My life in outer space

Archive for May, 2016

The Angels of Life and Death – Eric Brown (2010)

The Angels of Life and Death

Ten stories from Eric Brown, of varying quality, set in various parts of the world or universe.
There are recurring themes of Death (or perhaps mortality) and identity. There a couple of stories which are a little weak, although on the whole they are fascinating little gems, featuring well-rounded characters, and not all of them Anglo-American Anglo Saxon folk either, which makes a pleasant change.
A very easy and enjoyable read.

Venus Macabre (Aboriginal Science Fiction, Winter 1998)

A tale of two men obsessed with death. One is a conceptual artist who is equipped with a device which records his mind. He perpetually destroys himself as a performance before spending seven days in the impervious device while his body is being regrown. The other, who attends his final performance, is a TV host who employs empaths to track suicides. Their final days and their actual suicides are filmed and shown on a popular prime time show.
This tale cleverly unravels the history of the two protagonists and what else they have in common.

The Frankenberg Process (Interzone, #171 September 2001)

A fascinating story with a very retro feel to it. The Frankenberg Process splits top level executives of a vast Corporation into two separate but identical individuals, keeping one on Earth and teleporting the other to work on a distant alien world, never to return.
It’s a tale of corporate greed and control, but also examines the human effects of such a process.

Skyball (The Edge, Vol. 2, #5, August-September 1997)

In a near future Far East, a form of quidditch is played, with teams zooming about in powered harnesses. A telepath, who used to be employed to scout out talent by seeing their potential in their minds, is now employed seeking out criminals. He is at an important Skyball final as a tip has been received that someone will attempt to kill one of the players.
While there, he discovers a crippled girl who has the mind of a brilliant Skyball strategist, and conceives the idea of temporarily transferring her mind into that of a fading star player. .

Bengal Blues (The Angels of Life and Death 2010)

A weak but atmospheric story about a telepathic detective on the trail of a man who has married a prostitute. The ending is a little rushed and awkward for me. It seems as if it should be part of a larger work.

The Nilakantha Scream (Interzone, #48 June 1991)

Telepaths again feature in this odd tale of an interstellar contact crew returning from a world where they were deeply traumatised and have been emitting a daily psychic scream on their way back home. This is however, more about the central figure and her relationship to her boss and to one of the crew returning from space.

The Thallian Intervention (The Edge, Vol. 2, #2, February-March 1996)

One of the weaker tales in ‘Angels of Life and Death’ is an attempt at an early Twentieth Century style, where Mr Meredith, a passenger on a liner to Singapore meets an alien visitor from the future.
The Earth is doomed, but the aliens plan to effectively copy the Earth, transport it to their own time period, and hopefully save Humanity from destroying itself.
It ultimately looks at the same themes as ‘The Frankenburg Process’ but not to any great degree.

The Tapestry of Time (Fantasy Adventures 12 – 2006)

An archaeologist is struggling to come to terms with an anomalous corpse from the 11th Century that has turned up. Not long after an old colleague invites him to have a tour of his project, which appears to be a working time-travel process.
Without giving too much away there is not enough of a mystery, and the piece could have been longer with a little more plot.

The Frozen Woman (Interzone, #190 July-August 2003)

A gardener for a large private estate is discovered frozen, as if in stasis, in Sainsburys. A year later he recovers, apparently none the worse for his experience. However, he will only speak with one specific reporter, a woman about whom he seems to know and care a great deal, although she has never met him.
Brown’s aliens and evolved humans (as are described here and in the stories in Angels of Life and Death) seem in the main to be benevolent, which is interesting and a little refreshing.

Crystals (New Moon #2, January 1992)

An alien ship crashed just off an island on Britain’s coast. It has been thoroughly examined by most of the world’s specialists and the alien bodies removed.
When the story begins the ship has become merely a scenic view for the islanders. The narrator moved to the island following an acrimonious divorce. His estranged daughter is due to arrive for a visit and her mother has not told her that the man she calls father is not her father.
As she arrives, the island is beset by a storm and the next day alien crystals are found on the beach, crystals that can one record one’s thoughts and experiences.
It is not a bad story but would benefit with some extra length and more conflict.

Angels of Life and Death ( Spectrum SF, #5 February 2001)

Just after Ben, an artist, discovers he has terminal cancer, aliens arrive, announcing their intention to take Earth’s mortally sick for a trip around the Universe. Ben volunteers and is introduced to Tallibeth, his guide, a humanoid being who appears to be composed of light.
The Tallani, as the aliens are known, take Ben to various worlds across the Universe and ultimately tell him that they can, if he wishes, cure him.
As with some of his other stories there is an exploration of what it means to have quality of life.

