My life in outer space

Archive for December, 2013

Down The Bright Way – Robert Reed (1991)

Down The Bright Way

‘In the deepness of space there are millions of worlds like our own. All are linked by The Bright, a pathway between the stars, created by an ancient godlike race known only as The Makers.

Now Humanity travels the Bright, uniting its worlds to a common destiny and a better future. But they do not travel alone. For others have discovered this gateway to the stars and they are planning to use it for a far more deadly purpose.’

Blurb from the 2003 Orbit paperback edition.

Reed takes the premise that, some time in the Earth’s distant past, an elder race seeded the Earth’s crust with a lattice of degenerate matter, the consequence of which was that somehow this lattice is able to admit passage – via a portal – to an infinite string of alternate Earths.
It’s a large-scale production contrasted – as in ‘An Exaltation of Larks’ with a neatly detailed portrait of small town America.
For a million years, the Founders, ands alternate species of human with large crania and furry faces, have been travelling the Bright – as the chain of portals is called – in both directions from their homeworld, uniting and civilising each Earth.
Jy, the million year old leader of one of the two Founder missions, has now reached our earth. There she is kidnapped by Moliak, her counterpart from the opposite end of the Bright. He has discovered an unstoppable civilisation of cyborg humans. Rendered almost invincible by augments and nanotechnology they have reverted to a savage tribal existence. Moliak wishes to destroy the Bright in order to contain them and stop them over-running the thousands of Earths already discovered.
Two American teenagers, Kyle and his date, Billie, are dragged into the kidnap and are taken along with Jy and her retinue on a journey through the various Earths, back to the Founders’ homeworld.
It’s not one of Reed’s best, but even here the characterisation is excellent. the people are real; they have flaws. Kyle is a fantasist and is pretending he is on of the aliens’ envoys, a Wanderer, in order to impress and seduce women. Confused adolescent males turn up a lot in Reed’s work and are generally portrayed with a blunt honesty. With some writers this may have made them seem heartless and cold. However, as with characters in other Reed books, Kyle emerges as a sad victim of himself. Reed makes us see his flaws – perhaps Reed’s own early flaws – through more understanding eyes.
Reed is also fascinated by the concept of near-immortal beings who bear comparison with similar characters in the work of van Vogt who also painted his highly colourful tales against absurdly vast backdrops.
The immortality issue is addressed, but does not satisfactorily convince that the central characters are over a million years old. All wanderers carry a hard memory unit which, if the body is destroyed or wears out, means that the mind of the individual can live on. Rather than explore the ramifications of this technology Reed uses it only as a plot device. However he deals much more effectively with the subject of immortality in later works such as ‘Marrow’ and ‘Sister Alice’
The structure does not help this novel since it is a multi third-person narrative in which we change characters with each section. With three or four characters this device may have worked but six or more gives the narrative a disjointed feel and it lacks coherence.
It is far more complex than it first appears since most of the main characters have secrets, some of which are not revealed until the end, but then again, this is another Reed device which he employs widely elsewhere.
Kyle’s secret we know from very early on, and we subsequently learn surprising things about other characters as the novel progresses.

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The Purple Cloud – MP Shiel (1901)

The Purple Cloud (Frontiers of Imagination)The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘The Purple Cloud is widely hailed as a masterpiece of science fiction and one of the best ‘last man’ novels ever written. A deadly purple vapour (sic) passes over the world and annihilates all living creatures except one man, Adam Jeffson. He embarks on an epic journey across a silent and devastated planet, an apocalyptic Robinson Crusoe putting together the semblance of a normal life from the flotsam and jetsam of his former existence. As he descends into madness over the years, he becomes increasingly aware that his survival was no accident and that his destiny – and the fate of the human race – are part of a profound, cosmological plan.’

