My life in outer space

Archive for April, 2016

Engine Summer – John Crowley (1979)

Engine Summer

I suspect that Engine Summer was, for its time, quite a revolutionary piece of work. It bears comparison with later works such as Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun‘ and Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker‘ both of which it predates only by a year.
This is a novel set in a US a thousand years after some unspecified apocalypse. Earth at that time was technologically advanced with – it is suggested – AIs and the capability of digitising one’s consciousness. Scoutships had been sent to the stars, some of which had returned with cargo.
Our main character, Rush Who Speaks, lives in Little Belaire, the interior of a huge plant that sprouted from a seed brought back from another star.
There is an element of fantasy, or at least Extreme Romanticism here, although Crowley does not take it to the level of Wolfe. Crowley manages to justify his fairytale style by presenting the narrative through the eyes of young Rush, who is telling his tale to an unknown listener. In this sense it is a very clever novel since the only view of this world is through a growing boy’s eyes. He describes what he sees and encounters, some of which may be familiar to us and some of which may be a product of a later technological period.
Crowley indulges himself in some linguistic conceits here and there where the language has become corrupted and phrases develop alternate spellings. It was only when I had finished this book and completed my notes about it that I read another review which revealed that the title itself was a linguistic conceit, and is a corruption of Indian Summer, which becomes Injun Summer in some parts of the US and is translated here into Engine Summer.
This is, it seems, an idyllic time for Humanity. There are no incidents of violence (although the men of another tribe do initially discuss killing Rush when they first meet him). Rush never has to go hungry in Little Belaire. Nevertheless he is curious and restless; curious about the tales he has heard of saints and flying cities where angels live.
Some time back his friend, a girl called Once a Day. had left with another tribe calling themselves Dr Boots’ List. Rush misses her and hopes he can one day bring her back, along with ancient treasures for Little Belaire.
Rather like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Rush sets out on a journey across a post-apocalyptic USA, meeting a selection of diverse characters until he reaches his own ‘Emerald City’.
For a while he lives in a treehouse with a saint called Blink. Blink can read but has little conception of the nature of the literature he has collected.

‘This? This is my crostic-words. Look’
On the table where the morning sun could light it lay a thin sheet of glass. Below it was a paper, covered minutely with what I knew was printing; this took up most of the paper, except for one block, a box divided into smaller boxes, some black and some white. On the glass that covered the paper, Blink had made tiny black marks – letters, he called them – over the white boxes.
The paper was crumbled and yellow, and over a part of it a brown stain ran.
‘When I was a boy in Little Belaire,’ he said, bending over it and brushing away a spider that sat like a letter above one white box, ‘I found this paper in a chest of Bones cord’s. Nobody, though, could tell me what it was, what the story was. One gossip said she thought it was a puzzle, you know, like St Gene’s puzzles but different. Another said it was a game, like Rings, but different. Now, I wouldn’t say that it was only for this that I left Belaire to wander, but I thought I’d find out how it was a puzzle or a game, and how to solve it or play it. And I did, mostly, though that was sixty years ago, and it’s not finished yet.’

Having found the camp of Dr Boots List, where the tribe live in harmony with genetically engineered giant cats, and being reunited briefly with Once a Day, Rush moves on.
It is perhaps stretching credulity a little that, with the help of another eccentric denizen of this future US, Rush discovers one of the lost treasures of the Saints for which he has been searching
I can not discuss much that happens beyond this point without perhaps ruining the experience for those who have not yet read this complex and original novel.
It is poetic, beautiful and perhaps teaches us more than anything else that to live in Paradise we need also to live in ignorance.


Behold The Stars – Kenneth Bulmer (1965)

Behold the Stars

‘The space-boxes brought terror to Terra

White Flag for Earthmen

Man had discovered a means of colonizing the galaxy. Through a system of instantaneous matter transmission, men, machines, anything, could be sent light years away in seconds!

Only, men were not the only beings in the galaxy who were expanding, and at 200 light years from Earth the alien Gershmi people made their claims clear, with guns!

It would have been a fair fight between equally matched races, had not the very matter transmitter boxes which had made mankind’s expansion possible, suddenly began to put men back together, 200 light years from Earth, with their will to fight removes, so that Earthmen were marching with white flags of truce straight into Gershmi fire!’

