‘ Science Fiction is as much a victim to fashion as any art form, no matter how much it tries to look to the future.’ – Jeff Noon
What can one say about ‘Vurt’? I first read this on its first release and still have my treasured Ringpull paperback edition. It was a modest publication from a small publisher which went viral and ended up winning the Arthur C Clarke award.
In retrospect, this was no surprise. Back then, it was a revelation. Many readers have expressed the sentiment in various ways that ‘it was like nothing I’d ever read before,’ and indeed that was my feeling back in the Nineties and still now, having returned to it twenty years on.
There have been comparisons with Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ in that this book pushed the boundaries of the genre into new and exciting areas. It is certainly a brilliant and original piece of work, reflecting, to a certain extent, the club and drug culture of Manchester in the Nineteen Nineties, although its influences include Lewis Carroll, often overtly, and a host of other influences more subtly. Orpheus and Eurydice play their part also, for instance.
Scribble, our hero, is one of The Stashriders, a gang of young people who spend their days acquiring feathers, feathers laced with substances which not only alter their perceptions, but the nature of reality itself and, it would appear, genetic integrity. There are various variations of humanity roaming the streets of the city, mixtures of dog, shadow, robot and human to various degrees. No doubt some will interpret these as metaphors for the mixed race residents of various Manchester communities, but I’m not sure that was ever Noon’s intention.
When one shares a feather by tickling the back of the throat with its fronds, one is transported into the world of the Vurt; the experience received dependent on the colour of the feather and the strength of its effects.
Scribble, along with the rest of the gang, Beetle, Mandy, Bridget and The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, is attempting to find a way to rescue Scribble’s sister Desdemona, who is lost in the world of Vurt. Occasionally the Vurt will take someone and replace them with something from the Vurt world, in this case, The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, a small tentacled entity whose flesh has hallucinogenic properties. Scribble believes that if he can find the right feather he can swap his sister back for The Thing.
The perennial question for me is whether this is Science Fiction at all. There seems to be no real explanation for the effects of the Vurt feathers, and the final scenes raise some questions about the reality of the entire story. Science Fiction, however, like the people of Noon’s alternate Manchester, is a morphable beast and occasionally throws out new and wonderful mutations. I for one am happy to accept this as one such.
What makes this novel so compelling is Noon’s style; fast, fresh and packed with puns and wordplay. Action kicks in from the first page when the Stashriders, having acquired a new feather, are chased by a Shadowcop and engage in a rollercoaster chase through the streets of Noon’s bizarre and colourful Manchester.
In his quest to find the means to rescue his beloved sister (far more beloved than society’s norms would usually allow) Scribble encounters a whole host of bizarre characters, chimeras and grotesques, such as Justin and his lover, whose mutual dreadlocks are so matted together that they can never be parted, or The Game Cat, a creature once human who has become part of the Vurt and can seemingly come and go at will between Scribble’s world and the world of the Vurt. There are robodogs, dog human hybrids and brightly coloured snakes which have escaped the game platforms of the Vurt and infest housing estates.
It’s a fast paced no-let-up novel which contains surprises and wonder on every page.
There are, in the history of SF, novels which seem to have been written in an SF vacuum and appear to owe no allegiance to any major influence or current fashion or style of SF literature. I count among these ‘1984’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Riddley Walker’, and would have to include ‘Vurt’.
The Kindle Twentieth anniversary issue contains three new stories set in the world of the Vurt, but whose style and tone is, perhaps understandably given the twenty year gap, far different from that of Vurt. These are more mature works and although they lack the fire and verve of Noon’s original novel, have a greater depth and sureness of touch.
A young girl becomes convinced that something from the Vurt is living in her flat, and consequently the Vurt may have taken something from her, although it takes a while for her to discover that what the Vurt takes is not always physical.
What is interesting about this is when she leaves the flat she passes a couple coming up the stairs, carrying something alive in a tartan rug, which is how Scribble and Mandy used to carry The-Thing-From-Outer-Space around in ‘Vurt’.
A young woman is harassed by three dogboys and rescues the entity they were searching for, a young female bird/human hybrid from the Vurt. This again examines the concept of Vurt artefacts being swapped for memories.
A beautifully written and constructed tale which plays with our sense of reality. A young couple become attached to their lodger, Milo, a man – unable to access the Vurt – whose behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre as he seeks to find a way to ‘dream’.
