Science Fiction & Fantasy


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.

TED WHITE – Android Avenger. Ace Double M-123, paperback original; 1st printing, 1965. Published back-to-back with The Altar of Asconel, by John Brunner.

   This was author-editor Ted White’s first solo novel — his first being a collaboration with Terry Carr entitled Invasion from 2500 (Monarch, 1965) under the byline of Norman Edwards. It’s by no means a major stand-out effort, far from it, but what it does have is momentum, and plenty of it.

   It begins in Manhattan in the year 2017 (!) as an ordinary citizen named Bob Tanner does his regular civic duty (every fourteen months, on the average) of taking part in an Execution, a government sponsored event in which those deemed insane and a threat to society are strapped down and electrocuted by in front of 1000 citizens who push the buttons that do the deed.

   The US has become a country of Compulsory Sanity, in other words. As every SF fan knows, however, there are pockets of resistance, or there will be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

   As Bob Tanner leaves the Arena, his responsibility done, he slips on the sliding walkways in the city, causing an open fracture in his leg. What the medics discover, to their amazement, is that instead of bones, Tanner has a metal skeleton, and that his body has a non-human ability to heal itself in hours and minutes instead of weeks and days.

   Naturally Bob Tanner is scared out of his wits. (I would be, too.) But even more frightening to him, once he escapes and is on the run, is that he has a new-found ability to kill people he meets, even those he believes are friendly, beautiful women included, with a laser-like ray that emanates from his mouth.

   Bob Tanner, it seems, is a killing machine, built by one man but under the control of another, and he is caught in between. The story is padded with some scenarios built by one side or another and that play out in his mind — I am not too clear about this — but as these are some of more interesting portions of this rather short book (113 pages), it’s padding that adds significantly to the overall ongoing thrust of the story.

   Which ends on a high note, as good stories should, but there is definitely room for the question to be asked, “What comes next?” A question that may be answered in the sequel, The Spawn of the Death Machine (Paperback Library, 1968). Perhaps it will be as fun as this one to read.

KEITH LAUMER “Ballots and Bandits.” First published in If, September-October 1970. Collected in Retief of the CDT (Doubleday, hardcover, 1971; Pocket, paperback, July 1978).

   After reading and reporting back on a novel by Keith Laumer called Catastrophe Planet a while back, I realized that I hadn’t read any of the series of stories he wrote about an intergalactic diplomatic troubleshooter named Retief in quite a while. I enjoyed them immensely back in the 60s and early 70s, but as time went on, I started to forget how good they were.

   Shame on me. I read this one a couple of days ago, and I found it as funny as I remember all of Retief’s adventures for the CDT were. Retief is “fighter” spelled backwards, or so I’m told (well, it’s close), and what the initials CDT stand for is Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne. The stories themselves are wicked, satirical jabs at diplomatic missions around the world, and the US in particular, based on Laumer’s previous career in the foreign service.

   The only difference being that instead of traveling around the world, Retief’s job takes him to all kinds of alien planets all over the galaxy. What’s the same is the dunderheadedness of all ambassadors and their ilk — all Retief’s superiors, but none of them, not one, can maneuver their way through an interworld diplomatic crisis if their lives depend on it. And often they do.

   In “Ballots and Bandits” Retief and entourage (well, technically speaking, he’s part of the entourage) are on the planet Oberon where the enemy Groaci have recently been sent packing, and the various races on the planet are about to have independent elections for the first time.

   Two problems: Ambassador Clawhammer thinks the Terrans should have their say in the matter, and worse, the various races on Oberon have mistakenly taken the idea of election battles and political war chests far more literally as the people of other worlds do. The question is, which is better, being pushed around by local hoodlums, of being exploited from afar?

   Retief is the kind of guy that cuts through diplomatic double talk with total impatience, and as a mere Second Secretary solves the problem as a man who thinks with his head instead of using it as only a place to rest his hat. And in the process this time around he teaches the Oberonians the Rituals of “Whistle-stopping, Baby-kisisng, Fence-sitting, and Mid-slinging, plus a considerable amount of Viewing-with-Alarm.”

   Great stuff. I’ve only scratched the surface of what made me laugh out loud with this one, and more than once.

KEITH LAUMER – Catastrophe Planet. Berkley F1273, paperback original; 1st printing, August 1966. Included in the collection The Breaking Earth (Tor/Pinnacle, paperback; June 1981) with two non-fiction essays by other authors. Also included in the collection Future Imperfect (Baen, softcover; May 2003).

