When last we saw DuQuesne in The Skylark of Valeron, he had been transformed into a being of pure mind by the other bodiless minds. They had all, in any case, been imprisoned in a vessel from which they could not escape and fired in a direction far away from the First Galaxy.
Seaton’s new alien friends, The Norlaminian minds, having thought things through, now realise that the vessel is likely to smash itself apart if it encounters any dense particles of matter at such an incalculable speed, and that DuQuesne is therefore likely to escape and return.
Seaton, thinking of Earth’s defence against such an outcome, enlists his alien friends to send out a specific thought, aimed at high powered minds who may have technology more advanced than currently known.
This is picked up by some of the humanoids in a far distant galaxy who are slaves of the Llurdians, a monstrous but ruthlessly logical race.
Some of the Fenachrone have also survived, and both DuQuesne and Seaton are ultimately forced to work together to battle an entire galaxy of evil Chlorans
Structurally it’s a bit of a mess. but its problems run deeper than that. The preceding volumes were all written in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties and were, to give Smith his due, cutting edge SF at the time.
Thirty years on, SF had changed a great deal and Smith had to produce a sequel that matched the original trilogy stylistically and with a consistent internal logic.
Smith himself was obviously much older and writing erratically. In ‘The Galaxy Primes‘ he introduced sexual themes which were of course being explored by other writers of the time. In Smith’s hands, however, they come over as being a little creepy.
In the Skylark universe it seems, many aliens wander about naked. So, being neighbourly and all, Seaton decides that he, Crane, Crane’s wife and Dottie should be naked too, as well as Hiro the space-chef and and his new ninja-assassin wife Lotus Blossom. Of course, they’re all perfectly happy with this notion.
DuQuesne gets his kit off too, in an odd encounter on board the ship of a new humanoid race. DuQuesne is considered suitable material for breeding and so is paired up with a willing woman who takes him off to extract his sperm in what one presumes is the usual way.
Genocide is still Smith’s preferred solution to any difficulties one may be having with truculent aliens, and wipes the Chlorans from the face of their galaxy.
Smith is retreading old ground here, resurrecting both the Fenachrone and the Chlorans, rather than creating new enemies to confront. There are in fact a surfeit of enemies, which results in people flitting hither and thither and yon, to very little effect.
Smith had never been overly concerned about relativity or indeed physics in general. Here Seaton (and indeed DuQuesne, the Fenachrone, and the human slaves of the LLurdians) is zipping about from galaxy to galaxy without any ill-effects or serious time-dilation issues.
The denouement also, is a little strange since DuQuesne decides he is going to set up his own Empire in which a form of eugenics will become part of social custom.
The Skylark series should, in all honesty, have been left as trilogy. This late addition adds nothing to the experience and comes as something of an anti-climax.
‘The ‘Howard families’ were the product of a genetic experiment, an interbreeding program which had produced one hundred thousand people with an average life-expectancy of a century and a half.
Now, at last, their existence was known on Earth, and the entire world demanded to share the ‘secret of eternal youth.’
Blurb from the 1971 New English Library paperback edition.
Originally serialised in a shorter form in ‘Astounding’ in 1941, ‘Methuselah’s Children’ has an interesting premise, in that in the Nineteenth Century, Ira Howard, obsessed with the concept of longevity, set up a Foundation whose trustees were instructed to use the money to actively pursue the lengthening of the human lifespan. Unsure of how else to proceed, the trustees sought out individuals who had four living grandparents and informed them of a substantial settlement should they choose to marry one of a number of other individuals in the same position.
This odd and improbably successful initiative produced what was to become known as The Howard Families; a group of one hundred thousand people, living secretly within human society and interbreeding amongst themselves, many of whom were by now over a hundred and fifty years old.
Their calamitous decision to announce their presence to the general public results in the families being arrested and forced into a reservation, drugged and tortured to reveal what the public at large believed was a secret immortality drug.
