My life in outer space

Archive for August, 2016

Interzone #248 – Andy Cox (Ed.) (2013)

Interzone 248

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone
The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt
Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa
Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef
Technarion – Sean McMullen

A very interesting collection of tales in this issue which push the boundaries of what the average reader would consider to be SF. I have always avoided trying to establish a definition, and although established names within the genre have put forward definitions in the past, there always seem to be works which fall outside the parameters.
I’m happy to consider it as a broad church with a fluid remit. It’s a lot easier to say what isn’t SF, and I have labelled some works as such in the past.
Luckily I have no such problems here. Interzone continues to publish excellent work from new – and not so new – writers which are engrossing and thought provoking.
A few of these stories have ambiguous and unresolved endings, something I find refreshing. There’s also a strong poetic element to some of them, such as the pieces by Van Pelt and Altabef which take us into the realm of the surreal and inexplicable.
The magazine also features an interview with Christopher Priest as part of Interzone’s review of ‘The Adjacent’.

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone

In a future where space flights are sponsored by media companies and reality stars, a married couple are sent on a mission beyond Pluto. This is a first person narrative told by the wife whose mental integrity is slowly crumbling.

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt

An American School built in the mid Twentieth Century acquires so many various extensions, annexes, basements and sub basements that it grows into a Gormenghast-esque world of its own in which reality becomes somewhat fluid. Beautifully written. Quite fascinating.

Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa

A man buys a house after the previous owner, an unsuccessful magician, disappeared. The house contains all his equipment and some notebooks and videotapes. In the basement he discovers something that looks like a submarine hatch which leads to a dark waterworld filled with houses and their eerie mannequin occupants.
A very compelling story, haunting and disturbing.

Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef

A very short piece set in a dystopian future which begins with an old man – sitting in a condemned opera house – recreating a lost opera and the opera house by means of some ingenious opera glasses. Poetic, atmospheric and evocative.

Technarion – Sean McMullen

An interesting steampunk piece from McMullen about the development of a computer in 1875, the consequences of which are far reaching.

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This Is the Way the World Ends – James Morrow (1986)

This Is the Way the World Ends

George Paxton is a carver of funeral stones. Being a decent man George needs to ensure that his daughter is safe in a world of nuclear proliferation and wants to buy her a Scopas anti radiation suit. As George’s wife has just been fired from her job at a pet shop for ‘blowing up’ a tarantula, the cost has become prohibitive.
George is then approached by an old woman whom he assumes at first to be a ghost. She sends him off to meet with a Mad Hatter character who sells him a golden Scopas suit but also makes him sign a document which implicates him in starting World War III. World War III duly begins as George is travelling home.
And thus begins this peculiar and very disjointed novel.
Whether or not it is SF at all is debatable but immaterial. I would term it a political fantasy, since some of the science involved, such as The Mad Hatter’s human automata is either dubious or completely unfeasible.
It bears comparison with other novels which feature grotesques and caricatures such as ‘Roderick‘ and Richard Cowper’s ‘Profundis‘ but quite unfavourably I am afraid.
‘Profundis’ – another satire based on characters in a submarine in a post-apocalyptic world – was a far tighter, more structured work, with far less main characters, all of whom had a depth of character.
Morrow’s novel, to its detriment – seems to pay little attention to characterisation, apart from occasionally infodumping the history of his characters’ lives in one way or another.
There are also too many concepts to deal with, one of them being ‘the unadmitted’, a horde of black-blooded potential people who never actually existed, but have invaded our world because of some fissure in reality that the nuclear exchange created.
There is no real reason why Morrow could not have simply had survivors of the war take their place, since the role of the unadmitted is simply to put Paxton on trial and sentence him to death. Their presence is both unnecessary and confusing.
And the structure of the novel could have done with some work. There is a charming introductory section featuring Nostradamus who could, it appears, very accurately predict the future and had Leonardo da Vinci paint a series of scenes of George’s life and consequently the end of human existence on magic lantern glass plates.
Nostradamus appears again once during the novel for no good reason and again at the end in a closing scene. It’s not hard to determine why the Nostradamus scenes work so well and the rest of them don’t since Nostradamus is established quite elegantly and efficiently with a personality in an all too brief number of pages. We could really have done with far more since Morrow seems to have padded the remainder with reams of unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent text, space which could have been better-employed on furthering the narrative and exploring some actual characterisation.
There is also the seemingly interminable trial of George and his so-called co-conspirators which almost had me wishing for nuclear destruction to arrive and put an end to my torture.
Maybe it’s the US sense of humour (although I suspect not) but I really must be missing something since this is published in the prestigious Gollancz SF masterworks series and praised by such luminaries as Brian Aldiss and Justina Robson. I can’t presume to fault their judgment, but I can’t find it within me to agree with them.
This is the way the book ends… with a whimper from me, praying to the Great Mythical Being that there isn’t a sequel.


