My life in outer space

Archive for September, 2014

Ecce and Old Earth (Cadwal #2) – Jack Vance (1991)

Ecce and Old Earth (Cadwal Chronicles)

Part Two of the Cadwal Chronicles continues with the intrigues of the Naturalist Society and the good (and bad) folk of Cadwal.
At heart it is clearly Vance’s attack on those who seek to plunder the Earth’s resources for their own personal gain and for the most part get away with it due to the apathy of the majority of the population.
The planet Cadwal, which lies somewhere toward the tail end of Mercea’s Wisp in the Gaean Reach, is a beautiful planet of temperate and biological diversity with some semi-sentient life forms. It is held in trust by the Naturalist Party under the terms of the Great Charter.
The Great Charter, however, has gone missing, and there are political factions who would open up the planet for development, and are actively seeking the Charter in order to break its power.
Glawen Clattick’s first priority is to rescue his father who has been kidnapped and taken to a prison on another continent. meanwhile, Wayness Tamm, an intelligent and capable young woman, has set off for Earth to follow the trail of the charter, which was stolen and sold by a corrupt Naturalist official many years ago.
The overall style is somewhat baroque, which is compounded by Vance’s very personal style of dialogue. This series is much funnier than many other Vance novels, particularly in terms of characters who try and score points off each other. Vance is particularly in his element with the lowest rungs of society who are never that backward in coming forward and giving their opinion to their betters.
What is slightly confusing – given that Vance tends to champion the underdog – is the role, metaphorical or otherwise, of the Yips. Yips are descended from human stock but can no longer interbreed with other humans. They were brought to Cadwal to be used as cheap transient labour since the Charter forbids an increase in native population, but they have settled and have begun to swell in numbers.
As a possibly redeeming feature, Vance portrays the Yips as immoral, inhuman and corrupt. Their thought processes are not the same as the rest of Humanity. The conservationists plan to resettle the Yips while the LPFers (Life, Peace and Freedom) wish to allow them to settle on Cadwal and be supervise by LPFers who would, of course, then have their own estates and land from which to supervise, and would be exploiting the Yips for their own gain.
Vance never portrays the Yips as victims however. They appear to be a ruthless community with no redeeming features.
Nevertheless it is a little disquieting for the main characters to be discussing ‘the Yip problem’ in terms of ridding the planet of what is in effect an ethnic minority.

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Necroscope – Brian Lumley (1986)

Necroscope (Necroscope, #1)

‘Necroscope’ is an odd beast of a book. Firstly one would be bound to suggest that it is a tad ‘off-genre’ in that the marketing boffins would inevitably class it as ‘Horror’. Many of its elements however fall strictly under the SF umbrella. Lumley’s vampires, for instance, whose origins are explained more fully in later volumes, have an arguably plausible biological and scientific basis. The vampires are parasites which infect their human hosts and slowly rebuild them into virtually immortal beings.
The story centres around Harry Keogh who, from childhood, was aware that he had an odd talent. He could talk to the dead, and the dead, lonely in their graves, were only to happy to talk back.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Boris Dragosani – who works for a secret Soviet department of ESPers – has a similar talent. He is, however, a necromancer and is able to torture the dead and rob them of their secrets. Dragosani has another secret. He is in communion with Thibor Ferenczy, an ancient vampire who has been buried in Romania, bound with chains of silver for centuries and is bargaining with Boris for his freedom.
The novel is set against a Cold War background where the British and the Russians both have secret ESPer departments – staffed with telepaths, precognitionists and the like – who are battling for information.
The fates of Harry and Boris are intertwined leading to an inevitable confrontation.
The only problem I have with it is the end, which is rushed and a little unsatisfying, but on the whole this is… a good book.
The other main point I would like to make about this novel is that it raises the question of what constitutes ‘a good book’. Certainly one should include the timeless classics that raise questions about Humanity, Life, The Universe and Everything, but now and again one has to include those books that completely engross you, take you into their world, and make you miss your stop on the train.
This is such a one.


