‘The verve of SF’s golden age writers is reborn in The Phoenix Exultant, a grand and stirring fulfilment of the promise shown in The Golden Age that confirms John c Wright as a bright new star of science fiction.
Phaethon of Radamanthus House has been exiled, his ship confiscated. He embarks upon a quest across the transformed solar system among humans, intelligent machines, and bizarre life forms. For the first time in his centuries-long life, he must look reality in the face, without a layer of computer-applied glamour.
Now Phaethon discovers the tarnished underbelly of the shining utopia he took for granted, as he is forced to deal with the only people who can do business, or even talk, with him, his fellow exiles.
Somehow, with or without their help, he must recover his memory, regain his place in society, and move that society away from stagnation. That, he hopes to do, by reclaiming his magnificent ship, the Phoenix Exultant, and flying her to the stars.’
Blurb from the October 2003 Tor paperback edition
In this, the second volume of ‘The Golden Age’ Wright continues his tour-de-force widescreen baroque epic of a future civilisation where being human is as vague a concept as one could possibly imagine. Immortality is available to all, since back-up copies of one’s mind and memories can be stored in case of fatal accident, although even the concept of a personality defined by one’s memories becomes a grey area in Wright’s world since memories can be edited (in some cases without one even knowing) which makes the definition of reality itself somewhat hazy.
Many beings have opted for Humodification, in which their bodies (and/or minds) have been changed or augmented beyond recognition. Others exist in gestalt form, sharing their minds with a myriad of others as a single consciousness.
Our hero Phaethon’s ship has been confiscated and he has been exiled from the Oecumene (as the civilisation is known) and is being ignored by all on pain of them suffering the same fate. He has been advised by one of the AIs of the civilisation to head for Ceylon, an island inhabited by exiles, which is ruled quite literally with an iron hand by a cyborg called Ironjoy.
The plot twists and turns, baffling and dazzling the reader with its red herrings, its gloriously realised technologies and the complex logical possibilities inherent in a world where one cannot trust one’s own memories.
The characters of Daphne and Atkins (who is a single immortal embodiment of the armed forces) return in order to aid Phaethon in his quest to a) prove that an insidious intelligence from beyond our Solar System has invaded the Oecumene, b) reclaim his fabulous ship ‘The Phoenix Exultant’ and c) save the Universe.
Apart from anything else, the text is laced with a sly humour, and one cannot help but wish to exist in this strange, multi-layered culture at once light years away from our own experiences and yet, in essence, very similar.
‘In the early twenty-first century, a team of scientists has done the impossible – ripped apart the fabric of space-time and created a brand new universe… one million-millionth the size of our own. Now they’re going to see where it takes them.
A big bang of and adventure’
Blurb from the Ace 2003 paperback edition.
Despite a cover filled with the usual plaudits and glowing praise from various quarters, Metzger’s novel of universe creation and alternate worlds ends up being a bit of a mess.
If one could imagine a story by Robert Reed being re-written by Gregory Benford then one might conceivably wind up with this.
Katie McGuire and Jack Preston are working alongside Professor Horst on a device called the Sonomak – a central gizmo into which forty-eight miniature particle accelerators are aimed. Horst is desperate for further funding for his research which is ostensibly aimed at creating nuclear fusion. However, at a demonstration, Horst decides to go for broke and runs all forty-eight accelerators. The resulting chaos, recorded on video, shows not only that the equipment has tied itself into a Carrick knot, but that odd things have happened on a subatomic level.
Horst is then approached by the mysterious Mr Quinn and a woman calling herself Alexandra Mitchell. These two are in fact immortal entities from the universe of The Makers; the beings who created our universe.
Meanwhile, Katie’s seemingly brilliant but autistic son Anthony seems oddly aware of the research experiment, which is an attempt by the immortal agents of the Makers to create a universe of their own and escape their masters.
