Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review of "Guyal the Curator" (2009) by John C. Wright


"Guyal the Curator" is a short novella (about 12 thousand words) which John C. Wright set in Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" storyverse, and available in the Songs of the Dying Earth anthology.

The `verse is probably familiar to a lot of my readers, but basically the "Dying Earth" stories are science fantasy, set in Earth's far future (1) -- many millennia, or even millions to billions of years from our time -- when the Sun is guttering out, whether from natural senesence or from having its energy drained by generation after generation of human engineers.  The humanity of Earth, which at one time attained a very high level of technology including interstellar and transdimensional travel, lives among the ruins of of its past scientific and psionic achievements, many of which they no longer understand and treat as magical.  A few humans, called "magicians," have made a study of these lost arts and have learned to channel transdimensional energies through their own minds, through memorized spells (2), or by studying and collecting artifacts of the lost technologies, using them without fully grasping the sciences behind their operation (3).


The city of Old Romarth dates back to that earlier age of lost science, and is literally built on a tell atop its own ruins, some of which were solidly enough built to be essentially intact.  The city has fallen far, and is reduced to selling relics of its own past in order to survive in the present.  Since everyone expects the Sun to go out sometime within or not too far after their lives, nobody really sees any flaw in this mode of existence (4).

Manxolio Quinc is a minor magician and nobleman of that city, whose reputation rests largely on his possession of "the Implacable Dark Iron Wand," a relic weapon from an earlier age, of whose function and command he has very little concept, but which looks very impressive.  One day, Manxolio encounters a stranger, who tells him more in a short conversation about the Wand and the ancient history of Old Romarth than Manxolio has managed to learn in his entire life.  However, the stranger has forgotten his own name and nature (5).  Manxolio offers to help the man, and thus the quest begins ...


I don't want to spoil the story for anyone.  I will say flat out that this is one of the best "Dying Earth" stories I have ever read, and this is against stiff competition, including Jack Vance himself, Robert Silverberg and Neil Gaiman. 

Wright makes us care about the two main characters -- including the less likeable Manxolio Quinc, who serves as viewpoint character in limited third-person (6). The incidents are fantastic, the secrets deep, and the ultimate revelations truly awesome, having an immense impact on our concept of the past and future of the Dying Earth, and all this without rendering the story inconsistent with Vance's own work or other authorized fiction set in that 'verse.  Most importantly, it all makes sense -- there is never a moment where something deeply stupid happens that slices the threads of your willing suspension of disbelief -- and is profoundly moving.


With this story, coupled with his work in the universes of A. E. Van Vogt's World of Null-A and William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land, John C. Wright is establishing himself as not merely a great writer and creator of his own fictional worlds, but also as a supremely-talented worker in other people's worlds.  This is harder than one might realize on first consideration:  the writer who wishes to tell effective stories in other people's universes must manage to convey his own message in a manner consistent with the existing setting and themes.  In particular, he must not flat-out contradict anything already established as true in that setting, and he must handle any established characters and other elements of the setting in such wise as not to jar with the mood of that setting, even if his ultimate message is DIFFERENT from that of the original creator.  Not only is this difficult to do, it is extremely difficult to do well, to do in a manner which results in a story which is both true to the old and memorable for the new (7).

John C. Wright had an especially tough row to hoe here because he was using a character from a previous Jack Vance story in the setting, to tell a story whose theme close to contradicts one of the main assumptions of the setting, and he managed to show with reference to other Vance works in and out of setting, exactly why this all made sense in terms of the setting.  He even made an implicit analogy between one of the protagonists and the hero of another very famous Jack Vance series, which was not originally part of the Dying Earth 'verse, by syncretizing the two 'verses.  And it was done subtly -- I didn't explicitly realize the thematic connection between "Guyal the Curator" and the famous Jack Vance series until I sat down to write this review.

Read this story.  Mortgage your home and unimportant family members to get hold of a copy of the anthology in which it appears (8).  Then read John C. Wright's other works.

It's well worth your time.


=== NOTES ===

(1) - An obvious inspiration for Jack Vance was Clark Ashton Smith, whose Zothique series, set on "Zothique, Earth's Last Continent" (a future supercontinent somewhat similar to Pangaea Ultima), is essentially sword and sorcery in a decadent future world dominated by often-evil magicians -- though averaging a lower level of general technology than Vance's "Dying Earth."  Both are classed as being in the "Dying Earth subgenre" of speculative fiction.

(2) - Using the system even more familiar to many from Dungeons and Dragons, in which a magic-user can memorize and cast only a certain number of spells of certain levels per day.  However, Vance did not here copy D&D -- the first "Dying Earth" stories were written in the 1940's and 1950's.  It was actually Gygax and Arneson who copied Vance, and in some cases lifted spells wholesale from his stories.

