My life in outer space

Religion

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.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)

Nineteen Eighty-Four

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


Galactic Pot Healer – Philip K Dick (1969)

Galactic Pot-Healer

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


Son of The Tree – Jack Vance (1951)

Son of the Tree

‘THE TREE FROM ANOTHER GALAXY

“A vast, breathing, sappy mass, a trunk five miles in diameter, and twelve miles from the great kneed roots to the ultimate bud – the ‘Vital Exprescience’ in the cant of the Druids. The Tree ruled the horizons, shouldered aside the clouds, and wore thunder and lightning like a wreath of tinsels. It was the soul of life, trampling and vanquishing the inert, and Joe understood how it had come to be worshipped by the first marvelling settlers on Kyril.”

For Joe Smith, the sight of the Tree was the beginning of an experience that would forever change his life. He had journeyed into space in search of a man, but what he found was a tree, a huge sky-dominating tree that held the power of life and death over millions of slaves.’

Blurb from the 77525 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Three of the colony worlds so far from Earth that Earth has become a myth are Kyril, Mangtse and Ballenkarch.
On Kyril there is one giant tree which is worshipped by a theocracy of Druids who preside over a population of slaves.
To this world has come Joe Smith of Earth, a man on the hunt for another Earth native, Henry Creach, who has abandoned Margaret, a woman with whom Joe is in love.
Once on the surface of Kyril he gains employment repairing and driving floating cars for the Druids. When he is requested to provide transport for the Priestess Elfane very late at night, he presumes that the priestess has some romantic assignation.
However, there is a dead body in the Priestess’ room, that of a Mang, and she and the Druid Manaolo, wish Joe to drive them out over the ocean and dump it in the sea.
Joe refuses. Once they have left, the Druid Hableyat appears and confesses that he murdered the Mang (for political reasons you don’t really need to know) and takes Joe to his rooms.
Hableyatt offers Joe a new job, ensuring that a cutting from the One Tree is taken across space to the planet Ballenkarch where, if it flourishes, the Druids can begin worshipping another tree, and cement relations with Ballenkarch. This is not to the liking of some of the Mangs who are divided into two political factions who have opposing views on how to deal with the expansionist plans of the Druids.
It’s a clever and colourful piece which contains some of Vance’s regular themes and motifs. It is somewhat baroque, and serves to define Vance’s skill at portraying sometimes decadent class or caste-obsessed future societies. We have the absurd religion which, in this case, has a terrible secret at its heart. Vance is always keen to point out that even intelligent people will believe anything if they are brought up to believe it within a confined community.
Vance seldom paid any attention to any technical or scientific details, but it’s a testament to his writing skill that it doesn’t really matter. Here he makes the concept of a vast space station, set at a point equidistant between the three planets and serving the needs of human and alien travellers, remarkably plausible.
We also have the maverick hero who doesn’t really get on or fit in with everyone else, which is a regular feature of Vance’s novels.
It’s a fascinating and neglected early work which deserves to be more widely read.


Behold The Man – Michael Moorcock (1969)

