‘TO THE PLACE WHERE SECRETS LIE SLEEPING…
Alf Dean, an aborigine trained as an anthropologist, knew that his tribesmen, for centuries beyond memory, had warned of a dreadful secret in the mountains of Australia.
His ‘slow-witted’ nephew led him to the secret spot – the same spot where men were claimed by deaths that were secret to the world.
As secret as the knowledge the scientists now share which compels them to press deep under the mountain… deep where the aborigines never go… through the nuclear shield, through the collective unconscious, deeper and deeper toward the center of the earth, closer to exploding the myths of time and space, closer to rousing THE DREAMING DRAGONS’
Blurb from the 1980 Pocket paperback edition.
It is often refreshing to read SF that is written in, and for, a different society. British and American SF, although springing from different roots, have come together by a process of convergent evolution. Eastern European SF, by contrast, existed in isolation for quite a while and one can see, from the work of the Strugatsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem, that stylistically, thematically and symbolically it is a sometimes quite alien, if beautiful, kettle of fish.
Australian SF is something of which I’ve not had a lot of experience. Damien Broderick’s work therefore comes as something of a pleasant surprise.
Alf Dean is an adopted aborigine, and is now an anthropologist. He and his white autistic nephew, Mouse, out on a field trip, discover a passage in an ancient cave which leads to another chamber. Here they discover a shimmering rainbow screen in a metal frame, settled in the dust of millennia. The frame turns out to be a teleport gate leading to an even more mysterious site, a vast white sphere underneath Uluru (known to the rest of us by the less exciting name of Ayers Rock).
This area, known as ‘the Vault’, turns out to be a top secret discovery already being investigated by an international team of scientists and the military. Proximity to the sphere causes madness or death and when Alf collapses he is rescued by Mouse who, unaccountably, seems to have some sort of affinity with the Sphere. When Alf describes an out-of-body experience, the controversial British scientist Bill DelFord is called in.
Between Alf, DelFord, Mouse and the astronaut Hugh, links are discovered between the ancient alien vault, the rainbow serpent of Aborigine mythology and the origins of Humanity itself.
It is oddly structured, setting itself in the present, and then we are taken off into a section where the child Mouse – who is in some kind of psychic rapport with the vault and is writing out information which the vault has somehow accessed. stored and is now retransmitting – transcribes the diary of a Russian scientist who has been infected with a sample of Soviet biological warfare.
Later, we travel to Deep Time to discover how and why the original feathered serpent aliens get here.
It’s a very complex but enjoyable novel, slightly flawed by some improbable dialogue here and there and an unaccountable dearth of female characters. The few that do appear on the page in the initial sections disappear pretty quickly once the novel gets underway. Certainly Alf and Bill leap off the page as fully-rounded characters and as Pringle points out in his ‘100 Greatest SF Novels’ it is a very Australian novel, steeped in the traditions of the Aborigines and very honest about their history and treatment in a white-dominated Australia.
There are some beautiful descriptive passages too, particularly in relation to the land around Uluru, and the novel is a breath of fresh air in a genre sometimes badly in need of it.
‘Time: the early twenty-seventh century. Fifty years ago, human intervention triggered an ancient alien system designed to warn of the emergence of intelligence. For aeons the Inhibitors have waited.
Now the response is on its way…
Clavain defected to fight on the side of the Conjoiners, a feared and persecuted human faction dedicated to hive-mind consciousness. Four hundred years later, in the terminal stages of a brutal interplanetary war, something has struck terror into the Conjoiner Inner Sanctum. As the nature of the new threat becomes clear, Clavain begins to wonder if it isn’t time to defect again.
Clavain and a misfit band of allies race toward Resurgam, where a long-lost cache of Doomsday weapons has been discovered; he wants the weapons for the good of humanity. But someone else already controls the lost weapons: and Triumvir Volyova has very definite plans of her own.
And the weapons themselves are not exactly lacking in free will…’
Blurb from the 2002 Gollancz paperback edition.
Reynolds’ third novel – although linked to ‘Chasm City’ is a sequel to ‘Revelation Space’ and picks up on events long after the last novel ended.
The Inhibitors – ancient AIs whose sole purpose is to limit the spread of intelligent life in the galaxy – have awoken and are beginning to construct a device in the Resurgam system using Roc – the system’s gas giant – as raw material.
Meanwhile – in the same system – Triumvir Ilia Volyova is still in residence on ‘Nostalgia for Infinity’ whose captain has become fused with his ship due to the effects of the Melding Plague. The ship still carries a cache of mysterious ‘Hell Weapons’ which are revealed to be the property of The Conjoiners, a gestalt society of artificially conjoined minds.
