I knew of Ursula’s longstanding love of Steens Mountain in the remote high desert of the farthest corner of southeastern Oregon, a landscape that had informed the world of her novel The Tombs of Atuan, as well as her poetry-photography collaborative collection Out Here.
—David Naimon, Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing (Portland, Ore.: Tin House Books, 2018), p. 53
Steens Mountain’s summit, at 9,733 feet, is the highest point of Harney County. It’s been on my to-visit list for a while but hasn’t really bubbled up to the top due to, as mentioned, its sheer remoteness; the nearest town with a gas station is Burns, about ninety miles away. The Tombs of Atuan mention makes it an even more intriguing visit though, as does the mention of incredible local stargazing. (I really need to remember to bring my binoculars on my car-camping trips; the last truly dark skies I saw were at Hinkey Summit, in remote northwestern Nevada, and they were spectacular.)
I use “Steens Mountain’s summit” advisedly, as the mountain itself is a huge fifty-mile fault block that rises directly from the nearby Alvord Desert, five thousand feet below. Beyond the Alvord Desert is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which you may remember from the 2016 occupation of its headquarters by armed seditionists. Or “Right-Wing Loonybirds”, as Le Guin called them.
I’ll write about something other than just books acquired at some point, I promise. Just haven’t had time lately.
Kind of a quiet library book sale this week:
Bova, Ben (editor). The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B. Doubleday, 1973. SFBC hardcover. Second in a set of what SFWA considered to be the best science fiction novellas that predated the Nebula Awards. It’ll sit next to Volume Two A on my shelf.
Brin, David. Infinity’s Shore. Bantam Spectra, 1996. First edition hardcover. Second in the Uplift Storm trilogy. No. 745 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Kuttner, Henry. The Best of Henry Kuttner. Nelson Doubleday, 1975. First edition SFBC hardcover. Predates the trade edition by two months. Another in the Ballantine Classic Science Fiction series, and fortuitously acquired in time to do some Retro Hugo reading—this includes both “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and “The Proud Robot”.
Dragging the local used book stores for this year’s Hugo finalists finally turned up something!
Nevala-Lee, Alec. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Dey Street, 2018. First edition hardcover. Hugo finalist for Best Related Work. I nominated this, and I think it’s exactly the kind of thing the Related Work category should be showcasing. A look at the origins of American science fiction viewed through the life of Astounding editor John W. Campbell and those he influenced.
On the way back home from Brushy Peak on Sunday I hit up a couple of library bookstores on the off chance they had anything good. I like to do this when I have time because library “books for sale” sections are both extremely cheap and (when non-local) I haven’t picked them clean recently. The result, from Livermore for $1:
Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. Macmillan, 1962. Third printing of the first edition hardcover. Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Replaces a paperback copy. Unfortunately price-clipped, but other than that a quite decent hardcover copy. Obviously this should not be your first stop for an understanding of the causes of the First World War (the historical analysis has not aged well) but a classic non-fiction read nonetheless.
And of course while in the area I had to check Half Price Books:
Dick, Philip K. Martian Time-Slip. Ballantine, 1964. First edition mass-market paperback. A classic Dick novel about a Martian colony, expanded from a 1963 novella. No 140 on Mt. Tsundoku.
I misread an advertisement for a Half Price Books tent sale as applying to everywhere instead of just the Citrus Heights location. Discovering my error, I of course didn’t bother to drive all the way up to Sacramento, but did check the Fremont SFF shelves just in case there was something I particularly wanted.
Novik, Naomi. Uprooted. Del Rey, 2015. First edition hardcover. Nebula Award and Hugo finalist for Best Novel; Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Supplements an ebook. I’m not hugely big on fairy-tale inspired stuff but I really liked this; it’s about a girl, a mage, and a corrupted forest.
Monday night means free books from FOPAL, and when there are several shelves of SFBC selections? Yeah. The major limiting factor was the size of my book bin.
Anderson, Poul. Annals of the Time Patrol. Nelson Doubleday, 1984. First edition thus, SFBC hardcover. Omnibus collecting the Time Patrol stories published up to that point.
Anderson, Poul. Beyond the Beyond. New American Library, 1970. SFBC hardcover. A collection of various Anderson novelettes.
