The Draco Tavern

By Larry Niven

Rating: 3 stars

I love a good sci-fi pub, whether that’s Callahan’s place, the White Hart, or the Ur bar. So I was glad to add another one to the list (thanks to the good people at File 770 for the recommendation). The Draco Tavern is run by Rick Schumann, and caters to the aliens who visit Earth after first contact and the humans who want to talk to them. While it’s perhaps not as cosy as Callahan’s, or the White Hart, it’s certainly an interesting place, where many tall tales are told. Whether that’s the the one where an alien gives Rick the secret to building an artificial intelligence; or the one where a priest engages two of them in a discussion about god; or the one where a human makes a wish off an alien bioscientist.

The stories are very short, more vignettes than anything else, but Niven is great at the form, and he’s able to sketch a great little idea in that short space and he’s great at spinning stories out of the cultural conflict that inevitably arises when two (or more) very different cultures collide.

It might not have the heart of Callahan’s, or the shaggy dog stories of the White Hart, but it’s still a great collection for dipping in and out of. I wouldn’t mind popping in to Draco’s for a drink and to eavesdrop in on some conversations.

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All the Names They Used for God: Stories

By Anjali Sachdeva

Rating: 3 stars

I honestly can’t remember where I heard about this collection of short stories, but I’d heard good things and decided to give it a go. There was certainly a lot of quotes at the front of the book praising it – eleven pages worth, in fact, which made me raise an eyebrow and wonder if the lady doth protest too much.

Of the nine stories, over half have some tinge of SFF to them, whether it’s an alien invasion, a mermaid, or mind control. But the genre element is rarely to the fore. It’s usually something to force the characters to think or act in some way. Like the mermaid in Robert Greenman and the Mermaid, where it acts as the (somewhat traditional) siren that lures the sailor from his wife and his happiness, as he becomes obsessed with her. Or the alien overlords in Manus with their ridiculous accents and their insistence of the taking of human hands and replacing them with artificial ones, and what resistance looks like in such a society.

I suspect you might get on with Killer of Kings much better if you know who the “John” who’s the protagonist is. I had to wade about half way through before I had enough clues to be able to google it and come up with John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame.

Mostly, I felt that this collection was worthy. I could see the author trying very hard to Make A Point and I’m sure that a lot of people react well to that. I like plots and light, fluffy stories. These were generally quite melancholy, open-ended and more interested in characters than plots. And generally characters that I didn’t necessarily feel much engagement with, at that.

So, worthy, character-driven fiction. I was hoping for fiction that made my mind explode (really, I was hoping for another Ted Chiang, but that sort of lightning doesn’t strike more than once), but I don’t begrudge the time I spent with the collection.

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ISBN: 9780525508687

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This volume collects eight of Le Guin’s longer short stories, most of them set in the Ekuman shared universe. Most of the stories share an anthropological theme, with an outsider’s eye on the societies we encounter.

Coming of Age in Karhide explores adolescence in Gethen, the world of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness and ins and outs of sexuality in a world where gender-fluidity is part of their biology. There’s not much of a plot, but Le Guin is just having fun exploring the world through the eyes of its natives, rather than a rather biased Terran.

The Matter of Seggri has a number of Ekumen mobiles across time visiting the world of Seggri, where there is a very unbalanced ratio of male to female births, and the males are sequestered away in their own “castles” and brought out by the dominant female population to provide sex and stud services, and it follows how the society changes after first contact. It’s a fascinating study into the ethics of first contact (different Ekumen visitors make different decisions on whether or not to reveal their origins) and into such an unbalanced society and one way that it could possibly develop.

Unchosen Love and Mountain Ways are both set of the world of O, where the population have (by our standards) very complicated four-way marriages. The former involves a man of the country who falls in love with a man from a craggy oceanside fastness but who struggles to make his way in the village, questioning if love is enough to survive. While the latter involves a remote, mountain village and bending the customs to breaking point for the sake of love.

