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Review: The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett Posted at 9:18 AM by Matt W.

Mattastrophic

Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Matt W. (Mattastrophic), reviews science fiction and fantasy books on his blog Strange Telemetry. Matt is a regular WWEnd contributor and he won the January GMRC Review of the Month for his review of The Dispossessed. Check out his profile page for more great reviews or visit his blog and let him know you found him here.

Note: The Warded Man is published in the UK as The Painted Man.


The Warded ManThe demons rise every night without fail, and every night a few more humans are viciously killed. The only thing that can hold them at bay are the magical wards people put around their homes, and within which they huddle together at night, trying to ignore the sounds of the monsters outside constantly looking for a way in. Some of them find it. When the corelings–demons of fire, rock, air,water, sand, and rot–first rose, they massacred humans close to the point of extinction. Then mankind discovered the magical combat wards that allowed them to fight the beasts. An unparalleled age of science and progress followed, but safety bred complacency, and when the corelings returned mankind fell into a dark age and lost a great deal of knowledge about the wards. Now, during the day men and women work and check their defensive wards, while at night all they can do is huddle in their homes and hope the defenses will hold and keep the monsters out. Travel between townships is minimal, and few know the world beyond their own hometown. Much has been lost, and much continues to be lost as every night as a few more people succumb to the corelings.

Three young people from different towns in this perilous world set off on paths that will eventually converge, and which may eventually lead them to some measure of hope and salvation for mankind. Arlen is a young boy with a knack for wards who has become sick at everyone’s cowardice and lack of resolve to fight the demons. Leesha is a blossoming young woman with a talent for herb gathering and healing, making her a keeper of some of the oldest surviving tradition, lore, and medicine from the days before the corelings return. But a nasty rumor and a town scandal threatens her. Rojer always wanted to be jongleur, a wandering musician and performer who is the delight of every town he passes through (and who brings rare rays of sunshine and joy into this otherwise bleak world). When demons attack his home and he is horribly maimed, that dream is threatened, but eventually he discovers he has a talent for music that goes beyond mere entertainment. Each has been scarred by the demons, and the book follows their growth from childhood to adulthood.

This is the premise of The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett, which is yet another book that made me think “fah, what crap” when I first saw it. I guess at the time I was put off by what I have noticed is a pretty formulaic title: The (insert adjective here) Man, as in The Demolished Man, The Illustrated Man, The Female Man, The Invisible Man, The Unincorporated Man, The Thin Man, ad inifinitum. Once I got over my title prejudice and took a close gander at the blurb, I was seized by the interesting premise. It put me to mind of the dark ages following the fall of the Roman Empire, when knowledge was lost and the world grew smaller, darker, and scarier, and having just seen a documentary on the dark ages the premise of this book grabbed me at the right moment. After checking out a few reviews of the book, I decided to give it a shot; I had a spare Audible credit at the time, and I was keeping my expectations flexible. To my surprise, I was really sucked into this book, and once again I found that (ugh) you can’t judge a book by its cover (thank you every elementary school teacher I ever had).

Strong Magic: What The Warded Man Does Well

Brett has stated that he really wanted to write a book about fear and it’s effect on people, and in this YouTube interview he links that desire to his experience with 9/11 and it’s aftermath. The fear angle really comes out in this novel. It is strong in the first thread, Arlen’s, where the young boy learns contempt for his own father’s cowardice before the demons. Much of the worldbuilding Brett does revolves around fear of the corelings and the precautions taken to stay safe from them, which fits since it is a constant, pervasive threat in a similar way fear of terrorism swept the U.S. following 9/11. The night is a time of danger and fear for the people of Brett’s novel, so much so that “night!” has become a curse word. Brett has showed how fear of the corelings has affected everything from architecture and city planning to the way cities and societies have become more insular. Messengers, who travel from town to town bearing supplies and act as diplomats and emissaries, are raised to heroic status for braving the open night between towns with nothing but a portable warding circle between them and the monsters. People have become resigned to living in this world, with only one group, the desert people to the south, actively fighting the monsters. Overall, the atmosphere this creates has an appropriate dark ages feel, similar to what happened after the fall of Rome: technology and knowledge has been lost, and the world suddenly grows a lot smaller and a lot scarier.

The characterization is very good as well. Thankfully, it’s is not filler in between action scenes. The demons are catalysts and background for the tragedies and rites of passage that each character struggles with as they grow up, and their circumstances and character arcs makes them feel like distinct, believable characters. I lost myself (in a good way) in the stories of each of the three viewpoint characters, and even when they were not dealing with the demons their stories were still exciting, tense, and interesting. Will Arlen find a way to fight the demons, or is it only a boy’s fantasy? Can he ever settle for a normal life, one with a wife and children? Will Leesha ever get past the stigma put on her by that nasty rumor, and finally be able to move on with her life? Will she ever be rid of her domineering mother? Will Rojer be able to hang on to his dream of being a jongleur given his maimed hand and his now drunkard of a mentor? Their life experiences feel true to the human condition given such an environment, and like George R. R. Martin’s books (which Brett cites as a major inspiration) the situations they are in frequently offer no easy out or simple moral choice. Each viewpoint character feels well-realized, so that when they eventually come together their relationships with one another is dynamic and interesting.

