2020 Novellapalooza

stack of books ©canstockphoto / olegd

[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 2020 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,
  • 50 of the novellas published in 2017,
  • 38 of the novellas published in 2018,
  • 57 of the 2019 novellas,
  • and this year I was waiting for access to a few novellas from my library, so I was reading others, and thus my final total crept up to 59!

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.

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 I 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 are listed in two sections below. The first section, those with cover art, are the ones I have read, and they include mini-reviews by me. These are in approximate order from most-favorite to least-favorite (but bear in mind that after around the first dozen listed, there was not a large degree of difference in preference among most of the remainder, with the exception of a handful at the bottom). The second section is those novellas I haven’t read, in alphabetical order by title.

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. Some short novels which fall between 40,000 and 48,000 words (within the Hugo Novella category tolerance) have been included, and in a couple of cases, novelettes which were long enough to be in the Hugo Novella tolerance were also included.

Please feel free to post comments about 2020 novellas which you’ve read, as well. And if I’ve missed your File 770 comment about a novella, or an excerpt for a novella, please point me to it!

If you see something that looks like gibberish, it is text that has been ROT-13’ed to avoid spoilers. (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)
Continue reading

At the Height of His –

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1433)  Tim Powers is at his best in Forced Perspectives.  He managed to bring us this book last March, four years after Alternate Routes, a short time for him.  He writes well – that’s one of my understatements, folks – but not, as he’s told us, fast.

I didn’t re-read Alternate Routes first.  I don’t think you’ll have to.

He is, as we expect, imaginative, poetic, rooted in the world we know and branching away, realistic and strange.

C.S. Lewis advised what I call the One-Strange Rule: either an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, or an extraordinary person in ordinary circumstances.  Rules get exceptions – does that have exceptions? never mind for now – but, or and, Powers does both.

I’ve advised The greater the reality, the better the fantasy.  I didn’t have to advise Powers, he’s masterly at it.

As I said of another Powers book, and Samuel Johnson said of Shakespeare (it may take a genius to write about a genius; I’m doing my best), we’ve never met these people, and if as Powers says himself he is writing fantasy, we can’t meet them; but we believe that if we did, they’d be as he portrays.  Such is the art of fiction.

Some years ago Bob Dylan sang “Nothing is revealed.” That was his art; not Powers’.  If we see a man walking on stilts, with springs under his shoes – another Powers book – or a car painted all over with clown faces, we’ll learn why.

When one of Shakespeare’s characters says “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” he’s answered “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?”  Of course that’s iambic pentameter.  Powers has different fish to fry.  His recipe isn’t particularly to sow doubt about the claim (nor is it always Shakespeare’s).  In a Powers story they may well arrive.  His recipe is Then what?

Another part of realism is Where did that come from?  In a Powers story if a man has to swim a long distance under water, or shoot a handgun suddenly and well under great stress, we know how he can do that, and what it cost. 

I’m reminded of a different careful fantasy author who made a modern man wield a centuries-earlier sword.  The man was strong enough; nor did the foes he happened to be against call on him for much skill.  He beat them.  But he blistered his hand.

Not for nothing does SF have visitor stories, growing-up stories, investigation stories.  Readers must somehow learn things the imagined world takes for granted.  Forced Perspectives is an investigation story.  The two protagonists, Sebastian Vickery – not his real name, as the old joke relishes – and Ingrid Castine, try to learn what’s going on. They’ve seen some of this before. They thought they were out of it. They weren’t.

Powers often writes what some call secret histories. Who, really, was Kim Philby (1912-1988; another Powers book)?  How, really, did the sets for Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1923) get buried afterward in the sand and sea (this book)?  Powers imagines the answer and tells us the true – according to his fantasy – story.

Another part of his realism – or, more technically, verisimilitude, the appearance of truth – is that he doesn’t invent everything.  For this book he didn’t invent the notion of an egregore.  He didn’t invent the Egyptian gods (or forces of nature? or demons?) Ba and Nu. You can look them up and see they’re what his characters say.  Of course those sources you found might not have known – or told you – the real truth, aha.

There’s comedy in a Powers story.  That’s hard to do, maybe harder in fantasy than in science fiction, which is already hard.

I’m not going to fall into the pit of trying to tell you what comedy is.  I’ll suggest it has something to do with our recognizing That couldn’t be true.  If I said to you What do you think, I can work magic?? you’d smile.  But in fantasy the character who said that might be able to.

Anyway, two of my favorite moments in this book are “Isn’t either” (ch. 7) and “You have behaved in a regrettably high-handed manner all along” (ch. 17).  Also you might recognize “Tension apprehension and dissension have begun” (ch. 15).  I liked them.  Maybe you will.

Once when Powers was being interviewed at an SF convention someone asked “Do you actually believe in this stuff?”  He said “No.  But my characters do.”  As Gordon Bennett wrote, and Frank Sinatra sang, “This is all I ask, this is all I need.”

