Hankera-Pankera: A Not-Quite-A-Review Of Heinlein’s Pursuit Of The

By Daniel Dern: I’m not sure this is, for the most part, so much a “review” of Robert Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes as opposed to a bunch of statements about it. Your space-time mileage may vary. Although since one goal is to help you decide whether or not you want to read the book, I guess that makes it a review.

(If you want a review that actually talks about the contents, here’s Sourdough Jackson’s scroll from back in May 2020.)

I grew up on the Heinlein juveniles, notably Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Citizen Of The Galaxy, The Star Beast and The Rolling Stones, and have read (or done my best to read) all Heinlein, including the essays, the alternate versions (more on this below), and including The Number Of The Beast. Some Heinlein, I still re-read; other, not so much.

The Pursuit Of The Pankera is, according to the brief (half-page) Publisher’s note from Shahid Mahmud, Heinlein’s original, hitherto-unpublished novel whose first third he forked into his The Number Of The Beast. According to Mahmud’s note, “…[this] new book is one hundred percent Heinlein. Other than regular editorial work was asked to provide ‘fillers.'”

(Unlike, say, Variable Star, which Spider Robinson wrote based on Heinlein’s outline and notes.)

Number, according to Alan Brown’s “Long-Lost Treasure” article on Tor.com, “first appeared in portions serialized in OMNI magazine in 1978 under the editorial direction of Ben Bova….The book version of Heinlein’s novel was published in 1980.”

Now, we have the option (I’m not sure if it qualified as an “opportunity”) to read what Heinlein wrote originally.

The forking occurs in both books in Chapter 18, “right after the characters’ specially equipped car, the Gay Deceiver, makes its first jump to a parallel universe,” according to the Publisher’s Note (which appears also, with a slightly different first paragraph, in the new hardcover of Number, according to Amazon’s view.

Pankera is not being promoted as an alternative version of Number, but rather, together they are identified/promoted as “two parallel novels about parallel universes.”

Arguably, that’s geometrically incorrect, the two books don’t parallel so much as fork (although they do semi-unfork a few times).

The “divergence in texts” is flagged by a small marker. In the hardcover of Pankera (via my library), it’s on page 152.

At Boskone 57, there was a free chapter sales promo, which began either at that point, or at the next chapter, which is like half a dozen pages later.

Based on the free chapter sampler of Pankera (I don’t remember whether it started at the demarc, or at the start of the next chapter) that I got at Boskone 57 back in February 2020 (just before Almost Everything Shut Down), I was sufficiently unenthused that I planned to not library-get the book when it became available.

Then, mid-late summer, seeing that the book was now available, and Things Being Different, I added it to my library reserve request list, and, a month or so later, with inter-library loan transit back in action, my place in line came up.

Most of the text and plot of Pankera goes in different directions and routes from Number, although the chapters/sections involving Oz and Charles Dodgson seem largely the same in both (and, not owning a copy of Number to check against, I’m not going to worry about it. It feels like I can recall some minor differences, no big deal). On the other hand, the Lensmen sections are significantly different. (See Sourdough’s review for deets.)

Pankera does NOT go places where Number did; in particular, (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT), it doesn’t go into the LazarusLongiverse. Other than our not getting to see Gay Deceiver and Dora schmooze (to which Lazarus Long apologizes to our protagonists, with something like “I’m sorry, my spaceship is corrupting your spaceship.”), given where Heinlein took this in Number, I consider this not-going-there a Good Thing. If you read Number and haven’t blanked that portion out from your memory, you know what I’m talking about, ’nuff not said.

On the more general subject of Heinlein “lost versions” — longer versions he wrote which he cut down for publication — I have mixed feelings, based on the ones I own/have read (thanks largely to Baen Books). The longer version of Red Planet had a lot of interesting stuff in it, and, IIRC, more depth. The longer version of The Puppet Masters felt weaker, in writing punch. Podkayne — mostly, IIRC, Heinlein’s original ending, and, in my paperback, with sundry essays and other bonus stuff, was interesting and made sense. Stranger In A Strange Land did not feel improved by the restored text throughout. (Did I miss any? That’s all I can recall.) But Pankera is in a different category, or at least is presented as such.

Anyhoo, my summary thoughts, opinions and advice:

  • I found (particularly in rereading) many parts of Number annoying enough to skim/skip, particularly where our four protagonists take turns mindgaming the others, also where a few characters spend way too much time doing what Nero Wolfe (who does not appear in either Number or Pankera) might generously characterize as a stunt. By comparison, in Pankera, nobody got quite on my nerves as much, nor did any of the plot bits.
  • OTOH, Pankera often has more characters deciding and explaining housekeeping/packing type details, beyond what I felt we needed. But easy to skim past.
  • Number does more with the dingus in terms of Gay Deceiver (which I liked) than Pankera.

Beyond that, Sourdough Jackson’s review pretty much hits the mixed bag of goods and bads better than I can. I do agree with their analysis and opinions of the ending, and the overall plot driver.

