My life in outer space

Hugo Award – Winner

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.

Advertisements

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

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)

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


To Say Nothing Of The Dog – Connie Willis (1997)

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

The second of Willis’ excursions into the past via Mr Dunworthy’s Time Travel lab sees the entire team in a frazzle. Lady Schrapnell (an American tyrant) has employed all of Mr Dunworthy’s resources in an attempt to locate ‘the Bishop’s bird stump’ in order that it can be in its proper place for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.
Meanwhile, one of the team, Verity, has accidentally brought something back from the 19th Century that should never have been brought back.
Ned Henry, who is suffering from time-lag, is sent by Mr Dunworthy back to 1888 to convalesce.
Thus begins a complex farce of manners and causality. Ned is approached by Verity as she fears that Ned’s arrival has pushed two people together who should never have been together, a pairing which may affect the outcome of World War II.
It is clearly a precursor to Willis’ much longer and more serious ‘Blackout’ and ‘All Clear’ which again features worries over increased slippage of time-travel arrival times.
On the whole this is a far more satisfying novel. There are mysteries to be solved, temporal wrongs to be righted, fake spiritualists to be dealt with, dueling professors, a cat, a dog and a pond full of fish.
Willis references Agatha Christie as she does in ‘Blackout’ where Agatha actually appears at one point, effectively showing her face briefly before disappearing.
In essence here, Willis distracts the reader by telling them they’re being wrongfooted, whilst neatly wrongfooting the reader in the process.
Willis throws in some curveball mysteries of her own. Some time in the future St Paul’s Cathedral is destroyed by a pinhead bomb and, due to a completely unrelated feline pandemic, domestic cats have become extinct.
The title of course is part of the title of Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of The Dog)’, another work which is quoted and referenced and is possibly the source for the style of the novel which is a lighthearted comedy of manners and errors.
There is a certain stereotyping, such as in the characters of Professor Peddick and the Colonel. This extends into the future Oxford where the Rottweiller-esque Lady Schrapnell is bullying everyone into her service. Willis rather missed a trick by not keeping Lady Schrapnell off the page as they do with the ‘unseen character’ TV archetype, whom everyone talks about but the audience never sees such as Niles’ wife Meryl in ‘Frasier’ or Mrs Mainwaring in ‘Dad’s Army’. One suspects that Willis was initially employing a literary version of this device with Lady Schrapnell – a tyrannical do-gooder US Socialite – until she appears in the denouement, after we have heard everyone’s tales of her terrifying demeanour. Her entry into the sightline of the reader therefore becomes something of an anticlimax.
Fortunately this is the only criticism I can offer. It’s a delightful novel which leaves one feeling quite joyous.


All Clear – Connie Willis (2010)

.All Clear.

