This is an interesting collection of Egan’s published stories from the early Nineties, many of which examine the Dickian issue of what it means to be conscious and how we define ‘the personality’. Egan often looks at this question from intriguing and sometimes oblique angles.
The Infinite Assassin (1991)
Interzone 48 – June 1991
The protagonist is a man employed because his self tends to remain consistent across infinite realities in a worlds where a drug called S allows access to these parallel worlds. His job is to track down the few people who do not just dream their alternate lives but drag the rest of us in there with them.
The Hundred Light-Year Diary (1992)
Interzone 55 – January 1992
The conceit behind this story is that we have discovered a reverse universe running backwards and can receive ‘diaries’ from those who have already lived their lives identically to ours. Thus one can review one’s life in advance. However, the question is how much of the truth would be included?
Interzone 36 – June 1990
A satirical tale of eugenics and designer baby making
The Caress (1990)
Asimov’s – Jan 1990
A detective in the near future investigating a homicide finds a chimera with the body of a leopard and the head of a woman and becomes embroiled in a strange world of bioengineering and art.
Blood Sisters (1991)
Interzone 44 – February 1991
A story of twin sisters who take different oaths in life, and one of whom becomes the victim of a genetic disease. the tale however, takes an unexpected direction.
Interzone 41 – November 1991
Egan examines one of the possible outcomes of a society where one can purchase implants to change the foundations of one’s personality in order to remove deep seated feelings like grief, religious belief or inhibitions, or to implant them.
The Safe-Deposit Box (1990)
Asimov’s – September 1990
A rather complex tale of a man who wakes up every day in the same city but in a different body
A future boss of a movie studios awakens after an assassination experience to discover that he is viewing himself from a point near the ceiling.
A Kidnapping (1995)
A wealthy man receives a videocall telling him that they ‘have his wife’ and demanding a ransom. Another examination of what it means – objectively in this case – for a personality to be copied.
Learning to Be Me (1990)
Interzone #37 – July 1990
The Ndoli Jewel – as featured in other Egan stories – is at the centre of this tale of a question of identity.
The Moat (1991)
Aurealis #3 – 1991
A future Australia in an overpopulated world where a lawyer working for displaced immigrants is disturbed by his fiancee’s tales of a rapist’s sperm samples having no discernible DNA. A clever story that manages to cover contemporary issues obliquely.
The Walk (1992)
Asimov’s – December 1992
A man is forced at gunpoint to inhale a neural implant that will alter his viewpoint and beliefs.
The Cutie (1989)
Interzone #29 – May 1989
A rather poignant story set in a world where one can buy a designer baby implanted with a suicide gene that kicks in at four years old.
Into Darkness (1992)
Asimov’s – January 1992
Reminiscent of Budrys’ ‘Rogue Moon’, this is an excerpt from the life of a specialised rescue worker, one who runs through the rando wormholes that have appeared to plague the world. One can run through them in one direction when they appear and hope that you can rescue people who have been trapped inside, as one can only go forward. If you try to turn back, you will die. You must carry on to the other end and hope to get out before the wormhole collapses.
Appropriate Love (1991)
Interzone #50 – August 1991
In a future healthcare insurance scenario, a wife has to have her husband’s comatose brain implanted into her body until his clone body has grown to the point where the brain can be replaced. What effect, however, will this have on their relationship?
The Moral Virologist (1990)
Pulphouse #8 – Summer 1990
Egan takes a swipe at the madness of US Right Wing Christianity in a tale of a Christian Virologist who has designed a virus that will kill anyone who has sex with more than one person.
Eidolon #9 – Winter 1992
Another story based in the world of the ‘Ndoli Jewel’ where a couple decide to try and see what it is like to be each other.
Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (1992)
Interzone #61 – July 1992
A slightly Ian-Watson-esque story following an event in 2018 when everyone in the world became mentally susceptible to each other’s deepest beliefs. Consequently those who believed similar things joined together and ‘attractor’ wells formed, while those whose beliefs are fairly agnostic – such as the narrator – wander the world in the gaps between, pulled by the various tides of belief.
‘In Boston, two centuries after the Tea Party, harbour dumping is still a favourite local sport, only these days it’s major corporations piping toxic wastes into the water. Environmentalist and professional-pain-in-the-ass Sangamon Taylor is Boston’s latter-day Paul Revere, spreading the word from a 40-horsepower Zodiac raft. Embarrassing powerful corporations in highly telegenic ways is the perfect method of making enemies, and Taylor has a collection that would do any rabble-rouser proud.
