My life in outer space

Archive for September, 2015

All Clear – Connie Willis (2010)

.All Clear.

This is the sequel to ‘Blackout’ which follows three of Mr Dunworthy’s historians from an Oxford of the 2060s who have travelled back to various periods of World War II to observe the lives of the British, mainly in London.
Something is wrong, however, as the ‘drops’ (where the travellers go to return to their own time) are not opening, and the historians are concerned that they are interfering too much with the past and may have altered the course of the war.
It has to be said that Willis’ research appears to be impeccable and she creates a wartime London that fairly rings with veracity. She does stretch credulity a tad by having her protagonists meet Agatha Christie (who worked in St Barts Hospital dispensary), General Patton, the Queen (the late Queen Mother of Elizabeth II) and Alan Turing, although to give Willis credit, the characters had very good reason to be in the right place at the right time.
In some ways Willis has become the master of the dramatic farce and, if I am honest, it does get a little wearing as we have already had one large volume of people looking for other people and arriving just as they left, or seeing them in a crowd and being thwarted by jostling members of that crowd and just missing the person they needed to talk to.
As it turns out there is method in Willis’ madness and all becomes clear in All Clear at the denouement.
Comparisons have to be made with Stephen King’s 11/22/63 since both novels take the premise of someone returning to the scene of historical events. In both cases also, despite the SF framework, they are very much portraits of the time and place in question. Willis’ vision is, however, a much cosier, romanticised place despite the excellent depiction of loss, tragedy and heroism in the London she recreates.
We get to be taken to St Pauls Cathedral during the blitz, to a devastated East End, to Bletchley Park where Turing and the rest of the boffins were hard at work on breaking the enigma code, and to a plethora of Tube stations which served as air raid shelters and, it appears, impromptu theatres where people put on plays and shows to keep up morale.
We see the everyday lives of women, working in Department stores or driving ambulances, sharing rooms in substandard lodgings and coping with the deprivations of rationing and the ever present threat of bombs.
The actual practicalities of Time Travel science are not gone into, and the logistics of it do not bear close scrutiny. Mr Dunworthy talks a lot about chaotic systems, but there is little in the way of an explanation as to how Time Travel actually works and why, for instance, it transports them, their clothing and any accessories without taking bits of whatever surface they happen to be standing on. It’s also a problem for two people to occupy the same timeline, which is why it is a race against time (no pun intended) for Polly – who has already visited WWII once – to return to the future from 1941 before her past self arrives in 1943. It’s not clear why this would be such an issue, although it does appear that the space-time continuum has ways of defending itself against alteration of the timeline and paradox. In essence, the scientific aspects have been rendered merely devices within what could ultimately be deemed a complex Romantic drama.
It’s far more than that though. Willis has a formidable talent for creating fully-rounded characters, and there is something slightly Dickensian about the range of incidental characters who interact with the protagonists, many of them women. If nothing else, she has to be commended for pushing the women to the forefront and demonstrating what enormous contributions and sacrifices women of World War II made.
Agatha Christie is seen briefly, and her books are mentioned and discussed several times, which is possibly why Willis throws in a Christie-esque mystery right at the end. Polly looks at her rescuer and realises something about him which is only hinted at. Are the clues, in true Agatha Christie style, all within the text for us to decipher? If so, it’s the best trick played on an SF reader in a long time, and I for one, feel royally had.
Mind you, if I had to be royally had by anyone, I’m glad it’s Connie Willis. It’s a pleasure, Connie.


Year’s Best SF 1 – David G Hartwell (Ed.) (1996)

Year's Best SF

This is an oddly modest beginning to what turned out to be a very longrunning series, and to be honest, doesn’t have a bad tale in it. (Even the Robert Sheckley is entertaining in its own unique way. The weakest is the McKillip story which is a little too ambivalent about what it’s trying to say.)
This is possibly because of the comparative brevity of this book compared to its descendants, which are weightier, fulsome beasts; the tyrannosaurs of the Year’s Best evolutionary line.
The quality stories of the year have here been represented by a mixture of The Great and The Good, and the lesser knowns. It is, however, ‘Year’s Best American SF’ since The Great and The Good, and the lesser knowns involved (with the exception of Baxter, correct me if I am wrong) are all American.
A third of the authors are women, and as to the ethnic mix, it’s difficult for me to be absolutely sure about this as there are some authors new to me, but I suspect that everyone is white.
So, it’s ‘Year’s Best Mostly White Male American SF’ if we’re being truthful.
This imbalance to a certain extent is redressed in later and larger volumes, although the male american whites still do tend to dominate the pack.

