My life in outer space

Archive for November, 2014

Renegades (Progenitors #2) – Dan Worth (2011)

Renegades (The Progenitor Trilogy, #2)

Worth’s eminently readable space opera continues, introducing new character Caleb Isaacs, who appears as a pilot ferrying refugee K’Soth from the civil war torn domains to the Commonwealth. This trip is different however, since the K’Soth are also delivering vital physical evidence of the Shapers’ presence.
The Shapers make their presence felt all too soon. Our archaeologists Rekkid and Katherine are sent to inspect an ancient ship apparently crashed on a gas-giant’s moon. Initially thinking it to be a Progenitor ship, Admiral Cox is keeping it as his secret project. However, the ship is feeding dreams to people, and calls to Katherine for help.
Admiral Chen, meanwhile, having paid off Isaacs to deliver the K’Soth, discovers that he may hold vital information regarding the Shapers and goes in search of him. Isaacs himself, apparently being pursued by the local mafia, sets off to look for his wife and discovers a network of undercover guerilla fighters who want to destroy the alien ship on the moon, as they believe it to be a trap.
The Hidden hand, as the rebels are called, have unexpected help since they are being supported by the strange and reclusive Nahabe, a race who fought the Shapers long ago and now float about in protective sarcophagi.
Much is discovered, much is revealed, and the pace increases to a series of tense page-turning episodes and a very dramatic climax.
If I have one criticism, it is that the crucial act of the denouement (on the part of Admiral Montith) seemed a little hastily thought out and could have been tweaked a little, but this is a minor quibble seeing that both books so far have been met with almost universal praise from their readers.
It is encouraging that a new breed of writers is emerging who – like Worth – have not sprung via the usual publishing routes. The Progenitors trilogy, for instance, seems only available via e-book formats and the volumes are priced very reasonably. Worth himself as of 2012 still has a day job and writes in the evenings and weekends, which is the downside of the self-publishing route, since there is no publisher to hand over a cheque in advance of the next best-seller.


The Evolutionary Void – Peter F Hamilton (2010)

The Evolutionary Void (Void, #3)

Somehow managing, as he always does, to choreograph a vast cast of characters, Hamilton brings his latest trilogy to a conclusion. Various factions, agents, police operatives, religious lunatics and alien war fleets are racing toward the Void boundary to either cross over into the Void or prevent those that want to from doing so.
My disappointment with this trilogy is that, as I have no doubt said before, Inigo’s dreams of Edeard are ditchwater dull. Mercifully, Edeard’s life-story ends quite quickly, the Skylords come for him and the tedium is over, almost. There is a final dream that Inigo never revealed to anyone.
Another downside to reading these novels is that since the trilogy is, in many ways, a sequel to the Pandora’s Star books, it is often difficult to remember characters from the first books, given that each novel is released on an annual basis.
Thus we have original characters such as Oscar Monroe, Paula Myo and Justine Burnelli. Then we have their descendants, such as Araminta, Troblum, Inigo, Aaron and Edeard.
Bradley Johanssen and the Silfen return. Ozzie is rediscovered, as is Mellanie. Qatux of the Raiel makes an appearance, as does the SI, and The Cat is returned to the universe to do little more than indulge in sadosexual mind-games with young men.
There are, in fact, a surfeit of old characters. I can see that Hamilton hates to retire or kill off his children, even to the point of bringing some people back from the dead following the admittedly exciting denouement.
Interestingly, a theme that runs through Hamilton’s later work is that of the survival or continuation of the personality. The duality of the concept was explored in the Night’s Dawn Trilogy where one’s personality and memories could be uploaded into living ships or structures, contrasted with the terrifying fact that souls did survive death and were now returning via The Reality Dysfunction to possess the living.
Here we have factions of enhanced humans, some of whom have transferred their personalities into ANA, while in the Void ‘souls’ are taken to the Heart to join with it once they are fulfilled.
One could argue that, as in the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, Hamilton has opted for a Deus Ex Machina rescue at the final moment, since the Heart turns out to be an attempt on the part of the first sentient race in the galaxy to transcend their physical form and go post-alien.
The denouement, as I have said, is exciting, but has its own problems since Hamilton needed to tie up many loose ends, some of which didn’t really need tying.
It’s a trilogy which holds its head up over much of the ‘New Space Opera’ that’s around, but it may be a bit of a wake-up call for Hamilton who may have repeated himself a little too often with a number of characters who overstayed their welcome after the first time out.
There’s a new Void trilogy planned. Please please please Mr Hamilton, can you programme your laptop to erase any mystical Malkathran cod-fantasy third hand maudlin medieval nonsense before the manuscript gets teleported to the publishers via your private t-sphere? Thank you.