After his latest exploit, he’s wanted by the FBI, possibly by the Mafia, and definitely by a group of Satanist angel-dust heads who think he’s looking for a PCP factory, not PCB contamination.
Pretty soon, dodging bullets is the least of Taylor’s problems – because somewhere out there are an unhinged genetic engineer and a lab-concocted bacterium that could destroy all ocean life – and that’s just for starters.’
Blurb from the 2001 Arrow paperback edition
Sangamon Taylor is a vigilante exposer of companies who illegally dump toxic waste. He lives in Boston, a city built mostly on waterways with a bay which is Taylor’s main area of investigation. Upon discovering illegal pipelines, he and his team cap them and through a process of media exposure usually have the factory or facility shut down, although not necessarily managing to prove that the parent company was to blame.
Things become a little difficult for Taylor when he discovers PCB contaminated lobsters (which when consumed by humans produce symptoms of chloracine poisoning .i.e. which is a sign that the body is seriously contaminated) and high levels of PCBs in the waters of the harbour.
Having already received sinister threats from a heavy metal satanic cult who think he is investigating their drug factory, Taylor is then pursued by men trying to kill him. This seems to be linked to his old college friend Dolmacher who, it transpires, has created a genetically engineered bacterium which feeds on PCBs and renders them harmless.
Things take a turn for the worse when his pursuers try to kill him, a bomb is found in the cellar of his house, and he is labelled as a terrorist.
In order to redeem himself, Taylor must track down Dolmacher (who has disappeared leaving the corpse of a hitman in his bath) and expose the Basco Corporation for dumping toxic waste in the harbour.
Stephenson rather overcomplicates the plot and perhaps the novel suffers from an excess of minor characters who tend to blend into each other.
On the other hand, it is firmly grounded in the realities of toxic waste and should be applauded for making its readers more aware of what the consequences might be should these sort of substances leak into the food chain.
‘DAWN OF A NEW DOOMSDAY
It was in the light of the swift star ‘God’s Eye’ – said to have been thrown aloft by the Ancients before the Desolation – that Beatra was captured by raiders from under the Earth.
Armed with only a psi-kinetic sand-sword and a Dire Wolf’s eyes, Jeremy Wolfhead followed, and found a strange city ruled by the descendants of an ancient government that had escaped the Desolation – a city that was preparing to emerge and bring to Earth a second, even more horrible, Doomsday!’
Blurb from the 1978 Berkley paperback edition
Jeremy Wolfhead lives with his grandfather in a Post Apocalyptic America, three thousand years after an atomic war. Life is good for Jeremy. He lives in a large house with his grandfather and his beautiful wife, Beatra. One morning the couple rise early to see the Gods Eye which we realise is the light of a satellite which orbits the earth.
However, a group of pale-skinned strangers appear and Jeremy’s dog, Goro, is killed, his wife kidnapped and Jeremy himself knocked unconscious.
He awakens under the care of a quasi-scientific brotherhood, and is able to hear their thoughts. He can also, it is soon discovered, use the power of his mind to create vortices of whatever matter is available. Thus a whirling disc of dust can be used as a weapon to cut wood or slice a man’s throat.
The Brotherhood have not taught Jeremy this out of the kindness of their hearts. There is a prophecy that says that a man with a Wolf’s Head will go amongst the people who live underground and destroy the Gods Eye. The descendants of the US President’s emergency bunker have remained underground and learned to live in darkness. Rather like Wells’ Morlocks they have evolved pallid white skin and large eyes. It is they who have kidnapped Beatra in order to discover information about the people of the surface.
In order for Jeremy to see underground, the brothers have grafted part of his brain into the brain of the she dire wolf, Virgil, a creature whose species mutated due to the radiation and evolved infra-red vision.
And so, Jeremy sets off to the underground city of the President to destroy the Gods Eye and rescue his wife.
It lacks the verve and creative flourishes of Harness’s early work and invites comparison with similar novels such as Pangborn’s ‘Davy’, Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’ and the brilliant ‘Riddley Walker’. These other books are richer in ideas and characterisation. There is little of the detailed and colourful societies of ‘the Ring of Ritornel’ and ‘the Paradox men’ or indeed, the complex plots and structure.
Comparisons also have to be drawn with Star Wars which premiered a couple of years before this book came out and which exhibits certain plot parallels.
Jeremy (like Luke Skywalker) is an orphan who meets a mentor in the form of a robed man (Father Arcrite) and is taught how to employ his mind powers before being sent off to face the President (Emperor) and rescue the princess (Beatra).
This book has a Gods Eye, Star wars has a Death Star. Jeremy’s father is also revealed to be still alive, while Jeremy thought he was dead.