While the characterization is not just filler between the action, that doesn’t mean that the action is disregarded or underdeveloped. The action works pretty well, especially the climax of the book. There are very few ways to fight the demons, who can shrug off the attacks of most weapons and heal rapidly, so most of the time it’s a desperate struggle for survival and a dash for safety. When a character is caught out at night and trying to find shelter from the monsters, the narrative puts you on the edge of your seat.

Finally, while this book has some very dark places, there is the thread of hope that Brett nurtures along the narrative: hope of turning the tide in the fight against the demons, hope of the people finding courage instead of despair, hope that characters will find their dreams, etc. My one major problem with dystopian or apocalyptic narratives is that the bleakness of them can be a real turnoff. The Warded Man shares elements of the latter genre, although it is squarely fantasy, but thankfully the bleakness does not overwhelm the narrative. Normalcy has a way of asserting itself in the midst of prolonged disaster, and Brett does a good job of showing how each character finds hope and pursues dreams and ambitions both because of and despite the nightly dangers of the demons.

Faded Wards: Where The Warded Man Could Have Been Better

While the fear people feel for the coreligns is very well established in the prose and the interpersonal interactions of characters, the demons themselves failed to dazzle or horrify). The monsters are not particularly well described in the beginning, and while I would certainly not want to be trapped outside with any of them, they didn’t scare me all that much. I kept thinking back to how Jim Butcher describes monsters, how, even when seen full view, I not only had a better idea of what they looked like and what distinguished them, but why they were frightening as well. In most monster stories, the monsters lose some pzzazz after they are revealed in full. Perhaps since Brett was revealing the mosnters very early on, they never seemed very scary. It may also be that they lost some of that oompf by being such a common sight. Still, given that they were so central to the conceit of the novel, I was a bit disappointed in their presentation.

Peter V. BrettAs mentioned earlier, Brett has stated that he really admires George R. R. Martin, and that the moral complexity Martin brings to his characters has caused Brett to really bring up the level of his own writing. Like Martin, the world that Brett creates is filled with ugly, immoral people who will kill you as soon as look at you, but it’s almost too full of those characters. There are characters who help and support the viewpoint characters and characters who are unambiguously bullies or just plain evil, and I didn’t sense that there was a whole lot of a middle ground. The bullies and evil characters are frequently, and obviously, foils for the development of the viewpoint characters, but after a while the presence of a bully/rapist (or would-be rapist)/opportunist who has bad intentions on our main characters stopped being surprising and started feeling like a matter of course. Things start to feel soap-opera-ish at times. While Brett does complicate our view of one bully character greatly in the climax of this book, I sense that I will have to wait until future volumes to see how he wraps up the plot threads of these other characters, so I might just be rescinding this criticism later.

My last criticism comes with a big damn hedging comment attached to it. I found myself wondering about other aspects of the world Brett had built since the worldbuilding only went so far. I imagine if demons started to rise every night in our world, they would take up a lot of our time and consideration, but normalcy and culture find ways of establishing and reestablishing themselves, so I was wondering about other aspects of the world that were not touched on. Of course, this lack of deep worldbuilding can be attributed to the fact that trade and communication is extremely limited by the nightly monster mash, so what would Rojer, Leesha, or Arlen know about far-flung lands? Still, I wanted to see the local culture, government, politics, etc. fleshed out in some more detail.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite some of these criticisms (which I may reverse my opinion on after reading the rest of the series), I enjoyed The Warded Man immensely. I was initially taken in by the central conceit of people barely surviving a nightly onslaught of demons and of kindling the hope to find a way to beat them back, but I stuck with the book for its characters and storytelling. Indeed, I’m pretty invested in Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer, and I really want to see what happens to them next and what happens to the world given the plot events set in motion by the epilogue! As I’ve stated in previous posts, I’m very discerning with what kind of fantasy I read. Perhaps I’m more of a fantasy snob than I am a Science Fiction snob, I don’t know, but I take greater care in picking my fantasy books. I was skeptical about this book, but I found myself hungry for a little fantasy and, given that Scott Lynch’s much-anticipated The Republic of Thieves kept suffering setbacks and that I’m still waiting for Martin’s A Dance with Dragons to come down to a reasonable price ($15 for the ebook from the kindle store? No thank you!) I took a chance on The Warded Man. It not only met and exceeded my standards, but it has put me in the mood to expand my fantasy horizons. I’ve already downloaded the sequel, The Desert Spear, but in between this review and the one for that book I am going to try the first parts of at least two other fantasy series.

In short, I recommend this book enthusiastically and am going to make Brett someone to keep my eye on in the future.

I listened to to this as an unabridged audiobook narrated by Pete Bradbury, whom I was dubious about at first. His somewhat deep voice has a kind of twang (one I can’t quite place) to it that at first didn’t seem to mesh with a fantasy story, but once I got used to it I enjoyed immensely. Come to find out that he has done a few roles on Law and Order and Criminal Intent, which makes me kick myself for not recognizing the book (being the L&O nut that I am).

