My life in outer space

Archive for June, 2016

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest (2013)

The Adjacent

Priest novels have never been an easy read, although they can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, in my experience once one has finished reading them, more of which later. He has never gone in for infodumping or providing easy explanations for the reader, and his work tends to be a puzzle, or – in the nature of one of his favourite themes – a magical act of misdirection where the reader has to spot the clues in order to interpret the reality of what he or she is experiencing.
Reality is the major theme here, or alternate realities. Priest is exploring a concept which Moorcock employed throughout his career and indeed used to connect his many disparate works with each other.
The central character is Tibor Tarent, a photographer from the Islamic Republic of Great Britain, some time after the 2030s. He has been returned to England from Turkey for a debriefing following the death of his nurse wife Melanie in an apparent terrorist attack. This terrifying new ‘adjacency’ weapon appears as a light above the target. What then follows is that everything in an equilateral pyramid below is apparently destroyed, leaving a perfectly triangular blast area. It would have been interesting for Priest to have explored the workings and history of the IRGB a little more. Here, it is merely a presented fact, employed as a backdrop to Tibor’s dystopia.
Tibor learns that the authorities are interested in him because he once photographed Thijs Rietveld, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who discovered and developed the adjacency technology.
On returning to London he discovers that Notting Hill has been destroyed in the same way (I note that another critic has pointed out that this may be a bit of an overreaction to the effect of the Richard Curtis movie, but hey ho).
Interspersed with Tarent’s journey to Warnes’ Farm, where he is due to be interviewed by unspecified government officials, are other stories, set in the First and Second World Wars, and on the island of Prachous, a setting from from a previous novel ‘The Dream Archipelago’.
In all these sequences we find alternate versions or reflections of Tarent and Melanie. Two are magicians or illusionists echoing the themes of reality and illusion from ‘The Prestige’. A stage magician called Tommy Trent is drafted to the front line of The First World War, along with HG Wells, in an effort to devise a plan to make British planes less visible to the Germans.
In World War II, a pilot called Torrance is connected by chance to a Polish female pilot who is drawn to him because of his resemblance to her lost lost lover Tomasz.
And on Prachous, there are two incarnations of the couple; one of the males being a photographer and the other another magician. The Melanie figures are a pilot, a religious guide, and a nurse. This continues a regular theme of Priest’s of doubles, twins and doppelgangers which appear in his past work to a greater or lesser degree.
All the sequences have a certain sense of illogicality or unreality about them, certainly in the sense that on at least two occasions women who seem initially cold and aloof initiate rampant sex with the Tibor incarnation.
Indeed, Priest keeps us guessing throughout, as the Tibor Tarent sequences may or may not reflect the same reality.
I have always been a fan of those works which do not explain everything. Many authors feel they have to do a Downton Abbey and tie up all the loose ends, marry off all the single people and leave no question unanswered, which for me is rather more unreal than any of Priest’s realities here.
One of the most fascinating sections is the one dealing with the interview with Thijs Rietveld where – like an illusionist – he demonstrates the adjacency field with no explanation while having his photograph taken by Tibor in his garden. A conch shell appears to move without volition between his left and right hand while he stands there unmoving.
Leaving a mystery unsolved is the best way to ensure that a work stays on in one’s head, and Priest leaves many haunting questions here. Many people see that as a bad thing, but I would disagree. The novel persists in one’s head where other works with ‘closure’ (ironically the title of one of the sections toward the end) are soon dismissed by the conscious process.
There is a resolution, or is there? It’s difficult to tell with Priest. Maybe we have all been misdirected and the entire book is one enormous conjuring trick, designed to lead us to an erroneous conclusion while the real truth lies hidden like Schrodinger’s cat, waiting for us to open the box.

Skylark Duquesne – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1966)

Skylark DuQuesne (Skylark #4)

