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.
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.
The original version of this novel was The Nimrod Hunt, written as a tribute to Alfred Bester and attempting a Besterite style. This was revised and re-released with the title of ‘The Mind Pool’ as Sheffield was apparently not happy with the original ending.
Centuries from now, Man has moved out into space and formed alliances with a group of alien races. The aliens are all, it appears, mentally unable to accept the concept of killing sentient life and are both appalled and fascinated by Humanity’s casual attitude to killing even members of its own species.
A human scientist, Livia Morgan, under the command of Esro Mondrian, Head of Border Security, has been experimenting with sentient constructs to patrol the borders of Human space as a precaution against contact with hostile aliens.
The constructs turn on their master however and are destroyed, but not before one escapes through a Mattin Link (a matter transmitter essentially) to another part of Human space.
The alien council, having been notified, determine that teams, each one containing members of each alien race, be trained to hunt the construct.
The aliens have stipulated that the human elements must have no prior military training, which makes selection practically impossible unless one searches on the most lawless planet in space, which happens to be Earth.
Esro Mondrian has two other reasons for visiting Earth. One is to meet his lover, Lady Tatiana, a woman addicted to the Paradox drug. The other is revealed later in the novel.
Luther Brachis has a friendly but competitive work relationship with Esro, but employs devious means to achieve his ends, actions which set in motion a complex series of events.
There’s an awful lot going on in this novel which is a lot more complex – structurally and in terms of plot – than other Sheffield works. We have troubled and complex relationships, trips to other worlds, space station laboratories, the grotesques of the warrens of Earth and a set of aliens that are biologically fascinating, but imbued with cosy Simak-esque personalities. Indeed, there are elements of this that remind one of ‘The Werewolf Principle’ particularly when we encounter the Mind Pool phenomenon, whereby a mental gestalt is achieved.
We have three couples, all of whom have issues of one sort or another, the male halves being irrevocably changed by the end of the novel. Indeed, some characters undergo a form of role reversal.
We meet Chan Dalton, central figure of the sequel ‘The Spheres of Heaven’ as a physically perfect male but with the mental development of a small child. Since his childhood he has been looked after by Leah, who loves him. Mondrian, desperate for recruits, and having bought Leah and Dalton’s indenture without having realised Dalton’s deficiencies, decides to employ banned technology to try and stimulate Chan’s mind into growth.
By the end of the novel Chan is a mature intelligent individual while Brachis and Mondrian, for different reasons, have been left in a mentally vegetative state, now being cared for by their respective partners, as Leah once cared for Chan.
The Morgan Construct itself is almost immaterial to the story. It is a Maguffin around which this complex interplay of politics and relationships is wound.
It has its flaws. There’s a certain retro SF style to it, in keeping with Sheffield’s claim that the novel is an Alfred Bester tribute. This works well enough in all the locations barring Earth itself which is roughly sketched with little depth and containing characters that border on parody.
The Mind Pool element is introduced very late in the story and its genesis and method of operation is a little unclear, at least to me.
On balance though, it’s a great bit of space opera featuring a set of main characters with unusually complex motivations.
There’s an awful lot going on in this volume and, to be fair, Baxter has his work cut out tying the events in with the other Xeelee universe narratives.
The Paradoxa organisation has evolved in the wake of Michael Poole’s original journey to the future in ‘Timelike Infinity’ and the subsequent discovery that there were powerful and inimical aliens out there. Paradoxa has now become a powerful body whose remit is to preserve Humanity. What has also been discovered is that someone or something is destabilising our sun. Paradoxa has bred an engineered human, Lieserl, who will grow at the rate of a human year every day and whose personality will be downloaded into an AI which will be able to function within the sun. The organisation have also commandeered a prototype interstellar ship to take a thousand year trip along with a portable wormhole so that on their return – like Poole – they will be able to return through the wormhole from 5 million years in the future.
Things don’t go according to plan though, and the crew – who may be the only humans left in the universe – devise a plan to head for The Ring, the vast galaxy-devouring structure built by the godlike Xeelee.
