Tuesday, March 04, 2014

from SFRA Review #251 March/April 2001


review by Phillip Snyder

Readers of Gene Wolfe may find much to admire in Ceres Storm, a first novel by Clarion West graduate David Herter. So might fans of Samuel R. Delany’s Nova-era space operas and John Varley’s early clones-across-the-solar-system extravaganzas. But it is chiefly with the far-future sagas of Wolfe that readers of Herter’s debut will feel an unmistakable resonance. The armature for the novel is a hero’s quest across a colorful and mysterious solar system. Young Daric, along with fellow clones Yellow and Black Daric, Jason, and the golden Grandpapa, sweeps across the starlines in quest of the lost technologies of their ancestor Darius the Leader, legendary ruler of planets and creator of the nanotech storm of the title. In the course of Daric’s journeyings, he is kidnapped by agents of a powerful cartel headed by the Krater-Tromon Clan, escapes on the haunted Starswarm Pyre, and gradually begins to piece together both his heritage and his destiny.

Fairly pulpish, this. But ultimately, Ceres Storm is more redolent of Iain M. Banks than of Doc Smith, and more reminiscent of Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerebus than either. Set in a future so distant that its science and technology seem like magic, the novel is a rich blend of myth and machine, of ancient wonder and modern marvel. The timescale alone is gratifyingly vast: it is 8,000 years in the story’s past that Darius the Leader’s thousand-year reign carried humanity to the edge of the solar system and beyond. It is a time of interplanetary telepresence ("doppeling"), of insectile surveillance devices called "weeforms," of "information drinks" permitting the liquid infusion of nanotech databases, and the fabled "Machineries," unimaginably powerful technologies capable of transforming entire planets. It is also, however, a time where far future meets distant past in the Moebius strip of science fantasy. Ceres Storm is a world where characters bear names like Quintillux and Penthesilia, where judgments are rendered by the Scales and enforced by the Pain Dragon, where castles are buried within planets, and a hero may (or may not) be transmogrified to an oak. Most of the time, the result is magical indeed, albeit a bit chilly.

Herter presents the reader with an array of narrative artifacts, their meanings layered like sediments through multiple levels of understanding, and the reader may (or may not) make sense of the pattern. Occasionally, like young Daric himself, the reader is overwhelmed by surfaces and blind to patterns. Amid the novel’s shimmering bits of crystal, of Tyrian purpose, of century roses and eidolons and avatars, it’s not always easy to keep one’s bearings, partly because Herter has yet to learn the trick of deeper, warmer characters to stand out against his exotic backdrop. And for all the similarities otherwise, Herter’s fantasy lacks the passion of Delany’s space operas, the engaging wit of Zelazny’s, the brashness of Varley’s. Minor cavils, perhaps. Ceres Storm is not only a first novel, after all, but also merely the first installment of a series, and its sequels may begin to emulate Herter’s models not only in their density, but in their richness of character, as well

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Solar Alchemist Quartet

Cold Heavens, the first of a series I’m calling The Solar Alchemist Quartet, is currently making the rounds of publishers.

The Quartet might be described as epic space opera or planetary romance  set in 1916, in a solar system which is also, somehow, a magic-lantern projection of Mitteleurope before the first World War. The Austro-Hungarians inhabit lush Venus, while the Russians have the Earth, and the Prussians occupy Mars with its autochthonous canals and palm trees.  The main character is Mila z Strenhova, a member of the Czech minority who undertakes a quest of revenge that becomes a quest of gnosis.

My agent, the excellent Matthew Bialer, describes it as follows, "Think of it as STAR WARS for people who like the films of Fritz Lang or the lieder of Richard Strauss. It has a big bold vision like DUNE. It is set in 1920s alternate history Europe where there are robots and the moons and planets have been colonized."

