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September 2000
 
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

The Incompleat Nifft by Michael Shea
Baen Books, May 2000 $6.99, 555 pp

Meet Me at Infinity
by James Tiptree, Jr.
Tor, $25.95, 396 pp

Mizora: A World of Women
by Mary E. Bradley Lane
University of Nebraska Press, $9.95, 147 pp

"Monster Mash"

These are hard times for heroes. Oh, I don't mean Real-Life Heroes---you know, the people who find cures for cancer, save acreages of rain forest, donate bone marrow or time to aid the sick, the needy, the dispossessed, the poor. Real-Life Heroes may be in short supply, and they may be un- or under appreciated, but at least they still exist.

Real heroes, on the other hand---and here I'll go by the OED, which defines hero as "A name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods"---seem to be a dying breed. Once upon a time they were everywhere, and unapologetically themselves: thick-thewed, matching swords and wits with each other, swearing By Crom! or The Crack! or For My Lady! They usually, though not always, traveled in pairs, one big loyal generally cheerful and enormously strong Lunk; one slighter, more agile sly and crafty Brain, often of a more melancholy, even depressive temperament. They traveled a lot, and blood flowed copiously where'er they went, depending on whose god was favoring whom that day. Ladies found them attractive, and occasionally pal'ed around with them, and sometimes even became heroes (and occasionally heroines, with their very own series!) themselves---the Brain generally got the rapier-slender deceptively wistful-seeming girl, who often had a Secret yet Burning Need for Vengeance (family murdered by barbarians, early adolescence spent slaking the foul unspeakable needs of her captor, sort of thing). The Lunk paired off with her lusty, generally cheerful full-bosomed friend (with heroes, height is proportionate but intellect disproportionate to weight). They had names like Conan and Elak and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric and Gorgik and St Vier, Brak and Jirel and T'sais and Turjan and Severian. And sadly, of late, one doesn't read as much of them as in the elder days.

It's easy to see why. Rumors of steroid use plagued Conan from the very start; more than one hero has been accused of leman-beating. St Vier and his companion were always fairly discreet about the exact nature of their partnership, and now run a successful martial arts/feng shui studio in Tribeca. (It's old news now, how Gorgik shocked everyone when he was accepted into the Sorbonne and did his dissertation on the influence Foucault had on St Vier.) Jirel of Joiry has for several years acted as special consultant to Xena: Warrior Princess. And while Gray Mouser's bipolar tendencies have been assuaged by Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, still one can't help feeling a sense of loss for the ecstatic swordplay that served as counterpoint to his dark moods. Severian, of course, trumped everyone and just became a god; but we all know how much fun that is.

So it was with glee close to greed that I opened Michael Shea's The Incompleat Nifft, a hefty omnibus that contains both the original linked stories that were published in 1982 as Nifft the Lean, and Shea's 1997 stand-alone novel The Mines of Behemoth. Shea first came to prominence in 1974 with A Quest for Simbilis, an authorized sequel to Jack Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld. Vance, of course, brought the sword-and-sorcery genre to some of its most sublime heights in The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld; his shadow falls beyond Shea to touch Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, one of the last century's great novels.

The Nifft the Lean books have no such highbrow pretensions, but they make pretty great reading anyway. Shea does not wear Vance's influence lightly; even the names of his demons, "dimwebbers, meeps and ropy spaalgs," uncannily echo Vance's deodands and twk-men. But Shea's prose lacks the crystalline edge that gives even Vance's darkest tales a bright shimmer, the sense that if the Dying Earth is some mordant god's game, still it is a game.

The world inhabited by Nifft (the Brain) and his sidekick Barnar (the Lunk) is not a game. It is Evolution run amok, where "Kill or Be Eaten" is the prime directive and Nature is red not just in tooth and claw but tentacle, mandible, gaping maw and coiled stinging tail. Nifft and Barnar outwit, fight, and occasionally fuck other humans; but their real energy, and Shea's, is directed towards monsters.

And what monsters! Entire rippling, pullulating, creeping, swirling, crouching, leaping, swimming, slaughtering armies of them; enough monsters to populate a hundred novels, and untold nightmares. In his brief introduction to The Mines of Behemoth, Tim Powers (whose own early work treads deftly within the gleaming footsteps of Vance and Michael Moorcock) cites Bosch and Doré as worthy illustrators of Shea's hellish land- and creature-scapes.

But not even Bosch could capture the sheer, obsessive teemingness of Shea's world. That, I think, must be left to some outsider artist: a Henry Darger type, perhaps, drawn to microscopic animalcules rather than little girls with wings. Shea's depiction of monstrous things, with wings, multiple legs and mouths and heads, is extraordinary; its most remarkable execution is in Nifft the Lean's centerpiece tale, "The Fishing of the Demon-Sea." At 144 pages, "Demon-Sea" is almost a novel in itself, an extended sojourn into a hellish subworld that exists beneath the primary world (and which itself exists above an even more hellish tertiary strata). Algis Budrys called Nifft and Barnar's descent into this subworld, via mineshaft and out through a vast cliff-face, "the best entry into Hell in all of literature," and yes, one suspects even Dante would be impressed.

