My life in outer space

Posts tagged “AI

Hyperion – Dan Simmons (1989)

Hyperion (Hyperion, #1)

‘It is the twenty-ninth century and the universe of the Human Hegemony is under threat. Invasion by the warlike rebel Ousters looms, and the mysterious schemes of the secessionist AI Technocore bring chaos even closer.

On the eve of the disaster, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to the fabled Time Tombs on Hyperion, home to the Shrike, a lethal creature, part god and part killing machine, whose powers transcend the limits of time and space. Like another fabled group of pilgrims, each traveller shares his story with his fellows, seeking answers to the unsolved riddles of all their lives. And they have resolved to die before discovering anything less than the secrets of the universe itself.

HYPERION is a brilliant tapestry, a superb vision of future technology and ancient religions, of scientific revelation and timeless mystery, of transcendent joy and mind-bending horror. It is a landmark in modern science fiction.’

Blurb from the 1991 Headline Feature paperback edition

This classic by Simmons has so much to recommend it that it’s difficult to know where to start. Its overall reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – in that seven pilgrims each tell their tale as they journey toward their goal – is only one facet of a novel rich with literary reference and wryly judged future historical perspective.
At one point, Martin Silenus the poet tells of his great work ‘The Dying Earth’ the title of which, he points out, was taken from an old earth novel. In the same section his literary agent tells of the realities of book-marketing in the Twenty-Ninth Century. Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ she tells him, is permanently in print, although no-one actually reads it. The poet blithely asks who Hitler was.
No doubt Jack Vance, and many other readers who picked up on the reference to his Nineteen Fifties novel, will be amused at the idea of Vance novels being remembered in an age where Hitler is a name known only to those in the rarefied strata of academia.
The pilgrims have been chosen by the Church of the Shrike to make the pilgrimage to the Time Tombs of Hyperion and petition the Shrike, an alien godlike creature bristling with metal horns and claws.
Each pilgrim tells his tale of why they think they were chosen to take the pilgrimage and in doing so, slowly fill in the backstory of this Hegemony of Worlds, of Hyperion itself and the mysterious Shrike.
Each tale fills in a piece of the jigsaw puzzle depicting complex galactic politics in which it is difficult to judge who are the players and who are the pawns.
A cabal of AIs form the Technocore which seceded from human control centuries ago, although they still manage the web of farcaster portals which link the worlds of the Hegemony, and the Allthing which is, in essence, a futuristic internet. The AIs have their own reasons for being very interested in Hyperion, its network of alien labyrinths and the Time Tombs, to which they believe something is travelling back in time from the future.
Structurally, thematically, stylistically this book is a marvel. Each tale has a distinct voice and its own magic, and each is tied into a seamless whole.
Sheer brilliance!

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Singularity Sky (Eschaton #01) – Charles Stross (2003)

Singularity Sky (Eschaton, #1)

‘The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.

The Festival had come to Rochard’s World…’