This is the sequel to ‘Blackout’ which follows three of Mr Dunworthy’s historians from an Oxford of the 2060s who have travelled back to various periods of World War II to observe the lives of the British, mainly in London.
Something is wrong, however, as the ‘drops’ (where the travellers go to return to their own time) are not opening, and the historians are concerned that they are interfering too much with the past and may have altered the course of the war.
It has to be said that Willis’ research appears to be impeccable and she creates a wartime London that fairly rings with veracity. She does stretch credulity a tad by having her protagonists meet Agatha Christie (who worked in St Barts Hospital dispensary), General Patton, the Queen (the late Queen Mother of Elizabeth II) and Alan Turing, although to give Willis credit, the characters had very good reason to be in the right place at the right time.
In some ways Willis has become the master of the dramatic farce and, if I am honest, it does get a little wearing as we have already had one large volume of people looking for other people and arriving just as they left, or seeing them in a crowd and being thwarted by jostling members of that crowd and just missing the person they needed to talk to.
As it turns out there is method in Willis’ madness and all becomes clear in All Clear at the denouement.
Comparisons have to be made with Stephen King’s 11/22/63 since both novels take the premise of someone returning to the scene of historical events. In both cases also, despite the SF framework, they are very much portraits of the time and place in question. Willis’ vision is, however, a much cosier, romanticised place despite the excellent depiction of loss, tragedy and heroism in the London she recreates.
We get to be taken to St Pauls Cathedral during the blitz, to a devastated East End, to Bletchley Park where Turing and the rest of the boffins were hard at work on breaking the enigma code, and to a plethora of Tube stations which served as air raid shelters and, it appears, impromptu theatres where people put on plays and shows to keep up morale.
We see the everyday lives of women, working in Department stores or driving ambulances, sharing rooms in substandard lodgings and coping with the deprivations of rationing and the ever present threat of bombs.
The actual practicalities of Time Travel science are not gone into, and the logistics of it do not bear close scrutiny. Mr Dunworthy talks a lot about chaotic systems, but there is little in the way of an explanation as to how Time Travel actually works and why, for instance, it transports them, their clothing and any accessories without taking bits of whatever surface they happen to be standing on. It’s also a problem for two people to occupy the same timeline, which is why it is a race against time (no pun intended) for Polly – who has already visited WWII once – to return to the future from 1941 before her past self arrives in 1943. It’s not clear why this would be such an issue, although it does appear that the space-time continuum has ways of defending itself against alteration of the timeline and paradox. In essence, the scientific aspects have been rendered merely devices within what could ultimately be deemed a complex Romantic drama.
It’s far more than that though. Willis has a formidable talent for creating fully-rounded characters, and there is something slightly Dickensian about the range of incidental characters who interact with the protagonists, many of them women. If nothing else, she has to be commended for pushing the women to the forefront and demonstrating what enormous contributions and sacrifices women of World War II made.
Agatha Christie is seen briefly, and her books are mentioned and discussed several times, which is possibly why Willis throws in a Christie-esque mystery right at the end. Polly looks at her rescuer and realises something about him which is only hinted at. Are the clues, in true Agatha Christie style, all within the text for us to decipher? If so, it’s the best trick played on an SF reader in a long time, and I for one, feel royally had.
Mind you, if I had to be royally had by anyone, I’m glad it’s Connie Willis. It’s a pleasure, Connie.


American Gods – Neil Gaiman (2001)

American Gods (American Gods, #1)

‘IS NOTHING SACRED

Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.

Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, AMERICAN GODS takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what – and who – it finds there…..’

Blurb from the 2001 Headline paperback edition

A man, known only as Shadow, is newly released from prison. While still mourning the death of his wife in a car accident, he is approached by an enigmatic stranger called Mr Wednesday and offered a job as Mr Wednesday’s sidekick.
We gradually learn, along with Shadow, that gods and other supernatural creatures are real, but only if enough people believe in them. Immigrants, some of whose tales we hear, brought their gods with them to America, where they are made manifest.
The American Gods, are deep down very human, despite (or maybe because of) their waning powers.
Gaiman is adept at this post-modern practice of reinventing other characters (in this case classical or ancient gods) and siting them in a different context. The juxtaposition, it has to be said, works extraordinarily well and it does not seem at all odd to discover that the Norse God Wodin is travelling across the US, recruiting other waning or forgotten deities into an army. A storm is brewing, for a war is about to be waged against the new gods of TV and the internet.
It is not surprising given the current sensitivity of religious issues, that Gaiman avoids any manifestation of Jesus or Mohamed, and wisely confines his choice of gods to mostly extinct or obscure religions. There is one oblique and slightly critical reference to Christianity when Shadow is introduced to Estra, the pagan goddess whose festival Christians have absorbed and reinvented as Easter.
Gaiman is a British writer, currently living in the US, and no doubt hoped that a novel set in the US would work successfully there. Critically it has, since American Gods has been nominated for US genre awards, but whether US readers will go for Gaiman’s work in large numbers is less certain.
Gaiman comes from a comic-book tradition and one can see the influence of Alan Moore here; the writer who created ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ in which several Nineteenth Century literary characters join forces to combat evil (at least in the film, which Moore disowned). Kim Newman has also used this technique widely, most notably in ‘Anno Dracula’ and its sequels. Gaiman takes this idea further, however, and pastes real flesh onto the bones of his archetypes.
Even America itself is a character here. Perhaps Gaiman sees the US objectively, or at least from a British perspective. In one sense he is a kind of god himself, dragged to the US, reborn and no doubt worshipped by a good many fans there, so maybe this book has an autobiographical element.


Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)

Ringworld (Ringworld #1)

‘With RINGWORLD, Larry Niven reaches full maturity as a writer of some of the most vivid and inventive science fiction the past decade has seen.

Niven has steadily constructed a logical and coherent piece of space all his own in a series of short stories of which Neutron Star, a Hugo Award Winner, was one.

Now, in RINGWORLD, he carries out the promise of the earlier structure and takes his familiar characters, the puppeteers, to a fantastically conceived scientifically logical world – the Ringworld of his title – a towering and beautiful concept. ‘

Blurb to the 1970 Ballantine Paperback Edition

Ringworld is undoubtedly a Landmark Science Fiction novel, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and possibly the definitive Big Dumb Object novel.
It’s a work which manages to succeed both as an ideas novel and as one of action adventure.
Niven is one of those SF authors who chooses to set the majority of his novels in the same fictional universe, in his case in a spherical region of space approximately seventy light years in diameter which is known to his readers as ‘Known Space’.
This one-author milieu is a common practice and works for both authors and readers since although the novels do not have to be directly linked, and may be set hundreds or thousands of years apart, the background is a familiar one for readers and allows authors to explore and develop aspects of already established elements.
‘Known Space’ for Niven had already been explored in short story format, anthology collections of which are available, and in the novels ‘A Gift From Earth’ and ‘The World of Ptaavs’, and so the background was already set for the ambitious ‘Ringworld’.
Louis Wu, a two-hundred year old pilot, kept young by the effects of a longevity drug, is recruited by the alien Nessus, a Pearson’s Puppeteer, thought to be insane by the standards of his ‘cowardly’ race (a species of two-headed, three legged highly intelligent creatures, driven by a racial urge of self-protection and avoidance of danger) to investigate an artefact surrounding a star far outside Known Space.
Along with a Kzin – a ferocious feline species – and Teela Brown – a human woman genetically predisposed to being lucky – Louis and Nessus set off to investigate the anomaly.
The synopsis, put so coldly, does not do justice to what turns out to be a far more complex tale of ingenious scientific extrapolation, alien psychology, hidden motives and sheer sense of wonder.
The artefact itself is a massive ring some ninety million miles in diameter surrounding a star (Niven uses the analogy of a strip of ribbon, fifty feet long, arranged on its edge in a hoop facing a candle at the centre of the circle created). The inner surface of the ring has walls a thousand feet high and contains what is essentially an Earth environment with enough room for three million times the surface of the Earth.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between the various alien races which is very much driven by the psychology of the races involved.
By the time this novel was written we had thankfully moved away from the prevalent idea that humans (usually American humans) were natural candidates if not to rule the galaxy then at least to guide its direction or dictate policy. In EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series for instance, Humanity is the chosen race, and certainly selectively-bred members of it are destined to take over as Custodians of The Galaxy. Niven has no such pretensions here. Humans, although having come out on top in a war with the rather Klingon-esque Kzin, are technologically inferior to other races with whom they have come into contact.
The Puppeteers seem at first to be somewhat comical creatures; small, white-furred, swan-necked, two headed beasts. They are pathologically cautious and seem harmless, but as the novel progresses, Louis and the rest of the crew discover not only their overwhelming technological strength, but their rather disturbing involvement in Earth and Kzin history.
Although altruistic, the Puppeteers will go to any lengths to protect their individual or racial safety, and describing them as ‘cowards’ is, as becomes clear, imposing a human value on an alien psychology. There is a parallel again here with Doc Smith’s Lensman series and Nadrek of Palain VII whose racial psychology was almost exactly that of the Puppeteers in that individual safety was the prime motivation of the Palainian psyche. Nadrek too, was also considered ‘‘mad’’ by members of his own race since he chose to expose himself to unwarranted danger by interaction with alien races.
Again, ‘Ringworld’ is also one of those novels that should have been left as a standalone piece. The sequels, although explaining the origins of the Ringworld, decline in quality as the series progresses. This, taken in isolation however, is a masterwork by a writer at the height of his powers.


