My life in outer space

Posts tagged “Gestalt

A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought #1) – Vernor Vinge (1992)

A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)

Vinge has created a marvellous galactic culture here, much like Brin’s Uplift universe, where humanity are relative newcomers to a galactic civilisation billions of years old. Indeed, the concept of Uplift is employed as a plot device discovered later in the novel.
Vinge takes the unusual premise that the galaxy is divided into Zones of Thought with somewhat fluid boundaries. Intelligence and technology thrive better in those zones closest to intergalactic space, the Transcend, and some races and AIs have become transcendent ‘Powers’. In the slow zones, high level technology has problems and ships’ drives are reduced to a sublight crawl.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy and one offshoot, the Straumli Realm, has discovered a cache of billion year old data and technology. They do not realise until too late that they have awakened an ancient and vicious AI. One ship manages to escape with, unbeknown to the humans, a possible solution to dealing with The Blight, as the AI becomes subsequently known. The Blight begins to infect the galaxy while searching for the escaped ship.
The ship lands on a medieval era planet populated by swan-necked doglike creatures, the Tines, who have evolved into gestalt packs who each share a single consciousness, communicating by tympanic membranes in the shoulder area.
Meanwhile, a human librarian, a man – reconstructed Frankenstein fashion by an ‘Old Power’ – and a pair of cyborg sentient vegetables who live in symbiosis with robotic mobility buggies realise that the lost ship may hold the secret to defeating the Blight. They therefore set off into the Slow Zone on a desperate mission.
This is a wonderful if somewhat lengthy piece of Nineties Space Opera, fast paced and filled with well-embellished locations and societies, wit and suspense.
Doorstop novels were a big thing (literally) in the Nineties and ranged from six hundred pages (Vinge’s book is in the lower bracket) to Peter F Hamilton’s fifteen hundred page epics. Not a word wasted with either of these authors it has to be said, although many of the others may have benefited from some trimming.
One tends to wonder if this might be a book which falls somewhere between a novel and a trilogy. It would have been interesting to have seen an expanded version over two or more (shorter) volumes with perhaps a side story set in the areas controlled by The Blight.
I tend not to approve of mixing hitech societies with the medieval, mainly because it is often done badly. Peter F Hamilton’s Void novels employed this extensively with the result that the sections set in a medieval human society, albeit within an SF setting, were far less interesting than the contrasting galaxy of AIs, wormholes, human immortals and weird aliens.
Here however Vinge has set the weird aliens within a pre-industrial culture and it’s a well thought out joy of a thing.
The plot is incredibly basic. Major threat to the Galaxy. A small band set out against all odds to get to the-thing-that-can-save-or-destroy-the-cosmos before the major threat does.
Indiana Jones. Star Trek Beyond. It’s a tried and trusted formula.
Vinge takes the basic ingredients though and whisks us up this rich and detailed souffle.
If I have any criticism at all it would be that Vinge has maybe over-anthropomorphised the Tines whose personalities – albeit shared among several individuals – are all too human in their culture and lifestyle. One would expect more specific cultural mores to reflect their pack-centric lifestyles. What is interesting – and not really explored enough – is the concept of identity within the Tines which changes as older members die and are replaced.
On the whole though this is excellent; well-written, compelling, colourful gung-ho Space Opera.

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The Mind Pool – Charles Sheffield (1986)

