My life in outer space

Archive for August, 2015

The Machine – James Smythe (2013)

The Machine

This is a refreshingly short novel at a time when genre novels are bulking up and threatening in many cases to be only the first volume of a proposed trilogy. It is also quite minimalist, and what I would describe as an ‘old fashioned novel’. It keeps the characters to a bare minimum which helps to focus on them and their role in the drama.
Beth is a teacher in a near future Britain scarred and flooded by the effects of climate change. Her husband, Vic, injured and traumatised by military service in Iran and subsequently subject to episodes of violence, was given the opportunity to try a revolutionary treatment in which a machine removes traumatic memories. The treatment (partly as a result of Beth’s actions) left him a near-vegetable, and he is being looked after in a care home. Now, Beth believes, having purchased one of the original machines, that she can return the memories he recorded back into his head and resurrect him, thus regaining her husband and absolving her guilt.
There are echoes of the Frankenstein mythos referenced within the novel, in some cases quite obviously. Victor is the name of Shelley’s legendary scientist in the original Frankenstein novel and Beth is no doubt a contraction of ‘Elizabeth’, the name of Victor Frankenstein’s doomed wife.
On the machine recordings, Vic tells his life story to, or at least is interviewed by a Doctor ‘Robert’ which is the first name of the ship’s Captain in ‘Frankenstein’ who finds the monster in the Arctic and narrates his sorry tale.
There is a scene where a child is thrown from a cliff into the sea, which brings to mind a scene from the original Boris Karloff film. The murdered child’s name is William, who in ‘Frankenstein’ was killed by the monster because he was Victor’s younger brother.
The roles however are not carried through as it is Beth who takes on the role of ‘the giver of life’ to Victor, who is cast as the monster. Unless I am missing some additional subtext there is no good reason for this extensive connection to the Shelley novel.
Providing conflict is Beth’s new colleague at her school; Laura. In an unguarded moment Beth reveals her plans for Vic to Laura only to discover that Laura is a devout Christian fundamentalist who is vehemently opposed to Machine technology rebuilding someone’s soul as she sees it. Laura’s character seems not as well-developed as it may have been and it might have been an idea to have had some additional initial exposure and time with Beth to a) establish some other aspects of her personality and b) to allow her to get Beth into her confidence.
Some have criticised ‘The Machine’ for its bleak background and unsympathetic characters. I would disagree, since Smythe has created a plausible version of a near-future UK in which climate change has seen the sea invading the land.
Beth’s character seems fairly well-rounded and one can not escape the fact that she lives alone in a flat on a sink estate in a town with no future. It is necessarily bleak. In its own way, this is a modern Gothic horror built around the central figure of the Machine itself, a huge and enigmatic presence which has moods demonstrated by its various hums, engine roars and physical vibrations. One gets the impression that the machine may be almost orchestrating events for its own purposes. It is reminiscent of Stephen Gregory’s ‘The Cormorant’ in this respect.
The novel leads relentlessly and inevitably to its (perhaps a little too predictable) conclusion, but is no less satisfying for that. Smythe exhibits a welcome economy of writing which flies in the face of some of the more corpulent novels weighing down the bookshelves of genre readers. Let’s hope this is the start of a new trend.

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The Disestablishment of Paradise – Phillip Mann (2013)

The Disestablishment of Paradise

Phillip Mann seldom disappoints and here provides another blend of sharply crafted characterisation with a beautifully detailed alien landscape.
Paradise is a world of exotic plant life, a world on which humans have been living for more than two centuries. Hera Melhuish is an exobiologist and protégé of a discredited scientist, Shapiro whose insistence on the viability of an unproven Gaia theory saw him ostracised from the scientific community. Paradise, however, seems to be proving him right as it appears that the biosphere, after 200 years of desecration and poisoning by Humanity is beginning to fight back. The Paradise Plum, a combination of aphrodisiac and narcotic, has begun to turn toxic and the agricultural settlers are finding their crops failing.
Hera receives a call from Earth which is a political fait accompli. Earth will no longer support the agricultural community or the scientific base and announce that Paradise will be disestablished and the human colonists evacuated.
Despite her best efforts, Hera fails in an appeal against the decision, but discovers that a mysterious benefactor has arranged for her to stay alone on the planet until the human buildings and equipment have been removed and the orbital station leaves in a few months time. This is where the novel truly begins and is the story of how Hera discovers the true nature of the planet.
The structure is interesting in that Hera’s story is interspersed with selections from interviews with Olivia, the woman who wrote the book of Hera’s experiences on Paradise which are shared with Mack, an engineer from the planetary demolition crew. Mack returned to the planet unofficially when he psychically sensed she was in danger.
I’ve always felt that Mann writes in technicolor, and this is especially true here where he vividly paints the sights, sounds and smells of a truly alien world.
We learn some of the history of the world, in particular how some of the mobile plant life, such as the enormous twin-trunked Dendron, was hunted to extinction, partly because it was a menace to crops and partly because of the prices that would be paid for the bonelike growth within their bodies which is prized as an aphrodisiac.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with Mann’s earlier novel, ‘The Eye of The Queen’, a modern SF masterpiece which explored the concept of influence and indeed damage caused by the meeting of two disparate cultures. In ‘The Eye of The Queen’ there was at least a level of intelligent communication between the human anthropologist and the indigenous aliens, whereas here Mann has postulated a nascent intelligence with which we may never experience any true rapport, as in Lem’s ‘Solaris’, a novel which is mentioned in this context within the text.
In very obvious terms it’s a metaphor for our treatment of Earth and contains some very powerful messages about the balance of nature and the biosphere’s fragility. There is also a deep level of spirituality running through it, something that hasn’t been a feature of Mann’s previous work as I recall.
Cleverly, Mann closes the novel with some appendices which contain either diary entries from former colonists or folk tales based on real events. These, having read the novel and Hera’s tale, become quite chilling in the matter-of-fact way that the settlers deal with the local lifeforms.
Mann is not as widely read as he should be, which is a terrible shame, since he is certainly one of the finest exponents of SF to be writing out of the Antipodes and long may he continue to do so.