Ilia and Ana Khouri plan to use ‘Nostalgia for Infinity’ as an ark to rescue as much of the population of Resurgam as possible before the Inhibitors destroy the planet.
The Conjoiners have, however, detected the signature of their weapons and want them back. They have also encountered the Inhibitors (who they call The Wolves) and are planning a mass exodus to an uncharted region of space.
The central figure is that of Clavain, an ancient Conjoiner and strategic genius. Discovering the Conjoiner plans, he defects and sets off for Resurgam to claim or destroy the weapons before Skade (a female Conjoiner who may or may not be ‘possessed’ by the consciousness of The Mademoiselle from ‘Revelation Space’) can claim them herself.
It suffers slightly from being a sequel and therefore does not have the self-contained structural integrity of the previous books. However it is a far superior novel to many written concurrently, a novel whose theme is Redemption.
In his previous books, Reynolds has explored concepts of Identity and Redemption and here once more we see characters, if not atoning for their past actions, then at least attempting to accept the fact that they are not now the people they once were.
There is also a masterful control of the concept of Time, since Reynolds not only accepts the effects of Time dilation (something which many SF authors choose to conveniently ignore), but exploits them beautifully, painting a picture of individuals who – in calendar terms – are hundreds of years old and have, by travelling between stars and experiencing time at a slower rate, seen cultures change and develop. This also imposes a bizarre timescale on this entire sequence of novels, which could possibly span hundreds if not thousands of years.
‘Lou is different to normal people. He interacts with the world in a way they do not understand. He might not see the things they see, but he also sees many things they do not. Lou is autistic.
One of his skills is an ability to find patterns in data: extraordinary, complex, beautiful patterns that not even the most powerful computers can comprehend. The company he works for has made considerable sums of money from Lou’s work. But now they want Lou to change – to become ‘normal’ like themselves. And he must face the greatest challenge of his life. To understand the speed of dark.’
Blurb from the 2004 Orbit paperback edition.
A brave and moving novel, reminiscent of the recent ‘Curious Case of The Dog in The Night Time’. This is almost exclusively related by Lou Arrendale, an autistic adult in a near-future America. His world view is both funny and tragic, but treated with complete respect and empathy by Moon.
Thanks to advances in medicine and educational techniques, Lou and his fellow autistics have learned to live a reasonably normal life. Since the time he was born. subsequent autistic pregnancies have been spotted and the faulty DNA repaired, making Lou’s generation the last of the autistics.
A large pharmaceutical company employs Lou and his friends working in pattern analysis projects, since that is his special talent. For instance, using pattern analysis he has learned the art of fencing, and in a short time can analyse opponents’ patterns of play and therefore anticipate their moves and win.
Now, the head of department is attempting to bully the autistics into an experimental treatment programme which could rewire their brains and transform them into ‘normal’ members of society.
Although only borderline SF, this is a marvellous, moving and respectful novel, exposing society’s attitude to autism, and providing a rare, entertaining and well-observed glimpse into a world many people (though they may choose not to admit it) would rather avoid.
See also Alastair Reynolds’‘Redemption Ark’ and Daniel Keyes’ ‘Flowers For Algernon’
Caitlin Dector, despite being blind from birth, is an A-grade maths student with exceptional IT skills, and is deemed a suitable subject for an experimental Japanese device that may help her to see.
Elsewhere, a new strain of airborne bird flu has emerged in China, a chimp learns to paint portraits and the internet appears to have become self-aware.
Sawyer combines these four events in a quirky and delightful novel which is as much about a young woman’s desire to see, and to understand her father’s seeming inability to express emotion as it is about Artificial Intelligence and the sapience of chimps.
At first, Caitlin’s device (which she christens her ‘eye-pod’) seems not to be working, but later she experiences patterns of colour, and discovers what she is actually seeing is the internet itself, or how her brain interprets the internet to be.
Meanwhile, a chimp on loan from a US zoo has been taught sign language and conducts the first ever Orangutan/chimp webcam chat. Later he paints a picture of his handler and she realises with some shock, that although crude, he has painted a representational and recognisable image.
In China, a young pro-democracy idealist is trying to find out why China has been cut off from the rest of the world’s websites. (this is because the Chinese do not want reports leaking out of China ‘handled’ the bird flu outbreak).