James Patrick Kelly – Think Like a Dinosaur ( Asimov’s, 1995)
Patricia A. McKillip – Wonders of the Invisible World (Full Spectrum 5, 1995)
Robert Silverberg – Hot Times in Magma City ( Omni Online, 1995)
Stephen Baxter – Gossamer ( Science Fiction Age, 1995)
Gregory Benford – A Worm in the Well (Analog, 1995)
William Browning Spencer – Downloading Midnight (Tomorrow, 1995)
Joe Haldeman – For White Hill (Far Futures, 1995)
William Barton – In Saturn Time (Amazing Stories – The Anthology, 1995)
Ursula K. Le Guin – Coming of Age in Karhide (New Legends, 1995)
Roger Zelazny – The Three Descents of Jeremy Baker (F&SF, 1995)
Nancy Kress – Evolution (Asimov’s , 1995)
Robert Sheckley – The Day the Aliens Came (New Legends, 1995)
Joan Slonczewski – Microbe ( Analog, 1995)
Gene Wolfe – The Ziggurat ( Full Spectrum 5, 1995)

James Patrick Kelly – Think Like a Dinosaur ( Asimov’s, 1995)

Humanity have been given the secret of matter transmission from a highly advanced race of dinosaurs. Reminiscent of themes in Rogue Moon and Christopher Priest’s ‘The Prestige’, it seems that when people are scanned and transmitted elsewhere, there original bodies have to be disposed of. The dinos are fine with this. Humans have to learn to grow up.

Patricia A. McKillip – Wonders of the Invisible World (Full Spectrum 5, 1995)

A strange and memorable thing. After outpourings of prayer, with the utmost fervor and fasting, there appeared an Angel, whose face shone like the noonday sun. His features were those of a man, and beardless; his head encircled by a splendid tiara; on his shoulders were wings; his garments were white and shining; his robe reached to his ankles; and about his loins was a belt not unlike the girdles of the peoples of the East.’ wrote Cotton Mather in 1685. McKillip seeks to provide a rational explanation of this vision with time-travellers of a sort who – coming from a secular future free of religious belief – are hired by a researcher to appear to people of faith in the past in order to record and study the effect that such visitations had on people. It’s a decent enough story but it’s not clear what point McKillip is trying to make given the denouement.

Robert Silverberg – Hot Times in Magma City ( Omni Online, 1995)

In a future US, the San Andreas fault has become a hotspot (literally) of volcanic activity. A team of community service junkies in various stages of recovery are employed to both monitor activity and have been trained by Icelandic volcano specialists to dam the lava as it emerges. There is a clever connection between the lava bursting under pressure from the landscape and the anger and demons pent-up within the team and its leader.

Stephen Baxter – Gossamer ( Science Fiction Age, 1995)

Following a wormhole malfunction, two women in a small ship are forced to crash on the surface of Pluto. They have enough supplies to survive until a rescue ship arrives but the discovery of what may be life puts their rescue in jeopardy as the PTB would rather let them die than attempt a rescue which may destroy the fragile ecosystem. They must therefore try and effect their own escape.
An excellent bit of Hard SF speculation from Baxter who postulates the life on Pluto spinning webs to its tidally locked moon, Charon, in order to access its water deposits.

Gregory Benford – A Worm in the Well (Analog, 1995)

An excellent piece of Hard SF from Benford in which a female captain, desperate to pay of her debts to a sinister organisation with a Japanese name (they always work well) contracts to a flyby of what appears to be a wormhole trapped in the corona of the Sun. An excellent piece, eminently readable and well characterised.

William Browning Spencer – Downloading Midnight (Tomorrow, 1995)

In the future, porn is provided by VR personalities moulded by AIs from scans of living humans. Occasionally, the avatars go rogue and haunt the virtual universe. Captain Armageddon is such a one. He needs to be tracked down and wiped.
It’s a rich textured tale set in a world which has gone through an age of Decadence where people can not have a sexual relationship until several stages of contracts and arrangements have been completed.

Joe Haldeman – For White Hill (Far Futures, 1995)

One of the best in this collection, this is a love story between two artists invited to construct a piece on an Earth ravaged by nanophages during what appears to be an ongoing war, Haldeman’s perennial theme. The enemy is seldom mentioned but the results of their destruction are the backdrop to this tale. Beautifully written.