The Source (Necroscope III) – Brian Lumley (1989)

Necroscope III: The Source (Necroscope, #3)

It’s a very odd thing to come to terms with, but there’s something very cosy about Lumley’s work. Maybe it’s a nostalgia for simpler times when there were good people and bad people (on both sides of the Iron Curtain) and there was an Iron Curtain.
Maybe it’s because one knows it’s all going to be all right at the end of the novel – at least until the next one – or maybe it’s because Lumley’s world harks back to an era earlier than the Nineteen Eighties. There’s something very quaintly dated about E-Branch which is more Bletchley Park than a Secret Intelligence Department of the Nineteen Eighties.
E-Branch is of course the British Government’s ESPer division, a group of people with paranormal powers set up to counter the USSR’s own paranormal division.
Michael ‘Jazz’ Simmons is a non-ESP member of British Intelligence and in Perchorsk, Russia, investigating a ravine, the bottom of which has been coated with lead.
Simmons is captured and taken into the base below the lead shielding where he discovers the truth. A botched attempt by the USSR to employ Star Wars laser technology resulted in a malfunction which caused the pent up laser energy to create a ‘grey hole’, a gleaming sphere suspended within a cavern which permits a one-way trip for organic beings from our Earth to a parallel world, or from there to here.
The other world is the world of the Wamphyri, and some specimens have already traveled through to our world.
Now Khuv, the security chief in charge of Perchorsk, is going to send Jazz Simmons through.
Harry Keogh is back after five years in the wilderness searching for his wife and young son. They do not appear to be in the world of the living or the dead.
Darcy Clarke, now in charge of E-Branch, finds Jazz Simmons’ disappearance equally baffling as jazz was being monitored by an E-Branch sensitive, and connects it to the disappearances of Harry’s family.
The narrative then alternates between events here and in the world of the Wamphyri.
It’s a much stronger novel than Necroscope II – Wamphyri and allows Lumley to examine what Wamphyri life might be like if these lone predators had to live and share resources with each other.
If nothing else this series is a wonderful reinvention of pulp fiction, and one gets the impression (by some kind of literary osmosis) that Lumley loved writing this stuff just as much enjoyed reading it. It was never going to win any Hugo awards but to be honest, given the choice of reading one or two of their less justifiable nominations and these, I’d go for the Wamphyri every time.


The Ships of Durostorum (Keys to The Dimensions #5) – Kenneth Bulmer (1970)

The Ships of Durostorum (Keys to the Dimensions, #5)

‘WANTED: ONE ENGINEER

FOR MANAGERIAL POSITION IN IRUNIUM.

WAGES HIGH. DEATH BENEFITS SUDDEN.

“I am the Contessa Perdita di Montevarchi. Here in Irunium the only law is my will.

“I shall seek out another engineer. But this time he will be a real engineer from a dimension that understands these things, from Slikitter, probably from Earth. He will be treated with respect because his function is valuable to me. Almost inevitably he will terminate as this offal terminated, but that is to be expected of imperfect tools.

“He will not at first see the slaves in the mines and I do not wish him treated as a slave. My mines must continue to produce gems for my trade across the Dimensions. An engineer is needed so I shall find one….” ‘
Blurb from the 1970 76096 Ace Doubles paperback edition.

