My life in outer space


Philip K Dick is Dead, Alas – Michael Bishop (1987)

Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas

It is 1982. The United States has a permanent Moonbase. Richard M. Nixon is in the fourth term of the “imperial presidency.” And an eccentric novelist named Philip K. Dick has just died in California.

Or has he? Psychiatrist Lia Pickford, M.D., is nonplussed when Dick walks into her office in small-town Georgia, with a cab idling outside, to ask for help. And Cal Pickford, a longtime Dick fan stunned by the news of his hero’s death, is electrified when his wife tells him of the visit.

So begins a sequence of events involving Cal in the repressive Nixon regime, the affairs of an aging movie queen, a hip but frightened Vietnamese immigrant and an old black man who works as a groom–all leading up to a fateful confrontation between Dick, Cal, and Nixon himself on the moon.

Blurb from the 1988 Grafton edition

Michael Bishop’s tribute to Philip K Dick is a marvellous if less frenetic pastiche of Dick’s work, rich in irony and sly humour. Rather as Dick did in VALIS, with a late post modern twist, real people appear, albeit in a dystopian parallel universe of America in the Nineteen Eighties.
In VALIS of course, Dick included fictionalised versions of people such as his friend KW Jeter and David Bowie, disguised through the medium of fictional names, but it was a conceit waiting to be discovered, much like Easter eggs in video games, given that the narrator of VALIS is Dick himself, hidden behind the name Horselover Fat (Philip in Greek is Lover of horses. Dick is German for Fat).
Here, the book begins with Dick’s death, and his resurrection as a ghost, on a mission to gather a team to alter Earth’s reality to one which provides a better level of happiness to everyone.
Cal Pickford is an ex cowboy (a horse lover in fact), now employed in the Happy Puppy Pet Emporium. The shop is visited by a woman Cal is nervous about, who purchases two genetically modified Russian guinea pigs, known as Brezhnev Bears.
Meanwhile, his wife Lia is visited by the temporarily corporeal Philip K Dick who can not for the moment, remember who he is.
In this alternative US, Richard Nixon has stayed in power for four terms running an authoritarian regime. Black people have for the most part been repatriated to Africa, and non-whites and dissidents are subject to cultural programming under the Americulturation process.
Cal has reason to be nervous, as he is a fan of the late Philip K Dick, and has a collection of his banned titles locked away in his house, possession of which is a felony.
Bishop includes Dick’s semi-regular trope of a domineering and/or psychotic woman, here in the form of ex film star Grace Rinehart, now the powerful wife of a senator, dedicated to the implementation of Nixon’s authoritarian policies.
To add to the VALIS ‘Horselover’ connection, we also have the character of Kenneth ‘Horsy’ Stout, a black dwarf working in a stables who gets ‘possessed’ by the spirit of Dick and transported to the moon. ‘Stout’ is another word for ‘Fat’ and there is the initial K in the first name.
Written not too many years after Dick’s actual death, this is a warm, clever and often funny tribute to his life and legacy, although disturbingly Bishop’s US dystopia is not a million miles from our US of 2020.

A Child of Earth – EC Tubb (Dumarest #33) (2008)

