‘We are alone. That is the verdict, after centuries of Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence missions and space exploration. The only living things in the Universe are found on the Nine Worlds settled from Earth, and the starships that knit them together. Or so it’s believed, until Dr. Kimberley Brandywine sets out to find what happened to her clone-sister Emily, who, after the final unsuccessful manned SETI expedition, disappeared along with the rest of her ship’s crew.
Following a few ominous clues, Kim discovers the ship’s log was faked. Something happened out there in the darkness between the stars and she’s prepared to go to any length to find answers. Even if it means giving up her career… stealing a starship… losing her lover. Kim is about to discover the truth about her sister – and about more than she ever dared imagine.’
Blurb from the 2001 Eos paperback edition
In a future where Humanity has expanded out to a handful of settled planets and seems to have culturally stalled, Kim Brandywine is working for an institute still trying to search for Extraterrestrial Life. Kim is haunted by the death of her clone-sister Emily who was on an exploratory voyage and who disappeared, along with another member of the crew, without trace after she returned. The two male survivors of the Hunter Expedition were subsequently involved in a mysterious explosion at Mount Hope on their home planet, an area which has since had sightings of ghostly apparitions.
Emily is contacted by the grandfather of the other missing girl who believes that there is something more to their disappearance than meets the eye.
Initially cynical, Kim begins to uncover small pieces of evidence which leads her to suspect that something is very wrong with the official story of the voyage of the Hunter and, facing opposition from her employers and the families of the now-dead crew, becomes determined to uncover the truth of what happened to her sister.
McDevitt gives us a gripping scientific detective story which combines a first contact situation with brilliantly evocative moments of ghostly horror and an old unsolved murder.
Interestingly, McDevitt succeeds well in realising a planet settled some six hundred years ago which now has experts researching its own history and archaeology. It makes for a very well-rounded society, if a tad Americocentric. The structure is well thought out, although perhaps a little cinematic. It is a bit of a cliche for the hero/ine to be not believed/discredited/fired and then have to solve the mysteries while the authorities are snapping at her heels.
All in all, though, it’s a cracking piece of work. Nothing groundbreaking, just a solid piece of well-written SF with a detective thriller twist.
‘A Brilliant and Stunning Saga Begins…
Two millennia from now, there is no more electricity, wind-engines are leading-edge technology, librarians fight duels to settle disputes, steam power is banned by every major religion, and a mysterious siren ‘Call’ lures people to their watery graves. Nevertheless a brilliant and ruthless leader intends to start an improbable war: a war against inconceivably ancient nuclear battlestations orbiting Earth.
However, the greatest threat to humanity is not these ancient weapons but a determined and implacable enemy who has resurrected an obscene and evil concept from the distant past.’
Blurb from the 2002 Tor paperback edition
In McMullen’s future Australia, society has been rebuilt following a nuclear war 2000 years before. Australia has fractured into a jigsaw of independent states, divided by culture and religion. In the library of the University of Libris, the Alexandria of its age, the Highliber Zarvora has re-invented the computer using mathematical human components chained to desks and connected to each other by ropes and pulleys. Entering data into this system is done by way of a harpsichord keyboard.
The world is surrounded by AI guided satellites (strangely, still functional after 2000 years) which are programmed to fire upon any sign of technological activity.
More ominously, the Mirrorsun – a band constructed in orbit around the Earth, is widening itself, in order to cool down a world that is no longer suffering from global warming.
This is the first in a trilogy from McMullen which, although immensely enjoyable, occasionally collapses under the weight of the cast, no mean feat for a novel with not an enormous number of central figures.
The problem seems to be that McMullen does not give equal weight to his characters, and there is a fair amount of jumping about from place to place without the author giving time to establish the characters in a physical context. There is little sense of change of atmosphere between far-flung locations, and a lack of suspense. Also, disappointingly, the first chapter or two contains an infodump overload, telling us more or less what happened over the last two thousand years with emphasis on the last century.
It is interesting that McMullen’s protagonists are a balanced mixture of sexes, although it has to be said that although the women are almost exclusively strong, intelligent and in charge of their own lives, they are, for the most part, busty, leather-clad, gun-toting babes.
