‘ THE SECOND COMING OF THE DARK EMPIRE
It has been five years since the great heroes served the Runestaff and ended the Dark Empire at the Battle of Londra, but Dorian Hawkmoon and his beautiful wife, Yisselda, still mourn Yisselda’s father, the noble Count Brass who was slain there. Yet now, the people of Aigues-Mortes are turning against Hawkmoon, and ugly rumors that he has betrayed Count Brass grow rampant.
And so it is that Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Koln, rides out one night to clear his name by meeting a ghost, only to discover a cadre of living dead men – and suddenly finds himself forced to embark on a quest in the most dangerous of netherworlds to reclaim his own life… and the woman he loves… ‘
Blurb from the 1973 Del Rey paperback edition
This rather brief beginning to Hawkmoon’s further adventures sees the dead return in various ways from the parallel spaces and times of the multiverse.
Hawkmoon, following his part in the fall of King Huon and the evil Empire of Gtanbretan, has retired to his home in the Kamarg, a popular hero.
However, several locals have apparently recently encountered the ghost of Count Brass, Hawkmoon’s friend and fighting companion.
The dead Count is apparently blaming Hawkmoon for his death.
Upon confronting the ghost, Hawkmoon discovers him to be a much younger Count Brass, confused as to his time and place. It transpires that not all the Lords of Granbretan were vanquished and one has kidnapped Hawkmoon’s companions from parallel timelines, and has brainwashed them into trying to assassinate Hawkmoon, his ultimate aim being to restore the Granbretan Empire.
It shadows Burroughs in many ways with its plot of teaming with allies and setting off on a quest, with pursuits and battles along the way.
This is a darker, more sharpened version, though. John Carter of Mars (who I suddenly realise carries the eponymous JC initials boasted by many of the incarnations of The Eternal Champion) inevitably returned back with his posse of companions intact. With Moorcock, they mostly die.
Like John Carter on occasions, Hawkmoon has lost his soulmate Yisselda and will now embark on a quest to find her.
It’s a very short but fascinating piece. It seems paperbacks have evolved into a larger, heavier species than I recall back in the 70s. Shelves now heave under the weight of Peter F Hamiltons and Alistair Reynolds, and long series of interminable space opera, zooming off into their own endless entropy. It might be interesting to investigate how much publishers are pressured into fostering and marketing trilogies and series rather than stand alone novels. Certainly, the major awards seem to feature far more ‘First in the Unobtainium’ chronicles than they used to.
Is it merely publishing strategy or in response to our current obsessions with episodic TV, or have they evolved in tandem with each other?
Sorry to have gone off on a tangent there. Moorcock’s multiverse of course is the ultimate series with seemingly every work relating to the others on some level. We can forgive him for that. Moorcock is the David Bowie of genre fiction, continually reinventing his on-page persona of The Eternal Champion, plundering his past for reflections and reinterpretations, always fresh and topical.
Moorcock’s series were later generally released in bundled volumes of three or four novels, which is the case with the revised Editions currently on issue.
For the hedonistic immortals who dwell at the End of Time, the return of Jherek Carnelian with Mrs. Amelia Underwood – a reluctant time-traveler from Victorian England – is cause for jubilant celebration. Led by Jherek’s mother, the Iron Orchid, the immortals set off on a mad spree of spectacular festivities. And in no time at all, Amelia, with her radiant beauty and quaintly platonic way of looking at things (especially Jherek), becomes the toast of the End of Time.
But as the pandemonium progresses, some delicious and long-held mysteries are revealed and some distressing omens appear on the horizon. Due to circumstances beyond their control, immortality – at least as far as the immortals know it – will never be the same again.
Blurb from the 1976 paperback Edition
To briefly recapitulate, Mrs Amelia Underwood was an unwilling visitor from her life in 1896 Bromley to the world of the far far future, The End of Time, where the denizens are immortal and amoral hedonists, able to conjure whatever environment they wish by dint of their power rings. Her original kidnapping, it begins to become clear may have been behind the complex machinations of the enigmatic Lord Jagged of Canaria.