Child Of Earth

I have been following Dumarest’s exploits since the Nineteen Seventies, testament to which is a long line of brightly coloured paperback spines in one of my bookcases. They comprise mostly of the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties Arrow editions, with a couple of gaps.
I approached the final volume, in a kindle format unimagined when I began this journey, with a sense of trepidation. This is the thirty third book in the Dumarest series; an astounding achievement for any author, but more so for Tubb, whose literary output was prolific outside of this lengthy saga, written over five decades.
I am currently attempting a retreading of this path, to fill in the gaps where I skipped a couple of volumes and gain a better perspective of the whole thing, but whether I will complete the mission is debatable.
Here, Dumarest, having finally discovered the long lost planet Earth where he was born, is stranded, his ship having been shot down to the planet by the Cyclan.
Despite the fact that the saga is late dystopic pulp fiction Space Opera, the Cyclan are in my view one of the best evil nemesi ever created.
The Cyclan are an organisation of humans who have had their emotional responses removed and can therefore gain satisfaction only from cold logical deduction of future events, based on analysis of the relevant data. Tubb himself has described them as basically Star Trek Vulcans, albeit far less altruistic and totally ruthless. They flounce about in long scarlet capes and are hired as advisors by rich clients and planetary governments, over which the Cyclan subsequently wield insidious control.
As a reader, there’s something quite seductive about them, although that may just be the long hooded scarlet capes. I’d love one but sadly, I am not tall enough to pull it off. I suspect the Cyclan have minimum height requirements.
The survivors of the ship are attacked and rendered unconscious and Dumarest awakens to find himself an unwilling guest of Shandaga, a mysterious figure who wishes to examines Dumarest’s memories to amuse himself.
In this sense, this finale is an attempt to tell the story of how Dumarest became Dumarest, taking us full circle to his childhood and how he left Earth to travel the galaxy.
The book is based on two short stories published shortly before, although I suspect Tubb hedged his bets here and planned further episodes since the denouement is left fairly open ended.
As a finale it is fascinating but a little disappointing, not least because there is not a scarlet robe to be seen, and one would like to see the Cyclan defeated, despite their cutting edge interplanetary fashion statements.
However, it would be churlish to criticise an author who was writing presumably up until his death at the age of 90.
A TV series ‘Dumarest of Terra’ was announced in 2017, covering the first few novels, but nothing of this has been reported as at 2019.

Greybeard – Brian Aldiss (1964)


As post apocalyptic novels go, this has to be one of the strangest, albeit being paradoxically pastoral, original and beautifully written.
Following a nuclear accident, the effects of which caused the van Allen belt to contract and irradiate the Earth, larger mammals are for the most part rendered sterile, leaving the human race ageing and childless.
Aldiss chooses to begin his tale many years after the incident, following the life of Greybeard. He is, despite his name, one of the youngest of a dwindling elderly population making the best of their lives in isolated small communities of the Thames Valley.
At the start of the novel Greybeard is living with his wife – whom he has known and loved for most of his life – in Sparcot, a barriered off village on the banks of the river. The villagers exist on food they grow, shoot or trap, their clothes often made from restitched items of inappropriate material.
It is an uneasy existence, made both more surreal and more fascinating by the elderly cast of slightly grotesque residents. Unexpected obstacles, such as the rise in the stoat population and their newfound tendency to hunt in packs, bedevil them. Their isolation has also caused some residents to foster a belief in gnomes, or to brood on the possibility of being invaded by the Scots.
After an altercation with refugees from another community, overrun by stoats, Greybeard and his wife decide to take a boat and sail downstream to try their luck elsewhere. This journey alternates between Greybeard’s past and present, giving us glimpses of how the disaster was affecting the world at various points in his life.
It is very much a novel which examines human tenacity and purpose in a world where there is no hope for the future of Humanity as a species. Greybeard was employed as an agent of DOUCH(E) (where I can’t help but see a twinkle in the author’s eye at the unfortunate and likely deliberate acronym). The organisation is quite simply a body set up to perform mass observation, to record the extinction of man. Greybeard himself is aware of the irony of the task but is nevertheless dedicated to the work.
In their travels down the river toward the sea, the couple and some of their erstwhile neighbours encounter a descent into a medieval existence where isolated groups have evolved strong diverging accents from their lack of contact with others.
Like Fahrenheit 451, this is a book which transcends the genre and remains undated some sixty years after its publication. It’s listed in Pringle’s ‘100 Greatest SF Novels‘ and if not the best, is certainly the most original post apocalypse novel of the time.
Depopulation was and is a popular theme, the most notable previous work being ‘Earth Abides‘ by George R Stewart, although a nod also has to be given to Simak’s ‘A Choice of Gods’ and Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids‘.
PD James’ ‘Children of Men’, incidentally, roused even Aldiss’ suspicions on publication as it appears that the narrative is rather too similar for comfort.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953)

Fahrenheit 451

Guy Montag is a fireman. In his world, where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.

Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television ‘family’. But then he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people did not live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television.

When Mildred attempts suicide and Clarisse suddenly disappears, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.

Blurb from the 2013 60th anniversary Kindle edition

It is an established fact that the paths of SF emerged from disparate roots in the US and the UK. The British have a strong literary tradition of SF beginning, as most critics suggest, with Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and continuing with HG Wells, Aldous Huxley, CS Lewis, John Wyndham, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis et al. Many of their works could be placed in the category of The Great British novel.
American SF emerged in the main from the pulps and comic books, and The Great American Novel is sadly lacking an SF presence before the mid Twentieth Century.
This would certainly qualify; the sort of quality SF that gets taken off the SF shelves in bookshops and put into the Classics section.
Guy Montag is a fireman in a Lynch-esque totalitarian American dystopia. Firemen, in this surreal future, are employed to burn books, and the houses in which they are discovered.
One night Montag meets a young woman on the street, a new neighbour, and their subsequent conversations force him to start questioning everything about his life.
From this point the plot marches on with a masterfully measured Shakespearean inevitability.
There are some echoes of Orwell here with the propaganda and the interminable wars.
From the first page it sizzles with inventive description, almost poetry in some passages.

‘The trees overhead made a great sound of letting down their dry rain. The girl stopped and looked as if she might pull back in surprise, but instead stood regarding Montag with eyes so dark and shining and alive, that he felt he had said something quite wonderful. But he knew his mouth had only moved to say hello, and then when she seemed hypnotized by the salamander on his arm and the phoenix-disc on his chest, he spoke again.‘

Part one: The Hearth and the Salamander

It’s a novel which, in its own quiet way, succinctly captures Humanity and its behaviour, foreseeing as 1984 did, a society which is easily controlled and manipulated by the media, represented here by Montag’s wife Mildred, addicted to the mindless interactive drama displayed on three of the four walls in their living room.
Or one could choose to watch the live chase of a criminal pursued by one of the Fire Service’s mechanical Hounds, a beast with eight legs and a hypodermic probiscis, containing a painful fatal dose.
It is all the more remarkable for the fact that Bradbury wrote this in just nine days, as he explains in the introduction to the Kindle edition.
The setting is a US of which we only see a fraction, all of it from Montag’s point of view. Much of the narrative is set indoors, either at Montag’s house or at the Fire Station, which intensifies the claustrophobic nature of the tale.
It is a version of America which has never and will never exist and yet it remains a portrait of America which is perhaps truer in its depiction of the nation’s psyche than any current contemporary US novels. If anything, it is some alternate America rather than a bleak possible future.
It is truly a masterpiece and deserves its place in Pringle’s ‘100 Greatest SF Novels‘ although there is a part of me that wonders whether, had Bradbury’s denouement been more Orwellian and less upbeat, it might have carried more force.

A Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers 02) – Peter F Hamilton (2016)

A Night Without Stars (Commonwealth Universe, #7)

The planet Bienvenido is in crisis. It has finally escaped the Void, emerging into regular space. But it’s millions of light-years from Commonwealth assistance, and humans are battling the Fallers for control of their world. This rapacious adversary, evolved to destroy all sentient life, has infiltrated every level of human society – hijacking unwilling bodies so its citizens fear their leaders, friends and family.

A mysterious figure known as the Warrior Angel leads a desperate resistance. She’s helped by forbidden Commonwealth technology, which gives her a crucial edge. But the government obstructs the Angel’s efforts at every turn, blinded by prejudice and technophobia. As Fallers also prepare to attack from the skies, she might need to incite rebellion to fight this invasion. But the odds seem impossible.