Blurb from the 2005 Orbit paperback edition

Rachel Mansour is a UN diplomat working incognito in an interplanetary Russian-ethnic society based on a historical model of class-structure and aristocratic inherited privilege. Martin Greenfield is also working undercover within the society for a mysterious paymaster called Herman.
At the outset of the novel a presence arrives in orbit over Novy Petrograd on Rochard’s World (part of this Russian new republic) and showers the planet with mobile phones. The bemused natives are told on the phones that The Festival has arrived and that they will grant requests for anything if they can only be entertained.
Barya, the leader of a local revolutionary group, offers to tell The Festival a story in exchange for a cornucopia machine; a device that will produce anything its owner wishes.
Soon, the machine is producing weapons and Barya is outfitting his men for a revolution.
On the homeworld, the Emperor decides to send his fleet to destroy the Festival and quell the insurrection. Martin, who has been waiting for his papers to be processed so that he can work in the flagship’s engine room, is suddenly summoned aboard, as is Rachel, who has abandoned her disguise in order to announce herself as a UN observer and claim a place on the flagship, ostensibly to ensure that that the military of the New Republic do not contravene any of the Eschaton’s laws.
It is only gradually that we realise that the Eschaton is not the ruling body of this interstellar multi-cultural society, but is something else entirely.
Stross succeeds admirably in blending satire, drama, political intrigue and outrageous science fiction concepts in a cleverly constructed novel.
One’s understanding of the history of Humanity’s interstellar cultures is revealed piece by piece and the jigsaw Stross puts together for us is weird, funny, fast paced and politically astute.
As a debut novel it’s not the explosive start one might have expected from Stross who has made a reputation for himself through his short fiction. It is, however, an original and refreshing piece of work, which works well on every level.
Rachel Mansour is an intriguing hero, coping at every turn with the misogynist Victorian fundamentalist attitudes of the men of the New Republic. The Festival is the most intriguing element of the piece however, being a kind of post-human travelling circus which ‘assimilates’ the cultural history of the worlds it visits, often destroying them in the process by swamping the culture with technology it cannot control.
In a surreal moment, a post-human ‘critic’ – downloaded into a fast-grown designer body for the visit – takes Barya on a tour of the country in a motorised Baba Yaga hut-with-chicken-legs in order for him to realise the tragic results of his revolution, and the Festival’s visit.
Oddly, Mansour and Greenfield sit well in a novel peopled with over the top characters, some of whom verge into sublime caricature, such as the ancient and senile Admiral who is summoned from his bed to lead the Fleet since the New Republic are not keen to flout the unwritten rule that admirals never retire.
Most importantly, it’s intelligently written, peppered with wit and the occasional post-modern reference.


The Golden Age (Golden Age #1) – John C Wright (2002)

The Golden Age (Golden Age #1)

‘The Golden Age is 10,000 years in the future in our solar system, an interplanetary utopian society filled with immortal humans.
Phaethon, of Radamanthus House, is attending a glorious party at his family mansion celebrating the thousand-year anniversary of the High Transcendence. There he meets an old man who accuses him of being an imposter, and then a being from Neptune who claims to be an old friend. The Neptunian tells him that essential parts of his memory were removed and stored by the very government that Phaethon believes to be wholly honorable. It shakes his faith. Is he indeed an exile from himself? He can’t resist investigating, even though to do so could mean the loss of his inheritance, his very place in society. His quest must be to regain his true identity and fulfil the destiny he chose for himself.
The Golden Age is just the beginning of Phaethon’s story, which will continue in The Phoenix Exultant, forthcoming from Tor.’

Blurb from the 2003 Tor paperback edition

Phaethon (to give him his full three line name is unnecessary) is the son of Hellion and a citizen of the far future civilisation of Sol, spread across the planets to the bleak spaces beyond Neptune. Life is mostly lived under the beneficent guardianship of the Sophotech machine minds and experienced through computer-generated filters of perception. Everyone is immortal and the Golden Oecumene – as the civilisation is known – is divided into a multitude of cultures, philosophies and beliefs.
During the Millennial celebrations (during which the great minds of the Sol Culture dictate the general course of the next thousand years) Phaethon is approached by two individuals, both of whom suggest that he has a past of which he has no knowledge. Thus the seed is sown and Phaethon is set upon a path to rediscover himself and possibly destroy himself in the process.
It is, as some of the inside cover reviews suggest, a novel influenced by the likes of Bester, Vance and possibly Charles L Harness (especially since ‘the Paradox Men’ uses the very same device of the amnesiac hero), in that this is a ‘Widescreen baroque’ romance very much invoking the style and spirit of these authors.
It also, one suspects, owes a debt to Gene Wolfe, since Wright employs Wolfe’s literary tactic of embedding references which some will recognise and others not. There is, for instance, a Hamlet metaphor, in that Phaethon garbs himself as the Prince of Denmark while observing the celebrations and later, talking of his life, comments on his dead father and drowned wife. Indeed, his father is resurrected as a ghost of sorts. His original self died before he could upload the last hour of his life and his ‘back-up’ self is now legally considered to be not the original. His house’s computer persona, Radamanthus, manifests himself at one point as a HG Wells Martian War machine, although this is only made clear through the AI quoting a short reference from the first page of ‘War of The Worlds’
The most obvious reference, one which is acknowledged, is that of Helion and his son Phaethon, who wished to ride Helion’s sun-chariot, but could not control it and scorched the earth. There is a parallel within the narrative, which is rather too complex to explain in detail here.
It’s a verbose and witty package of great colourful wonders, cleverly combining baroque and decadent settings with a hi-tech infrastructure.
It also examines some important philosophical issues and explores the concept of the relationship between memory and identity in a society where one can edit one’s own or others’ memories and replace them with something else. This rather Dickian issue is at the heart of the novel since Phaethon has been castigated for an action he planned to carry out; an action of which he has no memory. His quest is to recover his lost memories even though he is told that his previous self erased the memory willingly, not wanting his future self to experience them.
Along with Will McCarthy, Wright is reinventing the Widescreen baroque novel for the 21st Century.


