My life in outer space

Archive for May, 2014

Crash – JG Ballard (1973)

Crash

A poetic if depressing view of our social evolution in the Twentieth century.
After an automobile accident the victim – a director of TV commercials – finds himself increasingly drawn to Dr Robert Vaughan, a man who calls himself a TV scientist, who haunts the sites of accidents like a vulture, taking photographs and making films of the aftermath and the wreckage.
The narrator, who appears to be Ballard himself, becomes gradually aware of the erotic charge held by the twisted wrecks of cars, where he feels he can sense connections between the shapes and angles of wreckage, the impacts themselves and the act of sexual congress.
The novel builds to its natural conclusion which is a collision, both literal and metaphorical, between the two characters.
Ballard’s incredible descriptive powers turn this, quite shocking in places, novel into a sort of poetic odyssey.
The narrator, already immersed in the illusory world of the media, his wife, Vaughan, and the wife of the dead victim of Ballard’s accident, drive through a world of tubular steel, films, photographs, modernist buildings, airports, motorways, cars and sex. As Ballard is drawn more and more under Vaughan’s influence he become hooked on the temptations offered by technology which is opening up a whole new language of sex, pornography and death.
Collisions and impacts are not merely a metaphor sexual climax, they become the sexual climax.
Death is the ultimate climax and Vaughan plans to die in a car accident with Elizabeth Taylor as the culmination (the climax) of his life’s work.
I found the idea of dedication one’s life to planning one’s death quite appealing. Vaughan’s concepts – he is a kind of Nineteen Seventies performance artist – are pretty revolutionary. He seems to think of his life as a work in progress, bound within the parameters of car wrecks and sexual gratification.
The car is seen here in various symbolic ways. As penile extension, the extension of the entire body, the status symbol, the exoskeleton…
The book seems to be written through an artist’s eyes. Much is made of the ‘geometries’ of this or that, and the relationship between shapes and spaces with regard to twisted cars or human bodies. But then, it’s also as if Ballard is attempting to create a new language to define the world into which Vaughan and his narrator have evolved.
At the end of the day it all conforms to a twisted kind of logic, but I’m not sure I can explain why.


The Battle of Forever – AE van Vogt (1971)

The Battle Of Forever

‘”What a noble and handsome head, and delightful tapering body. The tiny arms and legs…” This was Man, retreating from the world behind the barrier for several thousand years. The chosen few lived a life of peace, of philosophical contemplation. Outside were the animal-men, biologically created from the beasts that used to roam the earth. Their lives were perfectly regulated by computers, crime-free and idyllic.

But when Modyun agreed to grow his body large to experience once again those degrading bodily functions, and to go beyond the barrier … the battle for existence had already begun. If only he could discover the cause and the purpose. But his questioning mind only led him deeper into darkness, deeper into uncertainty.’

Blurb from the 1971 NEL paperback edition

Modyun is an evolved human of the far future, living a life of philosophical contemplation behind ‘the barrier’ with the remnants of the human race, reduced to existing as a great head with a tiny body.
Modyun (and one of the evolved females) is persuaded (for reasons which are not important) to reassume a full human body, complete with archaic bodily functions and go outside the barrier to discover what is happening with Earth.
One can only conclude that the blurb for this novel was necessarily vague because the storyline is convoluted to the point of non-comprehensibility.
He discovers that the animals of Earth have been turned into animal men and are being drafted into an army to fight a war by aliens who have, at the same time, ensured that Mankind has been weakened by sealing themselves off behind the barrier.
Modyun passes himself off as an ape and joins his new animal friends as they board the alien transport ship to fight in the alien war. Modyun – a later incarnation of van Vogt’s ‘logical hero’ eventually confronts his enemy and saves the day.
This is late, and weak, work by van Vogt with little to recommend it as even ‘experimental’ fiction.


The Jester at Scar (Dumarest #05) – EC Tubb (1970)

The Jester At Scar (Dumarest of Terra #5)

‘Scar – a harsh, inhospitable world with a vicious and shifting population of prospectors, drawn from every corner of the galaxy by rumours of a miraculous golden spore.