The Mind Pool

The original version of this novel was The Nimrod Hunt, written as a tribute to Alfred Bester and attempting a Besterite style. This was revised and re-released with the title of ‘The Mind Pool’ as Sheffield was apparently not happy with the original ending.
Centuries from now, Man has moved out into space and formed alliances with a group of alien races. The aliens are all, it appears, mentally unable to accept the concept of killing sentient life and are both appalled and fascinated by Humanity’s casual attitude to killing even members of its own species.
A human scientist, Livia Morgan, under the command of Esro Mondrian, Head of Border Security, has been experimenting with sentient constructs to patrol the borders of Human space as a precaution against contact with hostile aliens.
The constructs turn on their master however and are destroyed, but not before one escapes through a Mattin Link (a matter transmitter essentially) to another part of Human space.
The alien council, having been notified, determine that teams, each one containing members of each alien race, be trained to hunt the construct.
The aliens have stipulated that the human elements must have no prior military training, which makes selection practically impossible unless one searches on the most lawless planet in space, which happens to be Earth.
Esro Mondrian has two other reasons for visiting Earth. One is to meet his lover, Lady Tatiana, a woman addicted to the Paradox drug. The other is revealed later in the novel.
Luther Brachis has a friendly but competitive work relationship with Esro, but employs devious means to achieve his ends, actions which set in motion a complex series of events.
There’s an awful lot going on in this novel which is a lot more complex – structurally and in terms of plot – than other Sheffield works. We have troubled and complex relationships, trips to other worlds, space station laboratories, the grotesques of the warrens of Earth and a set of aliens that are biologically fascinating, but imbued with cosy Simak-esque personalities. Indeed, there are elements of this that remind one of ‘The Werewolf Principle’ particularly when we encounter the Mind Pool phenomenon, whereby a mental gestalt is achieved.
We have three couples, all of whom have issues of one sort or another, the male halves being irrevocably changed by the end of the novel. Indeed, some characters undergo a form of role reversal.
We meet Chan Dalton, central figure of the sequel ‘The Spheres of Heaven’ as a physically perfect male but with the mental development of a small child. Since his childhood he has been looked after by Leah, who loves him. Mondrian, desperate for recruits, and having bought Leah and Dalton’s indenture without having realised Dalton’s deficiencies, decides to employ banned technology to try and stimulate Chan’s mind into growth.
By the end of the novel Chan is a mature intelligent individual while Brachis and Mondrian, for different reasons, have been left in a mentally vegetative state, now being cared for by their respective partners, as Leah once cared for Chan.
The Morgan Construct itself is almost immaterial to the story. It is a Maguffin around which this complex interplay of politics and relationships is wound.
It has its flaws. There’s a certain retro SF style to it, in keeping with Sheffield’s claim that the novel is an Alfred Bester tribute. This works well enough in all the locations barring Earth itself which is roughly sketched with little depth and containing characters that border on parody.
The Mind Pool element is introduced very late in the story and its genesis and method of operation is a little unclear, at least to me.
On balance though, it’s a great bit of space opera featuring a set of main characters with unusually complex motivations.


Galactic Pot Healer – Philip K Dick (1969)

Galactic Pot-Healer

Joe Fernwright is a pot healer – as was his his father before him – in a future totalitarian dystopia although his services are somewhat redundant since no one makes or breaks ceramics any more.
One day Joe gets a mysterious message offering him a job on Sirius V. The message turns out to be from an all powerful entity known as the Glimmung who is launching a project to raise a sunken cathedral from the ocean bed.
Being a Dick novel, things are not as straightforward as this synopsis would imply.
Fernwright is one of a large number of humans and alien experts in various fields who have been promised a fortune in payment to undertake work on the project. Many, however, are suspicious of the Glimmung’s ultimate objectives, especially as the experts all appear to have all been implicated in various crimes just prior to departure which they suspect were engineered by this being.
There are various Dick hallmarks here, such as the grasping ex-wife, the concept of Fatalism and a surprisingly overt use of humour where he is normally more subtle and understated. We have the world of the dead and the decaying beneath the ocean where at one point Joe meets his dead self.
There is also a religion which features the concepts of the duality of light and dark, something he had already explored, perhaps to better effect, in ‘The Cosmic Puppets’.
We are also in familiar territory with Dick’s lackadaisical attitude to technology and actual science since there is no attempt to explain how the ships that ferry the team to Sirius V operate or indeed the very idiosyncratic robots with whom they have to deal once they arrive. We have no problem as readers with the fact that Sirius V has Earth standard gravity and atmosphere. It didn’t matter to Dick, and for reasons I can’t fathom, doesn’t matter a jot to me either. He somehow always get away with it.
Much of the novel hinges on truth and trust. It becomes clear that the Glimmung is quite capable of lying, and Joe and his colleagues have to employ a a mixture of logic and intuition to determine the best course of action. Added to this is the book of the Kalends, a kind of prophetic bible which changes daily and seems to prophesy the future of the protagonists with uncanny accuracy (in English and various other languages, both human and alien).
Joe, on his dive into the ocean to see the cathedral – against the Glimmung’s express instructions – discovers an ancient vase half covered in coral but one which carries a personal message for him under the glaze. He notices that some of the coral has been removed, which implies that he was meant to see it, but did the Glimmung forbid Joe to go down to the sunken cathedral simply because he knew that Joe then would?
This is one example of a paranoid undercurrent that runs like a thread throughout this novel showing Joe and his companions forced to question the veracity of what they have been told or read. It’s a fascinating and particularly Dickian concept but like almost every other concept in this book is underdeveloped.
There’s something else very flawed about this novel, most essentially in its internal reality which produces an uneasy mixture of tone. There are the serious scenes, such as Joe being given a message by his dead decaying self, and those in which we have comical robots called Willis and clams that tell jokes. Maybe Dick considered that the contrast would make the serious scenes more powerful but it just doesn’t work. ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon‘ held the balance perfectly and despite its ludicrous premise – that Earth had set up a Mental Health facility on one of the moons of Alpha Centauri which was cut off and left to its own devices during the long years of the Alphane war – is a far more complex, structured and amusing work.
This is not a major Dick novel but it has its moments and needs to be studied by Dick enthusiasts if only to identify the PKD trademarks and how they are related to their use in other novels.


Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch #1) (2013)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)

Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.


Beholder’s Eye – Julie E Czerneda (1998)

Beholder's Eye (Web Shifters, #1)

‘THE WEB

United in their natural for they are one, sharing all their memories, experiences, and lives. Apart they are six, the only existing members of their ancient race, a species with the ability to assume any form once they understand its essence.
Their continued survival in a universe filled with races ready to destroy anyone perceived as different is based on the Rules.
And first among those Rules is: Never reveal your true nature to another being.
But when the youngest among them, Esen-ali-Quar, receives her first independent assignment to a world considered safe to explore, she stumbles into a trap no one could have anticipated. Her only means of escape lies in violating the First Rule. She reveals herself to a fellow captive – a human being. While this mistake might not ordinarily prove fatal, the timing of the vent could not be worse. For something new has finally made its way into this Universe, the Enemy of the Web, bringer of death to all forms of life. And the hunt is about to begin! ’

Blurb from the 1998 Daw paperback edition

It’s an excellent page-turner this, which races along from moon to ship to planet at a breakneck pace and is a tale of a shape-shifter, part of a gestalt organism, the only one of its kind in the galaxy, now forced to abandon the rules of her race and reveal the true nature of her species to a human male.
Interestingly, there are no male shapeshifters and this subtly colours the nature and motives of the individual members of the gestalt.
Despite it being well-written and compulsive reading it is flawed by Czerneda’s tendency to create ‘Star Trek’ aliens since the majority of them are humanoid and/or originate on Earth type planets.
We seldom get full descriptions of the alien races and so it is sometimes difficult to visualise what sort of alien our hero Esen has morphed into.
There are some interesting creations such as The Hive World society and the Ganthor, but even these are lessened by other societies such as the Kraosians and the Articans which are stereotypical Star Trek races.
The process of ‘cycling’ is beautifully thought through as is the concept of the ‘Web’ (as the gestalt calls itself) which considers itself to be a memory based depository for the races and cultures of the galaxy, many of whom have been wiped out (often by themselves).
Esen, although the youngest of the gestalt, is around five hundred years old, but is a child in terms of her own race. She is forced to grow up very quickly by both the fact of an Enemy who wishes to destroy all her kind and the discovery of a hidden truth regarding the nature of her own species, while all the time entering into a slowly deepening relationship with Paul Ragem, the human whose life she saves at the start of the novel.
Czerneda undoubtedly has a niche in the popular end of the SF market but is, I feel, capable of far better. This strikes me as competent but very safe novel and I look forward to reading Czerneda when she spreads her wings a little and enters more challenging territory.
It’s enjoyable. It’s not great literature. It asks no great questions and there are certainly no great answers but it is excellent escapism and leaves one wanting more, which is all one can really ask for.