Then astronaut Ry Evine uncovers one last hope. On a mission against the enemy, his spacecraft damages an unidentified vessel. This crash-lands on the planet carrying unexpected cargo: a baby. This extraordinary Commonwealth child possesses knowledge that could save them all. But if the Fallers catch her, the people of Bienvenido will not survive.

Blurb from the 2016 Del Rey Edition

One has to confess that beginning this book was a worry since it had been years since I read The Abyss Beyond Dreams, and as I’m not too good with even remembering the names of my loved ones, it’s rather too much to expect me to remember a large number of the standard Hamilton enormous cast.
However, this is set some 250 years in the future following the Great Transition (as it is now called) when the Void ejected the planet Bienvenido to an orbit about a sun, lost in the space between galaxies.
Society has advanced to a point (with the covert help of Nigel Sheldon’s ANAdroids) where rockets can be sent into orbit to destroy the alien trees which are bombarding the planet with Faller eggs. These are alien predators which ‘eggsume’ human bodies and reassemble them, but with alien Faller minds.
The world is tightly controlled by an authoritarian regime which not only withholds information about the extent of Faller infiltration, but restricts technology which could help, fearing that the Eliters with their inherited Commonwealth macrocellular clusters and advanced genetics will stage a coup.
There is therefore a mostly new cast, although some of the more long-lived characters, such as The Warrior Angel, and Nigel Sheldon’s Anadroids, are still extant.
Eliters who wish to have any sort of meaningful career have to keep their status secret, and there is an interesting contrast between Captain Chaing of the feared PSR secret police and Ry, an astronaut, both of whom are hiding their Eliter status in order to retain their position.
The good guys are in a race against time to assemble a defence against the Fallers before either a) the Fallers take control of the planet or b) the government nukes the rest of the world in an attempt to destroy their forces.
It is a far more satisfactory novel than Abyss which I found marred by the repeated format used in the Void trilogy. The Fallers themselves, as I have previously mentioned, are merely another incarnation of the Possessed from his Night’s Dawn trilogy, which also featured star systems being transported far away from their home galaxy into intergalactic space.
There is something missing, though. Hamilton is at his best when he can move from one extraordinary human (or alien) community to another. We love the AIs, and the wormhole technology, the fascinating environments that Man has created on a thousand planets, the ships, the Dyson spheres and the myriad alien environments. Hamilton cones into his own here in the thrilling climax, when we do indeed find wonder and surprises on other planets of the system.
This final section sings, in the way that Nights Dawn and the Starflyer sequence sang, but the rest is slightly lacking on wonder albeit very high scoring in pace and excitement.
Despite my criticisms there is no doubt that Hamilton is still streets ahead of other writers of the New Space Opera. His writing pervades you with its atmosphere and ideas and colours your day. I am a huge fan, but he can do better than this.
It is not clear if Brexit played any subconscious role in the plotting, but I am sure the conspiracy theorists among fans have already blogged their views on Hamilton having a man called Nigel trying to save society from the unwanted rules of a controlling and undemocratic power. The world is divided between two factions with entrenched views, none of which will accept the viewpoints of the other, and the government are shameless in lying about the dangers the population face. When the people leave, however, they realise that their life is now a bit shit, and they are left at the mercy of a vicious right wing government who continue to lie about everything and stay in power for two hundred and fifty years. There’s got to be something in that.

Why Call Them Back from Heaven – Clifford Simak (1967)

Why Call Them Back From Heaven?

Immortality – The ultimate reward: To come back to life – and never die again – that’s what Forever Center promises the human race. And that’s why, in the year 2148, people spend their whole lives in poverty, giving all their money to Forever Center to ensure their happiness and comfort in the next eternal life.

Daniel Frost is a key man at Forever Center. When he accidentally stumbles onto some classified documents, Dan incurs the wrath of an unseen enemy who has him framed and denounced as a social outcast. With the notorious mark of ostracization on his forehead, he is condemned to the desperate life of a hunted animal. But a few people will risk their lives to help him: Ann Harrison, the beautiful renegade lawyer who is convinced of his innocence, and Mona Campbell, the brilliant mathematician who has discovered some shattering information about Forever Center…and the essence of life itself.

