My life in outer space

Archive for December, 2014

Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)

Ringworld (Ringworld #1)

‘With RINGWORLD, Larry Niven reaches full maturity as a writer of some of the most vivid and inventive science fiction the past decade has seen.

Niven has steadily constructed a logical and coherent piece of space all his own in a series of short stories of which Neutron Star, a Hugo Award Winner, was one.

Now, in RINGWORLD, he carries out the promise of the earlier structure and takes his familiar characters, the puppeteers, to a fantastically conceived scientifically logical world – the Ringworld of his title – a towering and beautiful concept. ‘

Blurb to the 1970 Ballantine Paperback Edition

Ringworld is undoubtedly a Landmark Science Fiction novel, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and possibly the definitive Big Dumb Object novel.
It’s a work which manages to succeed both as an ideas novel and as one of action adventure.
Niven is one of those SF authors who chooses to set the majority of his novels in the same fictional universe, in his case in a spherical region of space approximately seventy light years in diameter which is known to his readers as ‘Known Space’.
This one-author milieu is a common practice and works for both authors and readers since although the novels do not have to be directly linked, and may be set hundreds or thousands of years apart, the background is a familiar one for readers and allows authors to explore and develop aspects of already established elements.
‘Known Space’ for Niven had already been explored in short story format, anthology collections of which are available, and in the novels ‘A Gift From Earth’ and ‘The World of Ptaavs’, and so the background was already set for the ambitious ‘Ringworld’.
Louis Wu, a two-hundred year old pilot, kept young by the effects of a longevity drug, is recruited by the alien Nessus, a Pearson’s Puppeteer, thought to be insane by the standards of his ‘cowardly’ race (a species of two-headed, three legged highly intelligent creatures, driven by a racial urge of self-protection and avoidance of danger) to investigate an artefact surrounding a star far outside Known Space.
Along with a Kzin – a ferocious feline species – and Teela Brown – a human woman genetically predisposed to being lucky – Louis and Nessus set off to investigate the anomaly.
The synopsis, put so coldly, does not do justice to what turns out to be a far more complex tale of ingenious scientific extrapolation, alien psychology, hidden motives and sheer sense of wonder.
The artefact itself is a massive ring some ninety million miles in diameter surrounding a star (Niven uses the analogy of a strip of ribbon, fifty feet long, arranged on its edge in a hoop facing a candle at the centre of the circle created). The inner surface of the ring has walls a thousand feet high and contains what is essentially an Earth environment with enough room for three million times the surface of the Earth.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between the various alien races which is very much driven by the psychology of the races involved.
By the time this novel was written we had thankfully moved away from the prevalent idea that humans (usually American humans) were natural candidates if not to rule the galaxy then at least to guide its direction or dictate policy. In EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series for instance, Humanity is the chosen race, and certainly selectively-bred members of it are destined to take over as Custodians of The Galaxy. Niven has no such pretensions here. Humans, although having come out on top in a war with the rather Klingon-esque Kzin, are technologically inferior to other races with whom they have come into contact.
The Puppeteers seem at first to be somewhat comical creatures; small, white-furred, swan-necked, two headed beasts. They are pathologically cautious and seem harmless, but as the novel progresses, Louis and the rest of the crew discover not only their overwhelming technological strength, but their rather disturbing involvement in Earth and Kzin history.
Although altruistic, the Puppeteers will go to any lengths to protect their individual or racial safety, and describing them as ‘cowards’ is, as becomes clear, imposing a human value on an alien psychology. There is a parallel again here with Doc Smith’s Lensman series and Nadrek of Palain VII whose racial psychology was almost exactly that of the Puppeteers in that individual safety was the prime motivation of the Palainian psyche. Nadrek too, was also considered ‘‘mad’’ by members of his own race since he chose to expose himself to unwarranted danger by interaction with alien races.
Again, ‘Ringworld’ is also one of those novels that should have been left as a standalone piece. The sequels, although explaining the origins of the Ringworld, decline in quality as the series progresses. This, taken in isolation however, is a masterwork by a writer at the height of his powers.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K Dick (1968)

.Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

‘War had left the Earth devastated. Through its ruins, bounty hunter Rick Deckard stalked, in search of the renegade replicants who were his prey. When he wasn’t ‘retiring’ them, he dreamed of owning the ultimate status symbol – a live animal. Then Rick got his big assignment: to kill six Nexus-6 targets for a huge reward. But things were never that simple, and Rick’s life quickly turned into a nightmare kaleidoscope of subterfuge and deceit.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition

