Updates: Recent Science Fiction and Fantasy Purchases N. CCLXXXVII (Terry Pratchett, Robert Silverberg, Eleanor Arnason, and Charles L. Grant)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. The Dark Side of the Sun, Terry Pratchett (1976)

From the back cover: “Dom Sabalos, the young heir to the Sabalos dynasty, has a strangely uncertain future. Probability math, the infallible science of foretelling the future, has predicted his assassination in twenty-four hours. But, by an extraordinary paradox, it has also predicted that he will go on to discover the fabulous, almost mythical world of the Jokers–the gods of the universe.

When, by a million to one chance, Dom survives the assassination attempt, he takes his destiny in his hands and sets out in search of the Jokers.

But there are strange powers at play. Who, for example, is responsible for the robot assassin with built-in luck that has been put on his tail? Who, or what, is protecting him every time it strikes? And where is this mysterious world which, according to legend, lies on the dark side of the sun?”

Initial Thoughts: Terry Pratchett is an author I’ve avoided–for whatever reason. I suspect I’ll only explore his earliest published science fiction. The Dark Side of the Sun is his first SF novel. Ian Sales recently reviewed it here.

2. Capricorn Games, Robert Silverberg (1976)

From the inside flap: “A master attempt to make unconventional use of the traditional subject matter of science fiction, this collection of eight stories is playful in structure and execution—and all with the brilliant Silverberg touch.

The traditional subject matter of science fiction is robots, computers, spaceships, time machines, and they are used in unconventional ways—to revivify thematic clichés by inversions, transpositions and other narrative manipulations. The author regards these stories as being serious in a playful way, and playful in a serious way, hence the title of the collection. (Incidentally, Capricorn is his sign.)

Everywhere science fiction is sold, or understood, or read, Silverberg is one of the big names, along with Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke.”

Contents: “Capricorn Games” (1974), “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” (1973), “Ms. Found in an Abandoned Time Machine” (1973), “Breckenridge and the Continuum” (1973), “Ship-Sister, Star-Sister” (1973), “A Sea of Faces” (1974), “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV” (1974), “Getting Across” (1973)

Initial Thoughts: Silverberg has long been a staple of my SF reading. My review index contains all the Silverberg I’ve read other than the fantastic A Time of Changes (1971) and Tower of Glass (1970). As of late, I’ve become increasingly interested in the SF he produced right before his self-imposed hiatus (~1976-1980) as he grew increasingly disenchanted with the genre. I’ve also snagged a copy of Shadrach in the Furnace (1976) that I’ll feature in a later post.

3. The Sword Smith, Eleanor Arnason (1978)

From the back cover: “This is the legend…

Of Limber, a royal sword smith

Of a baby dragon named Nargri

Of a mountainous land, a world of mystery

Of peasants and kings, sorcerers and trolls.

It is a take of fantasy, but it has the earthy

reality of a true story of survival.

It is a perilous adventure,

but it has with and charm and love.

It is a work of uncommon imagination and rare talent.

Initial Thoughts: Other than a handful of 70s short stories, Eleanor Arnason’s science fictional output started in earnest in the late 80s with To the Resurrection Station (1986). For whatever reason, perhaps the tides of nostalgia took hold (I was obsessed with all forms of fantasy as a child), I decided to purchase her first-published novel. SF describes it as “a Fantasy notable for the spare elegance of its narrative, which focuses with modest intensity upon its young protagonist’s slow grasp of life’s meaning.”

4. The Shadow of Alpha, Charles L. Grant (1976)

From the back cover: “Introducing Parric: an ordinary civil servant being ground up in a mill of paperwork, who is given a chance to work on an experimental government project—to live secretly in a town entirely populated by androids–whose very existence, if it were known, would disrupt society–something the repressive society does not want.

