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.
The secret of life and the restoring to the living of victims of the holocaust initiate a conflict for Ed Dukas, Gallun’s scientific pioneer of the future. Restoring persons through scientific methods, personality records and the memories of near kin, leaves one fatal flaw. They lack one indefinable quality – a divine spark, perhaps a soul.
Gallon depicts a struggle between the restored people and the natural living. Life on the asteroids, thought machines, a journey to Mars and a star ship expedition to Sirius are woven into the plot.
People Minus X is packed with action, science-fiction style. – Detroit Times’
Blurb from the 1958 D-291 Ace Double paperback edition
The plot is straightforward enough. Ed Dukas’ Uncle, Mitch Prell, is a scientist whose creations include Vitaplasm, a synthetic but living flesh which can not only aid with repairing limbs or organs but – once one’s body has been screened – can reproduce a copy if the human original is killed.
These bodies are stronger, faster and can absorb light and radiation as fuel for the body. Prell has also developed android bodies for the same purpose. As Ed’s father is dead, but wasn’t screened, Prell collects as much information as he can with a view to having Ed’s father resurrected.
Not long after however, there is an explosion on the moon related to one of Prell’s experiments and the Moon disintegrates into a ring of asteroids around the Earth, but only after a large number of them have already hit the Earth causing mass fatalities and chaos. Everyone blames Prell for the disaster and for the fact that victims of this holocaust are returning from the dead, something to which a vocal minority fiercely object.
Ed and his mother are forced to leave and live in the asteroids for a while until she receives a message and tells her son that they have to return.
Ed’s father has been resurrected as a Vitaplast human it seems. but is not the same man. Ed decides to accept him though, as do other families whose relatives, killed by some of the moon debris, begin to return to them.
Slowly tensions rise as Human purists begin to campaign against the Vitaplast and android returnees, a campaign which escalates to the point of open warfare.
Prell is believed to be still alive and one day Ed finds the word ‘Nipper’ – Prell’s nickname for his nephew, written in ink on a blank sheet of paper.
From herein on, Ed is on a mission to find his uncle and try and put a stop to the madness that has been unleashed on the Earth. It’s a journey that takes him and his girlfriend to Mars where they are given knowledge and power that could halt the war that is about to erupt.
It’s a marvelous little buried gem, this; a colourful and thrilling story which – serendipitously- echoes the the rhetoric of the current US Christian Right in their hate-filled pogroms against people whom they believe have no right to exist.
The dialogue is a little strange, even for the Nineteen Fifties. Oddly this seems to imbue the book with its own character. The narrative packs a huge amount into a minimal number of pages and – whether consciously or not – the author manages to make a telling point about how the US deals with the problem of xenophobia within its borders. You push all those ‘different people’ onto a ship and send them off on a one-way trip to the planets of Sirius.
But hey, that was the Fifties. Sixty years later we are still seeing people doing the same thing in Syria and in Europe. These ‘different people’ aren’t wanted and are being told to move on or go back.
They’d maybe welcome a giant spaceship to Sirius.
Morton Cargill, a veteran of the Korean War, is drinking in a bar and gets friendly with a young woman who is as drunk as he is. Driving her back home, they crash and she is killed. Morton escapes unscathed and flees the scene.
Later he receives a letter purportedly from the dead woman, arranging a meeting. When he turns up he is abducted and wakes up in a room divided by a glass partition on the other side of which is a woman resembling the dead woman.
Cargill has been transported to the future where he is to be killed as part of a therapeutic process to rid his victim’s descendant of her race-memory issues.
However, he is later awakened by a woman called Ann Reece who has a portable time-travel device and persuades him to escape further into the future with her as he is important to a future political faction.
van Vogt has a recurring motif of different ‘classes’ of humans interacting to a greater or lesser degree with each other. In ‘Slan’ we have the humans, the Slans and the tendril-less Slans. ‘Mission to The Stars’ features Dellians, non-Dellians and the rest of humanity.
