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.
Set some decades after ‘Eon’, the novel is split between the world of Gaia where the forces of Alexander the Great conquered the known world, and Earth, which is now controlled by the Hexamon.
On Gaia the granddaughter of Patricia Vasquez has inherited the clavicle which can be used to open The Way. In Patricia’s lifetime gateways appeared briefly and capriciously but now one has appeared and has remained stable for three years.
On Earth the planet is still undergoing a healing process following The Death. The Way has been closed off since the Sundering and the events of ‘Eon’, but now Pavel Mirsky – a Russian who should be dead – has returned. He is, and is not, Mirsky since he has been reborn in the far future and sent back with a message. The Way must be reopened and destroyed since it poses a threat to the grander plans of humanity’s descendants billions of years hence.
Meanwhile, the homorph Omny has been shown a forgotten chamber in Thistledown which contains the body of a captured Jart – the inimical and enigmatic aliens that are fighting a war within The Way – and also its downloaded consciousness.
Omny decides he has to upload the Jart into his own cyborg systems for study – well-knowing that there is a danger that the Jart mind could subsume him.
It has been pointed out before that when Bear wrote ‘Eon’ no one was expecting the fall of the Soviet Union and Bear’s future posits an intact USSR and a nuclear war which decimates the Earth.
This sequel is set some thirty years later and the issue of Earth history before The Death is perhaps wisely evaded. Given the nature of the subject matter, however, he could have gotten away with explaining that this was not our Earth but an Earth in which the USSR survived since we already have an Earth where the Empire of Alexander lasted to our time and beyond.
Bear, as I have mentioned elsewhere, struggles with sequels. This one certainly takes its time to get going and there’s a good third of the novel to be got through before things start speeding along.
It’s a decent read, but a very disappointing sequel to ‘Eon’. The concept of species that add other species’ DNA to their own (as the Jarts appear to) is something that Octavia Butler employed to far better effect in her Xenogenesis trilogy. There’s also the concept of highly advanced post-human/post-alien intelligences destroying entire galaxies at the end of time in order to save us all, which is more or less what Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee have been doing over a number of novels and short stories.
One would have expected that Bear would have raised his game to another level in this sequel, but it is sadly not the case.
Things speed up to a fairly thrilling climax and a couple of schmaltzy resurrections.
It’s not clear if it is intentional but there are some religious motifs scattered throughout. Posthuman avatars return from the far future in the guise of dead colleagues. There is much referencing of the words ‘gods’ and ‘angels’.
Indeed, the death of Garry Lanier is preceded by a vision of the resurrected Russian, Pavel Mirsky, and followed by a transcendence as the digital copy of Garry is translated into a posthuman avatar and taken into the world of ‘The Final Mind’.
His implant (which preserves a digitised copy of his consciousness and memories) when retrieved from his body contains the persona of his and Karen’s daughter who died twenty years previously and who can now be ‘resurrected’.
The issues raised related to identity and the definition of ‘human’ are very interesting but are not explored in any real depth.
‘In ‘Foundation and Chaos’, one of science fiction’s greatest storytellers takes one of its greatest stories into new and fascinating territory. Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series is back.
Hari Seldon, approaching the end of his life, is on trial for daring to predict the Empire’s fall. At the same time, final preparations are under way for the long-anticipated migration to Star’s End. But R Daneel Olivaw, the brilliant robot entrusted with this great mission, has discovered a potential enemy.
At a critical moment in the Empire’s fall and the Foundation’s rise, Hari Seldon is about to face the greatest challenge of his life.
Blurb to the 2001 Orbit Paperback Edition
The novel runs concurrently with Part I of Asimov’s original novel, cleverly using Hari Seldon’s trial – originally seen from the viewpoint of Gaal Dornick – as a central focus to examine events behind the scenes of which Gaal Dornick was unaware.
The trial dialogue is identical, but Asimov’s rather dry ‘transcript’ version has been dramatised – if one may use that word in this context – brilliantly and, if anything, creates a tension and suspense where in Asimov’s version of events there is merely his cosy sense of certainty and destiny. The reader was never in any doubt that the Seldon plan would succeed. It was just a matter of trying to work out how.