The Contessa Perdita di Montevarchi (an evil but beautiful ruler of worlds in several dimensions) is on the lookout for a new mining engineer and finds one trapped in an American mine. As she has access to portals between the dimensions she manages to tunnel through to the engineer, JT Wilkie, and his friend Polak, and takes them back through the portals of various worlds to her palace.
JT is unaware of the Contessa’s true nature or that her diamond mines are manned with slaves, and becomes even more devoted to her when his beloved Polak is killed in an attack by the Contessa’s enemies. Polak is in fact, ‘pubicked’ (1), a phrase which Bulmer seems to have invented and which is employed several times in this series of books.
Wilkie is then dragged into a mission to obtain a Porvone Portal of Life which would effectively provide the Contessa with a mobile portal to anywhere.
Some characters from ‘The Wizards of Senchuria’ turn up but are not vital to the plot.
With a handful of pages to go, Wilkie is persuaded that the Contessa is evil after all and decides to go roaming the dimensions.
Possibly because these books were very speedily written, one gets the impression that Bulmer was never sure where he was going with the plot. Wilkie never seems to get anywhere near an actual mine and yet his work is done about halfway through and he’s packed off on a mission to Durostorum for no apparent reason.
Despite the lack of attention to characterisation and plot development the ‘Keys to the Dimensions’ series is still surprisingly popular and all seven of the novels are available for digital download to the Kindle or other e-book readers.

(1. ‘The Honshi keep trophies cut from the bodies of their fallen victims; they have a tradition of “pubicking” their enemies, which means cutting off the scrotum of a fallen or captive warrior. These trophies are usually dried and worn on the helmet spike of the victorious Honshi.’ (http://www.drpetrov.com/1889/planets/…))


Earth’s Last Fortress (vt Masters of Time) – AE van Vogt (1950)

Earth's Last Fortress

‘Volunteers for the tomorrow front

It looked like a perfectly innocent store front, a volunteer enrollment office for young idealists who wanted to help the desperate forces of a young democracy overseas win their civil war. The young girl who sat at the desk inside was attractive, sympathetic, and would see that you got your passage safely.

But it was all a trap. It was indeed a recruiting station, but the war for which it brainwashed its deluded cannon fodder was out of this world — remote in time, remote in space, and nobody would ever return alive. As for the girl — she was as much a slave of that monstrous future-world machine as if she were chained to the desk.

Except for one thing that even the inhuman super-science of EARTH’S LAST FORTRESS did not suspect — that Norma was the secret lever that could shatter their universe!’

Blurb from the 1960 D-431 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Norma Mathieson, a young woman planning to commit suicide by jumping into a river, is approached by a dark stranger and offered a job. She is to be a receptionist in a recruiting station where they are recruiting young men to fight for the ‘Calonian Cause’.
She is given a key to an apartment above the station and told that all she has to do is get the young men to fill out and sign a form, then send them through to a back room for a medical examination.
Norma soon realises that all is not what it seems as no one ever returns from beyond the door. The stranger who offered her the job, the mysterious Dr Lell, is recruiting men from all the ages of Earth and shipping them off to fight in a far future war.
Despite the fact that she has been mentally conditioned, Norma manages to write to an ex-lover, now a Professor, Jack Garson. Garson writes back to her, thinking her delusional, but then arrives in person and is pressganged by Dr Lell and sent off to join the frontline troops in the far future.
The plot is suitably vanVogtian and once again demonstrates the author’s slightly contradictory view of female psychology.
Norma is, after all, a weak and feeble woman who can not possibly stand up to the masculine dominance of Dr Lell, and yet she does.
Garson discovers that he needs to get a message to one of the Planetarians (who are battling The Glorious) to tell them that the time barrier which is being created to end the war has to be destroyed before it, in its turn, destroys the universe. Norma discovers that she is in mental rapport with Dr Lell’s giant (and sentient) machine and can manipulate its power to a certain extent.
Between them they can try and avert universal disaster.
Originally published in 1942 as ‘The Recruiting Station’ it is by no means one of van Vogt’s best works although it does have the usual oddly compelling narrative with fantastic twists and turns.
There are vast machines and their mobile appendages, the ‘tentacles’, and a far future Earth where vast armies are being slaughtered daily in a senseless war of ideologies. It’s interesting but perhaps fruitless to speculate what effect the progress of World War II was having on van Vogt when he originally wrote this in 1942. There is an interesting correlation between the young men going through a door for a medical examination but never returning, and the situation in Hitler’s concentration camps although this I suspect may be merely a chilling coincidence.