New Writings in SF 6 – John Carnell (Ed) (1965)

New Writings in SF-6

Contents

The Inner Wheel by Keith Roberts;
Horizontal Man by William Spencer;
The Day Before Never by Robert Presslie;
The Hands by John Baxter;
The Seekers by E.C. Tubb;
Atrophy by Ernest Hill;
Advantage by John Rackham. (John T Phillifent)

The Inner Wheel – Keith Roberts

The best story of New Writings in SF 6 is Keith Roberts’ ‘The Inner Wheel’ which takes up nearly half the book. It’s a highly poetic and stylised piece, reminiscent of Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human’
A young man feels drawn to the town of Warwell, and once there, is struck by its sheer Stepford-esque banality, and the odd coincidences which are occurring, as if his desires are being granted by an unseen force.
When he meets a woman trying to escape from the town he becomes aware that he is a failed candidate, originally selected to become part of a gestalt, but the gestalt, (rather like Sturgeon’s) lacks a sense of guilt or conscience.

Horizontal Man – William Spencer

An immortal is locked into what is essentially a virtual reality machine and has explored and memorised all combinations of possible experiences to the extent that he is being driven insane by boredom. A bleak and rather dull exploration of the dangers of immortality and the nature of ennui.

The Day Before Never – Robert Presslie

Another bleak tale of Human Resistance and their fight against the Barbarians, aliens who have invaded Earth and massacred most of Humanity. It is well-written and atmospheric. An ambivalent ending allows one to read it as optimism or nihilistic fatalism.

The Hands – John Baxter

An excellent and enjoyable (if peculiar) little story, written sparsely and efficiently, which adds to its somewhat disturbing tone.
A group of astronauts returning from the planet Huxley (a brave new world indeed) disembark with additional limbs and organs sprouting from their bodies. It’s testament to the writer’s ability that this premise does not come over as at all ludicrous. The sense of alien-ness which emerges from the astronauts’ debriefing further adds to the surreality.
Despite its deceptive simplicity it hangs in the mind like a stubborn dream.

The Seekers – EC Tubb

Tubb’s view of Humanity is seldom a positive one. His Dumarest novels (despite their formulaic nature) inevitably shows Human society to be riddled with greed, corruption and violence.
In this story – very different in style from his 30-odd volume Space Saga – we see a group of men abroad a starship, having spent years in space. The Captain is dead and the crew have concentrated on their individual passions and obsessions, and have ceased to function as a team. Intalgo, an artist, struggles to create the right expression of the face of a crucified man, while the engineer minutely examines the workings of the ship. Delray spends his time in a VR environment, fighting.
When the discover an artefact on a barren planet, they land and become trapped by visions of what each of them truly desires.
Earlier in the story Intalgo remembers the Captain describing them as being ‘rats scuttling among the granary of the stars’.
Here is the trap.
The insignificance of Man is a theme we seem to have shied away from since the Sixties. Wells revelled in it. It’s high time it was revived.

Atrophy – Ernest Hill

An unmemorable tale about the concept of automation extrapolated to its logical conclusion. Inspired I suspect by Philip K Dick, it has, at the end of the day, nothing to say.

Advantage – John T Phillifent (as John Rackham)

An Army Major exploits the prescient talent of one of his soldiers to avert accidents whilst the Major is in charge of a construction project on a newly-discovered planet.
It’s an unexceptional piece which fails to exploit the basic premise (which is an interesting one) or the setting to maximum effect. The author missed the opportunity to pose the question of whether it was ethical to exploit one man’s freakish talent to his detriment in order to save the lives of perhaps hundreds of others.


Methuselah’s Children – Robert A Heinlein (1958)

Methuselah's Children

‘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.


The Puppet Masters – Robert A Heinlein (1951)

