George Paxton is a carver of funeral stones. Being a decent man George needs to ensure that his daughter is safe in a world of nuclear proliferation and wants to buy her a Scopas anti radiation suit. As George’s wife has just been fired from her job at a pet shop for ‘blowing up’ a tarantula, the cost has become prohibitive.
George is then approached by an old woman whom he assumes at first to be a ghost. She sends him off to meet with a Mad Hatter character who sells him a golden Scopas suit but also makes him sign a document which implicates him in starting World War III. World War III duly begins as George is travelling home.
And thus begins this peculiar and very disjointed novel.
Whether or not it is SF at all is debatable but immaterial. I would term it a political fantasy, since some of the science involved, such as The Mad Hatter’s human automata is either dubious or completely unfeasible.
It bears comparison with other novels which feature grotesques and caricatures such as ‘Roderick‘ and Richard Cowper’s ‘Profundis‘ but quite unfavourably I am afraid.
‘Profundis’ – another satire based on characters in a submarine in a post-apocalyptic world – was a far tighter, more structured work, with far less main characters, all of whom had a depth of character.
Morrow’s novel, to its detriment – seems to pay little attention to characterisation, apart from occasionally infodumping the history of his characters’ lives in one way or another.
There are also too many concepts to deal with, one of them being ‘the unadmitted’, a horde of black-blooded potential people who never actually existed, but have invaded our world because of some fissure in reality that the nuclear exchange created.
There is no real reason why Morrow could not have simply had survivors of the war take their place, since the role of the unadmitted is simply to put Paxton on trial and sentence him to death. Their presence is both unnecessary and confusing.
And the structure of the novel could have done with some work. There is a charming introductory section featuring Nostradamus who could, it appears, very accurately predict the future and had Leonardo da Vinci paint a series of scenes of George’s life and consequently the end of human existence on magic lantern glass plates.
Nostradamus appears again once during the novel for no good reason and again at the end in a closing scene. It’s not hard to determine why the Nostradamus scenes work so well and the rest of them don’t since Nostradamus is established quite elegantly and efficiently with a personality in an all too brief number of pages. We could really have done with far more since Morrow seems to have padded the remainder with reams of unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent text, space which could have been better-employed on furthering the narrative and exploring some actual characterisation.
There is also the seemingly interminable trial of George and his so-called co-conspirators which almost had me wishing for nuclear destruction to arrive and put an end to my torture.
Maybe it’s the US sense of humour (although I suspect not) but I really must be missing something since this is published in the prestigious Gollancz SF masterworks series and praised by such luminaries as Brian Aldiss and Justina Robson. I can’t presume to fault their judgment, but I can’t find it within me to agree with them.
This is the way the book ends… with a whimper from me, praying to the Great Mythical Being that there isn’t a sequel.
‘He Alone Defied the Cosmic Vampires!
When the outlawed scientist Jim Hunt leaped from the prison plane, he had no suspicion that he was not the only one falling silently through the midnight sky. But other, stranger exiles were landing at that very moment in the same backwoods region… exiles from the unknown depths of outer space, exiles seeking human food.
When Jim started to make his way back home, he discovered the full horror of that night’s events. For the people he met had become mere flesh-and-blood puppets, mindless creatures doing the bidding of the unseen invaders. And though every man’s hand was against him, both free and enslaved, Jim knew that he alone was humanity’s only hope for survival.
Murray Leinster’s BRAIN-STEALERS is an unusually gripping science-fiction novel of thought transference, invaders from space, and vampirism on a world-wide scale!’
Blurb from the 1954 Ace Double D-79 edition.
This is an expansion of the novella ‘The Man in the Iron Cap’ from Starling Stories (November 1947) and fits right into that subgenre of specifically US novels of the time which feature ‘aliens among us’ which may possibly represent a reflection of the US’ reaction to the cold war and the nationwide paranoia over communism at the time. (see The Puppet Masters and The Body Snatchers)
Leinster has created a future Earth where the Powers That Be – a worldspanning organisation known as Security – have become so obsessed with Human Safety that all dangerous research has been banned.