The intelligent but woefully innocent (in many senses of the word) Jherek Carnelian, the last human to be produced from a natural childbirth, falls in love with Mrs Underwood. The previous volumes involve Jherek attempting to woo this rather strictured lady, bound by the mores and social boundaries of the Victorian age. He pursues her across time, and this volume begins with them stranded, along with some rather caricatured police officers and rapacious aliens, in the Palaeozoic era.
In the meantime, other aliens have arrived at The End of Time to warn Earth that the universe is dying due to the hedonists’ power rings having drained virtually every star of its energy. Soon, everyone will die.
Moorcock’s fabulous trilogy reaches its conclusion here and left me smiling with the irony of the timing of its release in 1976; that idyllic summer which seemed to have stretched itself from March to October, and through which I, and my sixteen year old friends, drifted through decadent days of fairly guiltless hedonism, refusing to accept that Winter would eventually arrive with all sorts of metaphorical and unpleasant surprises.
John Clute claims, in his lengthy and very informative introduction, that Moorcock invented Steampunk, with some justification, one has to say. Certainly, in the Carnelian novels, (and more tellingly in the Oswald Bastable books) there is a certain Victorian flavour assisted by random temporal trips to the period.
Jherek is of course another aspect of his ubiquitous avatar, The Eternal Champion, who exists across the planes of Moorcock’s multiverse, ambivalently representing either Order or Chaos in their eternal battle. Here, one could argue, Jherek represents Chaos and Amelia, from her life of stifling rules and rigid social etiquette, represents the forces of Order.
In this instance it would appear, Order and Chaos achieve some kind of harmonic balance as one side adjusts to the other.
It’s a unique creation, a darkly comic post-modern neo-scientific-romance of manners and morals. Moorcock brings in some of his other vast multiverse cast, such as Una Persson and Oswald Bastable, and one suspects he slipped in HG Wells’ time traveller, just to confuse issues.
There’s a maniacal murderer on the loose, brutally slaughtering young women with a ferocity that rivals that of vampires Harry Koegh has spent his life combatting. The Necroscope’s been asked to solve the crimes…asked by the dead spirits of the madman’s victims.
Harry cannot turn down a request from the dead…even if it costs him his soul. In the climactic battle with the vampires, mankind prevailed and purged the vampires from earth–thanks to Harry, his team of psychically-gifted spies, and Faethor Ferenczy, long-dead ‘father’ of the world’s vampires, who betrayed his own kind.
But Harry’s alliance with Faethor has a terrible cost–Harry’s very humanity is under attack from the vampire evil coiled in his mind!
Blurb from the 1991 Tor Edition
Harry Keogh, our Necroscope antihero, now has a vampire growing inside him thanks to the machinations of dead vampire Faethor Ferenczy. E Branch (the secret agency staffed with people with ESP powers of various kinds) have become suspicious. Harry has developed new powers and is experimenting with the vampire method of bringing back the dead.
Meanwhile, a necromancer serial killer is murdering women and torturing their dead minds by raping and mutilating their corpses. Harry determines that his last mission on Earth will be to track the monster down and deal with him, and then return to Starside, leaving the Earth free of him.
However, Harry discovers that his attempts to help the world appear to inevitably bring misery and death to those he loves. There is a valiant attempt to portray the slow metamophosis from Harry to vampire which doesn’t really succeed given that Harry has to repress the vampire side of his nature in order to hang on to some semblance of humanity. One wonders if Lumley regretted vampirising Harry and thus effectively closing off a series of books that grew to be – and still are – enormously popular.
The narrative is split with events on on the vampire world of Starside. Shaithis, a powerful vampire lord, has been banished from his aerie following the rout in the last volume and has set off across the ice where he discovers the home of the ancient vampire exile Shaitan.
