‘An Earthman’s tongue is his deadliest weapon
There was a common understanding in the Space Navy that scout-pilots were a breed apart–cocksure, reckless, and slightly nuts. But it was also understood that when a really dangerous job had to be done, a scout-pilot was the man to do it.
So for John Leeming, a couple of months of dodging death in a one-man ship, zipping in and out of the enemy Combine’s rearguard, was just another one of those jobs. And there was no man in the Universe more surprised than Leeming when his heretofore indestructible ship just gave up the ghost smack in the middle of a Combine-held prison planet!
It was then that the spirit of the Scout Corps had its chance to shine. With self-confidence as his only weapon, Leeming had only two choices: give in to the enemy and be captured…or quick-talk them into a real case of THE SPACE WILLIES!’
Blurb from the 1971 #77785 Ace Double paperback edition
Rather like William F Temple’s ‘Martin Magnus’ Eric Frank Russell’s lead character here is a space-pilot who doesn’t take to authority too well.
Earth and her allies are under attack from the Combine, another alliance of aliens who have occupied a neighbouring region of space. It is not known whether the Combine are only occupying the nearer stars or whether their dominion goes deep into the territory behind them.
And so John Leeming; sarcastic, disrespectful and disdainful of authority, is considered the perfect choice for a secret mission.
Leeming has to take an experimental one-man high-speed ship and survey the stars beyond the Combine’s border to determine how large an area they control.
All goes well for a while with Leeming reporting back on the location and affiliation of almost a hundred planets when the experimental ship finally gives up the ghost, forcing Leeming to land on a Combine prison planet.
From there, Russell weaves a comical farce around the concept of a clever prisoner of war outwitting his less clever captors.
It’s well-written and the comedy is sustained throughout.
There is a minor blemish in that Russell at one point describes one of his alien captors as ‘a fairy’ and therefore by inference (within the context of the cultural mores of the time) not considered strong, brave or intelligent enough to be a danger.
However, this was the 1950s when white heterosexual men controlled the Western World and many places beyond, including the world of SF publishing.
‘Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference…
On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there’s one thing everybody agrees on–There’s not a chance in hell of ending it.
Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, her ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war–but at what price?
The world is about to find out!’
Blurb from unknown edition.
Nasheen and Chenja, on the planet Umayma, have been at war for centuries, how long is not really clear, even to the protagonists. Both sides practise a seemingly evolved form of Islam based on ‘the Kitab’ (which is merely Arabic for ‘book’) although the Nasheens are a matriarchal society and the Chenjans patriarchal. Mutation and possible gene-splining has produced some humans that can control insects via pheromones (known as magicians) and also shapeshifters. This adds a slight flavour of Science Fantasy to the mix which melds nicely into the complex society that Hurley has created.
At the outset of the novel Nyx is a Bel Dame, one of a highly trained sisterhood of official assassins and bounty hunters. One of her assignments – to put this into perspective – was to track down this world’s version of a suicide bomber; a boy loaded with a time-coded virus who would take up residence in an area before the virus is triggered and released into the local population. Nyx’ mission was to inject him with an antidote before bringing his head back for the bounty.
Not long after, Nyx is expelled from the sisterhood for her involvement with gene pirates and is forced to become a freelance bounty hunter.
Meanwhile, a young Chenjan refugee, Rhys, is training to become a magician, having some talent for controlling insects. He is working with boxers, wrapping their hands prior to the fight and helping to heal them afterwards.
Rhys however is not good enough to qualify as a practising magician and can either stay and teach or leave and take his chances. He chooses to leave but soon finds that Nasheen attitudes to Chenjans are hostile. Inevitably, as one might have guessed, Rhys ends up working for Nyx who not long after is offered a commission by the Queen of Nasheen herself; a dangerous commission which may well get her team killed, but could end the war.
Some reviews I have seen have criticised this novel for not having any likeable characters, but I feel they miss the point. It is not often that one finds a genre novel with such real, well-rounded characters. Not only that, they are characters set firmly within the context of this complex and detailed dystopia. For myself, I liked Nyx. She is a female antihero, and for the moment I can’t bring another to mind.