(3) - This interpretation of the fantasy elements in the `verse developed over time and is the one Wright used in the story under discussion.  It also is one which makes a lot of sense.

(4) - And humans do the same thing in ancient cities and countries of the modern Earth, or otherwise sell off literally-irreplacable resources with no plan for supporting their economies after the deposits have run dry.  The antiquities and oil trades of the modern Mideast are the obvious example:  but there are less obvious ones, such as the mammoth tusk ivory trade.

(5) - Self-discovery seems to be one of John C. Wright's favorite story subjects:  consider the children from his "Chronicles of Chaos" series, or the multiple deceptions that have been practiced on Phaethon in his "The Golden Age" trilogy.  All I can say about this is that it's one of the strongest possible literary themes, and Wright always handles it well, with self-discovery leading to even larger discoveries which turn out to be vital to the whole story setting,

(6) - Which works interestingly and effectively, because Manxolio is the one whose scope of knowledge is most similar to that of his contemporaries, allowing the other character numerous and well-handled opportunities for exposition to the reader as he explains things to Manxolio; but the other character is the one with a moral outlook more similar to men of our age).

(7) - In the good sense of the word.

(8) - Or you could just visit your public library, like I did.  But where's the fun in that? ;-)


John C. Wright maintains a blog at

which is more than a bit interesting.  I recommend it to one and all.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Retro Movie Review - "Queen of Blood" (1966)

I turned on this movie a few years ago, expecting it to be MST-able Grade B nonsense. I was very pleasantly surprised with what I found. Though the special effects are lame and its concept of space travel primitive by modern standards, it was actually an intelligent and well-thought-out movie -- one which deserved better treatment than it could get at the time (it was shot for only $56,000, and included stock footage from a totally-different Russian movie).


Basil Rathbone, as Dr. Farraday, a scientist, who acts as mission controller from Moonbase.
John Saxon, as Allen Brenner, sent on the second rescue mission who is in love with the character of
Judi Meredith, as Laura James, who is sent on the first rescue mission.


In the year 1990, the human race has numerous atomic rocketships and a moonbase, and is preparing to take the next step and go to Mars. Suddenly, the Earth receives radio messages from an alien civilization. The aliens are more advanced than Mankind and announce their intent to send an embassy.

The alien ship launches for our Solar System. For some reason, instead of landing on the Earth the ship crashes on Mars. The International Space Agency dispatches the rocketship Oceana to Mars with a crew of four to rescue the aliens. The Oceana encounters a solar storm and uses too much of her fuel energizing her shields, and lands on Mars uncertain of when she can return.

The Earth astronauts find the elien ship crewed only by a corpse. There is evidence that a lifeship has been launched from her. Oceania launches satellites and the alien lifeship is discovered on Phobos -- which Oceania does not have the fuel to reach.

A 2-person rocket is sent from Luna to land on Phobos and rescue the aliens. This small ship does not have enough fuel to return, and will have to be rescued later. On Phobos the crew find one unconscious alien, and (leaving 1 crew member on Phobos with enough supplies to await rescue) the other crewman (whose lover is on the Oceana) takes the ship's lander (a Dyna-Soar like craft) and lands on Mars with the alien survivor).

The alien survivor is female. She has green skin, an oddly-shaped pointed head (think of a beehive hairdo but with skull under the hair) and a sinister smile. When she regains consciousness, she does not talk, is willing to drink water but recoils from solid food, and appears terrified of needles. She does not like the only female on the Earth crew.

The Oceania blasts off from Mars for Earth. Along the way, they discover what the alien survivor eats. She is a vampire, and takes enough blood at a time to kill a human. She kills one crew member -- the one who was most sympathetic toward her -- before the three remaining astronauts realize what is happening. After feeding, she is glutted with blood and sleeps for days -- the condition in which they originally found her.

The crew have a dilemna. The alien is clearly a deadly threat, but their orders are to bring her back alive. So they tie her up and use up their stores of blood plasma feeding her. When given blood plasma, she is apparently uninterested in attacking humans.

But before they can reach Earth, the blood plasma runs out. The captain plans to use blood donations from the crew to keep the alien alive, but before they can do this, she uses her hypnotic power (as she had done before, unbeknownst to the astronauts) to immobilize him so that she could drain his blood.

The two survivors -- Allen Brenner and Laura James-- tie her up while she's in her glutted state and discuss what to do. Allen wants to kill her, orders or no orders. Laura persuades Allen to keep her alive.

