My life in outer space

Archive for February, 2014

Beggars in Spain – Nancy Kress (1993)

Beggars in Spain (Sleepless, #1)

‘Born in 2008, Leisha Camden is beautiful, extraordinarily intelligent… and one of an ever-growing number of human beings who have been genetically modified to never require sleep.

Once she and ‘her kind’ were considered interesting anomalies. Now they are outcasts – victims of blind hatred, political repression and shocking mob violence meant to drive ‘The Sleepless’ from human society… and, ultimately, from the Earth itself.

But Leisha Camden has chosen to remain behind in a world that envies and fears her ‘gift’ – a world marked for destruction in a devastating conspiracy of freedom… and revenge.’

Blurb from the 1999 Avon Eos paperback edition.

One wonders why this is so hard to obtain since Kress’s take on the Homo Superior theme is a cracking piece of work, covering a period of about a hundred years.
Roger Camden, a wealthy and powerful businessman, is determined to have his reluctant wife conceive a genetically-engineered child and has heard of an experimental procedure in which babies have been designed not to need to sleep. Despite their initial refusal the doctors involved are pressured by Camden’s political influence and his wife duly undergoes the procedure. Unexpectedly, twins are conceived, one of them being a Sleepless, Leisha Camden, and the other her ‘normal’ Sleeper sister, Alice.
At first there are only a handful of Sleepless, but as the children show an enthusiastic attitude to work and study, high intelligence, and a tendency to be irritatingly happy, more and more Sleepless are conceived.
By the time Leisha is a teenager however her Sleepless friends begin to have concerns about how the Sleeper majority will treat them, and some of them already realise that they are perceived as a threat.
The Sleepless, having excellent business skills as well as the vast fortune of Sleepless heiress Jennifer Sharifi, decide to set up a home for their community in an orbital satellite called ‘Sanctuary’, having been forced to leave their original ‘Sanctuary’ on Earth.
Leisha is one of the few Sleepless who sees this as a dangerous move and one likely to enlarge the divide between Sleepless and Sleepers.
The tension grows when it is discovered that a side effect of the Sleepless treatment is that they don’t age. With the threat that an immortal ruling class will take over the world, passions rise among the Sleepers.
Over a period of a hundred years, Kress deftly charts the political and social changes through the eyes of her ageless heroine, as well as the progress of the Sleepless society under the dictatorial helm of Jennifer Sharifi, which evolves (or devolves) into a dogmatic inflexible system somewhere between Nazism and the worst aspects of religious fundamentalism.
The scientific aspects are skilfully managed and Kress handles a fairly large cast of characters well, in some cases from the cradle to the grave.
Interestingly, the strongest characters are female, leaving the males (with the possible exception of Leisha’s father) as either weak protagonists or sidelined to minor roles.


The Rival Rigelians – Mack Reynolds (1967)

The Rival Rigelians (United Planets, #3)The Rival Rigelians by Mack Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Two worlds to conquer – or to be conquered by


The team from Earth had the task of raising backward planets to the home world’s high level. The situation on Rigel was this:

‘The most advanced culture on Rigel’s first planet is to be compared to the Italian cities during Europe’s feudalistic years… The most advanced of the second planet is comparable to the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish conquest…

These planets are in your control to the extent that no small group has ever dominated millions before. No Caesar ever exerted the power that will be in your collective hands. For half a century you will be as gods and goddesses!’

But the Rigelians were themselves descended from the lost colonists of old Earth and they could learn their lessons as fast as they could be taught.

In fact, they could even teach their teachers a thing or two. And therein lay the peril the professors from space never dreamed of.’