Blurb from the 2000 Bison Books Edition

The narrator, or diarist, brings his story to us via a strange route. As was common for the time, The Purple Cloud is prefaced by an introductory chapter which explains how the manuscript came into the author’s hands. In this case it is transmitted by a young woman who, under hypnosis, is able to travel in time and space. Thus, in such a state, she reads aloud a diary written by a man of the near-future.
The narrator, Adam Jeffson, is an interesting figure, erudite yet somewhat naïve. he is beset we discover from childhood with voices in his head, opposing voices of what we would term to be Good and Evil, alternately urging or restraining him with regard to particular actions.
At this time an expedition is setting off for the North Pole, the incentive for which is a $175 million reward to the first man who sets foot at the Pole. Adam’s lover, the Countess Clodagh – a rather cold and despicable femme-fatale – poisons her own cousin in order that Adam can take his place on the expedition.
It is a tragic journey in which others of the expedition die and Adam, urged on by the warring voices, finally sets off alone to the Pole.
In his introduction to this edition, John Clute points out the unintentionally comic device of siting an actual physical pole at the North Pole, or at least a short cylindrical column – set in the middle of an inexplicable lake – on which is inscribed an unreadable name.
Before the expedition set off, a Scottish preacher was prophesying that only evil would come of such an endeavour; that, in essence, there are some things that God does not want us to do, know or see..
As the narrator’s name is Adam, the allusion is obvious. the obelisk at the Pole is no more than a manifestation of the Tree of Knowledge and Adam has transgressed by looking upon it. This is only the start of the story however, for when Adam returns he finds his co-explorers dead and sees in the sky a purple cloud. There is a scent of peaches in the air and on his journey back he slowly comes to realise that Death – in the form of a purple cloud of cyanide gas – has swept the Earth and left only him alive.
Much of the novel is taken up with this journey of solitude. Clute also points out in the introduction that we often forget how pessimistic and bleak many of these late Victorian/Edwardian works were. Wells, for instance, held out little hope for mankind’s improvement and enlightenment.
Part of the effect of the gas is as a preservative, causing the human race to decay only slowly. This is a clever and chilling device as it allows Shiel to describe tableaux of various sections of society, trapped like flies in amber by the quick acting poison at the moment of death.
Jeffson regresses into a kind of madness and travels the globe setting fire to cities before finally setting up home on the island of Imbros where he builds himself a small palace.
Whether the middle eastern robes he dresses himself in were meant as a sign of decadence is not clear, but it is significant that as his madness develops he begins to abandon western dress in favour of turbans and Turkish caftans.
For its time it’s a very interesting portrait of a man’s descent into psychosis, particularly in view of the ‘voices’ which plague him; warring factions within his own mind, reminiscent of Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll & Hyde’. Jeffson believes these manifestations to have a more supernatural origin, although Shiel must have been aware of contemporary thinking in the field of psychiatry and indeed, the story of ‘Jekyll & Hyde’

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Against Infinity – Gregory Benford (1983)

Against Infinity

‘ON THE POISONOUS, ICY SURFACE OF GANYMEDE, A MAN AND A BOY ARE ON A DEADLY HUNT

Their prey is the Aleph – an unknowable alien artifact that has roamed and ruled Ganymede for countless millennia, Indescribable, infinitely dangerous, the Aleph haunts men’s dreams and destroys all efforts to terraform Ganymede into a habitable planet.
Now in a modern world an ancient struggle begins, as a boy seeks manhood, a man seeks enlightenment and a society seeks the power to rule the universe.
In GREGORY Benford’s first novel since Timescape, men discover that the Aleph is their prey, their victim – and their destiny.’