Unfortunately, the alien has another mind-trick left, pyrokinesis. She can focus her will strongly enough to burn through her bonds. She attempts to kill Allen, but Laura springs furiously upon the alien and scratches her slightly in a fight. The alien screams, runs back into her cabin, and collapses.

They discover to their suprise that this minor wound has actually killed her. Apparently, her species is very vulnerable to any injury that breaks the skin.

Allen discovers something else, though. The ship is full of eggs the alien has laid and concealed. The astronauts contact Moonbase and Dr. Farraday orders them to preserve the eggs for study. Allen thinks this is a terrible idea but obeys the direct order. They land on Earth and step out into the sunlight, but Allen worries if the human race will not regret keeping the alien eggs alive.


Given the incredible cheesiness of the special effects (save for the spaceship exterior shots, which were stock footage from a 1959 Russian movie), my pleasant surprise was just how good were the basic science-fictional concepts, and their exploration. Let me go through them, point by point.

(1) - Slingshot Maneuver

I do not know whether or not this was a happy accident, but the movie strongly implies that Oceania gets to Mars by executing a gravitational slingshot around the Sun -- the likeliest reason why a ship headed for Mars from Luna would pass close to the Sun in the first place, which was necessary for the plot-important solar flare. If so, this was prescient, as interplanetary slingshot maneuvers were in 1966 purely theoretical.

(2) - Gravity

The movie suffers a fail on its depiction of gravity. The astronauts appear to be under a 1G field through the entire film. This is remotely possible if the ships are fusion torch vessels under continuous acceleration (but this would be very advanced tech for 1990, even from a 1966 POV), but of course in that case they wouldn't be doing gravitational slingshots. And of course, on Mars and even more so on Phobos there's no way they'd be in a 1G field (on Phobos, they'd be under microgravity).

OTOH, given the tiny budget there is no way that the film could have simulated zero-gee, since back then it would have had to have been done with complex wire arrangements and carefully-angled shots (the way it was done for 2001: A Space Odyssey two years later). So I'll forgive it this failing, because there's no way they could have avoided the situation.

(3) - Solar Storm

The movie calls it by some hokey term, but the Oceania encounters a solar flare on the way to Mars. This is quite plausible and is indeed one of the major problems facing modern astronautical engineers planning such a mission. Damage to equipment would be possible with an intense flare. Pain to the crew would not -- that degree of radiation sickness coming that quickly would be fatal -- but I'll cut it a pass for that because the health effects of solar radiation were not well understood at the time, not even by NASA.

(4) - Electromagnetic Shield

The Oceania's crew survives the solar storm by raising an electromagnetic shield which, unfortunately, greatly reduces their energy (which is why they have trouble on the return flight). This is absolutely plausible -- in fact, electromagnetic shielding is one of the measures being contemplated in the design of real interplanetary spacecraft. (The movie misses the simpler solution, which is a metal-and-water-shielded "storm shelter," but then I'm not sure that even NASA had by 1966 come up with this alternative).

(5) - Limited Fuel

Though used as a plot device, the movie is quite correct that even high-capability atomic rockets of the sort presented would be very much limited in terms of fuel supplies. It's quite plausible that a ship might have enough fuel to take off from Mars for Earth but not stop at Phobos.

(6) - Mysterious Aliens

Even though this film could have taken the easy way out and said "The aliens are evil and their goal is conquest," given that it features an alien vampire who murders three people on a ship sent to rescue her, it didn't. We get the very strong impression from the limited depiction of the aliens in their own culture (they are absolutely silent and move stiffly) and from the behavior of the "Queen of Blood" that they are eusocial telepaths, probably with a reproductive caste, and that the alien survivor is a literal "queen" in the sense of a eusocial insect colony -- in other words, she is of their reproductive caste.

We never find out what the aliens originally wanted, however, and there is no proof that their original intentions were hostile. Something went wrong (we never find out what) which led to the aliens crashing on Mars instead of landing on Earth. On Earth, there would have been an effectively infinite supply of animal blood from the POV of a small alien group (probably no more than one drone and one queen), with absolutely no need to attack humans. It is fairly likely that the aliens ran out of supplies, and that the queen slew the drone, which is why they find his corpse on Mars.

An obvious interpretation of the QOB's actions is that she interpreted the situation on Oceania as a colony similar to her own eusocial structure. There was one Earth female and three Earth males -- what else would she assume but that the female was a queen or potential queen, and the males merely her servants / reserve food supply? She may have never realized that she was doing anything more aggressive or hostile than sneaking food from the icebox would be in our culture. Note that she never attacks or even threatens Laura, even though she obviously dislikes her.

