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.
This fourth science-fantasy novel based on the Finnish legendary epic, KALEVALA, seemed like a good idea because there are actually four important heroes in these wonderful legends, and this novel completes the cycle concerning itself with the prophecy of the Great Return when the Vanhat seed shall return to Oava, the planet of their origin.
Kullervo is the “bad one” of the legends. Ugly, sullen, despised, he was actually born out of evil. He kicked his cradle to pieces and refused to drown when the wise women flung him into the river. As a vindictive cow-herd slave he changed cows into bears and this killed all of Ilmarinen’s household. Like Manfred and Oedipus, he was predestined for tragedy and doom. However, he is surely one of the most fascinating characters in all mythology. Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer, chose his tragic life for the theme of this magnificent symphonic tone poem, Kullervo, one of his finest works, involving choruses, soloists, and a sweeping Wagnerian nobility.
My Kullervo Kasi, a prototype of his ancestor, is the spawn of a leakage from a dark dimension of matter-energy that is incompatible with the life-forces in this one. Therefore, Kullervo Kasi is the natural choice of the Starwitch Louhi to find the tag-end o remnants f the Vanhat existing somewhere on despoiled Terra and destroy them . .
Blurb from the H-36 1967 Ace Double Paperback edition
In the fourth segment of Petaja’s reimagining of The Kalevala. The Starwitch Louhi rescues Kullervo Kasi from certain death on a volcanic world and. realising that he is the reincarnation of the Kullervo of legend, recruits him her quest to destroy the Vanhat.
Kullervo, not human enough to engender longstanding trust from humans, travels by Mothership from planet to planet, each time being moved on.
Louhi imbues him with powers which allow him to control the alchemical elements of Fire, Earth, Air and Water, but only to kill enemies on his journey to Earth to destroy the Vanhat before the prophecy can be fulfilled of their return to their own world. He encounters various grotesques, such as a corpulent cannibal pirate queen and some religious fundamentalists who are quickly dispatched to oblivion.
Although better written and more interesting than ‘The Stolen Sun’, Petaja’s relocation of The Kalevala to the far future with its uneasy mix of magic and technology doesn’t really work. The Science Fantasy subgenre, which saw its origins in Edgar Rice Burroughs, HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith achieved quite a level of sophistication in the Nineteen Sixties from authors such as Moorcock and M John Harrison. There has to be some form of internal logic that allows magic and technology to exist together and to convince the reader that this is plausible.
It is not present here, and we end up with something which is neither one thing nor the other and not a very satisfying blend of both.
‘Tramontane’ by the way, means ‘the stranger from over the mountain’, just in case you were wondering.
‘THE TREE FROM ANOTHER GALAXY
“A vast, breathing, sappy mass, a trunk five miles in diameter, and twelve miles from the great kneed roots to the ultimate bud – the ‘Vital Exprescience’ in the cant of the Druids. The Tree ruled the horizons, shouldered aside the clouds, and wore thunder and lightning like a wreath of tinsels. It was the soul of life, trampling and vanquishing the inert, and Joe understood how it had come to be worshipped by the first marvelling settlers on Kyril.”
For Joe Smith, the sight of the Tree was the beginning of an experience that would forever change his life. He had journeyed into space in search of a man, but what he found was a tree, a huge sky-dominating tree that held the power of life and death over millions of slaves.’
Blurb from the 77525 Ace Doubles paperback edition
Three of the colony worlds so far from Earth that Earth has become a myth are Kyril, Mangtse and Ballenkarch.
On Kyril there is one giant tree which is worshipped by a theocracy of Druids who preside over a population of slaves.
To this world has come Joe Smith of Earth, a man on the hunt for another Earth native, Henry Creach, who has abandoned Margaret, a woman with whom Joe is in love.
Once on the surface of Kyril he gains employment repairing and driving floating cars for the Druids. When he is requested to provide transport for the Priestess Elfane very late at night, he presumes that the priestess has some romantic assignation.