Here, Humanity has divided into three groups, the Tweeners, who continue to live normal lives in the cities, Floaters, who live a gipsy/nomad existence in solar powered ships, and the Shadows, a race of supermen who can alter the physical structures of their own bodies and appear insubstantial to everyone else.
van Vogt brings in the Lamarckian concept of race memory, since the descendant of Chanette is suffering mental instability because of the inherited effects of her murder.
The time travelling psychologists believe that witnessing the murderer’s death will cure her and negate her of the possibility of passing on any further angst to her offspring. van Vogt manages to make this seem plausible although I am sure that even in Nineteen Fifty Three it didn’t bear very close scrutiny.
It would appear that the author was attempting one of those time paradox novels which were done far better by Charles L Harness, Clifford Simak and Harry Harrison. van Vogt was never very good on structure and to construct such a novel would depend very much on a cohesive structure and a strong sense of internal logic, neither of which is the case. As is well-known, he tended to employ a ‘make it up as you go along’ style of writing which usually doesn’t make for a balanced structure.
He also brings in the concept of the soul, a subject he employed later in ‘Computerworld’ although here the examination is muddy even by van Vogt’s standards and not explored or exploited to any great degree. This is linked to an examination of reality which has its interesting moments such as a very Dickian moment when Cargill is transposed to a future civilisation which only exists in potential until Cargill has carried out a specific action.
The author’s attitude to women is again here sadly prevalent. It is sad that compared to his peers who, although the sexism was evident, tended to ignore or marginalise female characters, he actively promotes the concept of female inferiority and subservience.
van Vogt’s women can never resist the power of a dominant male and here, the two major female characters fall in love with Cargill for no apparent reason. Women are there to be subdued and used, as is clear from Cargill’s willingness to seduce Anne Reece simply because he has been asked to in order to further a convoluted plan. He does not even seem to acknowledge the fact that she has saved his life twice.
Oddly Cargill is not your usual van Vogt intelligent and logical hero, since his actions from the outset appear to be quite stupid and ill-thought out.
The Shadows, a faction of human ‘Supermen’ who can make their bodies insubstantial but many times more efficient, are interested in Cargill because his future can not be determined.
Cargill later discovers he has the ability to affect the structure of reality and can if he wishes, restructure the Universe.
In essence, van Vogt struggles with too many concepts here and it all ends up being a bit of a mess. There are glimmers of brilliance here and there but this is way short of van Vogt at his best.
Sam is a young female agent of the Homeland Security Emerging Risks Directorate, a somewhat fanatical branch of US enforcement which has been set up to combat the perceived threat of illegal human enhancements. Sam is on the trail of a brilliant student, Kaden Lane, who has modified what used to be Nexus 3 into Nexus 5, a nanotechnological substance which can allow the connection of minds with other users.
Sam, ironically, has been not only physically enhanced by her department but has had a whole other personality complete with memories overlaid over her own. Having successfully made contact with Lane she gets herself invited to a Nexus 5 party. Sam is overwhelmed by the beautiful communion of minds that her cover personality begins to deteriorate. The ERD raid the party and Lane is taken away.
There’s a bit of a cliché here. Hard-arse authoritarians tell the prisoner (Lane) that all his friends can stay in jail and that he himself will get a hefty sentence unless he does a job for the hard-arse authoritarians.
Sam and Lane are sent to a conference in Thailand where Lane attracts the attention of several parties, one of them being a woman the ERD are interested in; a Chinese scientist rumoured to be experimenting with Nexus and other transhumanist technologies.
I would describe this as a Good Book. It zips along fairly swiftly, is a captivating read and builds to an exciting and satisfactory denouement. In many ways it is reinventing the concept of Homo Superior by enhancing Humanity with a nanotechnological software that bonds with its host and becomes permanent part of the body.
Naam goes further by suggesting that Nexus 5 can be passed on in some case to children who grow up able to share the thoughts of other Nexus users.
Being a Good Book though is no guarantee that it’s a good novel. This achieved the shortlist of the 2014 Arthur C Clarke award which surprises me since it does have its flaws. Naam seems to be putting forward an argument in favour of transhumanism by looking at the positive benefits, the negative effects, the political consequences in personal and wider social terms and the very real dangers. All well and good. What slightly undermines this is the Marvel comic characterisation.