The Dog Said Bow-Wow – Michael Swanwick (2007)

The Dog Said Bow-Wow

‘Science fiction and fantasy’s most adept short-story author reinvents some classic themes in an engaging collection that includes three of his Hugo award-winning stories. These smart expansions of traditional themes summon dinosaurs, dragons, peril in space, myths, faeries, and time travel, each undergoing artful alchemy to create serious genre literature that is playful, original, and clever. Comprising 16 imaginative and mischievous adventures, including the previously unpublished novelette, “The Skysailor’s Tale,” this adroit gathering makes a collection to truly revel in.

The collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow contains the following stories:

“‘Hello,’ Said the Stick”
(Hugo Nominee for Short Story 2003, Locus Nominee for Short Story 2003)
“The Dog Said Bow-Wow”
(Hugo Winner for Short Story 2002, Nebula Nominee for Short Story 2003, Locus Nominee for Short Story 2002)
“Slow Life”
(Hugo Winner for Novelette 2003, Locus Nominee for Novelette 2003)
“Triceratops Summer”
(Locus Nominee for Short Story 2006)
“Tin Marsh”
(Locus Nominee for Short Story 2007)
“An Episode of Stardust”
“The Skysailor’s Tale”
(Locus Nominee for Novelette 2008)
“Legions in Time”
(Hugo Winner for Novelette 2004, Locus Nominee for Novelette 2004)
“The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport”
(Hugo Nominee for Short Story 2003, Locus Nominee for Short Story 2003)
“The Bordello in Faerie”
“The Last Geek”
(Locus Nominee for Short Story 2005)
“Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play”
(Locus Nominee for Novelette 2006)
“A Great Day for Brontosaurs”
“Dirty Little War”
(Locus Nominee for Short Story 2003)
“A Small Room in Koboldtown”
(Hugo Nominee for Short Story 2008, Locus Winner for Short Story 2008)
“Urdumheim”
(Locus Nominee for Novelette 2008)’

Blurb from the 2007 Tachyon Publications paperback edition.

A collection of Swanwick’s trademark quirky tales from the early to mid Noughties. Very stylish and individual pieces.

“‘Hello,’ Said the Stick” Analog Mar 2002

An intelligent talking stick is found by a soldier in a futuristic war, but whose side is the stick on?

“The Dog said Bow-Wow” Asimovs Oct 2001

As usual Swanwick has created a bizarre and exotic world in which to set his tale, which features a genetically engineered dog of the far future who joined forces with a human man (Darger and Surplus) and hatches a scheme to steal the jewels of a member of the aristocracy.
In this future, the Queen (an almost immortal creature with multiple brains set deep into her vast body) lives in a Buckingham Palace which is surrounded by a labyrinth.
Vivid, surreal, amusing and memorable.

“Slow Life” Analog Dec 2002

An exploratory team discover life below the oceans of Titan, a meeting which inflicts drastic change on the Titans, and augurs similar changes for human society.

“Triceratops Summer” Amazon.com Aug 2005

Dinosaurs let loose from a University campus entails the world being put into a time-loop. Effectively people can live whatever lives they wish for three months before the world is reset to the point before the dinosaurs escaped.

“Tin Marsh” Asimovs Aug 2006

A prospector on Venus is driven crazy by the mentally imposed restrictions and his partner’s teasing and tries to murder her.

“An Episode of Stardust” Asimovs Jan 2006

One of Swanwick’s odd and elaborate surreal tales in which a donkey-eared fey tells the tale of how he fell into partnership with a criminal vixen.

“The Skysailor’s Tale” (The Dog Said Bow-Wow, 2007)

In a historical US which is not quite ours, a young man enlists on ‘The Empire’, a vast craft held aloft by individual balloons. Atmospheric and somewhat moving.

“Legions in Time” Asimovs April 2003

Another surreal bit of cleverness which features a woman who is paid to sit in a room and watch a cupboard door for 8 hours a day, but one day her curiosity gets the better of her, and she becomes embroiled in a war fought through time.

“The Little Cat Laughed To See Such Sport” Asimovs Oct 2002

Darger and Surplus engage themselves in a con, trying to sell a dying billionaire the location of the lost Eiffel Tower, dismantled after it was occupied by transdimensional demons attempting to invade Earth. A genetically modified cat throws their plans and emotions into disarray.