Forays into Fantasy: Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson Posted at 10:14 AM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. Recently, he began branching out into fantasy, and was surprised by the diversity of the genre. It’s not all wizards, elves, and dragons! Scott’s new blog series, Forays into Fantasy, is an SF fan’s exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today. FiF will examine some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building up an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.

Note: This blog post also counts as a Grand Master Reading Challenge review.


Darker Than You ThinkBetween March 1939 and October 1943, John W. Campbell edited a magazine called Unknown (later Unknown Worlds)—a fantasy companion to Astounding, which at that time was at the peak of its influence in the science fiction world. Campbell wanted to create a contrast to the uncanny horror of Weird Tales, and sought out fantasy stories with logical underpinnings for the fantastic elements, a high intellectual/literary level, and often humor. I previously reviewed A. E. Van Vogt’s The Book of Ptath, which originally appeared in the final issue of Unknown. Its extreme far-future setting left open the possibility that what we would normally take to be fantasy elements had a science fictional explanation. Other writers with backgrounds in science fiction also contributed to Unknown, including L. Ron Hubbard, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and Henry Kuttner. L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea sequence (collected as The Complete Enchanter) and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series got their starts here as well. Jack Williamson’s “Darker Than You Think” first appeared as a novella in the December 1940 issue.

Williamson’s career spans the history of science fiction. Born in 1908, his family traveled by covered wagon from Arizona to their New Mexico homestead, where Williamson discovered the early science fiction pulps and became entranced by imaginary worlds incredibly distant from his family’s rural ranching existence. He published his first story in a 1928 issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, and released his final novel in 2005, just prior to his death at age 98. Already well known for early space operas such as The Legion of Space and The Legion of Time, he made the transition to the more mature Astounding style in the ‘40s with stories like The Humanoids, and later published multiple collaborations with Frederik Pohl. Along the way, he managed to begin college in the 1950s, eventually getting his Ph.D. and teaching for many years at Eastern New Mexico University. Along with his amazing science fiction resume, he managed to publish some influential fantasy during his career, and Darker Than You Think is usually considered to be one of his best novels.

Unknown MagazineDarker Than You Think, expanded to novel length in 1948, is a good example of Unknown-style fantasy, and fits into a long tradition of updating ancient fantastic traditions (in this case, werewolves and witchcraft) in order to maintain their relevance and interest for modern audiences. (Rereading Bram Stoker’s Dracula recently, I was surprised at the emphasis on science in the understanding and combating of the vampire, which must have helped update the old legends for a late nineteenth-century readership.) As in The Book of Ptath, there is a science fictional explanation for Williamson’s story of a race of magical beings threatening humanity. Usually remembered as a story about werewolves, the supernatural creatures of Darker Than You Think also encompass witches, vampires, were-beasts of all forms, and psychics. The basic conceit is that all these supernatural manifestations, as well as all the stories of monsters and gods throughout all human mythologies (including the snake in the Garden of Eden!), can be traced back to the existence of Homo lycanthropus, an offshoot of the genus Homo which competed for dominance with other pre-human species. Think of it as an evolutionary alternate history.

They “sprang from another kindred type of Hominidae who were trapped by the glaciers [during the Ice Age] in the higher country … toward Tibet… They had to adapt, or die. They responded, over the slow millennia, by evolving new powers of the mind… [They] learned to leave their bodies hibernating in their caves while they went out across the ice fields—as wolves or bears or tigers—to hunt human game… In a few thousand years, their dreadful powers had overcome every other species of the genus Homo.”

Being predators, the lycanthropes allowed a larger pre-human population to live on for use as slaves and food. “They had learned to like the taste of human blood, and they couldn’t exist without it.” But around a hundred thousand years ago Homo sapiens arose, and began fighting back, discovering that silver weapons and domesticated dogs could help them in the war against Homo lycanthropus, eventually prevailing in that “strange war.” But before being wiped out entirely, these predatory creatures managed to interbreed with Homo sapiens, so that most modern humans have some trace of that genetic heritage, thus providing a scientific explanation, based on evolution and genetics, for all sorts of superhuman manifestations and witch hunts, not to mention individual psychological conflicts—“that alien inheritance haunts our unconscious minds with the dark conflicts and intolerable urges that Freud discovered and tried to explain.” Mental illness is thus presented as a result of this pre-human war still being waged in our genes! (For more on how this aspect of the novel might be related to Williamson’s own experience with psychotherapy, see Charles Dee Mitchell’s excellent WWEnd review of the novel.)

Cartier - Unknown MagazineAnd how do these genetically-determined powers work? Well… it turns out that the mind is “an energy complex… created by the vibrating atoms and electrons of the body, and yet controlling their vibrations through the linkage of atomic probability…” Homo lycanthropus developed the power to enter a “free state,” in which this energy complex, which might be the “soul,” can disengage from the physical body. “We simply separate that living web from the body, and use the probability link to attach it to other atoms, wherever we please—the atoms of the air are easiest to control… Light can destroy or damage that mental web,” so the free state can only be entered at night. “No common matter is any real barrier to us in the free state… Our mind webs can grasp the vibrating atoms and slip through them, nearly as easily as through the air… Silver is the deadly exception—as our enemies know.” This pseudoscientific exposition is part of protagonist Will Barbee’s initiation into the ways of these witches and shape shifters. As dialogue, it’s not at all convincing, but the explanations presented in such “info dumps” are surprisingly consistent logically.