Behold the Man

Popular music went through its punk phase in the mid Nineteen Seventies. It was almost an extinction event for some of the pop and rock establishment of the time and heralded a brief new era of musical diversity and experimentation.
SF had experienced its own punk revolution in the late Sixties, The New Wave movement, at the forefront of which, along with Judith Merrill, JG Ballard, MJ Harrison and others, was Michael Moorcock. The New Wave was an attempt to invigorate the SF genre and produce a more literary product with an emphasis on character, ‘inner space’ rather than outer space, and experimentation.
Their flagship magazine was ‘New Worlds,’ an already extant magazine which Moorcock took over as editor in the mid-Sixties. It was a groundbreaking publication which has since reappeared in various formats up to 1997.
‘Behold The Man’ was expanded from a novella which appeared in New Worlds in 1967.
Some New Wave writers set out to shock, and one would imagine that as controversial subjects go, Jesus Christ has to be fairly near the top of the list.
In a weird parallel with ‘The Life of Brian’ however, the subject of this novel is not the real Jesus of Nazareth, but one Karl Glogauer, of London.
Glogauer is one of Moorcock’s more fascinating creations, born presumably at the beginning of World War II and growing up in Nineteen Forties and Fifties England, much like Moorcock himself.
Glogauer is one of life’s victims; a target for bullies and a sadistic couple who run a children’s summer camp. He is in search of sexual and spiritual fulfillment, and finds neither although he does become fascinated by the work of Jung and hosts a regular meeting of like-minded individuals to discuss his work.
Glogauer is invited to the country by a member of the group, Sir James Headington, a scientist who claims to have discovered the secret of time travel. Even he, it seems has ulterior motives since he attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce Glogauer. It does appear, however that the time travel equipment does work. Animals have apparently been sent to the past although the equipment has not as yet been tested with human subjects.
Subsequently, Glogauer becomes fixated on the life of Christ as his relationship with his girlfriend Monica begins to break down. Monica is an atheist who has her own views about where ‘Christian’ ideals originated.
When he finally breaks up with Monica, Glogauer immediately rings Sir James and volunteers to travel back in time, as long as he can choose the time and place of arrival.
And this is where this extraordinary novel begins, with Glogauer arriving in the Palestine area in around 28 AD. His experiences from herein on are interspersed with extracts from his life in the twentieth century, and passages from the Bible.
Initially, Glogauer’s desire is to meet Christ – who is destined to be crucified within a year – and to determine for himself the truth of the gospels. Glogauer is however injured when the time capsule arrives and the vehicle itself essentially destroyed since no technology exists in his current timeline to repair it.
He is taken on by the Essenes who believe that he is a prophet from Egypt. John the Baptist, who appears to be the leader of the Essenes, hopes to foster this belief and employ Glogauer in his resistance to Herod and Roman rule. He baptises Karl who then, seized with confusion, runs off and is lost in the wilderness.
Eventually, Glogauer finds his way to Nazareth and the home of Joseph the carpenter and his wife Mary.
Their son, Jesus, the result of an assignation on Mary’s part before she married Joseph, turns out to be a physically and mentally disabled man who can do nothing more than giggle and repeat his own name.
This is then the pivotal point. Glogauer now realises that he is on a predestinate path and must take on the role for which, it seems, he was born.
Having been trained in the basics of psychiatry and hypnotism Glogauer is able to easily cure some people of hysterical or psychosomatic conditions and, followed by a growing number of followers begins his inevitable journey toward Jerusalem and his death by crucifixion.
For a short novel it manages to pack a great deal in and says an awful lot about religion and the phenomenon of belief.
The author makes a telling point about the priests of the time which is just as relevant to today’s priesthood (of whatever religion) as it was two thousand years ago.

‘They would ask questions of the rabbis but the wise men would tell them nothing, save that they should go about their business, that there were things they were not yer meant to know. In this way, as priests had always done, they avoided questions they could not answer while at the same time appearing to have much more knowledge than they actually possessed.’

Chapter Thirteen

There are some shock factors in that, in line with the style of the New Wave, Moorcock introduces subjects one would not normally expect to find in a Science Fiction novel such as child abuse, sexual fetishism and homosexuality. Added to which, to hammer the final nail (an unfortunate metaphor I know) into the Christ myth Moorcock has Glogauer return to Joseph’s house once Joseph has gone to sell his wares, where he has sex with ‘the Virgin Mary’ until they are interrupted by the giggling drooling form of the real Jesus.
It’s a shame Mary Whitehouse never discovered this book as it would no doubt now be far more widely read than it is, which can only be a good thing.
For me, it’s one of Moorcock’s most original and underrated novels, possibly his best.


The Astronauts Must Not Land – John Brunner (1963)

The Astronauts Must Not Land

The Astronauts Must Not Land – John Brunner (1963)

‘It was a time of glory and it was a time of fear. After two years, Starventure, the first spaceship to reach the stars beyond our solar system, was returning to Earth and all the world rejoiced. But it was to be a shallow triumph, for on the day Starventure landed, a huge monster appeared in the sky above southern Chile, and the terror that gripped mankind was the worst in the annals of recorded history.