So where does it all go wrong? The science, it has to be said, cannot be faulted. Several critics have praised the science. Gregory Benford, of all people, has provided a glowing review, from which one can only deduce that either Metzger is one of Benford’s pen-names or he has Benford’s children locked away with some sort of bomb and a digital timer.
The characterisation is very bad, and the motivation of the characters gets either so complex or so basic you want to shoot them.
When a new universe (or a picoverse) is created it is a duplicate of ours, but a lot smaller. Thus, in the first picoverse (where time moves much faster than ours) there was a duplicate Anthony who somehow made himself immortal, and then went insane. He calls himself Alpha.
Alpha then kidnaps the original Anthony and traps him in yet another universe. His mother gets such a maternal rage on that she is willing to kill billions of people to rescue her son. Metzger does not question the morality of this.
In the second picoverse, Alexandra (or one of them. It gets difficult keeping score) enlists the help of Stalin and creates a Soviet Communist world. Metzger thinks that the way to make us see the evils of communism is to show them as a people obsessed with ugly architecture, boots and bombing people. It’s very much a shallow one-sided debate. Like Benford’s woeful ‘Artefact’, one really shouldn’t waste a lot of time criticising the shallowness of this book, and one wouldn’t, had this not been nominated for awards.
Later, our heroes board an asteroid shuttle containing a functioning biosphere peopled by Neanderthals (why is not made clear). Initially the travellers discover that the Neanderthals are vicious and aggressive cannibals, but soon after we are expected to believe that these particular specimens are highly evolved creatures, far superior to homo sapiens. Two of the Neanderthals turn out to be alternate versions of Anthony, one of whom is the genetically re-engineered Alpha.
The denouement (just before which our amnesiac hero Jack remembers that he is an immortal from another universe) is sadly, just as confusing.
To be fair to Metzger, the scientific elements are handled in an exemplary fashion. This could have been an excellent piece of work had not the author attempted to combine the disparate elements of extra-universal superbeings and multiple copies of far too many central characters. This, coupled with the bafflingly swift changes of scene conspires to produce a work which annoys rather than excites.
One can only conclude that Metzger bit off rather more than he could chew. No doubt, in another smaller universe somewhere, a very good version of this novel is a best-seller.
‘In the century since the devastating War of a Thousand Suns, humanity has stagnated, staying in the cocoon of the Centrist Worlds while the rapacious pirates of Golen Space prey on ships that venture too far into the interstellar flux. And starship Impris, lost in the war years, has become the stuff of legend – used by the pirates as bait, even as the Centrist authorities deny her existence.
Renwald Legroeder, escaped prisoner and star rigger pilot, has seen what the government doesn’t want anyone to see. Framed for treason he flees – to save himself and clear his name. he returns to the realm of the pirates to find the truth behind Impris… to unmask the conspiracy that cost him his freedom… to tear off the blinders that have kept humanity from fulfilling its destiny among the stars.
Between Legroeder and redemption lie the pirates’ vengeance, if he is caught – and the perils of the Deep Flux, where no man has dared to fly. But with the help of a beautiful pirate renegade named Tracy-Ace/Alfa, he risks everything to uncover the secrets that can restore his reputation – and change the future of humanity.’
Blurb from the 2001 Tor paperback edition
The first hundred pages of this book were, I am sure, trying to persuade me that I would hate it. It begins with the escape of Netrigger Renwald Legroeder from the space-pirates of Golen Space.
A netrigger is a pilot who links into a cybernetic interface in order to guide a ship through ‘The Flux’ which is – as far as I can gather – that which we have until now called hyperspace.
Renwald returns to the civilised worlds and finds himself unaccountably charged with endangering the ship from which he was originally kidnapped by the pirates.
The keenness of the authorities to commit Legroeder seem to be linked to the disappearance of the ‘ghost-ship’ Impris and Legroeder’s claim that the ship appeared just before the pirates did.
Legroeder is bailed by a friendly female lawyer, attacked, and flees to an asteroid run by the Narseil (an amphibian alien race who were originally blamed for the disappearance of Impris.