The Man in The High Castle – Philip K Dick (1962)

The Man in the High Castle

This is possibly the most fascinating and interesting alternate history novel of the Twentieth Century, set as it is in a world where World War II was won by the Nazis and Japan. It works in the main because Dick has avoided the cliche of going into extreme detail about the differences and concentrates on the lives of his creations in this odd alternate USA.
The plot revolves around a handful of loosely connected characters, most of which are not what they seem, but this fits nicely in with Dick’s perennial theme of the fake.
Frank Frink, for instance, at the outset of the novel works in a company where he produces fake antiques for sale due to the lucrative demand from the occupying Japanese for original antique American handicrafts (such as .44 revolvers and Mickey Mouse watches). Added to this, Frink’s name is really Fink, and he has had surgery to hide the fact that he is a Jew.
Having left his employment, Frank sets up a business with his co-worker, Ed McCarthy, making contemporary American Folk Art, based on Ed’s designs. (i.e. ‘real’ artifacts)
Robert Childan is not pretending to be anything he is not, although he runs a business dealing in ‘genuine’ US artifacts, many of them supplied to him by Frink’s employers.
One of Childan’s customers is Mr Tagomi, a Japanese businessman, who is seeking a gift for a new client.
This client is a Mr Baynes, ostensibly a Swedish businessman on a trip to discuss mould-injection processes, although in reality he is a German Counter-Intelligence agent on a mission to warn the Japanese of German plans to bomb their home islands.
Frink’s ex-wife Juliana, is a judo instructor who meets up with an Italian truck driver, Joe, who moves into her apartment and her life and persuades her to take a trip to meet Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a banned book called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’.
Both ‘Grasshopper’, which is set in a universe where the Axis powers lost, and the I-Ching run through the MITHC like a thread. It should be noted that ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ does not depict our reality since one aspect of it talks of Hitler’s trial, something which obviously did not transpire in our timeline.
The Italian, Joe, himself is a fake since in reality he is an agent on a mission to assassinate Hawthorne Abendsen.
At the time of writing, Dick, it appears, was heavily into Oriental philosophy and employed The I-Ching to determine the plot of The Man in the High Castle, and explained
“I started with nothing but the name, Mister Tagomi, written on a scrap of paper, no other notes. I had been reading a lot of Oriental philosophy, reading a lot of Zen Buddhism, reading the I Ching. That was the Marin County zeitgeist, at that point; Zen Buddhism and the I Ching. I just started right out and kept on trucking.” In the event, he blamed the I Ching for plot incidents he disliked: “When it came to close down the novel, the I Ching had no more to say. So, there’s no real ending on it. I like to regard it as an open ending”.

“Hour 25: A Talk With Philip K. Dick”. philipKdick.com. Formerly posted at http://www.philipkdickfans.com/frank/hour25.htm.

