My life in outer space

Posts tagged “Cloning

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.

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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 Year’s Best Science Fiction 3 – Brian W Aldiss (Ed) Harry Harrison (Ed) (1970)

Best SF 1969

This features the brightest and best work published during 1969 with the usual round-up of the year from Harrison as a prologue, and an afterword from Brian Aldiss. It’s interesting to look at this from a historical perspective. John W Campbell, for instance, was still the editor of Analog at the time and sharing the genre with such revolutionary publications as New Worlds.
In Brian Aldiss’s afterword he gives us his thoughts on SF in general and has a sideswipe at the Tolkien clones of the time before trying to convince us all that SF doesn’t actually exist. If one has a serious interest in the history of SF this series is worth getting just for Harrison’s and Aldiss’s overviews of the contemporary SF world.

The Muse – Anthony Burgess (The Hudson Review, 1968)

A very memorable and somewhat grotesque piece from Burgess in which a researcher travels back in time to find Shakespeare. Burgess writes so well that this piece (which in many other writer’s hands would have been labelled ‘predictable’) becomes original, compelling, fascinating, haunting and in some places darkly amusing.

Working in the Spaceship Yards – Brian W Aldiss (Punch, 1969)

Another stylist, Aldiss provides this intelligent and witty account of a young worker, part of a team that works on the FTL engines for Q-class starships. Despite the narrator’s good humour and obvious intelligence and education, there is a bleakness pervading the environment. The starships are sent out and never heard from again, created by artificial intelligences which give amusing answers to questions due to their rather literal interpretation of the language.
Obsolete androids beg on the street and are beaten up if discovered by their newer-model brethren.
Suicide is rife, and the narrator begins his tale by recounting his pleasure in the well-written nature of some of the suicide notes he’s found lying around the shipyard.
It’s a brilliant piece of work, especially considering that nothing much really happens and yet, cleverly, Aldiss manages to cram more background and depth into these few pages than many others do in entire novels.

The Schematic Man – Frederik Pohl (Playboy 1969)

The idea of recording one’s consciousness is a theme Pohl picked up later in his Heechee novels. A mathematician begins to construct a mathematical model of himself within a computer, and then starts to forget things. Like ‘The Muse’, this is a ‘predictable’ piece which is raised to a far higher level by Pohl’s gift seemingly effortless prose and characterisation.

The Snows Are Melted, The Snows Are Gone – James Tiptree Jr (Venture Science Fiction magazine 1969)

A post-apocalyptic tale, set in a future Ethiopia where technologically advanced humans (but presumably descended from those affected by radiation and deprived of limbs) kidnap healthy humans living a more primitive existence, presumably for breeding purposes or their clean genes. Like many of the stories in this anthology there is a polished poetic edge to the vision.

The Hospital of Transplanted Hearts – DM Thomas (New Worlds 1969)

The poet has constructed a grid in which the heart of a certain category of patient on one axis can be read against the body of another category of person on another axis. Thus, one can look up the heart of a sadist in the body of a whore and find an apt or witty description inserted therein.

Eco-Catastrophe – Dr Paul, Ehrlich (Ramparts 1969)

A chillingly prophetic future history seen from the perspective of 1969 where mass use of pest killers and fertilisers and the pollution pumped out by world industry sees the beginnings of a process which leads to the death of all life in the oceans. It is perhaps the most relevant and important piece in this book and although Dr Ehrlich’s nightmare scenario has not come to fruition as quickly as he imagined or in exactly the same way much of what he envisages is already taking place. This short but effective piece neatly encapsulates the greed of big business and the stupidity and shortsightedness of governments who fail to address issues such as pollution and population control.

The Castle on The Crag – P. g. Wyal (Fantastic, 1969)

An interesting and poetic tale which makes the same point as that of Ozymandias, the forgotten ruler on whose crumbled works we mighty should look and despair, its moral being that everything eventually will be gone and forgotten.

