Short Book Reviews: M. John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings (1980), Algis Budrys’ Some Will Not Die (1961, rev. 1978), and William Greenleaf’s The Tartarus Incident (1983)

James Gurney’s cover art detail for the 1st edition of William Greanleef’s The Tartarus Incident (1983)

Note: My read but “waiting to be reviewed pile” is growing. Short rumination/tangents are a way to get through the stack. Stay tuned for more detailed and analytical reviews.

1. A Storm of Wings, M. John Harrison (1980)

Michael Whelan’s cover for the 1982 edition

4.5/5 (Very Good)

A Storm of Wings (1980) is the second volume, after The Pastel City (1971), of the Viriconium sequence. Far more dense and oblique than its predecessor, A Storm of Wings revels in the creation of a surreal urban tapestry–redolent with decay and decadent excess. Two Reborn Men (Fay Glass and Alstath Fulthor) attempt to animate the somnolent city of Viriconium to the dangers of an intelligent insect army invading Earth. Like a swarm of locusts destroying the fields of a lonely oasis down in a desert, the dominate metaphor of scuttling entropic chaos collides with disturbing sequences of body horror.

Highly recommended for fans of convention-breaking fantasy/SF more focused on disquieting scene and metaphor. But be prepared for a moody inundation… let yourself sink in, float across its waters as the moon dims, and beware the severed insect heads!

For a more detailed review check out Jesse’s over at Speculation. 

M. John Harrison has long been a Joachim Boaz favorite. I struggled for months trying to write a proper review. If you’re new to his work, check out my more substantial reviews for a better sense of his style and themes:

2. Some Will Not Die, Algis Budrys (1961, rev. 1978)

Frank Kelly Freas’ cover for the 1978 edition

2.5/5 (Bad)

My love/hate relationship with Algis Budrys continues!

Some Will Not Die (1961, rev. 1978) is a multi-generational future history post-apocalyptic thriller. A plague wipes out the vast majority of humankind, and the remnants coalesce around the figure of Mathew Garvin. Years later after his death Garvin takes on heroic adjectives by those seeking to replicate the stability he brought (through violence and perseverance) to New York City. The novel follows the evolution of society etc. It’s filled with violence and endless hyper-manly sequences of gun-waving and dreams of rebirth… I found it bland and forgettable. It might be my growing frustration with positivist narratives of “change and process” waged entirely at gunpoint.

If a bleak and violent look at post-apocalyptic America over multiple generations sounds like something you might enjoy, this might be for you.

Check out my earlier reviews of Algis Budrys’ SF:

Note on Publication History: In 1954, Budrys published his first novel False Night. However, as it was “seriously abridged” by the publisher, the original version was republished in 1961 under the new title Some Will Not Die. In 1978, the Starblaze edition (which I read above) created a “unique, updated version.” I’m not sure what was added or subtracted. However, I’m not motivated to find out.

2. The Tartarus Incident, William Greenleaf (1983)

James Gurney’s cover for the 1st edition

2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)

After a variety of depressing reads for my recent sequence on “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them,” I decided to decompress with a brief SF adventure! And, I can’t lie, I adore the James Gurney (of Dinotopia fame) cover….

The Premise: The Mothership Graywand acts as a central hub for exploration pods (like the one in the Gurney cover). Like a glorified office building replete with windowless cubicles, the pods flit in and out via the “Kohlmann stream” (7) (queue lots of laborious mumbo-jumbo). The operations of the Graywand itself is controlled by a vast bureaucracy. A series of unfortunate accidents lands the Jack-o-Dandy pod of colonial auditors (think investigators checking whether a colony uses its funds correctly) on another planet with terrifying secrets!

The Plot: Two plots unfold. The first follows a low-level technician, who accidentally sent (through no error of his own) the Jack-o-Dandy to the wrong planet, as he attempts to navigate Graywand’s bureaucracy and uncover the location of the lost pod. The second follows the crew, without substantial expertise in space exploration and survival, who must use their wits to survive.

I found The Tartarus Incident a simple yet diverting story. The horror elements on the plant Tartarus  never amount to much. I found the Graywand-centered storyline far more interesting.

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27 thoughts on “Short Book Reviews: M. John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings (1980), Algis Budrys’ Some Will Not Die (1961, rev. 1978), and William Greenleaf’s The Tartarus Incident (1983)

  1. I also rate SOME WILL NOT DIE low in the Budrys canon. Likewise A FALLING TORCH and MAN OF EARTH.

    I liked MICHAELMAS more than you did, and ROGUE MOON of course is a classic. I do highly recommend his late short novel, HARD LANDING, and I think the mid-60s book THE AMSIRS AND THE IRON THORN is intriguing if imperfect.

    Lots of excellent short stories, to be sure. If you haven’t read the mystery “The Master of the Hounds” it’s well worth it.

    • Hello Rich, thanks for stopping by. Have you read the 1954 first version? Which version did you end up reading?

      I must confess, the love on the interwebs for Michaelmas perplexes… Did you ever write up your thoughts on it? Ff so, feel free to link them. I’m taking a Budrys’ break for a bit — although if I come across a short story in an anthology I’ll give it a read.

      • I read Michaelmas in the F&SF serialization — I probably should reread the novel version! It’s been a very long time.

        Two early stories to recommend: “The End of Summer”, which isn’t perfect but which seems to me different from what other writers were doing. And “The War is Over”, which is kind of clunky, and pretty pulpish, but which has one of the great sensawunda last lines.

        • I’ll keep my eyes out for those two stories.

