My life in outer space

Archive for May, 2015

One of Our Asteroids is Missing – Robert Silverberg (as Calvin M Knox) (1964)

One of our Asteroids is Missing

‘CAST OF CHARACTERS

John Storm

He had a dream of riches out among the stars, and he knew he had to follow it, even to his own doom.

Liz

She felt his call, even across the depths of space.

UMC

The Universal Mining Cartel was an entity too immense, too impersonal to be any more good or evil than its individual members.

Miss Vyzinski

She had a manner and a smile as coldly mechanical as the machines she worked with.

Jimmy

A records clerk, who liked to supplement his salary with something better.

Clyde Ellins

He did his job, driven by impersonal greed and unhampered by conscience.

John Storm’s return to Earth was triumphant: he was about to become a millionaire. Now there was only the routine job of validating his claim to the asteroid he’d found. But there was one problem — the computer had no record of Storm’s claim. And stranger yet, the computer had no record of John Storm. He didn’t officially exist!
There seemed only one possible explanation to the nightmare Storm found himself in — someone wanted Storm’s asteroid. There had to be something on that tiny celestial body worth a great deal more than the reactive ores Storm had discovered. And that something was obviously worth the obliteration of anyone or anything getting in the way.’

Blurb from the F-253 Ace Double paperback edition

If one did not know, it would be difficult to identify this gung-ho macho escapism as the work of SF Grand Master Robert Silverberg, writing under the name Calvin M Knox.
Young John Storm has been offered an engineering job with the stereotypical Big Corporation, UMC (The Universal Mining Cartel) but chooses to take two years off from his work and his girlfriend to go asteroid mining, hoping to strike lucky in the asteroid belt and discover a floating rock laced with rare metals.
Strike lucky he does, discovering a large metal-rich asteroid which will make him wealthy beyond his dreams. He returns to Mars to register his claim, and then to Earth, but finds that not only does his claim not exist on the system but that his own identity has been deleted from the records.
Enraged, he decides to return to Mars and track down whoever is behind the theft of his asteroid.
It’s a simple enough tale, and well-written if a little hastily I suspect. There are echoes of Robert Heinlein here and his juvenile wish-fulfilment pieces. John gets to travel around in his own one-man spaceship challenging the might and authority of UMC (who turn out to be, unsurprisingly, the baddies in this adventure) and ultimately discovering a far greater surprise inside the asteroid he claimed.
Clearly, at this point in his career Silverberg, like Heinlein, didn’t really extrapolate to include social change. Storm is a young man of the American Fifties or early Sixties. Women do not go asteroid mining. They stay home and fret about their manfolk out there in that terrible outer space place. The only other woman who appears in the novel is Miss Vyzinski who works in The Hall of Records and has trouble coping with the concept of records being deleted or falsified.
On Mars there is the quaint concept of a Used Spaceship Salesman since it is cheaper to buy a ship to go prospecting in, and sell it back to the dealer at the end of your mining operation, rather than taking it back to Earth.
In summary, it’s the ‘one man against The Company’ scenario where the litte guy ends up winning (with the help of an unexpected ally in this case) and getting the girl.
As I pointed out, it’s hard to see this as the work of the same author as that of ‘The Book of Skulls’, ‘Dying Inside’ or even ‘The Masks of Time’ from around the same period, although most Silverberg devotees will know of the sea change in his writing just before his best work was produced.

Advertisements

Martin Magnus on Venus – William F Temple (1955)