Jim Hunt was experimenting with thought fields, and was subsequently arrested and charged due to the dangerous nature of his experiments. Jim escapes from a plane, convincing the authorities he is dead.
Meanwhile, a ship of telepathic bloodsucking aliens have landed and have been mentally enslaving the population of an increasingly large area of rural America. Hunt discovers this and narrowly avoids becoming enslaved. He devises a cap made of iron wire that blocks the alien thought signals, then has to escape from the area, somehow warn the rest of the world and design a device that could save mankind.
There are some interesting parallels with Heinlein’s ‘Puppet Masters’, but one cannot say whether either writer was aware of the other’s work at the time, and without reading Leinster’s 1947 novella, I can’t say how much was changed for the 1954 novel, published after Heinlein’s 1951 Galaxy serialisation and novelisation.
The aliens, for one thing, breed though fission, dividing into two and moving on to new hosts. They are not concerned about the health and well-being of their hosts and, as in this novel, were brought to Earth by another enslaved race.
They are however very different novels, Heinlein’s being in any case by far the superior.
It’s very readable however, as Leinster’s work generally is, and has its moments of real drama and suspense, but ultimately is nothing out of the ordinary.
It’s a very odd thing to come to terms with, but there’s something very cosy about Lumley’s work. Maybe it’s a nostalgia for simpler times when there were good people and bad people (on both sides of the Iron Curtain) and there was an Iron Curtain.
Maybe it’s because one knows it’s all going to be all right at the end of the novel – at least until the next one – or maybe it’s because Lumley’s world harks back to an era earlier than the Nineteen Eighties. There’s something very quaintly dated about E-Branch which is more Bletchley Park than a Secret Intelligence Department of the Nineteen Eighties.
E-Branch is of course the British Government’s ESPer division, a group of people with paranormal powers set up to counter the USSR’s own paranormal division.
Michael ‘Jazz’ Simmons is a non-ESP member of British Intelligence and in Perchorsk, Russia, investigating a ravine, the bottom of which has been coated with lead.
Simmons is captured and taken into the base below the lead shielding where he discovers the truth. A botched attempt by the USSR to employ Star Wars laser technology resulted in a malfunction which caused the pent up laser energy to create a ‘grey hole’, a gleaming sphere suspended within a cavern which permits a one-way trip for organic beings from our Earth to a parallel world, or from there to here.
The other world is the world of the Wamphyri, and some specimens have already traveled through to our world.
Now Khuv, the security chief in charge of Perchorsk, is going to send Jazz Simmons through.
Harry Keogh is back after five years in the wilderness searching for his wife and young son. They do not appear to be in the world of the living or the dead.
Darcy Clarke, now in charge of E-Branch, finds Jazz Simmons’ disappearance equally baffling as jazz was being monitored by an E-Branch sensitive, and connects it to the disappearances of Harry’s family.
The narrative then alternates between events here and in the world of the Wamphyri.
It’s a much stronger novel than Necroscope II – Wamphyri and allows Lumley to examine what Wamphyri life might be like if these lone predators had to live and share resources with each other.
If nothing else this series is a wonderful reinvention of pulp fiction, and one gets the impression (by some kind of literary osmosis) that Lumley loved writing this stuff just as much enjoyed reading it. It was never going to win any Hugo awards but to be honest, given the choice of reading one or two of their less justifiable nominations and these, I’d go for the Wamphyri every time.
Powers provides a fascinating afterword (at least in the Kindle edition) detailing what made him want to write this novel and the research he undertook.
Essentially, powers has researched the life of infamous double-agent Kim Philby which has some rather curious incidents and coincidences, and has used this as the basis for a quite amazing supernatural espionage drama, whose narrative veers between the 1940s and the 1960s.
The central figure is Andrew Hale. The lives of he and his mother were saved by The Special Operations Executive, a shadowy branch of the Intelligence Services who determined that Hale was ‘on the rolls’ from childhood and would one day work for them.
