My life in outer space

Debut Novel

The Promise of The Child – Tom Toner (2015)

The Promise of the Child (The Amaranthine Spectrum #1)
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.

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The Transhumanist Wager – Zoltan Istvan (2013)

The Transhumanist Wager

I’m in two minds about this novel, stylistically and thematically.
Structurally, it suffers in the main from a wobbly beginning since we have in the first few chapters a severely unnecessary amount of infodumping, consisting of pages of personal biographies and descriptions of the major characters. I’ve never seen the need to know the colour of characters’ eyes for instance, and here we have complete descriptions of their bodies, clothing choices (down to their brand of underwear in one case) and personal histories. This is the sort of thing one should discover in the course of the narrative, if at all, since much of it is unnecessary. I suspect, to the average reader, much of it is soon forgotten.
However, having got that out of the way, the narrative picks up and rattles along at a fair pace.
So, Jethro Knights is a committed and dedicated Transhumanist who, almost singlehandedly, transforms the Transhumanist Party into a more radical beast.
This draws the attention of the deliciously evil Rev. Belinas, leader of The Redeem Church, a body dedicated it seems to the destruction of any science capable of improving on God’s handiwork. Belinas is grooming young Gregory Michaelson – an ex-classmate of Jethro’s – to be his puppet senator and sets him up as head of a new enforcement agency, the NSFA, specifically created to oppose and destroy any Transhuman initiatives in the US.
Jethro, while travelling the world working as an overseas journalist, met and fell in love with a feisty and intelligent young doctor, Zoe Bach. Jethro, who appears to exhibit Vulcan-like powers of sexual suppression is worried that the force of his feelings will interfere with his cause, which is to push Transhumanism to the point where Death is conquered, and beyond.
He leaves Zoe to pursue his dream of a Transhuman world.
Much, much later Zoe, finding that her new job is about to be targetted by one of the Rev Belinas’ terrorist cells, contacts Jethro. With the aid of spycams and WiFi the raid is transmitted live to newsrooms across the country and Jethro, hiding out alone, gives a running commentary on the action while the bombers, not realising they are live on TV, implicate Belinas in the attempt.
Belinas escapes any investigation but Jethro becomes a hero and Transhumanism develops into a presence in the public consciousness. The battle between what is essentially rational thought and entrenched religious and social dogma escalates. The NFSA (The National Future Security Agency), at the behest of an increasingly desperate and murderous Belinas, is given additional powers to make Transhumanism illegal and to arrest anyone connected with the movement and seize their assets.
The battle escalates and, with the aid of a Russian billionaire and a revolutionary architect, Knights builds a floating city, Transhumania, where the final battle between reason and superstitious belief will be fought.
Istvan is one of my Goodreads friends, and I hope he forgives me for being somewhat critical of his work. He himself once worked as a National Geographic journalist and it is clear that he is drawing obvious parallels between himself and Jethro Knights. I have watched some of his speeches which are entertaining, very inspiring but somewhat at odds, however, with the views of Knights in this novel.
Knights is a fascinating character, if a tad sociopathic, totally focused on his goal to kickstart the Transhuman revolution and gain himself immortality.
The question I need to ask is how much of Istvan’s psyche is contained in Jethro Knights? It’s an important question simply because I do believe that this is an important work, despite its flaws. Unlike most genre novels this is based on current reality, or at least on a real political movement. Istvan is the leader of the US Transhumanist Party, and a Presidential candidate in the last election.
I am a supporter, in principle, of Transhumanism, as well as being a somewhat militant atheist. One would imagine then that I would be on the side of Jethro Knights in this novel, and yet I am struggling to get there. I recently read ‘Nexus’ which is also a pro-transhumanism novel, and in both works there is a tendency to paint the mundane humans as evil Luddites, desperate to hold back the progress of technology at any cost. There have to be some shades of grey here. Not all atheists or Transhumanists are good people. Not all religious people are evil or stupid. A little balance goes a long way.
My mind, while reading this. kept drifting off to AE van Vogt, another author who pushed a philosophy – albeit somewhat obliquely – via his work, which was at that time Dianetics. The interesting thing about about this is that van Vogt’s heroes generally solved their problems with logic and non-violence. Dianetics subsequently became subsumed within L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology ‘religion’ and we all know how well that turned out.
Transhumanism – or at least Jethro – is unconcerned with solving problems in a non-violent way and Knights feels perfectly justified in bombing churches across America. If Istvan is attempting to sway the average reader to his cause then this is counter productive since one would assume that those wishing to evolve or transcend would surely wish to abandon irrational violent instincts. It also places them on the same level as those who mount attacks on abortion clinics and gay bars. It’s a childish act.
The Transhumanists take the world by force, having destroyed the NATO navy ships sent against them and taken control of all world banking and military systems, insisting that the population of the world adapt to the New World Order or face extermination. To make the point clear, they destroy a number of major religious and political sites around the world including the White House, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace (to be fair, the latter, a relatively modern and decidedly ugly building, would not be a great loss) which draws obvious parallels with the recent ISIS destruction of historical sites.
There are some good aspects to the new rules. Education is free but compulsory, with citizens being required to learn something new throughout their lives. Religion is outlawed and the population strictly controlled.
However, this is nothing less than an enforced dictatorship and, I would suggest, unmanageable. The Soviet Union sought to eradicate religion but following its fall saw religion flower again like weeds in an untended garden.
It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy that fails to address many issues and is, as many of these political systems are, predicated on a policy of freeing people while denying them a good many of the freedoms they had enjoyed under the previous regime.
However, if we look at this as merely a work of fiction, it’s an enjoyable journey somewhat flawed by a good deal of unnecessary text.
If Istvan chose to revise this novel and make the movement seem more of an enlightened organisation rather than a terrorist group it would go a long way toward getting readers to identify with his aims.
It is, having said all that, an important piece of work given the author’s place in US society and in a sense refreshingly honest. Writing this review within a week of Donald Trump’s election as US President somewhat takes the edge off my criticism. One wonders whether a Transhumanist President might, after all, not be a bad thing.