The Non Born King – Julian May (1983)

The Nonborn King (Saga of Pliocene Exile, #3)

‘The dominion of the Tanu has been broken. In the aftermath of cataclysm, Aiken Drum seizes his hour to grasp control of the Pliocene world.

There are those, human and Tanu, who rally to him – and those who fear and hate him. The Grand Master, Elizabeth… the mad Felice… the goblin hordes of the Firvulag all thrust into a violent and stormy struggle for irresistible power.’

Blurb from the 1983 Pan paperback edition

In the third volume of May’s ‘Saga of The Exiles’ we join our heroes in the aftermath of the flooding of the Mediterranean basin which decimated the Tanu and upset the power balance within The Many Coloured Land.
Aiken Drum, the diminutive trickster, is quick to seize control of the situation and of the Tanu throne, taking as his bride, Mercy Rosmar, widowed since the flood in which her husband Nodon Battlemaster disappeared, his body never found.
Meanwhile in Pliocene Florida we join – for the first time – the exiled Rebel operants, led by Marc Remillard, disgraced Grandmaster of the Galactic Concilium.
Man has been attempting to discover a world where a race has developed a Coadunate Mind in order that he and his children can be rescued by them, after which they plan to stage a coup.
The rest of the rebels do not share Marc’s faith on the search and his children are secretly planning to travel to Europe in order to create a device at the Time Gate capable of taking them back to Twenty-Second Century Earth.
Elsewhere, further evidence is discovered that suggests that the Tanu and Firvulag, through interbreeding with humanity, will become the progenitors of the Human Race itself.
Old taboos are breaking down. Sugoll, leader of the mutated Howlers has resettled his people in a less radioactive area and, on the advice of a Tanu geneticist, allowed a thousand of his single women (gross mutations who cloak themselves in psi-generated visions of voluptuous beauty) to mate with itinerant humans who literally have no place to go following the ransacking of a Tanu city by the Firvulag.
Many of the traditionalists are predicting the coming of the Nightfall War, which signals the end of the world.
Nodon, it transpires, was not dead, but was washed ashore in Africa and tended by a crazed human/Firvulag hybrid, who manages to seduce her paralysed patient and becomes pregnant.
Like Peter F Hamilton, May is a consummate juggler of the multi-character storylines and simultaneously manages to seamlessly weld what is in effect a fantasy setting (providing a scientific rationale for the gnomes, trolls, ogres, elves and fairies of legend) with the people and the scientific marvels of the Twenty-Second Century. There is also a fair amount of humour, which cleverly serves to accentuate some of the horrors which all three races perpetuate upon themselves and each other.
One could argue that this is perhaps the weakest of the four books and perhaps suffers from a surfeit of characters and political machinations. On the other hand one cannot fault the characterisation since even the minor characters appear as fully rounded characters with histories and tales of their own.
I suspect these novels, along with the superb ‘Intervention’ which tells the tale of the emergence of human metapsychic abilities and the perhaps weaker trilogy which takes us through the Metapsychic Rebellion, will be reassessed as an exemplary body of work, ingenious in its concept and construction.


The Claw of The Conciliator (Book of The New Sun #2) – Gene Wolfe (1981)

The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun, #2)

