Science Fiction & Fantasy

CLIFFORD D. SIMAK – Out of Their Minds. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1970. Berkley, paperback; 1st printing, September 1970. Daw #514, paperback; January 1983.

   It is not clear at first where this book is taking place. All we know of the small backwoods town where our protagonist hero Horton Smith is heading is its name, the quietly evocative Pilot Knob. Later on, though, when Horton and his newly obtained female companion, a comely schoolteacher named Kathy Adams, find themselves on the run in turn to her hometown of Gettysburg PA, it is revealed that Chicago is not far off their route.

   So what this does is to place Pilot Knob in author Clifford Simak’s favorite story setting of either Wisconsin or Minnesota. It would be an ideal place for Horton Smith to settle in for a while, except for a couple of things: after making a wrong turn somewhere along the way, he sees a dinosaur, but only briefly before it disappears again. Tired eyes, he’s thinks. But then, after spending the night in a rundown farmhouse with a very strange couple, Norton wakes up in the morning in a cave full of rattlesnakes.

   The purely bucolic setting — again one of Simak’s specialties, and it is no different here — belies the fact that something strange is going on. After Horton realizes the couple he stayed with were actually Snuffy Smith and his wife Lowizey, he is reluctantly but totally convinced of that. (Today’s younger readers will need to be told that the couple were for many years the main characters in the “Barney Google” comic strip in every Sunday’s newspapers.)

   I’ve called this a science fiction review, and for the most part it is. Simak does his best to convince the reader that there is a scientific explanation for what goes on in the second half of the book, which turns out to be a collision between our world and the one created by the collective imagination of the people who live in ours: one in which Walt Disney characters and Don Quixote co-exist, a furious reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg is fought, as currently imagined, and where even the Devil himself eventually shows up.

   Since there are no rules in the world of fantastic literature, anything can happen, and does. Unfortunately, to my way of thinking, with only shaky logic behind the events that happen to Horton in this secondary world, I’m sure it’s not as fun to read as the author intended. Personally I found Simak’s description of life and the people in Horton Smith’s small backwoods hometown in the first half of the book a lot more interesting, even though that’s not the story he really had in mind to tell.

KEITH LAUMER – The Other Side of Time. Imperium agent Brion Bayard #2. Berkley F1129, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1965. Signet, paperback, November 1972. Collected in Beyond the Imperium (Tor, paperback, 1981) with Assignment in Nowhere (1968). Also collected in Imperium (Baen, paperback, 2005) by adding Worlds of the Imperium (1962) to the preceding volume. First hardcover edition: Walker, 1971. Originally serialized in Fantastic Stories, April-June 1965.

   From the title you might expect this to be a time-travel novel, and it is, but only in a way. What it really is is a novel of parallel universes, each separated from the other by the slimmest fabric of branched-off possibilities. What the world ruled by the Imperiumis is is an alternate Earth, one in which subtle differences between that world and ours are slowly but surely designed to be picked up on. (The time travel aspect comes in when it is discovered that in some parallel universes time travels at a different rate than it does in others.)

   It might be best to read Worlds of Imperium, the first in the series, before tackling this one. The Other Side of Time is a mapcap adventure in time and space that starts out in high gear and then notches the action up every two or three chapters along the way. What leading protagonist Bryon Bayard, based in Stockholm Zero-Zero, learns almost at once is that his world is being invaded by the orge-ish creatures called the Hagroon, and unless he does something about it, he will be the only one who survives. The rest of the books consists of him fighting a one-man resistance against the invaders, and as he does so, getting tossed this way and that in world after world, sometimes a captive and sometimes an utterly abandoned castaway.

   As a man of some endurance and ingenuity, Bayard is a MacGyver of his time times ten. It is a lot of fun seeing him juryrigging a shuttle based on a box and a few magnetic coils and setting off across a space-time continuum otherwise completely impossible to fathom — except in the imagination of an author like Keith Laumer.

   I cannot do better than to quote directly from page 152 of the Signet edition:

   The transparent helmet was in place, all the contacts tight. Dzok made a couple of quick checks, gave me the O sign with his fingers that meant all systems were go. I put my hand on the “activate” button and took my usual deep breath. If Dzok’s practice was as good as his theory, the rewired S-suit would twist the fabric of reality in a different manner than its designers had intended, stress the E-field of the normal continuum in a way that would expel me, like a watermelon seed squeezed in the fingers, into that curious non-temporal state of null entropy — the other side of time, as he poetically called it.