The Well of Stars – Robert Reed (2004)

The Well Of Stars

‘The Great Ship is home to a multitude of alien races and a near-immortal crew. They have toured the Milky Way for millennia, the best and the brightest from a thousand worlds, but the true purpose of the ship has remained hidden. Now, time is running out. The huge spacecraft is heading for the dark, immense region of space known as The Ink Well, and the only entity in the universe more vast and mysterious than The Great Ship is lying in wait…’

Blurb from the 2005 Orbit paperback edition

Reed is a stylist. Claiming to have no influences in the SF canon, the Nebraska-based author is very much an individual voice, although there are echoes of Simak in some of his early work.
Since ‘Marrow’, sales of which elevated Reed’s profile to the level of best-selling SF author (rather than modestly selling quality SF writer), his books have moved away from mid-America based (yet complex) slow moving tales to a form of post-cyberpunk space opera.
Here, in this sequel to ‘Marrow’, Reed once more employs one of his favourite devices, the near-immortal superhuman, or rather, an entire population of them, travelling through space on a ship the size of Jupiter which has a world entombed in its core.
The Great Ship, as it is known, attracts the attention of the polyponds, separate parts of a gestalt Gaian entity which inhabits an entire nebula.
Reed’s writing style is deeply poetic, stylistically romantic and oddly appropriate for the society he has created. Near-immortal humans on the Great Ship see little change and neither does their society. The almost baroque style seems therefore entirely apt.
Reed is not an author prone to writing sequels, having only done it once before in his career to my knowledge, and one does have to ask how much the conception of ‘Well of Stars’ was influenced by the success of ‘Marrow’.
I have noted previously a problem Reed occasionally has with ending his novels, and he seems to have left this open for a third voyage on the Great Ship.
The ending provided here is somewhat unsatisfying and relies rather too much on a Deus Ex Machina provided by ancient aliens who have been living in hiding on the ship for thousands of years.
Having said that, his work is generally superior to most other contemporary SF and this is a genuinely good novel, but one feels that he could have done better.


Marrow – Robert Reed (2000)

Marrow
‘The Ship is home to a thousand alien races and a near-immortal crew who have no knowledge of its origins and or purpose. At its core lies a secret as ancient as The Universe.

It is about to be unleashed.’

Blurb from the 2001 Orbit Edition.

A ship constructed from the raw elements of a Jupiter-sized planet, five billion years old, enters our Galaxy some time in the far future. Humanity lays claim to it and so founds a mobile civilisation augmented by ‘passenger’ races who travel about the galaxy.
Mutated humans, the ‘Remoras’, like their namesake fish who live ion a symbiotic relationship with sharks, live on the exterior of the ship, effecting repairs to the hull and maintaining defences against asteroids and other dangers.
The Immortal Captain discovers a secret at the core of the ship, an iron planet the size of Mars which is racked with volcanic activity but sustains a diverse eco-system which has adapted to such Hellish conditions.
An exploratory group of sub-captains and scientists finds themselves stranded on the planet, which has been christened ‘Marrow’.
Robert Reed is an author new to me, although I’ll certainly be looking for more from him. Of course, I am presuming that Reed is a man, which may not be the case, as James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Sheldon) could testify were she here to tell us, God Rest Her Soul.
It reads very much like a female writer. I’m reminded of Octavia Butler and Marge Piercy in terms of style and characterisation. Yes, it’s that good!
Reed paints vivid portraits of a cast of characters all of whom are virtually immortal, and he seems to have gone to the trouble of thinking seriously about how someone whose genes automatically kick in to repair all but the most fatal of injuries would behave and think.
Having endowed his humans with indefinite life-spans Reed is free to extend the timescale of his novel and so, perhaps as an ancient human would review her memories, occasionally leaps decades or centuries forward in time to catch up with the characters and resume the action.
The science is perfectly balanced against the human stories and never overwhelms one with techno hyperbole, although from what I can determine, the science is well-researched and clearly presented.
There is a poetry in this novel which renders it readable and adds a mythic quality which accentuates the backdrop of immense size, age, distance and timescale.
Interestingly, the three main characters are female, complex, ambitious and powerful. Their male counterparts, although in some cases just as powerful, tend to be psychotic, devious or simplistic, and not really as interesting.
There’s some neat plot twists and turns, some clever ‘wee thinky bits’ and teasingly brief glimpses of the ship’s alien and machine life-forms.
At heart though, it’s a book about being human and what the concept of immortality might actually mean in real terms.
If we incorporate into ourselves genes which will almost instantly heal even the most terrible of injuries, up to and including decapitation, how would that affect our sense of personal danger? What plans can we lay when we can expect a lifespans of upwards of a hundred thousand years?
This is what Science Fiction should be.
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Idoru – William Gibson (1996)