The Puppet Masters

Classic SF Noir displaying America’s paranoia in what has always been for me Heinlein’s best novel. It exemplifies all that is good about mainstream SF of the Nineteen Fifties and suffers only from minor political incorrectness in terms of male and female stereotyping, and the rather irritating remark made about gay men by the US President; ‘There have always been such unfortunates.’
But then, Heinlein is rather on the right wing of the SF stalwarts of the time, and this is a peculiarly masculine novel. We are told in the first few pages that the entrance to the secret headquarters of a government department so secret it doesn’t even have a name is situated in the men’s washroom on Macarthur Station. The women (for thankfully there is at least one female agent) no doubt use the other entrance situated in a shop called ‘Rare Stamps and Coins.’
Our hero, Sam Nivens, is a square-jawed All American type who would willingly die to preserve the liberty of America and whose laconic monologue tells the tale of the invasion of the Puppet Masters.
A rather decent TV movie of the book was made with Donald Sutherland in the role of ‘The Old Man’, the hard-nosed boss of the Department. Although surprisingly faithful to the text of the novel it suffered in that it was set in the present day. It should really have been made in black and white and visualised as a Nineteen Fifties view of America in 2007.
Heinlein’s aliens, a perfect metaphor for what America believed typified the evils of Communism, are a kind of gestalt entity; grey slugs which attach themselves to the backs of humans and take over the mind and body of their hosts. They are sexless, appear to have no individual personalities and exchange information by some form of physical transference when in direct contact with each other.
Just as in ‘The Body Snatchers’ (Jack Finney, 1955) the aliens ‘infect’ humans by stealth, reinforcing the idea of communism as a plague, contagious, insidious and more than anything else, invisible.
The hosts are literally enslaved by their masters (‘Master’ actually being a term which Sam uses to describe them). Heinlein takes these threats of loss of individuality, the natural fear of disease and the rather disturbing concept of slavery (which is as alive and well today in the guilty American consciousness as it was in Nineteen Fifty One) and winds them all together into a chilling tale of what is essentially a war of ideologies.
I imagine a writer of today would not make the story so one-sided. In a sense this novel says a lot about Heinlein. The book might well have been stronger if there had at least been some benefit, or purpose to the aliens’ invasion. As it is the aliens do not compel their hosts to wash or eat properly, and so are destroying the hand that feeds them, as in when it is discovered that the bubonic plague has returned to Communist Russia.
No system is truly evil. If Heinlein consciously meant these aliens to be metaphors for Communism then he should have made them less unknowable. The suggestion is that one shouldn’t even try to understand Communism. To attempt to know Communism is to be infected by it. The menace cannot be lived with. It has to be eradicated from our minds.
Of course, it’s difficult to understand, in a post USSR world, what level of paranoia existed in America at the time.
Certainly, whether consciously or not, a large number of SF films and novels of the time featured ordinary people being ‘possessed’ by aliens, often taking over an entire community, abandoning American culture and values and replacing it with something else.
Sam – who eats steak ‘just warmed through’ – needs to prove to a sceptical President that the aliens exist. His plan fails and when a live slug is eventually captured, Sam is ‘possessed’ and for a while we see the world of the ‘hag ridden’ through his submissive eyes. It is this experience which elevates Sam from a mere two-dimensional hero into something greater. A stereotype he may be, but in Nineteen Fifty One it is interesting to see an SF hero with fears, emotions and failings, and who even cries on occasions.
Of course, with the help of his partner – an efficient female agent with a taste for weaponry – the world is saved and Sam spearheads a military operation aimed at saving the elf-like denizens of Titan from the curse of the Puppet Masters. This suggests, one presumes, that even back in Nineteen Fifty One Americans felt they had a duty to right wrongs beyond their own borders.
The aliens themselves are beautifully thought out. An immortal gestalt entity which reproduces additional units of itself by binary fission and may which hold memories dating back to the dawn of its sapience.
At the end of the novel they remain enigmatic, and the question, raised in the opening paragraph of the book as to whether they are intelligent in any way we understand, is never answered.

See also Murray Leinster’s ‘The Brain-Stealers‘ (1954)


Redemption Ark – Alastair Reynolds (2002)

Redemption Ark (Revelation Space, #2)

‘Time: the early twenty-seventh century. Fifty years ago, human intervention triggered an ancient alien system designed to warn of the emergence of intelligence. For aeons the Inhibitors have waited.

Now the response is on its way…

Clavain defected to fight on the side of the Conjoiners, a feared and persecuted human faction dedicated to hive-mind consciousness. Four hundred years later, in the terminal stages of a brutal interplanetary war, something has struck terror into the Conjoiner Inner Sanctum. As the nature of the new threat becomes clear, Clavain begins to wonder if it isn’t time to defect again.

Clavain and a misfit band of allies race toward Resurgam, where a long-lost cache of Doomsday weapons has been discovered; he wants the weapons for the good of humanity. But someone else already controls the lost weapons: and Triumvir Volyova has very definite plans of her own.

And the weapons themselves are not exactly lacking in free will…’

Blurb from the 2002 Gollancz paperback edition.

