Mike’s Prattle

Miscellaneous

Joe R. Lansdale – Cold in July; Jack Vance – Gadget Stories (Magnus Ridolph stories); John Varley – “Picnic on Nearside,” “Retrograde Summer,” “The Black Hole Passes,” “In the Bowl”

Posted by Mike on December 28, 2007

I find just about all of Lansdale’s work, whether major or minor, about as compellingly readable as anything out there, it usually only takes me a fraction as long as any other book of similar page count to read one. Cold in July is one of his earlier books and I read it recently after I realized that a character from this book (the PI) was destined to show up in the next Hap and Leonard novel I’d not yet read, Bad Chili. “Cold in July,” in some ways, reminds me of Lansdale’s short “The Night they Missed the Horror Show,” particulary in terms of the antagonist’s criminal interests. However “Cold in July” starts out in a totally different millieu, as our protagonist wakes up to find a burglar in the house and beats him to a draw. This death initiates a chain of events that leads the protag to believe that the person he killed was not actually the person the cops are saying it is, after the father of the man believed dead vows revenge. There are some interesting twists and turns that keep this away from a cliché situation and the alleged victim’s father leads the protag to the aformentioned PI in order to find out exactly what’s going on. Like many of Lansdale’s books, the protagonists are often forced to do what they feel is right in contradiction to the law and the arc leads to dark findings. And in many ways this is very much a precursor to the Hap & Leonard books this one joins universes with in Bad Chili.

I finished all of the Magnus Ridolph stories in the third volume of the Jack Vance integral edition and learned that the latest two in that universe are actually in the seventeenth volume. Everything else I’d read in other books, so it was quick to wrap this volume up. Of Vance’s early stories, the earliest MR stories are probably the weakest, but the character himself really does point at a lot of future Vance protagonists, gifted, wry and something of a loner. And like most early Vance, whether it’s science fiction or otherwise, most of these stories are set up as mysteries for Ridolph to solve, usually on some of the most imaginative planetary societies imaginable. Later Vance veers far away from having obvious aliens involved in his universe, but they are here and even this early, Vance’s imagination is impressive. And like you’d expect the Ridolph stories gradually improve with each one, to where I’m looking forward to “The Kokod Warriors” and “Coup de Grace.”

The John Varley stories are the first four Eight Worlds stories as they were chronologically written (almost always my preferred way to read anything, particularly series). The general idea behind the milieu is that technologically advanced aliens have forced the human race to be exiled from Earth and the remnants now live all over the solar system. Future humanity now has the ability to switch sexes at will and many of these stories explore gender roles. Varley casts his early stories all over the solar system, “Picnic on Nearside” on the Moon, “Retrograde Summer” on Mercury, “The Black Hole Passes” in the asteroids, “In the Bowl” on Venus. Each one improves in every way on the last, but all have unique stories to tell, often based around a connection between two people. In “The Black Hole Passes” this is two different researchers who are monitoring the Ophiuchi Hotline from different asteroids. In “In the Bowl” it’s a prospector from Mars visiting Venus who is offered a tour guide by a girl, and her otter, who secret wants to leave Venus through adoption or otherwise.  I enjoyed all the stories increasingly, particularly in that the unknown sexual (in terms of changes) history of the characters often gives them an unusual depth that tends to influence their decisionmaking.

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