My life in outer space

Archive for February, 2014

A Million Years to Conquer (vt The Creature from Beyond Infinity) – Henry Kuttner (1940)

The Creature from Beyond Infinity

Ardath, an advanced humanoid from Kyria, fleeing the destruction of his world, has crash-landed on Earth aeons before our ancestors crawled from the sea. His dying companion instructs him to put himself into stasis aboard the ship to be reawakened when intelligent life has emerged, and to start breeding any random highly intelligent he finds in order to create a super-race to inherit the wisdom and knowledge of the Kyrians.
This he does, sleeping aboard his repaired golden ship while it orbits the earth. When he is roused, he finds that humans have evolved and manages to find a handful of highly intelligent but primitive humans. One of them, Thordred, has a mind-reading device placed on him in order that Ardath can learn his language but – unknown to Ardath – Thordred has also learned all Ardath’s scientific knowledge.
Ardath is about to place everyone in stasis, to be awakened when the ship detects another genius, but Thordred strikes Ardath down before he can set the alarm to awaken them.
Two thousand years later, a prodigy named Stephen Court becomes the most famous scientist in the world. Just then however, a strange radioactive sickness starts to sweep the world, turning people into glowing monsters who can suck the life-force from other humans.
Court detects Ardath’s ship and builds his own craft to reach it. Unfortunately, he awakens Thordred who bundles Ardath into Court’s ship and sets its course for the heart of the sun.
Thordred then lands his ship, convincing Court that Ardath was evil, at which he runs off with the ship, planning to kidnap random humans to take to a new world, free from the glowing plague.
The race is on to stop Thordred and save Earth from the menace of the deadly plague.
It’s a short, fast-paced novel, an example of early Kuttner, whose later work is more thoughtful and mature. It’s hard to determine apparently, how much Kuttner and his wife CL Moore, contributed to each of their works since they were regular collaborators. It’s widely known that some early work under Kuttner’s name was written by Moore exclusively, and that they jointly wrote short stories under pseudonyms such as Lewis Padgett.
However, I think we’ll let Henry take the credit for this. There’s a certain masculine viewpoint to some aspects that a woman might perhaps not have written. There are the female characters for instance (and there are but two, three if you count the Amazon queen who Thordred kills the first chance he gets) who are employed merely as plot devices and have hardy half-a-dozen words to say.
It’s enjoyable hokum, however, and is interesting from a social and historical perspective.
Ardath’s original intent, it appears, was some form of selective breeding of humans to create a super race of beings with intellect to match Ardath’s own, but Kuttner, perhaps wisely, steers away from that path.


Chindi – Jack McDevitt (2002)

Chindi (The Academy, #3)Chindi by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘The universe has been explored – and humanity has all but given up on finding other intelligent life. Then an alien satellite orbiting a distant star sends out an unreadable signal. is it the final programmed gasp of an ancient, long-dead race? Or the first greeting of an undiscovered life form? Academy starship captain Priscilla Hutchins and the once-maligned Contact Society are about to learn the answers… to more questions than they could possibly conceive of asking.’