The alcoholic Barbee has never felt settled in his life, and it quickly becomes clear that his psychological issues are related to his own genetic heritage. His infatuation with the beautiful April Bell sets him on a path that will force him to choose between humanity and the exhilaration of the “free state” he has begun to experience in what he assumes to be his dreams. Like Dracula’s Von Helsing, a team of scientists has discovered the truth about the lycanthropes. These men were once Barbee’s colleagues, and he still considers them his friends, thus ratcheting up his mental conflict as it comes to be mirrored by the actual conflict between the scientists and the ancient race. The lycanthropes are determined to stop these men by any means necessary, while continuing the long game of regaining their ascendancy over humanity—a game that is nearing fruition, as they await the appearance of the their born leader, the “child of night.” By the end of the story, we know the culmination of their plans.

Jack WilliamsonInteresting and entertaining as it is, Darker Than You Think does not entirely hold up. Its length could be trimmed. (I don’t have access to the original novella, but Cawthorn and Moorcock, in their guide to the best fantasy books, argue that the shorter version is superior, and they list it chronologically as belonging to 1940 rather than 1948.) As a writer, Williamson had matured from his pulp beginnings, but some “pulpishness” remains, as evidenced by the sort of dialogue quoted above, and a tendency toward the repetitive use of certain descriptive terms (e.g., Barbee seems to “shudder” an awful lot). Barbee’s character is also problematic. Using a confused and divided (literally!) point of view character is an intriguing idea, but Barbee’s continual vacillation and inability to understand what is happening to him despite overwhelming evidence, while potentially plausible given his mental state, is nonetheless annoying in a protagonist. But if you can accept the writing deficiencies (which anyone for a fondness for the pulps will easily be able to do), the rewards come when Williamson describes the freedom and power of the transformation:

“Even by the colorless light of the stars, Barbee could see everything distinctly—every rock and bush beside the road, every shining wire strung on the striding telephone poles. ‘Faster, Will!’ April’s smooth legs clung to his racing body. She leaned forward, her breasts against his striped coat, her loose red hair flying in the wind, calling eagerly into his flattened ear… He stretched out his stride, rejoicing in his boundless power. He exulted in the clean chill of the air, the fresh odors of earth and life that passed his nostrils, and the warm burden of the girl. This was life. April Bell had awakened him out of a cold, walking death. Remembering that frail and ugly husk he had left sleeping in his room, he shuddered as he ran. ‘Faster!’ urged the girl. The dark plain and the first foothills beyond flowed back around them like a drifting cloud.”

Werewolf legends have been traced back as far as the eleventh century. Their enduring appeal has been attributed to the transgressive desire to escape the constraints of civilization and unleash primitive animalistic desires. Jack Williamson’s story of ancient racial conflict raises another possibility: Given the choice, who wouldn’t prefer to be predator rather than prey?


Next: Gothic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

GMRC Review: An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock Posted at 10:08 AM by Daniel Roy

Triseult

WWEnd Grand Master Reading ChallengeDaniel Roy (triseult), joined WWEnd just a few weeks ago but he’s already contributed over 30(!) reviews to the site including this one for Grand Master Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat. Daniel is living his dream of travelling the world and you can read about some of his adventures on his blog Mango Blue. Thanks, Daniel, and welcome to WWEnd.


An Alien HeatI was a huge fan of Elric of Melnibon√© as a teen, so I know Michael Moorcock‘s unparalleled imagination and stellar writing. What I didn’t know until I read An Alien Heat, however, is how good Moorcock could be at comedy, as well.

Everything about An Alien Heat, the first novel in the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy, is bizarre. It features omnipotent dandies, millions of years in the future, who will the millennia away by throwing lavish parties and having sex with one another regardless of gender or filial affiliation. These beings, oblivious or uncaring about the upcoming End of the Universe, cavort and amuse themselves, playing pranks on one another, and spending their time telling each other how brilliant they are. They sound like an immoral, immortal version of the Court of Versailles, moments before the guillotine became a fashion item.

This synopsis in itself would make for a terrible novel, but in the hands of Moorcock, it quickly becomes charming and engaging. The protagonist of the story is one Jherek Carnelian, vaguely obsessed with the 19th century, who convinces himself he should fall in love with Mrs. Underwood, an unwilling time traveler from this cherished time period, who stumbles upon his era.

Grand Master Michael MoorcockThe story of their blossoming love affair is hilarious and engaging. Jherek is a goof, but he is likable, and funny. It’s hilarious to see how little he understands the 19th century, confusing it with, oh, about anything a thousand years before or after, give or take. His courting of Mrs. Underwood is naive and sincere, and the slow emergence of his humanity is fun to watch.

A lot of the appeal of An Alien Heat is the humor, and in this the novel is not dated in the slightest. The characters are strong, colorful, and interesting, and the world at the End of Time is filled with details that make it stand out.