Gene Wolfe’s baroque masterpiece continues with Severian still on his rambling journey across a far future Earth. Although this was recently republished under the Gollancz Fantasy masterworks imprint it does have to be noted that this is not Fantasy. It slips all too easily into the Science Fantasy label. The hero appears to inhabit a pseudo medieval world in some dark ages of the future and carries a sword called Terminus Est. At heart however it is solid Science Fiction. It’s disguised up to its plumed and gilded hilt but the clues are hidden among the rich descriptive passages.
Additionally, there are elements of Christian theology creeping into the narrative. At the start of the novel Severian encounters some old faces from his past. He is captured by Vodalus the rebel whose life Severian once saved. Vodalus persuades Severian to engage in a ritual (much like communion) whereby they consume the flesh of Tecla (imbued with an alien chemical ) which allows Severian to access some of her memories.
Agia, the twin of the man Severian executed in ‘The Torturer’s Apprentice’ after they tried to steal his sword, sends Severian a letter, purportedly from someone else, arranging to meet Severian in a place where he was likely to meet his death. Severian had previously been given an artefact, the basis of an old religion, called ‘The Claw of The Conciliator’ and the powers of the claw allowed him to escape. However, he also discovered the Claw can heal and later uses it to revive a friend slain in combat (resurrection).
Again at the conclusion Severian meets (and loses) some old friends as he heads toward the city of Thrax.
The narrative is peppered with arcane words which are not made up but are words from the English language either only rarely in current use or not at all, and which may be employed within the text in a context unrelated to their original definition. This helps to place the action within a certain baroque and decadent framework.
I confess I do not feel qualified to provide a review that does justice to this series, since I feel, firstly, that one needs to reread it several times to pick up on the hidden items and clues that Wolfe has slipped into the text.
However, just as a first reading, it is a marvellous experience, full of colour and adventure, peopled with a galimaufray of characters and narrated by Severian himself, who is surely one of the most complex characters to have emerged from Twentieth Century fiction.


Ship of Strangers – Bob Shaw (1978)

Ship Of Strangers

This is a fix-up novel, centred around Dave Surgenor, one of the crew of the Sarafand, a vessel of the Cartographical division of the Space Navy. The Sarafand is a space-borne pyramid, and its mission is to help chart the stars and planets in the ever-expanding sphere of known space.
One could be forgiven, reading the first story, for thinking it remarkably similar to van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of The Space Beagle’ which begins with a re-edit of van Vogt’s 1939 story ‘Black Destroyer’.
In both tales, a highly intelligent alien predator attempts to gain access to the ship and is finally outwitted and destroyed.
In Shaw’s tale the creature is identified by Aesop, the artificial intelligence which runs the ship and plots its jumps through hyperspace.
Although this is not Shaw’s best work by any means, there are some interesting stylistic touches which again are reminiscent of van Vogt techniques. Cardan, the creature in the first tale is initially captured – along with its parents – with some tractor beam force by an unknown ship. The parents were dropped into the gravity field of a sun and Cardan abandoned on a hellish world orbiting one of a pair of binary suns.
Seven thousand years later we pick up the tale…
Later, one the crew, Targett, is sent to investigate potential alien artefacts which turns out to be a plain littered with semi-intelligent still functioning autonomous weapons which (as might have been expected) target Targett.
Shaw’s technique is to introduce tantalising mysteries which the reader is forced to think about. Who were the occupants of that first ship? Who created these weapons and why were they abandoned?
I am of the opinion that had Shaw supplied answers to these questions it would have been to the detriment of the book as a whole.
Less is more, as they say.


Concrete Island – JG Ballard (1974)

Concrete Island

Ballard’s introduction to this, one of his more accessible early works, shows that it is in part inspired by Robinson Crusoe, although Ballard would necessarily have to reconstruct such an idea from an oblique angle.
Maitland, a reasonably successful businessman with a wife and a mistress, is driving alone through West London and has an accident, careers from the motorway and plunges into a valley of wasteland lost between the intersections of motorway and blocked at one end by a mesh fence. At first, Maitland, although injured, think it will be easy to escape from this concrete island, but soon finds that the racing traffic is oblivious to his plight.
Ballard, who is far more interested in the psychology of situations, rather than any action, relishes the chance to chart the transformation of Maitland’s psyche as time passes and he is still unable to leave.
Slowly Maitland begins to identify with the island, as he calls it, seeing it at one point as a map of his own mind and thoughts.
On a very obvious level, one can see it as a metaphor for city life in that although one is surrounded by people all the time one can still be horribly alone and it is difficult to break into that stream of traffic. However, that is too simplistic a view of this piece, especially since Maitland, at first thinking he is alone, rather like Robinson Crusoe, discovers he is not alone, and is sharing his island with others, namely a mentally-impaired acrobat and a prostitute referred to as ‘Miss Jane’. From here the novel examines the shifting balance between Maitland and Jane as they battle for Proctor’s loyalty, sometimes openly, sometimes covertly. Miss Jane is an enigmatic figure since we are never sure whether she is ever telling the truth (even with regard to her real name) and seems to have her own means of leaving the island and returning.
The whole novel is laced with Ballard’s obsessional detail and his usual preoccupations with modern architecture and urban decay.


