My life in outer space

Archive for October, 2013

Brasyl – Ian McDonald (2007)

Brasyl

‘Sao Paolo, 2032

A city with a neon heart. A city of countless millions. A city of breathtaking wealth and life-stealing poverty. A city watched over by angels. Constant surveillance; the tracking of your every move, the ebb and flow of your money, of your life. A city where a thief could step out of the favelas and find himself trapped in the bewildering, lethal world of illegal quantum computing.

Rio de Janeiro, 2006

A city that lives on reality TV. A city of watchers and watched. A city where an ambitious TV producer could find her next big hit and lose her life. And her soul.

Brazil, 1732

A country of Eden-like beauty. A country of gold and death. A country of madness and religion. A country where a Jesuit Father sent to find a rogue priest will find faith and reality taken to breaking point.’

Blurb from the 2008 Gollancz paperback edition.

In 1733, Father Luis Quinn, a decent Irish priest haunted by a violent incident in his past, is sent on a mission into the Amazon jungle as an admonitory to reign in a rogue priest who is carving out his own nation from a floating cathedral.
In 2006, Marveline Hoffman, a producer of reality TV programmes is on the trail of Barbosa, the Brazilian goalkeeper from the Nineteen Fifty Fateful Final, the man who made all Brazil cry. However, things start becoming decidedly weird when her doppelganger begins interfering in her life.
And in 2033, Edson, a metrosexual bisexual entrepreneur, falls suddenly in love with a Japanese quantum scientist in a Brazil monitored by surveillance angels whose quantum technology is beginning to leak onto the streets.
For these three main characters to be enfleshed so lovingly on the page is remarkable enough, but McDonald goes far far further in giving birth to an entire cast of wonderful people.
It is most impressive in its tri-part descriptions of South America in its past, present and future where life in each of the three ages is tough, but still finds room for loving, compassionate people.
Each of the protagonists experiences, to a greater or lesser degree, an epiphany and their lives are changed. Father Luis Quinn’s turning point is when he is given an Amazonian drug extracted from the skin of a golden frog which gives him access to his consciousness across the infinite array of parallel universes.
Marcelina, whose life revolved around the production of exploitative reality shows, finds her life turned upside down by the discovery of another Marcelina from a parallel world who is slowly destroying her life and relationships.
Edson, possibly the most complex of the characters here, falls in love with a quantum physicist. When she is killed he is devastated until he sees her again and discovers that she is a fugitive from a parallel world who is being hunted down by the agencies patrolling the infinite array of quantum realities.
It becomes evident that these worlds are from different variations of our own earth, and none of them may be based on the Earth we know.
However, inbetween the plots strands and the concept of reality as a programme running on a vast quantum computer, McDonald gives us wonderful views into the lives of a whole army of characters, whether they be Eighteenth Century scientists attempting to measure the world or Hispanic cleaning ladies who know all there is to know about The Fateful Final when Brazil lost the World Cup in Nineteen Fifty.

NB ‘Futebol’ is said to have originated in South America.

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Eifelheim – Michael Flynn (2006)

Eifelheim

‘IT IS A TIME OF WONDERS IN THE SHADOW OF THE PLAGUE

Centuries ago, one small town in Germany disappeared and was never resettled. Tom, a historian, and his theoretical physicist girlfriend, Sharon, become interested. By all logic, the town should have survived. What’s so special about Eifelheim?

Father Dietrich is the village priest of Eifelheim in the year 1348, when the Black Death is gathering strength. To his astonishment, Dietrich makes first contact between humanity and an alien race from a distant star, when their ship crashes in the nearby forest. Flynn gives us the full richness and strangeness of medieval life, as well as some terrific aliens.’