Killer Crabs – Guy N Smith (1978)

Killer Crabs (Crabs, #2)

The sequel to Smith’s cult novel ‘Night of The Crabs‘ begins when a Norwegian captain – ruminating on the problems he has with his angina – is awakened by a fierce banging on his cabin door.
Suddenly we are whisked away to an Australian island whose fishermen are suffering the predations of Japanese poachers with superior fishing technology and weapons.
Klin, a fit but antisocial fisherman, decides to strike back at the Japanese, shooting at their boat and killing one of the crew.
On his way back he sees, to his disbelief, a crab the size of a car.
News of this sighting reaches the British authorities and Professor Cliff Davenport sets off for Australia, leaving his wife Pat at home. This is probably just as well since their unwholesome and highly detailed sexual shenanigans in the first book were rather more than one needed or expected in a giant crab adventure.
Smith’s sexual scenes are confined to the exploits of a rich nymphomaniac who manages to seduce Klin, plus a big game hunter and a bank robber on the run.
Smith seems to be slightly less graphic with the sexual narrative in this, although just as surreal. Klin spends a great deal of time, for instance, wandering the island attempting to hide inappropriate erections in his fisherman’s pants.
Inevitably the crabs invade the island and attack the hotel, during which Smith throws literary caution to the wind and introduces a sub-plot involving a murder and a suitcase full of stolen money.
It only remains for the Professor and Klin to try and discover the spawning ground of the crabs before the next full moon when mating and egg-laying will begin.
The denouement is perhaps a tad rushed, and the murder is quickly solved and dealt with.
I’m a little disappointed that the crabs did not return to the Welsh coast. There was something quite profoundly fascinating about Wales being invaded by man-eating giant crabs. It’s one of those juxtapositions of two diverse concepts that often works really well. Transferring the action to Australia lessens the impact since Australia already has its quota of deadly predators. The most dangerous thing Wales can offer is probably a vexed sheep.
On the whole though, I loved it. Smith deals in complete stereotypes and is a forerunner of the current fad for giant/mutant shark movies and their ilk.
As for the Norwegian fishing captain, we never hear from him again. I hope his angina passed off. It’s worrying me.


Galactic Pot Healer – Philip K Dick (1969)