And, in a separate narrative, we hear the voice of an entity who has awoken somewhere and is exploring the boundaries of his domain.
The side stories are metaphors to show how humanity deals with the fragile blossoming of intelligence, or even the dispensation of knowledge within a controlled culture.
Very clever and quite wonderful.
Written in 1962 during arguably during Dick’s most fruitful and inventive period, Martian Time-Slip was originally titled ‘Goodmember Arnie Kott of Mars’ then serialized in Worlds of Tomorrow as “All We Marsmen” in 1963, Martian Time-Slip was finally published as a paperback book in 1964.
Dick takes us to a near-future Mars where colonists are making the most of what they have. Dick was never a writer who let scientific verity get in the way of a good story, and the Mars here is one with a breathable atmosphere, canals and a slowly dying humanoid Martian Race, the Bleekmen. In essence, this is an allegorical view of Dick’s small town America, which has been displaced relatively untouched to the surface of Dick’s Mars.
It is interesting to note that this is Dick’s perception of American society since one of the core concepts of this book is how events are perceived differently by different people.
Arnie Kott, as leader of the Water Workers Union, is one of the most powerful men on Mars, but he is worried by rumours that Earth interests are buying up tracts of the Franklin D Roosevelt Mountains, a worthless Martian wasteland, but with sites sacred to the Martians.
Arnie, and one of his black market contacts, Norbert Steiner, have children being cared for in Camp Ben Gurion, a Jewish-run home for some of the ’special’ children born on Mars. Some are physically deformed. Others are autistic or schizophrenic.
When Steiner kills himself by walking into the path of a bus, Arnie takes over the care of Manfred, Steiner’s schizoid son, hoping that the child may have precog abilities and can see the future of the FDR mountain range.
Arnie meets a local repairman, Jack Bohlen, who himself suffers occasional schizoid episodes, and who thinks he can build a machine to communicate with Manfred, who exists at a varying time-rate to the rest of humanity.
The relationships between the characters are always of interest with Dick. His relationship with women no doubt fed into his depictions of his female characters who are less dark in nature here than in some of his other novels.
Arnie Kott maintains a good relationship with his ex-wife, Anne Esterhazy, a social campaigner who runs a shop and also produces a local magazine.
Jack Bohlen is happily married and yet is lured into an affair with Arnie’s mistress. His wife subsequently has a random sexual assignation with Otto Zitte, a black-market salesman, who was Norbert Steiner’s supplier before he died.
In fact, it is Norbert’s death that sets most of the narrative in motion, and Norbert, although dead, is the linking figure between all the other characters, since he knows them all.
He is Arnie’s contraband supplier, and knows Arnie’s ex-wife because they both have children in Camp BG. His black market contact is Otto Zitte who – following the Norbert’s death – sets out to make a business of his own and meets and seduces Jack’s wife.
She and her husband are neighbours of Norbert’s. Norbert also knows the Doctor at the hospital and the owner of the restaurant to which Arnie takes his wife for lunch. Thus, all the main characters are literally acquainted with Death.
Jack is presented to us as an altruistic figure, since he initially responds to a distress call from a family of Bleekmen, stranded in the desert. Arnie’s vehicle is also diverted to help the Martians but he resents it, seeing Martians as inferior and subhuman (although research has shown that the Bleekmen and humans are descended from a common ancestor.)
The Martian family give Jack a ‘water witch’ which is a good luck charm.
The novel takes a decided turn for the weird when Manfred enters the narrative. There is one pivotal scene in Arnie’s house where we see the same events through various character’s eyes, including Manfred’s.
Both Manfred and Jack are schizoid, and although Jack’s episodes are intermittent, Manfred lives in the death world and sees our world as a continual process of decay.
Jack has periods where he perceives people as being not real, with pistons and machines moving beneath their flesh.
Arnie – finally discovering that a large development is going to be built on the site in question – tries to employ Manfred in an effort to send himself back in time via one of the Bleekmen’s sacred sites, which is a temporal fissure.
Manfred, simultaneously, is attempting to change the future, since he sees himself as an old man in a home in the FDR mountains where the buildings are in a state of decay.
Arnie’s plan to change the past is futile, since he is constantly thwarted by events, but Manfred, at the finale returns in a vision, surrounded by the Bleekmen who save him, to thank Jack for his help.
It has to be one of Dick’s most satisfying novels, and one of his best, typifying what Dick does best, which is to effortlessly subvert the pulp fiction SF genre to produce a work of depth and sophistication and examine the human condition from a perspective no one has matched before or since.