Blurb from the 2009 Tor paperback edition

Very deserving of its award status, Eifelheim is a novel which brings alive day to day activities in a German village in 1348, mainly through the eyes of Father Dietrich, an intelligent deep-thinking priest whose life and worldview are thrown into turmoil when aliens (whom some of the villagers take to be demons) crashland in the local Herr’s woods.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Tom is trying to discover why Eifelheim doesn’t fit his mathematical model of population centres. According to all his theories, the village, although depopulated in the late 1300s, should have been resettled. His long term girlfriend Sharon, meanwhile, has been making discoveries of her own regarding the decreasing rate of the speed of light.
The reaction of her immediate superiors in the world of Academia is one of shock, since Sharon – in challenging one of the basic tenets of science, i.e. the constancy of the speed of light – is committing heresy.
One of the beauties of this novel is that Flynn examines both science and religion – or rather, the social frameworks in which science and religion exist.
One of the great ironies at the heart of ‘Eifelheim’ is that the aliens come to believe that the Christian God is an actual being who will ‘enflesh’ himself in order to return to Earth. They therefore nurture the idea that God will be able to help them repair their ship and go home, which, translated as ‘taken to the heavens’ prompts both Father Dietrich and his Franciscan assistant Joachim, to assume that the aliens accept the basic concept of Christianity.
The local Herr – who originally hoped that the creatures would leave his woods and depart – has a change of heart when he realises that they have superior weapons and may be able to manufacture ‘pot de fur’ (or gunpowder) with which he would be able to rid the region of a troublesome robber baron and his gang of bad lads.
Inexorably the plague (or ‘the pest’ as it is known to the villagers) is heading toward the area. Although the alien metabolism of the visitors is immune, they have their own problems, since a specific protein is lacking from their diet and they are slowly dying.
One might possibly have liked to have seen more of the modern day sequences with perhaps an ironic focus on some of our contemporary beliefs and superstitions, but that is being churlish. ‘Eifelheim’ is an entertaining and educational experience based loosely on historical records and a local legend. Flynn does confess in the afterword that some artistic licence has been taken with the actual historical chronology, but I am sure readers will forgive him for that.


The Blue World – Jack Vance (1966)

The Blue World

Vance’s heroes tend to be dour, practical realists, who don’t suffer fools gladly and are often cynical opponents of the hypocrisy of dogma, particularly in relation to politics or religion.
Sklar Hast is no exception. Sklar is a hoodwink, i.e., one who winks the hoods of semaphore-esque lamps which are the means of communication between the communities who exist on archipelagos of giant lily pads on a water-covered world.
The inhabitants of this world are the descendants of survivors of a prison ship which (the reader is led to believe) was taken over by the prisoners whilst on its way to a penal planet and crash-landed in this watery paradise. Though the descendants carry their ancestor’s felonies as caste names – the hoodwinks, the larceners, the hoodlums, the incendiarists etc – the people of the Blue World have no idea as to the collective nature of their ancestral roots.
Vance loves these small details of society, and is one of the few authors who goes to great lengths to create functioning societies, in that hierarchies are defined, customs, trade, industry, professions etc., sometimes, it has to be said, to the detriment of character. Vance’s dialogue is often a little mannered, but somehow it generally melds in with the exotic backgrounds and the richness of detail.
Vance makes important points, though. He’s an author very aware of the human capacity for religious need and the human capacity for exploiting that need. In many of his novels the hero sets out to expose a religious leader or figure, who is manipulating or controlling an all too gullible populace for political or financial gain.
In this novel, interestingly, Vance looks at a religion-in-the-making. The populace are being encouraged to think of King Kragen – a large semi-intelligent tentacled crustacean – as a form of benign god. They are thus encouraged by the Intercessors – a group of men who have set themselves up as middle-men between the populace and the sea-beast who keeps their settlement free of lesser Kragen in return for tributes of food.
It’s a short, but clever novel, funny and intriguing, and yet masks a serious examination of society, hypocrisy, religion and the fallibility of tradition and our deepest beliefs.