William Barton – In Saturn Time (Amazing Stories – The Anthology, 1995)

In an alternate timeline, Udall became President after Nixon and initiated a far more ambitious space programme. An ageing astronaut tells the story of the missions he has been a part of.

Ursula K. Le Guin – Coming of Age in Karhide (New Legends, 1995)

A beautiful and poetic tale set in Le Guin’s Hain universe on the planet featured in her excellent ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, featuring a coming of age of one of the gendermorphing denizens.

Roger Zelazny – The Three Descents of Jeremy Baker (F&SF, 1995)

Zelazny’s last published story apparently, in which he plays with Hard SF concepts, black holes, enigmatic aliens and the nature of time, all in his own distinctive way.

Nancy Kress – Evolution (Asimov’s , 1995)

A captivating human drama in a near future where antibiotic-resistant bacteria are making hospitals no-go areas. It’s refreshingly character-driven though

Robert Sheckley – The Day the Aliens Came (New Legends, 1995)

I still don’t get Robert Sheckley. Ok. I get the jokes. I get the weird surrealist concept of peculiar aliens with British/US surnames and the improbability of the entire premise, but does this have some further meaning. Is it a metaphor for the degradation of the Anglo-Saxon genome , or is it a celebration of diversity and the melting pot of human races?
I have no clue.

Joan Slonczewski – Microbe (Analog , 1995)

Slonczewski uses her background as a microbiologist to give us this small gem, set in the universe of ‘A Door Into Ocean‘. An expedition to another world finds a fascinating ecosystem based on triple helix DNA. The most dangerous predator on the planet however appears to be a microbe.

Gene Wolfe – The Ziggurat ( Full Spectrum 5, 1995)

Emery is staying alone in a cabin in the American wilderness, awaiting the arrival of his soon-to-be ex-wife and her three children. Just before she arrives, Emery’s cabin is robbed by three hooded figures, one of whom shoots at him with his own gun.
Ostensibly this is an SF tale about desperate stranded travellers, from the future it is suggested, although (being Wolfe) there are levels of meaning. Emery is a complex character, and the story is told from his perspective, so one has to be careful to read between the lines.


The Hollow Lands (Dancers at The End of Time #2) – Michael Moorcock (1974)

The Hollow Lands

I was about fifteen years old when I first read this trilogy, and don’t recall it being as funny as it is. In other of his more serious fantasies, Moorcock occasionally refers to our Earth of thousands of years past, whose history has been twisted and fantasised to an absurd degree. In ‘The Runestaff’ for instance, the ships of the Granbretanians are decorated with the figureheads of ‘terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan – Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl, Rhunga, who were said to have ruled the land before The Tragic Millennium.’
There is much of that here, in the second volume of Moorcock’s acclaimed ‘Dancers At The End of Time’ trilogy, such as when Jherek Carnelian discovers a group of children held in a time-loop by a robot nanny, stashed away to protect them from the Tyrant Director Pecking Pa.
It’s not just a device to add humour or show the End of Timers as a decadent civilisation with no conception of the reality of their past. It also makes the point that we believe only what we know from history books, and that the truth may be far removed from what we think may have happened.
The End of Timers would not spend much time worrying about such things. This is a world where emotion is a fashion; the civilisation of the ultimately decadent. Although this world lacks any concept of malice or guilt, it also lacks the concept of compassion.
Moorcock pre-empts any comparison between his far future denizens of Earth and the Eloi in HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ by introducing it himself. When Jherek finally manages to get back to Eighteen Ninety Six to search for his lost love, Mrs Amelia Underwood, he meets HG Wells himself who helps Jherek get to Bromley, home of the Underwoods.
Wells thinks Jherek is being merely flattering and amusing when he tells him he is from a far future Earth, while Jherek believes that Wells actually built a time machine.
At one point Jherek tells Wells that the time machine in which he first travelled to Eighteen Ninety Six broke, but was thought be from two thousand years before Wells’ time, so that it was probable that Wells has merely rediscovered Time Travel.