Nine Lives – Ursula K Leguin (Playboy 1969)

The Welsh Pugh and his colleague Martin have been posted alone on the bleak planet Libra to make a geological survey. After they discover a rich vein of uranium, a ten-part clone, John Chow (five male and five female) arrive to set up a process for extracting the uranium. However, an earthquake leaves nine dead and the surviving clone member has to learn (with the help of Pugh) how to live as a single human being.
It’s a story of extraordinary depth and feeling, rich with background detail and characterisation and still reads, as one or two in this collection do not, as fresh and new.

Progression of The Species – Brian W Aldiss (Holding Your Eight Hands 1969)

A poem from the poetry anthology ‘Holding Your Eight Hands’ (Ed. Edward Lucie-Smith) examining gentic engineering and the modification of human DNA.

Report Back – John Cotton (Holding Your Eight Hands 1969)

A poem, again from the poetry anthology ‘Holding Your Eight Hands’. This is a report back from a distant star in the form of a poem with two distinct voices.

The Killing Ground – JG Ballard (New Worlds 1969)

In this Ballard dystopian nightmare, we follow a group of English rebels in a world where the Vietnam War has spread around the globe. The US is battling with guerilla forces everywhere. Like practically all of Ballard’s work there is far more going on than a first reading might indicate.

The Dannold Cheque – Ken W Purdy (Playboy 1969)

A beautifully written, somewhat whimsical piece by the then editor of Playboy. Cleverly structured, it introduces the characters and the setting with a wealth of poetic, almost incidental detail. From there, the story unfolds like origami gift-wrap.
An artist wishes to collaborate with a politician in the latest of a series of collages which each preserve an object, a photograph and a personal piece of text. Mr Dannold, the politician, who is the latest subject, agrees to write a letter (to be part of the collage) detailing the events of the day in the photograph (where he is caught on camera thwarting the assassination of the Prime Minister). The object to be included is a voided cheque for £250,000.
Thus there is a story within the story in which Mr Dannold’s letter explains how the cheque and the photograph are connected.
Is it SF? One could argue otherwise but I for one am happy for such a well-written piece to be included as part of the canon.

Womb to Tomb – Joseph Wesley (Analog 1969)

Harry Harrison’s short blurb makes the point that this story, which harks back to the days of vast fleets of mile-long ‘planet-blaster’ ships, looks at the effects of battle on individual soldiers.
Earth is at war with the Kwartah, a race which has invaded a large number of human worlds.
Admiral Burkens runs a rehabilitation centre for soldiers sent back from the front. Senator Grimes arrives to check up on his son, recently admitted, and learns the awful truth about what price Humanity is paying for victory.
There is an unstated connection here with the Vietnam War, a connection which Ballard broadcasts all too clearly in his story.

Like Father – John Hartridge (New Worlds 1969)

Fingest, a time-traveller, returns to a few million years ago to plant his sperm in the womb of an early hominid, out of a sense of ‘because I can’ it would appear, as much as out of a desire to piss off his scientific colleagues. travelling forward through time he traces the progress of this sadly rather predictable tale.
By 1969 one would have thought the Birth of Man concept had been pretty much mined out. Having said that, Julian May did it far better later – and at great length – in the Pliocene Exiles Saga. It’s the basis for Quatermass and The Pit, at least two Doctor Who stories, ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ and countless other earlier tales. One is at a loss to see why this rather weak piece was included here, or published in ‘New Worlds’ of all places.

The Electric Ant – Philip K Dick (Fantasy & Science Fiction 1969)

We’re in familiar Dick territory here with a man who discovers he is an ‘electric ant’, i.e. an artificial human with a tape in his chest which is feeding him all his sensory input. When he interferes with the tape he finds his perception of the world changed. What will happen, he wonders, if the tape breaks or runs out. Despite the familiar theme, there is much food for philosophical thought provided by its limited number of pages.

The Man Inside – Bruce McAllister (Galaxy Magazine 1969)

A very short and very clever story which deals with a young child’s viewpoint of his schizophrenic catatonic father.
Dr Plankt has developed a device which may be able to print out his father’s thoughts. Over a mere two and a half pages McAllister produces one of the best short stories I’ve come across with an ending that is tragic, poetic, symbolic and probably quite a number of other –ics that I haven’t thought of yet.