Again, like the other pieces, there is an oblique relationship to the parent novel.
George Paxton is a carver of funeral stones. Being a decent man George needs to ensure that his daughter is safe in a world of nuclear proliferation and wants to buy her a Scopas anti radiation suit. As George’s wife has just been fired from her job at a pet shop for ‘blowing up’ a tarantula, the cost has become prohibitive.
George is then approached by an old woman whom he assumes at first to be a ghost. She sends him off to meet with a Mad Hatter character who sells him a golden Scopas suit but also makes him sign a document which implicates him in starting World War III. World War III duly begins as George is travelling home.
And thus begins this peculiar and very disjointed novel.
Whether or not it is SF at all is debatable but immaterial. I would term it a political fantasy, since some of the science involved, such as The Mad Hatter’s human automata is either dubious or completely unfeasible.
It bears comparison with other novels which feature grotesques and caricatures such as ‘Roderick‘ and Richard Cowper’s ‘Profundis‘ but quite unfavourably I am afraid.
‘Profundis’ – another satire based on characters in a submarine in a post-apocalyptic world – was a far tighter, more structured work, with far less main characters, all of whom had a depth of character.
Morrow’s novel, to its detriment – seems to pay little attention to characterisation, apart from occasionally infodumping the history of his characters’ lives in one way or another.
There are also too many concepts to deal with, one of them being ‘the unadmitted’, a horde of black-blooded potential people who never actually existed, but have invaded our world because of some fissure in reality that the nuclear exchange created.
There is no real reason why Morrow could not have simply had survivors of the war take their place, since the role of the unadmitted is simply to put Paxton on trial and sentence him to death. Their presence is both unnecessary and confusing.
And the structure of the novel could have done with some work. There is a charming introductory section featuring Nostradamus who could, it appears, very accurately predict the future and had Leonardo da Vinci paint a series of scenes of George’s life and consequently the end of human existence on magic lantern glass plates.
Nostradamus appears again once during the novel for no good reason and again at the end in a closing scene. It’s not hard to determine why the Nostradamus scenes work so well and the rest of them don’t since Nostradamus is established quite elegantly and efficiently with a personality in an all too brief number of pages. We could really have done with far more since Morrow seems to have padded the remainder with reams of unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent text, space which could have been better-employed on furthering the narrative and exploring some actual characterisation.
There is also the seemingly interminable trial of George and his so-called co-conspirators which almost had me wishing for nuclear destruction to arrive and put an end to my torture.
Maybe it’s the US sense of humour (although I suspect not) but I really must be missing something since this is published in the prestigious Gollancz SF masterworks series and praised by such luminaries as Brian Aldiss and Justina Robson. I can’t presume to fault their judgment, but I can’t find it within me to agree with them.
This is the way the book ends… with a whimper from me, praying to the Great Mythical Being that there isn’t a sequel.
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.
Priest novels have never been an easy read, although they can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, in my experience once one has finished reading them, more of which later. He has never gone in for infodumping or providing easy explanations for the reader, and his work tends to be a puzzle, or – in the nature of one of his favourite themes – a magical act of misdirection where the reader has to spot the clues in order to interpret the reality of what he or she is experiencing.
Reality is the major theme here, or alternate realities. Priest is exploring a concept which Moorcock employed throughout his career and indeed used to connect his many disparate works with each other.
The central character is Tibor Tarent, a photographer from the Islamic Republic of Great Britain, some time after the 2030s. He has been returned to England from Turkey for a debriefing following the death of his nurse wife Melanie in an apparent terrorist attack. This terrifying new ‘adjacency’ weapon appears as a light above the target. What then follows is that everything in an equilateral pyramid below is apparently destroyed, leaving a perfectly triangular blast area. It would have been interesting for Priest to have explored the workings and history of the IRGB a little more. Here, it is merely a presented fact, employed as a backdrop to Tibor’s dystopia.
Tibor learns that the authorities are interested in him because he once photographed Thijs Rietveld, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who discovered and developed the adjacency technology.
On returning to London he discovers that Notting Hill has been destroyed in the same way (I note that another critic has pointed out that this may be a bit of an overreaction to the effect of the Richard Curtis movie, but hey ho).
