My life in outer space

1990s

A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought #1) – Vernor Vinge (1992)

A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)

Vinge has created a marvellous galactic culture here, much like Brin’s Uplift universe, where humanity are relative newcomers to a galactic civilisation billions of years old. Indeed, the concept of Uplift is employed as a plot device discovered later in the novel.
Vinge takes the unusual premise that the galaxy is divided into Zones of Thought with somewhat fluid boundaries. Intelligence and technology thrive better in those zones closest to intergalactic space, the Transcend, and some races and AIs have become transcendent ‘Powers’. In the slow zones, high level technology has problems and ships’ drives are reduced to a sublight crawl.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy and one offshoot, the Straumli Realm, has discovered a cache of billion year old data and technology. They do not realise until too late that they have awakened an ancient and vicious AI. One ship manages to escape with, unbeknown to the humans, a possible solution to dealing with The Blight, as the AI becomes subsequently known. The Blight begins to infect the galaxy while searching for the escaped ship.
The ship lands on a medieval era planet populated by swan-necked doglike creatures, the Tines, who have evolved into gestalt packs who each share a single consciousness, communicating by tympanic membranes in the shoulder area.
Meanwhile, a human librarian, a man – reconstructed Frankenstein fashion by an ‘Old Power’ – and a pair of cyborg sentient vegetables who live in symbiosis with robotic mobility buggies realise that the lost ship may hold the secret to defeating the Blight. They therefore set off into the Slow Zone on a desperate mission.
This is a wonderful if somewhat lengthy piece of Nineties Space Opera, fast paced and filled with well-embellished locations and societies, wit and suspense.
Doorstop novels were a big thing (literally) in the Nineties and ranged from six hundred pages (Vinge’s book is in the lower bracket) to Peter F Hamilton’s fifteen hundred page epics. Not a word wasted with either of these authors it has to be said, although many of the others may have benefited from some trimming.
One tends to wonder if this might be a book which falls somewhere between a novel and a trilogy. It would have been interesting to have seen an expanded version over two or more (shorter) volumes with perhaps a side story set in the areas controlled by The Blight.
I tend not to approve of mixing hitech societies with the medieval, mainly because it is often done badly. Peter F Hamilton’s Void novels employed this extensively with the result that the sections set in a medieval human society, albeit within an SF setting, were far less interesting than the contrasting galaxy of AIs, wormholes, human immortals and weird aliens.
Here however Vinge has set the weird aliens within a pre-industrial culture and it’s a well thought out joy of a thing.
The plot is incredibly basic. Major threat to the Galaxy. A small band set out against all odds to get to the-thing-that-can-save-or-destroy-the-cosmos before the major threat does.
Indiana Jones. Star Trek Beyond. It’s a tried and trusted formula.
Vinge takes the basic ingredients though and whisks us up this rich and detailed souffle.
If I have any criticism at all it would be that Vinge has maybe over-anthropomorphised the Tines whose personalities – albeit shared among several individuals – are all too human in their culture and lifestyle. One would expect more specific cultural mores to reflect their pack-centric lifestyles. What is interesting – and not really explored enough – is the concept of identity within the Tines which changes as older members die and are replaced.
On the whole though this is excellent; well-written, compelling, colourful gung-ho Space Opera.

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Deadspeak (Necroscope IV) – Brian Lumley (1990)

Necroscope IV: Deadspeak (Necroscope, #4)

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.


Vurt – Jeff Noon (1993)

Vurt (Vurt #1)

‘ 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.

Additional stories

Speaker Bug

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’.

Cloudriver

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.

Slow-motion renegades

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.


Ring – Stephen Baxter (Xeelee #04) (1994)