The novel begins with Hale’s panicked escape from an operation on Mount Ararat in Turkey in 1948, and from there veers backwards and forwards in time, seeming initially to be a standard spy thriller until weirdness begins creeping in.
Hale is posted to France during World War II, ostensibly working for the Russians, and meets and falls in love with Elena, a Spanish Communist spy. They are separated, but their lives connect again later along with that of Kim Philby.
The narrative takes us to France, the Middle East, Turkey and Russia, and eventually becomes a rollercoaster of a ride, packed with intrigue, subterfuge, secret identities, spy recognition codes and the slow unveiling of the Intelligence Services’ involvement with supernatural forces; Djinn, to be precise, a large nest of whom is sited at the summit of Mount Ararat.
Operation Declare, which has been running for decades, has a mandate to destroy the djinn, and the key to that is Andrew Hale, for reasons which are made clear toward the end.
Certainly, the novel has a very slow start and it is a hefty journey, but the narrative picks up about halfway through and things get a great deal more interesting from then on.
‘Necroscope’ is an odd beast of a book. Firstly one would be bound to suggest that it is a tad ‘off-genre’ in that the marketing boffins would inevitably class it as ‘Horror’. Many of its elements however fall strictly under the SF umbrella. Lumley’s vampires, for instance, whose origins are explained more fully in later volumes, have an arguably plausible biological and scientific basis. The vampires are parasites which infect their human hosts and slowly rebuild them into virtually immortal beings.
The story centres around Harry Keogh who, from childhood, was aware that he had an odd talent. He could talk to the dead, and the dead, lonely in their graves, were only to happy to talk back.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Boris Dragosani – who works for a secret Soviet department of ESPers – has a similar talent. He is, however, a necromancer and is able to torture the dead and rob them of their secrets. Dragosani has another secret. He is in communion with Thibor Ferenczy, an ancient vampire who has been buried in Romania, bound with chains of silver for centuries and is bargaining with Boris for his freedom.
The novel is set against a Cold War background where the British and the Russians both have secret ESPer departments – staffed with telepaths, precognitionists and the like – who are battling for information.
The fates of Harry and Boris are intertwined leading to an inevitable confrontation.
The only problem I have with it is the end, which is rushed and a little unsatisfying, but on the whole this is… a good book.
The other main point I would like to make about this novel is that it raises the question of what constitutes ‘a good book’. Certainly one should include the timeless classics that raise questions about Humanity, Life, The Universe and Everything, but now and again one has to include those books that completely engross you, take you into their world, and make you miss your stop on the train.
This is such a one.
In ‘The Peace Machine’ (a revised version of ‘Ground Zero Man’ 1971) Lucas Hutchman is a theoretical scientist working on a guided missile contract who, in his spare time, plays with scientific problems in his head. One day he works out the math for a neutron resonator; a machine that, once switched on, would detonate all the nuclear warheads in the world.
Soon after it is announced on the news that Damascus has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb. Hutchman, who was not until now planning to anything with his discovery, decides to build the machine and issue an ultimatum to all world governments that they dismantle their nuclear arsenal before the date that he switches it on.
It’s a peculiarly British piece, and notable for the fact that it’s far more of a literary work than some other Shaw novels.
Shaw’s trademark, if one can call it that, was to take a simple idea and extrapolate it to places no one else would think of going, but always with the human element at the forefront.
The characters have a certain Dickian hue, and are nearly pushed to the point of grotesquery, from Hutchman’s insanely jealous wife to the landlord of the Bed and Breakfast in Bolton to where Hutchman flees when he becomes – for reasons we need not go into – a wanted man. The landlord is a hectoring bully who demands that his wife put twice as much food on Hutchman’s plate as he actually wants and then insists that Hutchman come with him to the local pub. Shaw includes odd little touches of character such as the fact that the landlord has bent the key to Hutchman’s room so that he is able to lock himself in, but not lock the room when he goes out.
Hutchman’s secretary is a paranoid woman who appears to be critical of all men, not only Hutchman but another employee, Don Spain. He has an eidetic memory for sightings of those he knows, and the peculiar talent of deducing a truth from it and trading on salacious gossip.