Lumley brings far more of a religious element into this than in previous novels. The inclusion of Shaitan the Fallen drags in Christian Creation mythology and. indeed, Harry’s journey has obvious parallels with Christ in that he has been resurrected, he can raise the dead and now, given the ashes of the dead are all there, he can return people to living breathing bodies. There is also a crucifixion and an ascension near the end.
If perhaps a tad less engrossing than previous volumes, it is certainly a gripping finale, but still leaving the possibility open for Keogh’s return in some form.
There appears to be some rule about genre fiction of this period which requires some graphic and rather weird sexual shenanigans, although mercifully, this is kept to a minimum (see also Night of The Crabs).
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 is another cracking issue of Interzone featuring themes of relationship and identity. Loss seems to run through them also. It’s also interesting to see the structure of the modern short story evolving, although not as radically as one might have imagined back in the 20th Century. Stories seem more impressionistic, leaving much unexplained and to be determined by the reader. Highlights are ‘Old Bones’ and ‘A Doll is Not a Dumpling’.
Ghost Story by John Grant
Ashes by Karl Bunker
Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa
Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer
A Doll is Not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser
This is How You Die by Gareth L. Powell
Ghost Story by John Grant
A young married man gets a call from a childhood sweetheart who tells him she is pregnant and that he is the father, something that is clearly impossible since he has never slept with her and they have not been in touch for some time. It’s a story that develops well into a tale of fractured reality.
Ashes by Karl Bunker
Very reminiscent of Michael Swanwick, not least because an AI manages to host itself within a cat, this is a compelling read. AIs and transhumans can not go beyond a certain level of intelligence without ‘winking out’ and vanishing. The protagonist’s dead girlfriend had become obsessed with the projects that these transcendent entities had left unfinished, hoping to find some workable technology. The Cat/AI has identified another project site where he thinks it may be fitting to scatter her ashes.
A very stylish piece which leaves one wanting more.
Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa
Kurzawa, a regular feature of Interzone, is beginning to fascinate me. I can’t honestly explain what this story is about, but maybe that’s the point. It certainly leaves one with more questions than answers. A man is living alone in the city, hiding from the robed ‘Mummers’ who roam the deserted streets.
One day a man knocks on his door, claiming to be a Doctor who can help him escape the city, but first he must perform a surgical procedure. It’s a poetic and surreal piece which stays in the mind despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of resolution or explanation.
Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer
Dark and not a little topical, this tells of Fari who was taken forcefully from her mother as a child as payment for a trespass fine and forced into work on an asteroid mine. A tale of love, repression, sacrifice and vengeance. Quite excellent.
A Doll is Not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser
An original tale featuring exquisitely drafted characters. I so wish more people could breathe such life into the small population of a short story. It’s a brief, beautiful, bittersweet and colourful tragedy featuring a young girl, an augmented dog and a sentient mobile dumpling machine. My favourite story of late.
This is How You Die by Gareth L. Powell
A fairly standard post-apocalypse tale of a young man’s life in London following the effects of a fatal pandemic virus. It’s well done, but brings little new to the table.
Harry Keogh has returned from the parallel world of the Wamphyri with his Necroscope powers hypnotically removed by his vampire son, Harry Jr. He can no longer speak to the dead or go teleporting through time and space via the Mobius continuum.
If this wasn’t bad enough his new boss is trying to murder him, he is being stalked by a Soviet assassin, and the dead are rising from their graves to leave him messages on his lawn, arranged in pieces of dry stone walling.
Meanwhile, in Romania, a group of American students have hired a guide to take them to a ruined castle, rumoured to have been the home of an ancient vampire. The consequence of this will come as no surprise.
It doesn’t take Harry long to realise that the disappearance of two E-branch agents in Greece is the work of resurrected vampire Janos Ferenczy, a nasty piece of work even by vampire standards.
Harry must regain his powers in order to battle Janos, but how?
Put so baldly it seems like a terrible plot when in actuality, like the rest of the Necroscope books, it’s a glorious slice of late British pulp fiction; highly entertaining, compelling, and very readable.