The world of Solitude is a difficult one. It’s another society where men and women are split along gender lines, with women forming communities, and when boys reach adolescence they’re expelled and have to live off the land, fighting rather than working communally. An Ekumen observer comes to this world to try and understand it, bringing her children with her. Unfortunately for her, her daughter fits in rather too well.

Old Music and the Slave Women is one that I skipped here, because I’ve read it before and found it hard going. I’m not really interested in exploring the horrors of slave-driven societies. If memory serves, it’s a good and powerful story, but not one that I want to re-read.

The title story, The Birthday of the World is one that Le Guin says she doesn’t know if it’s in the Ekumen or not. I could go either way on it. It’s an interesting society where the rulers are literally regarded as gods, with an added dose of incest. There’s prophecy and a military coup and a lot of interest.

The final story, Paradises Lost, is definitely not Ekumen. It’s a generation ship story of the middle generations who are destined to live and die on the ship having never seen Earth and who will be old when the ship reaches its destination. It shows us how the society is constructed and designed to be entirely stable, and how religious influence was controlled, but how a new religion eventually subverts this.

Le Guin is a master at constructing interesting and quirky societies, and she never forgets the place minorities within them, whether those are ethnic, religious or sexual in nature. This is a great collection from a master of the form, with a keen eye for anthropology.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575074798
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2003

The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Ghost Stories

By Rudyard Kipling

Rating: 3 stars

I was listening to the rather good Empire podcast when one of the hosts, the historian William Dalrymple, mentioned in passing the short ghost story The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes as one of the best short stories he’d ever read. This piqued my interest and I googled it, to find it in this collection, which was also available for free on Gutenberg. Now, ghost stories aren’t my favourite genre by a long way, and that, combined with Kipling’s attitude towards India and the Indians, meant that this book received a lukewarm reception at best.

There’s only five stories in the collection, of which, four are set in India, with the last being set in London, which an Indian connection. The first two stories didn’t do an awful lot for me at all. The title story has an unpleasant man who has an affair with a married woman and when he breaks it off, she dies of a broken heart, but comes back to haunt him. The second, My Own True Ghost Story sees the narrator starting off by complaining that he’s never had a ghostly experience of his own, before promptly having one.

The third story is the one that brought the book to my attention – The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes. I found this one pretty unengaging to be honest. The Indians are carictures and the narrator is unsympathetic. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind when I read it, but I’m amazed by Dalrymple’s praise.

It’s the last two stories that redeemed this collection for me. I’m not sure what The Man Who Would be King is doing in a collection of ghost stories, but it’s a great story of hubris and downfall, while “The Finest Story in the World” has a writer being given a glimpse of history, which he has to try to cultivate to let him write the eponymous story. This one, I enjoyed quite a lot, as the narrator’s young friend is revealed to be unconsciously in touch with his previous lives, which the narrator tries to use to write his story, all without letting him know what’s going on, and being subjected to his bad poetry. It’s tongue in cheek and shows some levity that is otherwise absent from this collection.

I’ve read some Kipling that I’ve enjoyed, but my agnosticism towards ghost stories in general, and Kipling’s attitude towards Indians means that the stories here mostly didn’t work for me. The last two really helped pull up the average though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781406923988
Publisher: Hard Press
Year of publication: 2006

Hexarchate Stories

By Yoon Ha Lee

Rating: 4 stars

Upon opening this collection, I was surprised by how long the table of contents was, for such a slim volume. The was explained once I got into it by the number of short and flash pieces that there are. Starting the volume, a few years since I last read the Machineries of Empire trilogy, I did have to do some googling to remind myself of the big outline of the story and of the threads that stories here touch on.

