Schuyler Hernstrom wrote my favorite stories in Cirsova No. 1 and in Cirsova No. 2. So when the boys over at the Puppy of the Month Book Club announced that Hernstrom’s self-published collection of short fiction was their pick for November, I rushed out and bought it (figuratively; literally I was sitting at my computer the whole time). I wasn’t disappointed. The stories in Thune’s Vision might not rise to the heights of The Gift of the Ob-Men or Images of the Goddess, but Hernstrom is still the king of one particular corner of Retro SF and has shown he can consistently deliver.
(Scheduling Note: The much delayed Part 2 of my post on 1984 should go up next week. I have an announcement to make and will probably skip at least one week over the holidays, so I may only get up one other substantive post in December. My announcement? That I will be participating in Vintage Science Fiction month in January, hosted by Andrea at the Little Red Reviewer and Jacob at Red Star Reviews. I’m planning to read and post on The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, The Tritonian Ring by L. Sprague de Camp (PC Bushi will be joining me in reading and reviewing this one), and Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert Heinlein.)
The Challenger’s Garland
In which the champion of a physical manifestation of death makes his challenge, and Death always wins in the end. The titular challenger immediately calls up the image of Frank Frazetta’s iconic Death Dealer. (Although I also can’t imagine a Death attended by a giant crab without thinking of the Pulp Librarian.) It’s a good example of how Retro SF can draw from imagery imprinted on even the unlettered modern by the pulps, without being clumsy or overly sentimental about it. It also has one hell of a twist ending. Watching the original Twilight Zone episodes and reading Hugo nominees and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction over the past year, a killer twist is one thing you don’t see nearly as much in modern speculative short fiction.
Athan and the Priestess
In which a steppe warlord is convinced it is his destiny to swim under the barrier to another world and bring it down. Hernstrom is the master of the mini-epic. Who else can tell a truly epic tale in a short story? Athan and the Princess doesn’t have quite the breathtaking scope of The Gift of the Ob-Men, but it’s epic nonetheless. There is a suggestion that the magical barrier at issue that has split masculine and feminine societies has been to the detriment of both, although befitting Hernstrom’s work, no change will come without a price. It also has a tremendous, and freaking scary, scrape with sea monsters.
The Movements of the Ige
In which a dance-off among bipedal lizards is rudely interrupted by a crashing spaceship. This is a nice spot of sword and planet. The titular Ige feel more fantastical than alien, as they should, because the story is told entirely from their perspective. The spaceship may be manned by humans, based on the description, or not, but they’re treated as utterly alien because that is what they are to the Ige. As a story, though, this is the weakest in the collection.
The Ecology of the Unicorn
In which a wizard tries to cheat death and fairies, and death (and fairies) always wins in the end. Hernstrom is probably most often compared to Jack Vance. The Ecology of the Unicorn is the Vancian story in Thune’s Vision and suffers for it, as good as Hernstrom is. It works because it has the vast sort of thematic weight that Hernstrom is a master at fitting into just a handful of pages of fiction, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a Hernstrom story. And that I can talk about “Hernstrom stories” tells that he’s doing something very right, and not just creating crude simulacra of the works of lost giants.
The Saga of the Adawolf (novelette)
In which a Germanic warrior is defeated and sent on the run, receives a boon and gets revenge and a crown, and the Roman Empire always wins in the end. The Saga of the Adawolf is the longest story in the collection (taking up about half the page length) and is another epic. It’s a grand tragedy. Given a boon by the All-Father, Adawolf’s existing skill as a warrior allow him to avenge the death of his family and his defeat at the beginning of the story. But his existing fatal flaws ensure a bitter end nonetheless. The scenes of Adawolf fighting with a magic spear are fantastic and remind me a lot of scenes in The Traitor Son of Gabriel fighting with a Wyrm-blessed ghiaverina. This is another story that feels BIG without needing either a huge word count or to wear BIG IDEAs on its sleeve. It’s by far the most historically grounded and low-magic of any Hernstrom that I’ve read, though. His wild imagination is always a highlight, but as The Saga of the Adawolf helps show, there are thematic depths to his work, dancing lizards and giant crabs or no.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
The Frisky Pagan on Thune’s Vision.