Anderson, Poul. The Earth Book of Stormgate. Berkley/Putnam, 1978. SFBC hardcover. A linked short story collection from Anderson’s Technic History.
Bear, Greg. Eon. Bluejay Books, 1986. SFBC hardcover. Shortlisted for the Clarke Award. First in a trilogy. No 12 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Benford, Gregory. Across the Sea of Suns. Timescape Books, 1985. [SFBC hardcover. Second in the six-book Galactic Center series. No 583 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Benford, Gregory. In the Ocean of Night. Dial Press, 1977. SFBC hardcover. Nebula finalist for Best Novel. First in the six-book Galactic Center series. No 582 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Brunner, John. The Crucible of Time. Del Rey, 1984. SFBC hardcover. Fix-up science fiction novel.
Brunner, John. Players at the Game of People. Nelson Doubleday, 1980. First edition SFBC hardcover. Predates the trade edition by two months.
Brunner, John. Stand on Zanzibar. Doubleday, 1970. SFBC hardcover. Hugo Award for Best Novel. A dystopian novel about the overpopulated future of 2010, with narrative techniques borrowed from Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. One of a small handful of Best Novel Hugo winners that I haven’t read yet. No. 4 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Brunner, John. The Stone That Never Came Down. Doubleday, 1974. SFBC hardcover. Science fiction novel.
Brunner, John. The Wrong End of Time. Doubleday, 1972. SFBC hardcover. Science fiction novel.
Disch, Thomas M. Triplicity. Nelson Doubleday, 1980. First edition thus [K10], SFBC hardcover. Omnibus containing Echo Round His Bones, The Genocides (1966 Nebula finalist), and The Puppies of Terra (supplements an Ace Double edition).
Donaldson, Stephen R. The Illearth War. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. SFBC hardcover. Second in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Replaces a paperback copy. No 880 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Gerrold, David. The Man Who Folded Himself. Random House, 1973. SFBC hardcover. Hugo and Nebula finalist for Best Novel. No 933 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Gibson, William. Spook Country. Putnam, 2007. First edition hardcover. Second in the Blue Ant Trilogy. A nice copy that I’m surprised was free, although this had a large print run judging from what I’ve seen at used bookstores.
Gunn, James E. The Listeners. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. SFBC hardcover. Shortlisted for the Campbell Memorial Award. Fix-up science fiction novel.
MacLeod, Ken. Engine City. Tor, 2003. 1st U.S. edition hardcover. Third in the Engines of Light trilogy. A nice copy except for a bit of dogearing. I should probably track down a copy of Dark Light at some point.
MacLeod, Ken. The Sky Road. Orbit, 2000. Trade paperback edition. Hugo finalist for Best Novel. Fourth and final novel in the Fall Revolution sequence. No 937 on Mt. Tsundoku.
MacLeod, Ken. The Star Fraction. Orbit, 2000. Second printing of the trade paperback edition. Shortlisted for the Clarke Award. First novel in the Fall Revolution sequence. This copy has a big “2 for £10” sticker on the cover from Blackwell’s Bookshops. No 934 on Mt. Tsundoku.
McDevitt, Jack. Cauldron. Ace, 2008. Second printing of the mass-market paperback edition. 2009 Nebula finalist for Best Novel. Sixth in the Academy series. A tiny remainder mark on the bottom.
McDevitt, Jack. Chindi. Ace, 2003. Seventh printing of the mass-market paperback edition. 2004 Nebula finalist for Best Novel. Third in the Academy series. No 701 on Mt. Tsundoku.
McDevitt, Jack. Infinity Beach. Eos, 2001. Third printing of the mass-market paperback edition. 2001 Nebula finalist and Campbell Memorial shortlist for Best Novel.
McDevitt, Jack. Omega. Ace, 2004. Fourth printing of the mass-market paperback edition. Campbell Memorial Award; Nebula finalist for Best Novel. Fourth in the Academy series. No 702 on Mt. Tsundoku.
McIntyre, Vonda N. The Exile Waiting. Nelson Doubleday, 1975. SFBC hardcover. Nebula finalist. The book club edition predated the trade release by five months, but I’m not sure when this copy was printed; there was no gutter code on page 211 and the first printing would have “30R” there. It is a mystery.