To this point, despite some rather dated characterisation (Heinlein was never too good at anticipating social change, although his notions of future fashions were reasonably prophetic , since many of the men wear kilts and public near-nakedness is acceptable in some circumstances) the novel moves along solidly, but loses its way when Lazarus Long, a two-hundred plus year old maverick tough guy, masterminds the hijack of a new space-craft and escapes with the Howard Families in search of a new home on a new planet.
Putting aside the logistics of getting a hundred thousand people onto a ship, along with supplies, once the escape is effected the tension of the plot is lost.
In their quest to find a new home, the Families at first encounter a planet of benign humanoids who turn out to be nothing more than intelligent pets of a vastly more intelligent race. Moving on to the next planet they meet a race of highly advanced telepathic gestalt beings who create a paradise for the humans to live in.
The lesson is learned that humans deteriorate without the stimulus of challenge, and the ship heads back for Earth where, in the interim, the secret of longevity has been discovered, and all humanity is now part of the Howard Families.
Had Heinlein confined the story to Earth or at least The Solar System, and concentrated on the theme of persecution within one’s own culture, this would no doubt have been a more consistent and important book.
For some, it is one of Heinlein’s best, and despite the disjointedness and the rather cliched alien races, it is an enjoyable read.
Interestingly, Lazarus Long mentions having once met Pinero, the protagonist of Heinlein’s first published short story ‘Life-Line’, who attempted to establish the date of Long’s death, but finding the answer absurd, refunded Lazarus’ money.
Probably the quintessential Space Opera of its time, the Lensman series has dated – although not so badly as the work of some of his contemporaries – due mainly, in my opinion, to Smith’s rather one-dimensional characterisation, his dialogue and his depiction of female roles. Paradoxically, given the rather limited characterisation of the humans his aliens are sometimes truly alien. Indeed, the mindsets of some of the non-human protagonists are often far more skilfully depicted than their human counterparts.
Despite that, provided one bears in mind the social climate in which this was written and reads the novel in context, they can still be hugely enjoyable.
The term ‘Space Opera’ is actually used within the text at one point when Kim Kinnison – the hero of the series – goes undercover posing as a writer of the genre. Whether the alter ego was based on anyone in particular is not known.
This is the finale to Smith’s six volume saga. Smith was an early forerunner of today’s ‘Big Concept’ writers such as Greg Bear and Stephen Baxter, and though some of his scientific fabulations seem somewhat preposterous by today’s standards it was Smith and writers like him who created that ‘sense of wonder’ for many readers, not only when this was published as a magazine serial in the Nineteen Forties, but when republished in book form in the fifties and (for reasons unknown) enjoying an unexpected renaissance in the mid-seventies. The series has recently been republished by an independent publisher and hopefully will find a new generation of readers.
Smith’s strength lies in his ability to convey the vastness of Time and Space, his premise being that billions of years ago a race of humanoids – The Arisians – was born in our galaxy and evolved far beyond the point at which humanity now stands.
They learned that by observation and the calculations of their powerful minds they could predict the future to a certain degree. They knew that a galaxy was about to pass completely through their own galaxy, and that the gravitational pull of suns against each other would produce billions of new planets, upon which Life would evolve.
They also knew that another ancient race, the cruel and tyrannical Eddorians, had plans to dominate both galaxies and sate their immortal lust for power.
The Arisians only advantage was that the Eddorians were not aware of their existence, and so was set in motion a plan which was to span millions of years, taking us through the fall of Atlantis, the Roman Empire and thus through the Twentieth Century and beyond.
In essence, this is an epic war of ideologies, in that the Arisians represent democracy and free will, while the Eddorians represent a system of Hierarchical totalitarianism, enforced by a militaristic regime (In this respect it is interesting to compare the physical description of Smith’s Eddorians with Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, who themselves are a metaphor for the forces of Communism. Both are sexless, emotionless amorphous creatures, who reproduce by binary fission, with each new half retaining the memories and skills of the original).
The Arisians’ secret weapon is a selective breeding programme which has been in operation on four different planets since intelligent life evolved.
Only one of the four races can go on to produce the super-beings capable of defeating the Eddorians.
Humans, of course, win the ‘race’ race and the couple selectively bred to give birth to the Homo Superior children are inevitably white and North American.