Blurb from the 2003 Ace paperback edition

Once more, Hutch is piloting a group of alien-hunters. This time it is the much maligned First Contact Society, who have discovered part of a transmission emanating in orbit around a neutron star.
As much as one wants to love this book (and one can’t really fault it as a decent SF novel) one can’t help feeling that McDevitt is repeating himself on several levels. Again Hutch gets close to a man, and yes, he dies tragically. Almost simultaneously, the artist Tor, one of Hutch’s ex-lovers, manages to grab himself a berth on this new expedition, along with an undertaker and a famous starlet.
It appears there is a network of stealth satellites scattered through at least our part of the galaxy and they are recording and transmitting data to somewhere else. That somewhere else happens to be an odd arrangement of gas giants, their attendant moons, rings and one building set on a moon which orbits this whole arrangement and its spectacular views.
The Retreat, as it is named, is abandoned but had two occupants who are buried nearby.
However, this is not the relay’s destination, for the party discover, refuelling from the gas-giant’s plentiful hydrogen, an asteroid converted into a ship which, it transpires, is a vast travelling storehouse of images and artefacts collected from thousands of races.
Hutch, having lost her newest man in an explosion at the neutron star, does not want more of her passengers to die, but they do. Some are attacked and eaten by angel-like aliens on an idyllic world.
Then, they insist on exploring the Chindi – as they name the ship – and, as was expected, it decides to leave.
There is then a race against time to rescue Hutch’s ex-lover, left behind on the giant asteroid ship.
Again, McDevitt’s Americocentricity is irritating, although I was amused that Hutch, accessing the news from Earth, was reading about a new serial killer in Derbyshire, a county already famous for its violence and multiple murder mayhem.
McDevitt’s aliens are irritating too, as so far, the races have not been alien enough. In the Chindi one of the first things the explorers find is a tableaux of some world where a wolf-like creature is standing before a table wearing a dinner jacket.
Thinking this through, quite apart from any issues of sexism, one has to say that the jacket, not even specifically the dinner jacket, as a fashion phenomenon, is not that recent and occupies a tiny fraction of the diverse gallimaufry of humanwear, and is also a generally western concept. For an alien race of wolf-like creatures to have come up with something similar and to have been discovered by humanity in the epoch in which this fashion was popular rather stretches my disbelief. These are Star Trek aliens, furry or bumpy-headed humanoids who think the same way we do, or at least, the same way Americans do.

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The Mysterious Island – Jules Verne (1874)

The Mysterious Island

Like other Verne novels, this does take God’s own time for the plot to get underway.
Five men and a dog escape from their incarceration as prisoners of war by Southern forces in the American Civil War. They commandeer a balloon and set off during a storm.
The storm takes them off across the sea, and having shed all possible ballast they finally come to land on a seemingly deserted island.
Much of the novel is the standard fare along ‘survival on desert island’ lines. Verne’s twist on this idea is to have along Captain Hardy, an engineer who can build a barometer from two quail eggs and the string from a sailor’s vest. (He doesn’t actually do this, but given sufficient encouragement I am certain he could).
Along with the Captain’s free ‘Negro’ servant Neb, there is Pencroft, a sailor and carpenter, Gideon, a reporter, and Herbert, a teenager who seems to have spent his entire life studying vegetables.
The castaways quickly transform their environment into a functioning farming/manufacturing society, eventually smelting iron, casting pottery and making glass.
The group is extended by the addition of the dog, Top and a tame ourangoutang named Jup. Later, a castaway is rescued from a neighbouring island; a character from an earlier Verne novel.
During their stay they occasionally receive unexpected help from a mysterious source but it is not until the finale that we discover who their benefactor may be.
It’s basically an extended masterclass on applied science, demonstrated by the fact that Verne goes into pages of mind-numbing descriptions of:-
a) the construction of the forge/basketlift/windmill and
b) the scientific processes behind the concept and
c) what the mechanism actually does, which is handy to know.
What will appal many readers today is that Verne clearly shows the relationship between humanity and the natural world at the time.
No sooner are the group of survivors set up with a base of operations and some home-made weaponry than they embark on a rampage of wholesale slaughter against the island’s wildlife. No doubt people of the mid-nineteenth century saw the world as an endlessly self-replenishing breadbasket and one which should be plundered at will.
On a more positive note, Verne gives a very positive portrayal of Neb, which other than Othello, is one of the first appearances of a black person as a major character in Western literature. I feel Verne does him good service, despite not giving him a great deal of dialogue.


The Psionic Menace – John Brunner (as Keith Woodcott) (1963)

psionic menace
“The S.O.S from beyond the Galactic Frontier

MUST THE UNIVERSE DIE WITH THEM?

The Starfolk, arrogant masters of vast stretches of the cosmos beyond
the Earth’s sphere of influence, were determined to complete the
extermination of the mind-reading mutants on Regnier’s planet.

But to the mutants themselves, the terror of the Starfolk was nothing
compared to the greater dread that gripped their spirits – the
obsession that the universe itself was doomed. This obsession ripped
into their minds, overwhelmed them, and plunged them into horrifying
hysteria.