Interspersed with Tarent’s journey to Warnes’ Farm, where he is due to be interviewed by unspecified government officials, are other stories, set in the First and Second World Wars, and on the island of Prachous, a setting from from a previous novel ‘The Dream Archipelago’.
In all these sequences we find alternate versions or reflections of Tarent and Melanie. Two are magicians or illusionists echoing the themes of reality and illusion from ‘The Prestige’. A stage magician called Tommy Trent is drafted to the front line of The First World War, along with HG Wells, in an effort to devise a plan to make British planes less visible to the Germans.
In World War II, a pilot called Torrance is connected by chance to a Polish female pilot who is drawn to him because of his resemblance to her lost lost lover Tomasz.
And on Prachous, there are two incarnations of the couple; one of the males being a photographer and the other another magician. The Melanie figures are a pilot, a religious guide, and a nurse. This continues a regular theme of Priest’s of doubles, twins and doppelgangers which appear in his past work to a greater or lesser degree.
All the sequences have a certain sense of illogicality or unreality about them, certainly in the sense that on at least two occasions women who seem initially cold and aloof initiate rampant sex with the Tibor incarnation.
Indeed, Priest keeps us guessing throughout, as the Tibor Tarent sequences may or may not reflect the same reality.
I have always been a fan of those works which do not explain everything. Many authors feel they have to do a Downton Abbey and tie up all the loose ends, marry off all the single people and leave no question unanswered, which for me is rather more unreal than any of Priest’s realities here.
One of the most fascinating sections is the one dealing with the interview with Thijs Rietveld where – like an illusionist – he demonstrates the adjacency field with no explanation while having his photograph taken by Tibor in his garden. A conch shell appears to move without volition between his left and right hand while he stands there unmoving.
Leaving a mystery unsolved is the best way to ensure that a work stays on in one’s head, and Priest leaves many haunting questions here. Many people see that as a bad thing, but I would disagree. The novel persists in one’s head where other works with ‘closure’ (ironically the title of one of the sections toward the end) are soon dismissed by the conscious process.
There is a resolution, or is there? It’s difficult to tell with Priest. Maybe we have all been misdirected and the entire book is one enormous conjuring trick, designed to lead us to an erroneous conclusion while the real truth lies hidden like Schrodinger’s cat, waiting for us to open the box.
This is a refreshingly short novel at a time when genre novels are bulking up and threatening in many cases to be only the first volume of a proposed trilogy. It is also quite minimalist, and what I would describe as an ‘old fashioned novel’. It keeps the characters to a bare minimum which helps to focus on them and their role in the drama.
Beth is a teacher in a near future Britain scarred and flooded by the effects of climate change. Her husband, Vic, injured and traumatised by military service in Iran and subsequently subject to episodes of violence, was given the opportunity to try a revolutionary treatment in which a machine removes traumatic memories. The treatment (partly as a result of Beth’s actions) left him a near-vegetable, and he is being looked after in a care home. Now, Beth believes, having purchased one of the original machines, that she can return the memories he recorded back into his head and resurrect him, thus regaining her husband and absolving her guilt.
There are echoes of the Frankenstein mythos referenced within the novel, in some cases quite obviously. Victor is the name of Shelley’s legendary scientist in the original Frankenstein novel and Beth is no doubt a contraction of ‘Elizabeth’, the name of Victor Frankenstein’s doomed wife.
On the machine recordings, Vic tells his life story to, or at least is interviewed by a Doctor ‘Robert’ which is the first name of the ship’s Captain in ‘Frankenstein’ who finds the monster in the Arctic and narrates his sorry tale.
There is a scene where a child is thrown from a cliff into the sea, which brings to mind a scene from the original Boris Karloff film. The murdered child’s name is William, who in ‘Frankenstein’ was killed by the monster because he was Victor’s younger brother.
The roles however are not carried through as it is Beth who takes on the role of ‘the giver of life’ to Victor, who is cast as the monster. Unless I am missing some additional subtext there is no good reason for this extensive connection to the Shelley novel.
Providing conflict is Beth’s new colleague at her school; Laura. In an unguarded moment Beth reveals her plans for Vic to Laura only to discover that Laura is a devout Christian fundamentalist who is vehemently opposed to Machine technology rebuilding someone’s soul as she sees it. Laura’s character seems not as well-developed as it may have been and it might have been an idea to have had some additional initial exposure and time with Beth to a) establish some other aspects of her personality and b) to allow her to get Beth into her confidence.