“The Bordello in Faerie” Postscripts Autumn 2006

A dark and atmospheric erotic fairy tale in which a young man becomes addicted to visiting a bordello where he engages in sex with various supernatural creatures.

“The Last Geek” Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic, (Aug 2004,

An odd piece in which the last geek is paid to give a lecture at a university.

“Girls and Boys, Come Out To Play” Asimovs July 2005

Another Surplus and Darger tale involving genetically engineered Greek mythological figures, including Bacchus

“A Great Day for Brontosaurs” Asimovs May 2002

A scientist proposes a way to genetically backengineer birds in order to create dinosaurs, but is that what is really going on?

“Dirty Little War”  In the Shadow of the Wall: An Anthology of Vietnam Stories That Might Have Been, Jul 2002

A dinner party somehow overlaps with a battlefield in one of Swanwick’s more surreal stories.

“A Small Room in Koboldtown” Asimovs April 2007

A supernatural detective story, in which a non-human pitfighter is found dead in a hotel room, and the only credible suspect is the ghost janitor. Can Will le Fey solve the case and save his ghost partner’s brother from jail?

“Urdumheim” F&SF Oct 2007

Swanwick’s variation on a creation myth sees Nimrod creating humans and language and then having to wage a war against the Igigi from Mount Ararat.


Angel Stations – Gary Gibson (2004)

Angel Stations

Gibson’s debut novel is a multi-character narrative space opera much in the style of Peter F Hamilton
Mankind has been able to travel out to the stars due to the discovery of Angel Stations; vast torus-shaped space stations surrounding wormholes which give instantaneous access to other stations in other parts of the galaxy.
The study of abandoned Angel tech has been a mixed blessing. It has allowed Earth to design probes which have been sent as far as possible toward the galactic core and which have discovered that processes have been set up to automatically set off novas and flood the galaxy with lethal radiation at very long but regular intervals.
The radiation is due to arrive at the planet Kaspar in days, and is likely to kill off the only other sentient race that humanity has discovered, currently at a pre-industrial feudal culture level.
Humans have also used Angel tech to alter human genes in military test subjects, producing a number of humans who are virtually indestructible and can, in some instances, see the future.
We follow a disparate group of people whose paths converge at the abandoned Angel citadel on the planet Kaspar as the wave of radiation approaches.
It’s an interesting debut, featuring echoes of Peter F Hamilton, Jack McDevitt and Fred Pohl’s ‘Gateway’.
Certainly the concept of older races ‘culling’ other life in the galaxy (usually by way of ancient machines) is a popular idea (see ‘Engines of God’, ‘Revelation Space’ and ‘Berserker’) and perhaps is in some ways a counterbalance to works in which ancient alien races are either extinct, coldly aloof or benevolent.
It’s not simply a derivative novel, however. Gibson has created some interesting concepts and has cursed the earth with a Blight, an Angel Tech derived virus which was unleashed while one of the protagonists was trying to retrieve it from one of the Earth’s criminal gangs.
Kim is a xeno-archaeologist who has the deaths of some of her colleagues on her conscience and has become addicted to absorbing ‘books’ which are the distilled memories of others. She has fallen on hard times and is working as an asteroid miner from the Angel Station in the Kaspar System.
She too has unleashed a plague of sorts, as one of the artefacts she retrieved from the Kaspar citadel during an archaeological expedition has become active. This has released self-replicating Von Neumann bugs which are slowly consuming all the human-built sections of the stations as well as their ships. The bugs are using the cannibalised material to make more bugs.
Meanwhile, members of a human cult – The Primalists – are hiding out on Kaspar in deep caves waiting for the radiation to kill all the sentient natives so that they can claim the planet as a new Eden. One of the aliens, however, is in possession of an Angel artefact that might be the key to deflecting the radiation and saving his species.
The Kasparians are an interestingly designed species able – in an odd mirroring of Kim’s addiction – to achieve sentience by eating the flesh and brains of a dead adult. Their children are pre-sentient animals and do not attain intelligence until this ritual has been carried out.
There are some loose ends left untied which no doubt means that sequels are in the pipeline.
Maybe it’s me but it seems many debut novels now are planned with sequels in mind. No one seems to want to write stand alone novels any more. Is this publisher pressure or a strategic move on the part of the author?


Broken Angels – Richard Morgan (2003)

Broken Angels (Takeshi Kovacs, #2)

‘Sleeved in a damaged combat body, Takeshi Kovacs is serving as a mercenary in a brutal little Protectorate-sponsored war to put down the revolution on Sanction IV.