The message of doom reached the ears of the Starfolk themselves,
forcing them to a fateful decision. They would allow an Earthman,
archaeologist Philip Gascon, to visit Regnier in an attempt to unravel
its secrets. What he found would either contain the key to the ultimate
destiny of the universe – or the date of doomsday.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Philip Gascon

For him the secret of death contained the meaning of life.

Jazey Hine

He could unravel men’s thoughts, but not the mystery buried in his own
soul.

Errida Crowb

She was young in years, but old in the ways of pain.

Gustus Arraken

Proud and ruthless, he used people for toys – and found the game was
for real.

Breckitt

He was his masters’ voice, until they decided to listen to someone else.

Harys Fold

Cunning dictated his every move, but even he couldn’t unfathom the
message of doom.”

Blurbs from the 1963 Ace Doubles F-199 copy

This is quite an intriguing and enjoyable little piece, set at a time when Humanity has settled several worlds and discovered artefacts left by a vanished Elder Race. A spaceborne civilisation, The Starfolk, has emerged with delusions of being a master race, but because their reproductive capabilities are curtailed by the radiation of outer space, they use the planets they service with goods and technology as a gene pool from which to select breeding stock. Since expanding to the stars telepathic humans, the Psions of the title, are being born into human communities.
Recently, the Psions are suffering, because they are all receiving a telepathic message or vision, which warns of the end of everything.
The novel does provide some interesting characters. Harys Fold is some sort of Earth government intelligence officer, with impressive deductive powers. When he hears of a man found in the desert after an encounter with a distressed psion, a man who is not only a cosmoarchaeology student, but a ‘psinul’ (unreadable by psions) he concocts a plan to solve the mystery of the cosmic message of doom, which has a connection with Regnier’s planet, a world controlled by the Starfolk, where Psions are persecuted.
However, one gets the impression that Brunner had written himself into a corner toward the end since the resolution seems somewhat badly contrived. Given a longer format and some time for a decent edit this could well have been a far better novel, set as it is in a quite interesting universe with a decent stab at some characterisation.
It would be interesting to discover if Christopher Evans had ever read this novel since although the premise of ESP-capable humans emerging as an evolutionary development is not a new one, the phrase ‘psinul’ is used in the same context within the TV series he created, ‘The Tomorrow People’ some ten years later than this publication, and the series is based around the idea of ESP-capable humans emerging within the population as the first examples of Homo Superior.


Trouble With Lichen – John Wyndham (1960)

Trouble with LichenTrouble with Lichen by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘It was Diana Brackley who put the milk out for the cat; who dropped a speck of lichen in it by mistake; who noticed how the lichen stopped the milk turning.

But it was Francis Saxover, the famous biochemist, who carried on from there; who developed Antigerone, the cure for ageing; who then tried to suppress a discovery which was certainly in the megaton range.

And so it was Diana Brackley who went to town with Antigerone in one of Wyndham’s gayest most satirical forays into the fantastic.’

