Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Three Days to Never

I seldom read contemporary fiction, preferring either the past (historical fiction) or the future (sf). Occasionally a contemporary fantasy will intrigue me, usually written either by Charles de Lint or Tim Powers. Powers’ latest novel Three Days to Never is actually a contemporary science fiction novel (set in the late 20th century) with aspects of fantasy, a bit of a departure for Powers.

The premise is that Albert Einstein, in addition to his “famous” discoveries, also invented a time machine which consisted of some rather convoluted elements. After sampling the time machine himself, Einstein decided it was too dangerous and tried to destroy all its scattered parts. The novel concerns two shadowy groups which are trying to track down and obtain the various parts of the time machine for their own purposes.

While the novel has multiple viewpoints, most of it concerns a single father and his daughter whose recently-deceased grandmother apparently had parts of the time machine and understood their purposes very well. The novel is primarily a thriller as the father and daughter, once they learn of the existence of the time machine, try to elude their shadowy pursuers while also seeking to obtain the rest of it themselves.

It does not pay to think too deeply while reading Three Days to Never, but all the historical connections between Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, the three-Day Arab-Israeli War and other historical elements are fascinating, and Powers successfully pulls it all together at the end. Overall it is much more interesting in my mind than the Dan Brown-type of pseudo-historical thriller, even though Powers’ premise is not any more logical than Browns’ on any scale of believability. Powers is just a much better writer than Brown.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Worlds of IF mystery solved

Last December I discussed a Worlds of IF mystery which occurred after the December 1964 issue announced that the feature story for the January, 1965 issue would be the first installment of Jack Vance’s second Demon Princes novel The Killing Machine. However, the serial never appeared in Worlds of IF, being replaced in the subsequent issue by the serial Starchild, by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson.

Recently I began reading that January 1965 issue, and the solution to the mystery was revealed in the letter column. A correspondent named Martin Massoglia commented “The Killing Machine by Jack Vance has just been published by Berkeley Medallion–now you are planning to serialize it? WHY?“ The editor (presumably Frederik Pohl, although at times an assistant editor handled the lettercol) replied “As re The Killing Machine: we agree with every word you say...and that’s why the serial beginning this month is Starchild. When we bought The Killing Machine it was with the clear understanding that there would be no book publication for at least a year. Somewhere, somebody, somehow failed to get the message–and the book edition came out–and at the last possible moment we had to pull the story out and replace it (If you look closely at the cover you can see where the type was cut out and changed).

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Innkeeper's Song

There is a lot to like about Peter Beagle’s novel The Innkeeper’s Song, but there are also some flaws in it which temper my recommendation a bit. As the title indicates, the story takes place at an inn set in a typical medieval-type fantasy world. Several people converge on the inn one summer, initiating a series of events which climax in the virtual destruction of the inn. The characters in the novel include:

• Nyatenari, a female escapee from a convent who is sought by three assassins since nobody is permitted to ever leave the convent;
• Lal, a female warrior who has a very close, if slightly mysterious, relationship with Nyatenari;
• Lukassa, a young woman who drowned in the novel’s opening sequence but was somehow returned to life by Lal;
• Tunzi, Lukassa’s lover who saw her drown and immediately left home to follow her and Lal;
• a changeling who is often a fox, but at times becomes a human;
• Karsh, the fat, disagreeable owner of the inn who distrusts Nyatenari and Lal the instant they arrive at his inn, but he is too weak to refuse them lodging;
• Rosseth, an orphan boy who has worked at the inn his entire life;
• an aging wizard who was the teacher of Nyatenari and Lal, and whose death is sought by a younger, more powerful wizard.

Several storylines intertwine in The Innkeeper’s Song: the three assassins show up at the inn intending to kill Nyatenari; Lal and Nyatenari seek the young wizard in an attempt to save the life of their mentor; Tunzi is so love-smitten he continually tries to regain Lukassa’s love even though the formerly-dead woman does not recognize him at all; the young wizard shows up at the inn planning to kill the old wizard.

The book is told in the form of dozens of short chapters, each from the point of view of a different character, so we get multiple colorings on what is taking place. The characters are mostly interesting, with the exception of the fox, and the storylines move along nicely.

What slows the book down is long passages where Beagle seems so enamored with the writing itself that nothing happens for several pages at a time, neither plot nor character development. These are primarily in the chapters narrated by the fox and Lukassa. I found my eyes glazing over those passages, but fortunately they were a small portion of what otherwise was a very interesting book. The climactic scene includes considerable hand-waving, but that is almost expected in a book about wizards and it did not detract from the power of that scene.

