Year’s Best SF 5

This one mentions a work by Tom Purdom, one of this blog’s pet projects.

Raw Feed (2001): Best SF 5, ed. David G. Hartwell, 2000.Best SF 5

Everywhere“, Geoff Ryman — On first reading, this seems like a pleasant enough, poignant story about a young boy dealing with his grandfather’s death in a utopian future. (As Hartwell notes in the introduction, Ryman is not an author associated with utopias.) Through means never really explained (alternate time tracks in different dimensions of an 11 dimension universe? editing of a life in another dimension?) the sf equivalent of a soul is shunted off to “everywhere”, seemingly to live a past events again. I’m not sure how desirable that would be. I’m also not sure how utopian it is to live in a society of abullients who need a computer to suggest the next recreation activity. Nor will I grant Ryman the hypothesis that a great deal of the world’s problems stem from being not knowing what they next want to do with themselves. Granted, that is a major problem in some people’s lives. More frequently, I suspect, people know what they want to do but can’t, for a variety of reasons, do it. Even assuming a benevolent computer who could surveil you (and not abuse the gathered data), it’s still a creepy idea to be so completely and accurately modeled as to have a electronic nanny suggest the next playtime activity. Ryman recycles an old utopian notion of everybody taking their turn at certain undesirable jobs for “readies” unconvincingly depicted as an alternative to antique money.

Evolution Never Sleeps“, Elisabeth Malartre — This is essentially a hard science, rational, plausible version of all those fifties’ monster sf movies or the revenge of nature films popular in the seventies. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds (as the characters point out, it’s scary because the reason the birds become menacing is never explained, formerly benign creatures becoming threatening) and the suggested title for the movie version of events here is “The Attack of the Killer Chipmunks”. A researcher discovers that chipmunks have began to hunt in packs and become a formidable predator of creatures larger than them. As the title points out, there’s absolutely no reason that the process of evolution has stopped working on current lifeforms. Malartre also points out (and I assume it’s true given that she’s a biologist) that true herbivores are rare. Most animals will eat meat if given the opportunity and that meat is easier to digest than plant food. At the end, it’s clear this new breed of chipmunks is willing to attack man. [Incidentally, this version of the story accidentally omitted the author’s ending. Malartre sent me the ending, but I don’t know what I did with it. And, no, we’re not buddies. She put a notice in Locus that readers could request the ending from her.] Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 3

I’ve read and liked most of David Hartewell’s Year’s Best SF (which is no longer published) but reviewed few of them.

Here’s one.  A retro review from July 28, 2003 …

Review: Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1998.Year's Best SF 3

The one piece of dross comes from an unexpected source: William Gibson and his story “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City“. It’s a minute, camera-eye examination of a cardboard structure in a Tokyo subway and obviously inspired by J.G. Ballard’s work. I detected no point to the series of descriptions, or, indeed, anything of a fantastical or science fictional nature.

Nancy Kress’ “Always True to Thee, in My Fashion” gives us a witty satire with a world where the seasonal variations of fashion cover not only clothes but also your pharmaceutically modulated attitudes.. The caged dinosaur of Gene Wolfe’s “Petting Zoo” represents not only the lost childhood of the story’s protagonist but a vitality lost from the race of man. Tom Cool gives us “Universal Emulators” with its future of economic hypercompetition that has created a black market for those who impersonate, in every way, the few employed professionals. In effect, the emulators grant them an extra set of hands. Its plot and characters would have done Roger Zelazny proud.

The voice of past science fiction writers echoes through many of the anthology’s best stories. Jack London’s The Sea Wolf provides the inspiration for Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth“. Its heroine realizes, despite whatever dangers she overcomes guiding posthumans through the Pennsylvania’s jungles, she will never bootstrap herself into being their equal. H.G. Wells looms over Robert Silverberg’s “Beauty in the Night“. Its child hero undertakes the first successful assassination of the brutal aliens that have occupied Earth, but his reasons have more to do with his oppressive father rather than the aliens’ behavior. John C. Wright’s “Guest Law” is a welcome return to the flashy decadence of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction. Its hero, a slave-engineer, watches in disgust as his aristocratic overlords corrupt the customary requirements of hospitality to justify piracy in deep space. Gregory Benford’s “The Voice” responds to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Here the convenience of implanted intelligent agents, hooked up to a computer network, led to literacy fading, and not a repressive regime of firemen. Benford agrees with Bradbury about literacy’s value but also undercuts him on the supremacy of writing as a means of communication. Continue reading

Romance on Four Worlds

There are few books I am super eager to read. I’ve got a zillion reading projects going on and pick the next book more on plans and associations than moods.