There are two characters, Glasken and Lemorel whose story is laced through the novel. Glasken, a rogue and reprobate, dedicated to seducing women, originally has an affair with and betrays Lemorel. Lemorel, a highly trained fighter and Dragon Librarian, takes her revenge. Their destinies hereafter cause them to, in a sense, change position, since Glasken becomes a hero of the War which transpires, while Lemorel, for reasons which are not fully explained, ends up becoming the Supreme Commander of the enemy army.
McMullen did not exploit this dual transformation enough, mainly because, one feels, of the distraction of other characters whose love-lives were equally as complicated, but not as interesting.
Having said that, McMullen scores highly in terms of readability and extrapolated scientific development in a society where steam and electricity are banned.
The Calculor – as the human gestalt computer is named – is the most fascinating aspect of the novel, and even its legal and social implications are handled well. Trains are powered by a combination of wind and leg power.
There is also the phenomenon of the Call; a mental summons which causes all large mammals and humans to lose their will and walk south. In reaction to this Australian society has developed clockwork mechanisms attached to their bodies which, if not reset, are designed to clamp on to a projection, thus keeping the victim from wandering off until the Call has passed.
Interestingly, in a book that was written pre 9/11, we see that McMullen has predicted Moslem sections of Australia, and indeed, one of the minor characters is a Moslem, press-ganged into service within the Calculor. However, although McMullen has introduced the Gentheists, who believe that the Call is the will of God, there seems not to have been any religious evolution or change since the apocalypse, which after 2000 years of isolation and near-barbarism, seems absurd.
As this is the first in a set of three it may be that McMullen may explore the characters further in the sequels which would certainly enhance an enjoyable, yet slightly colourless, tale.
‘Sex, science and spin… it’s your future and welcome to it.
2044, and the US is coming apart at the seams. The people live nomadic lives fuelled by cheap transport and even cheaper communications. the new cold war is with the Dutch and mostly fought over the Net. The notion of central government is almost meaningless.
This is your future. Oscar Valparaiso’s too – or it would be if he wasn’t only half human and could sort our his love life…’
Blurb from the 2000 Millennium paperback edition
Bruce Sterling inhabits the same satirical and cynical universe as the likes of Sladek and Kurt Vonnegut and here uses his considerable literary powers to attack not only the American political system but posits an American dystopia in 2044 where independent bands of ‘travellers’ make a living making and selling – among other things – laptops made from grass. This is also an America where Anglos(i.e. white people) are now a persecuted minority group.
Oscar Valparaiso is a futuristic spin-doctor who has helped to get Alcott Bambakias elected as Senator, and though his current project is now over, Valparaiso, being a driven man, is unwilling to give up his campaign tour and decides to make an issue of a US Air Force base which – due to some political chicanery or incompetence – has been ‘forgotten’ and so is not receiving funding of any sort.
This minor debacle escalates into an ongoing battle between Green Huey, Governor of Louisiana, and Valparaiso.
There is a large cast of characters, most of whose lives revolve around Oscar in some way or other.
There is a reason why Oscar is so brilliant, the reason being his ‘little personal background problem’. Oscar is the result of a black market cloning programme set up to satisfy the public need for black market babies. Much of his DNA isn’t even human; his body temperature is constantly higher than normal and he has to take a cocktail of medication to treat the constant bodily ills caused by his twisted DNA.
It’s a clever and amusing novel which I’m sure I would have enjoyed even more had I understood US politics and history better, but that’s not a major issue.
In style it’s redolent of Robert Sheckley and John Sladek. The dialogue is slick, classy, witty and each character has their individual voice.
Oddly, there is no real mention of any issues surrounding religion which, in the US, seems a trifle odd.
The main theme of the book, which Sterling deals with on all sorts of levels, is Power. We learn, for instance, that a lot of political power now resides on the net. Corporate and National wars can be fought in cyberspace. There is also a random power on the net at work whereby programmes are set up which monitor whether one has been critical of a certain policy or politician. If one’s score rises above a certain level then one’s details are forwarded to newsgroups or forums which makes one a target for stalkers or would-be assassins.
