Thursday, February 28, 2008

2008 Hugo Recommendations

OK, so there are only two more days to nominate. Still, at least I'm getting in before the actual deadline. Although I'm a "reviewer," I realized that I didn't read that many books that were released in 2007, and of those I did read, not many were outstanding. I was much more up-to-date on short fiction, having read every 2007 issue of Analog, Asimov's and F&SF, as well as adding Baen's Universe and Interzone late in the year. I always told myself that I preferred novels to short fiction, but objective evidence seems to prove me wrong. With that in mind, here's what I'll be nominating for the 2008 Hugo Awards: take the novel category especially with a grain of salt.

Best Novel

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust [This was my favorite book this year by a mile.]
New Moon's Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson
The Terror, by Dan Simmons
Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer (serialized in Analog magazine in 2007)

Best Novella

"Kiosk" by Bruce Sterling (Jan. F&SF) [Excellent, powerful story about economics]
"Stars Seen Through Stone" by Lucius Shepard (July F&SF) [Beautiful atmospherics, great human characters]
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang (Sept. F&SF)
"Emerald River, Pearl Sky" by Rajnar Vajra (Jan/Feb Analog)
"Recovering Apollo 8" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Feb. Asimov's)

Best Novelette

"Safeguard" by Nancy Kress (Jan. Asimov's)
"The Mists of Time" by Tom Purdom (Aug. Asimov's)
"Kukulkan" by Sarah K. Castle (Dec. Analog)
"Metal Dragon Year" by Chris Roberson (Dec. Interzone)
"The Men in the Attic" by John Phillip Olsen (Dec. Interzone)

Best Short Story

"Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear (June Asimov's) [Flat-out tearjerker, but it really worked]
"The Unrung Bells of the Marie Celeste" by Richard A. Lovett (Jan/Feb Analog)
"Dead Horse Point" by Daryl Gregory (Aug. Asimov's)
"The Best of Your Life" by Jason Stoddard (Dec. Interzone)
"Osama Phone Home" by David Marusek (Dec. F&SF)

Best Related Book

SFWA European Hall of Fame, ed. J. & K. Morrow [Outstandingly excellent, I hope it wins]
Asimov's 30th Anniversary, ed. Sheila Williams

Best Artist (for which Locus Magazine's Cover Art Gallery was invaluable)

Donato Giancola, based on his July Asimov's cover
Bob Eggleton, based on his Oct. Analog cover
Jean-Pierre Normand, based on his Nov. & Dec. Analog covers
John Harris, based on his cover of Spindrift by Allen Steele
Stephan Martiniere, based on his cover of Mainspring by Jay Lake

Best Editor, Short Form

Andy Cox, Interzone
Gordon van Gelder, F&SF
Stanley Schmidt, Analog
Sheila Williams, Asimov's
John Klima, Logorrhea

Best Editor, Long Form (with much help from The SF Editors Wiki

Lou Anders, Pyr
Jeremy Lassen, Nightshade
Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Tor
Jacob Weisman, Tachyon
Kelly Link, Small Beer Press

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Scales, by Anthony G. Williams

The super-powered character is common in both science fiction and fantasy. Whether it be the farm-boy with untapped magical powers or the power-suited soldier, these characters often carry action-driven plots. Sometimes they can also bring along themes of loneliness and alienation, especially if they are the only magical, power-suited, or otherwise special person around. All that's needed is to be the smartest (Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card, 1985) or maybe telepathic (Slan, A. E. van Vogt, 1946) or super strong (Gladiator, Philip Wylie, 1930). Cade, the hero of Scales, starts out as an unlikely candidate for super-being; he starts out as a middle-aged professor in the middle of England. After an unexplained explosion, he gains super strength, endurance, some telepathy, healing powers, and of course, reptilian scales. As so many authors before him, Anthony Williams uses this hero to examine aspects of our society: how would he be treated, how would he be used, what agendas would surround him? Unfortunately Williams occasionally gives in to the temptation to be politically heavy-handed, but otherwise he delivers an enjoyable story.