Technos (Dumarest #07) – EC Tubb (1972)

Technos (Dumarest of Terra #7)

‘Dumarest had traced the lost planet of Earth to a remote corner of the galaxy – but he still lacks its precise co-ordinates.

Somewhere on the cyber-dominated police-world of Technos lives the mysterious woman who can help him. And the only way to find her is to become a slave…’

Blurb from the 1977 Arrow paperback edition

Dumarest carries a dead man’s message to his brother on the planet Loame, an agricultural world, annexed by the Planet Technos and in the grip of invasion by a genetically engineered weed.
Hearing that Technos may have information on the whereabouts of Earth, Dumarest takes the place of a young man destined to be conscripted from Loame into the army of Technos.
The Cyclan are of course on Dumarest’s trail and he must once more use his intelligence and reflexes to stay one step ahead.
There is a direct contrast between the rural – almost Amish – society of Loame and the machine dependant society of Technos. The people of Loame are, on the whole, moral and law abiding and not prone to violence while Technos society appears to be venal and corrupt. Complicating this view is the ex-patriot of Loame, Ms Belinger, who does not miss the patriarchal rules of Loame where a woman exists only to bear children.
The Technosians also present an interesting view of Loame as being a pristine environment where the humans are perfect physical specimens, but from a society which has been invaded by the viral concept of war, a concept to which they have no social immunity and therefore did little to resist the invasion. It is an early and interesting example of social memes mentioned in an SF novel.


Children of Tomorrow – AE van Vogt (1970)

Children Of Tomorrow

‘After a year of travel to through unmapped space, Space Commander Lane returns to earth. Reaching Spaceport he finds everything changed beyond recognition.
The adult males have deserted the cities in search of battle and exploration and the children have seized power….’

Blurb from the 1972 NEL paperback edition

Spaceport is a city containing the families of those men who have been away in space ten years on exploratory missions. In the interim, a new social phenomenon has evolved. The teenagers, having to grow up in a society without fathers, have developed a new system of ‘outfit’ regime. An outfit is a gang in which the members engage in honest group discussion and have rules and rigid moral codes. Their power has grown to the point where adults have to conform to their principles and outfits can take legitimate action against parents who are not bringing their children up properly.
Commander John Lane has now returned to Earth and is instantly branded a ‘booter’ (one who is opposed to the outfits) since he does not realise that the outfit system is a far better way of developing teenagers’ minds that his own reactionary and somewhat misogynist ideas.
Van Vogt is here I think exploring his own dianetic ideas but sadly fails to realise that his ingrained sexism is at odds with the liberal views he is seeking to espouse from the point of view of the ‘outfits’.
Van Vogt’s women – in this novel we can cite the characters of John Lane’s daughter Susan and his wife Estelle – have seldom been strong individuals. Van Vogt here is at last attempting to portray women with minds of their own, but ultimately he falls back into his cliched ideas. Susan Lane is sixteen years old and her father’s idea of getting her to leave the outfits is to set her up on a date with Captain Sennes, a twenty-eight year old serial love-rat. Rather than see through this bizarre plan, Susan is overwhelmed by the Captain’s hypermasculinity. Susan’s mother does little to prevent her husband other than whine a little and lie awake in bed fretting.
Meanwhile, an alien race has followed Captain Lane back from the far reaches of the galaxy and Bud Jaeger, an alien child – disguised as human – has infiltrated Susan’s outfit, The Red Cats. Bud’s alien father is present in a disembodied form and communicates with the boy telepathically, their mission being to assess the capability of Earth to present a danger to their race.
For a late Van Vogt novel it is surprisingly enjoyable, but lacks much of the wow factor which characterised his earlier work. It is interesting that Van Vogt has attempted to impose some sort of structure on this work (albeit a simplistic one) since we have contrasts of Susan’s relationship with her father and the relationship of the alien Bud Jaeger with his father. This however, seems only a plot device by which the humans and aliens can be reconciled, since Bud’s experiences in the outfits have proved that the aliens could benefit from the outfit system within their own race.
Obviously Van Vogt felt that this would be a great novel for teenage readers, since teenagers have always felt that they understood far more than their parents, and would empathise with a society in which they had a real voice within groups of their peers and could, if necessary, impose penalties on their parents. It was a little late in the day to make this an allegory of the rise of youth culture which began in the 1950s, and the book also suffers from the strange jive-talk which the outfits employ. Van Vogt’s dialogue has often seemed stilted but here, the future setting combined with the ersatz sixties slang gives the impression of surreal juxtaposition.