This idea of selectively breeding humans rather puts a dent into the concept of Arisians as benign Guardians of Democracy, and although one can argue that it was the Arisians’ only option, it is never really addressed as a moral issue within the text.
The Children themselves are four girls and boy who, in their late teens, have to conceal that fact that they are the most powerful – if underdeveloped as yet – beings in the Universe. We are led to believe that the girls will ultimately become the wives of their brother, and the mothers of the race that will replace the Arisians as Guardians of Civilisation.
An oddly incestuous episode also ensues between Kit (the boy) and his mother in a strange scene where she – in need of brain-restructuring and training, for want of a better phrase – allows the mind of her son to enter hers, rather than submit to mental penetration by the Arisians (of whom she has an incurable phobia).
The description of this act is oddly violent and not a little sexual, made worse by the rather stilted professions of love between Mother and son before the procedure.
But Hell, this is Pulp Fiction. It never pretends to be Shakespeare, and despite its political incorrectness I still find it a nostalgic and stonking good read.
A rare and early foray into the subject of Time Travel from Dick, although the timeslip element is used initially merely as a device to move an objective viewpoint to a far future and therefore alien society.
Although one of the novels in which Dick was still finding his literary feet, it shows signs of the depths of his ideas and the themes which would come to dominate his work.
Dr Jim Parsons is snatched from the US of Nineteen Ninety Eight and deposited in the year Two Thousand, Four Hundred and Five. Interestingly, the US that Dick envisaged in his own near future is one in which large corporations have been nationalised and society seems to be run by the professional classes (Doctors, lawyers, etc.). American politics and society is often something at which Dick takes a sideswipe, often as part of the background to the main narrative.
Parsons arrives in a post-nuclear world where the human race has become homogenised and the birth rate is strictly controlled (as is female rights).
Children are produced by a process of controlled natural selection whereby competitive ‘tribes’ engage in various mental and physical challenges; the number of points they win determining who contributes their zygotes to ‘The Soul Cube’, which is essentially a vast bank of reproductive material.
Death is welcomed, as when a tribe member dies, a replacement is automatically fertilised within the cube.
Being a Doctor, and somewhat politically liberal, Parsons is confused and appalled when he is arrested for saving the life of a young woman who subsequently makes a complaint against him for denying her the right to die.
Structurally, the novel follows the mythic structure in that the hero – unwillingly in this case – is taken from his world of familiarity and his happy marriage (unusually for Dick, whose heroes tend to suffer from broken or dysfunctional relationships) to an alien world of seemingly bizarre behaviour and barbaric cultural beliefs.
Dick was once quoted as having been influenced by AE Van Vogt, and if it shows anywhere, it shows in this novel which, if a little less obscure and rambling than some of Van Vogt’s work, displays some of his trademarks such as ‘the dark city of spires’, the super race, the peculiar machines, the convoluted plot and the trip to Mars. These are Van Vogt clichés which can be seen at their best in Slan (1940) and ‘The World of Null-A’ (1948).
It’s obviously hastily written, although the time-travel loops and paradoxes are well-thought out and all the ends neatly tied up, although Dick skimps on some areas where the motives of the characters are confusing. For instance, believing himself to have murdered someone by utilising time-travel equipment Parsons goes out of his way to try and ensure that he has actually done so. At that point, however, he has no motive for carrying out the murder, and has been shown earlier to be – he is a Doctor after all – someone who is dedicated to preserving life.
‘As for me, I am finished.’
With these words, a frail, dying Hari Seldon completes his life’s work. The old man has just recorded messages for the Time Vault of the First Foundation. And psychohistory’s Seldon Plan is unleashed, propelled by the ponderous momentum of destiny.
Younger hands will now take up the task.
But Seldon knows that neither the First nor the Second Foundation will provide ultimate solutions. The Seldon Plan has three possible outcomes. None of them fills him with joy but he is consoled by the thought that any of the three is better than the chaos that would have happened without him.
However, the future still holds some surprises for Hari Seldon.
Blurb from the 2000 Orbit paperback edition.
