My life in outer space

Author Archive

Interzone 252 – Andy Cox (Ed) (2014)

Interzone 252

Death is a recurrent theme in this issue of Interzone, most obviously in Katharine E.K. Duckett’s ‘The Mortuaries’ but appears either overtly or obliquely in every tale. The quality is generally high with my top stories being by Humphrey and Stufflebeam (who together sound like a firm of Hogwarts solicitors)

The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson
The Mortuaries by Katharine E.K. Duckett
Diving Into The Wreck by Val Nolan
Two Truths And A Lie by Oliver Buckram
A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey
Sleepers by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson

Two men survive in a post apocalyptic city where a parallel world is exchanging sphere-shaped samples of itself with ours via mysterious ‘bubbles that appear at random. Great characterisation. Works well.

The Mortuaries by Katharine E.K. Duckett

An intriguing piece about future mortuaries inspired by the work of van Haagens, where one’s plastinated loved ones can be viewed.

Diving Into The Wreck by Val Nolan

An excellent story involving obsessive researchers hunting for the lost landing stage of Apollo 11. Explores the concept of ethics and mystery.

Two Truths And A Lie by Oliver Buckram

This piece is one of those experimental pieces that border on prose poetry. It doesn’t quite work although may have done if it was substantially shorter and not so obscure.

A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey

Quite lovely. Not SF by any means but a gorgeously crafted piece in which the dead are returning to their old homes with the talent to turn into birds. Do they bring messages? Not unless, it seems, one wishes to perceive them as such.

Sleepers by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Quite simillar to Claire Humphreys’ ‘A Bright Light.; in that odd white creatures are appearing and may or may not have some resemblance and connection to sick or dying relatives. Original. Very atmospheric, Quite moving too.

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Feed – Mira Grant (2010)

Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy, #1)

‘The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop.

The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED. Now, twenty years after the Rising, bloggers Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives—the dark conspiracy behind the infected.

The truth will get out, even if it kills them. ‘

Blurb from the 2010 Orbit paperback edition

“My mother once told me that no woman is naked when she comes equipped with a bad mood and a steady glare.”

As much as I enjoyed reading this it’s one of those books that should never have ended up almost winning a Hugo award. It’s a sign of the times I guess. I am aware that there have been issues in recent years with block voting in the Hugo Awards, assuring a vocal minority that their beloved book will be at least listed as a nominee. The way to check this is to look at the Nebula Award nominees, which is voted on by The Science Fiction Writers of America, whereas the Hugos are decided by anyone who has a ticket to the Worldcon. Grant is nowhere to be seen in the Nebula nominees. It’s the price we pay for democracy and eerily reflective – given the background situation of ‘Feed’- of the surprising and alarming voting results in both America and the UK in 2016.
This does not of course mean that ‘Feed’ is a bad novel. I don’t believe it is, but it does have major flaws.
Other reviewers have pointed out the two-dimensional nature of some of the characters. There is also an issue with what is clearly a very simplistic plot.
Bloggers Buffy, Shaun and Georgia, who already have a reputation for reporting from the front line in a zombie-infested America, are invited to cover the Presidential campaign of one Senator Ryman.
Following a zombie incursion at one of the events, the bloggers discover some of the security motion sensors to have been disabled.
Ryman then chooses the sinister Governor Tate, an old school ‘Make America Great Again’ Republican, as his running mate. It’s surprising that Grant chose to have a male duo as the prospective POTUS and VP. One would have imagined that society might have moved on a bit by 2040 and that one or both of these candidates might have been a woman. It would for one thing have created a more interesting dynamic in the relationships.
Indeed, apart from technological developments not a lot seems to have changed in thirty years. Had Grant given some thought to how society would have adapted to what was a very major change in day to day living there might have been some very interesting stuff here.
Further attacks are carried out, and Georgia and Shaun begin to piece together evidence showing who is behind this bid to destroy Ryman’s bid for President.
It’s not difficult to work out who that is. It’s Governor Tate. That’s not even a spoiler. Grant makes it easier for us by not providing any other suspects. Tate (rather like the Rev Belinas in Zoltan Istvan’s ‘The Transhumanist Wager‘) has no redeeming features whatsoever. I am aware that right wing Republicans at this level seldom do have redeeming features, but surely he could at least have pretended to have some. It’s what they do, after all.
It would have worked a lot better if suspicion were thrown on the obvious suspect, only for the bloggers to discover at the final moment that they had been misdirected and it was actually someone else. As it is, there is no surprise, and the denouement comes as something of an anticlimax.
One also has to ask why no one else seemed interested in investigating the various attacks. The police and the security services don’t seem at all bothered.
Having said all that though, it wasn’t a bad read. It’s not Hugo Award material but it passed the time away in a fairly pleasant manner.
The one thing that did vex me somewhat is an excerpt from Georgia’s blog in the coda where Georgia asks herself if she believes in God.