Taking the chance to join a covert team trying to secure an archaeological prize, Takeshi is dropped into a maelstrom of betrayal that makes the front-line a happy memory. For this is a prize whose value is limitless and whose dangers are endless. It’s a prize that the corporations will kill for.
A prize which will take mankind to the brink.

BROKEN ANGELS rips apart the 26th century to lay bare the violence, the follies and the naked greed that leave man so ill-prepared for the legacy he has been given: the stars.

Blurb from the 2003 Gollancz paperback edition

Morgan returns us to the life of his sardonic Noir Nouveau mercenary, Takeshi Kovacs, at a point where he is engaged as sergeant of a wedge platoon in a messy uprising on Sanction IV.
Whilst recovering in Virtual Reality awaiting re-sleeving (which involves inserting ‘the stack’ containing his digitised consciousness into a newly-cloned body) Kovacs is offered a side-assignment; to investigate the alleged discovery of a Martian farcaster portal, leading to an intact Martian ship.
We discover in this novel that the race known as The Martians (they left ruins on Mars but it was not their original home) left stellar maps by which humanity was able to discover Earth-type worlds, most with Martian ruins, but deserted.
After a bit of a ponderous start to the novel, which involves Kovacs having to bring on board Mr Hand of the Mandrake Corporation to provide investment for a mission, the novel picks up. Having had to work in the affected area of a nuclear strike and dealing with some nasty nanotechnology Kovacs and his depleted team (Kovacs friends, colleagues and lovers often die) then manage to unlock the Martian stargate and reach the abandoned ship.
There are of course traitors amongst them and Kovacs has to battle against the odds – with his current body being raddled with radiation poisoning – to claim the prize.
Morgan’s style is Raymond Chandler meets 2000 AD. The action is intense, exciting, colourful and gripping, set against a dystopian background of corruption and Corporate greed.
There are some nice ‘wee thinky bits’ such as the military nanovirus which evolves to deal with every weapon sent against it, and the Martian songspires (which we encountered briefly in ‘Altered Carbon’); strange, coral-like growths which create seemingly random music.
The Martians themselves only appear as ancient mummified bodies, but were tall bat-like creatures who communicated via a luminous throat-gland.
Nice.
Although a polished sequel to ‘Altered Carbon’ it doesn’t quite match the creative flavour of its predecessor and is the latest in a long line of novels in which a vanished Elder Race has left mysterious artefacts behind for humans to try and make sense of.


The Night of The Triffids – Simon Clark (2001)

The Night of the Triffids

Posthumous sequels are not something to be lightly undertaken. Though it has to be said that literature tends to fair better in this respect than the film industry, which is always keen to plunder its past for a remake or a sequel, sometimes wisely and intelligently, but more often than not, disastrously and foolishly. For the most part literary sequels have been rarer forays but few reach the level of quality of the original, which, if it was planned as a stand-alone novel, should in most cases remain as such.
Baxter’s ‘The Time Ships’ (a sequel to HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine) is a rare instance of a novelist’s dedication to the style and spirit of its provenance. So, in its own way, is ‘Night of The Triffids’
The novel, as an homage within an homage, begins as the original does with the disorientation of both the reader and the narrator as they awake and try to work out why their world has changed.
Twenty-nine years on from John Wyndham’s ‘Day of The Triffids’, the original narrator’s son David takes up the tale. Those unfamiliar with ‘Day of…’ (shame on you!) will be neatly brought up to date by his reminiscences in which he explains the social structure of the island and gives an overview of post-apocalyptic life among the Triffids, which the population now harvest to provide the raw materials of daily existence.
Like Baxter, Clark is true to the spirit of the original – managing to capture Wyndham’s style – and cleverly creates a society which, because of the lack of scientific and social development, has changed little from Wyndham’s England of the Nineteen Fifties.
The nature of the Triffids themselves is examined in more detail based on hints given by Wyndham in ‘Day of..’ which suggest that the walking carnivorous plants might be more intelligent than most people suspect. Forced into an evolutionary leap by a world-wide darkness which descends upon the Earth, the creatures show new mutational changes, although these, which I’ll come to later, seem far too rapid given the timescale of only a few weeks.
Due to a combination of unfortunate events David is taken to New York which is being ruthlessly controlled as an apartheid slave society where blind and black people are excluded from ‘whites only’ areas.
In a sense this can be seen as a continuation of social values which were acceptable, if not widespread, in Nineteen Fifties America, and may indeed be prevalent in today’s USA in many areas.
Like ‘Day of…’ this novel is told in fast-paced first-person narrative, peppered with end-of-chapter cliffhangers which compels the reader to continue.
My criticisms are few. The Triffids themselves are lessened by new and improbable mutant forms. An aquatic species emerges in the USA where, ironically, all the Triffids are bigger and nastier than their European counterparts. This might have been expected in warmer parts of the US (The original talks of ten-foot specimens found growing in Africa) but not in the more temperate New York. Some sixty-foot specimens appear near the end of the novel which stretches credulity to breaking point for me, given that at least three independent communities have been studying the Triffids for the last thirty years and have presumably seen no major changes in the creatures’ physiology.
At one point, it was discovered that the plants had possibly created a small floating island of matted vegetation upon which they travelled from the mainland to the Isle of Wight. This device worked because it merely suggested intelligence on the part of the plants without endowing them with new powers and drastically altered forms.
Also, Clark puts a new and interesting spin on the nature of Triffid senses, suggesting that the tapping noise they make is both a form of communication and a sonar device which allows them to ‘see’ their prey in the way a dolphin ‘sees’ fish.
However, the author does not take the opportunity to explore the impact Triffids would have had on various eco-systems. Supposedly, all large mammals would have been virtually exterminated, along with birds. This would have had a knock-on effect on lower forms of life resulting in a readjustment of the balance of each eco-system.
Also, it would be likely that, like humans, instances of immune dogs, cats etc. could have survived and regressed to feral forms, with lower forms evolving to evade Triffids in various ways. One would have expected some kind of climatic change with the loss of humanity’s mechanised fuel-driven civilisation and the re-encroachment of vegetation in large areas around the world.
The ending, although exciting, seems somewhat rushed and contrived, but this didn’t mar what I found to be an un-put-downable thriller, which hopefully will bring many new readers to the original novel to find out where it all started.


