My life in outer space

Archive for January, 2014

Year’s Best SF 2 – David G Hartwell (Ed.) (1997)

Year's Best SF 2

This collection features several tribute stories, notably Jack Williamson, but also HG Wells, Jack London, Jules Verne and GK Chesterton. Postmodern pastiche seems the zeitgeist of 1997.
Outstanding stories from Dave Wolverton, Sheila Finch and Yves Meynard. Nice to see a healthy representation of female authors also, but one would have been happier to see newer names here.

After a Lean Winter – Dave Wolverton (F&SF, 1996)

HG Wells’ ‘War of The Worlds’ told from the perspective of Jack London, in a Victorian Alaska. A very well-crafted atmospheric piece, which brings us a little closer to the Martians than Wells did.

In The Upper Room – Terry Bisson (Playboy 1996)

A young man, living with his mother following the break-up of his relationship, enrols on an erotic VR holiday in ‘Victoria’s Palace’ and ends up having more of an adventure than he may have originally imagined.

Thinkertoy – John Brunner (The Williamson Effect, 1996)

A tribute to Jack Williamson, this was maybe Brunner’s last short story as he died in 1995 at the Worldcon in Glasgow. Written in a suitably retro style it carries a nasty sting in its tail.

Gregory Benford: “Zoomers” (Future Net, 1996)

A hard SF vision of a future where prospecters trawl virtual space for information to sell.

Sheila Finch: “Out of the Mouths” (F&SF, 1996)

A high quality tale from Finch (who is a linguist) of a highly unethical experiment in linguistics which the originator justifies because it may help to stop an interstellar war. Very beautifully written, this is reminiscent of the best of Connie Willis’ early work, and to a certain extent Russell’s ‘The Sparrow’. Finch certainly deserves wider exposure.

James Patrick Kelly: “Breakaway, Backdown” (Asimov’s, 1996)

A very stylistic tale, told in the voice of the narrator; a recruiter interviewing an applicant for service in low-g.

Yves Meynard: “Tobacco Words” (Tomorrow, 1995)

A marvellous and engrossing piece featuring a disabled boy with a crippled tongue. His sister works at removing sins from humans arriving on her world who have picked up the sins of others while travelling through space. Full of detail and beautiful pieces of unexplained randomness. One of my favourite stories in this volume.

Joanna Russ: “Invasion” (Asimov’s, 1996)

A story that is interesting and well-written but reads as being somewhat dated. Had it been written in the Seventies it would not have raised any eyebrows. A ship encounters a distress signal and is forced to evacuate a horde of troublesome alien children with telekinetic abilities.
Mayhem ensues.

Brian Stableford: “The House of Mourning” (Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex, 1996)

Stableford seems at his best with exploring the possible uses or misuses of genetic engineering. Here, we follow the victim of one such procedure and slowly uncover the tragedy of her life.

Damon Knight: “Life Edit” (Science Fiction Age, 1996)

A neat little gem which examines the consequences of us being able to edit our lives and change things, thus creating a new timeline. Knight takes this in a direction one might not have expected.

Robert Reed: “First Tuesday” (F&SF, 1996)

By hooking himself into a computer interface, the US President is able to visit every house independently, and answer questions.

David Langford: “The Spear of the Sun” (Interzone, 1996)

Langford postulates a world in which GK Chesterton, rather than HG Wells was the greatest influence on European Science Fiction, and here presents one of his Father Brown stories; in this instance, the murder of a pagan acolyte aboard a space liner.

Gene Wolfe: “Counting Cats in Zanzibar” (Asimov’s, 1996)

The mother of Artificial Intelligence meets one of her children on a boat at sea, and amidst literary allusions and references, they play an intellectual game of cat and mouse.

Bruce Sterling: “Bicycle Repairman” (Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology, 1996)

A lovely cyberpunk tale of a bicycle repairman living in a barter society who receives a piece of equipment that others are keen to retrieve. Packed with character and wee thinky bits.