But Parric is happy in his secret village, protected by a force-field from outsiders, in contact with only a very few others in similar positions in other secret villages. Protect, until way breaks out and civilization outside falls into the horrifying Plaguewind. Then the experimental androids, affected by the plague in strange ways, become killers! Parric must escape his village, then trek across the desolate countryside, in danger from the surviving mobs of plague victims, to the control center of the secret android project, in an attempt to join the other men in starting a new civilization.”

Initial Thoughts: Not an author or work I know much about! Online reviews tend to be outright dismissive. I do not have high hopes.


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32 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction and Fantasy Purchases N. CCLXXXVII (Terry Pratchett, Robert Silverberg, Eleanor Arnason, and Charles L. Grant)

  1. Charles L. Grant was a very significant editor of horror anthologies, most notably the SHADOWS series, and by most accounts most of his best work was horror. Horror isn’t really my thing, and so I’ve never read any of his novels — even though THE SHADOW OF ALPHA is SF. I do recall enjoying his two Nebula winners (“A Crowd of Shadows” and “A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn’s Eye”) though I believe in both cases I thought there were better stories published that year.

    The Silverberg collection looks strong — among his best late middle shorter work anyway, though it doesn’t have my favorite pre-Second Retirement Silverberg short, “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t read THE SWORD SMITH but Arnason is a favorite of mine so I will get to it. As for Pratchett — the only Pratchett that has really worked for me is the YA-ish Tiffany Aching books. I’m assured that the reason for that is that I haven’t read the RIGHT Discworld novels, and I dare say that’s true. The received opinion of his pre-Discworld stuff, like THE DARK SIDE OF THE SUN, seems to be that he hadn’t hit his stride yet with those — but that said, I haven’t read it, so I can’t say for sure.

    • Hello Rich, thanks for stopping by!

      As you point out, I know Grant from his contributions to horror and as I have little knowledge or pressing desire to read horror, he’s a name I’ve come across when I post my birthdays every morning but haven’t read. And, having seen his name for years, I eventually browsed around a bit to see if anything seemed appealing (and SF). Are “A Crowd of Shadows” and “A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn’s Eye” fantasy?

      “Schwartz Between the Galaxies” is 100% on my list to track down due to a similar assessment of the tale by fellow friend of the site, Anthony.

      I went ahead and purchased a copy of Arnason’s To the Resurrection Station (1986) and might post reviews of her first three published SF short fictions in the near future.

      Speaking of fantasy nostalgia, I also replaced my lost copy (or I gave it to my sister) of McKillip’s The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976) in the The Quest of the Riddle-Master sequence. I have fond memories of reading it on the bus ride home — and as I lived in a rural Texas county and the ride seemed interminable, books were highly desired! hah.

      • I think Grant is one of those authors who gravitated to the Horror label because it’s less restrictive that either SF or Fantasy. I’d consider his work more Weird Fiction than anything else, particularly his short fiction.

        • And how would you characterize his two Nebula winners — “A Crowd of Shadows” and “A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn’s Eye”? I assume, from their titles, on the fantasy (nor Weird Fiction) side of things.

      • Actually I think both “A Crowd of Shadows” and “A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn’s Eye” are SF, though I’m not certain about the latter.

        As Misha says below, his work is less pure horror than mainly “weird”, or “dark fantasy”, which I seem to recall is a term Grant liked to use, and may even have invented or popularized.

        I have read a lot of McKillip’s work, and I think it’s generally quite good, in a quiet way.

        • If they approach or make gestures towards SF in some way I’ll probably track them down at some point. I have started McKillip’s SF novel Fool’s Run (1987) multiple times. But it’s so intense! I really need to buckle up and read it.

  2. …he will go on to discover the fabulous, almost mythical world of the Jokers–the gods of the universe.

    That could be the only sentence I’ve ever read that makes me actually want to dig back in to the mouldering mound of ~meh~ that is my assessment of Pratchett. I hope the read marches well.

    That Arnason tempts me, too.