I'm deep into the second, Fiery Angels, and I'm busy writing notes on books three and four, Singing Flames and The Illuminations.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Moore Inheritance: Part One

At the time of his death in 1999 at age 77, the novelist Brian Moore seemed assured of a lasting place in literary history. From his debut Judith Hearne in 1955 to final novel The Magician's Wife, his work included memorable character studies (Hearne, as well as I Am Mary Dunne, The Luck of Ginger Coffey), rich forays into fantasy (The Great Victorian Collection, Cold Heaven), science fiction (Catholics, surprisingly), Gothic horror (The Mangan Inheritance), and political suspense (Lies of Silence, The Statement, The Colour of Blood, No Other Life). In book after book Moore proved himself deft at plumbing the inner souls of his characters, men and women alike;  a craftsman capable of memorable mise-en-scene, stunning set pieces, nail-biting suspense, and all without an ounce of bloat. He was three times short-listed for the Booker Prize, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize along with a handful of other awards, and six of his books were adapted as movies, several of them memorably (in particular Bruce Beresford's Black Robe and Irvin Kershner's The Luck of Ginger Coffy). His literary light would not soon fade.

Yet now, fourteen years later, fade it has.

Perhaps it was his chameleon nature––he rarely repeated himself––that proves the key to his seeming obscurity.

So I’m here to set a few of his books into the spotlight, starting with his 1977 Contemporary Gothic, The Mangan Inheritance.

At the heart of the book lurks the real-world’s John Clarence Mangan, a dissolute and beloved Irish poet whose sad, sordid life produced poetry that would inspire (to name but two) James Joyce and Shane MacGowen. This portrait of the artist as a wild man, doomed to drink and violence, enters into the modern-day life of our protagonist Jamie Mangan in the form of a daguerreotype; one which bears the likeness of his own face.

Mangan, something of a zero-sum man––failed poet and husband of a famous actress, known to the doorman under her surname, not his own––has just been divorced. Freed from an old life that never added up to much, fueled by lost dreams of becoming a poet, and haunted now by that daguerreotype he found at his father's house in Montreal––the image, he's certain, of John Clarence Mangan––he decides to fly to Ireland and seek out his inheritance in a small, brutal fishing village.

What he finds is the opposite of daguerreotype dreams; a vivid yet dreary group of lowlifes who, in a sort of Lynchian variation on Bill Forsyth 's Local Hero, are repelled and attracted to Mangan for reasons best not looked into.

Moore, of course, does. And this being a Gothic, and a Gothic worthy of Joyce Carol Oates at her most grotesque, the revelations are satisfyingly Grand Guignol. Doppelgangers of doppelgangers, illicit love, incest, brutal violence––it's rather a tour de force if also a bit silly, but there's a genuine darkness under it all, and in the final pages Moore, in one of those small and unadorned scenes he wrote so well, grazes close to the heart.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Locus reviews the First Republic Trilogy

In the new Locus, Paul Witcover devotes his column to my First Republic trilogy (On the Overgrown Path, The Luminous Depths and One Who Disappeared).  He calls the trilogy "deeply affecting," and sums up in part, "Herter. . . poses profound questions about the morality and responsibility of survival, the origins of evil and of art, and the mysteries of science and religion.  It's a dazzling display both of historical verisimilitude and the spec-fictional retconning of history."  But it's also a review that doesn't condense easily into bites, so I recommend you pick up a copy of Locus, on newsstands this week.

Mr. Witcover is allowing me to quote from an email I received from him today, in response to my thanking him, which condenses quite easily into a bite or two: "Thank you for one of the most engrossing and stimulating artworks I've encountered recently.  Truthfully, I'm still unpacking it, still thinking about all the ramifications and implications."

Books One and Two, On the Overgrown Path and The Luminous Depths, are available in revised and expanded editions for Kindle and Nook, and in lovely domestic physical editions at Third Place Press, and on the Espresso Book network nationwide.  One Who Disappeared is available at PS Publishing UK.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The brilliance of Judgment Night

One of my newer though most cherished booksan inspiration for my novel-in-progress The Cold Heavensis a battered Dell paperback from 1979.  I found it a few years back in a used-book store that no longer exists.

I'd always presumed Judgment Night by C.L. Moore to be a sequel to Doomsday Morning: another near-future SF thriller.  My pursuit was therefore low-key.  But it turns out that Judgment Night is in fact Moore's ultimate space opera, a work that towers above Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry (as unlikely as that sounds) and remains one of the most entertaining and apocalpytic works of SF in the entire genre. 