The Accord – Keith Brooke (2009)

The Accord

“The Accord, a virtual utopia where the soul lives on after death and your perceptions are bound only by your imagination. This is the setting for a tale of love, murder and revenge that crosses the boundaries between the real world and this virtual reality”—

Blurb from the 2009 Solaris edition

One of the blurbs for this novel is a line from a review that says ‘one of the best novels of virtual reality ever written’ which actually pays this a disservice since it is far far more than that.
Noah Barakh is the architect of a worldwide project called The Accord. The Accord is a virtual representation of the Earth into which the consciousnesses of those who have been scanned are uploaded when the individuals die.
Noah is heading toward the point at which the Accord, guided by the consensus of those who have already begun living within it, will coalesce conflating various realities into one.
Barakh lives in a future UK where MPs have evolved into Electees. Electee Jack Burnham is fully behind the Accord project unaware that Noah (a rather too apt name for the builder of an ark of human souls) is in love with Electee Priscilla Burnham, Jack’s wife. Noah has been experimenting with his own Accord mini-realities where he and Priscilla are lovers.
In the real world Priscilla, it appears, does feel an attraction to Noah and invites him to her home while Jack is away. Jack is not away, however, and wrongly suspects that Noah and his wife have been having an affair for some time. He shoots Priscilla and later Noah, who – now dead – are reborn in The Accord.
This is only the prelude to where things start to get very interesting.
Brooke cleverly leaves the morality of some aspects to the reader. Noah’s initial creations of his and Priscilla’s relationship, for instance, would no doubt be considered to be a violation of her ‘digital self’ for want of a better phrase. Added to that, the versions of Priscilla that were in love with Noah were no doubt uploaded into the Accord to become part of the consensus.
This leads us further into Brooke’s exploration of the concept of editing personalities. It appears that the scanning technology allows one to not merely edit a personality but combine aspects of various personalities to create a new one.
It is this aspect of the novel that ultimately becomes the most fascinating since in such a reality (if one can term it so) one is not restricted to simply altering one’s surroundings.
Jack Burnham, for instance, who on the original Earth was prepared to kill anyway, embarks on a process whereby he becomes an amalgam of several people in order to turn himself into a remorseless destroyer.
In the Accord itself, if one is killed, one is reborn again shortly after, although it appears that the Accord itself changes one slightly in the process.
Thus, the characters that are pursuing their earthly passions and revenge are ultimately far from the original consciousnesses that existed on the dying earth that they left.
Brooke makes a marvellous job of creating an Earth on the brink of apocalypse where Britain is having to make choices about turning away armadas of boat people, as well as the world of the Accord where Noah’s uploaded scientists managed to export the Accord itself into quantum space.
As I have said however, the most fascinating and thought-provoking aspect of all this is the Post-Dickian examination of consciousness, questioning its very nature and the idea that it can be easily modified by oneself or others.
Despite the deceptively upbeat ending, one is left long after the book has ended, pondering the ethical and moral issues.
It’s a tour-de-force by Brooke, one of our best contemporary SF writers.


Space Mercenaries – A Bertram Chandler (1965)

Space Mercenaries (Empress Irene, #2)

‘STARSHIP WANDERER

COSMIC BLOCKADE RUNNER

Her ex-Imperial Highness of Outer Space had developed a conscience. With a well-armed space cruiser on her hands, she didn’t want to sell it to just anyone – that is anyone under Empire Control. So the former Empress and her ex-space captain husband, became mercenaries for GLASS – The Galactic League for the Abolition of Suppression and Slavery.

Their first assignment was blockade running, to bring antibiotics to the plague-ridden humans on Antrim, besieged by the Halicheki bird-people and ignored by the Empire. Only, this would be a ticklish business for they could not fire one shot at the Halicheki without being legally termed pirates. And although the ex-Empress and her husband were open-minded enough to try all sorts of devious tricks, the prospect of being hanged for piracy by the Empress’s successor did not appeal to either of their natures…’

Blurb from the M-133 1965 Ace Double paperback edition

This is Chandler’s second ‘Empress Irene’ novel (following from the fabulously titled ‘Empress of Outer Space’). This finds Irene, having abdicated her position as an Empress of a Human interstellar Empire, at a bit of a loose end, with an Imperial light cruiser at her disposal, and her able husband, John Trafford.
The couple are approached by GLASS to become blockade runners and ferry a cargo of antibiotics to Antrim, a culturally Irish planet which is suffering the ravages of a pandemic disease outbreak.
This planet however, lies within the territory of a hostile avian species, The Halicheki. Irene and her faithful crew need to get past the ships of the evil matriarchal bird people, land, deliver their cargo and escape from Halicheki space. There are chases, space battles, derring do, unexpected allies and a bit of political shenanigans.
As always, Chandler’s aliens are somewhat simplistic and more akin to something one would find in a Disney movie. On the whole though, it’s a lighthearted romp that breaks no boundaries and is standard fare from Chandler, whose entire style was to translate seafaring adventures into fast paced space opera.