The people of the ERD are painted as obsessive, irrational and illogical. Becker, in charge of the mission, is a sociopathic control freak whose motivation seems based on a fear of his teenage daughters being given some form of Nexus. There does need to be some light and shade here since the impression one gets is that the author is deeply distrustful of the American government and his doing his utmost to paint them in a bad light. A little subtlety would have improved this aspect no end.
Kaden Lane, the central character, makes the stupidest decisions in the world, usually without asking anyone’s advice.
Sam’s journey within the novel sees her gradually turning away from her ERD masters toward lane and his Nexus 5 transhumanism. Quite unnecessarily we learn her backstory. She was brought up in a Waco-style commune that devolved into an insular world of sexual abuse and violence. Naam could have made more of the comparisons between Sam’s repressed childhood memories and the overlaid personalities and memories she adopts for missions.
Rather like Becker’s daughter obsession, Naam has taken one element of a character’s life as the one defining factor in their behaviour. It’s a tad too formulaic and tends to detract from the ongoing storyline.
Naam comes into his own when the narrative shifts to Thailand. There appears to be a free market for wetware and enhancements and it is not long before lane finds himself to be a person of interest for at least three separate groups, each of whom wants to use Nexus 5 for their own purposes.
The denouement is, as I have said, exciting and dare I say it, a little transcendent, paving the way for the inevitable sequels.
It is undoubtedly a Good Book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading more. Whether or not it should have been in the Clarke Award shortlist is another matter. I would have expected a little more depth.
‘THEY AMENDED THE LAWS OF NATURE
PLANETEERS GO HOME!
The planet was called Golden in honor of the planeteer whose ship had crashed there years before. It was an Earth-type world, with humanoid natives, and other creatures that were–something less.
Or maybe more, for almost all of the planet was covered by an invisible Field which blanked radar, damped the power of the Earthmen’s stunners, immobilized their robots and caused watches to run backward. No machine or weapon more complicated than the lever or knife could work inside the Field.
Which meant that the Space Force had to revert to the primitive to explore the world of Golden. And obviously, someone or something hidden in the vast reaches of the planet had planned it that way. . .’
Blurb from the M-103 1964 Ace Double paperback edition
One of Saberhagen’s novels of Planeteers, a semi-military organisation who survey and assess newly discovered and developed planets. Their remit seems fairly wide and includes some enforcement duties.
The structure is somewhat awkward, since it is broken into three distinct time periods which stunts the flow of the narrative slightly.
The book starts in a children’s home where Adam Mann gets into a fight protecting young Ray Kedro from bullies.
Ray, it turns out, is one of a hundred ‘Jovian Children’ who were the subject of eugenics experiments on Ganymede. The children have some ESP capabilities, and concerned authorities have taken them into care. Very soon, however, they are returned to Dr Nowell on Ganymede.
Much later, Adam, distraught at the death of his wife, joins the Planeteers and is teamed up with Boris Brazil, the hero of ‘The Water of Thought’.
Adam and Boris are posted to the planet Golden which is covered by a mysterious field beneath which nothing electronic or mechanically complex will function. There is one area where the field is absent, and humans have built a settlement here, trading with the local alien natives. The major predator is the ‘geryon’, a malformed beast with a long prehensile neck and disturbingly human features. They hunt in packs and torment their prey.
When Adam disobeys orders and tries to save a young native girl he fails and almost loses his own life.
The narrative jumps forward several years. Adam has resigned and become a trapper on Golden, selling furs to human tourists. Just then, one of the Jovian people, Merit, arrives with her non-Jovian husband and Ray Kedro. We learn that the one hundred have gained significant influence in human business and affairs.
Then, someone tries to kill Merit’s husband. This, the secrets of the one hundred and the mystery of the aliens who built the forcefield all seem to be connected,.
It’s a good read and one which hasn’t dated too badly as long as one doesn’t dig too deep into the scientific aspects (which are few).
In this and ‘The Water of Thought‘ Saberhagen raises issues of colonialism and exploitation, making it clear that humans have processed every world they’ve found for their own benefit. It’s a point made subtly but it comes across.
