My life in outer space

Posts tagged “Bioengineering

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.

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The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo #03) – David Wingrove (2012)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo Recast, #3)

The third volume in Wingrove’s revised epic future history is the start of the original series published in 1989. An overview of this can be found in my original review of The Middle Kingdom (1989).
I imagine that the 1989 version has been split into two for this new release. The original series comprised of eight hefty volumes while the new ‘re-cast’ version is twenty smaller issues with two new volumes at either end. I can’t determine how much this has been revised if at all. One wouldn’t have thought the series needed any revision until perhaps the last two volumes of the original release, which had major flaws due to publishers’ interference.
Those new to Chung Kuo who have read the first two ‘recast’ volumes would be advised to persevere. I am dubious as to whether volumes one or two added anything valuable to the series. They had that feeling of having been ‘bolted on’ for no good reason.
Here, however, the story really kicks off and I am taken back to my first addiction to this brilliant series. Wingrove handles the multi-character storyline with aplomb and the pace is generally fast. It’s a master class in world-building if nothing else as one does get immersed in this highly detailed dystopia from the outset. Page-turningly good and highly recommended.


Chung Kuo I – The Middle Kingdom – David Wingrove (1989)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo, #1)

‘How many billions lived in the City that filled the great northern plains of Europe? The two men crab-scuttling across the dome that roofed the city neither knew nor cared. They thought only of the assassination that was their task.

Chung Kuo. For three thousand years the world-encompassing Empire of the Han had endured. War and famine long banished, the Council of Seven ruled with absolute authority. Their boast: that the Great Wheel of Change itself had ceased to turn.

Yet at that moment of supreme strength and confidence, Chung Kuo was suddenly vulnerable. A challenge had arisen from men who dreamed of Change – although Change would mean war and a return to all the old half-forgotten savageries of the past.’

Blurb from the 1990 NEL paperback edition.

In the 22nd Century, China has control of the Earth and has turned its continents into seven enclosed cities, each ruled by a Tang, one of The Seven; the rulers of Chung Kuo, the Middle Kingdom.
Each city consists of many levels, socially and physically distinct and each citizen’s behaviour determines whether they rise or fall from their level.
The Seven control everything and impose Edicts against technological progress, seeking to keep the peace by maintaining a social status quo by halting the great wheel of change.
In this generation, however, there appear several individuals whose effect on society, for good or ill, will herald change.
Chinese are known as Han, and compose the majority of the ruling classes. Europeans or ‘Hung mao’, have been assimilated into Chinese culture to a large degree but there is a faction of Dispersionists who wish to build starships to colonise other stars, creating a society outside of the Tang’s control.
Major DeVore, originally a high-placed officer in the Tang’s forces, is part of the Dispersionists’ terrorist wing and organises the assassination of a Minister, which sets in motion a chain of political events; events which DeVore strategically controls and exploits for his own ends like a round of his favourite game, Wei-Chi.
This is the first volume of a very under-rated (although possibly ultimately flawed) epic. From Nineteen Eighty-Nine, it was ‘The Wire’ of its age, with its multi-character viewpoint covering all sectors of society from the wretched cannibal society of The Clay (the lightless bottom level) to the Tang himself.
Over the preceding century the Han have rewritten Earth history to suggest that Chung Kuo has always been the dominant civilisation and a ministry exists to ensure that any other historical alternative theory or account is treated as treason.
In this volume we follow several key characters; DeVore, Li Shai Tung, the Tang of City Europe; Li Yuan, the Tang’s son; Kim Ward, a scientific prodigy refugee from The Clay; Ben Shepherd; a cloned advisor to the Tang administration; Karr and Chen, trained fighters from the lower levels who now work for the Tang’s security forces.
It is certainly far more than an SF blockbuster thriller. The complex political manoeuvring and the interweaving individual storylines are handled very well, and the writing occasionally approaches the profound.
On its first publication there were complaints in the journal of the British Science Fiction Association about its sexual elements and one section in particular of extreme sexual violence, although one has to say that the section needs to be looked at in context. Is this merely an apt demonstration of DeVore’s methods of controlling people and the depths of his depravity?