Blurb from the 1984 Pocket Books paperback edition

Manuel is a young Ganymede native, born on the Jovian moon during the early part of a terraforming operation. Manuel’s work is to help his father, Colonel Lopez, and his team with various duties, the bulk of which involves tracking down and hunting ‘warped’ organisms; mutated descendants of creatures the scientists designed to scrub the planet and its atmosphere of methane and ammonia.
It would appear, however, that the colonists and human-designed wildlife are not alone on Ganymede.
Alien artefacts have already been discovered in other parts of the outer Solar System but on Ganymede there is a functioning artefact nicknamed Aleph; a mobile, shape-shifting rock-burrowing entity. Aleph is mining Ganymede for its own esoteric reasons and has resisted all attempts to destroy and capture it.
Now Manuel, his colleague Old Matt and a psychotic cyborg called Eagle have encountered Aleph again and are planning to capture and destroy a creature which may have been tunnelling through Ganymede before Man even evolved.
In comparison to Benford’s ‘Artefact’, written around the same time, this emerges as a far superior work, albeit shorter.
There’s a very pacey feel to it which is helped by that fact that the action jumps ahead in leaps and bounds and we see not only Manuel’s maturation from boy to man but the gradual transformation of the face of Ganymede from an icy moon to a functioning biosphere.
It would have been interesting for Benford to have expanded a little more on the terraforming/biodesign element which is fascinating in itself. I am left wanting to know more about Earth and the society that is evolving in the asteroids at this point but, as I have always praised writers who left some questions unanswered, I shouldn’t really press this issue too far.
From what we gather from the final section, Earth has moved on politically to become a Marxist world, a political system which only survives by expansion and which, necessarily, so Benford informs us, needs a Capitalist system at the fringes. This is an intriguing concept and one on which I wish Benford had expanded more fully throughout the book.
Ultimately, one is left a little unsatisfied, which is unfair to Benford since this is an interesting and thought-provoking work, well thought-out and featuring mostly Latino protagonists.

Sequel to ‘The Jupiter Project’


The Stochastic Man – Robert Silverberg (1975)

The Stochastic Man

‘Lew Nichols is in the business of stochastic prediction. A mixture of sophisticated analysis and inspired guesswork, it is the nearest man can get to predicting the future. And Nichols is very good at it. His uncanny accuracy in guessing the future quickly makes him indispensable to Paul Quinn, the ambitious and charismatic mayor of New York whose sights are firmly set on the presidency.

But there is nothing paranormal about stochastic prediction: Nichols can’t actually see the future. However, the strange and reclusive Martin Carvajal apparently can, and he offers to help Nichols to do so too. Nichols, caught up in his obsessive desire to help Quinn into the White House, can’t resist, even though he can clearly see the devastating impact that knowing in advance every act of his life has on Carvajal. For Carvajal has even seen his own death.

A brilliant and thoughtful novel, entertaining and insightful, The Stochastic Man explores the double-edged weapon of total clairvoyant knowledge of the future in characteristically potent and clear-eyed prose.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Collector’s edition.

Looking twenty-five years ahead from the time of writing to the year 2000 – a year already linked in the public consciousness with prophecies and apocalypse – Silverberg is himself the stochastic man. Like his hero, Lew Nichols, he uses what data he possesses to extrapolate a likely Millennial scenario.
Lew makes a good living at it, working hard to collate data and analyse it to establish how trends and possible events will affect each other and sells his forecast to various firms and individuals who consult him regarding business plans or investments.
Lew has a penthouse apartment in a segregated area of New York, a trophy wife and a happy life until the day he is invited to work for Paul Quinn, a man keen to be the next Mayor of New York. With Lew’s help, Quinn is duly elected and has set his ambitious eye on the Presidency.
Lew is happy to help. Quinn has no chance of even being nominated as a candidate for the next election, but after that there is a good chance of him making it into the White House.
One day, the mysterious Martin Carvajal arrives to see Lew; an elderly man who has amassed a fortune from shrewd investments. Carvajal is also in the business of making predictions, although his precognition does not come from analysing data or trends. He sees it, in his head.
Around the same time Lew’s wife, Sundara, gets involved with a cult group with peculiar beliefs.
Carvajal believes in predestination. He feels he has no choice in what will happen to him. His life is foreordained. he has seen it already, even the moment of his own death, and is convinced there is nothing he can do to change anything. He came to see Lew because he’d already seen it happen and knew how the conversation would go.
Sundara, in contrast, has begun to believe in randomness and chaos, leaving Lew having to deal with both viewpoints; Carvajal’s rigid order and Sundara’s chaos.
Carvajal then agrees to teach Lew how to see, or rather, how to receive the visions of his future life.
The consequences on his work are not good. Lew’s advice to the prospective president begins to get strangely eccentric and specific and he can give no reason why, for instance, Quinn should start interviewing new police-chiefs although Lew is insistent that the current police-chief will resign.
Lew of course is fired, mainly because Quinn does not want to be associated with what the public might perceive as witchcraft. Subsequently, the unexpected rioting and violence during the Millennium celebrations – with which some of the police join in – make the police chief’s position untenable, and he is forced to resign.
A chilling aspect of the book is that Quinn – from Lew’s visions of the future – will become what is tantamount to a fascist dictator. Lew’s response to this is apathetic to the point of amorality. His grasp of his visions are such that now he knows nothing can be changed. There is no point in his having a moral opinion on the issue.


