dave a “hope spot” (a plot twist that makes it appear things are getting better just before they get much worse), and then the survival of humanity falls on Dave’s shoulders alone.  Heartwarming ending.  Some folks may find the characterization of a person with a disability dubious.

“The Girl in the Golden Wig” by Chester S. Geir:  Edward Shannon is a successful engineer, working for a major firm.  But he has secrets that are eating at him.  He has no memories past two years ago, just waking up one morning already in an apartment and working for Meyrick & Brandt.  He also wears a wig to conceal his complete baldness, which may or may not be important to his missing past.  He’s taken to wandering the streets at random at night, and one of those nights he bumps into a beautiful woman…whose golden wig falls off, revealing she too is completely bald.

Zell is a singer with an unwanted suitor (who turns out to be Shannon’s boss) and yes, their mutual baldness is a clue.  Turns out they’re aliens who are having a quiet civil war, and Shannon is one of the casualties.  Zell is the one who actually saves the day, using Shannon as something of a distraction.

“He Knew All the Answers” by Dallas Ross:  Jeremiah Perkins one day realizes that there is no true proof that light exists when he can’t see it.  From this bit of solipsism, he comes to the conclusion that the entire world is a sham, much to the distress of his wife Martha.  Since this is a speculative fiction story, Jeremiah isn’t completely wrong.

There are also short articles on Devil worship (the writer thinks the cultists are deluded) and the possibility of audiobooks (the writer is agin them as he feels it will lead to mental laziness, but is willing to make an exception for blind people.)

The Tenn novella and the Hickey story are the most satisfying ones.

Inexpensive used copies can be found through the Internet, but you might check your finer science fiction bookstores as well.

Manga Review: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3

Manga Review: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3 by Naoko Takeuchi

Usagi Tsukino doesn’t look much like hero material at first glance.  She’s clumsy, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and a bit of a crybaby.  But Usagi has a secret heritage, and when talking cat Luna seeks her out, Usagi becomes the bishoujo senshi (“pretty guardian”) Sailor Moon!  Now gifted with magical powers, Sailor Moon must seek out the other guardians and defeat the monsters of the Dark Kingdom to save the world.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3

This 1991 manga series was groundbreaking in many ways.  The mahou shoujo (“magical girl”) subgenre of fantasy manga and anime had been around since the 1960s, inspired by the American TV show Bewitched, but was primarily about cute witches, fairy princesses and ordinary girls who were gifted power by witches or fairies who used their magic to help people with their day to day problems and maybe once in a while fight a monster or two.  Takeuchi blended this with the traditionally boy-oriented sentai (“warrior squad”) subgenre to create magical girl warriors whose primary thing was using magical powers to defeat evil.

It was also novel for being a shoujo (girls’) manga with an immediate animated adaptation as Takeuchi developed the series in coordination with Toei.  The manga ran monthly while the anime was weekly, so the animated version has lots of “filler” episodes that don’t advance the plot but do expand on the characterization of minor roles.  Indeed, it’s better to think of the manga and anime as two separate continuities.

Both manga and anime were huge hits, though the versions first brought to America were heavily adulterated.  American children’s television wasn’t ready for some of the darker themes of some of the episodes, and the romantic relationship of Sailors Neptune and Uranus blew moral guardians’ minds.  More recently, new, more faithful translations have come out, and there’s a new anime adaptation, Sailor Moon Crystal that sticks closer to the manga continuity.

The volume to hand, #3, contains the end of the Dark Kingdom storyline.  Wow, that was quick.   Once forced into a direct confrontation, Queen Beryl isn’t really much more formidable than her minions; only the fact that she has a brainwashed Prince Endymion (Tuxedo Mask) on her side makes the fight difficult.  Queen Metallia, the true power behind the throne, on the other hand, is a world-ending menace and it will take everything our heroes have plus Usagi awakening to her full heritage to defeat it.

Takeuchi had originally planned for her heroines to die defeating Metallia and ending the series there, but the anime had great ratings, and both Toei and her manga’s editor felt that this would be too much of a downer.  After some floundering, the editor suggested the new character “Chibi-Usa” and her startling secret, and Takeuchi was able to come up with a plotline from there.

