Back in October 2016 I was on twitter whining about the fact that I couldn’t find anything to read in my particular corner of genre interest (a contemporary, well-written space-opera novel but short) and this started an exchange between myself, Paul Jessup, and Joe McDermott swapping book recommendations, the upside of which was Joe sending me an advance copy of his latest book, The Fortress at the End of Time. I’ve been a fan of Joe’s stuff since I read his book Last Dragon, so gladly agreed to writing a review of the book after reading it.
(The downside of that conversation was its eventual, though not unexpected, wrangling over how good or bad a book Moby Dick is…)
The short answer then is I liked it. A lot. The Fortress at the End of Time is very much my particular corner of genre interest as it reads a bit like a mash-up of Walter M. Miller JR’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppes. While it’s not much of a space-opera it does deal with a galactic civilization. I’d call it more military SF, if milSF were truer to the modern day experience of the military – a lot of boredom and drudgery with a sideline of diplomacy in a place far away from home – than, say, any iteration of Space Hulk. (Another book in a similar vein might be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword.)
Here’s what Fortress is about: Ronaldo Aldo is a young military officer sent to a far away military outpost located in orbit above a desert world, the Citadel. Actually it’s not Aldo himself, but his clone that’s sent as intergalactic travel is conducted via ansible, which is a bit like a Star Trek transporter. About a century before the novel’s events a war took place between humanity and another intergalactic species with the other species disappearing beyond an empty expanse of space. The outpost where Aldo is sent serves as a forward listening base in case the aliens return, but in reality it’s a horrible posting full of drudgery, boredom, and a high suicide rate.
Between the corruption of his fellow officers, the institutionalized sexual harassment, and the feud between the military outpost and the civilian monastery on the planet’s surface, Aldo quickly finds himself at a loss in dealing with those around him. Part of his problem is that he’s more than a bit of a sanctimonious prig who alienates those around him even when he’s doing the right thing. The other problem might be a bit more meta, in that the book is a first person confession by Aldo regarding a crime it takes over two hundred pages for him to come straight out and confess. As another reviewer on Goodreads said, “sometimes you wish you could punch Aldo in the nose” and that’s the truth. Even when Aldo commits his justifiable from the reader’s perspective defiant act of rebellion, he can’t escape that priggishness that makes you dislike him.
Now, like I said this book is very much in my little area of interest. Whether other folks enjoy 1st person Miller/Buzzati* mash-ups that have a good bit of crunch to them, but no answers (and you can’t riff on The Tartar Steppes and simply provide answers…) I can’t really say. When I finished the book, I had to wonder who else would go for something like this besides other weirdos like me, and we’re not much of a stable niche market. That Tor/Macmillan would put this out makes me immensely glad and continues my impression that the Tor.com novella series is a fascinating experiment, and The Fortress at the End of Time fits well in that list.
* Wasn’t Buzzati a Fascist? Yes. Yes, he was. If you feel weird reading him, you can always read Gramsci alongside him.
“If you ask, she must answer. A steerswoman’s knowledge is shared with any who request it; no steerswoman may refuse a question, and no steerswoman may answer with anything but the truth.”
So last month I breezed through all the books in Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman series. And now I want to tell you all about them because they’re smart and fun.
The Good… They’re limited in setting, POV, and scope. This is definitely a pet peeve of mine, but I much prefer stories set against a local area than one that sprawls. These books don’t sprawl. They’re smart in their presentation of their world and philosophy. I can’t say enough about how great it is to read a speculative fiction novel that digs deep into a place and way of life and not send its characters careening across the landscape like tourists or anthropologists for hundreds of pages. And this is even though the Steerswomen do approach their work like anthropologists would, studying their society and the world they live in – but it’s presented as part and parcel of a developed milieu.
These are very much books about people in places and not about broad political movements or the internecine strife between nations or kingdoms. Those things are present as are elements of the sword & sorcery genre, only their brought down to the level of neighborhood politics and local actions. Their perspective is not the Epic but the Realist. Rowan the Steerswoman is on a journey of discovery and we learn as she explores different places and communities. Even the map in the front of the book is an artifact of her journey towards a greater understanding of her world, as each book opens with a different map encompassing her explorations up until that book.
The Bad… It’s a series and it’s not done yet. The first book was written in 1989 and the fourth in 2004. The author has said there are likely two more books to go. So coming into the series now, you need to know ahead of time that while each book is self-contained and short, the main story-line is yet to be fulfilled. All those plots and adventures and slow reveals of wider world details have yet to pay off. That’s a drag. But to let that stop you would be to miss out on some very good and very smart adventure fiction.