In the end, you are left wondering. Was this all a tragic mutual misunderstanding? Are the aliens really hostile? Will saving the eggs turn out to be a boon or a curse for Mankind?

And that unanswered question, which so easily could have been given a glib answer in one or the other direction, makes this a better movie.


This movie is well worth seeing. Get past the crappy special effects, and enjoy a film which is not merely horror with science-fictional trappings, but true science fiction.

Monday, April 2, 2012

How Wilful Ignorance of Inconvenient History Ruins Kristine Kathryn Rusch's 'G-Men' (2008)"


I recently read Kristine Kathryn Rusch's short story "G-Men," which is an alternate history murder mystery set in October 1964 -- an important month indeed, when I personally entered the world, and also some minor stuff started happening in Southeast Asia.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, his personal assistant and possible lover Clyde Tolson, and three other FBI agents have been murdered outside a seedy gay hangout in New York City, and the question is:  "Whodunit?"

The story was interesting and engaging, and a fascinating examination of how attitudes toward crime and law enforcement were different almost a half-century ago.  But it seriously collapsed in its climax, because the author was forced to bend her interpretation of the history of LBJ and the Kennedys to fit the received wisdom as to the JFK assassination, as understood by the modern Left.

Dialogue and Monologue From the Climax

In the climactic scene, RFK (Robert F. Kennedy, JFK's competent younger brother, the Attorney-General) and LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson), are facing-off over the secret political files of the deceased FBI Director.  Historically, J. Edgar Hoover had the dirt on virtually every politician and even celebrity in the country, and used these files both for occasional political blackmail and even more to prevent overreaching Presidents from using these files for systematic political blackmail).  LBJ can fire RFK, whom he hates, and seize the files, but RFK points out that LBJ can't do this without either taking a lot of time to go through procedures or creating a huge political scandal.

Here, LBJ and RFK talk, and RFK muses, about his brother's assassination.  LBJ says:

"... There's a lot of shit running around here that says your brother's shooting was a mob hit, and I know personally that J. Edgar was doing his best to make it seem like that Oswald character acted alone.  But now Edgar is dead and Jack is dead and the only tie they have is the way they kowtowed to your stupid prosecution of the men that got your brother elected."

Kennedy felt lightheaded.  He hadn't even thought that the deaths of his brother and J. Edgar were connected.  But LBJ had a point.  Maybe there was a conspiracy to kill government officials.  Maybe the mob was showing its power.  He'd had warning.

Hell, he'd had suspicions.  He hadn't let himself look at any of the evidence in his brother's assassination, not after he secured the body and prevented a disastrous autopsy in Texas.  If those doctors at Parkland had done their job, they would've seen just how advanced Jack's Addison's disease was.  The best kept secret of the Kennedy Administration -- an administration full of secrets -- was how close Jack was to incapacitation and death.


Now, this exchange and interior monologue makes literally no logical sense -- and worse, it makes LBJ out to be a virtual traitor and RFK out to be a coward, which is probably not what the author intended.  Note that LBJ is saying that he thinks the Mafia has decided to kill Presidents and FBI Directors of which it disapproves and he isn't going to do anything to stop them from continuing to do this (a blatant violation of his Oath of Office) and RFK is thinking that he had to acquiesce to letting go the people who had not merely killed a sitting US President  but also HIS OWN BROTHER because he is afraid that otherwise people would have learned the JFK was seriously ill (which is a fact that would have become entirely irrelevant the moment JFK died).  At a minimum, one would have to assume that both LBJ and RFK were imbeciles incapable of logical planning -- for instance, wouldn't it occur to LBJ that his number-one priority should be to take down this dangerous conspiracy which might target him next?

This makes no sense on the face of it.  If this were a story set in an entirely fictional world, one would accuse Ms. Rusch of an incapablity of handling basic reasoning as it applies to political maneuvering, conspiracies and even common sense.

But of course this isn't set in an entirely fictional world, and that's the reason why Rusch's logic here stumbles.

Two Assassinations

It is part of the received wisdom of the modern Left that JFK was secretly an enlightened Leftist who if allowed to remain President would have avoided the Vietnam War, ended racism in America, and accomplished all sorts of great Leftist things such as would have pleased the hippies of 5-10 years after his death -- and that for this reason he was murdered by a Right-wing conspiracy, probably including the CIA, Mafia, and (depending who you ask) everyone else from the Dixiecrats to the Boy Scouts.  It is also part of the received wisdom of the modern Left that RFK was also such a Lightworker who would have made the hippies happy, etc. etc., and was bumped off by the same people.