An admirable aspect of Williams' story is that it does not ignore the role that the media would play in such an event. Big explosion, guy miraculously survives, now he looks like a half-man, half-lizard -- this is going to get some major press coverage. When it turns out that he has nigh-unto miraculous healing powers, the media coverage would go berserk, and indeed it does. He sets up as a healer at a local hospital, with screeners and plenty of security, but eventually those precautions become inadequate. He gets involved with national security matters, which is reasonable as any government would see his new skills as a major asset. However, after the first assassin comes gunning for him he has to move to an army base, which makes it difficult to continue his healing mission. His involvement with government security work unfolds very logically. First they use him as a lie-detector, then as a sensor looking for terrorist intentions, until finally he's running around on the streets chasing bad guys. Everyone agrees that this is a bad idea: he's rather extraordinary looking, and in these days of cell-phone cameras his presence becomes instantly known. It must be said that all of this works well if you think of it as a comic book rather than a "normal" work of science fiction. Cade is a hero more in the mold of Spider-Man (radioactive spider bite causes survivable and advantageous mutations? Try to suspend your disbelief over that one) than in the mold of Ender Wiggins. You have to give the rather hand-waving "science-y" explanations the benefit of the doubt.

After a personal tragedy causes Cade to take a running vacation across Europe (this phase of the story was even a bit more unbelievable), he is gathered up by the UN to try to help their causes. At this point, Cade gets to find out the cause of his super-state when he is contacted by the aliens from a parallel dimension that caused the original explosion. They are nice aliens, and very advanced. They would like to give us all sorts of cool toys, but only if we agree to make major changes to ourselves in order to protect us from ourselves. Here's where the heavy-handedness sets in. The nice aliens are too darn nice and too close to perfect. The changes they want us to make are mostly of the stop-fighting-and-be-nice-to-one-another-and-the-environment kind, which seems a bit bland. Williams rightly identifies what would be the most controversial of their proposed changes: lowering the birth rate world-wide. While over population is obviously a huge problem facing the world, the story's focus on it ends up making it seem like if we solve that problem, everything else will work out great. This is an over-simplified view of the complex suite of problems facing us today.

In the end, Cade takes a very disturbing course of action that removes the choice from the peoples of the world. This sort of thing is seen in sf and fantasy all the time: it is assumed that the superior hero will obviously make better choices than any imperfect and probably corrupt governmental body, no matter how democratic, ever could. This seems distinctly anti-democratic to me, whenever it pops up in fiction, and it raises red flags for me. It usually works out well in the stories, as the superior hero is generally a benign dictator working for the greater good, but it's still worrying. In reality autocrats don't usually work out so well. After this part of the plot, there are still a few more problems with other extra-dimensional aliens to work out, and Cade has a bit more emotional stuff to get through, but it all feels like a denoument from the part where Cade makes his dramatic choice for the world.

The different phases that Cade's story goes through makes this feel like a fix-up of several short stories, and the story may have worked better were it structured that way. I can certainly see a story series derived from this book doing great in the pages of Analog magazine. Williams' style fits theirs perfectly: the attention to detail, the solid attempt at sf explanations, the rather stilted dialog, the action and problem-solving parts of the plot and Williams' smooth, transparent prose style. He even shares editor Stan Schmidt's political concern with overpopulation. Williams extrapolates how today's society would deal with a phenomenon like Cade very well: the press, the media, the religious zealots, the UN, etc. It's only at the end that he falls into some traps of heavy-handedness and stereotypical characterization. This is an enjoyable read, especially if you don't look too far beneath the surface. It fits in well with the super-hero/thriller plots common to both sf and comic books, and can easily be enjoyed on that level.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

About Writing, by Samuel R. Delany

I've been writing reviews seriously for about 2 years now. I am better now than I was at the beginning, when I seemed to be aiming at the better sort of review. Now I aim for, and consistently fail to reach, the heights of Locus Magazine reviewing. Now that I have a couple years off from work (although I am assured that getting a Master's degree does NOT equal "not working"), I hope to focus on improving the quality of my writing. Recently as I was nigh-comatose, decompressing from the stress of my project-from-hell job, I picked up About Writing: 7 Essays, 4 Letters and 5 Interviews by Samuel R. Delany. It served two purposes for me: first it has very practical advice about good writing and how it differs from bad writing; second it re-inspired me to work hard to make my writing better.