    Anyway. Snowy Sunday greetings from Long Island.

    • I’d give the Ian Sales review I linked a quick skim (or read) first before you find a copy of The Dark Side of the Sun. It sounds, a bit off… and trying to be more comedic than it actually is.

      Ah yes, you got smacked by that massive winter storm! I need a small winter storm — so I don’t have to go to work. I’m so tired. Need a break. haha. That said, I hope you all don’t lose power and stay safe.

      • I may have been overly harsh. It was entertaining enough, and very much a British space opera-ish novel of the 1970s. I did get unreasonably annoyed at one of the alien races, the phnobes, who seemed little more than perambulatory fart jokes, and came across as far too childish for the rest of the story.

  3. Just be aware that the earlier one goes with Pratchett, the rougher his writing is. I started with his discworld stuff and part way through decided to try Dark Side. I immediately went back to discworld and never looked back…

  4. Presently I’m allowing myself to be distracted by « late » Silverberg, i.e., up to his second and more interesting retirement from SF in the mid-1970s. I find Silverberg’s turn to more experimental, « literary » SF under the impact of the New Wave fascinating. But even more interesting to my thinking is the impasse that he hits in the early 1970s. That he attempted to express this in his fiction is just great! I’ll be ruminating upon this for a while.

    • Of course, I look forward to anything you end up writing on the matter — or, when I finish up reading some of his stories from the period that you’ve recommended, another conversation!

    • antyphayes: ‘even more interesting to my thinking is the impasse that (Silverberg) hits in the early 1970s. That he attempted to express this in his fiction is just great!’

      Nicely put. ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ and ‘Breckenridge and the Continuum’ are two of the best stories Silverberg ever did and the first, particularly, is so weary to the point of loathing towards SF that Terry Carr, the editor who’d commissioned it, came back to Silverberg and told him, “Bob, I can’t publish this. My anthology is supposed to be for people who like science fiction.”

      Silverberg has always gotten a lot of credit for being the consummate pro and erstwhile half-million words annually word factory. But a lot of his stuff even during his high-point in the late 1960s is only professional — extruded verbiage on a far higher level than he was doing before, but often only that. There’s a big difference between the fairly flat Silverberg of, say, THE SECOND TRIP (1972) and that of these two stories we’ve mentioned here, and of DYING INSIDE and THE STOCHASTIC MAN.

      And the difference is, of course, that Silverberg is personally invested in the subject matter to a much greater degree.

      • Yes, Silverberg was never unprolific, and always produced a bunch of extremely competent work that was to some degree yard goods. Mixed in with that would be the stuff he really was invested in.

        His earliest work, more or less the first decade of his career, was kind of like that too except very little was stuff he was really invested in. But you could see signs in some of the Ace novels — maybe MASTER OF LIFE AND DEATH? — of a desire to do something more interested, that would founder on two rocks — partly inexperience, prose that was professional but not that great, and partly not taking enough time to fully think things through.

        The peak of his “farewell to SF” set of stories remains, I think, “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”.

        The earmark of late Silverberg is even more complete control of prose and delivery (and plot) but much rarer examples of passionately conceived stories.

        I’m still half-tempted to write something comprehensive about Silverberg’s early novels. None of them are important, none need to be remembered, but it almost seems that Silverberg is significant enough that the early stuff at least should be discussed.

        • Oh Goodness Rich, kind words about Master of Life and Death? 🙂

          I found it a disconcerting in its implications (albeit more likely a product of haste vs. Silverberg’s views I’d wager). While it has been a decade since I read and reviewed the novel, here’s a bit from my screed against it: “Master of Life and Death (1957) presents dictatorship (well, so-called “benevolent” dictatorship), propaganda, extreme distrust of the common person, fratricide, surveillance, torture, government control of the press, political assassination, euthanasia of children, among other equally dubious activities as occasionally necessary for the good of humanity.”

