‘In his best selling novels Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, Reynolds portrays a noirish universe of five centuries hence, where warring human factions are stalked by even more vicious extraterrestrial predators; where the wider fringes of human culture are at least as strange as the real aliens.
And there are always those who are up for a challenge: like Richard Swift, the listless adventurer of Diamond Dogs. When an old friend offers Swift the chance to help him explore Blood Spire, an enigmatic structure surrounded by the bones of those who have already tied, Swift can’t say no. But if he wishes to understand it, he must pay Blood Spire’s toll…
And there are the heroes: those prepared to stand up for an idea, like Naqi, the young researcher in Turquoise Days. Naqi has dedicated her life to the study of the Pattern Jugglers, the amorphous aquatic organisms with the capacity to preserve and reshape human memory. When newcomers arrive around her world she hopes that she will at last be able to escape her past – but the past has other ideas…’
Blurb from the 2003 Gollancz paperback edition
This brings together two novellas set in Reynolds’ Industrial Gothic ‘Inhibitors’ Universe, both of which have titles inspired by popular music, something of a motif for Reynolds; the seminal Bowie album provides the title for the first piece while ‘Turquoise Days’ comes from an Echo & The Bunnymen lyric.
In ‘Diamond Dogs’ Rolande Childe – believed to have been one of the eighty victims of Dan Sylveste’s personality transfer experiments – turns out to be very much alive. He is recruiting a team to investigate an alien artefact on the barren world of Golgotha. The artefact is a towering structure, christened the Bloodspire. It consists of a series of rooms, and one has to solve a puzzle in order to gain entry to the next room in the sequence. Failure to provide the correct answer can have fatal results. As the team progresses, they discover that as the puzzles get more difficult, the doorways get smaller, forcing the aspirants to surgically alter their bodies and minds in order to progress.
‘Turquoise Days’ is set on one of the worlds of the Pattern Jugglers; enigmatic Solaris-like ocean-based entities which read the personalities of some of those who swim in their oceans, in some cases destroying their bodies in the process.
When a shipful of the cyborg Ultras arrive to exchange scientific data on the Jugglers, one of the local researchers discovers that they are really there to reclaim the consciousness of a ruthless dictator who was absorbed by the Jugglers decades before.
As possibly a tenuous link with the preceding title, one of the Ultras wishes to stop the tyrant being reborn and has brought with him an alien-designed virus, which will kill the ocean-dwelling intelligence. He claims it was found in the top room of an alien tower, but gives no other details.
Both tales deal in their own way with Reynolds’ favourite themes of identity and transformation, although ‘Diamond Dogs’ is by far the stronger and more powerful piece.
‘DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES
Humanity has endured centuries of horrific plague and a particularly brutal interstellar war: it’s time for a few decades of peace and quiet.
No such luck: for now there is a new threat. Stirred from aeons of sleep, the Inhibitors – ancient killing machines – have begun the process of ridding the galaxy of its latest emerging intelligence.
Fleeing the first wave of machines, a ragtag group of refugees headed by the war veteran Clavain waits anxiously for the next phase of the cull. But with Clavain sunk deep in despondency, the actual leadership falls to Scorpio, the product of a flawed experiment in genetic engineering. Though Scorpio has every reason to hate humanity, he believes he has put his grudges – along with his criminal past – behind him.
Then an unexpected new element enters the colony; an avenging angel, a girl born in ice, gifted with both the power to lead humanity to safety and the ability to draw down mankind’s darkest enemy.
On Hela, where vast travelling cathedrals circle the world in endless procession, the witnessing of a miraculous event has given birth to an apocalyptic new religion.
And as the cathedrals crawl towards the treacherous fissure known as Absolution Gap, a dark and unsettling truth becomes apparent: to beat one enemy it may be necessary to forge an alliance with something much, much worse…’
Blurb from the 2004 Gollancz paperback edition
The fourth in Reynolds’ impressive series of novels set in his Inhibitors’ Universe comes as something of an anticlimax. Whereas the first two novels were incredible tour-de-forces which – although connected by the background story of ancient Von Neumann sentient machines designed to inhibit the spread of starfaring intelligence – were beautifully structured stand alone novels, the subsequent titles began to seem like extensions of the first two.
‘Absolution Gap’ continues many years after the ‘Nostalgia For Infinity’ was used as an evacuation vehicle to ferry thousands of people away from Resurgam, which was about to be destroyed by the Inhibitors.
Clavain, Scorpio and the Resurgam refugees have settled on the planet Ararat, a water-world where the mysterious Pattern Jugglers live a very alien gestalt existence in the oceans, recording and occasionally rewriting the minds of sentient life-forms which enter the sea and sometimes unaccountably absorbing their entire bodies.