Now Hear The Word of The Lord – Algis Budrys (Galaxy Magazine 1969)

Budrys is one of the serious masters of SF and seldom disappoints. This is a complex tale which begins with a man who types letters all day in a spartan office and then goes back to an even more spartan hotel. When you begin to think you know what’s going on, you find you don’t.


The Great North Road – Peter F Hamilton (2012)

Great North Road

In the 22nd Century, humanity has reached and settled other planets via wormhole gateways. Newcastle has become a rich and thriving city due to its wormhole connection to St Libra, a world of plant life upon which the bioil companies have sited their algaepaddies, the source of the sustainable fuel that is pumped to dozens of worlds through the wormhole gateways.
Sid Hurst, a Geordie cop and father of two is called to the scene of a murder; a high profile case which no one is looking forward to investigating.
The victim is a North. Norths (in a nutshell) are cloned copies of the original North, a successful businessman, who placed the three cloned copies of himself (Augustus, Bertram and Constantine) in charge of his empire. Further clones of the three followed, and at the time of the murder, hundreds of Norths are extant, and with identical DNA, identification of the body is an issue.
The murder weapon is also an issue, since it would appear that the victim had his heart ripped out by an instrument much like a human hand with blades for fingers.
Hurst’s investigation attracts the attention of the HDA (The Human Defence Alliance) whose major directive is to conduct defence against the Zanth, the only possible sentient species Humanity has yet encountered.
It appears that, twenty years ago, Bertram North and many of his staff and family were slaughtered on St Libra in the same way. The only survivor – the woman convicted and imprisoned for the murders – was Angela Tramelo – who has always insisted that they were killed by ‘a monster’.
Vance Elston, HDA Colonel and one of the Gospel Warriors (a Christian sect who believe the Zanth to be the devil) was one of the original team that questioned Tramelo and appears to have always believed her story. She is taken from Holloway and given the chance to join an expedition to St Libra to search for evidence of sentient life, while Sid and his team begin to painfully recreate the journey the body took before it was dumped in the river, and hopefully track down the killer.
Again it’s Hamilton painting his very detailed dreams onto enormous canvases with a bewildering number of characters, all of whom he somehow organises and controls with exceptional aplomb.
For me, it’s not the best novel he’s written but it’s still streets ahead of most of his competition.
Longevity and rejuvenation are an obsessive theme for Hamilton as are, or were, the glamorous uberbabes who previously haunted his pages like Katie Price in space.
The themes are combined, albeit somewhat more intelligently and tastefully in Angela Tramelo who received an early DNA genetic treatment which retards aging after puberty to one year in ten. Thus, when she emerges from Holloway she had effectively only aged two years.
Augustine and Constantine North are both pursuing research into rejuvenation; Augustine from Earth and Constantine from his within his vast habitat orbiting Jupiter.
As the murder investigation begins and the expedition sets out, we follow various characters, now and again jumping back in time to explore backstories.
One could argue that this is the same basic premise as ‘Pandora’s Star’ in that we suspect there may be some dangerous aliens in Solar System Y. We must send an expedition there to find out. Person A has been stating that the dangerous aliens have been among us for some time but no one believes Person A.
For a Hamilton novel it seems a little unpolished. Certainly there is a certain cleverness in the slow reveals of past events which shed light on the current situation, with a couple of actual surprises in terms of connections between major characters, but Hamilton has done all this before.
However, there are some interesting aspects to this. Of the major characters all are searching for continuance of some sort. Vance Elston believes he will find immortality through his dedication to Christ.; the Norths – initially through cloning but now through rejuvenation and genetic engineering. Angela’s life will already be extended through the centuries via her longevity treatment, and then there is the St Libra Gaia entity which has evolved into a gestalt organism, naturally immortal.
Perhaps on some level the Zanth, a species whose intelligence cannot be gauged, if it can be described as intelligence at all, but seems to be able to manipulate quantum states, represents entropy or Death. Their predations are purposeless, invading systems and converting planets and moons into Zanth architecture, absorbing and transforming matter effortlessly. Is this Hamilton’s perennial theme, the struggle of life against Death?
The morality of terrorism is on a stickier wicket here than it was in ‘Pandora’s Star’. There, Adam had a thoroughly worked out background, character and ethos.
Here, Saul, a resident of St Libra (who has a backstory) is pressed into providing equipment to help blow up a plane. Although he does partly redeem himself by reporting his actions to the authorities there seems to be a lack of remorse or any further consequences. This is not to say that his actions were not in character but rather that his character was not fully developed enough to carry the actions.
On the whole it is an excellent piece of work, but having been a Peter F Hamilton fan for a goodly number of years I can’t help feeling there’s a certain ‘thinness’ to this novel.