When last we saw DuQuesne in The Skylark of Valeron, he had been transformed into a being of pure mind by the other bodiless minds. They had all, in any case, been imprisoned in a vessel from which they could not escape and fired in a direction far away from the First Galaxy.
Seaton’s new alien friends, The Norlaminian minds, having thought things through, now realise that the vessel is likely to smash itself apart if it encounters any dense particles of matter at such an incalculable speed, and that DuQuesne is therefore likely to escape and return.
Seaton, thinking of Earth’s defence against such an outcome, enlists his alien friends to send out a specific thought, aimed at high powered minds who may have technology more advanced than currently known.
This is picked up by some of the humanoids in a far distant galaxy who are slaves of the Llurdians, a monstrous but ruthlessly logical race.
Some of the Fenachrone have also survived, and both DuQuesne and Seaton are ultimately forced to work together to battle an entire galaxy of evil Chlorans
Structurally it’s a bit of a mess. but its problems run deeper than that. The preceding volumes were all written in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties and were, to give Smith his due, cutting edge SF at the time.
Thirty years on, SF had changed a great deal and Smith had to produce a sequel that matched the original trilogy stylistically and with a consistent internal logic.
Smith himself was obviously much older and writing erratically. In ‘The Galaxy Primes‘ he introduced sexual themes which were of course being explored by other writers of the time. In Smith’s hands, however, they come over as being a little creepy.
In the Skylark universe it seems, many aliens wander about naked. So, being neighbourly and all, Seaton decides that he, Crane, Crane’s wife and Dottie should be naked too, as well as Hiro the space-chef and and his new ninja-assassin wife Lotus Blossom. Of course, they’re all perfectly happy with this notion.
DuQuesne gets his kit off too, in an odd encounter on board the ship of a new humanoid race. DuQuesne is considered suitable material for breeding and so is paired up with a willing woman who takes him off to extract his sperm in what one presumes is the usual way.
Genocide is still Smith’s preferred solution to any difficulties one may be having with truculent aliens, and wipes the Chlorans from the face of their galaxy.
Smith is retreading old ground here, resurrecting both the Fenachrone and the Chlorans, rather than creating new enemies to confront. There are in fact a surfeit of enemies, which results in people flitting hither and thither and yon, to very little effect.
Smith had never been overly concerned about relativity or indeed physics in general. Here Seaton (and indeed DuQuesne, the Fenachrone, and the human slaves of the LLurdians) is zipping about from galaxy to galaxy without any ill-effects or serious time-dilation issues.
The denouement also, is a little strange since DuQuesne decides he is going to set up his own Empire in which a form of eugenics will become part of social custom.
The Skylark series should, in all honesty, have been left as trilogy. This late addition adds nothing to the experience and comes as something of an anti-climax.

Stepsons of Terra – Robert Silverberg (1958)

Stepsons of Terra

‘They owed Mother Earth No Allegiance!

The first Corwinite in 500 years to visit Earth, Baird Ewing had been delegated by the desperate planetary colonists to seek the Mother Planet’s help against a destructive horde which would soon gall upon the planet Corwin.

But Earth… Earth had changed into a decadent, moldering world which could not even avoid her own destruction at the hands of the neighboring Sirians… much less help the distant and long-forgotten colony.

Earth had nothing to offer… except… maybe the secret of time travel!’

Blurb from the 1958 D-311 Ace Doubles paperback edition

The colony planet Corwin is under threat of invasion from the alien Klodni and Baird Ewing volunteers to return to the Mother Planet – with whom the colonists have had no contact in five hundred years – to beg for military aid.
Ewing discovers however that Earth had become a decadent world peopled by apathetic natives and no ships or armies to defend themselves.
His presence on Earth, despite this, has been noted. An academic researcher named Myreck contacts Ewing and asks if he will come to his College to give a talk about his colony world. He is also approached by citizens of the Sirius colony, the oldest of the Earth planetary colonies who are very suspicious of his presence and do not believe his claims of a non-human threat to human worlds.
The Sirians, who appear to exist in large numbers on Earth, are in the process of taking Earth over as a Sirian protectorate. They suspect Ewing of being a spy from the other colonies who may be plotting to move against them.
On his visit to Myreck’s college the scientists take Ewing on a tour of their laboratory which includes some working time travel equipment, although it is not until later in the novel that the significance of this comes into play.
It is worth noting that other Ace Doubles deal with issues of Humanity turning pacifist or at least non-military and suffering the consequences. (High, Bulmer). Although the subject is explored in different ways there seems to be a general sense of animosity toward the concept of a pacifist society. Silverberg does not outrightly condemn the concept but he certainly gives the impression that the males of Earth are listless and somewhat effeminate.
One has to consider whether these views of anti-pacifism (quite overtly hostile in the case of Bulmer) were a reaction to world events and changes in the social make-up of the time. The Korean War had only ended a few years before and the Vietnam War was ongoing. It’s difficult to say without further research if the issue of protests against war was a topic that authors consciously introduced in oblique ways into novels of the day.
After Ewing is drugged, kidnapped and interrogated by the Sirian Security Services, the pace steps up and Silverberg, to his credit, delivers up a pretty decent time paradox tale at the end of which Ewing realises how he can defeat the Klodni invasion and return to Earth to help throw off the yolk of the Sirian invaders.
It’s always interesting looking at early Silverberg novels. By this time he had already published three earlier novels for Ace and many short stories for various outlets. ‘Stepsons of Terra’ is certainly above the mean quality level for an Ace Double but does not give any hint of the high quality of writing he was later to produce.

