My life in outer space

Archive for August, 2014

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 13 – Gardner Dozois (Ed) (2000)

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 13

A decent crop of stories from 1999 many of which seem preoccupied with the theme – either subtly or overtly – of longevity or perhaps to be more accurate the preservation of body and/or personality.
It’s a mixed bag, but the overall quality is high.

The Wedding Album (1999) David Marusek (Asimov’s 1999.06)

Marusek takes the basic concept that photographs will develop into ‘sims’ – 3D sentient captures. He then runs with the idea on a surprising and twisting journey into the future.

10 to 16 to 1 (1999) James Patrick Kelly (aka 1016 to 1) (Asimov’s 1999.06)

A visitor from the future to the 1960s has to recruit a young boy into a mission to save the world from nuclear holocaust. Emotive and well-characterised.

Winemaster (1999) Robert Reed (F&SF July 1999)

Robert Reed is a master of strangeness and envisions a plague which destroys and recreates humans as digitised entities. Very clever.

Galactic North (1999) Alastair Reynolds (Interzone #145)

Reynolds here – over a vast span of time – tells us the origin of a situation detailed in his Revelation Space novels and a long chase across time and space. Marvellous stuff. An exemplary example of new space opera.

Dapple: A Hwarhath Historical Romance (1999) Eleanor Arnason (Asimov’s 1999.09)

A romantic tale of a young female alien belonging to a curious species. They are gay by nature and only turn to heterosexuality in order to breed. The girl wants to be an actor but as this is a strictly male occupation she disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue her career.
A romantic and poetic piece.

People Came from Earth (1999) Stephen Baxter (Moon Shots, July 1999)

Following a nanocaust the survivors of a moon colony struggle to keep the human race alive. Another piece which is romantic in nature and despite being scientifically accurate is more poetic than realistic.

Green Tea (1999) Richard Wadholm (Asimov’s, October 1999)

Dense and slightly baroque Hard SF here in which exotic matter is stored on the vane of a spaceship in order that it will be transmuted and destroy a nearby star in an act of revenge. Cleverly structured first person piece. Hard work, but worth persevering with.

The Dragon of Pripyat (1999) novelette by Karl Schroeder (Tesseracts 8, October 1999)

One of the best in this collection. A freelance troubleshooter is sent to the Chernobyl site as intelligence suggests that terrorists may be planning to blow open the ‘sarcophagus’ containing the failed reactor. However, tales of a dragon living in the poisoned town seem to point to something else going on. Excellent writing and characterisation.

Written in Blood (1999) Chris Lawson (Asimov’s June 1999)

Another excellent piece, the title of which refers to a muslim and his daughter on their Hajj, who meet a man who can write the text of the Koran into DNA. Again, excellent characterisation, and containing a hefty swipe at the practice of female genital mutilation.

Hatching the Phoenix (1999) Frederik Pohl (Amazing Stories, Fall 1999)

A late Heechee story in which Gelle-Klara Moynlon visits a project she has funded which is capturing and enhancing the light from a system that has already been destroyed. The enhanced resolution means they can observe an intelligent species on the surface before the nova rendered them extinct.

Suicide Coast (1999) M. John Harrison (F&SF Jul 1999)

A very dark tale from Harrison about dangerous sports, software and the nature of friendship.

Hunting Mother (1999) Sage Walker (Not of Woman Born – Mar 1999)

On a converted asteroid, an elderly genetic scientist and her half-cougar ‘son’ dance with death in a very poetic, romantic piece on the theme of how the old have to give way to the new.

Mount Olympus (1999) Ben Bova (Analog Feb 1999)

A workmanlike but unoriginal tale from Bova which features a rescue from the caldera of Olympus Mons on Mars

Border Guards (1999) Greg Egan (Interzone #148 Oct 1999)

Egan postulates a future where immortal humans live in an infinite array of worlds called The Territories. A young man around a century old meets one of the creators of the Jewel, the device which, when implanted, absorbs the cells and functions of the brain. Mind blowing stuff.