Gwyneth Jones: “Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland” (Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex, 1996)

Set in a time when therapists are using VR immersion sex programmes for treatment and analysis, this is a short study of sexuality, domination, control and sexual identity. One has to ask though, whether it adds anything new to any debate.

Allen Steele: “Doblin’s Lecture” (Pirate Writings, 1996)

Steele, who was once a hard nosed journalist, brings us a quite chilling story of convicted criminals brought to campus to be interviewed as part of their course work by students. The lesson, however, doesn’t end with a mere question and answer session.

Kathleen Ann Goonan: “The Bride of Elvis” (Science Fiction Age, 1996)

A very entertaining story in which Elvis turns out to be a humanoid alien, stranded on Earth with his harem. When he goes missing from his tomb, one of the brides becomes concerned.

Kate Wilhelm: “Forget Luck” (F&SF, 1996)

Not a new idea (that ‘luck’ in terms of avoiding death has a genetic basis) but one that is skilfully handled here by Wilhelm.

Connie Willis: “Nonstop to Portales” (The Williamson Effect, 1996)

A lovely tribute to Jack Williamson by Connie Willis in which a man arriving in Williamson’s home town finds himself on a sightseeing coach from the future.

Stephen Baxter: “Columbiad” (Science Fiction Age, 1996)

A sequel to Verne’s ‘From The Earth to The Moon’ in which HG Wells discovers that Verne was describing an actual journey in his novel.


The Dreaming Void – Peter F Hamilton (2007)

The Dreaming Void (Void, #1)

‘AD 3580. The Intersolar Commonwealth has spread through the galaxy to cover a thousand star systems. A powerful navy protects it from any hostile species – and for Commonwealth citizens even death has been overcome.

At the centre of the galaxy is The Void, a strange artificial universe created by aliens billions of years ago. In order to function, it is gradually consuming the mass of the galaxy. Watched over by its ancient enemies, the Raiel, the Void’s expansion is barely contained.

When Inigo – who dreams of the sweet life within the Void – mysteriously disappears, his followers embark on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage which the Raiel claim will trigger a catastrophic expansion of the Void.

Aaron is a man whose only memory is his own name. All he does know is that his job is to find the missing messiah and stop the pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, a junior constable called Edeard starts to challenge the corruption and decay that have poisoned the city and is determined that his fellow citizens should know hope again.’

Blurb from the 2008 Pan paperback edition

The first volume of Hamilton’s ‘Void’ trilogy is set in his Commonwealth universe, approximately a thousand years after the events related in ‘Pandora’s Star’ and ‘Judas Unchained’
As usual, Hamilton employs a large cast in a multi-character storyline some of whom, familiar from the previous books, are still extant after a millennium, but existing in a very different universe. Many of the ageless humans have chosen to upload their personalities into the ANA, a vast quantum-based multi-consciousness AI, where political factions have evolved.
Humanity has now made contact with many alien species, and are part of a multi-species project observing ‘the Void’, an expanding universe at the centre of our galaxy. Some time ago, one of the human observers, Inigo, began to have dreams about events happening within The Void, which at one time apparently allowed a human colony ship through its otherwise deadly event horizon.
Thanks to Ozzie – who dismantled his Sylfen amulet and analysed the quantum entanglement within, Humanity now has ‘gaiamotes’, implants which allow telepathy between humans. When Inigo’s dreams were released into the gaiafield it spawned a new religion. Inigo’s followers are now planning to launch a pilgrimage to The Void, a plan which some aliens and ANA factions suspect may increase the expansion of The Void and endanger the galaxy.
Meanwhile, other dreams of The Void are being released into the gaiafield from an unknown source and agents of all the interested parties are on the hunt for both Inigo, who has gone into hiding, and the new dreamer.
The action is split between events in our galaxy and the details of Inigo’s dreams which follow the life of Edeard, a young man who, like most of The Void’s inhabitants, has psionic powers of telepathy and psychokinesis.
Like most of Hamilton’s work the plot is complex and multi-stranded, and although it is not entirely necessary one would do well to read the earlier novels in order to understand the backstories of some of the characters and the galactic commonwealth itself.
The weakest sections are those which relate Inigo’s dreams of Edeard’s life. Perhaps deliberately, Hamilton has given these sections a medieval/fairytale-like quality which doesn’t sit well with the fast-paced hi-tech full-on action which is going on in the outer galaxy.
Also, one has to say that the Inigo’s dream sequences are frankly, a little dull. One hopes there will be less of them in the next two volumes.
It is oddly comforting, however, to have familiar figures returning such as Paula Myo, still pursuing criminals but now having had a certain amount of compassion edited into her obsessive compulsive personality. Gore and Justine Bernelli are still about, albeit in avatar form having uploaded themselves into the ANA centuries ago.

Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey (1968)

Dragonflight (Pern: Dragonriders of Pern, #1)

McCaffrey presumably did not envisage this novel being as successful as it was and spawning multiple sequels and spin-off series.
Cleverly, McCaffrey thought through very carefully her scientific basis for the backstory in that a colony was set up on an Earth-type planet orbiting a sun which has attracted a rogue planet. For reasons unknown, the original colonists were abandoned and contact with the earth was lost.
When the rogue draws closer to Pern, as the planet is called, destructive ‘threads’ which consume organic matter are drawn to Pern.
Thousands of years before, the humans of the time began a breeding programme of native wildlife on order to create a beast capable of dealing with the threads and so were born the dragons.
It has been four hundred years since ‘The Red Star’ (as the planet is called) passed close enough to Pern to be able to send out its deadly harvest.
Consequently, the Lords and Holds who supply the Dragonweyrs have become tired of supporting a system which they feel is no longer necessary. Additionally, there is only one Dragonweyr left and Nemorth, the elderly Queen dragon, has lain a small clutch of eggs, including one Queen egg.
Dragons and riders have to be ‘impressed’ upon each other following hatching and so F’lar, one of the dragonriders, goes on a search to find a girl capable of impressing a queen dragon egg.
The novel is the story of that girl, Lessa, a daughter of Ruatha Hold. At the age of eleven, her family were slaughtered when a neighbouring Lord, Fax, raided her family’s hold. Using her impressive psi powers she disguised herself as an elderly servant and hid within the hold.
Without giving the plot away too much, Lessa engineer’s Fax’s downfall and becomes bonded with the new Dragon Queen, Ramoth, and thus through Lessa we are introduced to the ways of dragons, dragonmen and the Weyr.
To a certain extent it is a wish fulfilment fantasy that will appeal to a particular demographic. Whether or not it was intended to do so is another matter. Young girls will obviously identify with Lessa, a Cinderella figure who was originally working as a drudge and living in hiding, only to be taken away by a handsome young man to an exciting new life of glamour and adventure, part of which means having one’s own golden dragon to whom one is telepathically connected.
Having said that, Lessa is no swooning Mills and Boone heroine but a feisty and argumentative woman who refuses to accept the concept of male domination. On Pern, when dragons mate, because of the telepathic link they share, their human counterparts are drawn to each other by violent sexual urges.
Thus F’lar (whose dragon mated with Lessa’s) becomes not only Lessa’s lover, but Head of the Weyr. Their relationship suffers because of his effort to control her (in some cases well-intentioned since Lessa tends to act without knowing what the consequences might be.)
It’s an odd addition to the Science Fantasy genre, since it lacks many of the baroque embellishments that marks works of the genre.
However, it is one of those ‘comfort reads’ that one can read repetitively and which never fails to lift one’s spirits.
McCaffrey has to be applauded for publishing a novel with such a strong female lead back in the 60s when some women found it hard to break into a genre which was previously almost exclusively male-dominated.
This may very well have been McCaffrey’s ‘Dune’ however, since although the two sequels in what became a trilogy are decent enough, an entire industry has been spawned producing ‘Pern’ novels, coinciding with an increasing lack of empathy on the part of yours truly.
The die-hard fans seem to like them, but when one encounters titles such as ‘The Dolphins of Pern’ one wonders whether the McCaffrey family – who appear to have now taken over the Pern franchise – are not scraping splinters from the bottom of a long empty barrel.
McCaffrey was obviously a very capable writer and other novels such as ‘Decision at Doona’ are neglected these days. Like Fred Saberhagen and Frank Herbert, McCaffrey may have become a victim of her own success.