Niven, Larry. The Ringworld Engineers. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. SFBC hardcover. Hugo finalist for Best novel. Sequel to Ringworld. Replaces a paperback copy. No 295 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Pohl, Frederik. Starburst. Del Rey, 1982. SFBC hardcover. Expansion of the Locus-winning novella “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” (1972).
Sheckley, Robert. Mindswap. Delacorte Press, 1966. SFBC hardcover. Science fiction novel about switching minds for space tourism purposes.
Silverberg, Robert. Majipoor Chronicles. Arbor House, 1982. SFBC hardcover. Collection of linked stories that forms the second in the Majipoor series.
Silverberg, Robert. To Live Again. Doubleday, 1970. SFBC hardcover. Science fiction novel.
Silverberg, Robert. Valentine Pontifex. Arbor House, 1984. SFBC hardcover. Third in the Majipoor series, and last in the initial trilogy.
Simak, Clifford D. A Heritage of Stars. Berkley/Putnam, 1977. SFBC hardcover. Science fiction novel.
Simak, Clifford D. The Visitors. Del Rey, 1980. SFBC hardcover. Science fiction novel about aliens visiting Earth.
Simmons, Dan. Olympos. Eos, 2005. First U.S. edition hardcover. A more battered copy than I’d pay money for (with binding damage from page 337 onward), but it’ll still look good next to Ilium on the shelf.
Tiptree, James Jr. Up the Walls of the World. Berkley/Putnam, 1978. ISFBC hardcover. Tiptree’s first novel (having previously worked at shorter lengths), for which she declined a Hugo nomination. There’s a picture of the author on the back cover, which for some reason greatly amuses me.
Varley, John. The Ophiuchi Hotline. Dial Press, 1977. SFBC hardcover. Part of the author’s Eight Worlds setting. Replaces a paperback copy. No 848 on Mt. Tsundoku.
White, James. Ambulance Ship. Del Rey, 1979. First edition mass-market paperback. Fourth in the Sector General series. No 310 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Yulsman, Jerry. Elleander Morning. St. Martin’s Press, 1984. SFBC hardcover. An alternate history novel in which Hitler is assassinated in 1913. No 138 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Finally, one pickup from the Half Price Books in Berkeley that I stopped by on the way home from a hiking excursion:
Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. HarperCollins, 2008. First edition hardcover. Hugo Award for Best Novel; Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book. I had held off on picking up a copy of this for a while under the mistaken impression that the U.K. publication had priority, but finally looked up the publication dates myself and found that the U.S. edition was released on 30 September; the U.K. edition was not until 31 October. With that knowledge, this was fairly easy to track down. Another one of the small handful of Best Novel Hugo winners that I have yet to read. No 5 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Friends of the Palo Alto Library book sale weekend:
Asimov, Isaac. The Foundation Trilogy. Doubleday, 1963. SFBC hardcover. Omnibus containing Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. 1966 Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series. I usually try not to buy book club editions, but this is one of the exceptions; it’s a big omnibus of books that are well out of my price range in first edition. Plus the ebook version is a questionably edited 1990s edition.
Bolander, Brooke. The Only Harmless Great Thing. Tor.com, 2018. First edition trade paperback. Hugo and Nebula finalist for Best Novelette. Supplements an ebook. I had some comments on this in my Nebula novelette roundup.
Boucher, Anthony (editor). A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, Volume 2. Doubleday, 1962. SFBC hardcover. The Discount Room had a massive selection of Science Fiction Book Club releases. As mentioned above, I usually try not to spend money on these, but I have a weak spot for really good collections. James Davis Nicoll mentioned Boucher’s Treasury in a recent Tor.com post. It contains some great classic science fiction. Sadly the Volume 1 present was missing its cover and I do have to have some standards to stop my apartment from overflowing with more books than it already is.
Brown, Fredric. The Best of Fredric Brown. Nelson Doubleday, 1977. First edition SFBC hardcover. My other exception for Science Fiction Book Club purchases is for true first editions—in this case, the book club release predated the trade release by four months. The Ballantine / Del Rey Classic Science Fiction line of the 1970s is one of those lines that I pick up whenever I see reasonable copies at a book sale.