Soldier Ask Not – Gordon R Dickson (1967)

Soldier, Ask NotSoldier, Ask Not by Gordon R. Dickson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘The Hugo Award winning story of a universe splintered into the factions of war.

The black-clad mercenaries of the Friendly planets fought where their employer and their God dictated. On New Earth they pitted their fanaticism against the cold courage of the Dorsai.

And the implacable hatred of one man, Tam Olyn. Olyn saw his brother-in-law shot down before his eyes. His quest for vengeance took him across half the civilized worlds, to Cassida and Frieland, to St Marie and back to new earth. He met men of all the splinter groups into which Mankind had evolved and he used them to bring about his revenge – until Padma the Exotic taught him how to use his special powers… and the frightening knowledge of the Final Encyclopedia.

SOLDIER, ASK NOT is the second of Gordon R Dickson’s epic visions of the future, a concept that ranks alongside Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in its galaxy-spanning scope.’

Blurb from the 1975 Sphere paperback edition.

Tam Olyn is a newsman. He and his sister Esteen have been brought up by their Uncle Mathias after the death of their parents. One day Tam is visiting the new orbital library where one day one will be able to reference connections between all the material collected within its walls.
The guide who is showing them around asks the group to pause for a moment and listen, since sometimes people (but only Earthborn people) have heard something. Tam is sceptical but immediately begins to hear a tumult of unintelligible voices.
He is taken to see Mark Torre who is in charge of the library and who is searching for the rare people who have heard something. He is disappointed to discover that Tam heard nothing intelligible but even so, offers him the chance to take over his position when he dies. Padma, an exotic, who is also present, tells Tam that he is an important human; one who is able to shape the destinies of many, but is set on a path of destruction.
His sister initially wished to marry a soldier from one of the religious fundamentalist ‘Friendly’ worlds but Tam dissuaded her. She later marries someone else and Tam, in an effort to protect his brother-in-law, instead leads him into danger and gets him killed.
Tam has growing powers of psychological insight and persuasion and with access to politicians and high-ranking military officers of both sides of conflicts (being an impartial Newsman) he is able to manipulate people into starting a war which would see the Friendly planets destroyed.
However, Padma the Exotic seems to know more about Tam Olyn than he does himself.
As in ‘Dune’ there is a mixture of science and mysticism, and indeed the concept of human evolution toward a greater being. The Dorsai, in some respects, could also be compared to the Fremen warriors since they are warriors whom none can oppose.
The basic premise is that Earth colonies have evolved away from the Earth paradigm to produce specialised variants such as the soldiers (Dorsai), the mystics (Friendlies) the scientists (Newtonians) and Philosophers (Exotics)
Now has come the time for the splinter races to reintegrate with the Earth species and produce a new evolved species of Man.
Olyn, in his blind quest for destruction, failed to deduce this and finally realises, with the help of Padma, that what he been battling are the various parts of him that make up the splinter races.
Dickson’s work is generally romantic in nature and dosed with a fair bit of mysticism. What science there is within the pages is wrapped up in verbiage and technobabble such as the science of Ontogenetics by which Padma is able to predict where Tam Olyn will be at specific nodal points in his life.
Dick’s strength lies in his desire to create characters and to explore the future of Humanity and what that may entail.
It’s not as strong a novel as ‘Tactics of Mistake’ where Dickson undoubtedly relished the political and military chess-playing of two major characters. Here, the structure is less clear and set in a more complex political arena in which he places a rigidly dogmatic fundamentalist culture. The characters are all admirably fleshed-out but it’s a shame that we did not see more of the lives of ‘The Chosen of God’

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Deepsix – Jack McDevitt (2001)

Deepsix (Engines of God, #2)Deepsix by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘With less than three weeks to go before a rogue gas giant collides with the world known as Deepsix, Priscilla ;Hutch’ Hutchins and her crack team land on the surface to record and salvage as much of the planet’s ancient civilisation as they can before it is lost forever.