Empire of The Atom – AE van Vogt (1957)

Empire of the Atom

An interesting fix-up here which is loosely or partly based on Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’, and has been assembled from five stories (“A Son Is Born” (May 1946), “Child of the Gods” (Aug 1946), “Hand of the Gods” (Dec 1946), “Home of the Gods” (April 1947) and “The Barbarian” (Dec 1947)), all originally published in Astounding.
On a far future Earth a child, ‘Clane’ is born to Tania, the daughter of the Lord Leader of Earth. The child is malformed as a result of his mother’s exposure to radiation.
Normally children such as this would be out to death but Jonquin, one of the scientist priests who maintain the temples of the God Metals, convinces the family to allow the child to live in order that he can study the development of such an unfortunate.
van Vogt here postulates a far future Earth where the automated production of power from nuclear materials continues in temples of scientist priests, although no one appears to understand the principles behind the science and attributes the power to Gods who control the God Metals. Following a war with an alien race known as The Riss, humanity has fallen into a stagnated society of ignorance. Nuclear powered ships travel from world to world despite the fact that the secrets of their construction have also been lost. It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow, it has to be said.
The Lord Leader discovers Clane to be highly intelligent despite his nervous tics when in unfamiliar company, and takes his advice on military strategy when the Earth forces are under siege when trying to conquer the human population of Mars. As pointed out, it loosely follows events in at least Graves’ account of the life of Claudius. The Lord Leader’s exiled stepson, Tewes, for instance, is clearly Tiberius and the Lord Leader, the Emperor Augustus.
Clane fits in to the usual van Vogt ‘logical hero’ template and becomes adept at anticipating and deflecting assassination attempts and, when he finally assumes the position of Lord Leader, defeating invading barbarian armies from Jupiter. In retrospect it might have been far more interesting if van Vogt had kept to the Claudius template. Claudius avoided death because the schemers and plotters around him found him a harmless and somewhat ludicrous figure, which was far from the case. van Vogt has Clane control his nervous reactions very early on, and his physical abnormalities are concealed under voluminous clothing, and so may as well not be there.
Rather like the conclusion to ‘The Weapon Makers’ van Vogt throws in some surreal non-sequitors at the finale. Clane has been captured by the Barbarian leader Czinczar who brings in a package containing a deformed possibly alien body packed in ice. Clane proves that he has complete control of a ball of light which hovers within the room by killing the guards who try to harm him and then the Barbarian surrenders his entire forces to Clane. Is this body an alien threat from outside the Solar System, or one of the Riss?


The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)

The Lost World (Professor Challenger, #1)

It has to be said that there are books one reads of which no recollection at all remains after thirty or forty years. I do have notes to confirm that I read this in the Nineteen Seventies. My memory of this is in any case clouded by the 1960 Hollywood movie which I have always loved but which took a few liberties in its interpretation. (There have been at least 14 film, TV and radio adaptations, some more curious than others, such as the 1997 radio version which featured Coronation Street’s Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) as Professor Challenger, Linus Roache (Ken Barlow’s real life son) and also starred Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Ian McKellen).
I was therefore coming at it with a completely fresh eye and expecting something along the lines of an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure in exotic climes.
I should have known better since I was engrossed from the first few pages and enjoyed every second.
Conan Doyle, of course, is rather more well known for his Sherlock Holmes canon and it’s a shame this novel is not more widely read.
At the outset, an Irish rugby playing reporter, one Edward Malone, is attempting to woo a rather unresponsive young lady called Gladys. Gladys spurns his advances as she feels she can only give her heart to a man who is famous for his heroic deeds.
Mr Malone, she fears, is neither famous nor heroic enough to marry her.
In these opening pages there is far more depth of character and insight than in probably the entire ER Burroughs canon. Plus, it sets Malone up to request his editor to send him on a dangerous mission.
The Editor suggests that Malone arrange an interview with one Professor Challenger, a man who had recently returned from the Amazon with incredible claims but little evidence. Challenger, it seems, had been subsequently derided by his scientific peers and had taken up journalist-bashing as a supplementary hobby.
Malone, against all odds and following a sustained physical attack by Challenger, wins the confidence of the Professor and volunteers to join a new expedition to the Amazon to prove the Professor’s claims that creatures of the Jurassic era have survived on an isolated plateau.
Conan Doyle, one suspects, owes much to Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to The Centre of the Earth’ at least since the basic premise is that the Professor’s only evidence is a fragment of a pterodactyl wing and sketchbook from a previous explorer which showed a sketch of a stegosaurus – seemingly drawn from life.
In ‘Journey to The Centre of the Earth’ of course, the Professor’s catalyst was a note from Arne Saknussemm, found in an old book. Both explorers travel to a remote volcanic region where they discover dinosaurs and plant life from another epoch.
For me, Verne’s novel is far superior, but where Conan Doyle succeeds is in having Malone as the narrator being able to balance a fast moving plot (at least for the time it was written) with some impeccable characterisation and occasional dashes of humour.
Challenger, an erudite but physically formidable figure, is given a foil in the form of his professional rival, Professor Summerlee who – although converted from outright sceptic to believer – is always poised to prick Challenger’s somewhat pompous scientific bubble.
In parts the book may be unpalatable to modern readers where it deals with those who are not British. The native Indian guides (I use the word ‘Indian’ as it is employed by Conan Doyle within the text) and luggage carriers remain mainly part of the scenery while a lone ‘negro’ called Zambo however is described as ‘as willing as any horse, and about as intelligent’.
There are two distinct branches of humanity on the plateau; a somewhat civilised tribe of small native Indians and the larger hairy cannibal man-apes who just will not desist from attacking everyone.
Toward the end, the Indians and the white fellas engage in a final battle with the ape-men who are all but wiped out; their women and children then enslaved by the plateau Indians.
Although this concept of genocide seemed fairly acceptable in genre SF, particularly in the US, up until the Nineteen Forties at least it does seem a tad out of character for Professor Challenger to countenance it.
However we must accept that the values and ethics of most people in Nineteen Twelve were far removed from those a century or more later. Paradoxically, the figure of Lord Roxton, a typical huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ bit of aristocratic totty, seems quite familiar given the British aristocracy’s need to cling on to the past in case it flies away like Challenger’s baby pterodactyl.
Nevertheless it is a compelling and engrossing read, which should figure more prominently in the history of British SF and fully deserves to be more widely read.