However, there is a dead body in the Priestess’ room, that of a Mang, and she and the Druid Manaolo, wish Joe to drive them out over the ocean and dump it in the sea.
Joe refuses. Once they have left, the Druid Hableyat appears and confesses that he murdered the Mang (for political reasons you don’t really need to know) and takes Joe to his rooms.
Hableyatt offers Joe a new job, ensuring that a cutting from the One Tree is taken across space to the planet Ballenkarch where, if it flourishes, the Druids can begin worshipping another tree, and cement relations with Ballenkarch. This is not to the liking of some of the Mangs who are divided into two political factions who have opposing views on how to deal with the expansionist plans of the Druids.
It’s a clever and colourful piece which contains some of Vance’s regular themes and motifs. It is somewhat baroque, and serves to define Vance’s skill at portraying sometimes decadent class or caste-obsessed future societies. We have the absurd religion which, in this case, has a terrible secret at its heart. Vance is always keen to point out that even intelligent people will believe anything if they are brought up to believe it within a confined community.
Vance seldom paid any attention to any technical or scientific details, but it’s a testament to his writing skill that it doesn’t really matter. Here he makes the concept of a vast space station, set at a point equidistant between the three planets and serving the needs of human and alien travellers, remarkably plausible.
We also have the maverick hero who doesn’t really get on or fit in with everyone else, which is a regular feature of Vance’s novels.
It’s a fascinating and neglected early work which deserves to be more widely read.
I was about fifteen years old when I first read this trilogy, and don’t recall it being as funny as it is. In other of his more serious fantasies, Moorcock occasionally refers to our Earth of thousands of years past, whose history has been twisted and fantasised to an absurd degree. In ‘The Runestaff’ for instance, the ships of the Granbretanians are decorated with the figureheads of ‘terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan – Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl, Rhunga, who were said to have ruled the land before The Tragic Millennium.’
There is much of that here, in the second volume of Moorcock’s acclaimed ‘Dancers At The End of Time’ trilogy, such as when Jherek Carnelian discovers a group of children held in a time-loop by a robot nanny, stashed away to protect them from the Tyrant Director Pecking Pa.
It’s not just a device to add humour or show the End of Timers as a decadent civilisation with no conception of the reality of their past. It also makes the point that we believe only what we know from history books, and that the truth may be far removed from what we think may have happened.
The End of Timers would not spend much time worrying about such things. This is a world where emotion is a fashion; the civilisation of the ultimately decadent. Although this world lacks any concept of malice or guilt, it also lacks the concept of compassion.
Moorcock pre-empts any comparison between his far future denizens of Earth and the Eloi in HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ by introducing it himself. When Jherek finally manages to get back to Eighteen Ninety Six to search for his lost love, Mrs Amelia Underwood, he meets HG Wells himself who helps Jherek get to Bromley, home of the Underwoods.
Wells thinks Jherek is being merely flattering and amusing when he tells him he is from a far future Earth, while Jherek believes that Wells actually built a time machine.
At one point Jherek tells Wells that the time machine in which he first travelled to Eighteen Ninety Six broke, but was thought be from two thousand years before Wells’ time, so that it was probable that Wells has merely rediscovered Time Travel.
‘What a splendid notion, Mr Carnelian. It’s rare for me to meet someone with your particular quality of imagination. You should write the idea into a story for your Parisian readers. You’d be a rival to Monsieur Verne in no time!’
Jherek hadn’t quite followed him. ‘I can’t write,’ he said. ‘Or read.’
‘No true Eloi should be able to read or write.’ Mr Wells puffed on his pipe, peering out of the window. ‘
(Chapter Eleven – A Conversation on Time Machines and Other Topics)
It wasn’t really clear back in the Seventies how much of a divergence this was from Moorcock’s usual style. Certainly, he produced many experimental pieces before this, but most of his work was serious, if not dour, with only the occasional humourous moment or in-joke being manifest.