The Game Players of Titan – Philip K Dick (1963)

The Game-Players of Titan

‘At Stake – the Earth…

Pete Garden was a bindman. One of the finest Game-players this side of Titan. His skill had already won him half of California and eighteen wives.

But was he good enough to beat the fanatical Game-players of Titan? The telepathic Vugs had already won an interplanetary wart that left the scattered remnants of humanity sterile owners of a wasteland.’

Blurb from the 1991 Grafton paperback edition

Following a war between Earth and the telepathic Vugs of Titan (which Earth lost) the population has been reduced to a fraction of its size and fertility is low due to the effects of a Russian/Chinese bomb.
Some Vugs are now living on (although not in control of) the Earth and Humanity is combating its fertility by means of Bluff, a game which appears to be a cross between Poker and Monopoly.
The Bindmen who play this game (Bindmen’s Bluff, one realises belatedly) are an elite crowd who gamble for large sections of the world’s real estate. They also have to change wives or husbands if they win or lose holdings which ensures that partners are changed frequently in the hope that fertile individuals will have a better chance of getting together and therefore producing children (known as ‘having luck’).
Pete Gardiner is a member of The Pretty Blue Fox Group and has just lost part of California, and his wife.
In an unorthodox move, the deed was then sold to Jerome ‘Lucky’ Luckman, a dangerous gameplayer who not only has won a lot of the East Coast, but has fathered ten children. Jerome can now move to California and join the Pretty Blue Fox group.
In the meantime Pete finds a new wife Carol (or has her found for him) and tries to persuade his old game-playing friend Joe Schilling to return to the game.
Luckman does indeed turn up in California and begins winning title deeds, but shortly afterwards is found dead in Carol Gardiner’s car.
Subsequently, six members of the PBF are found to be missing their memories of the afternoon Luckman died. Things take a decidedly strange Dickian turn after this and Gardiner finds himself at the centre of a conspiracy involving militant Vugs, telepaths, precogs and an unstable psychokinetic teenager.
The interest, however, lies in the psyche of Pete Gardiner, a depressive prone to suicidal impulses. Midway through the novel he is forced to question his own reality, not only with regard to his ‘blackout’ periods, but also when he’s taken a drug and sees the people around him as Vugs.
‘We are entirely surrounded by Vugs!’ he writes on a matchbook as a message to someone, possibly himself. He is proven right ultimately, but the writing of these particular scenes exquisitely captures the ambivalence of the reality Gardiner is experiencing.
As with the radio presenter in ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, there is a duplicitous figure working through the media, in this case Natz Katz, a cool popular singer who is the leader of the renegade Vugs, and also has his own radio show.
Gardiner, being one of Dick’s autobiographical characters, also has a shrewish ex-wife, Freya, who gets more than upset at Gardiner’s ‘luck’ in getting his new wife Carol pregnant.
There is a certain level of animosity from Mary-Ann, the psychokinetic teenager, also, as she tells Gardiner that it isn’t a baby at all. Freya, in a call to carol, congratulates her and tells her that she ‘hopes it’s a baby’, a remark guaranteed to upset the pregnant woman.
There are some unexpected twists and turns (or should that be expected unexpected twists and turns, given Dick’s penchant for confusing the reader?) in the narrative and events which, although justified later, are tailored to obfuscate. It reads, not surprisingly, like a David Lynch film. Gardiner’s visit to Dr Philipson, for instance, is so redolent of a drug-inspired incident that both the reader and Gardiner are unsure of what is going on.
It’s also a novel with a strong female cast. We have Gardiner’s two wives, and the mother and daughter team of Patricia and Mary-Ann McLain, who all have quite prominent roles.

