Short Reviews – Finished, by L. Sprague De Camp

Finished, by L. Sprague De Camp, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It can be read here at Archive.org.

L. Sprague de Camp offers up something of a planetary romance with Finished, where I can’t quite tell if he just bungled his premise or was poorly spoofing Sword & Planet and Campbell ran it because he thought it would make the folks over at Planet Stories look like rubes.

Finished

Why do I feel like the genre is being mocked?

The truth may be somewhere in between. Finished is a mess of weird names and affectations, such that entire paragraphs barely register as coherent ideas expressed in English. De Camp is a smart guy who enjoys being smart, but he’s also a fairly decent writer who has done some really good humorous SFF that, while funny, didn’t quite dip into twee. So despite being a mess, there’s a damn good story at its core that makes me wonder why he didn’t work to tell it just a little bit better.

A planet in contact with the Galactic FederationTM is being kept at arm’s-length by the advanced space-faring culture; they’re just too primitive and barbaric to be granted access to the technical and philosophical knowledge of Earth (Ertsu). The planet has a perpetual regency: the “one king” of the planet is a revered and sacred mummy relic, and the princes of the planet rule in his name. The mummy is fraudulently taken off the planet, and the Prince demands the right to pursue it to earth to recover their world’s most sacred treasure.

Turns out, the theft was a sham. The prince allowed, nay facilitated, the theft of the mummy which could be stuffed with literature and technical manuals so that they might be smuggled back to his world.

There’s a large naval battle as one of the representatives of the galactic federation pursues the rogue prince, who fakes his death, faked a mummy (lost in the battle), and ultimately returns to his people with the promise of a new golden age.

Again, not a bad story, but it suffered greatly in the telling, and I would’ve much rather it be told by a Brackett or a Kline. It’s not something I can easily explain—not within the limitations of time I have for this column—so I can only suggest that you read it for yourself.

This is the last day of the Cirsova Issue 9 & 10 Kickstarter! Be sure to back today if you haven’t already!

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Short Reviews – What Dead Men Tell, by Theodore Sturgeon

Castalia House’s back end is down right now, so I’m going ahead and posting this week’s Short Review here; we’ll get it mirrored up there once Markku gets us situated. What Dead Men Tell, by Theodore Sturgeon, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It can be read here at Archive.org.

What Dead Men TellFor poisoning the well against the pulps, crusty old Ted the Sturgeon really needed to blow me away. And once we got past the first couple of pages of autistic rambling, Teddy only managed to tell a moderately interesting story.

Hulon, a film projectionist, recently wrote a piece for an obscure literary magazine outlining his eudaemonic philosophy: the future is uncertain and the now is so finitely small as to be inconsequential, so true security can only exist in the ossified events of the past—one’s past actions and accomplishments were all that one could truly hold onto, therefore happiness and security is derived primarily from what you are able to put into your past.

Well, this bit of thinkery draws the attention of a mysterious group who has transcended the laws of life and death! They appear to him as ghosts—movie stars who he’s certain are dead, but there they are in his theatre, plain as day! After approaching the third of these supposedly-dead movie stars, Hulon is informed that they are willing to test him to join their ranks. He will be placed in a chamber where he will meet death.

Hulon finds himself in a seemingly endless corridor, all alone except for strange balls of liquid that supply nutrient nourishment and dead bodies of old men that he happens upon at regular intervals.

I’ll go ahead and spoil the riddle, because that’s really all there is to the story: the endless corridor is some kind of umbilic torus, the body is the same body over and over again (it appears different because of different lighting [it cycles through the spectrum with each circuit Hulon completes] and because it gets banged up when illusion-creating gravity centered on Hulon changes and it drops to the floor/wall), and the ‘death he will meet’ is old age.

How did the gravity in the torus work to make it appear that the corridor was perfectly straight? Hulon admits he can’t answer that when he gives his answer to the riddle, and Ted doesn’t answer it either (‘oh, you’ll learn that and more in good time’ the cabal members tell Hulon).

What Dead Men Tell is a riddle-story; an atmospheric riddle-story with a worthwhile riddle (at least it wasn’t one of Asimov’s Black Widowers yarns), but I needed more. What were the stakes? The weirdo film projectionist is granted immortality and is assigned a girlfriend to instruct him in the ways of the new cabal he has been welcomed into.

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Wild Stars Update + Cirsova Review!

We’ve had some great positive coverage of Wild Stars III: Time Warmageddon from both Bounding into Comics and Critical Blast. Not to mention this great plug from The Alt-Right DM.

We’ve hit our initial stretch goals and will be giving away lots of comics to backers. The next goal is $1500 for the Prairie Bay comic.

 

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Also, I’m thrilled to be able to announce that the first review of Cirsova # 8 is in from Tangent Online, and it’s positively glowing! It’s a roll of dice who reviews us there, and some have loved us while we haven’t been to the tastes of some others. Thankfully, Tara Grimravn appreciates what we’re going for with Cirsova. Be sure to check out what she’s written about our summer issue!

Review of Cirsova #5

Steve DuBois posted an excellent review of our Eldritch Earth issue; I suggest you go and read it.

