Writers Of The Purple Page:
The Pursuit of the Pankera: Solution Unsatisfactory?

[Editor’s note: This review originally appeared in the April issue of the Denver clubzine DASFAx. Reprinted by permission. You can find issues of DASFAx at this link.]

By Sourdough Jackson: In March, a new Heinlein novel came out, assembled from fragments found in his papers. The Pursuit of the Pankera contains no interpolations to link the fragments together; when placed in their correct order, they form a complete novel.

I awaited it with some trepidation, as pre-publication announcements stated this was, as its subtitle stated, “A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes,” and the novel it paralleled was, alas, The Number of the Beast. I have little use for most of what Heinlein wrote after 1958, the exceptions being Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. I have a sentimental attachment to Podkayne of Mars, but I know full well that one was a dud, when compared to RAH’s earlier work.

Despite my fondness for alternate-history tales, I found long ago that Number was easily Heinlein’s worst book. Pursuit turned out to be somewhat better, but it still has serious flaws. Something the editor did, as a service to the reader, was to place a discreet marker in the margin, near the top of page 152, where the two novels diverge—the first thirty percent is virtually identical to the original.

This means slogging through the same initial sequence, and getting to know the four main characters again, none of whom resonate with me. Jake Burroughs, his daughter Deety, Zeb Carter, and Hilda Corners are hyper-competent geniuses, deadly opponents in any fight, and arrogant as all hell.

Their origin is an Earth similar to ours, in what is apparently the early 21st century—flying cars are common. The elder Burroughs discovers the theory and practice of paratime travel. As in Number, they have little common sense to go with their brains; while escaping from an attempt on all their lives, they take time out to marry in a great deal of haste (Jake with Hilda, Zeb with Deety).

Still on the run, they honeymoon in Jake’s desert hideout, with a romantic interlude that could’ve been handled better. I tired quickly of the sexual banter; as in most of his late-period novels, Heinlein overdid it. Like Tabasco sauce, a little of that stuff goes a very long way.

During that time, Jake refits Zeb’s flying car to function as a “continua craft,” meaning “paratime machine.” It has sufficient life support to handle space; it’s unclear to me whether this was original equipment. Then they’re interrupted by a “federal ranger” who tries to arrest them, and whom they kill quickly. On inspection (and dissection), the “ranger” turns out to be an alien infiltrator. The two couples put this together with the earlier attempt on their lives, conclude that the aliens want to eliminate anyone who knows the truth about paratime travel, and bug out in a hurry. They attempt a trip to Barsoom, the alternate Mars created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

This is the divergence point. In Number, they reach a Mars that looks like Barsoom, but isn’t, while in Pursuit, they find a real one. Once they meet the Barsoomians, and are welcomed to the city of Helium, Jake and Zeb discover an inconvenient truth. Their wives are pregnant, and they are honored guests on a planet that has no obstetricians, or even backwoods midwives. All Barsoomians are oviparous, meaning they know no more of obstetrics than we do of the healthy incubation and hatching of children.

In a museum, they find an ancient specimen of an extinct invader who matches the phony ranger they killed earlier. These beings were called Panki or Pankera by the green Barsoomians, and tradition informs them that the Pankera tasted very good when cooked. Apparently, the Pankera have infiltrated the local version of Earth, as there is another attempt to apprehend the party by Terran visitors (this Barsoom has minor commercial relations with Earth, mostly in the form of tourists).

They scram once more, and visit Oz. No obstetricians there, either—childbirth is an alien concept, but for different reasons from Barsoom’s—but Glinda the Good does refit their flying car with a new interior, somewhat similar to that of a TARDIS (as also happens in Number). Eventually, they wind up in Doc Smith’s Lensman universe, and have some interesting times there.

The ending is one of the things that really gripes me about this book. No spoilers, but Heinlein has used this kind of ending before, in The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers, two of my least-favorite books of his. The only good thing about it is that he doesn’t throw in Lazarus Long, except as an offstage cameo (in Number of the Beast, we see entirely too much of that ancient no-account).

The real problem with Pursuit isn’t the ending, though, or the insipid sexual banter that he habitually overused in his old age. It is the attitudes of the protagonists. I don’t call them “heroes,” as they don’t act very heroic, in my opinion.

Due to two murder attempts coupled with two attempts at imprisonment (which might or might not have been disguised murder attempts), the four not-heroes infer that all the Pankera are intent on killing them, and on enslaving every variant of Earth they contact. Their response, once they are settled somewhere comparatively safe and resolve their obstetrics problem, is to hunt and kill the Pankera whenever and wherever in the Multiverse they find them. The term they use for a version of Earth that has been infiltrated by Pankera— “infested”—says a lot about the Burroughses and the Carters, none of it good.

There is no attempt at any point to analyze why the Pankera might be after them, other than to prevent Jake Burroughs from further development or publication of his findings about paratime. Their motive might be a takeover of Earth, or it might simply be to protect “the Paratime Secret,” similar to the mission of the Paratime Police in some of H. Beam Piper’s stories. Bear in mind that, in Piper’s tales, it’s the good guys, not the villains, who preserve that secret.

Late in the tale, they survey many alternate Earths, and find ten of them to be “infested.” The worst case is our own world—it’s easy enough to figure this out from the clues Heinlein gives. Their solution to this problem is unethical in the extreme: extermination. If it proves impossible to root out all the Pankera from a particular Earth, the entire planet is to be burnt off.