‘I don’t know. I’d like to be able to say ‘Yes, of course’ almost as much as I’d like to be able to say ‘Absolutely not,’ but there’s evidence on both sides of the fence.’

This is a feisty, highly intelligent, rational reporter who has spent the entire novel talking about the importance of facts and truth. She has shown no sign of any religious belief. Indeed, she pointed out that she and her brother were atheists when they were subjected to Senator Ryman saying grace before a meal.
That’s not it though. An atheist reporter would know there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the existence or non-existence of God on either side of the fence.
It’s a lazy and unnecessary cop-out which undermines the integrity of the main character and to a certain extent completely ruins her raison d’etre.
If you’ve written an atheist heroine then be consistent rather than wimping out at the end with this ‘Oh… I might be wrong’ disclaimer at the end.
A little disappointing.


Ultimatum in 2050 AD – Jack Sharkey (1965)

acedoubleultimatumin2050ad_1

“PACKAGED PEOPLE IN A WORLD GONE BERSERK.

It was the year 2050 A.D. and the Hive, with its ten million inhabitants, was going along as smoothly as ever. Except that, on a whim, Kinsman Lloyd Bodger, Jr. had helped a fugitive girl escape hospitalization, and she had told him her secret. “There are no hospitals! There is only death!” Of course it couldn’t be true. Lloyd Bodger’s own father was second in command of the Hive, the first true democracy.

“But Why,” she had said, “doesn’t anyone ever return from hospitalization? Why is the population always a constant ten million?”

Well, young Bodger reasoned grimly, he would soon know the truth. For hiding the fugitive girl, he himself would either be hospitalized, or fed into the incinerator chutes!’

Blurb from the M-117 1965 Ace Double Paperback Edition.

By 2050, due to various factors caused by the US administration in the 1970s, the human population has been reduced to 10 million, all contained within a sealed city, ‘The Hive’, run along totalitarian Orwellian lines. Those who fall ill or fail to match the expectations of society are hospitalised for treatment or re-adjustment, but none of them return.
Lloyd Bodger is the son of the Secondary Speakster (the Vice President essentially), the Prime Speakster being one Fredric Stanton. Stanton has gone out of his way to adjust the rules of ‘The Brain’ which controls the city. This has ensured that his time in office was extended long beyond the usual term.
Citizens are required to vote on political motions regularly and Lloyd, having fallen behind on his voting quota, is keen to make up the difference. Here he meets a girl on the run, one of the resistance, and helps her escape from certain execution. Obviously, his actions are observed and Lloyd’s father is informed by Stanton himself.
This sets in motion a series of events which results in a revolution of sorts and a new start for the human race.
It’s an odd little ‘pocket universe’ tale which leaves little room for any character development and throws in some very dubious scientific concepts. Bodger Senior, we discover, was made practically immortal by a failed experiment back in the Twentieth Century which has left his insides radioactive. The citizens of the Hive are nightly engulfed in an artificial total darkness called Ultrablack. The explanation for this makes no sense either. Robot ‘goons’ wander the street, picking up any citizens found outside after curfew and delivering them to ‘the hospital’.
There is a section toward the end where Bodger discovers how the Hive came to be a totalitarian regime, and it makes sense of a sort. It’s not that important however, and Sharkey would have been better employed using the precious word count to try and inject some additional dimensions to very cardboard characters. One would have thought his might have been one of the author’s strengths since Sharkey was better known as a playwright (under various names) and was responsible it seems for a production entitled ‘Dracula, the Musical?’ in 1982.
It’s not a bad piece of work for an Ace Double but could have benefited from some serious revision.