Blurb from the 1967 Ace Doubles G-632 edition

Centuries before, Earth sent out colony ships to hundreds of newly discovered planets and then abandoned them to their own fate. The plan was to contact the planets again when they had reached a reasonable level of civilisation.
Earth has sent out a test team to Rigel where the civilisations are thriving on two of its planets. One, at the level of the Incas is called Texcoco; the other, at the level of medieval Italy, is called Genoa.
The team has fifty years to bring the worlds to an industrial level. On a whim, the team splits into 2 and decides to compete, but they have not reckoned on either the addictive nature of power or the colonists’ own ambitions.
It’s a clever piece, but it needed to be either shorter and punchier or longer with better character development. A common failing of Ace Doubles is that the necessary brevity sometimes causes problems in pieces with several main characters.

View all my reviews

Leviathan Wakes – James SA Corey (2011)

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)

Despite a bit of a boggy start in which we are entrenched in the names and backstories of half-a-dozen characters, ‘Leviathan Wakes’ isn’t a bad beginning to a postulated trilogy set in a future where man has spread through the system to the asteroid belt. There is an uneasy political balance between Earth, Mars and The Outer Planets.

Maverick belter cop, Miller, has been asked to cover an off-record assignment, finding the daughter of a rich businessman, Julie Mao. Meanwhile, maverick spacer Holden is on a ship which has been diverted to an emergency beacon. A ship is discovered, seemingly pirated, showing signs of being infected with an inhuman organism. It also contains evidence of a Martian military presence, but before they can investigate further, their mothership is destroyed by a precision hit from an unknown ship.
Unwisely, Holden broadcasts details of the Martian evidence on a wide-band channel that initiates riots and civil unrest across the system.
With the help of Fred Johnson, head of the Outer Planets Alliance, Holden and his crew attempt to find out who was really behind the destruction of his ship. As one might have expected, their hunt brings them into contact with Miller, who is on the same trail.
Interstellar politics, human experimentation, ancient sentient alien viruses, space battles and a journey across the Solar System. It’s actually a lot of fun.

Evil Water – Ian Watson (1987)



Cold Light (F&SF 1986)
When the Timegate Failed (Interzone 1985)
The Great Atlantic Swimming Race (Asimov’s 1986)
The Wire Around The War (Asimov’s 1984)
When Idaho Dived (Afterwar, Janet Morris, Ed. 1985)
On the Dream Channel Panel (Amazing 1985)
The People on the Precipice (Interzone 1985)
Skin Day, and After (F&SF 1985)
Windows (Asimov’s 1986)
Evil Water (F&SF 1987)

I was privileged to provide the illustrations for a short story of Watson’s some years ago. (The Real Winston, published in The Third Alternative in 1999) and felt honoured because I have always considered him to be the best genre short story writer of the late Twentieth Century. Every piece is like a finely crafted miniature carving, each one vastly different but somehow relating to each other like the pieces in a Japanese chess set.
This is Watson’s fourth collection of short stories once again showing his stunning talent for diverse styles, subject matter, personal viewpoints and genres (since one at least of these borders on supernatural horror.)

Bug-Eyed Monsters – Anthony Cheetham (Ed) (1974)

Bug-Eyed Monsters

Fronted by a beautiful and apt Bruce Penninton painting, this is a wonderful selection of stories devoted to ‘the alien’. Cheetham has compiled a nicely balanced selection with not really a bad apple in the barrel. One of my favourite anthologies, this. Highly recommended.

Invasion From Mars – Howard Koch (1940)
Not only Dead Men – AE Van Vogt (Astounding Nov 1942)
Arena – Fredric Brown (1944)
Surface Tension – James Blish (1952)
The Deserter – William Tenn (1953)
Mother – Philip Jose Farmer (1953)
Stranger Station – Damon Knight (1956)
Greenslaves – Frank Herbert (1965)
Balanced Ecology – James H Schmitz (1967)
The Dance of The Changer & Three – Terry Carr (1968)

This is a curious little collection. It has seemingly been revised since its first publication (this is the 1974 reprint) as the unnamed Bertram Chandler novella mentioned in the introduction has been replaced by the Van Vogt story (Annoyingly Van Vogt has been spelt Van Voigt in both the contents and the story heading.)
No previous publishing details are given apart from the original date of publication so any errors in names of magazines etc. is purely down to me.
Despite the slipshod manner of its publication this is rather a decent collection – in chronological order – of quality work (with the possible exception of the Van Vogt) featuring alien intelligence of one sort or another; in a few cases First Contact situations.

