Saturday 29 June 2013

The Witches of Karres, by James H Schmitz: The Wizard of Karres, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Free

James H Schmitz is one of my favourite authors. Between the 1940s and the 1970s he wrote a large number of short stories and several, mostly short, novels. His fiction is characteristically light-hearted, fast-paced, amusing and entertaining. It straddles the SF/fantasy genres, can be equally enjoyed by adults and younger readers, and (unusually for the time and genres) features female characters who are at least as strong and interesting as the men. There is an innocent optimism about his stories which signifies an earlier age, one in which you know that the good guys will win out in the end and the bad guys get their just desserts. It is unthinkable that Schmitz would ever kill off one of his heroes or heroines; tragedy has no place in his writing. All of this makes his fiction perfect escapism, a kind of literary comfort food, a guilty pleasure. Yes, we know life will never be like that really, but it's fun to pretend for a while.

The Witches of Karres (first published in 1966) is my favourite among his novels, and is unusual in being relatively long. It is a major extension of one of his first stories (with the same title) published as a novella in 1949. As usual with this author, it is set in a far future in which humanity has spread across many planets in a substantial part of the galaxy. This tells the story of Captain Pausert, an amiable young man entrusted with piloting a spaceship on a mission from his home planet to sell a large quantity of unwanted goods. His task is almost completed when he rescues a young female slave from an abusive owner. One thing leads to another and he soon finds that he has purchased three young sisters. But these are not ordinary girls; they are from Karres, the witch world, and skilled in manipulating klatha – the universal force which powers witchcraft. This is the start of a whole series of adventures in which Pausert and his feisty and formidable young allies face multiple threats and problems as a result of attracting the attention of some powerful and dangerous organisations, with the survival of civilisation being ultimately at stake.

The Wizard of Karres, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Free, is a direct sequel to The Witches of Karres, but was written long after James Schmitz's death in 1981, being published in 2004. It follows on from the point at which Witches stops (in effect, both books form one long novel) and makes a rather slow, box-ticking start as the first part is scattered with little infodumps to bring readers who have forgotten Witches up to speed. Once that's out of the way the pace picks up with a new and even deadlier enemy to humanity emerging. That doesn't stop the authors from indulging in some diversions such as a prolonged stay at a circus in which the hero group get involved in playing Shakespeare (circuses and Shakespeare seeming suspiciously like somebody's pet enthusiasms). We also learn a lot more about the Nartheby sprites, the humanoid alien race which once dominated their section of the galaxy, while Captain Pausert obtains rather mixed results from his growing but erratic klatha powers.

The authors make a good fist of matching Schmitz's light and amusing writing style and they pack in enough new ideas to keep readers involved and entertained; I read the 450-page book in just three sessions. These stories are rather silly, of course, but great fun. Since finishing Wizard I've learned that a third book was published in 2010, The Sorceress of Karres, this time written only by Eric Flint and Dave Freer, but an initial report on it is lukewarm so I might pass on that one.

Saturday 22 June 2013

The Labyrinth of Osiris, by Paul Sussman

The Labyrinth of Osiris, published in 2012, is the fourth and sadly last novel by Paul Sussman, who died shortly after completing the book, aged only 45.

I said in my review of his previous book, The Hidden Oasis: [his stories] are written to the same formula; present-day adventure thrillers in which the characters are struggling to solve mysteries linked to events in both the recent and the very distant past. The author's background as a field archaeologist who has spent much time in Egypt is made full use of, with rich descriptions of the country and of archaeology, and his understanding of the different cultures of the region comes through clearly.

His final book is written along the same lines. The story features the one common character in all of his novels - Inspector Khalifa of the Luxor Police – who shares centre-stage with an old friend, Israeli detective Arieh Ben-Roi, who we previously met in the second novel, The Last Secret of the Temple. The two detectives spend most of the novel struggling with their separate problems (the murder of an investigative journalist in Jerusalem, and well-poisoning incidents in Egypt) but are brought into contact again almost by chance, and discover that what they have been working on are elements of the same, far-reaching, case.

The Labyrinth of Osiris works on several levels: it is an intriguing detective story with strong characterisation and a complex plot; a tough international conspiracy thriller; an archaeological mystery of ancient Egypt; a rich portrayal of life in both Egypt and Israel today, and above all great entertainment. There are twists, turns and surprising developments throughout, building up to a strong climax. I generally dislike long novels and this one has no fewer than 750 pages, but I was gripped from beginning to end.

There is one noticeable difference between this book and the other three; there is a shift in emphasis towards realism, with the fantasy element missing. Strictly speaking this means that this book doesn’t qualify for inclusion in this blog, but in view of his other work, and the fact that this was his last, I felt it appropriate to write this review. This is Sussman’s finest work, and we have lost a compelling story-teller.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Supermind, by A E Van Vogt

Supermind was published in 1977, towards the end of Van Vogt’s long writing career, and is a fix-up of three linked novellas featuring a common cast of characters, written with some assistance from James H. Schmitz and Edna Mayne Hull (his first wife). It is set in a future in which humanity has spread throughout the Solar System but is unaware of the existence of a vast galactic civilisation that has quarantined humanity as being too primitive to allow contact. This civilisation consists of various forms of humanoids who are physically indistinguishable from human beings but vary greatly in their intelligence and capabilities. Humanity is at the bottom of the intellectual pecking order, while the legendary and immortal Great Galactics are supermen at the top. Somewhere in between come the Dreeghs, a race of vampire outlaws who survive on the fringes of the galactic civilisation.