…A moment later he asked, ‘What’s the push, Mike?’
Once more, Mike hesitated, then: ‘No push.’
Lee replied instantly, ‘There’s a doubt pushing out of you. Jack it out so we can scan it.’
Mike’s expression was clearing. He removed his hand from the grip it had on Bud’s coat collar. ‘All unpacked, Lee,’ he said. A warm, friendly smile creased his face. ‘All sack.’
Lee said, ‘Sack.’ He turned to the others, made a dispersal gesture. ‘Sack,’ he said once again. he turned and walked quickly over to Susan. ‘Let’s go moocher,’ he said.
Susan caught his arm. ‘Sack, everybody,’ she said.
All except Bud answered, ‘Sack.’

p 13

Some of Van Vogt’s ideas, crazy though they are, have a certain merit. He suggests for example, that teenagers of both sexes should be given real roles and responsibilities in their teenage years, since this is the time when their potential can be best expanded, and although the settings and some of the characters seem more rooted in the future of the 1950s than the 1970s, occasional sections shine with a surreal profundity.


Ubik – Philip K Dick (1969)

Ubik

Despite it being hailed by many as a work of genius, and certainly in the top ten of PK Dick novels, I have never been that fond of ‘Ubik’. It is not clear why that is. It shares a lot of ground thematically with ‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch‘, a superior and, to my mind, more considered novel. Superficially it should tick all the boxes.
In the beginning Glen Runciter is visiting his dead wife, since in the future, the dead have a limited half-life during which they can be contacted. Runciter consults his wife on business affairs.
On this occasion however, another voice intrudes, a young boy who calls himself Jory.
Then there is a trip to the moon for the employees of Glen Runciter’s anti-psi organisation, who have been hired by the Bill Gates of the day to deal with psi-infestation of their workforce. Runciter’s people have the power to negate ‘teeps’ and ‘precogs’ who are on the books of a rival organisation.
Their client, however, turns out not to be who he claims to be and is in fact a walking bomb which duly explodes, killing Runciter.
Subsequently, Joe Chip begins to find his world becoming odd. Cigarettes are immediately stale; fresh coffee is cold and household appliances begin to revert back to earlier models.
His surroundings decay and he seems to be receiving messages via TV commercials from Runciter, urging him to buy a product called Ubik.
Joe Chip and the other employees go in search of Runciter, or his body, since they are beginning to realise that it is they who are dead and that Runciter is contacting them via the Moratorium in the same way he contacts his wife.
They discover however that their numbers are dwindling, and that those who were separated from the group are turning up as mummified corpses.
In ‘Stigmata’ Dick showed us two Finite Subjective Realities, the world of Can-D and the world of Chew-Z which was controlled by Palmer Eldritch. Here, in the half-life world within which the Runciter employees exist, it is the boy Jory who is in control. He is, given the description of what he does, some kind of soul vampire who feeds on the half-life energy of other stored in the Moratorium.
However, Jory can be neutralised – if not defeated – by the use of Ubik which Joe eventually discovers via Runciter’s dead wife.
The similarities to ‘Stigmata’ are far outweighed by the differences but the underlying themes and messages are there. In ‘Ubik’ Joe Chip has to have faith in Ubik, the product, before he is able to use it.
The sociopathic controller of the realities, Jory, differs from Palmer Eldritch in that he has the mentality of a child and his motivation is to survive by feeding on the life energies of the half-dead. Eldritch’s motives – ostensibly financial ones – are less clear and seem to be more related to power and control for its own sake.
‘Ubik’, like most of Dick’s work is a flawed masterpiece. There is a surfeit of characters, many of whom are surplus to requirements and are not fleshed out enough to hold interest.
Pat Conley, the anti-precog is one of Dick’s fascinating female characters. She has a talent for neutralising precogs by being able to alter the past, and by extension the present and future. Her motives are unclear though and she appears to be a self-centred maverick not able to empathise with others.
The setting is The North American Confederation in 1992, but the background cultural details are somewhat vague. Dick does accurately foresee a future of unrestrained capitalism. Imagine America being run by the owner of Ryanair. Joe Chip has to pay a meter to get out of (and into) his own apartment. In the denouement, Dick again throws a curve ball by showing Runciter examining money with the face of Joe Chip on it. Joe had himself found money with Runciter’s head on it in the half-life world.


