My life in outer space

Archive for November, 2013

Spin State – Chris Moriarty (2003)

Spin State

‘From a stunning new voice in hard science fiction comes one of the most thrilling debut novels in years. Welcome to a post-human universe of emergent AIs, genetic constructs, and illegal wetware, where survival can be only a state of mind. Welcome to.

SPIN STATE

UN Peacekeeper Major Catherine Li has made thirty-seven faster-than-light jumps in her lifetime – and has probably forgotten more than most people remember. But that’s what backup hard drives are for. And Li should know; she’s been hacking her memory for fifteen years in order to pass as human.

But no memory upgrade can prepare Li for what she finds on Compson’s World: a mining colony she once called home and to which she is sent after a botched raid puts her on the bad side of the powers that be. A dead physicist who just happens to be her cloned twin. A missing dataset that could change the interstellar balance of power and turn a cold war hot. And a mining ‘accident’ that is starting to look more and more like murder…

Suddenly Li is chasing a killer in an alien world miles underground where everyone has a secret. And one wrong turn in streamspace, one misstep in the dark alleys of blackmarket tech and interstellar espionage, one risky hookup with an AI could literally blow her mind.’

Blurb from the October 2003 Bantam Spectra paperback edition.

Set in a society where emergent AIs are campaigning for legal rights; multi-planetary syndicates produce vat-grown designer humans and society is dependent on Bose-Einstein condensate. This is a substance which can be best described as quantum coal. It is the unobtainium available only on Compson’s World, and now a top scientist, seemingly close to discovering how to synthesise the condensate, is dead.
UN Peacekeeper Major Catherine Li is unwillingly posted back to Compson’s World to investigate the death; unwillingly because this is her home world from which she escaped after faking her genetic credentials. She is not a pure human and although all her old records were apparently destroyed, discovery of her true status could destroy her life and career. Her only ally seems to be Cohen, a powerful AI, but his true motives can only be guessed at, and when she begins to uncover a complex conspiracy it seems she can trust no one, not even Cohen.
This is a dark and beautifully written novel, dense with quantum physics yet still accessible to the average reader. Stylistically it is reminiscent of Richard Morgan or Neal Asher but perhaps richer, more textured in terms of characterisation and settings. It’s an impressive debut novel, but one feels that Moriarty might do well in future to move away from the Noir Nouveau mysteries which seem to be the spirit of the age.
Moriarty also includes a useful quantum physics bibliography for those readers who wish to broaden their minds further into the complex world of quantum states.


Singularity Sky (Eschaton #01) – Charles Stross (2003)

Singularity Sky (Eschaton, #1)

‘The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.

The Festival had come to Rochard’s World…’

Blurb from the 2005 Orbit paperback edition

Rachel Mansour is a UN diplomat working incognito in an interplanetary Russian-ethnic society based on a historical model of class-structure and aristocratic inherited privilege. Martin Greenfield is also working undercover within the society for a mysterious paymaster called Herman.
At the outset of the novel a presence arrives in orbit over Novy Petrograd on Rochard’s World (part of this Russian new republic) and showers the planet with mobile phones. The bemused natives are told on the phones that The Festival has arrived and that they will grant requests for anything if they can only be entertained.
Barya, the leader of a local revolutionary group, offers to tell The Festival a story in exchange for a cornucopia machine; a device that will produce anything its owner wishes.
Soon, the machine is producing weapons and Barya is outfitting his men for a revolution.
On the homeworld, the Emperor decides to send his fleet to destroy the Festival and quell the insurrection. Martin, who has been waiting for his papers to be processed so that he can work in the flagship’s engine room, is suddenly summoned aboard, as is Rachel, who has abandoned her disguise in order to announce herself as a UN observer and claim a place on the flagship, ostensibly to ensure that that the military of the New Republic do not contravene any of the Eschaton’s laws.
It is only gradually that we realise that the Eschaton is not the ruling body of this interstellar multi-cultural society, but is something else entirely.
Stross succeeds admirably in blending satire, drama, political intrigue and outrageous science fiction concepts in a cleverly constructed novel.
One’s understanding of the history of Humanity’s interstellar cultures is revealed piece by piece and the jigsaw Stross puts together for us is weird, funny, fast paced and politically astute.
As a debut novel it’s not the explosive start one might have expected from Stross who has made a reputation for himself through his short fiction. It is, however, an original and refreshing piece of work, which works well on every level.
Rachel Mansour is an intriguing hero, coping at every turn with the misogynist Victorian fundamentalist attitudes of the men of the New Republic. The Festival is the most intriguing element of the piece however, being a kind of post-human travelling circus which ‘assimilates’ the cultural history of the worlds it visits, often destroying them in the process by swamping the culture with technology it cannot control.
In a surreal moment, a post-human ‘critic’ – downloaded into a fast-grown designer body for the visit – takes Barya on a tour of the country in a motorised Baba Yaga hut-with-chicken-legs in order for him to realise the tragic results of his revolution, and the Festival’s visit.
Oddly, Mansour and Greenfield sit well in a novel peopled with over the top characters, some of whom verge into sublime caricature, such as the ancient and senile Admiral who is summoned from his bed to lead the Fleet since the New Republic are not keen to flout the unwritten rule that admirals never retire.
Most importantly, it’s intelligently written, peppered with wit and the occasional post-modern reference.