The Masks of Time – Robert Silverberg (1968)

The Masks of Time

Following Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ which showed an ‘innocent’ Messiah transforming human society and creating chaos, Silverberg presents us with a much more structured and indeed literary examination of Humanity’s need for faith, and what a double-edged sword that may be.
The setting is 1999, or at least it begins on Christmas day 1998 when Vornan-19, a visitor from the far future, manifests naked in a public square in Rome.
The date is symbolic for the purposes of the novel, since although the visitor claims no knowledge of Christ or the date of his birth, many people see his coming on this day as a religious sign whereas there is the subliminal suggestion to the reader that he may be the antichrist.
Earth at this time is gripped by a new religious mania, an apocalyptic cult who believe that the world will end at the turn of the century. They are destructive and Bacchanalian, seeing sex and rioting as the preferred activities with which to fill one’s time in the final months before destruction.
Vornan, of course, stands in the face of their beliefs, since if he is indeed from the future, then the world is not going to end.
The novel is the journal of scientist Leo Garfield who has been conducting experiments in how to send subatomic particles into the past. His assistant, Jack Bryant, appears to be on the verge of discovering how to produce limitless free energy, and in a possible crisis of conscience quits his job to live a self-sufficient life in the desert with his wife. This becomes an occasional retreat for Garfield, until he is recruited by the government to be one of a group of scientists assigned to accompany Vornan-19 on his exploration of the US.
From the outset Vornan undermines (as does Valentine Smith in SIASL) the moral codes of society. He finds our need to cover our nakedness amusing and is happy to have sex with male or female with no sense of guilt or shame. Religions are a mystery to him and he explains later in the novel that life on earth emerged through aliens in the area having dumped some of their organic waste on a sterile earth, from which our biosphere eventually emerged. In one way or another he manages to obliquely destroy the lives of several individuals.
Beliefs are destroyed just as casually since Vornan (having already dropped the bombshell that the future does not know who Jesus is) goes on to confirm that religion, capitalism, sexual fidelity and the concept of money are unknown to people of the future.
It’s a vastly underrated novel and deserves to be reappraised as not only one of Silverberg’s best works, but one of the best SF novels of the 60s.


The Wonder – JD Beresford (1911)

The Wonder (Bison Frontiers of Imagination)

‘Nothing will ever mystify or challenge the Wonder. He masters entire libraries and language with little effort. No equation, no problem is too difficult to solve.
His casual conversations with ministers and philosophers decimate their vaunted beliefs and crush their cherished intellectual ambitions. the Wonder compels obedience and silence with a glance. His mother idolizes him as a god. yet no one is more hated and alone than the Wonder.

This is the chilling tale of Victor Stott, an English boy born thousands of years ahead of his time. Raised in the village of Hampdenshire, the strangely proportioned young Victor possesses mental abilities vastly superior to those of his fellow villagers. The incomprehensible intellect and powers of the Wonder inspire awe, provoke horror, and eventually threat to rip art Hampdenshire.

Long recognised as a classic of speculative fiction but never before widely available, The Wonder is one of the first novels about a ‘superman’. JD Beresford’s subtle and intriguing story of a boy with superhuman abilities paved the way for such noted works as Philip Wylie’s ‘Gladiator’ and AE van Vogt’s ‘Slan’’

Blurb from the 1999 Bison Books paperback edition

Presaging an entire century of novels featuring the ‘superman’ or ‘Homo Superior’ is JD Beresford’s ‘the Wonder’. Beresford is possibly the first writer to explore the concept in a full length novel, although I am almost certainly wrong on that point as someone will no doubt point out to me in due course.
‘The Wonder’ of the title is a child, Victor Stott, the son of Ginger Stott, a celebrated cricketer.
Ginger’s life story is told in rather too much detail in the initial section of the novel, and there seems to be interminable pages devoted to cricket, but once past this rather self-indulgent scene-setting, the novel comes into its own, painting not only a sinister portrait of a boy whose aura of intelligence intimidates all around him, but also of the society of the time.
The local squire, a dedicated anthropologist, is the first to recognise at least a portion of the truth regarding Victor’s intellect and invites the boy to use his library where Victor digests books at a prodigious rate.
Beresford cleverly paints Victor as a creature who, although able to assimilate philosophical and scientific principles seems uninterested in the primitive social rules of the people among whom he is living. Thus his demeanour seems brusque, even rude and arrogant, and he soon makes an enemy of the local vicar since the boy treats religious scripture with the same disdain he holds for some of the other books in the library.
Finding no one whom he considers an equal, the boy is reluctant to speak to many people. His father considers him to be a freak and soon leaves him in the care of his mother who, conversely, veritably worships him.
Occasionally, however, he confides in his benefactor and these rare sections have a beauty of writing which is deeply moving. Victor sees Humanity objectively, and himself as a tragic victim, a creature of the future born perhaps hundreds of thousands of years before his time, doomed to live alone amongst these slow-thinking savages, savages who think him a freak who should have died at birth.
Although Victor has the power to intimidate almost anyone with the force of his stare, he is powerless against one person, an idiot boy who seems to see something of kinship in Victor’s diminutive frame and over-large cranium. The gabbling ‘idiot’ often hangs around Victor’s house and has to be chased away.
One day, Victor goes missing somewhere between the Squire’s library and his home, and is later found drowned in a local pond.
The mystery of Victor’s death is never solved, although it is determined that the boy must have been held underwater until he drowned. Was it ‘The Idiot’ who killed Victor as part of some game, or could it have been the vicar, long offended by the existence of the genius abomination who refused accept Christian teachings?
For its time, ‘The Wonder’ is undoubtedly a groundbreaking piece of work and, one suspects, a controversial one. Rather like ‘The Elephant Man’, Victor is portrayed as more human, despite his failings, than many of the people in his community. He seems, although it is only implied in the novel, to conform to a theory of Evolution, albeit not exactly a Darwinian one, and he is, to all intents and purposes, Godless.
Unlike many works of the time, it has not dated that badly and is an unjustifiably neglected and important piece of literature.


