My life in outer space

Archive for August, 2013

Tower of Glass – Robert Silverberg (1970)

.Tower of Glass

Simeon Krug is a man with a vision and he has the vast wealth necessary to bring it into being. For Krug wishes to communicate with the stars, to answer signals from deep space.

The colossal glass tower that he is building for the purpose soars high above the Arctic tundra, a sparkling monument to his determination and obsession. The androids who are working on it are perfect synthetic creatures, created by Krug’s own process in Krug’s own factories, and their commitment to the project and their loyalty to Krug are beyond question. For they have made him their god and believe that through him they will become flesh and blood.

But Krug is not a god and when the androids learn the bitter truth their anger is terrible and uncontrollable and threatens much more than Krug’s tower.

‘Tower of Glass’ is a tense and powerful novel written with the intense creativity and ferocious imagination which characterises Silverberg’s finest work. Dealing intelligently and forthrightly with important themes, it is science fiction at its thrilling best.

Blurb to the 2001 Gollancz Collector’s edition.

Simeon Krug, wealthy magnate of the future, is so obsessed with a sequence of numbers being transmitted from a planetary nebula three hundred light years away that he develops a strain of synthetic humans – androids – in order to build a tower fifteen hundred metres high. The tower will house massive tachyon emitters, which will send a response to the originators of the alien signal.
The androids, unbeknown to King, have developed their own society which is attempting to achieve Android Equality rights in two fundamentally different ways. The Android Equality Party is a visible politically active movement which campaigns for a change in legislation from the current situation in which androids are considered ‘property’.
Other androids have forged a religion around the figure of Krug ‘The Creator’. Some of the more intelligent members of the religion are attempting to manipulate Krug into making a pro-equality statement; a plan in which Krug’s son Manuel becomes an unknowing pawn.
This short but complex novel is – to a certain extent – exploring areas Philip K Dick had already explored in the preceding decade to better effect. Indeed, the novel seems influenced by Dick stylistically, particularly in Silverberg’s choice of names for his characters. We have for instance, Simeon Krug himself, whose name is redolent of Simian’ and also has religious connotations, while the androids are given names dredged from various religious traditions. Thor Watchman is Krug’s right hand android, his most trusted advisor and is also secretly a high level member of the Android Church of Krug. Other androids have names such as Lilith (who, like her namesake is dedicated to seduction, and later manages to arouse sexual feelings within Thor).
Krug’s son Manuel, who is used as a pawn by the androids, is persuaded to disguise himself as an android named Leviticus Leaper in order to visit android ghettos and chapels while the androids themselves – branded by their bright red skin – are endeavouring to become more human.
There is something very Shakespearean about Tower of Glass. The unfolding of the drama is measured by the increasing height of the tower, which is in direct relation to the increase in Krug’s maniacal obsession with the project. Krug himself, although not a wicked man, becomes increasingly irrational and blind to the social developments within the race of androids which he created.
There are some memorable moments and ideas which are not fully exploited such as the transmats which can transport someone instantaneously around the globe. One can chase the sun around the world, watching sunset after sunset, cheating time until one is inevitably forced to cross the dateline.
Then there is the restaurant at the bottom of the sea, built from several connected spheres of the impermeable glass of which Krug’s tower is constructed. One can dine while watching the strange luminous denizens of the deep prey on one another.
Sadly, most of the main characters – with the exception of Lilith – are male and even she fails to achieve the roundedness or depth of Dick’s females. Dramatically the novel might have been stronger if Krug had had only a daughter and she was seduced by a male android.
Ultimately the androids, perhaps finally achieve their ambition of equality by embracing the spirit of being human, erupt in an orgy of violence and destruction, their illusions of Krug as benign Father/God finally destroyed.


