‘Late In The 22nd Century
The great Cataclysmic Drift of Seetee – antimatter menaces the universe. Yet certain sky wanderers, reckless men of vision, dare to harness seetee’s unlimited powers for creation.
Rich Drake, celestial pioneer, spurred by his love for highborn lady of space, uncovers seetee’s awesome secret, battles the imperial forces of the mighty Mandate and endures a staggering War of Time.’
Blurb from the 1979 Jove omnibus paperback edition.
Rich Drake returns from Earth to the asteroid Pallas with his newly-earned Spatial Engineering degree, Rich is the son of Jim Drake, who for some time has been experimenting with CT (seetee), contraterrene or anti-matter. In Williamson’s future it is discovered that space is full of seetee matter. A special Seetee Patrol has been set up to map the seetee distribution and ensure that normal matter (including normal space traffic) does not come into contact with it and unleash the awesome destructive power and consequent radiation.
After Rich saves Karen Hood (daughter of the High Commissioner of Interplanet, a corporate concern which more or less controls Earth) he is recruited by Interplanet to help with their own research into creating a seetee bedplate, the elusive grail which will allow matter and anti-matter to be joined, and so control the energy of seetee which will provide free unlimited power for the entire Solar civilisation.
Interplanet’s interests are less philanthropic. As the main supplier of power from uranium and other dwindling sources they would want to suppress any free power supplies, but would be interested in the creation of seetee bombs.
Then Drake senior and his partner, Rob McGee, discover a seetee asteroid with unusual properties. Rich receives an odd message from Captain McGee telling him to be ready to be picked up at the space port, a message which McGee, when he arrives, denies sending.
Captain Anders of Interplanet, has intercepted the message, sent from the region of the anomalous asteroid, and both parties set out for the area to uncover the mystery.
What follows is a convoluted time-paradox tale in which an ancient seetee ship is found composed of terrene and contraterrene matter, which may provide the secret to creating a functioning seetee ‘bedplate’.
This is a vast improvement on Williamson’s earlier work, particularly since he has this time given due consideration to practical matters of gravitation and atmosphere. Asteroids, for instance, are made habitable by the use of ‘paragravity generators’ which produce localised Earth gravity conditions with some interesting effects and consequences.
It is also interesting that Williamson – in the middle of World War II, has written what is effectively an anti-war and particularly anti-militaristic novel.
The Martians, who are a very minor aspect of this book, are Nazis, and we learn in passing that Mars culture is an Aryan Reich. For readers of the time this must have been a topical and perhaps chilling aspect, and the very subtlety of its use renders it all the more effective.
Williamson must also be applauded for the inclusion of a female character who does rather more than scream and stand about waiting to be rescued. Anne O’Banion is a feisty female engineer/pilot who eventually thaws the heart of the Interplanet Captain, Paul Anders.
FROM MARS TO VENUS – TO DANGER-FILLED ADVENTURES DEEP IN OUTER SPACE
Only the best and brightest – the strongest and the most courageous – ever managed to become Space Cadets. They were the elite guard of the solar system, accepting missions others feared, taking risks no others dared, and upholding the peace of the star system for the benefit of all.
But before Matt could earn his rightful place in the ranks, his mettle would be tested in the most severe and extraordinary ways- ways that would change him forever but would still not prepare him for the alien treacheries that awaited him on strange worlds far beyond his own.
Blurb from the 1990 Del Rey paperback edition
A minor yet appealing work from Heinlein which reads a little like a tamer version of ‘Starship Troopers’ in that a teenager enrols in ‘The Patrol’, makes friends and works his way through the trials of his cadetship.
It’s an unashamed wish-fulfilment fantasy aimed at a specific demographic but is nonetheless notable for the odd seductiveness of Heinlein’s style. Other critics have pointed out that even though readers may violently disagree with Heinlein’s rather right-wing (and naïve) view of human nature, he creates a very cosy atmosphere in which to express it.
Matt Dobson is our hero, a young man of ‘the right stuff’ who applies to become a cadet in The Patrol and makes friends with not only ‘Tex’ Jarman, a Texan, but also Oscar and Pierre who hail from Venus & Ganymede.