Martin Magnus on Venus
Martin Magnus returns initially to the Moon where his protégé, Cliff Page, attempts his first Moon landing but settles the ship on a thin crust above one of Moon’s liquid water deposits. As the crew are escaping they discover the wrecked submarine of an alien race. This contains a map which leads to a strange pit in a crater at the bottom of which are chambers full of fantastical machines, as well as archaic helmets and weapons of seemingly gigantic humanoids.
Magnus and Page have no time to explore further as they are scheduled to set off for Mars.
In the first volume, Magnus encountered the amoebalike beings of the Venusian lake who were distinctly hostile.
This time the crew decide to land some way from the lake where it seems a village is located. The natives are humanoid and initially hostile, but once contact has been made they tell the Earthmen that they work for the Mek Men, digging ore. The Mek Men are gigantic humans it seems who carry armour and weapons identical to those found on the Moon
In the native village there is a very hit-tech metal well which fills automatically when water is taken. Water disappears when the natives fail to mine ore for the Mek Men. And so, it is up to Magnus to travel to the city of the Mek Men and discover their secrets.
Although a little more minimal in action and plot than ‘Planet Rover’ it’s an entertaining and well-written piece, peopled by larger than life human characters spiced with some mild humour. The Venusian natives, for instance, are won over ultimately by fried potatoes, which they appear to adore.
Magnus himself is the most fascinating character, however. He is a wisecracking Londoner who is very much a maverick anti-establishment figure, does not suffer fools gladly and has no time for senseless orders passed down through the chain of command.
In this respect it is interesting to compare this book in particular with Heinlein’s ‘Space Cadet’ from seven years earlier. Heinlein would certainly not have approved of such a disrespectful attitude to the chain of command one imagines, and Temple and Heinlein have distinctly different styles and temperaments. What is interesting is that both novels feature Venus and an attitude to colonialism that seems ingrained in the culture of the West at the time.
The Venusians who live in the lake have made it very clear they don’t want humans on their world, but us Homo Sapiens have decided we are going to there anyway, with no discussion or agreements needed with the inhabitants, which is much the same as the situation in the Heinlein novel. This sense of cultural superiority was a regular feature of earlier US SF but does not crop up often in British SF. This in itself is surprising, since the British, after all, are the experts on colonialism. One suspects also that the reasons for this cultural view differ markedly between the UK and the US. The British, or more specifically the English, retained an inherited sense of superiority from the Victorian era, while the US authors (bearing in mind that writers from both sides of the channel at the time were predominantly white male heterosexuals) tend to dwell on issues of racial superiority.
Even so, it’s an interesting parallel.


Earthman, Go Home! – Poul Anderson (1960)

Earthman, Go Home!

‘When Captain Sir Dominic Flandry heard about Unan Besar, he thought carefully about the possibilities the planet might offer. It had been a Terran settlement, but in the vast confusion of galactic colonization, it had been lost in the shuffle.

Lost? Well, perhaps not so much lost as kidnaped. For a civilization can develop in strange ways over three hundred years – and it looked as if this one had deliberately withdrawn from the rest of the universe.

It was the kind of situation that Flandry liked. And because he knew there was profit in intrigue, he decided to invade the planet – alone. But as soon as he had landed he found himself playing a game for his very life – with all the rules made by his world-wide opponents!’

Blurb from the 1960 D-479 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Serialised in Fantastic Stories (December 1960, January 1961) under the title “A Plague of Masters.”

Captain Dominic Flandry has paid an unofficial visit to the planet of Unan Besar, a world which has been cut off the mainstream of human civilisation for centuries. Flandry hopes to profit from reintroducing trade to the world, although it would appear that the rulers are not keen to allow visitors.
To keep humans from dying from local biotoxins in the atmosphere, all the residents must take a pill every month. The issue of pills of strictly regulated and they are not issued until the recipient provides a bioscan.
Biocontrol has therefore risen to become the government of this world, as they control the source of life for the world’s population.
Under the premise of diplomatic security, Biocontrol have confined Flandry and plan to scan his mind for information about the outside galaxy.
Flandry escapes however and manages to team up with members of the local criminal underworld in order to devise a plan for a world-wide (and profitable) revolution. Refreshingly, Anderson does not fill his world with Americocentric stereotypes. This world appears to have been peopled by Indonesians.
This is a late story in Anderson’s tales of Dominic Flandry. Flandry is a semi-autonomous agent of the Terran Empire, an Empire in its decadent final stages and doomed to collapse. He has been compared to a James Bond of the spaceways since his every adventure seems to see him involved with a new love interest (in this case Liang, a wily female criminal) whom he abandons at the finale.
Formulaic though the tales may be, they are very well written and laced with a certain wit and panache. This raises this piece above the general level of Ace Doubles.


God’s War (Bel Dame Apocrypha #01) – Kameron Hurley (2013)

God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha #1)

‘Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference…

On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there’s one thing everybody agrees on–There’s not a chance in hell of ending it.

Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, her ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war–but at what price?

The world is about to find out!’

Blurb from unknown edition.