Non Stop – Brian W Aldiss (1958)

Non-Stop

‘THE WORLD BETWEEN WORLDS

The Greene tribe was moribund. Every sleepwake the ponics grew a little thicker around Quarters and not even the watchwords ‘Expansion to your ego’ and ‘Leap before you look’ could rouse the indolent players from their Travel-Up boards.

But Roy Complain was different. When the hunter lost his wife Gwenny in the tangles and was sentenced to six strokes each sleepwake, he decided to throw in his lot with the obese priest Marapper and journey through the Deadways into the fabulous, unmapped Forwards.

What miracles would await them there and in the unopened chambers where the skeletons of Giants had sometimes been discovered? Was the Ship theory mere idle speculation fit only for children and old women – or was the world not a world at all, but a container moving between worlds?’

Blurb from the 1987 Grafton paperback edition

Although not the first Generation Ship story to be written and certainly not the last, ‘Non Stop’ is the book that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
David Pringle in his ‘100 Greatest Novels’ acknowledges that Aldiss owes a debt to Heinlein’s ‘Orphans of The Sky’, a fix-up novel consisting of two novellas from the 1940s. The two books take the same basic premise, that a colony ship is launched from Earth, knowing that generations of humans will live and die within its hull before it reaches its destination. In each book, the knowledge of what the ship actually is has been lost and the descendants of the crew have reverted to a tribal existence while the ship ploughs on through space.
In contrast to Heinlein’s escapist adventure however, Aldiss’s vision is a darker one and succeeds, where Heinlein’s doesn’t, in making clear the vast distances between us and even the nearer suns in our galaxy. It transpires that the inhabitants of this ship had already left their colonists on a planet in the Procyon system and had been heading back to Earth.
Unfortunately, in replacing their water with some of that from the new planet, they also took on board a completely new protein, which infected all life on board ship, killed many of the remaining crew and caused the rest to mutate into a separate human species.
We see the world of the Ship through the eyes of Complain, a young hunter whose tribe lives in Quarters. Since the ship began its return journey, a mutated hydroponics food plant has adapted to its surroundings and now grows everywhere, forming jungles on abandoned decks where pigs and insects thrive.
Between the decks, intelligent rats have learned to use tools and have enslaved other creatures such as telepathic rabbits and moths to leech thoughts from humans.
When Complain’s woman is kidnapped by another tribe he is approached by Marapper, the tribe’s priest, who is planning an expedition through the jungle-choked decks; an expedition to the mythical Forwards, where they may find the secret of what their world actually is.
It’s a very sobering vision, since, like Wyndham, whose main novels were published only a few years before this, Aldiss refuses to provide any answers or a cosy conclusion.
It is discovered that the ship reached Earth generations before and has since been in orbit around it. The residents, because of their biological adaptations, can never leave the ship as, in a wider sense, humans can never leave Earth. (It is suggested earlier in the novel that the Procyon colonists would have died from not being able to break down the alien proteins.)
What also separates this from Heinlein’s work is that the characters have more of the bite of human reality about them. Most of the people we encounter are selfish to some degree and concerned for their own survival. Pringle points out that the characters are small literally and metaphorically, since one result of the mutation has reduced the average height to about five feet. There are legends of Giants, and indeed, Giants are encountered and some killed. It is only later that we realise that the Giants (people from Earth) have been keeping the ship operational and the tribes alive, and have a code of not harming the tribespeople.
Aldiss very clearly shows here humanity’s propensity for ignorance, denial, acceptance of religious dogma without question, violence and self-destruction, since ultimately it is the small people who in the end rampage through the Ship and destroy their own world, which is a very salient message for the people of our planet today.