An exceedingly suitable and satisfactory denouement to this posthumous sequel to Asimov’s Foundation series. Following a rather disjointed opening Benford’s ‘Fear’ and a sublime sequel in Bear’s ‘Chaos’, David Brin wraps it all up very neatly with a highly readable tale of Hari Seldon’s final adventure.
The three authors have very cleverly managed to weave a complete new story over and around the original Foundation trilogy with a complexity that borders on X-Files level conspiracy. In some ways it is a little disappointing to discover that Hari Seldon’s predictions – such as the secession from the Empire by Anacreon which left Terminus alone and undefended – were to a large extent ‘helped along’ by interfering robots and telepaths. (Those pesky interfering robots!).
There was a kind of precise beauty in the way Seldon’s mathematics predicted the outcome of each crisis and to some extent these late revelations (not really helped by Asimov’s own additions to his Milieu) lessen the power of the original trilogy. However, these novels are a great tribute to a Golden Age of SF and all three manage to evoke the spirit of a bygone period in SF history while infusing a contemporary flavour.
In Brin’s finale, the robots once more are heavily involved in meddling behind the scenes in human affairs and Dors Venabili (a robot designed as a guardian and companion to Seldon) discovers that it is not only human history that has been repressed for the last twenty thousand years.
Dors is bequeathed the head of R Giskard Reventlov, a robot visionary and allegedly the creator of the Zeroth Law of Robotics which negates the famed Three Laws of Robotics in the case of a robot having to protect the long-term security of the Human Race as a whole.
The series as a whole has wasted an opportunity to create an objective view of human nature, to examine what it is to be human in terms of Seldon’s mathematical waves of human progress. We know far more now than Asimov did in the Nineteen Forties of body language, human interaction, the psychology of crowds etc. Seldon’s aim in this final book is to refine his equations by finding reasons why Chaos worlds (planets which undergo a sudden and inventive renaissance) should subsequently fall into pandemonium and madness.
It is disappointing to discover that that the Chaos worlds are suffering the effects of a Chaos plague, an ancient designer disease akin to that of Brain fever, another manufactured plague designed to attack the most intelligent children and prevent a rise in the IQ level of the general public.
We also discover that many planets are being kept docile by robot telepathic machines left in orbit about these worlds. One can see now how Asimov muddied the waters of his premise by attempting to conflate his various work into one great galactic history. We can no longer watch the intricate interplay of unstoppable forces of change because the basic concept has been undermined by the intrusion of these robotic and other influences.
It’s a daunting task (and one does have to question why it was ever done at all) to produce a posthumous trilogy with three different authors engaged on the project, and to be constrained not only by Asimov’s original trilogy, but by his later additions and qualifications.
One can see why the writers thought that the only way they could do it was by treating the original trilogy as the exoteric (i.e. the public) version of events and this set of novels as the esoteric machinations (quite literally) of the robots behind the scenes of the events of the classic original series.
Yes, it works, and it is, as I have said, a decent tribute to Asimov who, despite later rather negative reassessments of his work, was a major influence on and supporter of, SF as a whole.
One could argue however, that had Asimov left his original trilogy alone it would shine much brighter than it does with the baggage of a welter of sequels and additions.
It looks as though there will be further additions since Brin has left ‘openings’ for other writers who wish to take up the baton. Hari Seldon has apparently been cloned and possibly rejuvenated by one of the robot factions; the robots Dors Venabili and Lodovic Trema have ‘evolved ‘ human reactions and emotions and find themselves drawn to each other, and there is Mors Planch, the rebel starship Captain who has been catapulted five hundred years into the future to a time when a decision must be made on Galactic coalescence into a single consciousness and the ensuing Human Transcendence.
A valuable appendix to the book is the very helpful timeline of Asimov’s future history which not only marks important dates and events in the Foundation galaxy’s chronology, but annotates the relevant books and stories in which these events either occur or are ‘re-examined’ for want of a better word.
‘In ‘Foundation and Chaos’, one of science fiction’s greatest storytellers takes one of its greatest stories into new and fascinating territory. Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series is back.