‘Invasion From Mars’ is not, strictly speaking, a short story, but the transcript of Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast (adapted by Howard Koch) of HG Wells’ ‘War of The Worlds’ which famously sent many gullible Americans packing their bags and heading for the hills.

In ‘Not Only Dead Men’ a whaling ship encounters an alien craft and is enlisted in the hunt for the Devil-blal; a space-borne deadly creature, which has landed in the Earth’s ocean. Unfortunately, humans who learn of the existence of galactic society have to be silenced – permanently.

‘Arena’ is the original story on which the Classic Star Trek episode of the same name is based. Sadly, due no doubt to logistical and budgetary issues, a man in a Godzilla-like rubber suit. replaced the spherical rolling tentacled alien of the story
Humans find themselves at war with hostile aliens, so alien that no co-existence is possible. A highly advanced gestalt being intervenes and sets one individual of each race against each other in an arena, where they have to battle to the death, using their strength and intelligence. The loser’s civilisation will consequently cease to exist.
Excellently written, it still stands as a classic short of the genre.

‘Surface Tension’ was later incorporated into Blish’s ‘Seedling Stars’

In ‘The Deserter’ we are once more in a war between species. This time Humanity is fighting for its existence against huge Jovian creatures, one of which has deserted and is being held in a military facility in a vast refrigerated tank.
One man, once a prisoner of the Jovians, is recruited to interrogate the monster and find out what it knows. As it happens, prisoner and interrogator turn out to have a great deal in common.

‘Mother’ is one of the most memorable stories I’ve come across and is – apart from a darkly humourous SF tale – a satirical look at a dysfunctional mother/son relationship.

‘Stranger Station’ takes us to a far darker place where, despite the best efforts of both sides, humanity and the alien race which has given them a longevity drug, cannot communicate or bear to be in the same vicinity.

‘Greenslaves’ is an ecological warning and is no doubt far more relevant today that it was in the Sixties. In South America, a project which aims to eliminate unnecessary insects produces a violent reaction when the remaining insects begin to mutate, some of them forming a gestalt and developing the ability to physically join together to mimic human beings. This I suspect was the basis for Herbert’s novel, The Green Brain.

‘Balanced Ecology’ takes a similar premise, whereby a sentient ecosystem, managed as a family business dealing in rare timbers, takes matters into its own hands (or leaves) when threatened with destruction. A little too juvenile and cute in sections, it nevertheless cleverly examines the nature of ecosystems and symbiosis.

In ‘The Dance of the Changer &Three’ Carr attempts to translate an element of the history/mythology of the energy beings who live in the forbidding environs of a gas giant. It’s an attempt to examine a possible alien mind-set or point of view, but despite it being a memorable and readable tale, Carr never really succeeds in doing so.

The Dragon Masters – Jack Vance (1962)

The Dragon Masters

As in many of Vance’s ’lost colony’ tales, this is another society at the feudal level, descended from a planetary colony abandoned by the rest of Humanity. The communities – who breed dragons for sport and warfare – are preyed upon every few decades by grephs, creatures who arrive in long black ships and take away humans as slaves.
Joaz Banbeck is the leader (or lord) of one of the local communities, Banbeck Vale, intermittently at war with his irascible neighbour, Ervis Carcolo.
One of Joaz’s ancestors once captured the crew of the greph ship which came on one of its random raids to acquire human slaves. Since then the humans have bred the grephs into what have become the ‘dragons’ in a variety of breeds, for competition, warfare and transport.
The grephs have not visited for so long that the humans begin to believe that they will not return. Joaz however has come to the conclusion that their predations are cyclic, and that a raid is imminent. He has trained his people to have escape routes and hideouts.
Another community living amongst them is the Sacerdotes, a sect who live naked and grow their hair long.
The competition between Joaz and Ervis escalates and continues even when the grephs eventually return as Joaz predicted. The grephs, it appears, have also bred humans in the same way that the humans have bred the grephs.
It features a marvellous range of characters and a complex, fascinating setting all packed into a very brief narrative.
One of Vance’s best.