Enough about me, this book is really about Samuel R. Delany. Any single-author collection is in a way about its author, fiction or non-fiction. Delany has been a noteworthy presence in the field for decades, and while there are biographies out there about him (most of which he isn't terribly happy with, he mentions), ultimately you get to know a writer through his writing. As much as I personally learned about writing from this book, I also learned about Delany. He's an intelligent and erudite man who cares deeply about writing and art. He's thought about these topics in depth, both their execution and how to teach them. He's thought about the craft of writing and its social context. He doesn't talk down to students, yet he doesn't bamboozle the reader with academic jargon. While he can match pretentious-sounding academic prose with the best of them when necessary, he is more often witty, readable, and to the point.

I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read any of Delany's fiction yet. It's always seemed a bit intimidating. Dhalgren has a formidable reputation. My excuse is that I've been filling in my science fiction history in generally chronological order - for instance I recently finished Moon Pool by A. Merritt, published in 1919. So I planned to get to Delany's books when I started to hit the New Wave period. I've already stocked up for it: I've got a copy of Dhalgren and also The Einstein Intersection. After being exposed to both his writing and his personality in this volume, I'm now eager to pick up his fiction. This collection shows his range: everything from the easily readable material aimed at proto-writers to complicated and erudite prose aimed at serious scholarly journals. He knows how to tailor his writing to his audience, and can sustain both styles of writing equally well. However, for myself as a proto-writer and also a proto-scholar, I found the simpler stuff much easier to digest.

To begin with, Delany covers the things that any beginning writer should know. This stuff is probably covered in the sorts of classes that most writers take, but my background is physics, and I never took those classes. Thus the incredibly basic rules of "good" writing (which Delany differentiates from "great" writing) were (too) eye-opening for me. While I knew some already ("Whenever reasonable, avoid the passive voice"), some I hadn't heard (or at least hadn't internalized) before:

(6) Omit unnecessary chunks of received language. "From our discussion so far it is clearly evident that..." If it's that evident, you needn't tell us. "Surely we can all understand that if ..." If we can, ditto. "In the course of our considerations up till now clearly we can all see that..." If it follows that clearly and we can all see it, we'll get the connection without your telling us we'll get it.

At which point I sat up and mentally exclaimed "So that's what I've been doing wrong!" Not all the time, but that is a particularly bad habit of mine. Later on he has a lengthy examination of the difference between oral language and written language, and why the best oral story-teller you ever heard probably can't write worth a damn. The way we hear things and the way we write them are fundamentally different. Simply transcribing spoken words, or reading written words verbatim, are not successful strategies.

The first sections of the book are meant for the sorts of students one finds at writing workshops. It's aimed at people writing fiction, but especially the advice about sentence-level writing applies to everyone. He emphasizes knowing the basics: grammar and punctuation. One can't be great without being good first. He points out that teachers can only really help with the "good" aspect of writing, that is, avoiding bad writing. To get the next level of "great" writing requires things that can't really be taught. However, he suggests reading as many great writers as you can, so that at least you'll recognize great writing when you see it. He points out that the best education you can get in writing can be had cheaply: simply pick up the books of great writers and read. You don't have to wait for the best teachers, since they're all waiting for you at Barnes & Noble.

In the other essays, most shorter than the Introduction, he describes his experiences both with writing his own work and teaching other writers. There are accounts of interesting exercises at a Clarion workshop, a stream-of-consciousness example of the internal editing process that goes into writing a scene (what gets put on the page and what stays in the writer's head), different methods of characterization, the three easily teachable rules for writing he's found (from Theodore Sturgeon: don't overwrite; from Thomas Disch: don't let your writing become thin or superficial; from himself: don't indulge cliches), a very detailed and interesting critique of a fiction submission printed in a fanzine, and explanations of narrative structure and its importance. Everything in the "Essay" section is filled with useful advice for writers. Not all of it will be useful for every writer (for instance I'm not terribly concerned with characterization), but there will be something new or useful for everyone.