William Leigh is a reporter on Earth who stumbles across a strange crime in which the victims have been drained of both their blood and their electrical life force. Coupled with reports from the edge of the Solar System of an unidentified spacecraft observed travelling towards the Earth at an unheard of velocity, this suggests to him that some very unwelcome visitors have arrived. Humanity seems helpless in the face of the far superior Dreeghs, but can the galactic civilisation do anything to help?

The second episode follows on, this time focusing on Steve Hanardy, an apparently dull-witted transport pilot operating in the outer reaches of the Solar System, who unwillingly becomes mixed up with Dreeghs and other aliens, and finds some very odd things happening to him.

The final episode returns to Earth and follows the results of an experiment in which people are unknowingly injected with a serum designed to accelerate evolution within their minds and bodies. The unexpected result of this poses challenges with which even the galactic observers struggle to cope.

The story is classic Van Vogt; short, exciting and full of mysteries concerning people with immensely superior abilities, so if you like his other work you’ll probably enjoy this one. I was particularly intrigued by the concept of a suppressed mind; of people who have far more capabilities than even they realise, until the right trigger occurs – a notion picked up in a different way by Piers Anthony in Macroscope, reviewed here recently.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Interzone 246

The May-June issue of the British SFF magazine features a fantastic sea creature on the cover: Gorgónavis, by Jim Burns. Inside, David Langford’s Ansible Link blog includes the sad news of the terminal illness of Iain Banks and the death of horror writer Frank Herbert.

The interview features Lauren Beukes, along with a review of her latest novel The Shining Girls. Other reviews include the 25th anniversary edition of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, which I recall as a rich and original modern fantasy. Must read it again soon. There is also what appears to be the first in a series of articles about the state of SF, Future Interrupted by Jonathan McCalmont, in which he argues (to give a very brief gloss) that popular SF themes are becoming too well-worn and tired and we need to focus more on the uncertain future, with a wider view than the traditional Anglo-American focus. I take his point and agree that we should be seeing more modern concerns in fiction (in fact, these have always formed a small sub-genre of SF), but one of the traditional attractions of SFF is the escapism it provides; too much inevitably gloomy reality might lose much of the audience!

Film and DVD reviews include Season 5 of Fringe, which I hastily skipped over as I’ve only just started Season 3 so I have some catching-up to do. It’s still gripping my attention as a kind of modern version of the X-Files, but with a much more coherent overall story arc and with more intriguing characters. The review pages of Interzone is where I first heard about the superb Continuum, which I wrote about recently. I have now finished the first season and don’t know when the next one will be available on DVD. I’m also waiting patiently for Season 3 of Game of Thrones to become available. Despite the fact that I stopped watching Once Upon a Time and Warehouse 13 in their second seasons (I decided I was becoming too much of a couch potato and carried out a cull of the weakest series), I have the impression that we are unusually fortunate at the moment in the choice of high-quality SFF TV series.

Unlike recent issues there is no novella or longer story included in the magazine, but that leaves room for seven instead of the usual five or six, plus an extra one – the winner of the James White Award.

The Machinehouse Worker’s Song by Steven J. Dines, illustrated by Wayne Haag. The last two workers in a huge sealed-off factory wonder why no more people are arriving, and one of them decides to try to escape in order to find out. Rather eerie.

Triolet by Jess Hyslop, illustrated by David Gentry. Flowers which recite poems when touched form the skeleton of this story of personal relationships.

Sentry Duty by Nigel Brown, illustrated by Wayne Haag. The arrival of the first human on an alien planet, as observed by one of the aliens. A lesson in the perils of cultural assumptions.

The Angel at the Heart of the Rain by Aliette de Bodard, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A brief, fey story of a refugee in a strange city, and the need to adapt to a new life.

Thesea and Astaurius by Priya Sharma, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A very different take on the Minotaur in the labyrinth myth, told by one of the intended victims. Intriguing.

The Core by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Vincent Sammy. A continuation of the story The Bookseller in Interzone 244. We seem to be getting an entire novel in instalments.

Cat World by Georgina Bruce, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Two orphaned girls hiding in a hostile world find escape in hallucinogenic chewing gum, which takes them to Cat World and memories of their past. A sad tale.

You First Meet the Devil by Shannon Fay. Winner of the James White Award for new writers, this is a bizarre story (factually based, according to Wikipedia) concerning the short career of Stuart Sutcliffe, an early member of The Beatles pop group, told from Sutcliffe’s viewpoint but in the second person.

A mixture of unconventional, and sometimes decidedly strange, stories this time. Most aren’t really to my taste, but the one which captured my attention was Priya Sharma’s engaging fantasy.