Following initial testing and training, and the elimination of weak links, the successful candidates are posted to the Randolph school ship where physical training is augmented by forced education under hypnosis.
The Patrol is an interplanetary peace-keeping force which – one presumes – rather in the manner of Gort’s robots from ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ – keeps the peace between worlds and nations by threatening to nuke the aggressor. The Earth is, for instance, surrounded by a ring of nuclear bombs, stretching between the poles, capable of striking any point on the planet’s surface.
Heinlein doesn’t go out of his way to explore the morality of this issue, other than a brief discussion between Matt and his father on the topic which is hastily curtailed for fear of sending Matt’s mother into hysterics. Matt’s mother, being a woman, is naturally hysterical and doesn’t know what keeps the moon up in the sky. Similarly, Matt’s ex-girlfriend apparently has trouble distinguishing between stars and planets.
This is probably why there are no women in Heinlein’s Patrol. Later, the Cadets are stranded on Venus and taken in by the froglike Venusians. The assumption, which is implicit within the text and not otherwise discussed, is that humans have a right to land on Venus, exploit its mineral wealth and set up a colonisation process. The Venusians – a peace-loving and philosophical race – are expected to be diplomatically talked around to the idea.
This correlates to a certain extent with the views expressed in ‘Starship Troopers’ to the effect that all species, whether intelligent or not, will compete for territory and resources. Although a diplomatic solution is proposed here, the idea of leaving Venus and its mineral wealth to the Venusians is never even considered as an option.
Despite the fact that Heinlein goes out of his way to make the point that ‘Venusians are people’ through Oscar’s discussions with other cadets, he fails to take this to its logical conclusion of the Venusians being responsible for the decisions on who should or should not, visit their world.
Ardath, an advanced humanoid from Kyria, fleeing the destruction of his world, has crash-landed on Earth aeons before our ancestors crawled from the sea. His dying companion instructs him to put himself into stasis aboard the ship to be reawakened when intelligent life has emerged, and to start breeding any random highly intelligent he finds in order to create a super-race to inherit the wisdom and knowledge of the Kyrians.
This he does, sleeping aboard his repaired golden ship while it orbits the earth. When he is roused, he finds that humans have evolved and manages to find a handful of highly intelligent but primitive humans. One of them, Thordred, has a mind-reading device placed on him in order that Ardath can learn his language but – unknown to Ardath – Thordred has also learned all Ardath’s scientific knowledge.
Ardath is about to place everyone in stasis, to be awakened when the ship detects another genius, but Thordred strikes Ardath down before he can set the alarm to awaken them.
Two thousand years later, a prodigy named Stephen Court becomes the most famous scientist in the world. Just then however, a strange radioactive sickness starts to sweep the world, turning people into glowing monsters who can suck the life-force from other humans.
Court detects Ardath’s ship and builds his own craft to reach it. Unfortunately, he awakens Thordred who bundles Ardath into Court’s ship and sets its course for the heart of the sun.
Thordred then lands his ship, convincing Court that Ardath was evil, at which he runs off with the ship, planning to kidnap random humans to take to a new world, free from the glowing plague.
The race is on to stop Thordred and save Earth from the menace of the deadly plague.
It’s a short, fast-paced novel, an example of early Kuttner, whose later work is more thoughtful and mature. It’s hard to determine apparently, how much Kuttner and his wife CL Moore, contributed to each of their works since they were regular collaborators. It’s widely known that some early work under Kuttner’s name was written by Moore exclusively, and that they jointly wrote short stories under pseudonyms such as Lewis Padgett.
However, I think we’ll let Henry take the credit for this. There’s a certain masculine viewpoint to some aspects that a woman might perhaps not have written. There are the female characters for instance (and there are but two, three if you count the Amazon queen who Thordred kills the first chance he gets) who are employed merely as plot devices and have hardy half-a-dozen words to say.
It’s enjoyable hokum, however, and is interesting from a social and historical perspective.
Ardath’s original intent, it appears, was some form of selective breeding of humans to create a super race of beings with intellect to match Ardath’s own, but Kuttner, perhaps wisely, steers away from that path.
Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by nuclear war. Humans have fled to live in ‘Keep’s far below the surface of the oceans of Venus since the planet’s land masses are covered in jungles inhabited by deadly flora and fauna. The ruling government of this remainder of Humanity is an Oligarchy of immortals, the rest of the race destined to live out normal lifespans.