Sundiver – David Brin (1980)

Sundiver (The Uplift Saga, #1)

‘Of all the intelligent races in the universe, none has survived without the guidance of the Patrons – except mankind. But if our Patrons began the Uplift of the human race aeons ago, why did they abandon us? Circling the sun, in the caverns of Mercury, Expedition Sundiver prepares for the most momentous journey in human history. A journey into the broiling inferno of the sun… to find our final destiny in the cosmic order of life. ‘

Blurb from the 1991 Bantam paperback edition

This is the novel that set Brin off on a series of novels whose page-count seemed to grow exponentially as each one was published.
Known as ‘The Uplift Series’, the books are set in a near-future where the galaxy is populated and controlled by a civilisation of ancient alien races. None of these races evolved intelligence, but were genetically engineered from lower forms by their Patron race who, in turn, were ‘uplifted’ by their parent race.
Thus, when an exploratory Earth ship encountered Humanity’s first aliens, it was a surprise to everyone.
The ‘wolfling’ race – who have themselves ‘uplifted’ chimps and dolphins – are a political embarrassment to some of the galactic factions, who consider Humanity to be an orphaned uplifted race, whose patrons are unknown, much like the original race who began the uplift process. Known as The Progenitors, their details are lost in the mists of time, even in a civilisation whose records go back millions of years.
Earth has been allowed to start colonies, although people who have a propensity for violence are not allowed into space. They are known as probationers and electronically tagged. Humanity is also split on the issue of their origins, between the Darwinites who believe in Humanity’s natural evolutionary origins and the Danikenites who are convinced of their ancient Uplift and abandonment .
Against this backdrop we have the story of Jacob Demwa, a Native American who works with uplifted dolphins. His alien friend, Fagin, a kind of mobile shrubbery, arranges for him to be part of a classified project on Mercury.
The Sundiver project ostensibly is to study the sun itself very very closely by means of new ships, using a mixture of alien and human technology. The Sundiver ships are saucer-shaped and use refrigeration lasers to deflect the excess heat.
The big secret, however, is that life, of a form never before discovered, has been found in the sun itself, and it may be intelligent.
A Danikenite reporter has bulldozed his way into the project and believes the aliens to be Humanity’s missing Patrons.
When the ship of a chimp professor on a solo mission malfunctions, destroying both chimp and ship, it is thought to be either the work of the sun creatures or an accident, until it is proven to be sabotage.
Thus, the stage is set for an interstellar mystery of murder, espionage and big science.
It is difficult to tell if Brin originally planned this as a stand-alone novel. The ending certainly leaves the big questions unanswered.
The characters are competently three-dimensional, although it has to be said that the female characters are rather less fully drawn than the males. All the aliens, as far as we are aware, are male, even the shrubbery, for whom sexual identity wouldn’t have been an issue, one would have thought.
As with all mysteries there are other things going on, red herrings, bluffs and distractions, and it has to be said that Brin handles it all rather well.