Blurb from the 1969 Penguin paperback edition

This late novel from Wyndham says far more about British Society in the late Nineteen Fifties than it does about its central premise – longevity. As is common for Wyndham, the characters are for the most part very polite Middle Class English people who speak with erudite lucidity and who inhabit a world which seems both alien and quaint from our current perspective.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book is hardly ever mentioned in connection with Wyndham’s previous work, the three classic novels (‘The Day of The Triffids’, ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and ‘The Chrysalids’) which turned him into a cult writer for generations of readers, and which crossed readership boundaries in that they were read and enjoyed by many readers who would not otherwise have been seen dead reading SF literature.
The basic premise surrounds the discovery of a lichen, found only in Manchuria, whose singular property retards the normal metabolic process, and thus can extend the expected lifespan to upwards of two hundred years.
When the two main characters (Diana Brackley and Francis Saxover), independently discover the properties of the lichen, their results are suppressed once they have considered the consequences to the world. Diana leaves her employment with Saxover, having kept from him her knowledge of the discovery of the lichen’s properties. She subsequently sets up a Beauty Salon under the name Nefertiti, where she injects her clients with extract of the lichen and so holds back the march of time for several hundred women.
Ten years on, various factors combine to leak the secret into the public domain and Wyndham examines the various reactions to the news from the point of view of the media, the Church and the government, as well as examining, albeit briefly, the consequences of lifespans covering centuries rather than decades.
Sadly, the novel is an anticlimax from the writer who gave us such rich food for thought in his earlier work. On the one hand it attempts to create in-depth characters who live too briefly on the page for us to appreciate them. There is Lady Tewley for instance, who came to Nefertiti as a naïve young woman, newly married into the aristocracy, and who has been subsequently transformed into a formidable member of her new class.
On the other hand this is contrasted with the effect on society, not of Antigerone itself – as the extract is called – but of the news of its existence. The novel reads like a first draft. It takes far too long to get round to examining the consequences of such a discovery and when the news is finally out one feels that Wyndham does not dig deep enough into what is obviously a rich field of possibility.
What is interesting about ‘Trouble With Lichen’ is that Wyndham sees longevity as a tool of emancipation, something which will free women from spending most of their life bringing up the next generation, and it is to his credit that he has peopled this book with assertive intelligent women, such as Diana herself and the formidable Lady Tewley. There is discussion within the novel of humanity evolving into a new longer-lived species, but one can’t help feeling that there is a subtext – particularly at this point in time – of a new species of women emerging, evolving and adapting to the changing times.

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Fury – Henry Kuttner (1947)

FuryFury by Henry Kuttner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by nuclear war. Humans have fled to live in ‘Keep’s far below the surface of the oceans of Venus since the planet’s land masses are covered in jungles inhabited by deadly flora and fauna. The ruling government of this remainder of Humanity is an Oligarchy of immortals, the rest of the race destined to live out normal lifespans.
Against this background is told the story of Sam, the son of Blaze Harker, youngest in a dynasty of a powerful family of immortals. Blaze, however, is borderline insane and, for reasons we need not go into here, has his baby son surgically altered and abandons him to be brought up among the short-lived humans.
The child grows up with the name of Sam Reed, working initially under the tutelage of the Fagin-like Slider.
Meanwhile, the immortal Robin Hale believes that Humanity should be moving out onto the surface of Venus, a policy that the ruling immortals currently oppose.
Sam decides to help Hale; a decision which brings him into conflict with Zachariah Harker, while neither of them are aware of the fact that they are closely related.
Sam manipulates the media to raise volunteers and money to establish a colony on the surface, but is betrayed by his mistress.
The narrative jumps fifty years ahead to where Sam awakens in a street, having been helped there by a mysterious stranger. He discovers that he was discredited as a drug addict after his disappearance, but the surface colony is just surviving. He also discovers, to his surprise, that he has not aged and realises the fact of his immortality.
Once more, he rejoins Hale and launches a new campaign to establish Humanity on the planet’s surface.
The immortals, however, set up a long term plan to deal with Sam permanently.
It has elements of both a Shakespearean tragedy and a Dickens novel. Sam seems driven by his fury on a predestinate path. Indeed, Kuttner also includes the character of The Logician, a mysterious immortal, born on Earth, who has been masquerading as public logic machine, to which anyone can submit questions.
It was The Logician who advised Hale to start his surface colonisation programme. The Logician (who describes himself as a sort of oracle in the text, and who seems to extrapolate the future in much the same way as EE Doc Smith’s Arisians) explains that his talent depends on guiding people, rather than telling them what to do and it seems clear later that he has manipulated both Hale and Sam in order that Humanity can return to the surface.
Sam is eventually betrayed by another woman, programmed from birth for the role and placed in a position of trust, but Sam is not killed, merely put to sleep again by The Logician to be reawakened at a time when his drive and fury may be needed again.
Stylistically it has that odd juxtaposition of the feudal and the futuristic. For its time the use of drugs and narcotics in a narrative was not standard practice. Addiction features several times, the female surgeon who originally altered Sam’s physical appearance for instance was addicted to the lethal embrace of a native life-form which stimulated pure pleasure in her body as it slowly fed on her.
As is common for novels of this period, the concept of genocide (not just a species, but an entire biosphere) is not considered an issue.