It’s certainly a tour de force of Hard SF. Baxter throws in an entire gallimaufry of complex physics concepts, such as the photino birds, creatures of dark matter who can live within stars, structures millions of light years wide built of cosmic string, exotic matter and extraordinarily detailed explanations of the lifecycles of suns.
The Ring itself, once we finally reach the beast, is the ultimate (as of yet) Big Dumb Object, woven of cosmic string and with a diameter of millions of light years.
One could argue that Baxter here has possibly over-egged the cosmic pudding and that the narrative could have possibly have been dealt with in two separate novels, to give space for some of the many characters to live and breathe.
Clearly the science can not be faulted and where excitement can be found here it is in the wonderful tour-de-forces of scientific hyperbole which here and there manages to recreate that sense of wonder that is all too lacking in most modern SF.
If it fails anywhere it is maybe in a lack of suspense, the peaks and troughs of emotional tension, cliffhangers, the things that make us want to read on. Certainly there are action sequences, but they lack a certain vivacity, something common to Baxter novels.
Overall though, it’s a marvellous conclusion (at least in internal chronology) to Baxter’s Xeelee universe.
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.
‘ONE MAN VS. THE YEAR ONE MILLION
Time-traveling UFO’s jerk our hero one million years into the future and launch him on a trans-galactic venture, brightened by such incidental items as an attractive post-homo sapien race of evolved simians, and an Ultimate Spaceship.
Chasing mysterious celestial phenomena was part of Zack Halleck’s Air Force duties, so it wasn’t strange that he was assigned to assist in his brother’s experiment. For his scientist brother had devised a method of deliberately attracting and trapping any such sky objects. But the experiment backfired – and the Hallecks themselves were its victims.
When Zack opened his eyes again, it was on the Earth of a million years in the future. And Zack learned that the only way he could rescue his brother and return to his own time would be to accept a role as a human pawn in a conflict of galactic supermen.’
Blurb from the 1958 Ace Double D-286 paperback edition.
Zack Halleck is an Air Force pilot assigned to track mysterious objects in the skies above Earth. He is none too happy to be reassigned to a related duty, which is to assist with a project devised by his scientist brother Carl. The brothers had always been competitive. with Carl winning every competition, up to and including wooing and marrying Zack’s girl Sylvia when Zack went missing in action, presumed dead.
Carl has invented an electronic screen which can somehow attach a homing signal to the strange spheres of light that have been appearing in the skies.
When Carl and Sylvia are up a mountain fine-tuning the device, Zack is left in the laboratory; the only place from which the screen can be turned off. It is then that the green lights appear, seemingly heading straight for Carl and Sylvia. Zack, still angry from a lifetime of belittling, delays switching off the device which is attracting the mysterious lights. When he does, it is too late. Sylvia and Carl are gone.
He then flies off, determined to confront the UFOs, and crashes into one. When he awakes, he finds himself on an Earth of the far future, being looked after by humanoids descended from apes of our time.
Humanity, he soon discovers, has also evolved into two separate lines of beings of almost pure energy. Some appear as white spheres, and some as green. The white ones are benevolent. while the green ones have enslaved some humanoid races and are working towards a goal of a kind of mind-meld singularity by combining their consciousnesses to produce a single mind.
It is they who have kidnapped Carl and Sylvia (for reasons that frankly don’t make a lot of sense) and it is up to Zack, with the help of a Late Humanity thinking warship, to rescue them.
Wollheim’s attempt to explore the sibling rivalry aspect is a bit clunky but at least gives the tale a bit of depth.
Comparisons can be made to ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians and Eddorians in the Lensman series, since they were two races diametrically opposed in ideologies. One supposes that SF authors of the Fifities employed metaphors, either consciously or unconsciously to represent the struggle between Communism and The Free World, or at least, how they perceived it, or maybe I’m reading far too much into it.
Banks’ third Culture novel is original, poetic, at times amusing, at times tragic, and just beautifully written.