This is the attitude of Cato toward the Carthaginians, of Hitler toward the Jews (and Roma, and Slavs, etc.), and of far too many immigrants to the New World toward the Native Americans.

This is also, alas, an attitude taken by many of the early authors of science fiction, especially of space opera. Don’t just beat the invading problem, followed by negotiating a peace with it, destroy it utterly! Root and branch! Vermin of the Universe! The only good _______is a dead _____!

Doc Smith, for all that I loved his tales, was a cardinal sinner here. I think “nuance” was a word in a foreign language (French?) to most of science fiction’s pioneers.

Some didn’t glorify genocide in their sagas—Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke come to mind. Thankfully, by the 1950s and 1960s, SF had rid itself of much of this nonsense. Absent from Star Trek were aliens who acted like Smith’s Osnomians or the humans in Starship Troopers. Captain Kirk (and later, Captains Picard and Sisko) didn’t try to destroy all Klingons, Romulans, or Cardassians.

One would think that, by 1980, Heinlein might have gotten the message. In 1945, after all, he and the rest of the world discovered the crimes of the Nazis and the Japanese militarists. And yet, he and some others continued to propose extermination as a solution to the problem of unfriendly aliens. One might think Heinlein was channeling the Daleks. Containment, the strategy that finally won the Cold War, never seemed to enter his head, at least when he was writing a novel.

Or, perhaps, he did get the message—The Number of the Beast, for all its manifold faults, is what got published in 1980, not The Pursuit of the Pankera. In Number, the trouble made by the (unnamed in that book) Pankera is dismissed by Jubal Harshaw as having been directly caused by a single entity, the one who was killed at Jake’s hideout. The real troublemaker, who tries to crash the convention at the end of Number, falls from a great height as it charges up Bifrost to storm Asgard—and the Rainbow Bridge vanishes underneath it.

It’s entirely possible that Pursuit was the original draft, and Number was the second—rewritten after Heinlein realized the ethical mess he’d created.

Pursuit is for Heinlein completists (I am one). Don’t expect anything like his average work during his middle period, much less such gems as The Door into Summer or Have Space Suit—Will Travel.

My nutshell assessment of The Pursuit of the Pankera comes from Heinlein himself:

Solution unsatisfactory!

2019 Novellapalooza

[Editor’s note: be sure to read the comments on this post for more novellas and more Filer reviews.]

By JJ:

TL;DR: Here’s what I thought of the 2019 Novellas. What did you think?

I’m a huge reader of novels, but not that big on short fiction. But the last few years, I’ve done a personal project to read and review as many Novellas as I could (presuming that the story synopsis had some appeal for me). I ended up reading:

  • 31 of the novellas published in 2015,
  • 35 of the novellas published in 2016,
  • 46 of the novellas published in 2017,
  • and 38 of the 2018 novellas.
  • (and this year I was waiting for access to a few novellas, so I was reading others, and thus my final total crept up to 55!)

The result of these reading sprees were

I really felt as though this enabled me to do Hugo nominations for the Novella category in an informed way, and a lot of Filers got involved with their own comments. So I’m doing it again this year.

The success and popularity of novellas in the last 5 years seems to have sparked a Golden Age for SFF novellas – so there are a lot more novellas to cover this year. By necessity, I’ve gotten to the point of being more selective about which ones I read, based on the synopsis being of interest to me.

It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book despite not feeling that the jacket copy makes the book sound as though it is something I would like – and to discover that I really like or love the work anyway. On the other hand, It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book which sounds as though it will be up my alley and to discover that, actually, the book doesn’t really do much for me.

Thus, my opinions on the following novellas vary wildly: stories I thought I would love but didn’t, stories I didn’t expect to love but did, and stories which aligned with my expectations – whether high or low.

Bear in mind that while I enjoy both, I tend to prefer Science Fiction over Fantasy – and that while I enjoy suspense and thrillers, I have very little appreciation for Horror (and to be honest, I think Lovecraft is way overrated). What’s more, I apparently had a defective childhood, and do not share a lot of peoples’ appreciation for fairytale retellings and portal fantasies. My personal assessments are therefore not intended to be the final word on these stories, but merely a jumping-off point for Filer discussion.

Novellas I’ve read appear in order based on how much I liked them (best to least), followed by the novellas I haven’t read in alphabetical order.

I’ve included plot summaries, and where I could find them, links to either excerpts or the full stories which can be read online for free. Short novels which fall between 40,000 and 48,000 words (within the Hugo Novella category tolerance) have been included.

Please feel free to post comments about any other 2019 novellas which you’ve read, as well. And if I’ve missed your comment about a novella, or an excerpt for a novella, please point me to it!

(Please be sure to rot-13 any spoilers.)

(fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)

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Book Review: Barbara Krasnoff’s The History of Soul 2065

By Daniel Dern: Whether you want to call it, as Jane Yolen does it in her introduction to this book, a multi-generational “mosaic” novel, or, per the listing on publisher Mythic Delirium’s site, “A book of linked stories,” Barbara Krasnoff’s The History of Soul 2065 is, simply, a remarkable book, combining elements of both fantasy (ghosts, spirits, magic time/space portals, demons) and science fiction (cyberspace/virtual reality, and other elements in a multi-generational story that (a) I heartily recommend, and (b) I’m ready to nominate (or add my nom for) this year’s Nebula Awards.

(Disclaimer: I know Barbara Krasnoff professionally and socially, from the technology journalism and sf con-attending world(s).)