He brings up a few interesting points:

“I have found cause for gripe about a lot of fiction that’s labelled ‘Lovecraftian’—the biggest being that it is not particularly Lovecraftian at all. To a large extent, ‘Lovecraftian’ falls into the same rut as Steampunk, only instead of gluing gears to everything, it’s tentacles.” [editor’s note; this was quoted from my intro to the issue]

This begs the question:  what IS Lovecraftian fiction?  For me, the defining characteristic is a cosmic horror born of the sudden realization that humanity is not, in fact, at the top of the food chain; indeed, that from a universal perspective, we’re not even insects.  Lovecraft posits that entities exist whose motives are not exactly malevolent, but so far beyond our understanding that to even encounter them is a sanity-shattering experience.

Bluntly, I don’t know that this leaves much room for the heroic.  I don’t think Lovecraft’s stories would have been improved if Randolph Carter had been handed an SMG and he’d started mowing down shoggoths.  New Pulp is a celebration of human ability and potential.  Lovecraft’s message is “your abilities are irrelevant in a cosmic context, and you are potentially something’s dinner.”  I don’t think, in short, that heroic fiction can be made Lovecraftian by gluing some tentacles to it.

In many ways, yes, the stories in the issue weren’t Lovecraftian in either the modern or the traditional sense. To an extent, you could accuse some of the stories of “gluing tentacles” to heroic fantasy and calling it “Lovecraftian” and not be too terribly far off from the truth. However, one of the reasons why I was willing to pursue this direction and showcase it in Cirsova is because so much in the current field of “Lovecraftian” fiction is either a deconstruction of Lovecraft and his themes through identitarian lenses on one end and modern pastiches of detectives with guns vs. Cthulhu on the other end. I looked at the project as a reconstruction of Burroughsian (though in practice Howardian) heroic tropes and, in the case of Misha Burnett’s and S.H. Mansouri’s stories, a reconstruction of the identity-based horror.

The stories work least well when they try to transplant Robert E. Howard to the Triassic, with brawny iron-age heroes mowing down scads of enemy henchmen and advancing towards boss fights.  Additionally, the whole Eldritch Earth concept is still in an early stage developmentally, and as with other such experiments (notably Baen’s Grantville) there are times when the authors involved seem to be proceeding from fundamentally incompatible concepts of how the story’s world works.  I can just about buy that humanity was designed as a slave race by Mind Flayers, but what’s up with all these other late-Pleistocene mammals popping up all over the place?  The horses?  The dogs?  The tapirs?  Or even Cretaceous critters such as birds, for that matter?  These aren’t story-killers, but they’re anti-atmospheric and destructive of reader immersion, and the Eldritch Earth stories will become more fun for readers once the authorial community leaves the tropes of iron-age Earth behind.

This is an interesting critique, in part because he goes on to praise Sky Hernstrom as “unmistakably right as an author of New Pulp”, but also because he is right that in the early phases of this shared universe, there is some conflict of what everyone’s vision is. I did not impose an editorial hand to maintain a consistent sense of world-building, as I didn’t feel that was my job. In those cases, such as The First American and Beyond the Great Divide where there was conflicting information about the nature of the Slagborn or the stories that included but gave very different impressions of Deodanth, I decided to let the stories stand on their own rather than try to pick which story was canon and demand the other authors try to shape theirs to better fit that canon.

I do hope that the Eldritch Earth project has some life left in it, because I think it has produced some spectacular early tales. We have a new Darla tale in our current issue and will have a brand-new tale of the Plateau of Leng from Cirsova regular Donald J. Uitvlugt later this year.

This is absolutely the sort of feedback that we’re looking for when we say “Hey leave us a review!” I mean, yeah, a couple lines and some stars on Amazon helps us a ton, too, but this is excellent, actionable stuff that lets us know what we’re doing right, where we can improve, and what direction we should take the magazine in the future.

Cirsova’s Planetary Awards Nominee: Out of the Soylent Planet, by Robert Kroese

I’m killing two birds with one stone on this one. Robert Kroese’s Out of the Soylent Planet is my pick for this year’s Planetary Awards in the long-form category.out of the soylent planet

On paper, Kroese’s Rex Nihilo series seems like the last thing I’d enjoy—a snarky, self-aware, often parodic science fiction series featuring a sleazy protagonist whom I’ve described as a cross between Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flannagan character and Zapp Brannigan.  But the strength of Kroese’s writing and his sense of humor accomplish the herculean task of keeping his premise from descending into obnoxious twee. While the first book, “Starship Grifters”, cleaves dangerously close to Star Wars parody, the sequel, “Aye, Robot” abandoned much of the familiar plot beats and moved away from parody, delving further into the realm of satire.

I was worried, then, that “Out of the Soylent Planet” might return to the safer realms of parody when it began with a direct send-up of New Hope’s opening, with SASHA standing in for 3P0. And it was a prequel, no-less!

My fears were quickly allayed, however, as Out of the Soylent Planet progressed rapidly into new territory, establishing the relationship between SASHA and Rex, further developing SASHA’s nature as a near-sentient AI without retreading the first two books, and using some wild and exciting set-ups to do so.