The only way for Legroeder to clear his name is to join a Narseil mission to infiltrate the pirates (and investigate their links with the Cyborg Kyber humans) in order to discover their location and the truth about the missing Impris.
Despite my initial qualms it is an enjoyable read, although it is little more than a swashbuckling tale of derring-do transferred to outer space. Carver (his face is on the inside back cover) seems like a nice bloke and has even provided his e-mail address, for which I applaud him.
On the negative side, the romantic episodes are a little clumsy and the aliens an easily be imagined as men in rubber suits borrowed from Star Trek for the afternoon.
Carver evidently has a large fan base however, as this was nominated for the 2002 Nebula Award running against some stiff competition, which seems to me rather like giving Jeffrey Archer the Booker Prize, narrowly pipping Danielle Steele to the post.
However I would recommend reading this book. It’s fast paced, it’s engrossing. It’s fun. But a Nebula nominated novel in the 21st century needs to have far more than this to even get within a light year of consideration. It’s old-fashioned Space Opera, and although there’s nothing wrong with that it lacks the excitement and sense of wonder that some of the original pulp novels can still produce.
I suspect that there is a certain section of the SF author community who are – consciously or unconsciously – overinfluenced by TV or movie SF. Admittedly there is always the lucrative possibility that one’s work might be optioned for a film or a series, as this must be a very real consideration for modern writers.. Benford’s ‘Artefact’ is a classic case of a bad novel which yearns to grow up into a bad film and this book, although not so cinematically structured, has the same feel to it.
All the aliens are bipedal, humanoid and speak English.
The Kyber are – to all intents and purposes – The Borg, or at least have their machine-interface culture.
There is also an unconscious arrogance in novels like these which stems – I suspect – from an exigent attitude ingrained within US society whereby Americans see little of interest beyond their own borders. Indeed, Carver implies – from what we see of the society of Faber Eridani – that colonised planets will – if not colonised by Americans – at least follow an American social and political ideal. The planet has an Attorney General and – apart from Legroeder’s olive skin – nothing to suggest there is any ethnic mix.
Sandra Foster studies fads – from Barbie dolls to the grunge look – how they start and what they mean. Bennett O’Reilly is a chaos theorist studying monkey group behaviour. they both work for the HiTek corporation, strangers until a misdelivered package brings them together. It’s a moment of synchronicity – if not serendipity – which leads them into a chaotic system of their own, complete with a million-dollar research grant, café latte, tattoos and a series of unlucky coincidences that leaves Bennett monkeyless, fundless and nearly jobless. Sandra intercedes with a flock of sheep and an idea for a joint project. (After all, what better animal to study both chaos theory and the herd mentality that so often characterizes human behaviour?)
But scientific discovery is rarely straightforward and never simple, and Sandra and Bennett have to endure a series of setbacks, heartbreaks and dead ends, and disasters before they find their ultimate answer.
Blurb from the 1997 Bantam paperback edition
This is a fairly short and innocuous novel, employing Willis’ trademark farcical style in which a researcher investigating ‘fads’ (actually ‘memes’, although the term is never used in the book) and their causes finds her life (both personal and professional) collapsing into chaos as she struggles to discover what triggered the hair-bobbing fashion of the Nineteen-Twenties.
It’s a light-hearted scientific romantic comedy, adroitly written, seamlessly plotted with excellent characterisation and dialogue, but one feels slightly disappointed by it, since more should be expected from an author of this calibre.
There is much to enjoy. Willis writes rather like one would expect an entertaining university tutor to write, especially one who was fond of a combination of cannabis and amphetamines.
It also feels like a joyfully cathartic process for Willis, as she relentlessly rants (ironically via the voice of the extremely patient and tolerant lead character) at aspects of our consumer society. Barbie Dolls, the transient quack fashions of relationship and parenting strategies, stupid teenagers, mindless business philosophies, anti-smoking jihads; all are mercilessly dissected by Willis in a subtle and humourous way, one which will no doubt strike a chord with many readers.