The next section includes four letters, each to an anonymous recipient. One talks about genius and talent in writing, how it relates to the writing marketplace and how it relates to art. Another has an extended critique of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, especially from Delany's perspective as a black man. He argues with its moral prescriptions, its aesthetics, its sense of place and time, and its characters. It is fascinating to read as a critic, to look at what points Delany chooses to critique and how he makes his points. It's an extended example of some of the best reviewing/criticism I've read: he's writing to a friend, so he makes all his points using clear, informal language, while also being forcefully opinionated but not insulting to Morrison.

The third letter is to a neophyte author who has written him for advice. It has to do with building a literary reputation. Delany talks about his own experience as a writer, where writing takes precedence over every other thing in his life. Writing, he points out, is a lot of hard work. He goes on to talk about generating literary markers. Some of these come from writing the very highest possible quality of prose. Others come from being involved in the literary community, being talked about. If you're very lucky, people will write articles about you, perhaps even a biography. However, the only thing the writer can actually control to any real degree is the quality of the words. This is probably not what the correspondent wanted to hear, but it is good advice. Another aspiring writer also comes in for some harsh but needed advice in the last letter. Writers need to keep writing new things, not continually reworking old things.

I found less of immediate interest in the Interviews section. This is partly because several of the pieces are written in a more formal academic style, and partly because I am not yet involved in the heights of literary theory in which these discussions take place. He is deep into the conversation that society has about literature, but I felt that I didn't have enough background to really see what points he was arguing with - I was only getting his side of the conversation. I suspect that in a few years I'll re-read these pieces and get more out of them.

Did the literary universe need another book on writing? Probably not. There are many other volumes that I've seen recommended to new writers, for instance Stephen King's On Writing, not to mention any number of online sites and blogs. One could also argue that the market for non-fiction about science fiction, small as it is, is also full. Delany himself has written several other volumes of non-fiction related to his various fields of interest, from sf to erotica (several of which I've now added to my must-read list). However, the combination of writing guide, intelligent and informal literary analysis, good advice, and warm personality contained in this volume add up to a valuable addition to that market. Particularly for new writers and the new critics, which population seems to be growing steadily, this collection of wisdom will be particularly beneficial.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, by James Gunn

When I found this book, I was browsing the dusty "shelves," mostly made of old cartons, of the science fiction section of my all-time favorite used bookstore, Acres of Books in Long Beach, CA. When I go there I'm generally looking to fill in holes I've identified in my reading list. I've been trying to bring myself up to date in the older realms of sf, so I'm always on the lookout for, say, Star Man's Son by Andre Norton or Before the Dawn by John Taine. I try only to buy books that are already on my To Read list. In fact, I signed up with LibraryThing, and now I can check my To Read list on my cell phone while I'm standing in the bookstore. This has saved me from any number of duplicate or needless purchases. However, the most wonderful thing about used bookstores is the unexpected find, and Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction by James Gunn more or less jumped off the shelf and insisted that I take it home, list or no list.

As a proto-scholar of science fiction, I try to read lots of non-fiction about the sf field: essays, articles, reviews, reference books, etc. However, the list of scholarly books about sf that are both informative and readable is pretty short. So far I've found Gary K. Wolfe's The Known and the Unknown to fall into that category, and about half of the chapters in James' and Mendelsohn's The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Also some parts of the somewhat dated and quirky The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. I'm sure there are many others - I've really only scratched the surface. Just a quick glance at my to-read bookcase reveals The Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, and x, y, z, t: The Dimensions of Science Fiction by Damien Broderick, and I hope both of these will add to the informative and readable list. However, in terms of things that I've read, the newest addition to the list is this Asimov survey.

I should admit, I've long been an Asimov fan. I read the robot short stories when I was twelve or thirteen, and have filled in a lot of his other short fiction since. I enjoyed the original Foundation trilogy, and the first three robot novels. I've also read Asimov's condensed autobiography, I. Asimov. Although this may invalidate all my critical opinions for the rest of my life, I still love Asimov: his ideas, his prose style, his logical puzzles, and his characters. At the risk of all my "professional" credibility (hah), I prefer Asimov to Bradbury (I prefer Asimov shorts to Bradbury shorts by a slim margin, but prefer Asimov's novels by a mile). Also, people can say what they will about her, but Susan Calvin spoke to me when I was growing up as a geeky girl. She wasn't pretty, she wasn't social, she was just incredibly good at what she did. While she wasn't happy all of the time, she seemed fairly satisfied with her lot in life, rising to a pinnacle within her field. Especially compared to the insanely unrealisitic expectations set by Heinlein women (gorgeous nymphomaniacs, who are also smart enough to have many graduate degrees, speak or read several languages, be experts in both hand-to-hand and weapon combat, and still want to settle down and have babies), Calvin was a small source of comfort to me going through adolescence.