Out of the Soylent Planet is self-aware, and many of the characters are dangerously (wrong) genre savvy, but Kroese handles all of this exceptionally well. He uses Rex to explore the nature of the picaresque hero over the course of the series while even hanging a lampshade as other characters discuss what qualifies one to be a lovable rogue. Like Obi-Wan’s villainy, it all comes down to “a certain point of view.”

While Out of the Soylent Planet is a prequel, it is written in such a way that it could stand alone to a reader new to the series but does not belabor descriptions and exposition which readers of the previous books might be familiar with. The first installment suffered a bit from the “Only Sane Man” trope with SASHA playing the straight-man to the insanity of the entire universe. While there are plenty of mixed up characters in Out of the Soylent Planet, much of that burden is taken off SASHA’s shoulders, giving her a few odd but competent and reliable characters to play off of. This lets her character have some fun/self-indulgence without risking having the world fall to pieces around her. The only weakness it has is an absence of Pepper Melange. Then again, part of what Pepper brought to the stories was that sense that there were people in the universe besides SASHA who were competent (who were not stark-raving mad or lunatic idiots), and by giving SASHA and Rex other ‘straight men’ to play off of, her absence will not be felt by new readers so much as by existing fans of the character.

Even if you haven’t been reading Kroese’s Rex Nihilo Series, this one is worth picking up and diving into.

Just a reminder to readers and other book bloggers: You too can nominate for the Planetary Awards. As a publisher, Cirsova is abstaining from nominating in the short form category, but there’s been a lot of love so far for Schuyler Hernstrom’s “The First American.” All you have to do to nominate a work is post on your blog what you think should receive a Planetary Award and why. Feel free to nominate something we published in 2017.

End of the Year Round-up of Short Reviews

I realized it’s been ages since I’ve posted a round-up of my Castalia House reviews. I used to do them seasonally, but kept thinking “surely I must have already done a round-up” and never bothered to actually check. It turns out, the last one I did was back in March.

So, here’s a list of all the reviews I’ve done since then!

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-i-like-you-too-by-joe-gibson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-yesterdays-doors-by-arthur-j-burks/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-square-pegs-by-ray-bradbury/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-miracle-town-by-william-f-temple/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-cosmic-jackpot-by-george-o-smith/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-date-line-by-noel-loomis-as-benj-miller/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-reverse-english-by-john-s-carroll/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-softie-by-noel-loomis/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-no-winter-no-summer-by-damon-knight-and-james-blish-as-donald-laverty/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-referent-by-ray-bradbury-as-brett-sterling/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-metal-chamber-by-duane-w-rimel/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-swine-of-aeaea-by-clifford-ball/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-house-where-time-stood-still-by-seabury-quinn/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-return-of-hastur-by-august-derleth/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-comrades-of-time-by-edmond-hamilton/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-quest-of-iranon-by-h-p-lovecraft/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-stratosphere-menace-by-ralph-milne-farley/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-smoke-fantasy-by-thomas-r-jordan/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-devils-of-po-sung-by-bassett-morgan/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-haunted-level-by-cassiter-wright/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-bull-dog-smith-by-james-mccormick/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-chasing-a-living-in-california-by-anon/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-old-white-face-by-allen-borders/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-ali-babas-cave-by-i-d-b/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-balu-the-bear-by-blanche-e-ward/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-dutchmans-gold-told-by-arthur-greyslen-and-set-down-by-alan-burgess/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-sandhound-strikes-by-ross-rocklynne/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-vanishing-venusians/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-happy-castaway-by-robert-e-mcdowell/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-silver-plague-by-albert-de-pina/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-double-trouble/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-death-star-by-tom-pace/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-vandals-of-the-void-by-robert-wilson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-joe-carsons-weapon-by-james-r-adams/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-smoking-land-by-frederick-faust-as-george-challis/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-three-lines-of-old-french-by-a-merritt/

Review: Whispers From the Abyss

Sometimes life gets crazy and you don’t manage to juggle all of the things that you thought you could take on, but that’s really no excuse. I’m long overdue for reviews of 01Publishing’s Whispers From the Abyss series. I’ve made a few tweets about these, but that’s nothing compared to the actual reviews they deserve, considering the fact that the awesome Kat Rocha actually sent me physical copies to read.

It’s also not easy to review anthologies of flash fiction because there are SO MANY STORIES TO TALK ABOUT! So, rather than take on the daunting task of reviewing the hundreds of stories, I’ll say that the average quality and selection of these pieces is incredible. That’s not to say that I thought all of the stories were good or that I enjoyed them all, but there were some really great ones, some pretty good ones, and the bad ones were only a page or so.

I know it doesn’t sound like much on the face of it, but those who know me as someone who loathes “Lovecraftian” (fingerquotes) fiction understands what it means that I should have any praise at all for such an anthology, much less the high praise for it I’m now struggling to articulate.

I think where this anthology best succeeds is in finding short horror stories that seek to tonally match Lovecraft and others’ short weird fiction and horror rather than fill its pages with Mythos gobbledygook.

They’re worth checking out, and you can find them on Amazon.