My life in outer space


This Is the Way the World Ends – James Morrow (1986)

This Is the Way the World Ends

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.


Jagged Orbit – John Brunner (1969)

The Jagged Orbit

While reading this, it struck me, since Brunner seems particularly Dick-influenced – how PKD’s characters seem to be trapped in their roles. I suspect if you pick up any Dick novel at random you would find more than one character yearning to break away from a job, or a spouse or both and yet seems doomed to remain. PKD’s characters are defined by their status and their place in society, and to a certain extent, so are Brunner’s.
Brunner’s work is more obviously satirical, extrapolating US society into a caricatured future of Mental Health gurus, psychic mediums, Watergate-style media reporters, race-riots, politics, corruption, big business and Artificial Intelligence.
It was a time of crisis when Brunner was writing this. America had been involved for some time in the Korean war, civil rights groups were rising and fighting for equality for all the usual causes – all of them just, and so it is not surprising that that this novel is laced with a healthy dose of cynicism for the concepts of equality, fair play and clean politics, on both sides of the divide.
The novel is divided into a hundred chapters, some of which are merely short quotes or excerpts from media reports. It’s therefore a fast-paced, punchy, sometimes aggressive narrative which centres around a TV reporter, Matthew, whose exposees are transmitted once a week and who is currently investigating the Gosschalks, a multinational family who manufacture arms, amongst other things, and who may or may not be suffering from internal family tensions.
When Matthew visits the Mental Health Institute where his wife has been committed – and receiving some somewhat dubious treatment – he is drawn into slowly uncovering an international conspiracy where racial unrest is being actively encouraged, which could lead to world crises and the fall of civilisation.
Paradoxically enough, it’s actually quite funny. One of Brunner’s best.

Rhialto the Marvellous – Jack Vance (1984)

Rhialto the Marvellous (The Dying Earth, #4)

Some thirty-three years after ‘The Dying Earth’, Vance returns to the last days of Earth with a trio of inter-related tales surrounding Rhialto the Marvellous, leading member of a cabal of magicians whose petty squabbles with each other are not only delivered with sublime dialogue but which hold a mirror to the interpersonal politics which go on within any organisation.
It lacks the fire and energy of the earliest work, but this is mature Vance, revelling in his mastery of the English language, often bamboozling the reader with his heady poetic mixture of genuine arcane words and those which are born of the author.
Vance’s heroes are of a type but that define is paradoxically hard to define. One could maybe call it ‘cardboard complex’. Rhialto for instance is both arrogant yet romantic, sardonic and amoral.
The magicians, including Rhialto, have no moral qualms with regard to slavery. Creatures with magical powers or talents are held in indenture and work off their points through hard work and loyalty to their masters.
There is much dry humour here, particularly in the dialogue. Vance exposes the absurdities of human society as he always does (and yet so well).
In the second tale a religious sect selects a thousand perfect people to be the basis for a new race. They are sealed into eggs inside a temple to be ‘hatched’ in a thousand years time. Rhialto, jumping through time in search of the stolen crystal rulebook of the Magicians (which is sealed in the temple with eggs) finds that the religion has collapsed with society and that a tribe of cannibals have been feasting on the future Master Race, breaking open their eggs and roasting the occupants.
This is stylish prose with a deft use of language. One can clearly see the influence of Clark Ashton Smith and one suspects that M John Harrison (particularly in his Viriconium sequence) might owe something to Vance and his societies of grotesques.
The writing style, poetic and verbose, complements the baroque nature of Vance’s future Earth and partly by this device allows us to believe that – as in the third tale – the magicians leave the Earth in a Palace-cum-spaceship and head off for the edge of the Universe to hunt for lost Morreion, an ancient magician, previously thought to be dead. Vance thus moves from what many would consider to be the conventions of fantasy, into those of science fiction without having to adapt the style or tone.

The Alteration – Kingsley Amis (1976)

The Alteration

‘The year is 1976 and we are living in a Europe-that-might-have-been. It is a Europe that never underwent the Reformation of the 16th century, peopled by – among others – Monsignor Jean-Paul Sartre, a Jesuit theologian and Heinrich Himmler, a papal envoy… and Hubert Anvil, a faultless boy soprano. When the clergy discovers the rarity of this sublime voice, they conspire to ‘alter’ him and preserve Hubert’s genius. The plot against this defenceless creature then swirls in a whirlpool of piety, terror and passion from which no reader can escape until the final resolution.’