The Ugly… There’s a reveal. It’s not well hidden. Look at the covers to the first two books, The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret, you don’t even need the author to tell you she’s writing science-fiction not fantasy. (But if so, it’s the science fiction of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia and not so much Non-Stop.) The fact that there is a reveal isn’t such a bad thing, but don’t get hung up on it. Really, it’s not a secret. It’s on the covers after all. The rest of it is all good, so check’em out!
“The problem with conducting your own reality testing is that sometimes the people you’re surrounded with are not all right in the head either.”
STAY CRAZY’s a book in the vein of those Philip K. Dick novels written when PKD believed an alien satellite orbiting around the Earth was beaming thoughts into his head and telling him the truth he needed to hear. But instead of being about burnt-out science fiction writers, Gnosticism, and the evils of Richard Nixon, Stay Crazy’s about schizophrenic teens, interdimensional entities, and the evils of big box superstores.
Emmeline “Em” Kalberg is a nineteen-year-old living in Clear Falls Pennsylvania, a former mill town trying to survive by pretending to be a remote Pittsburgh suburb. Em’s just being released from a mental institution when the novel starts, a hospital where she’s been since her nervous breakdown during her freshman year at college. Once home she takes a job at the only remaining store in town, Savertown USA, a place part cult, part Walmart, and ostensibly all American if you overlook the fact that everything in it is made overseas (but they do make their employees wear red, white, and blue uniforms).
Soon the frozen foods and other merchandise begin broadcasting to Em, all the transmissions claiming to be from Escodex, an interdimensional investigator inhabiting a higher level of reality. Escodex needs help. An evil entity seeks to destroy our dimension and it plans on using a dimensional nexus point inside Savertown to do it. Em’s the only one willing to listen to Escodex, although she’s not quite sure if this is simply another schizophrenic episode. Soon the only thing standing between our universe and annihilation are the minimum wage earning and battered-down by life stockroom staff at that one shitty retail store.
Stay Crazy’s a weird and fun little novel. Em’s engaging as a mess of a character and her arc from miserable, arrogant, self-centered teen to slightly less miserable and less arrogantly self-centered teen is enjoyable. It’s not a perfect novel. There are some rough bits, not in the content sense, but more mechanical stuff, and once or twice I wished things were tighter. Some character interactions could have been expanded, and there were a few moments where events happened between scenes that I wish had been depicted for the reader.
But overall it’s that mix of the weird and the downtrodden that makes Stay Crazy fun – maybe not ha-ha fun, but fun of a kind all the same. It would be a slipstream novel, except no one knows what Slipstream is. It could be science fiction or horror, except it’s not. It’s one of those weird novels that sits oddly in the joints between categories. Resume With Monsters mixed with Bubba Ho-Tep with some Kurt Vonnegut by way of Nick Mamatas added in. And that’s all great stuff. So if any of that sounds interesting to you, don’t hesitate to check it out, you’ll enjoy the trip.
My review of Lisa Shapter’s novella A Day in Deep Freeze is up over at My Bookish Ways. The book reads like a horror-themed slow-burn Philip K. Dick in the mode of Time Out of Joint with a narrator slowly crumbling beneath his paranoia and inability to confront hard choices about who he is. It’s one of those books where if the hero succeeds and gets what they want, it’s the worst possible solution they could achieve.
Anyway, I blather.
Check out the review. Check out the book.
The story of pyschopomp Lou Merriwether, a woman able to guide the dead from her world into the next. Half-English and half-Chinese, Lou continues in the trade her father practiced before his untimely death, making her living in the latter decades of an altered 19th century San Francisco. Ghosts and other supernatural monsters exist and threaten the living, and western expansion has stalled due to tribes of sentient bears who swayed the course of the Civil War…
My review of Molly Tanzer’s Weird Western ghost hunter novel Vermilion is over at My Bookish Ways. Dig that cover.
My review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Lois the Witch and Other Stories is now live at Innsmouth Free Press as part of their Women in Horror Week. Like most Victorian writers Gaskell wrote her share of ghost stories and those in the collection are a nice grim assortment. Not only that but I suggest that Gaskell’s ghost stories serve as proto-noir and precursors to the works of Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and Dorothy Hughes.
I also make a joke about bonnets and four-in-hand neckties.
Go check it out.
Locus Online gave “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street” a recommended review.
They say some other stuff. Click the link to read the rest of it.
I was as they say stoked.