Cheranedine Zakalwe is, or was, a Culture agent, The Culture being a multi-stellar civilisation in effect ruled by Artificial Intelligences. It is a civilisation which is basically socialist, since there is no currency, poverty, class systems or war.
Outside of its borders the Culture works in oblique and subtle ways to reduce wars between planets. Zakalwe has been involved in several operations of this sort and has subsequently gone rogue and vanished.
Diezit Sma, the woman who originally recruited Zakalwe, needs to bring him in for a further mission; to abduct a politician who is being held by a faction on a primitive world, one who could possibly help to bring peace to several worlds heading toward war.
That is the basic plot, but Banks has embellished those bare bones beautifully with exquisitely carved facets of narrative.
Much of the novel is dedicated to Zakalwe’s examination of his own memories so that structurally we are leaping backwards and forwards between Zakalwe’s past life and adventures and his present day mission. Slowly the strands begin to connect with each other.
The title of this novel is perfect since we are presented, time and time again, with weapons of various sorts; the things with which Zakalwe feels most comfortable and which he, when the moment arrives, is reluctant to deploy.
As a child, living with his stepbrother and stepsisters, he and they stole a weapon to play with in the garden, and by sheer chance were able to foil an assassin’s strike on their family.
It can also be seen as a metaphor at various points, most obviously in the case of Zakalwe himself, who is nothing more than a weapon employed by The Culture, although admittedly for peaceful ends.
The other recurring motif is that of chairs which begins in the first section where an aristocrat Zakalwe is protecting sits down on a fragile chair which collapses under his weight.
Zakalwe returns to his family home one day to find his stepbrother Elethiomel, sitting naked in a chair with Zakalwe’s sister Darckense straddling him. Zakalwe is conscious of some repressed memory related to a chair but it is not until the denouement that the truth of this memory is revealed.
The characters are also beautifully out together. Some sections are almost self-contained vignettes of a point in Zakalwe’s past, such as the period when he travelled on an interstellar ship ferrying frozen colonists to a planet a hundred or more light years away during which he chose to be awakened for a period to experience the flight.
He spends several months in the company of two men, one of those peculiar heterosexual partnerships where the two men involved seem to love each other very much but are constantly competing to be the alpha male. It’s a beautifully observed portrait of male behaviour, and a clever counterpoint to Zakalwe’s nihilistic and suicidal mood at the time.
There are amazing settings, dark humour, wise-cracking personal bots, giant thinking ships with ridiculous names sailing through the blackness of space, and a jawnumbing twist at the end.
Banks was a very original voice in the world of SF.
If you haven’t read him then you should.
It could be argued that ‘Nature’ is helping to keep that odd phenomenon, the short short story, alive. The SSS – not to be confused with the Drabble, which is a microstory of one hundred words – presumably due to the space constraints for fiction within the magazine, runs to no more than four pages.
Thus SF has found an evolutionary niche in a non-fiction periodical, much as happened back in the Sixties and Seventies with Playboy, which regularly had its published stories reprinted in ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies.
Several SSS’s feature in this volume and very good they are too. The longer pieces are also excellent, although in many I am seeing very good writing but little innovation.
There are two so far that I find both innovative and exciting, Rudy Rucker’s ‘Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch’ and Daryl Gregory’s ‘Second Person, Present Tense’.