The original series which ran to eight large volumes was marred by the publisher’s insistence on ending the series with volume eight, when the original plan was nine books. The original ending was therefore, somewhat unsatisfactory. Wingrove has recently revised and expanded the entire series which is being released in twenty shorter volumes, the first volume of which is ‘Son of Heaven’ (2011).


Synthetic Men of Mars (Mars #09) – Edgar Rice Burroughs (1939)

Synthetic Men of Mars (Barsoom, #9)

John Carter, Mighty Warlord of Mars, rides to new and terrifying adventures.

Captured by deadly warriors mounted on huge birds he is taken to the ill-omened city of Morbus.
There he meets Ras Thavas, evil genius and master surgeon. A man who has succeeded in his nightmare wish of creating life in his own beings – creatures that ultimately rebel and threaten the lives of Ras Thavas, of John Carter and of all Mars.

Blurb to the 1973 NEL paperback edition.

Using more or less the same plot as ‘A Princess of Mars’ Burroughs takes us back to the dying planet of Barsoom where the ‘incomparable’ Dejah Thoris has been crippled in a flying accident. No other man can save her but the thousand year old evil genius and scientist-surgeon, Ras Thavas, Master Mind of Mars.
Setting out to find Ras Thavas, John Carter takes along young Vor Daj to the great Toonolian Marshes where, before long, the two have been captured.
The hero and narrator of this the ninth in Burroughs’ Martian series, is Vor Daj who perhaps predictably, falls in love with a captured beauty, Janai, who is also coveted by an evil Jeddak (much as John Carter when he was captured by the green man of Mars fell in love with a captured Dejah Thoris, who was also coveted by an evil green Martian Jeddak).
Our heroes end up in the laboratory of Ras Thavas who has been performing cloning experiments and has, as my mother might have pointed out to him, made a rod for his own back. The malformed clones have taken over and are forcing Ras Thavas to create a vat-grown army with which to take over all of Mars.
Vor Daj persuades Ras to transfer his brain into one of the monsters so that he can infiltrate the Jeddak’s guard and rescue his love. This he does, while wooing her in a kind of Cyrano De Bergerac/Beauty and The Beast fashion while all the time hoping that his body hasn’t been used for spare parts or been eaten by the mass of living flesh which escapes from vat No. 4.
Burroughs adds nothing new to the series here, but it’s interesting to see the concept of cloning appearing (although it is not described as such) and to compare this work with Richard E Chadwick’s ‘The Flesh Guard’ which posited a similar premise in which vat-grown creatures were employed as soldiers by a Nazi Regime.


The Naked God (Night’s Dawn #3) – Peter F Hamilton (1999)

The Naked God (Night's Dawn, #3)

‘HELL JUST WENT QUANTUM

The Confederation is starting to collapse politically and economically, allowing the ‘possessed’ to infiltrate more worlds.
Quinn Dexter is loose on Earth, destroying the great arcologies one at a time. As Louise Kavanagh tries to track him down, she manages to acquire some strange and powerful allies whose goal does not quite match her own.

The campaign to liberate Mortonridge from the possessed degenerates into a horrendous land battle of the type not seen by humankind for six hundred years. Then some of the protagonists escape in a very unexpected direction…

Joshua Calvert and Syrinx now fly their starships on a mission to find the Sleeping God – which an alien race believes holds the key to finally overthrowing the possessed.’

Blurb from the 2000 Pan paperback edition.