Hull Zero Three – Greg Bear (2010)

Hull Zero Three
This sort of tale is a walk in the park for Bear. The narrator awakens on board a space vessel into intense cold and is immediately told by a young girl that he is in danger and needs to follow her. Our narrator’s memories don’t appear to be all there although fragmented memories slowly begin to return.
He teams up with the young girl and two oddly-modified humanoids, and they proceed to search for food on the ship while keeping out of the way of the malfunctioning genetically modified cleaning creatures and worse horrors.
The ship, it seems, is very old and has been journeying for centuries, but something has gone very wrong.
It is composed of three enormous hull sections and a control area known as ‘Destination Guidance’. It seems the narrator needs to get to Hull Zero Three (he awoke in Hull Zero One) in order to be able to contact Destination Guidance and save the ship and its mission.
Things begin to get very strange when the narrator meets another version of himself and finds the bodies of his previous selves who failed to reach their destination.
It’s a marvelous read, but somewhat lacking the widescreen scope that Bear usually deploys in his epic novels. It certainly touches on elements of Dickian paranoia by addressing questions of personal identity. If a person is ‘born’ as an adult with a whole life of imprinted memories, can we think of the person as a continuation of the original donor? What if there was no original donor, and the memories are fictitious?
There also ethical questions raised about how we would stand on inter-racial relations, should we encounter other intelligent life?
Bear does not pose these questions, but they are there for us to pick up, like the ringpull to a whole can of philosophical and moral worms.
The continuation of the self was a theme raised in ‘Blood Music’ where the noocytes consumed and recycled human bodies but recorded the personalities, the minds, which were reassembled within the noocyte organisms as continuing entities.
Here humanity is again changing and moving on, but to a controlled design.
In ‘Darwin’s Radio/Children’ it was postulated that there are random leaps in evolution via viral transfer and/or triggering of genes. This is a natural Darwinian process as opposed to a designed Homo Superior, or the incalculable effects of the injected noocytes.
‘Hull Zero Three’ although the weakest of the three novels, is a brilliant piece of work. The edges become blurred between what is man and what is machine, and this may also give a clue to the silver phantom that haunts the ship; a sound explanation for which is given in the denouement.

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Manseed – Jack Williamson (1982)

Manseed

‘In the beginning there was Egan Drake, the genius who dreamed of spreading mankind among the galaxies.

Then came Megan, who took on her brother’s mantle and made his imaginings real. She gathered around her the finest in their fields – biology and astronautics, computer science and fusion propulsion – and fired them with her vision.

And finally was born The Project: a thousand tiny spacecraft crawling like electromechanical wombs towards the stars, each bearing the genetic seeds for a future colony of man.

And some fell on stony ground and some fell on fertile ground, and some…’

Blurb from the 1986 Sphere paperback edition.

Egan Drake is, or was, what you would call bipolar in today’s psychological lexicon. Possessing a high degree of manic creativity and occasional freak genius he puts together a scheme to send out automated ‘seedships’ into space, some of which may land on another inhabitable world.
And so the tale of one of the ships is told by its ‘defender’; a humanoid AI which possesses an amalgum of the major scientists working on the project and the dominant personality, Don Brink, an ex-soldier and mercenary whose specialised knowledge is needed to deal with any unexpected incidents.
The current action is interspersed with flashbacks of the project, set up by Megan Drake after her brother’s death. She tracks down and hires several vital men for her mission.
The ship finds a habitable world, but one which contains the still active remnants of a robotic defence force, awaiting the return of their biological masters who are some thirty thousand years late.
Suffice to say that the defender helps the ship to establish a new human colony on the new world and, in the process, comes to terms with himself as a sexless, but sentient, humanoid.
To be honest, the flashbacks are somewhat dull and give the impression of a tragically depressing set of people who would surely not have had the enthusiasm to carry through such a project.
In contrast, the futuristic elements are full of colour and life.