Some have criticised ‘The Machine’ for its bleak background and unsympathetic characters. I would disagree, since Smythe has created a plausible version of a near-future UK in which climate change has seen the sea invading the land.
Beth’s character seems fairly well-rounded and one can not escape the fact that she lives alone in a flat on a sink estate in a town with no future. It is necessarily bleak. In its own way, this is a modern Gothic horror built around the central figure of the Machine itself, a huge and enigmatic presence which has moods demonstrated by its various hums, engine roars and physical vibrations. One gets the impression that the machine may be almost orchestrating events for its own purposes. It is reminiscent of Stephen Gregory’s ‘The Cormorant’ in this respect.
The novel leads relentlessly and inevitably to its (perhaps a little too predictable) conclusion, but is no less satisfying for that. Smythe exhibits a welcome economy of writing which flies in the face of some of the more corpulent novels weighing down the bookshelves of genre readers. Let’s hope this is the start of a new trend.
“The Accord, a virtual utopia where the soul lives on after death and your perceptions are bound only by your imagination. This is the setting for a tale of love, murder and revenge that crosses the boundaries between the real world and this virtual reality”—
Blurb from the 2009 Solaris edition
One of the blurbs for this novel is a line from a review that says ‘one of the best novels of virtual reality ever written’ which actually pays this a disservice since it is far far more than that.
Noah Barakh is the architect of a worldwide project called The Accord. The Accord is a virtual representation of the Earth into which the consciousnesses of those who have been scanned are uploaded when the individuals die.
Noah is heading toward the point at which the Accord, guided by the consensus of those who have already begun living within it, will coalesce conflating various realities into one.
Barakh lives in a future UK where MPs have evolved into Electees. Electee Jack Burnham is fully behind the Accord project unaware that Noah (a rather too apt name for the builder of an ark of human souls) is in love with Electee Priscilla Burnham, Jack’s wife. Noah has been experimenting with his own Accord mini-realities where he and Priscilla are lovers.
In the real world Priscilla, it appears, does feel an attraction to Noah and invites him to her home while Jack is away. Jack is not away, however, and wrongly suspects that Noah and his wife have been having an affair for some time. He shoots Priscilla and later Noah, who – now dead – are reborn in The Accord.
This is only the prelude to where things start to get very interesting.
Brooke cleverly leaves the morality of some aspects to the reader. Noah’s initial creations of his and Priscilla’s relationship, for instance, would no doubt be considered to be a violation of her ‘digital self’ for want of a better phrase. Added to that, the versions of Priscilla that were in love with Noah were no doubt uploaded into the Accord to become part of the consensus.
This leads us further into Brooke’s exploration of the concept of editing personalities. It appears that the scanning technology allows one to not merely edit a personality but combine aspects of various personalities to create a new one.
It is this aspect of the novel that ultimately becomes the most fascinating since in such a reality (if one can term it so) one is not restricted to simply altering one’s surroundings.
Jack Burnham, for instance, who on the original Earth was prepared to kill anyway, embarks on a process whereby he becomes an amalgam of several people in order to turn himself into a remorseless destroyer.
In the Accord itself, if one is killed, one is reborn again shortly after, although it appears that the Accord itself changes one slightly in the process.
Thus, the characters that are pursuing their earthly passions and revenge are ultimately far from the original consciousnesses that existed on the dying earth that they left.
Brooke makes a marvellous job of creating an Earth on the brink of apocalypse where Britain is having to make choices about turning away armadas of boat people, as well as the world of the Accord where Noah’s uploaded scientists managed to export the Accord itself into quantum space.
As I have said however, the most fascinating and thought-provoking aspect of all this is the Post-Dickian examination of consciousness, questioning its very nature and the idea that it can be easily modified by oneself or others.
Despite the deceptively upbeat ending, one is left long after the book has ended, pondering the ethical and moral issues.
It’s a tour-de-force by Brooke, one of our best contemporary SF writers.
‘Earth zero to Earth fifteen–which was the real one?