Galactic Pot-Healer

Joe Fernwright is a pot healer – as was his his father before him – in a future totalitarian dystopia although his services are somewhat redundant since no one makes or breaks ceramics any more.
One day Joe gets a mysterious message offering him a job on Sirius V. The message turns out to be from an all powerful entity known as the Glimmung who is launching a project to raise a sunken cathedral from the ocean bed.
Being a Dick novel, things are not as straightforward as this synopsis would imply.
Fernwright is one of a large number of humans and alien experts in various fields who have been promised a fortune in payment to undertake work on the project. Many, however, are suspicious of the Glimmung’s ultimate objectives, especially as the experts all appear to have all been implicated in various crimes just prior to departure which they suspect were engineered by this being.
There are various Dick hallmarks here, such as the grasping ex-wife, the concept of Fatalism and a surprisingly overt use of humour where he is normally more subtle and understated. We have the world of the dead and the decaying beneath the ocean where at one point Joe meets his dead self.
There is also a religion which features the concepts of the duality of light and dark, something he had already explored, perhaps to better effect, in ‘The Cosmic Puppets’.
We are also in familiar territory with Dick’s lackadaisical attitude to technology and actual science since there is no attempt to explain how the ships that ferry the team to Sirius V operate or indeed the very idiosyncratic robots with whom they have to deal once they arrive. We have no problem as readers with the fact that Sirius V has Earth standard gravity and atmosphere. It didn’t matter to Dick, and for reasons I can’t fathom, doesn’t matter a jot to me either. He somehow always get away with it.
Much of the novel hinges on truth and trust. It becomes clear that the Glimmung is quite capable of lying, and Joe and his colleagues have to employ a a mixture of logic and intuition to determine the best course of action. Added to this is the book of the Kalends, a kind of prophetic bible which changes daily and seems to prophesy the future of the protagonists with uncanny accuracy (in English and various other languages, both human and alien).
Joe, on his dive into the ocean to see the cathedral – against the Glimmung’s express instructions – discovers an ancient vase half covered in coral but one which carries a personal message for him under the glaze. He notices that some of the coral has been removed, which implies that he was meant to see it, but did the Glimmung forbid Joe to go down to the sunken cathedral simply because he knew that Joe then would?
This is one example of a paranoid undercurrent that runs like a thread throughout this novel showing Joe and his companions forced to question the veracity of what they have been told or read. It’s a fascinating and particularly Dickian concept but like almost every other concept in this book is underdeveloped.
There’s something else very flawed about this novel, most essentially in its internal reality which produces an uneasy mixture of tone. There are the serious scenes, such as Joe being given a message by his dead decaying self, and those in which we have comical robots called Willis and clams that tell jokes. Maybe Dick considered that the contrast would make the serious scenes more powerful but it just doesn’t work. ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon‘ held the balance perfectly and despite its ludicrous premise – that Earth had set up a Mental Health facility on one of the moons of Alpha Centauri which was cut off and left to its own devices during the long years of the Alphane war – is a far more complex, structured and amusing work.
This is not a major Dick novel but it has its moments and needs to be studied by Dick enthusiasts if only to identify the PKD trademarks and how they are related to their use in other novels.


The Brain-Stealers – Murray Leinster (1954)

The Brain Stealers

‘He Alone Defied the Cosmic Vampires!

When the outlawed scientist Jim Hunt leaped from the prison plane, he had no suspicion that he was not the only one falling silently through the midnight sky. But other, stranger exiles were landing at that very moment in the same backwoods region… exiles from the unknown depths of outer space, exiles seeking human food.
When Jim started to make his way back home, he discovered the full horror of that night’s events. For the people he met had become mere flesh-and-blood puppets, mindless creatures doing the bidding of the unseen invaders. And though every man’s hand was against him, both free and enslaved, Jim knew that he alone was humanity’s only hope for survival.

Murray Leinster’s BRAIN-STEALERS is an unusually gripping science-fiction novel of thought transference, invaders from space, and vampirism on a world-wide scale!’

Blurb from the 1954 Ace Double D-79 edition.