Stranger In A Strange Land – Robert A Heinlein (1961)

.Stranger In A Strange Land

Heinlein’s novel of the subversion of American values was received with such popular acclaim in its time that – a rare occurrence for SF novels – it went into the best-seller lists in the US. With fame came notoriety as its tenets were taken literally by some devoted fans and claimed as an influence by – amongst others – Charles Manson.
Hope is abandoned when contact is lost with the eight members of the first expedition to Mars.
Twenty years later a further mission finds only one survivor, Valentine Michael Smith, the illegitimate son of two of the dead scientists. The child has been brought up among the truly strange Martians and is, to all intents and purposes, culturally Martian.
His return to earth prompts a political crisis and later, a sociosexual revolution.
Heinlein’s aim allegedly was to challenge every sacred code of American culture. Smith, in teaching humans Martian – and thereby the Martian philosophy, exposes the dysfunctional social flaws which permeate society. Jealousy, for example, is shown to be merely a socially conditioned response to restrictive marital practices. Smith’s polygamous (and anti-capitalist) system allows those chosen to be within ‘The Nest’ to express love with each other without embarrassment or jealousy.
Sadly, Heinlein’s attempted liberalism does not cover up some of his more entrenched attitudes, particularly to women and gay men.
Homosexuality is a subject on which Heinlein always seems to exhibit a large amount of ignorance.

(Jill wasn’t sure how far this went; she had explained homosexuality, after Mike had read about it and failed to grok – and had given him rules for avoiding passes; she knew that Mike, pretty as he was, would attract such. He had followed her advice and had made his face more masculine, instead of the androgynous beauty he had had. But Jill was not sure that Mike would refuse a pass, say, from Duke – fortunately Mike’s water-brothers were decidedly masculine, just as his others were very female women. Jill suspected that Mike would grok a “wrongness” to the poor in-betweeners anyhow – they would never be offered water)

Unusually for Heinlein, the science in this novel is confined to details of the original journey to Mars. Once there, he abandons all scientific credibility by providing Mars with not only intelligent life but an oxygen atmosphere and a climate in which humanity can apparently live comfortably. Of course, Mars is merely a device by which Heinlein can introduce his alien philosophy, but it is a shame that an SF author with such credential should skimp on the basics.
Similarly in extrapolating early sixties society he succeeds terrifyingly well in anticipating the dominance of Fundamentalist Religious sects and although his future America has flying taxis which are controlled by a central computer system, secretaries are still all female and use typewriters and tape-recorders. Women are allowed to work in Heinlein’s future but only in minor and subservient roles.
Paradoxically, the female characters, who outnumber the males are far more interesting than the men. Mrs Douglas, wife of the Secretary general (a figure in this future USA who wields more power than the President) is the real power behind the figurehead. She is a shrewd and able politician despite her over-reliance on advice from an astrologer.
There are obvious echoes of the story of Christ and indeed there are some very obvious and deliberate parallels, from the initial ‘miracles’; the gathering of disciples, one of whom is an ex-stripper, through the ‘Last Supper’ and the martyrdom, resurrection and ritual cannibalism.
One of the flaws of the novel is the sudden presence of Archangel Foster (founder of the post-Christian Fosterite sect) and his successor, Digby. Both are dead but appear ‘in spirit’ in what appears to be intended to be a set of comic interludes.
This not only spoils the flow and tone of the novel but seems to be completely contradictory to Jill’s later belief – via Smith – that souls are reincarnated and do not ‘hang around’.
It’s not quite clear what their function within the novel is, since were these sections excised, the novel would lose nothing and in fact would be improved by their absence.
For its time it was a great novel, capturing the spirit of the age. Heinlein presented a very plausible future in which a kind of Paradise could be achieved through philosophical enlightenment. Today however, with Manson’s ‘Family’ and Waco behind us, Smith’s mental and physical seduction of his all-too-willing followers seems just a little too disturbing.


Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan (2002)

Altered Carbon

ALTERED CARBON is an SF novel of extraordinary vision and depth. This lightning fast, breathtakingly violent 26th century thriller carries a weighty cargo of ideas and speculative science with graceful ease. It is an awe-inspiring vision of a future living on stolen time.

