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All the Way to the Gallows, David Drake 28 February 2016

1996 SF/fantasy short story collection of some of Drake's more humorous short stories.

At least the ones he thinks are more humorous; Drake's sense of humour is not mine. Which is fair enough; I haven't been to Vietnam. Introductions explain the genesis of the stories, many of which were written to order (as a companion piece for a 40,000-word piece too short to publish on its own, to expand on a card from Magic: the Gathering, or for various shared-universe anthologies), and complain about what a terrible thing political correctness is.

The Enchanted Bunny

Normal person gets thrown into a fantasy world, and is required to be a magician and kill the dragon. There's a long introduction about our hero's current life, which never gets mentioned again once he's been moved; there's someone described as a "swarthy Oriental"…

The main body of the story is rather better, with a grotty fantasy world probably rather closer to historical might-makes-right than most of the ones that talk about honour and chivalry, and the extreme difficulty of actually making useful gunpowder if you only know the theory. Unfortunately, all the things that actually work for our hero are complete coincidence and could have been done just as well by a local without any world-throwing needed.

The Noble Savages

In an SF future, a group of "Harriers", more or less police, go looking for a crashed ship. But political correctness is everywhere, the natives of the planet can't be offended in any way, and the team has an alien liaison officer to make sure they don't cause any trouble.

This is really quite a strange story. OK, I can see the political correctness angle, which Drake parodies in a way that probably seemed very daring in 1993: for example, Patriarchal Religionism is bad, but if you can call something an Aspect of Native Culture then it's good. And of course there are Cultural Re-Education camps. So far, so clichéd. But where are the characters? There's the woman who cares only about guns and wants to kill things with them. There's the guy who calls the overall boss a faggot in literally every single sentence he says, and turns out in a passing comment to be homosexual himself. So, er, what was that all about then?

The resolution is predictable and apparently trabpvqr vf whfg qnaql vs gur crbcyr lbh'er trabpvqvat ner htyl gbnq-fyhtf jub qba'g yvxr lbh.

Airborne All The Way!

This is the one that was written for a Magic anthology, specifically the Goblin Balloon Brigade.

There's more ranting about political correctness in the introduction, but the story itself isn't too bad.

"But boss," #3 said, "how do we get down again?" "Getting down's the easy part!" Dog Squat shouted. "Rocks aren't any smarter than you are, and they manage to get down, don't they? Well, not much smarter. Just leave the thinking to me, why don't you?"

Unfortunately it ends just when the real action is starting, perhaps because someone might actually do something heroic, and we can't have that in a story about grunts.

Cannibal Plants From Heck

This starts off being a cautionary tale about obsession: father and young daughter move into new house, father dedicates his life (and the house) to gardening, and clearly needs to Learn an Important Lesson about having fun. Fortunately there's an old man with a horse-drawn wagon and subtle magic…

But that's not the shape it takes. Yes, the plants literally take over, and have to be fought off. But the father hasn't learned his lesson by the end of the story, and is still a control freak. So while it was a mildly amusing diversion there's no meat to this.

The Bond

Some spots on Earth are now dimensional nexus points, and beings from other worlds are briefly visible through them. A very short story with a light twist ending.

Mom And The Kids

A "good robot" story in the vein of that classic The Wabbler (Murray Leinster, 1942). When a robot that mines and constructs ball bearings is stolen by space raiders, it treats their ship and later their base as something to be mined. This is not helped by a remarkably stupid design decision (external signal on = make ball bearings, external signal off = reproduce without limit). Still, it's quite fun.

The Bullhead

One of the Old Nathan stories, about a cunning man (hedge magician) in Tennessee in the 1830s. A bully gets his comeuppance (though not in a way that seems at all likely to make him behave better in future), but everything and everyone is tired and old and broken.

A Very Offensive Weapon

It was a recommendation of this story that caused me to pick up the collection. This is set in a shared universe set up by Roger Zelazny, one of the last things he did: after the great quest and the battle against the evil wizard, the artefacts that were found and used in the fight have to be lost again. Some of the heroes of that quest traipse off to dispose of a foul-mouthed magical ring. Of course they are conceptually grunts, with insufficient information and preparation. They have a huge casualty rate, and regard "retainers" as thoroughly expendable cannon-fodder. A running theme that the leader of the party actually quite fancied the Beautiful Princess for herself never comes to anything, and the story just dribbles to a stop.

All in all I finished this book thinking rather less of Drake than I did before. I've never particularly got on with his Hammer's Slammers series but did like his RCN books, basically tall ships in space but with enough of a veneer of plausibility, and very well-observed characters, that they work. He didn't start that series until several years after this volume came out, and although I haven't dug far into his other writing I rather suspect that his style has shifted over time.

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