My life in outer space

Archive for January, 2017

A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought #1) – Vernor Vinge (1992)

A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)

Vinge has created a marvellous galactic culture here, much like Brin’s Uplift universe, where humanity are relative newcomers to a galactic civilisation billions of years old. Indeed, the concept of Uplift is employed as a plot device discovered later in the novel.
Vinge takes the unusual premise that the galaxy is divided into Zones of Thought with somewhat fluid boundaries. Intelligence and technology thrive better in those zones closest to intergalactic space, the Transcend, and some races and AIs have become transcendent ‘Powers’. In the slow zones, high level technology has problems and ships’ drives are reduced to a sublight crawl.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy and one offshoot, the Straumli Realm, has discovered a cache of billion year old data and technology. They do not realise until too late that they have awakened an ancient and vicious AI. One ship manages to escape with, unbeknown to the humans, a possible solution to dealing with The Blight, as the AI becomes subsequently known. The Blight begins to infect the galaxy while searching for the escaped ship.
The ship lands on a medieval era planet populated by swan-necked doglike creatures, the Tines, who have evolved into gestalt packs who each share a single consciousness, communicating by tympanic membranes in the shoulder area.
Meanwhile, a human librarian, a man – reconstructed Frankenstein fashion by an ‘Old Power’ – and a pair of cyborg sentient vegetables who live in symbiosis with robotic mobility buggies realise that the lost ship may hold the secret to defeating the Blight. They therefore set off into the Slow Zone on a desperate mission.
This is a wonderful if somewhat lengthy piece of Nineties Space Opera, fast paced and filled with well-embellished locations and societies, wit and suspense.
Doorstop novels were a big thing (literally) in the Nineties and ranged from six hundred pages (Vinge’s book is in the lower bracket) to Peter F Hamilton’s fifteen hundred page epics. Not a word wasted with either of these authors it has to be said, although many of the others may have benefited from some trimming.
One tends to wonder if this might be a book which falls somewhere between a novel and a trilogy. It would have been interesting to have seen an expanded version over two or more (shorter) volumes with perhaps a side story set in the areas controlled by The Blight.
I tend not to approve of mixing hitech societies with the medieval, mainly because it is often done badly. Peter F Hamilton’s Void novels employed this extensively with the result that the sections set in a medieval human society, albeit within an SF setting, were far less interesting than the contrasting galaxy of AIs, wormholes, human immortals and weird aliens.
Here however Vinge has set the weird aliens within a pre-industrial culture and it’s a well thought out joy of a thing.
The plot is incredibly basic. Major threat to the Galaxy. A small band set out against all odds to get to the-thing-that-can-save-or-destroy-the-cosmos before the major threat does.
Indiana Jones. Star Trek Beyond. It’s a tried and trusted formula.
Vinge takes the basic ingredients though and whisks us up this rich and detailed souffle.
If I have any criticism at all it would be that Vinge has maybe over-anthropomorphised the Tines whose personalities – albeit shared among several individuals – are all too human in their culture and lifestyle. One would expect more specific cultural mores to reflect their pack-centric lifestyles. What is interesting – and not really explored enough – is the concept of identity within the Tines which changes as older members die and are replaced.
On the whole though this is excellent; well-written, compelling, colourful gung-ho Space Opera.

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Deadspeak (Necroscope IV) – Brian Lumley (1990)

Necroscope IV: Deadspeak (Necroscope, #4)

Harry Keogh has returned from the parallel world of the Wamphyri with his Necroscope powers hypnotically removed by his vampire son, Harry Jr. He can no longer speak to the dead or go teleporting through time and space via the Mobius continuum.
If this wasn’t bad enough his new boss is trying to murder him, he is being stalked by a Soviet assassin, and the dead are rising from their graves to leave him messages on his lawn, arranged in pieces of dry stone walling.
Meanwhile, in Romania, a group of American students have hired a guide to take them to a ruined castle, rumoured to have been the home of an ancient vampire. The consequence of this will come as no surprise.
It doesn’t take Harry long to realise that the disappearance of two E-branch agents in Greece is the work of resurrected vampire Janos Ferenczy, a nasty piece of work even by vampire standards.
Harry must regain his powers in order to battle Janos, but how?
Put so baldly it seems like a terrible plot when in actuality, like the rest of the Necroscope books, it’s a glorious slice of late British pulp fiction; highly entertaining, compelling, and very readable.
Lumley’s kept the human and vampire sex scenes to a bare minimum here, for which I am thankful. Like Guy N Smith, Lumley no doubt considered gratuitous rumpy pumpy to be an additional salacious treat for his readers. Maybe it was at the time, but these days they read as a little awkward and dated.
It’s always a problem to properly categorise this series since the vampires themselves have an interesting and scientifically rational premise for their existence, as does the Mobius Continuum. It’s difficult to balance that with the premise of ‘souls’ hanging about in limbo, however. This was not so much of a problem in previous volumes but Lumley muddies the waters here by introducing further supernatural elements. Janos, it seems, has learned to raise the dead – not via some innate genetic talent – but through magic spells and incantations. This pushes the internal balance between the rational and the supernatural a little too far and seems like a device introduced to assist with what is a rushed denouement.
Nevertheless, Lumley is under-recognised for his very original take on the vampire life-cycle and his contribution to the sub-genre.


Lost in Space – George O. Smith (1954)

Lost in Space

‘A SPACE NEEDLE IN A UNIVERSE-WIDE HAYSTACK

Commodore Ted Wilson’s intuition told him right! He should never have let his fiancee, Alice Hemingway, take off on Space Liner 79 — the flight that fate had singled out to change the destiny of the galaxy!

Once out in deep space the ship’s engines failed and Alice found herself stranded in a tiny lifeship with two amorous men. Besides this, there was no way for Wilson to find them except by combing the light-years of all space for the tiny craft.

Unbeknown to all of them, the most terrible threat of all hovered nearby. Bizarre and powerful off-worlders were watching the rescue attempts — trying to decide whether humans should be annihilated in toto or simply subjugated to their superior culture’

Blurb from the 1960 D-431 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Commodore Ted Wilson, a man used to travelling in space, despite his only recent promotion, is understandably concerned about his fiancee’s insistence on travelling the worlds of the galaxy before she settles down to become a housewife.
She is travelling with her much older boss, Mr Andrews, who has not so far suggested anything inappropriate.
When the ship’s engines fail however, Alice Hemingway, finds herself in a lifecraft with Mr Andrews and the hunky captain of the ship, both of whom it appears have designs on her.
Ted puts together a search party of ships to comb the area where the passenger ship came to grief.
Meanwhile a warfleet of aliens is tuning in to their communications. The leader of fleet has two deputies who have opposing views on how to deal with humans. One wishes to attack immediately and subsume humanity into their culture, while the other wishes’ to approach the fleet and have Humanity submit willingly to a superior force.
The action flits between the lifecraft, Ted’s fleet and the aliens.
Society hasn’t moved on in Smith’s future since Nineteen Fifty Four when this novel was first published, and the attitudes of Ted and Alice seem somewhat quaint from today’s viewpoint. Smith does, to his credit, portray Alice as far more mature and level headed in a crisis than either of her male companions.
The novel is standard fare for the Nineteen Fifties and brings nothing new to the table although Smith does include some interestingly detailed science and engineering concepts.