Interestingly it seems Hurley has reversed the traditional roles of male and female as well as divided the planet between matriarchal and patriarchal control. Nyx is the alpha male of her team in every sense apart from the fact she is a woman. It is perhaps symbolic that the novel begins with her selling her womb to obtain funds to continue with her mission. Later we discover that the enmity between her and her arch rival Raine stems from the time when Nyx cut off his penis. This is one example of an ongoing theme of duality in fact, which is cleverly reflected on various levels here and there. Nyx is happy to sleep with males or females and when she seduces the female boxer Jaks we learn it is only to gain access to her bounty; Jaks’ brother.
Rhys is quieter, is religiously devout, reads poetry, dances and seems to embody what we may see as feminine traits where Nyx embodies the masculine. It may be that, like Nasheen and Chenja, countries who would probably find peace if both embraced sexual equality, Nyx and Rhys could empathise more if they balanced the male and female sides of their own psyches.
It is also a violent piece of work it has to be said, although this is within the context of a world divided by war and focused on the lives of mercenary bounty hunters.
Details of life elsewhere in the galaxy is not really covered although there are other settled worlds as is made clear.
This is an impressive novel which well deserves its place in the Arthur C Clarke award nominations and I look forward to reading more in the sequence.
There’s a website I visit now and again which generates surreal plot situations for people with writer’s block.
’A gay cardinal, a one-eyed assassin and a sentient Buddhist gun hunt for the memories of a dead lesbian Pope inside a giant space-egg’ might well have come up.
This is a competent (if frustrating) cyberpunk thriller in which Axl Borja, augmented assassin, is hired by a Cardinal to find the downloaded memories of the late Pope Joan, who apparently siphoned off a large chunk of the Vatican’s wealth to give to charity.
The rather grim – but enlivened by snappy dialogue – chase ends up on Samsara, a Ringworld style rotating rock cylinder, home of the governing Buddhist AI, Tsongkhapa, and refugees from various wars and belligerence on earth.
There’s also pimps, clones, suicidal priests (2), lesbian army officers (2), an underage Japanese prostitute and sundry AIs.
The most interesting character is the self-aware gun, transformed on Samsara into the cyber embodiment of the winged monkey Rinpoche
It’s one of those irritating and annoying novels, so packed with references to corporations, wetware tradenames, hardware functions and software, that whole pages have to be re-read in case one misses something.
For those who like sort of thing, it’s a good book, if a little depressing, which makes some valuable points about religious and media political power.
Doesn’t really break any new ground.
Bear Neilsen is only a child when she witnesses her astronaut sister, just returned from a mission to a satellite, being put into a Faraday cage before convulsing and dying. Her sister, it appears, encountered something and may have brought some of it back.
Ten years later, someone is killing off all witnesses to the incident. Bear, who is having trouble in her living accommodation because she has adopted a homeless malamute dog, gets a call to tell her that there is better accommodation on offer. The caller is the Divine Cleopatra, a drag queen who works at the Serengeti restaurant, owned and run by Alex, an old friend of Bear’s sister. Meanwhile, something is glitching satellites around the world and a millennial Jesus the Astronaut cult is growing in strength.
It becomes clear that someone is keen to silence anyone involved with the original project and Bear that she herself must go into space to deal with whatever it is.
It’s a short read which combines first contact, native American mysticism, cross dressing, satellites and a quick visit to the Thames barrier in London.
It’s a workmanlike novel, but nothing out of the ordinary. Sheila Finch wrote an outstanding short story (‘Out of the Mouths’ F&SF 1996) based around one her specialities, linguistics. I cannot see that the magic has transferred to the longer form here, but I have every faith that she will get there.
‘Amongst all his Uncle Cleonicles’ notions, his explanation for the stars has always seemed just too fanciful to be true to Polystom, fiftieth steward of Enting.
Yes, his uncle invented the Computational Device, the Greatest Work of Man, the Summation of Human Knowledge, but surely everyone accepts that the air between the planets is without end. how could there be nothing beyond something? Where would air end and nothing begin?