Humans, consequently, are faced with the possibility of being exploited themselves since the Jovian children (led by Ray Kedro) virtually control human society. It’s possibly no coincidence that Saberhagen wrote Kedro as a blonde. Kedro develops a master-race fixation and sees the Jovian Children as a separate and superior race. It’s fascinating that the idea of Homo Superior in this form i.e. evolved children being born to human parents in the space of a genration, was a product mainly of the 50s and 60s, a time when there was a wholesale change in the behaviour of young people in the wake of the Second World War, and an ongoing fear of nuclear destruction or radiation. ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, ‘The Chrysalids’, Zenna Henderson’s ‘People’ stories etc. all stoke the fuel of a mass paranoia particularly in the States, where paranoia is more or less compulsory, at least among Republicans.
‘Danny Caiden has always thought of himself as a normal guy: an ordinary young American with no special talents leading an ordinary, uneventful life.
Normal, that is, until he suddenly realises he can see into the future.
Before he knows it, Danny has developed a dozen more alarming powers, lost his job, run foul of the FBI – and found himself at the centre of a shattering psychic struggle for the future of humanity…’
Blurb from the 1975 Arrow paperback edition.
Although a minor Blish novel this, for its time, employs serious scientific principles and what must have been cutting edge technology to explore and justify the existence of ESP ‘talents’.
Danny Caiden, a young writer for a US food publication, is concerned by occasional ‘flashes’ of precognition, a concern which becomes of vital importance when he is sacked for writing a about a pending indictment of a wheat company for price-fixing; a report for which he has no evidence.
Once fired, he visits a fortune-teller, attracts the attention of her young assistant, then decides to cash in on his talent by playing the stock market and gambling on horse-races.
Although he wins in both cases, it attracts the attention of both the FBI and the organisation behind the illegal gambling, and he is forced to go on the run where he eventually ends up in the hands of a Psychic Research group; a brotherhood of psi-talented men who want to either initiate him into their ranks or kill him.
It’s a short but fast-paced book, taking in not only the ESP talents such as psychokinesis, telepathy and precognition, but also the concept of parallel worlds.
It suffers from a surfeit if characters and a lack of development of the main characters. Todd, for instance, who is a vital character, does little during the novel and is then kidnapped, only to reappear at the end to help Danny save the world from a psychokinetic madman.
‘The Sleepless dominate the world. But are these expert genetic engineers about to create a new one?
Ordinary mortals think so: after a revolution in the twenty-second century, the Sleepless have spawned a new elite – a handful of people called the SuperSleepless. Miranda Sharifi is their leader; a revolutionary with superintelligent followers, unimaginable technology, huge amounts of money and passionate ideals.
But what is the feared and fabled Miranda up to in her island hideaway of Huevos Verdes? is she trying to find a cure for the mass starvation, catastrophic accidents and viruses plaguing the world? Or is she doing something altogether more sinister?
Diana Covington, an intelligence agent, is sent to investigate. It’s her most challenging mission. It may also be her last…’
Blurb from the 1996 ROC paperback edition.
Kress’ sequel to ‘Beggars in Spain’ is a far more focused affair, narrated in turn by three characters, Drew Arlen, The Lucid Dreamer (who featured in BIS), Diana Covington, (a young woman who is recruited as a GEAS agent to follow Miranda Sharifi, one of the genetically engineered ‘SuperSleepless) and Billy Washington, a sixty-eight year old man who lives in a ‘Liver’ community with a ladyfriend, Annie, and her daughter Lizzie.
The SuperSleepless have created their own island though nanotechnology and are conducting mysterious experiments there. With the Sleepless confined to their satellite world Sanctuary, humanity on earth is divided between Donkeys (who study and work) and Livers, who never have to work and who are provided with homes, food and clothing by the government.
However, technology is beginning to break down around the world in devices which use duragem components. A nanovirus has been released that eats duragem.
Drew Allen has been performing his hypnotic performances of ‘The Warrior’ a piece that has been subtly altering the attitudes of the Livers in order to make them more proactive and self-reliant.