Oscar becomes a victim of such a programme until a neighbour and software-expert clears his details from the net.
It’s a huge enjoyable romp with a cast of slightly caricatured characters.
This is the first in a posthumous trilogy sanctioned – if not instigated – by the Asimov Estate which is actually a prequel to Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy, one of the landmark SF works of the mid-twentieth century.
It’s good to know that three tried and tested authors (Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin) have taken on what must be a daunting challenge.
As good a writer as Asimov was, his best writing was completed in his early life and his later novels, which fed very much on his established work, were weak and uninspiring. In his later Foundation novels (such as Foundation’s Edge) he attempted to inject elements of his other work in order to conflate his themes and characters into one galactic history. Therefore, robots from his earlier novels and stories turn up in the Foundation civilisation as does the planet Gaia, which ultimately attempts to turn the galaxy into a vast living organism.
This detracted from, rather than added to, the Foundation trilogy, and were additional complications with which these three authors had to contend.
This novel does not seek to chart future development of the ‘psychohistorical’ plan which Hari Seldon, a scientist whose formulae have predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire, has set in motion. The focus is on Seldon himself, at a time when the science of psychohistory is still in its infancy. His wife, Dors, (as we know from Asimov’s later novels) is an advanced humanoid robot, sworn to protect Hari for the greater good of Humanity.
A subplot involving the AI manifestations of Voltaire and Joan of Arc (who are resurrected to represent Reason and Faith in a debate about the rights of artificial intelligences) feels out of place in this novel. Admittedly, the AIs add much to the book’s examination of what it is to be human and their conversations (particularly the pompous and amusing rantings of Voltaire) are expertly created, but they read as if they do not belong in the Foundation Universe. They really deserved a novel of their own, in which to explore more deeply the concepts of Faith and Reason, made all the more interesting by the philosophical implications of their own existence as artificial people.
Hari, against his will, is appointed as a candidate for First Minister, a position which the robots wish him to accept, believing the experience to be necessary for his better understanding of psychohistory.
He acquires a dangerous political rival and escapes several assassination attempts before his enemy is vanquished.
Benford’s ‘Seldon’ seems at odds with Asimov’s pacifist character and the tenet from the original trilogy ‘Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent’ (slightly reworded in this book replacing ‘last refuge’ with ‘diplomacy’) is flouted here.
It is true that large sections of the novel are dedicated to Seldon’s analysis of the human condition and its drives, both on an individual level and that of the great masses of the galaxy.
Violence is only one unchangeable aspect of humanity that that the scientist has to factor into his equations.
However, there seems no reason why Benford could not have found a way for Seldon to expose and discredit his rival without recourse to violence. The Seldon narrative – which focuses on the detail of the galaxy, rather than Asimov’s broad overviews – is still very much in the Asimov style, but lacks the magician’s flourishes of the original. Asimov had a knack for posing problems and surprising the reader with unexpected, yet logical solutions. To have solved Seldon’s dilemma with his rival in the style of Asimov would have been both a tribute to Isaac and an improvement on what is a very weak denouement.
As a sequel this is a decent effort, but adds very little, given that this one book is about the same length as the complete original trilogy.
There is however an interesting afterword, in which Benford talks of Asimov, the Foundation Universe and the process by which he went about writing ‘Fear’.
prot (lower case ‘p’) insists that he’s from the planet K-PAX in the constellation of Lyra. As you might expect, prot is locked up in a New York Psychiatric hospital, and it falls to Dr Gene Brewer (the author, in other words) to solve the mystery of prot’s identity.
‘No-one believes I’m an alien’ (apart from the fact that it would be a fab title for a Jerry Springer show, and it’s a shame Dr Brewer never worked this into the book) or ‘the alien in human form’ is a staple SF device which, although handled competently here breaks very little new ground.
Dr Brewer, of course, considers prot to be a delusional amnesiac, and goes into partnership with a reporter in attempt to discover prot’s true identity before his planned return to K-PAX on August 17 at 3.31 am on a beam of light.