Scherzo with Tyrannosaur (1999) Michael Swanwick (Asimovs July 1999)

A prelude to ‘Bones of the Earth’, set in a future where enigmatic aliens have given humans the secret of Time Travel. Tourists can travel to a thousand years before the dinosaurs are wiped out and dine on plesiosaur steaks. Swanwick examines some of the benefits, consequences and pitfalls of time travel very cleverly here.

A Hero of the Empire [Roma Eterna] (1999) Robert Silverberg (F&SF Oct 1999)

Silverberg in his alternate world where the Roman Empire continues to the present day. An exiled favourite of the Emperor is sent to Mecca where he encounters a modern-day Mohamed.
Expertly done, giving much food for thought.

How We Lost the Moon, a True Story by Frank W. Allen (1999) Paul J. McAuley (Moon Shots, July 1999)

A great short piece by McAuley which details what happens when a small black hole escapes from a research facility on the dark side of the moon. As expected, well written with interesting characterisation. Much better than Greg Benford’s novel ‘Artefact’ which uses a similar premise (on Earth) but falls down on the one dimensional characters.

Phallicide (1999) Charles Sheffield (Science Fiction Age Sep 1999)

Sheffield writes here from the viewpoint of a young woman brought up in a US cult, who is allowed certain liberties because she has a talent for Chemistry and pharnaceuticals. The cult employ her skills to develop Viagra-style drugs to keep the elderly Patriarch and his aging minions sexually active. When one of the eldwrs plans to marry her thirteen year old daughter, she decides to rebel.
It raises many social and ethical questions and may have benefited from being developed into a longer format.

Daddy’s World (1999) Walter Jon Williams (Not of Woman Born – Mar 1999)

A very decent piece about the digitisation of consciousness and what it may mean in real terms.

A Martian Romance (1999) Kim Stanley Robinson (The Martians – 1999)

One of Robinson’s alternate tales of his terraformed Mars in which the terraforming has failed. Some of the residents embark on a trip across one of the frozen seas.

The Sky-Green Blues (1999) Tanith Lee (Interzone #142 – 1999)

A tale of alien love and the reality experienced by a fictional character. Poetic but a little odd.

Exchange Rate (1999) Hal Clement (Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999)

Clement does what he does best here which is to postulate exploration of life on a planet five times the radius of the earth. It’s ravaged by earthquakes, has very little hydrogen, and a complex atmospheric mix. Despite his years Clement has managed to keep pace with the younger writers.

Everywhere (1999) Geoff Ryman (Interzone, #140 February 1999)

A positive view of the future from Ryman at a time when The Angel of The North is a historical landmark. Superlative writing.

Hothouse Flowers • (1999) • shortstory by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October-November 1999)

The concept of keeping old people alive taken to a logical but absurd conclusion.

Evermore (1999) Sean Williams (Altair #4, August 1999)

A probe containing the digitised copies of prospective colonists has its main drive destroyed by an encounter with a micrometeor. The human personalities, living in isolated virtual worlds and after thousands of years being borderline insane are brought together for a radical proposition.

Of Scorned Women and Causal Loops (1999) Robert Grossbach (F&SF Jan 1999)

The hadron collider is the setting for this intriguing time travel murder investigation.

Son Observe the Time (1999) Kage Baker (Asimovs May 1999)

Part of Baker’s ‘Company’ series which features an organisation of immortal time travellers. Here they are in San Francisco before the great earthquake of 1906 attempting to conserve art and literature that would otherwise have been destroyed. Someone else is there, however, with an altogether different agenda. Excellent stuff.

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King Rat – China Mieville (1998)

King Rat

‘Something is stirring in London’s dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul’s father, and left Saul to pay for the crime.

But a shadow from the urban waste breaks into his prison cell and leads him to freedom. A shadow called King Rat.

In the night-land behind London’s façade, in sewers and slums and rotting dead spaces, Saul must learn his true nature.

Grotesque murders rock the city like a curse. Mysterious forces prepare for a showdown. With Drum and Bass pounding the backstreets, Saul confronts his bizarre inheritance – in the badlands of South London, in the heart of darkness, ant the gathering of the Junglist Massive.

Like the DJ says: ‘Time for the Badman’.’