Campbell, John W. The Best of John W. Campbell. Nelson Doubleday, 1976. First edition SFBC hardcover. Similar to the Fredric Brown collection, except the book club release only predated the paperback by one month.
Gerrold, David. When Harlie Was One. Nelson Doubleday, 1972. First edition SFBC hardcover. Hugo and Nebula finalist for Best Novel. Predates the trade edition (a paperback original) by three months.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Lavinia. Harcourt, 2008. First edition hardcover. Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. This was shelved as historical fiction by the book sale.
Knight, Damon (editor). A Science Fiction Argosy. Simon and Schuster, 1972. SFBC hardcover. Another of those great big anthologies that collect a lot of good classic science fiction.
Russell, Eric Frank. The Best of Eric Frank Russell. Ballantine, 1978. First edition mass-market paperback. See above for comments on this publication line; this is an example of the trade editions. (I don’t think this one got a book club release).
Shakespeare, William. King Henry V. Edited by J. H. Walter. Methuen, 1954. Second Arden edition hardcover. Another thing I like picking up at book sales: critical Shakespeare editions.
Silverberg, Robert. The Second Trip. Nelson Doubleday, 1972. First edition SFBC hardcover. Originally serialized in Amazing, July–September 1971. Predates the trade edition (a paperback original) by five months.
Silverberg, Robert. A Time of Changes. Nelson Doubleday, 1971. First edition SFBC hardcover. Nebula Award and Hugo finalist for Best Novel. Originally serialized in Galaxy, March–May 1971. Predates the trade edition (a paperback original) by two months. Because I am a dumbass, I managed to load this on my car atop some sticky clothing label tape that was impossible to remove without damaging the back of the dust jacket. Less disfiguring than it could be given that it’s white, but I’m still annoyed at myself about this.
Stross, Charles. The Apocalypse Codex. Ace, 2012. First edition hardcover. Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Fourth in the Hugo-nominated Laundry Files series, which is currently projected to run eleven or twelve volumes. Bob Howard visits America. The publication history of The Laundry Files is a bit weird so I’ve attempted to summarize it below.
Wells, Martha. All Systems Red. Tor.com, 2017. First edition trade paperback. Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Awards for Best Novella. First in the Murderbot Diaries, which currently consists of three subsequent novellas and an upcoming novel. Supplements an ebook. I mainly didn’t pick this up in print before due to laziness. The story of a secretly free security construct who’s too busy watching TV to go on a murder spree and realizes they might actually care about people. Highly recommended.
A Brief Note on First Editions of The Laundry Files
This is just the novels. For a complete list of fiction and reading order for The Laundry Files, see Stross’s website.
My annual “cruise the used bookstores right after Hugo finalists are announced” wasn’t particularly successful in turning up this year’s Hugo finalists. However, it did turn up:
Banks, Iain M. The Algebraist. Orbit, 2004. First edition hardcover, with jacket in protective cover. Hugo finalist—perhaps surprisingly, the author’s only. Replaces a U.S. trade paperback. Banks’s third non-Culture science fiction novel.
Bishop, Michael. Blooded on Arachne. Arkham House, 1982. First edition hardcover (with a print run of 4,081), with jacket in protective cover. Bishop’s first short fiction collection, which includes, among others, the title story, “Cathadonian Odyssey”, “On the Street of the Serpents”, and “The White Otters of Childhood”.
Henderson, Zenna. Ingathering: The Complete People Stories. NESFA Press, 2011. Ninth printing of the first edition hardcover, with jacket in protective cover. The definitive edition of the author’s People stories, originally published between 1952 and 1980.
Honestly, this post was originally just going to be “there was a Kindle sale on Arthur C. Clarke (and a couple others)”.
Anderson, Poul. Tau Zero. Open Road, 2018. Ebook. 1971 Hugo finalist for Best Novel.
Clarke, Arthur C. Against the Fall of Night. RosettaBooks, 2012. Ebook. Originally published in 1948.
Clarke, Arthur C. Earthlight. RosettaBooks, 2012. Ebook. Originally published in 1955.
Clarke, Arthur C. A Fall of Moondust. RosettaBooks, 2012. Ebook. 1963 Hugo finalist for Best Novel.