Whether or not Harness was influenced by these films is not clear. It’s unlikely he can have been unaware of them, although it also has to be pointed out that by the time ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, this book may have already been in print.
Another theory may be that Harness (presumably like George Lucas) was merely following the Campbell structure of narrative, of which films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are perfect examples. The hero is taken out of his/her environment and sent on a quest, facing challenges on the way, meeting allies and mentors, until eventually they must face the great enemy, be it Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West or (in this case) the US President.
The hero then returns, having gained the prize, but more importantly, wisdom.
Harness has some interesting points to make about how some species have evolved to fit particular niches. The Dire Wolf, for instance, as has been said, has developed infra-red vision, while crocodiles and humans have adapted themselves to life underground.
Hallmarks of Harness’ work are the prophecy, and the final twist which didn’t come as a great surprise since most astute readers would have worked out that Jeremy’s father was the returner, sent back by the Undergrounders, although maybe not that he is also father Phaedrus.
It’s also a relief that that Harness did not opt for a sentimental ending, which is again typical of his work. One gets the impression that life is moving on, rather than being halted by the emotional full stop of a happy ending.
In the Matter of the Assassin Merefirs – Ken W Purdy (Analog 1972)
As for Our Fatal Continuity… – Brian W Aldiss (New Worlds 3 1971)
The Old Folks – James E Gunn (Nova 2 1972)
From Sea to Shining Sea – Jonathan Ela (Sierra Club Bulletin 1972)
Weihnachtabend – Keith Roberts (New Worlds 4 1972)
The Years – Robert F Young (Galaxy 1972)
Darkness – Andre Carneiro – trans by Leo L Barrow (Nova 2 1972)
Cymbal Player – Lawrence Sail (Cornudo 1972)
Report from the Planet Proteus – Lawrence Sail (Cornudo 1972)
Columbus on St Domenica – John Cotton (Sceptre Press 1972)
After Death – Patricia Beer (New Statesman 1972)
Faex Delenda Est – Theodore R Cogswell (Cornudo 1972)
Words of Warning – Alex Hamilton (Flies on the Wall 1972)
Out, Wit! – Howard L Myers (Analog 1972)
An Imaginary Journey to the Moon – Victor Sabah (1972)
The Head and The Hand – Christopher Priest (New Worlds 3 1971)
Hero – Joe W Haldeman (Analog 1972)
Brian Aldiss’ afterword is, as always, a masterclass in the examination of the nature of SF. Here he is examining the possible consequences of the plethora of books about to be released which deal (in one way or another) with the history of SF. One of them (‘Billion Year Spree’) is his own. It was later expanded and revised as ‘Trillion Year Spree’
Perhaps mischievously, Aldiss moves on to briefly examine the history of SF and celebrate the new diversity of the genre which seems to be in direct conflict with what Harrison says in the preface. He is merely making the point, however, that these many and various SF histories of varying length and quality should all be welcomed since they open up the debate about what SF was, what it is and into what it may evolve. In the thirty-five years since this book was published the ‘SF is dead’ brigade have been proven wrong since SF continues to evolve and innovate and often produce brilliant work, if not masterpieces.
Theodore Sturgeon was right when he said ‘90% of everything is rubbish’ (or words to that effect) and ninety percent of SF has always been rubbish. It still is, but there is always that ten percent of pure quality cream and brilliance which floats to the top. To be fair, fifty percent of the ninety percent is usually fairly entertaining hokum and I have never had a problem with that.
Long live SF! Long live the cream! Long live the hokum!
The Assassin Merefirs – Ken W Purdy
It is shame that Purdy did not write more SF. His short stories are amazingly inventive, peopled with extraordinary characters that seem to leap fully-rounded from the pen. Here we have a dramatisation of a court case, from spme period in the future, although the bureaucracy and cronyism of the court environment does not seem to have advanced much.
As to Our Fatal Continuity – Brian Aldiss
Spookily prescient, this Aldiss piece is the introduction to a fictitious book about Art, concentrating on the work of an artist born in 1972. The titles of the artist’s work are last words of various public figures, as in the title of the piece.
It’s a very erudite study of the art world and predicts, to a certain extent, today’s conceptual art and installation work.
The Old Folks – James E Gunn
Another prescient tale – albeit somewhat in the style of The Twilight Zone – in which a young couple and their son visit the wife’s parents who have retired to a senior citizen’s community (come to think of it, the community could have been called The Twilight Zone).
While the grandparents are at a town meeting the young child is – apparently deliberately – run down by an elderly lady in her car who drives away.