Blurb from the 1988 Carroll and Graf Masters of Science Fiction Edition

Hubert Anvil is ten years old and lives in 1976 in a Britain in which the Reformation never took place. He is, his tutors believe, an amazingly talented singer and composer, and the vicious Catholic theocracy which controls most of the world wishes to preserve his singing voice by the simple expedient of making him a castrato, the ‘alteration’ of the title, although the title also refers, one presumes, to the alteration of history which led to this beautifully delineated society.
Although the narrative very much follows Hubert and his indecision and ultimate rebellion against this process, it also, mostly through Hubert’s eyes, shows us the complex and highly detailed world which Amis has created.
The author certainly relishes this attack on the Catholic Church, made all the more powerful by its abstraction from our world to this one, allowing us to see with fresh eyes practices which the Church not only condoned but encouraged, and attitudes which are still prevalent today.
Hubert and his friends at school are fans of TR fiction (Time Romance) or CW (Counterfeit worlds), copies of which one of Hubert’s friends buys illicitly from the brewer’s apprentice. Their latest find is ‘The Man in The High Castle’ by Philip K Dick which, Hubert hears, features an alternate Earth in which everyone is allowed to use electricity. Later, Hubert acquires another CW book, Keith Roberts’ ‘Galliards’ which is no doubt Roberts’ version of ‘Pavane’ in Hubert’s world, seeing as ‘Pavane’ uses essentially the same premise as Amis.
America is known as New England and is a fast-developing country where the Catholic Church does not have so strong a hold and where passenger pigeons still fly in millions across the skies.
Amis’ characterisation is wonderful, peopling the novel as he does with Dickensian grotesques such as the Fagin-like Jacob who kidnaps Hubert and plans to hold him for ransom, incidentally passing on the information that that the Catholics have pre-empted Nazi procedures and confiscated all Jewish property and business interests and force Jews to wear a yellow star sewn on to their clothes.
The Pope is a Yorkshireman and though his initial avuncular homeliness is engaging (when Hubert and his father are invited to the Vatican) it masks a ruthless psychopathic nature which is prepared to employ further Nazi tactics to deal with the world’s population problem.
This novel is sheer joy and deserves re-reading, for it is full of secret gems of observation, in-jokes, subtle sketches of characterisation and shows wicked insight regarding the internal political machinations of the Church.
I for one will never look at a Pope in the same way again, which would, I imagine, please Kingsley Amis no end.

Cugel’s Saga – Jack Vance (1983)

Cugel's Saga

Following on from ‘The Eyes of The Overworld’ we rejoin Cugel, who has been transported back across the world to Cutz by the Magician Iucounu and is attempting to find his way back.
Far more Swiftian and satirical than the previous novel this displays Vance’s preoccupation with the absurdities of social rules and customs, such as the island where the men are forced to cover their faces as well as their bodies, lest they arouse the passions of their rapacious womenfolk.
It’s basically a series of morality tales in which, Cugel either outwits, or is outwitted by, a series of tricksters and con-men. Tellingly, when Cugel ends up with ill-gotten gains he almost immediately loses them again.
Vance’s overall point seems to be that despite the civilisations which have risen and fallen between our time and this far future earth where the Sun is about to expire, human nature has not essentially changed. Greed, Pride, Stupidity, Intolerance and Malice are not in short supply.
Despite the rather formulaic construction of each section, which sees Cugel lying, cheating, scheming and plotting his way in and out of rather convoluted situations, it is still a marvellous book which holds a mirror to our own society and forces us to question our own cultural habits, which in some cases are every bit as absurd as Vance’s caricatures.

Ecce and Old Earth (Cadwal #2) – Jack Vance (1991)

Ecce and Old Earth (Cadwal Chronicles)

Part Two of the Cadwal Chronicles continues with the intrigues of the Naturalist Society and the good (and bad) folk of Cadwal.
At heart it is clearly Vance’s attack on those who seek to plunder the Earth’s resources for their own personal gain and for the most part get away with it due to the apathy of the majority of the population.
The planet Cadwal, which lies somewhere toward the tail end of Mercea’s Wisp in the Gaean Reach, is a beautiful planet of temperate and biological diversity with some semi-sentient life forms. It is held in trust by the Naturalist Party under the terms of the Great Charter.
The Great Charter, however, has gone missing, and there are political factions who would open up the planet for development, and are actively seeking the Charter in order to break its power.
Glawen Clattick’s first priority is to rescue his father who has been kidnapped and taken to a prison on another continent. meanwhile, Wayness Tamm, an intelligent and capable young woman, has set off for Earth to follow the trail of the charter, which was stolen and sold by a corrupt Naturalist official many years ago.
The overall style is somewhat baroque, which is compounded by Vance’s very personal style of dialogue. This series is much funnier than many other Vance novels, particularly in terms of characters who try and score points off each other. Vance is particularly in his element with the lowest rungs of society who are never that backward in coming forward and giving their opinion to their betters.
What is slightly confusing – given that Vance tends to champion the underdog – is the role, metaphorical or otherwise, of the Yips. Yips are descended from human stock but can no longer interbreed with other humans. They were brought to Cadwal to be used as cheap transient labour since the Charter forbids an increase in native population, but they have settled and have begun to swell in numbers.
As a possibly redeeming feature, Vance portrays the Yips as immoral, inhuman and corrupt. Their thought processes are not the same as the rest of Humanity. The conservationists plan to resettle the Yips while the LPFers (Life, Peace and Freedom) wish to allow them to settle on Cadwal and be supervise by LPFers who would, of course, then have their own estates and land from which to supervise, and would be exploiting the Yips for their own gain.
Vance never portrays the Yips as victims however. They appear to be a ruthless community with no redeeming features.
Nevertheless it is a little disquieting for the main characters to be discussing ‘the Yip problem’ in terms of ridding the planet of what is in effect an ethnic minority.