The stories mostly focus, or are from the points-of-view, of two Jewish girls starting in just-before-World-War-I Russia and Germany, and their families, friends and descendants, through World War II and the Holocaust, to our present day, and beyond, to the latter half of this century. This includes a lot in New York, notably during Prohibition and the Depression.

The 216-page book consists of twenty stories, including “Sabbath Wine” (2016 Nebula Award Finalist for Best Short Story), plus Yolen’s introduction, and summary family trees of the main characters). Five of the stories are original to this volume; the others have appeared in various publications between 2000 and 2017, although, as Krasnoff notes in the copyright information list at the end of the book, “they were slightly revised so that they could take their proper place in the histories of Chana’s and Sophia’s families.”

Each story is intense — both in the prose and the content. (And I found that I wanted to take a break after each story, rather than plowing through the book in a few long sessions.)

Each story can stand on its own. But they also fit together. So the further you get into the book, the more you the reader begin to see things the characters may not themselves know.

If you aren’t ready to buy/borrow the book yet, you can read sample stories from Krasnoff’s book online for free (and then go get the book):

And if you need more convincing to try the free samples, here’s some related File770 coverage:

One final note/suggestion: If you are a SFWA member and planning to do any (more) Nebula nominations — which close in February 15, 2020 — now is the time to read the freebies and get the book. (My apologies for not getting this done sooner; my Mount To-Be-Done is a twin peak to my Mount To-Be-Read.)

Discover The Old Continent: Ninety Remarkable European Speculative Books From The Last Decade

By Bence Pintér: There will be lists about the best science fiction, fantasy and horror books published this decade, but there won’t be any list like this one: you will read about books which you probably won’t be able to read, because they were mostly written in languages most people in the US never even heard about.

The last decade in Anglo-Saxon speculative publishing was a decade when everyone discovered stories different from the usual: stories about marginalized groups, LGBTQ people, people of colour or stories from China, to name just a few.

Now me and my fellow European fans, publishing professionals, and writers will present another set of unknown speculative stories: European stories from countries outside the Anglosphere. These stories are not just unknown to the English-speaking world, though. In Hungary, for example – but as I hear from the contributors, this is also the case elsewhere – the speculative fiction market is dominated by American and English writers in translation.

This spring I wondered: is there even any speculative fiction dealing with the future of Europe? The people of European countries? The European Union? I surveyed the English and American books and was unsatisfied. Apart from Dave Hutchinson’s superb Fractured Europe Sequence, I did not find much. Then I thought: maybe in other languages… Then I decided that it would be even better to showcase not just stories about the future of Europe, but to show the world that European speculative fiction is a thing.

So, on the one hand, this list can help American publishers and agencies to find talented authors and interesting new voices from Europe, while, on the other hand, European SFFH publishers from each country can also find valuable work to publish in their respective markets – the EU even has a fund to support literary translations. Crazy!

To create this list, I contacted fans throughout Europe. I can’t state that these were the best European speculative books in this decade, i.e. published between 2010 and 2019. I can only state that people I contacted found them remarkable. Special thanks goes to Mihaela Marija Perkovic from Croatia, who helped me to get in contact with a lot of other people who contributed to this list. I also have to thank Mike Glyer for publishing this article and providing me with contact information to contributors.

While here you will read about a lot of European countries, I could not find contributors from every country. I’m still looking for the most remarkable speculative books from this decade from Albania, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Iceland, Kosovo, Lithuania, Malta, Montenegro, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. Originally, I did not wanted to include books which were written in English, but now I’m willing to expand this list with books from the UK and Ireland.

[Editor’s note: WordPress will not display some special characters, therefore, with apologies, the most similar Latin character has been substituted.]

[The recommendations start after the jump.]

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Review of Stephen King’s
The Institute

Editor’s Introduction: Daniel Dern is a big Stephen King fan and hopes you’ll become one, too. His previous evangelical post was “An Evening With (As In, They’re On Stage, I’m In The Audience) Stephen and Owen King, On Tour Promoting ‘Sleeping Beauties’” in 2017.

By Daniel Dern: Stephen King’s new novel, The Institute (561 pages), is a solid contemporary (set in our world, current timeframe) science fiction novel, of kids with undeveloped psionic powers — TP (telepathy) and/or TK (telekinetics)… and the (clandestine) organization — here, “The Institute” — that is kidnapping them. Why? Read the book.

King has written about psi kids before — Firestarter (which I liked a lot) comes, ahem, to mind. (Carrie, too, although I’ve lost track whether there was ultimately any darker/fantasy source to her abilities.) And he’s written other sf, like Under the Dome. (Along with way lots of stuff  categorized under “horror,” of course.) And bunches of simply good stuff, like Shawshank Redemption, and the short-story that first brought me to King, “Quitters, Inc.”

The Institute doesn’t, to me, read like “genre sf,” more like contemporary thriller with well-focused sf elements. If anything, the pacing and something-I-either-don’t-know-the-term-for-or-can’t-pin-down reminds me of Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher novels, in the direct, relatively spare prose that propels the action and plot along.

If you’re a Stephen King fan, I believe you’ll enjoy The Institute. If you somehow haven’t yet read any Stephen King, this is a good place to start. (Then go get his Different Seasons novella collection.) If you haven’t found any Stephen King to your liking yet (and not all of his books grab me), give this one a chance.

(Your library will have it, although even if they do Reserve Requests, you may have to wait a bit at this point for your turn to come up.)

In case it isn’t clear: Recommended.