This is an expansion of the novella ‘The Man in the Iron Cap’ from Starling Stories (November 1947) and fits right into that subgenre of specifically US novels of the time which feature ‘aliens among us’ which may possibly represent a reflection of the US’ reaction to the cold war and the nationwide paranoia over communism at the time. (see The Puppet Masters and The Body Snatchers)
Leinster has created a future Earth where the Powers That Be – a worldspanning organisation known as Security – have become so obsessed with Human Safety that all dangerous research has been banned.
Jim Hunt was experimenting with thought fields, and was subsequently arrested and charged due to the dangerous nature of his experiments. Jim escapes from a plane, convincing the authorities he is dead.
Meanwhile, a ship of telepathic bloodsucking aliens have landed and have been mentally enslaving the population of an increasingly large area of rural America. Hunt discovers this and narrowly avoids becoming enslaved. He devises a cap made of iron wire that blocks the alien thought signals, then has to escape from the area, somehow warn the rest of the world and design a device that could save mankind.
There are some interesting parallels with Heinlein’s ‘Puppet Masters’, but one cannot say whether either writer was aware of the other’s work at the time, and without reading Leinster’s 1947 novella, I can’t say how much was changed for the 1954 novel, published after Heinlein’s 1951 Galaxy serialisation and novelisation.
The aliens, for one thing, breed though fission, dividing into two and moving on to new hosts. They are not concerned about the health and well-being of their hosts and, as in this novel, were brought to Earth by another enslaved race.
They are however very different novels, Heinlein’s being in any case by far the superior.
It’s very readable however, as Leinster’s work generally is, and has its moments of real drama and suspense, but ultimately is nothing out of the ordinary.


Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch #1) (2013)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)

Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.


The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo #03) – David Wingrove (2012)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo Recast, #3)

The third volume in Wingrove’s revised epic future history is the start of the original series published in 1989. An overview of this can be found in my original review of The Middle Kingdom (1989).
I imagine that the 1989 version has been split into two for this new release. The original series comprised of eight hefty volumes while the new ‘re-cast’ version is twenty smaller issues with two new volumes at either end. I can’t determine how much this has been revised if at all. One wouldn’t have thought the series needed any revision until perhaps the last two volumes of the original release, which had major flaws due to publishers’ interference.
Those new to Chung Kuo who have read the first two ‘recast’ volumes would be advised to persevere. I am dubious as to whether volumes one or two added anything valuable to the series. They had that feeling of having been ‘bolted on’ for no good reason.
Here, however, the story really kicks off and I am taken back to my first addiction to this brilliant series. Wingrove handles the multi-character storyline with aplomb and the pace is generally fast. It’s a master class in world-building if nothing else as one does get immersed in this highly detailed dystopia from the outset. Page-turningly good and highly recommended.


The Sun Smasher – Edmond Hamilton (1959)

The Sun Smasher

‘A CROWN FOR THE STAR-CROSSED

“It can’t be true! It must be some kind of hoax!” These were the words that went spinning through Neil Banning’s mind when the Greenville authorities told him that the house he had grown up in, the aunt and uncle who had raised him, had never existed.
So Banning found himself in jail, charged with disturbing the peace – and maybe insanity. But when a stranger from outer space came to his cell at midnight and hailed him as the Valkar of Katuun, then Banning decided that maybe the authorities were right, maybe he was crazy. Because the only alternative was to believe the impossible explanation of the Outworlder – that he really was the exiled ruler of a remote star-world, and the personality of Neil Banning was an elaborate fraud.
It didn’t really matter, though, who was right. Banning was on his way to Katuun whether he liked it or not. And as Banning – or the Valkar – he would have to save that star-world from the terror of THE SUN SMASHER…or perish with the loyal subjects he might never have known!’

Blurb from the 1959 D-351 Ace Double paperback edition

Young Neil Banning, on a business trip, decides to take a detour to his old home town. On reaching there however, he finds that not only is his childhood home a vacant plot, but that there was apparently never a house existing there. Getting more and more frustrated by what he sees as a deliberate attempt by the townspeople to cover up the past he is eventually arrested and thrown into a cell.
During the night, a stranger arrives and stages – in Banning’s opinion – an unwanted rescue. The stranger is Rolf, who tells Banning that his past life is a fiction, that he is in fact Kyle, the lost Valkar of an interstellar Empire.
Kyle is needed to reclaim the throne from those who altered his memory and exiled him to Earth, and locate The Hammer, a weapon of interstellar mass destruction whose location only Kyle/Banning knows.
This is one of those odd romantic flights of fancy that imposes a medieval feudal culture on an interstellar civilisation. It features the literary devices of the amnesiac hero and the Maguffin which in this case is a device (as can easily be deduced from the title of the book) capable of triggering a nova in any sun.
Banning has to come to terms with the fact that he may not be who he thinks he is, while leading an army of loyal followers across the galaxy in search of a lost and terrible doomsday weapon.
Added to that, we have a feisty princess, a sundered love affair and a race of deadly telepathic spider people loyal only to the Valkar.
It is explained early on that Earth is a lost part of the Empire that has not yet been reclaimed as we are a fringe world and somewhat retarded.
One day we’ll be really advanced and united under an unelected hereditary galactic monarchy. Can’t wait.