Against this background is told the story of Sam, the son of Blaze Harker, youngest in a dynasty of a powerful family of immortals. Blaze, however, is borderline insane and, for reasons we need not go into here, has his baby son surgically altered and abandons him to be brought up among the short-lived humans.
The child grows up with the name of Sam Reed, working initially under the tutelage of the Fagin-like Slider.
Meanwhile, the immortal Robin Hale believes that Humanity should be moving out onto the surface of Venus, a policy that the ruling immortals currently oppose.
Sam decides to help Hale; a decision which brings him into conflict with Zachariah Harker, while neither of them are aware of the fact that they are closely related.
Sam manipulates the media to raise volunteers and money to establish a colony on the surface, but is betrayed by his mistress.
The narrative jumps fifty years ahead to where Sam awakens in a street, having been helped there by a mysterious stranger. He discovers that he was discredited as a drug addict after his disappearance, but the surface colony is just surviving. He also discovers, to his surprise, that he has not aged and realises the fact of his immortality.
Once more, he rejoins Hale and launches a new campaign to establish Humanity on the planet’s surface.
The immortals, however, set up a long term plan to deal with Sam permanently.
It has elements of both a Shakespearean tragedy and a Dickens novel. Sam seems driven by his fury on a predestinate path. Indeed, Kuttner also includes the character of The Logician, a mysterious immortal, born on Earth, who has been masquerading as public logic machine, to which anyone can submit questions.
It was The Logician who advised Hale to start his surface colonisation programme. The Logician (who describes himself as a sort of oracle in the text, and who seems to extrapolate the future in much the same way as EE Doc Smith’s Arisians) explains that his talent depends on guiding people, rather than telling them what to do and it seems clear later that he has manipulated both Hale and Sam in order that Humanity can return to the surface.
Sam is eventually betrayed by another woman, programmed from birth for the role and placed in a position of trust, but Sam is not killed, merely put to sleep again by The Logician to be reawakened at a time when his drive and fury may be needed again.
Stylistically it has that odd juxtaposition of the feudal and the futuristic. For its time the use of drugs and narcotics in a narrative was not standard practice. Addiction features several times, the female surgeon who originally altered Sam’s physical appearance for instance was addicted to the lethal embrace of a native life-form which stimulated pure pleasure in her body as it slowly fed on her.
As is common for novels of this period, the concept of genocide (not just a species, but an entire biosphere) is not considered an issue.
‘Who was Gosseyn?
Gosseyn himself didn’t know his own identity – only that he could be killed, yet live again… But someone knew who Gosseyn was – and was using him as a pawn in a deadly game that spanned the Galaxy!’
Blurb from the 1974 Sphere paperback edition
In his introduction to the revised edition of this somewhat controversial novel, Van Vogt is refreshingly effusive and proud of one of his most famous works. Among other things, Van Vogt claims that this novel (published in translation around the globe) kickstarted the French Science Fiction scene. He is also magnanimous in his praise for Damon Knight who famously published a review of this book, so damning that the review became almost as legendary as the book itself.
Sixty-odd years later, we should ask the question ‘What was all the fuss about?’
van Vogt’s appeal lay in his futuristic settings, the incredible buildings, machines and landscapes. He would no doubt be the first to admit that dialogue was never his strong point. His stream of consciousness approach to plot was also an issue for some readers. Here, however, van Vogt seems to have given some thought to structure, and although the dialogue is excruciatingly stilted, one can still find much pleasure in this Noir-style adventure.
Several centuries hence, Man has adopted the philosophy and logic of Non-Aristotelian thinking (the Null-A of the title). van Vogt at the time was an advocate of General Semantics and hoped for an age where Humanity would adopt a philosophy of logic and reason (rather Vulcan-like in its conception).
Every year, aspirants would travel to the City of the Games Machine to be tested for suitability to join the Human Society on Venus. Only totally integrated Null-A minds are allowed to live on the planet, which has become a pastoral paradise filled with vast trees a quarter of a mile in diameter.
van Vogt uses one of his motifs, the great phallic structure, in that the Games Machine is a self-aware supercomputer, housed in a vast spire of a building.