Scientists were convinced that only the crew of the spaceship could unravel the mystery of the apparition. But, when the ship’s latches were opened it was discovered that the astronauts had been transformed into six-limbed creatures with twisted and warped bodies – and they knew no more about their fate than the terror-stricken people on Earth.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

David Drummond

As a science-writer he was used to explaining difficult ideas in simple terms – but now he had to explain the completely impossible

Carmen Iglesias

Her ancestry, she held, was one quarter Spanish, Irish, Amerind – and jaguar.

Leon Drummond

He had to struggle to remember what it felt like to have only one pair of hands.

General Suvorov

Desperation drove him to reveal the deadly secret of the starship’s cargo.

Dr Lenister

Like any good scientist, he knew that when natural laws are broken you have to scrap them and start over.

Brian Watchett

Thanks to him, the world was saved from panic by a convincing lie – which he hated.

Hermanos Iglesias

Carmen’s brother… only he wasn’t. Not any longer. He was someone – or something – alien.’

Blurbs from the F-227 1963 Ace Double paperback edition.

An experimental FTL ship employing hyperspace technology is sent to Alpha Centauri. On board is Leon Drummond, brother of top science writer, David Drummond.
On the day of the ship’s return to normal space within the Solar System, Drummond is convinced that he saw his brother in the street, who then disappeared.
Monstrous alien faces appear in the sky over various cities and Drummond – although he has received a transcript of a message from his brother on the ship – believes that a conspiracy of silence is preventing him discovering something that has happened on board.
David meets up with Carmen Iglesias, an occasional love interest who also has her brother Hermanos on board. Carmen also claims to have seen Hermanos recently in the street but he also disappeared.
It isn’t long before David is brought within the circle of secrecy and is told that the crew of the ship have been physically transformed into six-limbed aliens while retaining their minds and personalities.
David is sent on board the ship to speak with Leon in an effort to determine whether it is really Leon or an alien impostor, playing the role of Leon Drummond.
This (apparently later revised and released as ‘More Things in Heaven’) is one of the better Brunner Ace Double novels. It’s fairly lengthy for a double, being paired with the far shorter ‘The Space-Time Juggler’.
One is led to the increasingly likely conclusion that the aliens have switched minds with the crew and are roaming Earth in their bodies. Soon it is discovered that the visitors are not just observing humans but are preaching and drawing larger crowds each day. Thus eventually Drummond is able to trace and meet Hermanos who explains who the visitors are and why they are here.
It is, one feels, a weak denouement, with Brunner suddenly throwing in a link between Humanity and the fallen angels of Christian mythology. Hyperspace is apparently our real home, as we fled to our ‘imperfect’ universe following some unspecified heinous crime. We will return there it seems but it will take some twenty thousand years.
It’s not that it’s a bad idea but it seems – at least in the Ace double version – to be a conclusion hastily tacked on at the end.
Again, as in many Ace Doubles, there is a surfeit of characters who lack the space to develop into anything beyond the two-dimensional.
It may be interesting however to see how this novel sits chronologically in Brunner’s writing career since it certainly shows a better grasp of character and structure than some others in the Doubles series.


God’s War (Bel Dame Apocrypha #01) – Kameron Hurley (2013)

God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha #1)

‘Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference…

On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there’s one thing everybody agrees on–There’s not a chance in hell of ending it.

Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, her ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war–but at what price?

The world is about to find out!’

Blurb from unknown edition.