Clean-up On Planet 3:
Jim C. Hines’ Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse

Humor. It is a difficult concept.
– Saavik, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan


By JJ: A couple of centuries ago, a plague destroyed the human race as it existed on Earth, turning them into mindless, carnivorous zombies and destroying their civilization. They – or at least a small number of them – were saved by one of the galaxy’s alien races, which cured the feral condition of a few thousand of them, and gave them back at least some semblance of sentience. Now grateful humans serve their alien saviors on their starships and space stations, as throwaway infantry soldiers and in menial maintenance and housekeeping roles.

This might sound like the synopsis for a grimdark science fiction series – and certainly the series has its grim moments – but it’s actually the premise for the humorous Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series by Jim C. Hines.

I’d like to head off the inevitable comparisons to Douglas Adams right here. Certainly this series has a bit of the whimsy and absurdism of which the Hitchhiker series is constructed – but it’s got plenty of grist for more serious thought, as well. And I have to say that while the humorous gimmick of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy got old
and tedious really, really fast for me, the first book in this series amused and amazed me, and left me wanting more. The second book of the trilogy has now arrived, and it did not disappoint.

When a bioweapon attack from another race of aliens wipes out the alien crew of their own spaceship, the team leader of the human janitorial staff must try to learn how to run the ship and save their benefactor race from further attack. But of course, nothing is as simple as it seems at first.

With their historical records pretty much eradicated in the fall of of their civilization, the uplifted humans have had to rely on what they are told about their species’ past by their alien rescuers – who, it turns out, are pretty damned unreliable narrators.

I adore the protagonist of this series, Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos, for many of the same reasons I adore the characters in books by Ursula Vernon / T. Kingfisher: she’s practical and pragmatic and does not suffer from idealistic delusions, but she refuses to be defeated by her circumstances, and her pragmatism is leavened with humor and with hope.

This series manages to provoke thought about what it means to be human, what constitutes really living versus merely existing, the tragedy of failing to accept responsibility and make amends for mistakes, the danger of blaming – and punishing – entire races for the evil actions of only some of their members, whether the ends can sometimes justify the means, and the question of whether it’s ever really possible to accept and move on (and maybe even forgive) after being on the receiving end of a catastrophic, grievous wrong.

And in these novels, just as in real life, the beings on the receiving end of the wrongs can sometimes be the ones who are also committing transgressions. These are not stories of cut-and-dried heroes and villains, but of well-developed, complex and flawed beings with understandable motivations – wrapped up in a mystery and delivered with both pathos and levity.

I really enjoyed these books. They employ some great humor, have some imaginative alien races, and explore the role of support staff (which is largely ignored in most science fiction and fantasy) in the context of some serious themes – while managing, in my opinion, to avoid the annoying “tryhard” humor which characterizes so many of the SFF books which are intended to be amusing. I loved the major role played by librarians, and I especially enjoyed the character which is an ongoing meta-reference to a notorious late 20th-century villain. I’m really looking forward to the final book in the trilogy, Terminal Peace.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)


Terminal Alliance [Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse #1], DAW Books, 2017 (excerpt)

The Krakau came to Earth to invite humanity into a growing alliance of sentient species. However, they happened to arrive after a mutated plague wiped out half the planet, turned the rest into shambling, near-unstoppable animals, and basically destroyed human civilization. You know – your standard apocalypse.

The Krakau’s first impulse was to turn around and go home. (After all, it’s hard to have diplomatic relations with mindless savages who eat your diplomats.) Their second impulse was to try to fix us. Now, a century later, human beings might not be what they once were, but at least they’re no longer trying to eat everyone. Mostly.

Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos is surprisingly bright (for a human). As a Lieutenant on the Earth Mercenary Corps Ship Pufferfish, she’s in charge of the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team. When a bioweapon attack wipes out the Krakau command crew and reverts the rest of the humans to their feral state, only Mops and her team are left with their minds intact.

Escaping the attacking aliens – not to mention her shambling crewmates – is only the beginning. Sure, Mops and her team of space janitors and plumbers can clean the ship as well as anyone, but flying the damn thing is another matter.

As they struggle to keep the Pufferfish functioning and find a cure for their crew, they stumble onto a conspiracy that could threaten the entire alliance… a conspiracy born from the truth of what happened on Earth all those years ago.


Terminal Uprising [Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse #2], DAW Books, 2019 (excerpt)

Human civilization didn’t just fall. It was pushed.

The Krakau came to Earth in the year 2104. By 2105, humanity had been reduced to shambling, feral monsters. In the Krakau’s defense, it was an accident, and a century later, they did come back and try to fix us. Sort of.

It’s been four months since Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos learned the truth of that accident. Four months since she and her team of hygiene and sanitation specialists stole the EMCS Pufferfish and stopped a bioterrorism attack against the Krakau homeworld. Four months since she set out to find proof of what really happened on Earth all those years ago.

Between trying to protect their secrets and fighting the xenocidal Prodryans, who’ve been escalating their war against everyone who isn’t Prodryan, the Krakau have their tentacles full.

Mops’ mission changes when she learns of a secret Krakau laboratory on Earth. A small group under command of Fleet Admiral Belle-Bonne Sage is working to create a new weapon, one that could bring victory over the Prodryans… or drown the galaxy in chaos.

To discover the truth, Mops and her rogue cleaning crew will have to do the one thing she fears most: return to Earth, a world overrun by feral apes, wild dogs, savage humans, and worse. (After all, the planet hasn’t been cleaned in a century and a half!) What Mops finds in the filthy ruins of humanity could change everything, assuming she survives long enough to share it.