Adventures in The Far Future – Donald A Wollheim (Ed) (1954)

acedoubleadventures

‘Excitement beyond tomorrow’s horizons!

Spanning the next million years, this thrilling science-fiction anthology breaks through today’s horizons to explore the wonders of far time and endless space. In five specially selected novelettes, five leading fantasy writers take you through startling adventures on worlds undreamed of.

Trouble-shoot the interstellar airways with Lester Del Rey. Explore a city-sized starship with Chad Oliver. Fight against a galaxy-wide conspiracy with Murray Leinster. Visit the world of 1,000,000 A.D. with Martin Pearson. Sit in on a world’s last day with Poul Anderson.

ADVENTURE IN THE FAR FUTURE is a new science-fiction collection prepared especially for ACE BOOKS by Donald A. Wollheim.

The Wind Between the Worlds
If they could not seal the break in the cosmic life lines, a dozen worlds would die quickly — and ours among them!

Stardust
Though there was bitter mutiny among the crew of that star-travelling Columbus, none guessed that time itself was the chief culprit.

Overdrive
Did that lost space liner hold the only key to the terrible marauders of half a galaxy?

The Millionth Year
It took a traveler from the forgotten past to read the message of the phantoms in the sky.

The Chapter Ends
They drew a line down the middle of the universe — and the Earth was on the wrong side of the boundary!’

Blurb from the 1954 D-73 Ace Double Paperback edition

The Wind Between the Worlds – Lester Del Rey (Galaxy Science Fiction, 1951)

A matter transmitter portal becomes jammed open and is transmitting Earth’s atmosphere to another world. Scientists race to solve the problem before the Earth is doomed. Fairly lightweight hokum but enjoyable enough.

Stardust – Chad Oliver (Astounding 1953)

An interstellar ship discovers a lost generation ship and have to find a way to set them back on course without revealing their existence and jeopardising their morale or depriving them of their chance to reach their destination on their own. Flawed, but interesting. Generation ships were a big thing in the fifties. The concept seems to have run out of steam of late.

Overdrive – Murray Leinster (Startling Stories 1952)

A passenger ship’s insterstellar drive cuts out leaving the ship stranded. Luckily an insterstellar secret agent of sorts is on board and suspects a sinister plot. Leinster’s mostly very readable, and doesn’t disappoint here, although one suspects that this was planned as a longer piece, or part of an ongoing sequence.

The Millionth Year – Martin Pearson (Science Fiction Stories 1943)

Possibly put in as a page-filler, this rather lacklustre tale from 11 years previously sees a man transported a million years into the future and then is returned in spirit to watch human history over the intervening period.

The Chapter Ends – Poul Anderson (Dynamic Science Fiction 1953)

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the best contribution comes from Poul Anderson. Humanity have spread out to the stars and have come to an agreement with a race who occupy gas giants that they will occupy separate areas of the galactic region. This means that Earth, which only has a small remnant of Humanity, will need to be evacuated, One man, however, has decided to remain and live out his life alone. Poignant and character driven.


The Promise of The Child – Tom Toner (2015)