From the first page when Dick introduces us to Rick Deckard and his wife, debating what moods to set for themselves on their Penfield mood organs, we are thrown into a world where what is real and what is fake is clearly a matter of one’s own perception. Perhaps of all Dick’s novels, this is the one where his examination of the concept of ‘the fake’ works on so many levels that the meaning of the phrase itself becomes hazy.
This is a depopulated and poisoned Earth, most of Humanity having emigrated to other planets, leaving a world of empty apartment-blocks and radiation damaged humans. Animals, having suffered the brunt of the radiation which has blighted the ecosphere, are a rarity, which makes a live animal of any sort a highly desired status symbol. Consequently, businesses have sprung up which manufacture life-like electric animals such as Deckard’s sheep, the electric sheep of the title.
Deckard is a bounty hunter, part of a team which hunt down androids, originally created as ‘slaves’ to work on pioneer planets, some of which escape and, for reasons which are not entirely clear, return to Earth to live freely, posing as humans.
The androids are the product of the Rosen association, whose work has developed to such a degree that their latest development, the Nexus-6 model, although synthetic, is virtually indistinguishable from humans, and can only be detected by psychological testing of their empathic reactions.
When Deckard’s boss is injured by one of a group of six Nexus-6 androids who have killed their owners and escaped to Earth, Deckard is giving the job of hunting down and ‘retiring’ them.
This is not a novel, however, which is as simplistic as the synopsis would suggest. Dick is using the medium to explore – as is often the case – the themes and concepts which fascinate him.
Many of the characters, for instance, are concerned with their own states of mind and their place in society. Rick’s wife, one of Dick’s trademark harpies, is seen at the start of the novel setting her Penfield Mood organ, a device which allows one to dial states of mind at will. Although used as a comic device initially, the point being made is a serious one. The Mood Organ is a metaphor for drugs, a device which allows one to experience whatever mood one chooses, and if one doesn’t have the desire to choose a mood, there is an option to dial 3 which produces a compulsive desire to dial a mood at random.
There is also a spooky foreshadowing of consumer gullibility of TV via the Buster Friendly show. Buster Friendly is a TV host who somehow manages to be live on air twenty four hours a day and also simultaneously produce a separate and quite different radio show. Most of the viewing public don’t question this, although it is obvious to the reader that Buster must be an android himself, something that is pointed out to JR Isidore later in the novel. This is something that comes as a shock to JR and – even given his chickenhead status within the novel – has disturbing parallels with contemporary society’s slightly hallowed view of TV celebrities and the media.
In terms of the novel, it is merely another fake which forces the reader – if not the characters involved – to question the reality of the world in which they have become immersed.
The novel has of course been overshadowed by its cinematic adaptation, ‘Bladerunner’. Although an excellent movie in its own right it employs the shell of the ‘DADOES’ narrative, abandoning some of the weirder aspects of the novel in favour of a Gibsonesque cyberpunk superficiality. Its success has to a certain extent served to turn ‘DADOES’ into the book of the film, which it most certainly is not.
Certainly it is in the top ranking of Dick novels, but those who come to it as a new read need to divorce themselves from comparisons with the movie and see Dick’s vision fresh and weird in a world in some way very like ours, but at the same time unsettlingly strange and filled with doubts with regard to various perceptions of reality.
Highly recommended.


Cantata 140 (vt A Crack In Space) – Philip K Dick (1966)

Cantata-140

‘‘My first task will be to find an equitable disposition of the tens of millions of sleeping.’

It was 2080 AD – election year. Jim Briskin, candidate for the Presidency, was attempting to solve the unsolvable. Earth’s overpopulation crisis had driven millions into voluntary deep-freeze, to wait for better times. Now the pressure was on to wake them up – but where could they go? Eventually a solution presented itself from beyond the limits of human credibility.’

Blurb from the 1977 Methuen paperback edition

‘It’s the year 2080, and the Earth’s seemingly insurmountable overpopulation problem has been alleviated temporarily by placing millions of people in voluntary deep freeze. But in election year, the pressure is on to find a solution which will enable them to resume their lives. For Jim Briskin, presidential candidate, it seems an insoluble problem – until a flaw in the new instantaneous travel system opens up the possibility of finding whole new worlds to colonise.’