However, when I saw that Tom Purdom’s collection of future Casanova tales had been collected, I was … pleased. And it got moved up pretty quickly on the reading stack … though I didn’t beat Paul Di Filippo’s review out. But then he’s a professional reviewer, and I’m an amateur (in, perhaps you will conclude, every sense.)

It’s a decent review with a good description of the four stories’ background and plot, I’ll cover some of that, but, in my afterthoughts, I’ll concentrate more on critiques and comparing the book to other Purdom stories.

First, though, as per the usual drill, is the quick, short, off the cuff (meaning without consulting my betters like Di Filippo) first thoughts on the work followed by more details and spoilers.

Review: Romance on Four Worlds: A Casanova Quartet, Tom Purdom, 2015.

A literary sonata.Romance on Four Worlds

The themes: the rapturous duets of lovers, the pursuit of love, and the technological discordances that threaten both.

From the forests of a Mercury habitat to the Kuiper Belt, Joseph Louis Baske devotes his life, like his 18th idol Giacomo Casanova, to the pursuit of women. Not merely the physically beautiful, but the competent, the intelligent, the graceful for beauty has many manifestations. The thrill of Joe’s consummation may last only 45 minutes … or years, but a fleeting emotion of such power is still a real emotion.

His secret, he tells one of the many men who asks about it, is not the sex he offers. It is the talk, the companionship, his concentration and fascination, treating his lovers as real women with “desires and needs of their own”. Continue reading

Bookending Purdom, or the Tom Purdom Project, Part 5

If I can not live like a man, I shall die like a man.”

At least that’s my version of Juan Belmonte’s final words. The famed bullfighter, suffering from the effects of multiple injuries in the ring, heart disease, and lung cancer, mounted his favorite horse one last time and rode back to his estate for a rendezvous with a handful of cigars, two bottles of wine, and a couple of hookers.

I’m not a bullfighting fan and only really know what little I do about Belmonte by coming across his Wikipedia entry. However, I thought of him when reading Tom Purdom’s first published story, “Grieve for a Man”.

Looking at “Grieve for a Man” (with Spoilers)

Purdom’s story is about bullfighting, and its hero, matador Don Julian Artego, does say, near the climax, “I will show you what it is to see a man die.” However, Belmonte’s suicide was almost five years in the future when Purdom’s story was published in 1957. (You can read the entire story at Purdom’s website.) And, 57 years later, Purdom is still publishing, and that’s the occasion for looking at his first and most recent stories.

In the section of his biography talking about the story, Purdom evokes Belmonte as a symbol of his writing career, from then to now:

A young matador has just killed his first bull. He thinks of the future, of the possibility he will someday join the greats like Manolete and Belmonte. Then he finishes: “To know that you are good enough to be in the ring\For me, for now, that is enough.”

Purdom said be based the plot on the American folk story of John Henry. Artego, an aging matador, has to compete for the crowd’s attention in a world where robot matadors now exist. Artego is aghast that there could be any competition, any comparison between a flesh-and-blood matador facing death and a machine facing destruction. How could people not be interested in seeing “a man tempt death”?

But a younger matador, who has reconciled himself to the changing times, advises Artego that the crowd fears and is moved by a robot matador’s death because it is “the creation of a man’s mind. Isn’t it moving to see such a creation face destruction?”

Artego, for the sake of his art, comes out of a three year retirement for a match with a robot matador. In front of a crowd, the arena split in half via a force field, the matadors, one man and one machine, will face a bull to see who can move the crowd. Even the President, of Spain presumably, will attend the match.

Like John Henry, Artego dies in his duel. But, unlike John Henry, he doesn’t even get the satisfaction of victory. Only one old man in the crowd cheers his efforts. Even the sight of Artego’s blood does not move the crowd. In the end, Artego turns his back on the bull, waits for it to charge him. “‘I will show you,” he said, “what it is to see a man die.'”

But the crowd still isn’t paying attention, and this short, dialogue-heavy story ends as a dying Artego realizes it is not his death the crowd is concerned with: “They were watching the twisted pile of metal at the other end of the plaza. And their faces were bloodless from shock.”

