Books Acquired, 8-14 April 2019

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Friends of the Palo Alto Library book sale weekend:

Asimov, Isaac. The Foundation Trilogy. Doubleday, 1963. SFBC hardcover. Omnibus containing FoundationFoundation 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.

Book U.S. edition U.K. edition
The Atrocity Archives Golden Gryphon (HC)
1 May 2004
Orbit (PB)
June 2007
The Jennifer Morgue Golden Gryphon (HC)
November 2006
Orbit (PB)
6 September 2007
The Fuller Memorandum Ace (HC)
6 July 2010
Orbit (PB)
1 July 2010
The Apocalypse Codex Ace (HC)
3 July 2012
Orbit (PB)
19 July 2012
The Rhesus Chart Ace (HC)
1 July 2014
Orbit (HC)
3 July 2014
The Annihilation Score Ace (HC)
7 July 2015
Orbit (HC)
2 July 2015
The Nightmare Stacks Ace (HC)
28 June 2016
Orbit (HC)
23 June 2016
The Delirium Brief Tor (HC)
11 July 2017
Orbit (HC)
13 July 2017
The Labyrinth Index Tor.com (HC)
30 October 2018
Orbit (HC)
30 October 2018
Lost Boys Forthcoming late 2020

Notes:

  1. The Atrocity Archive was originally serialized in Spectrum SF #7-9 (November 2001–November 2002).
  2. The Atrocity Archives contains both The Atrocity Archive and “The Concrete Jungle”, an original novella.
  3. The Jennifer Morgue also contains the novelette “Pimpf”.
  4. UK copies of The Annihilation Score were available on 1 July 2015 at an author signing in Edinburgh.
  5. UK copies of The Delirium Brief were available on 12 July 2017 at an author signing in Edinburgh.
  6. North American copies of The Labyrinth Index were available on 20 October 2018 at an author signing in Toronto.

2018 Nebula Nominees: Best Novelette

One step shorter than the novellas; you can read four out of this year’s six novelettes for free online.

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.