David Langford – New Hope for the Dead (Nature 2005)
Hannu Rajaniemi – Deus Ex Homine (Nova Scotia 2005)
Gardner R Dozois – When the Great Days Came (F&SF 2005)
Daryl Gregory – Second Person, Present Tense (Asimov’s 2005)
Justina Robson – Dreadnought (Nature 2005)
Ken Macleod – A Case of Consilience (Nova Scotia 2005)
Tobias S Bucknell – Toy Planes (Nature 2005)
Neal Asher – Mason’s Rats (Asimov’s 2005)
Vonda N McIntyre – A Modest Proposal (Nature 2005)
Rudy Rucker – Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch (Interzone 2005)
Peter F Hamilton – The Forever Kitten (Nature 2005)
Matthew Jarpe – City of Reason (Asimov’s 2005)
Bruce Sterling – Ivory Tower (Nature 2005)
Lauren McLaughlin – Sheila (Interzone 2005)
Paul McAuley – Rats of The System (Constellations 2005)
Larissa Lai – I Love Liver: A Romance (Nature 2005)
James Patrick Kelly – The Edge of Nowhere (Asimov’s 2005)
Ted Chiang – What’s Expected of Us (Nature 2005)
Michael Swanwick – Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play (Asimov’s Aug 2005)
Stephen Baxter – Lakes of Light (Constellations 2005)
Oliver Morton – The Albian Message (Nature 2005)
Bud Sparhawk – Bright Red Star (Asimov’s 2005)
Alaya Dawn Johnson – Third Day Lights (Interzone 200 2005)
Greg Bear – Ram Shift Phase 2 (Nature 2005)
Gregory Benford – On the Brane (Gateways 2005)
R Garcia y Robertson – Oxygen Rising (2005)
Adam Roberts – And Future King… (Nature 2005)
Alastair Reynolds – Beyond the Aquila Rift (Constellations 2005)
Joe Haldeman – Angel of Light (Cosmos #6 – Dec 2005)
Liz Williams – Ikiryoh (Asimovs, Dec 2005)
Cory Doctorow – I, Robot (Infinite Matrix – Dec 2005)
David Langford – New Hope for the Dead
A satirical tale in which the digitally preserved dead are recruited to police e-mail during a credit crunch.
Hannu Rajaniemi – Deus Ex Homine
A very well-written story involving man’s fight against a virus which transforms humans into godlike AIs.
Gardner R Dozois – When the Great Days Came
The first of the stories in this volume featuring rats (either literally or symbolically). A rat witnesses the meteor strike which initiates the human extinction event.
Daryl Gregory – Second Person, Present Tense
One of the best stories in this volume, Gregory tells the story of Therese, whose personality was wiped by a new illegal drug. Having had her personality and memories reassembled, Terry has trouble convincing her family and therapists and maybe herself that she is not the Therese who took the drug in the first place. Gripping and thought-provoking.
Justina Robson – Dreadnought
A grim slice of dark space opera where dead soldiers, mounted on the flanks of a damaged military space vehicle are employed to host a damaged AI.
Ken Macleod – A Case of Consilience
An update on James Blish’s seminal novel ‘A Case of Conscience’ in which a priest seeks to communicate with seemingly intelligent networks of fungus.
Tobias S Bucknell – Toy Planes
An interesting little piece which relates the West Indies entry into the space race, from the viewpoint of a young pilot.
Neal Asher – Mason’s Rats
The rats in this story have mutated into a tool-bearing species which are raiding the grain from an automated factory. The question is, who are the true rats when one examines the bigger picture.
Vonda N McIntyre – A Modest Proposal
Like Macleod’s story, this is also a response to an earlier piece, in this case Swift’s (?) ‘A Modest Proposal to Improve on Nature’.
Rudy Rucker – Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch
As befits the artist, this is a surreal and colourful piece in which an alien takes a woman back in time to kidnap her hero, Hieronymus Bosch. The alien appears to be planning some kind of art installation of his own, featuring the relationship between the two, but things do not go to plan
Peter F Hamilton – The Forever Kitten
A short and fairly standard piece from Hamilton, which again looks at one of his favourite themes, that of longevity. It has a shock ending, which is unexpected, despite the brevity of the tale.
Matthew Jarpe – City of Reason
Asteroid dwellers, in a universe where disaffected radicals can set up their own communities in the asteroid belt. A one-man ship intercepts another ship hidden inside an asteroid containing a young couple. The girl, however is not what she seems and they are carrying a nuclear weapon, to destroy the City of Reason. A tale of advanced human augmentation.
Bruce Sterling – Ivory Tower
A very brief tale about physicists setting up their own university on the internet
Lauren McLaughlin – Sheila
A beautifully atmospheric and engaging story about AIs, humans and religion. AI worship also features in the following story by Paul McAuley
Paul McAuley – Rats of The System
When transcendent AIs abandon Earth, fundamentalist sects proclaim them as gods and set about destroying anyone who dares to believe differently. A scientist and a pilot are attacked by the Fanatics while studying one such AI, who is dismantling a binary star system. The Rats here are metaphorical.