There are strange connections between these characters, such as those between Mr Tagomi and Frank Frink, who never meet. Mr Tagomi buys a piece of Frank’s jewellery from Robert Childan (who was initially planning to swindle Frink and McCarthy) who has discovered from a Japanese client that the jewellery contains ‘wu’ or inner truth.
This leads Mr Tagomi, meditating on the jewellery, to shift temporarily to either the ‘grasshopper’ world or our world, a world where the San Franciscans are not deferential to the Japanese.
Later, Frank Frink is arrested when the authorities find out he is a Jew, but he is unexpectedly freed by Mr Tagomi, who orders his release merely to make a point to the local German authorities.

Highly recommended.


Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C Clarke (1973)

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)

‘Rama – a metallic cylinder approaching the sun at tremendous velocity.

Rama – first product of an alien civilization to be encountered by man.

Rama – a world of technological marvels and artificial ecology.

What is its purpose in this year 2131? Who is inside it? And why?’

Blurb from the 1974 Pan paperback edition.

A giant cylinder is spotted entering the Solar System and a team of astronauts is sent out to investigate.
The cylinder is unfeasibly vast and (it is discovered) hollow, with gravity on the inside of the cylinder produced by centrifugal force. The interior surface is lit by enormous lamps, covered with a variegated landscape and divided in two by a band of sea which exists in a circle around the inside.
Perhaps Clarke’s best work, this succeeds (as did Niven’s ‘Ringworld’) by its sheer lack of explanation. In fact, the entire novel is, in some ways, an exercise in minimalist adventure, since despite the excitement of the exploration itself and having to rescue a crewmember who becomes stranded on the other side of the central sea, nothing really happens.
One cannot help, however, still being awed by Clarke’s depiction of this magnificently vast alien mystery which appears in our Solar System and allows us inside her enormous shell before shortly afterward disappearing.
Again, like Niven’s Ringworld, the novel was later lessened by inferior sequels (written in this case in collaboration) and which gradually eroded the awe and mystery which was an integral part of the original books. If you haven’t read the Rama sequels you’d be best advised not to bother. The writing is far inferior to Clarke at his best and one suspects that his literary input was minimal.
However, getting back to the original, this is a novel which well deserves the title ‘classic’ and still manages to evoke a sense of wonder set against a background of a universe vast and ultimately unknowable.


The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C Clarke (1979)

The Fountains of Paradise (SF Masterworks, #34)

One of Clarke’s running themes is that of Human Transcendence, a racial coming-of-age or puberty, during which we throw off the shackles of our irrational beliefs and, well, grow up.
‘Childhood’s End’ saw the human race guided through this process by an Elder Race, while in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a single human is transformed by an Elder Race and returned to Earth to do much the same thing. ‘Fountains of Paradise’ is as joyous as the aforementioned books and thought of by many as Clarke’s best work.
The story follows engineer Vandevaar Morgan and his quest to build a space-elevator (see also Charles Sheffield’s ‘Web Between the Worlds’ and Robinson’s ‘Red Mars’. Robinson named the termini of the elevator ‘Clarke’ and ‘Sheffield’ as a tribute to the authors of the earlier books) anchored on Earth on the equatorial island of Taprobane (based on Clarke’s home of Sri Lanka).
It’s interesting to note that in 1979 Clarke’s boundless optimism leads him to believe that major religions will fall into decline. By the end of the book the Vatican is mentioned, in passing, as being virtually bankrupt.
Indeed, the concept of God is dealt a final lethal blow by information from a passing alien AI (representative of the obligatory ELDER RACE) which reduces religion to an aberrant condition common only to mammalian intelligent species and generally abandoned by those races at a particular level of social and scientific development. Clarke also presents no argument against the destruction of a millennia-old Buddhist monastery to make way for his space-elevator, which (a minor complaint) slightly detracts from his sound points about Mankind’s immaturity with regard to organised religion, and seems at odds with the respect for history and tradition, which is shown to great effect elsewhere in the novel.
Sadly, with the events of September 11, 2001 and the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world, his optimistic prediction of a world freed from the chains of religious belief now seem rather naïve, as much as we would like to share in his hope for a rational future.
The narrative, initially, is sandwiched with the tale of King Kalidasa, who, two thousand years previously, created his own challenge to Heaven with the fabulous Palace of Yakkigala.
The brilliance of the book lies in the way Clarke takes a solid scientifically-provable principle and creates the reality of its potential for us. It is very likely that at some point in the future such a structure will be built.
It’s an exciting and exhilarating thought, made all the more engrossing by Clarke’s mastery of storytelling, the vividness of the setting, the attention to detail and the undoubted (for its time anyway) scientific accuracy.