Defying a strict genre classification Mieville’s debut novel is a bold and evocative work which stamps him immediately as an important force in the SF/Fantasy/Horror genres.
It’s a deeply poetic piece, rich with metaphor, set in a London familiar yet oddly twisted through Mieville’s dark lens’

The trains that enter London arrive like ships sailing across the roofs. They pass between towers jutting into the sky like long-necked sea beasts and the great gas-cylinders wallowing in dirty scrub like whales. In the depths below are lines of small shops and obscure franchises, cafes with peeling paint and businesses tucked into the arches over which the trains pass.p7

Saul returns home to his communist father’s tower block flat. Not wishing to confront the oddly-strained relationship he has with him he goes straight to bed, only to be awoken by police who have found his father’s body lying beneath the smashed living-room window. Saul is arrested, but is rescued from his cell by the shadowy and fantastic King Rat, who awakens the dark side of Saul’s nature, for Saul is half-rat and part of the Rat Royal Family.

In terms of plot structure it initially follows the standard format. The hero (Saul) is first established in his own personal environment before being forced (by the murder of his father and subsequent arrest) onto a ‘quest’. His mentor (King Rat) engages him to kill the Ratcatcher and restore King Rat to his mastery over the Rat Nation.
The Ratcatcher – as astute readers might have guessed – was once known as The Pied Piper of Hamelin, where King Rat was powerless to stop the drowning and thus lost the faith of the rats.
Now the Ratcatcher is out to catch Saul and has begun to inveigle his way into Saul’s circle of friends.
It’s a post-modern mix of Fairytale and Jungle music which works well but not brilliantly. In ‘Perdido Street Station’ the language and poetry is consistently rich and powerful where here it is intermittent.
The contemporary idioms and musical styles sit uneasily with the rich prose and metaphor with which Mieville creates his own peculiar London.
Having said that, the characters and settings are convincing and the Piper’s acts of dispassionate violence are chillingly rendered. The denouement is exciting, page-turning compulsion, if somewhat rushed.
In a somewhat amusing epilogue (bearing in mind that Mieville once stood as Socialist Alliance candidate for North Kensington) Saul – as a belated tribute to his socialist father – convinces the rats to form The Rat Republic after he abdicates his post as reluctant King.
If nothing else, King Rat works as both a fantasy novel and a portrait of late-Nineties London and the almost religious regard in which disaffected youth hold their music; in this case Jungle.


Ancient Shores – Jack McDevitt (1996)

Ancient Shores

‘Tom Lasker is about to have his life turned upside down. In the midst of his wheat fields two thousand miles from any ocean, he digs up the remains of a forty-two foot sailboat in near perfect condition. It’s true the wheat fields had once been on the shoreline of a great inland sea, but that was ten thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age. Stranger still, the vessel is made from alien materials and bears an impossible atomic code.

When a subsequent discovery is made, a structure called the ‘Roundhouse’, the region becomes the focus of dangerous political conflict and self-seeking ambition, for the Roundhouse is revealed to be the doorway to another world….’

Blurb from the 1996 Voyager paperback edition

When a farmer in North America digs up a yacht of unfamiliar design on the shore of a sea which hasn’t seen water in ten thousand years, people start getting interested.
The yacht and its sails (looking brand new) attract a far different sort of interest when it’s discovered that they are composed of an impossible and stable transuranic element.
Later, a local scientist begins to wonder what else is buried in the area and something is discovered buried in Native American Territory.
It is a building, christened The Roundhouse which, as well as being confirmed along with the yacht as being of extraterrestrial origin, is a teleportational gateway to other worlds.
As in ‘The Hercules Text’ McDevitt focuses on the effects of this discovery upon the world or rather (a regular thing for McDevitt) on the USA. In this instance, however, he may be forgiven for his Americocentricity as much of the novel is concerned with the relationship between the government and Native Americans who ostensibly own the land on which The Roundhouse is situated.
Interestingly, we visit a selection of random characters whose lives have been changed (for better or worse) by the discovery. Otherwise we follow three main characters, fighting to stop the government from destroying what could be our gateway to the stars and our first meeting with extraterrestrials. This is set against a background of depressing headlines, stock market crashes and religious extremists hanging about and shouting ‘Work of The Devil’ or whatever religious extremists generally shout at extraterrestrial structures.
There is one disembodied extraterrestrial which comes in through the Roundhouse and seems to give people rather too religious experiences. It’s a superfluous element which seems a little pointless. The aliens were made far more interesting by their absence. Throwing a holy ghost into the mix so late in the novel seems a trifle odd.
All in all though, it’s a decent enough novel with good characterisation and a realistic view of the local community.
See also Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’.