Paradox – John Meaney (2000)

Paradox (The Nulapeiron Sequence, 1)

‘With its vast subterranean cities and extraordinary organic technologies, Nulapeiron is a world unlike any other. However, such wonders mean little to the majority of its inhabitants, ruled over by despotic Logic Lords and the Oracles, supra-human beings whose ability to truecast the future maintains the status quo.

But all this is about to change.

In a crowded marketplace Tom Corcorigan is witness to the brutal killing of a fleeing woman by a militia squad. His shock turns to horror when he recognises her as the stranger who, only the day before, had presented him with a small, seemingly insignificant info-crystal. Only now, as the fire in her obsidian eyes fades, does he realise who – or what – she really was: a figure from legend, a Pilot.

What Tom has yet to discover is that this crystal holds the key to mu-space, and so to freedom itself. For he has been given a destiny to fulfil – nothing less than the rewriting of his future, and that of his world…’

Blurb from the 2001 Bantam paperback edition

Meaney’s marvellous and intricate tale of the rise and fall of Tom Corcorigan begins somewhat blandly, but soon shifts into high gear and rampages along to the brilliant finale.
The fourteen year old Tom is the son of a market trader on (or rather in, for this is set in a subterranean world of class-based levels somewhat like Wingrove’s Chung Kuo) the planet Nulapeiron. One day he meets a strange woman who gives him a gift, only later discovering that she is a forbidden Pilot when he sees her killed in public by the local police.
There’s an odd Dickensian aspect to this novel. It’s almost a futuristic David Copperfield. Tom loses his parents (his father dies after his mother is seduced away by an Oracle, one of the rulers of the world, who can see into the future) and not being old enough to be eligible for housing is sent off to a school.
There he is bullied by both teachers and pupils and one day is falsely accused of stealing, has one of his arms removed at the order of the local aristocracy and is indented into the Lord’s household.
This is the turning point in Tom’s life. He begins to exercise and to learn martial arts from Maestro DaSilva, and here is born a plan to murder the Oracle who took his mother away and ruined his life.
Tom – who has devoted as much time to the development of his mind as well as his body (partly being taught by Modules stored within the Pilot’s crystal) is awarded a rare accolade and elevated to the aristocracy as Lord Corcorigan.
Only then does he achieve his aim and finally (in a complex and convoluted plan) kill the Oracle.
This however, awakens hope in the underground revolutionary groups who wish to remove the Oracles from power, and Tom becomes the figurehead and chief-architect for a plan to bring down their rule.
The novel is interspersed with excerpts from a kind of diary of a Pilot which Tom finds within the Pilot’s info-crystal.
There are echoes of Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance here with the weird but oddly credible mixture of feudal society and advanced technology.
Meaney however is a very individual and stylish writer and will no doubt be another important British writer of the 21st Century.