Blurb from the 1985 Methuen edition

Daniel Frost is on the board of the Forever Centre. They provide cryogenic services worldwide. Everyone is fitted with what are essentially homing devices which send a signal when death occurs. A team is sent out and the body immediately frozen for future revival when both medical science has advanced and man has solved the secrets of time travel, immortality and journeys to habitable exoplanets.
Many people choose a form of euthanasia, investing their money in Forever stock so that they will amass a large amount by the time they are awakened.
An underground group, The Holies, oppose the corporation as they feel that Man should have his reward in Heaven.
Frost finds himself the target of a smear campaign by one of his colleagues, and is puzzled as to why. He can only deduce that it is something to do with a sheet of paper he accidentally acquired some time ago. This sheet of paper is the Maguffin and does not reveal its import until the denouement.
He has to go on the run, and somehow outwit his enemies before he is killed.
The chapters are interspersed with vignettes of various ordinary people and how their lives fit in to the world of the Forever company.
It’s quite a dark piece of work for Simak, and the plot is fairly similar to that of ‘Time Is The Simplest Thing‘ in that a high level employee of a company has to go on the run. The companies are both organisations that set out with altruistic motives but have now grown to control society and government to the detriment of those they originally aimed to serve and employ.
It’s not clear what point Simak is making here, if he is trying to make any point at all, other than the dangers of multinational companies controlling the world, and dictating government policy and law. Not one of Simak’s best.

Ultimatum in 2050 AD – Jack Sharkey (1965)



It was the year 2050 A.D. and the Hive, with its ten million inhabitants, was going along as smoothly as ever. Except that, on a whim, Kinsman Lloyd Bodger, Jr. had helped a fugitive girl escape hospitalization, and she had told him her secret. “There are no hospitals! There is only death!” Of course it couldn’t be true. Lloyd Bodger’s own father was second in command of the Hive, the first true democracy.

“But Why,” she had said, “doesn’t anyone ever return from hospitalization? Why is the population always a constant ten million?”

Well, young Bodger reasoned grimly, he would soon know the truth. For hiding the fugitive girl, he himself would either be hospitalized, or fed into the incinerator chutes!’

Blurb from the M-117 1965 Ace Double Paperback Edition.

By 2050, due to various factors caused by the US administration in the 1970s, the human population has been reduced to 10 million, all contained within a sealed city, ‘The Hive’, run along totalitarian Orwellian lines. Those who fall ill or fail to match the expectations of society are hospitalised for treatment or re-adjustment, but none of them return.
Lloyd Bodger is the son of the Secondary Speakster (the Vice President essentially), the Prime Speakster being one Fredric Stanton. Stanton has gone out of his way to adjust the rules of ‘The Brain’ which controls the city. This has ensured that his time in office was extended long beyond the usual term.
Citizens are required to vote on political motions regularly and Lloyd, having fallen behind on his voting quota, is keen to make up the difference. Here he meets a girl on the run, one of the resistance, and helps her escape from certain execution. Obviously, his actions are observed and Lloyd’s father is informed by Stanton himself.
This sets in motion a series of events which results in a revolution of sorts and a new start for the human race.
It’s an odd little ‘pocket universe’ tale which leaves little room for any character development and throws in some very dubious scientific concepts. Bodger Senior, we discover, was made practically immortal by a failed experiment back in the Twentieth Century which has left his insides radioactive. The citizens of the Hive are nightly engulfed in an artificial total darkness called Ultrablack. The explanation for this makes no sense either. Robot ‘goons’ wander the street, picking up any citizens found outside after curfew and delivering them to ‘the hospital’.
There is a section toward the end where Bodger discovers how the Hive came to be a totalitarian regime, and it makes sense of a sort. It’s not that important however, and Sharkey would have been better employed using the precious word count to try and inject some additional dimensions to very cardboard characters. One would have thought his might have been one of the author’s strengths since Sharkey was better known as a playwright (under various names) and was responsible it seems for a production entitled ‘Dracula, the Musical?’ in 1982.
It’s not a bad piece of work for an Ace Double but could have benefited from some serious revision.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)