Indeed, apart from Hutchman himself there appear to be no nice rational people in this novel at all, which is an added irony given that Hutchman’s overall concern is to save the human race from itself.
Hutchman himself, once he has posted letters to the leading governments of the world, threatening to set off the device and detonate all the warheads of the planet, descends into a state of illness and near insanity as he is pursued by the police, the army and foreign agents.
It’s not Shaw’s best work by any measure, but it’s an interesting piece placed in historical context.
‘Enoch Wallace survived Gettysburg and lived through the rest of the Civil War to make it home to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin. But his mother was already dead and his father soon joined her in the tiny family cemetery. It was then that Enoch met the being he called Ulysses and the farm became a way station for space-travellers. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the US government is taking an interest in the seemingly immortal Enoch, and the Galactic Council which set up the way station, is threatening to tear itself apart.’
Blurb from the 2000 Gollancz SF Collectors Edition
Enoch Wallace, the only survivor of the massacre of his regiment during the American Civil War, returns home to his farm in Wisconsin and a hard but maybe too-idyllic existence since Simak is nothing if nostalgic for a perfect America which has been lost. In this – an undoubted classic of the genre – he once again paints a portrait of a backwoods America of ignorant but basically decent countryfolk, people who protect their neighbours’ privacy as they jealously protect their own, even if the neighbour is rumoured to be well over a hundred years old and looks no older than thirty.
Shortly after the death of his parents when he returns from the war, Enoch is approached by a mysterious stranger and is recruited to convert his farmhouse into a way-station. The exterior looks exactly the same as it always did, but it is now protected by a force-field which only Enoch can open. Inside, some force protects Enoch from getting older which means that a hundred years on, Enoch has only aged a fraction of the years that have passed.
The interior houses complex equipment for the reception and forwarding-on by matter-transmission of alien travellers, the details of which Enoch meticulously transcribes in large record books.
Now however, Enoch is being watched by government agents, suspicious not only of his background and true age, but of an alien body which they have retrieved from his family burial plot.
Added to that, the world seems headed toward the brink of Nuclear War and even the peaceful Galactic Society of which only Enoch knows the existence is in turmoil, its factions warring over further expansion into the spiral arm beyond Earth and also suffering from the loss of the novel’s MaGuffin, an ancient artifact called The Talisman which can put its bearer into contact with the spiritual force of the Universe, i.e. God.
Enoch – one of Simak’s trademark loners – has few friends. One is the mailman whom he walks out to meet each day, a man who is also a talented woodcarver, not knowing the true origin of the pieces of alien wood (from which he carves exquisite pieces) which Enoch is occasionally given as gifts by the visitors who pass through.
Another is Lucy, a deaf mute daughter of his neighbour Hank. She has a natural affinity for Nature and appears to exhibit occasional extraordinary powers, as when Enoch witnesses her heal a butterfly’s wing.
Written against the backdrop of the recent Cuban Missile Crisis, The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the growing anti-war movement, Simak’s novel contains some obvious messages regarding the futility of war, despite some rather – perhaps misplaced – nostalgic support of the American Civil War which Enoch, and perhaps Simak himself, felt was a just and honourable war, fought within strict parameters of code.
The novel succeeds in its juxtaposition of the pastoral and the futuristic, haystacks, pitchforks and fabulous galactic technology sitting side by side which, in the hands of Simak, somehow works due mainly to his deep love for the open spaces of the US.
The plot is simplistic and ultimately flawed since the denouement relies too much on an unexpected criminal turning up at the way station at the last minute with the long-lost Talisman. It would have made more sense had the Talisman been hidden there for the last hundred years which would give the criminal a reason for going there. Despite this minor quibble however, this is one of the most romantic and evocative novels of the Twentieth century and possibly Simak’s finest single work.
‘THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOON
The year was 1972 and on rocket bases in the parched deserts of California and the vast wastes of Siberia, the race for the moon entered its final, frenzied lap, Both America and Russia were ready to step out into space and all that seemed in doubt was which country would set foot on the moon first.