Ring

There’s an awful lot going on in this volume and, to be fair, Baxter has his work cut out tying the events in with the other Xeelee universe narratives.
The Paradoxa organisation has evolved in the wake of Michael Poole’s original journey to the future in ‘Timelike Infinity’ and the subsequent discovery that there were powerful and inimical aliens out there. Paradoxa has now become a powerful body whose remit is to preserve Humanity. What has also been discovered is that someone or something is destabilising our sun. Paradoxa has bred an engineered human, Lieserl, who will grow at the rate of a human year every day and whose personality will be downloaded into an AI which will be able to function within the sun. The organisation have also commandeered a prototype interstellar ship to take a thousand year trip along with a portable wormhole so that on their return – like Poole – they will be able to return through the wormhole from 5 million years in the future.
Things don’t go according to plan though, and the crew – who may be the only humans left in the universe – devise a plan to head for The Ring, the vast galaxy-devouring structure built by the godlike Xeelee.
It’s certainly a tour de force of Hard SF. Baxter throws in an entire gallimaufry of complex physics concepts, such as the photino birds, creatures of dark matter who can live within stars, structures millions of light years wide built of cosmic string, exotic matter and extraordinarily detailed explanations of the lifecycles of suns.
The Ring itself, once we finally reach the beast, is the ultimate (as of yet) Big Dumb Object, woven of cosmic string and with a diameter of millions of light years.
One could argue that Baxter here has possibly over-egged the cosmic pudding and that the narrative could have possibly have been dealt with in two separate novels, to give space for some of the many characters to live and breathe.
Clearly the science can not be faulted and where excitement can be found here it is in the wonderful tour-de-forces of scientific hyperbole which here and there manages to recreate that sense of wonder that is all too lacking in most modern SF.
If it fails anywhere it is maybe in a lack of suspense, the peaks and troughs of emotional tension, cliffhangers, the things that make us want to read on. Certainly there are action sequences, but they lack a certain vivacity, something common to Baxter novels.
Overall though, it’s a marvellous conclusion (at least in internal chronology) to Baxter’s Xeelee universe.


Use of Weapons – Iain M Banks (1990)

Use of Weapons (Culture, #3)

Banks’ third Culture novel is original, poetic, at times amusing, at times tragic, and just beautifully written.
Cheranedine Zakalwe is, or was, a Culture agent, The Culture being a multi-stellar civilisation in effect ruled by Artificial Intelligences. It is a civilisation which is basically socialist, since there is no currency, poverty, class systems or war.
Outside of its borders the Culture works in oblique and subtle ways to reduce wars between planets. Zakalwe has been involved in several operations of this sort and has subsequently gone rogue and vanished.
Diezit Sma, the woman who originally recruited Zakalwe, needs to bring him in for a further mission; to abduct a politician who is being held by a faction on a primitive world, one who could possibly help to bring peace to several worlds heading toward war.
That is the basic plot, but Banks has embellished those bare bones beautifully with exquisitely carved facets of narrative.
Much of the novel is dedicated to Zakalwe’s examination of his own memories so that structurally we are leaping backwards and forwards between Zakalwe’s past life and adventures and his present day mission. Slowly the strands begin to connect with each other.
The title of this novel is perfect since we are presented, time and time again, with weapons of various sorts; the things with which Zakalwe feels most comfortable and which he, when the moment arrives, is reluctant to deploy.
As a child, living with his stepbrother and stepsisters, he and they stole a weapon to play with in the garden, and by sheer chance were able to foil an assassin’s strike on their family.
It can also be seen as a metaphor at various points, most obviously in the case of Zakalwe himself, who is nothing more than a weapon employed by The Culture, although admittedly for peaceful ends.
The other recurring motif is that of chairs which begins in the first section where an aristocrat Zakalwe is protecting sits down on a fragile chair which collapses under his weight.
Zakalwe returns to his family home one day to find his stepbrother Elethiomel, sitting naked in a chair with Zakalwe’s sister Darckense straddling him. Zakalwe is conscious of some repressed memory related to a chair but it is not until the denouement that the truth of this memory is revealed.
The characters are also beautifully out together. Some sections are almost self-contained vignettes of a point in Zakalwe’s past, such as the period when he travelled on an interstellar ship ferrying frozen colonists to a planet a hundred or more light years away during which he chose to be awakened for a period to experience the flight.
He spends several months in the company of two men, one of those peculiar heterosexual partnerships where the two men involved seem to love each other very much but are constantly competing to be the alpha male. It’s a beautifully observed portrait of male behaviour, and a clever counterpoint to Zakalwe’s nihilistic and suicidal mood at the time.
There are amazing settings, dark humour, wise-cracking personal bots, giant thinking ships with ridiculous names sailing through the blackness of space, and a jawnumbing twist at the end.
Banks was a very original voice in the world of SF.
If you haven’t read him then you should.


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

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

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


Night Watch – Sergei Lukyanenko (1998)

Night Watch (Watch, #1)

‘Walking the streets of Moscow, indistinguishable from the rest of its population, are the Others. Possessors of supernatural powers and capable of entering the Twilight, a shadowy world that exists in parallel to our own, each Other owes allegiance wither to the Dark or the Light.