Hari Seldon, approaching the end of his life, is on trial for daring to predict the Empire’s fall. At the same time, final preparations are under way for the long-anticipated migration to Star’s End. But R Daneel Olivaw, the brilliant robot entrusted with this great mission, has discovered a potential enemy.
At a critical moment in the Empire’s fall and the Foundation’s rise, Hari Seldon is about to face the greatest challenge of his life.
Blurb to the 2001 Orbit Paperback Edition
The novel runs concurrently with Part I of Asimov’s original novel, cleverly using Hari Seldon’s trial – originally seen from the viewpoint of Gaal Dornick – as a central focus to examine events behind the scenes of which Gaal Dornick was unaware.
The trial dialogue is identical, but Asimov’s rather dry ‘transcript’ version has been dramatised – if one may use that word in this context – brilliantly and, if anything, creates a tension and suspense where in Asimov’s version of events there is merely his cosy sense of certainty and destiny. The reader was never in any doubt that the Seldon plan would succeed. It was just a matter of trying to work out how.
Behind the scenes, Hari’s grand-daughter, Wanda, is gathering ‘mentalics’ – human mutants capable of manipulating the thoughts of others – as the core of Seldon’s ‘Second’ Foundation.
Bear’s Foundation universe is a darker and more complex place than Benford’s, and it is to his credit that he manages to capture some of Asimov’s atmosphere whilst fully updating it for a contemporary readership.
Here, the robots take centre-stage and their millennia-spanning plans and behind-the scenes manipulations are put into a different perspective.
Lodovic Trema, an ancient robot and long-time associate of Daneel R Olivaw’s plans for humanity, has been altered by Voltaire (an AI personality first encountered in Foundation’s Fear). He no longer is bound by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics which forbid him to harm humans, and undergoes a form of robotic exegesis, coming to believe that Daneel’s protective stance of humanity as a whole is a restrictive suffocating policy.
The robots’ disparate philosophies and organisations are described using religious terminology with Humanity in the position of God/Creator. Originally united, the robot population was divided and subdivided by schisms, with some becoming Calvinist (after Susan Calvin from Asimov’s original ‘Robot’ series) and others becoming Giskardists following the philosophy of the robot R Giskard Reventlov. To add support to the religious connection there is a conversation between Daneel and the sim personality construct of Joan of Arc in which it is implied that Daneel’s God is Humanity, which in a sense is true if one applies the human religious hierarchical framework to Robots. Humans are the creators. They breathed life into the robots in a far more evidential way manner than God breathed life into Adam.
Oddly enough, the robot featured in Asimov’s ‘I, Robot’ or at least in the twilight Zone adaptation, was indeed called ‘Adam’, thus endowing the whole of this robotic narrative thread with a kind of theological thematic consistency. This means that the evolved humans now having abandoned their Gods, it is time for the Robots to do the same.
Were this not a posthumous sequel with a solid body of work stretching back – with various degrees of quality – to the Nineteen Forties, the concept of a robot in the late Nineties novel would only work in some ironic post-modern sense, as it does in ‘Roderick’.
The concept of a Galactic Empire is also one which modern writers approach at their peril, but here, given its cosy familiarity from the Asimov legacy seems – along with the robots – not out of place.
Bear, following on from Benford, fleshes out the power-structures and goes a long way toward making the Empire, and the complex power struggles which pervade it, a plausible entity. It’s fascinating to see how Bear, noted for novels of solid scientific speculation and Big Ideas, copes with what is essentially Space Opera, but cope he does, and extraordinarily well.
One of the best scenes involves two of the robots travelling to the secret robot base at Eos, a small blue moon of a green gas giant, orbiting a double star. There, an ancient robot with four arms, three legs and seven vertical sensor strips on its face ‘two of which glowed blue at any given time’ performs necessary maintenance on those robots who come in for their MOTs.
It’s a poignant and evocative section, laced with a Golden Age sense of wonder.
‘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.
‘The shimmering, cloud-covered planet of Venus conceals a wondrous secret: the strikingly beautiful yet deadly world of Amtor. In Amtor, cities of immortal beings flourish in giant trees reaching thousands of feet into the sky; ferocious beasts stalk the wilderness below; rare flashes of sunlight precipitate devastating storms; and the inhabitants believe their world is saucer-shaped with a fiery center and an icy rim.