Blurb from the 2003 Gollancz paperback edition

For the sake of clarity the text of the 2003 Gollancz edition of ‘Cantata’ is identical to my copy of the Methuen 1977 ‘A Crack in Space’ (and presumably to the original 1966 text) although there was an original shorter novella called ‘Cantata 140’ published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in July 1964.
The title is taken from Bach’s ‘Cantata 140’ (‘Sleepers Awake’) and refers to the fact that in 2080 AD, Earth has a serious population problem and millions of people (mostly black) have gone into voluntary deep-freeze to be awoken when the situation has improved.
The cost of maintaining these sleepers however is prohibitive and Black Presidential Candidate Jim Briskin is under pressure to find a solution to the problem.(Jim Briskin, by the way, is also the name of a character in an earlier mainstream Dick novel)
Elsewhere, famous organ-transplant surgeon Dr Lurton Sands is being divorced by his wife Myra, an abort consultant, due to his affair with Cally Vale. Myra has hired Tito Cavelli, a black detective, to investigate her husband’s remarkable facility for finding organs at short notice for his transplants, and to find his mistress, who has disappeared without trace.
Dr Sands has left his Jiffi-Scuttler with Pethel Jiffi-Scuttler Sales & Service for repair, although there appears to be nothing wrong with it. It transpires that this particular Scuttler contains a flaw, a portal to a parallel and seemingly empty Earth where Sands has hidden his mistress.
When the crack is discovered, Birkin announces that the sleepers can be awakened to populate the new Earth, but it is soon discovered that this world is inhabited by Homo Sirianthropus.
The current president, Bill Schwartz, is keen to capitalise on the discovery and – in league with Leon Turpin – Head of Terran Development – initiates the migration despite the presence of the ‘Peking Men’.
Another interesting feature is an off-world brothel, ‘The Golden Door Moments of Bliss Satellite’ run by Thisbe Olt and George Walt. George Walt is a set of Siamese twins who share a common head, one of the bodies being George and the other, Walt. When Briskin threatens to close down the satellite George Walt escapes to the alternate Earth where the natives start to worship him as ‘The Wind God’
It’s one of Dick’s lesser novels and comes over as being not so much hastily written (as a lot of Dick’s good work was indeed hastily written) as not thought through. It suffers for one thing from an abundance of characters, some of whom are underused and seem to have no real business being in the novel, such as Phil Danville (Birkin’s speechwriter) and Don Stanley (Leo Turpin’s second-in-command). One gets the impression that Dick would have liked to have expanded on these characters but ran out of time or space.
The basic message seems to be that if we are faced with sharing the Earth with a different – if related – species, it puts humanity’s petty racist views into perspective.
The trademark Dick devices here are the strange names, the mutant/deformed human, the soulless corporate interest vs the regular Joe’s working in the small business (it is ironic that the gateway to the new world is discovered in the workshop of Pethel Jiffi-Scuttler Sales & Service), the strange device (the Jiffi-Scuttler) and the failed relationships.
Of ‘fakes’ (which manifest in most of Dick’s work) there is only George Walt who –although he may originally have been two people, is now only one, one half of him having died at some point in the past. This half was replaced with an artificial body so that George could maintain the illusion of his twin being still alive.


New Writings in SF 6 – John Carnell (Ed) (1965)

New Writings in SF-6

Contents

The Inner Wheel by Keith Roberts;
Horizontal Man by William Spencer;
The Day Before Never by Robert Presslie;
The Hands by John Baxter;
The Seekers by E.C. Tubb;
Atrophy by Ernest Hill;
Advantage by John Rackham. (John T Phillifent)

The Inner Wheel – Keith Roberts

The best story of New Writings in SF 6 is Keith Roberts’ ‘The Inner Wheel’ which takes up nearly half the book. It’s a highly poetic and stylised piece, reminiscent of Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human’
A young man feels drawn to the town of Warwell, and once there, is struck by its sheer Stepford-esque banality, and the odd coincidences which are occurring, as if his desires are being granted by an unseen force.
When he meets a woman trying to escape from the town he becomes aware that he is a failed candidate, originally selected to become part of a gestalt, but the gestalt, (rather like Sturgeon’s) lacks a sense of guilt or conscience.