This is but one certainty in a universe of certainties for the fiftieth Steward of Enting. Polystom is certain his new wife will love him. Certain that his servants respect him. Certain that war will bring him the glory he has been looking for.
the death of his uncle is only one of the first shocks to his comfortable view of life…
Adam Roberts has, in a marvellous feat of the imagination, created a vivid unique universe. One in which autocrats cruise between the planets in biplanes, in which Skywhals make mysterious distant orbits, in which a fruitless war has dragged on for years.
For it to be any other way is, of course, completely impossible….’
Blurb from the 2003 Gollancz paperback edition
Roberts made his name with the excellent ‘Salt’ and has gone on to produce several monosyllabically titled novels. here, breaking into fresh three-syllable territory, he gives us ‘Polystom’, Polystom being the central character, the Steward of Enting, one of a number of worlds orbiting only a few thousand miles out from a small sun in a system in which the atmosphere stretches between the planets, populated by Skywhals and air plankton, and allows Polystom (or anyone else for that matter) to fly a plane from one world to another.
This society is a quaint feudal one, the classes divided strictly between masters and servants. The story, brought to us through Polystom’s eyes, is sometimes shocking in the attitude of those of Polystom’s level to their servants.
Polystom’s uncle Cleonicles, we learn, had a brief affair with a male servant, whom he ordered to dominate and sodomise him over a period of months.
Finally tiring of this sexual pleasure and feeling a little ashamed, he sends the servant away to the ongoing war on the planet Aelop and almost certain death.
The shame was not one of homosexuality, but of the servant dominating the master. Same-sex relationships are not unusual in this universe as Polystom’s father had a long-term relationship with another man himself.
Death is a constant presence in the novel. We know that Polystom’s father had not long died at the start of the novel. Polystom then marries the wilful and enigmatic Beeswing who tries to escape the marriage by running away. With Polystom in pursuit she trips and falls, is recaptured by her husband and, during the argument, falls again and dies.
Polystom’s uncle is then murdered by anonymous men, thought to be escaped from the war on Aelop. It may have been the old man’s spurned servant seeking revenge, or agents of the military, after the old scientist’s secrets. Roberts leaves it to the reader to determine.
Polystom then raises a platoon of his own servants and joins the war, a crazy affair conducted in the hot reeking mud of Aelop.
It is only here, near the end of this strange but beautiful novel that any connection between our world and Polystom’s is mentioned. Is our world a simulation running in a vast computer on Polystom’s world of Aelop? Or is Polystom’s universe merely a simulation created by Earth scientists on their own ‘Computational Devices’? Is the violence and chaos of Earth leaking through into Polystom’s peaceful universe and inciting revolution and bloodshed?
The ideas are Eganesque and also hark back to earlier conceptual breakthrough novels like ‘Non Stop’ and Daniel F Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’
However, the denouement i.e. the revelation at the end seemed a little too much like a gimmick introduced simply to connect Polystom’s world with our own.
‘2040. New York is crowded with the lost. Refugees from the radioactive eastern seaboard, the splintered remains of a society in freefall, walk the streets and spend their last dollars on an hour snatched in one of the new Virtual Reality paradises.
In a society bent on escape, Missing Persons is a good business to be in. If nothing else it keeps Hal Halliday busy enough to avoid his past.
But the past is not so easy to escape.
NEW YORK NIGHTS is a fast moving yet thought-provoking SF thriller. It examines the human costs of isolation and escapism in a future that offers wild possibilities.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz paperback edition
This, the first novel in the Virex trilogy introduces Hal Halliday – an affable New York ex-cop turned private eye of the mid Twenty-First Century – and his older partner Barney.
The duo run a semi-successful business chasing missing persons and assisting the local PD with cold cases.
Hal is intrigues by the case of Sissy Nigeria, reported missing by her lesbian lover. It’s a seemingly simple case but one which becomes more complex when Hal is attacked by a shape-shifter in the missing woman’s flat.
Sissy’s home computer system has been burnt out and Hal later discovers that her research work for Cybertech involved the creation of machine intelligence.