Against this backdrop Diana Covington is recruited to shadow Miranda Sharifi, leader of the SuperSleepless. Diana attends a government hearing where Miranda is attempting to have a nanotechnological ‘Cell Cleaner’ trialled. This would live in the human body and destroy cancer cells, bolster the immune system and keep people healthy. For her own reasons, Miranda sabotages her own case and when she leaves court is replaced by a double. Diana is the only person who sees Miranda leave some time later and follows her to the East Olenta Area.
Meanwhile Drew gets kidnapped by redneck human separatists who consider all genetically engineered humans to be ‘inhuman’ and who, it appears, have been the ones releasing the nanovirus.
Diana gets involved with a family, having saved a little girl’s life, and thus meets up with the third narrator, Billy Washington whose loyalties are constantly torn between Annie (the little girl Lizzie’s mother), Diana and Miranda Sharifi whom Billy met out in the woods. Billy’s friend had a heart attack when the villagers were hunting for rabid raccoons, and Miranda provided rugs that kept him alive until he could be given proper medical assistance.
Billy knows that the SuperSleepless have a base in the woods, but does not trust anyone else with this secret.
As society begins to collapse due to technology breakdowns Diana has to piece together what is happening, and work out how much the SuperSleepless have to do with the collapse of society.
Kress should be applauded for going in a different direction with this sequel and keeping the Sleepless (for the most part) completely off the page. Also, ‘Beggars in Spain’ was written against a sweeping timescale which went from Leisha Camden’s conception through decades of change in society, whilst this novel covers only a few months and concentrates on a very restricted number of characters who have major parts to play in the narrative. This, I think, makes it a more successful novel, one which revolves around the actions of a very small number of people which affects the entire world.
The result of this three-voiced narrative is that sometimes one gets the same event from two very different points of view. Conversely, things happen off-page of which the narrators have no direct knowledge and it is up to the reader to determine the truth of the matter.
Where for instance, did the leader of the rednecks get the duragem-dissembler in the first place? He claims that his people had stolen it from the Sleepless, although it seems unlikely that they would be so careless with their security, and as it is shown that they later knew who had the dissembler, it seems possible they allowed it to be stolen.
This is presumably a deliberate literary device to demonstrate the unfathomable thinking of the SuperSleepless who are capable of playing infinitely complex strategic games.
The author mischievously leaves the reader almost in the position of someone flung unprepared into ‘The Moral Maze.’
The SuperSleepless (since a new biological virus has been released via genemod rabbits which is fatal to humans and very contagious) end up distributing hypodermics of Miranda’s ‘Cell Cleaner’.
Diana, Lizzie, Billy and Annie had already received injections to save them from the virus.
The contents of the hypodermic however are far more than at first described. Humans thus augmented can now absorb nutrients directly through the skin by, for instance, lying in in mud or a pile of leaves. Famine will theoretically never be an issue again.
There is a scary question at the heart of this which is ‘Should a substantially more intelligent community be allowed to decide what is best for Homo Sapiens?’. Most rational humans would immediately say ‘no.’ I suspect, but Kress makes a good case for the ayes and I find it a difficult question to answer. So far, we haven’t done very well deciding things for ourselves.
Tepper’s ‘The Fresco’ addresses the same point in a different way, as did ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ back in the Fifties, although Michael Rennie did at least have the decency to give Earth an ultimatum.
‘THE WORLD WAS COMING TO AN END…. but only the toti-potents knew it. They were the instruments of the alien invaders.
Once they had been ordinary men. But when the invaders from space took possession of their bodies, they became immortal and perpetually young; able to read minds and predict and change the future; possessors of weapons infinitely more powerful than any Earth had known. And they began to hate men.
But because, outwardly, they still looked and acted like everybody else, there was no way to tell who they were – until they attacked!’
Blurb from the 1969 Macfadden books paperback edition.
This is a piece originally published in Astounding in 1944 which features a future world in which, for one thing, the sexual divide has become polarised. Many women have a drug that makes them the equal of men (although what exactly that entails, apart from increased strength is kept a little vague). The consequence of this is that no one will employ them and no man will marry them. To solve the problem President Jefferson Dayles has recruited them all as a personal Amazon Army.
