Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: Wintersmith

Book Review: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training.  She in some ways is already a very powerful witch, and has endured some hard lessons that required growing up fast.  But she’s also very much a girl who’s almost thirteen.  Miss Treason, on the other hand, is over a century old and has not been a “girl” in a very long time.  So when she tells Tiffany not to move during a dance, it doesn’t occur to her to explain what the dance is or why moving during it is a bad idea.  Tiffany senses a spot in the dance that seems to be shaped for her, and her feet dance her right in.

Wintersmith

That was a huge mistake, as the dance is the change of seasons.  And now the Wintersmith, the personification of winter, has become fascinated by Tiffany.  He sees her as the Summer Lady somehow in his time, and wants to hold her forever.  And if Tiffany doesn’t make it to spring, then spring will never come…..

This is the third Tiffany Aching book within the Discworld setting; the first book in the sequence is The Wee Free Men.  Tiffany is a farm girl who grew up in sheep-herding country called The Chalk.  She’s very practical and straightforward, which serves her well in witchcraft.  (In the Discworld setting, witchcraft, while it certainly includes a heaping of magic, is more about being a “wise woman” who provides skills and knowledge to a rural area.)  On the other hand, she is very young and has many things to learn, and sometimes Tiffany will get her back up and turn stubborn at the wrong moment.

Tiffany is aided as always by the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue men that combine the more disturbing aspects of Smurfs with the more violent aspects of highland Scotsmen stereotypes.  They have their own special dialect, and there’s a glossary at the front that also helps readers and parents know what they’re in for with the Feegles.  The tiny men provide much of the comic relief in the book, and are usually annoyances, but they are helpful when pointed in the right direction.

As well, Tiffany interacts with the community of witches, from the fearsome Miss Treason who has mastered the art of Boffo, through the harsh but highly competent Granny Weatherwax and jolly Nanny Ogg to the vain and in way over her head Annagramma.  Each of them has lessons to teach Tiffany (yes, even Annagramma has her uses) and help her on the way in her Story.

And Roland, the baron’s son, Tiffany’s friend who is a boy, comes into play as he has his own problems, but sets them aside for the time being to be the Hero that the Story needs at a crisis point.  His highly unpleasant aunts sound like they will be an issue in the next volume.

The Wintersmith, of course, is the antagonist of the book.  As the anthropomorphic personification of the idea of winter, it isn’t evil.  But Tiffany’s mistake has thrown the Wintersmith out of balance, and unbalanced winter is highly dangerous.  Worse, it’s trying to make itself more human without understanding what that means or caring about the effects it has on others.  It chillingly (pun intended) follows a children’s rhyme about what “makes a man” until it gets to the most important ingredients and just skips those.  It’s both funny and scary when the Wintersmith tells random people “I am a human being.”

A nice twist of the book is that it starts with a version of the final showdown between Tiffany and the Wintersmith, then rewinds the story, reminding the reader “the future is always a bit wobbly.”  When we reach the ending again, things are somewhat different.

This is listed as a “Young Adult” book but should be fine for precocious middle-schoolers on up.  Some parents may be disturbed by references to sex and childbirth (no gory details), but it makes sense in setting; Tiffany’s a farm girl with older sisters in a society that doesn’t shy away from those topics.  But the important thing here is relationships and learning how to say “no” to ones that are not a good idea.  Younger readers should probably start with the first Tiffany Aching book.

Recommended to fantasy fans, young readers and fans of practical, straightforward women.

Magazine Review: Marvel Science Fiction November 1951

Magazine Review: Marvel Science Fiction November 1951 edited by R.O. Erisman

Marvel Science Fiction started as a pulp magazine titled Marvel Science Stories that was published irregularly from 1938 to 1952.  The original publisher was the same one who eventually published Marvel Comics.  At the point this issue is from, the magazine was a digest-sized quarterly.  The line-up of authors is particularly strong.

Marvel Science Fiction

The cover by Hannes Bok isn’t related to any of the stories, but served as a caption contest.  You might want to enlarge the image to look at some of the details.

“Embroidery” by Ray Bradbury opens the issue.  Three elderly women concentrate on their embroidery as they wait for five o’clock.  This is not so much a science fiction story as an opportunity to use poetic metaphor.  As with many speculative stories of the time period, the threat of nuclear annihilation looms large over the text.

“‘Will You Walk a Little Faster'” by William Tenn continues the theme of existential dread with a tale that explains the origin of the legendary “little people.”  It seems they’re really aliens, and the rightful successors of humanity once we render ourselves extinct.  The problem is that the latest developments in mass destruction will render the planet uninhabitable if used in World War Three.  So the aliens are offering an even better weapon that will destroy humans without harming the environment, cynically counting on humans’ short-sighted self-interest to close the deal.

“The Dark Dimension” by William Morrison is another tale of humans being destroyed by their own greed, but on a…smaller scale.  Gerald Weldon, a self-educated scientist,  was cheated out of his discoveries twice, by two different men.  Now Weldon has discovered a way to communicate with, and possibly travel to, another dimension with different physical laws.  The beings on the other side of the portal seem anxious to have him visit, but having been burned twice, Weldon is hesitant.  Can he make full use of his discovery without being betrayed, or will he need to play on that betrayal to gain revenge?

“Shah Guido G.” by Isaac Asimov concerns a future United Nations that has become corrupted into a dictatorial regime that reigns from a new Atlantis.  It’s all a setup for a last-line bit of wordplay.  (The title might also be a pun, but if so it eludes me.)

“Chowhound” by Mack Reynolds takes place during an intergalactic war.  A Kraden has finally been taken alive, only for the Terrans to learn it’s no brighter than your average cow.  So the New Taos has been dispatched to the front to try to discover how such a creature could fly a starship, let alone wage a war.  It seems hopeless, especially when it appears an invisible spy has gotten aboard the ship.  Can Mart Bakr’s interest in exotic cuisine solve the mysteries?