But as they struggle to make sense of this strange uninhabited world with its stone cities under ice, unexpected predators and inexplicable hints of impossible technology buried in the rubble, their only means of escape is suddenly destroyed. The clock ticks relentlessly toward an unavoidable apocalypse. They must find some way to get off Deepsix before it plunges into the depths of the rampaging gas giant.’

Blurb to the Voyager 2001 paperback edition

The sequel to ‘Engines of God’ sees Hutch – the diminutive pilot introduced in the aforesaid novel – once again involved in last-minute xeno-archaeology.
The planet Maleiva III (Deepsix) is about to be cannon-balled by a rogue gas-giant which has entered the system from the depths of space. Although explorers visited the planet twenty years previously to investigate its six-billion year old biosphere and the highly evolved predators which inhabit the world it is only now that it is about to be engulfed that evidence of a sapient but apparently extinct civilisation has been found.
Hutch, being the only pilot with a lander capable of visiting the planet and near enough to reach the planet in time, is asked to head a team to try and salvage what artefacts and evidence they can before Maleiva III is destroyed.
In ‘Engines of God’ of course, Hutch was on another planet helping a team to excavate an alien temple before terraforming destroyed all evidence. Thankfully, that is where the similarities end.
‘Deepsix’ is a much tighter novel in that McDevitt confines the action to one location and the alien mysteries, far from being a backdrop, complement the unfolding human drama and provide a perfect balance between the two.
McDevitt, as we cannot fail to be aware, is an American. He has a great eye for character and detail, but one wonders whether he ever really stopped to consider whether any interstellar culture as this could really be populated so heavily by Americans.
There is one Frenchman and a Russian, I must point out, but that seems to be McDevitt’s only concession to a multi-cultural society.
On the other hand, if the network of human colonies, ships and of course Earth itself (which seems to have been taken over by the US. The cynical columnist McAllister at one point mentions the ratings for the WorldBowl) is a metaphor for the US, then it is not a pleasant comparison, and rather a damning portrait.

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Mission to The Stars (vt The Mixed Men) – AE van Vogt (1952)

Mission To The Stars

STAR VOYAGE

‘In the far distant future the spaceship Star Cluster is searching for certain inhabited planets lost somewhere in the teeming wilderness of outer space. The inhabitants of these planets know the ship is searching for them but they refuse to reveal their location.
Why don’t these people want to be found?
What is their secret?
Discover the astounding answers as you read this gripping classic tale of interstellar adventure by AE van Vogt, one of the all time great names in adventurous science fiction.’

Blurb from the 1997 Sphere edition.

Another fix-up novel from van Vogt comprising of ‘Concealment’, ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Mixed Men’, published in Astounding between 1943 and 1945 and telling the tale of adapted ‘Dellian’ humans who left human civilisation fifteen thousand years before and settled (unbeknown to Earth) in the Greater Magellanic cloud.
Now, an Earth warship has stumbled upon one of the weather stations which monitors the interstellar storms which rage in the depths of the cloud. The ship’s captain is determined to bring the Fifty Suns under Earth control. However the Fifty Suns are scattered amongst the fifty million stars of the cloud and Lady Gloria Laurr, Grand Captain of the ‘Star Cluster’ is determined to find them.
The Cloud was settled by Dellians and Non-Dellians, but what Captain Laurr does not know is that a mating of Dellian and Non-Dellians has produced a third group, the Mixed Men, more powerful and intelligent than either of its parents and possessed of the power to control human minds.
The Mixed Men have developed their own culture and civilisation, but their nominal and hereditary leader is Maltby, brought up – after being captured as a child – in the Dellian/Non-Dellian society and now forced to lie to both communities in order to save his civilisation and his race.
There are echoes of ‘Slan’ in this although it lacks the rich texture and background. Like the Slans, the Mixed Men once attempted a coup in order to take over the reins of power, but failed.
We have humans, Dellians and Mixed men, compared to the humans, Slans and tendrilless Slans.
The Mixed men, like Slans, have hidden within human society.
One has to question whether van Vogt is consciously repeating a successful or familiar formula or exploring a variation on the same theme. What seems to interest van Vogt most is the rational scientist/leader whose intellect brings change to political systems without the use of violence. This does not however, preclude the ‘‘control’’ and manipulation of others which we might see today as a subtler form of violence. Maltby, at one point, takes mental control of Grand Captain Gloria and forces her to kiss him, which perhaps says more about the society of the Nineteen Forties when this was written than about van Vogt’s super-being.
Like Gilbert Gosseyn in ‘The World of Null-A’, Maltby has two brains, one of which is mostly dormant but can be brought into service to produce an IQ of 900 or more.
There are some interesting ‘nodes of consequence’ in this book such as the Fifty Suns deciding to attack just as the ‘Star Cluster’ was about to leave the galaxy for good. Later, if the chairman of the Kaider III government hadn’t mistrusted Maltby so much he would have told him that a supernova had now become an equation in the storm into which Maltby had sent the ‘Star Cluster’ in order to destroy it. Had he known he would have been forced to confess and would not have been shipwrecked on S Doradus. For van Vogt this is interesting and shows a more structured approach than some of his stream-of-consciousness pieces.