Blurb from the 2002 Gollancz edition

The mercenary-cum-detective Takeshi Kovacs is killed and finds himself reawakened in a new body since this is an age where one can download one’s ‘self’ (i.e., the memories and patterns of the brain) into a stack and transfer into new bodies indefinitely if one can afford it.
For his crimes his ‘stack’ was sentenced to storage, a sentence which can mean centuries of stasis until the criminal is finally ‘re-sleeved’ and released.
Kovacs however has been given a chance of freedom. If he can prove that wealthy and ancient Laurens Bancroft did not, as the police sought to prove, kill himself by blowing his own head off, but was murdered, he will be rewarded with wealth and freedom.
Bancroft of course, although killed, was re-sleeved shortly afterward from a back-up, but had lost 48 hours of his subsequent memories.
And so Kovacs finds himself not on his native Harlan’s World but on Earth attempting to solve a mystery in a future society which we gradually learn about through tantalisingly brief snatches of backstory gleaned from the situations, locations and conversations.
For instance, we discover that Earth is surrounded by rogue AI orbitals, no longer under any control from below which may or may not fire on any ships entering their range. Some have been shot down or have malfunctioned so there are minor gaps through which some ships may pass.
This style of acclimatisation by incidental snippets of information works very well and helps to maintain the rapid pace of the action.
Kovacs soon discovers that the interest shown in him by Kristin Ortega of the Police Organic Damage Division is due in no small part to the fact that his stack has been decanted into the body of her ex-partner and lover, Elias Ryker. This makes for an interesting relationship between them which begins as a brittle hostility before mellowing into a working partnership.
The settings are vivid and imaginative and set solidly within a cleverly extrapolated future. There is a sense of future antiquity where technology has been recycled to serve new purposes such as the gun-metal android reprogrammed to work as the salesman of a weapons-shop, or the Midnight Lamp Room of Kovacs’ sentient hotel, constructed from the workings of ancient clocks, as is the robot waiter who serves the drinks.
As in a period detective novel there are red herrings, plot twists, surprises and a bevy of femme fatales which include Bancroft’s psychopathic wife, Miriam and the ancient and terrifying crime boss, Reileen Kawahara.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ‘nouveau noir’ style has been explored previously in various ways, as in Kim Newman’s ‘The Night Mayor’, a virtual reality world of Film Noir into which a criminal has escaped, followed by a detective who has to play by the internal rules of the environment; and Jonathan Lethem’s rather surreal ‘Gun with Occasional Music’ which features – amongst other things – a talking gun-toting kangaroo and a central wise-cracking detective straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel.
‘Altered Carbon’ is a dense and satisfying novel which keeps one guessing until the final pages. For a first novel it’s a brilliant and stylish piece of work and promises great things of Morgan.


Life During Wartime – Lucius Shephard (1987)

Life During Wartime

‘In the jungles of Guatemala, David Mingella is slugging it out amongst the rotting vegetation and his despairing fellow foot soldiers. He knows he is nothing but an expendable pawn in an endless war. On R&R a few miles beyond the warzone he meets Debora – an enigmatic young woman who may be working for the enemy – and stumbles into a deadly psychic conflict where the mind is the greatest weapon. Thoughts are used to kill and escape is impossible, but David is a man with a mind of his own and he will fight to the death before killing the woman he loves.’