Larissa Lai – I Love Liver: A Romance
Just as the title says, a researcher falls in love with the liver he has designed.
James Patrick Kelly – The Edge of Nowhere
One of my favourite stories in this volume, this is set in a virtual world atop a plateau, where the residents can order anything they wish to be constructed. One of them, however, is trying to write The Great American Novel, and this original work provokes the interest of three intelligent dogs who suddenly appear, enquiring about the book.
Ted Chiang – What’s Expected of Us
Another excellent short piece from nature examining the concept of free will and determinism.
Michael Swanwick – Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play
A story which takes place in Arcadia, replete with artificially created gods such as Dionysus, satyrs, nymphs, and the author’s regular characters – Darger and Surplus. see also ‘The Dog said Bow-Wow’
Stephen Baxter – Lakes of Light
Part of Stephen Baxter’s ‘Xeelee Sequence’, this features a contact unit who find human colonies living under domes on a Xeelee constructed shell around a sun.
Oliver Morton – The Albian Message
Aliens have apparently left messages encoded in human DNA which points to a location at the Trojan asteroids.
Bud Sparhawk – Bright Red Star
A grim militaristic tale highlighting the realities of war and desensitisation.
Alaya Dawn Johnson – Third Day Lights
‘a strange creature living within a bizarre ‘body’ with a two-dimensional friend, is visited by a human. He is able to respond to the challenges which she sets him, and reveals that humanity is in the process of retrieving all humans who may or may not have ever lived, before using the energy from all universes, no matter how strange.’ from bestsf.net
Greg Bear – Ram Shift Phase 2
Another short short story from Nature
Gregory Benford – On the Brane
Humans visit a parallel Earth in a universe which is dying far faster than ours, where the laws of physics are very different and intelligent life of a very odd sort has evolved on Earth.
R Garcia y Robertson – Oxygen Rising
A human negotiator is involved in a war between humans and various bioengineered human decendants
Adam Roberts – And Future King…
King Arthur is recreated and decides to run for government. Another very short piece from ‘Nature’
Alastair Reynolds – Beyond the Aquila Rift
Reynolds is expert at the incredibly dense universe he creates. Here, we find a ship which has taken the wrong turn somehow through a wormhole and ended up somewhere else, but exactly how far have they travelled, and for how long?
Joe Haldeman – Angel of Light
In the future Ahmad Abd al-kareem, an adherent of Chrislam finds a preserved copy of the Summer 1944 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories belonging to an ancestor. After much soul-searching he takes it to the bazaar and barters it to an alien for an eternal light.
Liz Williams – Ikiryoh
A fascinating story about Japanese society and a woman who is asked to look after a child which has been given the bad spirit of the ruler, an Ikiryoh. While the bad spirit is trapped in the child, the ruler will be kind and beneficent.
Cory Doctorow – I, Robot
One of the best stories in this collection, it follows a man whose brilliant wife defected to the East where technological controls are less severe, and he suspects she is responsible for the recent terrorist software attacks on the West.
While reading this, it struck me, since Brunner seems particularly Dick-influenced – how PKD’s characters seem to be trapped in their roles. I suspect if you pick up any Dick novel at random you would find more than one character yearning to break away from a job, or a spouse or both and yet seems doomed to remain. PKD’s characters are defined by their status and their place in society, and to a certain extent, so are Brunner’s.
Brunner’s work is more obviously satirical, extrapolating US society into a caricatured future of Mental Health gurus, psychic mediums, Watergate-style media reporters, race-riots, politics, corruption, big business and Artificial Intelligence.
It was a time of crisis when Brunner was writing this. America had been involved for some time in the Korean war, civil rights groups were rising and fighting for equality for all the usual causes – all of them just, and so it is not surprising that that this novel is laced with a healthy dose of cynicism for the concepts of equality, fair play and clean politics, on both sides of the divide.