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.


Angel Stations – Gary Gibson (2004)

Angel Stations

Gibson’s debut novel is a multi-character narrative space opera much in the style of Peter F Hamilton
Mankind has been able to travel out to the stars due to the discovery of Angel Stations; vast torus-shaped space stations surrounding wormholes which give instantaneous access to other stations in other parts of the galaxy.
The study of abandoned Angel tech has been a mixed blessing. It has allowed Earth to design probes which have been sent as far as possible toward the galactic core and which have discovered that processes have been set up to automatically set off novas and flood the galaxy with lethal radiation at very long but regular intervals.
The radiation is due to arrive at the planet Kaspar in days, and is likely to kill off the only other sentient race that humanity has discovered, currently at a pre-industrial feudal culture level.
Humans have also used Angel tech to alter human genes in military test subjects, producing a number of humans who are virtually indestructible and can, in some instances, see the future.
We follow a disparate group of people whose paths converge at the abandoned Angel citadel on the planet Kaspar as the wave of radiation approaches.
It’s an interesting debut, featuring echoes of Peter F Hamilton, Jack McDevitt and Fred Pohl’s ‘Gateway’.
Certainly the concept of older races ‘culling’ other life in the galaxy (usually by way of ancient machines) is a popular idea (see ‘Engines of God’, ‘Revelation Space’ and ‘Berserker’) and perhaps is in some ways a counterbalance to works in which ancient alien races are either extinct, coldly aloof or benevolent.
It’s not simply a derivative novel, however. Gibson has created some interesting concepts and has cursed the earth with a Blight, an Angel Tech derived virus which was unleashed while one of the protagonists was trying to retrieve it from one of the Earth’s criminal gangs.
Kim is a xeno-archaeologist who has the deaths of some of her colleagues on her conscience and has become addicted to absorbing ‘books’ which are the distilled memories of others. She has fallen on hard times and is working as an asteroid miner from the Angel Station in the Kaspar System.
She too has unleashed a plague of sorts, as one of the artefacts she retrieved from the Kaspar citadel during an archaeological expedition has become active. This has released self-replicating Von Neumann bugs which are slowly consuming all the human-built sections of the stations as well as their ships. The bugs are using the cannibalised material to make more bugs.
Meanwhile, members of a human cult – The Primalists – are hiding out on Kaspar in deep caves waiting for the radiation to kill all the sentient natives so that they can claim the planet as a new Eden. One of the aliens, however, is in possession of an Angel artefact that might be the key to deflecting the radiation and saving his species.
The Kasparians are an interestingly designed species able – in an odd mirroring of Kim’s addiction – to achieve sentience by eating the flesh and brains of a dead adult. Their children are pre-sentient animals and do not attain intelligence until this ritual has been carried out.
There are some loose ends left untied which no doubt means that sequels are in the pipeline.
Maybe it’s me but it seems many debut novels now are planned with sequels in mind. No one seems to want to write stand alone novels any more. Is this publisher pressure or a strategic move on the part of the author?