“The Most Dangerous Love” by Philip Latham features the first rocket expedition to an extrastellar planet.  They’re aided by a young inventor who’s invented a new, more powerful scanner, able to focus on tiny areas at great distances.  Young Sidney Schofield has had no time for romance, having been so fixated on completing his invention.  It perhaps is no surprise then that when his scanner picks up a beautiful girl on the planet Del-S is headed for, he falls in love hard.  As the ship gets closer to the destination, it turns out the girl has a similar device, and soon the couple are in communication and looking forward to a life together.  Unfortunately, there is one small detail that makes them star-crossed.  There’s some Fifties sexism on display; the captain muses how grateful he is that there are no women aboard his ship, as they’d be constantly fighting and causing trouble.

“The Restless Tide” by Raymond Z. Gallun tackles the problem of immortality for a species like humans that evolved to handle a lifespan less than a century.  A husband is already tired of his comfortable Earth life, but his wife isn’t quite ready to go out to the space frontier again.  It’s ultimately something of an optimistic story; humans will always find something to do.

This is followed by a twenty-question science fiction trivia quiz.  Some of the answers are outdated.

Next up, a three-essay discussion of the question, “Should Population Be Controlled?”  The Yes position is taken by Fritz Leiber, in the form of a dialogue between two smug future people explaining the benefits.  Mr. Leiber correctly predicted the Pill (which came on the market in 1960) and the e-book.  On the other hand, he also talks about the concept of the stupid people outbreeding the intelligent people if steps aren’t taken, which is largely discredited.

No is handled by Arthur J. Burks, who argues that God intends for humanity to multiply, and Nature makes sure that we do.  Therefore, any attempt to artificially control population is doomed, so we shouldn’t even try.  Mr. Burks is also not a believer in “child-free” people.  Fletcher Pratt ties it up with Maybe, pointing out that no method of population control will be effective unless people go along with it, and known methods offend many religious people.

The letters column is the usual assortment of praise and gripes, with one correspondent (Francis J. Litz) complaining about the prevalence of half-naked women on covers of supposedly serious SF magazines.

“Mountains of the Mind” by Richard Matheson starts with a political scientist getting an electroencephalographic (EEG) reading from a doctor who’s researching geniuses.  When he sees his chart, however, he feels the need to seek out a mountain range that matches those peaks and valleys (ala Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)  And he feels the need to do so alone, ditching his fiancee from their planned vacation.  Eventually, he reaches the mountains and learns that he has been selected as one of the secret guardians of the world based on his compatible brainwaves.  He also learns that all the secret guardians must remain celibate, and he’s been manipulated since birth, which is why he’s kept putting off getting it on.  It’s difficult to get a read on the sexism level here–the story never specifically says that women can’t be secret guardians (only one other guardian appears or is named), but the only female character in the story is specifically not a genius, and works as a receptionist.

“Dover Spargill’s Ghastly Floater” by Jack Vance has the title character buy the Moon just a day before new transmutation technology makes Lunar real estate worthless.  Except that this was part of the plan all along.  His real motive was to terraform the Moon.  There’s some dodgy science to explain how the atmosphere isn’t going to evaporate off, and a businessman who fails at flexibility to the point I’m surprised he still has a company.

Judith Merrill and Harry Harrison provide the words and art respectively for a short piece on the Hydra Club, an invitation-only society for science fiction authors, publishers and interested people.  There were a lot of famous people in this club.

The back cover is a look at the first real-life space suit designed by the U.S. Air Force.

All in all, an enjoyable issue with lesser stories by good authors.

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg

This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995.  There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages.  They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.

100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone.  The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.)  Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.

As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout.  Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now.  There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.

Some standouts include:

  • “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder:  An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home.  Does she have one last spark in her?
  • “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno:  Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed.  Too bad the grownups never see them!
  • “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn:  A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
  • “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
  • “The Mudang” by Will Murray:  A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.

There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.

Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects.  There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.

You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times.  Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.

Book Review: If I Were You

Book Review: If I Were You by L. Ron Hubbard

Before L. Ron Hubbard got involved in…you know, he was a middling-good and prolific pulp author. The Golden Age Stories line is reprinting many of his stories in attractively designed paperbacks. This volume contains two short stories, , a preview of another, a glossary (really needed this time because of heavy circus slang) and a hagiography of Hubbard that does not mention…you know by name, just calling it “serious research.” Hee. It’s double-spaced in a largish typeface for easy reading.

You

The title story concerns a little person, “Little” Tom Little, who works as a circus midget, and then discovers a mystical method for bodyswapping with other people. He promptly decides to use this to swap with the tall, imposing ringmaster Hermann Schmidt. But Schmidt has troubles of his own, which could get Tom killed regardless of which body he’s in!

There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing early in the story, with what seems like random cruelty to Tom, but is actually a hint of what Schmidt’s issues are. The lion phobia, on the other hand, was a bit too telegraphed. The payoff to that is a very exciting scene, mitigating the obviousness. There’s a nice bit of ambiguity, too, in the motives of the Professor, who leaves Tom his books of magic.

The second story, “The Last Drop” is co-authored by the much better L. Sprague de Camp. A bartender foolishly creates a cocktail with some untested syrup from Borneo; growth and shrinking hijinks ensue. A fun story that at least waves at scientific plausibility as it goes by, in the form of the square-cube law. (The glossary explains it for the benefit of anyone who might have forgotten.)

While it’s a handsome package, and the stories are fun, the book is thin on content for the price. I’d recommend looking for used copies at a steep discount, or checking it out from the library.

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