Lumley’s kept the human and vampire sex scenes to a bare minimum here, for which I am thankful. Like Guy N Smith, Lumley no doubt considered gratuitous rumpy pumpy to be an additional salacious treat for his readers. Maybe it was at the time, but these days they read as a little awkward and dated.
It’s always a problem to properly categorise this series since the vampires themselves have an interesting and scientifically rational premise for their existence, as does the Mobius Continuum. It’s difficult to balance that with the premise of ‘souls’ hanging about in limbo, however. This was not so much of a problem in previous volumes but Lumley muddies the waters here by introducing further supernatural elements. Janos, it seems, has learned to raise the dead – not via some innate genetic talent – but through magic spells and incantations. This pushes the internal balance between the rational and the supernatural a little too far and seems like a device introduced to assist with what is a rushed denouement.
Nevertheless, Lumley is under-recognised for his very original take on the vampire life-cycle and his contribution to the sub-genre.
Another fascinating bunch of tales from authors in the main unknown to me.
Interzone certainly pushes the boundaries with style and is possibly redefining the structure and style of the short story. Some of the authors here do not make it easy for the reader, which is perhaps as it should be, although there’s always the risk of leaving too much unexplained.
Relationships feature heavily throughout either overtly or obliquely, and the quality of work is on the whole, very high, as one should expect in this 250th issue.
The Damaged – Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
A wonderfully compelling tale about artificial humans and how we might treat them should such a thing become a reality. Told from an odd viewpoint.
Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place – David Tallerman
This is an odd but well-done rural post-Dickian tale. How would one react should one discover that one was living in a back-up of the real world, if indeed the world is real in the first place? An excellent piece set in an entropic US midwest.
The Labyrinth of Thorns – C. Allegra Hawksmoor
There are echoes of Jeff Noon in this, but ultimately there is something lacking. An agent for ‘The Company’ (which has been a cliche for so long it becomes almost parody when employed seriously) has had memories downloaded into his head which alternate with his mission in ‘The City’. All very poetic but a tad indecipherable. Not really up to the level of quality one would expect from Interzone.
Beneath the Willow Branches, Beyond the Reach of Time – Caroline M. Yoachim
This is lovely. A scientist enters his wife’s stored memories – where she is trapped in a timeloop – in an apparently hopeless attempt to break the cycle and save her, echoed by her childhood tale of the Green Willow.
Predvestniki – Greg Kurzawa
A man accompanies his wife to Moscow on a business trip and, unable to interest her in the sights or the food, becomes obsessed with what he sees atop a domed tower. A great story which walks that difficult line between revealing too much and too little and is at the same time a deftly sketched portrait of an ill-matched relationship.
Lilacs and Daffodils – Rebecca Campbell
This is a lovely little puzzle of a story told by an AI with a convincing realism (if such a word can be meaningfully employed here).
Wake Up, Phil – Georgina Bruce
‘The Company’ in this tale is Serberus, although it could also be Callitrix, for whom Laura works. Unhappy with Laura’s weight problem Throom, the company doctor, prescribes her a course of Serberitum, an amphetamine and hallucinogen. Her life takes on another reality in which her neighbour, ‘Phil the Sci Fi man’, has two separate bodies, one of which will not wake up.
It’s interesting that Philip K Dick, some thirty-odd years after his death is still manifesting as a presence. I can think of two other works at least in which he has appeared as a character. There’s also an echo of Orwell here. A haunting story, one that clings in the head.
‘ Science Fiction is as much a victim to fashion as any art form, no matter how much it tries to look to the future.’ – Jeff Noon
What can one say about ‘Vurt’? I first read this on its first release and still have my treasured Ringpull paperback edition. It was a modest publication from a small publisher which went viral and ended up winning the Arthur C Clarke award.