The conclusion to Hamilton’s shelf-busting trilogy doesn’t initially quite match up to the brilliance of the first two books, but thankfully builds to a deeply satisfying climax.
In the conclusion, we discover that the sentient habitat Tranquility, which we last saw disappear while under attack from the forces of Al Capone, has reappeared among the Edenist habitats of Jupiter.
It would appear that all along the giant living Rama-style cylinder had built-in technology which would allow it to ‘jump’ through space in times of danger. The Kiint seemed unaware of this, however, and had already teleported back to their homeworld. The juvenile Kiint Haile also took along Jay Hilton, much to the disapproval of the Kiint.
One might argue that Hamilton’s work relies too much on militaristic action and graphic violence. Certainly, a large chunk of this final novel covers the ‘Liberation of Mortonridge’ – an attempt to free the population of a peninsula on one of the planets of the Kulu Kingdom.
A vast army of bitek ‘serjeants’ have been produced to invade the area and de-possess the inhabitants. This turns into a long and bitter struggle, but one which focuses more on the effect it has on the protagonists than on shoot-em-up action.
Much of the novel is also about explanations and revelations. More is discovered about the Kiint whose involvement (somewhat short of outright interference) with the history of humanity goes far far deeper anyone had realised.
In the previous novels, the possessed had taken entire planets into parallel dimensions. Here, we follow them to discover that their lives are not the Paradise they expected. It is discovered, as was suggested previously, that the possessors’ ability to change the shape of the bodies they inhabited encouraged cancerous tumours to proliferate, giving the possessed a far shorter lifespan than the immortality they imagined.
Joshua Calvert, the central character about whom all the storylines revolve, is sent on a mission to discover the Sleeping God of the Tyrathca, somewhere beyond the Orion nebula; a godlike artefact/entity ‘Big Dumb Object’ which may hold the key to solving the possession crisis.
Ultimately, and cleverly, the various storylines and character journeys converge to one point in time. Joshua himself questions the Sleeping God (a stable mirrorlike naked singularity orbiting a planetless star) on the coincidences which have led him (and other characters) to this point and is given an answer which, if not really plausible, provides a certain kind of satisfaction to the reader within the context of the work.
In this novel, the themes of transformation and revelation come to the fore. No character remains unchanged by their journeys through the crisis and ultimately, the whole of human society is transformed.
This, along with Robinson’s ‘Mars’ trilogy, is one of the last great works of SF of the 20th century. They are vastly different in tone, style, and their categorical positions within the genre, but they give me faith that SF can still – and will in the future – produce the sense of wonder which many thought had been long lost.


A Door Into Ocean – Joan Slonczewski (1986)

A Door Into Ocean

‘From the ocean world of Shora, Merwen the Impatient and Usha the Inconsiderate travel to Valedon, the world of stone. The Valans view with suspicion the ancient female race of Shora: with their webbed fingers, their withdrawal into ‘whitetrance’ and their marvellous arts of healing. Where the Sharers of Shora hope for understanding, they are met with aggression.

Joan Slonczewski pushes the moral and political philosophy of non-violence to its very limits in a powerful and gripping narrative. To read it is to see your own future in the balance.’

Blurb from the 1987 Women’s Press paperback edition.