‘The Night Watch’, first book in the Night Watch trilogy, follows Anton, a young Other owing allegiance to the Light. As a Night Watch agent he must patrol the streets and metro of the city, protecting ordinary people from the vampires and magicians of the Dark. When he comes across Svetlana, a young woman under a powerful curse, and saves an unfledged Other, Egor, from vampires, he becomes involved in events that threaten the uneasy truce, and the whole city…’

Blurb from the 2006 Arrow paperback edition.

Some critics described this as Russia’s answer to Harry Potter, which is a good description up to a point. As in the Harry Potter universe there are humans who can employ magic and are called Others. Some belong to the Light and some to the Dark. Many years ago a truce was agreed between the forces of Light and Darkness in order to keep a balance and not allow one side to use their powers excessively, otherwise the other side would be allowed to use a similar level of magic, which at a stretch could be compared to the situation between Russia and The West with regard to nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
Thus if a Light magician used magic illegally to cure someone of cancer, a Dark magician may be allowed to kill someone else. To police the agreement, agencies were created, The Day watch, in which the agents of Darkness patrol the daylight hours checking for Light Magicians’ transgressions, and the Night Watch who spend their nights monitoring vampires, werewolves, witches and Dark Magicians.
Anton, who has been assigned to track down a rogue vampire, manages to save a young Other, Egor, from becoming the snack of a vampire couple. Earlier, Anton had expended some of his power trying to dispel a fatal curse he had seen hanging over a girl’s head on the Metro. Curses look like black vortices twirling above people’s heads.
It is not until later that Anton realises the events are connected, and that the virtually immortal masters of the Watches are capable of weaving complex plots like a giant game of magical chess.
The book is divided into three sections which, although they focus on a particular story or case that the watch has to deal with, are all part of Anton’s overall tale and Anton grows in both magical experience and cynicism as to the ethics of some of the Watch’s practices as the book progresses.
Although on the surface a Rowling-esque escapist fantasy (although this may well predate the HP franchise) there is a philosophical debate at the heart of this writing which examines the very nature of Good and Evil, the balance between the two and the question of whether one can even exist without the other.


Axiomatic – Greg Egan (1995)

Axiomatic

This is an interesting collection of Egan’s published stories from the early Nineties, many of which examine the Dickian issue of what it means to be conscious and how we define ‘the personality’. Egan often looks at this question from intriguing and sometimes oblique angles.

The Infinite Assassin (1991)

Interzone 48 – June 1991

The protagonist is a man employed because his self tends to remain consistent across infinite realities in a worlds where a drug called S allows access to these parallel worlds. His job is to track down the few people who do not just dream their alternate lives but drag the rest of us in there with them.

The Hundred Light-Year Diary (1992)

Interzone 55 – January 1992

The conceit behind this story is that we have discovered a reverse universe running backwards and can receive ‘diaries’ from those who have already lived their lives identically to ours. Thus one can review one’s life in advance. However, the question is how much of the truth would be included?

Eugene (1990)

Interzone 36 – June 1990

A satirical tale of eugenics and designer baby making

The Caress (1990)

Asimov’s – Jan 1990

A detective in the near future investigating a homicide finds a chimera with the body of a leopard and the head of a woman and becomes embroiled in a strange world of bioengineering and art.

Blood Sisters (1991)

Interzone 44 – February 1991

A story of twin sisters who take different oaths in life, and one of whom becomes the victim of a genetic disease. the tale however, takes an unexpected direction.

Axiomatic (1990)

Interzone 41 – November 1991

Egan examines one of the possible outcomes of a society where one can purchase implants to change the foundations of one’s personality in order to remove deep seated feelings like grief, religious belief or inhibitions, or to implant them.

The Safe-Deposit Box (1990)

Asimov’s – September 1990

A rather complex tale of a man who wakes up every day in the same city but in a different body

Seeing (1995)

Axiomatic (1995)

A future boss of a movie studios awakens after an assassination experience to discover that he is viewing himself from a point near the ceiling.

A Kidnapping (1995)

Axiomatic (1995)

A wealthy man receives a videocall telling him that they ‘have his wife’ and demanding a ransom. Another examination of what it means – objectively in this case – for a personality to be copied.