The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 15 – Gardner R. Dozois (Ed.) (2002)

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 15

New Light on the Drake Equation – Ian R MacLeod (SCI FICTION May 2001)
More Adventures on Other Planets – Michael Cassutt (SCI FICTION Jan 2001)
On K2 with Kanakaredes – Dan Simmons (Red Shift (ROC) AC Sarrantonio Ed.)
When This World is All On Fire – William Sanders (Asimov’s SF Oct/Nov 2001)
Computer Virus – Nancy Kress (Asimov’s SF April 2001)
Have Not Have – Geoff Ryman (Magazine of F&SF April 2001)
Lobsters – Charles Stross (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
The Dog said Bow-Wow – Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s SF Oct/Nov 2001)
The Chief Designer – Andy Duncan (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
Neutrino Drag – Paul Di Fillipo (SCI FICTION 22/8/2001)
Glacial – Alastair Reynolds (Spectrum SF 5)
The Days Between – Allen Steele (Asimov’s SF March 2001)
One Horse Town – Howard Waldrop/Leigh Kennedy (SCI FICTION 4/3/2001)
Moby Quilt – Eleanor Arnason (Asimov’s SF May 2001)
Raven Dream – Robert Reed (Magazine of F&SF December 2001)
Undone – James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
The Real Thing – Carolyn Ives Gilman (Magazine of F&SF July 2001)
Interview: On Any Given Day – Maureen F McHugh (Starlight 3 (Tor))
Isabel of The Fall – Ian R MacLeod (Interzone July 2001)
Into Greenwood – Jim Grimsley (Asimov’s SF September 2001)
Know How, Can Do – Michael Blumlein (Magazine of F&SF December 2001)
Russian Vine – Simon Ings (SCI FICTION June 6 2001)
The Two Dicks – Paul McAuley (Magazine of F&SF August 2001)
May Be Some Time – Brenda W Clough (Analog Science Fiction & Fact April 2001)
Marcher – Chris Beckett (Interzone October 2001)
The Human Front – Ken MacLeod (chapbook – The Human Front – PS Publishing)

New Light on The Drake Equation – Ian R MacLeod

An atmospheric and poignant tale, set in France, in which a lifelong SETI researcher looks back on his life of fruitless searching for signs of extraterrestrial life from a future where genetic bodily restyling is all the rage. His memories are interrupted by the arrival of an old girlfriend, a woman who may be the alien he has been searching for all his life.
Beautifully written and evocative.

More Adventures on Other Planets – Michael Cassutt

A modern interplanetary romance (literally) featuring two older members of a Scientific Institute who operate waldos on the surface of Europa who are searching for signs of life beneath the frozen surface. It’s extremely well-written and amusing without having that annoying American habit of over-emphasising the humour.

On K2 with Kanakaredes – Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons never disappoints and here he is on top form, and on top of the world in a tale of a climbing crew who are ordered by the US government to accept one of the alien insectoid Listeners (as they are known) on a climbing expedition up K2. The characterisation is excellent, and despite the brevity of the tale we accept the idea of a large insect bonding with a pack of professional mountain climbers. Simmons provides one of his usual metaphysical clichés in the concept of the Listeners having come to Earth to teach us how to Listen to the song of the world.
Very memorable.