Nasheen and Chenja, on the planet Umayma, have been at war for centuries, how long is not really clear, even to the protagonists. Both sides practise a seemingly evolved form of Islam based on ‘the Kitab’ (which is merely Arabic for ‘book’) although the Nasheens are a matriarchal society and the Chenjans patriarchal. Mutation and possible gene-splining has produced some humans that can control insects via pheromones (known as magicians) and also shapeshifters. This adds a slight flavour of Science Fantasy to the mix which melds nicely into the complex society that Hurley has created.
At the outset of the novel Nyx is a Bel Dame, one of a highly trained sisterhood of official assassins and bounty hunters. One of her assignments – to put this into perspective – was to track down this world’s version of a suicide bomber; a boy loaded with a time-coded virus who would take up residence in an area before the virus is triggered and released into the local population. Nyx’ mission was to inject him with an antidote before bringing his head back for the bounty.
Not long after, Nyx is expelled from the sisterhood for her involvement with gene pirates and is forced to become a freelance bounty hunter.
Meanwhile, a young Chenjan refugee, Rhys, is training to become a magician, having some talent for controlling insects. He is working with boxers, wrapping their hands prior to the fight and helping to heal them afterwards.
Rhys however is not good enough to qualify as a practising magician and can either stay and teach or leave and take his chances. He chooses to leave but soon finds that Nasheen attitudes to Chenjans are hostile. Inevitably, as one might have guessed, Rhys ends up working for Nyx who not long after is offered a commission by the Queen of Nasheen herself; a dangerous commission which may well get her team killed, but could end the war.
Some reviews I have seen have criticised this novel for not having any likeable characters, but I feel they miss the point. It is not often that one finds a genre novel with such real, well-rounded characters. Not only that, they are characters set firmly within the context of this complex and detailed dystopia. For myself, I liked Nyx. She is a female antihero, and for the moment I can’t bring another to mind.
Interestingly it seems Hurley has reversed the traditional roles of male and female as well as divided the planet between matriarchal and patriarchal control. Nyx is the alpha male of her team in every sense apart from the fact she is a woman. It is perhaps symbolic that the novel begins with her selling her womb to obtain funds to continue with her mission. Later we discover that the enmity between her and her arch rival Raine stems from the time when Nyx cut off his penis. This is one example of an ongoing theme of duality in fact, which is cleverly reflected on various levels here and there. Nyx is happy to sleep with males or females and when she seduces the female boxer Jaks we learn it is only to gain access to her bounty; Jaks’ brother.
Rhys is quieter, is religiously devout, reads poetry, dances and seems to embody what we may see as feminine traits where Nyx embodies the masculine. It may be that, like Nasheen and Chenja, countries who would probably find peace if both embraced sexual equality, Nyx and Rhys could empathise more if they balanced the male and female sides of their own psyches.
It is also a violent piece of work it has to be said, although this is within the context of a world divided by war and focused on the lives of mercenary bounty hunters.
Details of life elsewhere in the galaxy is not really covered although there are other settled worlds as is made clear.
This is an impressive novel which well deserves its place in the Arthur C Clarke award nominations and I look forward to reading more in the sequence.


The Wrecks of Time – Michael Moorcock (1966)

wrecks

‘Earth zero to Earth fifteen–which was the real one?

What the inhabitants of Greater America didn’t realize was that theirs was the only inhabited landmass, apart from one island in the Philippines. They still talked about foreign countries, though they would forget little by little, but the countries were only in their imaginations, mysterious and romantic places where nobody actually went..

That was the way it was on E-3, one of the fifteen alternate Earths that had been discovered through the subspace experiments.

Professor Faustaff knew that these alternate earths were somehow recent creations, and that they were under attack from the strange eroding raids of the mysterious bands known as the D-Squads. But there were tens of millions of people on those Earths who were entitled to life and protection-and unless Faustaff and his men could crack the mystery of these worlds’ creation and the more urgent problem of their impending destruction, it would mean not only the end of these parallel planets, but just possibly the blanking out of all civilization in the universe.’

Blurb from the H-66 1966 Ace Double paperback edition.