Horizontal Man – William Spencer

An immortal is locked into what is essentially a virtual reality machine and has explored and memorised all combinations of possible experiences to the extent that he is being driven insane by boredom. A bleak and rather dull exploration of the dangers of immortality and the nature of ennui.

The Day Before Never – Robert Presslie

Another bleak tale of Human Resistance and their fight against the Barbarians, aliens who have invaded Earth and massacred most of Humanity. It is well-written and atmospheric. An ambivalent ending allows one to read it as optimism or nihilistic fatalism.

The Hands – John Baxter

An excellent and enjoyable (if peculiar) little story, written sparsely and efficiently, which adds to its somewhat disturbing tone.
A group of astronauts returning from the planet Huxley (a brave new world indeed) disembark with additional limbs and organs sprouting from their bodies. It’s testament to the writer’s ability that this premise does not come over as at all ludicrous. The sense of alien-ness which emerges from the astronauts’ debriefing further adds to the surreality.
Despite its deceptive simplicity it hangs in the mind like a stubborn dream.

The Seekers – EC Tubb

Tubb’s view of Humanity is seldom a positive one. His Dumarest novels (despite their formulaic nature) inevitably shows Human society to be riddled with greed, corruption and violence.
In this story – very different in style from his 30-odd volume Space Saga – we see a group of men abroad a starship, having spent years in space. The Captain is dead and the crew have concentrated on their individual passions and obsessions, and have ceased to function as a team. Intalgo, an artist, struggles to create the right expression of the face of a crucified man, while the engineer minutely examines the workings of the ship. Delray spends his time in a VR environment, fighting.
When the discover an artefact on a barren planet, they land and become trapped by visions of what each of them truly desires.
Earlier in the story Intalgo remembers the Captain describing them as being ‘rats scuttling among the granary of the stars’.
Here is the trap.
The insignificance of Man is a theme we seem to have shied away from since the Sixties. Wells revelled in it. It’s high time it was revived.

Atrophy – Ernest Hill

An unmemorable tale about the concept of automation extrapolated to its logical conclusion. Inspired I suspect by Philip K Dick, it has, at the end of the day, nothing to say.

Advantage – John T Phillifent (as John Rackham)

An Army Major exploits the prescient talent of one of his soldiers to avert accidents whilst the Major is in charge of a construction project on a newly-discovered planet.
It’s an unexceptional piece which fails to exploit the basic premise (which is an interesting one) or the setting to maximum effect. The author missed the opportunity to pose the question of whether it was ethical to exploit one man’s freakish talent to his detriment in order to save the lives of perhaps hundreds of others.


Into The Alternate Universe – A Bertram Chandler (1964)

Into the Alternate Universe (Grimes in the Rim World, #1)

‘Others called their expedition a “wild ghost chase.” But for Space Commodore John Grimes and the beautiful Sonya Verrill who had initiated the project, it was strictly scientific research. Their trip along the rim of the galaxy in search of two men – two dead men – was also an investigation of the long-puzzling phenomenon of the Rim Ghosts. They would do this by penetrating into alternate universes.

There was only one real problem involved in this study – how to report its results. For once the breakthrough to an alternate world was achieved, there was no known way of getting out….’

Blurb from the 1964 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Commodore Grimes is bored being in charge of a spaceport, until he gets a visit from Sonya Verrill, a woman who can call on the resources of the Galactic Federation to mount a project to investigate Rim Ghosts. Rim Ghosts are (as the name would suggest) phantoms sighted on the Galactic rim and are thought to be visions of ourselves from the Alternate Universe. Verrill’s ulterior motive however is to reach the alternate universe and reunite with one of her dead lovers who may still be alive in the alternate reality.
Grimes selects a crew who have all had experience of sighting Rim Ghosts and they set off.
This is a minor work from Chandler, and contains some implausibilities (within the context of the internal reality) and unanswered questions.
Desperate to find some way of contacting the Rim Ghosts Grimes initiates a seance, to be run by Calhoun, a member of an odd spiritualist sect. They do indeed contact something, but it is a malign entity which flings them into a universe, empty but for the frozen remains of ancient seagoing vessels, aeroplanes and spaceships.
They spend the rest of the novel exploring their surroundings and trying to get back.
It comes across as a very hurried piece of work in which Chandler intended to go to the Alternate Universe (which they do, very briefly, before hopping back home) but got distracted by his dark Sargasso of Space place.