Year’s Best SF 3 – David G Hartwell (Ed.) (1998)

Year's Best SF 3

It’s interesting that most ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies tend to feature one or two of the old guard or the big names of SF, and this volume is no exception. In other cases, there may be ulterior motives, since the likes of Robert Silverberg, Jack Williamson, Will Gibson and Moorcock etc, still swing a lot of weight, and publishers will – one assumes – be keen to feature these names in a publication which is likely to sell to hardcore fans more than anyone else.
One has to say though that the quality of the work from the establishment writers (apologies to Mr Moorcock, who will no doubt quail at the thought of having become the establishment) is exceedingly high, particularly in the case of Moorcock, Silverberg and Gibson. There are one or two stories whose inclusion as ‘Year’s Best’ I would question, but then, I’m sure that’s going to be the case for most readers. It would have been nice, I think though, to have seen more fresh blood since there were only two or three writers in this volume who were new to me.
1997 seems to be the year of relationships in SF, since quite a few of these tales have a romantic element. Let’s hope it was just a passing fad.

Petting Zoo (1997) Gene Wolfe (Return of the Dinosaurs, May 1997, ed. Martin H. Greenberg, Mike Resnick, )

A young boy illicitly recreates an intelligent, slightly purple, T.Rex and rides off on a voyage of mayhem. However, there are consequences.

The Wisdom of Old Earth (1997) Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Dec 1997)

Post-humans getting back to nature try to experience what it is to be human and mortal again. Very poetic and not a little weird.

The Firefly Tree (1997) Jack Williamson (Science Fiction Age – May 1997)

Very poetic story about a young boy and a fabulous plant he discovers, which could be the First Contact between man and an intergalactic civilisation. Who will believe him when his dad is a dope farmer?

Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City (1997) William Gibson (New Worlds 1997)

A wonderful Ballard-esque tour through – as the title would suggest – thirteen (one imagines) photographs of a Far-East cardboard city where the residents have exploited the properties of boxes to the nth degree. Gibson always has an arty sharp visual side to his writing, which is more than usually evident here.
Quite marvellous.

The Nostalginauts (1997) shortstory by Sharon N. Farber [as by S. N. Dyer ] (Asimovs, March 1997)

A character-driven piece about time-travellers who can visit from the future, but only for a short time, insubstantially and with no sound, and only from 25 years ahead. This gives rise to a fashion of visiting one’s wedding or prom night, holding up pictures or messages from the future.

Guest Law (1997) novelette by John C. Wright (Asimovs July 1997)

More baroque technofabulousness, as a ship, piloted by the decadent and mannered hi-tech survivors of humanity, encounters another ship, and evokes the ‘Guest Law’ in order to receive the captn of the ship into their midst in mutual safety. Earth, it appears, is now controlled by machine intelligence and humanity is spread across space, living in ships and habitats.

The Voice (1997) shortstory by Gregory Benford (Science Fiction Age, May 1997)

An interesting concept of humans rediscovering written text after having been reliant on an inner ‘internet’ called The Voice. The Voice, however, seems to be resistant to the idea of humans reading for themselves.

Yeyuka (1997) shortstory by Greg Egan (Meanjin v56 #1)

Egan’s short stories can be compared with Ian Watson’s – not simply because they tend to be examinations of character within a Hard SF framework, but because they cover odd concepts, places and situations.
Here, a cancer surgeon, carrying a ring that guarantees him constant monitoring and medication goes to Africa where he finds the technology far behind that of Australia and the developed world. Very detailed. Very clever.

An Office Romance (1997) shortstory by Terry Bisson (Playboy, February 1997)

A very clever, witty and somewhat romantic story from Bisson, who posits a romance behind the windows of Windows in a future where we can immerse ourselves in an Office Environment, a place which is sometimes more real than real.

Itsy Bitsy Spider (1997) shortstory by James Patrick Kelly (Asimovs, June 1997)

Kelly decides to examine the emotive subject of Alzheimers, and how one might address it in the future, but this story is far more than that. It’s an examination of a relationship, and the way in which we all – consciously, deliberately or by means beyond our control – forget things from our past.

Beauty in the Night (1997) novelette by Robert Silverberg (Science Fiction Age, September 1997)

A wonderful poetic piece from Silverberg set in a future Salisbury where aliens have occupied the Earth and rearranged Stonehenge to their own alien configuration. A young man, fuelled by revenge against his brutal quisling father, sets out to kill one of the invaders.