Idoru (Bridges Trilogy, #2)

The late Bob Shaw coined a phrase for the small details of Science Fiction that he (and other writers) used to bring some flavour and verisimilitude to their work, and this was ‘the wee thinky bits’.
If there is one other author whose work is brimming over with ‘wee thinky bits’ it’s Gibson.
There is a sense of ‘Design’ that colours every Gibson book which begins in this novel with Sandbenders; computer console containers made by a craftsman from natural materials such as wood or stone, with keyboard keys made from reclaimed piano keys inlaid with silver. And then there are the Japanese nanobuildings which one can watch and observe growing.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a teenage American girl, Chia, a member of an obsessive fan club of a band called Lo-Rez Skyline. Chia is sent to Japan by the club to investigate rumours that the lead singer Rez plans to marry a fictional construct singer called an Idoru.
Chia meets a woman on the plane who puts contraband nanotechware in her case. When Chia finally escapes from her company once in Japan she finds herself being hunted by the Russian mafia.
Meanwhile Colin Laney has a drug-induced talent for intuitively seeking out digital information. He is able to spot ‘nodal points’ in data records and extrapolate to make an assessment of an individual’s life and current state.
After being fired from his previous position with a gutter-press gossip company for becoming too involved with a ‘subject’, he is offered a job by the management of Lo-Rez Skyline while being pursued by his ex-boss who wants revenge.
Their tales converge around the mysterious figure of the Idoru, a self-aware presence within the net.
Gibson breaks very little new ground here, although the novel is unusually upbeat and full of tasty nuggets of SF cleverness.


Gridlinked – Neal Asher (2001)

Gridlinked (Agent Cormac, #1)

‘it’s not only humans who know the meaning of hate’