In a far-future galaxy Humanity spread to a thousand worlds, but following devastating wars and a period of ethnic cleansing, the number of human worlds was reduced to ninety-seven, ruled by The Patriarch.
The Patriarch has forbidden certain technologies or sciences to be employed independently, such as nuclear power or genetic engineering, driven by the fear that it would lead to a further great war.
On the planet Valedon, two strangers appear in the town square; hairless women with violet skin who wish to ‘learnshare’ in order to discover whether the Valans are human. The stonecutter’s son, Spinel, becomes fascinated with them and eventually leaves with them for the ocean world of Shora.
Travelling with them is the Lady Berenice, a woman who has known the natives of Shora since she was a child and who is also being employed as a spy for the Valan government.
Her fiance, Realgar, is a General and a favourite of Takin, the ‘Protector’ of Valedon.
Valans have been trading peacefully with the Shorans for many years, but following a visit by the Patriarch’s envoy, Malachite, the Valans suspect that Shora may be either a very valuable resource or a terrible danger. Realgar is sent to Shora to ‘deal with’ the natives who have become increasingly restless since the number of Valans on their world increased and the ecological balance began to change.
Structurally we follow three couples, Merwen and Usha (the original two Shorans who visited Valedon), Berenice and Realgar, and Spinel and Lystra (the daughter of Merwen and Usha) who at first do not take to each other (or so they believe) but later both discover that the other is a very different person to the one they believed they loved.
On the whole, we see the drama unfold through the eyes of these six.
The natives of Shora are all female, at least to the average human observer, although a couple are able to conceive children between them. Their passive resistance and incomprehension of external societies which attempt to impose rules on them by force no doubt parallels the protests of the Nineteen Eighties by many women at such places as Greenham Common. The success of such protests is evinced by the fact that the very phrase ‘Greenham Common’ is familiar to most of us decades later, and that their message was relaid by the media and the world and changed us, to whatever degree, as a society.
The women here are protesting at first about environmental vandalism, and their almost genetic adherence to a non-aggressive resistance eventually pays off, though at a terrible price to their population.
The setting is an interesting one, albeit symbolic, since the very masculine patriarchal ‘stone’ world of Valedon is contrasted by the very female ‘water’ world of Shora. The women live on giant rafts of living vegetation in a world where every species (including themselves) is a vital part of the world’s biosphere. There have been similar waterworlds in the past, notably in CS Lewis’ ‘Voyage to Venus’ (or ‘Perelandra), where again the femininity of the sea is contrasted with the male rock of the island (in this case standing in for the Forbidden Tree of Knowledge in The Garden of Eden)
Jack Vance’s ‘The Blue World’ is almost the complete antithesis of Lewis’ since Vance uses his novel to demonstrate the absurdity and the detrimental effect on society of organised religion. As in ‘Door into Ocean’ Vance’s natives live a somewhat idyllic existence on island systems of giant lilypads.
Published by The Women’s Press it is not surprisingly a very female work in tone and theme, which does make a refreshing change. Although very Romantic in style, there is a solid structure and a healthy respect for the integrity of the internal scientific logic.
Interestingly, the Shoran philosophy is to live in harmony with the Ocean and its life, although Slonczewski has muddied the waters a little by letting us know that much of the flora and fauna was genetically engineered by the Shorans, even themselves.
And, there is an obvious political contrast between the patriarchal (literally ruled by The Patriarch and his ‘protectors’) society of Valedon and the leaderless Shorans who are, in essence, a collective.
Despite the perhaps heavy-handed symbolism it is nevertheless a beautifully crafted and important piece of work. I’m not sure how Gollancz picks or obtains works for its SF Masterworks series but this should certainly be on the Gollancz shortlist.
Although it’s published by the Women’s Press, men are allowed to read this. In fact, I’m pretty sure men would benefit more from reading this than women would. Women already know how bad men are at running the world.


City – Clifford D Simak (1952)

City

‘It started in 1990…
Cheap atomic power was a reality.
Hydroponic farming ensured enough to eat.

So everywhere men left the cities, abandoning the ancient huddling places of the human race.

At last, man was free.

And left behind – in the dead and empty cities – man’s memories remained as symbols of the childhood of the race. The Golden Age had come at last after generations of war and toil.

And yet…IT WAS ALSO THE PRELUDE TO THE DAY WHEN MAN WOULD BE SUCCEEDED BY ANOTHER RACE’