It’s a lightweight easy read, but suffers in that the reader is inevitably convinced throughout that prot is telling the truth. He demonstrates, for instance, knowledge of the area of space from which he comes which the doctor is assured he could not possibly know. In the course of the book he manages to cure several of the hospital’s patients, translates whale-song into English and Hamlet into pax-o (the language of K-PAX), and is proved to be able to see light in the ultra-violet range.
This may not sway the sceptical Dr Brewer, but it convinced me.
It would have been a far better novel if the true nature of prot were ambivalent and less obvious. There’s some decent characterisation here and there, but many people come across as two-dimensional in a severely linear story which holds few surprises.
There was a film starring Kevin Spacey, which didn’t set the cinema world alight, and there’s a sequel or two which I’m not, I confess, straining at the leash to buy copies of.
Egan, although a completely different stylist, can be considered thematically to be a direct descendant of Philip K Dick since Egan explores the same philosophical territory. In both authors’ work the questions are asked ‘What does ‘real’ mean?’, ‘What is the nature of identity?’ and ‘What does it mean to be human?’
A young woman, Maria Deluca, who earns a patchy living writing security software, spends some of her time running simulations in the Autoverse, a shared online space where virtual micro-organisms can be created in tailored habitats and left to evolve. So far, no one has managed to come up with the right combination of factors that have led to a successful virtual organism. When she is the one to make the breakthrough she receives a call from a man offering her a job.
This is a world where one can download one’s personality and achieve a form of immortality. Due to the constraints of dataspace, life as a virtual consciousness runs some seventeen times slower than in the ‘real’ world. Her benefactor, Paul Durham, has told her that he has found a way to create a virtual city whose processing power expands exponentially. It is a virtual universe which is, in effect, creating itself.
He also claims to have existed in several other parallel worlds and committed suicide in order that his ‘copies’ could continue until he discovered the secret of his self-perpetuating city. Several millionaire ‘copies’ have been approached and offered the option to download their minds into the city.
Her job, if indeed that was his motive, was to seed a planet in the virtual solar system with her Autoverse bacteria in order that they can evolve.
Unaware that he has scanned her mind for such a purpose, she awakens in the virtual city several thousand subjective years into its existence, at a time when not only has the Autoverse planet evolved intelligent life, but the ruling figures in the city are debating whether to make contact.
Undoubtedly brilliantly written and boldly conceived, the novel suffers from a lack of cohesion between the various elements, from Maria’s world into Durham’s city is a disorienting leap, made all the more disturbing by the suggestion that we may have viewed the same characters in several parallel universes.
Egan is never an easy read but is, I guarantee, worth persevering with. It’s an experience that will stay with you, and he don’t half make you think.
Part of Baxter’s Xeelee future history, ‘Raft’ postulates a universe where the basic force of gravity is much stronger than in ours, and therefore one where the formation of galaxies and systems will work very differently.
Generations before the events in the novel, a ship passed through the Xeelee artefact ‘Bolder’s Ring’ to emerge in this universe, only to find itself imploding under its own weight. Here, life can exist in nebulae where suns are small, and are created and die frequently. Mobile trees fly through the air rich nebula and the descendants of ‘the Raft’ live a precarious existence as they realise that their nebula is dying, and the air running out.
Rees, a young miner who works in a 5G environment on the surface of a collapsed star, stows away on one of the trees that trades between the mining community and the Raft itself. He finds himself an apprenticeship with the ‘scientists’ and the novel sees him trying to find a way to save himself and the people of the nebula.
As well as being one of Baxter’s best novels, this is also a tribute to other writers of Future histories, such as Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven, although far nearer to Niven in terms of hard SF and playing around with scientific extravagances.
Heinlein’s nod lies in the rite of passage theme which sees a young man taken out of his familiar environment to face adversity and hostility only to eventually prove his worth to everyone.
The beauty lies, as it often does with me, in Bob Shaw’s ‘wee thinky bits’, the fact for instance that here human bodies generate gravitational fields strong enough to attract other human bodies, and the entire concept of a nebula where planets can never form as they would merely implode, and small suns fall into the core of the nebula while new ones are generated regularly.
‘On an ecologically seared Earth, James Konteau is a veteran krono, a professional time traveller. His job is to ease the overpopulation crisis by establishing new colonies in Earth’s prehistory, long before human beings evolved. But his job has lost all meaning, for Konteau is a lone and troubled man haunted by his own past.