Clarke, Arthur C. The Sands of Mars. RosettaBooks, 2012. Ebook. Originally published in 1951.
Matheson, Richard. The Shrinking Man. RosettaBooks, 2011. Ebook. Originally published in 1956. I saw the movie version back in high school.
Simak, Clifford D. City. Open Road, 2015. Ebook. 1953 International Fantasy Award. Fix-up; this edition includes the 1973 “Epilog”.
But on my way back from some Antioch/Martinez area hiking yesterday I stopped by the Concord Half Price Books and grabbed these:
Wilson, Kai Ashante. A Taste of Honey. Tor.com, 2016. First edition trade paperback. Hugo and Nebula finalist for Best Novella. Supplements an ebook from that year’s Hugo packet. Set in the same universe as the author’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which I should really read at some point.
Zelazny, Roger. Trumps of Doom. Arbor House, 1985. First edition hardcover, with jacket in protective cover. Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Either the sixth in a ten-book series or the first of five, depending on how you view the Books of Amber. My vague plan for collecting these is to track down first editions of the Merlin books and then replace my Great Book of Amber with the aforementioned and the SFBC two-book set of the Corwin books. (The cheapest Nine Princes in Amber on AbeBooks right now that isn’t ex-library is $1,750 which is just a bit out of my price range.)
Big week this week. First of all, Monday night means free books from FOPAL:
Adams, Douglas. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Harmony Books, 1984. U.S. hardcover edition, 2nd printing. Has some notable dust jacket tears and overall isn’t the nicest copy I’ve ever seen, but it was also signed by the author. Fourth in a five-book series.
Dickson, Gordon R. The Dragon and the George. Del Rey, 1981. Mass market paperback, seventh printing. World Fantasy Award nominee. No. 878 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Hobb, Robin. Royal Assassin. Bantam, 1996. Trade paperback, third printing. Second in a trilogy. A later printing of the first U.S. edition. No. 288 on Mt. Tsundoku.
McKillip, Patricia A. Harpist in the Wind. Del Rey, 1982. Mass market paperback; fifth printing of the Ballantine edition. Inscribed by the author on the inside front cover: “Damon / best wishes”. Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel; Hugo finalist. Third in a trilogy. No. 412 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Varley, John. Demon. Berkley, 1984. Trade paperback. Third in a trilogy. Per ISFDB, the Berkley trade paperback was published simultaneously with the Putnam hardcover. No. 1114 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Willis, Connie. Futures Imperfect. GuildAmerica Books, 1996. Hardcover. Omnibus collecting three short novels: Uncharted Territories, Remake (Locus Award for Best Novella; Hugo finalist for Best Novel), and Bellwether (Locus Award for Best Novella). Some noticeable water damage. No. 919 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Then Half-Price Books had a bunch of daily coupons:
Delano, Jamie, et al. Hellblazer, Volume 1: Original Sins. DC Comics, 2011. Trade paperback collecting John Constantine, Hellblazer #1-9and material from Swamp Thing #76-77.
Jordan, Robert. New Spring. Tor, 2004. First edition hardcover. Prequel to the fourteen-volume Wheel of Time. I’ve been gradually working on obtaining all of these. Mostly a question of condition/price at this point given that everything I don’t have is either pretty common or hilariously expensive.
McGuire, Seanan. One Salt Sea. DAW, 2011. First edition mass-market paperback. Fifth in the October Daye series, which is at twelve books and counting. Like the above, I’ve been gradually working on obtaining all of these, although due to being mostly paperback and it’s a lot cheaper.
Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire. Tor, 2017. First edition hardcover. First in a series. Nicely completes my set of 2018 Hugo finalists for Best Novel.
Finally, the Friends of the Sunnyvale Library book sale continues to provide extremely discounted comic book collections. All of these are ex-library and usually not in the greatest shape but … this in total cost $14.50:
Azzarello, Brian, et al. Wonder Woman Volume 6: Bones. DC Comics, 2015. Hardcover??? collecting the New 52 Wonder Woman #30-35 and a story from Secret Origins #6.
Cloonan, Becky, et al. Gotham Academy Volume 2: Calamity. DC Comics, 2016. Trade paperback collecting Gotham Academy #7-12 and the sneak peek from Convergence: Green Lantern Corps #2.
