My life in outer space

Space Opera

The Promise of The Child – Tom Toner (2015)

The Promise of the Child (The Amaranthine Spectrum #1)
So, I had this e-mail from Tom Toner in January 2017 asking me if I wouldn’t mind reviewing this, ‘The Promise of The Child’. I was in two minds about this as, being a generally kind sort of person, I was worried that, if I hated the novel, I would have to post a negative review. This has happened before, and I’m sure that I feel far worse about it than the authors involved who no doubt take bad reviews as part of the job and aren’t likely to track me down and give me a good kicking. They haven’t as yet, but I guess there’s still time.
My fears, it transpires, were groundless, as this is probably one of the best debut novels I have encountered since Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space‘, which it resembles in some senses. Others have compared it to Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’ , Jack Vance, Moorcock, M John Harrison and various others who have pursued a somewhat baroque exploration of SF. The style has a fascinating history which extends back beyond Moorcock to Vance, Charles L Harness, Leigh Brackett, and beyond there to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clark Ashton Smith. One is impressed to see it so freshly reinvented.
Some twelve and a half thousand years from now, Humanity has spread out into the galaxy, finding no other life (barring the one glaring discovery of two incredibly ancient corpses of what appear to be sentient dinosaurs preserved in the icy cold of the outer Solar System.).
All life outside of Earth is descended from that of Earth, and Humanity itself has splintered into various species which exist in a complex hierarchical system, at the pinnacle of which are the immortal Amaranthine.
The narrative follows several key figures. Lycaste is a Melius, a larger human form that can change the colour of its skin. Lycaste lives in what we presume to be a far future Cyprus, and is famous for being – at least in Melius terms – beautiful. Lycaste is a sensitive individual, deeply in love with Pentas, although the love is unreturned. His life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a Plenipotentiary, Callisthemon, a noble of a higher caste who is, he claims, carrying out a census. Pentas’ attraction to Callisthemon leads inexorably to an event which causes Lycaste to flee on a journey across the Old World.
Sotiris, originally himself from Greece, is one of the most ancient Amaranthine and suffering from a condition to which the older immortals are prone; a succumbing to delusions. There is strife among the Amaranthine. Traditionally their leader is the oldest of them, and a Pretender, Aaron, has arisen who claims to be older than any living immortal.
War is spreading across the Old World, a war in which Sotiris is a principle manipulator, and in which Lycaste gets unwilling involved.
Meanwhile, a machine which could potentially threaten the balance of power across the galaxy has been stolen and, along with its kidnapped creator, is being shipped between the stars through hostile territory.
This is, it has to be said, a work which demands concentration. Much like Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’, there are some elements only partly explained, at least at first, which the general reader will either recognise or hopefully pick up on later, such as the vaulted worlds. These are essentially planet-sized Dyson spheres, hollowed out worlds with an artificial sun at the centre. One also has to contend with the various branched off species of Humanity, the baroque and complex societies and their equally complex political and social dynamics. It does however reward careful reading.
There are some devices which are hard to justify under rational science, such as the Amaranthine’s ability to bilocate using a planet’s magnetic field, apparently because of the build up of iron in an ancient body. The Shell, or The Soul Machine, has an even flimsier rationale for its operation, although these are minor quibbles.
One would have expected the presence of some form of Artificial Intelligence but, as with Dune (another baroque series infested with aristocratic class levels) there is a prohibition against creating such things although this becomes an important issue much later and explains some aspects of the earlier narrative.
Toner manages to convey a sense of languid and wistful decadence which pervades the novel, reminiscent of that of Vance’s ‘Dying Earth‘ and Harrison’s ‘Viriconium‘ sequence. The Old World is divided into rigid divisions of class and race, where everyone it seems has learned to know their place. One can also see a sense of Moorcockian entropy in this ancient society with its arcane rules and casual cruelty.
There is a very interesting scene where Callisthemon, the higher level Plenipotentiary visiting Lycaste’s region. discovers that one of Lycaste’s friends and neighbours is gay, although the term is never employed. Pentas enquires of him whether men can love each other in Callisthemon’s region. Callisthemon appears both amused and horrified by the idea, implying that it would never happen, and insists on changing the subject when he is pressed for an answer. It’s a very subtle moment, but it neatlly clarifies for the reader what form of society Callisthemon represents, as is indeed shown in later events.
Lycaste and Sotiris, despite some excursions to follow events and characters elsewhere, are the central two characters, and one could possibly argue that this is to the detriment of the other players. Some, without giving too much away, are unexpectedly despatched.just as one thought they were going to play a major role in the story.
It’s a tad vexing that other reviews I have seen posted have noted that they read (whatever) percent of the book and gave up. If this is the case, why post a review? It helps nobody, and one can’t be expected to provide a valid judgment having only read a tenth or a fifth of someone’s work. I would suggest that the author cannot be held responsible for other people’s laziness, although that may well be an oversimplification of the situation. There will always be occasions when one starts a book and realises that one is never going to finish it. One really has to ask the question, is it the book’s fault?
In this case, I don’t think it is. As a society we have learned to be spoonfed and we tend to shy away from entertainment (particularly books) that might be slightly challenging. This is challenging, but that’s not the book’s fault. If you can’t get into it, don’t blame the book. Move on. Find something you like.