Earthworks – Brian Aldiss (1965)

EarthworksEarthworks by Brian W. Aldiss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘The world had degenerated into a disease-ridden, over-populated rubbish dump. Chemicals had poisoned the landscape and reduced most of the people to the edge of starvation.

Ecology had become a meaningless word from the past. The planet earth speeds on its collision course with disaster. there is a solution but it is so frightful that man cannot conceive of it ever being put into operation.

Only one man, Knowle Noland, ex-convict, ex-traveller, and captain of the tramp freighter Trieste Star, is prepared to try. He alone is prepared to fire a shot that will throw the world into hideous war, but may leave a brave new world for the survivors. If there are any survivors.’

Blurb from the 1972 NEL paperback edition.

This brief, poetic and powerful novel is typical of Aldiss’ talent for using the medium of SF to explore complex characters, moral dilemmas and indeed to take a good look at the world in which we live. This, of course, many would argue, is the true purpose of SF, to hold a mirror to ourselves and see, perhaps from a different perspective, at least part of the truth of the human condition.
In an overpopulated Earth of the near future where Man has raped the planet to the point where ecology is breaking down, Knowle Noland begins to tell us his tale.
Noland is the Captain of the Trieste Star, a ship which transports sand from the African coast to England. As the ship approaches Africa, a bizarre series of events is set in motion by the sighting of a dead man floating over the sea toward the ship. the dead man is held above the waves by an anti-gravity harness and, when the body is brought on board, Noland discovers letters on the dead man’s person from ‘Justine’ to a man named Peter.
Shortly afterwards the ship runs aground on the African coast and Noland takes us back to his time working as a landsman for The Farmer, the fate of many people who fall foul of the law.
Noland is a complex character who throughout his life has not been much of a hero. As a child, working for a Fagin-like character, he hid beneath the table with a friend when the authorities raided his home and arrested his master. Later. temporarily absconding from the Farm he visits an abandoned village in search of books and is abducted by the nomadic Travellers (criminals in the eyes of the authorities) rather than running away. When the Travellers are captured he betrays them and is taken to The Farmer who gives him a job aboard the Trieste Star, although Noland never sees this as a reward or an opportunity that the Farmer gave him. He remains resentful.
There is much here that is strange and slightly baroque. Noland is prone to fits in which he experiences vivid hallucinations. In his conscious life, however, there is a phantom who follows him, who he calls The Figure. This appears to be not part of his hallucinatory world since other characters can see it too. Justine, whom he subsequently meets, tells him that this phantom appears when he is close to death. Because of the letters Noland is carrying, he is suspected of being an agent of the enemies of Justine and Peter Mercator (who turns out to be The Farmer).
They have a plan to solve the world’s problems. Their aim is to assassinate the President of Africa and plunge the world into another global war, thus relieving the Earth of the burden of its millions of people and allowing it to heal while the Travellers are destined to become the survivors, and the nucleus of a second chance for Humanity.
It’s a tribute to Aldiss’ writing skills that Justine’s plans make a horrible kind of sense. Noland has to be convinced of the rightness of it and, ultimately, steps up to the plate to become, if not a hero in the classic sense, then at least an antihero and gain his place in history.
There are some sections which seem very Ballardian, particularly the scenes with Justine, a beautiful but deadly sociopath, who in one scene fills a watering can with poison and calmly waters the plants within a room while conducting a conversation with Noland.
Another surprising character is The Farmer, a man that Nolan sees as a capitalist monster, but who turns out to be – at least at the finale- a compassionate man trying to hold a crumbling business empire together whilst attempting to do the best thing for the good of everyone. The Farmer considers that he did Noland a favour by essentially giving him a chance to make something of himself and indeed, Noland started on the bottom rung and in the Trieste Star and worked his way up to the Captain’s role.
One can only speculate as to what wonders would be unleashed if only more genre writers paid such attention to characterisation and detail as Aldiss.