An Alien Heat is quick, and over with just as quickly. Good thing there are two more novels in this cycle.

2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist Posted at 1:36 AM by Dave Post

Dave Post
Hull Zero Three The End Specialist Embassytown
The Testament of Jessie Lamb Rule 34 The Waters Rising
 

The 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist has been announced:

The winner will be announced on Wednesday May 2nd at an award ceremony held at the SCI-FI-LONDON Film Festival. The winner will receive a check for £2012.00 and a commemorative engraved bookend trophy.

So what do you think of this lineup? Any surprises in there? Anything the judges missed?

GMRC Review: The Man Who Ate the World by Frederik Pohl Posted at 5:54 AM by Emil Jung

emil

WWEnd Grand Master Reading ChallengeLong time WWEnd member and Uber User, Emil Jung, is an obsessive SF/F reader and as such he’s become a huge supporter of WWEnd. (We often refer to him as our "South African Bureau.") Besides hanging out here, Emil writes poetry on his blog emiljung.posterous.com. This is the third of Emil’s GMRC reviews to feature in our blog.


The Man Who Ate the WorldAlthough Frederik Pohl‘s work began in the Campbellian era, he has always helped to determine the future of the genre through measured work as an editor, anthologist and writer. He began his career as a magazine editor in 1940 and wrote extensively with Jack Williamson and C. M. Kornbluth.

With Kornbluth he produced the classic The Space Merchants (1953), which describes a future world dominated by advertising, a theme preceded here by a few years in the stories "The Wizards and the Waging" and "The Waging of the Peace", taking a "slickly ironic" look (to quote John Clute from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) at how humans react to everyday commercial products pushed into their faces. It’s incredibly fun to read about how the National Electro-Mech fortified factory inundates a small town Buick salesman with new Buicks and how the very same salesman ends up as a recruit in attacking and stopping the production of these cars. These final two stories, arguably the best in the collection, are slightly anti-capitalist satire. Nothing strange here, considering Pohl’s short foray in the Young Communist League during the late 1930s. Shortly hereafter – as a side note – he enlisted in the army, and, in weird twist of fate, served with Jack Williamson as a weather observer.

The title story "The Man Who Ate the World" is the weakest in the collection and is the only one I remember reading as a youngster. It’s a tragic story about this child growing up and trained to consume and consume, without his parents nurturing him. This important part of early childhood development is left to robots. Eventually, as an adult, he continues to consume and build robots to produce robots that destroy robots, ever repeating the cycle of consumption, ultimately threatening the existing world order. A psychologist comes to the rescue, reuniting the adult child with his teddy. Yeh, yeh, a cop-out and archaic Freudian psychology, but I did say this is the weakest story in the collection. It does not detract from Pohl’s more than subtle jab at American consumerism, that expectation for people to consume, buy, and destroy in order to repeat the cycle. Despite my gripe about the teddy, the story is still fun… and its insinuation certainly still rings true for modern day consumerism.

"The Snowmen" is my personal favorite, at 8 pages the shortest in the collection, and most bizarre, even cadaverous, hinting at a certain Roald Dahl chromaticity. Pohl skillfully unfolds the whole allegory in which in courting couple invites an alien visitor into the woman’s home. Her reputation, it seems, is well-known throughout the existing universe. While she entertains the alien, the man plunders and loots the alien craft, with a wonderfully macabre twist at the end.

Frederik Pohl"The Day the Icicle Works Closed" is about economic manipulation and collapse. A distant planet is cut off from trade and most people resort to renting their bodies to tourists while their minds perform hard labor elsewhere, usually inside gigantic machines, underground, in mines. The scientific mechanism on just how this happen is not explained, but that isn’t the point, is it? Pohl sets up a society that is forced to survive through disagreeable means because of economic disparity. So we see some ex-factory workers attempting to kidnap the mayor’s sons for ransom instead of whoring out their bodies to reckless and inconsiderate tourists. Ever considered your own behavior when driving a rental?

In Pohl’s novels Jem: The Making of a Utopia (1979) and Man Plus (1976) we meet characters who adapt to their strange environments by losing, or changing their humanity. Although "The Seven Deadly Virtues" do not address the exact same issues we do recognize similar themes. The story is set on Venus and I can’t imagine a harsher environment to live in. It’s an interesting society featuring a conditioning response to killing – you simply cannot do it. That aside, once you have acclimatised fully to conditions on Venus, there is no leaving. And once society has shunned you, you become a non-person. This happens to a relative new arrival to Venus, who steals the wife of a very powerful man, resulting in his ostracization. Someone else, also shunned, is included in the plot to topple the powerful man. The solution is masterfully done and very plausible.

All in all, this is a stunning collection of six short stories by a master storyteller, and despite them being dated by 50+ years, still quite unique and remarkably prescient, generally poking fun at mass production, consumerism and industrialization. These stories of social criticism were a blast and expose Frederik Pohl as the hidden hero of SF. Think of him in terms of the Golden Age. He knew them all – who else is still alive?

SF/F Quotes: Philip K. Dick Posted at 9:06 AM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups…  So I ask, in my writing, What is real?  Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms.  I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.  They have a lot of it.  And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.  I ought to know.  I do the same thing.