Grass – Sheri S Tepper (1989)

Grass

‘Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass.
But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.’

Blurb to the Gollancz SF Masterworks 2002 edition

Tepper didn’t start publishing until she was in her fifties, but since then she has been remarkably prolific within the Holy Trinity of speculative genres. SF, Fantasy and Horror.
‘Grass’ is the first in a series of books featuring Marjorie Westriding, the wife of Rigo Yrarier, an irascible Catholic diplomat. He is also the nephew of the Carlos Yrarier, Hierarch of Sanctity, a repressive theocracy which more or less controls life on the majority of settled human worlds.
A plague is loose in the human population and Marjorie, Rigo and their retinue have been sent to the planet Grass which may or may not hold a clue to its cure.
Grass is a complex and intriguing examination of alien psychology and human society, but to describe this novel in such terms is to be simplistic to say the least. Unlike many SF novels it is character-driven, and driven by characters diverse and extreme.
We are immediately introduced to the bon Damfel family, one of the seven aristocratic families of the planet Grass, as they are about to set off on a hunt, modelled on the British Fox Hunt (which, anachronistically, seems to be still thriving on Earth). It is not until much later in the novel that we see the ‘mounts’ and ‘hounds’ through the eyes of the first Terran ambassador and his family, who have been sent to Grass merely because they ride to hounds, and would therefore be more likely to bond more easily with the ruling families.
There are several main elements to this novel. There is the planet Grass itself and its disturbing metamorphic aliens and ecology; there is Sanctity, a weird futuristic and fascistic blend of Catholic and Mormon beliefs which has displaced most other religions and appears to be an undisputed theocratic dictatorship which has the power to sequester individuals without trial ‘within the Faith’ as it were.
So far, Sanctity has denied the existence of the plague which is devouring the bodies of people on many human worlds.
It is significant perhaps that this was written in the late eighties at a time when the spectre of AIDS was hanging over the world and HIV was far less well understood than it is today. Whether or not Tepper is making some sort of veiled comment about religious groups and organisations either hiding their heads in the sand or conversely embracing the virus as a weapon of God against the sinful is unclear, but the comparison remains. In some ways, Sanctity (and their spin-off Doomsday cult, The Moldies) are thankful for the plague for different reasons: the Church hoping that it will wipe out the Godless masses so that Sanctity can rebuild civilisation and The Moldies hoping that it will simply wipe everyone out.
Then there is the vanished Elder Race, The Arbai, whose ruined cities have been found scattered sparsely across several settled human worlds. Elder Races sometimes perform a semi-religious function within the genre; god-like creatures with lost technologies far beyond our own who once roamed and possibly conquered the universe but are now gone, having left something behind, in some cases a clue to the central mystery of the novel, as in McDevitt’s ‘Engines of God’ or indeed Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’.
Finally there is ‘the Hunt’, a gross reflection of Marjorie’s hunt for a cure for the plague. The ‘bons’ of Grass are essentially addicted to the Hunt, so enmeshed in its ritual and the cerebral pleasure obtained from communion with the mounts and hounds that they accept the mutilations, deaths and ‘vanishments’ of their own children.
Again, like addicts, they refuse to face up to the reality of their habit and through enshrining it in custom have blessed it with a veneer of respectability.
Running through is also the theme of women being controlled, from the women of the ‘bon’s (who are manipulated both by the males of their families and by the Hippae, even to the extent of having their personalities erased and being used as living weapons to carry the plague to humanity) to Marjorie, who is controlled both by her husband and by the Church who expect her to be subservient to Rigo.
If nothing else ‘Grass’ is a sharp and skilfully drawn portrait of avoidance and denial.
It has a deft and meticulously choreographed plot in which emotions, actions and reactions combine to ignite change and revelation. One could even say that it is the friction between the complex personalities of Rigo and Marjorie which drives the plot. Their relationship, or lack of one, can be seen as a contrast between the effect they have on each other and the effect that their relationship has on everyone around them.
Tepper’s sublime powers of characterisation ensure that we do not see Rigo as an evil man, or even a stupid one, but perhaps an insecure and obsessively controlled and controlling one.