   This one takes place some 30 years or more in the future from the time it was written, and although it’s definitely a science fiction novel, a good portion of it would make the best James Bond movie never filmed. The reason for the title is that massive plates in the Earth’s surface have begun to shift, causing earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, typhoons and all kinds of similar disaster all over the world.

   In the James Bond role is a guy named Mal Irish to whom all kinds of strange events happen, and he’s just the kind of adventurous guy to go with them. If anything similar were to happen to either you or I, we’d just find the nearest corner and curl up in a ball.

   First he comes across an old sailor trapped in a mostly demolished building who tells him a fantastic story of an expedition to Antarctica where they found a hidden city filled with signs of an ancient civilization. But strange beings nearly wiped out the party; the dying man may have been the last survivor.

   But before dying, the man gives Mal a strange coin, which he takes with him to the island of Miami, which is now one of the last remnants of life going on as before on the planet. In fact there is a coin collectors’ convention going on. He takes the coin in for evaluation, and when he leaves, he finds the coin has been switched on him.

   Mystified, the trail leads him to Crete, and to get there he crosses the Atlantic in a small one-man boat. There by sheer happenstance he meets an old friend, who by chance knows a fisherman who just happens to have been hired to strange two groups of strange men out to sea, where they have jumped overboard and disappeared.

   Have I mentioned the beautiful girl who speaks a strange exotic language but who seems to be the object of a worldwide hunt for her by persons unknown? The trail leads at length back to Antarctica, where things revert to pure science fiction, if not epic fantasy, at last what we have been waiting for, a grand finale replacement for the much more prosaic adventures it took to get there, at least in comparison.

   If you stop to think about it as you go, however, you will realize what a bunch of nonsense this all is. But like a James Bond movie, to continue the parallel, if you can sit back and let Laumer slide you along from location to location, you may find yourself enjoying this all out assault on your senses immensely. Mind-blowing? Yes, absolutely.

   Unfortunately, I made the mistake of stopping and trying to pick up the story line later on. It has its moments, but all in all, as you may have gathered, I think Laumer has done much better work than this. (Note that the later two versions may be expansions of the Berkley novel from 1966, which is the one I read.)

The GARRETT P.I. Series by GLEN COOK
by Barry Gardner


   Down these mean streets not only a man must go, but just about anything else you can think of. Garrett has a deceased representative of a race you never heard of who is slowly but inevitably decaying for a housemate, hires the occasional groll for strong-arm work, isn’t above banging a sexy copper-headed dwarf if the occasion arises, and has for a best friend a vicious half-breed vegetarian elf who makes Parker’s Hawk seem like a pussy.

   His cases involve not only gangsters, but vampires, ghosts, and assorted other malevolencies. No, Dorothy, we’re not in Southern California any more, nor West Oz or North Narnia either.

   Garrett is around 30, an ex-Marine and veteran of a decades-long war between the Karentine Empire (in whose capital, TunFaire, he lives) and the Venageti. He’s tough and flip, though his wisecracks haven’t the flair of the better of his “realistic” brothers. The retinue at his brownstone equivalent includes an aging servant with a bevy of marriageable but extremely ugly nieces; a large, colorful and profane bird known as the Goddam Parrot (a later addition); and the Dead Man, a yellow and much larger member of an enigmatic race who is quite dead but still kicking. In a manner of speaking.

   In general I haven’t been enamored of attempts to meld crime and fantastic fiction. Though Lee Killough and Mike McQuay have both gained some attention in this area, neither have particularly impressed me, the latter in particular. The Garrett books, to be fair and accurate, are more fantasy/adventure than detective stories, though there are mysteries and there is detection.

   Glen Cook is a prolific and in my opinion very, very good science-fantasy writer. He has authored a number of trilogies and series, among them the Black Company saga — one of my own all-time favorites — and a group known loosely as the Dread Empire series.

   He is one of the most adept of current writers at constructing mythic landscapes, but at the same time retains a focus on the characters who inhabit them; to me, a formidable combination. It’s unlikely that there are many with a liking for science-fantasy who haven’t discovered him, but for those few I have no hesitation in recommending any of his single books and series.

   There are seven books in this series to date, the last (and least) just having been released in February. All are paperback originals from Signet/ROC.