Sister Alice – Robert Reed (2003)

Sister Alice

‘Some 10 million years in the future, a thousand trustworthy humans and their cloned offspring have been granted an incredible power. With it they can build worlds wherever they wish and terraform any wasteland. With it they preserved a peace that lasted for eons.

But the arrival of a woman as old as The Great Peace itself generates uncertainty and fear. For she brings with her a dire warning: the tale of an ancient crime that may yet tear the universe asunder.’

Blurb from the 2003 Orbit paperback edition.

This novel is a fix-up adapted from five stories originally published in ASIMOV’S SF magazine:-

Sister Alice (November 1993)
Brother Perfect (September 1995)
Mother Death (January 1998)
Baby’s Fire (July 1999)
Father to The Man (September 2000)

Ord is apparently the youngest child of the Chamberlain family, one of a thousand families whose members – augmented by near-immortality and quantum cyborg talents – maintain a peace within the galaxy which has lasted millions of years.
We discover early on that the Chamberlains are not a family in the normal sense. Ord is merely the latest model in a series of clones that now number more than 22,000. Rank is assigned by what number the clone is in the chain, so when the Chamberlains receive news that Alice, their number twelve (and hence only the eleventh clone to be created) is to visit after an absence of millions of years, the family begin to speculate on her motives.
Alice, shunning the rest of the family, befriends Ord, and confesses that she was the architect of an experiment which has gone tragically wrong, creating an explosion which is already causing devastation and which could potentially engulf the entire galaxy.
The consequences for the Chamberlains are personally devastating. Alice is imprisoned, stripped of her godlike powers and the rest of the family become hunted as The Great Peace collapses into chaos while frantic rescue efforts are made in an attempt to evacuate worlds near the core before they are destroyed.
Ord illegally receives some of Alice’s talents and sets off on a mission, the nature of which he does not fully understand.
Once more, Reed has produced a novel on a grand scale, its timespan covering millennia.
In some senses it can be described as a ‘Romantic’ novel since it eschews – and this was also a criticism aimed at ‘Marrow’ – the current Classical fashion for tortuous explanations of quantum mechanics and string theory. The augments of the older members of the family are powered by masses of dark matter although the exact scientific principles are avoided, in this case a refreshingly welcome change.
Reed can, I think, be described as a modern van Vogt. the transformation to ‘superman’ is common in his work and he employs the same vast land and time-scapes that van Vogt once played with, paying attention to, but not controlled by, the basic laws of the Universe.
The plot (again a strange vanVogt-ian trait) ends up being far more complex than one might initially suspect.
The premise is also a Romantic one, since one cannot imagine – in however enlightened a society – civilisation handing over its reins to a thousand carefully chosen beneficiaries and their cloned descendants.
This novel could very easily have descended into a triumph of style over content were it not for Reed’s complex strands of character motives and actions.
From one viewpoint it could be argued that this is an examination of what determines personality.
At one point Alice remembers herself as a child, with her ‘father’, Ian, the original Chamberlain. they are standing in a stairwell of their estate house and Ian has given Alice some cloned feathers. All are identical, he tells her, and asks her to drop the feathers one by one over the balcony.
Although identical in every respect, the feathers are subject to the changing forces around them and so no two fall exactly the same way. It is a device by which Ian explains to Alice why her brothers and sisters, although genetically identical, are shaped into individuals by the Universe around them.
There are questions raised as to which is the real personality when an augmented human becomes 99% computer memories and 1% flesh.
Later there are ethical questions raised about the morality of creating a universe in which Life can be cultivated if the price to be paid is the destruction of entire Star Systems teeming with sentient life.
This whole debate, however, is itself subverted when the reader realises that the entire sequence of events may have been part of a plan set in motion aeons before.
There are seldom any easy endings or answers in Reed’s work. There are merely consequences which directly affect the protagonists.
It is to Reed’s credit though, that the questions raised tends to linger in the mind and niggle away at us in the wee small hours.