Keepers of The Peace – Keith Brooke (2001)

Keepers of the Peace

Brooke’s portrait of a future soldier is, in a sense, a bleak reflection of Haldeman’s ‘The Forever War’ although here, there is no alien enemy, just humans. Ironically, ‘aliens’ is what the people of Earth call the Peacekeeping Forces’; military forces recruited from off-world colonies and sent to Earth at the behest of the American Union, half of a USA which is now split following devastating climatic changes.
Jed Brindle is a black farmworker living and working with his family on an orbital settlement, Lejeune, although we first meet him on Earth where he is on an undercover military mission.
From this point on, we follow the fate of the mission while delving back in time to discover how he got to be the agent he is now.
Brooke sets the scenes perfectly and there is a touch of the ‘Starship Troopers’ in that we are treated to excerpts of propagandist news items and recruitment campaigns.
There is also a sense of enormous irony in the fact that what is presumably a colony settled by Americans is providing troops to carry out covert operations and deal with insurgencies in what was the USA.
In terms of plot, there isn’t a lot for the reader to be concerned with. This is a novel about one man and the people he affects from the time he gets drafted to the culmination of his mission. There are excerpts from reports from his commanding officer, and some notes from a female reporter who is doing a story on the call-up, which give objective views of of him as a contrast to his own diary notes and the narrative itself.
That is not to say that the novel lacks action. It doesn’t. There is plenty going on, and the pace is often quite intense, but these are events which are very much character led and add a far greater depth to the narrative.
Brookes’ great success with this is that we see one character throughout, a man who sometimes does terrible things, and yet one who is charming, loveable and capable of great tenderness, with facets of personality that all fit together into one human.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov (1952)

Foundation and Empire

‘Someday Mankind will spread into the Milky Way. And there, among a million worlds, Earthmen and aliens will group into a vast community, seething with old lusts and new passions. This story takes you into that far future, where the Galactic Empire, crumbling into anarchy, grapples with the spirited Foundation as it strives for order amidst the chaos of the stars – two mighty movements clashing over the destiny of the universe!’

Blurb from the 1975 Panther edition

Assimilated from stories published in Astounding in 1945, the second volume of Asimov’s classic trilogy begins with the inevitable clash between the Foundation and the crumbling Empire.
The Empire’s military forces – under the direction of General Bel Riose – proves more than superior to the forces of The Foundation. However, the logistics of a Galactic Empire ruled from a central and distant point by a paranoid Emperor ensures that the ruler’s fear of a strong general gaining control of the Foundation’s superior technology means that the Emperor cannot allow him to succeed.
Asimov’s sparse style doesn’t allow him to engage in overdescriptive prose which is to the advantage of the books since it tends to weed out anachronisms, archaisms and incongruities of, for instance, dress. The story is driven at a breakneck pace by dialogue and action. Incongruities do exist. It’s hard to believe that a general such as Bel Riose would smoke cigarettes, particularly on duty, or that ‘books’ would be recorded in bulky videocassettes, even in the technologically decadent Empire. Apart from these minor observations, ‘Foundation and Empire’ has stood the test of time remarkably well.
A third of the way through the book the Foundation is faced with a new menace, one for which Seldon could not have made any provision: The Mule.
The Mule is a mutant born with the power to mentally control others, and for Asimov is a device used both to break the pattern of Crisis, Resolution, Crisis, Resolution which was set up in ‘Foundation’, and also to introduce the Second Foundation.
It will come as no surprise to most readers that Magnifico Gigantico, a rather over-caricatured and not very realistic figure, turns out to be the mutant Mule who has emotionally controlled key figures in Galactic Society and the military in order to take over a large area of Space. He now has his sights fixed on the Foundation which has by now degenerated into a corrupt system of hereditary mayors and over-taxed underclasses.
It’s also difficult to accept the concept of what is essentially a court jester within Asimov’s Galactic Society, baroque though some of it may be.
Magnifico is portrayed as a physical grotesque who speaks in a kind of quasi-eighteenth century patois. He may as well have worn sign on his head reading ‘I am The Mule! I’ll fool you all! You’ll never guess it’s me!’
The interesting characters are those only partly engaged in the main narrative, such as the fanatically officious Mayor Indbur and Ebling Mis, the Lefty scientist with no patience for the niceties of protocol.
The female characters are less impressive. Sexual equality was seldom something which featured in the SF of the 40s and 50s. There generally seems to be some far future equivalent of ‘the man’ going out to work or war and ‘the woman’ staying home cooking or fretting. Here it takes the form of the womenfolk of the Foundation – in this case a group of canteen workers – worrying about their husbands and brothers, out there in Space, fighting to protect the Foundation.
The ages of the various protagonists are interesting too, since most of the male characters seem to be over thirty. Bel Riose is thirty-four, Captain Pritcher is in his forties. Ebling Mis is obviously older. The Crown prince of Neotrantor is ‘middle-aged’, while many others are much older and inevitably described as ‘silver-haired’