But unknown to both nations, a third force – a power far more insidious than any evil ever devised by a human mind – was plotting the destruction of any rocket that tried to touch the moon’s pitted surface.
The key to overcoming this plot against mankind was contained in the mystery of THE LUNAR EYE – and unless its secret could be unlocked, mankind would be forever shackled within the bounds of this planet.’
Blurb from the 1964 Ace Doubles paperback edition F-261
Just predating the moon landings, this piece is interesting in that it is written against the backdrop of the Russian/American race to reach the moon.
Art Harper and his brother Gecko run a gas-station which serves the traffic visiting the desert rocket base from which the US rocket will leave for the moon. Odd delays and accidents have occurred though, and the launch is behind schedule.
While in a diner, chatting to a tyre-salesman, Art receives a call from a mysterious woman who speaks in a foreign language and is surprised that Art has ‘not woken up’. The woman wants to delay a truck delivering vital supplies to the rocket base. Art refuses to help, and the truck subsequently crashes.
Art then discovers that he is not Art Harper at all, but a member of part of the human race that left Earth thousands of years ago and now live in a vast city on the dark side of the moon. Art’s people do not want anyone from earth landing on their world.
Art and his brother Gecko are subsequently taken to the Moon, where they (and the rest of the Earth) are put on public trial, and where the brothers have to convince the whole of the Lunar race that welcoming the people of Earth would be the best thing for everyone.
“World War III is raging – or so the millions of people crammed in their underground tanks believe. For fifteen years, subterranean humanity has been fed on daily broadcasts of a never-ending nuclear destruction, sustained by a belief in the all powerful Protector. But up on Earth’s surface, a different kind of reality reigns. East and West are at peace. And across the planet, an elite corps of expert hoaxers preserve the lie.”
Blurb from the 2005 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition.
Dick is in the midst of his most prolific and creative writing period and ‘The Penultimate Truth’ once again resurrects Dick’s favourite theme; that of perceived reality.
Seventeen years ago the world was at war, Wes-Dem and Peop-Pac were on the verge of nuclear war so their governments independently constructed underground ‘ant tank’ cities in which the vast bulk of the population could live safely until the war was over.
In the Tom Mix Ant tank, like all the other tanks all over the world, the inhabitants have been working to produce ‘leadies’ (basic robots) for the war effort.
Every so often the residents of the Tom Mix gather together to catch a broadcast from the Wes-Dem President, Talbot Yancy, who gives shining speeches urging the tankers to keep their spirits up and work on.
The leader of the Tom Mix, Maury Souza, has a fatal pancreas-related condition and so Nicholas St James is enrolled in a bold scheme to visit the disease-riddled, war-torn surface in order to obtain an ‘artiforg’ pancreas.
The surface is far from war-torn, since the war actually ended fifteen years ago. Society is being controlled by the corpulent Stanton brose; a physical fake in that apart from his brain, all his other organs are artiforg replacements. Brose is the de facto leader of the world. Talbot Yancy (another fake) is nothing but a simulacrum, programmed by a computer to deliver speeches written by Joseph Adams, who in turn has his speeches written by a computer of his own.
Joseph feels that the people living underground should be told the truth, but does nothing.
Meanwhile, Brose hatches a plot to discredit his enemy, Louis Runcible a man who has a vested interest in seeing the population return to the surface, since his company builds housing for those people who have escaped to the surface and can not be allowed to return.
Brose plans to use a time-travel device to send back some forged alien skeletons and weapons (more fakes) to be buried at the site of Lou’s next development. He knows that Lou will attempt to hide the artefacts when they are uncovered, since his site will be declared an archaeological site and his development plans will be ruined. Brose then planned to have Lou exposed and imprisoned.
However, Brose’s spy, Bob Hig, who was to have stopped the digging when the artefacts were uncovered, is shot, leaving the robot digger to churn up the planted ‘finds’, oblivious.
Subsequently, two of the people who knew of the plan are murdered.