A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C Clarke (1961)

A Fall of Moondust

Clarke includes a foreword in which he explains that this was written before the Moon landings when some feared that the first ship, if not the astronauts, might sink into deep dust which in a vacuum may exhibit the same properties as water.
Thus Clarke envisions The Sea of Thirst, composed entirely of moondust across which a ship might conceivably ‘sail’. The vessel is The Selene which ferries rich thrillseekers across these strange oceans of dust.
No one, however, had reckoned on a vast bubble of gas which had been making its way to the surface for aeons. The release of such pressure causes a momentary whirlpool which sucks the hapless craft below the surface as the dust settles perfectly flat once again.
Now the lunar authorities must not only locate the ship and her trapped occupants but find a way to raise her to the surface.
One can tell that this is an early work from Clarke and one which has dated somewhat. The problem here is that Clarke has not given any consideration to social development or evolution. The social mores are very much rooted in the early Sixties. From today’s perspective it’s difficult to seriously consider the concept of passengers smoking in a trans-moon vehicle as well as which the ethnic mix of the passengers seems to be disappointingly anglo-saxon. The large number of characters which is comprised of the passengers and crew, the rescue team and the media, also causes problems since there is no effective exploration or development of any of the characters. This leaves the majority of the protagonists as a little one-dimensional.
Having said that, the scientific aspects are unsurprisingly well thought out and Clarke subjects his trapped human cargo to all the pitfalls that he has envisioned given the scenario.


Methuselah’s Children – Robert A Heinlein (1958)

Methuselah's Children

‘The ‘Howard families’ were the product of a genetic experiment, an interbreeding program which had produced one hundred thousand people with an average life-expectancy of a century and a half.

Now, at last, their existence was known on Earth, and the entire world demanded to share the ‘secret of eternal youth.’

Blurb from the 1971 New English Library paperback edition.

Originally serialised in a shorter form in ‘Astounding’ in 1941, ‘Methuselah’s Children’ has an interesting premise, in that in the Nineteenth Century, Ira Howard, obsessed with the concept of longevity, set up a Foundation whose trustees were instructed to use the money to actively pursue the lengthening of the human lifespan. Unsure of how else to proceed, the trustees sought out individuals who had four living grandparents and informed them of a substantial settlement should they choose to marry one of a number of other individuals in the same position.
This odd and improbably successful initiative produced what was to become known as The Howard Families; a group of one hundred thousand people, living secretly within human society and interbreeding amongst themselves, many of whom were by now over a hundred and fifty years old.
Their calamitous decision to announce their presence to the general public results in the families being arrested and forced into a reservation, drugged and tortured to reveal what the public at large believed was a secret immortality drug.
To this point, despite some rather dated characterisation (Heinlein was never too good at anticipating social change, although his notions of future fashions were reasonably prophetic , since many of the men wear kilts and public near-nakedness is acceptable in some circumstances) the novel moves along solidly, but loses its way when Lazarus Long, a two-hundred plus year old maverick tough guy, masterminds the hijack of a new space-craft and escapes with the Howard Families in search of a new home on a new planet.
Putting aside the logistics of getting a hundred thousand people onto a ship, along with supplies, once the escape is effected the tension of the plot is lost.
In their quest to find a new home, the Families at first encounter a planet of benign humanoids who turn out to be nothing more than intelligent pets of a vastly more intelligent race. Moving on to the next planet they meet a race of highly advanced telepathic gestalt beings who create a paradise for the humans to live in.
The lesson is learned that humans deteriorate without the stimulus of challenge, and the ship heads back for Earth where, in the interim, the secret of longevity has been discovered, and all humanity is now part of the Howard Families.
Had Heinlein confined the story to Earth or at least The Solar System, and concentrated on the theme of persecution within one’s own culture, this would no doubt have been a more consistent and important book.
For some, it is one of Heinlein’s best, and despite the disjointedness and the rather cliched alien races, it is an enjoyable read.
Interestingly, Lazarus Long mentions having once met Pinero, the protagonist of Heinlein’s first published short story ‘Life-Line’, who attempted to establish the date of Long’s death, but finding the answer absurd, refunded Lazarus’ money.