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A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought #1) – Vernor Vinge (1992)

A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)

Vinge has created a marvellous galactic culture here, much like Brin’s Uplift universe, where humanity are relative newcomers to a galactic civilisation billions of years old. Indeed, the concept of Uplift is employed as a plot device discovered later in the novel.
Vinge takes the unusual premise that the galaxy is divided into Zones of Thought with somewhat fluid boundaries. Intelligence and technology thrive better in those zones closest to intergalactic space, the Transcend, and some races and AIs have become transcendent ‘Powers’. In the slow zones, high level technology has problems and ships’ drives are reduced to a sublight crawl.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy and one offshoot, the Straumli Realm, has discovered a cache of billion year old data and technology. They do not realise until too late that they have awakened an ancient and vicious AI. One ship manages to escape with, unbeknown to the humans, a possible solution to dealing with The Blight, as the AI becomes subsequently known. The Blight begins to infect the galaxy while searching for the escaped ship.
The ship lands on a medieval era planet populated by swan-necked doglike creatures, the Tines, who have evolved into gestalt packs who each share a single consciousness, communicating by tympanic membranes in the shoulder area.
Meanwhile, a human librarian, a man – reconstructed Frankenstein fashion by an ‘Old Power’ – and a pair of cyborg sentient vegetables who live in symbiosis with robotic mobility buggies realise that the lost ship may hold the secret to defeating the Blight. They therefore set off into the Slow Zone on a desperate mission.
This is a wonderful if somewhat lengthy piece of Nineties Space Opera, fast paced and filled with well-embellished locations and societies, wit and suspense.
Doorstop novels were a big thing (literally) in the Nineties and ranged from six hundred pages (Vinge’s book is in the lower bracket) to Peter F Hamilton’s fifteen hundred page epics. Not a word wasted with either of these authors it has to be said, although many of the others may have benefited from some trimming.
One tends to wonder if this might be a book which falls somewhere between a novel and a trilogy. It would have been interesting to have seen an expanded version over two or more (shorter) volumes with perhaps a side story set in the areas controlled by The Blight.
I tend not to approve of mixing hitech societies with the medieval, mainly because it is often done badly. Peter F Hamilton’s Void novels employed this extensively with the result that the sections set in a medieval human society, albeit within an SF setting, were far less interesting than the contrasting galaxy of AIs, wormholes, human immortals and weird aliens.
Here however Vinge has set the weird aliens within a pre-industrial culture and it’s a well thought out joy of a thing.
The plot is incredibly basic. Major threat to the Galaxy. A small band set out against all odds to get to the-thing-that-can-save-or-destroy-the-cosmos before the major threat does.
Indiana Jones. Star Trek Beyond. It’s a tried and trusted formula.
Vinge takes the basic ingredients though and whisks us up this rich and detailed souffle.
If I have any criticism at all it would be that Vinge has maybe over-anthropomorphised the Tines whose personalities – albeit shared among several individuals – are all too human in their culture and lifestyle. One would expect more specific cultural mores to reflect their pack-centric lifestyles. What is interesting – and not really explored enough – is the concept of identity within the Tines which changes as older members die and are replaced.
On the whole though this is excellent; well-written, compelling, colourful gung-ho Space Opera.