Reynolds’ third novel – although linked to ‘Chasm City’ is a sequel to ‘Revelation Space’ and picks up on events long after the last novel ended.
The Inhibitors – ancient AIs whose sole purpose is to limit the spread of intelligent life in the galaxy – have awoken and are beginning to construct a device in the Resurgam system using Roc – the system’s gas giant – as raw material.
Meanwhile – in the same system – Triumvir Ilia Volyova is still in residence on ‘Nostalgia for Infinity’ whose captain has become fused with his ship due to the effects of the Melding Plague. The ship still carries a cache of mysterious ‘Hell Weapons’ which are revealed to be the property of The Conjoiners, a gestalt society of artificially conjoined minds.
Ilia and Ana Khouri plan to use ‘Nostalgia for Infinity’ as an ark to rescue as much of the population of Resurgam as possible before the Inhibitors destroy the planet.
The Conjoiners have, however, detected the signature of their weapons and want them back. They have also encountered the Inhibitors (who they call The Wolves) and are planning a mass exodus to an uncharted region of space.
The central figure is that of Clavain, an ancient Conjoiner and strategic genius. Discovering the Conjoiner plans, he defects and sets off for Resurgam to claim or destroy the weapons before Skade (a female Conjoiner who may or may not be ‘possessed’ by the consciousness of The Mademoiselle from ‘Revelation Space’) can claim them herself.
It suffers slightly from being a sequel and therefore does not have the self-contained structural integrity of the previous books. However it is a far superior novel to many written concurrently, a novel whose theme is Redemption.
In his previous books, Reynolds has explored concepts of Identity and Redemption and here once more we see characters, if not atoning for their past actions, then at least attempting to accept the fact that they are not now the people they once were.
There is also a masterful control of the concept of Time, since Reynolds not only accepts the effects of Time dilation (something which many SF authors choose to conveniently ignore), but exploits them beautifully, painting a picture of individuals who – in calendar terms – are hundreds of years old and have, by travelling between stars and experiencing time at a slower rate, seen cultures change and develop. This also imposes a bizarre timescale on this entire sequence of novels, which could possibly span hundreds if not thousands of years.


The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham (1957)

