Stories I’m Reading


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.

ED GORMAN “Our Kind of Guy.” First appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July 1996. Collected in Famous Blue Raincoat, Crippen & Landru, trade paperback, 1999, and in Out There in the Darkness: The Collected Ed Gorman – Volume One, PS Publishing, hardcover (limited edition), 2007.

   The late Ed Gorman spent over twenty years in the advertising and public relations business before becoming a full-time writer, and I wonder if he ever put that background to better use than in this story.

   Two partners in a multimillion-dollar advertising agency in a small Midwestern town have 64.3 percent of their business tied up with one client, the Hancher Chicken account, and a crisis is brewing. It turns out that Ted Hancher, the CEO of the company has gotten religion and is about to cancel the account. Apparently he no longer wants his company to be associated with the boozing and high life of Bill and Roy, co-owners of the agency. Drinking, smoking, cursing, women? All verboten.

   What to do? They come up with a plan, one involving a local former call girl named Brandy, a motel, a camera, a little blackmail, and hey presto, no more worries. What could go wrong?

   Well, of course something does, and what a tricky twist of the knickers it is that fate plays on the luckless perpetrators of this far from foolproof plan. But wait! Fate steps in again. A double twist. Most stories manage only one. This one has two.

   Combine this with Gorman’s usual semi-sour look at the world he always wrote about anyway, and prose written so smoothly that you think anyone can do it, but you can’t. The result is a noirish gem of the highest magnitude. An absolute winner.

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.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime.” First published in Cosmic Powers, edited by John Joseph Adams (Saga Press, trade paperback; 1st printing, April 2017).

    Browsing at Barnes & Noble yesterday, a brand new science fiction anthology called Cosmic Powers caught my eye. I bought it almost immediately, brought it home, and I’m already three stories and 70 pages into it. The overall theme, according to the editor, John Joseph Adams, in his introduction are “stories of larger than life heroes battling menacing force, in far-flung galaxies, with the fate of the universe at stake.”

   Well, yippee! As long as the authors don’t go all early Edmond Hamilton on us, or E. E. Smith, Ph.D., this is the kind of science fiction I’m always on the lookout for, and so far, I’m happy to tell you, they haven’t. The stories are huge in scope, but up close and personal in scale. (I hope that makes sense.)

   The first story in the book, “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,” by Hugo award-winner Charlie Jane Anders, is a pretty good example. In fact, compared to the deadly dull military SF being published (what I’ve seen of it), it could be faulted in going too far in the other direction; that is to say, making too light of the affair — which in this case consists entering the realm of a huge blob of existence called The Vastness, escaping with a device called a hypernautic synchrotrix on a spaceship called the Spicy Meatball, one of the two perpetrators thereof (one male and one female) being someone who calls on a pair of gods totally new to me (“Thank Hall and Oates!”), and all this in only the first eight pages, with 26 more to go.

   I enjoyed this one. I think the author manages to keep both feet on the right side of fun versus slapstick, but this may very well be one of those situations where simply said, your mileage may vary.

ELEANOR ARNASON “Ruins.” First published in Old Venus, edited by Gardner Dozois & George R. R. Martin (Bantam, hardcover, 2015). Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois (St. Martin’s Griffin, trade paperback, 2016).

   The stated goal of the anthology Old Venus is to showcase new stories based on the vision that SF writers had of the planet back in the 40s and early 50s; namely, a water-drenched planet with all kinds of exotic flora and fauna, a world where humans could live, but it would be a struggle.

   I don’t own a copy of that book, a companion edition to a similar anthology called Old Mars, but now that I’ve read this story in editor Dozois’s most recent best of the year anthology, which I’m slowly working my way through, I know I need to have it.

   In “Ruins” a young female photographer named Ash Weatherman is hired by a representative of National Geographic to put together a small guided tour of some of the more interesting locales on Venus. She agrees, finds a local crew,and off they go.

   This is all great fun. None of the sights and sounds the group comes across would out of place in an old back issue of Planet Stories, to pick a most obvious example. But all is not what it seems, neither with the people she hires as guides, or with the story itself. The crossbreeding of Terran wildlife with that on Venus was caused by a meteor glancing off Earth and hitting that other planet, or was there a second one as well?

   There are also two factions on Venus that ring strangely out of place. The CIA has a strong outpost there, with their primary protagonists being remnants of the Soviet Union, which collapsed economically by trying to keep their colony on the planet going, and this new expedition finds themselves caught up in the crossfire.

   Nor is this all that they find, hence the title. This is the kind of story, extremely well-written, that gave science fiction its grand sense of wonder in the past. It’s good to see that there are authors who can still provide us the same thrills today.

KAREN JOY FOWLER “Private Grave 9.” First published in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon (Vintage Books, 2003). Collected in What I Didn’t See and Other Stories (Small Beer Press, 2010). Reprinted (and lead story) in The Mammoth Book of the Mummy, edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2017).

   This story takes place in Mesopotamia around the same time that Howard Carter was looting King Tut’s burial site over in Egypt. The unnamed narrator is there at the dig as its official photographer when two things happen: First the discovery of a body of a royal princess in a tomb also containing the remains of seven other women, quite possibly her servants.