Stranded on Amtor after his spaceship crashes, astronaut Carson Napier is swept into a world where revolution is ripe, the love a princess carries a dear price, and death can come as easily from the blade of a sword as from the ray of a futuristic gun.’
Blurb from the 2001 Bison Books edition
We see in this novel, a rather more mature Burroughs (in the sense that any of Burroughs work could be called mature) in that his hero, Carson Napier, is rather more flawed than his previous oak-thewed action men. It is also a book which says rather more about Burroughs and his beliefs than those of the protagonists, but we’ll come to that later.
Napier is a young man of adventure, one who learned telepathy from an Indian mystic as a child and so is able (as Burroughs tells us in the obligatory explanatory prologue) to tell his tale to Burroughs by projecting it telepathically through space to Earth.
The prologue itself is interesting incidentally as Burroughs exposes – sometimes with a wry wit – some of his own problems and preoccupations of the time, a subject which is explored in depth in F Paul Wilson’s introduction to the Bison Books edition.
Napier, a man of good breeding and blonde and blue-eyed, finances the construction of a rocket by which he plans to fly himself to Mars.
Unfortunately the complex calculations he has made fail to take into account the effect of the Moon’s gravity and very soon he Napier finds himself heading for the cloud-shrouded planet Venus.
Burroughs was well aware that scientific research of the time had more or less proved that conditions on the surface of Venus were incapable of supporting life, yet chooses to dismiss this with a few short sentences regarding other occasions when scientists were proven wrong.
Nevertheless, Napier arrives on Venus in a land of giant trees a thousand feet in diameter whose branches house the secret city of a humanoid race; the Vepajans.
The Vepajans inhabit a feudalistic society run by jongs (more or less the same as jeddak on mars). They believe that their world (which they call Amtor) is a flat disc which floats upon a sea of molten rock, since the clouds which cover the world do not allow them to see the sun or the stars, and from this deduce something of the nature of the universe.
Their enemies are the Thorans; a society which has undergone a revolution and replaced benign hereditary rule with incompetent tyranny. it is not difficult to deduce that the Thorans are essentially Communists. One of the leaders of the Thorans is called Moosko; a name which surely confirms Burroughs’ allegorical intentions.
The usual Burroughs formula is employed in the plot, what there is of it. Napier sees a woman in the city with whom he falls instantly in love. He rescues here from kidnappers, but she is oddly ungrateful and hostile when he tells her he loves her. The kidnappers later return and this time succeed.
Meanwhile, on a hunting trip with his new best friend Kamlot, they are captured by bird-men and taken to be slaves on the Sofal, a Thoran ship.
Napier organises a revolt and the ‘pirates’ take over the ship, shortly afterwards capturing another and in the process rescuing Duare, Napier’s mysterious woman who turns out to be (it will come as no surprise to anyone) a princess.
The princess is kidnapped once more. Napier sets off pursuit and rescues her and a bird-man from a tribe of savages. He then sends Duare, carried by the bird-man, back to the ship, sacrificing himself to capture by the Thorans…. To Be Continued.
It is a standard Burroughs formula, although it would appear the he is using this story as a platform for his own beliefs. It is well-known that Burroughs was a supporter of the concept of Eugenics and here mentions that that the Thorans often attempt to kidnap Vepajans in order to add more clever genes to their gene-pool, which was depleted when they rid their society of their ruling classes.
The Soldiers of Liberty – a secret cabal which Napier initiates among the prisoners held on The Sofal – goes by the Venusian name of ‘kung kung kung’; a name which was usually contracted to its three initial letters. Burroughs even labours the point by making the connection within the text to another organisation with the same initials back home in the USA.
Whether or not Burroughs approved of the Ku Klux Klan is not known, but it would seem odd to deliberately invent a name with those initials if there wasn’t a good reason for doing so.