The Algebraist – Iain M Banks (2004)

The Algebraist

‘It is 4043 AD. Humanity has made it to the stars.

Seconded to a military-religious order he’s barely heard of, Fassin Taak must travel among the Dwellers of the gas giant Nasqueron, in search of a secret hidden for half a billion years. Any help they offer will be on their own terms and in their own time.

But time is one thing Fassin Taak doesn’t have, with each passing day bringing the system closer to war – a war that threatens to overwhelm everything and everyone he’s ever known.’

Blurb from the 2005 Orbit paperback edition.

Banks abandons his ‘Culture’ universe here and takes us to a galactic society thousands of years hence, but one which has seen a modicum of civilisation for billions of years. Humanity are relative newcomers but find (an idea also employed by fellow Scot Ian Macleod) that Humans already live among the stars, due to people having been taken from Earth in pre-industrial times and settled elsewhere.
Fassin Taak lives in the system of Ulubis, which is temporarily cut off from the rest of galactic civilisation following the destruction of its wormhole by Beyonders (rebels who choose to live outside the rule of Galactic civilisation).
Fassin is a Seer, his job being to interact with, and extract whatever information he can from the Dwellers, an ancient race who seem to have populated nearly every gas-giant in the galaxy several billion years ago.
The Dwellers are obsessive cataloguers and librarians, but choose not to use any system of order or classification, or at least, one which can be recognised. Consequently, whatever information obtained from Dweller libraries is mostly pot luck.
At the start of the novel Fassin finds himself drafted into a military mission to find the key to some information he obtained some time before. An old Dweller legend suggests that the Dwellers have a secret wormhole network which connects all their planets, and consequently the entire galaxy.
The information has also come to the ears of the Archemandrite Luciferous, a devilishly evil tyrant with teeth of diamond, who has amassed a fleet and is on his way to the relatively undefended Ulubis to collect the information for himself.
Banks has created a lush and believable, somewhat decadent society. In contrast to his Culture civilisation, where the AIs are the controlling entities, here they are outlawed following the Machine Wars and are now ruthlessly hunted down by the Voehn, one of the ruling races of this civilisation.
The Dwellers, although beautifully realised, are rather too caricatured and speak like characters from a PG Wodehouse novel although, oddly, this doesn’t detract from one’s enjoyment of the novel.
Fassin pursues his McGuffin with the help of a water-dwelling military colonel, some Dwellers, AIs, and a strange race aboard a Sepulcraft who have evolved into a species obsessed with death and mortuaria. As is common for Banks, there is a subtle satirical streak which raises its head now and again, such as the Galactic religion of The Truth, a belief system which espouses that the universe is a simulation in which the inhabitants are merely programmes. Once the majority of the population believe that the universe is not real then it will cease to exist and everyone will be freed.
Banks employs another cliché of his, which is that of the surprise at the end, the details of which one must discover for oneself.
If the novel has any real flaws it is in the structure. The narrative veers away from Fassin occasionally to his childhood friends, Saluus and Taince, who have all kept a dark secret from the time of their youth. There is an inelegant imbalance in this subplot, which does not add anything to the main story, and sits uneasily within it.

