My life in outer space

Longevity

Ultimatum in 2050 AD – Jack Sharkey (1965)

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“PACKAGED PEOPLE IN A WORLD GONE BERSERK.

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.

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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.


The Weapon Makers (vt. One Against Eternity) – AE van Vogt (1952)

One Against Eternity (The Weapon Makers)

This sequel to ‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’ was originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 and revised for novel publication in 1952. It is set some seven years later where Robert Hedrock, immortal agent of the Weapon Shops, discovers that he is to be sentenced to death by The Empress Innelda Isher following his lunch with her and her advisors. However, he manages to talk his way out of this, but finds himself also under sentence of death by the weapon Shop Council who have discovered his immortality and suspect him of being an alien spy.
The main plotline hinges around the suspected invention of an interstellar drive, the disappearance and search for its inventor and attempts by all parties to get their hands on the technology for their own various agendas.
There is genuine excitement in this novel, and a semblance of plot, since Hedrock has to use his weird-science inventions and his ingenuity to get him out of a series of cliffhangers. Many of them are, to be honest, Deus ex Machina plot devices which do not bear close logical or scientific scrutiny, but with van Vogt, it hardly matters as it’s what he does best and it seems somehow to work.
At one point Hedrock, having escaped Innelda’s troops in a small ship powered by the revolutionary drive, is captured in interstellar space by an advanced race of telepathic spiders and for a time exists in a world of virtual reality while the aliens test and examine him.
It is revealed, somewhat obliquely, that Hedrock not only founded The Weapon Shops but has also been the husband of previous Isher Empresses and the father of their children, which brings a somewhat disturbing and incestuous flavour to the mix.
Again, in terms of regular van Vogt devices, we have the fifty-mile long spaceships, the great phallic building (within which is hidden the interstellar ship), powerful female aristocrats, the superman/logical hero and van Vogt’s annoying philosophy of masculine superiority.
Hereditary monarchies and aristocracies pepper van Vogt’s work. I have mentioned elsewhere that those writers who exhibit a fondness for monarchist systems tend to be those who live in countries without them, and don’t have to suffer the reality of it. This may not be true of van Vogt, being Canadian, although he did move to the US in 1944.
The Empress is the only female character in the novel. Her ‘court’ is exclusively male, as is the Weapon Shops Council and although this reflects the attitudes of the time and is related to the demographic of the readership, van Vogt regularly appears to emphasise the inferiority of women. It is not so evident here although not entirely absent. The Empress Innelda, ruler of Earth, Mars and Venus, is essentially a powerful dictator but in van Vogt’s view is not complete until she has found a man to sort her out. That man, as is suggested early on, is Hedrock, a man who is also some kind of ancestor several times over.
Putting aside the innate sexism and some rather complex incest issues, it is one of his better novels, remains highly engaging and hasn’t dated too badly.
What has made this novel in particular one of van Vogt’s most discussed works is the final line, uttered by the interstellar spider-beings. ‘Here is the race that shall rule the Sevagram’.
It’s a brilliant and original touch, as the Sevagram is never mentioned anywhere else and would have left readers of the time, and up to the present, somewhat open-mouthed at this lack of conclusion, this vast open question guaranteed to leave the book hanging in one’s mind. As John Clute points out in his overview of van Vogt in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia ‘this resonantly mysterious Slingshot Ending, which seems to open universes to the reader’s gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre sf of how to impart a Sense of Wonder.’


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

Ring

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


People Minus X – Raymond Z Gallun (1957)

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‘Scientific experiments on the moon and an accidental lunar explosion that seared the earth triggers another tale from the imaginative pen of Raymond Z. Gallun.
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.


Use of Weapons – Iain M Banks (1990)

Use of Weapons (Culture, #3)

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


The Time Masters – Wilson Tucker (1971)

The Time Masters

‘Gilbert Nash has no past

Secret Service authorities in charge of security for the top secret Ridgerunner Project don’t believe that. Everybody has a past, they reason. The trouble is, Gilbert Nash’s past they just wouldn’t believe even if he told them. It is a past wrapped up in the Project, the first attempt to send a spacecraft beyond the solar system. And the death of one of Ridgerunner’s top scientists a few days after seeing Nash doesn’t calm Security at all. Bu there is something else pretty weird going on. The dead scientist’s wife doesn’t seem to have a past either – and she has disappeared…’

Blurb from the 1974 Panther paperback edition

A late and very minor piece from Tucker, the premise of which is that a handful of humanoid aliens crash-landed on Earth ten-thousand years ago, and have been guiding Humanity toward civilisation. The aliens are extraordinarily long-lived, but age on Earth faster than normal because of a lack of ‘Heavy Water’. Thus, some of them, in the 1940s, gravitated to America and Germany when they began to experiment with nuclear power in order to gain access to the water.
Gilbert Nash seems to be the only surviving alien (who are only distinguishable from humans by their longevity and the yellow cast of their eyes). He is working as a private detective near a top-secret rocket base. One of the scientists, Hodgkins, engages him to find his wife Carolyn, who disappeared a few weeks previously, and when the scientist is subsequently found dead, Nash begins to suspect that the missing wife is one of the alien survivors, and that she is responsible for her husband’s murder.
Oddly, the aliens can interbreed with humans, and Nash discovers that one of the women he encounters during the course of the novel, is one of his descendants, and has inherited a little of his longevity.
It lacks the pace and characterisation of Tucker’s other work, and reads much like a first draft. One would have liked to have known more of what Nash has been doing for the last ten thousand years, although we are led to believe that he was the legendary Gilgamesh.
The denouement is flat and predictable, leaving one to suspect that the book was written and finished in a hurry. It is however, an interesting late example of the ‘aliens among us’ theme which was a popular trend particularly in the US, from the Fifties onward.