Learning to Be Me (1990)

Interzone #37 – July 1990

The Ndoli Jewel – as featured in other Egan stories – is at the centre of this tale of a question of identity.

The Moat (1991)

Aurealis #3 – 1991

A future Australia in an overpopulated world where a lawyer working for displaced immigrants is disturbed by his fiancee’s tales of a rapist’s sperm samples having no discernible DNA. A clever story that manages to cover contemporary issues obliquely.

The Walk (1992)

Asimov’s – December 1992

A man is forced at gunpoint to inhale a neural implant that will alter his viewpoint and beliefs.

The Cutie (1989)

Interzone #29 – May 1989

A rather poignant story set in a world where one can buy a designer baby implanted with a suicide gene that kicks in at four years old.

Into Darkness (1992)

Asimov’s – January 1992

Reminiscent of Budrys’ ‘Rogue Moon’, this is an excerpt from the life of a specialised rescue worker, one who runs through the rando wormholes that have appeared to plague the world. One can run through them in one direction when they appear and hope that you can rescue people who have been trapped inside, as one can only go forward. If you try to turn back, you will die. You must carry on to the other end and hope to get out before the wormhole collapses.

Appropriate Love (1991)

Interzone #50 – August 1991

In a future healthcare insurance scenario, a wife has to have her husband’s comatose brain implanted into her body until his clone body has grown to the point where the brain can be replaced. What effect, however, will this have on their relationship?

The Moral Virologist (1990)

Pulphouse #8 – Summer 1990

Egan takes a swipe at the madness of US Right Wing Christianity in a tale of a Christian Virologist who has designed a virus that will kill anyone who has sex with more than one person.

Closer (1992)

Eidolon #9 – Winter 1992

Another story based in the world of the ‘Ndoli Jewel’ where a couple decide to try and see what it is like to be each other.

Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (1992)

Interzone #61 – July 1992

A slightly Ian-Watson-esque story following an event in 2018 when everyone in the world became mentally susceptible to each other’s deepest beliefs. Consequently those who believed similar things joined together and ‘attractor’ wells formed, while those whose beliefs are fairly agnostic – such as the narrator – wander the world in the gaps between, pulled by the various tides of belief.


The Naked God (Night’s Dawn #3) – Peter F Hamilton (1999)

The Naked God (Night's Dawn, #3)

‘HELL JUST WENT QUANTUM

The Confederation is starting to collapse politically and economically, allowing the ‘possessed’ to infiltrate more worlds.
Quinn Dexter is loose on Earth, destroying the great arcologies one at a time. As Louise Kavanagh tries to track him down, she manages to acquire some strange and powerful allies whose goal does not quite match her own.

The campaign to liberate Mortonridge from the possessed degenerates into a horrendous land battle of the type not seen by humankind for six hundred years. Then some of the protagonists escape in a very unexpected direction…

Joshua Calvert and Syrinx now fly their starships on a mission to find the Sleeping God – which an alien race believes holds the key to finally overthrowing the possessed.’

Blurb from the 2000 Pan paperback edition.

The conclusion to Hamilton’s shelf-busting trilogy doesn’t initially quite match up to the brilliance of the first two books, but thankfully builds to a deeply satisfying climax.
In the conclusion, we discover that the sentient habitat Tranquility, which we last saw disappear while under attack from the forces of Al Capone, has reappeared among the Edenist habitats of Jupiter.
It would appear that all along the giant living Rama-style cylinder had built-in technology which would allow it to ‘jump’ through space in times of danger. The Kiint seemed unaware of this, however, and had already teleported back to their homeworld. The juvenile Kiint Haile also took along Jay Hilton, much to the disapproval of the Kiint.
One might argue that Hamilton’s work relies too much on militaristic action and graphic violence. Certainly, a large chunk of this final novel covers the ‘Liberation of Mortonridge’ – an attempt to free the population of a peninsula on one of the planets of the Kulu Kingdom.
A vast army of bitek ‘serjeants’ have been produced to invade the area and de-possess the inhabitants. This turns into a long and bitter struggle, but one which focuses more on the effect it has on the protagonists than on shoot-em-up action.
Much of the novel is also about explanations and revelations. More is discovered about the Kiint whose involvement (somewhat short of outright interference) with the history of humanity goes far far deeper anyone had realised.
In the previous novels, the possessed had taken entire planets into parallel dimensions. Here, we follow them to discover that their lives are not the Paradise they expected. It is discovered, as was suggested previously, that the possessors’ ability to change the shape of the bodies they inhabited encouraged cancerous tumours to proliferate, giving the possessed a far shorter lifespan than the immortality they imagined.
Joshua Calvert, the central character about whom all the storylines revolve, is sent on a mission to discover the Sleeping God of the Tyrathca, somewhere beyond the Orion nebula; a godlike artefact/entity ‘Big Dumb Object’ which may hold the key to solving the possession crisis.
Ultimately, and cleverly, the various storylines and character journeys converge to one point in time. Joshua himself questions the Sleeping God (a stable mirrorlike naked singularity orbiting a planetless star) on the coincidences which have led him (and other characters) to this point and is given an answer which, if not really plausible, provides a certain kind of satisfaction to the reader within the context of the work.
In this novel, the themes of transformation and revelation come to the fore. No character remains unchanged by their journeys through the crisis and ultimately, the whole of human society is transformed.
This, along with Robinson’s ‘Mars’ trilogy, is one of the last great works of SF of the 20th century. They are vastly different in tone, style, and their categorical positions within the genre, but they give me faith that SF can still – and will in the future – produce the sense of wonder which many thought had been long lost.