Ellis, Warren and Kaare Andrews. Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis. Marvel Comics, 2011. Hardcover collecting Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #1-5 and the Director’s Cut of #1.
Ellis, Warren, et al. StormWatch Vol. 3: Change or Die. WildStorm, 1999. Trade paperback collecting StormWatch #48-50, Stormwatch Preview #1, and StormWatch (vol. 2) #1-3.
Ennis, Garth and Steve Dillon. Preacher Volume 9: Alamo. DC Comics, 2001. Trade paperback collecting Preacher #59-66; the final volume in the series.
Fletcher, Brenden, et al. Gotham Academy Volume 3: Yearbook. DC Comics, 2016. Trade paperback collecting Gotham Academy #13-18 and Annual #1.
Mignola, Mike, et al. B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth, Vol. 3: Russia. Dark Horse, 2012. Trade paperback collecting B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Russia #1-5 and “B.P.R.D.: An Unmarked Grave” from Dark Horse Presents #8.
Millar, Mark, et al. Superman: Red Son. DC Comics, 2004. Trade paperback collecting Superman: Red Son #1-3. Elseworld asking what would have happened if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union.
Moore, Alan, et al. V for Vendetta. DC Comics, 2008. Trade paperback collecting the complete series. Remember, remember, the fifth of November.
Morrison, Grant, et al. All-Star Superman, Volume 2. DC Comics, 2009. Hardcover collecting All-Star Superman #7-12.
Morrison, Grant, et al. Batman Incorporated, Volume 1: Demon Star. DC Comics, 2013. Hardcover collecting Batman Incorporated #0-6.
Morrison, Grant, et al. Batman Incorporated, Volume 2: Gotham’s Most Wanted. DC Comics, 2013. Hardcover collecting Batman Incorporated #7-13 and Batman Incorporated Special #1.
Seeley, Tim, et al. Grayson Volume 1: Agents of Spyral. DC Comics, 2015. Hardcover collecting Grayson #1-4, a story from Secret Origins #7, and Grayson: Futures End #1.
Seeley, Tim, et al. Grayson Volume 2: We All Die at Dawn. DC Comics, 2016. Trade paperback collecting Grayson #5-8 and Annual #1.
Seeley, Tim, et al. Grayson Volume 3: Nemesis. DC Comics, 2016. Trade paperback collecting Grayson #9-12 and Annual #2.
Simone, Gail, et al. Wonder Woman: Ends of the Earth. DC Comics, 2010. Trade paperback collecting Wonder Woman (vol. 4) #20-25.
Finally, a couple of $1.99/pop Kindle deals:
McAuley, Paul. Fairyland. Gateway, 2010. Ebook. 1996 Clarke and Campbell Awards for Best Novel. No. 118 on Mt. Tsundoku.
Watson, Ian. The Embedding. Gateway, 2011. Ebook. 1975 Nebula finalist for Best Novel. No. 119 on Mt. Tsundoku.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a rare example of a novelette published by itself, as opposed to part of an anthology or periodical. When Tor.com gave it away earlier this year as part of their ebook club program, I snarked about how the e-mail was formatted in such a way to assume that the novelette (rather than the author) was a multiple award finalist before said awards were announced. But snark aside, I would not be surprised to see this on the applicable shortlists. It combines the stories of the Radium Girls and Topsy the Elephant in a world with sentient elephants.
I really appreciated the structure of how the stories are layered here; in particular, we get a lot of details about elephant society and culture while avoiding bare exposition. While the story ends somewhat abruptly, it’s hard to think how it could have been done differently without devolving into destruction porn, and at any rate the ultimate outcome of all of the story-strands is made clear, at least in hindsight, by the very beginning. My biggest caveat is that this is an angry novelette, and one convinced of the validity of vengeance as a response to justifiable anger. How you feel about that may impact your reaction of this story.
For a different look at justice, we turn to “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”. It’s a fantasy novelette, whose protagonist is the confection taster for an evil duke; she is married to his head pastry chef, who has discovered a way to create confections that cause the eater to recall memories tied to strong emotions. Kept as both a hostage against his good behavior and explainer to the duke and his guests as to the function of each dish, our protagonist must try to figure out what her husband is planning while not giving anything away to the duke.