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Derai (Dumarest #02) – EC Tubb (1968)

Derai (Dumarest of Terra #2)Derai by E.C. Tubb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Still driven by his search for Man’s fabled birthplace, Earl Dumarest accepts a commission to guard the Lady Derai, heiress to the proud House of Caldor on the feudal world of Hive.

On Derai’s home planet Dumarest had hoped to meet a living witness to to Earth. But instead he finds himself in the list of the deadly Contest on Folgone – with the Lady of Caldor as prize.

And on Folgone, for the first time, Dumarest confronts the Cybers, ruthless, emotionless tools of a great Gestalt which holds the mighty of the universe in its grip – a power which may yet provide him with the key to his quest for Earth.’

Blurb from the 1976 Arrow paperback edition

Dumarest is commissioned as bodyguard and escort to Derai, a daughter of Calder, one of the ruling families of the planet Hive.
Dumarest, on the journey to Hive, where he hopes to find someone who has a clue to the location of Earth, deduces that Derai is telepathic. Upon arrival, he becomes involved, against his better judgement, in Derai’s family politics. Her great-great grandfather has been kept alive long beyond his years by the use of the royal jelly produced by the mutated bees of the planet. It is a resource rigorously controlled by a cabal of the Families. The grandfather, however, has become so transformed by the jelly that he can no longer communicate.
The Calder family had engaged a cyber of the sinister Cyclan, to advise them, but the Cyclan have ulterior motives. Their true objective is Derai, since the power of telepathy could be of enormous benefit to the emotionless cybernetic brotherhood.
The original Arrow paperbacks of the seventies had cover artwork which ranged from the adequate to the bizarre and, on one occasion, plagiaristic since the artwork was copied from Roger Dean’s cover for Steve Howe’s ‘Beginnings’ album. In this instance, Dumarest is portrayed in boots, skimpy undercrackers, a futuristic helmet and an unfeasibly large gun.
One wonders what demographic the publishers were aiming at.
Despite the misleading cover art and the rather populist nature of the series, the writing is solid and there is decent characterisation. Tubb takes a generally nihilistic view of Humanity, a species which has spread throughout the galaxy and yet is still driven by stupidity, cruelty, greed, pride and lust. The saga of Dumarest is filled with the tragic lives of those he meets along the way, and more often than not, his friends die.
Like Asimov’s Foundation universe, Tubb’s is refreshingly free of intelligent alien species, although alien fauna and flora abound. In ‘Derai’ we have the mutated bees as well as a large plant on the planet Folgone which grows six-foot pods in which a human can be sealed. The human, slowly digested by the plant, experiences a subjective thousand years of virtual fantasy existence and finally has his intelligence subsumed into the tree, still aware.
Tubb was a master of these little flourishes, adding a touch of spicy colour to his dark industrial gothic brew.

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Startide Rising – David Brin (1982)

Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, #2)

‘The Terran exploration vessel ‘Streaker’ has crashed on the uncharted water-world of Kithrup, bearing one of the most important discoveries in Galactic History. Above, in space, armadas of alien races clash in a titanic struggle to claim her. Below, a handful of her human and dolphin crew battles armed rebellion and a hostile planet to safeguard her secret – the fate of the Progenitors, the fabled First Race who seeded wisdom throughout the stars.’

Blurb from the 1985 Bantam paperback edition

We are still within Brin’s Uplift Universe, although Brin employs a completely different cast for this sequel. the events of ‘Sundiver’ are referred to briefly, and Jacob Demwa is mentioned in passing.
‘The Streaker’ An Earth vessel, crewed (as an experiment) by ‘uplifted’ dolphins, some humans and a chimpanzee scientist has stumbled upon an abandoned fleet of starships, each the size of a moon, held in stasis for immeasurable aeons.
the dolphins make the fatal mistake of sending a message back to Earth which is intercepted by various galactic factions, some of whom have beliefs that the Progenitors (i.e. the first intelligent race in the five galaxies) are asleep and will one day return to rid the cosmos of unbelievers. Thus, the Streaker is pursued through space by fanatical bands of aliens with various agendae.
Hiding out on the water planet of Kithrup, the Earthlings have a short breathing space while the aliens fight each other for the right to claim the prize.
They are not yet aware that ‘Streaker’ carries back a corpse from one of the ships, a humanoid alien which the portable Galactic Library cannot identify as any recorded intelligent species.
Meanwhile, the human Professor Metz, who is part of the dolphin Uplift programme has brought some of his ‘special’ dolphins aboard, dolphins which seem to be larger and more aggressive than dolphins should normally be.
Also, the planet Kithrup itself presents mysteries since not only does it hold a promising pre-sentient race but appears to be fostering a gestalt intelligence in its metal-rich oceans.
This is probably the most satisfying of the Uplift novels, being a reasonable length and giving equal weight to characterisation and action. After this the books become larger, denser and generally more unwieldy, although they are not without their individual charm and page-turning addictive quality.