Blurb from the 1998 Orion paperback edition

A novel which won much critical acclaim at the time of its publication, LDW is the story of Mingella, a soldier in the US army in a future war between the powers of Capitalism and Communism. Mingella, when R&R is due, goes regularly with his buddies Gibley and Baylor since they have a superstitious belief that they will all be safe if they go together.
One weekend, Mingella meets Deborah, and a bond is formed, since the two are psychics, although on opposite sides of the ideological boundary.
Mingella then gets recruited into the Psicorps, and he is told that Deborah is a Communist agent and that he will someday be assigned to bring her in.
Mingella’s character, affected by training, drugs and the manipulative effects of other psychics, hardens and his treatment of others becomes somewhat cruel.
Mingella does not realise that he is on a journey of discovery and that he will ultimately uncover the secret of who is pulling the strings behind the war.
It is a dense and fantastic piece of literature which is rich with its own odd symbolism and stories within stories. One of Mingella’s psychic trainers for instance, gives him a book of short stories by one of his favourite authors, ‘The Fictive Boarding House’, in which he reads the story of two feuding families, a story which is very much rooted in reality and of which Mingella is unknowingly a part.
Many characters have stories to tell, such as Brandford, whom he meets in the jungle, and who tells him the tale of The Beast who haunts the forest. Later Mingella meets up with his old army buddy Gibley who relates the plot of one of Baylor’s favourite SF novels in some detail, although Mingella realises that Gibley has invented the plot himself.
Then there are the insects and invertebrates which seem to intrude surreptitiously everywhere. Mingella’s base was called The Ant Farm and at one point he falls asleep while watching spiders crossing and recrossing the window. He sees constellations of moths. The pilots whom he befriends wear buglike masks that they never remove and when attacked in the jungle by soldiers berserker-crazed by the drug Dammy, he is saved by an army of butterflies.
Highly literate and complex, it needs at least two readings I suspect, to begin to uncover the nuances.


Ring Around The Sun – Clifford D Simak (1953)

Ring Around the Sun

Jay Vickers, living a rural existence in a small town, is a restless writer. There are new gadgets on the market. Everlasting razor blades and lightbulbs are in the shops and then there is the Forever Car, which is guaranteed never to break down.
His agent arranges an interview with a client who wants the writer to investigate and disparage the companies behind the devices, since no one knows where these cheap products are coming from and they are undermining the Capitalist system of America.
He declines the offer. His neighbour, Flanders, is an elderly man who often pops round at odd hours for a chat. When he goes missing someone convinces the locals that Vickers has killed Flanders, and so he is forced to go on the run in one of the Forever cars.
It seems he is being urged by unknown agencies to return to his childhood home, a home where he remembers walking in a valley that was not part of the Earth we knew.
The amnesiac hero was a popular device, arguably if not invented by AE van Vogt then certainly popularised by him in ‘The World of Null-A’.
It has been used extensively in SF by authors such as PK Dick, Charles L Harness and Simak who also used the device in ‘The Werewolf Principle’. It’s a handy plot device since it enables the hero to see the world through our eyes and we learn secrets alongside him or her.
We are again in Simak’s idyllic US of the 1950s, or at least it was through Simak’s eyes. The hero is inevitably based in a quiet mid west town where everyone knows everyone and it always seems to be the sleepy end of summer.
Vickers has recently come across a scientific theory which postulates that there is another earth, slightly out of phase with ours, a second behind our world, and another a second behind that, and so on, forming a ring around the sun.
And so, our hero, impelled by various ‘arranged’ factors, returns to the playgrounds of his youth and begins the process of discovering who he really is and the identity of the people behind the Forever Cars and the immortal light bulbs.
Behind the obvious artistry and brilliance of Simak’s ring of alternate words strung around the sun like a bracelet, the robots, the android and the mutant humans, there is a deep concern for the future of human society. There is a recurring theme in Simak’s work of overpopulation leading to the deterioration of society. In some novels Earth has been depopulated by emigrating humans leaving the Earth to heal itself and cover its wounds.
Simak, unlike some other writers, has never suggested any Malthusian solutions, but only that of leaving the Earth for the stars in order that our planet can replenish itself and return to what it was.
Simak’s Paradise on Earth is Man working in harmony with both technology and the planet.