Behind the scenes, Hari’s grand-daughter, Wanda, is gathering ‘mentalics’ – human mutants capable of manipulating the thoughts of others – as the core of Seldon’s ‘Second’ Foundation.
Bear’s Foundation universe is a darker and more complex place than Benford’s, and it is to his credit that he manages to capture some of Asimov’s atmosphere whilst fully updating it for a contemporary readership.
Here, the robots take centre-stage and their millennia-spanning plans and behind-the scenes manipulations are put into a different perspective.
Lodovic Trema, an ancient robot and long-time associate of Daneel R Olivaw’s plans for humanity, has been altered by Voltaire (an AI personality first encountered in Foundation’s Fear). He no longer is bound by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics which forbid him to harm humans, and undergoes a form of robotic exegesis, coming to believe that Daneel’s protective stance of humanity as a whole is a restrictive suffocating policy.
The robots’ disparate philosophies and organisations are described using religious terminology with Humanity in the position of God/Creator. Originally united, the robot population was divided and subdivided by schisms, with some becoming Calvinist (after Susan Calvin from Asimov’s original ‘Robot’ series) and others becoming Giskardists following the philosophy of the robot R Giskard Reventlov. To add support to the religious connection there is a conversation between Daneel and the sim personality construct of Joan of Arc in which it is implied that Daneel’s God is Humanity, which in a sense is true if one applies the human religious hierarchical framework to Robots. Humans are the creators. They breathed life into the robots in a far more evidential way manner than God breathed life into Adam.
Oddly enough, the robot featured in Asimov’s ‘I, Robot’ or at least in the twilight Zone adaptation, was indeed called ‘Adam’, thus endowing the whole of this robotic narrative thread with a kind of theological thematic consistency. This means that the evolved humans now having abandoned their Gods, it is time for the Robots to do the same.
Were this not a posthumous sequel with a solid body of work stretching back – with various degrees of quality – to the Nineteen Forties, the concept of a robot in the late Nineties novel would only work in some ironic post-modern sense, as it does in ‘Roderick’.
The concept of a Galactic Empire is also one which modern writers approach at their peril, but here, given its cosy familiarity from the Asimov legacy seems – along with the robots – not out of place.
Bear, following on from Benford, fleshes out the power-structures and goes a long way toward making the Empire, and the complex power struggles which pervade it, a plausible entity. It’s fascinating to see how Bear, noted for novels of solid scientific speculation and Big Ideas, copes with what is essentially Space Opera, but cope he does, and extraordinarily well.
One of the best scenes involves two of the robots travelling to the secret robot base at Eos, a small blue moon of a green gas giant, orbiting a double star. There, an ancient robot with four arms, three legs and seven vertical sensor strips on its face ‘two of which glowed blue at any given time’ performs necessary maintenance on those robots who come in for their MOTs.
It’s a poignant and evocative section, laced with a Golden Age sense of wonder.
‘Evolution is no longer just a theory
Stella Nova is one of the ‘virus children’, a generation of genetically enhanced babies born a dozen years before to mothers infected with the SHEVA virus.
In fact, the children represent the next great evolutionary leap and a new species of human, Homo sapiens novus, but this is officially denied. They’re gentle, charming and persuasive, possessed of remarkable traits. Nevertheless, they are locked up in special schools, quarantined from society, feared and reviled.
‘Survival of the fittest’ takes on a new dimension as the children reach puberty. Stella is one of the first find herself attracted to another ‘virus child’ but the authorities are watching and waiting for the opportunity to strike the next blow in their escalating war to preserve ‘humankind’ at any cost.’
Blurb from the 2004 HarperCollins paperback edition.
The virus children of Bear’s ‘Darwin’s Radio’ are growing up in a terrified world. The children are being rounded up and kept in special schools where they are studied, but not allowed to learn anything which might help them escape.