Blurb from the M-131 1965 Ace Doubles paperback edition

In one of those futures with advanced technologies combined with the social values of the early Nineteen Sixties, Earth is at the centre of a diaspora via matter transmission.
Ships are sent out into the galaxy, dropping off ‘boxes’ (matter transmitters) here and there so that others can travel through the boxes from Earth instantaneously.
Alien races have been discovered, such as The Venies, with whom Earth was once at war.
Dave Ward is ex-military and now working as a box maintenance engineer. Out on the frontier of space people are starting to go missing. Dave has a scare himself when he is transmitted to what he thought would be a ship – lightyears from Earth – and finds himself on a 2G planet being attacked by Earth’s latest threat, the Gershmi.
Dave has also been recruited by Earth’s Intelligence Services to track down his best friend, Steve Jordan, who is also missing.
Part mystery, part action adventure, this novel actually works quite well.
The morality and political message is a little naive and delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and is ‘Shoot at the enemy first. It’s no good talking to him.’
It would be nice to see some internal debate about the pros and cons of pacifism, but there is none. In terms of theme it bears comparison with Heinlein’s ‘The Puppet Masters’ and Finney’s ‘The Body Snatchers’ where hapless Americans have been taken over or replaced by aliens and no longer respect right wing values. Family members begin to insist that their ‘loved one’ is different somehow.
Finney and Heinlein are much better at the subtle metaphor however. There is little subtlety here, and no actual metaphor.
One feels that Bulmer might have achieved more if he hadn’t been so prolific. He wrote in excess of one hundred and fifty novels during his career, which covered historical sagas, westerns and SF, as well as penning episodes of the UK series ‘The Professionals’.
It would be wrong to consider Bulmer as just a jobbing author however, since he has made a substantial contribution to the genre as both an author and editor.


The Drowned World – JG Ballard (1962)

The Drowned World

One of a quartet of books which seem to reflect the Alchemical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, this being the Water section.
In a near future Earth, solar flares have set a process of extreme climate change in motion which has resulted in the sea level rising and displaced silt forming new and unpredictable land masses. Lagoons are formed where the upper parts of hotels and office buildings rise from the waters.
Kerans is part of a scientific team studying the ecological effects, since animal and plant life appear to have been forced into a rapid phase of devolution, reverting to forms common in the Triassic. Reptiles such as iguanas, alligators and monitor lizards are particularly prevalent, and seem to have displaced humanity to become, like their dinosaur ancestors, masters of the world.
Kerans has set up camp in one of the upper floors of the Ritz hotel, as has the enigmatic Beatrice who spends her days devolving into the persona of a former guest.
Indeed, devolution is the major theme here, since Humanity is also being affected, psyches accessing the race memory of an ancient age and drawn inexplicably to the South and the murderous heat.
This is Ballard at the start of his writing career, finding his feet and already displaying many of the hallmarks of his later work.
Already Ballard’s characters are intriguing and complex with motives that are difficult to determine. Kerans from the outset is affected by the devolutionary malaise that has changed many people and progresses through the narrative, his ancient race memory taking him back to the conscious state of the Triassic era.
Kerans colleague, Dr Bodkin, has been charged with investigating and monitoring this condition, although he himself seems more fascinated with the nature of the phenomenon than in seeking a means to cure it.
Conflict arrives in the form of Strangman, a peculiar almost vaudevillian character, who brings with him a team of black followers, and who appears to have the power to control the monstrous alligators who have thrived in this new world of steaming heat, jungles and lagoons.
Apart from Kerans and Strangman vying for the attention of Beatrice Dahl, a contest which appears to have motives other than a sexual one, Strangman hosts an evening on his ship, exhibiting paintings and other memorabilia which he has rescued from the flood and promising a surprise.
At the conclusion of the evening Strangman smugly reveals that pumping machines have been draining the local lagoon, slowly revealing the silt-covered buildings and streets which had been previously submerged. This has a marked effect on Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin who are horrified by the intrusion of the human world they had abandoned.
It is a flashpoint which appears to polarise the affected and the non-affected, forcing them into a fight for the survival of their states of mind.
Ballard’s work often examines the nature or the effects of time, and here it is a central theme. In other work and short stories we find him referring to time either directly or obliquely near the start of the story or chapter.

Chapter One – ‘Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperm…’
Chapter Nine – ‘ During the next two weeks, as the southern horizon became increasingly darkened…
Chapter Eleven – ‘ Half an hour later, Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin were able to walk out into the streets.’
Chapter Thirteen – ‘By eight o’clock the next morning Riggs had stabilised the situation and was able to see Kerans informally.’

These are random samples but the pattern is there. It’s not clear if this is merely a feature of Ballard’s writing style or whether the constant references to time hold a deeper meaning for him, as this is apparent in other works.


Rogue Moon – Algis Budrys (1960)