Oddly, there are echoes of this book, thematically and stylistically in the later, more complex ‘Passage’, particularly with regard to the lead female researcher and the elements of Pattern Recognition.
See also Gibson’s ‘Pattern Recognition’ whose focus is also very much on cultural memes.
At the very hard edge of hard SF’s furthest boundary is Greg Egan. One could describe Egan as one who writes fiction for scientists to read. This should not deter anyone else from reading his work though.
The premise here is that (as in Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘Spin’) an impenetrable barrier has been thrown around the Solar System, blotting out the stars.
Nik Stavrianos is an ex-cop private detective in a near future Australia where many residents have been gene-sequenced to produce melanonin and are therefore now black. He left the service when an apocalypse cult (The Children of The Abyss) killed his wife but he keeps her within his consciousness as a virtual recording to occasionally spend time with him.
Nik’s latest case is to find a catatonic woman who somehow escaped three times from a high-security nursing home. The third time, so Nik discovers, she was kidnapped and taken to New Hong Kong. Nik’s investigations lead him further than he would have imagined, into a company where the quantum nature of reality is being discovered and explored.
The lead character’s profession and backstory immediately give the novel a noir feel. It’s a subtle touch.
Undeniably the science seems faultless if at times a little impenetrable, but having said that, fascinating. Heisenberg, Schrodinger’s Cat and the infinite multi-parallel universe come together to connect the woman’s disappearance with the mysterious barrier surrounding the solar system. Amazing brain-workout stuff.
Set some decades after ‘Eon’, the novel is split between the world of Gaia where the forces of Alexander the Great conquered the known world, and Earth, which is now controlled by the Hexamon.
On Gaia the granddaughter of Patricia Vasquez has inherited the clavicle which can be used to open The Way. In Patricia’s lifetime gateways appeared briefly and capriciously but now one has appeared and has remained stable for three years.
On Earth the planet is still undergoing a healing process following The Death. The Way has been closed off since the Sundering and the events of ‘Eon’, but now Pavel Mirsky – a Russian who should be dead – has returned. He is, and is not, Mirsky since he has been reborn in the far future and sent back with a message. The Way must be reopened and destroyed since it poses a threat to the grander plans of humanity’s descendants billions of years hence.
Meanwhile, the homorph Omny has been shown a forgotten chamber in Thistledown which contains the body of a captured Jart – the inimical and enigmatic aliens that are fighting a war within The Way – and also its downloaded consciousness.
Omny decides he has to upload the Jart into his own cyborg systems for study – well-knowing that there is a danger that the Jart mind could subsume him.
It has been pointed out before that when Bear wrote ‘Eon’ no one was expecting the fall of the Soviet Union and Bear’s future posits an intact USSR and a nuclear war which decimates the Earth.
This sequel is set some thirty years later and the issue of Earth history before The Death is perhaps wisely evaded. Given the nature of the subject matter, however, he could have gotten away with explaining that this was not our Earth but an Earth in which the USSR survived since we already have an Earth where the Empire of Alexander lasted to our time and beyond.
Bear, as I have mentioned elsewhere, struggles with sequels. This one certainly takes its time to get going and there’s a good third of the novel to be got through before things start speeding along.
It’s a decent read, but a very disappointing sequel to ‘Eon’. The concept of species that add other species’ DNA to their own (as the Jarts appear to) is something that Octavia Butler employed to far better effect in her Xenogenesis trilogy. There’s also the concept of highly advanced post-human/post-alien intelligences destroying entire galaxies at the end of time in order to save us all, which is more or less what Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee have been doing over a number of novels and short stories.
One would have expected that Bear would have raised his game to another level in this sequel, but it is sadly not the case.
Things speed up to a fairly thrilling climax and a couple of schmaltzy resurrections.
It’s not clear if it is intentional but there are some religious motifs scattered throughout. Posthuman avatars return from the far future in the guise of dead colleagues. There is much referencing of the words ‘gods’ and ‘angels’.