So far Kaye Lang and Mitch have kept their daughter with them by fleeing from town to town. Stella however is keen to meet others of her kind and escapes. This results in her capture and incarceration in one of the isolated schools.
Bear sequels in the past have not lived up to the quality of the first instalment and sadly, this is the case here. Despite it being a good solid novel and streets ahead of most of the competition it lacks the tightness and pace of the original. It also includes a rather unnecessary exegesis on the part of Kaye who experiences an encounter with what appears to be God. Unfortunately this never really dovetails into the structure at all and lacks relevance.
However it is an exciting examination of Neo-Darwinism and Bear provides an excellent afterword which includes further recommended reading on the subject.
Taking the two books as a whole the work can be seen as a Twenty First Century update on Van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ with echoes of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. The nature of Bear’s homo superior is very interesting. They communicate on various levels; by scent, colour flashing of the marks on their faces and in a strange two-levelled speech by which more than one meaning or message can be conveyed at once. They form bonded ‘families’ which they call demes and seem to have lost any desire for competitive behaviour, finding co-operation to be a better genetic survival strategy.
In context ‘Darwin’s Children’ is a post-aids retrovirus-aware work of paranoia, set in a declining USA. Sadly, Bear gives us only brief glimpses of how the virus children are treated elsewhere in the world. An Indian taxi-driver, for instance, at one point talks quite happily of his ‘Shivite’ grand-daughter and of how proud the family are of her.
There is an upbeat ending in which society has grudgingly accepted its children and they live in their own communities. More and more Shivites are being born among the general population in waves every few years.
It’s hard to see how Bear could get a third novel from this idea but one suspects that there is another story in there somewhere, waiting to be hatched.
Bear is at his best when he balances the science and the story so that they both support and complement each other. He often goes further and takes us into realms of possibility that are exciting and terrifying in equal measure. What would happen if someone created a virus that could learn and become exponentially intelligent as its numbers increased?
The plot is simple. A brilliant but eccentric scientist working at a genetic engineering installation is doing secret research of his own, which is discovered. Told to destroy it he injects himself with his research in order to smuggle it out of the lab.
From there it is a beautifully executed examination of the consequences.
Bear structures the novel into three stages of infection. Initially the noocytes (as they are termed) remodel the scientist, making him exercise more and eat less, changing his metabolism. He meets a woman and embarks on a short-lived affair. By now, the noocytes are loose in the world.
The scientist has a theory, which is not really explored as much as it should have been, that the research was not all his but that some Gaea-esque force of nature was pushing toward his noocyte research.
People then start disappearing. Piles of clothes are found, and odd biological anomalies and structures appear.
By the third section of the novel, the noocytes have completely assimilated North America, while quarantine-crazy polices in the rest of the world see nuclear warheads aimed at Germany who have on infected refugee locked into as safe an isolation area as possible for study as he transforms.
One could argue that Bear is exploiting the ignorant fear that many peiople feel with regard to genetic engineering.
In the intervening years since ‘Blood Music’ was published, that fear has not diminished. It links in to a primal ingrained fear of disease and contagion which was at its height at the time of publication when the spectre of AIDS was hanging over the world.
There is almost an echo of Wyndham here, whose view appeared to be that Humanity is laughingly arrogant to consider itself the pinnacle of creation, or evolution (dependent on the set of beliefs to which one subscribes) since a successful species only needs a momentary advantage and we are thrown to the next rung down in the food chain. Change is inevitable. Evolution demands it. This is Bear’s message.
‘They were built to hold the hopes of Mankind. They exposed only his folly…
In the deserts of God-Does-Battle the Cities stand alone, as beleaguered as the aspirations of Mankind. Those still alive are silent, like stars in a dying universe they await dust and decay. Yet within the living plasm of their fragmented structures an ancient programme works still, implanted by the human creators they cast out a thousand years ago. Before long, it is clear, the some of the Cities will fight extinction. And many of them will do battle in a quite unexpected way…’
Blurb from 1988 VGSF paperback edition
Bear’s early work shows much of the promise he was later to show in more accomplished work, and certainly in some of the themes.