The “Automation” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes that “The grimmer imagery of the automated future became more extensive in the 1950s.” That was shown particularly in various stories of professions being rendered obsolete. So, this story fits in with the general temper of 1950s’ sf.

However, the fear that technology will render our skills, our personality, and our bodies obsolete, that we might have to upgrade each to retain our economic viability and social status is a notion Purdom has explored several times.

In “Romance in Extended Time” the Casanova-like figure of Joseph Louis Baske loves a woman who is gloomy because, while genetically engineered to be the best possible, she is already “an imbecile by comparison” with younger humans. Where Artego seeks solace in making a statement by his death, the woman is told by Baske that she can’t be replaced in his heart, that the generation after her can’t live her life for her. Not a very comforting argument especially when considering the necessity of earning a living.

The hero of Purdom’s “Canary Land” tries to upgrade himself with implanted skills but that only insures he can do what the future considers unskilled labor just like his fellow immigrants. Purdom’s point here is that even trying to accommodate the demands and fads of the future does not guarantee success.

The general idea of bullfighting doesn’t seem to get talked about much these days. Even in the early 1970s, I can remember my sister reading some biography of a bullfighter. Now no one really talks about it or Hemmingway.

I suspect the influence of Hemmingway on science fiction writers has waned and is most strong on those who were at an impressionable age to imprint on him as a new literary phenomena. Joe Haldeman (b. 1943) is a noted Hemmingway fan. Purdom (b.1936) has expressed his admiration of Hemmingway who, of course, wrote about bullfighting. Another writer influenced by Hemmingway was Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). With 1967’s “Auto-da-Fe”, Zelazny also did a sort of bullfighting story but with a “mechador”.

Looking at “Bogdavi’s Dream” (with Spoilers)

Purdom’s latest story, “Bogdavi’s Dream”, is in the September 2014 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

I have no plans to start reviewing magazines, but I will make an exception for certain authors, and Purdom is one.

The novella is a sequel to Purdom’s The Tree Lord of Imeten. You don’t have to read the novel to appreciate this story. I didn’t — though I would have if I had started to reorganize my library earlier. I was about to order the novel when I found out I owned it already. I hope to cover it in a future review.

For all I know, the story might have started out titled The Conquistadors of Imeten. That was the title of a sequel to The Tree Lord of Imeten that Purdom actually wrote. He talks about the writing of both works in his biography.

The story involves a coalition of two alien races and some humans mounting a military expedition. The alien races are the Warriors, a tree-dwelling race of aliens and former enslavers of another alien race, the itiji, which Harold, an exile from the sole human settlement on Delta Pavonis II, forced the Warriors to recognize as equals. Joanne, Leza, and Harold fled the new regime that took over the human settlement on the planet and killed Harold’s father.

Now Emile, leader of that coup, has incited another tribe, the Drovil, against the Warriors and burned their home. A somewhat autistic itiji, Golva, has concocted a plan. Using their individual capabilities, the three races are to scale the plateau the small human settlement is on and depose Emile.

The attack is ultimately successful, but Purdom shows he can keep a lot of balls in the air. There is the alien biology and culture of Delta Pavonis II’s two native races, though, of course, that was mostly worked out in the 1966 novel.

There’s the mildly comic interspecies infatuation the titular Bogdavi has for Leza and the much more serious problems of the three groups co-operating to make the attack successful.

Purdom has an interest in military history so he might have had a model in mind for the assault. I thought of General Wolfe’s assault on Quebec during the French and Indian War, but the parallel, operationally and typographically, is far from exact.

Harold is the leader of the attack, a figure who has done much killing and has an interest in military history. But the story’s climax has Leza supplanting him in a sense.

The combat on the plateau, involving small groups and with the three dimensional element of antigrav floaters, is well plotted and thought out in terms of time, space, angles, weapon potential, and effective ranges. This is an example of combat in Purdom’s stories that owes a lot to his interest in wargames and makes the physical conflict in his “The Mists of Time” and “The Path of the Transgressor” so engrossing. Wargamers of a certain age might be reminded of a Steve Jackson microgame like G.E.V. or Ogre.

But, I think, there is something of a comment on contemporary history too for the story contemplates the dilemnas of “regime change”. Leza and Harold disagree as to how many collateral casualties are acceptable to get rid of Emile and his confederates.