Fallen Dragon – Peter F Hamilton (2002)

Fallen Dragon

‘Deploying invulnerable twenty-fifth-century soldiers called Skins, Zantiu-Braun’s corporate starships loot entire planets. But as the Skins invade bucolic Thallspring, Z-B’s strategy is about to go awry, all because of: Sgt. Lawrence Newton, a dreamer whose twenty years as a Skin have destroyed his hopes and desires; Denise Ebourn, a schoolteacher and resistance leader whose guerrilla tactics rival those of Che Guevara and George Washington; and Simon Roderick, the director who serves Z-B with a dedication that not even he himself can understand. Grimly determined to steal, or protect, a mysterious treasure, the three players engage in a private war that will explode into unimaginable quests for personal grace… or galactic domination.’

Blurb from the 2003 Aspect paperback edition

Hamilton is a purveyor of epic SF, perhaps the contemporary British master of Epic SF, having proved himself with the glorious and rather weighty ‘Nights Dawn Trilogy’, followed up with this,‘Fallen Dragon’ which, although weighing in at a hefty 800-plus pages, reads like there is not a sentence wasted.
His work is very much character-driven and although this novel, like ‘NDT’, is awash with breathtaking technology, everything slots neatly and functionally into its environment. There are no gimmicks or superfluous fireworks. The scientific development is a natural and necessary part of the universe against which the human drama unfolds.
Hamilton here takes the premise that that FTL travel, via wormholes, is achievable, but is not only expensive but time-consuming and uncomfortable.
Earth-like planets have been discovered, but all so far contain life and vegetation the chemical structure of which cannot be broken down by the human digestive system.
The setting up of human colonies is financed by Zantiu-Braun, a mega-corporation which later returns to developed communities with armed troops to collect the benefits of its investment from reluctant colonists.
One critic has described this book as ‘‘Starship Troopers’ as written by Charles Dickens’. Hamilton is far more interested in the characters of his space soldiers than Heinlein is with his rather simplistic and naïve view of militaristic systems. He skilfully exposes the fears and desires of even minor characters. With major characters he goes much farther.
There is a dual timeline structure in which Hamilton alternates contemporary events with the early years of Lawrence Newton, taking us through his troubled adolescence, a time obsessed with his dream of piloting a deep-space exploration ship.
Lawrence runs away to Earth and signs up with Zantiu-Braun. The Earth of the future has been ‘civilised’ and reforested over most of its surface. There are those who resist the vegetarian uniculture which controls the Earth, such as the militant Joona, who feeds Lawrence – without his knowledge – real meat, which sickens and repulses him.
Twenty years on, Newton is a Sergeant of an elite band of asset-realisation startroopers, and for his own reasons has covertly arranged for himself and his men to be posted on an asset-realisation mission to the planet Thallspring.
Zantiu-Braun wish to strip Thallspring of anything which the company might find economically viable; new technological developments, factory output, medicines etc.
The locals, understandably, see this as piracy and to ensure their compliance, the invading force fit a thousand inhabitants with ‘collateral’ collars, programmed to explode if a signal is sent to them.
Denise Ebourn is a prime mover in the Thallspring resistance movement, and one who seems to possess an effective means of opposition since Denise, like Lawrence, carries a copy of personal Prime software which allows her resistance movement to infiltrate and manipulate the Artificial Sentience programmes of Zantiu-Braun.
It is not until very late in the novel that we discover where the Prime software originates.
Unlike the Nights Dawn trilogy, which boasts a huge set of characters, this story focuses on the central figure of Lawrence and the subsidiary characters of Denise and Simon Roderick, whose natures and histories are slowly unveiled. Denise and Lawrence, it transpires, have met before on Lawrence’s first visit to Thallspring when Lawrence saved her sister from gang-rape at the hands of some of his colleagues.
Simon Roderick, the Vulcan-esque head of Z-B, is revealed to be only one of a series of clones, whose temperaments vary with each generation.
In its long-winded way, the novel examines the possibilities and the moral questions surrounding the theme of human transcendence.
Denise’s community have discovered an ancient sentient example of machine life and have reactivated it. It has not only given them a form of symbiotic nanotechnology which has re-written their DNA, as well as the Prime software, but has also taught them of ancient civilisations of the galaxy, now all dead but for ‘the dragons’, the information-gathering and dispensing machine creatures which live in the aura of red suns.
The power that the dragons can offer will give humanity the ability to change not only (quite literally) their shape, but their DNA. Lawrence realises that this is a point where Humanity will diverge and that no one will be able to predict what societies and species will evolve from this point.
Through v-writing (basic genetic modification, available free to all) the general level of intelligence of the human race is already rising but with the power of the dragons’ nanotechnology, humanity can achieve with one step something which would have taken four or five generations.
Lawrence wonders at one point whether this would be eugenics or evolution, a question which the reader has to answer for his or her self. The ethics are well-debated by the various factions involved and it is to Hamilton’s credit that we are not beat about the head with political dogma.