   If it worked, that was.

ERIC JAMES STONE – Unforgettable. Baen, trade paperback; January 2016; mass market paperback, May 2017. Previously published in ebook form, December 2015.

   Not too many science fiction novels take place in the present, but as I far as I can tell, this one does. There is only one aspect of it that makes it sfnal, and that is the fact that, since birth, Nat Morgan has had a unique talent: once out of sight of anyone, that person will forget everything about him in exactly sixty seconds.

   The same goes for computers and digital cameras, too. Anything in writing, fine, and (if I understand it correctly) photographs, the old-fashioned kind, if they’ve been printed out on paper they will continue to exist. It’s a tenuous hold on life, and it takes a lot of effort on Nat’s part just to survive.

   But who do you think he works for? The CIA, of course.

   And during the course of this current assignment, he’s finally given an explanation. Quantum physics, in other words, and Stone, as the author of this high-tech lighthearted thriller, somehow manages to convince me that it’s possible as well or better than any author could. (Store the information away along with intergalactic wormholes , faster-than-light drives and transporter beams. All I need is the basic concept and I say yes, OK, that makes sense, and now tell me a story about it.)

   And in this case the problem that Nat finds himself working on is how to stop a madman from building a quantum supercomputer so powerful that is can cancel out probability itself, and therefore control the fate of the entire planet. Aiding him in this effort is a female Russian agent who, as things progress, becomes the only one who does not forget him as soon as he steps out of the room. (If captured, stopping in a bathroom stall is a good way to elude his enemies.)

   It’s a one-note story, to tell you the truth, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m not sure that Stone has yet mastered all of the maneuvering you could do in life to both do good and to escape your would-be captors, but he’s thought of a lot of them. I enjoyed this one.


JONATHAN LETHEM – Gun, with Occasional Music.Harcourt Brace & Co., hardcover, 1994. Tor, paperback, 1995.

   Lethem was “born in the 60s, watched TV in the 70s, and started writing in the 80s.” This is his first novel, he’s at work on a second, and that’s all we know.

   Conrad Metcalf in a Private Inquisitor, which is the futuristic equivalent of a PI. (“PQ” doesn’t quite have the same ring to ot, somehow.) An ex-client of his is murdered, and the man the Inquisitors suspect of killing him comes to Metcalf protesting his innocence, and asking for help.

   Metcalf turns him down, but then for quixotic reasons of his own decides to become involved. This is sort of a PI story, after all. Problem is, nobody wants him poking around — not the dead man’s wife, not an enigmatic gangster, and most of all not the Inquisitors. It’s a brave new world, and it such creatures in it.

   This is a mystery/science fiction hybrid that won’t satisfy either camp. For SF fans there’s a potentially interesting culture set an unspecified number of years in the future, but there’s no background or rationale for it at all — it just is.

   For PI fans, Metcalf is almost a stereotypical mean streets kin of guy, but the futuristic trappings — evolved animals, a taboo against questions, musical news, “babyheads,” Karma cards (a debit balance means the freezer), and more — only prove distracting.

   Lethem is a moderately good writer in terms of prose and pacing, though there’s not a great deal of characterization aside from Metcalf himself. I was able to get through the book with some enjoyment (though not a great deal) because I’m an ardent fan of both hardboiled PI’s and science fiction. I can’t imagine any other kind of reader liking this much at all.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, May 1994.

Editorial Update:   This book received more acclaim from SF fans than Barry expected. It was ranked Number One in that year’s Locus poll for Best First Novel, was nominated for a Nebula, and had considerable support for a Hugo. I don’t recall mystery fans taking much if any notice of it, but I may be wrong about that. If you’re interested in learning more about Lethem’s career, you can do no better than to check out his entry in the online SF Encyclopedia.


ELLEN DATLOW, Editor – Blood Is Not Enough: 17 Stories of Vampirism. William Morrow, hardcover, 1989. Cover by Don Maitz. Berkley, paperback, July 1990; Ace, paperback, October 1994.

   A collection of vampire stories. I think the older stories (Leonid Andeyev’s “Lazarus” and Fritz Leiber’s “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes”) are more memorable than the new ones. However, I read everything, and there’s not a real dud in the lot.