In Viriconium – M John Harrison (1982)

In Viriconium

‘In Viriconium’ follows the satirist and diarist Ashlyme, a man who, much like Goya, is commissioned by jaded society figures and paints them unflatteringly, exposing their inner natures.
A plague is spreading across the city and when the boundaries of its infection expand to cover the home and studio of fellow artist Audsley King, Ashlyme resolves to remove her from the plague-zone by whatever means.
Thus begins a complex and haunting narrative in which Ashlyme becomes willingly or unwillingly involved with other residents of Viriconium. There is the Fat Mam, Audsley’s companion and fortune-teller. Cellur, the ancient alien creator of the metal birds from ‘The Pastel City’ makes an appearance, separated from his stored memories and unable to remember his previous life or indeed, how old he really is.
Reality is beginning to break down within the city. Another dwarf, The Great Cairo, appears to be sharing his control over the City with the Barley Brothers, a couple of Gods or at least elemental forces who have taken on human form only to revel in the excesses of human stupidity and intoxication.
Attempts to rescue Audsley, who resists the notion that she needs to be saved, end in various failures. The Great Cairo, who involves himself in the scheme for his own self-aggrandisement, kills one of the women who impede them from smuggling a drugged Audsley away from the plague zone. He then pins the murder on his accomplices and blackmails Ashlyme into assisting him with various schemes of his own, including the wooing of the Fat Mam, for whom the Great Cairo has developed a passion.
Throughout, the City itself broods in the background, sinking under the weight of its detritus.

The Ring of Ritornel – Charles L Harness (1968)

Ring of Ritornel


“The Deep is the Beginning and the End, at once the womb and the coffin of time and space, the well-spring of life and death, the mother of nodes”

James Andrek, brilliant young lawyer in the Great House of Oberon, mighty tyrant of the twelve Galaxies, has two obsessions: finding his Poet Laureate brother, Omere, and unravelling the mystery of his father’s death many years ago at the Node, perilous birthplace of the Universe.

Did Andrek’s quest end at the Node? or in the Great House, peopled by the beautiful and the sinister? or did the answers lie in the subtle mind of the arcane Master Surgeon?

A weird, mind-expanding thriller containing every element to delight the SF fan and newcomer alike.’