This is a very interesting early work from Moorcock in which a Professor Faustaff (physically redolent of the similarly named Shakespearean character) is in charge of an organisation which has managed to access fifteen versions of Earth in subspace which seem to have been recently created.
The professor and his team are able to create tunnels to these variant Earths. On the human inhabited worlds the inhabitants at the same level of technological development but the populations are small and appear unable to think about foreign countries (which art from the US and small communities elsewhere) are uninhabited.
The Professor’s people also have to counter the attacks of D-squads – military attacks of unknown origin – whose aim is to destroy the alternate planets. One at least has already been destroyed.
We follow Faustaff on a journey to one of these alternate worlds where he picks up a young woman, Nancy Hunt, hitchhiking and later meets the mysterious Herr Steifflomeis at a town where they stay for the night. Steifflomeis is clearly lying when he explains where he is from which leads Faustaff to suspect that he and his colleague, Maggie Whyte, may be agents of the D-squads.
It’s a peculiar little piece which superficially seems atypical of Moorcock’s work. There are resonances of JG Ballard here and there, albeit set within a US framework, with its abandoned towns and half empty motels and diners. Steifflomeis and Maggie Whyte are ambiguous figures until the finale in which Faustaff meets the creators of the ‘Simulations’ of Earth; immortal beings who evolved on Earth and who are seeking to recreate their ancestors.
These are redolent of the Lords and Ladies of Law and Chaos who permeate the worlds of Moorcock’s multiverse and seek to control the affairs of mortals.
In a final transcendent flourish the alternate earths are transferred from subspace to orbit our sun, linked together by golden space-elevator bridges. It is a romantic if impractical idea and, incidentally, very similar to events in van Vogt’s ‘The Silkie’ from around the same time.
It’s interesting stuff and no doubt fruitful fodder for Moorcock historians.


Omega – Jack McDevitt (2003)

Omega (The Academy, #4)

McDevitt is a tad frustrating. He’s a highly competent writer and one can’t fault his science or his characterisation. The ‘Academy’ novels (of which this is the fourth) have been highly enjoyable and I’m sure there are legions of readers out there who want more of Priscilla ‘Hutch’ Hutchins, Academy pilot and now, somewhat older, in an executive role within the Academy itself.
The Omega Clouds – agents of destruction which seem to be able to recognise right angles and other signs of intelligent life – have been studied intensively. Apart from the fact that they are based on nanotechnology, there is very little else discovered about them. One is heading toward Earth and will arrive in around a thousand years.
Meanwhile, elderly scientist Harold Tewkesbury has been studying a series of novalike explosions (his students have called them ‘Tewks’) that have shown up along Omega wave fronts.
Additionally, around 3000 light years from earth, a planet with a pre-industrial civilisation has been discovered, and an Omega cloud will reach them within months.
Hutch is determined to find a way to divert the Omega cloud and/or persuade the indigenes to abandon their coastal cities and move inland.
My frustration with McDevitt – putting aside for the moment his Americocentric view of the universe, which I have covered in previous reviews – lies with his alien races.
Very early on in this novel the Academy are trying to salvage what they can from an already Omega-scarred world which is about to be revisited. In a large auditorium they find a statue of what could be the architect; a tall alien beastie but wearing garments that overly resemble Twentieth Century European attire. In a previous volume we had a similar occurrence where a representation of a long-extinct wolflike creature showed him wearing a dinner jacket.
Think about it Jack! What are the odds that aliens, no matter how humanoid, would evolve the dinner jacket? It may seem that I am splitting hairs here but these are the things that ruin my enjoyment of the novel, which is a shame because on the whole it’s one of the best in the series so far.
There are wonderful characters, fascinating scientific anomalies, vast world-destroying clouds and… these Walt Disney aliens.
The race that Hutch is trying to save are cute green webfooted large-eyed bucktoothed beasties who look very like the creatures on a children’s show called Goompahs. They fall into that category of alien design beloved of ‘Star Trek’ and its clones, where the civilisation is basically human, but the people look different.
A third of the way into the novel they began to annoy me and I was at the point of hoping the Omega cloud would arrive prematurely and save me the trouble of reading any more about them.
Fat chance of that, as it turned out.
McDevitt tries to make a point about the cuteness factor. Many companies petition the Academy for permission to travel to Lookout for various money-making purposes, virtually all of which are refused. Humanity is completely engaged with them and their possible extinction, and at one point Hutch asks herself whether there would be so much public interest if the aliens had been unappealing insects?
Not enough is made of this, however, which is a shame as it is an issue that relates to how we deal with endangered species. The cute ones get all the attention, while threatened species of snails or beetles seldom appear in petitions or Facebook appeals. McDevitt missed an opportunity here which may have raised the bar on this book a tad.
It is by no means a bad novel, but one feels that as a nominee for the Nebula award this is surely missing something, and not just the world outside America.


Night Watch – Sergei Lukyanenko (1998)

Night Watch (Watch, #1)

‘Walking the streets of Moscow, indistinguishable from the rest of its population, are the Others. Possessors of supernatural powers and capable of entering the Twilight, a shadowy world that exists in parallel to our own, each Other owes allegiance wither to the Dark or the Light.