So it is that just as Usagi and Mamoru are getting romantic, a little girl who claims her name is also Usagi drops out of the sky to interrupt.  “Chibi-Usa” looks a lot like a younger version of our Usagi, and is on a mission to reclaim the Silver Crystal (despite the fact that she seems to be wearing a Silver Crysal herself.)  She infiltrates Usagi’s family, much to the older girl’s irritation.

At the same time, a new enemy appears, the Black Moon.  Led by Prince Demande and advised by the mysterious Wiseman, they seek not only the Silver Crystal but a being called the “Rabbit.”  Their initial ploy is to send out the Spectre Sisters to capture the Sailor Senshi one by one.  The Spectre Sisters are very much evil counterparts of the Senshi, each having an elemental affinity and interests matching one of the heroes.  The first two, Koan and Berthier, are destroyed in battle, but not before they remove Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury from the board.

In a subplot, a new minor character is introduced, an underclassman of Mamoru’s whose job is shilling Mamoru and his fine qualities.  This is actually kind of helpful, as Tuxedo Mask had spent most of the Dark Kingdom arc either being mysterious or unavailable.  This allows us more insight into who this Mamoru person is when he’s not around Usagi.

Rei and Ami get some development in their focus chapters, but seemingly mostly so that the Spectre Sisters can have similar interests.

Some of this comes off as cliche now, but that’s because Sailor Moon was such a strong influence on magical girl stories that came afterward.  Here’s where many of the tropes started!

The art is very good of its kind, and again seems less distinctive now because of imitators.

Recommended for magical girl fans, teenage girls and romantic fantasy fans.

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Book Review: The Hugo Winners Volume 5 1980-1982

Book Review: The Hugo Winners Volume 5 1980-1982 edited by Isaac Asimov

The Hugo Awards are given out every year by the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon.)  This series of books from 1986 collected the winners in the three short fiction categories: Novella  (17,500-40,000 words), Novelette (7,500-17,500 words) and Short Story (less than 7,500 words.)  Anything over 40,000 words is considered a novel.  The volume is organized by year, in the order from longest to shortest, giving a kind of wave effect.

The Hugo Winners Volume 5

“Editor” Isaac Asimov spends much of the introduction detailing the history of the science fiction magazine Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, of which he was the figurehead.  It’s relevant because 1980 was the first year a story from that magazine won a Hugo.

“Enemy Mine” by Barry B. Longyear was that story.  Two soldiers from opposing sides are stranded on a deserted island–one of whom is a pregnant alien.  To survive, they must work together, and come to respect each other and bridge the gap between their cultures.   This one was made into a movie, and Hollywood inserted an actual mine run by enemies.  Perhaps this was necessary as the emotional climax of the story is a three-hour recitation of family history, but Mr. Longyear was not well pleased.   It’s an excellent story.

“Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin is a chiller about a man who collects exotic pets.  The Sandkings of the title are hive-mind creatures vaguely reminiscent of ants.  They come in sets of four colored “castles” which have wars until only one remains.  Simon Kress, however, is a cruel man and does not want to wait for his pets to war in their own time.   How does it end?  It’s by George R.R. Martin, how do you think it ends?  An outstanding application of horror sensibilities to science fiction.

“The Way of Cross and Dragon” is also by George R.R. Martin, the first time an author had ever won two of the short categories in the same year.  An inquistor for a future Catholic church is sent to stamp out a heresy that venerates Judas Iscariot (and dragons.)   The inquisitor finds it a particularly appealing heresy, well-crafted and visually attractive.  But that’s not the real trap–there’s a more dangerous heresy underneath.  Of note is that the heretics have vandalized the local equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia so that those doing research would find supporting evidence for the heresy.

Also in 1980, The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke took home the novel Hugo, and Alien won Best Dramatic Presentation.  Barry B. Longyear was also picked as Best New Writer.

“Lost Dorsai” by Gordon R. Dickson is as you might suspect set in his Dorsai Cycle, a story universe where the resource-poor planet Dorsai makes its employment credits by hiring out its inhabitants as top-notch mercenary soldiers.  This story tackles the question of what happens when a Dorsai decides that he will not kill humans under any circumstances.  Even when he’s one of a handful of people in a fortress surrounded by bloodthirsty revolutionaries.   What does make a man a hero, anyway?