Mr. Pale (1997) shortstory by Ray Bradbury (Driving Blind, Avon, 1997)

As is to be expected, a late tale from Bradbury with all the exoticism and poetry of his earlier years. Death is found travelling on a starship, having consigned the Earth to flames, but Death himself is dying. Should the Doctor try to save him?

The Pipes of Pan (1997) novelette by Brian Stableford (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1997)

An interesting story, a little steampunkish, set in a world where children’s growth has been retarded in an effort to deal with the population programme.

Always True to Thee, in My Fashion (1997) shortstory by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Science Fiction, January 1997)

Imagine that moods could be changed by designer drugs and that the fashion is set by designers for the following season. A relationship in this world is examined, revealing a great deal about the attitudes and motives of the narrator.

Canary Land (1997) novelette by Tom Purdom (Asimov’s Science Fiction, January 1997)

A dense, complex piece involving music, gene patents, big business and espionage.

Universal Emulators (1997) shortstory by Tom Cool (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1997)

Beautifully written, this is another of the stories in this volume that looks at a relationship. In this world, one can hire someone to be you, to take over half your life and deal with a heavy workload, or make your wife fall in love with you.

Fair Verona (1997) novelette by R. Garcia y Robertson (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 1997)

The narrator spends his time between living virtually in medieval Verona and taking rich clients on Wyevern hunts on an alien world. The Wyverns are collared are radio controlled so they are effectively harmless, until Tony is dragged from his game to find his client ripped to pieces by a Wyvern, and his own life as a witness on the line.

Great Western (1997) novelette by Kim Newman (New Worlds 1997)

An odd alternate Earth tale is which modern England becomes a parallel of the Wild West, with corrupt Reeves, evil squires, beleaguered widows running farms, and a gun-totin’ motorbike riding hero riding to the rescue.

Turnover (1997) shortstory by Geoffrey A. Landis (Interzone, January 1997)

A rather daft story about a Professor and her handsome assistant examining larval occurrences on Venus. Couldn’t see the point of it. Another story featuring relationships in this volume.

The Mendelian Lamp Case [Dr Phil D’Amato] (1997) novelette by Paul Levinson (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, April 1997)

One feels that this should really have been worked up onto a novel. It doesn’t read like a short story and seems rushed into an implausible conclusion. The overall premise is that the Amish, through extensive selective breeding, have created a new sustainable green technology, and can for instance use fire flies that will light the inside of one’s home.Marvellous idea. Not that well employed.

Kiss Me (1997) shortstory by Katherine MacLean (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, February 1997)

It’s well-written, amusing, and casts a cynical eye on the motivations of young women. MacLean is an SF veteran, and it’s no surprise that there is a retro feel to this story, harking back to some of the quirky ‘feel good’ stories of the 40s and 50s. It’s another short piece which focuses on (at least one half of) a relationship, but should it really be in a Year’s Best anthology?

London Bone (1997) novelette by Michael Moorcock (New Worlds 1997)

Moorcock, as Hartwell points out, is a major figure in British and International SF and fantasy. Here is a mature work which is not only a love letter to London itself, but a commentary perhaps on London society, with its obsession the facile and superficial. Ray, the narrator, is a dealer in services, providing tours and shows for jaded tourists and is offered a chance to be finance a lucrative deal. Under a disused site in Southwark some strange bones have been discovered, fused together by a chemical process and scrimshawed with figures of matchstick men, and these bits of bone are being sought by collectors. It’s a memorable piece which also manages to take a sideswipe at many of our more overhyped sacred cows such as Madonna. It may in its own way be a commentary on modern society’s penchant for feeding on its own remains, regurgitating the old bones rather than producing anything truly new and original. It is perhaps significant that Andrew Lloyd-Webber, regularly the subject of claims that he has plagiarised the work of earlier (and conveniently dead) composers, comes under Moorcock’s hammer, and is described as having gone bankrupt following the failure of his popularity and his last show ‘Dogs’.
It’s a marvellous piece, full of witty one-liners and snapshots from London’s real and imaginary past.