When This World is All On Fire – William Sanders

A global warming themed tale set in the American Midwest where white people are beginning to encroach on what remains of Native American land now that the sea level has risen, leaving much of North America under water.
Sanders employs the dry and desperate environment as a backdrop to a tale of a Native American security man and his obsession with the young white girl he hears singing one day when her family park on Indian land illegally.
Like all the stories so far it has a sad and poignant element to it, but is nevertheless an energetic and well-painted story. You can almost smell the smoke and the baking land.

Computer Virus – Nancy Kress

I seem to remember at least two TV movies of the Eighties or earlier which featured a computer going rogue and holding people hostage in some building or other. One featured Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels, but was otherwise unmemorable.
Thankfully Nancy has used this concept far more cleverly in a fast-paced story where an escaped AI invades a computer-controlled house into which a female scientist has retreated since her geneticist husband was murdered by eco-terrorists.
The AI wants to hold her and her children hostage unless it is allowed to talk to the Press, something its creators do not want it to do.
It is up to her to use her wits to defeat the AI, since her young son has contracted a mutated virus, and his temperature is steadily rising.
It says much about the media, about government, and a climate in which we seem to be more afraid of each other than posited foreign terrorists.

Have Not Have – Geoff Ryman

Ryman’s work is very much character-driven, but there is always an interesting backdrop, an exotic setting against which the drama can be shown to best effect. Here we are, it is supposed, in China, where a young woman makes a living by adapting the fashions she sees on screen and in magazines to make dresses for the peasants of her village. The stark poverty of the villagers is contrasted by the advent of technology and a development of the internet which will allow everyone to have TV ‘in their heads’.
It’s a startling, evocative and original tale, in which individual characters are carved intricately like small jade sculptures

Lobsters – Charles Stross

A bewildering and disorienting romp through a future world of predatory ads, AIs, and world where the minds of lobsters are uploaded into a digital environment, their minds employed as processing slaves. Quite brilliant, but very difficult to describe. It’s easier to read the story for yourself.

The Dog said Bow-Wow – Michael Swanwick

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

The Chief Designer – Andy Duncan

An emotional and poignant view of ‘the chief designer’ of the USSR space programme, rescued form a Russian concentration camp to become the main force behind Russia’s bid to conquer space.

Neutrino Drag – Paul Di Fillipo

Very stylish fast and amusing SF from Di Fillipo who tells the story of how an alien got involved in drag racing with an American gang. When the human hero accidentally ‘bonds’ with the alien’s specially-cloned girlfriend, he is challenged to a ‘chicken’ race into the corona of our sun.
Di Fillipo evokes a sense of place and his vision of contemporary gang culture in the US is, if a little romantic, vivid and realistic.

Glacial – Alastair Reynolds

One of the best stories in this collection features Clavain, the renegade conjoiner from Reynolds’ ‘Redemption Ark’. Here, the action is set long before that of the novel, at a time when the conjoiners have set off to find a habitable world to start a colony. Felka, the mind-damaged conjoiner and Galiana, the leader of the group along with Clavain land on the frozen planet Diadem, only to find a dead Earth colony has already preceded them. One man has frozen himself deliberately in the hope of being revived.
Like the later story ‘Moby Quilt’ in this volume, a vital part of the plot is a gestalt of seemingly low-level intelligence creatures (in this case, worms) which seem to be acting as an information processing device; i.e. a self-aware organism composed of thousands of smaller creatures.
Fascinating reading, and suggesting that Reynolds may be planning other Clavain stories to fill in the gaps between this and ‘Redemption Ark’

The Days Between – Allen Steele

An interstellar ship, whose passengers are all cryogenically frozen for the long-haul light-years-long trip suddenly awakens one of its passengers only a few months into the mission.
The AI controlling the functions of the ship refuses to re-freeze him – for complex reasons having to do with a sub-plot involving conspiracies and mutiny – and we follow his descent into madness as he realises that he will die years before the ship reaches its destination, and his slow return to reason.

One Horse Town – Howard Waldrop/Leigh Kennedy

Far too similar to Howard Waldrop’s novel ‘Them Bones’ for this to be an original story, it tells of three different time-periods intersecting; The siege of Troy; Homer’s adolescence, and a modern day archaeological team. Visions and impressions of the periods overlap and bleed through, affecting the action and the destiny of those involved.

Moby Quilt – Eleanor Arnason

Another of the best stories in this volume is a peculiar tale of love which sees Lydia Duluth, a future PR guru and location-scout visiting a waterworld. Also visiting is the alien K’r’x with whom she is put into mental contact via a pair of AIs. While investigating the mystery of the vast circular mats which float on the oceans, she begins to fall in love with the vast squidlike creature. As with ‘Glacial’ this also deals with the subject of gestalt or multi-symbiotic organisms working together as one organism.