Blurb from the 1965 Four Square edition

City is a fix-up novel culled from the pages of Astounding and comprising of eight related stories and additional linking text.
The first story, ‘City’, is a tale of men, a tale which is being analysed in the linking text by a group of sentient dogs who believe the tales told by Dogs of the race of Men to be merely fables and Man himself to be a myth.
Simak’s naïve and somewhat surreal view of the future is based very much on his love for small-town America and its communities and values, and is often tinged with nostalgia for a way of life which has passed. Simak often depicts an Earth which has been abandoned by man, where Nature has been allowed to grow back over the scars which Man created.
The City of the title story is represented by one of its residential areas, a place of suburban houses and lawns which, like the rest of the City, is almost abandoned. Centralised automated farming technology has made vast tracts of land free for habitation and this, combined with the bizarre concept of an atomic plane for every home has lured people away to private estates in the country.
The worthy officials of the City Council however, refuse to accept that their City is dead and are in the process of evicting the last remaining residents (who have been labelled criminals and vagrants) who are squatting in the empty houses, unwilling to abandon the community where they spent their lives.
It’s a strange and unreal tale reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, and is full of poetry and atmosphere.
‘Huddling Place’ take us further into the future, to where descendant of one of the City’s characters has become an agoraphobic recluse in his country house, where he lives with his robot butler Jenkins. Having abandoned the cities, humanity is now abandoning the Earth, either for Mars or the interiors of the their homes from where they can travel ‘virtually’ via a holographic projection network. His agoraphobia prevents him from flying to Mars to save Juwain, the ancient Martian philosopher who was on the verge of producing a practical philosophy for humanity which would occasion the transformation of the race.
‘Census’ takes us forward in time again to the same house where the Webster grandson has surgically (rather than genetically) altering dogs enabling them to speak. Mankind is now heading for the stars while isolated groups of mutated humans live quietly in the wilderness.
Simak is again enjoining a return to a mere pastoral existence in which technology is only employed as a means to that end.
Technological developments here have allowed those with pioneering spirit to leave, those who were restricted (physically and spiritually) by existence within the city have been freed, allowing others the space to breathe within and alongside Nature.
In this section, Richard Grant, seeking the final clue to complete Juwain’s philosophy for humanity, meets the mutant Joe, a man of extended longevity, high intelligence and yet exhibiting no empathy with his fellow sapients, but rather a shocking amorality.
And so it goes on… Humanity, partly as a result of Joe unleashing the Juwain philosophy across the earth, is transformed, and is converted into a near-immortal form of life of high intelligence which can live on or in the planet Jupiter, abandoning the Earth to a handful of humans, the Dogs, the mutants and the robots.
Simak was never a writer for technical details. Jupiter is described as having a surface, and the Jovian ‘conversion process’ is hastily drawn with little explanation as to the nature of the process, something which no doubt would be explained as ‘genetic engineering’ today.
James Blish used a similar premise in his collection of related tales ‘The Seedling Stars’ while Frederik Pohl’s ‘Man Plus’ employs a combination of surgical and mechanical techniques to convert a man into a creature capable of living unaided on the surface of Mars.
‘City’ is a novel which is ultimately flawed by internal confusion of identity. The linking text implies that the stories are fables from ancient Dog History, and their content supports this, but the style seems at odds with the somewhat fairytale nature of the later stories in which talking bears, wolves, racoons and squirrels bring a rather schmaltzy Disney-esque sentimentality to the narrative.
Having said that, Simak attempts to explore the issue of what it means to be human. The humans, en-masse, chose the path of enlightenment offered by the conversion to Jovian forms, a path rejected by the Webster family (whose genealogy links all these stories) and a handful of others.
The legacy of humanity lies with the robots who are dedicated to developing the race of Dogs, unpolluted by human values and failings. Man is seen to be a creature willing to kill for what he wants, as when one of the Websters considers killing the Jovian ‘prototype’ Fowler in order to prevent the human race’s mass exodus to Jupiter, or John Webster’s solution to the problem of Joe the mutant’s experimental ants (who eventually threaten the entire planet) which is to poison them.
This may be reading far too much into what is at the end of the day a rather patchwork construction which, though poetic and inventive, fails to provide a satisfactory denouement. Flawed though it may be however, it is still a strange masterpiece that holds its own against the mainstream SF novels of the time.