Mother of Storms – John Barnes (1994)

Mother of Storms

Barnes is not one of those authors who finds a particular niche within the genre and fills it with novels of a similar style and content. His work includes the Galactic Human Society of ‘A Million Open Doors’ and ‘Earth Made of Glass’, the parallel universes of ‘Finity’ and here, a near-future disaster novel in which a small nuclear explosion in the Arctic releases a huge amount of methane trapped in the polar ice.
The consequence of this is that Hurricanes, of a size and ferocity never before seen, begin to form and head off to terrorise the world.
The background to Barnes’ novel is just as fascinating as he has created a near-future world in which the US is no longer a superpower, the dominant force being the UN. Europe appears to have devolved into some kind of Nazi Federation which has exiled ‘Afropeans’ – European black people – to the rest of the world, but mainly America. The popular form of entertainment which has supplanted ‘flat’ TV is XV, a form of direct sensory experience recorded on wedges.
The action follows various groups of people who are all connected in some way. Di Callare is a meteorological specialist who becomes a government advisor when the crisis erupts. His young brother Jesse gets caught up in the turmoil in Mexico where he meets a vacationing XV porn star, Synthi Venture. Berlina Jamieson, an exiled Afropean, suddenly finds a market for her retro ‘flat’ style of news reporting.
Out in space, Louie Tynan, an American astronaut, is commandeered to report on the hurricanes from his unique vantage point and finds himself infected with a nanovirus which begins to ‘improve’ him, following which he starts to evolve in unexpected and intriguing ways.
The unfortunately named Randy Householder is the distraught father of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered in order to make a snuff XV recording. Randy is determined to find the man who commissioned the recording and discovers that his investigations are taking him rather high up the political ladder.
This is then, no mere disaster novel. In fact, the sequences where the monster hurricanes destroy cities and countries are not that frequent, but are brilliantly, thrillingly written and conceived. Barnes employs the disaster to bring the various story threads together quite convincingly and one never thinks, as is the case with lesser authors, that the coincidences and connections between the characters are too improbable.
Like the hurricane itself, ‘Mother of Storms’ begins slowly and gathers pace to finally rattle along breathlessly to its conclusion.
Arguably Barnes’ best novel.


Summertide – Charles Sheffield (1990)

Summertide (Heritage Universe, #1)