Meanwhile, David Lantano, another Yance Man, as the people in the inner circle of power are called, has found Nicholas St James and is putting him up in his demesne, set in a thousand acres of land, but still with a high level of radiation.
It’s a very strangely structured novel, which has that van Vogtian feel of having been made up as Dick went along with elements thrown in along the way, but it’s no les satisfying for that.
It certainly, on many levels, raises questions on the nature of belief, or reality, such as the idea of entire populations convinced of a particular ‘truth’ quite easily. In this case, both superpowers convince their populations of the truth by a series of fake documentaries. The governments of the two powers have rewritten the history of World War II and beyond, and despite some glaring errors and anachronisms, it is believed by the majority of the population and enshrined as Truth, just as our Holy Books are today.
There are some wonderful Dickian set-pieces here and there, such as the 2004 Eisenwerke Gestalt-macher Machine, which is specifically designed to murder and leave incriminating clues. Ironically, the machine is a victim of the German ethic of efficiency and leaves so many clues to the identity of the killer that it makes it obvious that the victim was murdered by the machine… or has the man who programmed the machine foreseen its failure and thus incriminated himself in order that he will not be suspected, because the machine was programmed to frame him for the murder?
This is a haunting book, which creeps back to remind you of connections between characters and themes.
The are echoes of ‘The House That Stood Still’ in Lantano’s seeming immortality and Native American heritage.
Talbot Yancy, like Der Alte in ‘The Simulacra’ is a puppet president, operated from behind the scenes by a team of men in suits; and given their orders by a corpulent tyrant, pieced together from artificial organs. It would seem, however, that the design of Talbot Yancy was based on an actor from the fake documentary; an actor who happened to be David Lantano.
Ultimately, then, Lantano effectively is Talbot Yancy, and is waiting for his chance to replace the robot president with himself.
Oddly, there are no major female roles.
‘What IS Paul Breen?
An ordinary, patriotic American with unusual powers? Or the first, chilling incarnation of a threat that has haunted the mind of Man ever since he first gazed into the heavens – the threat of invasion from another planet?
Certainly, Breen’s mind had extraordinary – some would say terrifying – potential. No wonder the scientists and politicians who examined him were so quick to see devastating political uses for his telepathic powers.
But Breen’s ‘wild talent’ was a double-edged sword: true, he could pierce the hearts of America’s enemies. Bust just as clearly, he could read the guilty secrets of the nation he was born to serve…’
Blurb from the 1980 Coronet paperback edition
Tucker take an interesting look at telepathy in ‘Wild Talent’, a novel which begins in the depression of the 1930s, rushes us through World War II and lands us in the Nineteen Fifties. It is the story of Paul Breen, a young man with gifts which he neither understands nor welcomes.
While visiting the Chicago World Fair in the 30s, he witnesses the murder of a policeman and, reaching the man just as he is dying, manages to extract from his mind not only the policeman’s name and his call-sign, but the names of his murderers.
Not knowing what to do he writes an anonymous letter to the President about the murder.
Much later, Breen is identified through his fingerprints found on the envelope and is recruited into a government project where he becomes a virtual slave to the system, using his powers to receive information from US agents abroad (though in the main in the USSR) and to follow the thoughts of his colleagues nearer at hand.
The head of the project, Slater, finds Breen to be a useful tool, but is worried that the telepath will uncover his own terrible secret.
It’s an interesting novel to emerge from the Nineteen Fifties, being as much an examination of xenophobia as an attack on the Establishment. If we compare this with ‘The Puppet Masters’ we see Heinlein’s government agency as being immune to corruption, unless of course their minds are controlled by the fiendish alien slugs.
Tucker has no such illusions. At least three government employees are selling secrets to the highest bidder, and a sergeant is exposed by Breen as having fraudulently diverted shipments of coal for sale to his own personal benefit.
The ending, in which Breen is discovered by a secret group of telepaths, clear in their belief that they are the next stage of human evolution, is upbeat and optimistic. However, the implicit secrecy of their existence and their fear of being discovered says much about the paranoia of the time.