My life in outer space

War

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.

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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.


The Cosmic Computer – H Beam Piper (1964)

The Cosmic Computer (aka Junkyard Planet)

‘During the System States’ War, Poictesme was the general HQ and supply depot for the final thrust at the enemy. When the war ended, the buildings, the munitions, the freeze-dried food supplies, were all abandoned without a thought. Now the colony world is a poverty-stricken agricultural society with only two exports: the fermented products of their world’s unique grapes, and the salvaged war equipment, now selling at about 1% of its true value.

And, persisting over the decades, is the legend of MERLIN, the super-computer said to have planned the grand strategy which successfully concluded the war. “If we could only find Merlin,” the inhabitants said to each other, “all our problems would be solved.”

Then young Conn Maxwell returned from Earth, with a university degree, and a few clues about the location and the true nature of Merlin. And the sure knowledge that finding the Cosmic Computer would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to his home world.’

Blurb from the 1978 Ace paperback edition.

As is made clear from the blurb, Conn Maxwell was designated to travel to Earth from the colony world of Poictesme, a world desperate for regeneration following an intersystem war, to try and identify the location of the super computer Merlin, which many of the colonists believe is hidden somewhere on the planet and which they see as their salvation.
Although Conn has identified the sites of many abandoned bases and spacefields likely to contain valuable equipment and ships, he has been informed that Merlin was a myth, invented to boost morale and demoralise the enemy.
After making this clear to a trusted few, including his father, they decide to publicly embark on the search for Merlin, their aim being to loot the abandoned sites, build enough finances to build a hypership and trade on their own terms with Earth, exporting their valuable melon brandy and revitalising their world. If this means lying to the public, then so be it.
One can argue that this is borderline SF at best. The society of Poictesme is lifted wholesale from the US of the Nineteen Fifties, along with its values and inevitable sexism. Piper has made no attempt to create a believable colony society and, as other critics have pointed out, has not considered that computers may have been miniaturised by the time Man has reached the stars. To be fair, he was never alone in this, and it is the least of this novel’s problems. It suffers for one thing from a surfeit of minor characters, many of whom are not fleshed out enough to be distinguishable from the rest.
It is at root a political farce, possibly a homage to James Branch Cabell, since the name of the world and its main town are lifted from Cabell’s work. It has dated considerably in comparison with other novels of the time. It also owes a lot to Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy at the denouement which uses the same premise of analysing data to predict the future of human civilisation in the galaxy.
Interestingly, Piper seems to have been the inventor of the word ‘Collapsium’ which Will McCarthy later used to great effect in his novels of The Queendom of Sol.
Having said all that it’s an entertaining piece and mildly amusing in places, but is not an important work by any stretch of the imagination.


Use of Weapons – Iain M Banks (1990)

Use of Weapons (Culture, #3)

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


Behold The Stars – Kenneth Bulmer (1965)

Behold the Stars

‘The space-boxes brought terror to Terra

White Flag for Earthmen

Man had discovered a means of colonizing the galaxy. Through a system of instantaneous matter transmission, men, machines, anything, could be sent light years away in seconds!

Only, men were not the only beings in the galaxy who were expanding, and at 200 light years from Earth the alien Gershmi people made their claims clear, with guns!

It would have been a fair fight between equally matched races, had not the very matter transmitter boxes which had made mankind’s expansion possible, suddenly began to put men back together, 200 light years from Earth, with their will to fight removes, so that Earthmen were marching with white flags of truce straight into Gershmi fire!’