Ultimately it hardly matters as Burroughs’ landscapes and societies are so outlandish as to bear little resemblance to our own lives, and if anyone ran off to join the Klan on the basis of having read ‘Pirates of Venus’ then I’m sure the Klan would be welcome to them.
‘Throughout centuries the immortal telepath Doro has struggled to build a new race, one with powers to match his own. But down all those generations, there has been no one like Mary.
Only Mary is able to draw others to her side, into a complex network of global psychic energy that unites them and regenerates them until they are more than the sum of their parts – they become The Pattern.
But one man stands in Mary’s way and the prospect of her empire – her father, her lover, her rival – Doro.’
Blurb to the Gollancz 1991 paperback edition.
Here, Butler tells the tale of how the Pattern, first explored in ‘Patternmaster’ was created, and introduces the characters Doro and Emma whose tales are told in the third ‘prequel’, ‘Wild Seed’.
Doro is a disembodied parasitic entity who moves from body to body, devouring the life-force and inhabiting each for a short while before moving on to the next. For four thousand years he has been selectively breeding Humanity to enhance psionic talents – in the main telepathy – but also rare additional talents such as healing, psychometry and psychokinesis.
The novel revolves around Mary, one of Doro’s experiments and – common to all Butler’s central figures – a black female.
The structure is unusual in that Mary’s first person narrative is interspersed with chapters following other characters in third person.
Mary is a pre-transition telepath, in that she is due to experience a harrowing physical and mental metamorphosis which will see her either emerge as a full telepath or remain a disturbed latent – like may of Doro’s failures – driven mad by the random thoughts and emotions of others.
Doro, who holds the power of Life and Death over his people, insists that she marry a white male telepath, Karl, believing that he may be able to help her through her transition.
The transition is successful, but perhaps too successful, as during the process Mary’s mind latches on to Karl and five other full telepaths and holds them in a mental Pattern, subservient to herself.
The telepaths feel compelled to travel and join her are at first angry and afraid at Mary’s inability to release them.
Later, Mary discovers that she can push Doro’s latent telepath failures into transition and bind them into her gestalt Pattern, but at a price.
Butler avoids falling into the trap of turning her characters into a benign ‘Homo Superior’ cliché. Indeed, none of the telepaths – with the possible exception of Seth, whose involvement in the tale is minimal – are very likeable people. Their actions are often selfish brutal and violent, and there is little compassion shown by any of them. They are, however, products of their environment and to a certain extent Butler is attempting to show what happens when one is endowed with power without the limits of accountability.
Mary effectively creates an instant dictatorship, answering only to Doro. Those she has enmeshed in her Pattern answer to her, and in turn they mentally enslave ‘mutes’ – ordinary non-telepathic humans – whose emotions and memories they can adjust as they wish, often relegating them to the status of pets.
‘Karl owned his servants more thoroughly than even Doro usually owned people. Karl owned their minds. They were just ordinary people who had answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times. Karl did no entertaining – was almost a hermit except for the succession of women whom he lured in and kept until they bored him. The servants existed more to look after the house and grounds than to look after Karl himself. Still, he had chosen them less for their professional competence than for the fact they had few if any living relatives. Few people to be pacified if he accidentally got too rough with them. He would not have hurt them deliberately. He had conditioned them, programmed them carefully to do their work and obey him in every way. He had programmed them to be content with their jobs. He even paid them well. But his power made him dangerous to ordinary people – especially those who worked near him every day. In an instant of uncontrolled anger, he could have killed them all.’ (p 37)
Mary’s Patternist regime grows until she has fifteen hundred telepaths under her control. They have control of local government and have taken over a school to educate their own kind.
Doro, now worried by what he has created, orders Mary to call a halt to the expansion of her Pattern, but she cannot, for, like Doro, she is a mental parasite and needs the Pattern to grow in order to feed on the life-energy of her thralls.
It’s a brilliant and immensely readable novel if a little bleak. Butler is not afraid to delve into the dark side of the human psyche and drag its darkest desires into the open air.
The motives of most of the characters are at base, selfish, such as those of Rachel, a powerful psychic healer. Before being enmeshed in The Pattern she used her powers as a travelling Faith healer in Christian Churches, but the price the congregation paid for their healing was Rachel’s leeching of their collective life-energy.