Philip K. Dick
I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

 

Forays into Fantasy: The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson Posted at 3:08 AM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. Recently, he began branching out into fantasy, and was surprised by the diversity of the genre. It’s not all wizards, elves, and dragons! Scott’s new blog series, Forays into Fantasy, is an SF fan’s exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today. FiF will examine some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building up an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.


The House on the BorderlandThe House on the Borderland (1908), by William Hope Hodgson, is an early and influential example of the strand of the fantastic known as weird fiction, most famously exemplified by the stories published in Weird Tales magazine from 1923 to 1954, by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and Fritz Leiber. (The magazine has been revived several times since, and is about to be relaunched yet again under new ownership.) I’ve been making my way slowly through Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s massive new anthology, The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories, which is highly recommended for anyone looking for an entry into this branch of fantasy. It traces the development of the subgenre over the last century, the earliest examples having begun appearing at about the same time as Hodgson’s novel, which is mentioned in the introduction as a key early progenitor of the weird tale. Recently, China Miéville, M. John Harrison, and other like-minded writers have promoted what they call the “New Weird,” as a modern incarnation of the form.

Both the VanderMeers and Michael Moorcock, in his “Foreweird” to the same book, avoid providing a precise definition of weird fiction, making the point that this slipperiness is part of its appeal. According to Moorcock: “In popular terms, it came to mean a supernatural story in something of the Gothic tradition… We’re [now] clearly comfortable with a term covering pretty much anything from absurdism to horror, even occasionally social realism.” While deriving somewhat from the Gothic tradition (more on that in a future post), the VanderMeers point out that Lovecraft himself defined the weird tale as “a story that does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale” of the 1800s. “Instead, it represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane… through fiction that comes from the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastic tradition.” To my mind, stories in the weird fiction tradition evoke the uncanny.

It’s difficult to define, but once you’ve experienced it, you’ll know it when you read it. Most aficionados seem to agree that William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland is a good place to start. Lovecraft and Miéville, among many others, have lauded Hodgson’s work, and this short novel is a clear precursor to the even more influential Lovecraft. As in much of Lovecraft, the story is centered on the idea that there is an unseen world that threatens to leak into our reality. The nature of this foreign dimension and its denizens is never really understood. It seems to represent a threat, but is also a source of wonder. It occurs to me that the introduction of this type of story into literature early in the twentieth century is a response to a growing feeling at the time that the old certainties were giving way, change was accelerating, and the world was becoming ever more chaotic and incomprehensible, and indifferent. The continuing appeal of this branch of the fantastic could testify to the fact that this feeling has certainly not gone away.

William Hope HodgsonThe novel begins in 1877. Two men on a fishing vacation in western Ireland come across the ruins of a large house next to a water-filled pit in a now wild but once-cultivated grove in an otherwise barren landscape. They take away a musty manuscript found in the ruins and, unable to shake off a feeling of dread and danger that seems to arise from the grove, do not return. The vacationers’ discovery of the manuscript in the first chapter, and their investigation in the final chapter into the reliability of what they’ve read, frame our reading of the first-person manuscript, which makes up most of the novel. The framing chapters provide evidence that seems to verify at least some aspects of the narrative, written by the final owner of the house, which might otherwise be dismissed as dream or hallucination. (The framing device is similar to that in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw — another first person account of the supernatural — but in this case, the framing narrators clearly come to be convinced by the account they are reading.)

The manuscript’s unnamed narrator, referred to by Hodgson (in the guise of the manuscript’s editor) as The Recluse, has bought the property, knowing its evil reputation, as a refuge from the world which, we eventually learn, he has abandoned out of grief over the death of a lover.

“The peasantry, who inhabit the wilderness beyond, say that I am mad. That is because I will have nothing to do with them. I live here alone with my old sister, who is also my housekeeper. We keep no servants—I hate them. I have one friend; a dog… I have heard that there is an old story, told amongst the country people, to the effect that the devil built the place. However, that is as may be. True or not, I neither know nor care, save as it may have helped to cheapen it, ere I came.”

Just as its evil reputation cheapens the house, the Recluse’s grief seems to cheapen his estimation of his own life. After a manifestation of his lost love is revealed to him, he becomes willing to observe and tolerate all the other supernatural forces and experiences thrown at him, in the hope of finding her again.

The house is on the border between our reality and what might be another dimension, or might be manifestations of Heaven and Hell. Evil dwells in the Pit under the house, and comes spilling out in the form of a swarm of half-man half-pig “Swine-things,” who invade the grove and attack the house. In a suspenseful series of chapters, The Recluse repels the siege by fortifying the house, relying on his well-stocked arsenal and large chunks of masonry from the roof for defense. The motivations of these Swine-things, or the reason behind their appearance, are never explained. Is it a hostile response to the Recluse’s moving onto the property? A random eruption due to underground shifts that briefly give them a path to the surface? Ultimately, they leave as mysteriously as they arrive.