There’s a handful of stories here not related to the cast of Machineries of Empire, including one set before the formation of the Heptarchate, but mostly this is the Shuos Jedao show, with special guest star Kel Cheris. The big draw here, is Glass Cannon, which is, by the far, the longest piece in the book, taking up nearly a third of the page count. This is set a couple of years after Revenant Gun and features the second Jedao coming in search of Cheris, in the hope that he can get his (or rather, his original’s) memories back. It’s a great story and disrupts the fragile equilibrium that has settled over the Hexarchate in interesting (and spoilerific) ways.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The shorter pieces are character studies, or historical fragments, or fluff, but they still fill in the world of the H*archate, and the author’s notes that follow each story provide more context. To be honest, the collection is worth it for Glass Cannon alone, but the others definitely complement it. Recommended for fans of the series (definitely not one to read before Machineries of Empire, as there are many spoilers for the series).

Book details

ISBN: 9781781085646
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2019

Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940

By Melissa Edmundson

Rating: 3 stars

I picked this anthology up mostly off the back of the idea of stories from unappreciated women. I didn’t think too hard on the kind of stories, or really what “weird” fiction is. And what it is is darker and more horror-tinged than I usually like. Many of the stories definitely descend into the sort of creepy, psychological horror that I really feel uncomfortable with. These include Let Loose by Mary Cholmondeley, about an architect who delves into a country church crypt and lets something out; Kerfol by Edith Wharton, about a young woman and the lengths to which her husband went to keep her isolated; and particularly Where Their Fire is not Quenched about a woman who has an affair and is doomed to spend eternity repeating it.

These are all great examples of the genre, and I tip my hat to the editor for finding all these stories and airing these examples of women writing in what could often be considered purely a man’s world, but the genre isn’t one that I particularly enjoy, even if I appreciated the form of the the stories. Of all the collection, I think The Haunted Saucepan by Margery Lawrence is probably the one I enjoyed the most. I liked the way it took an everyday object and made it scary, but also the scientific way that the protagonist and his friend went about deducing the cause of the mischief.

So an interesting collection, and certainly of note, but not one for me, personally.

Book details

ISBN: 9781912766246
Publisher: Handheld Press
Year of publication: 2019

Driving Blind

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 2 stars

I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve read by Bradbury over the years, but this collection left me a little cold. It’s from the tail end of his career and, unfortunately, most of the stories just didn’t really click for me. Most of them were non-genre and a lot of them I just didn’t get. There was an uncomfortable degree of sexism in some of the stories (I don’t know how to read The Bird That Comes Out of the Clock in a non-misogynist manner) and more “kissing-cousins” than is strictly necessary (ie greater than zero). Bradbury’s writing always had a strong streak of nostalgia running through it, but it felt very strong in this one, to the point that I was rolling my eyes at times.

Not a great collection, to be honest. This may well not be a keeper.

Book details

ISBN: 9780671022075
Publisher: Earthlight
Year of publication: 1998

Nothing Serious

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

I generally feel confident when picking up a PG Wodehouse book that I’m going to enjoy it, and this was no exception. This collection was from after the War and most of the stories are set in the US (although a US full of the sorts of rich, independently wealthy sorts that populate the rest of Wodehouse’s output). There’s an awful lot of golf-related stories in the book, and while I’m not a great fan of the sport, it is a great setting to take the mickey out of the sorts of people who do enjoy it. There’s a handful of favourites here, with Bingo Little having to deal with a heavy-handed nanny; Lord Emsworth turning his hand to door-to-door salesmanship; and Ukridge trying to get his hands on enough money to buy a second hand suit.

The book is full of people getting engaged and disengaged at the drop of a hat, formidable aunts and stuffy uncles and plenty of happy endings. Exactly what I want from a Wodehouse story. Maybe not classic (and a bit to sporty for my tastes) but still a warm cup of tea on a cold day.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841591575
Publisher: Everyman
Year of publication: 2008

The Wind from the Sun

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Clarke and I’d forgotten just how good a writer he is. This collection of eighteen stories contains all his short fiction output of the 1960s, stretching both sides of Apollo, and, apart from a couple of things, could almost feel modern. The two things I mention are firstly, of lesser importance, that all the (scientific) measurements are in imperial units. As a child of the late 20th century, I might still think in miles for travel distance and pints for milk, but scientific measurement will always be metric. Reading distances in inches, or weights in pounds just feels weird, when coming from the mouth of a scientist (and so many of Clarke’s protagonists are, or are closely associated with, scientists).