Now, suddenly, his future is also in turmoil: a time quake has reportedly ripped through distant eons, destroying one of Konteau’s colonies. Framed for the disaster, Konteau is hunted by authorities, defying all the powers of technology and politics to escape back through the misty ages on a complex mission of death, justice, love – and incredible destiny…’
Blurb from the 1989 Avon paperback edition
Harness’ late work is variable, but this harks back to the complexity and poetry of his great works. The plot is, for Harness, fairly straightforward. James Konteau is an engineer working for an agency who relieve Earth’s crippling population problem by establishing ‘boro’s in the primeval past, and shifting the excess population there.
Whilst on leave in Xanadu, a hedonistic resort built inside the Martian moon of Deimos, Konteau is introduced – by his friend Zeke Ditmars – to a woman, Denmie, a woman who convinces him to prepare a report on the feasibility of siting a colony in Mars’ prehistory at a time when the Red Planet had an atmosphere, water and a primitive ecology.
Elsewhere in the system, the Overlord has died and the Vyrs are heading to a convocation to decide on who should be the next Overlord.
Konteau begins to have nightmares and wakes up convinced that a timequake is imminent and that a boro – Boro 585 – will be lost. His subsequent report is not taken seriously, but when the boro does vanish, Konteau is summoned to see the Vyr (widely thought to be the next in line for Overlord) and is strongly warned not to go looking for the lost boro.
Konteau does of course and – it’s not important why – ends up on a train with Edgar Allan Poe.
As is usual for Harness, there are literary and other references woven through the text, some of which are explained in Konteau’s dream.
He dreams of playing chess with a cowled figure and the initial D is important. Chess is a genre which has appeared elsewhere in Harness’ work, although here the symbolism is similar to the knight who plays chess with Death in Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’.
The psychological evaluation which Konteau receives is that D stands for Daleth in the Phoenician alphabet and means ‘door’. there is a door in his dream, behind the cowled figure and he and two others leave through it, although a part anagram of Daleth is Death and at least one of the party will die.
There is also a reference to the English political economist and demographer, Thomas Malthus, whom the Vyr quotes in explaining why there is a population crisis, and also the poetry of Goethe.
Arguably, one might fault Harness for not exploring further arguments of the Malthusians whose beliefs are that society should be attempting to reduce the population rather than syphoning them off into the past, and it is not explained why evidence of these past civilisations is not about today.
There a flashes of the old magic and it is an entertaining read, and although one cannot say that Harness is back to his old form here he is still capable of creating his complex mix of the scientific and metaphysical.
Some of the Harness cliches are here, such as the prophecies, the time-paradoxes, the weird religions and the futuristic baroque landscapes against which he sets his tales.
Captain Naismith and her team are part of scientific expedition studying the ecology of an alien world. Her and her companion Dubauer return to the camp to find the team massacred and the camp destroyed. Dubauer is then hit by a neuroweapon and they are later captured by the leader of the Barrayaran invaders, Aral Vorkosigan, the so-called Butcher of Komarr.
Things are not what they might seem, however, since Vorkosigan himself is the victim of a plot to kill him on the planet’s surface by elements within the Barrayaran government.
Aral and Naismith have to rely on each other to survive as they transport Dubauer through a hostile ecosystem to reach a Barrayaran supply base. Inevitably, her feelings toward him begin to change as she learns the true details of his life.
Aral is a man of honour, trapped in a web of politics, spies, feudal government systems and military law.
Naismith eventually escapes, managing to help Vorkosigan defeat one of his enemies in the process, but is later captured by the Barrayarans while she is helping to defend a system they intend to invade
She is saved from the depredations of a sadistic admiral by when he is killed by Vorkosigan’s Lieutenant Bothari and is eventually returned to earth, but finds it hard to hold on to her sanity when is first hailed as a hero who killed Vortultyer and then suspected of being brainwashed into being a Barrayar agent.
Thus, she escapes again and returns to Aral, to become Lady Vorkosigan.
