Science Fiction and Fantasy

(Jacket Art By James Warhola From "Homecalling")
By Paul Di Filippo
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sequels long delayed constitute an intriguing subset of sf books. The impulses that spur an author to pick an old singleton or series off the shelf and extend it range the gamut from mercenary to purely artistic. And the results are not always correlated to motive. In the historical record, we find such variable instances as Jack Williamson's return to his 1930s-era Legion of Space saga after nearly fifty years with The Queen of the Legion (1982), or Larry Niven's relatively speedy delivery of the third book in his Ringworld series some twenty years after the appearance of the second.

Now Tanith Lee joins this exclusive club with her decision to return for the first time to the fascinating world she portrayed in The Silver Metal Lover (1981). That novel chronicled the torrid love affair between a rich young teenager named Jane and a humanoid robot named Silver, against the backdrop of a socially stratified, disaster-wracked Earth. At the book's close, Silver had been destroyed by his evil creators and Jane was on her way to maturity.

In Metallic Love (Bantam Spectra; paperback, $6.99), Lee resurrects Silver and brings a new heroine onstage, an older girl named Loren. But now Silver 2.0 is known as Verlis, in respect to his new features and personality, and Loren is from the lower strata of society and hence harder-edged. "Jane's Story" -- the original protagonist's account of her affair -- is an underground classic that influences Loren's life.

Loren and Verlis do not merely replay the old Frankie and cyber-Johnny riff but instead find themselves in a much bigger game. Verlis and the seven others of his breed have been endowed with more powers than their creators intended -- and with enough free will to wish to become the new rulers of mankind. Can a smitten young woman really trust a lover with no allegiance to the human race? And would it be worse if she discovered she had more in common with him than she thought?

Lee's writing, whether sf or fantasy, has always blended a deep strain of romance with fable, and this volume is no exception. The bodice-ripping overlays speculative motifs, to good results. This leather-and-lace hybrid is some kind of Goth Singularity (the Singularity being that much-discussed future state when human history develops into the posthuman). Like Richard Calder in his Dead Girls (1992) or Philip K. Dick in practically his whole canon, Lee explores the sexuality of machinery and the machinery of sexuality: lust, dust and rust. Her prose falls somewhere between Calder's feverish, overwrought swoon and Dick's deracinated surrealism, resulting in an always engaging voice.

In A Galaxy Close, Close By

Most widely known for his novel Logan's Run (1967), in all its media manifestations, William F. Nolan has long been a short-story writer as well, ever since his first sale in 1954. That debut tale is included in Wild Galaxy (Golden Gryphon, $25.95), along with 18 others, forming a "best of" career retrospective.

Nolan is an old-school pulpster, steeped in the demanding traditions of the genre magazines and in even more primeval models of storytelling such as O. Henry's canon. His stories dash onstage, tell a joke or two, sing a sad ballad, stage a pratfall, perhaps explode, then the curtain falls. It's slambang vaudeville or maybe even proto-punk -- two-and-a-half-minute sonic assaults. It's entertaining in its fashion, but after your retinas and eardrums return to their normal state, you're often left wondering what the fuss was all about.

Nolan's stories from the 1950s exhibit some of that era's endearing subtextual unease. "The Joy of Living" features a robot wife and children, symbols of all that was rotten at the heart of Ozzie and Harriet's world. And "The Small World of Lewis Stillman" postulates that a new generation of "primitives" will turn out rotten. Shades of the '60s generation gap! When Nolan himself reaches that swinging decade, his work takes a minor psychedelic turn, verging on New Wave. Consider "Toe to Tip, Tip to Toe, Pip-Pop as You Go" (1970), which features a society medicated on mood-altering drugs. But compared to, say, Brian Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head (1969), which deals with similar themes, the Nolan piece reads like a brave attempt by someone outside the scene to understand and speculate on the milieu in terms of a Long Island housewife's Miltown addiction.

"Lone Star Traveler" recounts the exploits of a time-traveler visiting Texas in 1910 in an attempt to save the life of a person crucial to the year 2060. The traveler turns out to be the ultimate city dude amid sweaty he-men but manages to upstage them all by keeping a cool head and employing some high-tech gadgets. Understated, funny, emotionally affecting, this late-period piece (1999) makes us wish that Nolan had had the leisure to work at longer lengths during his whole career.

"An Adulthood Beyond Adulthood"

The long-anticipated marriage between the hard sf novel and the literary novel, resulting in an offspring possessing the robust ideational vigor of the former with the graceful narrative subtleties of the latter, might finally have occurred in the form of Robert Charles Wilson's Spin (Tor, $25.95). Here's a book that features speculative conceits as brash and thrilling as those found in any space opera, along with insights into the human condition as rich as those contained within any mainstream mimetic fiction, with both its conceits and insights beautifully embedded in crystalline prose.

The time is the day after tomorrow, and three adolescents -- Diane and Jason Lawton, twins, and their best friend, Tyler Dupree -- are out stargazing. Thus they witness the erection of a planet-spanning shield around the globe, blocking out the universe. Spin chronicles the next 30-odd years in the lives of the trio, during which 300 billion years will pass outside the shield, thanks to an engineered time discontinuity. Jason, a genius, will invest his celibate life in unraveling cosmological mysteries. Tyler will become a doctor and act as our narrator and as Jason's confidante, while nursing his unrequited love for Diane, who in turn plunges into religious fanaticism. Along the way human-descended Martians will appear, bringing a drug that can elevate humans to the Fourth State, "an adulthood beyond adulthood." But will even this miracle be enough to save Earth?