‘What a splendid notion, Mr Carnelian. It’s rare for me to meet someone with your particular quality of imagination. You should write the idea into a story for your Parisian readers. You’d be a rival to Monsieur Verne in no time!’
Jherek hadn’t quite followed him. ‘I can’t write,’ he said. ‘Or read.’
‘No true Eloi should be able to read or write.’ Mr Wells puffed on his pipe, peering out of the window. ‘

(Chapter Eleven – A Conversation on Time Machines and Other Topics)

It wasn’t really clear back in the Seventies how much of a divergence this was from Moorcock’s usual style. Certainly, he produced many experimental pieces before this, but most of his work was serious, if not dour, with only the occasional humourous moment or in-joke being manifest.
This is a joyful rollercoaster of a comedy of manners, filled with grotesques and caricatures, exquisitely assembled for the edification of all.

The first volume is ‘An Alien Heat


Lord of The Green Planet – Emil Petaja (1967)

lordofgreenplanet

‘THE DEVIL OF NEW TARA
Diarmid O’Dowd, space explorer, was suddenly an Off-worlder in an Old World legend. Since he had crashed his ship through the green barrier to this uncharted world, he found himself due to take a place in the Deel’s song of ancient Ireland, living again on New Tara. Diarmid was scheduled to love the Lady and lose to the Lord, be the valiant Son of the Sun, and add a few heartsome verses to the legend – before being fed to Nacran.
But astronaut O’Dowd wasn’t pleased at the role cast for him, and with the help of Old Grane, the Wees, the Silkies, and Fianna-of-the-Dreaming-Lips, Diarmid broke the pattern. He had to find and counter the self-established god who had populated the planet with pookas and peasants, fearless heroes and firewings – all to fit a madman’s idea of a peopled poem.’

Blurb from the 1967 H-22 Ace Doubles Paperback edition

 

Diarmid O’Dowd is a space pilot who (for reasons which are not important) happens to be travelling alone near a previously impassable green barrier in space.
For some reason Diarmid finds his ship able to penetrate the green and, once inside, heading toward the surface of an Earth-type planet.
The planet is also inhabited by the ethnically Irish (and the Nords with whom the Irish have regular wars).
Diarmid’s damaged ship explodes shortly after landing leaving him alone although he is shortly discovered by two of the local gentry, Lord Flann and Lady Fianna, riding giant cats.
The green planet, it seems, is New Tara, and all of society seems to have been designed to conform to the legends of Old Ireland. It is controlled by an entity known as The Deel, an entity which wants to keep Diarmid alive for the present.
As he did (less successfully it has to be said) with the Kalevala in novels such as ‘The Stolen Sun’, Petaja has taken a mythology and used it as the basis for a work of SF. This works tolerably well and is an entertaining read, but suffers from the caricatured nature of some of the protagonists, particularly Flann who is more pantomime than Science Fantasy.
Petaja could also have made more of the overall premise and posed the question of whether the natives of Tara actually led far more fulfilled lives than those in the technology-enslaved worlds of the rest of the galaxy?
It’s raised briefly but not pursued to any great degree.


Our Man in Space – Bruce W Ronald (1965)

M-117a

‘THIS FUTURE JAMES BOND WAS AN INTERSTELLAR MISSILE. Bill Brown was a second-rate actor who happened to look enough like a dead spy from the planet Troll to qualify as one-fourth of Earth’s Interplanetary Secret Service. His assignment was simply to impersonate Harry Gordon, the dead agent, plant false information as to the length of time it would take Earth to die of population suffocation, and return to Earth 10,000 credits richer. It was only when Brown-Gordon got to Troll that he realized things were somewhat more complex. It turned out that Brown had been sold out by his government; that Earth didn’t give a hoot about the life of its new amateur spy… and there was a little bomb inside Bill Brown’s head that Earth was 80% sure would go off!’

Blurb from the 1965 M-117 Ace Double paperback edition.

Bill Brown, an actor, is recruited for a new and potentially deadly role, since he has been signed up to be one of a handful of interstellar espionage agents.
Earth, overcrowded and near the point of collapse, has been refused permission to join the sixteen alien races of a galactic confederation, and therefore has also been refused the chance to unburden her surplus population on new planets.
Brown happens to be the spitting image of Harry Gordon, one of the few humans allowed to work on the planet Troll. This unfortunate has come to a sad end, but has not been pronounced dead since henceforth Bill Brown will be slipping into his shoes, quite literally at times.
And so begins a fairly complex spy thriller, complete with feisty villains, femme fatales, double-bluffs, red herrings and a thrilling denouement.
In my version of the Ace Double paperback, there appears to have been a misprinting, since Chapter II should have been, I suspect, Chapter VII.