On one level it’s a military action novel with a romance laced through it but it’s much more than that. Bujold has created marvellous characters in Aral and Naismith. Bothari is also a fascinating concept being a psychotic soldier with a mind held together by regulations and loyalty and later twisted to the breaking point by the sadistic Vortultyer.
It’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t just one figure opposing Vorkosigan who runs through the narrative. Aral seems to dispose of rivals as soon as they start causing trouble, which is good for him, but it weakens the element of tension.
A series of tales set in Harrison’s wonderful and baroque Viriconium universe.
‘Viriconium Knights’ is not set in the Viriconium that we know from ‘The Pastel City’. The young assassin, Ignace Retz, has an encounter with an old man and a tapestry which reveals disturbing visions of other Viriconiums. Like the novels these stories are packed with inventive and curious imagery and characters. The society is richly imagined, down to the smallest detail, and there are echoes of icons and symbols from elsewhere in the Viriconium canon, such as the old man’s metal eagle, reminiscent of the finely-crafted metal birds of Cellur.
Ignace Retz sees visions of himself in the tapestry, but he is identified in these visions as tegeus-Cromis.
‘Lords of Misrule’ is a short tone-poem of a piece in which tegeus-Cromis (or a version of tegeus-Cromis, since the city here is called Uriconium) visits a strangely-shaped homestead lying in the path of an invasion. An ‘idiot-boy’ keenly displays his Mari, an elaborately decorated horse’s skull with a hinged jaw, mounted on a pole which, again, is used for an undefined ritual purpose, its origins perhaps long forgotten to the Uriconians, but associated – as the title suggests – with ancient British Pagan practices.
The Mari reappears in ‘Strange Great Sins’, a tale told by a ‘sin-eater’, summoned to a house to eat the sins of a dead child (another ritual). He tells the story of his strange half-mad uncle. The sin-eater only begins to know and understand his uncle following his death and the young man’s move to Viriconium to take over his rooms, there discovering his lifelong obsession with a dancer and his secret (again ritualistic) shrine to her.
‘The Dancer From The Dance’ is another tale set in what appears to be an alternate Viriconium. In the novel ‘In Viriconium’ Harrison posits the idea that that the Earth is so old that reality itself has begun to break down. Here, the spaces within the city seem to have become fluid and unmeasurable as Crome discovers when he is forced – by fate, circumstance or design – onto Allman’s Heath with a dancer and a dwarf clown, each of which have their own practised arts of bodily expression. The dancer is Vera Ghillera, with whom the narrator’s uncle fell in love in ‘Strange Great Sins’.
‘The Luck in The Head’ again features the pagan rituals which are a recurring motif throughout the collected Viriconium works. An assassin is recruited by a mysterious woman through a dream of a sacrificial lamb to kill Mama Vooley.
It’s a dark and highly imaginative piece rich with textural detail. It was also converted into a graphic novel in collaboration with Ian Moore.
Characters appear and reappear within these tales, but one is never certain whether they are the same people or their potential selves in another incarnation of the city. This was device pioneered by Moorcock, most notably in his Jerry Cornelius series – to which Harrison contributed – although Harrison has here taken the concept to an extremely sophisticated level.
‘The Lamia and Lord Cromis’ reintroduces tegeus-Cromis, of ‘The Pastel City’ on a seemingly fatal quest to kill the Lamia who is a curse upon his family. Five of his immediate male ancestors have died in the act of killing the Lamia. The Lamia has always returned to be killed by the next in line.
It’s a Spartan and disturbing tale and – like the other stories – not a little weird, but, one is easily seduced by the prose, the obsessive attention to detail and the smothering entropic atmosphere of stagnation and decay.
The last tale ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ is the most enigmatic, being a story set in Manchester of the author’s attempts to find the way into Viriconium. The beauty of it is the captured surreal banality of conversation and characters, oddly echoing the characters of Viriconium, yet firmly rooted in our own society. The signs of burgeoning entropy are all around us, reflected in the redundant and often meaningless exchanges of words between those the narrator overhears.
Viriconium is accessible, he discovers, through reflective surfaces such as windows and mirrors, immediately suggesting that the City is ultimately a reflection of our own society, tied to its empty rituals and loth to embrace change.