James White's General Practice
Reviewed by Mary Anne Mohanraj
General Practice is a reprint of two James White novels, Code Blue: Emergency and The Genocidal Healer. Readers should note that these are the seventh and eighth novels in the "Sector General" series -- while you can read any of these novels as stand-alones, I would strongly recommend going back and starting earlier in the series. Admittedly, the first few books are a little weaker; it took White a few novels to really hit his stride. But they're all worth reading, and the characters do recur from book to book, so it's satisfying to be introduced to the characters early, and watch them change and grow. The first novel is Hospital Station, originally published in 1962 and collected with the next two novels in the new Toromnibus, Beginning Operations.
Given all of that, rather than reviewing these two novels or the omnibus in particular, it seems more useful to introduce you to the overall series. These are wonderful, charming books; I discovered them when I was about ten, and for many years I would hunt for them in used bookstores -- they were out of print then, and quite difficult to find. I'm delighted that Tor is reissuing them all in beautiful clean omnibus editions.
In his intro to this volume, John Clute intelligently discusses what he calls the "moral wholeness of White's enterprise" -- those aren't terms that you usually see in reference to science fiction, and in reference to any other book might be enough to make me run away screaming. But in this series, it works. Sector General is a vast, self-contained multi-species hospital in space -- full of smart, quirky, interesting doctors and nurses whose primary motivation is to help people. Clute tells us that "[i]n the depiction of goodness may lie the real genius of James White. . .for it is a terribly difficult thing for an author to make a reader want to know how a good protagonist can make good things happen in a good place in the middle of a universe filled with species who share, ultimately, the ethos which governs Sector General: that Good is normal, and that the problem of Evil, which may be defined as a lesion on the Good, is operable."
I apologize for quoting Clute at such length, but really, he is spot on. What makes these books so appealing is that whole-hearted embracing of good, the base assumption that pretty much every character in these books is trying to do the right thing, to help people. A tremendous amount of confusion, chaos, and just flat-out funny stuff occurs when lots of smart people with conflicting ideas of just how to accomplish that goal are all put in the same place. Add in the poignant moments, the difficult decisions that are integral to any medical novel, and you have a winning combination, a recipe for delightful books that are not only terrific page-turners and great fun to read, but which will lift your spirits, and maybe even leave you feeling a little more hopeful about the world, and the always-fallible but generally meaning-well people in it. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2004 Mary Anne Mohanraj
Robert Holstock's Mythago Wood
Reviewed by James Palmer
Winner of the World Fantasy Award, Robert Holstock's Mythago Wood has been considered a classic since it was first published in 1984. Now, Tor's Orb imprint has reissued the book in an attractive trade paperback edition.
For George Huxley, Ryhope Wood became an obsession that eventually cost him his wife and alienated him from his two sons, Christian and Steven. Now, after his death, Christian continues his father's studies, with terrifying results. Steven returns home from World War II and learns of the Wood's mysterious properties. According to their father's notes, the primeval forest uses the minds of those around it to create mythagos, mythical figures from the collective unconscious that span back as far as the last ice age. Christian has fallen in love with Guiwenneth, a beautiful, flame-haired mythago. But Guiwenneth is killed by an arrow before Steven's return, and Christian, convinced that she has re-formed in the wood somewhere, sets out to find her. What follows is one of the strangest fantasy novels I have ever read.
Guiwenneth emerges from the forest and she and Steven grow close during Christian's months-long absence, falling in love with each other. When Christian comes to take her away, wounding and almost killing his own brother in the process, Steven vows to find her, even if it means killing his brother. With the help of a Royal Army airman, he penetrates the deepest parts of the wood, to possibly becomes a myth himself.
I found Holdstock's writing style a bit dry, but don't let that stop you from reading what is arguably the most original fantasy ever written. The idea of the collective unconscious has always been a great mine for stories, and Holdstock makes good use of the concept here. Kudos to Tor for bringing this back out in a handy trade paperback, so that a new generation can experience this magical adventure story.
Copyright © 2004 James Palmer
James Palmer has published articles, reviews, interviews and poetry in Strange Horizons, Revolution SF, Every Writer, and Scifaikuest. He also writes a movie review column called Barium Cinema for the print magazine Continuum SF. He has a BA degree, and lives in Gainesville, Georgia with his wife Kelley. To contact him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lord Dunsany's The Pleasures of a Futuroscope
Reviewed by Greg Beatty
The Pleasures of a Futuroscope is an odd and lovely book. Its author, Lord Dunsany, wrote countless fantasy stories, many of them quiet, timeless gems. The Pleasures of a Futuroscope was not published during Dunsany's lifetime -- indeed, it remained unpublished until this Hippocampus Press edition. This novel is not so well-written as much of Dunsany's work, nor it is as well-structured. Given Dunsany's stature, that means it is merely better written than the vast majority of books out there. It is science fiction, rather than fantasy. As the title suggests, the futuroscope, a device that allows one to see through time, is the science fictional device at the center of the book. Unlike much of Dunsany's work, Futuroscope feels old-fashioned, even dated in some ways. It is a philosophical reflection on the future and nature of humanity, with a leisurely pace. The plot ambles and the main character is fairly passive: the narrator is a journalist, a fairly ordinary man who stumbles into possession of a futuroscope through a fairly casual acquaintance with the inventor.