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Timelike Infinity (XeeLee #02) – Stephen Baxter (1992)

Timelike Infinity

Hard SF meets Space Opera head-on in a bewildering but beguiling adventure of wormholes, time travel, naked singularities and even Stonehenge uprooted and carried to the orbit of Jupiter.
Mankind has reached the point of expanding through the Solar System and to nearer stars and has introduced AS (anti-senescence) treatment. In the orbit of Jupiter, Michael Poole has assembled a pair of wormhole portals.
The science of this is not easy to follow, but the idea seems to be that Poole can fly at near lightspeed with one of the portals for 1500 years, and theoretically when he reaches his goal he can drive through the portable wormhole and emerge in the past at Jupiter.
In the future, Earth is occupied by the Qax, who have destroyed all AS treatment and working ships.
Jasoft Parz is an old man who is working for the Qax as an intermediary between themselves and humanity. At this point a ship, its construction undetected by the Qax, has launched and flown through the Jupiter wormhole gate into the past. The Qax worried about the threat of history being changed, arrange for the gate to be adjusted to send Qax ships into the future to report back with technological advances and the history of Earth / Qax relations.
Meanwhile a group of scientific zealots working in hiding under the Qax occupation have built a device which they believe will end the oppression of Humanity.
For Baxter it’s a reasonably short novel although he does manage to pack an enormous amount in. I am sure that the scientific theory is impeccable but now and again one has to confess to not being as bright as one imagined one was. I am also still baffled by the whole Schrodinger cat-in-a-box business and Baxter’s extension of the concept which proposes that the Universe does not collapse into existence until it is observed.
Baxter’s ‘Xeelee’ universe has our galaxy, and no doubt all others, teeming with life, but it is an inimical life. Our galaxy appears to be a jungle in which races seek to exploit or destroy each other. Baxter employs the phrase ‘client race’ which is a term also used by Brin in his ‘Uplift’ novels where races uplift particular species to sapience. Here it is employed where a race has subjugated another. The Spline, it appears, a race of sentient beings having somehow learned to live in open space, have survived by turning their vast bodies into spacecraft within which the Qax can live and travel.
At the very top of the pecking order are the mysterious Xeelee, an ancient elder race whose vast projects cover millions of years, one of which is directing entire galaxies into a huge ring structure, the ultimate aim of which is to escape this universe before it dies to a newly created one.
One point that a fellow reviewer made about this novel is that spelling alien race names with Q’s an X’s may work for the Star Trek industry but is looking a little dated in the SF literary world. Kax and Zeelee would have worked just as well. I can see the point, and tend to agree. However, a more pernicious and irritating habit which is widespread and has its origins God Knows Where is the insertion of random apostrophes in the names of alien races and characters. As if any alien would know or care what an apostrophe was in the first place.
Where’s your reality, Spike?


The Seedling Stars – James Blish (1957)

seedling-stars

‘You didn’t make an Adapted Man with just a wave of the wand. It involved an elaborate constellation of techniques, known collectively as pantropy, that changed the human pattern in a man’s shape and chemistry before he was born. And the pantropists didn’t stop there. Education, thoughts, ancestors and the world itself were changed because the Adapted Men were produced to live and thrive in the alien environments found only in space. They were crucial to a daring plan to colonise the universe.