Venus Plus X – Theodore Sturgeon (1960)

Venus Plus X

‘HE WAS A STRANGER IN THE STRANGEST NEW WORLD EVER…

He awoke to terror. He was in a silver cell and all he could remember was his name: Charlie Johns.

Later they told him he was in Ledom – a country where the people were wise and gentle and kind. They tried to help Charlie Johns but they were… strange. He could see it in many ways – their clothes, their over-developed pectoral muscles, the odd silky sporrans they all wore. But it wasn’t until he noticed two of their men pregnant that he realised just how alien a land Ledom was…’

‘In a postscript to the original American edition of VENUS PLUS X, Theodore Sturgeon wrote that his aim had been to write ‘a decent book about sex.’ In a genre of writing where a genuinely adult approach to human sexuality has usually been conspicuous by its absence, Sturgeon’s novel is a triumphant demonstration that science fiction can extend the boundaries of human awareness in this problematic area just as it has done for decades in the less ‘personal’ areas of time, space and other cosmological topics.
VENUS PLUS X may very well shock and even disturb readers who are not prepared to face up to the complex nature of sexuality and human psycho-biology. That is their bad luck. For the reader with an open mind and questing intelligence, this haunting stimulating and moving novel offers richer rewards than most other fiction currently available’

Back cover and interior blurbs from the 1978 Sphere paperback edition

It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like, reading this novel in Nineteen Sixty when it was first published. This would have been shortly after I was born and consequently I didn’t get round to reading it until some twenty years later, by which time the world had changed.
Its message remains an important one, and I feel it is a classic that will be rediscovered by future generations, but the shock value of its original release has been somewhat diluted.
Charlie Johns is a young American of the late Nineteen Fifties, in love with his beloved Laura and with all his life ahead of him.
Suddenly Charlie is transported through time and space to the far future and the society of Ledom. Astute readers and most people over twelve years old will realise that this is the word ‘Model’ written backwards. Charlie is told that he can be transported back where he came from, but in return the people of Ledom expect him to study their culture and report on it objectively.
From the outset Charlie is confused by the androgynous look of the Ledomians and eventually discovers that they are a race of human hermaphrodites, each having the sexual organs of both sexes. They are intelligent, peaceful and wise.
The whole idea of Ledom is that Humanity throughout its history has had a legacy, ‘baggage’ if you like, of teaching its children that they have to conform to stereotypes of male and female roles. Ledom provides a slate wiped clean of any historical contamination and and a family life where the parents are essentially the same.
Likewise, Ledom realises the need for a spiritual and moral side to society and so a religion had been devised where what is worshipped is one’s own children or The Child as an abstract embodiment of the future.
The narrative is intercut with the lives of two couples from Sturgeon’s US of the time, where lives and attitudes both illustrate the ingrained attitudes that Ledom is seeking to wipe away and simultaneously demonstrate how the seeds of Ledom are already at work.
In one scene, for instance, a father hugs and kisses his young daughter as a goodnight ritual while merely shaking hands with his son, and cannot understand why the son subsequently bullies his sister.
There is also discussion of a contemporary cartoon strip which asks the question of how to tell boys and girls apart when they both have long hair. The answer is that the boys are the pretty ones.
The contrast between realistic life and Ledom life is a clever one, since although Sturgeon is painting a contemporary domestic scene, in comparison with Ledom society it comes over as being somewhat primitive and barbaric, which was no doubt the aim.
The novel does have a twist in its tail, however, and although Venus Plus X would have been considered a classic even without the surprise ending, this certainly pushes the book onto another level.
This is an important SF novel since its message is timeless and addresses some of the most fundamental aspects of human society. Sturgeon manages to make us take a long look at ourselves and employ some basic common sense, which at times borders on the profound.


