Water, rust, and pyrites

So I finally plowed through ICE, IRON AND GOLD, an anthology of various short stories by best selling author and occasional blog commenter S.M. Stirling.

The scoop:

"Riding Shotgun To Armageddon" is 16 pages set in the offshoot Bronze Age of the "Islander" novels. If you've read the "Islander" novels, well, it won't hurt you to read this, but it adds nothing and you'll live just as long and die just as happy if you never trouble yourself over it, either. Nicely written and ultimately pointless, other than, I suppose, as a hook to sell the anthology.

"Three Walls - 32nd Campaign" is from one of those crappy David Drake edited anthologies about ancient military units kidnapped by aliens and taken off to fight on distant planets. I enjoyed reading the story, but I have a hard time believing aliens with this kind of advanced technology have much use for a timelost Roman legion.

"Cops and Robbers" is a type-by-the-numbers alternate timeline story. If it's the very first parallel timeline story you've ever read, you may find it charming. If, on the other hand, you've read H.Beam Piper's PARATIME and every other alternate world story Stirling himself has written, from the Draka novels through CONQUISTADOR and PESHAWAR LANCERS, this particular 8 pages is going to seem like pretty thin gruel... sort of Draka-lite, with an ending so cliche as to actually elicit a groan from me. That Stirling has to date been paid for this dopey thing twice, while I'm getting my stuff bounced by editors who probably don't even read it, makes me crazy.

"Roachstompers" - I enjoyed this one wholeheartedly, although, again, if you've read pretty much everything else Stirling has written (as I have) this is going to seem largely like a rerun of other, bigger, better stuff. This one seems more like a novel fragment Stirling gave up on rather than finished story, but it's fun to read.

"Constant Never" is okay. It reminded me a lot of something Poul Anderson might have co-plotted with Neil Gaiman, and I think Stirling was straining too hard to come up with some kind of unpredictable twist ending when he wrote this, but, still, it's a pretty cool little story.

"Taking Freedom" is yet another story I found to be very flavored by Gaiman. Still, it's a good read for all of that, even if it seemed obvious to me that the evil sorceress was being an idiot for the entire plot. She got what she deserved, certainly, but anyone stupid enough to cast that should have blown herself to bits decades before this story could ever take place.

"Lost Legion", "Ancestral Voices", and "The Sixth Sun" add up to a decent sized multigenerational Bolo novella. Unfortunately, only the first installment is really worth reading; after that, what charm and interest there is to the thing runs downhill fast. This isn't entirely Stirling's fault -- the basic formula for a Bolo story is "There's this Bolo, see. And there are these people who don't like the Bolo very much. But they get in a lot of trouble and the Bolo saves them. Then they like the Bolo fine. The End." Sometimes towards the last part of the arc you get to wedge in 'and the Bolo heroically sacrifices itself to save the people in trouble, so the people are sad'. Either way, what makes a Bolo story work well or not is elements like setting and characterization, which Stirling handles extremely well in the first story. However, by the time I was three pages into the second story my interest had ebbed almost entirely, and I honestly couldn't make myself do more than skim the third story, where all the original characters (except the Bolo itself) are dead and we're supposed to care about their idiot kids. (I did find the villain of the first story kind of interesting, though -- the guy was so straight out of a Peter O'Donnell story that I kept looking around for Modesty and Willie to skydive in from a Cessna Piper and kick his ass with a jury rigged blowgun or a crudely carved boomerang or something.)

"The Apotheosis of Martin Padway" rocks. It just fucking ROCKS. I don't know if I'd like it anywhere near as much if I weren't such a devoted L. Sprague DeCamp fan and if LEST DARKNESS FALL weren't one of my all time favorite SF novels, but I am and it is so it's pretty much a moot point to me. I suspect one could enjoy this story hugely (because it's really just that cool) even if one hadn't read LEST DARKNESS FALL, but who'd be crazy enough to want to?

"Compadres" is okay. Honestly, it didn't do much for me, but I don't have anything against it, either. It's one of those strange alternate timeline explorations that you have to be an insanely devoted history buff to really appreciate, and, well, I'm not.

"The Charge of Lee's Brigade" is yet another alternate timeline story, and it's interesting, but, again, as I'm not an insanely devoted history buff, I can't say much more for or against it than that.

"Something For Yew" annoyed me, not just because of the crappy pun in the title, but also because it seems to be little more than a teaser/commercial for Emberverse novels I haven't had a chance to read yet.

In summation -- this anthology is priced at around $27, which leaves me with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I love S.M. Stirling's work and I'm an anal, obsessive collector and completist so I'm very pleased to have this as my very own, especially as it was a gift from Tony Collett (thanks, Tony!) so I didn't pay a damn thing for it. On the other hand, if I'd bought it myself and brought it home, I might think that $27 was a pretty steep price to pay for one amazingly cool story in amidst a lot of predictable filler. But, on the gripping hand, as it were, it WAS a very goddam cool story and maybe it was worth $27. I don't know. Ultimately, reading this helped me kill a lot of break time on my new job when otherwise I would have been enormously bored, and I didn't pay anything for it, so I shouldn't complain. I am not sure I can recommend it to anyone who is going to pay anything like full price for it, though.

Don't let that stop you from buying Stirling's novels, though. I'm behind two right now (THE SUNRISE LANDS and IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS, assuming both came out on schedule) but now that I'm working again, I'll snatch them up as soon as may be. Stirling's novels occasionally don't measure up to his very best work (SNOWBROTHER and CONQUISTADOR, for example, were't as top notchas, say, THE CAGE or ISLAND IN THE SEA OF THE TIME or PESHAWAR LANCERS, and DRAKON and the TERMINATOR novels were apparently written mostly while Stirling was badly hung over for purposes of making timely house payments) but the stuff that he himself obviously cares about is all very much worth reading. (Mental note: see about picking up a copy of SHADOW'S DAUGHTER by Shirley Meier sometime soon, too.)

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