Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 9: The Millennium Express (1995-2009)

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express (1995-2009) by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg (1935-still alive as of this writing) is one of the longest-running science fiction authors, having made his first sale in 1953.  Especially in his early years, Mr. Silverberg has been prolific, with his non-series short fiction alone filling nine sizable volumes.  This is the last in that series, but not necessarily the last collection of his short stories.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express, (1995-2009)

As the author explains in his foreword and the story introductions, he’s slowed down some as he’s aged, for various reasons.  There’s “only” sixteen stories from fourteen years presented here, but most are longer, a few up to novella length.

The opening story is “Diana of the Hundred Breasts” originally written for sale to Playboy, but turned down by them.  A wealthy layabout goes to visit his brilliant archaeologist brother at his dig in Ephesus, Turkey.  They meet a retired minister who’s touring the area, and the brother takes the other two to see the famous Diana statue of the title.  A little later, the archaeologist uncovers what may be the true meaning of the statue, but the brothers are left with more questions than answers.

I found the story so-so.  Mr. Silverberg uses tourists as main characters in many of his late period stories, something the Playboy fiction editor chided him for.  Even when the characters aren’t tourists as such, the stories often include long sightseeing sections.

He also favors the setting of the very far future and having characters realize just how very old the universe is.  Of these tales, I liked “The True Vintage of Eruzine Thale” the best.  It’s set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle.  Poet and wine connoisseur Puillayne is pulled out of his ennui by three suspicious looking men who claim to be fans of his work.  They turn out to be far more interested in Puillayne’s collection of rare treasures, especially the title liquid.

“The Millennium Express” is set in the relatively near future of 2999.  Four clones of great men have suddenly begun destroying the remaining treasures of the past.  A witness of one of their crimes becomes their pursuer, trying to discover their motivations and prevent them from wiping out the Louvre.  It’s a story about letting go of the past.

My choice for the strongest story in this collection is “Defenders of the Frontier” which first appeared in the Warriors collection, which I read previously.  A squad of soldiers man a forgotten outpost between their Empire and “the enemy.”  No orders or supplies have come to them in years as their numbers dwindled.  The enemy, too, has dwindled–they seem to have killed the last one in a thousand mile radius some weeks ago.  The soldiers can’t leave their post without orders, but if the enemy is truly gone, then there is no point in remaining.

I was reminded of the anime series Sora wo Oto, also about a small group of soldiers at a seemingly pointless outpost, though its mood is very different.

The final story is “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar”, set in India as the British Empire is building railroads there.  Young Smithers learns of a legendary sound in the desert, as though there were invisible people there, or perhaps ghosts.  He drags his friend Brewster off on an adventure to investigate.  They learn the truth behind this mystery, but at a terrible cost.

Several of the stories have scenes of extramarital sex.  (Apparently, at one point Mr. Silverberg concentrated on soft porn when the science fiction market was in a slump.)  “Beauty in the Night” has rape, child abuse and general physical abuse.

Overall, a high quality collection.  Robert Silverberg is a fine writer who has honed his craft over decades, and took his time with these stories.  However, I think this volume might do best for older readers who have some life experience to fully appreciate the nuances.  Beginners might want to start with one of the earlier volumes.

Disclaimer:  The version I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and the final contents might be slightly different–at the very least, the typos fixed.

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: The Tuesday Club Murders

Book Review: The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie

Author Raymond West has what he thinks is a smashing idea.  A series of Tuesday night gatherings where the six people present discuss mysteries they’ve run across, particularly juicy murders.  In addition to himself, there’s an artist, a lawyer, a clergyman, a retired Scotland Yard commissioner, oh, and his Aunt Jane.  She’s a darling maiden aunt who has seldom left her home village, and is obsessed with knitting, but she might have an insight or two.  But he needn’t have worried about her falling behind, for Miss Marple knows a thing or two about human nature.

The Tuesday Club Murders

Agatha Christie’s beloved elderly lady of detection first appeared in these short stories beginning in 1927.  The collection of them in a book (originally titled The Thirteen Problems) didn’t happen until 1932, so The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first Miss Marple book.  The format of the first six stories is the Tuesday night meetings, beginning with “The Tuesday Night Club” and ending with “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter.”  Then Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Scotland Yard man, gets Miss Marple invited to a dinner party where six more mysteries are told, from “The Blue Geranium” to “The Affair at the Bungalow.”