The tunnel issued from a stupendous wall of ragged bluffs, scarred by great landslides and stretching past vision to either side. The cliffs dropped sheer below us for nearly half a mile down to a zone of swampland, and all across the face of them the grey webbing spread, like a shroud crawling with grave-lice. For everywhere big multilegged shapes crouching in that dingy rigging, or ran along it with the incredible speed ants have on their own tiny scale. And other forms decorated the nasty weave---dangling bundles of webbing which stirred and twisted impotently against their anchorages. Vague though they were in their wrappings, we could see that many of these were winged things of a stature about twice that of a man, but the commonest food of the scorpion demons was themselves.

Suffice it to say that, from here on in and through the demon subworld, it only gets worse. A little of this goes a long way, and there is a lot of it in Nifft the Lean. So, beguiled as I was, it was with some apprehension that I began The Mines of Behemoth, fearing that a single novel featuring more of the same would collapse beneath the weight of all those twitching, thrashing mandibles.

Surprisingly, The Mines of Behemoth is stronger than any of the individual Nifft tales. It's a neat trope on the legend of the Midas Touch, or any of those folktales where magic (or animal husbandry) goes awry with dire consequences. Nifft and Barnar gird themselves to go underground again (Shea knows a good subworld when he sees it) this time confronting vastly echoing hives of immense gold-furred insects and taking apiary fantasy-horror to new heights---no mean task, since M. John Harrison's A Storm of Wings set a high standard for Bad Bees.

In their picaresque and unrelenting strangeness, Shea's tales evoke Jack Vance and Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique tales, as well as The Worm Ouroboros; but what his work most reminds me of is David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, a book which had always struck me as being sui generis. Having read and delighted in The Incompleat Nifft, I must create a new category for this beautiful, terrifying work, part sword-and-sorcery, part season in hell. Call it Shea generis.

"Go Ask Alice"

There are monsters of a different sort in a few of the stories in Meet Me at Infinity, a compilation of previously uncollected fiction, travel essays, letters, and ruminations by the writer variously known as James Tiptree, Jr., Raccoona Sheldon, Alice Bradley, Alice Davey, and Alice Sheldon. It was as Tiptree, of course, that Alice Sheldon created her most memorable and highly-regarded fiction, including some of the most chilling science fiction stories ever written---"The Last Flight of Doctor Ain," "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death," "The Women Men Don't See," "The Screwfly Solution."

Sadly, except for "The Color of Neanderthal Eyes" (published posthumously in this magazine, in 1988), none of the stories in Meet Me at Infinity match those tales; but Tiptree's greatest work set such a high standard, it's difficult to see how they could. Meet Me at Infinity functions best as a sort of commonplace book of Alice Sheldon's work, featuring most of her public nonfiction, including many pieces originally published in fanzines. Jeffrey D. Smith, who annotated Meet Me at Infinity, published several of these fanzines. It's to his credit that he both assembled this mass of stuff, and provided comments by Sheldon/Tiptree herself on much of it, in the form of replies to editors, reactions to rejection letters, etc. (Most poignant are the proposals and letters that show us Sheldon's unsuccessful bids to write for Star Trek; if only she'd lived to see Voyager and Deep Space Nine, with their complex women and aliens!) The result is a glimpse, tantalizing as it is unsettling, into the soul of an intense, often brilliant writer haunted by depressive illness, whose prolific output seems as driven by obsession as by the sense that, from an early age, Alice Sheldon could hear the steady ticking of her Life-Clock counting down to zero.

*     *     *

Much of Tiptree's work made manifest Walt Kelly's pronouncement "We have met the enemy, and he is us"---usually Him. Mizora, A World of Women, gives us a kinder, gentler future, a feminist utopia the more remarkable because it was first published as a serial in 1880-81. Very little seems to be known about its author, Mary Bradley Lane, though she and Sheldon share certain speculative interests, Mizora's protagonist, Vera, is a Russian woman who makes a successful journey to the center of the earth---

It is impossible to describe the feeling that took possession of me as months rolled by, and I saw the active employments of a prosperous people move smoothly and quietly along in the absence of masculine intelligence and wisdom ... I saw hundreds of children---and all of them were girls. Is it to be wondered at that the first inquiry I made, was:

"Where are the men?"

Like most utopian fiction, Mizora earns more points for socio-political prognostication than for entertainment value. Still, like Vera, one develops a real respect for Mizora's inhabitants---

The cream prepared artificially that I had tasted in London, was the same color and consistency as natural cream, but it lacked its relish. The cream manufactured in Mizora was a perfect imitation of the finest dairy product.

It was the same with meats; they combined the elements, and the article produced possessed no detrimental flavor. It was a more economical way of obtaining meat than by fattening animals.

There you have it: Orwell may have given us Big Brother, and Huxley the Feelies; but it took a woman to predict vegan hamburgers and Olestra.

And finally, kudos to Four Walls Eight Windows, which has just reprinted Kem Nunn's classic 1985 surfpunk-noir cult-novel Tapping the Source. While not a genre novel per se (though there is a strong sulphurous reek of the occult in its final pages), Tapping the Source---a heady, headbanging blend of Robert Stone, "Heart of Darkness," and the Dead Kennedys---influenced genre writers like Richard Grant (Through the Heart) and Lewis Shiner (Slam). Nunn has written several other novels, including the Roswell-noir caper Unassigned Territories, but Tapping the Source remains his best work, and it's still inexplicable to me that no one has filmed it. Quentin Tarantino, call your agent.

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