Nineteen Eighty-Four

There isn’t a lot I can add to the no doubt inexhaustible amount of analysis and dissection that this novel has engendered since its first publication.
Quite rightly considered one of the best Dystopian novels of the Twentieth Century, Orwell’s chilling vision of Britain under a totalitarian regime has become one of those odd iconic social phenomena which has lodged itself within the public consciousness. There is apparently a sizeable percentage of the population who claim, or even believe, that they have read the book without actually having done so, and there are many more who are familiar with the name Winston Smith and the phrases ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ both of which became the titles of successful TV programmes, although only bearing a very loose connection to the original work.
I have not read this since 1976 when, as I recall, it was recommended reading in my O Level English class. Apart from the 1984 film starring John Hurt as Winston Smith which I saw on its release, I have had no experience of the narrative since. However, the novel seems to seep into us all as if by osmosis via public media and it is therefore perhaps not surprising that so many believe erroneously that they have actually read it.
For a novel of the late Nineteen Forties it has dated very little and is a tribute to Orwell’s writing and his characterisation. Whether the author planned it or not, the fact that the Powers That Be seek to halt social change and development gives contemporary readers an odd view of what life may have been like if a socialist revolution had occurred in the Nineteen Fifties and social development halted. It still reads as fresh and as powerful as when it was first published and is undeniably a brilliantly observed textbook of political control.
Having said that, although ‘Animal Farm’ was a direct analogy of the Soviet Revolution and its consequences, Nineteen Eighty Four is a far vaguer concept and looks to the future of what an authoritarian regime may eventually become. What is slightly chilling about this is how much our so called democratic governments are employing the techniques that Orwell so concisely explains. A ruling body does not have to be a left wing socialist dictatorship to seek to control the population through a reduction in levels of education and control of the media.
That’s been standard practice in the UK for at least the last twenty years, and one can see from looking at the actions of individuals such as Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch how adept the PTB have become in controlling what information is disseminated to the ‘proles’ and in what form.
Others have pointed out that if the society of Nineteen Eighty-Four exists anywhere, it is within the intolerant theocracies and religious dictatorships of the Middle East where victimless crimes such as Atheism or Blasphemy will have you up before the thought police before you know it, excommunicated from your family and very likely executed. Indeed, Winston’s society tends toward the religious model with Big Brother as its eternal Messiah. Like most fundamentalist sects for instance, The Party is against sex, and not content with merely restricting copulation for reproductive purposes, seek ultimately to eradicate the practice altogether and have the process automated by machines.
One wonders if Orwell considered that what he was writing was actually Science Fiction, or indeed if he cared. It’s an extraordinary work made more so by its lack of comparison to other genre works of the time. It’s hard to say however without further research what subsequent level of influence Nineteen Eighty Four had on the genre as a whole. Certainly it is fascinating to see so many ideas that we may refer to today as Dickian, such as the majority of the population of the world being unaware of the true nature of things (as in ‘The Penultimate Truth’) or the delightful and very Dickian concepts of machines that construct novels or pornography, or the versificator, which composes popular songs. ‘Thoughtcrime’ however, is the most Dickian idea here, and indeed, Dick did explore the idea of police who arrest people for crimes they have not yet committed.
Wingrove’s ‘Chung Kuo’ also owes a lot to Orwell, particularly in the ruling oligarchy’s policy to halt the ‘Wheel of Change’ and their rewriting of World History.
What most struck me about this book however, coming to it relatively afresh after forty years, was that it was not what I had expected. There are elements of the surreal and the absurd, such as the Party manufacturing pornography to be illegally sold on the black market. There are complex characters such as Julia, whose inexplicable declaration of love for Winston immediately raises suspicions, but which, given her later conversations with him, seems logical given their twisted emotional development under this repressive regime. Winston himself, is an extraordinarily complex character with very few redeeming features and not at all likeable to any degree, but yet is a far more real human being than any of the numberless fearless heroes that have infested our bookshelves since.
I can’t say I was that impressed back in 1976, but then, I did not know a great deal about the world. Now, I see it as a dark twisted mirror of our political world. It speaks to me all too clearly with a wonderful clarity.
If you haven’t read it, read it. Be enlightened.