Perhaps humanity isn’t as dead as the galaxy thought.


Magic Ex Libris

Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of the secret organization founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg. Libriomancers are gifted with the ability to magically reach into books and draw forth objects. When Isaac is attacked by vampires that leaked from the pages of books into our world, he barely manages to escape. To his horror he discovers that vampires have been attacking other magic-users as well, and Gutenberg has been kidnapped.

With the help of a motorcycle-riding dryad who packs a pair of oak cudgels, Isaac finds himself hunting the unknown dark power that has been manipulating humans and vampires alike. And his search will uncover dangerous secrets about Libriomancy, Gutenberg, and the history of magic.

Read more about the books in this series


Fiction available to read for free online


Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines’ first novel was Goblin Quest, the tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. Actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” which is pretty much the Best Blurb Ever. After completing the goblin trilogy, Jim went on to write the princess series, four books often described as a blend of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Charlie’s Angels. He’s also the author of the Magic ex Libris books, which follow the adventures of a magic-wielding librarian from northern Michigan, as well as the Fable: Legends tie-in Blood of Heroes.

Hines has written more than fifty published short stories. His first professional story sale was the award-winning “Blade of the Bunny,” published way back in 1999.

Hines is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012.

He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English. He lives with his wife and two children, who have always shown remarkable tolerance for his bizarre and obsessive writing habits. (The cats, on the other hand, have no tolerance
whatsoever, and routinely walk across his desk when he’s trying to work.)

Tiamat’s Wrath – A Non-Spoiler Recommendation for Newest Expanse Novel

By Daniel Dern: Although my bedside pile includes Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of Year’s Best Science Fiction — which I’ve started, and already, and one story in (“The Potter of Bones,” by Eleanor Arnason), feels like I’ve already enjoyed a great read…  I put it aside to settle in with Tiamat’s Wrath, the latest (eighth) and, a friend tells me, penultimate book in James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)’s Expanse series.

It was worth waiting for, it was worth reading. We re-encounter some old friends, we meet some new characters. Explosions large and small! Rockets/space ships large and small!

As with the previous volumes, while the book is continuing the long arc of the series, the plot starts or picks up threads, and brings them to satisfactory conclusions by the end.

I love the Expanse books for several reasons:

• They’re written like the authors live there. The prose is crisp and to the point, with enough info-bits and micro recaps to help newcomers as well as those of us who might have lost track of who’s who and what’s what (and in some cases who’s what and what’s who), without bogging down the flow.

• Each chapter, rather than having a title, is titled with its PoV character, so (I) don’t have to waste a few seconds sussing out who’s talking or otherwise being our lens into the action. (Having wrestled with a few non-Expanse books over the years that don’t do this, I seriously appreciate this; it’s not hard for the author (or editorial team) to do, and, with some possible exceptions where sussing out who’s “talking” is part of the way the book works, it keeps me more easily engaged.  And, as a friend points out, it provides easy “stop points” for setting the book aside to go do stuff.

• The pacing of the prose, particularly in this volume, is exquisite. This is especially clear in the end-of-chapter last paragraphs or three.

• Respect for gravity, mass, inertia, fuel limits, and speed of light in terms of orbits, zooming through space, and communication. (With a few acknowledged and contextually legitimate exceptions.) This isn’t unique to The Expanse but it’s always nice to see being respect both by the plot and the characters.

Tiamat’s Wrath will, IMHO, be much more satisfying (and make more sense) if you’ve read the previous books. Since I have read ’em all (although not yet all – currently — five of the shorter Expanse pieces), I can’t tell you whether it makes enough sense without having first read v’s 1-7. But it’s definitely more satisfying, just like watching Game of Thrones, West Wing, The Magicians, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, G.L.O.W., Sports Night or The Newsroom.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the previous books, you’ll be happy. If you haven’t yet dipped an eyeball into The Expanse, perhaps this will convince you to give them a try. If you have already decided these aren’t your cup of appertained beverage, fair ’nuff.

Note, “Tiamat” does not, as best I can tell, appear or even get mentioned anywhere except in the title. Or maybe I missed that paragraph. But the same friend from comments above notes that this is the case for the previous seven books, which my memory won’t let me challenge.

Recommended. And then we wait for the big one..

A closing unrelated question: What would happen if Corey (re)wrote Lord of the Rings? Would we see more women, particularly fighting? Would the Eagles get fitted with weapons, etc.? Would any of the battles go differently?

Re-Writing The World: Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside

 

By JJ: I’ve been outspoken here in the past about my appreciation for Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, which was a finalist last year for the Hugo Award for Best Series.

I’ve been looking forward to more work from Bennett, and was delighted to see that he’d published a new novel: Foundryside. This is set in a new universe, and while it’s very different from that of The Divine Cities, it’s a fascinating, fully-realized world which combines fantasy with engineering in what could be called “scriberpunk”.

The engineering in this world, instead of being driven by steam, is driven by inscriptions written on ordinary objects. Linked to, and powered by, “lexicons” – which are essentially databases of definitions of various types of reality – these inscriptions instruct objects to behave in ways contrary to their normal nature.

Imagine the power with which an object could be hurled if you’ve convinced it that it’s falling to the earth from 10,000 feet up. Imagine knowing what is happening right now in a place far away, because you hold an object for which its metaphysical twin is being altered to deliver that news.

The world itself is a complex and contradictory one: wealthy people live in compounds where wonderful food, clothing, shelter, and luxuries are widely available – while poor people beg and steal in the streets outside, trying to survive in their own world of violence and privation.