Blurb to the 2002 Pan paperback edition

In Asher’s glittering future galaxy, Earth is at the centre of a ‘Polity’ of AI-governed worlds, connected by various ‘runcibles’ (portals which instantly transport matter to another portal elsewhere in the galaxy) so called because the interface adopts the shape of a reflective spoon.
Outside the Polity are other human-colonised worlds which have been supplying Separatists with arms and explosives. Ian Cormac a ‘gridlinked’ ECS (Earth Central Security) Agent, has infiltrated a Separatist cell run by the Pelter family. He is forced to kill Angelina Pelter when his cover is blown, leaving her vain and psychopathic brother Arian vowing vengeance.
Meanwhile, on the planet Samarkand the unthinkable has happened. A runcible has exploded, destroying most of the AI controlling it, and consequently, the weather control system. Ten thousand people are killed immediately or in the consequent temperature plummet.
Cormac is recalled and advised by Horace Blegg (a strange Japanese and apparently immortal human) to relinquish the augments and AI links which he has been relying on for the last thirty years. Cormac has to regain his humanity and his emotional responses since he has become over-reliant on cyborg mental extensions.
In an interesting inversion/reflection, Pelter (one of his eyes having been ruined) fits peculiar and ugly augmentations to his once handsome face and awakens Mr Crane.
Mr Crane is one of the joys of this novel; an android serial killer, Mr Crane was one of the Golem series of androids, but was robbed of his moral protocols by having the memories of a serial killer downloaded into his mind. He is a two and a half metre tall metal creature who wears a long coat, a wide-brimmed hat and – a neat twist – takes trophies from the victims he spares, raising a cold metal finger to his mouth, enjoining them to silence before leaving them.
Arian Pelter and the runcible accident which Cormac is sent to investigate are actually connected via the anomalous Dragon, a possibly artificial lifeform composed of four spheres, each a kilometre wide. Dragon is enigmatic, manipulative, and may well be extra-galactic.
It’s an extraordinarily impressive debut novel, one of those you wish was longer. Most novels of 500+ pages tend to be inflated with extraneous fluff. This however, is dense, tight and wastes not a word.
Asher handles the multi-character viewpoint well and makes excellent use of pre-chapter ‘quotations’ from publications of the future which tell their own story and shed some light on the background to the action.
It is clear however that the story will have to continue in another novel, since several questions are left unanswered and the situation with the Dragon is left unresolved, as is the relationship between the Dragon and the energy entity which was – one assumes – imprisoned on Samarkand. Asher has indeed subsequently published mostly Polity novels, and only a couple of unrelated works, such as ‘Cowl’.
It’s also refreshing to see that British SF seems in the throes of a renaissance with the likes of Peter F Hamilton, Asher and Ken MacLeod producing work of high quality and holding their own against American SF which, of late, has produced little that is groundbreaking.
It might also be interesting to examine a ‘post-cyberpunk’ trend in recent years where there seems a distinct ‘gothic’ or ‘entropic’ quality to Science Fiction from both sides of the pond (and presumably elsewhere). Alistair Reynolds is perhaps the most distinct voice of this trend in which the future is seen quite at the other extreme from Star Trek’s ‘Happy Clappy’ Galactic Democracy.
Asher’s ‘Polity’, which is in effect a benign AI dictatorship, is seen in the novel as a safe, happy place to live, although the ‘quotation’ chapter prefaces gradually make us aware that AIs are capable of the manipulation of data and have, in effect, rewritten history to suit their own purposes. No system is perfect, as Asher subtly and cleverly points out.
The gothic elements here are few, but Mr Crane is perhaps the example at the forefront. A man-made Frankenstein monster with archaic clothing, we first see him when he is released from a room where he has been sat motionless for two years while his clothes rotted on his body.
Then there is the Viridian orbital ring, falling into disrepair while the adapted humans who live in it continue their lives as best they can. A very impressive debut novel.


The Integral Trees – Larry Niven (1983)

The Integral Trees

‘For five centuries they had survived, descendants of the mutinous crew of the starship Discipline. The Earth, The State, even the Discipline were legend at best. The Smoke Ring was all they knew: an immense gaseous envelope formed around a neutron star and inhabited by free-fall life-forms, most of which were edible and all of which could fly. This was their universe.

But slowly, they began the long climb from barbarism: and somewhere, beyond the Smoke Ring, the Discipline and its cyborg ‘adviser’ neared the end of its 500 year wait…’