The Promise of the Child (The Amaranthine Spectrum #1)
So, I had this e-mail from Tom Toner in January 2017 asking me if I wouldn’t mind reviewing this, ‘The Promise of The Child’. I was in two minds about this as, being a generally kind sort of person, I was worried that, if I hated the novel, I would have to post a negative review. This has happened before, and I’m sure that I feel far worse about it than the authors involved who no doubt take bad reviews as part of the job and aren’t likely to track me down and give me a good kicking. They haven’t as yet, but I guess there’s still time.
My fears, it transpires, were groundless, as this is probably one of the best debut novels I have encountered since Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space‘, which it resembles in some senses. Others have compared it to Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’ , Jack Vance, Moorcock, M John Harrison and various others who have pursued a somewhat baroque exploration of SF. The style has a fascinating history which extends back beyond Moorcock to Vance, Charles L Harness, Leigh Brackett, and beyond there to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clark Ashton Smith. One is impressed to see it so freshly reinvented.
Some twelve and a half thousand years from now, Humanity has spread out into the galaxy, finding no other life (barring the one glaring discovery of two incredibly ancient corpses of what appear to be sentient dinosaurs preserved in the icy cold of the outer Solar System.).
All life outside of Earth is descended from that of Earth, and Humanity itself has splintered into various species which exist in a complex hierarchical system, at the pinnacle of which are the immortal Amaranthine.
The narrative follows several key figures. Lycaste is a Melius, a larger human form that can change the colour of its skin. Lycaste lives in what we presume to be a far future Cyprus, and is famous for being – at least in Melius terms – beautiful. Lycaste is a sensitive individual, deeply in love with Pentas, although the love is unreturned. His life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a Plenipotentiary, Callisthemon, a noble of a higher caste who is, he claims, carrying out a census. Pentas’ attraction to Callisthemon leads inexorably to an event which causes Lycaste to flee on a journey across the Old World.
Sotiris, originally himself from Greece, is one of the most ancient Amaranthine and suffering from a condition to which the older immortals are prone; a succumbing to delusions. There is strife among the Amaranthine. Traditionally their leader is the oldest of them, and a Pretender, Aaron, has arisen who claims to be older than any living immortal.
War is spreading across the Old World, a war in which Sotiris is a principle manipulator, and in which Lycaste gets unwilling involved.
Meanwhile, a machine which could potentially threaten the balance of power across the galaxy has been stolen and, along with its kidnapped creator, is being shipped between the stars through hostile territory.
This is, it has to be said, a work which demands concentration. Much like Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’, there are some elements only partly explained, at least at first, which the general reader will either recognise or hopefully pick up on later, such as the vaulted worlds. These are essentially planet-sized Dyson spheres, hollowed out worlds with an artificial sun at the centre. One also has to contend with the various branched off species of Humanity, the baroque and complex societies and their equally complex political and social dynamics. It does however reward careful reading.
There are some devices which are hard to justify under rational science, such as the Amaranthine’s ability to bilocate using a planet’s magnetic field, apparently because of the build up of iron in an ancient body. The Shell, or The Soul Machine, has an even flimsier rationale for its operation, although these are minor quibbles.
One would have expected the presence of some form of Artificial Intelligence but, as with Dune (another baroque series infested with aristocratic class levels) there is a prohibition against creating such things although this becomes an important issue much later and explains some aspects of the earlier narrative.
Toner manages to convey a sense of languid and wistful decadence which pervades the novel, reminiscent of that of Vance’s ‘Dying Earth‘ and Harrison’s ‘Viriconium‘ sequence. The Old World is divided into rigid divisions of class and race, where everyone it seems has learned to know their place. One can also see a sense of Moorcockian entropy in this ancient society with its arcane rules and casual cruelty.
There is a very interesting scene where Callisthemon, the higher level Plenipotentiary visiting Lycaste’s region. discovers that one of Lycaste’s friends and neighbours is gay, although the term is never employed. Pentas enquires of him whether men can love each other in Callisthemon’s region. Callisthemon appears both amused and horrified by the idea, implying that it would never happen, and insists on changing the subject when he is pressed for an answer. It’s a very subtle moment, but it neatlly clarifies for the reader what form of society Callisthemon represents, as is indeed shown in later events.
Lycaste and Sotiris, despite some excursions to follow events and characters elsewhere, are the central two characters, and one could possibly argue that this is to the detriment of the other players. Some, without giving too much away, are unexpectedly despatched.just as one thought they were going to play a major role in the story.
It’s a tad vexing that other reviews I have seen posted have noted that they read (whatever) percent of the book and gave up. If this is the case, why post a review? It helps nobody, and one can’t be expected to provide a valid judgment having only read a tenth or a fifth of someone’s work. I would suggest that the author cannot be held responsible for other people’s laziness, although that may well be an oversimplification of the situation. There will always be occasions when one starts a book and realises that one is never going to finish it. One really has to ask the question, is it the book’s fault?
In this case, I don’t think it is. As a society we have learned to be spoonfed and we tend to shy away from entertainment (particularly books) that might be slightly challenging. This is challenging, but that’s not the book’s fault. If you can’t get into it, don’t blame the book. Move on. Find something you like.