The couple drive the child to the town hall, ostensibly to find a doctor – where they discover that the old people have an agenda, and a burning resentment against the young.
It reflects the growing politicisation of the over-sixties in America at the time, a movement which has grown in strength ever since although it is not clear if the movement’s policies include the hatred and disenfranchisement of one’s own children.
From Sea to Shining Sea – Jonathan Ela
Rather like Orson Welles’ ‘War of The Worlds’ this tongue-in-cheek proposal for a coast-to-coast US canal, utilising nuclear explosions as part of the construction and advocating the removal of some of the ‘less aesthetic’ parts of the Rocky Mountains was taken seriously by many readers and apparently one irate congressman. Is it SF? I suspect it is, and a very original and entertaining piece, redolent of the satirical SF of Sheckley and Vonnegut.
Weinachtabend – Keith Roberts
This is how one writes a short story. Roberts sets his in a Britain under Nazi rule (or ‘The Two Empires’ as it is now called). Martin is a trusted aide to the Minister and is invited to his country house for Christmas talking along a young Aryan lady with him. In his room he finds a book, a banned publication of Jewish/American propaganda and gets a call from an American reporter.
It’s a very clever story. The hero is continually running through his thoughts and doubts on the page as though reviewing ‘alternate actions’. This is a device often used on TV and film but is not often seen in literature. In this story it is also entirely appropriate since this is a view of an alternate history. The reader soon gets the idea of what is going on, but Roberts is careful not to flood the piece with historical information. The setting is important but is secondary to the story which is about motivation and manipulation. Just who is pulling the strings?
The Years – Robert F Young
Rather like the time-travel tale in SF4 this has dated badly. An old man manages to bribe his way into a time-travel machine and returns to see his dead wife as she was when he first met her. however the teenage version of his wife gets the wrong impression when she sees him staring at her and calls him a dirty old man. This sours his memories of her.
Darkness – Andre Carneiro
An example of Brazilian SF which is very good and very memorable, reminiscent of Wells’ tale of the man who visits the country of the blind. When an odd darkness falls across the world, flamesbecome cool and then non-existent, the sun disappears and the narrator is taken in by a group of blind people who have their own farm. Idiosyncratic, atmospheric and poetic.
Cymbal Player – Lawrence Sail
Report from the Planet Proteus – Lawrence Sail
Columbus on St Domenica – John Cotton
After Death – Patricia Beer
Faex Delenda Est – Theodore R Cogswell
Words of Warning – Alex Hamilton
A well-written and humourous piece set in the world of academia where words are unaccountably escaping from books and running away.
Out, Wit! – Howard L Myers
A very cleverly written piece, composed in a series of letters between a scientist and the editor of a scientific journal. A promising young student, Jonathan Wallis, is the subject of the initial discourse. The paper he intends to present is entitled ‘Backward to Alchemy’, apparently detailing a method by which elements may be transmuted and leading the way to a cold fusion nuclear process. The student’s presentation, however, is seen as disrespectful which leads to an almost inevitable sequence of events. It’s a tale which takes a sideswipe at the scientific community itself, regularly criticised and indeed lampooned in fiction by various authors from Fred Hoyle to Stanislaw Lem to Connie Willis. The moral of the tale ultimately is that it’s the science that’s important, not the reputations of the individual scientists.
An Imaginary Journey to the Moon – Victor Sabah
I am often impressed by surprising and heartwarming events. The private passions and enthusiasms of ordinary people can sometimes have the most extraordinary consequences, as in the case of Elaine and Larry Elbert who spent two years in Ghana teaching for the American Peace Corps at the curiously named Hohoe Secondary School. Due to a chronic shortage of books there they appealed (not to any church organisation who would doubtless have sent truckloads of Bibles) but to the Science Fiction Writers of America, who supplied copious reading matter for the students’ edification. As a result Victor Sabah wrote this story as part of a school exercise. The passion that the Elberts (and the SFWA) instilled in him clearly shows through. One wishes that there were Elberts at every school.
The Head and The Hand – Christopher Priest
A Ballard-esque piece from Priest, who never fails to impress with work of depth and subtlety, often with disturbing undertones. This is the tale of an artist whose performances consist of amputation. Now an old man confined to a wheelchair, wheeled about by his old friend and collaborator, he is called upon to perform his final work. As is often with stories in this series, there is an odd prescience here which anticipates some of the more bizarre reality shows such as ‘Jackass’ or ‘Dirty Sanchez’ where acts of self-mutilation are encouraged and celebrated.
Central to this story however is the relationship between the artist, his minder and his wife.