Despite a lack of complexity and some coincidences which stretch credulity, Brown has created a compelling an highly readable novel which races along like a cyborg greyhound.
The most intriguing aspect is perhaps Brown’s depiction of a Lesbian Separatist community of which his estranged sister is a member. He manages to avoid cliched stereotypes without being preciously politically correct, and sets the stage for the next two books in the series. Indeed the whole novel has the feel of the TV pilot which sets up the relationships between the major characters and sets them in context before moving on to the meat and potatoes of the narrative.
Brown doesn’t go far enough to explore the potentialities of VR, although there are some truly innovative moments, such as the interactive holosoap. One can log in to a virtual city, adopt a character and literally become one of the three million stories in the Naked City, which run perpetually.
‘New York Nights’ is that rare thing in SF of the period, a novel which is too short. One expects the detective to be wrong-footed by red herrings and following various nebulous leads. This is what detectives do. If one compares this to Morgan’s ‘Altered Carbon’ – a novel of similar style but superior quality – one immediately notes the differences. Morgan’s novel is full of character and location detail, layered over a zig-zagging plotline. Brown lacks the detail and therefore this novel, although workmanlike, lacks atmosphere.
‘To VENTUR, the Subs were a nuisance. All the underworld’s billions were fed and housed: under the stern loving care of VENTUR’s great machine systems. No one could deny the benefits of VENTURan organisation, VENTURan welfare. Of all the cultures, only the Subs refused to be grateful and humble.
ALIC was an innocent tourist, a retired games conceiver; drawn to the Subcontinent in the hope of a little old-fashioned excitement. Then she met Millie Mohun, who invited her to play a game that would beat any other she had ever tried…
And then ALIC fell into the depths, into the churning people void… her whole existence became a desperate attempt to escape, while around her a great ancient culture was surging towards violent revolution.
This powerful futuristic novel is the new book by the author of the critically acclaimed DIVINE ENDURANCE. It is the chilling and convincing portrait of a world ruled by all-embracing technology and an arrogant oligarchy, a world in need of hopes and dreams.’
Blurb from the Orion 1986 paperback edition
Aeleysi, or ALIC, is in a future India taking a vacation from her off-world habitat home. Humans on Earth have become not only segregated from an Earth healing from its rape by Humanity, but tagged and controlled by omnipotent computer systems. ALIC becomes attached to a young jockey called Millie, one of the Subs (i.e. inhabitants of the subcontinent) and in a misguided attempt to help her out of what ALIC imagines is a bad situation, becomes embroiled in a revolution against the computer technocracy.
Millie, it turns out, may or may not be an immortal – possibly alien – Messianic figure, tales of whom are becoming gospel as the novel progresses,
It is by no means an easy read. Jones is a stylist who is at the opposite extreme to those writers who infodump ad nauseum in order to acquaint the reader with the back story, added to which is Jones’ decision to write this as first person narrative from a character who speaks a variation of English peppered with acronyms and invented vernacular. To attempt to capture the flavour of an evolved language is not a new thing, since Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’ and Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ successfully established a dialect within the text with which the reader gradually comes to terms. There was, however, a certain beauty and poetry in these books which is lacking here.
The rather daunting blocks of CAPITALISED words which pepper the pages restrict the flow of the eye and one would have thought that the language would have evolved (as languages do) to shorten the acronyms into more acceptable sounding words, or at the very least would lost the capitals. One feels as if one is being intermittently shouted at while reading.
In Jones’ defence, it has to be said that this is a brave and relatively successful attempt to construct a narrative as it would have been written in ALIC’s time. Jones does not condescend to explain the situations to her readers. The clues are there, and it is up to us, the readers, to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
I have never been fond of novels which need a glossary of terms as an appendix, unless they contain additional information not immediately pertinent to the novel. In this case however, despite the fact that glossary is vital to one’s understanding of the text, some of the definitions are vague and incoherent and leave one more perplexed than ever.