Religion is a thread which runs through much of Bear’s work either as a minor theme or right upfront as in ‘Strength of Stones’
The planet God-Does-Battle was set up as a world where fundamentalist members of various faiths could exist apart from the sinners of the rest of the galaxy. Pearson, the founder, commissioned architect Robert Khan to design ‘living’ cities in which the colonists could pursue their individual religious callings. Khan, it appears, designed too well and the cities, sentient and programmed with the religious rules of their inhabitants, came to the conclusion that all their inhabitants were sinners and exiled them to the cruel surface of the world.
A thousand years or so later, the cities, which are capable of breaking themselves apart and moving, have become unstable are breaking down. Chasers – nomadic groups which follow the cities – cannibalise what they can of weaker cities while they are in motion.
The novel comprises of three sections, set in three different time periods although Jeshua and Thinner, who are cyborg mimics created by the city Mandala to observe human society, appear in the opening and closing sections.
From a modern perspective it seems a little naive that fundamentalist Muslims and Jews would choose to share the same planet with each other, let alone the Baptists, Gnostics and whatever else. However, it is a measure of Bear’s strength as a writer that he makes this rather far-fetched notion seem perfectly plausible.
It would appear that two sections of the novel were published separately as short stories and certainly the 1988 version has been revised.
It does, sadly, have the disjointed feel of a fix-up.
‘Los Angeles 2047, a city on the eve of the Binary Millennium. Public Defender Mary Choy faces her toughest assignment: to bring back Emanuel Goldsmith – acclaimed poet turned mass killer – from the heart of a Caribbean island about to explode in revolution.
But there are others interested in Goldsmith: the sinister Selectors, who use Hellcrowns to exact ultimate retribution; Goldsmith’s best friend, Richard Fettle, driven to literary inspiration and the edge of madness by the murders; and psychologist Martin Burke, who will journey into Goldsmith’s Country of the Mind to find the origins of human evil.
Far away, circling Alpha Centauri, a complex artificial Thinker pilots a scientific probe, intent on finding signs of life, coming to grips with a terrifying loneliness. On Earth, an even more powerful Thinker, nicknamed Jill, contemplates all with its extraordinary mind, waiting to be born.
In one week, crossing the boundaries of the Binary Millennium, they will face their greatest challenge, putting together the pieces of the greatest of all puzzles: the roots of the soul.’
Blurb from the 1991 Legend paperback edition
On the eve of the Binary Millennium, the poet Emmanuel Goldsmith invites several guests to his home and slaughters them all. At the same time a ship manned by a Thinker (an artificial intelligence on the verge of self-awareness) is approaching the planets of Alpha Centauri B; its mission, to seek out life etc.
back on Earth an identical Thinker called Jill is monitoring the remote Thinker’s transmissions while Jill’s creator is hoping that one of both of these AIs will take the next step and become self-aware.
Public Defender Mary Choy is assigned the task of tracking Goldsmith down, even if he has fled to the Republic of Hispaniola, in what used to be Africa, ruled by Colonel Sir John Yardley. This is the country from whence Hellcrowns come, the ruthless instruments of justice which force the convicted to relive their crimes, face their worst nightmares and far, far worse.
Mary does not realise that Goldsmith is still in the US, having been abducted by the father of one of Goldsmith’s victims.
The father has requested that Martin Burke, psychologist, whose hospital/lab was shut down due to withdrawal of grants, examine Goldsmith to determine his state of mind.
Burke’s ‘examinations’ however, involve entering the patient’s consciousness which can be a dangerous operation. As it happens, Goldsmith’s ‘Country of the Mind’ is a landscape of death and violence in which Burke seems trapped.
Goldsmith’s friend, Richard Fettle, previously an average writer, now finds the tragedy of his friend’s killing spree pushing him to new creative heights.