The last story, “Death by Drowning” has  Miss Marple ask Sir Henry to look into a young woman’s apparent suicide–she’s figured out what actually happened, but has no proof.

Miss Marple’s primary method is finding analogies.  Although she has seldom left her largish village of St. Mary Mead, Aunt Jane has had a long life and a keen interest in the people around her (and an ear for gossip.)  Thus she can almost always find something in her past that is reminiscent of the case at hand, and gives her the clues she needs.

Despite the title, not all of the stories involve a murder; “Ingots of Gold” for example is about a robbery.  Some of the tales may be more difficult for a reader to unravel due to them becoming dated; one relies on older British slang, while another requires a knowledge of obsolete work practices.   On the other hand, one of the tales has a trick ending of the type that made Ms. Christie’s work famous.  There’s some period sexism and classism, and one story involves domestic abuse.

While not Agatha Christie’s best work, and Miss Marple would have some character development in later books, (she’s kind of smug here) these are fun short mysteries that are very much of a time and place.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: One in Three Hundred

Book Review: One in Three Hundred by J.T. McIntosh

Most of you will have run into some variant of the “Lifeboat Problem” at some point.  (In my youth, it was done with bomb shelters due to the strong possibility of atomic war.)  A disaster has occurred, and a large number of people are going to die.  There is one ticket to safety, but only a limited number of spaces available.   As it happens, you are the person put in charge of filling those spaces.  Here’s a list of people longer than the number of available spots, tell us who lives and who dies.  Usually, some choices are easy (the person with vital medical skills lives, while the banker dies because seriously no one cares about money right now) but other decisions are more difficult (your beloved granny who’s  partially disabled or the hot woman who dumped you in college but has many good years left?)

One in Three Hundred

And that’s the starting dilemma of this book, originally published as three novelettes in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction in 1953.  The first section, “One in Three Hundred” reveals that in the very near future, the sun is about to become hotter, making Earth uninhabitable.  However, this will also raise the temperature of Mars to the point it will be barely livable.  In the limited time left before this insolation happens, the governments of Earth have pooled their resources to build a fleet of ten-passenger “lifeships” to allow approximately one in every three hundred Earthlings to have a shot at joining the small scientific colony already on Mars.

Bill Easson is one of the Lieutenants chosen to pilot a lifeship, and to pick the ten passengers that will be on board.  For this purpose, he’s been sent to the small Midwestern town of Simsville.  He wastes no time drawing up a preliminary list, but as the deadline approaches, the small-town tranquility is ripped apart as the citizens reveal their hidden sides and true natures, so Bill is forced to revise his list repeatedly, up until the last moment.

“One in a Thousand”, the second section, has Bill and his passengers discover that the lifeship isn’t quite as safe as they’d been led to assume.  Turns out that the Earth governments, decided to give a maximum number of people a small chance to survive, rather than a small number of people a maximum chance to survive.  Thus the lifeships have been built to absolute minimum standards.  (Bill does some calculations and figures that to build the lifeships to the correct standards, the number of potential passengers would have to be one in one million Earthlings.)

The lifeship crew must find a way to survive the rigors of space travel and perhaps more importantly, the landing!

Finally, in “One Too Many” those of Bill’s complement that survived the journey (including Bill) must weather the many dangers of Mars if they hope to have a future at all…but the greatest danger may be one they brought with them!

The first part is the most suspenseful, since we know that Bill survives (he’s narrating the story from several years in the future) but everyone else is on the chopping block.  On the other hand, it makes the narration feel oddly detached; Bill is doing his level best not to get emotionally involved, even though he’s making very emotional choices.

The second and third parts are more SFnal, though this was clearly written before any humans had gone into space, so the author has to guess what zero-gravity conditions are like, let alone the problems of surviving on Mars.  It’s also notable that this potential future (deliberately, probably) has no technological advances beyond those needed to get to Mars–Bill has to make all calculations aboard ship with pencil and paper, apparently not even getting a slide rule to work with.  Atomic power is mentioned as having stalled out.