Blurb from the M-131 1965 Ace Doubles paperback edition

In one of those futures with advanced technologies combined with the social values of the early Nineteen Sixties, Earth is at the centre of a diaspora via matter transmission.
Ships are sent out into the galaxy, dropping off ‘boxes’ (matter transmitters) here and there so that others can travel through the boxes from Earth instantaneously.
Alien races have been discovered, such as The Venies, with whom Earth was once at war.
Dave Ward is ex-military and now working as a box maintenance engineer. Out on the frontier of space people are starting to go missing. Dave has a scare himself when he is transmitted to what he thought would be a ship – lightyears from Earth – and finds himself on a 2G planet being attacked by Earth’s latest threat, the Gershmi.
Dave has also been recruited by Earth’s Intelligence Services to track down his best friend, Steve Jordan, who is also missing.
Part mystery, part action adventure, this novel actually works quite well.
The morality and political message is a little naive and delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and is ‘Shoot at the enemy first. It’s no good talking to him.’
It would be nice to see some internal debate about the pros and cons of pacifism, but there is none. In terms of theme it bears comparison with Heinlein’s ‘The Puppet Masters’ and Finney’s ‘The Body Snatchers’ where hapless Americans have been taken over or replaced by aliens and no longer respect right wing values. Family members begin to insist that their ‘loved one’ is different somehow.
Finney and Heinlein are much better at the subtle metaphor however. There is little subtlety here, and no actual metaphor.
One feels that Bulmer might have achieved more if he hadn’t been so prolific. He wrote in excess of one hundred and fifty novels during his career, which covered historical sagas, westerns and SF, as well as penning episodes of the UK series ‘The Professionals’.
It would be wrong to consider Bulmer as just a jobbing author however, since he has made a substantial contribution to the genre as both an author and editor.


All Clear – Connie Willis (2010)

.All Clear.

This is the sequel to ‘Blackout’ which follows three of Mr Dunworthy’s historians from an Oxford of the 2060s who have travelled back to various periods of World War II to observe the lives of the British, mainly in London.
Something is wrong, however, as the ‘drops’ (where the travellers go to return to their own time) are not opening, and the historians are concerned that they are interfering too much with the past and may have altered the course of the war.
It has to be said that Willis’ research appears to be impeccable and she creates a wartime London that fairly rings with veracity. She does stretch credulity a tad by having her protagonists meet Agatha Christie (who worked in St Barts Hospital dispensary), General Patton, the Queen (the late Queen Mother of Elizabeth II) and Alan Turing, although to give Willis credit, the characters had very good reason to be in the right place at the right time.
In some ways Willis has become the master of the dramatic farce and, if I am honest, it does get a little wearing as we have already had one large volume of people looking for other people and arriving just as they left, or seeing them in a crowd and being thwarted by jostling members of that crowd and just missing the person they needed to talk to.
As it turns out there is method in Willis’ madness and all becomes clear in All Clear at the denouement.
Comparisons have to be made with Stephen King’s 11/22/63 since both novels take the premise of someone returning to the scene of historical events. In both cases also, despite the SF framework, they are very much portraits of the time and place in question. Willis’ vision is, however, a much cosier, romanticised place despite the excellent depiction of loss, tragedy and heroism in the London she recreates.
We get to be taken to St Pauls Cathedral during the blitz, to a devastated East End, to Bletchley Park where Turing and the rest of the boffins were hard at work on breaking the enigma code, and to a plethora of Tube stations which served as air raid shelters and, it appears, impromptu theatres where people put on plays and shows to keep up morale.
We see the everyday lives of women, working in Department stores or driving ambulances, sharing rooms in substandard lodgings and coping with the deprivations of rationing and the ever present threat of bombs.
The actual practicalities of Time Travel science are not gone into, and the logistics of it do not bear close scrutiny. Mr Dunworthy talks a lot about chaotic systems, but there is little in the way of an explanation as to how Time Travel actually works and why, for instance, it transports them, their clothing and any accessories without taking bits of whatever surface they happen to be standing on. It’s also a problem for two people to occupy the same timeline, which is why it is a race against time (no pun intended) for Polly – who has already visited WWII once – to return to the future from 1941 before her past self arrives in 1943. It’s not clear why this would be such an issue, although it does appear that the space-time continuum has ways of defending itself against alteration of the timeline and paradox. In essence, the scientific aspects have been rendered merely devices within what could ultimately be deemed a complex Romantic drama.
It’s far more than that though. Willis has a formidable talent for creating fully-rounded characters, and there is something slightly Dickensian about the range of incidental characters who interact with the protagonists, many of them women. If nothing else, she has to be commended for pushing the women to the forefront and demonstrating what enormous contributions and sacrifices women of World War II made.
Agatha Christie is seen briefly, and her books are mentioned and discussed several times, which is possibly why Willis throws in a Christie-esque mystery right at the end. Polly looks at her rescuer and realises something about him which is only hinted at. Are the clues, in true Agatha Christie style, all within the text for us to decipher? If so, it’s the best trick played on an SF reader in a long time, and I for one, feel royally had.
Mind you, if I had to be royally had by anyone, I’m glad it’s Connie Willis. It’s a pleasure, Connie.