Like Ballard, Priest produces work which has both a poetic element and has a haunting quality which keeps the story in one’s mind.
Hero – Joe W Haldeman
This story eventually became part of the classic novel ‘The Forever War’.
Deconditioned Response (vt No Gun To The Victor) (Imagination: Oct 1955)
Mr Hoskins Heel (vt Mr Hoskins Blasting Rod, Fantastic Universe: Nov 1954)
The Cabbage Patch (Perspective Fll 1952)
Limiting Factor (Galaxy Apr 1954)
Disassembly Line (Beyond, July 1954)
A Spudget for Thwilbert (Fantastic Universe: April 1958)
Training Device (Imagination: Mar 1955)
Impact With the Devil (F&SF: Nov 1956)
Machine Record (with Walter Tevis) (SF Adventures: May 1961)
One to a Customer (Super SF, June 1958)
The Man Who Knew Grodnik (Science-Fantasy #53, 1962)
Lover Boy (Beyond, Mar 1954)
The Other Cheek (SF Adventures: May 1953)
Minimum Sentence (Galaxy: Aug 1953)
The Short Count (Avon SF&F Reader, Jan 1953)
Conventional Ending (Future: Oct 1954)
A collection of Cogswell’s shorts, mostly from the Nineteen Fifties. Cogswell’s work is a mixture of the satirical, the comical and the serious. It is mostly SF, although occasionally straying into the theological/supernatural.
‘Deconditioned Response’ (vt ‘No Gun To The Victor’)
An interesting piece in which children are conditioned to live a militaristic existence, and then made to forget it when (or if) they reach a certain age.
‘Mr Hoskin’s Heel’
A teacher is kidnapped by the mob and summons an elemental spirit to help him out of his jam.
‘The Cabbage Patch’ (1952)
One of the few serious tales in this book, Cogswell paints a vivid picture of a species like us, but very unlike us in their reproductive cycles.
‘Limiting Factor’ (1954)
A group of superior humans set off to found a superior human colony, but are given a stark lesson by an alien they meet en route.
‘Disassembly Line’ (1954)
A somewhat surreal tale of a bitter old lady who is admitted to a clinic where she is systematically disassembled and put together again in a series of ‘lessons’ until she sees the light and learns the error of her ways.
‘A Spudget for Thwilbert’ (1958)
Advertising is the theme of this piece which focuses on two men, trying to find a gimmick to sell their cereal.
‘Training Device’ (1955)
In a future war, soldiers are able to control other soldiers remotely. Odd, militaristic piece.
‘Impact With the Devil’ (1956)
A modern take on the Faustian pact with the Devil, which inevitably has a sting in the tail.
‘Machine Record’ (with Walter Tevis) (1961)
A minor satirical tale about a megalomaniac scientist who creates a machine that could potentially destroys the world and then gets bogged down in the red tape of actually what to do with it.
‘One to a Customer’ (1958)
Another variation on the ‘genie’ story in which an alien is selling unique artefacts, each of which has a different power.
‘The Man Who Knew Grodnik’ (1962)
A writer down on his luck and relying on the after dinner lecture circuit for income, gets caught up in a time field and emerges a hundred years in the future.
‘Lover Boy’ (1954)
Another Faustian tale in which the protagonist makes a deal with the devil, and which inevitably does not go to plan.
‘The Other Cheek’ (1953)
A hapless pilot helps thwart a plot to sabotage a peace summit between two warring powers.
‘Minimum Sentence’ (1953)
Criminals hitch a lift on what they think is a FTL vessel, despite the owner’s insistence that there is no such thing as a FTL drive.
‘The Short Count’ (1952)
A very poetic piece in which a couple have their last conversation while waiting for a bomb to destroy them.
‘Conventional Ending’ (1954)
Cogswell drags reality into his fiction with a piece centred around letters to editors and other SF writers suggesting a story that could pay for their SF convention bar bill.
‘BORN OF MAN AND MACHINE, TO WHOM DID HE OWE HIS LOYALTY?
All of a sudden, I was moving faster than usual. The other passengers standing on the subway platform seemed rooted to their places. It took me only seconds to reach the top of the six flights of stairs, and then I was out of the station and moving down Fulton Street at better than forty miles an hour!
What was happening to me? It was as though I were the helpless passenger in a runaway car. Something else has assumed control and was guiding me.
My body turned into an office building and raced down the corridor to a room where a man was sitting at a console. He’d begun to swing around in his chair when my mouth opened, and a thin blood-red ray shot out, cleaving the man from head to abdomen.