   These are mostly untraditional treatments of the vampire, as one might expect from writers as varied as Harlan Ellison and Gahan Wilson. I especially liked Scott Baker’s “Varicose Worms” and “Down Among the Dead Men” by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, a Holocaust story.


Carrion Comfort • (1983) • novelette by Dan Simmons
The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be • (1967) • short story by Gahan Wilson
The Silver Collar • (1989) • short story by Garry Kilworth
Try a Dull Knife • (1968) • short story by Harlan Ellison
Varicose Worms • novelette by Scott Baker
Lazarus • (1921) • short story by Leonid Andreyev
L’Chaim! • (1989) • short story by Harvey Jacobs
Return of the Dust Vampires • (1985) • short story by Sharon N. Farber
Good Kids • (1989) • short story by Edward Bryant
The Girl with the Hungry Eyes • (1949) • short story by Fritz Leiber
The Janfia Tree • (1989) • short story by Tanith Lee
A Child of Darkness • (1989) • short story by Susan Casper
Nocturne • (1989) • poem by Steve Rasnic Tem
Down Among the Dead Men • (1982) • novelette by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann
… To Feel Another’s Woe • (1989) • short story by Chet Williamson
Time Lapse • (1989) • poem by Joe Haldeman
Dirty Work • (1989) • novelette by Pat Cadigan

DAVID GERROLD “The Thing in the Back Yard.” First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept-Oct 2014. Collected in Entanglements and Terrors (DG Media, softcover, 2015).

   For an author who’s been around for almost 50 years (I believe his firs published work was “Oracle for a White Rabbit,” which appeared in the December 1968 issue of Galaxy SF), why has it taken so long for me to have read anything he’s written? (I have seen the Tribbles episode he wrote for Star Trek, but then so has every SF fan in the world, at least those of a certain age.)

   Better late than never, I say, and “The Thing in the Back Yard” begins in very familiar territory: Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Toluca Lake CA, a true landmark of its kind. I’ve never stopped in, but I’ve passed by in a car many, many times. This is where the narrator of the story tells his friend Pesky Dan Goodman about the problem he’s been having with burglars getting into his home and stealing stuff.

   Pesky Dan Goodman’s solution: hire a troll. Not a mere garden gnome, but a real life troll. Big mistake. Trolls grow, and the more you hate them, the more they grow. And the more territorial they get.

    Pesky held up a hand to stop me. “Just meet him. Trust me on this.”

    “Last time I trusted you, I nearly got my passport revoked –”

    “Clerical error. You did get it straightened out, didn’t you?

    “Only because my sister is on first-name terms with our congressman.”

    “Well, there you are. No harm, no foul.”

    “I don’t think you’re getting my point.”

    “Sure I am. You need security. Emmett-Murray needs a quiet little corner. You won’t even know he’s there.

   This falls into the category of Famous Last Words. This also is the funniest story I’ve read so far this year.

ALEXANDER JABLOKOV “How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry.” Sere Glagolit #1. Novella. Lead story in Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2017.

   Of the three (or maybe four) SF print magazines still remaining, I think the best science fiction stories come from Asimov’s. (Not surprisingly, the best fantasy stories appear in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.)

   Analog SF is tied a little too closely to the traditional SF tale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what the magazine’s readers want and have come to expect. The science fiction in Asimov’s is considerably more adventurous and what’s more, the stories in it are noticeably better written.

   Case in point, this the first appearance of PI Sere Glagolit. Having had her business stolen out from under her by her former partner, she’s working on her own now, and having a difficult time of it. The planet where she lives, by the way, is not Earth. It’s a world with two suns and in particular, Sere works in a city called Tempest, one that is populated by pockets of all shapes and varieties of alien races, including humans (called the Om).

   She’s hired to find out who’s been buying up the leases of a collected sequence of properties leading from the bottom of Drur Reef to the top. She soon learns that a cleaning organization called Ferrulin is involved, not a criminal enterprise, by any means, but as Sere says, they have “more than a couple of toes over the line.” While working on the case, she also learns how it was that a small time exterminator accidentally killed himself in a tunnel through the mysterious butte, a landmark of some note in the city.

   As in all good private eye stories, there is a lot of footwork (and more) to be done, lots of false leads, lots of non-human characters with non-human motivations to talk to, and above all, a setting with lots of exotic scenery for the reader to gradually learn his/her own way around in. Thankfully, at novella length (over 30 oversized pages of solid print), there’s plenty of time and space to do so.