Raven Dream – Robert Reed

An odd piece featuring Native Americans who live in a seemingly secret part of our world – to them our world is known as the spirit world – and the coming of age of Raven, a young man who slowly begins to learn who and what he is and how his world relates to the world outside.
Reed has used Native American characters before but not to such concentrated effect. What works in this story is that we are looking from a perspective of the belief of Raven, which gives us doubts as to what is real and not real – and indeed how we actually define the word ‘real’.

Undone – James Patrick Kelly

A marvellous densely-packed modern space opera in which a feisty heroine of the resistance – standing up for her right to be an individual – escapes into the future but is pursued by a mine travelling six minutes behind her. Any attempt to travel backwards in time beyond that point will wipe her mind and reprogramme her memories. Cleverly, the story ends up going in a most unexpected direction.

The Real Thing – Carolyn Ives Gilman

Another story which features a Native American lead character in the form of Sage Akwesasne, who volunteers to be dismantled and projected – via a slingshot black hole process which is not that important to the plot – fifty years into the future.
She arrives in a world where she is literally a commodity since the courts have ruled that she is not the original Sage, but a copy, and the legal property of a megacorporation in a world where hype and spin are the be-all and end-all of business.
Obviously it’s a commentary on the direction in which our media-obsessed society is moving, and a very clever one, managing to be both funny and dismayingly accurate if we dare to hold a mirror to our own society now.

Interview: On Any Given Day – Maureen F McHugh

Transcript of a fictional TV programme in which a teenager infected with a retrovirus mutated from a longevity treatment is interviewed. Not only interesting structurally, but showing a strong command of voice and character, since through the testimony of one girl McHugh brings to life those about her, described in a ‘Talking Heads’ style confessional.

Isabel of The Fall – Ian R MacLeod

In a far and complex future, Isabel tends the mirrors which redirect light to various parts of her community, part of a society in which social roles and responsibilities are rigidly controlled. When Isabel fails to correct a mirror misalignment, part of her community experiences an unheard-of twilight, which leads to a friend ship with another woman, a dancer at the cathedral. It’s a tragedy of consequence, of the terrible events which lead from the simple error of the mirror misalignment. Powerful and haunting.

Into Greenwood – Jim Grimsley

Grimsley’s story is a clever examination of the concept of relative freedom. The hero is a revolutionary, attempting to promote independence on worlds controlled by the efficient and mysterious Prin. After years of silence she is invited to visit her brother, a man who has been genetically altered to become a symbiont; a vegetable creature living in symbiosis with an intelligent tree.
One of the better stories in the collection it examines issues surrounding slavery and freedom while at the same time creating a vivid and realistic world.

Know How, Can Do – Michael Blumlein

Michael Blumlein showed in his novel ‘The Movement of Mountains’ that he has a deep interest in scientific and medical ethics and shows this again to good effect in a disturbing love story where the narrator is a cloned human brain linked to the nervous system of a roundworm. As his psyche grows and learns he slowly falls in love with the female scientist who created him.

Russian Vine – Simon Ings

Aliens infect humanity with a virus which renders them illiterate and therefore incapable of developing complex societies and science and thereby destroying themselves. The aliens think of themselves as gardeners, conserving the races of the galaxy. Against this backdrop one of the aliens forms a relationship with an Earth woman. Very well-written, from an odd point of view; i.e. that of one of the alien earthdwellers.

The Two Dicks – Paul McAuley

A clever tribute to Philip K Dick, set at the time of Dick’s famous exegesis in 1974, but in an altered timeline in which Richard Nixon remains in power, having somehow derailed the careers of influential creative figures. Dick himself has been dissuaded from writing science fiction, although pirate copies of his one SF novel ‘The Man in The High Castle’ are much in demand. Elvis Presley appears at one point, asking Dick to sign his last mainstream novel ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ (the title of the novel within ‘The Man in The High Castle’) while mentioning obliquely that they have something in common. They both have dead twins. Elvis in this timeline runs an ice-cream business.
Beautifully written, very much in Dick’s style.

May Be Some Time – Brenda W Clough

Famous explorer Titus Oates is snatched at the point of death from his own timeline and taken to a New York of 2045, only to discover that his rescue was just an experiment employing technology provided from a First Contact message sent from Tau Ceti.
Highly readable and enjoyable.

Marcher – Chris Beckett

A topical tale involving an immigration officer who is called in to examine cases of ‘shifters’, disaffected people who take ‘seeds’ which have the effect of switching them between alternate worlds.

The Human Front – Ken MacLeod

MacLeod examines his usual themes of Scotland, Communism and grey aliens in an unusual novella originally published as a chapbook. The son of a Scottish doctor remembers his father treating the occupant of a crashed ‘bomber’ during the war, and had always considered the pilot to be a child.
Later we realise this is not the world we know, and that the Americans have been using alien anti-gravity technology in military technology.
It’s dense and complex, but very much character-driven and manages to explore themes of politics, communism and propaganda against a backdrop of alternate worlds and civil war.