Dune Messiah – Frank Herbert (1969)

Dune Messiah

‘A holy war has made Paul Atreides the religious and political leader of a thousand planets. The malign sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, unable to dominate the man they have made a god, set out to destroy him.

Paul, who is able to foresee the plans of his enemies, resolves to adapt and shape them to a goal that is as shocking as it is unexpected.

‘Dune Messiah’ – long awaited successor to double award winner ‘Dune’ – is an epic of imperial intrigue that spans the universe, rich and strange in its evocation of the history, institutions and people of a far future age. ‘

Blurb to the 1972 NEL paperback edition

The second book in Herbert’s ‘Dune’ sequence takes us forward twelve years to where Paul Muad D’ib Atreides is now undisputed Emperor of the Galaxy. The Fremen have adopted him and his sister Alia (not, it has to be said, without their implicit consent) as Godlike figures which has prompted a jihad in which the Fremen have pillaged and occupied most of the worlds in the Dune galaxy.
Unlike the first novel, which was undeniably an epic and featured varied exotic locations around the galaxy, this book is much shorter and keeps its narrative firmly rooted on the planet Arrakis.
Muad D’ib finds the burden of Empire a heavy one to carry, particularly in view of the fact that his prescience (boosted into full awareness of the future due to the effects of the spice melange) seems to allow him no way to stop the jihad which is sweeping across the galaxy in his name, killing billions in a wave of religious fervour. He thus becomes something of a Shakespearean figure, locked into a destiny in which the concept of free will loses all meaning.
We are immediately introduced to the Bene Tleilaxu, a Guild similar to that of the Bene Gesserit, in that they are dedicated to selective breeding and the manipulation of genetic material to a specified end, but their methods are far different.
The Tleilaxu believe in directly modifying themselves and have become ‘Face Dancers’ (shape-changers) who pride themselves on their ability to reshape their flesh and mimic people to such an extent that their closest friends and family can be fooled.
They are also masterful cloners who are attempting to perfect the art of creating a ghola; a cloned copy of a dead individual which retains not only the original’s physical attributes, but their memories and personality. As part of their scheme to destroy Muad D’ib, the Tleilaxu, conspiring with both the Bene Gesserit and the Spacer’s Guild produce a copy of Muad D’ib’s old friend and mentor, Duncan Idaho, reborn as a mentat philosopher and offered to the Emperor as a gift.
Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda though, and the Tleilaxu are hoping that if the ghola does not destroy Muad D’ib, then the psychological pressure imposed upon him will in any case awaken the real Duncan and make their experiment a success so that they win either way.
‘messiah’ for me fails because it tries too hard to be a different sort of novel. The original was a triumph of contrasts, from the intensity of the Bene Gesserit disciplines through to the moral solidity of the Atreides and then the gross and decadent mores of the Harkonnens. There was the contrast with Caladan and Arrakis, between educated society and the Fremen, between water world and desert world. It was a riotous mixture of tastes and flavours.
Herbert, in concentrating on a somewhat claustrophobic and, has been suggested, Shakespearean sequel, has lost a little of what made Dune such a marvellous novel.
One cannot fault the plotting. Herbert has a mastery of the use of political intrigue, double-bluffing, double-crossing and paranoia.
It does seem, however, that the Bene Tleilax – who as far as I recall were not mentioned in ‘Dune’ – were brought in to add that flavour of spice (for want of a better word) to what is a rather cynical view of Humanity and religion.
As in ‘Dune’ religion (or rather the concept of belief) is used as a political tool, but by this time Muad D’ib has realised that the Godhood which has been bestowed upon him is merely a monkey on his back. It now controls him and he seems powerless to control the religious mania which has taken over the galaxy, or indeed his own future since he walks into traps fully knowing the consequences but also cogniscent of worse consequences should he take another path.
One suspects that this was meant to be a longer novel. The philosophy and the aims of the Bene Tleilax for instance are never fully explained and much of the colour and spectacle of the original are missing.
Some characters are underused. The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam was, in ‘Dune’, used sparsely but to great effect. Here she is simply used, and might just as well have never appeared in the novel at all.
Similarly, the Spacers’ Guild, who in the original are an exotic and mysterious human mutation are here reduced to the status of ‘man in a tank’.
The relationship between Alia and Hayt (the cloned Duncan Idaho) could have made a fascinating sub-plot but failed to materialise into something of solidity.
The Tleilaxu are the most fascinating element and the character of Scytale is the only one of the conspirators whose behaviour and actions hold any dramatic interest. The Tleilaxu were instrumental in the plot against Muad D’ib since they produced the resurrected body (and possibly soul) of Duncan Idaho. This is another Shakespearean motif in that Hayt can be seen as performing the same symbolic and dramatic purpose as Banquo’s Ghost, or that of Hamlet’s father, a former close associate returned from the grave. It may be significant that the Tleilaxu gave the reborn Idaho steel eyes which would naturally reflect the face of anyone he spoke to. Is it then his function to make the Mahdi Muad D’ib see himself for what he is?
Essentially, this novel reads as a first draft. Although well-written and packed with Herbert’s stylish inventiveness and his talent for designing societies and institutions, one can’t help feeling that the main characters are under-developed and are never given the opportunities (rather than the space) to show us their personalities the way they did with such panache in ‘Dune’.
The denouement in particular seems very rushed, as if Herbert were under pressure to bring the novel to a satisfactory conclusion.