What the inhabitants of Greater America didn’t realize was that theirs was the only inhabited landmass, apart from one island in the Philippines. They still talked about foreign countries, though they would forget little by little, but the countries were only in their imaginations, mysterious and romantic places where nobody actually went..
That was the way it was on E-3, one of the fifteen alternate Earths that had been discovered through the subspace experiments.
Professor Faustaff knew that these alternate earths were somehow recent creations, and that they were under attack from the strange eroding raids of the mysterious bands known as the D-Squads. But there were tens of millions of people on those Earths who were entitled to life and protection-and unless Faustaff and his men could crack the mystery of these worlds’ creation and the more urgent problem of their impending destruction, it would mean not only the end of these parallel planets, but just possibly the blanking out of all civilization in the universe.’
Blurb from the H-66 1966 Ace Double paperback edition.
This is a very interesting early work from Moorcock in which a Professor Faustaff (physically redolent of the similarly named Shakespearean character) is in charge of an organisation which has managed to access fifteen versions of Earth in subspace which seem to have been recently created.
The professor and his team are able to create tunnels to these variant Earths. On the human inhabited worlds the inhabitants at the same level of technological development but the populations are small and appear unable to think about foreign countries (which art from the US and small communities elsewhere) are uninhabited.
The Professor’s people also have to counter the attacks of D-squads – military attacks of unknown origin – whose aim is to destroy the alternate planets. One at least has already been destroyed.
We follow Faustaff on a journey to one of these alternate worlds where he picks up a young woman, Nancy Hunt, hitchhiking and later meets the mysterious Herr Steifflomeis at a town where they stay for the night. Steifflomeis is clearly lying when he explains where he is from which leads Faustaff to suspect that he and his colleague, Maggie Whyte, may be agents of the D-squads.
It’s a peculiar little piece which superficially seems atypical of Moorcock’s work. There are resonances of JG Ballard here and there, albeit set within a US framework, with its abandoned towns and half empty motels and diners. Steifflomeis and Maggie Whyte are ambiguous figures until the finale in which Faustaff meets the creators of the ‘Simulations’ of Earth; immortal beings who evolved on Earth and who are seeking to recreate their ancestors.
These are redolent of the Lords and Ladies of Law and Chaos who permeate the worlds of Moorcock’s multiverse and seek to control the affairs of mortals.
In a final transcendent flourish the alternate earths are transferred from subspace to orbit our sun, linked together by golden space-elevator bridges. It is a romantic if impractical idea and, incidentally, very similar to events in van Vogt’s ‘The Silkie’ from around the same time.
It’s interesting stuff and no doubt fruitful fodder for Moorcock historians.
This is an interesting collection of Egan’s published stories from the early Nineties, many of which examine the Dickian issue of what it means to be conscious and how we define ‘the personality’. Egan often looks at this question from intriguing and sometimes oblique angles.
The Infinite Assassin (1991)
Interzone 48 – June 1991
The protagonist is a man employed because his self tends to remain consistent across infinite realities in a worlds where a drug called S allows access to these parallel worlds. His job is to track down the few people who do not just dream their alternate lives but drag the rest of us in there with them.
The Hundred Light-Year Diary (1992)
Interzone 55 – January 1992
The conceit behind this story is that we have discovered a reverse universe running backwards and can receive ‘diaries’ from those who have already lived their lives identically to ours. Thus one can review one’s life in advance. However, the question is how much of the truth would be included?
Interzone 36 – June 1990
A satirical tale of eugenics and designer baby making
The Caress (1990)
Asimov’s – Jan 1990
A detective in the near future investigating a homicide finds a chimera with the body of a leopard and the head of a woman and becomes embroiled in a strange world of bioengineering and art.
Blood Sisters (1991)
Interzone 44 – February 1991
A story of twin sisters who take different oaths in life, and one of whom becomes the victim of a genetic disease. the tale however, takes an unexpected direction.
Interzone 41 – November 1991
Egan examines one of the possible outcomes of a society where one can purchase implants to change the foundations of one’s personality in order to remove deep seated feelings like grief, religious belief or inhibitions, or to implant them.
The Safe-Deposit Box (1990)
Asimov’s – September 1990
A rather complex tale of a man who wakes up every day in the same city but in a different body
A future boss of a movie studios awakens after an assassination experience to discover that he is viewing himself from a point near the ceiling.