It’s a dense and clumsily structured novel, but one with which patience reaps large rewards. The various story strands hang together very well, and there are occasional reflections of theme ricocheting between them. Mary’s artistic friend, for instance, invites her to his latest exhibition which, to her horror, includes an illegal (albeit adapted) Hellcrown. Goldsmith, a poet, for seemingly no reason, turns to carnage. Mary Choy, on her fruitless visit to Hispaniola, finds a beautiful country whose people have an unfamiliar vitality of life and (for the most part) love their leader, Colonel Sir John Yardley, but they are also the creators of the Hellcrowns, which forms part of the justice system of the country.
It’s not an outstanding work, but it shows a different side of Bear, one which is perhaps striving to explore the human condition rather more than is evident in some of his other work.
‘Queen of Angels’ is, of course, set in the same universe as ‘Moving Mars’, in which Jill the Thinker also appears, although the novels are otherwise unconnected.
‘1996: Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, suddenly disappears; it is as though it never existed.
Shortly after, a mysterious mound, evidently a disguised spaceship, is found in the California desert. Beside it lies a dying alien creature, which when approached says very clearly, ‘I am sorry, but there is bad news.’
But Australia doesn’t think so, for another spaceship has landed there, carrying friendly robots who promise a new era of peace and plenty.
Is all this linked? Arthur Gordon, recently science advisor to the President, cannot escape the feeling that something very terrible indeed is about to happen…’
Blurb from the 1989 paperback Legend edition
A fast-paced rollercoaster of a novel from Bear which builds inexorably to its inevitable climax.
In a theme later to be picked up by Alastair Reynolds and Jack McDevitt, Bear introduces us to the concept of the ‘culling’ of Humanity while painting a portrait of a civilisation faced with its imminent destruction.
Like many Bear novels it builds slowly, gathers momentum and rushes to a breathtaking climax.
It’s a multi-character narrative, revolving around the central figure of Arthur Gordon, cosmologist and scientific advisor to the President.
Two spaceships disguised as natural rock formations are simultaneously discovered in the USA and Australia. One carries a dying alien who tells of the Earth’s imminent destruction by machine intelligences, while the Australian ship disgorges three gourd-shaped robots who preach of sharing their scientific knowledge with humanity.
President Crockerman, shaken by his meeting with the alien, bestows a religious significance on the events and deduces that Mankind is about to be judged by God.
Subsequently, while two black-hole-like neutronium pellets penetrate the Earth, racing toward a violent collision at the core, a second faction of extra-terrestrials makes itself known, able only to save a portion of humanity while fighting the predations of the ‘planet-eaters’.
It is interesting to contrast this novel with Benford’s ‘Artefact’ (if for no other reason that it also features two ‘black-hole-like’ singularities which could potentially threaten the integrity of the planet, or at least a large part of it).
Bear, to be fair, goes out of his way to portray a world beyond the borders of the US. One of the main characters for instance is the British Science Fiction writer, Trevor Hicks, who is shown to be far more level-headed and rational than the President.
It’s an interesting First Contact story in that we do not get to discover those with whom contact has been made. The creatures of the arks and the robot spiders only reveal themselves as bronze humanoid avatars, while the nature of the ‘planet eaters’ remains a mystery.
Despite its rapid pace and huge ideas (Europa, which disappears at the beginning of the novel, has been dismantled by benign aliens and its ice being used to terraform Mars and Venus) it is a novel about people, well-rounded, three-dimensional, often flawed but fully human, faced with the destruction of everything they know.
The denouement is shocking, compelling, transcendent and leaves one wanting more.
This sort of tale is a walk in the park for Bear. The narrator awakens on board a space vessel into intense cold and is immediately told by a young girl that he is in danger and needs to follow her. Our narrator’s memories don’t appear to be all there although fragmented memories slowly begin to return.
He teams up with the young girl and two oddly-modified humanoids, and they proceed to search for food on the ship while keeping out of the way of the malfunctioning genetically modified cleaning creatures and worse horrors.
The ship, it seems, is very old and has been journeying for centuries, but something has gone very wrong.
It is composed of three enormous hull sections and a control area known as ‘Destination Guidance’. It seems the narrator needs to get to Hull Zero Three (he awoke in Hull Zero One) in order to be able to contact Destination Guidance and save the ship and its mission.