ALIC is, one might say, the naïve middle-class tourist who has never seriously thought about how the other half live, although the message would have been more powerful were it not for the ponderous style and the seemingly inflexible feminist ethic which allows only one – quite insignificant – male character in the entire novel. Historically, SF has served female readers, writers and characters badly. This is a sad fact which most authors now accept and explore and, in most cases, have sought to change. If Jones were writing a novel in which the absence of male characters could be justified it would not be an issue, but it seems as if this is an intentional device to prove some unspecified point. It only succeeds in further lessening whatever point the novel is attempting to make, which itself is obfuscated by the obscurity of the text.
Indeed, one is left with the idea that society is not safe left in the hands of a Femocracy.
Haldeman’s seminal work was written perhaps as a catharsis following his experiences as a participant in the Vietnam war. In the introduction to the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition, which is a revision of the first publication with an originally excised section reinstated, Haldeman explains the rationale behind his vision in which a young private, William Mandella, is drafted into a senseless war against an incpomprehensible alien culture. Due to the effects of relativistic speed, Mandella’s experience of the war is several years, while for those left back on Earth it is a thousand.
Early on in the war, he returns home to find his world almost as alien as the planets he has fought on.
To reduce the earth’s population, the world government has encouraged mass homosexuality. Jobs and food are scarce. Mandella’s now elderly mother has herself become a lesbian and has to employ a bodyguard to escort her when she goes out.
Unable to adjust, Mandella and his lover and fellow-private, Marygay, decide to return to the military.
A poignant moment comes when Mandella and Marygay are assigned different postings. They realise that they will end up in different time-periods and will never see each other again.
Mandella’s posting is a bleak system outside the main galaxy, a mission from which he may never return, and even if he did, it would be seven hundred years in the future.
Mandella (which is, of course, almost a complete anagram of Haldeman) is now a major and in charge of a squadron of exclusively homosexual troops who refer to him as ‘The Old Queer’.
He has seen nearly all his friends die, but against the odds he lives through another battle and his remaining troops return to another very different Earth to discover that the war is now over
It is interesting to compare this with Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’, written some fifteen years earlier. Both feature a soldier rising through the ranks in a seemingly interminable war against inscrutable aliens (in Heinlein’s case, giant bugs). Heinlein’s work is a sensationalist work of pulp SF action in which (rather like ‘The Puppet Masters’) the aliens are not something to be understood, but something to be destroyed. Until the end, Haldeman’s novel follows a similar course, but at the same time he examines the consequences to individuals and engages the reader in the moral debate. Though there are some wonderful battle-sequences, they do not dominate the narrative and it is the human interest that in the end provides the meat of the novel.
One has to forgive Haldeman for providing an upbeat ending, although one wonders whether the novel would have been more powerful if the war continued, going on, as in the title, forever, ceaselessly and senselessly.
He does however, add that the war began as a misunderstanding, a simple lack of communication; a small footnote which highlights the terrible irony and absurdity inherent in many wars of our past. Throughout, also, there is a cold awareness of the expendability of human soldiers.
Haldeman claims as his influence Samuel R Delaney.
‘The Chrysalids is the story of a world in which genetic mutations – in plant, animal, and human life – are continually occurring, and when they do they are rooted out and destroyed as Offences and Abominations – whether they are a field of mutant corn, a calf with two heads, or a human child. The anguish this causes to the families which live in terror of deviation and in a small area surrounded by the Wild Country where the chances of breeding true is less than fifty percent, and the Fringes and Badlands beyond where the chances are far less; is described by John Wyndham in a manner all the more frightening for being so realistic and credible.’
Blurb from the 1961 paperback Penguin edition.
John Wyndham wrote a particular brand of British Science Fiction which became so popular that his work is often not marketed with what the Literary establishment term to the derogatory label of Science Fiction. Wyndham was at one time (and may still be) part of the British English Literature syllabus. Over a relatively short period he produced a handful of novels which were to become classics of British, and indeed World SF.
Unusually for Wyndham ‘The Chrysalids’ is set not in Wyndham’s usual UK rural setting of the Nineteen Fifties, but in an apocalyptic Labrador of the far future.
The setting however, seems oddly British in terms of social structure and terminology.