          Re-Michaelmas: I guess my visions of a powerful media entity are more Robert Murdoch than Laurent Michaelmas… i.e. an all-powerful media entity would create a far more dystopic world than one of world peace. The novel does somewhat buck 70s Vietnam War era paranoia when it came to the possibility of world peace. I guess the media in the post-Watergate world was perceived as far more benevolent.

          I enjoyed the interplay between Domino and Laurent — but AI human discussion always has that effect on me… haha.

  2. …the Starblaze edition (which I read above) created a “unique, updated version.” I’m not sure what was added or subtracted. However, I’m not motivated to find out.

    Heh. I know that feeling well.

    Glad you’re finding your way through the backlog! I’m using the Burgoine three-sentence method to do the same. Scary the number of books I’ve read from publishers that I just don’t care enough to write a Real Review of but still need to comment on. The pipeline grows narrower the fewer reviews I post.

    • I don’t know how you even get through publisher copies. At least for me, the second a publisher sends me a copy (I turn most of the requests down), I look at it like work…. even if I might end up liking the story. Maybe if I read newer SF I accept requests due to the monetary expenditure of brand new volumes. Thank goodness the majority of what I read costs between $3-5 (and the occasional rare volume)!

      Have you read any Harrison? And if so, I’d love to know your thoughts.

  3. As for Harrison, I encountered THE PASTEL CITY more at less at random in my local library when I was 14 or so, and I was entranced. I immediately read THE COMMITTED MEN and THE CENTAURI DEVICE … I’d rank those in the opposite order you do — I think THE CENTAURI DEVICE is both very good and rather significant.

    I admit I was surprised, a few years later, to encounter A STORM OF WINGS, a wholly different novel to THE PASTEL CITY. But I came to appreciate it, and I think Harrison is a remarkable writer.

    There was a discussion online about who next deserves the SFWA Grand Master award. I think the answer is blindingly obvious — John Crowley! But after Crowley, I think M. John Harrison a very good next choice.

    • I’m a huge defender of The Committed Men — as hopefully my review makes clear. While I enjoy the entropic layers of novels like A Storm of Wings, the The Committed Men’s slimmed down central metaphor (the massive road stretching to nowhere) and decrepit main character (the doctor who still attempts to practice his profession) really pulled me in.

      John Crowley is a favorite as well. I’ve reviewed Beasts and The Deep on the site — both would be deserving recipients of the SFWA Grand Master award (and both should have won at least one Hugo and/or Nebula for their 70s novels!).

      • I reread THE DEEP not too long ago. It is quite wonderful. Another writer I discovered from my local library (Nichols Library in Naperville, IL, a lovely old building that is now a Korean church as I recall, the library having moved to a soulless ’90s era semi-brutalist new building.) THE DEEP simply looked cool in its Doubleday edition … I was entranced even though back then I didn’t really get.

        My favorite Crowley novel is ENGINE SUMMER. One of my favorite novels of all time. I also love the non-SF — well, actually, kind of borderline fantasy — THE TRANSLATOR. And lots more (another non-SF piece, the novella “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines”, is essential.)

        As for the Grandmaster to Crowley, I’m approaching crankiness here, the way I got years earlier when it took them way too long to get around to awarding Le Guin and Delany. I have to say I thought the award to Hopkinson not wrong — she’s an exceptional writer — but premature. She’s younger than me!

        • Have you read Beasts yet?

          I have Engine Summer and Little, Big on the shelf waiting for the right time. I definitely try to flit a bit around the edges of an author’s work first — so The Deep before Engine Summer and in Harrison’s case, The Committed Men before The Pastel City.

          While it might matter for authors (financially, etc.), I can’t allow myself to get too wrapped up in who should get awards or not. This has not always been the case as I got really into SF by going through the Hugo list in my late teens (~2003-2004). One of the reasons for my site is to explore lesser known authors who might be more deserving of recognition.

    • Sounds about right. The investigation on the mothership about the accident is more interesting than the second narrative about the crew on the planet. And, the horror elements (the creatures within the tomb of the ruined city and bad hell analogies) are really lame… it felt like Indiana Jones rummaging in a ruin.

  4. Hi Joachim

    I finally covered A Storm of Wings after noticing your short review so I took the liberty of including a link to your post.

    All the best

  5. Algis Budrys has never really did anything for me. He’s just one of those authors for whom I’ve had a blind spot to. We all come across authors like that. I even tried to read “Michaelmas” when is was serialized, and it was like chipping through concrete with my nose. “Nobody Bothers Gus” though was pretty good, about a man whose secret mutant power was to be totally forgettable. He could walk through life without anybody noticing he was even there.

    As far as “The Tartarus Incident” by William Greenleaf goes, I found my copy in a barn sale; beaten, battered, and broken. It even had a wormhole in it. I felt so sorry for it that I had to “rescue” it and take it home and read it. I found it to be a minor gem of a pulp planetary adventure, not too deep, but short and which moved fairly quickly. I’ve read it twice since then, and always thought that it would have made a decent “B” drive-in movie. Probably best enjoyed when young when you would have enjoyed novels from the likes of Andre Norton.

    Read a number of M. John Harrison’s short stories way back when, and I can’t say anything bad about them, it’s just that I probably should go back and re-read them. Your recommendation of his works is helping me to think this way. It’s too bad that his stuff isn’t anthologized all that much, but with the death of the mass market paperback, so many authors will soon be forgotten.

    Liked all of the covers, but only James Gurney’s showed any real imagination. The other two being well-done, but showing any real pizzazz to make them stand-out.

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