This is called "retconning" when applied to fiction.  JFK was a hardline anti-Communist -- he was in short on the right wing of the Democrats on every issue other than race (the real right-wing Democrats on race were the Southern Democrats aka "Dixiecrats," who then and for the past century had worked hard to keep blacks down).  He didn't merely talk an anti-Communist line, he practiced it -- he invaded Cuba, upon the failure of this invasion repeatedly tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, and ramped-up American intervention against Communists everywhere from Central America to Southeast Asia.  He was one of the architects of the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

When he was murdered in 1963 -- based on overwhleming evidence, by a Castro-sympathizing Communist ex-US Marine by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald, who if he did not act alone was probably taking orders from Fidel Castro (who actually had a very good motive, means and opportunity) -- his Presidency was aborted.  And the kids who grew up admiring JFK, who then went to college and became the proto-Counterculture -- were free to imagine that their childhood hero believed and would have done any old thing that they wished he believed and would have done -- and those mean old Establishment types killed him to prevent him from doing so.

And so began and proliferated the conspiracy theories.

Amusingly, Rusch misses the most obvious conspiracy theory, the one which RFK if he had decided his brother was killed by conspirators including US Government officials and/or the Mafia helped by a US Government coverup, would likely have believed.

Who profited the most by JFK's death?  Why, his Vice-President, Lyndon Baines Johnson.  JFK hated LBJ and the hatred was cordially returned.  LBJ was going to be dropped from the ticket in 1968, but JFK's assassination instead catapulted LBJ into the Presidency.  And LBJ was the one man whom, if any other conspiracy was plotting to kill JFK, had to be brought on board in at least passive acceptance of the plot, because otherwise he would have been in a position to punish the conspirators for the murder of an American President -- a crime which his own power and safety demanded he not permit.

Yet in the confrontation, RFK does not even show a hint of suspecting that LBJ may have had his brother murdered.  Why?

Because LBJ is also a hero to the Left because of his Great Society program (they tend to forgive him the Vietnam War, because after all it was just a lot of redneck Americans and swarthy foreigners who got killed in that little fracas).  They can't have one hero of the Left getting mad at another hero of the Left for murdering yet another hero of the Left -- why, that might imply a certain degree of insane violence on the American Left, and we can't have that.  Better to blame the Mafia -- who really expects any better of the Mafia, anyway?  And as for the CIA ...

As for RFK, he was murdered in 1968, by Sirhan Sirhan, who was the prototype and first American example of the Angry Arab whom we all have to sympathize with because George W. Bush was such a meanie to them.  Even worse, Sirhan was a Palestinian, who killed RFK because RFK was sympathetic to the Israel (as was the whole Left, before the PLO started hitting Western targets and this scaring the Western Left into croaking "how high?" when the PLO asked froggie to jump).  This makes Sirhan Sirhan doubly sacrosanct and hence obviously the stooge of some Evil Conspiracy involving, um, the Mafia, the CIA, the Phone Company, and the Boy Scouts.  Or something like that.

RFK, of course, had decided to "get out front and lead" the New Left, much to the dismay of the actual New Left leaders, who were especially upset that their followers were forgetting that they were supposed to be rebelling against society, not joining the bandwagon of a rich Democrat who was very likely to become the next President of the United States of Amerikkka.  One could concoct a conspiracy theory involving the American New Leftists, except that those bozos clearly couldn't have organized a group of horny sailors on an outing to a whorehouse (as the Weathermen were shortly to begin demonstrating).

The Actual Denounement

I won't spoil the story, save to mention that the Mafia didn't kill J. Edgar Hoover -- and that the author sets up the real culprit quite professionally.  Which is to say, all that stuff in which LBJ and RFK are made to look like fools, cowards and traitors was just a red herring -- but of course Rusch didn't realize she was making LBJ and RFK look like fools, cowards and traitors.

She thought she was telling real history, the way she imagined those people actually thought.  They come off as imbecilic because she is resolutely avoiding confronting any historical truths which might blow the lid off just how imbecilic is the modern Left's version of the history surrounding the LBJ and RFK assassinations.


When one corrupts data, one corrupts the information one can construct from the data.  A lie or severe mistake regarding history will corrupt historical fiction derived from that history.  (Imagine if I believed that Europeans had possessed good maps and sailing instructions to the New World from AD 750 on, and then tried to comprehend the strategy of expansion of European polities under that belief!)

Here, the lies and mistakes which are required to keep JFK, LBJ, RFK and simultaneously Communists and the Palestinians as sympathetic historical actors, when it was a Communist (Oswald) and a Palestinian (Sirhan) who murdered JFK and RFK respectively, and LBJ who did nothing to avenge either death.

Truth will out.  Sometimes, by corrupting the conclusions of the liars.