John Clute knew. 

In an email discussion of all things Meyrink, the subject of Judgment Night snuck in.  "Just finished reading Judgment Night," he wrote.  "Quite an astonishing indictment of Western Civilization Corp for John W Campbell to have swallowed neat."

("Quite a coincidence," I replied.  "I recently stumbled on Judgment Night in the used bookstore. These last two nights I've been feasting on it. It is shaping up as perhaps my favorite Moore." And later, "I can only imagine John Campbell was otherwise distracted when he published it."

("Yeah," said John, "in every possible way JN contradicts the received wisdom about Campbell's career-long insistence that homo sapiens prevail. I figure maybe the RW on JWC may be more valid after WW2 when his attitudes began not only to harden but to prevail (see correspondence with Heinlein for early examples of when they precisely did not prevail)")

I had long been drawn to Moore's work, along with that of Kuttner and Brackett and Harness.  They've each inspired TCH, but none of the other novels is so memorable and yet so unknown. 
It begins:

The hundred emperors of Ericon looked down gravely out of their hundred pasts upon Juille, striding with a ring of spurs through the colored twilight of their sanctum.

Juille is cousin to Jirel of Joiry, Moore's far-better-known heroine, who also wore spurs.  And Juille's apocalyptic bent is perfectly suited for an empire at the end of its days; at the cusp of fire.

"It was a fool's work to let [the H'vani]  live." Juille gave [her father] a bright, violet glare.  "I'd have wiped them out [...] if it meant the end of the empire.  I'd have killed every creature wth a drop of H'vani blood.  I'd have razed every building on every world they had, and sown the rocks with radium!  I'd have left their whole dead system hanging in the sky as a warning for all time to come.  I'll do it yet -- by the Hundred Emperors, I will!" 

And Juille tries her best.

"We've got to fight, father.  Everyone says so but you.  Nothing anyone can do will prevent it now." 

Looking down, her father saw on the girl's face a look he knew very well -- the terrible pride of a human who has tasted the attributes of divinity, who rules the turning worlds and the very stages in their courses.  He knew she would not relent.  He knew she could not. There were dark days ahead that he could not alter.

Juille's tale refuses to move in the direction she wishes, of course, though she is an arrow shot from Moore's bow.  There's little dithering, little talk.  The pace is quick, the page-count low.  Through a series of memorable set pieces, including a a tour-de-force pre-vision of Michael Bay widescreen destruction, Juille single-handedly demolishes (or so very nearly) the artificial world on which she's trapped.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Tsar of the Forests

The second half of John Tyrrell’s eagerly awaited Janáček biography -- Years of a Life Volume II 1914-1928: Tsar of the Forests -- arrived last week from London. A highlight: Tyrrell’s focus on The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Janáček’s longest and most troublesome project. Here, the tussles with librettists, publishers and opera houses, the stops and starts, the loss of momentum followed by years of inactivity and the fierce, patriotic inspiration brought about by the end of the Great War are all brilliantly sketched by Mr. Tyrrell.

As a fan of science fiction, I’m especially fond of Broucek -- in particular the first half, Mr. Broucek's Excursion to the Moon. As proto-SF, it’s a charming artifact of the genre’s earliest days, all but unknown to SF fans. As opera, it’s full of lovely, beguiling, often startling music, and beery humor, with a touchingly beautiful ending. Here, it’s enthralling to see its creation and eventual failure on the Prague stage unfold as though for the first time.

In the months before the 1920 premiere of his opera, The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Leoš Janácek was battling a lingering flu.

The malaise developed during what the composer called those "damp days in Prague." He was never very happy in the Republic’s capital — the setting of his latest opera — and he would find much woe there in the months to come. Back home in the Moravian capital of Brno, the composer treated himself with slivovice, a heady mixture of horseradish, honey and camphor. Later, when the brew hadn’t cured him, he turned, ominously, to "electricity."