The novel begins however with Lesley Craig, a man who is questioning his own memory. He has the conviction that he has been working at his current job for longer than seems to be the case, and when he decides to go home to question his wife on the matter he eavesdrops on her discussing him with a group of men.
He has also been kidnapped by a team of Amazons and taken to see Jefferson Dayles who questions him obliquely before Craig is returned home.
This would appear to be typical ‘stream of consciousness’ work from van Vogt, who presumably had no idea where the story was going when he started out. It would appear, however, that the story – then called ‘The Wonderful Man’ – was rejected by JW Campbell twice. Campbell noted ‘”I think you’ve been straining for something new and strange and different in this ‘Wonderful Man’ yarn. But my gut reaction is that while you’ve achieved that in part, you’ll do better without these particular strangeness.” [The John W. Campbell Letters, Vol. 2]
The basic premise is a little odd; that humans under extreme stress become ‘toti-potents’, gaining initially extended longevity and the ability to regrow limbs. When they enter the final toti-potent phase however, the brain begins regenerating all its cells, which means that all previous memory is lost. They gain however powerful mental prowess and the ability to absorb the contents of others’ minds.
It’s a minor van Vogt piece but nonetheless interesting for its sheer oddness and van Vogt’s singular and long-maintained attitude to the difference between the sexes. His depictions of women have always been somewhat disappointing. Indeed, more than most authors of his generation, van Vogt seems to go out of his way to emphasise how inferior women are in both intelligence and physical strength. Women here, with the possible exception of Craig’s wife, can not take on roles traditionally carried out by men unless they have been treated with drugs. Perversely, van Vogt seems quite fond of the dominant female here and elsewhere. Here, Craig is kidnapped by the Amazons and held hostage by them for a while, until Craig’s superior logical male mind manages to outwit them and escape.
Having said that, it has the usual surreal charm and ‘particular strangeness’ that marks van Vogt’s work, along with the recurring theme of the pacifist logical hero.
Probably the quintessential Space Opera of its time, the Lensman series has dated – although not so badly as the work of some of his contemporaries – due mainly, in my opinion, to Smith’s rather one-dimensional characterisation, his dialogue and his depiction of female roles. Paradoxically, given the rather limited characterisation of the humans his aliens are sometimes truly alien. Indeed, the mindsets of some of the non-human protagonists are often far more skilfully depicted than their human counterparts.
Despite that, provided one bears in mind the social climate in which this was written and reads the novel in context, they can still be hugely enjoyable.
The term ‘Space Opera’ is actually used within the text at one point when Kim Kinnison – the hero of the series – goes undercover posing as a writer of the genre. Whether the alter ego was based on anyone in particular is not known.
This is the finale to Smith’s six volume saga. Smith was an early forerunner of today’s ‘Big Concept’ writers such as Greg Bear and Stephen Baxter, and though some of his scientific fabulations seem somewhat preposterous by today’s standards it was Smith and writers like him who created that ‘sense of wonder’ for many readers, not only when this was published as a magazine serial in the Nineteen Forties, but when republished in book form in the fifties and (for reasons unknown) enjoying an unexpected renaissance in the mid-seventies. The series has recently been republished by an independent publisher and hopefully will find a new generation of readers.
Smith’s strength lies in his ability to convey the vastness of Time and Space, his premise being that billions of years ago a race of humanoids – The Arisians – was born in our galaxy and evolved far beyond the point at which humanity now stands.
They learned that by observation and the calculations of their powerful minds they could predict the future to a certain degree. They knew that a galaxy was about to pass completely through their own galaxy, and that the gravitational pull of suns against each other would produce billions of new planets, upon which Life would evolve.
They also knew that another ancient race, the cruel and tyrannical Eddorians, had plans to dominate both galaxies and sate their immortal lust for power.
The Arisians only advantage was that the Eddorians were not aware of their existence, and so was set in motion a plan which was to span millions of years, taking us through the fall of Atlantis, the Roman Empire and thus through the Twentieth Century and beyond.
In essence, this is an epic war of ideologies, in that the Arisians represent democracy and free will, while the Eddorians represent a system of Hierarchical totalitarianism, enforced by a militaristic regime (In this respect it is interesting to compare the physical description of Smith’s Eddorians with Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, who themselves are a metaphor for the forces of Communism. Both are sexless, emotionless amorphous creatures, who reproduce by binary fission, with each new half retaining the memories and skills of the original).