Nine Princes in Amber – Roger Zelazny (1972)

Nine Princes in Amber (Amber Chronicles, #1)

‘He awoke in a hospital bed – remembering very little – only that he had been in an accident that was no accident. He discovered that his name was Corwin, and that he was stronger than any human being had a right to be…
Later, on a journey that began in New York and ended in a world of forests and mountains, monsters and fantasies, he discovered who he really was -–Corwin, prince of Amber… Corwin, whose colours were black and silver – who had been exiled to the shadow world of Earth and had now returned to claim the throne…’

Blurb from the 1974 Corgi paperback edition

Zelazny’s stylish and inventive piece of Science Fantasy works initially by its oblique relationship to our own world.
Our hero awakens in a hospital somewhere in North America, not being able to remember who or where he is, but suspecting that that not all is well. Feeling remarkably fit for someone hospitalised, he resists attempts to sedate him further and escapes, having discovered the address of his sister in the hospital records.
Furnished with cash taken from the hospital he buys new clothes and makes his way to his sister’s rather large house and gleans snippets of information by pretending that he has recovered his memory. Small snatches of memory nag at him, but it is not until he gets a phone call from his brother Random that things start turning very weird.
Our hero’s name, he discovers, is Corwin, and the Earth that we know is not the real world. It is merely a ‘Shadow’ thrown by the true world of Amber, a world in which Corwin is a Prince. Corwin’s father Oberon has disappeared and Eric, Corwin’s brother, has assumed the throne.
After enduring a nightmare car journey in which Random ‘adds or subtracts’ things from the world to bring them closer to Amber, they find themselves in the underwater mirror-city of Rebma. There, Corwin must walk The Great Pattern, an intricate spiral design laid out on the floor of a great hall, which restores Corwin’s memories and gives him once more the power to walk through Shadow.
He discovers that he is practically immortal and that he has numerous brothers and sisters, some of whom are not well-disposed toward him.
Zelazny’s laconic style, coupled with the first-person narrative again add to the sense of juxtaposition, as do the out-of-place elements, such as characters who fight with swords and employ magical artefacts while smoking cigarettes and driving cars.
It’s an exciting, original, sometimes humourous work, in contrast to some of the more dour and homogenous British pieces of Science Fantasy of the Seventies.
The series comprises of a further four novels, and another five featuring Corwin’s son Merlin, as well as a number of short stories.
The series subsequently had permission from the Zelazny estate for a further four Amber novels by John Gregory Betancourt. A fifth was planned, but remained in limbo following the death of i-books publisher, Byron Preiss
Zelazny stated in an interview that his Amber stories were (possibly unconsciously)inspired by Henry Kuttner’s ‘Dark World’ (1946)

‘…the Kuttner story which most impressed me in those most impressionable days was his short novel The Dark World. I returned to it time and time, reading it over and over again, drawn by its colorful, semi-mythic characters and strong action. …looking back, Kuttner and Moore—and, specifically, The Dark World—were doubtless a general influence on my development as a writer. As for their specific influences—particularly on my Amber series—I never thought about it until Jane Lindskold started digging around and began pointing things out to me’ (Issue 5 of Amberzine)


Genesis Two – LP Davies (1969)

Genesis Two

‘After a black night of violent storms and a thunderous explosion, the inhabitants of the small, isolated town of Kirdale wake to a strange and terror-filled world.’