And it’s very clearly a deliberate decision by the author not to have any social change whatsoever between the 1950s and “the future.”  Simsville is very much an average American town of the Fifties, and the culture shock of what needs to be done to survive on the lifeship and on the new colony is from a very Fifties perspective.  (The thought of miscegenation blows a lot of survivors’ minds.)

Some lapses are clearly down to 1950s standards and practices–there’s no mention of how waste elimination is handled aboard the lifeship.  But others are just weird.  The choices are kept secret until the absolute last minute so no one has time to pack, but none of the survivors had been carrying around a pocket Bible, or a pack of cards or even a family photo just in case?

And there are some skeevy bits.  Okay, yes, the survivors on Mars are going to need to make lots of babies to ensure the human race has a future.   But the standards listed for sexual assault are “if it’s a respectable woman who is trying to make babies with her respectable man, then the assault is to be punished severely, but if she’s a stuck-up rhymes with ‘witch’ that is denying society the use of her uterus, then the offender gets off with a wrist slap.”  I can see, sadly, the male-dominated readership of the time going “Yeah, rough on the women, but got to be done.”

And then there’s the ending, where the bad guy essentially has Bill and his friends over a barrel and unable to act, so someone who’s gone “crazy” has to resolve the problem for them.

The cover is cool, but more symbolic than representative–in-story, the government has taken great pains to avoid such a scene.  This was a Doubleday Selection of the Month, and the back cover copy is more about how science fiction is a popular and respectable literary genre now than it is about the book itself.

This is a good read, with the caveats mentioned above, but don’t think too hard because this is a “gee-whiz” story that will fall apart if you slow down to examine individual parts.  Also, be aware that there are reprints that only have the first story, but don’t say so in the description.

Book Review: A Miscarriage of Justice

Book Review: A Miscarriage of Justice by Nicholas Carter

The quiet village of Tarrytown, New York (not far from Sleepy Hollow) is rocked by scandal when Bert and Adele Denore cut their honeymoon in Cuba short.  It seems someone sent poison pen letters to the hotels and casinos they had planned to visit, alleging unspeakable things about Mrs. Denore’s background.  (And you know it’s unspeakable when a Cuban casino feels obliged to ban you to protect its reputation!)

Miscarriage
No cover is available, so enjoy this vintage French image of Nick Carter.

Due to the unusual stationery the anonymous letters were written on, suspicion falls on Marjorie Ellsworth, a minister’s daughter that Bert had unsuccessfully wooed some time before.   More evidence piles up, and postal inspector Fraser thinks he’s made his case.  But Marjorie’s fiance Frank Dean is sure she’s innocent, and engages the famous detective Nick Carter.  Nick soon convinces himself that Marjorie indeed is not the author of the poison pen letters..but there’s not enough evidence to convince a jury of that–and seemingly no motive for anyone to frame her!

As mentioned in my previous Nick Carter pulp reviews, he also had a stunning career as a dime novel character, with over 1000 volumes of his adventures printed.  This one, originally published in 1914 a brought out in a “paperbound” edition in 1919, is one of them.  My copy is barely holding together, with the covers and some of the spine missing, but all the story pages are there, so I thought I’d better read it now before it disintegrates.

The story is…of its time.  Nick is easily able to discern good people from bad by their facial features (he’s a trained expert at this) and plays fast and loose with the laws of evidence.  (Some dodgy legality at a court hearing is handwaved by the judge declaring it “informal.”)  Marjorie is a “damsel in distress” who is pure and innocent as well as beautiful, and seems to have no skill set beyond being of good character.  Adele, being French, is a conniving woman of dubious character, but a much more dynamic person with considerable spine.

There’s a small amount of violence, surprisingly none of it by the hands of the hot-tempered Frank, but this is decidedly not a murder case and the villains have no wish to make it so.  There’s an unfortunate cameo by a black bellboy who speaks in heavy dialect.

Superwoman
Ad for Ainslee’s Magazine from the back of the book.

Nick could probably have solved the case much faster if he hadn’t stuck to some cultural assumptions, but evidence would still have been hard to find.

Overall, this book is a disposable, quick and enjoyable read for fans of light detective fiction.  It’s mostly valuable as a curiosity, but people who love old books should keep an eye out for other Nick Carter volumes.

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