It can be argued – at least by me – that SF is the reflection of the collective unconscious in that it tends to pick up on society’s fears and obsessions, such as the rash of ‘aliens among us’ stories in US Nineteen Fifties novels which paralleled a social paranoia – fostered by the Establishment – of Communism spreading like a disease.
CG Jung, who popularised the concept of the collective unconscious (although in his case he was talking of inherited concepts of archetypes) would no doubt be fascinated by SF’s dalliance with The Elder Race, usually a highly intelligent alien species who have disappeared from our universe, leaving enigmatic samples of their civilisation behind, often in the form of what has come to be known in SF circles as ‘Big Dumb Objects’.
‘Summertide’ is packed with Big Dumb Objects, left by a vanished race termed ‘The Builders’. Their vast and often impenetrable artefacts have been found across the galaxy, still in working order after millions of years although humanity has been able to discover only a few of the Builders’ secrets in the five thousand years since the first ones were discovered.
Hans Rebka, an agent of The Phemus Circle (a connected ‘clade’ of systems and planets) is suddenly removed from his mission to explore the Builder artefact Paradox, and sent to the Dobelle system to retrieve one Max Perry, an agent who seems reluctant to leave his post on the waterworld of Opal.
Dobelle is a binary system within which two planets, Opal and Quake, revolve about each other, although the worlds are connected by a Builder artefact called The Umbilical, a kind of extended space elevator. It has working carriages which can ferry passengers between the worlds.
Others are also heading to Opal. Darya Lang, an expert in Builder artefacts; Julius Graves, an Ethical Councillor of The Fourth Alliance; Atvar H’sial, an arthropod Cecropian and her interpreter slave, J’merlia; and Louis Nenda, an augmented human from the Zardalu Communion, with his slave hymenopt, Kalik.
All of them have put in requests to visit Quake; requests which have proved problematic.
Every 350,000 years the system experiences a Grand Conjunction in which the gas giants and suns move closer to Opal and Quake. The normal conjunctions are called ‘Summertide’ and cause tidal waves on the waterworld of Opal, and earthquakes and extreme vulcanism on Quake. Lang has discovered that artefacts around the galaxy have shown changes at various times and, factoring in the various distances, has concluded that the signals from all the artefacts will reach the Dobelle system simultaneously during Summertide.
When Rebka and Perry find that some of the visitors have forged Perry’s signature in order to commission an umbilical journey to Quake, they are forced to travel there and attempt to get the visitors back before the full force of Summertide kills them all.
There is a motif of duality running through this novel. Dobelle is a binary star system and the two planets which orbit each other are connected via the Umbilical artefact. Apart from Darya Lang, the vistors to Opal arrive in pairs. Atvar H’sial and her slave. j’merlia; Nenda and Kalik, and Julius Graves. Graves’ duality is due to the fact that he has an extra brain inserted into his body which has, quite against expectations, developed into a separate personality.
There is also a set of twins, and at the finale there are two alien objects, the details of which I won’t go into.
Sheffield deserves wider recognition. He writes exciting readable, popular space opera in which the science can not be faulted.
Having said that, there are flaws in ‘Summertide’. Set at least five thousand years in the future there is very little sign that human society has evolved any. That’s somewhat inconceivable. It’s also a tad unlikely that Hans Rebka would be diverted from a crucial mission just to analyse Max Perry and somehow cure him of a malady of the mind. Small quibbles, but quibbles nonetheless.


The Movement of Mountains – Michael Blumlein (1987)

The Movement of Mountains

‘The Domers were huge and stupid.

Genetically engineered with a five year life span, they were salve miners, created and maintained to work the ice-cold planet Eridis. They brought out the fungus that became Mutacillin, Earth’s wonder drug.
But the Domers were changing.
A viral infection had spread from earth. They were becoming mentally, intellectually awakened. Memories and hopes were stirring in them. And in their near humanity they were becoming useless for their designed purpose.
Doctor Jules Ebert had to cure them, turn them back into cloned, mindless effectiveness…’

Blurb from the 1989 New English Library paperback edition.