Earth’s Last Fortress (vt Masters of Time) – AE van Vogt (1950)

Earth's Last Fortress

‘Volunteers for the tomorrow front

It looked like a perfectly innocent store front, a volunteer enrollment office for young idealists who wanted to help the desperate forces of a young democracy overseas win their civil war. The young girl who sat at the desk inside was attractive, sympathetic, and would see that you got your passage safely.

But it was all a trap. It was indeed a recruiting station, but the war for which it brainwashed its deluded cannon fodder was out of this world — remote in time, remote in space, and nobody would ever return alive. As for the girl — she was as much a slave of that monstrous future-world machine as if she were chained to the desk.

Except for one thing that even the inhuman super-science of EARTH’S LAST FORTRESS did not suspect — that Norma was the secret lever that could shatter their universe!’

Blurb from the 1960 D-431 Ace Doubles paperback edition

Norma Mathieson, a young woman planning to commit suicide by jumping into a river, is approached by a dark stranger and offered a job. She is to be a receptionist in a recruiting station where they are recruiting young men to fight for the ‘Calonian Cause’.
She is given a key to an apartment above the station and told that all she has to do is get the young men to fill out and sign a form, then send them through to a back room for a medical examination.
Norma soon realises that all is not what it seems as no one ever returns from beyond the door. The stranger who offered her the job, the mysterious Dr Lell, is recruiting men from all the ages of Earth and shipping them off to fight in a far future war.
Despite the fact that she has been mentally conditioned, Norma manages to write to an ex-lover, now a Professor, Jack Garson. Garson writes back to her, thinking her delusional, but then arrives in person and is pressganged by Dr Lell and sent off to join the frontline troops in the far future.
The plot is suitably vanVogtian and once again demonstrates the author’s slightly contradictory view of female psychology.
Norma is, after all, a weak and feeble woman who can not possibly stand up to the masculine dominance of Dr Lell, and yet she does.
Garson discovers that he needs to get a message to one of the Planetarians (who are battling The Glorious) to tell them that the time barrier which is being created to end the war has to be destroyed before it, in its turn, destroys the universe. Norma discovers that she is in mental rapport with Dr Lell’s giant (and sentient) machine and can manipulate its power to a certain extent.
Between them they can try and avert universal disaster.
Originally published in 1942 as ‘The Recruiting Station’ it is by no means one of van Vogt’s best works although it does have the usual oddly compelling narrative with fantastic twists and turns.
There are vast machines and their mobile appendages, the ‘tentacles’, and a far future Earth where vast armies are being slaughtered daily in a senseless war of ideologies. It’s interesting but perhaps fruitless to speculate what effect the progress of World War II was having on van Vogt when he originally wrote this in 1942. There is an interesting correlation between the young men going through a door for a medical examination but never returning, and the situation in Hitler’s concentration camps although this I suspect may be merely a chilling coincidence.


The Space Willies – Eric Frank Russell (1958)

SpaceWillies

‘An Earthman’s tongue is his deadliest weapon

There was a common understanding in the Space Navy that scout-pilots were a breed apart–cocksure, reckless, and slightly nuts. But it was also understood that when a really dangerous job had to be done, a scout-pilot was the man to do it.

So for John Leeming, a couple of months of dodging death in a one-man ship, zipping in and out of the enemy Combine’s rearguard, was just another one of those jobs. And there was no man in the Universe more surprised than Leeming when his heretofore indestructible ship just gave up the ghost smack in the middle of a Combine-held prison planet!