WWW: Wake – Robert J Sawyer (2009)

WWW: Wake (WWW, #1)

Caitlin Dector, despite being blind from birth, is an A-grade maths student with exceptional IT skills, and is deemed a suitable subject for an experimental Japanese device that may help her to see.
Elsewhere, a new strain of airborne bird flu has emerged in China, a chimp learns to paint portraits and the internet appears to have become self-aware.
Sawyer combines these four events in a quirky and delightful novel which is as much about a young woman’s desire to see, and to understand her father’s seeming inability to express emotion as it is about Artificial Intelligence and the sapience of chimps.
At first, Caitlin’s device (which she christens her ‘eye-pod’) seems not to be working, but later she experiences patterns of colour, and discovers what she is actually seeing is the internet itself, or how her brain interprets the internet to be.
Meanwhile, a chimp on loan from a US zoo has been taught sign language and conducts the first ever Orangutan/chimp webcam chat. Later he paints a picture of his handler and she realises with some shock, that although crude, he has painted a representational and recognisable image.
In China, a young pro-democracy idealist is trying to find out why China has been cut off from the rest of the world’s websites. (this is because the Chinese do not want reports leaking out of China ‘handled’ the bird flu outbreak).
And, in a separate narrative, we hear the voice of an entity who has awoken somewhere and is exploring the boundaries of his domain.
The side stories are metaphors to show how humanity deals with the fragile blossoming of intelligence, or even the dispensation of knowledge within a controlled culture.
Very clever and quite wonderful.

The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi (2006)

The Ghost Brigades (Old Man's War, #2)

“The Ghost Brigades are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from the DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF’s toughest operations. They’re young, they’re fast and strong, and they’re totally without normal human qualms.

The universe is a dangerous place for humanity–and it’s about to become far more dangerous. Three races that humans have clashed with before have allied to halt our expansion into space. Their linchpin: the turncoat military scientist Charles Boutin, who knows the CDF’s biggest military secrets. To prevail, the CDF must find out why Boutin did what he did.

Jared Dirac is the only human who can provide answers — a superhuman hybrid, created from Boutin’s DNA, Jared’s brain should be able to access Boutin’s electronic memories. But when the memory transplant appears to fail, Jared is given to the Ghost Brigades.

At first, Jared is a perfect soldier, but as Boutin’s memories slowly surface, Jared begins to intuit the reason’s for Boutin’s betrayal. As Jared desperately hunts for his “father,” he must also come to grips with his own choices. Time is running out: The alliance is preparing its offensive, and some of them plan worse things than humanity’s mere military defeat…”

Blurb from the Amazon website

John Scalzi is one of the most exciting writers to emerge in the 21st Century so far and has a true gift for characterisation and dialogue.
In this sequel to ‘Old Man’s War’ we begin in a scientific base which comes under attack. Some insectoid guards come to usher the scientists away, but they do not get far. The raiders kill the guards and take the scientist away to be interrogated at which point we realise that that the invaders are human and the scientist is not.
This is a complex universe where humans, far from – as is usual – taking the moral high ground, are actually refreshingly nasty and devious. There is a very sobering scene at one point in the novel where a Special Forces Officer has to kill a child in order to prevent two alien races entering into a war against Earth. Scalzi throws in a good handful of additional moral dilemmas like this and one does have to ask oneself what one would do under such circumstances.
Three alien races have allied to war against Humanity. The Obin, strongest of the three, are being assisted by a defecting scientist, Charles Boutin. The pattern of Boutin’s consciousness was, on advice from Special Forces, copied into one of the vat-bred soldiers of The Ghost Brigade, soldiers whose bodily tissues have been cloned from a mixture of dead people.
The new soldier’s name is Jared Dirac. Dirac, like the other Special Forces soldiers, is equipped with an implanted Brainpal which feeds information to the rapidly developing personality. The PTB were hoping that Charles’ personality would and memories would emerge, enabling Special Forces to have a heads-up on what he might be planning. Dirac, however, appears to be developing his own fairly popular and occasionally witty personality and bonds well with his platoon during a series of dangerous missions.
One day however, while passing through a market area, Dirac feels a compulsion to buy black jellybeans. He wolfs them down, telling the stallholder that he loves them, as does his daughter.
This is a moment of epiphany for Dirac, as although the memories disappear, he later learns that not only does Special Forces own his mind and body, they own his memories and his consciousness and will happily wipe them out if they pose a danger.