After these fantastic events play out, the Recluse experiences a series of visions that he regards as real. Time begins to speed up, and he realizes that everything around him is decaying as the world moves ever faster. The sun rises and sets at increasing speed, as years and millennia pass. His journey through time becomes a journey through space, and he witnesses the end of the Earth, the burning out of the Sun, and the final fate of the solar system! He finds his way to The Sea of Sleep, where he briefly finds his beloved again (Heaven, as opposed to the Hell of the Pit). Twice in the story, he is transported to a strange amphitheater surrounded by mountains, in the middle of which is a replica of the house, made of a jade-like material:

“Far to my right, away up among inaccessible peaks, loomed the enormous bulk of the great Beast-God. Higher, I saw the hideous form of the dread goddess, rising up through the red gloom, thousands of fathoms above me. To the left, I made out the monstrous Eyeless-Thing, grey and inscrutable. Further off, reclining on its lofty ledge, the livid Ghoul-shape showed—a splash of sinister colour, among the dark mountains.”

Who are these god-like creatures? This is just one of many questions left unanswered, but which suggest various possibilities. As Hodgson writes in the introduction: “The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire.”

The house from a comics adaptation by the Richard CorbenIt is characteristic of the weird tale that these events are never rationalized. But they may still be understood. The Recluse’s cosmic journey reveals our individual insignificance in a universe practically beyond our comprehension, while the invasion of the Swine-things indicates the potential for such incomprehensible forces to impact our reality without warning. Psychologically, they remind us of the potential for the unconscious to impact human consciousness in unexpected ways. Writing those last sentences, I realize that this all sounds dry and analytical, yet the story works on a very visceral emotional level. The analysis only arises afterward upon reflection. Dreams may take on a new light when considered after waking.

I came to Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland by way of Cawthorn and Moorcock’s Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, and its inclusion in the Fantasy Masterworks series, but without any prior knowledge on my part. I do have some previous experience with weird stories by Lovecraft, Leiber, and Bradbury, and the connection to this tradition became obvious pretty quickly. Whatever his merits as a writer (a subject for another day!), I had always thought of Lovecraft as an original, but his approach is very clearly derived from Hodgson and other precursors, who in their works were tweaking an earlier Gothic tradition. (See Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” (1907) in The Weird anthology, for another example.) These are the type of connections I am always fascinated to discover.

The House on the Borderland is worth reading both as one of the first examples of the twentieth century weird tale, and for its own sake as an exciting, suspenseful, and mind-bending work of fantastic fiction. I enjoyed it enough to look into Hodgson’s other work, and will write about The Night Land (1912), as well as Hodgson himself, in a future Foray.


Next: #4 in Pringle’s Hundred Best Modern Fantasies: Grand Master Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think.

Grand Master Reading Challenge February Review Winner: Emil Posted at 5:27 AM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Grand Master Reading Challenge EmilThe GMRC February Review Poll is now closed and the winner is Emil for his excellent review of A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. Emil hails from South Africa and is a huge WWEnd supporter. Well done, Sir!

As the winner Emil will receive a GMRC T-shirt, a GMRC button and a set of commemorative WWEnd Hugo Award bookmarks. Emil also got his choice of books from the WWEnd bookshelf. He picked Planesrunner by Ian McDonald (Pyr 2011). I know Emil has been wanting to read this one for some time and I hope we’ll be seeing a review of it soon!

Thanks to everyone for participating in the challenge and for the many great reviews. Runners up will be getting a GMRC button and a set of bookmarks in the mail.

March has started off strong and we keep getting new readers signed up which is awesome. We’ll be at 100 soon! If you have any friends that are up for a reading challenge the GMRC is one that you can easily catch up on if you miss the start. Let ‘em know it’s not too late to sign up and there is plenty of time to get in your reviews for March. There are more prizes to be won too so good luck to you all!

Celebrity Story Time with George R. R. Martin Posted at 12:28 AM by Jonathan McDonald

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What more needs to be said?

GMRC Review: Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg Posted at 9:38 PM by Val

valashain

WWEnd Grand Master Reading ChallengeGuest Blogger and WWEnd member, valashain, reviews science fiction and fantasy books on his blog Val’s Random Comments which we featured in a previous post: Five SF/F Book Blogs Worth Reading. Val has posted many great reviews to WWEnd and this is his third for the GMRC. Be sure to visit his site and let him know you found him here.


Dying Inside

Robert Silverberg must be one of the most prolific authors in Science Fiction. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a complete bibliography on the web but the ones I’ve seen rival those of Isaac Asimov. Since the 1950s Silverberg has written science fiction, fantasy, soft-pornography, non-fiction, countless short stories and edited shelves of anthologies. A quick search turns up at least two dozen pseudonyms. Not all of his output is highly regarded. Especially the early works, a period during which Silverberg was basically writing as fast as he could and selling his material to pulp magazines, are considered of lesser quality. Dying Inside (1972) was written during a later period in his career, lasting from the late 1960s till his first retirement in 1975. During those years Silverberg produced some his most celebrated science fiction novels. Works in which he takes a more literary approach than earlier in his career.