Gilbert Gosseyn goes through the first of the Games Machine questions and is surprised to learn from the machine that he is not who he thinks he is. It would appear that all of Gosseyn’s memories have been faked.
Subsequently, Gosseyn – in the process of attempting to discover his own identity and purpose – is gunned down in the street and killed. He later awakens, alive and unharmed on the surface of Venus, where he begins to unravel the details of a plan by an extra-solar Galactic Empire to take over the Solar System, beginning with Venus.
With the help of a Venusian scientist Gosseyn manages to outwit the agents of the Galactic ‘gang’ and return to Earth. He then discovers that he has an extra ‘brain’, as yet undeveloped and whose powers – it is deduced – will be activated when he is killed and the third clone is automatically awakened.
Gosseyn decides to end his life in order that the third body can be awakened, but is stopped just in time when it is discovered that Gosseyn III has been discovered and destroyed. However, renegade parties within the Galactic invaders decide to help Gosseyn train his undeveloped brain – which gives him powers of teleportation.
Once more Gosseyn escapes his captors and manages to warn the Venusians who – being sane and logical Null-A adepts – manage to easily repulse the invasion fleet.
In most of van Vogt’s work there is a logical, rational hero, and this is no exception. Gosseyn is the embodiment of Van Vogt’s obsession with quack mental-development programmes. General Semantics may have been a beneficial training regime, but later the author’s involvement with Dianetics and L Ron Hubbard’s ‘Scientology’ religion did damage to his writing and indeed his reputation.
The ending is a little rushed, but the explanation for Gosseyn’s existence is cleverly thought out. The central premise however, of the nature of identity and the question of whether Gosseyns I and II were in fact the same people is the thing which raises this novel above the level of pure Technicolor Space Opera. It addresses the fundamental question of whether we are merely the sum of our memories.
Philip K Dick, who has been recorded as claiming van Vogt as one of his influences, was to take this concept and explore it in multifarious ways.
Above all, van Vogt was not only writing a fast-paced action adventure, full of colour, weird science, mile-long spaceships and giant thinking machines. He was postulating a rational future, where we were gradually weaning the race away from irrational beliefs and acts of violence.
Interestingly, around the same time, Asimov was doing essentially the same thing with Hari Seldon in his Foundation Trilogy, whose tenet ‘Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent’ could apply just as easily to Gilbert Gosseyn.
‘In Triplanetary, battle is joined for the control of the universe. The Arisians, benevolent humanoids who have declared themselves Guardians of Civilisation, war with the Eddorians, shapeless, malevolent beings, hungry for power at any price. They fight on both physical and mental levels, wielding weaponry of inconceivable destructiveness.
And their battleground is a tiny planet in a remote galaxy: Earth. The swamping of Atlantis, the fall of Rome, the wars that rack the world and blaze through space – all may seem historical accidents to the men involved, but each in reality is a move in a savage universe-wide power struggle….’
Blurb from the 1973 Panther paperback edition
This book is often seen a prologue to Smith’s epic ‘Lensman’ books, and not a proper part of the series. In actual fact, it is a prequel, consisting of reworked stories published in Amazing Stories in 1934. The World War II story for instance, something which others have pointed out, could not have been included in the original chronological writing sequence
Certainly, in comparison to its ‘sequels’ it is fairly weak structurally and stylistically.
It begins by telling of how our galaxy and the galaxy of Andromeda passed through each other billions of years ago, producing countless planets.
The Arisians, an ancient and powerful benevolent humanoid race, born in our own galaxy prior to the interception, observed the seeding of life on countless worlds from Arisian spores. They also observed the entry into our Universe of the Eddorians, a race of creatures ideologically and physically opposite to them in every way. The Eddorians, seeing the plethora of life in our Universe, decided to stay and indulge their lust for control and power over the sentient races which would soon evolve.
In secret, their existence unknown to the Eddorians, the Arisians hatched a long-term plan in which they would selectively breed races to be ultimately strong enough to destroy the Eddorians and take the Arisians’ place as Guardians of the Universe.
And so begins the immeasurably long war between the ancient races, a war in which Earth and Humanity were unknowing pawns.