The four related stories which make up this prescient and ambitious book include ‘Surface Tension’, widely recognised as one of James Blish’s best, and explore just what it is to be human. Thought-provoking, skilfully crafted and crammed with ideas, drama and suspense, The Seedling Stars demonstrates that Blish was one of the most intelligent and visionary of all SF writers.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Collectors’ Edition

One has to admire Blish in that he produces a ‘fix-up’ novel, assembled from other previously published short pieces and thus creates one of the most notable works of SF of the 20th Century.
The central premise of ‘TSS’ is pantropy, a process which today we would describe as genetic engineering. Pantropy is so called because it is a combination of complex processes and can only be effected on those yet unborn.
Blish sets up a political situation in which a future Earth is dominated by the Capitalist policies of the Port Authority, a global concern which derives its income from taxing traffic of any sort. Port has invested much money in research into terraforming, since it will be able to recoup its investment from taxing traffic between worlds.
Meanwhile, another school of thought holds that it would be cheaper to modify Man in order that humanity could live on Non-Earth type planets.
In Book I (first published as ‘A Time to Survive’ – Fantasy and Science Fiction – 1955) Sweeney, an adapted human, brought up in isolation in conditions poisonous to the ‘basic form’ is dropped on Ganymede in order to infiltrate an illegal colony of adapted humans tailored to exist on Jupiter’s moon.
His mission is to capture the adapted man Dr Rullman, an expert in pantropy, for which service Sweeney will be transformed into a normal human.
He learns that all he has been taught is lies and that Port’s aim is to discredit and crush the pantropic movement. So, he helps the Ganymedeans to pretend that he has initiated a civil war, which is actually a cover for the launch of a rocket to one of the nearer suns, where humans, tailored for life on a different world, can continue the process.
In Book II (First published in IF Worlds of Science Fiction – 1954) we move to a jungle world where a group of monkey-like humans with prehensile tails have built a culture in the canopy of a rain-forest. Some of them are exiled to the surface of the world for preaching heresy, i.e., they refuse to believe that a race of ‘giants’ created them and placed them in the trees.
In Book III (Originally published in vastly different form as ‘Sunken Universe’ in Super Science Stories – 1942, and in part as ‘Surface Tension’ in Galaxy Science Fiction, 1952) the award-winning ‘Surface Tension’ a seeding ship is marooned on the only continent of a waterworld. the continent is flat and marshy, consisting of little more than a network of ponds. The seeding crew, realising that they are likely to die on the planet, decide to colonise the world with copies of themselves, transmuted into minute specimens of pond-life.
It’s one of the classic shorts of the Twentieth Century, rich with detail and texture, and forces us to challenge our own perceptions about the Universe, since the ‘humans’ think of their pool as a world , and eventually design and build a craft capable of travelling above the ‘sky’ and into the next world.
the point of the entire novel, which Blish underscores in the final piece, is that although appearances may differ from environment to environment, we are all essentially human.
In Book IV (Published originally as ‘Watershed’ – IF Worlds of Science Fiction – 1955) a seal-like ambassador is aboard a seeding-ship crewed by ‘basic forms’ who show a marked degree of racism toward him.
The ambassador points out to them however, that the barren planet they are about to re-seed is the birthplace of humanity, Earth, and that ‘basic forms’ (if indeed the Rigellian are still basic forms) are very much the minority among the diverse species of humans now occupying the galaxy.
Perhaps today we see Blish’s idealism as a little naïve. His premise was that adapted humans would retain human emotions and values and still be essentially human despite their shapes or sizes. The ambassador points out that they do not seed (for instance) gas giants since that would be too great a departure from the human mind-set and besides other life-forms which have evolved within gas giants may want to pantrify their own species and colonise such worlds.
One could argue that a vastly different environment (such as a pond or the surface of Ganymede) would automatically alter one’s perceptions and that evolution would, in any case, continue in humans who were living within primitive societies. natural selection would take over and the species may well take a different course.
One might also argue that Blish (despite his attack on xenophobia in the final piece) places such importance on the integrity of the human mind that he is, in his own way, being as xenophobic as the system of thought he is attacking.