Containment – Christian Cantrell (2010)

Containment

‘As the Earth’s ability to support human life begins to diminish at an alarming rate, the Global Space Agency is formed with a single mandate: protect humanity from extinction by colonizing the solar system as quickly as possible. Venus, being almost the same mass as Earth, is chosen over Mars as humanity’s first permanent steppingstone into the universe.

Arik Ockley is part of the first generation to be born and raised off-Earth. After a puzzling accident, Arik wakes up to find that his wife is almost three months pregnant. Since the colony’s environmental systems cannot safely support any increases in population, Arik immediately resumes his work on AP, or artificial photosynthesis, in order to save the life of his unborn child. Arik’s new and frantic research uncovers startling truths about the planet, and about the distorted reality the founders of the colony have constructed for Arik’s entire generation. Everything Arik has ever known is called into question, and he must figure out the right path for himself, his wife, and his unborn daughter.’

Blurb from the 2010 Kindle Edition

This reminded me very much of Daniel F. Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’ since ‘Containment’ is a pocket universe novel, one of a subgenre in which the protagonists exist within narrow boundaries and are ignorant of any conditions existing outside the limits of their domain.
Arik has been born under a dome on Venus. An environmental crisis is raging on earth and the handpicked colonists are one of Earth’s last hope for survival. Arik’s generation were carefully planned and were the first children to be born. Any further population increase would take them beyond the limits of their food supplies. One of the projects that Arik is working on is to increase photosynthesis in plants so that the hydroponic gardens produce more oxygen.
One day Arik wakes up in hospital with some of his memory missing. His wife is three months pregnant which is bad news for the colony as it is not able to produce additional oxygen.
Things start to get strange when he receives a message sent from himself before the accident occurred.
Cantrell is one of the new generation of self-published e-book writers whose numbers are growing. There’s very little that is ground-breaking or original here, however. There is a surprise element but even that has been done before to better effect as in Brian Aldiss’ ‘Non Stop’ or, as I have said, on Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’.
There is obviously a temptation to rush to publish but authors need to be sure that their work is ready. The traditional publishing route may be a more obstacle-strewn journey but one can be at least reasonably sure, should your work be published, that it is in a fit state to go out into the world.