Interzone #251 – Andy Cox (Ed) (2014)

Interzone #251 Mar: Apr 2014

This is another cracking issue of Interzone featuring themes of relationship and identity. Loss seems to run through them also. It’s also interesting to see the structure of the modern short story evolving, although not as radically as one might have imagined back in the 20th Century. Stories seem more impressionistic, leaving much unexplained and to be determined by the reader. Highlights are ‘Old Bones’ and ‘A Doll is Not a Dumpling’.

Ghost Story by John Grant
Ashes by Karl Bunker
Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa
Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer
A Doll is Not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser
This is How You Die by Gareth L. Powell

Ghost Story by John Grant

A young married man gets a call from a childhood sweetheart who tells him she is pregnant and that he is the father, something that is clearly impossible since he has never slept with her and they have not been in touch for some time. It’s a story that develops well into a tale of fractured reality.

Ashes by Karl Bunker

Very reminiscent of Michael Swanwick, not least because an AI manages to host itself within a cat, this is a compelling read. AIs and transhumans can not go beyond a certain level of intelligence without ‘winking out’ and vanishing. The protagonist’s dead girlfriend had become obsessed with the projects that these transcendent entities had left unfinished, hoping to find some workable technology. The Cat/AI has identified another project site where he thinks it may be fitting to scatter her ashes.
A very stylish piece which leaves one wanting more.

Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa

Kurzawa, a regular feature of Interzone, is beginning to fascinate me. I can’t honestly explain what this story is about, but maybe that’s the point. It certainly leaves one with more questions than answers. A man is living alone in the city, hiding from the robed ‘Mummers’ who roam the deserted streets.
One day a man knocks on his door, claiming to be a Doctor who can help him escape the city, but first he must perform a surgical procedure. It’s a poetic and surreal piece which stays in the mind despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of resolution or explanation.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer

Dark and not a little topical, this tells of Fari who was taken forcefully from her mother as a child as payment for a trespass fine and forced into work on an asteroid mine. A tale of love, repression, sacrifice and vengeance. Quite excellent.

A Doll is Not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser

An original tale featuring exquisitely drafted characters. I so wish more people could breathe such life into the small population of a short story. It’s a brief, beautiful, bittersweet and colourful tragedy featuring a young girl, an augmented dog and a sentient mobile dumpling machine. My favourite story of late.

This is How You Die by Gareth L. Powell

A fairly standard post-apocalypse tale of a young man’s life in London following the effects of a fatal pandemic virus. It’s well done, but brings little new to the table.


The Transhumanist Wager – Zoltan Istvan (2013)