All of which is as much to say that I was favorably disposed towards this book when I brought it home.

Gunn opens with a chapter of biography on Asimov. He points out:

Writing about the life of Isaac Asimov is like pouring water into the ocean. Asimov has written more about himself than any living author, and generally with frankness and insight.

Truly there isn't much here that one couldn't get from the autobiographies. However, it is a good condensed version, hitting the highlights that Gunn feels are important to explain Asimov's writing: his hard-working childhood, his love of city living, and his seemingly charmed life. Also, Gunn focuses on Asimov's personal philosophy: humanistic, rational, with faith in progress and human reason. A nice thing about this standard introduction is that if you haven't read Asimov's numerous autobiographical works, you don't have to in order to follow this book. This is a philosophy that Gunn follows throughout the book: he summarizes and explains enough that even if you haven't read the work under discussion, you can still follow his analysis. This occasionally backfires. In stories with complicated plots such as The Stars, Like Dust and The End of Eternity, Gunn can get stuck "summarizing" the plot for up to six pages, which feels excessive. However, thanks to that dedication, I now feel like I can go through life without having to actually read The Stars, Like Dust, Pebble in the Sky, or The End of Eternity, since I now know more than enough about them to get by. In each case, from Gunn's analysis, it sounds like I'm just as well off getting the Cliff Notes version anyhow.

In the second chapter, Gunn steps right up to what may be Asimov's most important (for the SF world) contribution, the Foundation series. Gunn points out:

The student of science fiction who can understand the appeal and influence of the series may understand much that differentiates science fiction from other kinds of literature, and something about the basic appeal of Campbellian science fiction. The failure to provide adequate answers to these questions is the central problem of scholarship about science fiction. The circumstances of creation, for instance, may provide some measure of understanding, but much contemporary scholarship chooses to ignore such ephemera, preferring to apply to science fiction the same criteria applied to Henry James or William Faulkner or John Updike.

Gunn comes up with several possible answers to explain Foundation's appeal. The idea that psychohistory (or some science) can help us see the future is attractive, while the stories themselves continue to reinforce our notion of the future as anti-deterministic: at each turn of the story, success hangs in the balance, and is not guaranteed. As in almost all of Asimov's fiction, he presents problems that can be overcome by the application of human reasoning - something very attractive to most science fiction readership, no matter how rarely it is true in the real world.

...perhaps the most important aspect of Asimov's writing, is his rationalism. More than any other writer of his time (the Campbell era, as Asimov calls it) or even later, Asimov speaks with the voice of reason.... Rationality is the one human trait that can always be trusted, the Trilogy says, and the reader comes to believe that that is Asimov's conviction as well. Sometimes rational decisions are based on insufficient information and turn out to be wrong, or the person making the decision is not intelligent enough to see the ultimate solution rather than the partial one, but nothing other than reason works at all.

That is a theme that Gunn will return to again and again in analyzing Asimov's works and their appeal - they attract those who hope that life and the universe are puzzles to be overcome with intelligence and rationality, traits that geeks tend to have in abundance, rather than by emotionality and wisdom, which geeks may lack to some degree.

Gunn also notes Asimov's thoroughness, both with the Foundation stories and his robot short stories, analysis of which takes up the third chapter in the book. The Foundation stories just about exhaust the possibilities given by psychohistory and the collapse of a galactic empire. The robot short stories, twenty-nine of them, likewise do most of what can be done with the Three Laws of Robotics. Of course, when Gunn was writing this book Asimov had not yet written the books that would tie the Robot future and the Foundation future together, which leaves the analysis of both feeling slightly dated.