Son of The Tree – Jack Vance (1951)

Son of the Tree


“A vast, breathing, sappy mass, a trunk five miles in diameter, and twelve miles from the great kneed roots to the ultimate bud – the ‘Vital Exprescience’ in the cant of the Druids. The Tree ruled the horizons, shouldered aside the clouds, and wore thunder and lightning like a wreath of tinsels. It was the soul of life, trampling and vanquishing the inert, and Joe understood how it had come to be worshipped by the first marvelling settlers on Kyril.”

For Joe Smith, the sight of the Tree was the beginning of an experience that would forever change his life. He had journeyed into space in search of a man, but what he found was a tree, a huge sky-dominating tree that held the power of life and death over millions of slaves.’

Blurb from the 77525 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Three of the colony worlds so far from Earth that Earth has become a myth are Kyril, Mangtse and Ballenkarch.
On Kyril there is one giant tree which is worshipped by a theocracy of Druids who preside over a population of slaves.
To this world has come Joe Smith of Earth, a man on the hunt for another Earth native, Henry Creach, who has abandoned Margaret, a woman with whom Joe is in love.
Once on the surface of Kyril he gains employment repairing and driving floating cars for the Druids. When he is requested to provide transport for the Priestess Elfane very late at night, he presumes that the priestess has some romantic assignation.
However, there is a dead body in the Priestess’ room, that of a Mang, and she and the Druid Manaolo, wish Joe to drive them out over the ocean and dump it in the sea.
Joe refuses. Once they have left, the Druid Hableyat appears and confesses that he murdered the Mang (for political reasons you don’t really need to know) and takes Joe to his rooms.
Hableyatt offers Joe a new job, ensuring that a cutting from the One Tree is taken across space to the planet Ballenkarch where, if it flourishes, the Druids can begin worshipping another tree, and cement relations with Ballenkarch. This is not to the liking of some of the Mangs who are divided into two political factions who have opposing views on how to deal with the expansionist plans of the Druids.
It’s a clever and colourful piece which contains some of Vance’s regular themes and motifs. It is somewhat baroque, and serves to define Vance’s skill at portraying sometimes decadent class or caste-obsessed future societies. We have the absurd religion which, in this case, has a terrible secret at its heart. Vance is always keen to point out that even intelligent people will believe anything if they are brought up to believe it within a confined community.
Vance seldom paid any attention to any technical or scientific details, but it’s a testament to his writing skill that it doesn’t really matter. Here he makes the concept of a vast space station, set at a point equidistant between the three planets and serving the needs of human and alien travellers, remarkably plausible.
We also have the maverick hero who doesn’t really get on or fit in with everyone else, which is a regular feature of Vance’s novels.
It’s a fascinating and neglected early work which deserves to be more widely read.

Skylark of Valeron – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1934)

Skylark of Valeron (Skylark, #3)

‘Valeron’ takes us more or less straight on from the end of Skylark Three, although we see the denouement from the perspective of Duquesne, who has captured a Fenachrone war-vessel and is hiding among their fleet. Thus, he witnesses the destruction of the entire Fenachrone race. While Seaton and his chums are racing off to pursue the final Fenachrone ship (which is attempting to flee to another galaxy) Duquesne returns to Earth and takes control of the planet.
We then rejoin Seaton, Martin, Dorothy and Margaret as they continue their adventures. Having destroyed the last of the Fenachrone, they then encounter the pure intellectuals, beings composed of energy and, in order to escape them, rotate themselves into the Fourth Dimension.
They are there captured by a fourth-dimensional civilisation. Unable to communicate, they are forced to escape. Seaton manages to rotate them back into our universe in the nick of time but finds that they are so far from their own galaxy, they are lost.
In a nearby galaxy however, they discover the planet Valeron, peopled by nice white humanoid types and currently under siege by the Chlorans, green amoeboid type beasties from a neighbouring planet.
Smith is pretty much repeating plotlines continuously but does so, it has to be said, in a very entertaining manner, despite his rather casual attitude to genocide, which he is happy to carry out with gay abandon in most of his work. He also quite cleverly interweaves what appears to be logical scientific theory and laws of physics with complete techno-nonsense, such as the convenient headsets that one can don to assimilate all the knowledge and expertise of a friendly scientist chum.
It’s juvenile hokum that is typical of – but generally far superior to – most of the contemporaneous work that was being published in the mid Nineteen Thirties.

The tale was first serialised in ‘Astounding’ in 1934 and published as a novel in 1949.