Containment – Christian Cantrell (2010)

Containment

‘As the Earth’s ability to support human life begins to diminish at an alarming rate, the Global Space Agency is formed with a single mandate: protect humanity from extinction by colonizing the solar system as quickly as possible. Venus, being almost the same mass as Earth, is chosen over Mars as humanity’s first permanent steppingstone into the universe.

Arik Ockley is part of the first generation to be born and raised off-Earth. After a puzzling accident, Arik wakes up to find that his wife is almost three months pregnant. Since the colony’s environmental systems cannot safely support any increases in population, Arik immediately resumes his work on AP, or artificial photosynthesis, in order to save the life of his unborn child. Arik’s new and frantic research uncovers startling truths about the planet, and about the distorted reality the founders of the colony have constructed for Arik’s entire generation. Everything Arik has ever known is called into question, and he must figure out the right path for himself, his wife, and his unborn daughter.’

Blurb from the 2010 Kindle Edition

This reminded me very much of Daniel F. Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’ since ‘Containment’ is a pocket universe novel, one of a subgenre in which the protagonists exist within narrow boundaries and are ignorant of any conditions existing outside the limits of their domain.
Arik has been born under a dome on Venus. An environmental crisis is raging on earth and the handpicked colonists are one of Earth’s last hope for survival. Arik’s generation were carefully planned and were the first children to be born. Any further population increase would take them beyond the limits of their food supplies. One of the projects that Arik is working on is to increase photosynthesis in plants so that the hydroponic gardens produce more oxygen.
One day Arik wakes up in hospital with some of his memory missing. His wife is three months pregnant which is bad news for the colony as it is not able to produce additional oxygen.
Things start to get strange when he receives a message sent from himself before the accident occurred.
Cantrell is one of the new generation of self-published e-book writers whose numbers are growing. There’s very little that is ground-breaking or original here, however. There is a surprise element but even that has been done before to better effect as in Brian Aldiss’ ‘Non Stop’ or, as I have said, on Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’.
There is obviously a temptation to rush to publish but authors need to be sure that their work is ready. The traditional publishing route may be a more obstacle-strewn journey but one can be at least reasonably sure, should your work be published, that it is in a fit state to go out into the world.


Norstrilia – Cordwainer Smith (1975)

Norstrilia

To our detriment, this is Smith’s only novel, his output otherwise being a large number of quirky short stories mostly set in this universe of The Instrumentality of Mankind. Having said that, ‘Norstrilia’ has a complex origin since it was originally published in two shorter separate parts in 1964 as ‘The Planet Buyer’ (which itself was expanded from a shorter piece ‘The Boy Who Bought Old Earth’) and ‘The Store of Heart’s Desire’
Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan to the Hundred and Fifty-First (known as Rod McBan) is a boy living on the peculiar world of Norstrilia, heir to one of the prosperous mutant sheep ranches.
Norstrilia, or Old North Australia, where the people are still subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, (despite the fact she’s been dead for at least fifteen thousand years) was originally an Australian farming world until a virus attacked the sheep. What could have been tragedy changed the fortunes of mankind as a by-product of the sheep’s illness was Stroon, a longevity drug. Thus Norstrilia became the richest planet in the galaxy. The Norstrilians did not want to change their way of life however, and so incredibly high taxes are paid on any imported items to their world. Their children are tested in their teens to see if they are physically and mentally fit to survive, and those that fail get sent to a painless death.
Rod McBan is about to be tested, and his family are worried. Rod seems unable to hier or spiek. In other words, unlike the other telepathic natives of Norstrilia, he can neither hear thoughts nor project them. A girl who loves him, Lavinia, knows that this is not strictly true as there are times when Rod can hier everyone’s thoughts for miles around and when he is angry his mind is powerful enough to disable or kill.
Having survived the test, with the help of Lord Redlady, a member of the ruling body – The Instrumentality of Mankind – it seems Rod is still in danger from one Houghton Syme, an old schoolmate of Rod’s who is determined to kill or destroy him. Rod has access to an ancient computer, hidden on his land which, when Rod asks it for help, puts a financial scheme in motion. By the next day, Rod McBan is the owner of virtually all of Old Earth and therefore has to travel there to take ownership of his prize and escape the murderous attentions of Houghton Syme.
Once on Earth he becomes acquainted with the Underpeople; races of bioengineered animals who have a prophecy of a rich man coming to Earth to set them free. Could this be Rod McBan?
Smith certainly had a facility for creating well-defined characters. Norstrilia is set in a marvellously detailed if slightly unrealistic landscape. The narrative is peppered with songs and poetry which adds to a certain undercurrent of joy that suffuses the book.
Eccentric and fascinating figures appear and disappear, such as The Catmaster, who is a kind of guru/healer figure and the only Underperson allowed (by special dispensation of The Instrumentality) to take Stroon.
Smith throws in ideas right. left and centre, such as the giant alien architects who once visited human worlds and built indestructible buildings on various planets (on a whim) before leaving.
It’s a marvellously clever mix of comedy, drama, satire and romanticism, interspersed with poetry and song.
At the end of the day, however, it is simply the story of a young man who (much like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) travels to another world, has adventures, makes friends and enemies and ultimately realises that what he wants and needs has been at home in his own back yard all the time.