Their peace is shattered by the unexpected arrival of Anna Khouri, whose unborn child has been stolen by Skade – the conjoiner leader from ‘Redemption Ark’. The rescue of Aura – as the child is known – is only allowed by the dying Skade in return for the death of Clavain.
Religious symbolism is a major part of Reynolds’ palette, something rather heavy-handedly made obvious by the titles of his novels : ‘Revelation…’, ‘Redemption…’, ‘Absolution…’, but used within the text in sometimes quite unexpectedly subtle, colourful and creative ways.
Aura – the product of a strange union between Khouri and the machine intelligence archive, the Hades Artifact – is a saviour child, wise beyond her years, who advises the protagonists that they must go to Hela.
Hela is the moon of a gas giant, settled by the Quaichests, a population of virally induced religious adherents, led by Quaiche himself, whose arrival on Hela is told at the start of the novel.
Reynolds’ device of interpolating scenes set fifty or a hundred years apart does not really work since there is no real reference between the protagonists in each time-zone. No doubt the author’s aim was to obfuscate and conceal the fact that two of the characters in each timeline are in fact the same person, but the overall effect is disorienting and not handled well.
There is however a masterful sense of pace, and many chapters end with such teasing cliffhangers that one is forced to read on.
‘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.
Gene Wolfe’s baroque masterpiece continues with Severian still on his rambling journey across a far future Earth. Although this was recently republished under the Gollancz Fantasy masterworks imprint it does have to be noted that this is not Fantasy. It slips all too easily into the Science Fantasy label. The hero appears to inhabit a pseudo medieval world in some dark ages of the future and carries a sword called Terminus Est. At heart however it is solid Science Fiction. It’s disguised up to its plumed and gilded hilt but the clues are hidden among the rich descriptive passages.
Additionally, there are elements of Christian theology creeping into the narrative. At the start of the novel Severian encounters some old faces from his past. He is captured by Vodalus the rebel whose life Severian once saved. Vodalus persuades Severian to engage in a ritual (much like communion) whereby they consume the flesh of Tecla (imbued with an alien chemical ) which allows Severian to access some of her memories.
Agia, the twin of the man Severian executed in ‘The Torturer’s Apprentice’ after they tried to steal his sword, sends Severian a letter, purportedly from someone else, arranging to meet Severian in a place where he was likely to meet his death. Severian had previously been given an artefact, the basis of an old religion, called ‘The Claw of The Conciliator’ and the powers of the claw allowed him to escape. However, he also discovered the Claw can heal and later uses it to revive a friend slain in combat (resurrection).
Again at the conclusion Severian meets (and loses) some old friends as he heads toward the city of Thrax.
The narrative is peppered with arcane words which are not made up but are words from the English language either only rarely in current use or not at all, and which may be employed within the text in a context unrelated to their original definition. This helps to place the action within a certain baroque and decadent framework.
I confess I do not feel qualified to provide a review that does justice to this series, since I feel, firstly, that one needs to reread it several times to pick up on the hidden items and clues that Wolfe has slipped into the text.
However, just as a first reading, it is a marvellous experience, full of colour and adventure, peopled with a galimaufray of characters and narrated by Severian himself, who is surely one of the most complex characters to have emerged from Twentieth Century fiction.
‘Tanner Mirabel was a security specialist who never made a mistake… until the day a woman in his care was blown away during an attack by a vengeful young postmortal named Argent Reivich.
Tanner’s pursuit of Reivich takes him away from his homeworld, across light-years of space, to the Epsilon Eridani system. There he descends into Chasm City, the domed human settlement on the otherwise inhospitable planet Yellowstone. But Chasm City isn’t what it used to be: the one high-tech Utopia has become a dark, Gothic nightmare, victim of a nanotechnological virus which has corrupted the city’s inhabitants as thoroughly as it has the buildings.
Now the city is a place of steam-driven machines, shadowy factions and deadly new games.
And before the chase is done, tanner will have to confront disturbing truths, not only about his own past, but about Chasm City itself: truths which reach back centuries, towards deep space and an atrocity history barely remembers.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz paperback edition.
‘Chasm City’ is set long after the events in ‘Revelation Space’ and begins with mercenary Tanner Mirabel, engaged in a manhunt for Argent Reivich, the killer of his lover, Gitta, who was herself killed as an act of revenge for the death of Reivich’s family.