The second problem is a bigger deal: there is a complete absence of women in Clarke’s fiction, and that sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s a wife mentioned in Maelstrom II, and a “woman operator” who gets a couple of lines in A Meeting with Medusa, but that’s about it. Clarke was never very good with writing women but while I might not have noticed when I was first reading Clarke, back in the days of my youth, it’s really obvious.

But having herded the elephant in the room back out on to the savannah where it’s happiest, what about the stories? As I said, Clarke is a stonkingly good writer. And he’s got a decent range too. This collection includes the longest SF story ever written (one page), a very short shaggy dog tale, that is the setup for a pun that had me laughing out loud; but also poignant stories about men trapped in the vastness of space, without any hope of rescue; an adventure on Mount Everest; a consciousness recorded by aliens after a freak accident; and other great ideas. While I might like some stories here better than others, there were none that I actively disliked or thought just didn’t work. The man knew his craft.

I enjoyed this collection, although I do have a bit of a bias towards Clarke, having grown up reading him when my tastes as a reader were being formed. If you can put aside the lack of women then there’s a lot to enjoy here.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552096546
Year of publication: 1974

Quest of the Three Worlds

By Cordwainer Smith

Rating: 4 stars

I found this in a trawl of second hand bookshops in Wigtown and mostly picked it up because I’m a big fan of Cordwainer Smith and a quick perusal of the back cover suggested that it wasn’t actually set in his Instrumentality of Man future history, since I think I’ve read everything he ever wrote in that. As it turns out, it actually does collect three linked stories set in the Instrumentality, but since I had no memory of any of them, I read the whole thing anyway.

I’m very fond of Smith’s prose style. It’s maybe a bit purple, but it’s poetic and soaring and I love that. The rough plot involves Casher O’Neill’s travels through the stars, searching for weapons to help him retake his home planet after a coup. The first story has him travelling to a planet where gems are common and soil is rare, and helping to deal with an immortal horse that an eccentric brought to the world. There’s some glorious description and the feeling of a deep history – that this history exists somewhere in space and time. But it’s also distinctly tongue in cheek, Smith pointing out the absurdities of life, using a planet where a bucket of soil is worth more than a gemstone the size of your head.

The second sees Casher travel to a world where he’s asked to kill a girl, in exchange for a busted space cruiser. It’s no spoiler to say that he can’t kill her and ends up becoming a sort of disciple. This one was a bit creepy in places, as O’Neill sexualises this person, named T’ruth, who looks like a prepubescent child. There’s also a bunch of Christian symbolism that I don’t remember in Smith’s writing before and didn’t really know what to do with.

The final story in the main arc sees Casher, now armed with huge psychic powers, finally return to his homeworld and, after he completes his lifelong mission, goes off on a journey. This was the strangest of all the stories here, and I had little clue of what was going on and what Casher was looking for at the source of the “Thirteenth Nile”. This really felt like the weakest of the stories in the collection. I can see that Smith didn’t necessarily want to do the straight big fight/end of the hero’s journey thing that’s so common, but his replacement felt a bit incoherent to me.

There’s a fourth story in the book, which is only tangentially related, in that the plot is kicked off by Casher, but we follow three living weapons sent by the Instrumentality to deal with a very distant planet from where a psychic hatred of humanity was detected. I enjoyed this a lot, but Casher was only in it as a distant observer, providing some exposition when needed. It helps to expand the universe of the Instrumentality, rather than Casher’s story.

If I’d realised that I already owned the stories in the book I wouldn’t have bought it, but it was fun returning to Smith’s vast future history, and since I didn’t remember any of them, I can’t say it wasn’t worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345329318
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 1978

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