Nasheen and Chenja, on the planet Umayma, have been at war for centuries, how long is not really clear, even to the protagonists. Both sides practise a seemingly evolved form of Islam based on ‘the Kitab’ (which is merely Arabic for ‘book’) although the Nasheens are a matriarchal society and the Chenjans patriarchal. Mutation and possible gene-splining has produced some humans that can control insects via pheromones (known as magicians) and also shapeshifters. This adds a slight flavour of Science Fantasy to the mix which melds nicely into the complex society that Hurley has created.
At the outset of the novel Nyx is a Bel Dame, one of a highly trained sisterhood of official assassins and bounty hunters. One of her assignments – to put this into perspective – was to track down this world’s version of a suicide bomber; a boy loaded with a time-coded virus who would take up residence in an area before the virus is triggered and released into the local population. Nyx’ mission was to inject him with an antidote before bringing his head back for the bounty.
Not long after, Nyx is expelled from the sisterhood for her involvement with gene pirates and is forced to become a freelance bounty hunter.
Meanwhile, a young Chenjan refugee, Rhys, is training to become a magician, having some talent for controlling insects. He is working with boxers, wrapping their hands prior to the fight and helping to heal them afterwards.
Rhys however is not good enough to qualify as a practising magician and can either stay and teach or leave and take his chances. He chooses to leave but soon finds that Nasheen attitudes to Chenjans are hostile. Inevitably, as one might have guessed, Rhys ends up working for Nyx who not long after is offered a commission by the Queen of Nasheen herself; a dangerous commission which may well get her team killed, but could end the war.
Some reviews I have seen have criticised this novel for not having any likeable characters, but I feel they miss the point. It is not often that one finds a genre novel with such real, well-rounded characters. Not only that, they are characters set firmly within the context of this complex and detailed dystopia. For myself, I liked Nyx. She is a female antihero, and for the moment I can’t bring another to mind.
Interestingly it seems Hurley has reversed the traditional roles of male and female as well as divided the planet between matriarchal and patriarchal control. Nyx is the alpha male of her team in every sense apart from the fact she is a woman. It is perhaps symbolic that the novel begins with her selling her womb to obtain funds to continue with her mission. Later we discover that the enmity between her and her arch rival Raine stems from the time when Nyx cut off his penis. This is one example of an ongoing theme of duality in fact, which is cleverly reflected on various levels here and there. Nyx is happy to sleep with males or females and when she seduces the female boxer Jaks we learn it is only to gain access to her bounty; Jaks’ brother.
Rhys is quieter, is religiously devout, reads poetry, dances and seems to embody what we may see as feminine traits where Nyx embodies the masculine. It may be that, like Nasheen and Chenja, countries who would probably find peace if both embraced sexual equality, Nyx and Rhys could empathise more if they balanced the male and female sides of their own psyches.
It is also a violent piece of work it has to be said, although this is within the context of a world divided by war and focused on the lives of mercenary bounty hunters.
Details of life elsewhere in the galaxy is not really covered although there are other settled worlds as is made clear.
This is an impressive novel which well deserves its place in the Arthur C Clarke award nominations and I look forward to reading more in the sequence.


The Altar on Asconel – John Brunner (1965)

altar

‘Exiles of an extra-galactic god

BEACHHEAD FROM ANOTHER GALAXY

Whether or not he had wanted to turn back at the last minute, he couldn’t have – the wave of dirty, hungry people carried him helplessly along in their fervor to reach the temple. Like dope addicts, he told himself, they don’t even care about themselves, only about the thing that is inside the temple!

He remembered the day ten years ago when his older brother had been made a Warden of Asconel, a prosperous and happy planet, and he and his other brothers had left in the interests of their people. Now they had returned to a world where a fanatical cult had usurped the Warden’s chair, and men and women were gladly offering themselves up as human sacrifices to Belizuek – whoever or whatever that being from beyond the galaxy was…

I’ll find out, he told himself grimly, when I enter these doors…’

Blurb from the 1965 M-123 Ace Double paperback edition.

Part of Brunner’s ‘Interstellar Empire’ series, As a backdrop to this novel; Humanity spread out into space and discovered many abandoned starships. Using these, a Galactic Empire was established which has now collapsed, leaving the galaxy in a state comparable to Asimov’s Galactic Empire in ‘Foundation and Empire’ where the collapsing Empire is too weak to sustain itself but remains a formidable force.
Asconel was a progressive world outside of the dominion of the failing Empire (with however a hereditary warden it appears). Hodat inherited the wardenship and his three brothers decided to leave the planet to avoid being used as figureheads in any opposition to his stewardship. The youngest brother, Sartrak, has dedicated himself to study in a pacifist brotherhood.
Sartrak’s hot-headed brother Vix arrives to tell him that Hoday has been murdered and that his position as warden of Asconel has been usurped by one Bucyon and his telepathic partner, Lydis. They have brought a new religion to Asconel, one that seems unfeasibly popular and which features voluntary human sacrifice.
Sartrak and his brothers along with Eunora, a young telepath, return to Asconel, determined to rid the world of the evil that has mentally enslaved its people.
It’s a very enjoyable read. The background, however, is far more interesting than the novel itself. The rump of the Empire, whom we encounter en-route are an aggressive paranoid lot.