A Kidnapping (1995)
A wealthy man receives a videocall telling him that they ‘have his wife’ and demanding a ransom. Another examination of what it means – objectively in this case – for a personality to be copied.
Learning to Be Me (1990)
Interzone #37 – July 1990
The Ndoli Jewel – as featured in other Egan stories – is at the centre of this tale of a question of identity.
The Moat (1991)
Aurealis #3 – 1991
A future Australia in an overpopulated world where a lawyer working for displaced immigrants is disturbed by his fiancee’s tales of a rapist’s sperm samples having no discernible DNA. A clever story that manages to cover contemporary issues obliquely.
The Walk (1992)
Asimov’s – December 1992
A man is forced at gunpoint to inhale a neural implant that will alter his viewpoint and beliefs.
The Cutie (1989)
Interzone #29 – May 1989
A rather poignant story set in a world where one can buy a designer baby implanted with a suicide gene that kicks in at four years old.
Into Darkness (1992)
Asimov’s – January 1992
Reminiscent of Budrys’ ‘Rogue Moon’, this is an excerpt from the life of a specialised rescue worker, one who runs through the rando wormholes that have appeared to plague the world. One can run through them in one direction when they appear and hope that you can rescue people who have been trapped inside, as one can only go forward. If you try to turn back, you will die. You must carry on to the other end and hope to get out before the wormhole collapses.
Appropriate Love (1991)
Interzone #50 – August 1991
In a future healthcare insurance scenario, a wife has to have her husband’s comatose brain implanted into her body until his clone body has grown to the point where the brain can be replaced. What effect, however, will this have on their relationship?
The Moral Virologist (1990)
Pulphouse #8 – Summer 1990
Egan takes a swipe at the madness of US Right Wing Christianity in a tale of a Christian Virologist who has designed a virus that will kill anyone who has sex with more than one person.
Eidolon #9 – Winter 1992
Another story based in the world of the ‘Ndoli Jewel’ where a couple decide to try and see what it is like to be each other.
Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (1992)
Interzone #61 – July 1992
A slightly Ian-Watson-esque story following an event in 2018 when everyone in the world became mentally susceptible to each other’s deepest beliefs. Consequently those who believed similar things joined together and ‘attractor’ wells formed, while those whose beliefs are fairly agnostic – such as the narrator – wander the world in the gaps between, pulled by the various tides of belief.
‘Whale’s Mouth was a planetary utopia for forty million Earth colonists – but none ever returned. It took only 15 minutes to get there by instant teleportation, but it was strictly a one way journey. If you wanted to return, it was always possible to go the long way round – 18 years each way by conventional spacecraft. No one relished that, of course. then one man decided to try it, and encountered some very powerful opposition…’
Blurb from the 1970 Methuen paperback edition.
Rachmael ben Applebaum is the hero of this, the original novella which was eventually expanded and re-written as LIES Inc.
Applebaum is the heir to a once successful business which constructed interstellar starships. The company was rendered worthless by the development of Telpor gates by rival company Trials of Hoffman Limited. THL is one of the bright new companies of New Whole Germany and has been shipping colonists to a fertile planet known as Newcolonizedland in the Formalhaut system. The only drawback is that it is a one-way trip. The joyful colonists send back video-messages and the media shows scenes of idyllic pastoral perfection, but not one colonist has returned.
Applebaum determines to use the last of his ships – the rest of them having been claimed by THL as a debt-payment – to travel the eighteen year journey ‘unteleported’ since he seems to be the only person who finds something deeply wrong about the situation, a classically paranoid situation, but one which the reader, unsettlingly, shares.
He finds allies in LIES Inc, the UN backed Listening Instructional Educational Services, who confirm his theory that the broadcasts from Newcolonizedland are faked.
At just over a hundred pages it is a slight piece and one that Dick was not particularly proud of. It was hastily written (but then, with Dick, this was often the case) but nevertheless manages to capture the essence of that annoyance many of us feel at those who take as gospel whatever they see or hear in the media.
Dick’s trademark ‘fakes’ appear as usual on various levels. from the synthetic Theodore Ferry who appears on Applebaum’s ship to the names of organisations. LIES and Trails of Hoffman’ both carry connotations of falsehood.