The first half of the book gives us tales of various periods in Earth’s history where the Eddorians (in human form) have destroyed democratic civilisation, such as The Fall of Atlantis, the Fall of The Roan Empire, the wars of the Twentieth Century and leads us up to a point where Earth society has spread to the planets.
The second half follows Conway Costigan, an agent of the Interplanetary Service, who is caught up in a raid on a spaceship by Space Raiders (pirates).
Unbeknown to Costigan, who is taken hostage along with one of the crew and a beautiful young woman, the mastermind behind the Pirates of Space is Grey Roger; human manifestation of Gharlane of Eddore, second-in-command over the entire Eddorean race, and a member of the Eddorean Innermost Circle.
To complicate matters, Earth’s system is discovered by the Nevians, an aquatic race from a region of space desperately short of iron who unwittingly instigate an interstellar crisis after capturing Costigan and his crew.
Despite this series’ overall premise of the wise peaceful nature of Democratic society, rather than the evil chaotic tyranny of Dictatorship (represented by the Eddorians), Humanity’s dealings with the Nevians appears to suggest the view that ‘what these aliens need is a damn good show of brute force.’
Classic Pulp Fiction from one of the masters of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I have to confess that ‘Slan’ has to be my all-time favourite Science Fiction novel if only for the fact that it is probably the one book which got me hooked on SF back in the early Nineteen Seventies.
AE Van Vogt, partly due to the quality of his later work and his involvement with Dianetics and the Scientology movement was, to a certain extent discredited by the SF community. Thus he was never really given the credit he should be due for his contribution to SF as a whole and the influence he subsequently had on the genre.
It’s high time that Van Vogt’s work was reassessed and I’m surprised that this novel at least has not been republished by one of the companies who tend to reprint classic works of SF.
‘Slan’ is the story of Jommy Cross, one of a race of telepathic superhumans – recognisable only by the tendrils on their foreheads – living in hiding within human society, a race which ordinary humans seem determined to exterminate. The novel begins when the nine-year old Jommy’s mother assists his escape from the police just before she herself is captured and murdered. Jommy survives to grow and slowly learn the secret of who and what Slans really are.
Obviously this is a novel which is bound to appeal to anyone who feels they have suffered persecution for their minority status. Certainly, as a gay teenager, I found many parallels with Jommy, who was forced to hide his true nature from the community around him and spent much of his waking time attempting to find others like himself, fearful of the repercussions should the truth emerge of what he really was.
It also says a lot about ignorance, misinformation and propaganda. There are chilling echoes of Nazi Germany in the cold and casual way in which John Petty and his Police Organisation (and indeed, seemingly ordinary and intelligent members of the human public) talk of killing the Slans, in terms of solutions and statistics.
It’s interesting that Van Vogt does not present this as a one-sided issue. The Slans themselves are a mysterious race who have allegedly been responsible for attacks upon the tendril-less Slans (a non-telepathic variant race), while the TL Slans themselves are building their forces on Mars in preparation for an invasion of Earth.
‘Slan’ also makes some very good points about the fallibility of history, and our tendency to accept myth as fact, something which both humans and the TL Slans seem to be guilty of in this novel.
It’s a flawed novel in many ways. Jommy himself, in contrast to the implicit idea of the Slan’s philanthropic nature, at one point imposes a form of mental slavery on the humans in the community in which he settles. His proposed ‘solution’ to the human problem is mass-hypnosis of the human race to remove their hatred of the superior species. One could argue he has little choice as the alternative would undoubtedly be inter-species war when humanity eventually discovers that the human race is becoming sterile and doomed to extinction. It’s a shame that Van Vogt never took the time to explore the ethics of either potentiality.
Overall, the novel – which covers a period of about fifteen years, following Jommy’s development from a nine-year old to an adult – is fast-paced, inventive and full of Van Vogt’s emotive imagery. One always feels that Van Vogt writes in Technicolor.
There’s his trademark futuristic city at the centre of which is the Slan Palace, built by the telepaths during their brief moment of ascendancy, and now occupied by the human regime.
The building is, of course, bigger and more beautiful than anything humans could build, and stands as a symbol of both human jealousy and impotence (the fifteen hundred foot central spire may or may not have phallic implications) since human researchers know that whatever they discover has probably already been discovered and developed by Slan super-scientists.