People Minus X – Raymond Z Gallun (1957)

acedoublepeople

‘Scientific experiments on the moon and an accidental lunar explosion that seared the earth triggers another tale from the imaginative pen of Raymond Z. Gallun.
The secret of life and the restoring to the living of victims of the holocaust initiate a conflict for Ed Dukas, Gallun’s scientific pioneer of the future. Restoring persons through scientific methods, personality records and the memories of near kin, leaves one fatal flaw. They lack one indefinable quality – a divine spark, perhaps a soul.
Gallon depicts a struggle between the restored people and the natural living. Life on the asteroids, thought machines, a journey to Mars and a star ship expedition to Sirius are woven into the plot.

People Minus X is packed with action, science-fiction style. – Detroit Times’

Blurb from the 1958 D-291 Ace Double paperback edition

The plot is straightforward enough. Ed Dukas’ Uncle, Mitch Prell, is a scientist whose creations include Vitaplasm, a synthetic but living flesh which can not only aid with repairing limbs or organs but – once one’s body has been screened – can reproduce a copy if the human original is killed.
These bodies are stronger, faster and can absorb light and radiation as fuel for the body. Prell has also developed android bodies for the same purpose. As Ed’s father is dead, but wasn’t screened, Prell collects as much information as he can with a view to having Ed’s father resurrected.
Not long after however, there is an explosion on the moon related to one of Prell’s experiments and the Moon disintegrates into a ring of asteroids around the Earth, but only after a large number of them have already hit the Earth causing mass fatalities and chaos. Everyone blames Prell for the disaster and for the fact that victims of this holocaust are returning from the dead, something to which a vocal minority fiercely object.
Ed and his mother are forced to leave and live in the asteroids for a while until she receives a message and tells her son that they have to return.
Ed’s father has been resurrected as a Vitaplast human it seems. but is not the same man. Ed decides to accept him though, as do other families whose relatives, killed by some of the moon debris, begin to return to them.
Slowly tensions rise as Human purists begin to campaign against the Vitaplast and android returnees, a campaign which escalates to the point of open warfare.
Prell is believed to be still alive and one day Ed finds the word ‘Nipper’ – Prell’s nickname for his nephew, written in ink on a blank sheet of paper.
From herein on, Ed is on a mission to find his uncle and try and put a stop to the madness that has been unleashed on the Earth. It’s a journey that takes him and his girlfriend to Mars where they are given knowledge and power that could halt the war that is about to erupt.
It’s a marvelous little buried gem, this; a colourful and thrilling story which – serendipitously- echoes the the rhetoric of the current US Christian Right in their hate-filled pogroms against people whom they believe have no right to exist.
The dialogue is a little strange, even for the Nineteen Fifties. Oddly this seems to imbue the book with its own character. The narrative packs a huge amount into a minimal number of pages and – whether consciously or not – the author manages to make a telling point about how the US deals with the problem of xenophobia within its borders. You push all those ‘different people’ onto a ship and send them off on a one-way trip to the planets of Sirius.
But hey, that was the Fifties. Sixty years later we are still seeing people doing the same thing in Syria and in Europe. These ‘different people’ aren’t wanted and are being told to move on or go back.
They’d maybe welcome a giant spaceship to Sirius.