Blurb from the 1988 Orbit paperback edition

Larry Niven’s enviable strength is that he takes a sound scientific premise and thinks it through with such rigour and thoroughness that he can extrapolate beautifully to its logical conclusion.
The ideas in this novel are so extraordinary that one has to be grateful to the author for providing informative diagrams of the system in which this novel is set which for once are immensely helpful in understanding how it all fits together.
Put simply, we have a neutron star which is orbiting a G1 star like our own sun. A gas giant, the size of Neptune, gets dragged into the orbit of the neutron star and loses its integrity at which its gases are dispersed. They, in turn, form into a giant gas doughnut orbiting the neutron star, along with the Earth-sized remnant of the planet.
The entire doughnut, therefore, with it’s neutron star centre, orbits the G1 sun.
Within the gas torus is a denser ring of gas, the Smoke Ring, where air density is such that life can and does exist.
The crew of an Earth ‘seeder’ ship (i.e., an exploratory force who ‘seed’ lifeless Earth type planets with algae) is trapped , or to be more precise, abandoned, in the smoke ring and five hundred years later, this novel begins.
The descendants of the crew have adapted to living in the smoke ring. The Dalton Quinn tribe live on an Integral Tree, a vast kilometres long floating plant shaped like a huge integral sign. The tribe live in the hollows at each end of the tree where its fronds capture waste and water from the air.
The passing of ‘Gold’ however (Goldblatt’s World – the lifeless core of the gas giant) has pushed the Dalton Quinn tree to the edge of the smoke ring, too near to Voy (the neutron star) and far from the dense airways where food and water can be found.
The hereditary scientist and the Chairman of the tribe decide to send an expedition up the tree to the other frond, ostensibly to find new sources of food, but in reality the Scientist knows what is to come. The trees have their own ways of rescuing themselves from danger. The tree splits itself in two, propelling the half with the expedition on it back toward the dense area of the smoke ring.
Along with members of another tribe they then hitch a lift on a drifting piece of bark and find themselves embroiled in revolution on London Tree, settled by a larger tribe whose social structure is based on slavery.
All the time, however, a near psychotic AI, Sharls Davis Kendy, aboard the original seeder ship, is patiently waiting for their society to develop so that they can be embraced by The State.
It is another tour-de-force of imagination from Niven, and (as can be deduced from the terminology of ‘copsik’ and ‘corpsicle’) again set in his milieu of ‘Known Space’.
It lacks the pace and depth of ‘Ringworld’ but is superior in quality to ‘The Ringworld Engineers’ and the lamentable ‘Ringworld Throne’
At his best Niven re-evoked the ‘sense of wonder’ which many readers equate with the Golden Age of SF and there are certainly flashes of this here. Large scale wonders are a regular Niven motif and authors who subsequently attempted such feats rarely achieved the wow factor that Niven did.
It works very well as a stand alone novel but obviously achieves additional depth when one knows the origins of Niven’s ‘corpsicles’ and the background to ‘The State’.
Just as ‘Protector’ feeds into ‘Ringworld’ and ‘The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton’ feeds into the ‘Known Space’ stories, each work can be read alone, but there are elements which refer to other stories and add a subtle note of authenticity and give a sense of depth, of vastness, not only of space, but of time.


The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The Sirens of Titan

For some reason it was America that held the monopoly on the SF satirical novel. Vonnegut, and later Sladek and Sheckley and indeed Dick with his more subtle comedy, produced some sublime works which turned society on its head and forced us to take a long hard look.
For Nineteen Fifty-Nine this is a remarkable novel, published at a time when SF was arguably becoming very serious about itself.
There is nothing scientific or realistic about ‘The Sirens of Titan’. As Dick was later to do to incredible effect, Vonnegut used the language of SF without letting any of those annoying scientific facts get in the way of the story.
The central figure, Winston Niles Rumfoord, is a billionaire with his own private spaceship which he promptly flies into a Syno-Chronastic Infundibulum which transforms him (and his dog Kazak who happened to be with Rumfoord on the ship) into a wave of energy pulsing between our sun and Betelgeuse. The upshot of this is that Rumfoord can see the past and future simultaneously. Niles reappears on Earth every fifty-nine days and has spoken to no one but his wife and butler until the day he summons fellow billionaire Malachi Constant.
Rumfoord tells Constant that he will travel to Mars, then to Mercury, back to Earth and then to Titan, amongst other things.
Malachi of course is highly sceptical and so begins a tour-de-force of storytelling in which Rumfoord manipulates the entire world, while using Malachi – in some cases quite literally – as a puppet.
What only becomes clear later is that Rumfoord himself is only a tiny part in a two hundred thousand year old plan by the Tralfamadoreans to get a spare part to a stranded messenger on Titan. He is taking a secret message to a race in another part of the galaxy, the final irony being that the message is a simple dot, which translates in Tralfamadorean as ‘greetings!’
Vonnegut employs many SF clichés in new and surprising ways. The billionaire’s private prototype spaceship for instance is straight out of an EE ‘Doc’ Smith adventure. The flying saucers of course, by Nineteen Fifty-Nine were a familiar staple of B-movies. Salo, the Tralfamadorean who has been waiting on Titan for Two Hundred Thousand Years for his spare part, is a three-legged robot who, unaccountably, has developed more compassion and emotion than most of the human cast.
Above all, in a genre that was previously awash with novels about the superiority of Humanity, The Sirens of Titan emphasises the sheer insignificance of our world.
The only British successor of any note to Vonnegut is Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’s central premise (that the Earth was designed by mice as a giant organic computer to answer one specific question) is very similar to that of Vonnegut’s. One should also note Kingsley Amis’ ‘The Alteration’ which can hold its own as a British novel in the satirical SF novel stakes against all-comers. See also Richard Cowper. These have been unjustly overshadowed by the popularity of the US authors for reasons which cannot be fathomed.