To this violent planet come two more travellers, ready to try their luck among its lethal jungles: the cruel, mocking Lord of Jest – and Dumarest, driven by destiny on his endless search for Lost Earth…’

Blurb from the 1977 Arrow paperback edition

Dumarest has not yet realised that the ring bequeathed to him by Kalin contains the secret of the affinity symbiote which the Cyclan are desperate to reclaim.
On the planet Scar, home to an ecosystem of fungi, some of whose spores can take over an organism in minutes, Dumarest is working as a collector during the short season in which the big mushrooms proliferate.
Also on Scar is Jocelyn, Lord of the planet Jest, and his shrewish wife Adrienne who have in their employ Cyber Yoon, one of the shaven-headed scarlet-robed ones who have given up their emotions to live a life of calculation and logic (see also Mentats and Vulcans).
Dumarest’s home is invaded by two men whom Dumarest kills when they start getting rough with his girlfriend. One of the men is carrying five rings very similar to Dumarest’s. Sadly, this does not give our hero a clue, although it has to be said that in most of the books he does have a Poirot-esque way of deducing what is really going on.


Dune Messiah – Frank Herbert (1969)

Dune Messiah

‘A holy war has made Paul Atreides the religious and political leader of a thousand planets. The malign sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, unable to dominate the man they have made a god, set out to destroy him.

Paul, who is able to foresee the plans of his enemies, resolves to adapt and shape them to a goal that is as shocking as it is unexpected.

‘Dune Messiah’ – long awaited successor to double award winner ‘Dune’ – is an epic of imperial intrigue that spans the universe, rich and strange in its evocation of the history, institutions and people of a far future age. ‘

Blurb to the 1972 NEL paperback edition

The second book in Herbert’s ‘Dune’ sequence takes us forward twelve years to where Paul Muad D’ib Atreides is now undisputed Emperor of the Galaxy. The Fremen have adopted him and his sister Alia (not, it has to be said, without their implicit consent) as Godlike figures which has prompted a jihad in which the Fremen have pillaged and occupied most of the worlds in the Dune galaxy.
Unlike the first novel, which was undeniably an epic and featured varied exotic locations around the galaxy, this book is much shorter and keeps its narrative firmly rooted on the planet Arrakis.
Muad D’ib finds the burden of Empire a heavy one to carry, particularly in view of the fact that his prescience (boosted into full awareness of the future due to the effects of the spice melange) seems to allow him no way to stop the jihad which is sweeping across the galaxy in his name, killing billions in a wave of religious fervour. He thus becomes something of a Shakespearean figure, locked into a destiny in which the concept of free will loses all meaning.
We are immediately introduced to the Bene Tleilaxu, a Guild similar to that of the Bene Gesserit, in that they are dedicated to selective breeding and the manipulation of genetic material to a specified end, but their methods are far different.
The Tleilaxu believe in directly modifying themselves and have become ‘Face Dancers’ (shape-changers) who pride themselves on their ability to reshape their flesh and mimic people to such an extent that their closest friends and family can be fooled.
They are also masterful cloners who are attempting to perfect the art of creating a ghola; a cloned copy of a dead individual which retains not only the original’s physical attributes, but their memories and personality. As part of their scheme to destroy Muad D’ib, the Tleilaxu, conspiring with both the Bene Gesserit and the Spacer’s Guild produce a copy of Muad D’ib’s old friend and mentor, Duncan Idaho, reborn as a mentat philosopher and offered to the Emperor as a gift.
Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda though, and the Tleilaxu are hoping that if the ghola does not destroy Muad D’ib, then the psychological pressure imposed upon him will in any case awaken the real Duncan and make their experiment a success so that they win either way.
‘messiah’ for me fails because it tries too hard to be a different sort of novel. The original was a triumph of contrasts, from the intensity of the Bene Gesserit disciplines through to the moral solidity of the Atreides and then the gross and decadent mores of the Harkonnens. There was the contrast with Caladan and Arrakis, between educated society and the Fremen, between water world and desert world. It was a riotous mixture of tastes and flavours.
Herbert, in concentrating on a somewhat claustrophobic and, has been suggested, Shakespearean sequel, has lost a little of what made Dune such a marvellous novel.
One cannot fault the plotting. Herbert has a mastery of the use of political intrigue, double-bluffing, double-crossing and paranoia.
It does seem, however, that the Bene Tleilax – who as far as I recall were not mentioned in ‘Dune’ – were brought in to add that flavour of spice (for want of a better word) to what is a rather cynical view of Humanity and religion.
As in ‘Dune’ religion (or rather the concept of belief) is used as a political tool, but by this time Muad D’ib has realised that the Godhood which has been bestowed upon him is merely a monkey on his back. It now controls him and he seems powerless to control the religious mania which has taken over the galaxy, or indeed his own future since he walks into traps fully knowing the consequences but also cogniscent of worse consequences should he take another path.
One suspects that this was meant to be a longer novel. The philosophy and the aims of the Bene Tleilax for instance are never fully explained and much of the colour and spectacle of the original are missing.
Some characters are underused. The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam was, in ‘Dune’, used sparsely but to great effect. Here she is simply used, and might just as well have never appeared in the novel at all.
Similarly, the Spacers’ Guild, who in the original are an exotic and mysterious human mutation are here reduced to the status of ‘man in a tank’.
The relationship between Alia and Hayt (the cloned Duncan Idaho) could have made a fascinating sub-plot but failed to materialise into something of solidity.
The Tleilaxu are the most fascinating element and the character of Scytale is the only one of the conspirators whose behaviour and actions hold any dramatic interest. The Tleilaxu were instrumental in the plot against Muad D’ib since they produced the resurrected body (and possibly soul) of Duncan Idaho. This is another Shakespearean motif in that Hayt can be seen as performing the same symbolic and dramatic purpose as Banquo’s Ghost, or that of Hamlet’s father, a former close associate returned from the grave. It may be significant that the Tleilaxu gave the reborn Idaho steel eyes which would naturally reflect the face of anyone he spoke to. Is it then his function to make the Mahdi Muad D’ib see himself for what he is?
Essentially, this novel reads as a first draft. Although well-written and packed with Herbert’s stylish inventiveness and his talent for designing societies and institutions, one can’t help feeling that the main characters are under-developed and are never given the opportunities (rather than the space) to show us their personalities the way they did with such panache in ‘Dune’.
The denouement in particular seems very rushed, as if Herbert were under pressure to bring the novel to a satisfactory conclusion.