Profundis – Richard Cowper (1979)


‘KN4/2-034-17/Jones, T. (M(AQ)C GRADE 3) is naïve, impressionable and very, very willing. His chief talent is conversing with dolphins in the Aquatic Mammals Division of HMS Profundis, a gargantuan submarine – destined to roam the ocean depths for a century following a nuclear holocaust.

Years pass and mad captain succeeds mad captain. Eventually the ship falls under the command of one Horatio Prood, a kind, understanding man who finally comes to a startling conclusion. He is God the Father. The Almighty Himself. And all he needs now is a Son to sit at his right hand.

Enter the innocent Tom Jones of the Aquatic Mammals Division…’

Blurb from the 1980 Pan edition.

Cowper, although not as prolific as some of his peers, more than makes up for his lack of output with the quality of his novels.
And this is that rare thing, a satirical SF novel which is actually funny. The novel satirises the Industrial policies of the British Government of the Nineteen Seventies (amongst other things) although it’s not really necessary to know the details in order to enjoy this.
‘Profundis’ is the brain-child of the Labour MP Mr Widgewood-Bing (a thinly-veiled reference to the late Left Wing Labour Minister Anthony Wedgwood-Benn) who, in an effort to subsidise the ailing manufacturing industry of the North West of England, commissioned the construction of a vast atomic submarine and a controlling Artificial Intelligence system, Proteus.
While Profundis is submerged deep undersea, the world erupts into brief and violent nuclear conflict, leaving the ship condemned to sail on beneath the waves until she can surface a hundred years on when radiation has fallen to a safe level.
The Captain controls a crew of eccentric androids which ruthlessly oversee the running of the ship by the lowest rung in the ladder, Humanity.
This is the backdrop against which the story is told, a story parodying, satirising, and yet, strangely affirming the story of Christ.
Control of the submarine is inherited by one Horatio Prood who is taken suddenly by the conviction that he is God. Not unnaturally, he sees the disembodied AI which controls most of the functions of the ship as The Holy Ghost, and thus now needs to complete the trinity, and sets out to locate the most likely candidate. As it happens, the most likely candidate is also the most unlikely candidate, since it is Tom Jones, the naive young man in charge of the dolphins in the Aquatic Mammals Division.
Cowper manages to create believable yet quite bizarre characters, helped by the author’s clever use of dialogue.

The Reproductive System – John Sladek (1968)

The Reproductive System

Sladek has a particular writing style of manic and complex multi-character narrative, perhaps perfected in his magnum opus ‘Roderick’. Here, Sladek employs his sharp and incisive talent for satire and characterisation to expose the hypocrisies of US society.
In an effort to save their ailing doll-manufacturing business, the Wompler family apply to the government for a research grant, and very shortly find their research headed by the dysfunctional trio of Professor Toto Smilax and Kurt and Karl, the Frankenstein brothers. The aim of Project 32 is to create a Von Neumann machine, ie self-reproducing mechanisms which may or not ultimately have military applications.
Prototypes in the form of small mobile grey boxes are produced, and on being fed metal, proceed to construct others, each time improving on the original design.
Inevitably, some of the boxes escape and ‘The Reproductive System’ as Smilax terms it, begins to spread across America.
Sladek is fond of using a large cast of characters, and his novels resemble an intricate and complex farce, in that inevitably seemingly unrelated characters turn out to have some connection with each other, such as Mary, whose relationships with men seem to connect several of the characters leading to bizarre but oddly logical consequences.
A sub-plot involves Mary’s husband, an obsessively prudish newspaper editor, being drafted into the CIA and becoming the new partner of a deranged agent, determined to undermine the Russians’ attempt to infiltrate a French Moon landing attempt.
Sladek’s plotting is faultless, and in a brilliant scene in which various people (for various reasons) are wandering around Marrakesch in astronaut’s suits both the Russian and American agents end up in the rocket while the French astronaut is left on the ground. As the hijack of the rocket threatens to cause a major international incident, both agents are ordered to kill themselves in order that the blame for the hijack can be laid at the door of the country of the survivor. Thus, the agents are put in the surreal position of having to keep each other alive.
If this novel has a fault it is that is a frantic roller-coaster ride and one gets occasionally lost by the welter of bizarre yet fully rounded characterisations.
The Reproductive System itself, obviously, rather like Roderick the robot, is merely a device around which Sladek builds his savage vision of the US. It is a Heath-Robinson fantasy and Sladek makes no attempt to explain its physical workings or structure, but rather merely presents us with the surreal results of its development, the most strange and fascinating of which is the transformation of Kurt and Karl into robotic mannikins whose heads have been replaced with cathode-ray tubes.
Deceptively frothy and lightweight, It’s a vicious and very amusing portrait of American society of the 1960s, and a refreshing antidote to some of the more paranoiac novels of the previous decade.