Several decades ago I read the collection Giant Bones, which were novelettes set in the world of The Innkeeper’s Song. I enjoyed the novel enough that I hope to go back and reread the collection again.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

St. Louiscon 1969

This weekend the annual World Science Fiction Convention is being held in Montreal. I have not attended a worldcon since 1980 in Boston, primarily because my wife is a non-fan and was bored that entire weekend. The 1970s were my worldcon-going years, and I attended seven of them, skipping the west coast and overseas worldcons because of traveling expenses. This year is the 40th anniversary of the first worldcon I attended in full (I spent a single day at Nycon 3 in 1967, my first exposure to fandom which convinced me it would be very good to participate further). I was a college student at the time, and I flew to St. Louis for Labor Day weekend. While I don’t have a lot of memories of that weekend, some of them still stick in the back of my head:

• the huckster’s room (dealer’s room) was the highlight of the entire weekend, row upon row of new and used science fiction books. In subsequent years, the percentage of books declined, replaced by more and more arts and crafts, but still there were always more books than I could possibly have wanted at any worldcon;

• the art show was absolutely spectacular, so I always spent a lot of time browsing the art at worldcons;

• some of the panel discussions were fascinating, while others were boring. It was not so much the topics which determined the quality of the panels as the panelists themselves;

• I saw many of my favorite sf writers for the first time. Alas, I was much too shy to speak to any of them;

• I enjoyed the Hugo Awards a lot, including all the speeches. The Best Novel went to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, but I was most excited by Best Novella going to one of my very favorite stories, Robert Silverberg’s “Nightwings”;

• it was the 1960s, after all, so there was skinny-dipping in the hotel pool. I had not expected to see that, however, my hotel room looked right down on the pool and I was very surprised one night to look out my window and see dozens of nude people right below me. No, I did not join them;

• one clumsy fan tripped and tore the movie screen in the main auditorium of the convention. Harlan Ellison immediately took up a collection to repair the screen, but the money collected was far in excess of what was needed, so Harlan unilaterally decided to donate the excess to Clarion, the writing workshop for fledgling writers which was so new at the time that it was actually being held in Clarion State College. However, Clarion was viewed by some fans as a “new wave” training ground, and they resented their money being given to an organization of which they disproved, which caused a bit of a controversy at the convention. Ultimately the money was used for another cause.

My main regret about St. Louiscon is that I did not speak to anybody the entire weekend since I was both too introverted and too shy to think of anything to say to strangers, even though we had mutual interest in science fiction. Actually, I never overcame that fear at all, even into this decade when I attended a local regional con and spent most of my free time observing other people socializing while feeling somewhat left out. But the pleasures of a worldcon were still many even for a wallflower like me.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Regular readers of this blog know I am a big fan of Jack McDevitt, especially his Alex Benedict future historical mysteries. I am slightly less a fan of his Academy novels which are more problem-solving adventures about a superluminal pilot Priscilla Hutchins whose adventures involve either exploring worlds whose civilizations have been destroyed by large interstellar “omega” clouds which travel slowly through the galaxy destroying any civilizations they encounter in their path, or trying to rescue civilizations from the approach of other omega clouds.

Besides the adventures, the books in the Academy series are also concerned with the underlying mystery of the origin of the omega clouds: are they natural phenomena or artificial? Why do they target civilized worlds? Most importantly, is there any way they can be stopped since one of them is on a direct path towards Earth although, fortunately, it will not reach it for nearly one thousand years.

When the series concentrates on the clouds (as in the initial story The Engines of God and the one being discussed here Omega), the books are better than when they devolve into routine adventure fiction (Chindi and Deepsix). The premise of Omega is that humans discover a fourth alien race besides themselves, a race of cartoonish-looking beings affectionately called goompahs after children’s tv characters. Their world is in the path of an omega cloud, but unlike Earth which has nearly a millennium to worry about it, they have less than a year.

Immediately the Academy dispatches available superluminal ships to the goompahs’ world to help them. This involves two major problems. First is that, according to “protocol,” humans are forbidden from revealing themselves to less-advanced cultures (as the goompahs are, having a sophisticated but pre-Industrial Revolution society) for fear of drastically-inhibiting their development. Second is that scientists have absolutely no idea how to either stop or alter the path of the omega clouds.

Omega mostly concerns two groups. One is a small group trying to find some way of convincing the goompahs to abandon their cities and flee to the mountains (since the clouds only destroy outward signs of civilization, specifically any structures built with right angles) where they would be safe from the assault. At first these efforts involve secrecy from the goompahs for the sake of the protocol, but as the cloud gets nearer, the protocol is abandoned, which involves another problem: the goompahs are immediately terrified at any sight of humans, so that convincing them of their danger from the omega clouds is akin to devils appearing in New York City and trying to convince the average person they encounter that they appeared there to save their lives. Nor is there any worldwide mass media on the goompahs' world, which makes it even more difficult to influence all goompahs.

The second group is bringing technology which they hope will distract the cloud, such as giant structures in space built entirely of right angles which they hope will attract the omega cloud away from the planet.

There is a lot to like in Omega. The race to save goompah civilization is a gripping one, and the difficulties encountered by the participants are believable. The last hundred pages of the book are particularly exciting as the humans race to save the goompahs during the assault by the omega cloud. But I most enjoyed how the humans explored goompah society trying to find ways to convince them of their danger without violating the protocol. Along with them, we learn about goompah history and religion and the structure of their civilization. It is a fascinating bit of culture-building, even if goompah society is a bit too human-like to be totally convincing. While certainly not on the level of a C.J. Cherryh or an Ursula K Le Guin, combined with the efforts to save the goompahs, as well as the overriding mystery of the omega clouds, it is all fun reading which I recommend highly.