The obligatory dark-haired woman is, in this case, Miss Freya Holm, agent of LIES and mistress of its Head, Matson Glazer-Holliday.
After Applebaum has set off on his eighteen year journey. LIES decides to invade Newcolonizedland and send back what truth they can about the conditions there.
Matson Glazer-Holliday and Freya travel through the Telpor gates and find themselves in ‘Sparta’, a garrison-state in which THL is building an army to re-invade the Earth which will be ruled from new Whole Germany. Matson is killed but Freya manages to send a coded message back and mobilise the LIES forces.
A mini sub-plot shows the perspective of the ‘ordinary man’, Jack McElhatten, whose job is so menial and repetitive that he is being replaced by a trained pigeon. Despite the misgivings of his wife, Jack is swayed by the omnipresent coverage of scenes from the New World and is determined to emigrate and become a goat-farmer.
Despite a rather lacklustre denouement, this short piece – written only twenty years after the end of WWII – has echoes of the Holocaust and the unwillingness (which still persists today in some parts of the world) of the general public to believe the truth.
This is even more relevant to contemporary society where much that we believe is fed to us through the filter of the media.
Dick understood all too well the gullibility of the public and here is at least the beginnings of a major work, seriously flawed, but sometimes exposing the bones of a profound truth.
Ted Chiang is an enigma; a writer who seemingly came from nowhere and found himself picking up awards and praise for an outstanding series of novellas and short stories. There are not many writers who can make such a major impact with short fiction. Ian Watson and Connie Willis are the only two comparable at present.
Three of these stories look at worlds where God, or at least the supernatural manifestations of belief, is real, examining what that world would be like if the ephemera of religious literature were literally true, such as ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ where fearsome angels regularly visit Earth, passing through to some other reality, causing death and injury, while unaccountably healing or transforming others.
What links virtually all these stories though is Chiang’s fascination with how humans perceive reality, how that perception might be altered, and/or what happens when it does.
This is his first collection. If it were mine I’d be very proud indeed.
“Tower of Babylon” (Omni Nov 1990)
Set in some other strange universe where the Tower of Babylon, constantly in construction, has reached such a point that one can touch the vault of Heaven; touch, yes, and maybe break through to the other side.
“Division by Zero” (Full Spectrum 3 Jun 1991)
A fascinating mathematical tragedy in which a gifted mathematician discovers a way of proving that 1=2. Essentially it is a study of someone whose worldview completely falls apart.
A man whose brain was severely damaged in an accident is given experimental treatment which renders his brain not only repaired but vastly improved. Chiang expertly examines not only the consequences but reveals that this advanced human may not be alone.
“Story of Your Life”
A beautifully written and complex piece in which two strands of thought are contrasted. A linguist is called in to help aid communication between us and alien visitors. Her growing facility with their written language begins to alter the way she thinks.
“The Evolution of Human Science”
This is one of the very short pieces that appeared in Nature Magazine at the time, this looking at a time when posthuman science will reach a point where us dull normals will not be able to understand it.
“Seventy-Two Letters” (Vanishing Acts, Tor 2000)
This is a strange novella set in an alternate Victorian world where golems can be brought to life by placing a sequence of seventy-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet under their tongue.
Also, it is discovered, each individual male sperm, when examined, contains a complete foetus. How these two scientific discoveries relate to each other is at the core of this tale of weird science, murder, espionage and the very future of the human race.
“Hell Is the Absence of God” (Starlight 3 – Jul 2001)
Again, Chiang gives us a world where aspects of Christian belief are demonstrably true. Here, angels manifest regularly on Earth, causing equal measures of joy and despair, since some people are cured of disfigurement or disease, while others are killed in the mayhem.
In an interview Chiang said that part of his inspiration for this story was ‘The Book of Job’ where Job was tested again and again on his love of God. One of the central figures here is trying to find a way of loving God (which he does not), since he wants to go to heaven to join his wife, who was killed in an angelic visit.
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” (Story of Your Life and Others 2002)
Cleverly structured, this is the transcript of a documentary in a world where people can voluntarily be afflicted (it’s a reversible process) with ‘calli’, calliagnosia, which removes one’s ability to tell whether someone is beautiful or ugly. It’s a very Bob Shaw-like idea, this, as Chiang, through interviews with various students and other users explores the ramifications, both privately, socially and economically.