Then it was over. My mouth closed, and I stood there, stunned. Up to today I was Bob Tanner, an average sane Citizen. Now what was I, man or murder machine?’
Blurb from the M-123 Ace Doubles 1965 Edition.
A seemingly ordinary citizen of a near future USA where people pass through regular scans to pick out seditionists finds himself suddenly compelled to track someone down whom he then kills with lasers seemingly issuing from his own body.
Escaping from the scene he is involved in an accident and ends up in hospital where it is discovered that his human flesh is merely a covering for a metal framework. He then embarks upon a quest to find out who or what he is, and why someone or something is controlling him and using him as an assassin.
There is an odd noir-ish feel about this novel, which although set in the future, seems all too rooted culturally in an America of the 1960s.
‘Was this the key to the universe?
OUTCASTS OF THE STARS
When Earth’s stellar empire was attacked by the Lyanir, a powerful race from the uncharted stars, it was Bran Magannon, High Admiral of Space, who met their battle-challenge. He saved the Empire, but he also fell in love with the beautiful young Lyanirn queen Peganna, and to the people of the Empire his name became that of traitor. Now he was a lone, brooding outcast among Empire’s outpost worlds, called Bran the Wanderer.
Then Peganna of the Silver Hair returned and told him of a fabled cache of deadly weapons left eons ago by the long-dead race of the Crenn Lir. She wanted those weapons for her people, to use against Empire if need be.
Bran the Wanderer laughed, and showed her how to find them. ‘
Front cover and interior blurb from the paperback 1964 F-299 Ace Double Edition.
Gardner F Fox is an interesting character, who began to write for DC Comics in his twenties during the Great Depression, and despite his name being somewhat obscure these days was an incredibly prolific writer, producing an estimated four thousand comic storylines and at least a hundred novels, which covered SF, Fantasy, Crime, Westerns and Sports stories.
Bran Magannon, an Admiral with the Empire Forces, was on the point of securing an engaging peace between the Lyanir and the Empire and had also fallen in love with their haughty queen, Perganna of the Silver Hair.
However, a false message was sent to the Lyanir, and their subsequent actions caused the Empire to think they had been double crossed. The Empire attacked and the Lyanir retreated to ‘the uncharted stars’.
Magannon, a tad depressed, resigns his post and goes wandering through the galaxy, using the ‘teledoors’ of an Elder Race called the Crenn Lir, although it’s not clear why Bran is the only person to have ever discovered them.
One day, Perganna finds him. Once misunderstandings have been cleared up, she tells him that she needs his help to find the lost arsenal of the Crenn Lir.
Meanwhile, Perganna’s evil brother has usurped her position and is planning to sell his people in slavery to the Empire.
Once more we have this concept of Empires and Royalty, and two multi-planetary forces which are each unified, socially and racially, it appears.
For its time, the concept and the style is dated. In context, Philip K Dick was publishing ‘Martian Time Slip’ and ‘The Penultimate Truth’, Frank Herbert was about to publish ‘Dune’. The times they were a changing.
This is also a novel which is high on Romanticism and low on actual science, and seems coloured by Fox’s comic-book traditions. We encounter spaceships, matter-transmitter portals, odd alien machines and storage facilities, and not even an attempt to explain even the history of the science behind the Empire technology.
It’s not a bad read, but it does seem like a piece that would have sat more easily ten or fifteen years previously.
Tales of Outer Space
‘The most thrilling things to come will be the daring exploration and conquest of distant worlds. Here, in this brand-new science-fiction anthology, are five unforgettable novelettes which contain all the different types of excitement and peril that will follow the opening up of the universe to the rocket men.
Ralph Williams tells the strange story of the first break-away from Earth. Fox B. Holden introduces us to Mars and the incredible inheritance that waits there. Clifford D. Simak presents a mystery of one world’s inhuman inhabitants. Poul Anderson spins a cosmic web of the coming galactic empire. And L. Ron Hubbard tears through the veil of space itself to pose a turning point in humanity’s interplanetary epic.
Tales of Outer Space is an original collection of top science-fiction by top writers.
“Doorway in the Sky”
They thought their ship was the first to break into outer space until they spotted that derelict!
“Here Lie We”
The Martians had power, science, and experience — yet they were helpless before a fate that left Earthmen fearless!
No one knew whether the weird mimic of the Sunward Side was harmless — or crazy like a fox!
“Lord of a Thousand Suns”
He was just a man without a world until a certain space soldier blundered!
“Behind the Black Nebula”
With all the resources of super-science behind them, they still fought a losing war against that leaderless horde!’