This is a joyful rollercoaster of a comedy of manners, filled with grotesques and caricatures, exquisitely assembled for the edification of all.
The first volume is ‘An Alien Heat‘
‘Sword and Swordsman… but which was master?
STORMBRINGER, the might runesword, hung far away in the city’s armoury. ELRIC, haunted albino warrior-king, had sworn never again to touch the enchanted blade. But now he needed it as never before. Evil supernatural beings had abducted his lovely wife Zarozinia. he would sacrifice the world itself to rescue her. But would STORMBRINGER, seemingly endowed with a mind of its own, allow it?
He was fated to ride out again over spectral landscapes, with the sentient blade he both loved and hated… which had slain enemies – and claimed comrades!’
Blurb from the 1974 Mayflower paperback edition.
You know you are in Moorcock country when there’s a short preface to each section. This generally contains a quote from a long-lost Tome and is moribund in tone, telling of the downfall of some civilisation or other in High Gothic vernacular. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Elric books were the equivalent of Smiths albums to teenagers of the late Sixties and Seventies, and in comparison with some other books that were being printed in the name of Fantasy at the time, came out rating very highly indeed.
Mayflower books, whose covers boasted the author’s surname alone, seemed to print Moorcock almost exclusively; a man whose prolific output was probably only exceeded by Lionel L Fanthorpe.
This volume is the final (in chronological terms, although the definition of chronological in a Moorcock universe is somewhat fluid) in the Elric saga and contains three consecutive tales; ‘The Coming of Chaos’, ‘Sad Giant’s Shield’ and ‘Doomed Lord’s Passing’.
In ‘The Coming of Chaos’ Elric awakens to find his wife Zarazinia in the process of being kidnapped by malformed beasts.
By summoning the spirit of one of the creatures he has killed, Elric learns that he must seek his kinsman, and Mournblade, the twin to his sentient black sword ‘Stormbringer’ in order to rescue his wife and prevent the powers of Chaos from taking over the world.
In ‘The Sad Giant’s Shield’, Elric, Moonglum, Rackhir the Red and Elric’s cousin, Dyvim Slorm, have to take the shield of the Sad Giant Margada. It has been prophesied that the giant will be killed and when Elric spares his life, Moonglum follows the giant and slays him, since he does not wish to alter anything which is fated to happen.
The book, in fact, is bound with concepts of predestination and fatality, in contrast to the fact of Elric’s fealty to the Lords of Chaos, a fealty which finally crumbles when his wife is transformed into a white worm and she is impaled upon his soul-drinking sword.
‘Doomed Lord’s Passing’ continues in this vein, culminating Elric’s long journey in a tragedy well beyond Shakespearean proportions.
This is a 2013 revision of Moorcock’s ‘The Dreamthief’s Daughter’. The original title was far more evocative so it’s not clear why it has been changed.
Ulric von Bek, an aspect of The Eternal Champion and Elric of Melnibone, is an albino aristocrat in wartime Germany and heir to the von Bek estate and the black sword Ravenbrand.
His cousin Gaynor, now an officer in the SS, visits him one day and after a period of obfuscation, tells von Bek that the nazis want to take the sword into safekeeping.
Meanwhile von Bek is having dreams of dragons and his other self, Elric of Melnibone.
It takes a while to get into its stride, but Moorcock takes us, once more, into his baroque multiverse, with its Lords and Ladies of Chaos and Law.
Moorcock, like Asimov, seems keen to revise his work (at least his later pieces) in order that his canon can be seen as a homogeneous whole. By the very nature of Moorcock’s multiverse it is an easier task than that of Asimov, whose attempts to combine the internal realities of his Foundation and Robot universes were on the whole unsuccessful and demeaning to the original stories and novels.
Having said that, it is heartening to see writers tackling social and political issues, and there is a chilling topicality given the recent rise in extreme right wing parties across Europe.