One nitpick: While I’m not going to go back and re-skim to confirm, it feels like “Pankera” is used primarily as a singular, with “Panki” being the plural, which makes the book title misleading. (Also, it feels like the terms doesn’t occur in the text until about 40-50 pages after what they refer is introduced. If I had an e-version, I’ll text-search to verify. Meanwhile: Tsk.)

Assuming you’re enough of a Heinlein fan to be potentially interested — and have read enough later-Heinlein to know what you may be in for — I neither recommend you read Pankera nor avoid it. I don’t feel it’s annoying enough to warn you away — nor compelling enough to urge you to read it.

I don’t regret having read it; I’m not looking to get my time back. But I’m glad I did it as a library borrow. Back it goes! You’ve been advised!

Like I said, I don’t think this is a review so much as a verbose ACHTUNG! DER LOOKENSPEEPERS sign.

Writers Of The Purple Page:
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

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

By Sourdough Jackson: Normally, I don’t read doctoral dissertations, nor any later academic works based on them. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn, is an exception.

The author is a British cultural historian and literary critic specializing in SF and fantasy, and has served on the committees of several UK science fiction conventions, including co-chairmanship of the 2006 Eastercon. Her dissertation was a study of a dozen major SF authors, six male, six female, and one of them was Heinlein.

Years later, she returned to Heinlein scholarship, basing Pleasant Profession on her earlier research, adding in a great deal more work. One of my multiple beefs about the Patterson biography (Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, 2 vols.) was its lack of discussion of Heinlein’s fiction; this book fills that gap for me, although very much not in the way William Patterson might have written it. Mendlesohn is politically center-left (UK style) and a moderate feminist, while Patterson was emphatically neither.

One thing Mendlesohn does not do is to create a scheme of little boxes and try to shoehorn all the information into them. You will find no mention of the “Heinlein Individual,” first proposed by Alexei Panshin and then discussed by other commentators, except to say that some critics had found the concept useful.

Instead there are deep chapters on many aspects of RAH’s fiction. She begins with a 70-page biographical precis, including a few points missed or misinterpreted by Patterson—this section is by no means a simple digest of the earlier work. Following this is a brief description of Heinlein’s “narrative arc,” a summary of his fictional output and how the stories are related. Unlike most earlier scholars, she is able to discuss the comparatively-recent posthumous book For Us the Living. She relates it to his other work—this book may have been a colossal marketplace failure during his lifetime, but he mined it for ideas and characters throughout his career. Mendlesohn acknowledges that, although neither of the Heinleins ever wanted it to see the light of day, it’s a valuable resource for critics, historians, and the curious.

In “Technique,” she discusses how the cinema molded much of his early work and influenced his style—one of the hallmarks of his stories is sparse description, particularly of characters. Although she does not mention this, such technique is far older than the movies—Shakespearean drama works without stage scenery and the barest minimum of props. The author, be it Heinlein or Shakespeare, counts on the audience to have their imaginations in good working order.

She also makes a point often lost on many readers: the viewpoint character in most Heinlein stories is not the principal actor, it’s his sidekick. One example is The Star Beast. The main character appears to be John Thomas Stuart XI; the real protagonist is Lummox, the runaway alien princess—John Thomas is her sidekick (and, in her eyes, her pet human). Two other active characters are Betty, his girlfriend, and Mr. Kiku, the alien-affairs diplomat. They and Lummox drive the story, while John Thomas is along for the ride.

She also discusses how engineering informs his tales, and dissects his time-travel technique. RAH was good at that; his early story, “By His Bootstraps,” only pales when stood against his later masterpiece, “All You Zombies.”

In “Rhetoric,” the next chapter, she discusses at length sentiment and how important it is to nearly anything Heinlein wrote. After a brief foray into his fantasy stories, she launches into a long talk about picaresque novels, a form he went in for later in his career, although his first picaro came early (and stayed late, wearing out his welcome with this reader): Lazarus Long. It is that discussion which brought home to me why I care little for much of Heinlein’s later work. A picaro, to many readers (myself included) is not a sympathetic character. In the case of Lazarus, I want to take my hardcover of Time Enough for Love and throw it at him.

The next two chapters cover civic society and revolution. In a nutshell, Heinlein considered the civic order to come from informed citizens working together to create and maintain it—a standard tenet of old-school American liberalism (see Emerson on self-reliance). As for revolution, he injected several instances of that into his tales, some necessary and praiseworthy (Between Planets, Red Planet, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and “If This Goes On…”), and some attempts at tyranny (Friday, Beyond This Horizon, and “The Long Watch”).

In the revolution chapter Mendlesohn places a long aside on guns. One of the odd things about guns is that, when they appear, they almost always end up being useless. It’s only in Starship Troopers, one of his two military novels, that they’re consistently effective (the other, Space Cadet, is about peacekeeping, not war-making).

Racism is a major can of worms. Mendlesohn states—and shows—that Heinlein did not like it at all, and tried to work against it in his fiction. Sometimes he succeeded, other times not. One of his anti-racist (or, more properly, anti-ethnic-prejudice) tools in the 1950s was to fill a tale with background characters having wildly-diverse surnames. This is especially noticeable in Space Cadet, Time for the Stars, and Starship Troopers (for the last-named book, she includes a list of character names in an appendix). Incidentally, it is here that Mendlesohn makes an uncharacteristic boo-boo: When she discusses Alfred McNeill, the elderly black department head of the ship’s telepaths, she describes him as coming from the American South. Late in the novel, his tele-partner’s residence is given as being in Johannesburg, where she’d apparently been all the time. Last I heard, Johannesburg was in South Africa.