Blurb from the 1969 Playboy Press paperback edition

Davies is little known now, but produced a small crop of British SF novels in the Nineteen Sixties.
Two young men on a camping and hiking holiday get lost in a storm and end up in the mostly deserted village of Kirdale where a small number of villagers are holding out against the threat of being evicted so that the valley in which the village is situated can be flooded and turned into a reservoir.
During the night the ground shifts and the storm miraculously disappears. Along with the rest of the villagers; the kindly elderly couple who have put them up for the night, an irascible major, his son and daughter, and an older man and woman who are rumoured to have been having a clandestine affair, the boys soon discover that something very odd has happened.
When the boys attempt to leave they discover that the road leading out of the village is blocked by a stream of lava and a jungle of unfamiliar trees.
They then discover a machine which informs them that humans of the future have transported the village at least forty-thousand years into the future. It appears that humanity unwittingly poisoned the Earth with a new form of energy and have selected humans – via old newspaper reports – who would have died in disasters and their bodies not been found to give Humanity another chance.
Davies was never a major writer, but has to be given credit for producing workmanlike British SF which is very much character driven and evokes a society which, from a contemporary perspective, seems quite archaic. Oddly, as with some of John Wyndham’s work, it seemed a fashion of the time that only the middle classes would avoid global disaster.
Davies envisions his future world as being dominated by plant life as the exiles find no animal or bird life whatsoever. What they appear to identify as a large bird turns out to be an evolved seed pod which has developed gliderlike wings in order to take the seed far from the parent plant. The jungle trees which thrive on the slopes of the volcano, which threatens the future of the village, have developed a way of growing a leaf-balloon which is carried aloft by embers of hot lava.


Dark Universe – Daniel F Galouye (1961)

Dark Universe

‘The survivors live deep underground, as far from the Original World as possible. It’s true that some of the hot springs that sustain life are running dry, and they are plagued by the huge and vicious soubats and subject to sudden raids from other tribes. But they are safe from the Twin Devils, Strontium and Cobalt, and protected from the ultimate evil, Radiation. Then something strange and frightening begins: terrible monsters, who bring with them a screaming silence, are seen and people are disappearing. Jared Fenton is a young man who knows that to find out what’s going on he must question the orthodoxies of his faith and defy the law. He must discover the nature of Darkness itself…’

Blurb from the 2000 Gollancz SF Collectors Edition

Jared Fenton is, we soon discover, one of a community which lives in total darkness. Through mutation and adaptation these humans have become adept at ‘seeing’ or rather hearing their surroundings through a system of echo-location. Until now the community has thrived, reverting to a tribal hierarchical system, incorporating a religion based around the concepts of Light and Darkness, and involving the Demon Gods Strontium, Cobalt and Hydrogen.
Recently however, the underground springs which support their manna trees are failing and strange creatures from beyond the borders of their territory appear and begin to kidnap the tribespeople.
It’s a Classic Myth Structure. Our Hero is forced by circumstance to leave his own land, suffer trials and overcome adversities before returning. However, this is no formulaic genre clone. It’s a highly readable and intelligent exercise in the creation of a society.
Another tribe, the Vizzers, lack the talent for judging their surroundings by reflected sound, but can see in infrared.
Ultimately we discover that Jared and the other Survivors (as the tribe calls itself) are indeed the descendants of a group of survivors locked into a self-sufficient nuclear bunker system.
In terms of context it fits the pattern of the times reflecting public paranoia about the Cold War and the consequences of atomic conflict but also strangely – as with other works of the time – permits the idea of the positive effects of human mutation; in this case the development of abilities such as telepathy and infrared vision.
Galouye has crafted an interesting novel in which he portrays not only Jared’s passage into Manhood but into the Light and there is a poignant moment when Jared longs for the familiarity of his home in the Darkness, but realises that he can never go back now that he has experienced Light.
This is a classic example of what is often termed a Pocket Universe, a society living within certain boundaries and labouring under a misconception as to what (if anything) lies beyond the perimeter. Here it could be taken as a metaphor for the boundary between child- and adulthood, moving from the restrictive but safe boundaries of one’s parents into the open world, and unable to return to the darkness of the womb.
It’s a minor classic and highly recommended.


The Chronoliths – Robert Charles Wilson (2001)

The Chronoliths

Scott Warden is a man haunted by the past – and soon to be haunted by the future.

In early twenty-first-century Thailand, Scott is an expatriate slacker, Then, one day, he inadvertently witnesses an impossible event: the violent appearance of a 200-foot stone pillar in the forested interior. Its arrival collapses tress for a quarter mile around its base, freezing ice out of the air and emitting a burst of ionizing radiation.
It appears to be composed of an exotic form of matter. And the inscription chiselled into it commemorates a military victory… sixteen years in the future.