Galactic Pot Healer – Philip K Dick (1969)

Galactic Pot-Healer

Joe Fernwright is a pot healer – as was his his father before him – in a future totalitarian dystopia although his services are somewhat redundant since no one makes or breaks ceramics any more.
One day Joe gets a mysterious message offering him a job on Sirius V. The message turns out to be from an all powerful entity known as the Glimmung who is launching a project to raise a sunken cathedral from the ocean bed.
Being a Dick novel, things are not as straightforward as this synopsis would imply.
Fernwright is one of a large number of humans and alien experts in various fields who have been promised a fortune in payment to undertake work on the project. Many, however, are suspicious of the Glimmung’s ultimate objectives, especially as the experts all appear to have all been implicated in various crimes just prior to departure which they suspect were engineered by this being.
There are various Dick hallmarks here, such as the grasping ex-wife, the concept of Fatalism and a surprisingly overt use of humour where he is normally more subtle and understated. We have the world of the dead and the decaying beneath the ocean where at one point Joe meets his dead self.
There is also a religion which features the concepts of the duality of light and dark, something he had already explored, perhaps to better effect, in ‘The Cosmic Puppets’.
We are also in familiar territory with Dick’s lackadaisical attitude to technology and actual science since there is no attempt to explain how the ships that ferry the team to Sirius V operate or indeed the very idiosyncratic robots with whom they have to deal once they arrive. We have no problem as readers with the fact that Sirius V has Earth standard gravity and atmosphere. It didn’t matter to Dick, and for reasons I can’t fathom, doesn’t matter a jot to me either. He somehow always get away with it.
Much of the novel hinges on truth and trust. It becomes clear that the Glimmung is quite capable of lying, and Joe and his colleagues have to employ a a mixture of logic and intuition to determine the best course of action. Added to this is the book of the Kalends, a kind of prophetic bible which changes daily and seems to prophesy the future of the protagonists with uncanny accuracy (in English and various other languages, both human and alien).
Joe, on his dive into the ocean to see the cathedral – against the Glimmung’s express instructions – discovers an ancient vase half covered in coral but one which carries a personal message for him under the glaze. He notices that some of the coral has been removed, which implies that he was meant to see it, but did the Glimmung forbid Joe to go down to the sunken cathedral simply because he knew that Joe then would?
This is one example of a paranoid undercurrent that runs like a thread throughout this novel showing Joe and his companions forced to question the veracity of what they have been told or read. It’s a fascinating and particularly Dickian concept but like almost every other concept in this book is underdeveloped.
There’s something else very flawed about this novel, most essentially in its internal reality which produces an uneasy mixture of tone. There are the serious scenes, such as Joe being given a message by his dead decaying self, and those in which we have comical robots called Willis and clams that tell jokes. Maybe Dick considered that the contrast would make the serious scenes more powerful but it just doesn’t work. ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon‘ held the balance perfectly and despite its ludicrous premise – that Earth had set up a Mental Health facility on one of the moons of Alpha Centauri which was cut off and left to its own devices during the long years of the Alphane war – is a far more complex, structured and amusing work.
This is not a major Dick novel but it has its moments and needs to be studied by Dick enthusiasts if only to identify the PKD trademarks and how they are related to their use in other novels.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch #1) (2013)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)

Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.