Norstrilia – Cordwainer Smith (1975)

Norstrilia

To our detriment, this is Smith’s only novel, his output otherwise being a large number of quirky short stories mostly set in this universe of The Instrumentality of Mankind. Having said that, ‘Norstrilia’ has a complex origin since it was originally published in two shorter separate parts in 1964 as ‘The Planet Buyer’ (which itself was expanded from a shorter piece ‘The Boy Who Bought Old Earth’) and ‘The Store of Heart’s Desire’
Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan to the Hundred and Fifty-First (known as Rod McBan) is a boy living on the peculiar world of Norstrilia, heir to one of the prosperous mutant sheep ranches.
Norstrilia, or Old North Australia, where the people are still subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, (despite the fact she’s been dead for at least fifteen thousand years) was originally an Australian farming world until a virus attacked the sheep. What could have been tragedy changed the fortunes of mankind as a by-product of the sheep’s illness was Stroon, a longevity drug. Thus Norstrilia became the richest planet in the galaxy. The Norstrilians did not want to change their way of life however, and so incredibly high taxes are paid on any imported items to their world. Their children are tested in their teens to see if they are physically and mentally fit to survive, and those that fail get sent to a painless death.
Rod McBan is about to be tested, and his family are worried. Rod seems unable to hier or spiek. In other words, unlike the other telepathic natives of Norstrilia, he can neither hear thoughts nor project them. A girl who loves him, Lavinia, knows that this is not strictly true as there are times when Rod can hier everyone’s thoughts for miles around and when he is angry his mind is powerful enough to disable or kill.
Having survived the test, with the help of Lord Redlady, a member of the ruling body – The Instrumentality of Mankind – it seems Rod is still in danger from one Houghton Syme, an old schoolmate of Rod’s who is determined to kill or destroy him. Rod has access to an ancient computer, hidden on his land which, when Rod asks it for help, puts a financial scheme in motion. By the next day, Rod McBan is the owner of virtually all of Old Earth and therefore has to travel there to take ownership of his prize and escape the murderous attentions of Houghton Syme.
Once on Earth he becomes acquainted with the Underpeople; races of bioengineered animals who have a prophecy of a rich man coming to Earth to set them free. Could this be Rod McBan?
Smith certainly had a facility for creating well-defined characters. Norstrilia is set in a marvellously detailed if slightly unrealistic landscape. The narrative is peppered with songs and poetry which adds to a certain undercurrent of joy that suffuses the book.
Eccentric and fascinating figures appear and disappear, such as The Catmaster, who is a kind of guru/healer figure and the only Underperson allowed (by special dispensation of The Instrumentality) to take Stroon.
Smith throws in ideas right. left and centre, such as the giant alien architects who once visited human worlds and built indestructible buildings on various planets (on a whim) before leaving.
It’s a marvellously clever mix of comedy, drama, satire and romanticism, interspersed with poetry and song.
At the end of the day, however, it is simply the story of a young man who (much like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) travels to another world, has adventures, makes friends and enemies and ultimately realises that what he wants and needs has been at home in his own back yard all the time.


Solar Lottery – Philip K Dick (1955)