Typically for Wyndham the action takes place over a number of years and begins in the village of Waknuk. We see the village through the recollections of David Strorm, son of the religiously fanatic self-styled leader of the community.
Waknuk is a relatively untouched oasis in what we understand is a world otherwise devastated by nuclear warfare.
A form of Christianity has evolved in response to the prevalence of mutation and deviation in plants, animals and humans. Anything which deviates from the norm is deemed to be an abomination and is ruthlessly weeded out.
However, David discovers that the young daughter of a neighbour is herself a deviant, having six toes instead of the ‘normal’ five and David, it transpires, has a secret of his own in that he and seven others in the community are telepaths, a fact they very quickly learn to keep a secret from their fanatical friends and family.
Perhaps unintentionally, as Van Vogt did with ‘Slan‘, Wyndham has created an almost perfect allegory of the homosexual experience within a small community. The comparison becomes particularly poignant when the eight telepaths reach the age when they are expected to find marriage partners. One of them, Ann, decides that she is going to suppress her ‘talent’ and marry a non-telepath, much to the dismay of the others who are all convinced that she cannot deny her true nature.
At one point David himself, in an act which many Gay people remember from their teenage years, prays to God to change him, to make him ‘normal’ like everyone else.
It is unlikely however, that Wyndham intended the parallel, although the aspects of xenophobia and culturally instilled and endorsed prejudice are terrifyingly realistic.
In comparison with the two other ‘classic’ Wyndham novels ‘The Day of The Triffids’ and ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ one sees in all three Wyndham’s fascination with the fundamental basics of Nature; red in tooth and claw. In each novel Humanity finds itself at war with another species, or perhaps, one could argue, the savage forces of Nature. Wyndham seems never too concerned with the war itself as much as with the effects of the battles on the protagonists. ‘The Day of The Triffids’ shows formerly genial Britons throwing aside the veneer of civilised behaviour and cheerfully adopting polygamy and slave labour camps in order to save the species.
‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ gives us an average British rural community forced to kill its own adopted children.
None of the novels permit any possibility of compromise or co-existence. In this novel, humans are battling both Nature and change. The older generation resent social change as much as they resent the ‘mutational’ changes to their vegetables and livestock.
Eventually the telepaths are rescued by an advanced group of their own kind from New Zealand, but the moral code of their society is as bad, if not worse, than that of the restrictive religious regime since they have no compunctions about killing the humans who have been pursuing the escaping telepaths. They see non-telepathic humanity as a burnt-out species, doomed to extinction, who are better off being painlessly eradicated.
Brooke’s portrait of a future soldier is, in a sense, a bleak reflection of Haldeman’s ‘The Forever War’ although here, there is no alien enemy, just humans. Ironically, ‘aliens’ is what the people of Earth call the Peacekeeping Forces’; military forces recruited from off-world colonies and sent to Earth at the behest of the American Union, half of a USA which is now split following devastating climatic changes.
Jed Brindle is a black farmworker living and working with his family on an orbital settlement, Lejeune, although we first meet him on Earth where he is on an undercover military mission.
From this point on, we follow the fate of the mission while delving back in time to discover how he got to be the agent he is now.
Brooke sets the scenes perfectly and there is a touch of the ‘Starship Troopers’ in that we are treated to excerpts of propagandist news items and recruitment campaigns.
There is also a sense of enormous irony in the fact that what is presumably a colony settled by Americans is providing troops to carry out covert operations and deal with insurgencies in what was the USA.
In terms of plot, there isn’t a lot for the reader to be concerned with. This is a novel about one man and the people he affects from the time he gets drafted to the culmination of his mission. There are excerpts from reports from his commanding officer, and some notes from a female reporter who is doing a story on the call-up, which give objective views of of him as a contrast to his own diary notes and the narrative itself.
That is not to say that the novel lacks action. It doesn’t. There is plenty going on, and the pace is often quite intense, but these are events which are very much character led and add a far greater depth to the narrative.
Brookes’ great success with this is that we see one character throughout, a man who sometimes does terrible things, and yet one who is charming, loveable and capable of great tenderness, with facets of personality that all fit together into one human.