          I’m a huge fan of his later work and understand that he evolved in quality. But… I’m not sure much incipient quality can be found in that particular tome. Perhaps some of his short fictions from that era like “Godling, Go Home!” (1957) and a few years later with “The Pain Peddlers” (1963).

          • Two things — 1) I did not mean to say that MASTER OF LIFE AND DEATH was successful! I meant to say it showed signs of (failed) ambition. 2) But more to the point, I picked the wrong book anyway! Here’s my review: https://rrhorton.blogspot.com/2018/10/ace-double-reviews-21-master-of-life.html — which concludes: “Not a good book. The action is implausible, the general setup implausible, the science is dodgy, and the ending rushed and unsatisfactory.”

            A book I should have cited was COLLISION COURSE: https://rrhorton.blogspot.com/2018/06/a-forgotten-ace-double-nemesis-from.html

            My conclusion: “This is Silverberg in a very earnest mood, dealing with some fairly serious issues. However, the story doesn’t really live up to its potential. It’s rather slow paced, the characters are not quite believable, the story itself is just not interesting enough. I would characterize it (in retrospect!) as the work of an author who was determined to do more serious work, but who was not yet up to it.”

            • My response to Master of Life and Death is a visceral dislike — so I might have jumped to conclusions a bit! alas.

              I feel like I’ve read your review in the past. I’ll look at it again.

              I don’t remember your review of Collision Course though….

      • @Mark I disagree with the assessment of The Second Trip as flat. I’d argue it is an underrated novel from that period. A bit from my review:

        “Robert Silverberg’s late 60s and early 70s science fiction novels were often well-wrought ruminations on acute social alienation. For example, in Dying Inside (1972) a man slowly loses his telepathic abilities and thus, a core component of his identity. In The Man in the Maze (1969), a man rendered incapable of interacting with other humans, goes into self-imposed exile. In Thorns (1967), two manipulated/modified souls (a man surgically altered by aliens and a young girl who’s the virgin mother of hundreds of children), find strange solace in each other’s company. In The World Inside (1971), our heroes feel disconnected from the unusual world they’ve grown up in — and rebel in their own ways.

        The Second Trip (1971) subverts this theme. Instead, our hero desperately attempts to re-integrate himself into society (as his persona has been designed to do), to come to grips with his laboratory-constructed reality, to sift through his past cobbled from the minds of his creators, to apply “real” meaning to his fragmented (invented) memories. However, he’s thwarted, not by his own mental anguish, but by the malevolent force of his body’s previous occupant…

        I found that The Second Trip is not only Silverberg’s most disturbing work of the period but contains his most experimental prose. ”

        Book Review: The Second Trip, Robert Silverberg (serialized: 1971)

      • I’ve been finding Silverberg’s comments on his various short stories in “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg” often more interesting than the stories themselves. Particularly volume 4, “Trips”, that covers the period 1972-73. Having said that, two stories in that volume, ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ and ‘Schwartz Between the Galaxies’, are wonderfully cynical take downs of the pretensions of much of what passes for mainstream SF.

        Among his comments on that time, I find fascinating the way he reflects upon the tension between, on the one hand, his desire to experiment, fueled by the New Wave and the times, and on the other hand, the pull of writing as a commercial activity. It seems clear that this heady brew, and its ambiguous results, led him out of SF and even writing for a few years. That he returned, to my thinking, says more about the failures of the 1960s and 70s, than it does about any purported victory over the “excesses” of the New Wave.

        Thanks for the heads up on ‘Breckenridge and the Continuum’. It’s jumped to the top of my to read pile.

        • @ antyphayes —
          ‘Breckenridge and the Continuum’ is probably as clever a thing as Silverberg ever did, at least in terms of being meta. And I’ve got most of the volumes of his Collected Stories, like you, on kindle.