Shortly afterwards, another, larger pillar arrives in the center of Bangkok – obliterating the city and killing thousands. Over the next several years, human society is transformed by these mysterious arrivals from, seemingly, our own near future. Who is the warlord ‘Kuin’ whose victories they note?

Scott wants only to rebuild his life. But some strange loop of causality keeps drawing him in, to the central mystery and a final battle with the future.

Blurb from the 2002 Tor paperback edition

Scott Warden is wasting his life away in Thailand, to the annoyance of his wife, Janice. When he joins his friend Mitch Paley in investigating an explosion the mountains, Scott is unaware that his daughter – infected with a flesh eating parasite – has been taken to hospital.
A giant blue monument has somehow ‘appeared’ out of nowhere, converting the matter it has displaced into itself and absorbing so much energy from the surrounding area that that temperatures plummet.
On the monument is an inscription commemorating Kuin’s successful invasion of the area twenty years and three months into the future.
Wilson’s tale of time, coincidence and causality begins to get more complex as it transpires that Sue Choprah, a scientist who knew Scott from years ago, believes Scott to be the focus of Time’s Arrow.
The monuments are being sent into the past in order to create (through the media) the very situation that Kuin needs to come to power.
So, following the emergence of other Kuin monuments across the world, from Israel to Mexico, we enter a period of American Entropy where the infrastructure of the US begins to break down.
Pro-Kuin appeasement groups rise in popularity and the emergence of further monuments (which can now be detected in advance with a high degree of accuracy) causes haj’s in which thousands of young people travel across the world to witness the vent.
The big events are contrasted by Scott’s rather dysfunctional relationships. He does not communicate well with his father and is haunted by the memories of his dead bi-polar mother. His wife and daughter left him after Thailand and she got married again, to a rather too obviously pompous and unsuitable man.
This seems to be a common trend of late. Intersperse the current events with scenes or recollections of the hero’s harrowing private life.
Sons and fathers not speaking to each other is popular. See Reed’s ‘Beyond The Veil of Stars’: Ben Bova’s ‘Mars’ etc.
Whether Wilson is trying to create a parallel between the monuments crossing time and communication between generations is not known. If so, it doesn’t really work. Scott’s psychological family history didn’t really add anything to the novel and could quite feasibly have been dispensed with, or reworked as a Hallmark screenplay.
Scott is recruited by Choprah to work within her team, a job which it seems it is his destiny and his curse, since it attracts danger to both himself and his family.
The science elements centre around the concepts of ‘Tau Turbulence’, ‘Calabi-Yau manipulation’ and the ramifications of sending such objects back though time which themselves alter the future. Wilson’s scientific explanations seem plausible enough, although I have no idea whether they are related to any current theories on the issue (if indeed such theories exist at all)
The novel builds to a clever and exciting denouement, and an intriguing epilogue, which gives us just enough information to work out what happened next.
It’s a good novel, somewhat marred by Hallmark plot elements, but an unlikely award nominee.


The Zap Gun – Philip K Dick (1965)

The Zap Gun

THE ULTIMATE WEAPON

The terrifying arms race roared on. Daily, East and West produced more dreadful weaponry. And, daily, yesterday’s weapons were turned into toys, souvenirs, egg beaters, furniture… and never, never used as weapons. Which was just as well, since they wouldn’t have worked.

It may have looked crazy, but it kept the 21st Century world peaceful and its population securely under the domination of the monstrous, ubiquitous security agencies.

But then, the Sirius Slavers arrived from outer space. Whole cities began to disappear. The world was defenceless – and the race for an Ultimate Weapon for survival was on, for real this time. The outcome meant life or death for Earth. And it lay in the hands of two misfit weapons ‘fashion designers’, a demented comic book artist and a highly unlikely toymaker from the wrong side of time…

Blurb from the 1978 Granada Panther paperback edition

It is 2004. Lars Powderdry is a fashion weapons designer. His company supplies the Wes-bloc military with blueprints for new weapons obtained from information gained while Lars in a drug-induced mediumistic trance. His opposite number in a future USSR known as Peep-East is Lilo Topchev, and she provides the competition in this psychic arms race which ironically, kept the world at peace for decades.
Obsolete weapons are plowshared. Six members of the public are chosen at random by a super-computer and spend the rest of their lives on a generous salary deciding what peaceful use the components of the superseded weaponry could be put to.
The greatest irony (and there are many subtle ironies) is that the arms race is a fraud, a standard Dickian ‘fake’ The powers-that-be of both sides know that the weapons are useless, but the psychological effect of the system keeps the world at peace.