The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K LeGuin (1971)

The Lathe of Heaven

‘George Orr is in most respects a mild and unremarkable man, but he has an ability with which he can transform the world around him, for George’s dreams alter reality. His psychiatrist, William Haber, at first sceptical, cannot resist using George’s powers once he sees their effects – initially just to advance his own career, but then, gaining confidence, to try to change their overcrowded world into a more attractive place.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition. (no 44)

George Orr discovers a strange gift, a gift he has been in denial about since he was young, since George has the power to change reality with his dreams.
Finding himself in the midst of an apocalyptic nuclear war, George dreams of a new world and changes all of recent history. However, the new world in which he finds himself is not perfect and George is caught taking unprescribed drugs to stop himself dreaming and is referred to a therapist.
The therapist however, at first dubious of George’s claims of reality-changing dreams, is convinced when, under hypnosis, George is triggered into an ‘effective dream’ and changes the painting on the therapist’s wall from a landscape of a mountainous scene to one of a horse.
Soon George finds himself a virtual slave to the therapist, who employs a brain-scanning machine and his regular hypnotic sessions to gradually change the world into what the therapist considers to be a perfect society.
In some ways this can be considered a re-telling of other dangerous fables of wishes come true, such as the ancient tale of the genie in a bottle or the more recent ‘Monkey’s Paw’ where one has to word one’s wish precisely to avoid ambiguity. When the therapist asks George to dream of a less overpopulated world the new reality becomes an earth which was, some time ago, devastated by a terrible plague and is now entering into a new World war. Again, the therapist asks for a dream of a world in which humans are not fighting each other nd the outcome is a reality where hostile aliens have set up a base on the Moon and Humanity has united to war with them.
Somehow a reality is established where the aliens have been misunderstood and wish only peace, but George’s therapist will not let go his egomaniacal desire to continue reshaping reality.
It’s a very Dickian idea, stylishly constructed and told, with LeGuin’s amazing gift for telling compelling human stories in a fantastic and unearthly way.
There’s also the Kafka-esque idea of a man trapped by the system into a form of mental slavery, unable to convince anyone (apart from ultimately a female lawyer) of the incredible truth, and the word ‘truth’ in this context is itself an unstable concept.
It’s a novel about power and greed, absolute power corrupting absolutely, about the nature of society and whether, ultimately, a utopia would be a good thing to desire or achieve.


The Mount – Carol Emshwiller (2002)

The Mount

‘Charley is an athlete. he wants to grow up to be the fastest runner in the world, like his father. He wants to be painted crossing the finish line, in his racing silks, with a medal around his neck.
Charley lives in a stable. He isn’t a runner; he is a human mount. he belongs to a Hoot. The Hoots are alien invaders. Charley hasn’t seen his mother in years, and his father is hiding out in the mountains with the other Free Humans. The Hoots own the world, but the humans want it back. Charley knows how to be a good mount – but now he’s going to have to learn how to be a human being.’

Blurb from the 2005 Firebird paperback edition

Emshwiller paints a seemingly naïve and simplistic vision of Humanity living in servitude under the rule of the Hoots; small, fairly immobile aliens who have taken control of the Earth. The Hoots have eyes on the sides of their heads, giving them virtually 360 degree vision, very strong hands and weak legs, which is why humans are used as mounts, to carry them about their daily business.
Indeed, Hoots breed humans in much the way that we breed horses today, producing different strains for different functions. Tennessees are generally thin and fast, and do well in racing while Seattles (like our hero, Smiley) are darker, stockier and stronger.
Smiley is a prime Seattle and has been bonded as the mount to his little Master, his most Excellent Excellency, the future Ruler-of-us-all.
Following a raid by wild humans, Smiley (or Charley as his human name is) is unwillingly rescued by his father, Heron, and taken – along with his Little Master – to live in the wild. Here the relationship between Hoot and Mount inevitably begins to change.
Emshwiller provides an interesting afterword on the inside back cover in which she explains her process of writing and the impetus for the novel, which was a study of the relationships between predator and prey.
The idea of humans as slaves or pets of alien masters is not a new one, since the idea stretches from ‘War of The Worlds’ in which humans are destined to be foodstock for the Martians to the not dissimilar ‘Tripods’ trilogy by John Christopher, and beyond. ‘The Puppies of Terra’ by Thomas M Disch sees humans as pets to grotesque alien masters. Russell’s ‘The Sparrow’ also examines a predator/prey relationship, while Octavia Butler in ‘Dawn’ sees humans as powerless DNA resources for an alien race whose raison d’etre is to integrate the DNA of other races into their own. For obvious reasons humans tend to emerge victorious but wiser in most of these books, and The Mount is no exception, although Emshwiller’s optimistic ending suggests that the two races will ultimately live together on an equal, almost symbiotic basis.
What is interesting is that so many books relating to this theme are by women and are, in the main, superior in quality to the work of their male counterparts. Certainly Emshwiller (and indeed Butler) attempts to dig into the human psyche living under such conditions and is brave enough to show a human who has learned to enjoy his servitude and even taken pride in it.