In retrospect, this was no surprise. Back then, it was a revelation. Many readers have expressed the sentiment in various ways that ‘it was like nothing I’d ever read before,’ and indeed that was my feeling back in the Nineties and still now, having returned to it twenty years on.
There have been comparisons with Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ in that this book pushed the boundaries of the genre into new and exciting areas. It is certainly a brilliant and original piece of work, reflecting, to a certain extent, the club and drug culture of Manchester in the Nineteen Nineties, although its influences include Lewis Carroll, often overtly, and a host of other influences more subtly. Orpheus and Eurydice play their part also, for instance.
Scribble, our hero, is one of The Stashriders, a gang of young people who spend their days acquiring feathers, feathers laced with substances which not only alter their perceptions, but the nature of reality itself and, it would appear, genetic integrity. There are various variations of humanity roaming the streets of the city, mixtures of dog, shadow, robot and human to various degrees. No doubt some will interpret these as metaphors for the mixed race residents of various Manchester communities, but I’m not sure that was ever Noon’s intention.
When one shares a feather by tickling the back of the throat with its fronds, one is transported into the world of the Vurt; the experience received dependent on the colour of the feather and the strength of its effects.
Scribble, along with the rest of the gang, Beetle, Mandy, Bridget and The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, is attempting to find a way to rescue Scribble’s sister Desdemona, who is lost in the world of Vurt. Occasionally the Vurt will take someone and replace them with something from the Vurt world, in this case, The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, a small tentacled entity whose flesh has hallucinogenic properties. Scribble believes that if he can find the right feather he can swap his sister back for The Thing.
The perennial question for me is whether this is Science Fiction at all. There seems to be no real explanation for the effects of the Vurt feathers, and the final scenes raise some questions about the reality of the entire story. Science Fiction, however, like the people of Noon’s alternate Manchester, is a morphable beast and occasionally throws out new and wonderful mutations. I for one am happy to accept this as one such.
What makes this novel so compelling is Noon’s style; fast, fresh and packed with puns and wordplay. Action kicks in from the first page when the Stashriders, having acquired a new feather, are chased by a Shadowcop and engage in a rollercoaster chase through the streets of Noon’s bizarre and colourful Manchester.
In his quest to find the means to rescue his beloved sister (far more beloved than society’s norms would usually allow) Scribble encounters a whole host of bizarre characters, chimeras and grotesques, such as Justin and his lover, whose mutual dreadlocks are so matted together that they can never be parted, or The Game Cat, a creature once human who has become part of the Vurt and can seemingly come and go at will between Scribble’s world and the world of the Vurt. There are robodogs, dog human hybrids and brightly coloured snakes which have escaped the game platforms of the Vurt and infest housing estates.
It’s a fast paced no-let-up novel which contains surprises and wonder on every page.
There are, in the history of SF, novels which seem to have been written in an SF vacuum and appear to owe no allegiance to any major influence or current fashion or style of SF literature. I count among these ‘1984’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Riddley Walker’, and would have to include ‘Vurt’.
The Kindle Twentieth anniversary issue contains three new stories set in the world of the Vurt, but whose style and tone is, perhaps understandably given the twenty year gap, far different from that of Vurt. These are more mature works and although they lack the fire and verve of Noon’s original novel, have a greater depth and sureness of touch.
A young girl becomes convinced that something from the Vurt is living in her flat, and consequently the Vurt may have taken something from her, although it takes a while for her to discover that what the Vurt takes is not always physical.
What is interesting about this is when she leaves the flat she passes a couple coming up the stairs, carrying something alive in a tartan rug, which is how Scribble and Mandy used to carry The-Thing-From-Outer-Space around in ‘Vurt’.
A young woman is harassed by three dogboys and rescues the entity they were searching for, a young female bird/human hybrid from the Vurt. This again examines the concept of Vurt artefacts being swapped for memories.
A beautifully written and constructed tale which plays with our sense of reality. A young couple become attached to their lodger, Milo, a man – unable to access the Vurt – whose behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre as he seeks to find a way to ‘dream’.