Revolt in 2100 – Robert A Heinlein (1953)

Revolt in 2100

A minor fix-up novel from Heinlein, where he explores the theme of insurgency and revolution; a concept he was to return to again and again. In ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ the residents of Luna revolted and declared independence. ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ examined a subversive yet benign cultural revolution. Here, the rebellion is against a repressive Theocracy which has taken over the US in the year 2100.
A naïve young soldier in the private guard of The Prophet (the despotic leader of the Theocracy) is recruited into an Underground Resistance Movement and we follow his career until the moment of revolution.
An additional tale is set at a time when the new state has used psychological tools to create a mentally stable society.
Not all are happy in this tame paradise however and those who employ violence or seek to promote dissent are banished to a lawless community within a forcefield which is called Coventry. Another rash young man ends up here and finds himself attempting to escape, but only to warn the external society that the lawless misfits are about to break out and declare war.
The three stories employed here form part of Heinlein’s Future History series and comprise of ‘If This Goes On—‘ (1940), ‘Coventry’ (1949) and ‘Misfit’ (1939)


AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers – Ivor W Hartmann (Ed.) (2012)

AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers

I often wonder what became of Victor Sabah. Back in the 1970s, Elaine and Larry Elbert spent two years in Ghana teaching for the American Peace Corps at the curiously named Hohoe Secondary School. Due to a chronic shortage of books there they appealed (not to any church organisation who would doubtless have sent truckloads of Bibles) but to the Science Fiction Writers of America, who supplied copious reading matter for the students’ edification. As a result Victor Sabah was so inspired he wrote a story as part of a school exercise that ended up in Brian Aldiss’ and Harry Harrison’s seminal annual collection, ‘Best SF of The Year.’ The Elberts should be eternally cherished.
Since then any SF produced in Africa seems to have passed the West (or at least me) by. Judging by the work included in this volume that is a terrible shame, and Hartmann has to be applauded for bringing this African flavour to a wider world.
This is fascinating collection of – as may have become apparent – African SF. Despite the fact that the tales were presumably written in English (apologies to all if that is not the case) and are in the main heavily influenced by Western SF they have a freshness that is often missing from our homegrown genre.
There’s also a difference in structure and style in some cases, with some tales having a poetic edge and ending abruptly.
There are some themes you may expect, such as beaureacracy, governmental control, corruption, HIV and ecology, but all are treated in an original manner. There is also a good representation of female writers which can only be a good thing.
All in all it’s a quality volume with only a couple of stories coming over as either weak or cliched and possibly in need of a rewrite. There’s certainly some writers – such as Efe Okogu, Cristy Zinn, Clifton Gachagua and SA Partridge – who have an original voice and are well worth keeping an eye on.

‘Moom!’ Nnedi Okorafor
‘Home Affairs’ Sarah Lotz
‘The Sale’ Tendai Huchu
‘Five Sets of Hands’ Cristy Zinn
‘New Mzansi’ Ashley Jacobs
‘Azania’ Nick Wood
‘Notes from Gethsemane’ Tade Thompson
‘Planet X’ S.A. Partridge
‘The Gift of Touch’ Chinelo Onwualu
‘The Foreigner’ Uko Bendi Udo
‘Angel Song’ Dave de Burgh
‘The Rare Earth’ Biram Mboob
‘Terms & Conditions Apply’ Sally-Ann Murray
‘Heresy’ Mandisi Nkomo
‘Closing Time’ Liam Kruger
‘Masquerade Stories’ Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu
‘The Trial’ Joan De La Haye
‘Brandy City’ Mia Arderne
‘Ofe!’ Rafeeat Aliyu
‘Claws and Savages’ Martin Stokes
‘To Gaze at the Sun’ Clifton Gachagua
‘Proposition 23’ (Novelette) Efe Okogu

‘Moom’ – Nnedi Okorafor

A poetic prelude to a novel involving an intelligent swordfish and a possibly alien artefact. Eco issues involved.