Indeed, the death of Garry Lanier is preceded by a vision of the resurrected Russian, Pavel Mirsky, and followed by a transcendence as the digital copy of Garry is translated into a posthuman avatar and taken into the world of ‘The Final Mind’.
His implant (which preserves a digitised copy of his consciousness and memories) when retrieved from his body contains the persona of his and Karen’s daughter who died twenty years previously and who can now be ‘resurrected’.
The issues raised related to identity and the definition of ‘human’ are very interesting but are not explored in any real depth.
‘The Firvulag are rising, while the children of the metapsychic rebels race to reopen the time-gate, the sole escape route back into the Galactic Milieu.
Now the adversary takes up his destined role in the power play… Marc Remillard, defeated leader of the metapsychic rebellion determined to keep the time-gate sealed and to create a new race from his own offspring. Will he aid the Firvulag or bring succour to Aiken, when the day of the Grand Tourney comes, when the Tanu and the humans meet the Firvulag in the last great contest of the exile world…’
Blurb from the 1984 Pan paperback edition
May rounds off her Pliocene quadrology with panache in ‘The Adversary’
Aiken Drum is attempting to hold his kingdom together while the Firvulag are rising, convinced by ancient Duat prophecy that the Nightfall War is about to begin, the final battle to oblivion between the Tanu and the Firvulag.
The central figure of the prophecy, The Adversary, is seen as Marc Remillard, who has sailed from his exile in Pliocene Florida back to Europe in order to prevent his children reopening the Time Gate and escaping back to the Twenty-Second Century.
As a result of having nearly been killed by Felice when she teleported to America, Marc is slowly learning how to ‘D-Jump’ himself, and begins to appear to the Metapsychic Grandmaster Elizabeth Orme where he helps her to ‘cure’ the black-torc babies (i.e. babies who cannot adjust to the mind-enhancing torc).
It transpires that a metapsychic programme is able to not only cure the children but raise them to metapsychic operancy.
Once again, May manages to combine the fantasy settings with complete 22nd Century science quite seamlessly, and one has to ask how much she was influenced by the Science fantasy boom of the Seventies and writers such as Moorcock, M John Harrison and Jack Vance.
There are certainly echoes of their work here. Where these writers often set their civilisations of decadent technology on a Far Future Earth, May takes us back to the Pliocene of six million years ago, but the trappings are the same. The Tanu and the Firvulag are, after all, merely elves and goblins, trolls and ogres with a technology so advanced it appears to be magic. Where May triumphs is in linking her world so directly to our near future and creating a structure in which the narrative returns to the future and, to a certain extent, comes full circle to where it began.
Finally, it is revealed, although it has been hinted at within previous volumes, that the human race are descendants of all three races, which is why Humanity ends up possessing such a huge metapsychic potential.
This came to me highly recommended; praised by mainstream literary critics when it was published and listed in David Pringle’s ‘Science Fiction: The Hundred Best Novels’ (which, if you can get hold of a copy, is a superb overview of one hundred SF novels published between 1949 and 1984).
Riddley writes his own story – in his own language – of his life on the outskirts of Canterbury, far in the future and long after nuclear devastation.
It’s a difficult, though rewarding read. Riddley writes in a variation of English which, though degenerate, has its own dark poetic beauty.
Hoban manages to effortlessly create myths based upon our contemporary lives, using words, place names and phrases which have become corrupted into synonyms such as ‘gallack seas’ (galaxies) and ‘deacon termination’ (decontamination).
A pagan religion and philosophy has evolved – centred around ceremonies of performance and revelation – which combines beliefs involving the Moon and animal spirits and is entwined with the conflated legends of ‘St Eustace’ and ‘Eusa’ (which we presume was the USA) who split the ‘littl shynin man – the Addom’ in two and brought darkness to the world.
As in Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ with which this book is inevitably compared, the dialect is at first daunting, but one easily settles into the style and realises that this novel could not have been written any other way. It’s rich and poetic and full of hidden references to the past which have to be teased out of the text.