Gateway – Frederik Pohl (1976)

Gateway

Structurally, ‘Gateway’ is composed of a series of psychiatric sessions, punctuated by the story, told in flashback, of the patient, and the events which made him rich and brought him to the psychiatrist’s couch.
The book is also peppered with random downloads from various sources (the AI psychiatrist’s record of the session; postings from the Gateway notice board; letters to the press; transcripts of training lectures etc) which add depth to the narrative while making oblique comments about the society of the time.
Our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, makes an interesting hero. It’s a tribute to Pohl’s powers of characterisation that Broadhead – essentially what one may describe as a coward, and who at one point beats up his girlfriend – comes across as a likeable and sensitive character.
Gateway is an asteroid, somewhere within the orbit of Venus, which, millions of years ago, was a base for the long-vanished HeeChee. The HeeChee left behind several hundred (still-working) ships, each capable of automatic return trips to a series of preset – but unknown – destinations.
Some prospectors returned with valuable HeeChee artefacts or scientific data. Others returned dead. Some never returned at all.
Broadhead gambles his lottery-won fortune to buy a trip to Gateway and the Russian Roulette chance of flying to an unknown destination to discover something that would make him rich enough to solve all his problems.
Obviously since we know Broadhead did become rich and is now in therapy (under the treatment of Sigfrid, the AI psychiatrist) his problems were not solved.
The beauty of this book is that we are left – as we generally are in life – with unresolved issues.
Had there been no sequels, this would undoubtedly stand as a masterpiece, but the three ensuing books, in which the mysterious HeeChee are discovered, and their disappearance explained, erode the mystery which is such a valuable part of this novel.
As a stand-alone novel, it leaves one with that poignant feeling that the book is going on without you somewhere.
Pohl is the nearest thing we have to an American Socialist SF writer. Where other writers would concentrate on the militaristic or larger social consequences of an overpopulated world with few resources, Pohl concentrates on the issues of individuals, and those individuals who exist on the lowest social level (Broadhead grew up in one of the communities which harvest the specialised protein fungi which grows in the shale of one of earth’s many food-mines. Wealth seems the only way to escape the poverty trap.)
Pohl’s society is also a liberal society, and it’s nice to see that, in the mid-seventies, he could include gay characters who weren’t defined solely by their sexuality. Broadhead himself has a sexual experience with a male crewmate which is discussed firstly during a therapy session. Broadhead first avoids the subject, then dismisses it as situational homosexuality, in that he was frustrated on a long trip with an all-male crew.
Later, this episode is told in flashback via first-person narrative, in which Broadhead describes it in fonder, even more romantic terms.
Every character seems fully rounded, and they are skilfully presented as people with flaws, with faults, and no one lives happily ever after. It is not, however, bleak. It is an optimistic view of human aspiration and endeavour.
The most intriguing character is the HeeChee race itself, and in this novel at least, Pohl carefully avoids the temptation to put flesh on their bones. He does not even provide the bones. Nothing is known of them, other than what can be deduced from their abandoned ships and tunnels.
Jack McDevitt’s ‘Engines of God’ employs the same device, and, as in ‘Gateway’ the novel is stronger for it.
One could argue that The HeeChee are a metaphor for either Happiness or God. The thing that we would risk all to search for, sure that it will bring us security and independence. Broadhead confuses wealth with spiritual and personal contentment, although at times it is his own fear of either failure or death which prevents him from achieving either.
The chance of a huge bonus for a scientific mission ends with Broadhead escaping the event horizon of a black hole, forced to leave his girlfriend trapped inside, subject to the effects of time-dilation and living through only a few seconds for every year that passes in Broadhead’s life.
The narrative guides us to Broadhead’s loss in parallel to the course of the therapy sessions which take us to his eventual confrontation with his own memory of the event, and the belief that he killed her, or worse, that she is still trapped, living out her last days over the coming centuries.
Without doubt, Pohl’s best work to date.