          @ JB —
          I re-read THE SECOND TRIP a couple of years. Personally, I found it not as good as I remembered it from reading it as a serial in whatever mag it was — AMAZING or FANTASTIC — when I was a kid. Just on a sentence by sentence level, it wasn’t very elegant, as if Silverberg had pounded it out in a few weeks. Characterization and interiority struck me as a little rough and unconvincing. Nor was plot development particularly interesting; sure, intricate plotting was never a Silverberg thing, but this novel really ran along obvious lines, as far as I was concerned.

          @ Rich & JB —

          However, from Silverberg’s 1960s-early 1970s era, one novel that doesn’t get much notice these days but I recall — having read it twice, though decades ago — as rather better is TO LIVE AGAIN (1969). It does some of the same thing as THE SECOND TRIP: various characters struggling with two personas (personae?) within their heads, one threatening to become dominant. But it does it within a larger social panorama, a future Bay Area society, with a more interesting plot going on and more character POVs than SECOND TRIP.

          Basically, much as Silverberg is swiping/riffing somewhat on Bellow’s HERZOG in DYING INSIDE, and on Bester’s story ‘The Pi Man’ in ‘Now+1, Now-1’, and on Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ in DOWNWARD TO THE EARTH, in TO LIVE AGAIN he’s going off of Jack Vance’s TO LIVE FOREVER/CLARGES. And it works well, as I recall.

          As far as the 1950s ‘Ace-era Silverberg’ novels, he’s too much the sausage factory — as Budrys described that era of his production — for me to take. Of the ones I’ve looked at, STEPSONS OF TERRA is the only one interesting enough — with a somewhat interesting take on time travel (a favorite Silverberg trope) — that I made it to the end.

          • I haven’t read either THE SECOND TRIP or TO LIVE AGAIN — maybe some day.

            Another early Silverberg novel of some ambition is RECALLED TO LIFE (not to be confused with TO LIVE AGAIN!) First published in INFINITY in 1958 (2 part serial) then in book form by Lancer in 1962. (As the editor of INFINITY was Larry Shaw, who later worked for Lancer, there might be a connection there.) My review is here: https://rrhorton.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-little-known-early-robert-silverberg.html

            The interesting thing is that Silveberg revised it for a 1972 Doubleday hardcover. I’ve read both versions, and the revisions are disappointing in that he did not address what I felt were the most disappointing aspects of the original.

            Just to make clear — I’m not really suggesting that one ought to spend too much, if any, time reading earlier Silverberg. (Though I also like his Nidorian books, collaborations with Randall Garrett as by “Robert Randall”, originally stories in Astounding — THE SHROUDED PLANET and THE DAWNING LIGHT. Amusing stuff, nothing special, but kind of fun.

            • I’m familiar with the ‘Robert Randall ‘Nidorian material. It’s the kind of stuff Campbell filled late ’50s ASTOUNDING with and — much like, say, Christopher Anvil — it leaves me cold.

              However, a lot of Silverberg’s early success seems to have been due the fact that he lived in New York in the 1950s, and was willing to play the part of Randall Garrett’s junior wingman and workhorse. Before the American News Company was liquidated in ’57 and the big SF magazine crash hit, there were as many as 36-38 magazines, weren’t there? Anyway, if you were an SF writer, it seems to have been almost essential to be in Manhattan and troop around visiting the editors there so you could write stories on commission for cover art that those editors had already bought (also, to get in on H. L. Gold’s poker games). Garrett introduced Silverberg to all that.

              Really, a whole vanished scene that’s kind of like the weirdo-subterranean side of late-1950s ‘Mad Men’ Manhattan. As someone wrote: “It was Carthage, it is gone, the law of Rome runs now without hindrance, but still the ruins poke up through the salt-sown earth.” It’s that kind of vibe.

    • Yeah, me neither. I haven’t really spent any time tracking down Discworld novels — definitely check out the online vendors if you haven’t already (I end up buying a lot from abebooks). Where have you looked?

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