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Use of Weapons – Iain M Banks (1990)

Use of Weapons (Culture, #3)

Banks’ third Culture novel is original, poetic, at times amusing, at times tragic, and just beautifully written.
Cheranedine Zakalwe is, or was, a Culture agent, The Culture being a multi-stellar civilisation in effect ruled by Artificial Intelligences. It is a civilisation which is basically socialist, since there is no currency, poverty, class systems or war.
Outside of its borders the Culture works in oblique and subtle ways to reduce wars between planets. Zakalwe has been involved in several operations of this sort and has subsequently gone rogue and vanished.
Diezit Sma, the woman who originally recruited Zakalwe, needs to bring him in for a further mission; to abduct a politician who is being held by a faction on a primitive world, one who could possibly help to bring peace to several worlds heading toward war.
That is the basic plot, but Banks has embellished those bare bones beautifully with exquisitely carved facets of narrative.
Much of the novel is dedicated to Zakalwe’s examination of his own memories so that structurally we are leaping backwards and forwards between Zakalwe’s past life and adventures and his present day mission. Slowly the strands begin to connect with each other.
The title of this novel is perfect since we are presented, time and time again, with weapons of various sorts; the things with which Zakalwe feels most comfortable and which he, when the moment arrives, is reluctant to deploy.
As a child, living with his stepbrother and stepsisters, he and they stole a weapon to play with in the garden, and by sheer chance were able to foil an assassin’s strike on their family.
It can also be seen as a metaphor at various points, most obviously in the case of Zakalwe himself, who is nothing more than a weapon employed by The Culture, although admittedly for peaceful ends.
The other recurring motif is that of chairs which begins in the first section where an aristocrat Zakalwe is protecting sits down on a fragile chair which collapses under his weight.
Zakalwe returns to his family home one day to find his stepbrother Elethiomel, sitting naked in a chair with Zakalwe’s sister Darckense straddling him. Zakalwe is conscious of some repressed memory related to a chair but it is not until the denouement that the truth of this memory is revealed.
The characters are also beautifully out together. Some sections are almost self-contained vignettes of a point in Zakalwe’s past, such as the period when he travelled on an interstellar ship ferrying frozen colonists to a planet a hundred or more light years away during which he chose to be awakened for a period to experience the flight.
He spends several months in the company of two men, one of those peculiar heterosexual partnerships where the two men involved seem to love each other very much but are constantly competing to be the alpha male. It’s a beautifully observed portrait of male behaviour, and a clever counterpoint to Zakalwe’s nihilistic and suicidal mood at the time.
There are amazing settings, dark humour, wise-cracking personal bots, giant thinking ships with ridiculous names sailing through the blackness of space, and a jawnumbing twist at the end.
Banks was a very original voice in the world of SF.
If you haven’t read him then you should.


Behold The Man – Michael Moorcock (1969)