The novel also features some of Van Vogt’s idiosyncratic machines (something which, I think may have influenced Dick’s writing) such as the Porgrave Transmitters and receivers, a kind of thought recording and playback device.
The transmitters are used to direct telepaths to safe-houses and hideouts, while the receivers are used by their non-telepath cousins to guard the Martian cities against telepath infiltrators, whom they term ‘Snakes’. (Maybe it might be an idea for someone to examine the use of phallic symbols in the work of Van Vogt at some point)
Eventually, through unfailing faith in the essential ‘good nature’ of Slans, Jommy wins the trust of one of the leaders of the non-telepaths, and through her, finally gains access to the Slan Palace, where all is revealed.
The importance of this novel to me is in its emphasis on a society which blindly accepts rumour and unfounded belief as fact, something which is just as relevant, perhaps even more so, today than it was in the 1940s.
In the 1930s propaganda was used to turn public opinion against Jews in Austria and Germany, usually by having the media stating unfounded allegations as fact.
One only has to listen to a speech in The House of Lords to realise that little has changed. In order to try and scupper the abolition of Thatcher’s Section 28 (which prohibits local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ in education) people such as Baroness Young and Thatcher have attempted to promulgate the idea that homosexuality is something one catches, like a disease, or else is a condition one is bullied into. Russia is, at the time of posting, promulgating a similar ideology.
Sadly, these arcane notions are seldom challenged.
In ‘Slan’ there is a general belief that the telepaths are somehow experimenting on human babies, attempting to create more of their own kind. This often results in malformed or mutated children. It is later discovered that that this is a natural process of evolution, a process which has produced the Slans, and one which spells an end for Homo Sapiens.
One might argue that the parents in the novel would see the illogic of such beliefs, but then, one only has to look at the real-life parallels to see that such absurd convictions are all too common, even at the highest levels.
EARTH ABIDES is one of the few SF novels to break the barriers of SF readership and reach a huge and universal audience. Winner of the International Fantasy Award and First Choice of the Science Fiction Book Club, it tells of the death of civilisation and of the brave new race that emerges – stronger, self-reliant, primitive…
It is the story of Isherwood Williams and a small handful like him, who rise from the ashes of a destroyed world and begin again…’
Blurb from the 1974 Corgi SF Collector’s Library Edition.
In many ways this is what Brian Aldiss describes a ‘cosy catastrophe’. Isherwood Williams, alone in a US mountain cabin is bitten by a rattlesnake and despite treating himself in time is seriously weakened and lies in a fever for days. Upon recovering he discovers that a plague has swept the world, leaving very few survivors. The novel is the story of the development of a new human tribe around him, but more importantly for Stewart, one feels, the return of the natural world to its mastery over the planet.
The human story, although captivating, is rather too romantic in that Stewart avoids some of the more gruesome consequences of a plague of such proportions. The dead are very notable by their absence. Also, no major medical problems arise as the tribe grows. No-one breaks an arm or a leg (although Ish himself suffers a minor leg injury after being mauled by a mountain lion) and the problems of the appendix or dentistry are glossed over.
The tribe does suffer setbacks and people do die, but from today’s perspective, the tribe’s rather idyllic existence is not what one would imagine society to be like when one’s life is dependent on what can be scavenged, or caught and eaten.
The book’s major strength, however, lies in Nature which, surrounding the territory of the tribe, reasserts itself, making the Earth itself an additional and major character in the drama.
Indeed, the strongest elements of the novel – those which hang in the memory longest – are those in which Ish, a self-confessed distanced observer of change and the passage of time, describes the gradual changing of the world such as when as an old man he once more sees the Golden gate bridge, solid but red with rust, its upper sections encrusted with the guano of generations of gulls.
There are also some intermittent passages in which the author, acting as an omnipotent observer, looks at the world – or rather, it has to be said, just America – from a wider perspective, examining the rise and fall of a plethora of species and the rapid enforced evolution of various domestic or agricultural livestock.
As catastrophes go, it’s one of the cosiest, but that does not in any way detract from its place as one of the great post-apocalyptic novels of the Twentieth Century.