Solar Lottery

Dick’s debut novel seems oddly more in tune with his work of the 1960s than the subsequent novels he wrote in the remainder of this decade.
Based on a concept apparently used by the US to confuse the enemy by generating random choices, Solar Lottery postulates a world run along these principles where everyone has a lottery ticket and one’s place in life is determined very much by chance.
Ted Bentley (an 8-8 class scientist indentured to a Hills Organisation, Oiseau-Lyre) is freed from his contract when Oiseau-Lyre is shut down.
He decides that he will apply to make an oath directly to the Quizmaster (Reese Verrick, the man in charge of the entire Lottery system) and sign on to his team. Reese appears and signs on Ted personally since Verrick has other plans for Ted. Very soon afterwards it appears that Verrick has been laid off as quizmaster and replaced by Leon Cartwright, leader of the Prestonites, a quasi-religious group who have dispatched a ship beyond the orbit of Pluto to search for the ‘flame-disc’ that their founder predicted would be there.
Meanwhile, Verrick has raised a legal challenge to Cartwright and can therefore legally despatch assassins to kill him. Keith Pellig, however, is no ordinary assassin. He is a semi-organic android whose mind can be remotely inhabited by any one of a dozen controlling minds, a strategy which can allow the assassin to evade the Corps of ‘teeps’ (telepathic guards) who protect the quizmaster.
It is not so much the plot as the depth of character that Dick gives to the various members of his cast which is interesting. Given the time of writing, it is unsurprising that this reads like a 50s noir novel. Ted Bentley is an angry idealist who believes in rules and order. Reese Verrick is an unscrupulous politician aiming to control the system one way or another. Leon Cartwright, again an idealist, on being elevated to the Quizmaster position, is for a while overawed by the power he wields and then breaks down at the thought of assassination threats.
There is a very interesting scene in the home of Bentley’s new friends, Al Davis and his wife, who are watching Reese Verrick’s challenge of the Quizmastership on TV, and awaiting the announcement of the name of the assassin. Bentley, annoyed by the system and the media hype, turns the TV off, despite the fact that he is merely a guest in the house, Al Davis meekly accepts his actions even though Mrs Davis is desperate to turn the TV on again, and vents her frustration in the kitchen, banging various bits of kitchenware together.
Herb Moore (another 8-8 scientist working for Verrick) becomes Benteley’s enemy and love-rival since Benteley and Moore’s lover, Eleanor Stevens, have become close. Benteley and Moore get into a physical fight quite early on, which Moore loses. In fact, Moore had also locked Benteley’s consciousness into the android assassin while Benteley was asleep.
The idea that the Pellig construct may well have an identity of its own is mooted a couple of times, but subtly; the suggestion that some consciousness, insect or larvae-like, is already living within the body.
There are some other interesting comments made, which relate to themes explored further in Dick’s later work.
In order to escape Pellig, Cartwright is taken to a resort on the Moon. One of the teeps guarding him sees the moon’s surface as a long-dead skull, the brittle bones covered with the dust of the former living flesh. There are occasions in later novels where characters see or visit a parallel world of death, such as the tomb world in ‘Martian Time Slip’ or the subjective world of ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ where the faithful can share the pain of their saint.

The Flame Disc and John Preston

There are also echoes of Dick’s ‘prophets’ in Preston, a man thought dead, but not present in his grave, simply replaced by an elaborately faked corpse. He is thought to be alive on the flame disc since it is Preston’s voice that guides his pilgrims onwards, but this too, is a fake; another staple feature of Dick’s work.
Once again the denouement is redolent of the closing scenes of ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ where Dekard thinks he has found a living toad in the desert which is also a fake.


Exiles (Progenitors #1) – Dan Worth (2010)

Exiles (The Progenitor Trilogy, #1)

Dan Worth postulates a future where humans have become a part of galactic society. Humanity has messed up here and there, such as on one planet where an interstellar human company has been supplying the natives with an addictive and lethal drug.
When the natives revolt and take over a space station Captain Chen is called to deal with it and ends up massacring a large number of innocent aliens. Her ex, a secret agent, Harris, is blamed for the debacle and posted to another system. Meanwhile, two archaeologists have discovered a million year old ship which appears to belong to the highly advanced Arkari. They find mummified Arkari on board and manage to acquire the log before the Arkari duly arrive and confiscate everything.
Anyhoo – the Arkari have been in space a lot longer than they’ve told anyone. The archaeologists get posted to the same planet to which agent Harris was banished in order to investigate the holy city of Maran which, it appears, holds its own secrets. It transpires that everyone is being manipulated by a mysterious enemy from the core of the galaxy.
They have already provoked a war between Humanity and the vicious reptilian K’soth, and now they hope to open a long-sealed wormhole porthole to let through some nasty terminator-style beasties from the end of time.
One can’t deny it’s a cracking read. Some of the dialogue and love scenes are a tad creaky but it’s still an engrossing novel and leaves one wanting more.
Elements of it do seem familiar, however. The concept of people being led to a planet simply in order to unwittingly loose hordes of crazy aliens into the galaxy was used by Hamilton in ‘Pandora’s Star’ and there are other reviews which comment on the similarities to Babylon 5. The Arkari (who have living ships and who are as economical with the truth as a Thatcher government) are the Vorlons here, and the mysterious Shapers appear to be the Shadows.
However, no writer works in a vacuum, and these are archetypal forces – Order and Chaos, which have been employed in various fashions in fantasy and SF since the dawn of the genre.