Sweet Silver Blues (1987). Garrett’s old war buddy, Denny, leaves his fortune to a lady whom his family doesn’t know, and they want Garrett to find her. Denny was a dwarf, by the way. Sister Rose, a dwarfish mixture of pulchritude and pure greed, would rather have the fortune than the heir. The trail leads to vampires, centaurs, and trouble.

Bitter Gold Hearts (1988). The son of a Stormwarden (a local variety of sorcerous very big shot) is kidnapped, and her deputy hires Garrett to help. The plot involves ogres and assassins, and if that wasn’t enough, the Stormwarden’s nubile daughter doesn’t seem to find Garrett unattractive.

Cold Copper Tears (1988). A woman from Garrett’s past and something almost as dangerous from the Dead Man’s make things interesting around TunFaire. Throw in a teenage girl’s street gang a few holy relics, a nihilistic cult, then stir twice and start counting the bodies.

Old Tin Sorrows (1989). Garrett owes a big favor to an old Sergeant who works for a retired General whom someone is trying to kill. Garrett takes up residence in the General’s mansion, which has a ghost who no one but Garrett can see. Then the dead come back to life, and more people die.

Dread Brass Shadows (1990). Garrett’s favorite redhead gets knifed for no reason, then two others show up who look a lot like her. An intra-species gang war starts among dwarves, and gangsters are after everybody. They all want the mysterious Book of Shadows, and Garrett hasn’t the foggiest.

Red Iron Nights (1991). A serial killer is gutting beautiful young women in TunFaire and removing their blood, raising spectres of cults and black magic. The City’s top cop wants Garrett’s help, and the lady gangster kingpin wants … something.

Deadly Quicksilver Lies (1994). While the Dead Man sleeps, Garrett is hired by a beautiful redhead, once mistress of a now-dead king to find her runaway daughter. Of course, it’s not that simple; it’s really about buried treasure and old debts, and everybody wants a piece of the action and of Garrett.

   These aren’t bad books at all. Lightweight, certainly, but decently written, and they furnish a passable way for some of us with a taste for both fantasy and crime fiction to combine our pleasures.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #12, March 1994.


[UPDATE]   The series has continued since Barry wrote this overview, to wit:

8. Petty Pewter Gods (1995)
9. Faded Steel Heat (1999)
10. Angry Lead Skies (2002)
11. Whispering Nickel Idols (2005)
12. Cruel Zinc Melodies (2008)
13. Gilded Latten Bones (2010)
14. Wicked Bronze Ambition (2013)

CLIFFORD D. SIMAK – Shakespeare’s Planet. Berkley/Putnam, hardcover, 1976. Berkley, paperback; 1st printing, May 1977. Del Rey, paperback, 1982.

   Back in my teens and 20s when I was reading SF by the armload, two of my favorites were, of course, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. I say “of course” because those were the two authors that my SF-reading friends were also reading (all two of them).

   But as time went on and I started reading Astounding and Galaxy and some of the other magazines that came out around then, I started finding other authors that appealed to me even more than the big two. (I won’t go into who the “Big Three” might be.)

   As you may have guessed by now, this is when I discovered Clifford D. Simak. He wrote simple stories about some not so simple ideas, and what’s more he made them sound simple. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest (Michigan), and Simak was if nothing else a master of small town ideas and values, and of creating characters who believed in them, no matter how far out in time or space they happened to be.

   Shakespeare’s Planet is a prime example. It begins with Carter Horton waking up on an expeditionary spaceship as the only survivor of four humans on board. His only companions, if you will, being a robot named Nicodemus and a ship named Ship, controlled by the minds of three people who gave up their bodies for the voyage: a monk, a scientist and a grande dame.

   The planet the ship has found is inhabited, as it turns out, by an alien creature named Carnivore. Recently deceased is a human dubbed Shakespeare from the book of plays he owned. Tunnels in space have led to this world, but something has gone awry, as they function only in one direction: in, not out.

   And the ship cannot return to Earth, which is now 1000 years away. One new arrival to the planet after Horton is Elayne, a female explorer of the tunnels through space. She is also trapped with the others. But there are other beings on the planet, each more fantastic than the next, nor do they get along as well as those already described.

   Before the book ends there is a lot of discussion of life, the universe, and the role of humanity in it. Some of this discussion may be dismissed by some as being on the level of sophomores living in a college dormitory, but Simak has a way of making it seem a whole lot more than that — he works with a canvas the size of the entire cosmos –and if I could explain what he does any better than that, I’d be writing SF instead of only reading it.

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