Maul – Tricia Sullivan (2003)

Maul

In Sullivan’s Dystopian future men are an endangered gender due to a gender specific retrovirus. Men are kept in reservations and those women who can apply for viable sperm opt to give birth to girls.
One cloned male in a laboratory has been infected with a tailored form of the virus in order to try and understand and cure the disease.
The clone is allowed certain privileges and is playing a computer game.
Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated time and place, a group of girls have challenged another girl on the internet and have arranged to meet her at the local shopping mall. Originally intended as a friendly meeting, misunderstandings have conspired to convert the meeting into something nearer to a fight challenge.
At the mall, events escalate to near riots and a siege situation. This is obviously not the world in which the cloned man exists, since in the Mall there are boys and security guards and other men not sequestered away behind a sterile screen.
The two stories run in parallel, and the reader quickly begins to realise how the two worlds are connected.
It’s a hectic read that barrels along energetically, raising questions about the medical ethics of cloning, but it is not a novel one would have thought capable of setting the SF world on fire.
There were no characters for which one could feel any empathy, apart from the badly treated clone, and that was sympathy rather than empathy. One would surely expect anyone to feel sympathy for a badly treated clone.


Infinity Beach – Jack McDevitt (2000)

Infinity Beach

‘We are alone. That is the verdict, after centuries of Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence missions and space exploration. The only living things in the Universe are found on the Nine Worlds settled from Earth, and the starships that knit them together. Or so it’s believed, until Dr. Kimberley Brandywine sets out to find what happened to her clone-sister Emily, who, after the final unsuccessful manned SETI expedition, disappeared along with the rest of her ship’s crew.

Following a few ominous clues, Kim discovers the ship’s log was faked. Something happened out there in the darkness between the stars and she’s prepared to go to any length to find answers. Even if it means giving up her career… stealing a starship… losing her lover. Kim is about to discover the truth about her sister – and about more than she ever dared imagine.’