Blurb from the 1974 Panther paperback edition

James Andrek has spent years searching for his brother Omere, unaware that all the time Omere has been in the palace of his employer, Oberon, ruler of the twelve galaxies. Years before, Oberon had his Master Surgeon remove Omere’s brain and implant it into Oberon’s music and poetry machine so that (ostensibly) Omere’s genius for composition may never die.
James is also searching for information surrounding his father’s death in The Node, the area at the centre of the Universe where space is constantly being created, a perilous place at best.
Also at the palace are Kedrys, a highly intelligent centaur-like creature who may or may not be the future of the human race and Amatar, Oberon’s daughter. Amatar has had conversations with the Omere/music-machine since she was a child although she does not know his real nature, and Omere has often attempted to persuade her to turn him off and destroy him.
Like most of Harness’ work this is an exquisitely structured piece. The chapters are numbered and titled up to 12 and then back down from 11 to ‘x’ (which replaces 1) and the titles are reflections, distortions or reversals of the original 11 chapters.
James is sent out to the Node by Oberon to present the defence in a historic case. The planet Earth has been towed to The Node and stands accused of crimes against the galaxy. It will be destroyed. James’ part in this should be merely a formality, but he feels he can make a case to save the planet, to stop it from being hurled into The Deep. Attempts have been made on James’ life and each time, a grey-robed man called Iouve, glowing with a faint blue aura, has saved him.
In Chapter 12, James reaches the Node and discovers from Huntyr (one of Oberon’s soldiers and the man who tried to kill him) the details of his father’s death. From this point on, the present has some relationship with the past – as in the chapter headings. 12 is also the number of Oberon’s galaxies and is significant to the religion of Alea, whose die has twelve faces.
Brilliant and complex.

Spin – Robert Charles Wilson (2005)

Spin (Spin, #1)

‘The time is the day after tomorrow and three adolescents – Diane and Jason Lawton, twins, and their best friend, Tyler Dupree – are out stargazing. thus they witness the erection of a planet-spanning shield around the globe, blocking out the universe. ‘Spin’ chronicles the next 30-odd years in the lives of the trio, during which 300 billion years will pass outside the shield, thanks to an engineered time discontinuity. Jason, a genius, will invest his celibate life in unravelling cosmological mysteries. Tyler will become a doctor and act as our narrator and Jason’s confidante, while nursing his unrequited love for Diane, who in turn plunges into religious fanaticism. Along the way, human-descended Martians will appear, bringing a drug that can elevate human to the Fourth State, ‘an adulthood beyond adulthood.’ But will even this miracle be enough to save Earth?…
Here’s a book that features speculative conceits as brash and thrilling as those found in any space opera, along with insights into the human condition as rich as those contained within any mainstream mimetic fiction, with both its conceits and insights beautifully embedded in crystalline prose.

The Washington Post;’

main blurb from the 2006 Tor paperback edition.

Wilson’s work is regularly nominated for awards, and rightly so. He writes dense, complex novels in which the scientific elements and the characterisation are both admirably dealt with. His novels are generally character driven and here we find a trio of people who grew up together, brother and sister Jason and Diane, and their friend Tyler.
One night, when they were still teenagers, they witnessed the stars disappearing. A shell had appeared around the Earth, along with a false sun that rose and set just as the old one did.
Jason’s father, ED Lawton, an important businessman with US government contacts, immediately creates a plan to replace the satellites which were lost when the enclosure occurred.
It becomes clear that the sphere is neither a barrier nor an inert shell. Outside, time is running at a different rate and Jason, (who is a physics genius) calculates that within 50 years our sun will have come to the next stage of its life and expanded beyond the orbit of the Earth. In order to employ this knowledge against The Hypotheticals (as the possible aliens who may have erected the sphere have been named) a plan is hatched to fire rockets at Mars loaded with bacteria, algae and lichens that exist in extreme climates. Thus, we could create a habitable Mars within weeks as millions of years of evolution would have taken place outside the sphere.
Then we send a human colony.
The reality of this is proven very quickly, since a hundred thousand years passes on Mars and a human civilisation emerges, one which sends an emissary to Earth. However, while en route, Mars itself acquires a black shell identical to earth’s.
The Martians bring details of technology and medicine far in advance of our own. Jason and Tyler are working against time on two fronts, to keep Jason alive, since he is suffering a crippling variant of MS, and to understand the physics of the Spin in order to save Humanity.
The narrative is split between two timelines, one dating from the advent of The Spin, and leaping forward in years. The other is set in Tyler’s future where he is suffering the effects of a Martian drug which extends human life through nanotechnology rebuilding the cells of the body.
It’s a powerful and moving novel featuring damaged characters to a greater or lesser extent. Jason and Diane’s father, ED Lawson, is a control freak and openly despises those he considers below his social level. Jason is the tool he moulds to inherit his mantle, blind to the fact that Jason must at some time supplant him. Tyler, who has always been in love with Diane, stands by as she gets deeply involved with an Armageddon cult. Jason’s mother is an alcoholic, perhaps driven to drink by her husband’s dispassionate singlemindedness.
Along the way they have other relationships, but the three main characters remain inexorably bound by the love they have for each other.
Structurally Tyler is the middle ground between science and religion, acting as both narrator and confidante of both Jason and Diane.
As in ‘The Chronoliths’ the issue of father and son relationships is a central theme, although here, unlike ‘The Chronoliths’, the human drama is well-balanced against the backdrop of vast science and forces beyond anyone’s control.