This is obviously a tale about overthrowing an evil ruler, but it avoids cliches and plays on the reader’s expectations to leave one intrigued as to what the chef has planned. Narratively, the confections provide an intuitive way to provide us flashbacks to our couple’s past. I’m not going to give away the ending but I found it very satisfying and thematically appropriate. This is a novelette about justice, not revenge. It will be on my Hugo nominating ballot and frankly reminded me of why I read through the Nebula nominees to see if I’ve missed something great.
Speaking of morality, “The Rule of Three” (a 20BooksTo50K nominee) is the story of a man who discovers that an alien has arrived in rural China. The alien’s philosophy is the titular Rule of Three: anything made by somebody beyond two degrees of separation of the user is “unlife”, which the alien can’t even perceive. The story doesn’t really question this philosophy, and I had a hard time overlooking that it really, really wouldn’t work in real life; I also tend to have a kneejerk negative reaction to anything extolling the virtues of rural simplicity given how such paens tend to be used in American politics these days to devalue the opinions of urban Americans (82.3%, per the Census).
That being said, if you are okay assuming the fictionality of the Rule of Three, this is a very well-crafted, well-done story that is well worth your time. In this universe you don’t need economic specialization because adherence to the Rule of Three makes you self-sufficient and can you fantastic powers, especially if you learn from what others can teach you. Other than “alien expounds philosophy to humanity”, the story avoids falling into standard first contact tropes, and the alien, narrator, and his grandmother are very solid characters whose interactions, with both each other and humanity writ large, are sometimes unexpected but never unbelievable.
“An Agent of Utopia” examines a much older morality; that of the sixteenth century, as found in both London and in Thomas More’s Utopia. Aliquo, the agent of Utopia, is on a mission to invite More back to Utopia and spare him from the gallows; as More refuses, Aliquo is hired by More’s daughter to retrieve his head after his execution. The plot is cleverly executed and worked for me even without knowing that it’s based on a real tradition. (Stick tap to Camestros Felapton for the pointer.)
However I have not read Utopia and as the story nears its conclusion it becomes apparent that it is directly in conversation with More’s work, to the point where I felt that I was clearly not getting as much out of the 21st century novelette as I would be if I was familiar with the 16th century novel. There are a lot of differences between More’s Utopia and what one might think of these days as a utopia (for instance, my mind immediately goes to the Culture). Without the necessary background, the character motivations and contrasts between Britain and Utopia become a lot harder to understand for the modern reader.
“The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” is about a nonbinary teenager, Jamie, who can recall vague details of their previous lives. They’ve got a new neighbor, a convicted murderer, and Jamie can remember him from their last life. This is the story of how Jamie deals with their neighbor, what they remember about how they were murdered, and how they can prove the truth to a society that doesn’t believe in reincarnation, all while dealing with the prejudices and pettiness of current society.
When the Nebula nominations came out, I saw this title and remembered liking it quite a bit but couldn’t remember any specifics. It’s a fun read but might be a bit too short as a novelette; while the premise is strong, the plot ends up being being pretty straightforward and we don’t get to delve too deeply into any of the characters. I’d like to read an expanded version of this.
Finally, we have Messenger, a 20BooksTo50K nominee about an Indian soldier who comes home only for it to be destroyed by an alien invasion. He volunteers for a program that turns him into a “Shikari”, a giant mech based on a Hindu god (in his case Vishnu) to fight the alien intruders. Pacific Rim used the tagline “To fight monsters, we created monsters”; it would have been more appropriate for this novelette than that film.
After a somewhat trite opening, Messenger becomes a more in-depth exploration of what it means to become, essentially, a mechanical god and I thought the middle of the novelette was where it shone the most. The mental conflict of the Shikari and their struggles to stay sane were the most interesting part of this novelette. Unfortunately I felt that the ending went for the most predictable option of how to resolve the protagonist’s inner conflict. I’d have liked to have seen something a bit more innovative.
So six novelettes; two clearly science fiction, two clearly fantasy, and two fantastic alternate histories that I’m never quite sure how to classify. Worth your time to read? I’d say so.