Earth Made of Glass – John Barnes (1998)

Earth Made of Glass (Giraut #2)

‘At the furthest reaches of the galaxy exist The Thousand Cultures, run by humans and drawing together through the new technology of instantaneous travel. Giraut and Margaret work as professional diplomats, easing the entry of new and diverse societies into The Thousand Cultures.
Their new mission is to prevent war between two cultures on the terrifyingly hostile world of Briand, all the time battling its harsh environment and trying not to let the strain of the task affect their own relationship.’

Blurb from the 1999 Millennium paperback edition.

Barnes’ sequel to the impressive ‘A Million Open Doors’ sees cultural agents from the Council of Humanity’s Special Projects Office Giraut Leones and his wife Margaret, sent to the 1.3 gravity world of Briand.
The backstory is that Humanity has been spread over numerous planets for hundreds of years, each of which is home to one or more cultures, some of which are (or were) recreated dead cultures from Earth’s past.
Most of the cultures have now been reassimilated into ‘Interstellar culture’ mainly due to the fact that ancient alien artifacts have been discovered on several worlds, and the Council of Humanity wants a united Human race to meet the inevitable First Contact.
Briand is a literary work of art in itself. It is a volcanic poisonous world whose only habitable areas are two island plateaux. On these were settled recreated Tamil and Mayan civilisations. Unfortunately, the Mayan plateau was rendered uninhabitable by a volcano eruption and the Mayans had to relocated on the Tamil plateau.
Tensions between the two cultures run high and the OSP agents are sent in to attempt a diplomatic solution.
Barnes’ scene-setting, descriptive skills and characterisation are top-notch and meld to produce a complex and compelling novel.
The Mayans, in an apparent bid to offer the hand of friendship, produce a prophet, Ix; a highly charismatic and Messianic figure whose charm and wisdom seduce many, but it may be that this is only the first move in a convoluted game of diplomatic and political chess in which all become embroiled.
It’s a novel about relationships (between individuals and cultures); about the nature of Truth, the power and danger of fundamentalist belief systems and it’s also about love.
The simmering hatred of the two cultures for each other is contrasted with the marriage of Giraut and Margaret, whose failure to communicate with each other is mirrored by the tension between the Mayans and the Tamils.


Daylight on Iron Mountain (Chung Kuo #02) – David Wingrove (2011)

Daylight on Iron Mountain (Chung Kuo Recast, #2)

The second volume of Wingrove’s rebooted epic of Chinese world domination sees the completion of T’sao Chun’s plan. The Middle East is nuked, leaving only America to be conquered. T’sao Chun sends General Lei. the warrior-poet, along with Amos Shepherd, his strategic genius, to deal with the US as well as a vast army.
However. T’sao Chun is no longer the rational strategist he once was. Corrupted by power, he has become paranoid and vindictive, abusing and insulting the Seven Tangs who rules the world as his subordinates.
After the rather bland scene-setting of the first book, it is good to see Wingrove back on form and relishing the intrigue, the politics and the battles as the Chung Kuo knew from the original books slowly emerges.
Jake Reed, mired in a complex compensation case against a powerful Han family finds unexpected allies and friends in Amos Shepherd and Gensyn.
His son, now fully acclimatised to the Han world, finds himself working for Gensyn and the Eberts.
The Seven, finally pushed to the limit by by T’sao Chun’s madness, begin to plot to have him brought down…