Flux (Xeelee #03) – Stephen Baxter (1993)

Flux (Xeelee Sequence, #3)

I confess to being a tad ambivalent about Baxter’s work which confuses me a little. They are eminently readable and my limited knowledge of Science gives me no reason to question any of the Chemistry or Physics upon which Baxter has based this novel.
This is the third in the Xeelee sequence, a loosely connected set of novels in which Humanity is an inferior race in a vast universe. The Xeelee, godlike beings far older than Man, are building an inconceivably huge artefact – a ring – through which they may be planning to leave for another universe in order to escape an as yet unexplained foe.
Baxter’s novels are generally set against this background focusing on the lives of humans in various circumstances. This adds a sense of scale of time and space, emphasising the contrast between the depths of space, the timescales of alien projects and the small lives of individual humans.
The irony in this instance is that the human factor is particularly tiny since the adapted humans are living within the mantle of a neutron star and are fractions of a millimetre tall.
One could argue that Baxter has here created the novel concept of a pocket universe within a pocket universe.
The novel begins with a tribe of humans living in primitive conditions along the Maglines between ‘The Crust’ and ‘The Quantum Sea’. The star appears to be becoming unstable however and fluctuations in the magnetic field create the same results as an earthquake, tearing the community apart and forcing some of them up into the strange forest that grows down from the crust. Most of the tribe have no knowledge of what lies beyond their own territorial boundaries, although their oral history tells of their creation by Ur-humans from another world.
They are able to ‘wave’ through the air, guided and attracted by the vortex lines of the star’s magnetic field. Above is The Crust, covered by a forest of trees, and below is the Quantum Sea.
An old man, Adda, is injured hunting, but he and his companions are rescued and taken to the city of Parz at the star’s pole.
In this second, larger, pocket universe, the citizens have retained some knowledge of their forebears but have no real idea why they were placed there, although it is revealed that another community of humans, far more severely augmented, are living within the core of the star.
The fluctuations begin to threaten the city and when a Xeelee ship is seen firing into the star it becomes clear they must try and contact the ‘Colonists’ at the core, who may have technology to avert the Xeelee threat.
My ambivalence stems from the fact that I read this novel several years ago and have no recollection of it whatsoever. Therein lies the issue. Despite the fact that this is an exciting premise, the scientific basis is impeccable and the novel is a decent read with a good denouement, there is a lack of tension and excitement. Like some other works of Baxter it is slightly… dull.
Part of this is the characterisation. The main characters might well have stepped straight out of your average British town. They are generally well-meaning and polite and lack any psychological light and shade. Adda’s tribe have been living in isolation for ten generations and yet seem to slot into the civilised city of Parz without any major problems.
The overall concept, written prior to 9/11, is that the augmented humans are being used to drive the neutron star into the Xeelee Ring mechanism in an effort to damage it, making them (unwitting ultimately) suicide bombers.
Baxter could have made far more of the rationale and morality of this as it no doubt reflects the nature of what Humanity has become.
For me, and Baxter no doubt has an army of fans to leap to his defence, it is a flawed novel which could have been far better given a serious rewrite.