It was then that the spirit of the Scout Corps had its chance to shine. With self-confidence as his only weapon, Leeming had only two choices: give in to the enemy and be captured…or quick-talk them into a real case of THE SPACE WILLIES!’

Blurb from the 1971 #77785 Ace Double paperback edition

Rather like William F Temple’s ‘Martin Magnus’ Eric Frank Russell’s lead character here is a space-pilot who doesn’t take to authority too well.
Earth and her allies are under attack from the Combine, another alliance of aliens who have occupied a neighbouring region of space. It is not known whether the Combine are only occupying the nearer stars or whether their dominion goes deep into the territory behind them.
And so John Leeming; sarcastic, disrespectful and disdainful of authority, is considered the perfect choice for a secret mission.
Leeming has to take an experimental one-man high-speed ship and survey the stars beyond the Combine’s border to determine how large an area they control.
All goes well for a while with Leeming reporting back on the location and affiliation of almost a hundred planets when the experimental ship finally gives up the ghost, forcing Leeming to land on a Combine prison planet.
From there, Russell weaves a comical farce around the concept of a clever prisoner of war outwitting his less clever captors.
It’s well-written and the comedy is sustained throughout.
There is a minor blemish in that Russell at one point describes one of his alien captors as ‘a fairy’ and therefore by inference (within the context of the cultural mores of the time) not considered strong, brave or intelligent enough to be a danger.
However, this was the 1950s when white heterosexual men controlled the Western World and many places beyond, including the world of SF publishing.


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.


Time Out of Joint – Philip K Dick (1959)

Time Out of Joint

‘Time Out of Joint’ begins by leading the reader into a sense of false security, since we appear to be looking at the lives of characters from a somewhat idyllic US of the Nineteen Fifty Nine. Vic Nielson, for instance, is the manager of a local store and lives with his wife, Margo, her brother Ragle Gumm and their son, Sammy. Their neighbours and friends, Junie and Bill Black, often come round to play cards, more often than Margo is comfortable with.
One begins to suspect that all is not what it seems when it is discovered that there are no radios in this world, not since World War II, and Ragle Gumm makes a living by consistently winning a local newspaper competition ‘Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next’, the result of which he guesses via a complex analysis of past results and arcane measurements.
It is on an evening when Junie and BIll are visiting that Vic Nielson, trying to turn on a light in the bathroom, is hunting for a cord to pull when he realises that the bathroom light is powered by a switch, and always has been.
Later, Ragle, having persuaded Junie Black to go swimming with him (Ragle is attracted to Junie, Bill’s wife) goes to a drinks stand to buy drinks at which the stand disappears, leaving only a printed slip of paper saying ‘SOFT DRINK STAND’. Ragle is shocked, but keeps the slip of paper as this is not the first time this has happened and it turns out he has several of the slips with the names of various objects which he keeps in a tin.
As in most Dick novels, all is not what it seems. Vic’s son Sammy, although having been warned not to play in the ruins at the edge of town, comes back with a telephone directory, several slips of the mysterious typed paper and a magazine featuring an article on a beguilingly beautiful actress named Marilyn Monroe, an actress no one has heard of.
The reader is then made aware that Bill Black and Mr Lowery (an employee of the newspaper which runs Ragle’s competition) are fully aware of the greater reality. The year is in fact 1998, and Earth is at war with Moon Colonists (the lunatics) who have been bombarding Earth with missiles. Ragle, it appears, has an innate facility to predict where the missiles will land, which is what he is actually doing in his complex calculations to determine where the little green man will be next.
The great genius of this novel is that Dick has been careful to blur the edges of where the subjective realities of the Nineteen Fifties residents begin and end. Vic Neilson, Margo, Sammy and Junie have all been living with false memories, since Vic and Margo are not married and Sammy is not their son. This opens a whole other moral and ethical can of worms, since it raises the question of how far a government would go to safeguard a project which is helping to save thousands of people who would otherwise be killed in bomb strikes.
What, in real terms, is the nature of the Soft Drink Stand hallucination and the printed slips of paper? Why ‘Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?’? It is these odd flourishes, however, that pushes this novel head and shoulders above most other SF novels of the late fifties.