“The Cloak and the Staff” is also by Mr. Dickson, making him the second author to win two of the short categories in the same year.  Both he and Mr. Martin had won the third short category previously as well.  The Aalaag are superior to Earthlings in every way, and hold our planet in an unbreakable grip.   Even if somehow humans managed to rise up and kill all the Aalaag on Earth, the vast Aalaag Empire would simply wipe out the inhabitants and replant.  Courier Shane knows this better than almost anyone else, and yet he finds that he’s sparked a resistance movement with a bit of graffiti.   He manages to save one rebel for the moment, but there’s noting more he or anyone can do….

“Grotto of the Dancing Deer” by Clifford D. Simak concerns an archaeologist who goes back to the dig site of some cave paintings one last time.  He discovers the title grotto, and its connection to one of the dig workers.   It’s a rather sad story about a man who wants one person to know the truth before he leaves again.

Also in 1981, The Snow Queen won Best Novel for Joan D. Vinge, Best Dramatic Presentation went to The Empire Strikes Back, and Somtow Sucharitkul (S.P.  Somtow) was Best New Writer.

“The Saturn Game” by Poul Anderson concerns an expedition to Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, which turns deadly due to a moment of inattention.

A bit of context for our younger readers–the turn of the 1980s is when role-playing games, especially Dungeons and Dragons, went from an obscure hobby to a cultural phenomenon.   The usual cultural conservative distrust of anything new that kids get into converged with the 1980s “Satanic Panic” in which people sincerely believed there was a worldwide network of Satanists abusing children and performing human sacrifices.  So many people worried that RPGs would either teach children how to perform actual black magic (see Jack Chick’s unintentionally hilarious Dark Dungeons for an example of this thinking) or make impressionable teens unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and thus act out their violent pretendy fun times on real people.  This last one was a bit more plausible; most roleplayers know that one guy who takes the game way too seriously, akin to the sportsball fans that have violent temper tantrums when their team loses.

Mr. Anderson’s story works with the latter concept; it never uses the phrase “role-playing games” as those died out during a bad time in human history–the future equivalent is “psychodramas.”  Three-quarters of the expedition have been playing in the same game for the last eight years as their larger ship has been headed to Saturn.  In the future, psychiatry has been replaced by pharmacology to balance brain chemistry, and no one thought ahead about the possible consequences.  So when the players find themselves in a fantastic landscape that suits their story, they fall into a semihypnotic state acting out the play, and miss the real danger.

Mind, Poul Anderson also shows the strength that can be drawn from imagination, as the fantasy helps sustain the strength of the survivors, even as they know they must not succumb to it and ignore what must be done.  One of the flashbacks is about the significant other who doesn’t “get” role-playing games, and is unable to distinguish between in-character romance and an actual affair between players.  She forces the player to choose between her and the gaming group–it does not turn out the way she hoped.

“Unicorn Variations” by Roger Zelazny is more in the fantasy realm than straight science fiction.  When a species goes extinct, a new species comes to take its place.  And in a future where extinctions have become even more common, the unicorns have grown impatient to replace humans.   But one human bargains with the unicorn representative.  If he can beat it in a game of chess, the unicorn will not directly hasten the extinction of humans.  Unicorns, as it turns out, are very good at chess…but the human turns out to have a surprise backer.   If you have your chessboard handy, play along!

“The Pusher” by John Varley, is set in a future with relativistic space travel and time dilation.  That is, time on ship passes more slowly than for those standing still.  Six months on board is thirty years back on Earth.  Ian Haise, a “pusher” (starship crewmember) doesn’t want to entirely lose touch with those on the ground, so he has a scheme to befriend children so that when he returns decades later, they will remember him and welcome his return.  It’s an uncomfortable story, as Haise’s methods are strikingly similar to those used by a pedophile to “groom” victims.

1982’s Best Novel was Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, Raiders of the Lost Ark took home the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo, and the Best New Writer was Alexis Gilliland (who beat out David Brin!)

This collection really strikes a chord for me as it’s in my early adulthood, and I read most of these stories first-run.  It looks “modern” to me in ways that early SF doesn’t, and the field was becoming more diverse (even though all these stories happen to be by white guys.)   It’s worth finding just for “Sandkings” if you’ve never read that story, but the others are good as well, especially “Enemy Mine.”

Oh, and “Sandkings” was also loosely adapted for an Outer Limits episode.  Enjoy!

 

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