Again, like the other pieces, there is an oblique relationship to the parent novel.
Grainger – he has no first name – was half of a two man trading team who bought and sold goods through the human settled and alien worlds of the galaxy.
Encountering problems in the Halcyon Drift – a nebula where gravitational forces distort the laws of physics – Grainger crashlands on an unknown planet, killing his partner, Lapthorn and wrecking the ship, ‘The Javelin’.
He is eventually rescued but not before his body is invaded by a sentient alien parasite. His rescuer, Axel Cyran of the Cradoc Company, having been pulled away from his mission of finding a legendary lost ship for the rescue, lands Grainger with costs of twenty thousand. Twenty thousand what is never made clear.
The lost ship ‘The Lost Star’ is the Maguffin in this novel, a semi mythical wreck believed to be carrying priceless cargo.
Grainger then gets an offer by which the company who wish to hire him will clear his debts if he agrees to pilot an experimental ship for two years.
The ship is a hybrid of alien and human technology, an odd reflection of Grainger and his alien mindrider now fused into one body. The ship is called ‘The Hooded Swan’.
Its test, and its first mission, is to beat Cyran to ‘The Lost Star’ and claim the cargo.
From this summary one would assume a fairly standard bit of space opera of the time, but it is far more than that.
The setting is an interplanetary culture, bound by the Laws of New Rome, where Earth is becoming a backwater as other worlds become the centres of trading and industry, carrying out business with at least two other alien cultures. Stableford’s aliens, if humanoid-ish in physiology, are suitably alien in other senses, although the crew of the Hooded Swan do encounter truly alien life during their search for ‘The Lost Star’.
Grainger himself is a fascinating psychological study. There’s possibly a little of the sociopath about him since his frequent memories of his dead partner, with whom he spent fifteen years in close quarters, are resisting any emotion, any grief.
He has an awkward meeting with his partner’s parents who tell Grainger – to his surprise – that their son worshipped him.
Indeed, it is the alien presence in Grainger’s mind, from which no secrets can be hidden, who forces Grainger to face some of his self-deception issues.
There is a solid reality with Grainger that one seldom finds in genre novels of the period and particularly within Space Opera.
Stableford, a very important figure within the SF world, is paradoxically very under-recognised by SF readers in general in my view which is a terrible injustice.
If you have never read Stableford, give this series a go.
‘DUEL IN THE ARENA OF THE STARS
Andalvar of the planet Argus, king of an interstellar empire, was dead and fear ruled in his absence. The dread of a power struggle between the treacherous Andra, and “Black Witch,” and the beautiful Princess Sharla showered panic upon the people and threatened to crumble the starry realm to dust. But their powers were restricted to the present, and before either could sit on the throne, they would have to come to grips with the man from the future who held the destiny of the universe in his hand. His name: Kelab the Conjurer – THE SPACE-TIME JUGGLER’
Blurb from the 1963 F-227 Ace Double Paperback Edition
Set in the same universe as The Altar on Asconel this inhabits that uneasy space between SF and Fantasy.
Following the death of the King of Argus, Andra, ‘The Black Witch’ has become regent on this colony world which has in the main reverted to feudalism. Her older sister Sharla – missing for seven years and presumed dead – suddenly reappears to claim her place accompanied by Landor and the swordsman Ordovic.
Another stranger also arrives, Kelab the Conjuror, a man who appears to command magic and, it seems, is interfering in court business.
It would be giving the plot away to explain anything further as it’s a brief read which is well-written but suffers from a lack of cohesion between the slave-owning and sword-wielding society and the hi-tech elements.
There is no individuality to this society. It is set in the mould of every other far future feudal planet favoured by the likes of Lin Carter and his contemporaries, which somehow always has to include some monarchist system. The characters are stock stereotypes with little light and shade. There is a decent enough surprise and plot twist bit one feels this could have been a far better novel given some thought to the world building and some space to develop characters.