The Transhumanist Wager

I’m in two minds about this novel, stylistically and thematically.
Structurally, it suffers in the main from a wobbly beginning since we have in the first few chapters a severely unnecessary amount of infodumping, consisting of pages of personal biographies and descriptions of the major characters. I’ve never seen the need to know the colour of characters’ eyes for instance, and here we have complete descriptions of their bodies, clothing choices (down to their brand of underwear in one case) and personal histories. This is the sort of thing one should discover in the course of the narrative, if at all, since much of it is unnecessary. I suspect, to the average reader, much of it is soon forgotten.
However, having got that out of the way, the narrative picks up and rattles along at a fair pace.
So, Jethro Knights is a committed and dedicated Transhumanist who, almost singlehandedly, transforms the Transhumanist Party into a more radical beast.
This draws the attention of the deliciously evil Rev. Belinas, leader of The Redeem Church, a body dedicated it seems to the destruction of any science capable of improving on God’s handiwork. Belinas is grooming young Gregory Michaelson – an ex-classmate of Jethro’s – to be his puppet senator and sets him up as head of a new enforcement agency, the NSFA, specifically created to oppose and destroy any Transhuman initiatives in the US.
Jethro, while travelling the world working as an overseas journalist, met and fell in love with a feisty and intelligent young doctor, Zoe Bach. Jethro, who appears to exhibit Vulcan-like powers of sexual suppression is worried that the force of his feelings will interfere with his cause, which is to push Transhumanism to the point where Death is conquered, and beyond.
He leaves Zoe to pursue his dream of a Transhuman world.
Much, much later Zoe, finding that her new job is about to be targetted by one of the Rev Belinas’ terrorist cells, contacts Jethro. With the aid of spycams and WiFi the raid is transmitted live to newsrooms across the country and Jethro, hiding out alone, gives a running commentary on the action while the bombers, not realising they are live on TV, implicate Belinas in the attempt.
Belinas escapes any investigation but Jethro becomes a hero and Transhumanism develops into a presence in the public consciousness. The battle between what is essentially rational thought and entrenched religious and social dogma escalates. The NFSA (The National Future Security Agency), at the behest of an increasingly desperate and murderous Belinas, is given additional powers to make Transhumanism illegal and to arrest anyone connected with the movement and seize their assets.
The battle escalates and, with the aid of a Russian billionaire and a revolutionary architect, Knights builds a floating city, Transhumania, where the final battle between reason and superstitious belief will be fought.
Istvan is one of my Goodreads friends, and I hope he forgives me for being somewhat critical of his work. He himself once worked as a National Geographic journalist and it is clear that he is drawing obvious parallels between himself and Jethro Knights. I have watched some of his speeches which are entertaining, very inspiring but somewhat at odds, however, with the views of Knights in this novel.
Knights is a fascinating character, if a tad sociopathic, totally focused on his goal to kickstart the Transhuman revolution and gain himself immortality.
The question I need to ask is how much of Istvan’s psyche is contained in Jethro Knights? It’s an important question simply because I do believe that this is an important work, despite its flaws. Unlike most genre novels this is based on current reality, or at least on a real political movement. Istvan is the leader of the US Transhumanist Party, and a Presidential candidate in the last election.
I am a supporter, in principle, of Transhumanism, as well as being a somewhat militant atheist. One would imagine then that I would be on the side of Jethro Knights in this novel, and yet I am struggling to get there. I recently read ‘Nexus’ which is also a pro-transhumanism novel, and in both works there is a tendency to paint the mundane humans as evil Luddites, desperate to hold back the progress of technology at any cost. There have to be some shades of grey here. Not all atheists or Transhumanists are good people. Not all religious people are evil or stupid. A little balance goes a long way.
My mind, while reading this. kept drifting off to AE van Vogt, another author who pushed a philosophy – albeit somewhat obliquely – via his work, which was at that time Dianetics. The interesting thing about about this is that van Vogt’s heroes generally solved their problems with logic and non-violence. Dianetics subsequently became subsumed within L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology ‘religion’ and we all know how well that turned out.
Transhumanism – or at least Jethro – is unconcerned with solving problems in a non-violent way and Knights feels perfectly justified in bombing churches across America. If Istvan is attempting to sway the average reader to his cause then this is counter productive since one would assume that those wishing to evolve or transcend would surely wish to abandon irrational violent instincts. It also places them on the same level as those who mount attacks on abortion clinics and gay bars. It’s a childish act.
The Transhumanists take the world by force, having destroyed the NATO navy ships sent against them and taken control of all world banking and military systems, insisting that the population of the world adapt to the New World Order or face extermination. To make the point clear, they destroy a number of major religious and political sites around the world including the White House, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace (to be fair, the latter, a relatively modern and decidedly ugly building, would not be a great loss) which draws obvious parallels with the recent ISIS destruction of historical sites.
There are some good aspects to the new rules. Education is free but compulsory, with citizens being required to learn something new throughout their lives. Religion is outlawed and the population strictly controlled.
However, this is nothing less than an enforced dictatorship and, I would suggest, unmanageable. The Soviet Union sought to eradicate religion but following its fall saw religion flower again like weeds in an untended garden.
It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy that fails to address many issues and is, as many of these political systems are, predicated on a policy of freeing people while denying them a good many of the freedoms they had enjoyed under the previous regime.
However, if we look at this as merely a work of fiction, it’s an enjoyable journey somewhat flawed by a good deal of unnecessary text.
If Istvan chose to revise this novel and make the movement seem more of an enlightened organisation rather than a terrorist group it would go a long way toward getting readers to identify with his aims.
It is, having said all that, an important piece of work given the author’s place in US society and in a sense refreshingly honest. Writing this review within a week of Donald Trump’s election as US President somewhat takes the edge off my criticism. One wonders whether a Transhumanist President might, after all, not be a bad thing.


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.


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.