More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (1953)

More Than Human (SF Masterworks, #28)
‘All alone – an idiot boy, a runaway girl, a severely retarded baby and twin girls with a vocabulary of two words between them. Yet once they are mysteriously drawn together this collection of misfits becomes something very, very different from the rest of humanity. Add to the group an embittered orphan and it acquires limitless potential – both for good and for evil.
Hailed on first publication as daring and original, this intensely written and moving novel is an extraordinary vision of mankind’s next step.’

Blurb from the Gollancz Classic SF 1986 paperback

It is indeed a daring and original novel, and still stands up – despite an occasional maudlin moment of sentimentality – as one of the classics of SF.
Sturgeon’s poetic and pastoral novel of the emergence of a gestalt Homo Superior (or Homo Gestalt as they term themselves) is redolent of the whimsical and nostalgic novels of Clifford Simak in its depiction of a rural Midwest America.
Sturgeon, however, does not paint so romantic a vision as Simak normally does. He looks behind the picket fences and chintz curtains to expose the nasty underbelly which lies beneath, such as the religious extremist Mr Kew who teaches his daughters that their bodies are intrinsically evil, while secretly reading (as we discover much later) Von Masoch’s ‘Venus in Furs’. Then there is Janie’s mother, a woman who admits quite openly that she hates her own daughter and apologises to her ‘gentleman callers’ for Janie having shamed her by bringing ‘niggers’ into the house.
The characterisation of these grotesques is actually quite subtle and is a beautiful contrast to the ‘freak’ children and adults who come together to form the gestalt.
Structurally the novel is divided into three very different sections, which link to and reference each other in surprising and revealing ways.
‘The Idiot’ tells the story of how Lone first ‘bleshed’ (as the members of the gestalt call the experience of melding into a unit) with another individual, the girl Mary Kew, murdered by her own father whom Lone subsequently compels to commit suicide. Lone is subsequently taken in by a farming couple who give birth to Baby, the mongoloid idiot savant who functions as the gestalt’s memory and processing unit.
The fantastic nature of the related events, however, is never at odds with the all-too human characters and the tragedies in their lives. The huge irony at the heart of this first section is that the Gestalt designs and creates an anti-gravity device simply in order to help Lone’s employer, Mr Prodd, to stop his truck getting stuck in the mud.
In a dramatic change of style and viewpoint, the second section, ‘Baby Is Three’, is told in flashback within the confines of a psychiatrist’s consulting-room. Gerry, who has replaced Lone as ‘the Head’ of the Gestalt since Lone was killed accidentally in the woods, is telling his story.
It’s an interesting device, used later in Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’ to great effect and arguably in Anne Rice’s ‘Interview With The Vampire’; half-narrative, half-confession.
Gerry, like Lone, has the power to influence the minds of others and is seeking to understand himself. We slowly discover that he has murdered Alicia Kew, sister of the girl with whom Lone first bleshed all those years ago. The gestalt, or at least Gerry, has begun to learn that it possesses incredible potential and few restraints.
The restraint finally arrives in the form of Hip, introduced as a child in the first section of the novel and now a disgraced ex-serviceman, jailed and emotionally crippled. He is released into the care of Janie who slowly nurses him back to sanity, piecing his memory together. From this we learn gradually that he has spent his life in search of Lone and the anti-gravity device. We also learn that Janie is now in hiding from Gerry after the murder and fears that if she is discovered, that Hip will be killed.
It’s a daring turn of events, not least because it shows for its time an unusual fallibility and weakness in Homo Superior/ Homo Gestalt. For the gestalt to make mistakes might be expected. For this new human of the future to kill and then have its individual units turn against each other is a surprising and refreshing move.
Despite its perhaps sometimes over-sentimental passages it is a wonderful denouement to a masterful piece of literature, rich with poetic imagery and deft minimal brushstrokes of characterisation.