Way Station – Clifford D Simak (1963)

Way Station

‘Enoch Wallace survived Gettysburg and lived through the rest of the Civil War to make it home to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin. But his mother was already dead and his father soon joined her in the tiny family cemetery. It was then that Enoch met the being he called Ulysses and the farm became a way station for space-travellers. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the US government is taking an interest in the seemingly immortal Enoch, and the Galactic Council which set up the way station, is threatening to tear itself apart.’

Blurb from the 2000 Gollancz SF Collectors Edition

Enoch Wallace, the only survivor of the massacre of his regiment during the American Civil War, returns home to his farm in Wisconsin and a hard but maybe too-idyllic existence since Simak is nothing if nostalgic for a perfect America which has been lost. In this – an undoubted classic of the genre – he once again paints a portrait of a backwoods America of ignorant but basically decent countryfolk, people who protect their neighbours’ privacy as they jealously protect their own, even if the neighbour is rumoured to be well over a hundred years old and looks no older than thirty.
Shortly after the death of his parents when he returns from the war, Enoch is approached by a mysterious stranger and is recruited to convert his farmhouse into a way-station. The exterior looks exactly the same as it always did, but it is now protected by a force-field which only Enoch can open. Inside, some force protects Enoch from getting older which means that a hundred years on, Enoch has only aged a fraction of the years that have passed.
The interior houses complex equipment for the reception and forwarding-on by matter-transmission of alien travellers, the details of which Enoch meticulously transcribes in large record books.
Now however, Enoch is being watched by government agents, suspicious not only of his background and true age, but of an alien body which they have retrieved from his family burial plot.
Added to that, the world seems headed toward the brink of Nuclear War and even the peaceful Galactic Society of which only Enoch knows the existence is in turmoil, its factions warring over further expansion into the spiral arm beyond Earth and also suffering from the loss of the novel’s MaGuffin, an ancient artifact called The Talisman which can put its bearer into contact with the spiritual force of the Universe, i.e. God.
Enoch – one of Simak’s trademark loners – has few friends. One is the mailman whom he walks out to meet each day, a man who is also a talented woodcarver, not knowing the true origin of the pieces of alien wood (from which he carves exquisite pieces) which Enoch is occasionally given as gifts by the visitors who pass through.
Another is Lucy, a deaf mute daughter of his neighbour Hank. She has a natural affinity for Nature and appears to exhibit occasional extraordinary powers, as when Enoch witnesses her heal a butterfly’s wing.
Written against the backdrop of the recent Cuban Missile Crisis, The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the growing anti-war movement, Simak’s novel contains some obvious messages regarding the futility of war, despite some rather – perhaps misplaced – nostalgic support of the American Civil War which Enoch, and perhaps Simak himself, felt was a just and honourable war, fought within strict parameters of code.
The novel succeeds in its juxtaposition of the pastoral and the futuristic, haystacks, pitchforks and fabulous galactic technology sitting side by side which, in the hands of Simak, somehow works due mainly to his deep love for the open spaces of the US.
The plot is simplistic and ultimately flawed since the denouement relies too much on an unexpected criminal turning up at the way station at the last minute with the long-lost Talisman. It would have made more sense had the Talisman been hidden there for the last hundred years which would give the criminal a reason for going there. Despite this minor quibble however, this is one of the most romantic and evocative novels of the Twentieth century and possibly Simak’s finest single work.