Mike’s Prattle


John Varley – “Tango Charlie & Foxtrot Romeo,” “Press Enter [],” “The Pusher,” “Just Another Perfect Day,” “In Fading Suns & Dying Moons,” “The Flying Dutchman,” “Good Intentions;” George R. R. Martin “With Morning Comes Mistfall,” “The Hero,” “The Exit to San Breta,” “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” “A Song for Lya,” “The Stone City,” “Bitterblooms,” “The Way of Cross and Dragon;” “Nightflyers;” “And Seven Times Never Kill Man”

Posted by Mike on February 26, 2010

OK Varley and Martin … a bunch of stories by both that were perhaps roughly contemporary, with both writers being mainstays of the awards. These are all really good and I have to admit being well behind making write ups on these things, these days I can barely keep up with it.

“Tango Charlie” is one of the Anna-Louis Bach stories, in the chronology post Blue Champagne, but earlier in the timeline than the Barbie Murders. A space station’s orbit is decaying and on board is a young girl with a fleet of dogs who lives alone guided by the station’s computer. Bach and her police unit end up having to figure how to get the girl off before the space station goes down. However the story’s much more complicated when the reason for the station’s lack of population comes up.

The next two were award winners for Varley. “Press Enter”‘s an early computer story, as a man finds out his neighbor has just died under mysterious circumstances and starts to realize via the police investigation that the guy was a computer genius. In moves another computer prodigy who tries to slowly investigate what’s going on and the two become involved as the layers of the mystery peel off. Undoubtely a little dated now, it’s still incredibly entertaining and must have been quite pivotal when it first came out. And it’s got a nice and weird, ambiguous ending.

“The Pusher” is a short short that posits an interesting situation having to do with relative time between the Earth and a man who visits periodically. It starts out seriously creepy as the man stalks a children’s playground, but what he’s there for isn’t obvious until he comes back many years later, with the child he met grown up. The story packs quite a bit of emotional punch due to the lengths of time involved and their effects on the man’s loneliness.

The next four shorts all collected in “The John Varley Reader” are all relatively more modern than the Eight Worlds, Anna Louise Bach and award winning stories Varley wrote from the 70s to the 80s and all take on quite different tones. A couple of them are involved with unique alien incursions, including “Fading Suns” which tells of a hoard of aliens who sweep through the earth methodically collecting the entire lepidoptera species. Scientists and the military investigate only to be confounded by what’s happening, with the implication being that humankind couldn’t possibly understand what is happening. “The Flying Dutchman” is totally different, rare Twilight Zone-like piece as a man switches flights to try and find is way home only to realize after a while that he’s not going to ever reach his destination. Having taken a 22 hour flight across the country once, this one I found severely unsettling.

Most of the George R. R. Martin stories here come from a shared future history which he broadly identifies in his Dreamsongs/Retrospective collection. These are all gorgeously written and somehow seem more wistful and perhaps more broadly stroked then the writing you see in his famous Ice and Fire series. Each contains an unusual encounter in a different part of this universe with the links usually coming from allusions to similar planets and cultures. In fact “The Hero” is the earliest and first of these, a piece taking place between human and Hrangan culture, one of those long wars which, it’s implied, the humans eventually triumph.  It’s later intimated through the stories that the Hrangan’s had many slave cultures which occasionally set the backdrop for different stories. “Mistfall” is a visit to a world covered in mist where a resort is set up on a higher plateau, allowing its visitors to witness breathtaking scenery as the mist rolls in and out. The story is basically about the conflict between the learning of science and its encroachment on the mystery and wonder of mythology, nicely balancing the conflict as a scientist tries to investigate the origin of a number of deaths and disappearances that have happened in the mist and the resort owner’s foresight than the revealing would remove much of the romance from the planet.

“The Exit to San Breta” is an unrelated driving ghost story I found a little too thin and obvious to work, it seems like a variation on a theme you’ve seen dozens of times. Off the beaten path and apparition is witnessed, the mystery investigated, the reason discovered and the end ambiguous. “Loneliness” sets place in a different science fictional universe on the edge of the solar system, where a solitary man mans a “star ring,” the device used to send mankind to different stars. Naturally this is about the effects of that loneliness told through the device of someone who ends up gnawing his past to death in his own mind and the end is, naturally, tragic and part of madness.

At novella length, the future history stories hit a high with “A Song for Lya,” Martin’s first award winner, where a psychic couple investigate to find out why humans are joining the planet’s inhabitants in becoming part of a bizarre symbiotic ritual that turns out to be both a sort of nirvana for the natives as well as them becoming food for the symbiotes. Again, this is a story that reflects on the effects of loneliness as the female of the couple, the most advanced psychic of the two, tries to become closer with her husband only to become captured by the mystery she’s trying to investigate which intimates an even more intense closeness. It’s a powerful story as the set up between the natives and their eventual deaths becomes that mystery never fully penetrated that hints at a wholeness the lonely human being wishes for but never quite reaches.

“The Stone City” is bleak, following a man trapped on an alien planet who has been slowly changing ships trying to get further and further away from human space yet has seemingly reached his end.  However he lives in an ancient city whose labyrinths hold untold mysteries that eventually pull him in as his anger gets the best of him and he ends up trying to escape a crime.

“Bitterblooms” (seemingly named after the Cat Stevens song) is set on an ice planet where a teenage girl, who’s too far away from her people and about to die from the freezing conditions is rescued by a Baba Yaga-like woman who has inhabited a working spaceship. The protagonist, too young to fully understand her new surroundings, is drawn in by the woman’s weaving of illusions only to eventually realize the wool has been pulled over her eyes.

Another award winner, “The Way of Cross and Dragon,” posits the evolution of the Catholic church who has detected a new heretical religion on a different planet and sends an inquisitor to investigate. The inquisitor, who has already lost his faith, then finds there’s much more to the new religion than another variation on a timeless story.

“Nightflyers” is one of the few future history (or Manrealms or 1000 Worlds) stories set on a ship rather than a planet, a ship carrying a crew about to investigate one of the universe’s biggest mysteries, an unknown alien spaceship that has been flying the space between the stars for millenia and only showing up via legend. But naturally the passengers start to get picked off one by one, causing them all to suspect the ship’s mysterious owner, cut off from the rest of the crew and only talking to them via hologram. Apparently a very bad movie of this novella was made in the 80s.

“Seven Times” is almost like “The Way of Cross and Dragon” crossed with “The Song of Lya” as a group of would be paladins has colonized a planet and started to eradicate its native life in the belief that noone but humans have souls. The natives all live in communal groups linked to certain pyramids and one trader seeks to somehow stop their annihilation. However it turns out they probably didn’t need the man’s help as the paladin types end up getting justice in a particularly horrible way.

Anyway this group of stories wrapped up Varley’s “Blue Champagne” and “Reader” collections as well as Martin’s “A Song for Lya” and “Sandkings” collections, while also making a nice dent in the huge “Dreamsongs.” Almost all of these were tremendously enjoyable, with only the earliest of the Martins not making much of an impression


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