Behold the Man

Popular music went through its punk phase in the mid Nineteen Seventies. It was almost an extinction event for some of the pop and rock establishment of the time and heralded a brief new era of musical diversity and experimentation.
SF had experienced its own punk revolution in the late Sixties, The New Wave movement, at the forefront of which, along with Judith Merrill, JG Ballard, MJ Harrison and others, was Michael Moorcock. The New Wave was an attempt to invigorate the SF genre and produce a more literary product with an emphasis on character, ‘inner space’ rather than outer space, and experimentation.
Their flagship magazine was ‘New Worlds,’ an already extant magazine which Moorcock took over as editor in the mid-Sixties. It was a groundbreaking publication which has since reappeared in various formats up to 1997.
‘Behold The Man’ was expanded from a novella which appeared in New Worlds in 1967.
Some New Wave writers set out to shock, and one would imagine that as controversial subjects go, Jesus Christ has to be fairly near the top of the list.
In a weird parallel with ‘The Life of Brian’ however, the subject of this novel is not the real Jesus of Nazareth, but one Karl Glogauer, of London.
Glogauer is one of Moorcock’s more fascinating creations, born presumably at the beginning of World War II and growing up in Nineteen Forties and Fifties England, much like Moorcock himself.
Glogauer is one of life’s victims; a target for bullies and a sadistic couple who run a children’s summer camp. He is in search of sexual and spiritual fulfillment, and finds neither although he does become fascinated by the work of Jung and hosts a regular meeting of like-minded individuals to discuss his work.
Glogauer is invited to the country by a member of the group, Sir James Headington, a scientist who claims to have discovered the secret of time travel. Even he, it seems has ulterior motives since he attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce Glogauer. It does appear, however that the time travel equipment does work. Animals have apparently been sent to the past although the equipment has not as yet been tested with human subjects.
Subsequently, Glogauer becomes fixated on the life of Christ as his relationship with his girlfriend Monica begins to break down. Monica is an atheist who has her own views about where ‘Christian’ ideals originated.
When he finally breaks up with Monica, Glogauer immediately rings Sir James and volunteers to travel back in time, as long as he can choose the time and place of arrival.
And this is where this extraordinary novel begins, with Glogauer arriving in the Palestine area in around 28 AD. His experiences from herein on are interspersed with extracts from his life in the twentieth century, and passages from the Bible.
Initially, Glogauer’s desire is to meet Christ – who is destined to be crucified within a year – and to determine for himself the truth of the gospels. Glogauer is however injured when the time capsule arrives and the vehicle itself essentially destroyed since no technology exists in his current timeline to repair it.
He is taken on by the Essenes who believe that he is a prophet from Egypt. John the Baptist, who appears to be the leader of the Essenes, hopes to foster this belief and employ Glogauer in his resistance to Herod and Roman rule. He baptises Karl who then, seized with confusion, runs off and is lost in the wilderness.
Eventually, Glogauer finds his way to Nazareth and the home of Joseph the carpenter and his wife Mary.
Their son, Jesus, the result of an assignation on Mary’s part before she married Joseph, turns out to be a physically and mentally disabled man who can do nothing more than giggle and repeat his own name.
This is then the pivotal point. Glogauer now realises that he is on a predestinate path and must take on the role for which, it seems, he was born.
Having been trained in the basics of psychiatry and hypnotism Glogauer is able to easily cure some people of hysterical or psychosomatic conditions and, followed by a growing number of followers begins his inevitable journey toward Jerusalem and his death by crucifixion.
For a short novel it manages to pack a great deal in and says an awful lot about religion and the phenomenon of belief.
The author makes a telling point about the priests of the time which is just as relevant to today’s priesthood (of whatever religion) as it was two thousand years ago.

‘They would ask questions of the rabbis but the wise men would tell them nothing, save that they should go about their business, that there were things they were not yer meant to know. In this way, as priests had always done, they avoided questions they could not answer while at the same time appearing to have much more knowledge than they actually possessed.’

Chapter Thirteen

There are some shock factors in that, in line with the style of the New Wave, Moorcock introduces subjects one would not normally expect to find in a Science Fiction novel such as child abuse, sexual fetishism and homosexuality. Added to which, to hammer the final nail (an unfortunate metaphor I know) into the Christ myth Moorcock has Glogauer return to Joseph’s house once Joseph has gone to sell his wares, where he has sex with ‘the Virgin Mary’ until they are interrupted by the giggling drooling form of the real Jesus.
It’s a shame Mary Whitehouse never discovered this book as it would no doubt now be far more widely read than it is, which can only be a good thing.
For me, it’s one of Moorcock’s most original and underrated novels, possibly his best.


The Time Mercenaries – Philip E High (1968)

The Time Mercenaries

‘WHAT PORT AWAITED THE END OF THEIR THOUSAND YEARS BENEATH THE SEA?
There had been one war scare too many and so the human race had used genetic sorcery to delete the aggressive tendencies from its heredity. But now mankind was faced with an alien enemy so superior, so ruthless, that it was fight or be wiped out . . . and the humans could not fight. They couldn’t even give orders to their robots to produce weapons.
The only possibility was to call up and bring back to life a museum exhibit, the submarine Euphrates and its battle-trained crew. The ship had been sunk a thousand years before and had been preserved to show the decadence of violence – violence which was the only hope against an enemy to whom living space was all-important and human life was entirely superfluous.’