Children of The Lens – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1948)

Children of the Lens (The Lensman Series, #6)

Probably the quintessential Space Opera of its time, the Lensman series has dated – although not so badly as the work of some of his contemporaries – due mainly, in my opinion, to Smith’s rather one-dimensional characterisation, his dialogue and his depiction of female roles. Paradoxically, given the rather limited characterisation of the humans his aliens are sometimes truly alien. Indeed, the mindsets of some of the non-human protagonists are often far more skilfully depicted than their human counterparts.
Despite that, provided one bears in mind the social climate in which this was written and reads the novel in context, they can still be hugely enjoyable.
The term ‘Space Opera’ is actually used within the text at one point when Kim Kinnison – the hero of the series – goes undercover posing as a writer of the genre. Whether the alter ego was based on anyone in particular is not known.
This is the finale to Smith’s six volume saga. Smith was an early forerunner of today’s ‘Big Concept’ writers such as Greg Bear and Stephen Baxter, and though some of his scientific fabulations seem somewhat preposterous by today’s standards it was Smith and writers like him who created that ‘sense of wonder’ for many readers, not only when this was published as a magazine serial in the Nineteen Forties, but when republished in book form in the fifties and (for reasons unknown) enjoying an unexpected renaissance in the mid-seventies. The series has recently been republished by an independent publisher and hopefully will find a new generation of readers.
Smith’s strength lies in his ability to convey the vastness of Time and Space, his premise being that billions of years ago a race of humanoids – The Arisians – was born in our galaxy and evolved far beyond the point at which humanity now stands.
They learned that by observation and the calculations of their powerful minds they could predict the future to a certain degree. They knew that a galaxy was about to pass completely through their own galaxy, and that the gravitational pull of suns against each other would produce billions of new planets, upon which Life would evolve.
They also knew that another ancient race, the cruel and tyrannical Eddorians, had plans to dominate both galaxies and sate their immortal lust for power.
The Arisians only advantage was that the Eddorians were not aware of their existence, and so was set in motion a plan which was to span millions of years, taking us through the fall of Atlantis, the Roman Empire and thus through the Twentieth Century and beyond.
In essence, this is an epic war of ideologies, in that the Arisians represent democracy and free will, while the Eddorians represent a system of Hierarchical totalitarianism, enforced by a militaristic regime (In this respect it is interesting to compare the physical description of Smith’s Eddorians with Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, who themselves are a metaphor for the forces of Communism. Both are sexless, emotionless amorphous creatures, who reproduce by binary fission, with each new half retaining the memories and skills of the original).
The Arisians’ secret weapon is a selective breeding programme which has been in operation on four different planets since intelligent life evolved.
Only one of the four races can go on to produce the super-beings capable of defeating the Eddorians.
Humans, of course, win the ‘race’ race and the couple selectively bred to give birth to the Homo Superior children are inevitably white and North American.
This idea of selectively breeding humans rather puts a dent into the concept of Arisians as benign Guardians of Democracy, and although one can argue that it was the Arisians’ only option, it is never really addressed as a moral issue within the text.
The Children themselves are four girls and boy who, in their late teens, have to conceal that fact that they are the most powerful – if underdeveloped as yet – beings in the Universe. We are led to believe that the girls will ultimately become the wives of their brother, and the mothers of the race that will replace the Arisians as Guardians of Civilisation.
An oddly incestuous episode also ensues between Kit (the boy) and his mother in a strange scene where she – in need of brain-restructuring and training, for want of a better phrase – allows the mind of her son to enter hers, rather than submit to mental penetration by the Arisians (of whom she has an incurable phobia).
The description of this act is oddly violent and not a little sexual, made worse by the rather stilted professions of love between Mother and son before the procedure.
But Hell, this is Pulp Fiction. It never pretends to be Shakespeare, and despite its political incorrectness I still find it a nostalgic and stonking good read.