One could have forgiven Hoban for writing a tale demonstrating (as Walter M Miller did so ably in his similar novel, ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’) that humans never learn, and that we are doomed as a species to repeat our mistakes.
The difference is that in Miller’s novel humans were not essentially changed by disaster, whereas here, as we learn gradually, they have been, and that their beliefs in ‘telling’ and ‘trantses’ have some basis in reality. Some of the populace, including Riddley and a captive race of ‘Eusa’ people exhibit the ability to read each others’ thoughts and also commune with packs of wild dogs who have themselves evolved and are an important part of the Folklore of the indigenous population.
It’s a unique book, and one I suspect which needs to be read again. Refreshingly, it manages to avoid all the clichés of SF of the time and succeeds in creating a timeless and fabulous – though familiar – world peopled with grotesque yet believable characters.
It could so easily have become a morality tale, set as it is in the continuing aftermath of a Nuclear disaster, but its main message for me was to point out how wide might be the divide between the text of our own religious documentation and the historical truth.
To our detriment, this is Smith’s only novel, his output otherwise being a large number of quirky short stories mostly set in this universe of The Instrumentality of Mankind. Having said that, ‘Norstrilia’ has a complex origin since it was originally published in two shorter separate parts in 1964 as ‘The Planet Buyer’ (which itself was expanded from a shorter piece ‘The Boy Who Bought Old Earth’) and ‘The Store of Heart’s Desire’
Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan to the Hundred and Fifty-First (known as Rod McBan) is a boy living on the peculiar world of Norstrilia, heir to one of the prosperous mutant sheep ranches.
Norstrilia, or Old North Australia, where the people are still subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, (despite the fact she’s been dead for at least fifteen thousand years) was originally an Australian farming world until a virus attacked the sheep. What could have been tragedy changed the fortunes of mankind as a by-product of the sheep’s illness was Stroon, a longevity drug. Thus Norstrilia became the richest planet in the galaxy. The Norstrilians did not want to change their way of life however, and so incredibly high taxes are paid on any imported items to their world. Their children are tested in their teens to see if they are physically and mentally fit to survive, and those that fail get sent to a painless death.
Rod McBan is about to be tested, and his family are worried. Rod seems unable to hier or spiek. In other words, unlike the other telepathic natives of Norstrilia, he can neither hear thoughts nor project them. A girl who loves him, Lavinia, knows that this is not strictly true as there are times when Rod can hier everyone’s thoughts for miles around and when he is angry his mind is powerful enough to disable or kill.
Having survived the test, with the help of Lord Redlady, a member of the ruling body – The Instrumentality of Mankind – it seems Rod is still in danger from one Houghton Syme, an old schoolmate of Rod’s who is determined to kill or destroy him. Rod has access to an ancient computer, hidden on his land which, when Rod asks it for help, puts a financial scheme in motion. By the next day, Rod McBan is the owner of virtually all of Old Earth and therefore has to travel there to take ownership of his prize and escape the murderous attentions of Houghton Syme.
Once on Earth he becomes acquainted with the Underpeople; races of bioengineered animals who have a prophecy of a rich man coming to Earth to set them free. Could this be Rod McBan?
Smith certainly had a facility for creating well-defined characters. Norstrilia is set in a marvellously detailed if slightly unrealistic landscape. The narrative is peppered with songs and poetry which adds to a certain undercurrent of joy that suffuses the book.
Eccentric and fascinating figures appear and disappear, such as The Catmaster, who is a kind of guru/healer figure and the only Underperson allowed (by special dispensation of The Instrumentality) to take Stroon.
Smith throws in ideas right. left and centre, such as the giant alien architects who once visited human worlds and built indestructible buildings on various planets (on a whim) before leaving.
It’s a marvellously clever mix of comedy, drama, satire and romanticism, interspersed with poetry and song.
At the end of the day, however, it is simply the story of a young man who (much like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) travels to another world, has adventures, makes friends and enemies and ultimately realises that what he wants and needs has been at home in his own back yard all the time.