Blurb from the 1968 H-59 Ace Doubles paperback edition

British writer Philip E High brings us a very enjoyable romp here. Captain Randall is is in control of a navy submarine which is hit by a warship and sinks to the bottom of the ocean to be forgotten for a thousand years.
Then, Randall, his sub and his crew are resurrected by a human civilisation that spans some twenty five worlds, and taken to a human colonised planet.
Humanity has genetically altered itself to be incapable of violent thought or action and now needs the captain and his crew to combat an alien invasion.
This, like Kenneth Bulmer’s ‘Behold The Stars’ examines – not very deeply in either case to be honest – the theme of Humanity being altered to become pacifist.
High did not intend, I think, to make a political point about it, and it is explained to Randall that the cause of their action was the pointless wars and belligerence that would have destroyed the human race.
The aliens are somewhere between an insect and a frog and need habitable worlds to expand since they breed prodigiously producing thousands of frogspawn-like eggs which Randall observes floating in the alien sea.
We therefore will have little sympathy for the invaders when Randall goes about destroying their bases.
There’s some decent characterisation, even with the robots that this future civilisation has given to Randall to aid in his mission.
The moral here, if there is one, is that sometimes you have to fight for your survival.
It is one of the better Ace Doubles, and although at heart is a simple story of man versus nasty beasties, is nonetheless highly enjoyable.


The Universe Maker – AE van Vogt (1953)

Universe Maker

Morton Cargill, a veteran of the Korean War, is drinking in a bar and gets friendly with a young woman who is as drunk as he is. Driving her back home, they crash and she is killed. Morton escapes unscathed and flees the scene.
Later he receives a letter purportedly from the dead woman, arranging a meeting. When he turns up he is abducted and wakes up in a room divided by a glass partition on the other side of which is a woman resembling the dead woman.
Cargill has been transported to the future where he is to be killed as part of a therapeutic process to rid his victim’s descendant of her race-memory issues.
However, he is later awakened by a woman called Ann Reece who has a portable time-travel device and persuades him to escape further into the future with her as he is important to a future political faction.
van Vogt has a recurring motif of different ‘classes’ of humans interacting to a greater or lesser degree with each other. In ‘Slan’ we have the humans, the Slans and the tendril-less Slans. ‘Mission to The Stars’ features Dellians, non-Dellians and the rest of humanity.
Here, Humanity has divided into three groups, the Tweeners, who continue to live normal lives in the cities, Floaters, who live a gipsy/nomad existence in solar powered ships, and the Shadows, a race of supermen who can alter the physical structures of their own bodies and appear insubstantial to everyone else.
van Vogt brings in the Lamarckian concept of race memory, since the descendant of Chanette is suffering mental instability because of the inherited effects of her murder.
The time travelling psychologists believe that witnessing the murderer’s death will cure her and negate her of the possibility of passing on any further angst to her offspring. van Vogt manages to make this seem plausible although I am sure that even in Nineteen Fifty Three it didn’t bear very close scrutiny.
It would appear that the author was attempting one of those time paradox novels which were done far better by Charles L Harness, Clifford Simak and Harry Harrison. van Vogt was never very good on structure and to construct such a novel would depend very much on a cohesive structure and a strong sense of internal logic, neither of which is the case. As is well-known, he tended to employ a ‘make it up as you go along’ style of writing which usually doesn’t make for a balanced structure.
He also brings in the concept of the soul, a subject he employed later in ‘Computerworld’ although here the examination is muddy even by van Vogt’s standards and not explored or exploited to any great degree. This is linked to an examination of reality which has its interesting moments such as a very Dickian moment when Cargill is transposed to a future civilisation which only exists in potential until Cargill has carried out a specific action.
The author’s attitude to women is again here sadly prevalent. It is sad that compared to his peers who, although the sexism was evident, tended to ignore or marginalise female characters, he actively promotes the concept of female inferiority and subservience.
van Vogt’s women can never resist the power of a dominant male and here, the two major female characters fall in love with Cargill for no apparent reason. Women are there to be subdued and used, as is clear from Cargill’s willingness to seduce Anne Reece simply because he has been asked to in order to further a convoluted plan. He does not even seem to acknowledge the fact that she has saved his life twice.
Oddly Cargill is not your usual van Vogt intelligent and logical hero, since his actions from the outset appear to be quite stupid and ill-thought out.
The Shadows, a faction of human ‘Supermen’ who can make their bodies insubstantial but many times more efficient, are interested in Cargill because his future can not be determined.
Cargill later discovers he has the ability to affect the structure of reality and can if he wishes, restructure the Universe.
In essence, van Vogt struggles with too many concepts here and it all ends up being a bit of a mess. There are glimmers of brilliance here and there but this is way short of van Vogt at his best.