Hawksbill Station – Robert Silverberg (1967)

Hawksbill Station

This is an expansion of an earlier novella, but is nevertheless still a fairly short novel.
The basic premise is that a time-portal to the past has been established. As there is no possibility of return, the US Powers That Be have set up two points in the remote past, one in the late Cambrian Era and the other some 250 million years later. As there is no other use for such a thing, the government have decided to send political prisoners back through time along with the materials to build their own prison camp. The males are sent to the earlier camp and the females to another set millions of years later.
Barrett, now in his sixties, has become the de facto leader of the prisoners at what has become known as ‘Hawksbill Station’. The land is a desert of bare rock, apart from occasional moss. The only life is in the sea, and consists of invertebrates such as proto-squid, trilobytes and other exoskeletal beasties.
The men of course are in various stages of mental breakdown and Barrett is doing his best to hold it together.
One day, the men hear the sound of The Anvil (the time travel mechanism) starting which means that something or someone is being sent down the line from the future.
It is a new prisoner, a young man named Hahn who seems reticent to discuss his past and also appears to not know much about the state of affairs pertaining to the world of 2029, which he has just left.
Silverberg, as usual, focuses on characterisation, employing a dual timeline structure which switches between Hawksbill Station and the story of how Barrett came to be sentenced to being sent back in time.
In the future from which Barrett has been exiled, a revolution has taken place, seeing an oligarchy of ‘syndicalists’ taking charge. Inevitably the syndicalists evolve into a government who become the establishment and are, if anything, worse than those who were overthrown. Barrett becomes part of counter-revolutionary group, occasionally visited by the scientist Hawksbill, the man responsible for time travel technology.
It’s not a major Silverberg work. One could describe it as a series of psychological studies, since the main characters, with the possible exception of Hahn, are skilfully sketched. Jack Bernstein, for instance, someone whom Barrett had known since childhood and who had always insisted on being called Jack, decides to join the establishment and reverts to his real name of Jacob.
Silverberg likes to include Jewish protagonists, unsurprisingly, but is obviously not afraid to turn them into unpleasant characters.
Where the novel fails is in a lack of tension. Despite the dual timeline there are not enough surprises or false leads. Hahn’s purpose seems fairly obvious from his arrival. Barrett’s life in the future was of course leading toward his arrest and his trip to the past, and one would have thought that Silverberg might have thrown in some kind of twist which meant that Barrett ended up in Hawksbill Station for reasons other than the reader expected.
It’s interesting, but hampered by its brevity and its lack of twists and turns.