‘Outside an oriole made a long slender note, broke it, and let the fragments fall through the shining air. A stake-bed truck idled past, busily shaking the string of cowbells on its back, while one hoarse man and one with a viola voice flanked it afoot, chanting. In one window came a spherical sound with a fly at its heart and at the other appeared a white kitten. Out by the kitten went the fly and the kitten reared up and batted at it, twisted and sprang down out of sight as if it had meant all along to leave; only a fool would have thought it had lost its balance.’

The ending is transcendent and optimistic, for Hip, after a showdown with Gerry, becomes in effect the gestalt’s conscience; the architect of its personal ethos. At that moment the group discovers it is not alone and is welcomed into a community of Gestaltia who had been observing the unit to see if it emerged as an ethical gestalt.
Like van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ it is a wish-fulfilment fantasy for those who believe themselves outcast, but it is also a sharply observed portrait of small-town America at a certain point in time.


Dune – Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune

A novel which broke the mould, reinvented the concept of Space Opera and begot a minor cult, as groundbreaking novels are wont to do.
It’s rather spooky to look at Dune again in the light of the events of September 11, since we have in this book a situation where a desert people are militarily outclassed and dominated by a Superpower which wishes to retain control over the desert’s vital resource.
It’s not a realistic comparison, since in no way can I compare the revolt of Herbert’s Fremen with the cowardly actions of certain terrorists, but there are no doubt conspiracy theorists who will find the comparisons attractive. In this case it isn’t oil which is being fought over, but the melange spice of Arrakis, just as vital to transportation between stars as oil is for transportation between cities.
One could possibly compare the USA with the Evil Empire of Shaddam (even that name has a spooky resonance, but with the wrong side) and the planet Arrakis with the Middle East, but one would have to examine Arab-American relations in the Nineteen Sixties to get much mileage from that.
Undeniably, the Fremen are essentially Arabic in flavour, but the rest of Galactic Society is based around a feudal aristocratic system of powerful Houses, presided over by the Emperor Shaddam. It is an aggressive and brutal system in which assassination and treachery are rife.
Interlacing this network of families is the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, an organisation which has its own reasons for an intense interest in the melange spice, a strange organic substance which can endow its users with a form of prescience and telepathy.
Another major player in the politics of the galaxy is the Spacer’s Guild, a professional group of mutated humans who use the properties of the spice to sense changes in space and steer ships through hyperspace across the galaxy. They are also bound into the political web which is battling for control of Arrakis, since without the spice, which can only be found on Arrakis, the guildsmen would be useless, and traffic throughout the galaxy would come to a halt.
Herbert skilfully stage-manages the political manoeuvring and chicanery which may or may not be being controlled from behind the scenes by the Sisterhood. Thus it seems as though politics itself conspires to set in motion the events leading to the fulfilment of a Bene Gesserit prophesy.
Ironically, the religion which is integral to Fremen life contains elements implanted centuries before by the Bene Gesserit in order that the Sisterhood would be welcomed by their society. Thus, the Fremen, like the Sisterhood themselves, also know of the prophecy of the Kwisatz Hadderach.
It’s a clever trick on Herbert’s part, as the coming of the Superior Being can be seen simultaneously as the unexpected culmination of a long term Bene Gesserit plan and the true fulfilment of a long religious expectation on the part of the Fremen.
It’s not by any means an anti-religious book, although it is realistic about the nature of organised religion. It shows that religious systems are, by their very nature, political systems, or at least are tied into the political structures within which they exist.
Herbert’s universe of techno-feudalism is so well realised the reader feels quite at ease with the absurd and anachronistic ideas of Dukes and Barons wielding power over dominions of planets. There is a pervasive atmosphere of decadence and unhealthy opulence (particularly with regard to the House Harkonnen whose Baron is a corpulent gay monster who revels in the sexual gratification derived from the dying throes of his young victims) which is contrasted with the simple yet disciplined lives of the Fremen.
Gorgeous, complex, multi-layered. It’s a work of genius.