The Midwich Cuckoos

It is difficult to approach this novel with a fresh eye, since my perceptions of The Midwich Cuckoos are very much coloured by the George Sanders movie, ‘Village of The Damned’ which, although not a bad piece of work, didn’t really convey Wyndham’s vision, and gifted the children with the additional benefit of being able to read human minds, which was a handy conceit to make the cinematic denouement more dramatic.
A more recent version by John Carpenter was set in modern day California rather than in Wyndham’s Nineteen Fifties England but was not even up to the standard of the original British movie.
The narrator of the novel is one Richard Gayford who, on the fateful night when the novel begins, was out with his wife Janet celebrating his birthday and therefore not at home in the quiet village of Midwich where, at 10.17 pm everyone passes out.
The alarm is raised and it is soon discovered that a hemisphere, centred on the Midwich Church is in place within which any living thing is rendered unconscious.
This disappears the next day and – apart from some unfortunate fatalities due to hypothermia and a house fire, everyone recovers apparently unharmed and things go back to normal.
Some weeks later, an unease falls over Midwich and it becomes gradually apparent that all the women in the village capable of childbearing are inexplicably pregnant.
A friend of Gayford’s , Bernard Westcott, who is in Military Intelligence, becomes involved, since a Research Centre, headed by Gordon Zellaby, is also based at Midwich. It is initially suspected that the Dayout, as it comes to be known, may have been part of an espionage attempt. Westcott manages to arrange a Press blackout so that the village does not get deluged with nosey sightseers.
When the pregnancies finally reach fruition, there is an initial sigh of relief, since the babies seem perfectly normal, apart from their odd golden eyes.
However, as they mature, which they do unnaturally quickly, two things become apparent. The children can easily impose their will on human beings and, as Dr Zellaby discovered, although there are about sixty children, there are in fact only two individuals since the boys and girls comprise of a single gestalt consciousness each, divided across thirty or so bodies.
One must inevitably compare this with American novels of the Fifties, many of which featured the theme of ‘aliens among us’ and reflected the anti-communist paranoia of the government and public of the time, such as ‘The Body Snatchers’ or ‘The Puppet Masters’.
It would be useful to know how aware the author was of these works, and whether there was a conscious decision to create the British ‘aliens-among-us’ novel.
Wyndham takes great pains to set the scene, although the narrative is a little disjointed, told from the perspective of Gayford, who is writing the account in retrospect, having later interviewed others involved.
It must have been slightly shocking in Nineteen Fifty Seven to have an entire village pregnant by unnatural means with half of them unmarried. Wyndham deals with these issues remarkably well and, without proselytising, is very clear as to what reaction women in this position may face along with some of the terrible consequences. I always hoped that someone would make another movie, in black and white, set in the Fifties, since I had always though that Wyndham’s work is as much about British society of the time as it is about anything else. As is the usual case with Wyndham however, the middle-class professionals are the protagonists. The working classes are kept to the background and only brought in near the end as an obligatory ‘mob with torches’.
It’s a shame Wyndham didn’t take the opportunity to expand on some of the male villagers’ reactions to the event during the pregnancies and in the earlier sections since there would surely have been some visible masculine angst at the time. He does suggest that there was a brooding resentment among husbands and fathers but it is not really credible that it would take nine years for this to be expressed.
Structurally, again a typical Wyndham technique, the novel takes us to a point where the babies are raising suspicions of their power to will people to take actions, and then jumps ahead nine years where the children – who have been educated en-masse by Zellaby – look like eighteen year olds. There has been a human fatality, and some are suspicious that the children had something to do with it.
Again, Wyndham is exploring the Darwinian concept that man’s position at the top of the food chain is a precarious one. It is Zellaby’s view, for instance, that civilisation has weakened the species and that it would have been better for us if we had evolved alongside a more competitive species.
Wyndham is clear, however, that there can be no possibility of co-existence or, more to the point, of two species sharing a dominant position. This is his perennial theme and can also be seen in ‘The Day of The Triffids’ and ‘The Chrysalids’. Species survival becomes the overriding factor without any recourse to ethics or morality.
He perhaps missed a trick in not giving the children some redeeming features. We only see the children’s attitude to species other than human in their treatment of a bull who threatened them in their early years. If there had been some suggestion that the children would be better custodians of the Earth than humans it would have introduced an interesting moral ambiguity. As it is, the children are portrayed as emotionless, amoral creatures, as cold and dispassionate as Wells’ Martians.
Cleverly, it is not until very late into the novel that we hear any of the children speak. This produces an unsettling effect since the reader has become acquainted with the people surrounding the children, but the children themselves have been kept at a distance, which in turn emphasises their self-imposed remoteness.
Military Intelligence had previously confirmed that the USSR launched a missile at one of their own villages which itself suffered a Dayout event. Other ‘cuckoo’ events around the world resulted in the children being ‘disposed of’ shortly after they were born.
The children, aware that they are the only ‘cuckoos’ left in the world, reason that the USSR puts the state before the individual and therefore have no compunction in killing some of their own people to excise the invaders. The UK on the other hand would not countenance such a move. The proposal would have to be discussed, and liberal voices would be clamouring for the children to be given the right to live alongside us.
The government, Zellaby and the children all realise that if the children survive they will supplant humans as the dominant species. It is clear that they know that our weaknesses are our compassion and our inability to take effective action against them.
Wyndham very cleverly leads us to a point where the children have explained how our own liberal civilisation has boxed itself in and is powerless to defend the species as sections of society will inevitably lobby to protect the children’s right to exist.
Wyndham’s issues would therefore appear to be less metaphorical than his US counterparts. Certainly, there would be no worries over Communism on this side of the channel, although one could raise an argument for Wyndham making a point about the rise of youth culture in the Fifties, when many children were seen as alien by their parents.
It is perhaps immaterial since the main point is the need for mankind to address its complacence. The novel may in fact be more relevant today where many sections of society see their culture threatened by outside influences, be it the Right Wing Nationalists who feel their culture is being lost or the Muslim parents who fear their children being Westernised or radicalised, or the US Religious Right who see teachers and scientists destabilising the beliefs of their children. The genie in all these cases is, for good or bad, out of the bottle and gives Wyndham’s oddly prophetic, albeit slightly flawed, masterpiece a somewhat disturbing edge.
As David Bowie was to say some years later ‘Oh You Pretty Things… Don’t you know you’re driving your mommas and poppas insane?’