Blurb from the 1954 D-73 Ace Double paperback edition
This volume, paired with ‘Adventures in The Far Future’ , are both edited by Wollheim. They are to a certain extent themed, since in ‘Tales of Outer Space’ we begin within the Solar System and when we reach Poul Anderson we head out to the stars.
“Doorway in the Sky” – Ralph Williams (Astounding Science Fiction , 1953, as “Bertha”)
Predating Clarke’s ‘2001’ we have the concept of an artefact left in Earth orbit to trap (for whatever reason) the first humans to visit. Although the author has encompassed the idea of weightlessness he has failed to envision that vomiting into a bucket in zero gravity would not be a good idea.
“Here Lie We” – Fox B. Holden (Startling Stories , 1953)
A Bradbury-esque and romantic tale of our first meeting with the Martian race. They are keen to teach humanity everything they know, because their species is doomed.
“Operation Mercury” – Clifford D. Simak (Astounding Science Fiction , 1941, as “Masquerade”)
A very interesting early work from Simak here, set on a Mercury power plant, where the manager is about to solve the mystery of the local natives; the energy beings known as ‘Roman Candles’.
It’s possibly only Clifford Simak who could make an installation on the Planet Mercury seem like a cosy US mid-west homestead.
“Lord of a Thousand Suns” – Poul Anderson (Planet Stories , 1951)
Vintage Space Opera in which a military commander on a planet besieged by rebels discovers a cache of Elder Race doomsday weapons and a strange helmet. The helmet transfers the digitised consciousness of Daryesh, Lord of a Thousand Suns, into his head, and it’s a bit of a tight squeeze.
“Behind the Black Nebula” – L. Ron Hubbard (Astounding Science Fiction , 1941 as “The Invaders”)
Despite his somewhat tarnished reputation Hubbard was a fairly decent writer in his day. For its time this is a very imaginative story about a mine situated ‘Behind the Black Nebula’ which is a rich source of Hubbard’s particular brand of unobtainum. The mine is besieged by monstrous creatures and is up to a new technician to discover what they are and how to neutralise them. The answer is clever and unexpected, although the basic premise of the nebula and the mine needs to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.
John Carter, Mighty Warlord of Mars, rides to new and terrifying adventures.
Captured by deadly warriors mounted on huge birds he is taken to the ill-omened city of Morbus.
There he meets Ras Thavas, evil genius and master surgeon. A man who has succeeded in his nightmare wish of creating life in his own beings – creatures that ultimately rebel and threaten the lives of Ras Thavas, of John Carter and of all Mars.
Blurb to the 1973 NEL paperback edition.
Using more or less the same plot as ‘A Princess of Mars’ Burroughs takes us back to the dying planet of Barsoom where the ‘incomparable’ Dejah Thoris has been crippled in a flying accident. No other man can save her but the thousand year old evil genius and scientist-surgeon, Ras Thavas, Master Mind of Mars.
Setting out to find Ras Thavas, John Carter takes along young Vor Daj to the great Toonolian Marshes where, before long, the two have been captured.
The hero and narrator of this the ninth in Burroughs’ Martian series, is Vor Daj who perhaps predictably, falls in love with a captured beauty, Janai, who is also coveted by an evil Jeddak (much as John Carter when he was captured by the green man of Mars fell in love with a captured Dejah Thoris, who was also coveted by an evil green Martian Jeddak).
Our heroes end up in the laboratory of Ras Thavas who has been performing cloning experiments and has, as my mother might have pointed out to him, made a rod for his own back. The malformed clones have taken over and are forcing Ras Thavas to create a vat-grown army with which to take over all of Mars.
Vor Daj persuades Ras to transfer his brain into one of the monsters so that he can infiltrate the Jeddak’s guard and rescue his love. This he does, while wooing her in a kind of Cyrano De Bergerac/Beauty and The Beast fashion while all the time hoping that his body hasn’t been used for spare parts or been eaten by the mass of living flesh which escapes from vat No. 4.
Burroughs adds nothing new to the series here, but it’s interesting to see the concept of cloning appearing (although it is not described as such) and to compare this work with Richard E Chadwick’s ‘The Flesh Guard’ which posited a similar premise in which vat-grown creatures were employed as soldiers by a Nazi Regime.
Americans have the irritating custom of putting the month first in numerical dates such as in the title of this novel. This is both confusing and highly annoying. British publishers should surely have renamed it 22/11/63 which makes more sense (not just to the British) as the time periods are incremental sequentially in order of size.
OK. Sorry for rambling on. I only do so because it’s a phrase which Stephen King would do well to sellotape above his computer screen.