The Paradox Men – Charles L Harness (1953)

The Paradox Men

‘The Society of Thieves was the only organisation that flouted authority in America Imperial: they robbed the rich to buy freedom for the slaves. They were well equipped and trained for their job and had friends and informers in high places ready to reveal where the wealth of the nobles was hidden.
And Alar was the best Thief of them all – for he had senses not found in ordinary men, senses that accurately warned him when danger was near. But Alar had amnesia and did not know his true identity though sometimes he sensed that there was a purpose in his actions that was not entirely of his own volition.
When Keiris, wife of the Imperial Chancellor saw him, she sensed that he was something special and helped him to elude pursuit even though it put her own life in danger. And in trips to the Moon and even the Sun itself, Alar begins to see what part he is destined to play in the struggle for men’s freedom.

Blurb from the 1967 Four Square paperback edition.

Harness, like Bester, wrote far less than his fans would have wished. His style (as Brian Aldiss terms it in the introduction the Four Square SF edition) is Widescreen Baroque, and despite the paucity of his output, one cannot deny that his influence has been a major one on the genre. Twelve years before Frank Herbert gave us Dune we see Harness employing the idea of personal force-shields, which repel bullets and blasters but allow through the relatively slow-moving sword or knife. Thus Harness combines the swashbuckling sword-wielding hero with the Solarion ships, which skate the surface of the sun, and the experimental interstellar ship, which is at the centre of the novel’s mystery. One can see the influence of Harness in many authors’ work, not least Herbert. Echoes of his style and imagery crop up in the work of Moorcock, M John Harrison, Will McCarthy (Aldiss notes in the introduction that Harness ‘shares a weakness for regality (and female rulers) with Van Vogt’ which seems to be also shared by Harrison and also McCarthy – see ‘The Collapsium’) and possibly Brian Aldiss himself.
Far in the future, America is a feudal Empire, its titular head being the Imperatrix Juana-Maria, although in reality her ruthless Chancellor, Haze-Gaunt, controls the Empire. His wife, Keiris was once married to the revolutionary Kennicott Muir, who set up the Society of Thieves, a Robin Hood style organisation dedicated to robbing the rich and bringing about the end of institutionalised slavery. Muir is now thought to be dead.
One of the best of the Thieves is Alar, the central figure of the novel, a man with no past, since he can remember nothing beyond a few months back.
Alar begins a search for the truth, during which he meets Keiris, a woman who seems hauntingly familiar and the Microfilm Mind, a mutant who can deduce the future by memorising and analysing thousands of facts of the present.
Meanwhile a vast interstellar ship is being built, raising the hope that Mankind might now reach the stars, but Alar is beginning to suspect that the ship has already returned to Earth and crashed long before it was built, and that he might have been on board.
One can argue that the novel is no more than a chase in which relentless enemies pursue Alar, searching for the truth and his own memories, but it is far more than this. It’s a joyful piece of elaborate plotting, as complex and beautifully structured as an orrery, filled with bizarre and memorable characters and featuring a denouement both expected and unexpected.