The Prefect – Alastair Reynolds (2007)

The Prefect

Reynolds takes us back to about a century before the events of ‘Revelation Space’.
Surrounding the planet ‘Yellowstone’ and its famous Chasm City are the ten thousand orbital habitats known as The Glitter Band in which humanity can choose to explore whatever form of society they wish. The one aspect common to all societies is democracy. All habitats have a polling core via which they can vote on issues within their own small worlds or as part of the ten thousand. Law is maintained by Prefects, based on Panoply.
As much trade is carried on amongst the habitats and intersystem there is also a shoal of conjoiner ships.
Conjoiners, who feature heavily in Reynolds’ first four novels, are a loose network of extreme augmented cyborgs, some looking reasonably human and others quite monstrous.
Dreyfus is a dedicated prefect and his deputy a genetically modified pig. The Supreme Prefect, Jane, was the victim of a rogue artificial intelligence called ‘The Clockmaker’ eleven years previously who placed a biomechanical scarab on her neck before the Clockmaker was contained and destroyed. Since then she has not been allowed to sleep or to have anyone come within a few feet of her.
Suddenly, one of the habitats is destroyed, blasted almost in two by the drive of a conjoiner ship.
Dreyfus is asked to investigate. He begins to suspect that things are not what they seem. There seems no motive for the destruction, and further, a mysterious message sent to the habitat before it was destroyed appears to have originated from Panoply itself.
Whether or not it is deliberate, there is a theme of isolation running through, from the Clockmaker itself, which had to be kept isolated within an electromagnetic cage, to Jane, isolated from her human companions by the scarab on her neck.
Thalia Ng is isolated within Panoply culture as she is the daughter of a traitor and fighting to earn her own reputation.
Gaffney is isolated by the fact that he is working alone for Aurora, a digital copy of a young girl. Then there is Clepsydra, a conjoiner trapped inside an asteroid and forced to feed on her sleeping shipmates.
Dreyfus himself is still mourning the death of his wife, and his closest relationships are with Spaner, who is an augmented pig, Jane Armonier, who can have no physical contact with anyone, and Thalia Ng.
This is of course a prequel to ‘Revelation Space’ and although a wonderful read and a page-turning adventure, lacks the depth and detailed texture of ‘Revelation Space’ and its sequels.
The denouement is a little disappointing with much happening ‘out of sight’.
It does however, present an interesting moral puzzle since Aurora attempts to gain control of the Glitterband in order to prevent a ‘time of plague’, a time which was foreseen (how is not important) by the Conjoiners.
We know from the earlier novels that this is the melding plague. Ultimately Aurora was right, but the reader is left to judge the morality of saving billions of people from disaster by enslaving them.