The Arisians’ secret weapon is a selective breeding programme which has been in operation on four different planets since intelligent life evolved.
Only one of the four races can go on to produce the super-beings capable of defeating the Eddorians.
Humans, of course, win the ‘race’ race and the couple selectively bred to give birth to the Homo Superior children are inevitably white and North American.
This idea of selectively breeding humans rather puts a dent into the concept of Arisians as benign Guardians of Democracy, and although one can argue that it was the Arisians’ only option, it is never really addressed as a moral issue within the text.
The Children themselves are four girls and boy who, in their late teens, have to conceal that fact that they are the most powerful – if underdeveloped as yet – beings in the Universe. We are led to believe that the girls will ultimately become the wives of their brother, and the mothers of the race that will replace the Arisians as Guardians of Civilisation.
An oddly incestuous episode also ensues between Kit (the boy) and his mother in a strange scene where she – in need of brain-restructuring and training, for want of a better phrase – allows the mind of her son to enter hers, rather than submit to mental penetration by the Arisians (of whom she has an incurable phobia).
The description of this act is oddly violent and not a little sexual, made worse by the rather stilted professions of love between Mother and son before the procedure.
But Hell, this is Pulp Fiction. It never pretends to be Shakespeare, and despite its political incorrectness I still find it a nostalgic and stonking good read.
The fans of ‘Dune’ and indeed the fans of Frank Herbert fall into two camps. There are those who are desperate for ever more tales of the universe in which Arrakis and its intricately structured interstellar society exists. Indeed, the likes of Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert are still churning out new ‘Dune’ material nearly fifty years after the first novel was published. Then there are those who feel ‘less is more’ and that ‘Dune’ should have been left as a quite extraordinary stand alone novel, undoubtedly a classic and arguably one of the top ten SF novels of the 20th century.
To be fair to Herbert, ‘Dune Messiah’ and ‘Children of Dune’ were not simply ‘more of the same’. They were stylistically pushing the boundaries of the first novel, but even so, lacked much of the complex structure and rich colour of the original.
This, the fourth novel, takes us three thousand years into the future. Young Leto, the son of Muad’dib. has entered into a symbiotic relationship with the larval forms of the giant sandworms. Having been encased within their bodies he has been slowly transformed over centuries until he is physically more worm than man.
Leto, being not only prescient but possessed of the memories of all his ancestors, is a difficult creature to assassinate, although people keep trying.
Where this novel fails is that the narrative is for the most part centred around Leto, and Leto is not a creature who is that mobile. Now and again he goes out on a cart, but not often enough.
Consequently there is a continual succession of scenes where characters are summoned to the Emperor’s presence, at which they have long – often meaningless – discussions, since Leto operates through the medium of riddles, or oblique comments which his guests and servants are expected to decipher.
Arrakis has been terraformed and there is now only one small desert left in which ‘Museum Fremen’ are allowed to dwell.
There is a shortage of spice – the ‘unobtainium’ that bestows longevity and gives the Guild starship pilots their ability to navigate hyperspace.
The Ixians, the Tleilaxu (who have provided a new Duncan Idaho for the Emperor after he killed the last one) and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, are all suspicious of each other.
As with ‘Dune Messiah’ there is a sense of doomed Shakespearean inevitability about it all, particularly in view of the fact that Leto can – to a certain extent – see the future and knows what is going to happen.
There are some interesting points made both obliquely via the narrative and through Leto’s conversations and journals about politics and religion. However, Herbert is covering old ground here since ‘Dune’ had already examined quite subtly and in exquisite detail the complex overlapping boundaries of religion and government.
One would have to clarify, having said all that, that this is not a bad novel. It’s just not a good Frank Herbert novel. Herbert was a writer whose name figures largely in the pantheon of SF saints but, like Anne McCaffrey and Fred Saberhagen, seems to be doomed to be remembered for one book that spawned an industry of sequels and franchise, leaving his other work sadly neglected.