   More stories are promised, which is good news indeed.

MARTIN L. SHOEMAKER “Not Far Enough.” Novella. Captain Nick Aames #4. Lead story in Analog SF, July/August 2017.

    Michael L. Shoemaker is a new author for me, but he’s been writing science fiction since 2011, mostly of the nuts and bolts “hard” variety, and was nominated for a Nebula for Best Short Story in 2016 (“Today I Am Paul,” Clarkesworld #107).

    “Not Far Enough” is the fourth in a series of stories chronicling the adventures of a space captain named Nick Aames, but the blurb a the beginning of the story adds the additional information that a pair of crew members named Anson Carter (Lieutenant Jr. Grade) and Smith (Ensign, and female) are in at least two of the three earlier ones.

    The latter is the one telling this particular tale, that of the fate of a pair of simultaneous landing parties on Mars, six members in each. After a series of serious accidents, including one to the mother ship still in orbit, they find themselves stranded there, with little hope of rescue. How they manage to survive is the crux of the story. What it takes is sheer smartness and determination, and despite some serious interpersonal relationships that have to be worked through.

    Typical Analog material, in other words. Parts of the story are very good, especially the technical end of things. Details at the beginning could have been more clearly delineated, however, and some of the dialogue seems awkward and stilted to me. But overall, though, if you’re interested in what the early history of what exploration in space might be like, keep an eye out for this one.

  ROBERT SILVERBERG “Passengers.” First appeared in Orbit 4, edited by Damon Knight (Putnam, hardcover, 1968; Berkley, paperback, August 1969). First collected in in The Cube Root of Uncertainty (Macmillan, hardcover, 1970) and in Moonferns and Starsongs (Ballantine, paperback, June 1971). Reprinted elsewhere many times.

   At some time in the near future, “near” in the relatively speaking sense, since this story first appeared in 1968 but takes place in 1987, aliens have landed on Earth, and I mean aliens. No one has seen them, no one knows what they want, but whenever they want, they take over a human being’s body and do what they want with it for as long as they want. And when they leave, the person they have ridden with does not remember anything about the trip.

   Except for maybe this time. A man named Charles wakes up after haven been ridden for three days, and this time he remembers that he was with a girl, a girl named Helen. What’s more by some freak of luck, he meets her. Helen, that is. Does she remember him? No. But Charles is attracted to her, and he persists.

   It was no freak of luck. The aliens, whoever they are, like to play games, and sometimes their games are mean.

   It is difficult to say how it is possible for a story that could have been novel length to be compressed in the space of only 18 pages, but with spare prose, minimal exposition, a heap of fatalism, and best of all, a wryly tragic ending, that is exactly what Robert Silverberg does with this tale.

   The story was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1970, and won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1969.

JOHN BRUNNER – The Altar of Asconel. Interstellar Empire series #4. Ace Double M-123, paperback original; 1st printing, July 1965. Published back to back with Android Avenger, by Ted White (reviewed here ). Cover art: Gray Morrow. Previously serialized in If, April-May 1965. Collected in Interstellar Empire (Daw #208, paperback, 1976).

   Pure space opera, through and through — the kind of science fiction that might also be called swords and spaceships — but none the less enjoyable, as it should be in the hands of an author who would win a Hugo for his novel Stand on Zanzibar, published only three years later.

   The basic premise of The Altar on Asconel is that mankind is in the midst of a galaxy-wide decay after a huge expansion based on what they have found left behind by a prior empire, now mysteriously collapsed. Billions of interstellar spacecraft, for example, are there for the taking.

   But borrowing so extensively from another civilization is no way to build another one from the ashes, as mankind has now discovered. One world that has fallen to a cult-like ruler and a priesthood that follows him without question is Asconel. Can the three brothers of the former ruler fight to win back the planet on their own, with only the female companion of one and the fortuitous discovery of a young girl with as yet untapped telepathic powers?

   The answer, of course, is yes. You only need to read this book to just begin to understand what such powers can do on the behalf of a ragtag group of rebels such as this. (It’s almost cheating.) As I said earlier, this is pure space opera, such as that championed in the pages of Planet Stories a decade earlier. In one sense, this is more of the same, but with more than the usual amount of thought behind it, it’s also a jump higher — a solid, definitive jump.

Next Page »