‘(Lars) waited to hear the truth.
Maren said ‘Over and over again that little inner voice is squeaking, Why must the pursaps believe what isn’t so? Why can’t they be told, and being told, accept?’ Her voice was compassionate, now. For her, quite unusually so. ‘You just can’t grasp the incredible truth. They can’t.’

Lars, like many of Dick’s male leads suffers from insecurities and questions the validity of the system. Maren Faine, his secretary at the Paris branch of ‘Mr Lars Incorporated’ is, as a contrast, a realist and despite the fact of her being his lover and employee seems far more in control of Powderdry than he is of her. This is emphasised by an illegal implant she carries which gives her limited telepathic powers, thus allowing her access to Lars’ thoughts. Thus, she can even get into his head while he can’t get into hers. It’s maybe a metaphor for understanding between men and women and emphasises her emasculating nature, something common to many of Dick’s women.
Similarly, the Ol’ Orville device, plowshared from the guidance system of an earlier ‘Mr Lars Incorporated’ weapon design, seems to know more about Lars’ psyche than Lars himself, as does Mr Kaminsky, the Peep-East agent from whom Lars attempts to procure a photograph of Lilo Topchev.
Everyone, it seems, has opinions about Lars Powderdry.
The book has many of the Hallmark Dickisms; the sheer weirdness of names, fashions and settings; the ironies and the fakes; beautiful, inscrutable and psychotic women; philosophical and classical references and the deliberate, one presumes, inconsistencies as when Surley G Febbs assembles one of Lars’ ‘useless’ weapons and disintegrates his co-conspirators, but it lacks the power and depth of his better work.
Dick seems to be retreading old ground here, and many scenes seem rushed and incomplete. Some characters work better than others. Vincent Klug and Surley Febbs seem to leap fully-formed from the page while other male characters seem mere ciphers.
There is also a pervasive paranoia which runs through the novel, centring on Lars himself. Those surrounding him either know or can guess what he is thinking.
Surveillance – which ultimately is the downfall of Surley G Febbs – is as abundant in Wes-bloc as it is in Peep-east, where Lars is spied on and lied to when he eventually meets Lilo.
Dick does however manage to throw his particular revelatory light on the insanity and absurdity of the Cold War and perhaps makes us question, particularly today how much the media and the government control what we choose to think of as reality.
For me this is a weak Dick novel, a work in progress, giving the impression of something which he made up as he went along with no thought of what the ending might be.


City of Pearl – Karen Traviss (2004)

City of Pearl (Wess'har Wars, #1)

The backstory is that Earth has established a colony on a planet around a nearby star. A hardbitten female officer, Shan – on the verge of retirement – is suddenly pulled in for an interview with a high ranking Minister and put in charge of a mission to the colony planet. The journey will take seventy five years so the crew will be frozen.
It appears that colony – a vegetarian devout Christian settlement – is thriving. However they did have help from an alien whose people live on another planet in the system.
Another (aquatic) alien race lives on the human-settled planet beneath the sea, and yet another race wants the humans gone so that they can settle on the planet themselves.
Back home, Earth is at the mercy of Biotech multinational corporations who have patented all of the world’s manufactured crops. They are looking for new material and this planet appears to be the motherlode.
Shan, the reluctant leader of the survey team, finds herself having to mediate between all parties and begins to forge a relationship with Aras, the guardian alien who has become an accepted member of the human colony. However he holds a secret which could lead to war between the various alien races.
The style is reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell and Sheri S Tepper in that there is an intensity in the relationships between various characters that is seldom found in the work of male genre writers.
The central story is the relationship between Shan and Aras, one which starts awkwardly and yet deepens into something if not sexual then of deep mutual respect. Traviss employs some cunning devices in that (a) the alien race is a matriarchal one and Aras is to a certain extent hardwired to kowtow to women in authority and (b) he is hosting a parasite which not only imbues longevity but incorporates useful alien DNA into the host’s metabolism. Thus he has become partly human.
The theme of an alien/human relationship is not a new one. Julie Czerneda employed it in her Web novels recently. It tends to be avoided in SF literature generally although TV Scifi find it almost obligatory for reasons of ratings and demographics. It is not employed here however as a cheap trick and has not so far descended to the level of a romance.
The novel makes very strong points about Genetically Engineered Crops and the Capitalisation of the world’s gene pools. This is paradoxically contrasted by Aras, who to all intents and purposes appears to be genetically engineering himself, or had at least initiated the process.
A fascinating novel that provokes much thought.