Gibbon’s Decline and Fall – Sheri S Tepper (1996)

Gibbon's Decline and Fall

More of a gender morality tale than an SF novel, arguably Tepper’s most feminist novel starts realistically enough in 1959 where a group of girls swear an oath to always be friends and to reunite regularly.
Years later, odd waves of behaviour are sweeping the world. Sexist and patriarchal views are in the ascendancy. One of the friends, a beautiful enigmatic mystery, is now dead but seems to be mysteriously appearing to them.
In America, a male-dominated organisation called The Alliance seeks to reduce women to the position of child-bearing slaves. The Alliance in turn has links to the Vatican which is itself in a secret union with Islam in order to deny women rights.
Things get stranger still in a plot development involving an ancient intelligent race which has been hiding itself from humans since they emerged into sapience, as well as their implacable foe, a male intelligence from out of space which is causing Humanity’s problems.
Tepper takes an awful lot of artistic licence with some degree of success. As a wish fulfilment fantasy it works, and at the end of the day it is a novel which I presume is written for women whom no doubt appreciate it on a far different level.
In my view there is much to commend this book. It is written from the soul and much righteous anger bleeds through in sections which – quite divorced from the fantastical elements – ring true in relation to modern USA.
Many would argue that it boils down to a ‘battle of the sexes’, and a grim and bloody one at that. There is some truth in this. It’s not a joyful read, but it’s one that stays in the mind.
The denouement though is a positive one, in which one of the female protagonists is given the power to make a choice regarding the future direction of the human race. The power of this novel is that even now, some weeks since I finished it, I am still wondering what choice I would have made. That’s a great thing for any book to be able to do.


Eternal Light – Paul J McAuley (1991)

Eternal Light

‘In the aftermath of an interstellar war an enigmatic star is discovered, travelling towards the Solar System from the galactic core. Its appearance adds a new and dangerous factor in the turbulent politics of the inhabited worlds as the rival factions – the power-holders of the Reunited Nations, the rebels who secretly oppose their power, and the Religious Witnesses – all see advantages to be gained. But what awesome technology started the star on its journey half a million years ago – and why?’

Blurb from the 2009 Gollancz Space Opera Collection paperback edition

Predating Alastair Reynolds’ Industrial Gothic epics comes this beautifully written bit of Big Science Space Opera. It somehow holds the spirit of Reynolds’ work, if not the scope and the gothic embellishments.
This is a future where humanity has won a war against The Enemy, an odd alien life-form called the Alea who are only raised into intelligence when threatened, but otherwise live as animals.
The psychic Dorthy Yoshida came into contact with a remnant of the Alea and had a fragment of an ancient Alean neuter-female planted in her head.
Dorthy is kidnapped by the immortal Golden, Talbeck Darlstilkin who, along with several others, has discovered that that a sun, complete with an orbiting planet, was aimed at the Earth half a million years ago. An expedition is en-route and the Golden wishes to capitalise on it. Others trying to stop Dalstilkin hire Suzy Falcon, an ex-navy pilot to also fly out. Meanwhile, a group of religious fanatics called The Witnesses, who believe that Godlike aliens are living at the core of the galaxy, have infiltrated the Navy ship which is carrying scientists to the rogue star.
The Alea in Dorthy’s mind has told her that the core of the galaxy is controlled by marauders, an offshoot of the Alea who have genetically engineered their neuter males to be continually intelligent.
The original Alea attack other intelligent life since the marauders will detect intelligence wherever it arises and they do not wish the marauders to detect their presence.
It’s a novel in which no character’s word can be trusted, and everyone seems to have their own agenda with the possible exception of Dorthy whose life has been controlled by both the authorities and the Alea in her head.
When the various factions reach the star they discover that the orbiting planet is a gas giant with one moon, a very odd patchworked moon whose surface is covered with holes; gateways to the centre of the galaxy.
There has been a rash of authors who have explored the concept of intelligence being ‘culled’. Alastair Reynolds and Jack McDevitt have used this device as a backdrop for two vastly different series of connected novels, although McAuley predates these. (A previous example of this, however, was Nigel Kneale’s final Quatermass tale with John Mills in which aliens were harvesting humanity for their musk, or at least an essence, for reasons which were left unexplained).
Reynolds (eventually) and McAuley provide rationales for the attacks on intelligent life. McDevitt, as of 2010, seems in no hurry to do so, and I secretly hope he never does. It is one of the beautiful mysteries in his novels and to have everything resolved and explained would lessen things. I am a firm believer in not having everything explained. Life isn’t like that. Sometimes you never find out why things happen, as in Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous With Rama’. I have refused to accept that the dire sequels exist and have convinced myself that there is just the one novel.
There was a wonderful episode of ‘One Foot in the Grave’ in which the unfailingly grumpy Victor Meldrew received a parcel containing a three foot plastic fly.
At the end of the episode, when these mysteries are usually explained, Victor and his wife gazed perplexedly at the insect, and Victor said something along the lines of ‘Some things are just destined to remain a mystery.’ This is why I found the episode so memorable. It was real. It was profound. It keeps one thinking… It makes it memorable, which is what authors, surely, should be striving to do.