Chapter 4 examines Asimov's other short stories, spending a large amount of time, of course, on "Nightfall," perhaps the most famous short story of all time. Interestingly, Asimov himself does not regard it as even the best of his own short stories, but who are we to argue with the judgment of history? "Nightfall" contains the same particular strengths of most of Asimov's stories: the forces of science against everything else, and a puzzle to be solved. It combines these elements with some spectacularly memorable imagery, and being memorable is probably the most important first step to becoming a classic. In regards to the other short stories, Gunn provides a lot of useful historical context: what order they were written and published in, for which editors, and with what significant editorial changes. This was all information I had not been aware of before, and it was interesting to see some of the behind the scenes work that went into this part of Asimov's oeuvre. He also discusses how Asimov re-examines similar ideas at different points in his career, and responds to political developments with specific stories - all the sorts of things one would like a career survey to do.

As Gunn discusses the robot novels, at that time encompassing only Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, he notes how far Asimov had come in his personal life: making a living from writing, with a wife and two children, and treated as a celebrity in the sf scene. Gunn obviously knows Asimov well, and he tries to avoid being too gossipy; this is a work of lit crit, after all. Sometimes though, it appears that he can't help himself:

He had matured in other ways. His social insecurity, particularly with women, had eased with success, and he had adopted a Rabelaisian approach to all women of all ages. He had even enjoyed his first extra-marital encounter and had acquitted himself well.

That's the sort of thing that demands either a lot more explanation (the I. Asimov autobiography didn't mention it, and Gunn never mentions it again), or to be left out altogether. However, in other ways Gunn usefully ties Asimov's biography together with his story developments. Possibly only a person as in love with the city life as Asimov (who spent almost all his life in either New York or Boston) could write a future such as that in Caves of Steel, with its perfectly enclosed habitats, without turning it into a dystopia.

The chapter on "The Other Novels" is the least interesting of the book, particularly since Gunn has to spend so much time on plot summaries. After all the summary, there doesn't appear to be that much one can say about Pebble in the Sky or The Stars, Like Dust to make them really interesting - it strikes the reader that Gunn doesn't think much of them. He also briefly touches on the Asimov juvenilles, the Lucky Starr series, but doesn't go into much depth.

Then The Gods Themselves gets an entire chapter all its own to finish off the book. At the time this was written, 1982, Gods would have been the big thing - Asimov's return to science fiction after more than a decade of drastically reduced output (when he was mostly writing non-fiction), a book that broke with his previous style in several ways (it has aliens, meaningful female characters, and character development) and went on to win a Hugo award. However, Gunn notes that despite its considerable merits, it pales in comparison to the bulk of what Asimov had done before, all the significant contributions he had made to the field in earlier decades.

I found this study interesting and easy to read. It makes sense that an academic who also writes successful fiction would produce significantly more readable scholarship than average. I'm sure that for the serious critic there isn't much here that he/she wouldn't have already known. However, for myself as a novice it held many interesting tidbits. It also provides a model for the proto-scholar of ways to analyze sf literature: look for the big ideas, the story approaches, the context of the author's other works and the works he/she may be responding to, and the authors own biography and personality. Also, in eschewing literary jargon, Gunn's book is accessible to any interested layman, which is to my mind a great choice for talking about sf. As a reader, one doesn't need to be knowledgeable about either lit crit or all of Asimov's works to enjoy this book. Gunn provides all of the context that the reader will need to understand what he's talking about. He is an Asimov apologist, in a way. He focuses on Asimov's strengths rather than on his oft-pointed-out weaknesses. So if you're looking for a study to examine just why no one should ever take Asimov seriously, look elsewhere. But for those already favorably disposed to Asimov's stories and looking for more background on what makes them tick and how they all tie together, this is a readable and informative resource.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Moon Pool

Some books are classic because they are great. Some books are classic because they were the first to do something, and it doesn't matter how well it was done. Then there are the books that are classic for no discernible reason. Moon Pool belongs to this category. It's a Journey to the Center of the Earth-type story, so it certainly wasn't the first of its kind. And it isn't great by any measure. Yet it is mentioned often in works describing the early history of science fiction as a genre, so dutifully I read it. Let me save you the trouble: skip this one, and go back to reading Edgar Rice Burroughs stories if you want to read sf/f from the 1910s.