Professor Tyrrell doesn’t elaborate, leaving us to picture Tesla coils and mysterious midnight lightning in the Maestro’s garden house.

Eventually, Janácek overcame the flu, but another kind of malaise would forever linger over The Excursions of Mr. Broucek (full title: The Excursions of Mr. Broucek to the Moon and into the Fifteenth Century). On 23 April 1920, it premiered at the National Theater in Prague to a deafening indifference, and soon retired from sight. Audiences then and now — even ardent Janácekians — have never quite known what to make of The Excursions, with its diptych of improbable stories featuring the bourgeois, beer-swilling Mr. Broucek and his drunken encounters with ardent Moon beings and stout Medieval-types. Janácek’s inspiration had been cautionary — a warning to his countrymen on the eve of World War I against becoming lazy Oblomovs like Mr. Broucek. Any timeliness departed long before the opera’s premiere.

Since 1920, in spite of sporadic productions (its American premiere came in 1981) and a marvelous Supraphon recording in 1980, poor Mr. Broucek was shunted off to the margins of Janácek’s works. Consensus told that the first excursion (to the Moon, written over a tortuous period of nine years with as many librettists), was packed with charming music and uncharacteristically fanciful moments, while the second excursion (to 15th Century Prague) contained thrilling pageantry soured in a heap of knotty historical longueurs that only a native-born Czech would care to puzzle out.

Yet, to this listener, at least, the Supraphon recording (and a subsequent performance in Brno) revealed it as one of Janácek’s most lovable operas, brisk and beautiful, full of beery humor, wistful and farcical by turns; a proto science-fictional artifact whose first half (written from 1908 to 1917, roughly contemporary with Georges Méliès Le voyage dans la Lune, 1902) brims with the pleasures of Janácek’s mature style -- that "driven patchwork onomatopoeia," as John Clute calls it, coming of age in the composer’s fiftieth year.

"So my dear Broucek gets drunk again," writes Janacek, to his beloved (and indifferent) muse, Kamila Stosslova. "Somewhere on Hradcany he falls asleep and has a dream — he is flying to the moon! There he lands. Horrors! People there feed only on the scent of flowers! They give him only flowers to smell! And now a female Moon-Being falls in love with him! She’s bloodless, and a body like lint."

Note the exclamation points — ever plentiful in his correspondence. They’re analogous to the brusque, hectoring gestures in Janacek’s music, shaking up the stately paragraphs of 19th century music.

Think: Electricity. Rather than the cure-all for the Maestro’s flu, think: the galvanizing impulse. Disembodied frog legs hammering at the air.

As for the "female Moon-Being", Etherea; in Janácek’s music she’s anything but "bloodless" (bloodful and crazed come to mind). Along with her mad lover and Lunar Prince Azurian, she’s given rapturous moments underpinned by the waltz and the polka, which underlie and drive that patchwork onomatopoeia, however subtly. Here, in his mature style, Janacek has his characters talk and interrupt one another, as in real conversation, an impulse carried into the orchestral accompaniment, which can just as easily portray gossamer moonlight on Prague, or the mighty wing-beat thrashings of Pegasus, or the Moon’s serene smile.

In Prague and Vienna, conductors were always meddling with Janácek's scores, plumping up and sanding down the strangenesses or inadequacies of Janácek’s orchestrations. Over the last twenty years, a Critical Edition has restored the original scores. Now the Edition has caught up with The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, and the results, captured in a new recording — with Czech singers and the BBC Orchestra under one of the foremost Czech conductors — is a happy affair. Though not revelatory, the new edition somehow sounds more rustic; more of Brno and less of Prague, and full of slivovice and Tesla coils.

It can’t quite erase the fondness I have for the older, plumper Supraphon, where the tenor Vilem Prybil immortalized Mr. Broucek’s brusque befuddlement, his drunken ardor, and his hyper-aversion to vegetarianism. Yet the new CD has much to recommend it, including the simple fact of being obtainable, in a striking package. And both versions capture the Moon Excursion’s memorable finale, the rapturous hush of its last moments, a lullaby in moonlight, breathing out its farewell.