This is late Moorcock, and despite the fact that the quality of writing is superior to his frenetic output of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, there is some essential element of excitement missing.
Part of the problem is that the Science Fantasy of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies with its hybrid of Fantasy and SF, was a thing of its time. The genre has moved on, and although it still exists, is a very different beast. Readers familiar with Moorcock’s early work will therefore get far more out of this than new readers. He is, at least here, preaching to the converted.
This was nominated for the Locus Award, and was runner-up for the Campbell Memorial award, and rightly so. ‘The Quantum Thief’ exists on the same level as the work of John C Wright in a future where definitions of the words ‘alive’, ‘real’ and ‘identity’ become very fluid indeed.
Jean le Flambeur, a famous thief, is incarcerated in a Dilemma prison of glass cubes where the inmates while away the day shooting and killing their immediate neighbours, only they don’t die permanently.
Jean is very soon busted out by Mieli, a young lady with a sentient ship. She has been sent on this mission – whose ultimate purpose is somewhat vague – by a powerful female entity. Jean is meant to do something in the Oubliette, a city which peglegs its way across Mars like some vast Wellsian war machine. The problem is doubly difficult since Jean has very little memory of his own past and must reclaim his memories from where they are concealed in the Oubliette before the mission can be accomplished.
Meanwhile, Isidore, a somewhat retro detective and architectural student, who relies on his own powers of deduction, is called in to help the Tzaddikim (the mirror-masked police of the Oubliette) to help solve the murder of a chocolatier.
It’s a colourful, complex and joyful piece of work, despite not being an easy read.
While not going entirely to the lengths of Burgess or Russell Hoban by writing in a contemporary dialect, Ramajieni nevertheless throws in a gallimaufray of invented terms and expressions that the reader needs to learn by a process of osmosis. Tzaddikim, zoku, phobois and exomemory are the more common examples. All becomes (fairly) clear eventually, but it does necessitate some concentration.
This is not of course a bad thing. Definitions arise from context, and Ramajieni is quite clever at doing this.
The structure is also quite ingenious as the narrative, which broadly follows Jean in first person, is interspersed with the lives and actions of other – sometimes quite baroque – figures, all of whose lives intersect in some way.
At first one could be forgiven for comparisons with John C Wright’s ‘The Golden Age’ as they both feature an amnesiac hero who appears to be on a mission possibly orchestrated by others.
This novel is one of a number of books (almost a subgenre in itself) attempting to address the question of whether the individual is merely the sum of his or her memories. There is also the very Dickian concept of an entire City/community having had its collective memory i.e. its history, changed, and the question is asked in the book as to whether the inhabitants should be told.
There is much in this book that stays with you. Odd philosophical niggles about the rights of copies of oneself that have accumulated new sets of memories and don’t have access to their older experiences. Which can claim to be the original, for instance?
It’s fascinating, colourful and, if not original, very compelling.
‘Here at last is the dazzling conclusion of the masterpiece of far future space opera that began with ‘The Golden Age’ and continued in ‘The Phoenix Exultant’.
The time is imminent when all the minds of the solar system – human, post human, cybernetic, sophotechnic – will be temporarily merged into one supermind called The Transcendence. It is an awesome moment, but one when humanity will be helpless.
The mighty ship ‘Phoenix Exultant’ is at last in the hands of her master, Phaethon the Exile. He alone stands in the way of the eerie and deadly Lords of the Silent Oecumene, who seek to destroy the Inner System, man and machine alike, during this time of vulnerability. Phaeton (sic) dares to drive his ship into the heart of the Sun to stop them, but even that prodigious feat may not secure the human future.’
Blurb from the 2004 Tor paperback edition.
Wright brings his grand widescreen baroque vision to a triumphal end in the final part of this somewhat philosophical trilogy.