‘Home Affairs’ – Sarah Lotz

A slightly satirical near future which looks at the potential results of self-service robots in customer facing government offices.

‘The Sale’ – Tendai Huchu

Similar in theme to Sarah Lotz ‘Home Affairs’ this again examines the corruption and bureaucracy that is seemingly rife in Africa.

‘Five Sets of Hands’ – Cristy Zinn

An excellent piece of work here looking at a slave culture where a community of humans, genetically adapted to survive the climate of Mars are digging for tech left over after a failed terraforming project. Beautifully written against a complex setting.

‘New Mzani’ – Ashley Jacobs

In a cyberpunk African future, a young man tries desperately to get his friend his annual HIV treatment that will extend his life another year.

‘Azania’ – Nick Wood

There’s some very poetic work in this anthology. This is no exception, set at the landing of a colony flight to a new world.

‘Notes from Gethsemane’ – Tade Thompson

This is a gritty near future piece which ends quite mysteriously and unexpectedly after a botched delivery by a youth gang.

‘Planet X’ – S.A. Partridge

Another short poetic piece which in reality is about mob mentality, paranoia and rumour… but touches on many other things and is very very good.

‘The Gift of Touch’ – Chinelo Onwualu

This story suffers from its brevity and would benefit from being a little longer. A merchant spacer accepts a commission to ferry a farming family to Ganymede, but has suspicions as to who they are and what they plan on Ganymede.

‘The Foreigner’ – Uko Bendi Udo

A nice little tale about a half-alien Nigerian and his quest for recognition.

‘Angel Song’ – Dave de Burgh

A military leader on a distant world leads a force against an invading army of souls transformed to glowing ‘angels’? Are they what they appear to be? It’s a clever piece that makes one think.

‘The Rare Earth’ – Biram Mboob

A Messiah from the Congo is gathering followers due to his ability to heal the sick and see the future. A very clever story, dealing with issues of political power and belief. There is a confusing ambiguity in the Messiah which perhaps his hostage sees through… or not.

‘Terms & Conditions Apply’ – Sally-Ann Murray

A cyberpunk tale of… to be honest, I’m not quite sure. I suspect it’s about treatment to make male/female interaction more efficient, but by the end of the story I couldn’t have cared less anyway. I suspect it’s far better story than I am suggesting and needs to be read at least twice but, sadly, I really didn’t want to.

‘Heresy’ – Mandisi Nkomo

Again, we see themes of political corruption and belief in a satirical tale where South Africa has invaded Russia and is in a space-race with China. A barrier has been found at the edge of the Solar System and God may be on the other side.

‘Closing Time’ – Liam Kruger

A well-written first person narrative, based on the unusual premise that alcohol can allow one to jump through time to one’s future body

‘Masquerade Stories’ – Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu

One of a couple of stories that deal with ancient extraterrestrial contact with Africans taking in themes of cultural identity and ecology.

‘The Trial’ – Joan De La Haye

De La Haye tackles the issue of political power and overpopulation in a short but powerful piece.

‘Brandy City’ – Mia Arderne

In a future Africa we look at the effects of climate change, virtual sex and alcohol.

‘Ofe!’ – Rafeeat Aliyu

A fascinating story involving a female detective and a group of people descended, it would appear, from aliens. Much is unexplained, but it works.

‘Claws and Savages’ – Martin Stokes

An allegorical tale of a gangster who makes his living from extracting drugs from the claws of vicious extraterrestrial beasties. Slightly retro stylistically with a dash of noir.

‘To Gaze at the Sun’ – Clifton Gachagua

A beautiful and surreal piece which manages to capture the emotions and the cutural problems of an old couple adopting a child designed to be a soldier in an unexplained war. It’s one of those rare stories that manages to say an awful lot in a very short number of pages.

‘Proposition 23’ (Novelette) – Efe Okogu

This marvellous novelette concludes the volume, taking on themes of terrorist / freedom fighter, the dispossessed and artificial intelligence. Excellent stuff told via a three voice narrative.