Science Fiction & Fantasy


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 #13, June 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.

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.)

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