The Tangled Skein: Call Me Joe

By Paul Weimer: Call Me Joe by Poul Anderson strongly starts off a NESFA Press series of volumes covering the work of one of the key 20th century writers of Science Fiction, Poul Anderson

In the introduction, the editor, Rick Katze, states “This is the first in a multi-volume collection of Poul Anderson stories. The stories are not in any discernible pattern”. The pieces of fiction are an eclectic mix of early works in his oeuvre, mixed with poetry and verse that range across his entire career.

The contents include:

  • Call Me Joe
  • Prayer in War
  • Tomorrow’s Children
  • Kinnison’s Band
  • The Helping Hand
  • Wildcat
  • Clausius’ Chaos
  • Journey’s End
  • Heinlein’s Stories
  • Logic
  • Time Patrol
  • The First Love
  • The Double-Dyed Villains
  • To a Tavern Wench
  • The Immortal Game
  • Upon the Occasion of Being Asked to Argue That Love and Marriage are Incompatible
  • Backwardness
  • Haiku
  • Genius
  • There Will Be Other Times
  • The Live Coward
  • Ballade of an Artificial Satellite
  • Time Lag
  • The Man Who Came Early
  • Autumn
  • Turning Point
  • Honesty
  • The Alien Enemy
  • Eventide
  • Enough Rope
  • The Sharing of Flesh
  • Barbarous Allen
  • Welcome
  • Flight to Forever
  • Sea Burial
  • Barnacle Bull
  • To Jack Williamson
  • Time Heals
  • MacCannon
  • The Martian Crown Jewels
  • Then Death Will Come
  • Prophecy
  • Einstein’s Distress
  • Kings Who Die
  • Ochlan
  • Starfog

The introduction is not quite correct, in that the reader can find resonances between stories, sometimes in stories back-to-back. There are plenty of threads, and a fan of Anderson and his Nordic viewpoint might call it a skein, a tangled skein of fictional ideas, themes, ideas and characters. The same introduction notes that a lot of the furniture of science fiction can be found in early forms here, as Anderson being one of those authors who have made them what they were for successive writers. In many cases, then, it is not the freshness of the ideas that one reads these stories for, but the deep writing, themes, characters and language that put Anderson in a class of his own.

The titular story, for example, “Call Me Joe,” leads off the volume. It is a story of virtual reality in one of its earliest forms, about Man trying to reach and be part of a world he cannot otherwise interact with. Watchers of the movie Avatar will be immediately struck by the story and how much that movie relies on this story’s core assumptions and ideas. But the story is much more than the ideas. It’s about the poetry of Anderson’s writing. His main character, Anglesey, is physically challenged (sound familiar). But as a pseudojovian, he doesn’t have to be and he can experience a world unlike any on Earth:

Anglesey’s tone grew remote, as if he spoke to himself. “Imagine walking under a glowing violet sky, where great flashing clouds sweep the earth with shadow and rain strides beneath them. Imagine walking on the slopes of a mountain like polished metal, with a clean red flame exploding above you and thunder laughing in the ground. Imagine a cool wild stream, and low trees with dark coppery flowers, and a waterfall—methanefall, whatever you like—leaping off a cliff, and the strong live wind shakes its mane full of rainbows! Imagine a whole forest, dark and breathing, and here and there you glimpse a pale-red wavering will-o’-the-wisp, which is the life radiation of some fleet, shy animal, and…and…”

Anglesey croaked into silence. He stared down at his clenched fists then he closed his eyes tight and tears ran out between the lids, “Imagine being strong!”

Reader, I was moved.

That’s only part of the genius of Anderson’s work shown here. Anderson has many strings in his harp and this volume plays many of those chords.

There is the strong, dark tragedy of “The Man Who Came Early” which is in genre conversation with L Sprague De Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall” and shows an American solider, circa 1943, thrown back to 11th century Iceland and, pace Martin Padway, doing rather badly in the Dark Ages. Poul Anderson is much better known for his future history that runs from the Polesotechnic League on through the Galactic Empire of Dominic Flandry, but this volume has three stories of his OTHER future galactic civilization, where Wing Alak manages a much looser and less restrictive galactic polity, dealing with bellicose problems by rather clever and indirect means.

And then there are his time travel tales. “Time Patrol” introduces us to the entire Time Patrol cycle and Manse Everard’s first mission. I’ve read plenty of his stories over the years, but this first outing had escaped me, so it was a real delight to see “where it all began”. “Wildcat” has oil drillers in the Cretaceous and a slowly unfolding mystery that leads to a sting in the tail about the fragility of their society.  And then there is one of my favorite Poul Anderson stories, period, the poetic and tragic and moving “Flight to Forever”, with a one-way trip to the future, with highs, lows, tragedies, loss and a sweeping look at man’s future. It still moves me.

And space. Of course we go to space.  From the relativistic invasion of “Time-Lag” to the far future of “Starfog” and “The Sharing of Flesh,” Anderson was laying down his ideas on space opera and space adventure here in these early stories that still hold up today. “Time-Lag’s” slow burn of a captive who works to save her planet through cycles of invasion and attack, through the ultimate tragedy of “Starfog” as lost explorers from a far flung colony seek their home, to the “Sharing of Flesh,” which makes a strong point about assumptions in local cultures, and provides an anthropological mystery in the bargain. “Kings Who Die” is an interesting bit of cat and mouse with a lot of double-dealing espionage with a prisoner aboard a spacecraft.