In this chapter is also a long, long discussion of Farnham’s Freehold. Even after reading her cogent exegesis of that novel, I still dislike the book, and probably always will. In his attempt to show the racist shoe on the other foot, Heinlein went too far—he ascribed habitual cannibalism to the black masters, atop all the other evils of slavery. Although Heinlein did not intend to play up to the white supremacists, this aspect of the story made blacks out to be inherent savages.

“Right Ordering of Self” comes next, and begins with personal honor. Heinlein’s honor is that of the person who is married or in the military, living by an internal code and living up to sworn vows and oaths. It is not the “honor” of the prickly, upper-class rakehell in the streets of Shakespeare’s Verona.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to sexual integrity and sexuality in general. To Heinlein, the worst thing a man can do, except perhaps to violate his oath of military service, is nonconsensual sex (aka rape). In one of his yarns, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, rapists, attempted rapists, and men perceived as attempting rape (even though they intended no such thing) get summarily shoved out the nearest airlock without benefit of pressure suit.

She brings up an odd, but true, idea in this passage on sex. Although RAH has a reputation for writing a lot of sex into his later books, it’s not so. There’s plenty of sexual banter, and much implied sex, but hardly any visible sex acts. What there is, is a great proliferation of kissing. Mendlesohn concludes that Heinlein simply liked kissing, and often used it to show love between characters.

From I Will Fear No Evil (1970) onward, Heinlein often explored transgender phenomena, and Mendlesohn devotes a chapter to this. Her discussion indicates that he knew his masculine side quite well, and had some understanding of his feminine side and how it related to the rest of him. She does not directly address his skill at handling transgender themes, which is perhaps just as well. Fear No Evil was clumsy, ill-informed, and rushed to publication. Normally, his wife took a pass through every manuscript before it went out, giving him suggestions—this did not happen with this book, owing to Heinlein’s desperately poor health at the time.

Also, very little was known about transgender issues at that time, or at any time during his life. Heinlein was a great respecter of information—when he had good data, he used it to good effect. When he had poor or spotty info, his lack of awareness of this tended to yield questionable results.

A case in point is Heinlein’s handling of female characters. For at least half a century, a common beef has been, “Heinlein can’t write females worth spit!” implying that he didn’t know anything about women. Not necessarily so. He knew several quite well: his mother, his sisters, and three different wives. Traits from all of these (not just Virginia, his last wife) found their way into the women and girls on his pages—a fine example is Grandma Hazel in The Rolling Stones, whose prototype was his mother (Mendlesohn misses this point).

One exception to this observation is the three Puddin’ stories (non-SF) and Podkayne of Mars. For these, he did have information—badly distorted, though. It came from the editor of a magazine for teenage girls, and no doubt fitted that editor’s preconceptions of what teenage girls should be. Knowing no better, RAH swallowed it whole (and sold three stories), later reusing the misinformation to produce Podkayne. Incidentally, Podkayne of Mars is another place where Mendlesohn missed a point. The scene where Mrs. Royer tries to get Podkayne to rub her back has usually appeared to me to be an attempt at lesbian seduction by Mrs. Royer. Mendlesohn considers it to simply be Mrs. Royer treating Podkayne like a servant, which is how I read it at first (I was eleven years old then, and innocent of sexual matters). Podkayne misses the point, too, although later on, she is fully aware of Dexter Cunha’s intentions toward her.

The epilogue, “The Cat Who Walked Through Genres,” is a nice exploration of Heinlein’s love of cats, as expressed in his writings. A dog person early in life (best illustrated in “A Tenderfoot in Space,” whose main character is a dog), he was introduced to cats by Virginia when they married. He was practical about this in his fiction; in The Rolling Stones, for example, Roger Stone loudly vetoes the idea of carrying a cat on the family rocket-yacht, due to feline sanitary considerations in zero-G.

On the whole, this is a very good exploration of Heinlein’s writings. This was published in the UK and written by an Englishwoman, so spellings and typographical conventions are what one would expect when reading something by Arthur C. Clarke or Fred Hoyle. She does keep British colloquialisms down to a minimum, however.

It is also a scholarly work, filled with source citations—which she does in the most convenient way possible, inline, contained in parentheses. Other footnotes she puts at the bottom of the page, where they belong (that’s why they’re called footnotes). There is an extensive bibliography at the end, which is an excellent source for further readings about Heinlein. An accident of the alphabet places Alexei Panshin next to William H. Patterson, Jr., a juxtaposition which would irk both men, as Alexei and Patterbill always disagreed strongly in their interpretations.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein is well worth the purchase price—like almost all books, it can be found for a discount on Amazon.com (list price on the dust jacket is £25.00).

Next month, I hope to return to my series of essays on Heinlein’s juvenile fiction. Until then, clear ether!

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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