The Thing From The Lake – Eleanor Marie Ingram (1921)

The Thing From the Lake

Roger Locke is a successful New York composer of stage musicals and popular sings who decides to buy himself a farm as an investment. The house is decrepit and stands beside a stagnant lake. He decides to spend the night in his new home but awakens to find a woman in his bed beside him who holds a knife to him in the darkness while he in turn grips a braid of her hair. She warns him to leave the house and he realises that she has used the knife to cut off the braid of hair he was holding, and has disappeared.
Meanwhile, his young cousin, (who has overbearing parents with impossibly high standards) has married Verne, a young cabaret entertainer. Roger is initially appalled but decides to reserve judgment. As Verne is originally from a farming family he offers the couple the chance to run his farm for him and supervise the renovation of the house while he is in New York.
When he returns to the farm a collapsed dam has been rebuilt and the lake has widened and deepened. However, from then on he is visited by both the mysterious woman and an evil presence who claims that the woman belongs to him and vows that Locke will be destroyed.
It’s a very readable book with some engaging and interesting characters. Ingram certainly manages to produce an atmosphere of dread and unearthly unease when the thing (from another dimension, it appears) manifests itself, while at the same time establishing a growing bond between Locke and his mysterious – possibly immaterial – female visitor, slotting this novel into the tradition of supernatural romances. Indeed, there is much in this that echoes with Anne Rice’s novels of Lasher and the Mayfair Witches.
It’s also an interesting window on the subject of class distinction in the US at the time. Locke’s family appear to be well-to-do, if not fabulously wealthy. Locke himself is described as being the wealthiest in his family, although his money is self made.
Locke’s reaction to his cousin marrying a vaudeville entertainer might seem a little puzzling today but it’s clear that entertainers, particularly those that perform in bars or clubs were thought to be disreputable folk. Maybe Ingram was making a conscious effort to disabuse her public of that notion.
Her unconscious may well have been doing other things, since at the denouement, the main characters aim to flee the house in a car and escape the malign creature’s reach. No provision appears to have been made for evacuation of the domestic staff who would presumably have been left to their fate.


Brass Man – Neal Asher (2005)

Brass Man (Agent Cormac, #3)

‘On the primitive Out-Polity world of Cull, a latter-day knight errant called Anderson is hunting a dragon.

He little knows that, far away, another man – though now more technology than human flesh – has resurrected a brass killing machine called ‘Mr Crane’ to assist in a similar hunt, but one that encompasses star systems. When agentt Cormac realizes that this old enemy still lives, he sets out in pursuit aboard the attack ship Jack Ketch.

For the inhabitants of Cull, each day proves a struggle to survive on a planet roamed by ferocious insectile monsters, but the humans persevere in slowly building an industrial base that may enable them to reach their forefathers’ starship, still orbiting far above them.

They are assisted by an entity calling itself Dragon, but its motives are questionable, having created genetic by-blows out of humans and the hideous local monsters. To make things even worse, the planet itself, for millennia geologically inactive, is increasingly suffering from earthquakes…
Meanwhile, Mr Crane himself doggedly seeks to escape a violent past that he can neither forget nor truly remember. So he continues mindlessly in his search for sanity, which he may discover in the next instant or not for a thousand years…’

Blurb from the 2006 Tor paperback edition

Following on from the events in ‘Line of Polity’, Ian Cormac, and a coterie of AIs are on the trail of Skellor, a scientist fast becoming subsumed by viral Jain technology.
The Jain are an extinct Elder race whose resurrected biotechnology has proven so dangerous that the AIs controlling the Human Polity worlds are prepared to destroy entire Star Systems to contain the threat.
Skellor has fled to a world outside the Polity, colonised by humans who travelled to it in a generation ship. Also making a home for himself on this world is one of the four spheres which once made up the single entity known as Dragon.
Meanwhile, it appears that factions have appeared in AI society and certain artificial minds wish to embrace Jain technology in order to accelerate their evolution.
The central figure in Asher’s characteristically complex tale however, is the Brass Man of the title, Mr Crane, the insane android/golem who first appeared in ‘Gridlinked’. The tale of how Mr Crane came to become a big scary trophy-collecting serial killer is told in sequential flashback throughout the novel.
Crane, thought dismantled and buried, has been resurrected by Skellor to use as a tool to his nefarious ends, although the golem is constantly attempting to reconcile the fragments of his shattered mind in order to become whole and sane.
As always, Asher has produced a page-turning barnstormer of a book set within his Polity universe. Thankfully, the quality of writing and content is being sustained and he clearly leaves us with questions about this civilisation which need to be answered.
I’m also happy to see that we may not have seen the last of Mr Crane, one of my favourite literary creations.