Finally, I had known that Anderson was strongly into verse and poetry for years, but really had never encountered it in situ. This volume corrects that gap in my reading, with a variety of verse that is at turns, moving, poetic, and sometimes extremely funny. The placing of these bits of verse between the prose stories makes for excellent palette cleansers to not only show the range of Anderson’s work, but also clear the decks for the next story.

The last thing I should make clear for readers who might be wondering if this volume truly is for them to is to go back to the beginning of this piece. This volume, and its subsequent volumes, are not a single or even multivolume “best of Poul Anderson”. This is a book, first in a series, that is meant to be a comprehensive collection of Poul Anderson. This is not the book or even a series to pick up if you just want the best of the best of a seminal writer of 20th century science fiction. This volume (and I strongly suspect the subsequent ones) is the volume you want if you want to start a deep dive into his works in all their myriad and many forms. There is a fair amount from the end of the Pulp Era here, and for me it was not all of the same quality. I think all of the stories are worthy but some show they are early in his career, and his craft does and will improve from this point.  While for me stories like the titular “Call Me Joe”, “Flight to Forever”, “The Man Who Came Early”, and the devastating “Prophecy” are among my favorite Poul Anderson stories, the very best of Poul Anderson is yet to come.

Review: Fleet Elements by Walter Jon Williams

By Mike Glyer: Walter Jon Williams’ Fleet Elements – out today — is set in the same universe as his Dread Empire’s Fall series, where the demise of the ruling Shaa created a power vacuum which their subject species – including the human race – are struggling to survive. Fans reading the series’ seventh book will find out whether the biggest threat to the beloved characters they’ve met in the course of the series is the war to reunite the empire — or the actual reunion of protagonists Captain Gareth Martinez and Lady Caroline Sula.

In the series’ opening trilogy the Naxids, an insectoid species ruled by the Shaa, made a failed bid to to take their place. In this continuation, humans have been blamed for the postwar financial collapses and are threatened with destruction by the remaining powers of the empire. Martinez and his allies move first to take control of a Praxis fleet and bring on a decisive battle in hopes of saving humanity. And while the Shaa are still dead in Fleet Elements, a discovery sheds new light on them and turns their history into a mystery that might be important to solve.

Fleet Elements, like every book in the series, plunges ahead with a forward momentum that would make Miles Vorkosigan gasp. Along the way the inexhaustibly inventive Williams continually fills you in about flowers to be seen, the ecology, the art and lavish architecture, all the beauty surrounding his characters whether planetside or in space, yet the story never slows; he doesn’t feel a need to stop and admire the things he’s thought up – he’s already on to the next one.

In the universe of the Praxis wormholes facilitate interstellar travel – but voyages to and from them are at sublight speeds, raising navigation and ballistics issues worthy of Heinlein juveniles and setting up fleet battles between clouds of ships in the Lensman tradition. Characters face external challenges to their careers and physical survival, complemented by internal struggles to discover who they are, what they believe in, and to overcome adversity and setbacks

We are now in the second book of the current Praxis story arc, and our hero Gareth Martinez has been maturing into a family man despite his starcrossed attraction to Lady Caroline Sula, each playing the candle to the other’s moth. But SPOILER ALERT! Have I mentioned how much I don’t want to read about broken marriages and fathers alienated from their children?

On the other hand, Walter Jon Williams has been weaving the tragic derivoo musical tradition through Lady Sula’s whole biography. No matter how much we may be pulling for her we can hardly expect things to end well. However, they haven’t ended yet.

Lady Caroline Sula’s origin story flows from her youth around crime gangs, and a murder. As a reader I questioned why was I rooting for her criminal success? Was it because that’s so obviously the gate through which I must pass to get to the story I want to read? I asked myself the same question about Colleen McCullough’s version of Sulla, the future dictator, in The First Man in Rome series, who had to murder a woman to afford to start his career.

Lady Sula’s background reemerges, often to great advantage, like when she makes the gangsters she knows the backbone of the Secret Army that resists the first alien coup attempt. But the ones who are still alive in Fleet Elements are a complication for someone like Sula, ambitious to climb to the top.

Before the demise of the Shaa, the event that kicks off the series, the various sentient races of the Empire enjoyed a kind of equality in their subordination to the rulers. When the Naxids tried to move into the power vacuum, humans were still aligned with the other nonhumans in resisting them. But in the latest arc humans are mostly isolated and on their own. Many space operas set up genocidal conflicts between humans and aliens, however, Walter Jon Williams wasn’t telling that story before now. I look forward to the next novel to learn the fates of Martinez and Sula, and if the end game will somehow weave all the Empire’s species together again.

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

stack of books ©canstockphoto / pjgon71

[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)

Continue reading

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.]

Continue reading