Time to Live – John T Phillifent (as John Rackham) (1966)

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‘To conquer death, learn to live again.

FUGITIVE ON AN ALIEN WORLD

To the man in the weird bubble-car, its design was only part of the nightmare. He dabbed and pulled frantically at strange things like paddles, saw the winding road swinging and twisting in front of him, tried to turn a corner, but didn’t make it.
When he awoke, the Earthan remembered the madness of that speeding chase – yet he knew the worst of it was his inabiity to recall who he was, where he was, and why he was being chased.
Then a lulling voice spoke inside his head: ‘You are on Kalmed; I’m Aporia. Your people say you’ve killed one of my fellow Kalmedans…’
Somehow the Earthan knew he was no murderer – but he sensed something chillingly unfamiliar in the interaction of his mind and the body it inhabited…’

Blurb from the 1966 Ace doubles G-606 paperback edition.

A young man finds himself at the wheel of a speeding vehicle on an alien world, not knowing how he got there or, more importantly, who he is. When he crashes, he is found and rescued by one of the indigenous humanoids: Aporia, an artist of sorts. The world is Kalmed, where a small community of humans live.
The young man, a spacer called Jim Hart, has it seems been accused of murdering one of the native inhabitants.
The Kalmedans have certain psi-powers and Aporia senses that there is something not right about the man she has rescued. Not only can he remember nothing of what he has done or who he is, he seems to have a personality that does not belong in the body it is inhabiting.
The plot thickens when the young man is taken in by what serves as the Kalmedan authorities, is sprung by his former shipmates who he does not recall. He and Aporia then go on the run. She has realised that she needs to take him on a journey across her planet in order to prove her suspicions to herself and her people.
Phillifent employs the device of the amnesiac hero cleverly here as the alien planet is seen through the eyes of someone who has – to all intents and purposes – forgotten all he has experienced of it. The reader and Jim Hart are therefore introduced to this world together.
It’s also a murder mystery of sorts, although the concept of murder and the question of who, if anyone, has been murdered, become somewhat fluid by the time one reaches the denouement.


The Changeling – AE van Vogt (1944)

The Changeling

‘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.


New Writings in SF 6 – John Carnell (Ed) (1965)

New Writings in SF-6

Contents

The Inner Wheel by Keith Roberts;
Horizontal Man by William Spencer;
The Day Before Never by Robert Presslie;
The Hands by John Baxter;
The Seekers by E.C. Tubb;
Atrophy by Ernest Hill;
Advantage by John Rackham. (John T Phillifent)

The Inner Wheel – Keith Roberts

The best story of New Writings in SF 6 is Keith Roberts’ ‘The Inner Wheel’ which takes up nearly half the book. It’s a highly poetic and stylised piece, reminiscent of Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human’
A young man feels drawn to the town of Warwell, and once there, is struck by its sheer Stepford-esque banality, and the odd coincidences which are occurring, as if his desires are being granted by an unseen force.
When he meets a woman trying to escape from the town he becomes aware that he is a failed candidate, originally selected to become part of a gestalt, but the gestalt, (rather like Sturgeon’s) lacks a sense of guilt or conscience.

Horizontal Man – William Spencer

An immortal is locked into what is essentially a virtual reality machine and has explored and memorised all combinations of possible experiences to the extent that he is being driven insane by boredom. A bleak and rather dull exploration of the dangers of immortality and the nature of ennui.

The Day Before Never – Robert Presslie

Another bleak tale of Human Resistance and their fight against the Barbarians, aliens who have invaded Earth and massacred most of Humanity. It is well-written and atmospheric. An ambivalent ending allows one to read it as optimism or nihilistic fatalism.

The Hands – John Baxter

An excellent and enjoyable (if peculiar) little story, written sparsely and efficiently, which adds to its somewhat disturbing tone.
A group of astronauts returning from the planet Huxley (a brave new world indeed) disembark with additional limbs and organs sprouting from their bodies. It’s testament to the writer’s ability that this premise does not come over as at all ludicrous. The sense of alien-ness which emerges from the astronauts’ debriefing further adds to the surreality.
Despite its deceptive simplicity it hangs in the mind like a stubborn dream.

The Seekers – EC Tubb

Tubb’s view of Humanity is seldom a positive one. His Dumarest novels (despite their formulaic nature) inevitably shows Human society to be riddled with greed, corruption and violence.
In this story – very different in style from his 30-odd volume Space Saga – we see a group of men abroad a starship, having spent years in space. The Captain is dead and the crew have concentrated on their individual passions and obsessions, and have ceased to function as a team. Intalgo, an artist, struggles to create the right expression of the face of a crucified man, while the engineer minutely examines the workings of the ship. Delray spends his time in a VR environment, fighting.
When the discover an artefact on a barren planet, they land and become trapped by visions of what each of them truly desires.
Earlier in the story Intalgo remembers the Captain describing them as being ‘rats scuttling among the granary of the stars’.
Here is the trap.
The insignificance of Man is a theme we seem to have shied away from since the Sixties. Wells revelled in it. It’s high time it was revived.

Atrophy – Ernest Hill

An unmemorable tale about the concept of automation extrapolated to its logical conclusion. Inspired I suspect by Philip K Dick, it has, at the end of the day, nothing to say.

Advantage – John T Phillifent (as John Rackham)

An Army Major exploits the prescient talent of one of his soldiers to avert accidents whilst the Major is in charge of a construction project on a newly-discovered planet.
It’s an unexceptional piece which fails to exploit the basic premise (which is an interesting one) or the setting to maximum effect. The author missed the opportunity to pose the question of whether it was ethical to exploit one man’s freakish talent to his detriment in order to save the lives of perhaps hundreds of others.