From the outset this extraordinary novel sets us up for something rather unusual. Jules, the narrator of the novel, is a doctor, but one with an eating disorder. He and his lover Jessica live in separate areas of a future earth. Jules, being a professional, lives in an enclave where ‘guards’ will immobilise anyone not registered on their database. Genetically engineered Fargos Hounds roam the streets and consume waste plastic, before excreting it into recycling receptacles. Jessica lives in a less salubrious area where she pays her landlord and his son, Mingo Boyels, rent in the form of sexual favours.
Jessica is planning to move to the planet of Eridis, where a unique fungus has been found which produces Mutacillin, an antibiotic which mutates to combat even drug resistant bacteria. She has been offered a job working to discover how to grow the fungus off-world, something that has been so far impossible to do.
In the meantime, Mingo has visited Jules as a patient, exhibiting signs of herpes (thought to be extinct) but which may be a symptom of a new sickness called Barea’s disease, which seems to be beyond Mutacillin’s power to cure.
Jules and Jessica argue frequently. Jules will not believe the rumours that Fargos Hounds have begun attacking people until he hears a scream and sees Jessica running toward his home. Fargos Hounds are attacking her and others.
They argue again and Jessica tries to leave but is attacked by the ‘guards’ and is forced to stay.
The early sections are full of references to disease, both literal and metaphorical. The very shape of the town, Ringhaven, suggests a biological cell (it has a wall round it) which electrical antibodies are protecting against intruders.
The Fargos Hounds are like mutated cells. They have stopped behaving as programmed and have become cancerous, attacking the body that sustains them.
Jules, after much soul searching, decides to follow Jessica to Eredis, although his journey is delayed some months.
Mingo’s condition deteriorates and, although Jules referred him to a more experienced Doctor, he dies.
Eredis is a mining world where Domers, huge genetically engineered humanoids, toil through the short cycle of their lives to harvest Mutacillin. Jessica, it transpires, has become obsessed with the plight of the Domers who, as artificial life-forms, are treated as slaves. Both she and the director of the operation, Guysin Hoke, have been conducting clandestine affairs with two of the Domers, although their views on the creatures are fundamentally opposed, with Guysin viewing them as tools created for a purpose. Jessica looks on them as sentient beings, despite the fact that their lifespan is only five years, after which their bodies are destroyed and the organic residue used to grow the next generation.
When Jessica becomes ill, Jules realises that she has contracted Barea’s disease. Both he and Jessica have been experiencing other people’s memories. When Jules contacts Earth for up-to-date information on the disease he discovers that there is now a cure. In the meantime Jessica is close to discovering a way of growing the delicate spores which produce mutacillin off-planet, which will mean the end of the Eredis mining operation and the end of the Domers.
Shortly afterwards, she is found dead at the bottom of a mine.
Jules turns against all he has ever believed in and – with Jessica’s memories and personality in his head, comes to the conclusion that the virus is a good thing. It allows a form of shared consciousness and, if his theory is correct, will allow the Domers to survive as individual personalities when they are destroyed and reborn.


Icehenge – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)

Icehenge

‘It stands at Pluto’s North Pole – a mesmerising icehenge. Slabs of ice frozen harder than stone, towering two hundred feet above the crater-pocked surface. The central slab bears an inscription in Sanskrit.

A message from an alien race? Or the mark of a human-powered voyage that might have passed this way? There were vague rumours of such a ship, forgotten decades ago. But could the crew have survived? Did the ship exist at all?’

Blurb from the 1997 Voyager paperback edition

This marvellously structured book is divided into three sections, each telling a tale from a different viewpoint, separated in time by decades or hundreds of years. The first section (a diary of Emma Weill) begins in 2248 at the start of the doomed Martian revolution against the control of the Mars Development Committee, a conglomerate of Earth Companies who are determined to squeeze as much profit from the Red Planet as possible.
Emma is a hydroponics expert on board an asteroid mining ship and become embroiled in a plot by the Mars Starship Association, who are planning to connect three separate ships and attempt to escape the Solar System; their aim being to settle on a new planet on one of our neighbouring stars. Emma sees no possibility of their completing their mission and, with many other of the crew who refuse to join the rebellion, returns to Mars where the revolution is being ruthlessly quashed.
Nearly three hundred years later, Hjalmar Nederland, an eminent archaeologist and opponent of the MDC, has been given permission to excavate the ruins of a crater, which once was a domed community, and which was destroyed during the revolution. Hjalmar is seeking to prove that it was not – as history would have it – the revolutionaries who blasted the crater, but the Committee police. During his search he discovers an abandoned vehicle containing the diary of Emma Weill.
Hjalmar has a vested interest, since he was a child living in the crater when the dome was breached. Since then, his life artificially extended by gerontology treatment, he has been driven to find the truth and expose the committee’s actions of three hundred years ago.
Sixty years later, Hjalmar’s grandson, Edmond Doya, becomes obsessed by the discovery at the North Pole of Pluto of an icehenge, a monument which is thought to prove that Emma’s starship revolutionaries left a sign of their departure, since there is mention in her diary of plans for a henge existing on the ship at the time.
But as he investigates further, he realises that what he suspects will discredit his grandfather’s life’s work.
‘Icehenge’ is interesting to read as a presage to Robinson’s Magnum Opus ‘Mars Trilogy’ in which another Martian revolution takes place, again fighting against the exploitation of Mars by Earth Multinational companies. Although a much shorter work, this is a very clever piece of writing which examines the ethics of rewriting history, and allowing the populace to believe in something which is not true. Is it morally right for any population – even if it is for their greater good – to be living in a society with a fictional history.
There are many precedents in World History, but Robinson by cleverly placing this outside our time, and bringing it down to a personal level by involving three main individuals, cuts through the obfuscation and allows us to contrast this future situation with our own.
There is also much – rather as in the work of Fred Hoyle, and which also shown in Robinson’s later work – which is critical of the relationship between politics and science, here shown by Hjalmar’s determination to find the truth despite the efforts of the Committee.