Salt – Adam Roberts (2000)

Salt

‘We are fragile. We dissolve in immensity like salt in water.

And after thirty-seven years of travel through the vastness of space we arrived on the planet Salt. And we took Heaven and Hell with us.

SALT is the story of a planetary colonisation that slips into a tragedy of biblical proportions. United by the dream of a new beginning, isolated in a landscape of cruel majesty, the two communities who went to Salt were torn apart by ancient enmities.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz paperback edition.

An exceptional debut novel from Roberts which in some aspects is reminiscent of LeGuin’s ‘The Dispossessed’.
We learn that a mission to colonise new planets has been funded by a Christian Church on Earth (although the particular denomination is not known, they are of a fundamentalist persuasion). The bold and imaginative concept is to hitch individual ‘ships’ together like beads on a wire, which in turn were attached to a net which has lassooed a comet. The ‘tail’ of ships is balanced at the far end by a vast iron-ore counterweight, and the comet is steered toward an already detected Earth type world.
The colonists are put into hypersleep for most of the thirty-seven year journey, but even in the eighteen months prior to hypersleep commencing, serious rifts are developing between at least two of the encapsulated communities.
The leader of the Senaar ship invites a representative of the Als ship to discuss their differences and how to proceed after a suicidal Als woman steals a shuttle and crashes into the iron counterweight, endangering the entire mission.
The beauty of the narrative in this novel is that it is alternately voiced by Barlei, the nominal head of the Senaar community, and by Petja, a member of the Als community, who is the one chosen to visit Senaar for the fateful meeting.
That there is a problem in communication between the two communities becomes immediately obvious.
What we discover later is the Als community is composed entirely of anarchists who have lied about their religious commitment in order to found a community on a new planet.
Senaar, conversely, is composed of what we would today call ‘The Christian Right’.
And so, through the medium of this dual narrative we get two different viewpoints of events, a catalogue of cultural intolerance and a lack of even the will to try and understand the other’s point of view that eventually spirals out of control into war and madness.
When the comet reaches its destination, they discover their new world to be covered with salt, a substance whose symbolism is echoed on various levels within the text.
Nevertheless, the communities land, set up individual cities around a salt-saturated sea and despite the environmental obstacles, begin the process of transforming their world.
It would seem though, that during inter-ship fraternisation in the initial eighteen months of the journey, men from the Senaar visited Als and (Als having a very liberated sexual culture) fathered several children.
This becomes a major political hot potato since the Senaarian fathers want – at least initially – contact and access to their children while the Alsists have a policy of the mother having complete responsibility for the child, to the extent of the child not knowing – or caring – who the father might be.
So, with each change of narrative voice one has to read between the lines in order to see the true situation.
Certainly, Petja’s narrative seems to be the most honest, but as he is as committed to his beliefs as Barlei, it is difficult for him to find any failings in his own society.
Barlei’s narrative is more obviously falsified, since he is a politician and his words are tailored to show him and his people in a favourable light, although sometimes there are chilling moments when, despite Barlei’s talk of glory and God’s Will, we realise that atrocities have been committed.
Petja, by his own admission finds it hard to empathise people which, – it seems – might be a consequence of living in an anarchist state with no hierarchical structure where people only take responsibility for their own actions and have an obligation to no one else. It is to Roberts’ credit that he is able to explain lucidly how a society like this would function.
In a shocking episode, Petja, returning the Senaaran ‘ambassador’ Rhoda Titus following the Senaaran attack, rapes her, assuming that she will be complicit with this act, and never realising or suspecting that he has done anything wrong.
The act is doubly tragic since it appears that Rhoda was at least attempting to understand the Als mindset and might well have become a bridge between the communities.
The war becomes all-important for Barlei and Petja, which costs them both dearly. Petja, realising that in a war situation, hierarchical command structures are necessary. loses the respect of his people (the phrase ‘my people’ is itself an obscenity to the Alsists since it denotes possession, but yet Petja find himself using it) and ultimately his life to the effects of prolonged exposure to solar radiation.
Barlei, if we read between the lines of his propaganda, loses not only someone he loved as a son to the needlegun of a sniper, but the respect of many of his people and neighbouring nations.
The final chapter is a testimony by Rhoda Titus which gives another viewpoint. Although announcements are made in Senaar that the war is over, she evinces a cynicism and a distrust of her Leader’s announcements and speeches.
‘Salt’ is a powerful allegory of the wars of ideology which have raged through history and continue to rage between communities and nations of diametrically opposed views today.