Back in the day, King wrote concise and well-crafted small jewels of books like ‘Carrie’ and ‘Salem’s Lot’. Gradually, the books began to put on weight. By the time ‘It’ arrived I had give up King for the sake of my bookshelves’ health. This is no exception to the rule, weighing in at a hefty eight hundred and forty nine pages.
The basic premise is this: Jake Epping is a teacher, a friend of Al who runs a kind of burger van / diner nearby with burgers so cheap that folk are suspicious of the meat’s origin. One night Al rings to ask Jake to come round.
Al looks years older and has lost around thirty pounds seemingly overnight. It turns out that the burger van pantry contains a time portal leading to a specific day and time in September 1958. Al has known about this for some time and has been buying prime beef from the past and bringing it back to sell as cheap burgers in 2011. One can spend as much time as one wants in the past. When you return, two minutes has elapsed.
However, Al’s final plan had been to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JF Kennedy. He had returned to the past and would have had to wait five years until the date of the assassination. Al, however, had been diagnosed with cancer and realised that he would not live to complete his mission. So he returns and recruits Jake to take over.
One can, it seems, change the past but every time one returns to 1958, the world’s history is reset and your changes are lost.
Al has already provided Jake with a fake driving licence in the name of George Amberson, along with some currency of the time, a list of sporting results of the time to place bets on in order to obtain more cash, and some other identity papers.
And so Jake Epping sets off to spend five years in the past and change history.
One could look at this as the nearest King has come to writing a mainstream novel. Apart from the literary device of the time portal it is a portrait of the US from 1958 to 1963, in many ways a far more idyllic US than that of 2011. This is no Clifford D Simak pastoral paradise however. The US had its dark side from mobsters to child-murderers and the borderline insane. There are also, from our present perspective, some quite shocking truths about racial segregation. The hero at one point asks to use a restroom and is directed toward some outside conveniences. There are two buildings, designated male and female while a sign saying ‘coloureds’ points down a path to a plank over a stream.
Such distinctions are legally a thing of the past and although the old prejudices still remain in many parts it is a bit of a culture shock to realise that this was once a mainstream cultural norm.
Although the novel is very enjoyable it does have its flaws. I have criticised King in the past for his forays into the world of Science Fiction which have been mercifully few. His natural genre in which he excels, is Horror, and at least his early work, ‘Salem’s Lot’, ‘Carrie’, Christine’ and ‘The Shining’ for instance are classics of the genre.
With SF, however, he has never really succeeded very well. King does not, I feel, understand that there are certain conventions within the genre that need to be observed if one is going to be successful. He may well have finally learnt his lesson in this respect as he’s avoided the potential danger of buggering up any scientific explanations by the simple expedient of ignoring them altogether.
We have the time portal as a convenient literary device. Neither he nor Al raises the question of why there should be a time tunnel leading out of the back of a burger van complete with convenient invisible steps which always leads to the same point in 1958. On the one hand the concept of the burger van time portal is so ludicrous that it somehow works, for a while. In a more light-hearted work it might continue to do so, but in a serious Stephen King doorstop of a novel one expects at least some hint at some point as to why it is there.
It is the sort of cheap trick Edgar Rice Burroughs used extensively in his novels at least a century ago to explain (for instance) how John Carter got to Mars (He was somehow spiritually transported while his Earth body lay comatose in a cave)
Even though Jake has proven to himself that the time portal exists and has visited the past briefly, would he really agree to give up five years of his life in order to try and prevent Kennedy being assassinated?
Having said that, Jake’s life as George Amberson at a cultural turning point in time for the Western World is a marvellous tale, veering between his life as a teacher and his secret life as a burgeoning assassin, stalking Lee Harvey Oswald as he follows his predestinate journey to Dallas and the infamous book depository.
King produces a marvellous cast of characters, combining his own creations with real-life grotesques such as Oswald’s overbearing and odious mother.
There is a section where Jake/George (having gotten a job at a school) persuades one of the beefy stars of the school football team to play the lumbering lead in a school production of ‘Of Mice and Men’. That was a bit of a revelation, being an immensely moving piece of writing which brought a tear to my eye.
Overall, it seems like a new departure for King. The supernatural – or at least the power behind the attempts made to keep the timeline from changing – made itself felt once or twice but briefly and unobtrusively so.
It has always been my view (at least since ‘It’) that King should trim his novels by at least fifty percent, and honestly, this is no exception.
Get back to the days of ‘Carrie’, Stephen, to the brief, elegantly plotted, not-a-word-wasted, novels that you used to write.
We’re all running out of time to read these new ones.