The Rape of The Sun – Ian Wallace (1982)

The Rape of the Sun

‘Dhurk hoped that if he could win acceptance by his beloved Hreda, it would bring him to the top of his wonder world’s most advanced strata. And in the way of many a fickle folklore princess, Hreda set him a task. Her cosmic museum would not be complete without a star. Bring me that star, place it among my exhibits, and I will be yours, she declared.

But ‘that star’ was Sol, our sun around which revolved our familiar planets and the Earth. Dhurk accepted the challenge – and strange things began to happen to the sun, to the world’s source of heat and light, and to humanity’s hopes.
This is the unique novel of the men and women who set out to stop the theft of the sun – and sought means to meet the unimaginably advanced aliens on their own level. It’s Ian Wallace at his super-science best!’

Blurb from the 1982 Daw paperback edition

To be fair to Wallace he does have a stab at extrapolating trends in human relationships and the sexual dynamics of society, and here we have a strong female lead role, a woman who is, or was, having sex with two men who also love each other in a properly manly non-sexual way. Jealousy, it seems, is an aberration which is unnecessary in this future world, although at the novel’s outset she has decided to commit herself to just one of them. All three of them, however, are working on a project to fly to the sun and erect a solar collector which would transmit a huge amount of power back to Earth.
Meanwhile, an extra-galactic race of dragon-like creatures are planning to steal our sun (why exactly it has to be our sun is not made clear, since they would presumably have many to choose from in their own galaxy) to place in one of their museums.
Before long, a strange odour begins to permeate the Earth and people begin to notice the stars getting brighter.
A Scottish psychic – who is invited to a party at the home of the scientist couple – has been receiving the telepathic thoughts of the dragon sun-thieves and knows all their plans, number one of which is to shrink our sun and planets so that they can be towed back to the Magellanic Cloud.
Thus, the scientists, the psychic and the astronomer set off to stop the aliens and save the Solar System.
Wallace is a self-confessed disciple of van Vogt but this novel reads as very much influenced by Charles L Harness, particularly with regard to the weird science of intergalactic travel and, tellingly, the literary allusions, which in this case is mainly Shakespeare.


Profundis – Richard Cowper (1979)

Profundis

‘KN4/2-034-17/Jones, T. (M(AQ)C GRADE 3) is naïve, impressionable and very, very willing. His chief talent is conversing with dolphins in the Aquatic Mammals Division of HMS Profundis, a gargantuan submarine – destined to roam the ocean depths for a century following a nuclear holocaust.

Years pass and mad captain succeeds mad captain. Eventually the ship falls under the command of one Horatio Prood, a kind, understanding man who finally comes to a startling conclusion. He is God the Father. The Almighty Himself. And all he needs now is a Son to sit at his right hand.

Enter the innocent Tom Jones of the Aquatic Mammals Division…’

Blurb from the 1980 Pan edition.