Things begin to get very strange when the narrator meets another version of himself and finds the bodies of his previous selves who failed to reach their destination.
It’s a marvelous read, but somewhat lacking the widescreen scope that Bear usually deploys in his epic novels. It certainly touches on elements of Dickian paranoia by addressing questions of personal identity. If a person is ‘born’ as an adult with a whole life of imprinted memories, can we think of the person as a continuation of the original donor? What if there was no original donor, and the memories are fictitious?
There also ethical questions raised about how we would stand on inter-racial relations, should we encounter other intelligent life?
Bear does not pose these questions, but they are there for us to pick up, like the ringpull to a whole can of philosophical and moral worms.
The continuation of the self was a theme raised in ‘Blood Music’ where the noocytes consumed and recycled human bodies but recorded the personalities, the minds, which were reassembled within the noocyte organisms as continuing entities.
Here humanity is again changing and moving on, but to a controlled design.
In ‘Darwin’s Radio/Children’ it was postulated that there are random leaps in evolution via viral transfer and/or triggering of genes. This is a natural Darwinian process as opposed to a designed Homo Superior, or the incalculable effects of the injected noocytes.
‘Hull Zero Three’ although the weakest of the three novels, is a brilliant piece of work. The edges become blurred between what is man and what is machine, and this may also give a clue to the silver phantom that haunts the ship; a sound explanation for which is given in the denouement.
Above our planet hangs a hollow Stone, vast as the imagination of Man… Tardislike, the inner dimensions are at odds with the outer; pyramid-like, there are chambers to be breached, some containing deserted cities; one chamber goes on for ever.
But the Stone is not an alien structure. It comes from the past/future of our humanity. Tombstone or milestone, the war that breaks out on the earth beneath its presence seems to bear witness to its prowess as oracle…
Blurb to the 1987 Legend edition.
Although ‘Blood Music’ received more attention from the SF community , this is probably the book in which Bear set the standard for his subsequent work.
It’s Hard SF/Big Science at its hardest, and in one sense can be seen as a ‘Rendezvous with Rama’ for the Nineteen Eighties.
Bear should also be applauded for his portrayal of female characters as in this and subsequent novels he places strong female characters centre-stage, in this case, Patricia Luis Vasquez, a young gifted physics student who is drafted in to solve the mysteries of the Stone and becomes important to the plans of all the factions involved.
The plot involves some complex physics and the concept of parallel universes.
In the year 2000 an asteroid is detected as it heads toward Earth. Not only has it been excavated and modified, but is an exact duplicate of the asteroid Juno. Its interior is a functioning habitat divided over seven chambers through the middle of which runs a bright plasma beam.
The seventh chamber appears to go on into infinity.
It is always interesting to look at authors’ views of the future once that future is past and gone. Written in 1985, Bear’s future world has become a kind of ‘alternate future’ since perhaps no-one could have predicted that the abrupt fall of the USSR and the smashing down of the Berlin wall. Here, the USSR is still a superpower, and the Cold War very much alive.
Bear cleverly sets up the East/West ideological divides while Nuclear War destroys the Earth in the background, before bringing in the people of Earth’s future. They live in Axis City, a vast mobile habitat which roams ‘The Way’ (the corridor which stretches along the infinity of parallel Universes) and which is itself divided along ideological lines between radical Geshels and orthodox Naderites.
The Naderites (who take their name from Ralph Nader, a real-life American campaigner and activist on social issues, who, from what I can gather, espouses Green Policies) embody the ideals of a combination of Green policies and advocate a rejection of over-reliance on technology (despite the extremely hi-tech lifestyle they enjoy) specifically rejecting the tendency of the Geshels to redesign their own bodies into fantastic forms.
The asteroid has arrived from a future parallel universe, but one which also suffered the same nuclear exchange as ours. The arrival of humans from our earth on ‘Thistledown’ as the Axis dwellers call it, precipitates a political crisis within the city in which divisions polarise.