And this is a world which has risen from the ashes of a much older, more advanced civilization. The scrivings currently being done by the wealthy Founders’ research scientists and by the clever science-inclined denizens of the city’s struggling underclass are merely the comparatively tiny scraps they have desperately managed to reverse-engineer from the relics of that civilization, which fell to an unknown cataclysm.

Sancia is an inhabitant of the poor section of the city of Tevanne, known as Foundryside. She is scrappy and resourceful, a clever thief who hides a frightening secret: she is the lone survivor of the brutal experiments conducted on slave plantations outside the city which attempted to create scrived human beings. Because of the inscriptions which have been placed in her skull, she has abilities of which no one is aware. But she is in danger, because her actions with her special powers have given her away, and there are several powerful people with numerous opposing motives who are all searching for her.

Touching on themes of wealth vs. poverty, the ability of the rich to exploit the poor, slavery, colonialism, and corporations for which the only concern is the accumulation of yet more wealth, Bennett’s novel is a tantalizing view of our own world transferred to a universe where engineers are gods and ordinary people do their best to take care of themselves and each other against seemingly-insurmountable odds.

I found this story utterly engaging and couldn’t put it down until I finished. I can’t wait for the next entry in this world to come out. Shorefall will be released in February 2020.

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2019 Hugo Awards Best Series Discussion

 
By JJ: With the Hugo Award nomination deadline only a month away, I thought it would be helpful for Filers to have a discussion about the potential nominees for Best Series. What follows is a précis of the series which I’m considering nominating for the Hugo Awards, telling you why I think these series are worthy.

Of the (as of this writing) 170 series listed on the Best Series Hugo: Eligible Series from 2018 page, I’ve read all or most of 43 series, 2 or 3 books each in five of the series, and 1 book each in thirteen of those series. That gives me more than 60 possibilities which I have to whittle down to a shortlist of 5 series.

While I do feel that some of the Best Series finalists from the past two years are Hugo-worthy, I’d like to highlight excellent series for which the individual volumes have not received much in the way of Hugo recognition thus far. So I’ve selected 10 series which I’ve especially enjoyed to feature in this post. These series, I feel, epitomize what the Best Series Hugo Award should be about: groups of works which, as a whole, are greater than the sum of their parts, and which, even if they’re still ongoing, can be said to have told a complete story at this point.

Because this post is about what I’ve read and liked, please bear in mind the following:

  1. I read predominantly science fiction, though I do read a fair bit of fantasy, and I especially enjoy science-fictional mysteries.
  2. I apparently had a stunted, defective childhood and do not find Tolkien-style fantasy, nor fairytale retellings or subversions, particularly compelling.
  3. I am not a big fan of urban fantasy or horror, especially not of vampires or Lovecraft.
  4. I have very definite opinions about what I like and don’t like, but these are of course entirely subjective, and the opinions of people who disagree with me are just wrong  as valid.

This means that I am counting on you Filers to make a compelling case for your own favorites, to broaden the scope of this post. Please talk about the series you like in the comments, and tell everyone what you think makes them Hugo-worthy.

(As always, please be sure to rot-13 any spoilers.)

Hyperlinks are to stories and excerpts which are available to read for free on the internet.


Sin du Jour by Matt Wallace (list of works)
2018 work: Taste of Wrath (novella)
Notes: series contains 7 novellas and 1 short story; author has verifed that it meets the word count

What it’s about: Sin du Jour Catering has a specialty: they prepare banquets and dinners for supernatural beings and extraordinary events. But of course, no catering plan survives contact with the diners… the big question is whether the Sin du Jour crew will survive the inevitable catastrophes which ensue.

Why I think it’s great: This is an unexpected, clever, slyly-witty delight. The catering staff members are a diverse, idiosyncratic group of people who have managed, despite their annoying habits and their weaknesses, to make a true family with each other – and the author manages to weave his supernatural worldbuilding in with the real world so deftly that the reader can almost believe it’s all really true. Each volume tells a new story, but only the first novella really stands well on its own. As a whole, this series is the story of that family’s journey: lots of amusing and terrifying subplots to enjoy, full of adventure, heartbreak, humor, and caring.


Kylara Vatta / Vatta’s Peace by Elizabeth Moon (list of works)
2018 work: Into the Fire (novel)
Notes: subseries contains 2 novels; previous subseries Vatta’s War contains 5 novels; must be nominated under the main series, as the subseries has insufficient volumes. The author’s notes in the most recent novel give me concern that there won’t be any further volumes; I’d really like to see this series recognized while it’s still eligible.

What it’s about: Forced to resign in disgrace from the spaceforce academy due to another cadet’s treachery, Vatta’s family gets her out of the way by assigning her to captain one of their decrepit merchant cargo ships. She proves to be a capable, inventive captain, who must marshal her crew and allies when her extensive family group and their mercantile empire are attacked and assassinated on multiple planets and in space. Her strategic skills and leadership ability aid in her rise to lead the fleet in a galactic war… but even in victory, there are enemies lying in wait to take down her family’s company and the government.

Why I think it’s great: This is smart, fast-paced space adventure with a complex, clever, and competent main character and a supporting cast whose personalities become more deeply-developed over the course of each book. The strength of the series is that, while each book works as a standalone entry, the individual plots are woven into a larger, complex story, full of edge-of-the-seat action and political machinations.