   Secondly, and perhaps even as importantly: the arrival of a mystery writer (à la Agatha Christie) hoping to soak up some atmosphere for her next book, and looking for signs of conflict between the various members of the expedition. She finds none, not at first, but as time goes on, she does create some.

   Or do the murderous thoughts that come into his mind come from the princess, Tu-api, rather than the presence of Miss Whitfield? One of the narrator’s photos of the princess mysteriously shows a ghostly image of her face, or is it only his imagination?

   This story is extremely well written, with many fine scenes and phrases to keep the reader turning the pages. To me, however, this is a story in which something is always on the verge of happening, but that something never really does. Nor by story’s end has anything much changed, except to the narrator, who cannot seem to relate what he has found out about himself to anyone except himself.

   But as to whether his discovery translates well to the reader, well, all I can suggest is that is something that will depend on the reader. As for me, I was disappointed, but I also have to tell you there are depths here that make this a story well worth reading.

DASHIELL HAMMETT

DASHIELL HAMMETT “The Tenth Clew.” Continental Op short story #6. First published in Black Mask, January 1, 1924. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 1945; revised ending. Also, among others: The Return of the Continental Op (Jonathan Press #J17, paperback, 1945; Dell #154, paperback, 1947); The Continental Op (Vintage V-2013, paperback; November 1975; edited by Steven Marcus); all with the original ending.

    “The Tenth Clew” (or “Clue,” as it is on the front cover of the magazine) is the lead story of the latter collection, which I happened to notice in a box of paperbacks I was going through and decided to read. It’s been a while since I read anything by Hammett, and long since time, I decided, that I should.

    I’d forgotten, though, that Mike Nevins had made a point of talking about this story in his June 2011 column for this blog. When I got to the end of what was otherwise a very enjoyable story, I was taken aback and asked myself what it was that I’d missed.

DASHIELL HAMMETT

    It turns out that it was a major mistake by Hammett and his editor way back in 1924, one that Fred Dannay fixed when he ran the story in EQMM some twenty years later, but then reverted back to the original ending most if not all of its appearances since.

    Since Mike did such a good job in discussing it, I won’t talk about it here, as I’d intended to. Go read about it in that old column of his, then by all means come back. Let me talk about this instead.

DASHIELL HAMMETT

    I don’t claim that the thought is original to me, and I’m sure it isn’t, but it’s worth bringing up again. It occurred to me that Hammett may have been having some fun with the readers of this story, which reads from the very beginning as a straight-forward detective mystery, complete with clues — nine of them, in fact, duly noted by the Op and O’Gar, the detective sergeant assigned to the case.

    Unfortunately the clues, very confusing in and of themselves, also do not lead anywhere, including the fact that the victim was killed by being hit over the head by a typewriter. The Op’s conclusion? The tenth clew? That the other nine clues do not mean anything, and he proceeds to solve the case by assuming exactly that.

    So much for the puzzle stories of Agatha Christie and the like. I’m no purist, and I enjoyed this one, even with the botched up ending.

DOUG ALLYN “Animal Rites.” Published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July 1996. Reprinted in All Creatures Dark and Dangerous (Crippen & Landru, 1999).

    It cannot be easy to write a full-fledged detective story in the confines of a short story or even a novelette, but this issue of EQMM has at least three that qualify, the best of them being this 26 page tale by Doug Allyn, who has been a regular contributor to the magazine since 1985.

    “Animal Rites” was the third appearance of Dr. David Westbrook in the magazine. Westbrook was an animal veterinarian whose office was located in the northern end of Michigan’s lower peninsula, not far (I can easily imagine) from the small town where I grew up. It is hard to say how many stories could be placed in such a protagonist in such a setting, but Allyn managed to write nine of them, seven of them included in the collection published by Crippen & Landru in 1999. (Two appeared after the book came out.)

    In this particular tale, David is caught between two sides of a panel debate on live TV. The topic is the hunting of animals for sport, yes or no? Tempers are raised, a confrontation breaks out, and the next day one of the participants is dead. One of the others confesses, but based only on their instincts, neither David nor the local sheriff is convinced.

    It takes a vivid dream to bring into his consciousness the clue David needs to solve the case, but the reader can easily pick up on it as well. The characters are interesting, the setting (to me) like home, and a reasonably fair mystery. All the right ingredients.

    Another good detective story is this issue is “The Thief of Nothing,” by Jeffry Scott, in which Detective Inspector Scipton agrees to help an elderly lady who is convinced that someone is continually breaking into her home, but never taking anything. Scipton helps solve the case, but surprise of surprises, another one as well, plus (and a big plus) in the course of the events he meets a woman who may be the one he’s looking for. At least she thinks so.

    I’m not sure how many stories the late and much missed Edward D. Hoch wrote about Nick Velvet, a thief noted for never stealing anything of value, a fact agreed upon even by the police. In “The Theft of the Bogus Bandit,” Nick is forced to keep that reputation as rock solid as ever when an imposter using his name begins a spree of holdups in which not only does he steal diamonds and the like, but while doing so also severely attacks the people he is stealing from. Nick, naturally, is outraged.

« Previous PageNext Page »