The Mind Pool – Charles Sheffield (1986)

The Mind Pool

The original version of this novel was The Nimrod Hunt, written as a tribute to Alfred Bester and attempting a Besterite style. This was revised and re-released with the title of ‘The Mind Pool’ as Sheffield was apparently not happy with the original ending.
Centuries from now, Man has moved out into space and formed alliances with a group of alien races. The aliens are all, it appears, mentally unable to accept the concept of killing sentient life and are both appalled and fascinated by Humanity’s casual attitude to killing even members of its own species.
A human scientist, Livia Morgan, under the command of Esro Mondrian, Head of Border Security, has been experimenting with sentient constructs to patrol the borders of Human space as a precaution against contact with hostile aliens.
The constructs turn on their master however and are destroyed, but not before one escapes through a Mattin Link (a matter transmitter essentially) to another part of Human space.
The alien council, having been notified, determine that teams, each one containing members of each alien race, be trained to hunt the construct.
The aliens have stipulated that the human elements must have no prior military training, which makes selection practically impossible unless one searches on the most lawless planet in space, which happens to be Earth.
Esro Mondrian has two other reasons for visiting Earth. One is to meet his lover, Lady Tatiana, a woman addicted to the Paradox drug. The other is revealed later in the novel.
Luther Brachis has a friendly but competitive work relationship with Esro, but employs devious means to achieve his ends, actions which set in motion a complex series of events.
There’s an awful lot going on in this novel which is a lot more complex – structurally and in terms of plot – than other Sheffield works. We have troubled and complex relationships, trips to other worlds, space station laboratories, the grotesques of the warrens of Earth and a set of aliens that are biologically fascinating, but imbued with cosy Simak-esque personalities. Indeed, there are elements of this that remind one of ‘The Werewolf Principle’ particularly when we encounter the Mind Pool phenomenon, whereby a mental gestalt is achieved.
We have three couples, all of whom have issues of one sort or another, the male halves being irrevocably changed by the end of the novel. Indeed, some characters undergo a form of role reversal.
We meet Chan Dalton, central figure of the sequel ‘The Spheres of Heaven’ as a physically perfect male but with the mental development of a small child. Since his childhood he has been looked after by Leah, who loves him. Mondrian, desperate for recruits, and having bought Leah and Dalton’s indenture without having realised Dalton’s deficiencies, decides to employ banned technology to try and stimulate Chan’s mind into growth.
By the end of the novel Chan is a mature intelligent individual while Brachis and Mondrian, for different reasons, have been left in a mentally vegetative state, now being cared for by their respective partners, as Leah once cared for Chan.
The Morgan Construct itself is almost immaterial to the story. It is a Maguffin around which this complex interplay of politics and relationships is wound.
It has its flaws. There’s a certain retro SF style to it, in keeping with Sheffield’s claim that the novel is an Alfred Bester tribute. This works well enough in all the locations barring Earth itself which is roughly sketched with little depth and containing characters that border on parody.
The Mind Pool element is introduced very late in the story and its genesis and method of operation is a little unclear, at least to me.
On balance though, it’s a great bit of space opera featuring a set of main characters with unusually complex motivations.