Wilson does so many fine things, it's hard to know where to begin to praise him. The relations among the core trio and the supporting cast are deep and complex. Consider Tyler's long-term affair with a woman named Molly, whom he genuinely loves while still pining for Diane. Or relish how the Martian ambassador Wun Ngo Wen and his culture are empathetically portrayed. Likewise, the brilliantly limned astrophysical enigmas assume a co-starring role almost human in their dimensions. Wilson has a fine knack for conveying the poetry inherent in the blind workings of space and time.

This is a book where the poignancy of Tyler cleaning out the home of his newly dead mother shares an equal weight with extended riffs on "autocatalytic replicators" colonizing the Oort Cloud. Neither the culture of art nor the culture of science is slighted. And isn't that the ideal definition of science fiction?

Space Girls Are Brave

From the industrious, time-binding, historically respectful publishing arm of the New England Science Fiction Association, and thanks to the hard work of many volunteers, not least of whom is editor Elisabeth Carey, comes the latest monumental collection of classic, long-out-of-print sf, to serve as a core text for future generations of readers and scholars alike. Homecalling (NESFA, $29) bears the subtitle: "The complete solo short SF of Judith Merril." To the cognoscenti, that phrase is review and recommendation enough.

Merril (1923-97) was most famous in her later years as an anthologist of eclectic tastes, a partisan of the New Wave and a critic of acute sensibilities. But once upon a time she was a fan, and then a science fiction writer, and in that latter capacity she excelled. From her first story in 1948, "That Only A Mother," to her final one, "The Future of Happiness," some thirty years later, Merril delivered emotionally wrenching tales whose keystones were muscular prose, keenly observed depictions of human behavior, a touch of sentimentality and a kind of cosmic quotidianism.

The 1950s were Merril's heyday, when she produced one masterpiece after another for the various sf magazines, blasting genre restrictions left and right. Her work from this era often embodies a proto-feminist stance while also reflecting the peculiar anxieties and obsessions of the time: nuclear warfare, security mania, conformity and the burgeoning space race. In fact, so many of her stories focus on flight from Earth toward a better place that we begin to suspect that Merril was hardly comfortable anywhere, alone in her own skin or among her fellow naked apes. Two stories -- "Rain Check" and "Exile From Space," each told in the first person, a rarely employed point-of-view in Merril's catalogue -- deal with visitors to Earth who must masquerade as women to navigate the power structures of Eisenhower-era America. The alien perspective is so convincing that it feels as if Merril's core self-image is leaking through the narrative.

Sharing the emotional sensitivity of Theodore Sturgeon, as well as the hard-nosed practicality of Robert Heinlein, Judith Merril blazed the way for such writers as Joanna Russ, James Tiptree and Ursula K. LeGuin. It's not only a treat but also essential to have her work back in print. ·

Paul Di Filippo's new collection, "The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories," will be published in July.

Space Girls Are Brave

From the industrious, time-binding, historically respectful publishing arm of the New England Science Fiction Association, and thanks to the hard work of many volunteers, not least of whom is editor Elisabeth Carey, comes the latest monumental collection of classic, long-out-of-print sf, to serve as a core text for future generations of readers and scholars alike. Homecalling (NESFA, $29) bears the subtitle: "The complete solo short SF of Judith Merril." To the cognoscenti, that phrase is review and recommendation enough.

Merril (1923-97) was most famous in her later years as an anthologist of eclectic tastes, a partisan of the New Wave and a critic of acute sensibilities. But once upon a time she was a fan, and then a science fiction writer, and in that latter capacity she excelled. From her first story in 1948, "That Only A Mother," to her final one, "The Future of Happiness," some thirty years later, Merril delivered emotionally wrenching tales whose keystones were muscular prose, keenly observed depictions of human behavior, a touch of sentimentality and a kind of cosmic quotidianism.

The 1950s were Merril's heyday, when she produced one masterpiece after another for the various sf magazines, blasting genre restrictions left and right. Her work from this era often embodies a proto-feminist stance while also reflecting the peculiar anxieties and obsessions of the time: nuclear warfare, security mania, conformity and the burgeoning space race. In fact, so many of her stories focus on flight from Earth toward a better place that we begin to suspect that Merril was hardly comfortable anywhere, alone in her own skin or among her fellow naked apes. Two stories -- "Rain Check" and "Exile From Space," each told in the first person, a rarely employed point-of-view in Merril's catalogue -- deal with visitors to Earth who must masquerade as women to navigate the power structures of Eisenhower-era America. The alien perspective is so convincing that it feels as if Merril's core self-image is leaking through the narrative.

Sharing the emotional sensitivity of Theodore Sturgeon, as well as the hard-nosed practicality of Robert Heinlein, Judith Merril blazed the way for such writers as Joanna Russ, James Tiptree and Ursula K. LeGuin. It's not only a treat but also essential to have her work back in print. ·

Paul Di Filippo's new collection, "The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories," will be published in July.


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