Ultimately, they disagree on Emile’s fate after the attack succeeds. Harold, tired of killing, wants to let Emile just flee into exile. Leza, afraid of Emile using a weapons cache and the Drovils to cause trouble, kills him as he lies wounded. Harold may be the hero “sick of violence” and “burned up [of] all the emotions that drive warriors and soldiers” but Leza, the biologist, thrown into a violent situation, turns out to have the ruthlessness and acumen needed where Harold doesn’t.

The humans on Delta Pavonis II are a small group. There is some debate about the motives of Emile. Does he foresee a day when their imported and not to be replenished technology will fail and humans will need to enslave the itiji? Or do he and his henchman just like frightening people, the thrill of being a tyrant? I was reminded of the small scale struggles of the future humans in Purdom’s “Fossil Games”.

Purdom has said The Treelord of Imeten is one of his most remembered novels, so fans of that should like this novella. While I wouldn’t say this is top-drawer Purdom, it’s still skillfully done and worthwhile. My enthusiasm was perhaps muted because of the heavy presence of aliens, not my predominate interest in science fiction. Also, I have become very fond of Purdom contemplating futures where human personality and skills become economic commodities capable of upgrade and quantification, the power of the Information Age fully applied to human body and cultures. That element was lacking here.

And I’m glad to know that more Purdom is still in the pipeline for future publication

Earlier installments in this series:

Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons

The Tom Purdom Project, Part 2

Five Against Arlane, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 3

“A War of Passion”, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 4


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.


The Future Is Now; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax


I was beginning to question my taste, my abilities as a “critic”.

Do I just like anything I read? Sure, I read slow and not as much as I like so I’m somewhat careful what I chose, but still …

The Future Is Now has reassured me that I have retained some powers of discernment. Its execrable collection of stories cleared my palate and reminded me what crap tastes like. Continue reading

“A War of Passion”, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 4

If Purdom hadn’t said that this story was set in the same universe as Five Against Arlane and “Haggle Chips”, I wouldn’t have known. Granted there is the element of long-lived humans which is in those stories, but that has been and remains a Purdom fascination along with the wargame simulations mentioned here.

The trouble with this story is, while I know what Purdom was trying to explore, the details are too vague.

Protagonist Vostok is over 1,200 years old and assigned to seduce Larina Makaze. The why involves some political conflict between the normals and long-lived like Vostok on the planet Shuguro. The 268 year old Larina has been the blackmail tool of Hamanaka (a vaguely Japanese name along with Shuguro which, I assume, is Purdom’s suggestion the planet was settled by Japanese) who leads the faction of long-lived against the normals lead by David Fuchida.

Larina has been used for 37 years as a prostitute for men in “their middle hundreds” to rejuvenate their flagging sexual desire through whipping, chaining, caging, and humiliating her. Hamanaka seems to use what she discovers about these man as blackmail material against members of Fuchida’s faction. Her “last so-called lover” tortured her with laser shocks so she came to associate sex with pain.  (Why she didn’t make that connection before or why she went along with this for 37 years is unexplained.) Fuchida wants him to bring back joy to her sex, presumably for altruistic reasons or he’ll “start burning out memory cells” from her brain.

Fuchida also wants Vostok to prove that he’s temperamentally still with the world of recognizably human appetites. If he doesn’t, Fuchida will kill him and go to war against Hamanka’s fashion with the only “competent tactical brain” he has, Vostok’s, gone.The long-lived are, expectedly, a whole lot more ruthless and powerful and wealthier than the normals. They’ve “reduced their personalities to the presexual passions of survival and power.”

Vostok himself has, to keep up with improvements in human biology, had his head expanded to twice its original size and is 250 centimeters tall. Vostok, sexually quite practiced and adept, tells Larina to just relax and he’ll take over so they can prove to Fuchida their both normal enough. He even gives her an aphrodisiac thus bringing up the question, with them available, why the men of their middle hundreds need to abuse Larina to stay sexually interested though I’m sure there are men who do the same in our age of Viagra.

They both, as humans often do in Purdom stories, have some advanced degree of control over their nervous systems. While he’s trying to prolong Larina’s sexual pleasure, Vostok’s mind begins to wander. He thinks not only about his past, but, suspecting Fuchida’s men are even then surrounding the house and preparing to kill him out of suspicion, starts to run elaborate political, military, and economic simulations in his head. (He reminded me of the fascination the protagonist of Purdom’s “Fossil Games” also has for those sort of simulations.)