The Moon Pool, despite its name, does not take place on the Moon, but instead occurs mostly in a lost world inside the Earth. It is interesting to compare the siting of this lost world to those of H. Rider Haggard. He put his lost realms in remote corners of Africa, satisfied that the readers could suspend their disbelief that such fantastic realms had not been previously discovered by Westerners. With the advent of the airplane, however, authors had to get more creative with their new frontiers. After all King Solomon's Mines wouldn't have any suspense at all if Quatermain's band had simply flown in, seen the situation, and flown back to put together an air raid. So when Merritt looks for a place for his lost world, he has to put it somewhere that airplanes can't go, i.e. underground. Considering that E. R. Burroughs had already done this with At the Earth's Core (1914) and even better, gone to Mars with John Carter in 1912, Moon Pool in 1919 seems rather behind the times.

The plot is that a scientist traveling around Indonesia hears an alarming story from an obviously distressed friend, who then disappears. Investigating the story, he finds himself on an island with a slightly lunatic American aviator, a distraught Norse ship captain, and a sinister Russian scientist. They unlock a hidden cavern, and are transported into a deep subterranean realm. There they get involved in the local politics, run afoul of the local gods, fall in love with the local women, etc. The narration is all from the first person perspective of the expedition's only returnee, the scientist Dr. Goodwin. His style is as dry and annoying as any stereotypical scientist one may care to imagine. Merritt takes great pains to be true to his narrator's voice. We see that he can write better, since the dialog from the loony Irish-American pilot is full of life and energy. Unfortunately, Dr. Goodwin is the least interesting and readable possible narrator, and his voice makes every page a slog. Here's an example of his excited narration:

And the Shining One drew back!
Yes, drew back--and back with it stepped Yolara, the doubt in her eyes deepening. Onward paced the handmaiden and the O'Keefe--and step by step, as they advanced, the Dweller withdrew; its bell notes chiming cut, puzzled questioning--half fearful!

Even though much of the story is told in dialog, even most of the dialog (that isn't O'Keefe's) is tendentious. Here's an infodump portion from the main love interest:

"In the Shining One had grown craft, cunning; knowledge to gain that which it desired. Therefore it told its Taithu--and mayhap it told them truth--that not yet was it time for them to go forth; that slowly must they pass into that outer world, for they had sprung from heart of earth and even it lacked power to swirl unaided into and through the above. Then it counselled them, instructing them what to do. They hollowed the chamber wherein first I saw you, cutting their way to it that path down which from it you sped.

This goes on for page after page. Science fiction is known for awkward infodumps, but at least when Yoda's explicating things with weird phrasing, he's also quick about it.

There are some interesting points here amongst the tedium. For one, Merritt is more aware of world cultures and mythical references than is common even today, leading to occasional passages such as:

Dimly there crept into my mind memory of the Dyak legend of the winged messenger of Buddha--the Akia bird whose feathers are woven of the moon rays, whose heart is a living opal, whose wings in flight echo the crystal clear music of the white stars--but whose beak is of frozen flame and shreds the souls of unbelievers.

Also, there is a spiffy way of eliding the requisite "scientific" explanations of obviously fantastic things: when Dr. Goodwin appears to be starting to launch into an actual scientific explanation, the editors of the fictional scientific committee publishing the narrative step in and explain that they are removing the explanations lest they fall into the hands of the Russians.

Despite moments of in interest, this book is too long and too tedious to bother with. There are annoying plots indicating that women having too much power is a bad thing, just like H. Rider Haggard's She, which I also disliked. There are lots of religious themes, and it starts to follow a Christian good vs. evil path, but it doesn't resolve in a satisfying way. In the end the author simply cheats on his foreshadowing, frequently mentioning things like "the last time I saw him alive...," "I never saw them alive again..." and then not following through. The ending, explaining how Dr. Goodwin returns to the surface to present this testimony, is cheesy in the extreme. It's only one degree better than "and then Timmy woke up."

The best thing about Moon Pool is that its copyright has expired and it is thus available for free from Project Gutenberg. This means that if some masochistic impluse causes you to read it, at least you won't waste money on it. Alexei Panshin, in his study of the history of early sf/f The World Beyond the Hill is quite taken with Merritt's works, noting especially how he blends mysticism and scientific impulses in his stories. That may be, but before one gets to that level a book should be readable and enjoyable on some level, and Moon Pool fails on both counts.