Halcyon Drift (Hooded Swan #01) – Brian Stableford (1972)

Halcyon Drift (Hooded Swan, #1)

Grainger – he has no first name – was half of a two man trading team who bought and sold goods through the human settled and alien worlds of the galaxy.
Encountering problems in the Halcyon Drift – a nebula where gravitational forces distort the laws of physics – Grainger crashlands on an unknown planet, killing his partner, Lapthorn and wrecking the ship, ‘The Javelin’.
He is eventually rescued but not before his body is invaded by a sentient alien parasite. His rescuer, Axel Cyran of the Cradoc Company, having been pulled away from his mission of finding a legendary lost ship for the rescue, lands Grainger with costs of twenty thousand. Twenty thousand what is never made clear.
The lost ship ‘The Lost Star’ is the Maguffin in this novel, a semi mythical wreck believed to be carrying priceless cargo.
Grainger then gets an offer by which the company who wish to hire him will clear his debts if he agrees to pilot an experimental ship for two years.
The ship is a hybrid of alien and human technology, an odd reflection of Grainger and his alien mindrider now fused into one body. The ship is called ‘The Hooded Swan’.
Its test, and its first mission, is to beat Cyran to ‘The Lost Star’ and claim the cargo.
From this summary one would assume a fairly standard bit of space opera of the time, but it is far more than that.
The setting is an interplanetary culture, bound by the Laws of New Rome, where Earth is becoming a backwater as other worlds become the centres of trading and industry, carrying out business with at least two other alien cultures. Stableford’s aliens, if humanoid-ish in physiology, are suitably alien in other senses, although the crew of the Hooded Swan do encounter truly alien life during their search for ‘The Lost Star’.
Grainger himself is a fascinating psychological study. There’s possibly a little of the sociopath about him since his frequent memories of his dead partner, with whom he spent fifteen years in close quarters, are resisting any emotion, any grief.
He has an awkward meeting with his partner’s parents who tell Grainger – to his surprise – that their son worshipped him.
Indeed, it is the alien presence in Grainger’s mind, from which no secrets can be hidden, who forces Grainger to face some of his self-deception issues.
There is a solid reality with Grainger that one seldom finds in genre novels of the period and particularly within Space Opera.
Stableford, a very important figure within the SF world, is paradoxically very under-recognised by SF readers in general in my view which is a terrible injustice.
If you have never read Stableford, give this series a go.


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

Ring

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


Martin Magnus on Mars – William F Temple (1956)

Martin Magnus on Mars

In the conclusion to Martin Magnus’ adventures Magnus and his young cohort Cliff Page find their helicopter drawn off course by a rogue Venusian homing beacon, set into the rocks at the edge of the Venusian lake where the amoeboid Venusians dwell.
Magnus senses a mystery since the signal was not sent on a wavelength that humans would use and therefore was not intended as a lure.
Magnus has no time to investigate however as his superior, Old Baldy, is sending them to Mars in a prototype ion ship since something has been discovered at the polar ice cap. As the ice has melted, a white patch has been revealed, a perfect white circle, not constructed of ice.
The Martian settlers in that area have taken it upon themselves to investigate and have found a huge circular ‘pill box’ constructed of an impervious white substance. The leader of the Martian base in the area is determined to open the structure before an Earth team arrives. Things are made complicated by the fact that the hot-headed Martian leader is Phil Bruce, Old Baldy’s nephew.
It’s up to Magnus to stop Phil from destroying what could be the only relic of an extinct Martian race.
One has to admit to being very sad that this was the last of the Martin Magnus books. Despite the fact that they were aimed at what we would term today ‘a young adult audience’ one never gets the impression that this was the case. No one gets killed or badly hurt, it has to be said, and there’s a good dose of humour sloshed in here and there, but one does not feel it is dumbed down or patronising, which was a feature of some ‘juvenile’ literature of the day.
I can not conclude this review without pointing out that fans of this series owe Simon Haynes an enormous amount of thanks for going to extreme lengths to ensure that these novels are available for download, rather than languishing in Space Opera oblivion.
His memories of Martin Magnus and how the novels came to be re-released can be found at his blog.

Thank you Simon. I have thoroughly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with Magnus.


Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch #1) (2013)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)

Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.