David Selig is a middle aged man living in New York. When we first meet him, he is making a living selling term papers to Columbia University students, a place where he once studied himself. David is not a happy man, for the last few years he’s been feeling his talent to read people’s minds fading. It is a talent that brought him an unhappy childhood as well as immense grief and countless problems in his personal life over the years, but also one that defines him as a person. Now that it is slipping away from him, he feels he is dying inside.

For a Science Fiction novel, the story contains very few speculative elements. Selig is a powerful telepath but that is just about the only thing science fictional to it. The novel is a character study of Selig, quite introspective and entirely focused on his struggles with his talent and accepting his loss of it. The author plays with memories and flashbacks in the novel, eventually covering most of Selig’s life. Maybe this lack of action and the less plot driven character of the novel are the reason why it didn’t win any of the awards it was nominated for. It was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo and Locus awards, all three of which ended up being won by Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves. I haven’t read that book, but from the description I’d say it is a bit more in line with what readers would have expected from a science fiction novel in the 1970s.

Selig is obsessed with literature, poetry, plays, classical music and philosophy and Silverberg stuffs in a lot of references to famous works of art in the story. I’ve always found it interesting that a science fiction novel is much more likely to contain such references to the classics of literature than the other way around. Silverberg included one of Selig’s papers on the works of Franz Kafka for instance. Which is not only a reference to one of his literary influences but also an example of the different styles of writing we find in the novel. The author also includes letters and has Selig talk to himself in the second person in an attempt to distance himself from some of his more shameful acts. The shifts between different phases of Selig’s life, in combination with the different styles of narrative, help keep things interesting.

At several points in the novel I wondered how much of the story is autobiographical. There are some similarities between Selig and Silverberg. Both from Brooklyn, both studied at Columbia, both with an intense interest in literature. I haven’t come across any biographies that mention Silverberg being Jewish but, given his name, it is certainly possible. A writer peering into the head of his characters (or his own head if you support the idea that all characters are some aspect of the author) is not that different from reading the mind of the people around you. Selig seem to make the link between the loss of his talent and his diminishing sexual prowess. More than one critic has pointed out the parallel between the loss of Selig’s talent and Silverberg’s loss of joy in the creative process. Something that apparently appears in different forms in other novels from this period and may have contributed to his first retirement. It sounds plausible to me but given my unfamiliarity with Silverberg’s work I have no idea how accurate it is.

Selig is a very depressing character during most of the book. His life is an unhappy one. He thinks of his talent as a curse most of the time although loosing it upsets him greatly as well. Reading the minds of others is often painful to him. Their true opinion and motives are completely clear to him and it often includes things he’d rather not hear about himself. He finds it almost impossible to start a relationship with a women when he can read her mind and the few times that he does try, it inevitably ends in disaster. One of he most telling examples of Selig’s problems with his talent is when he takes a peak in the mind of the woman he is making love to and finds she can spare not a single thought about him when she is about to climax. Not entirely unexpected perhaps, but it is a devastating experience nonetheless. It is the leitmotiv of his life I guess, people don’t really want to know the truth of what other people think of them and Selig shows us why. They shade the truth, hedge or outright lie in order to function socially. I do wonder if the emphasis Selig puts on the ugly things he finds in the minds of those around him isn’t a bit overdone. Do doubts, fears, distaste and anger really outweigh the positive things that must be present in a person as well? His reaction to knowing what people think may say more about Selig himself than the people he reads.

Grand Master Robert SilverbergI guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Selig’s talent can be used for personal gain. Selig does so himself in various, usually petty ways but not until he meets Tom Nyquist does he realize the full extend of what is possible. Nyquist is the only other character we meet that has David’s talent and he is quite unapologetic about it. He makes lots of easy money on Wallstreet with inside trading and is not adverse to using his talent to manipulate people. Selig is amazed and repulsed by his style of living, Nyquist’s life is one of luxury but Selig feels it is empty and ends up disgusted with him. Embracing his talent in that way makes Nyquist a lot more comfortable with himself than Selig is however, and to Selig, Nyquist can’t lie about that.

Another striking thing about Selig’s view on the world is how much it revolves around sex. It motivates our actions to a much greater extend than many people would be comfortable admitting but since Selig tends to see right through others, it is very much exposed to him. Finding partners is rarely a problem for him since he knows for certain who is available and interested. Which of course takes something of the thrill of the chase away. Where sexual attraction or desires are mostly kept hidden for others, something not discussed openly or at best considered very private, it is completely exposed to Selig from a young age. It gives him a unique perspective on these matters and Silverberg is not afraid to expose his readers to it. He succeeds in showing the reader why this is as uncomfortable to Selig as it is to his surrounding.

I can see why this is a notable book among it’s contemporaries. Silverberg approaches the novel in a way you don’t see a lot in science fiction novels. It is a pretty dark and introspective book. I’m not sure everybody will appreciate the ending but I thought it was fitting. Dying Inside is a book that can make the reader uncomfortable by laying bare the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters. It usually isn’t pretty, but like it or not, most of us will recognize a lot in what Selig is exposed to. I can see why this novel is one of the more highly regarded novels of the period. Some Science Fiction novels age badly. In some ways this is a novel of its time but certainly highly readable today. I’m going to have to read some more Silverberg.