Cowper, although not as prolific as some of his peers, more than makes up for his lack of output with the quality of his novels.
And this is that rare thing, a satirical SF novel which is actually funny. The novel satirises the Industrial policies of the British Government of the Nineteen Seventies (amongst other things) although it’s not really necessary to know the details in order to enjoy this.
‘Profundis’ is the brain-child of the Labour MP Mr Widgewood-Bing (a thinly-veiled reference to the late Left Wing Labour Minister Anthony Wedgwood-Benn) who, in an effort to subsidise the ailing manufacturing industry of the North West of England, commissioned the construction of a vast atomic submarine and a controlling Artificial Intelligence system, Proteus.
While Profundis is submerged deep undersea, the world erupts into brief and violent nuclear conflict, leaving the ship condemned to sail on beneath the waves until she can surface a hundred years on when radiation has fallen to a safe level.
The Captain controls a crew of eccentric androids which ruthlessly oversee the running of the ship by the lowest rung in the ladder, Humanity.
This is the backdrop against which the story is told, a story parodying, satirising, and yet, strangely affirming the story of Christ.
Control of the submarine is inherited by one Horatio Prood who is taken suddenly by the conviction that he is God. Not unnaturally, he sees the disembodied AI which controls most of the functions of the ship as The Holy Ghost, and thus now needs to complete the trinity, and sets out to locate the most likely candidate. As it happens, the most likely candidate is also the most unlikely candidate, since it is Tom Jones, the naive young man in charge of the dolphins in the Aquatic Mammals Division.
Cowper manages to create believable yet quite bizarre characters, helped by the author’s clever use of dialogue.


Deus Irae – Philip K Dick / Roger Zelazny (1976)

Deus Irae

‘When Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction legends Philip K Dick and Roger Zelazny combined their talents to write Deus Irae, the result was a visionary novel both playful and profound.
The story begins after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed all that is familiar, including humanity’s faith in a benevolent God. Out of the ashes arises a mighty new religion based on fear and death – worship of the God of Wrath, the Deus Irae.
Two men, one an armless and legless artist, and the other a young Christian, unwillingly make an arduous pilgrimage across a fantastic landscape in search of the mysterious godhead’s identity. Each step brings fresh danger and adventure as the men encounter the bizarre consequences of a poisonous war: tribes of talking lizards, robots hungry for human energy, an insane machine that turns bicycles into pogo sticks and a hunter with a strange, powerful knowledge. Blending action, religion and philosophy, Deus Irae is a work of high imagination and originality – by two of sci-fi’s greatest writers.’

Blurb from the 1993 Collier Nucleus Science Fiction Classic edition

This collaboration is a kind of inverted ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’
In a North America devastated by a Nuclear War, Tibor McMasters is a talented artist. Despite having no hands or legs he produces his work by battery-operated extensors and travels around in a cart pulled by a cow. He is commissioned by the Church of the Sons of Wrath to paint a murch (a church mural) showing the true face of the Deus Irae, the God of Wrath. This is the deified aspect of Carleton Lufteufel, the man responsible for the war which ravaged the world.
To see the face of the man, Tibor is sent on a Pilg to find Carleton and take photographs to work from.
He is joined in his quest by Pete Sands, a member of the dwindling Christian faith, whose ulterior motive is to stop Tibor from finding the Deus Irae, as Tibor’s success would inevitably increase support for the Sons of Wrath at the expense of the Christians.
It’s an odd mixture of fantasy and SF elements, some of which read too much like allegorical fables to sit well with the internal logic of the novel.
On his journey – like the original Christian – Tibor meets various characters who are either friendly, dangerous or merely insane, such as the female avatars of the Great C, a degraded computer system which captures passers-by and dissolves them in an underground vat of acid as a kind of analogue stomach.
Finally, in an ironic twist, Tibor and Pete meet a hunter, a man who seems to have a strange talent for survival, but a man to whom Tibor’s dog takes a dislike. The Hunter kills Tibor’s dog and Tibor, in a fit of rage, kills him not realising – as Pete does – that the man is Carleton Lufteufel, the Deus Irae.
Pete, finding a neat way to complete his mission, hires a local imbecile to pretend to be the Deus Irae and Tibor gets his pictures, returns to the Church and completes his mural.
One suspects that had one or other of these very individual writers written this alone it would have been a far stronger work. Certainly the Dick elements seem to overwhelm the Zelazny elements, but there is a half-heartedness about the novel, what one can only describe as complacency. It treads a lot of ground that both writers have already explored. There are echoes of ‘Damnation Alley’ and ‘Dr Bloodmoney’ here. Indeed, Carleton is merely the figure of Dr Bloodmoney transformed to another novel and both authors seem to be merely going through the motions.