Stranger Than You Think – GC Edmondson (1965)


 ‘Things from space, things from time…


If you have a friend to whom strange things happen, you can never lack for excitement. And if your friend happens to be the famous Mad Friend of GC Edmondson’s remarkably authentic accounts of improbable but possible happenings, then you can always count on the unexpected.
This particular friend had a knack for turning up the unearthly, the off-the-record, the things that were “stranger than science.” He could spot a time-traveller across a restaurant – and then produce the sort of proof that would be more potent than tequila. He could find just where the meteor fell – and show you that it is not just a rock from space but far, far more ominous. he could…

But read STRANGER THAN YOU THINK for yourself and then start looking around your supposedly workaday world. Things may look different’

Blurb from the M-109 1965 Ace Double paperback edition.

Some rather odd stories from Mr Edmondson, mostly in the form of minor mysteries. One confesses that a knowledge of Mexican or US Spanish culture would help a great deal, but it is not altogether necessary. The author and his ‘mad friend’ travel the world accompanied for the most part by their wives, who are described only in the third person and who appear to be solely interested in the latest developments in fashion.


The Misfit (F&SF February 1959)

The narrator and his mad friend run into someone who claims to be a time-traveller, but he warns them of the perils of time travel since he has unwittingly altered the course of history.

From Caribou to Carry Nation (F&SF November 1959)

An extended play on words, very similar to the work of RA Lafferty, involving dinosaurs, soul migration, reincarnation and carrots.

The Galactic Calabash (F&SF January 1960)

A friend of the narrator invites him and the mad friend around for dinner and, on impulse, decides to bake a loose calabash that he finds in his garden, which turns out to be something else entirely.

The Sign of The Goose
(F&SF August 1960)

The same characters get embroiled in a tale of flying saucers, Latino cemetery bureaucracy and snake discussions.

The Country Boy (F&SF May 1961)

The Time Traveller from ‘The Misfit’ returns to tell the narrator and his mad friend a wild tale about travelling into the past and rescuing a Neanderthal boy, which might have something to do with America’s current – and somewhat ugly – President.

The World Must Never Know (F&SF April 1963)

Our heroes get embroiled in a search for a missing author who needs to provide the last three chapters of a novel.

The Third Bubble (F&SF June 1964)

The Time Traveller returns again, conducting a tour of bullet-headed tourists. There is turtle-meat, there is a tale of The Great Ones who will take an astronaut through a hole to another dimension… It gets complicated, but I think I see what he was getting at.

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry #01) – Charles Stross (2001)

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)

Stross’ basic mission here was to write a novel which was an amalgam of Len Deighton and HP Lovecraft. Thus we have the wonderful concept of ‘The Laundry’ in a UK where Turing discovered a theorem showing that magic was not only real but could be generated, controlled and manipulated by computer programmes.
The Laundry is an organisation (rather like Rowling’s Ministry of Magic) that watches over the population and prevents the general public from discovering that we may be only a few keystrokes away from opening gateways to worlds of demons and ‘Old Ones’ who can tune in on our digital nonsense.
Our hero, Bob Howard, is a fairly new recruit into this organisation, but soon becomes embroiled in a plot by a Lovecraftian Cthulhu horror beastie to open a gateway into our universe. At the same time he has to deal with his line managers, Harriet and Bridget and their Total Quality Management Procedures.
Once one gets past a certain level of geeky / techy explanations and in-jokes in the first chapter or two, the book gets very enjoyable. Stross takes hefty swipes at British Corporate business procedures, such as TQM systems and all that arcane ridiculousness.
Stross is a very funny man when he wants to be and there are some smart, slick elements of humour dabbed liberally throughout.
The one thing that didn’t quite ring true was Bob’s expertise since, for a fairly recent recruit into the Laundry Service, he seems to deploy an amazing set of skills and techniques when called upon to deal with paranormal shenanigans.
In the Kindle version at least there is a bonus tale ‘The Concrete Jungle’ in which a magical terrorist has managed to upload Gorgon software into the Milton Keynes CCTV network, turning at least one real cow into stone.
Those of you who know Milton Keynes will appreciate the concept.