Diving Universe by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (list of works)
2018 works: Searching for the Fleet (novel), The Rescue of the Renegat (novella), Dix (novella), Joyride (novella), and “Lieutenant Tightass” (novelette)
Notes: series contains 7 novels, 11 novellas, and 2 novelettes

What it’s about: The owner of a small spaceship-wreck exploration company discovers tantalizing clues to an ancient, more advanced spacefaring civilization, and embarks on an obsessive search for the relics which will bring more knowledge of those who came before… resulting in one really big, unexpected answer – which leads to many further mysteries.

Why I think it’s great: Scuba diving, but on spaceships! Time Travel! Ancient Mysteries! With an ever-widening cast of well-developed, complex characters, its extensive worldbuilding for a vast spacefaring civilization, mysteries to be solved, and adventures on many worlds, this series hits all of my sweet spots.


Andrea Cort / Draiken by Adam-Troy Castro (list of works)
2018 work: Blurred Lives (novella) and A Stab of the Knife (novella)
Notes: subseries contains 4 novellas; main series contains 3 novels, 4 novellas, and a novelette; must be nominated under the main series, as the subseries has insufficient word count

What it’s about: A brilliant, tenacious investigator and prosecutor, Andrea Cort serves the Diplomatic Corps of the Hom.Sap.Mercantile Empire, sent on missions to preserve the fragile peace between humans and other races. But Cort has a very dark past, and there are a lot of beings who, in their anger and contempt for her, wish to bring her a death from which the Corps protects her only as long as it suits their purposes. Draiken has retired from a profession as a highly-skilled spy and assassin for a powerful galactic organization… but his past, and his own demons, won’t let him escape so easily. Each of them faces encounters where only their own brilliance at finding the answers keeps them from being killed – but eventually their courses are destined to collide, in a game of cat-and-mouse that one of them may not survive.

Why I think it’s great: Not only is each of the stories in this series a standalone science-fictional mystery, they are so deftly-plotted, featuring intricate twists, that it’s only when the pieces slot into place that the brilliance of the plotting becomes apparent. The author has created compelling, well-fleshed-out characters, and fascinatingly-alien races and worlds, served up with intriguing spycraft and detective work.


Planetfall by Emma Newman (list of works)
2018 work: Before Mars (novel excerpt 1 excerpt 2)
Notes: series contains 3 novels

What it’s about: The first novel in the series tells the stories of the colonists on a distant, far-from-ideal planet and their gradual disintegration after their charismatic leader disappears. The second tells the stories of the people left behind on Earth, especially that of the son of one of the colonists and the resentment he faces from the rest of the planet. The third novel tells the story of an artist who accepts a position in-residence at a Mars habitat funded by an extremely wealthy man.

Why I think it’s great: Each of the novels in this series stands alone well, though they are set in the same near-future Earth universe and do have some interlinked threads. Each novel features a different compelling mystery and main character who must solve it in order to save their own life. The worldbuilding is plausible, and the characters wonderfully multi-faceted. I think that each novel has been progressively more intricate and skillful, creating a well-crafted vision of a possible not-too-distant future.


Xuya Universe by Aliette de Bodard (list of works)
2018 work: The Tea Master and the Detective (novella – scroll down for excerpt)
Notes: series consists of 25 short stories novelettes, and novellas; author has verifed that it meets the word count

What it’s about: Xuya is an alternate history universe where China discovered the Americas before the West, which led to a global Asian domination of the globe rather than the Western one – and to a space age initially dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese galactic empires.

Why I think it’s great: The author’s worldbuilding through the numerous stories in this universe is deep and extensive. The different cultural perspective makes it a refreshing change from Western-oriented science fiction. It features sentient ships capable of subdimensional intergalactic travel, resulting in widespread colonization of space, and mysterious technologies of weaponry and teleportation. Rather than featuring a small core cast of characters, this series finds its strength in the breadth of the worldbuilding details and insights into the personalities of many different characters.


Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman (list of works)
2018 work: The Mortal Word (novel)
Notes: series contains 5 novels

What it’s about: As a librarian for the mysterious Library, Irene is not only a researcher, but a professional spy and thief, acquiring variant versions of significant works from alternate realities (some of which are very like our own, and some which differ wildly). Time spent in The Library is outside of real time – librarians do not age while they are there, and thus are nearly immortal. However, Irene is at the beginning of her career, just out of training, and after being viciously betrayed by her mentor, must undertake missions to prove her value. After being saddled with her own inexperienced apprentice – who has some dark secrets of his own – she is sent to various worlds, where others with their own nefarious purposes will try to thwart her success in favor of her own.

Why I think it’s great: Like many avid readers, I admire and adore librarians, with their seemingly-magical powers of knowing which books will meet various needs, and their ability to find almost anything. The adventures in this series include mysteries, dragons, fae, magical language which can compel objects to behave contrary to their ordinary nature, endless alternate timelines to explore, complex villains, and books, books, and more books. The author’s storytelling skills have leveled-up as the series has progressed, and each new entry released is an automatic addition to my TBR.