The Mad God’s Amulet (Runestaff #02) – Michael Moorcock (1968)

The Mad God's Amulet (History of the Runestaff, #2)

Hawkmoon, attempting to return to Castle Brass which is under siege by the forces of Granbretan, finds himself captured by Huillam D’Averc, is given a mysterious crystal mechanism by the wraith-folk of Soryandum, who live on a slightly different plane, and is enjoined by the Warrior in Jet and Gold to seek out the Mad God, after Hawkmoon and D’Averc (now Hawkmoon’s ally) capture one of the raiding ships of the Cult of the Mad God.
Yisselda, it appears, has been captured by the MG and Hawkmoon must take his amulet and rescue her before he can return to Castle Brass.
It is the amulet which has driven its owner mad. Like Tolkien’s ring its power is a curse unless it is worn by the one for whom it is meant – and upon whom it confers great power and strength – and that one is Hawkmoon.
The Warrior disappears with the crystal machine and Hawkmoon and Yisselda return to a Kamarg under siege. The Warrior in Jet & Gold returns with the crystal device which shifts Castle Brass through the dimensions to an Earth where Man either died out or never existed.
Its is the weakest of the four novels, lacking the exotic flourishes of the rest of the series, and being too over-reliant on the MaGuffin/Deus Ex Machina devices of the amulet and the crystal machine of Soryandum


The Time Hoppers – Robert Silverberg (1967)

The Time Hoppers

‘The first sign of invasion from the future came about the year 1979, when several men in strange costumes appeared in the district of Appalachia then known as Manhattan. Records show they appeared with increasing in frequency throughout the decade, and when interrogated all ultimately admitted that they had come from the future. The pressure of repeated evidence eventually forced the people of the Twentieth Century to accept the disturbing conclusion that they were in truth being subjected to a peaceful but annoying invasion by time-travellers’