Initially, being bound with the gestalt turns them into better people as more of the psychotic latent telepaths are brought through transition to become ‘sane’ and responsible members of the Pattern community, but the price to be paid for that is the mass-enslavement of non-telepath humans.
Ada, one of the ‘First Family’ of telepaths, in one of the most chilling chapters of the story, talks to a teenage telepath – brought up by mute slaves – who has just realised who and what she is:
‘You’ll be the first of their foster children to grow up. They’ll remember you.’
‘But… They’re not like you. I can tell that much. I can feel a difference.’
‘They’re not telepaths.’
‘They’re slaves!’ Her tone was accusing.
Page was silent for a moment, startled by Ada’s willingness to admit such a thing. ‘Just like that? Yes, you make slaves of people? I’m going to be part of a group that makes slaves of people?’
‘Why do you think I tried to die?’
‘Because you didn’t understand. You still don’t.’
‘I know about being a slave! My parents taught me. My father used to strip me naked, tie me to the bed and beat me, and then—-‘
‘I know about that, Page.’
‘And I know about being a slave.’ The girl’s voice was leaden. ‘I don’t want to be a part of anything that makes people slaves.’
‘You have no choice. Neither do we.’ (p 183)
The Pattern is an instant society without democratically established codes of Justice or morality. Some rogue telepaths for instance are summarily executed, deemed too dangerous to live.
It’s a novel which – something which Butler gets better and better at doing – raises all sorts of questions about the nature of society, of humanity, of relationships and power-structures. It forces us to ask questions of ourselves and perhaps examine our own true motives for what we do and perhaps, more importantly, what we think.
Ardath, an advanced humanoid from Kyria, fleeing the destruction of his world, has crash-landed on Earth aeons before our ancestors crawled from the sea. His dying companion instructs him to put himself into stasis aboard the ship to be reawakened when intelligent life has emerged, and to start breeding any random highly intelligent he finds in order to create a super-race to inherit the wisdom and knowledge of the Kyrians.
This he does, sleeping aboard his repaired golden ship while it orbits the earth. When he is roused, he finds that humans have evolved and manages to find a handful of highly intelligent but primitive humans. One of them, Thordred, has a mind-reading device placed on him in order that Ardath can learn his language but – unknown to Ardath – Thordred has also learned all Ardath’s scientific knowledge.
Ardath is about to place everyone in stasis, to be awakened when the ship detects another genius, but Thordred strikes Ardath down before he can set the alarm to awaken them.
Two thousand years later, a prodigy named Stephen Court becomes the most famous scientist in the world. Just then however, a strange radioactive sickness starts to sweep the world, turning people into glowing monsters who can suck the life-force from other humans.
Court detects Ardath’s ship and builds his own craft to reach it. Unfortunately, he awakens Thordred who bundles Ardath into Court’s ship and sets its course for the heart of the sun.
Thordred then lands his ship, convincing Court that Ardath was evil, at which he runs off with the ship, planning to kidnap random humans to take to a new world, free from the glowing plague.
The race is on to stop Thordred and save Earth from the menace of the deadly plague.
It’s a short, fast-paced novel, an example of early Kuttner, whose later work is more thoughtful and mature. It’s hard to determine apparently, how much Kuttner and his wife CL Moore, contributed to each of their works since they were regular collaborators. It’s widely known that some early work under Kuttner’s name was written by Moore exclusively, and that they jointly wrote short stories under pseudonyms such as Lewis Padgett.
However, I think we’ll let Henry take the credit for this. There’s a certain masculine viewpoint to some aspects that a woman might perhaps not have written. There are the female characters for instance (and there are but two, three if you count the Amazon queen who Thordred kills the first chance he gets) who are employed merely as plot devices and have hardy half-a-dozen words to say.
It’s enjoyable hokum, however, and is interesting from a social and historical perspective.
Ardath’s original intent, it appears, was some form of selective breeding of humans to create a super race of beings with intellect to match Ardath’s own, but Kuttner, perhaps wisely, steers away from that path.