The Sun Smasher – Edmond Hamilton (1959)

The Sun Smasher

‘A CROWN FOR THE STAR-CROSSED

“It can’t be true! It must be some kind of hoax!” These were the words that went spinning through Neil Banning’s mind when the Greenville authorities told him that the house he had grown up in, the aunt and uncle who had raised him, had never existed.
So Banning found himself in jail, charged with disturbing the peace – and maybe insanity. But when a stranger from outer space came to his cell at midnight and hailed him as the Valkar of Katuun, then Banning decided that maybe the authorities were right, maybe he was crazy. Because the only alternative was to believe the impossible explanation of the Outworlder – that he really was the exiled ruler of a remote star-world, and the personality of Neil Banning was an elaborate fraud.
It didn’t really matter, though, who was right. Banning was on his way to Katuun whether he liked it or not. And as Banning – or the Valkar – he would have to save that star-world from the terror of THE SUN SMASHER…or perish with the loyal subjects he might never have known!’

Blurb from the 1959 D-351 Ace Double paperback edition

Young Neil Banning, on a business trip, decides to take a detour to his old home town. On reaching there however, he finds that not only is his childhood home a vacant plot, but that there was apparently never a house existing there. Getting more and more frustrated by what he sees as a deliberate attempt by the townspeople to cover up the past he is eventually arrested and thrown into a cell.
During the night, a stranger arrives and stages – in Banning’s opinion – an unwanted rescue. The stranger is Rolf, who tells Banning that his past life is a fiction, that he is in fact Kyle, the lost Valkar of an interstellar Empire.
Kyle is needed to reclaim the throne from those who altered his memory and exiled him to Earth, and locate The Hammer, a weapon of interstellar mass destruction whose location only Kyle/Banning knows.
This is one of those odd romantic flights of fancy that imposes a medieval feudal culture on an interstellar civilisation. It features the literary devices of the amnesiac hero and the Maguffin which in this case is a device (as can easily be deduced from the title of the book) capable of triggering a nova in any sun.
Banning has to come to terms with the fact that he may not be who he thinks he is, while leading an army of loyal followers across the galaxy in search of a lost and terrible doomsday weapon.
Added to that, we have a feisty princess, a sundered love affair and a race of deadly telepathic spider people loyal only to the Valkar.
It is explained early on that Earth is a lost part of the Empire that has not yet been reclaimed as we are a fringe world and somewhat retarded.
One day we’ll be really advanced and united under an unelected hereditary galactic monarchy. Can’t wait.


Fortune’s Pawn – Rachel Bach (2013)

Fortune's Pawn (Paradox #1)

Devi Morris is a young ambitious mercenary in the interstellar kingdom of Paradox. Her ambition is to become a Devastator, one of the elite force under the command of the king himself. To do this she will have to wait ten years or more to gain enough experience to be accepted.
However, her friend Anthony has advised that there is a vacancy for a security position on a high risk ship, captained by a trader called Brian Caldswell. Experience on his ship ‘The Glorious Fool’ is thought of as being a fast track entry to Devastator status.
So, Devi (with her own personal armour) becomes half of the security detail on a ship which boasts among its crew a large parrot-like navigator, a handsome and mysterious cook, a mystic, a creepy child with strange powers and an exile from the ferocious xith’cal reptilian race.
Gradually Devi becomes curious about both the cook, Rupert, with whom she becomes romantically embroiled, and the Captain’s business, which turns out to be far more than merely trading goods between planets.
There are some effective action sequences, although the romance element is a little schmaltzy, cringeworthy and more akin to a Mills and Boone novel than a militaristic space opera. It doesn’t make a lot of sense either. For reasons I can’t really go in to without using spoilers, Rupert has a past which would really preclude any romantic involvement unless he was prepared to come clean. He seems like a decent bloke and in his circumstances would not have flirted with Devi to the degree that he does. Additionally, there is one scene where they initiate a kiss and Rupert – having second thoughts – has to walk away, and stands there, shaking. This strikes me as not so much romantic but just a tad creepy.
The other point that vexes me very much about this novel is the concept of a hereditary monarchy controlling a network of planets. It just doesn’t fit with the interstellar society in which this is set. How did this evolve and over what period of time? It is, at the end of the day, a mere decorative effect since we see nothing of the king or any indication of how this system works. For me, it is less decorative and more bling. It’s also a bit of a cliche adopted I imagine to appeal to the demographic target for this series. Clearly this is not the one into which I slot.
I find it quite interesting though that the people who find the concept of a monarchy romantic and fascinating are those who live in countries who don’t actually have one. The reality of such systems is rather irritating and very depressing. Had Bach attempted to make a political point about monarchies it might have made sense, but that’s not the case.
However, even taking into account the absurd interstellar Royalty concept, this is a very enjoyable read. One is drawn in to the story and the various mysteries which Devi has to unravel, some of which are left hanging for the next volume.
The action sequences are very well done, and the novel zips along at a fair pace. There’s some decent characterisation and I am really looking forward to the next installment. It would be great if Devi returned to find that there had been a revolution in Paradox and that the kingdom was now a republic, but I fear I am going to be disappointed.