Queen of Angels – Greg Bear (1991)

Queen Of Angels

‘Los Angeles 2047, a city on the eve of the Binary Millennium. Public Defender Mary Choy faces her toughest assignment: to bring back Emanuel Goldsmith – acclaimed poet turned mass killer – from the heart of a Caribbean island about to explode in revolution.

But there are others interested in Goldsmith: the sinister Selectors, who use Hellcrowns to exact ultimate retribution; Goldsmith’s best friend, Richard Fettle, driven to literary inspiration and the edge of madness by the murders; and psychologist Martin Burke, who will journey into Goldsmith’s Country of the Mind to find the origins of human evil.

Far away, circling Alpha Centauri, a complex artificial Thinker pilots a scientific probe, intent on finding signs of life, coming to grips with a terrifying loneliness. On Earth, an even more powerful Thinker, nicknamed Jill, contemplates all with its extraordinary mind, waiting to be born.

In one week, crossing the boundaries of the Binary Millennium, they will face their greatest challenge, putting together the pieces of the greatest of all puzzles: the roots of the soul.’

Blurb from the 1991 Legend paperback edition

On the eve of the Binary Millennium, the poet Emmanuel Goldsmith invites several guests to his home and slaughters them all. At the same time a ship manned by a Thinker (an artificial intelligence on the verge of self-awareness) is approaching the planets of Alpha Centauri B; its mission, to seek out life etc.
back on Earth an identical Thinker called Jill is monitoring the remote Thinker’s transmissions while Jill’s creator is hoping that one of both of these AIs will take the next step and become self-aware.
Public Defender Mary Choy is assigned the task of tracking Goldsmith down, even if he has fled to the Republic of Hispaniola, in what used to be Africa, ruled by Colonel Sir John Yardley. This is the country from whence Hellcrowns come, the ruthless instruments of justice which force the convicted to relive their crimes, face their worst nightmares and far, far worse.
Mary does not realise that Goldsmith is still in the US, having been abducted by the father of one of Goldsmith’s victims.
The father has requested that Martin Burke, psychologist, whose hospital/lab was shut down due to withdrawal of grants, examine Goldsmith to determine his state of mind.
Burke’s ‘examinations’ however, involve entering the patient’s consciousness which can be a dangerous operation. As it happens, Goldsmith’s ‘Country of the Mind’ is a landscape of death and violence in which Burke seems trapped.
Goldsmith’s friend, Richard Fettle, previously an average writer, now finds the tragedy of his friend’s killing spree pushing him to new creative heights.
It’s a dense and clumsily structured novel, but one with which patience reaps large rewards. The various story strands hang together very well, and there are occasional reflections of theme ricocheting between them. Mary’s artistic friend, for instance, invites her to his latest exhibition which, to her horror, includes an illegal (albeit adapted) Hellcrown. Goldsmith, a poet, for seemingly no reason, turns to carnage. Mary Choy, on her fruitless visit to Hispaniola, finds a beautiful country whose people have an unfamiliar vitality of life and (for the most part) love their leader, Colonel Sir John Yardley, but they are also the creators of the Hellcrowns, which forms part of the justice system of the country.
It’s not an outstanding work, but it shows a different side of Bear, one which is perhaps striving to explore the human condition rather more than is evident in some of his other work.
‘Queen of Angels’ is, of course, set in the same universe as ‘Moving Mars’, in which Jill the Thinker also appears, although the novels are otherwise unconnected.