The Winds of Gath – EC Tubb (1967) (Dumarest #01)

The Winds of Gath (Dumarest of Terra #1)The Winds of Gath by E.C. Tubb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apart from the Perry Rhodan series, this may well qualify as the longest literary Space Opera of the Twentieth Century, at once both generally unrecognised and under-rated, it comprises of some 31 volumes published at roughly six-monthly intervals between 1967 and 1985, with a further two volumes published in 1997 and 2008.
Dumarest is a seasoned fighter with lightning responses, working his passage around a galaxy of thousands of planets, attempting to return to the planet he ran away from as a child: Earth. Earth however, so everyone believes, is a myth, but Dumarest picks up clues on his long journey, along with a secret which could put the Cyclan – a ruthless semi-religious brotherhood of scarlet-robed human computers who have had all their emotions suppressed in order to maximise the efficiency of their minds – in complete control of the Galaxy.
The environments and societies are unremittingly bleak, controlled by exploitative corporate or feudal regimes, well-realised if a little romantic in style. The books are episodic and tend to become repetitive. Dumarest, for instance, is inevitably romantically pursued by unfeasibly beautiful women (and on at least one occasion by a man) while being pursued for quite different reasons by the agents of the Cyclan, who are more often than not despatched efficiently at the end of each book by our hero. Thus, Dumarest is driven on, both by the object of his search, and the pursuit by his enemies.
Frustratingly, the saga was not concluded until 2008 with the final volume ‘Child of Earth’ not long before Tubb’s death in 2010. It would make a good TV series. Certainly I always had a soft spot for the agents of the Cyclan who not only make excellent and dangerous adversaries but have fabulous scarlet robes.
The Cyclan are dedicated to statistics, facts, analysis, deduction and prediction, pure logical reasoning in fact (as in the Mentats of Herbert’s ‘Dune’ series which is how they are often able to deduce Dumarest’s most probable location. They are the wicked Sherlock Holmes’s of Space, the Evil Accountants of Satan, implanted with cybernetic links which, when they place themselves in deep trance, put them in communion with the rulers of the Brotherhood; a gestalt of disembodied brains from retired Cyclan agents, hidden deep below ground on a secret planet. It doesn’t take the powers of the Cyclan to deduce fairly early on in the series that the secret home-world of the Cyclan is Earth.
‘The Winds of Gath’ introduces us to Dumarest, a born fighter, travelling from planet to planet, eking out a living and the money to pay for the next passage, all the time searching for clues as to the location of the planet of his birth; lost mythical Earth.
While travelling frozen, his starship is commandeered by the Matriarch of Kund and her entourage, who charter the ship to take them to Gath.
Gath, like Mercury, does not revolve on its axis and possesses only the ribbon-like strip of habitable land between the sun-scorched side and the dark frozen side.
At the time of the famous storms, a geological formation in the mountains causes the wind to produce sounds which register on the human brain as the voices of the dead.
The Matriarch has employed the services of The Cyclan, and Dumarest gets himself unwillingly involved in the politics between the Matriarch and a sadistic spoiled prince of another planetary dynasty, just as everyone is joining the journey to the mountains to experience the voices of the storm.
Despite the gothic overtones and the interstellar feudal dynasties, religious brotherhoods and Tubb’s unrelenting depictions of man’s inhumanity to man, it is surprisingly up-beat, well-written and far superior to much of the episodic TV we have today.
Like Herbert, Tubb balances the almost medieval feudal with the futuristic. The monarchies and dynastic class structures, combined with the monks’ robes of the ideologically opposed brotherhoods, conspire to create a somewhat industrial gothic atmosphere.

View all my reviews