Phaethon, still exiled from the Golden Oecumene, finds himself on board his golden spaceship about, it would appear, to hand over control to the new owner, a mental combination of the Sophotech Xenophon and his friend Diomedes. Phaethon, again missing some of his memory, exposes the entity as an agent of the Silent Oecumene. The entity tries to convince Phaethon that his mission is a peaceful one and tells of the history of the lost colony of Cygnus X-1; how the Sophotechs, created with the limitless power of a black hole, took over the civilisation and eventually warred with each other. Humans still live, it would appear, but suspended within the event horizon of the black hole.
The entity is apparently defeated, but Phaethon, with the help of the resurrected Diomedes, his wife Daphne, his father Helion and Atkins, the embodiment of the perfect soldier, have to go to war against another Silent Oecumene agent, hiding in a ship beneath the chromosphere of the sun. The enemy, it is discovered, plans to attack during the Grand Transcendence, the millennial event when all the minds of the Golden Oecumene are linked together and at their most vulnerable.
At times wordy, complex, deeply philosophical and laced with a good ration of humour and in-jokes, this trilogy has to mark a milestone in the development of SF. Similar in style to the work of Wil McCarthy, Wright manages to hark back to the glory days of Alfred Bester and Charles L Harness while maintaining a cutting-edge grip on the Big Science aspects and orchestrating an enormous cast of Neo-Elizabethan grotesques in a baffling, complex and diverse interplanetary civilisation.
The fans of ‘Dune’ and indeed the fans of Frank Herbert fall into two camps. There are those who are desperate for ever more tales of the universe in which Arrakis and its intricately structured interstellar society exists. Indeed, the likes of Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert are still churning out new ‘Dune’ material nearly fifty years after the first novel was published. Then there are those who feel ‘less is more’ and that ‘Dune’ should have been left as a quite extraordinary stand alone novel, undoubtedly a classic and arguably one of the top ten SF novels of the 20th century.
To be fair to Herbert, ‘Dune Messiah’ and ‘Children of Dune’ were not simply ‘more of the same’. They were stylistically pushing the boundaries of the first novel, but even so, lacked much of the complex structure and rich colour of the original.
This, the fourth novel, takes us three thousand years into the future. Young Leto, the son of Muad’dib. has entered into a symbiotic relationship with the larval forms of the giant sandworms. Having been encased within their bodies he has been slowly transformed over centuries until he is physically more worm than man.
Leto, being not only prescient but possessed of the memories of all his ancestors, is a difficult creature to assassinate, although people keep trying.
Where this novel fails is that the narrative is for the most part centred around Leto, and Leto is not a creature who is that mobile. Now and again he goes out on a cart, but not often enough.
Consequently there is a continual succession of scenes where characters are summoned to the Emperor’s presence, at which they have long – often meaningless – discussions, since Leto operates through the medium of riddles, or oblique comments which his guests and servants are expected to decipher.
Arrakis has been terraformed and there is now only one small desert left in which ‘Museum Fremen’ are allowed to dwell.
There is a shortage of spice – the ‘unobtainium’ that bestows longevity and gives the Guild starship pilots their ability to navigate hyperspace.
The Ixians, the Tleilaxu (who have provided a new Duncan Idaho for the Emperor after he killed the last one) and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, are all suspicious of each other.
As with ‘Dune Messiah’ there is a sense of doomed Shakespearean inevitability about it all, particularly in view of the fact that Leto can – to a certain extent – see the future and knows what is going to happen.
There are some interesting points made both obliquely via the narrative and through Leto’s conversations and journals about politics and religion. However, Herbert is covering old ground here since ‘Dune’ had already examined quite subtly and in exquisite detail the complex overlapping boundaries of religion and government.
One would have to clarify, having said all that, that this is not a bad novel. It’s just not a good Frank Herbert novel. Herbert was a writer whose name figures largely in the pantheon of SF saints but, like Anne McCaffrey and Fred Saberhagen, seems to be doomed to be remembered for one book that spawned an industry of sequels and franchise, leaving his other work sadly neglected.