King Rat – China Mieville (1998)

King Rat

‘Something is stirring in London’s dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul’s father, and left Saul to pay for the crime.

But a shadow from the urban waste breaks into his prison cell and leads him to freedom. A shadow called King Rat.

In the night-land behind London’s façade, in sewers and slums and rotting dead spaces, Saul must learn his true nature.

Grotesque murders rock the city like a curse. Mysterious forces prepare for a showdown. With Drum and Bass pounding the backstreets, Saul confronts his bizarre inheritance – in the badlands of South London, in the heart of darkness, ant the gathering of the Junglist Massive.

Like the DJ says: ‘Time for the Badman’.’

Defying a strict genre classification Mieville’s debut novel is a bold and evocative work which stamps him immediately as an important force in the SF/Fantasy/Horror genres.
It’s a deeply poetic piece, rich with metaphor, set in a London familiar yet oddly twisted through Mieville’s dark lens’

The trains that enter London arrive like ships sailing across the roofs. They pass between towers jutting into the sky like long-necked sea beasts and the great gas-cylinders wallowing in dirty scrub like whales. In the depths below are lines of small shops and obscure franchises, cafes with peeling paint and businesses tucked into the arches over which the trains pass.p7

Saul returns home to his communist father’s tower block flat. Not wishing to confront the oddly-strained relationship he has with him he goes straight to bed, only to be awoken by police who have found his father’s body lying beneath the smashed living-room window. Saul is arrested, but is rescued from his cell by the shadowy and fantastic King Rat, who awakens the dark side of Saul’s nature, for Saul is half-rat and part of the Rat Royal Family.

In terms of plot structure it initially follows the standard format. The hero (Saul) is first established in his own personal environment before being forced (by the murder of his father and subsequent arrest) onto a ‘quest’. His mentor (King Rat) engages him to kill the Ratcatcher and restore King Rat to his mastery over the Rat Nation.
The Ratcatcher – as astute readers might have guessed – was once known as The Pied Piper of Hamelin, where King Rat was powerless to stop the drowning and thus lost the faith of the rats.
Now the Ratcatcher is out to catch Saul and has begun to inveigle his way into Saul’s circle of friends.
It’s a post-modern mix of Fairytale and Jungle music which works well but not brilliantly. In ‘Perdido Street Station’ the language and poetry is consistently rich and powerful where here it is intermittent.
The contemporary idioms and musical styles sit uneasily with the rich prose and metaphor with which Mieville creates his own peculiar London.
Having said that, the characters and settings are convincing and the Piper’s acts of dispassionate violence are chillingly rendered. The denouement is exciting, page-turning compulsion, if somewhat rushed.
In a somewhat amusing epilogue (bearing in mind that Mieville once stood as Socialist Alliance candidate for North Kensington) Saul – as a belated tribute to his socialist father – convinces the rats to form The Rat Republic after he abdicates his post as reluctant King.
If nothing else, King Rat works as both a fantasy novel and a portrait of late-Nineties London and the almost religious regard in which disaffected youth hold their music; in this case Jungle.