Fractured Europe by Dave Hutchinson (list of works)
2018 work: Europe at Dawn (novel)
Notes: series contains 4 novels

What it’s about: This fantasy series features a near-future Europe where the Union has fallen apart in the wake of a catastrophic pandemic and subsequent economic collapse. The borders of countries are constantly shifting and increasingly fragmented with the political winds, making mail and freight service unreliable and impractical. A mysterious spy/courier organization has come into existence, with agents who are heavily trained in spycraft and subterfuge and who will, for a hefty fee, deliver packages in a timely fashion across what are now frequently tightly-controlled and policed – or even impassable – borders. The main character, a chef who moonlights as a courier, discovers a shocking revelation: na nygreangr jbeyq shyy bs crbcyr ybfg va gvzr, juvpu pb-rkvfgf jvguva gur fnzr trbtencul nf Rhebcr, naq juvpu pna or npprffrq ivn n srj frperg ragenaprf. Naq vgf erfvqragf unir gurve bja frperg ntraqn, bar juvpu znl cebir sngny gb gur Rhebcr ur xabjf.

Why I think it’s great: The first novel can be read on its own, but the full depth of the worldbuilding slowly develops over the course of the series, with each successive volume producing new revelations which gradually weave a larger tapestry. The mysteries and spycraft are of the sort found in Le Carré novels, with some deadpan humor and lots of suspense as the mysteries unfold and random events take on significance. This is one of those series which richly rewards a re-read, as hindsight provides a new perspective on events as they occur.


The Praxis by Walter Jon Williams (list of works)
2018 work: The Accidental War (novel)
Notes: series contains 5 novels, 2 novellas, and a short story

What it’s about: This series begins with the end of the rule of a powerful alien race who conquered humans as well as numerous other alien species, setting them all under a rigid doctrine of laws known as The Praxis. The power vacuum created by the end of their empire (bored with life after many millennia, they have deliberately wiped themselves out) provides the opportunity for one of the other races to attempt a takeover – one in which the humans will be on the receiving end of some serious oppression. However, two different officers of the Terran navy, each a brilliant tactician in their own way, fight on different fronts to prevent that takeover and change the empire into some version of democracy (or at least an approximation of equality among species).

Why I think it’s great: Readers who appreciate military and social strategy, tricks, and tactics will find a lot to enjoy here – and there are some good mysteries and suspense thrown in, to boot. The main characters are well-developed and sympathetic, while still being complex and flawed, and the author continues to expand the worldbuilding with each entry in the series. As a whole, this series is very much a greater adventure than the sum of its parts.


Hail Bristol / Farian War by K. B. Wagers (list of works)
2018 work: There Before the Chaos (novel)
Notes: first novel in this subseries; previous subseries Indranan War contains 3 novels; must be nominated under the main series, as the subseries has insufficient volumes

What it’s about: After her father is killed, a younger daughter of the Empress, who disdains life in the royal court, runs off to become a feared gunrunner with criminal ties. When her sister-heirs are assassinated, with the Empress deathly ill, the royal bodyguards come to drag her, unwillingly, back to her obligations to the throne. But there are forces still hiding within the empire who want her – and her family – out of the picture for good, and she must fight to stay alive while she tries to bring some stability to her planet and her people.

Why I think it’s great: Not only does this series feature a kickass strong protagonist, it also portrays a matriarchal ruling structure which she recognizes as being inherently sexist and wrong, and must work to reform. Even her enemies are people who do what they do for the sake of what they believe is right, and there is no simple good vs. bad story here. It’s also a story of finding your family among the people around you, of obligation and duty versus desire, of loyalty and betrayal, of cruelty and kindness, and of hope.


2018 Novellapalooza

[Editor’s note: be sure to read the comments on this post for more novellas and more Filer reviews.]

By JJ: I’m a huge reader of novels, but not that big on short fiction. But the last few years, I’ve done a personal project to read and review as many Novellas as I could (presuming that the story synopsis had some appeal for me). I ended up reading 31 of the novellas published in 2015, 35 of the novellas published in 2016, and 46 of the novellas published in 2017 (though a few of those were after Hugo nominations closed).

The result of this was the 2016 Novellapalooza and the 2017 Novellapalooza. I really felt as though I was able to do Hugo nominations for the novella category in an informed way, and a lot of Filers got involved with their own comments. So I’m doing it again this year.

The success and popularity of novellas in the last 4 years seems to have sparked a Golden Age for SFF novellas, with Tor.com, Subterranean Press, NewCon Press, PS Publishing, Book Smugglers, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tachyon bringing out a multitude of works, along with the traditional magazines Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Analog – so there are a lot more novellas to cover this year. By necessity, I’ve gotten to the point of being more selective about which ones I read, based on the synopsis being of interest to me.

It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book despite not feeling that the jacket copy makes the book sound as though it is something I would like – and to discover that I really like or love the work anyway. On the other hand, It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book which sounds as though it will be up my alley and to discover that, actually, the book doesn’t really do much for me.

Thus, my opinions on the following novellas vary wildly: stories I thought I would love but didn’t, stories I didn’t expect to love but did, and stories which aligned with my expectations – whether high or low. Bear in mind that while I enjoy both, I tend to prefer Science Fiction over Fantasy – and that while I enjoy suspense and thrillers, I have very little appreciation for Horror (and to be honest, I think Lovecraft is way overrated). My personal assessments are therefore not intended to be the final word on these stories, but merely a jumping-off point for Filer discussion.

I thought it would be helpful to have a thread where all the Filers’ thoughts on novellas are collected in one place, as a resource when Hugo nomination time rolls around. Which of these novellas have you read? And what did you think of them?

I’ve included plot summaries, and where I could find them, links to either excerpts or the full stories which can be read online for free. Short novels which fall between 40,000 and 48,000 words (within the Hugo Novella category tolerance) have been included.

Please feel free to post comments about any other 2018 novellas which you’ve read, as well.

(Please be sure to rot-13 any spoilers.)

(fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)

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