The Parable of The Sower – Octavia E Butler (1993)

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)
‘Lauren Olamina is an empath, crippled by the pain of others. Cloistered inside a neighbourhood enclave in a U.S. where the distance between the haves and the have-nots has widened to a gaping chasm. She lives a protected life. But one night, violence explodes, and the walls of her neighbourhood are smashed, annihilating Lauren’s family and friends – all she loves and knows.

Now the empath must face the world outside. Leading a tiny band of desperate followers through a thousand miles of Hell, she is a prophet bearing nothing but the promise of new life and a new faith… Earthseed.’

Blurb from the 1995 Warner Books paperback edition.

Once more Butler employs a black female lead, in this case Lauren Olamina, an intelligent fifteen year old empath who feels the pain of anyone within her line of sight.
Lauren and her family live in a walled community on the outskirts of LA in 2026. The US has collapsed socially and economically into Chaos, and is also suffering the plague of a designer drug, Pyro, the effects of which includes extreme pleasure at the sight of fire.
Outside the wall society has fallen into violence and anarchy. Lauren’s diary begins when she is fifteen and tells of her fears for the day when the lawless mobs and Pyro addicts will break through the walls to pillage and burn.
Butler never pulls her punches and is skilled in examining racial, sexual and social issues without being patronising or stereotyping. Slavery is a recurrent them in her work and – as in this novel – manifests itself in many ways, including sexual, psychological and monetary. It is discussed here when a Japanese company ‘buys up’ a US coastal town in order to create a vast desalination plant, in the process recruiting a ready-made workforce of residents to work for ‘room and board’, thus locking them into a debt to the Company they can never repay.
Often Butler’s characters walk voluntarily into such systems of slavery, such as Lauren’s stepmother Cory, who wants the family to apply to join the Company town, despite the warnings of her husband and stepdaughter. And the Moss family, we note from Lauren’s diaries, base themselves around a polygamous patriarchal structure. Richard Moss describes his wives as ‘ladies’ who have no business getting themselves involved anything other than women’s work.
This becomes more evident when the community is finally invaded and Lauren escapes with only two other residents, Harry and Zahra, one of Richard’s wives.
Zahra, initially reticent and withdrawn, blossoms as a person and begins to learn from Lauren things her husband had forbidden her to learn.
All her life Lauren has been evolving her own philosophy, based around the premise that God is Change. This she calls Earthseed. The purpose or ‘Destiny’ of Earthseed is to seed the stars with Humanity. (The incumbent President has pledged to scrap the current Mars program)
As the group travel North through a fractured America, teeming with Pyro addicts and violent gangs, they gather more stragglers (some of whom, it transpires are also empaths) most of whom have their own stories of possession and control.
Despite its diarised and linear structure, this is a powerful, sometimes harrowing novel of Humanity’s potential to self-destruct.
It’s also an attack on the US’s political policies since the ills besetting the country seem to stem not from outside attack but from the corruption and decay of US society and its policy of erosion of workers’ rights etc.