Blurb from the Belmont Tower Books 1967 paperback edition

We should establish from the outset that this is not one of Silverberg’s best works although it is interesting from a cultural and historical viewpoint.
Quellen is an investigator in a future some four hundred years hence. This is a world plagued by overpopulation, controlled by machines and one in which there is a rigid class system. Quellen is Class 7 and allowed a room of his own. People such as his sister Hedraine and her husband Norm Pomrath have to live in one room with their children. From the start we know that Quellen is involved in illegal activities since he has illicitly set up a getaway home in Africa to which he ‘stats’ whenever he has free time.
People are now disappearing into the past. Historical records show that a large number of people started appearing in 1979, originating from Quellen’s time period.
Quellen has been given the task of tracking down the organisers and seizing the time device. The High Government wish to control it in order to shunt some of the excess billions of humans into the remote past.
Not long after this Quellen is stopped on his way to the food dispensary by a man who gives him a slip of paper that reads ‘Out of work? see Lanoy’
His brother-in-law, Norm Pomrath, has been given a slip also. Hedraine, his wife, has been told by a neighbour that her husband had also been given the slip of paper and had now disappeared, allegedly sent into the past.
There’s something oddly Dickian about this novel; the names of the characters, the absurd nature of the religion where celebrants have to chew and swallow a form of dough before regurgitating it into a bowl for the next person to eat.
Then there’s Lanoy himself. It is never explained where Lanoy got his time machine or where he learned to use it, much like the underground organisations in Dick novels which logistically could not exist or survive, but are there to perform a function within the novel.
There is also a certain level of sexism implicit within the text. The leaders of society are all men. There are only three women in the novel and one of them is a minor character, Pomrath’s neighbour whose husband has ‘hopped’ into the past. The other two are Quellen’s sister and Julia, Quellen’s mistress. The social norm in this odd future society is that men should go out to work and women should stay home and have babies. Norm Pomrath is desperate for work but it doesn’t seem as if the idea of his wife finding a job is something that’s crossed anyone’s mind at all.
Did the author intend this as a surreal mirror of American values and attitudes of the time?
As in other Silverberg novels there is a kind of Shakespearean inevitability to things, although here he has not really worked out the causes and effects elegantly enough or given the characters space to breathe and evolve.


The Last Castle – Jack Vance (1966)

The Last Castle

The effete and decadent humans of the castles on a far-future Earth did not see trouble ahead when they became over-reliant on their alien slaves, the Meks, who did everything for them.
One day the slaves rode up and began to slaughter their masters.
Humans are divided between the elite aristocrats of the castles and those who live outside, considered as barbarians by the decadent castle-dwellers.
One of Vance’s archetypes, the maverick male of the community, sets out to find allies to help him fight the Meks, since the aristos it seems, would rather die than change their ingrained ways and fight to save themselves.
Vance is at his best when writing about the restrictions of entrenched social or religious rules and traditions, and this is a prime example.
It’s a woefully brief novel, but full of Vance’s trademark social detail painted with the flourish of his worldbuilding expertise.


Enigma From Tantalus – John Brunner (1965)

enigma

‘THIS MILLION HEADED MONSTER HAD A SINGLE-MINDED MISSION

WHAT MAKES A MAN? WHAT MAKES A MONSTER?

‘We won’t be landing anywhere just yet,’ Waters said to the other passengers on the spaceship ‘Fulmar’. ‘I was pretty mystified by this story of mechanical breakdown, so I’ve been checking up.’ He hefted his little box. ‘I’ve spent the past half-hour successfully tapping your subspace circuits, Captain, so I know the truth and I propose to share it with everyone.’

Captain Wong’s face crumpled, like a child’s about to cry

The others, paying no attention to Wong, waited breathlessly for Waters to continue.

‘We’re not to land. We’re to orbit in space, indefinitely.’

Beloved Sister Dorcas’s screams pierced the quiet.

‘You see,’ Waters continued, holding up his hand for silence, ‘this is being done on the direct orders of Master Brand… You don’t know the name?’ He glanced inquiringly around. ‘No? Well, he happens to be one of the Powers of Earth, and there is nobody in the galaxy to overrule him.’ ‘

Front page banner and interior blurb from the 1965 Ace Doubles paperback M-115

Scientists are studying the only non-human intelligence so far discovered, which is on the planet Tantalus. The creature is a single gestalt organism composed of millions of sub-units which work the continent it exists upon as a giant farm. Humans have learned to communicate on a basic level with the Tantalan and have transported units of its being to the Southern continent to allow it to expand in exchange for permission to study the Tantalan.
After forty years, the Tantalan seems to have done little apart from copy the concept of mining and ore production from humans. However, when a human scientist is killed, the Tantalan asks for its body to examine.
Now humans have discovered some of their surveillance devices disabled and a Tantalan sub-unit factory has been mining for substances only found in the human body.
A ship recently called at Tantalus to take off a human consultant who had been called in because of his alleged psi-powers but had been asked to leave because of his arrogant attitude to almost everyone.
It is suspected that the Tantalans had replaced someone on the ship with a Tantalan-created human copy.
The ship is therefore held in Earth orbit until Master Brand, one of the Masters of Earth, can determine who is the Tantalan copy. As all the passengers are, to varying degrees, mentally unbalanced, it is not an easy task.
Brunner is very good at packing a great deal into a short novel and here manages to do it, even while employing quite a large cast of characters. The cast may be perhaps a tad too large for this story, but we’ll forgive him for that.