Blurb from the 2001 Eos paperback edition

In a future where Humanity has expanded out to a handful of settled planets and seems to have culturally stalled, Kim Brandywine is working for an institute still trying to search for Extraterrestrial Life. Kim is haunted by the death of her clone-sister Emily who was on an exploratory voyage and who disappeared, along with another member of the crew, without trace after she returned. The two male survivors of the Hunter Expedition were subsequently involved in a mysterious explosion at Mount Hope on their home planet, an area which has since had sightings of ghostly apparitions.
Emily is contacted by the grandfather of the other missing girl who believes that there is something more to their disappearance than meets the eye.
Initially cynical, Kim begins to uncover small pieces of evidence which leads her to suspect that something is very wrong with the official story of the voyage of the Hunter and, facing opposition from her employers and the families of the now-dead crew, becomes determined to uncover the truth of what happened to her sister.
McDevitt gives us a gripping scientific detective story which combines a first contact situation with brilliantly evocative moments of ghostly horror and an old unsolved murder.
Interestingly, McDevitt succeeds well in realising a planet settled some six hundred years ago which now has experts researching its own history and archaeology. It makes for a very well-rounded society, if a tad Americocentric. The structure is well thought out, although perhaps a little cinematic. It is a bit of a cliche for the hero/ine to be not believed/discredited/fired and then have to solve the mysteries while the authorities are snapping at her heels.
All in all, though, it’s a cracking piece of work. Nothing groundbreaking, just a solid piece of well-written SF with a detective thriller twist.


Distraction – Bruce Sterling (1998)

Distraction

‘Sex, science and spin… it’s your future and welcome to it.

2044, and the US is coming apart at the seams. The people live nomadic lives fuelled by cheap transport and even cheaper communications. the new cold war is with the Dutch and mostly fought over the Net. The notion of central government is almost meaningless.

This is your future. Oscar Valparaiso’s too – or it would be if he wasn’t only half human and could sort our his love life…’

Blurb from the 2000 Millennium paperback edition

Bruce Sterling inhabits the same satirical and cynical universe as the likes of Sladek and Kurt Vonnegut and here uses his considerable literary powers to attack not only the American political system but posits an American dystopia in 2044 where independent bands of ‘travellers’ make a living making and selling – among other things – laptops made from grass. This is also an America where Anglos(i.e. white people) are now a persecuted minority group.
Oscar Valparaiso is a futuristic spin-doctor who has helped to get Alcott Bambakias elected as Senator, and though his current project is now over, Valparaiso, being a driven man, is unwilling to give up his campaign tour and decides to make an issue of a US Air Force base which – due to some political chicanery or incompetence – has been ‘forgotten’ and so is not receiving funding of any sort.
This minor debacle escalates into an ongoing battle between Green Huey, Governor of Louisiana, and Valparaiso.
There is a large cast of characters, most of whose lives revolve around Oscar in some way or other.
There is a reason why Oscar is so brilliant, the reason being his ‘little personal background problem’. Oscar is the result of a black market cloning programme set up to satisfy the public need for black market babies. Much of his DNA isn’t even human; his body temperature is constantly higher than normal and he has to take a cocktail of medication to treat the constant bodily ills caused by his twisted DNA.
It’s a clever and amusing novel which I’m sure I would have enjoyed even more had I understood US politics and history better, but that’s not a major issue.
In style it’s redolent of Robert Sheckley and John Sladek. The dialogue is slick, classy, witty and each character has their individual voice.
Oddly, there is no real mention of any issues surrounding religion which, in the US, seems a trifle odd.
The main theme of the book, which Sterling deals with on all sorts of levels, is Power. We learn, for instance, that a lot of political power now resides on the net. Corporate and National wars can be fought in cyberspace. There is also a random power on the net at work whereby programmes are set up which monitor whether one has been critical of a certain policy or politician. If one’s score rises above a certain level then one’s details are forwarded to newsgroups or forums which makes one a target for stalkers or would-be assassins.
Oscar becomes a victim of such a programme until a neighbour and software-expert clears his details from the net.
It’s a huge enjoyable romp with a cast of slightly caricatured characters.