‘The Night Watch’, first book in the Night Watch trilogy, follows Anton, a young Other owing allegiance to the Light. As a Night Watch agent he must patrol the streets and metro of the city, protecting ordinary people from the vampires and magicians of the Dark. When he comes across Svetlana, a young woman under a powerful curse, and saves an unfledged Other, Egor, from vampires, he becomes involved in events that threaten the uneasy truce, and the whole city…’

Blurb from the 2006 Arrow paperback edition.

Some critics described this as Russia’s answer to Harry Potter, which is a good description up to a point. As in the Harry Potter universe there are humans who can employ magic and are called Others. Some belong to the Light and some to the Dark. Many years ago a truce was agreed between the forces of Light and Darkness in order to keep a balance and not allow one side to use their powers excessively, otherwise the other side would be allowed to use a similar level of magic, which at a stretch could be compared to the situation between Russia and The West with regard to nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
Thus if a Light magician used magic illegally to cure someone of cancer, a Dark magician may be allowed to kill someone else. To police the agreement, agencies were created, The Day watch, in which the agents of Darkness patrol the daylight hours checking for Light Magicians’ transgressions, and the Night Watch who spend their nights monitoring vampires, werewolves, witches and Dark Magicians.
Anton, who has been assigned to track down a rogue vampire, manages to save a young Other, Egor, from becoming the snack of a vampire couple. Earlier, Anton had expended some of his power trying to dispel a fatal curse he had seen hanging over a girl’s head on the Metro. Curses look like black vortices twirling above people’s heads.
It is not until later that Anton realises the events are connected, and that the virtually immortal masters of the Watches are capable of weaving complex plots like a giant game of magical chess.
The book is divided into three sections which, although they focus on a particular story or case that the watch has to deal with, are all part of Anton’s overall tale and Anton grows in both magical experience and cynicism as to the ethics of some of the Watch’s practices as the book progresses.
Although on the surface a Rowling-esque escapist fantasy (although this may well predate the HP franchise) there is a philosophical debate at the heart of this writing which examines the very nature of Good and Evil, the balance between the two and the question of whether one can even exist without the other.


Off Center – Damon Knight (1965)

Off Center

‘The room was quiet; the man in front of the mirror was the only living thing there, and he was too horrified to utter a sound. In the mirror, five faces stared back at him: one young and ruddy, which was his own, and four that did not belong in that place at all, for they were wrinkled, malevolent, small as crabapples and blue as smoke. So begins Damon Knight’s ‘Be My Guest’, a story of the human race possessed by things that were – well, not exactly demons . . . but not exactly not demons, either. It’s just one of the unpredictably imaginative tales in this fascinating collection by a modern master of science fiction.’

Blurb from the M-113 1965 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Damon Knight is best known as an editor, critic and anthologist. As a novelist he never really made an impact, but it has to be said that his short stories were some of the finest in the genre. Here, there is one excellent piece while the others are of variable quality.

What Rough Beast
The Second-Class Citizen
Be My Guest
God’s Nose
Catch That Martian

What Rough Beast (Off Center, 1965)

‘What Rough Beast’ is the first person narrative of a young Eastern-European immigrant in New York. His talent is that he can alter realities, choosing an alternate timeline in which circumstances are more favourable.
Knight uses a convincing pattern of speech to tell the story of a character who is not only the victim of a fair amount of bullying and racism, but also exploitation. His reaction to this ultimately sets in motion an inevitable sequence of events which leads to tragedy.
It’s a wonderful gem of a story. Quite marvellous.

The Second-Class Citizen (If, November 1963)

A fairly short tale of a man who is teaching dolphins to live in the human world, but when nuclear armageddon strikes, the tables are turned.

Be My Guest (Fantastic Universe – Sep 1958)

The longest piece in ‘Off Center’ is a hybrid SF/Fantasy creation in which a young scientist is unwittingly given a mixture which changes his perception and allows him to see and hear the four disembodied souls possessing his body. It’s original and unusual.

God’s Nose (Rogue, March 1964)

An odd surrealist piece exploring the concept of the size of God’s nose.

Catch That Martian (Galaxy, March 1952)

A humorous but well-written piece about a cop’s relentless quest to track down a Martian who is spiriting humans into a dimension where they can still be seen here as transparent phantoms.