Skylark Duquesne – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1966)

Skylark DuQuesne (Skylark #4)

When last we saw DuQuesne in The Skylark of Valeron, he had been transformed into a being of pure mind by the other bodiless minds. They had all, in any case, been imprisoned in a vessel from which they could not escape and fired in a direction far away from the First Galaxy.
Seaton’s new alien friends, The Norlaminian minds, having thought things through, now realise that the vessel is likely to smash itself apart if it encounters any dense particles of matter at such an incalculable speed, and that DuQuesne is therefore likely to escape and return.
Seaton, thinking of Earth’s defence against such an outcome, enlists his alien friends to send out a specific thought, aimed at high powered minds who may have technology more advanced than currently known.
This is picked up by some of the humanoids in a far distant galaxy who are slaves of the Llurdians, a monstrous but ruthlessly logical race.
Some of the Fenachrone have also survived, and both DuQuesne and Seaton are ultimately forced to work together to battle an entire galaxy of evil Chlorans
Structurally it’s a bit of a mess. but its problems run deeper than that. The preceding volumes were all written in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties and were, to give Smith his due, cutting edge SF at the time.
Thirty years on, SF had changed a great deal and Smith had to produce a sequel that matched the original trilogy stylistically and with a consistent internal logic.
Smith himself was obviously much older and writing erratically. In ‘The Galaxy Primes‘ he introduced sexual themes which were of course being explored by other writers of the time. In Smith’s hands, however, they come over as being a little creepy.
In the Skylark universe it seems, many aliens wander about naked. So, being neighbourly and all, Seaton decides that he, Crane, Crane’s wife and Dottie should be naked too, as well as Hiro the space-chef and and his new ninja-assassin wife Lotus Blossom. Of course, they’re all perfectly happy with this notion.
DuQuesne gets his kit off too, in an odd encounter on board the ship of a new humanoid race. DuQuesne is considered suitable material for breeding and so is paired up with a willing woman who takes him off to extract his sperm in what one presumes is the usual way.
Genocide is still Smith’s preferred solution to any difficulties one may be having with truculent aliens, and wipes the Chlorans from the face of their galaxy.
Smith is retreading old ground here, resurrecting both the Fenachrone and the Chlorans, rather than creating new enemies to confront. There are in fact a surfeit of enemies, which results in people flitting hither and thither and yon, to very little effect.
Smith had never been overly concerned about relativity or indeed physics in general. Here Seaton (and indeed DuQuesne, the Fenachrone, and the human slaves of the LLurdians) is zipping about from galaxy to galaxy without any ill-effects or serious time-dilation issues.
The denouement also, is a little strange since DuQuesne decides he is going to set up his own Empire in which a form of eugenics will become part of social custom.
The Skylark series should, in all honesty, have been left as trilogy. This late addition adds nothing to the experience and comes as something of an anti-climax.