The Ship That Sailed The Time Stream – GC Edmondson (1965)

shipthatsailed

‘OPERATION TIME-SLIP

Ensign Joe Rate, captain of the experimental Navy yawl, Alice, figured that everything that could happen to him in one day had already happened. First, after a freak electrical storm at sea the Alice had somehow been thrown a thousand years backward in time, and it looked like they were stranded in the past. They had provision for two weeks at the most. Then there was the voluptuous barbarian girl they’d saved from captivity – her presence on board a ship full of normal sailors wasn’t likely to lessen the problems of the situation.

Then he saw the four Viking raider ships bearing straight for him and in a few minutes the first spear thunked into the Alice’s foredeck.

The Ship that sailed The Time Stream is a novel of madcap adventure in a past much more lively than any historian ever dreamed.

G.C. Edmondson: Jose Mario Garry Ordofiez Edmondson y Cotton was born of Manx parentage in Stevens County, Washington, in a log cabin and weaned on maple syrup in 1922. Other sources insist on a birthdate at least fifteen years prior and a probable Scots origin from a family established some four generations in Livingstone, Guatemala. The Scots is probably a euphemism for some other Celtic breed since the one unpurchased birth certificate available hints at Belfast.
After cluttering up his mind for a year at the University of Southern California, Edmondson returned to his older and less fraudulent profession of smithing. A marginal man, he is one of the few remaining who can skin mule or missile.
He has been anthologised by Boucher and Conklin among others. Most of his stuff’s appeared in ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ though he’s also been in ‘Astounding’ and other s-f magazines. Non-s-f appearances range from ‘Saturday Evening Post’ through ‘Argosy’ down to ‘Popular Mechanics’ and ‘Trail-R News’.
He reads Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Latin. makes a stab at Greek, can ask for a drink in Yiddish and several Slavic languages. Could read Siwash and Chinook if anyone wrote them. At present learning and Chinook if anyone wrote them. At present learning Yaqui so he can converse with his more conservative in-laws.’

Blurb and bio from the 1965 M-109 Ace Doubles Edition

Captain Tate is in charge of ‘The Alice’, an experimental Navy vessel. While carrying out tests in the Pacific the ship is struck by lightning and the crew and ship find themselves 1000 years in the past and in the path of a Viking warship.
Edmondson combines a good knowledge of his subject matter with great characterisation and a rare laconic wit.
Luckily the Captain is resourceful, has a reasonable grasp of languages and an interest in history. Somehow he needs to find a way to get his ship back to the present day before his crew are slaughtered by Vikings, Romans or Arabs or seduced by the wanton young women of the past.


The Lunar Eye – Robert Moore Williams (1964)

the lunar eye

‘THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOON

The year was 1972 and on rocket bases in the parched deserts of California and the vast wastes of Siberia, the race for the moon entered its final, frenzied lap, Both America and Russia were ready to step out into space and all that seemed in doubt was which country would set foot on the moon first.

But unknown to both nations, a third force – a power far more insidious than any evil ever devised by a human mind – was plotting the destruction of any rocket that tried to touch the moon’s pitted surface.

The key to overcoming this plot against mankind was contained in the mystery of THE LUNAR EYE – and unless its secret could be unlocked, mankind would be forever shackled within the bounds of this planet.’

Blurb from the 1964 Ace Doubles paperback edition F-261

Just predating the moon landings, this piece is interesting in that it is written against the backdrop of the Russian/American race to reach the moon.
Art Harper and his brother Gecko run a gas-station which serves the traffic visiting the desert rocket base from which the US rocket will leave for the moon. Odd delays and accidents have occurred though, and the launch is behind schedule.
While in a diner, chatting to a tyre-salesman, Art receives a call from a mysterious woman who speaks in a foreign language and is surprised that Art has ‘not woken up’. The woman wants to delay a truck delivering vital supplies to the rocket base. Art refuses to help, and the truck subsequently crashes.
Art then discovers that he is not Art Harper at all, but a member of part of the human race that left Earth thousands of years ago and now live in a vast city on the dark side of the moon. Art’s people do not want anyone from earth landing on their world.
Art and his brother Gecko are subsequently taken to the Moon, where they (and the rest of the Earth) are put on public trial, and where the brothers have to convince the whole of the Lunar race that welcoming the people of Earth would be the best thing for everyone.