He sets it up in his home, like one of the new televisions then spreading through British society, and he begins to watch the future. The draw is somewhat like that of reality shows, since the first allure is that what he's watching is real. There, however, the similarity ends, for instead of watching some exotic locale, he watches locally, and instead of watching beautiful strangers, he watches the aftermath of a (presumably nuclear) holocaust, and then the eventual recovery of the human race.
Dunsany's journalist focuses his attention on a single family, and, though he has the ability to skip ahead in time, to find out what happens, he becomes so involved in their struggles that he becomes synchronized with them across the years, sleeping when they sleep, rising when they rise. Their life becomes his, and more importantly, their attempts to find their way in the post-apocalyptic world quickly come to stand in for all humanity's negotiation between the forces of love and duty, science and mystery, technology and humanity.
The characters are a little schematic. Dunsany does name them (Bert, Joe) but they could be anyman. In fact, though the family is living by hunting and gathering, with some farming and limited crafts, Dunsany even provides a character called The Wild Man who embodies mankind's pure savagery. The narrative becomes openly allegorical as the family is threatened on one side by the Wild Man, and on the other by gypsies, who are seeking to revive metal-working, which stands in for all the lost technologies that destroyed the world.
The plot of this book could be told in a few pages. Dunsany takes 200. Clearly, action is not his goal. This is a late, reflective book, and not Dunsany's best -- but oh, it is lovely at times. When a master fabulist like Dunsany reflects on time, he is hypnotic. When he evokes the old practices of England that predate Christianity, his love of them, and of England, ring out. And when a mind like this reflects on the nature of man, it is worth reading -- and absorbing, to boot. Pick it up if you get the chance.
Copyright © 2004 Greg Beatty
Greg Beatty attended Clarion West in the summer of 2000. He's had a number of short stories accepted since then (listed at his website). When he's not at his computer, he enjoys cooking, practicing martial arts, and having complex interpersonal relationships. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact him, email email@example.com.
Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist
Reviewed by Sean Melican
In 1986 and 1989, Gene Wolfe published the historical fantasies Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, which have recently been republished as Latro in the Mist.
Latro is a mercenary in the Persian Army during the reign of Xerxes. During a battle, he sustains a head injury that renders him incapable of recalling anything beyond the last day or so, except for memories of his childhood and ingrained skills, such as swordsmanship, but grants him the gift of seeing the gods. He is befriended by a mute, black man, the poet Pindaros, and a slave girl. He is taken to a temple where another god grants him more gifts and he learns how he can make amends with the goddess who took his memory.
During his travels, he is taken hostage many times, made a slave and transferred a number of times. He is recruited in a slave revolt. He raises the dead. He kills many men.
The second novel is more of a travelogue, as Latro journeys through war-torn Greece, making many friends and enemies, sometimes unaware of which is which. He travels to Sparta, where he prepares to compete in the Olympics. Here, he is made a free man, but at a great cost.
Beware. This is Wolfean historical fantasy. It is told as a translation of a recently discovered manuscript written by Latro himself. He writes only when he has the opportunity, and because of his memory loss, large periods of time and events are sometimes missing. It is up to the reader to piece together the thread of the narrative.
Although this is set in the familiar realm of ancient Greece, Latro is not Greek. He translates unfamiliar names literally, including the names of gods. Thus, we have the Shining God, the Swift God, the Earth Mother, the Huntress and so forth. We also have the names of towns and people such as Thought, the Rope Makers and the country of the Silent People. The reader is advised to keep a pocket guide to Greece nearby.
This is not a book for casual fans of historical fantasy. Mr. Wolfe expects that his readers be familiar with the geography, customs, and morality of the world of which he writes. It requires the reader to do a tremendous amount of work, but it is well worth the effort.
Mr. Wolfe doesn't write apologetically as if he (and by proxy, us) is morally superior to the ancients. Prostitution and slavery are not only acceptable but expected. Indeed, there is a wonderful passage in which Latro makes a strong case for the type of slavery seen in ancient Greece.
For readers who want near total immersion in a foreign world, memorable characters, and philosophical and moral complexity as well as a strong story, Latro in the Mist is certain to be a forgotten classic of a bloated sub-genre of speculative fiction.
Copyright © 2004 Sean Melican
Sean is an SAHD, instructor at MCCC, and Clarion grad. His second child, a daughter, was born May 28 of this year, at a whopping twenty-three inches. He is currently reading Gene Wolfe's Innocents Aboard, Roger Highfield's The Science of Harry Potter and Dmitri Merezhkovsky's The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.