The novel is divided into a hundred chapters, some of which are merely short quotes or excerpts from media reports. It’s therefore a fast-paced, punchy, sometimes aggressive narrative which centres around a TV reporter, Matthew, whose exposees are transmitted once a week and who is currently investigating the Gosschalks, a multinational family who manufacture arms, amongst other things, and who may or may not be suffering from internal family tensions.
When Matthew visits the Mental Health Institute where his wife has been committed – and receiving some somewhat dubious treatment – he is drawn into slowly uncovering an international conspiracy where racial unrest is being actively encouraged, which could lead to world crises and the fall of civilisation.
Paradoxically enough, it’s actually quite funny. One of Brunner’s best.
‘HELL JUST WENT QUANTUM
The Confederation is starting to collapse politically and economically, allowing the ‘possessed’ to infiltrate more worlds.
Quinn Dexter is loose on Earth, destroying the great arcologies one at a time. As Louise Kavanagh tries to track him down, she manages to acquire some strange and powerful allies whose goal does not quite match her own.
The campaign to liberate Mortonridge from the possessed degenerates into a horrendous land battle of the type not seen by humankind for six hundred years. Then some of the protagonists escape in a very unexpected direction…
Joshua Calvert and Syrinx now fly their starships on a mission to find the Sleeping God – which an alien race believes holds the key to finally overthrowing the possessed.’
Blurb from the 2000 Pan paperback edition.
The conclusion to Hamilton’s shelf-busting trilogy doesn’t initially quite match up to the brilliance of the first two books, but thankfully builds to a deeply satisfying climax.
In the conclusion, we discover that the sentient habitat Tranquility, which we last saw disappear while under attack from the forces of Al Capone, has reappeared among the Edenist habitats of Jupiter.
It would appear that all along the giant living Rama-style cylinder had built-in technology which would allow it to ‘jump’ through space in times of danger. The Kiint seemed unaware of this, however, and had already teleported back to their homeworld. The juvenile Kiint Haile also took along Jay Hilton, much to the disapproval of the Kiint.
One might argue that Hamilton’s work relies too much on militaristic action and graphic violence. Certainly, a large chunk of this final novel covers the ‘Liberation of Mortonridge’ – an attempt to free the population of a peninsula on one of the planets of the Kulu Kingdom.
A vast army of bitek ‘serjeants’ have been produced to invade the area and de-possess the inhabitants. This turns into a long and bitter struggle, but one which focuses more on the effect it has on the protagonists than on shoot-em-up action.
Much of the novel is also about explanations and revelations. More is discovered about the Kiint whose involvement (somewhat short of outright interference) with the history of humanity goes far far deeper anyone had realised.
In the previous novels, the possessed had taken entire planets into parallel dimensions. Here, we follow them to discover that their lives are not the Paradise they expected. It is discovered, as was suggested previously, that the possessors’ ability to change the shape of the bodies they inhabited encouraged cancerous tumours to proliferate, giving the possessed a far shorter lifespan than the immortality they imagined.
Joshua Calvert, the central character about whom all the storylines revolve, is sent on a mission to discover the Sleeping God of the Tyrathca, somewhere beyond the Orion nebula; a godlike artefact/entity ‘Big Dumb Object’ which may hold the key to solving the possession crisis.
Ultimately, and cleverly, the various storylines and character journeys converge to one point in time. Joshua himself questions the Sleeping God (a stable mirrorlike naked singularity orbiting a planetless star) on the coincidences which have led him (and other characters) to this point and is given an answer which, if not really plausible, provides a certain kind of satisfaction to the reader within the context of the work.
In this novel, the themes of transformation and revelation come to the fore. No character remains unchanged by their journeys through the crisis and ultimately, the whole of human society is transformed.
This, along with Robinson’s ‘Mars’ trilogy, is one of the last great works of SF of the 20th century. They are vastly different in tone, style, and their categorical positions within the genre, but they give me faith that SF can still – and will in the future – produce the sense of wonder which many thought had been long lost.