Rogue Moon

‘Rogue Moon’ is one of those rare SF ‘proper novels’ that could very easily transcend SF boundaries. Indeed, one could argue that the SF elements are merely devices to explore the themes that lace the novel.
It is also one of those novels that says a great deal about the protagonists (of which there are only a handful) merely by their actions.
The basic premise is that an alien structure has been found on the Moon. Entry into the structure, however, appears to be lethal since the structure, for whatever reason – has been designed rather like a videogame. If one can work out the traps and snares built into the machine then one may be able to walk through the device and emerge on the other side. One wrong move, however, and one is dead.
Dr Edward Hawks until now has been using volunteer studies. Their bodies are scanned. being destroyed in the process, and transmitted as duplicates, both to the moon site and to a receiver station within the laboratory. The moon-based copy is then in telepathic contact with the copy on Earth who makes notes of what movements and actions their double takes before being killed.
Most of the volunteers have to be replaced as the trauma of experiencing death causes severe psychological problems. There is also the added trauma of the volunteer knowing that their whole physical being is an exact copy, and not the actual body that existed the day before.
The hunt is on then for someone who actively seeks out the stimulation of near death experience. And this is where this extraordinary novel begins. The next subject is suggested as Al Barker, a man who courts death in various ways, such as driving at breakneck speeds along the edge of a precipice. Is Al, an antisocial and arrogant figure, truly suicidal or merely addicted to dangerous activity?
Barker has been suggested by one of the directors of the company managing the analysis of this alien device. He, it appears, is obsessed with Barker’s girlfriend, Claire Pack, who in turn flirts with Connington and Hawks, although Hawks is more interested in recruiting Barker than in any romantic entanglement with Claire.
Claire however in her own way is addicted to the danger of Barker himself, a dysfunctional attachment which is not fully explored. One would be justified in pointing out that the two female characters in the novel are underused, but having said that, one of the themes of this novel is the male psyche in some of its various forms, mostly in men’s relationships with each other.
The main theme of the novel would appear to be Death. Apart from the events of the main narrative, where copies of volunteers die attempting to map a path through the artefact, the subject creeps in elsewhere
at various points.
Just over a quarter of the way into the novel, Hawks’ chief asssitant, Sam Latourette, is angered by Barker’s flippant insolence toward Hawks and lashes out at him. Barker remains ‘deathly calm’ and Latourette is told to go off and attend to other duties. This results in an ensuing conversation between Hawks and Barker.

‘ ‘How about your boy over there, Latourette?’
‘Sam’s a very good man,’ Hawks said.
‘And that’s his excuse.’
‘It’s his reason for being here. Ordinarily, he’d be in a sanatorium under sedation for his pain. He has an inoperable cancer. He’ll be dead next year.’
They had passed the low wall of linked grey steel cabinets. Barker’s head jerked back around. ‘Oh.’he said. ‘that’s why he’s the standard man in there. Nothing eating at the flesh. Eternal life.’
‘No usual man wants to die,’ Hawks said, touching Barker’s shoulder and moving him gently towards the suit. The men of the Navy crew were darting covert glances at Barker only after looking around to see if any of their teammates were watching them at that particular instant. ‘Otherwise, the world would be swept by suicides.’ ‘

Justifiably listed in Pringle’s ‘Science Fiction: The Hundred Best Novels’ this was a somewhat revolutionary piece for 1960. As Pringle points out it was anticipating or perhaps sowing the seeds of the New Wave later in the decade with its emphasis on psychology rather than technology.
It’s an underrated novel and one that should be more widely appreciated.


A Man Obsessed – Alan E Nourse (1955)

A Man Obsessed

‘HE HUNTED HORROR THROUGH A MANIAC WORLD!

Jeffrey Meyer had a killing on his mind. It meant nothing to him that his towering Twenty-first Century world was going mad. He shouldered aside the rising tide of narcotics-mania, the gambling fever, the insatiable lust for the irrational. Jeff had his own all-consuming obsession—Paul Conroe must die!

After a five-year frenzied chase, Jeff had his victim cornered; he’d driven him into the last hideaway of the world’s most desperate men—the sealed vaults of the human-vivisectionists. And Jeff knew that to reach his final horrible objective, he must offer himself also as a guinea pig for the secret experiments of the world’s most feared physicians!

Alan E. Nourse’s new novel A MAN OBSESSED has the impact of Orwell’s 1984 and the imaginative vigor of Huxley’s Brave New World.

Blurb from the 1955 D-96 Ace Doubles Paperback edition.

Jeff thinks he has set the perfect trap for Conroe, the man who murdered his father, in a bar where his mistress is performing. When Conroe arrives the mistress, in the midst of an erotic display, has a spotlight thrown on Jeff. Conroe sees him and escapes. Jeff’s hired team cordoning off the area can find no trace of him. The only place he could have gone to would be a feared vivisection institute.
Jeff, desperate to track him down, signs himself into the institute, where big money can be earned by those willing to subject themselves to fiendish and dangerous medical experiments.
Some way into the narrative, Jeff discovers that both he and his room-mate at the institute, Blackie (who bears a suspicious resemblance to the dancer in the bar) possess psi-powers, which leads him on another journey to discover the truth about himself, his father and his death.
This is an odd, very noir-ish, piece set in a world where incidents of mental instability are increasing.
The phemomena of ESP seems hurriedly introduced and is awkwardly handled.
There are also some obvious plot holes, such as the fact that Blackie never reveals that she was, in fact, the dancer in the bar, but the denouement is both interesting and unexpected.
Nothing really out of the ordinary though.