Angered by this distant, Larina suddenly rebuffs him. “You’re dead already. You’re a corpse,” she tells him in disgust. Vostok rapes her in a legal sense, forcibly penetrating her. She tries to cut off her pleasure centers but can’t. Alluding to the extreme caution and conservatism of the long-lived, he tells her

I’m risking my life. I should be manning my defenses. They may be attacking me right now. I’m risking eternity so we can both go on being human.”

The story ends with Vostok thinking they were both now fighting the only fight that mattered – the fight to stay human.  The last line is “He pressed her against the couch and held her while she writhed.”  Earlier in the story’s climax, “she shuddered”. But, in typical Purdom fashion, that “writhed” is an ambiguous word and could designate not some cliched tranformation of rape to erotic bliss but discomfort and pain and terror for Larina. It is only Vostok that makes the statement that what he is doing is a fight for both. Larina does not voice agreement.

It is another exploration of Purdom’s fascination with how advanced humans, able to control their biology, would deviate from us and whether that’s a good thing. It could also be viewed as a metaphor (though Purdom seems to eschew science fiction as a metaphorical tool) for a social split along generational lines, vitality and youth and poverty and ignorance and passion vs. wealth, cunning, and survival.

However, I still think the story is marred by vagueness in its setup. It is a clever and appropriate title for the story.

It appears in William F. Nolan’s anthology The Future Is Now which I will be reviewing shortly. Let’s just say I’ve been brushing up on the fine distinctions between the words “execrable” and “feculent”.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Lord of the Green Planet

Emil who?Petaja-LordGreen

I didn’t know either. I’ve even seen the name on Ace Doubles at a local used bookstore. I would have guessed, given that I live in an area with many of them, that he was a Finn. John Clute’s Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on Petaja confirms he was an American of Finnish descent.

It also mentions that his best known work is a science fiction series based on the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala. Ian Watson was later to do a two book series based on that work too: Lucky’s Harvest and The Fallen Moon. But, of course, Watson’s and Petaja’s series weren’t the only thing inspired by that Finnish saga. One J.R.R. Tolkien was a fan of it too. Thus, in some sense, Finland’s influence on modern Anglophone fantasy is rather like Jamaica’s influence on global popular music — way out of proportion to its size. Continue reading

Five Against Arlane, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 3

A modern ruler could do almost anything, apparently, if he didn’t tamper with the medical care his subjects were used to.

Purdom-ArlaneThis 1967 novel, half of an Ace Double, was the first of Purdom’s stories set in this universe of travel between planets at relativistic, i.e. slightly slower than light, speeds, where most of the travelers between the stars are traders, and where humans have managed to greatly extend their lives with medical care. Follow up stories were 1970’s “A War of Passion” (which I have not read yet) and 2010’s “Haggle Chips” which I reviewed in part 1 of the Tom Purdom Project.

As the cover blurb says, this is a “revolt against the mind tyrant”. Continue reading

The Tom Purdom Project, Part 2

The imprudent title of this post refers to my intention to read the complete science fiction works of Tom Purdom.

Like most such reading projects, it will probably not be completed in my lifetime — not because of the time involved but because of my desultory ways and easily distracted personality.

The first entry of the Tom Purdom project is a review of his recent collection, the only one of his career so far, Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons. I actually became aware of Purdom about ten years ago, so I’ll briefly review, or at least list, stories of his I’ve read to date and that aren’t included in his collection.

His “Romance in Extended Time” from the March 2000 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction was my first encounter with Purdom. While I recall liking it, I have not found any notes recording my detailed reactions. It is part of what Purdom refers to as his Casanova in  Space series. He talks about their inspiration and the details of writing them in entries four and five of his engaging literary memoir. Continue reading

Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons


Ever since my amateur reviewing reached the point where publishers, editors, and authors sent me books, I’ve always chosen titles out of curiosity and maybe a little sense of duty. I’m not given to passionate gushing about books or using the phrases like “You’ve got to read this book.” That will often produce the opposite effect on me.

No, I don’t have to read that book. I assume that at least a portion of my readers exhibit the same contrarianism.

So I won’t gush about Purdom’s one and only collection. I will just say that it’s been the first review title offered by a publisher that I immediately, enthusiastically requested, and it got moved to the top of the review pile.

I had read several of the stories before. All were at least as good as I remembered. One I liked even better on second reading. Continue reading