Tanner, trapped on a sabotaged space-elevator, manages to escape, but is injured and wakes up in a space-habitat run by Ice-Mendicants, a religious order who tend to those newly resuscitated from the frozen sleep in which travellers are transported between stars.
Much is told in flashback in this multiple first-person narrative novel, although oddly, some of Tanner’s memories are not his own.
They were, he believes, transmitted to him via a virus disseminated by a religious cult who worship Sky Haussmann, one of the founders of their planetary culture, and whose episodic life of madness, mass murder and manipulation is being transmitted to Tanner in his dreams.
Tanner’s real past is also seen in parallel with the virus dreams as he follows his nemesis to the twisted and hazardous Chasm City on Yellowstone.
However, all is not what it seems as the reader gradually becomes aware, being time and again surprised and enthralled by unexpected revelations and inventive wonders.
The theme of the novel is redemption and Reynolds manages to examine the concept via a convoluted and complex story of pursuit, revenge and counter-revenge, while examining the very nature of Self and Identity.
How long, it is asked, does someone who has committed an evil act have to live before their philanthropic actions atone for their past transgressions? Can one really be held accountable for crimes if one’s personality and memories are over-written or suppressed by the memories of someone else entirely?
It’s not a new idea of course. It was, for instance, the central premise of an episode of Babylon 5 in which a serial killer had his memories replaced and was invested with a new identity as a member of a religious order, a kind of psychological community service if you like. Reynolds, however, by setting up a dual timeline structure in which double sets of memories begin to increasingly disturb the narrator, creates a brilliant interweaving narrative which culminates in a thrilling showdown.
It’s good to see an author thinking seriously about the ethnic composition of future society. Where authors such as Heinlein and, more recently, Jack McDevitt envisage a galaxy populated by white Americans, Reynolds provides a thoughtful and intelligent extrapolation.
The populations of the ships of Haussmann’s flotilla speak a future variation of Portuguese and (at least in the case of The Santiago) have Hispanic names with notable exceptions such as Schuyler and Titus Haussmann.
It has elements of Shakespearean tragedy in that ‘The Man Who Kills The One He Loves’, by doing so, triggers an inevitable series of events which culminate in revelation, redemption and transformation.
It suffers only perhaps from a surfeit of characters, some of whom seemed far too thinly drawn – such as Chanterelle the Huntress and Sister Amelia, the Ice Mendicant – and some forced dialogue here and there, but these are small quibbles.
I don’t know if Reynolds means it as a homage but there are references in the text here and there to music of the Nineteen Seventies. The ring of space habitats which surrounds Yellowstone is (or was) called The Glitter Band. There is a also a gas-giant called Tangerine Dream and a later book which comprises of two novellas set in the same Universe is called ‘Diamond Dogs/Turquoise Days’
Cleverly, the slowly emerging revelation that Tanner is actually Tanner’s employer, Cahuella – rebuilt by the masters of augmentation, the Ultras – forces the reader to reassess Mirabel’s character and indeed Cahuella’s, since what we learn of Tanner from the outset is actually Cahuella working through Tanner’s persona. We are led to suspect that Tanner might actually be Sky Haussmann, but the final explanation of the full sequence of events is both ingenious and surprising.
The theme of identity seems to be a common thread in Reynolds’ work since in Revelation Space one of the revelations that the protagonist had to come to terms with was that he was not his father’s son but his clone; added to which was the nightmarish concept of the digitised father blackmailing his son into allowing him occasional possession of his mind.
Despite its deceptively slow start, Chasm City is an impressive achievement and leaves one pondering rather deep philosophical issues. Not many SF writers attempt such a thing, and few who do succeed so demonstrably.
‘Something is stirring in London’s dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul’s father, and left Saul to pay for the crime.
But a shadow from the urban waste breaks into his prison cell and leads him to freedom. A shadow called King Rat.
In the night-land behind London’s façade, in sewers and slums and rotting dead spaces, Saul must learn his true nature.
Grotesque murders rock the city like a curse. Mysterious forces prepare for a showdown. With Drum and Bass pounding the backstreets, Saul confronts his bizarre inheritance – in the badlands of South London, in the heart of darkness, ant the gathering of the Junglist Massive.
Like the DJ says: ‘Time for the Badman’.’
Defying a strict genre classification Mieville’s debut novel is a bold and evocative work which stamps him immediately as an important force in the SF/Fantasy/Horror genres.
It’s a deeply poetic piece, rich with metaphor, set in a London familiar yet oddly twisted through Mieville’s dark lens’
The trains that enter London arrive like ships sailing across the roofs. They pass between towers jutting into the sky like long-necked sea beasts and the great gas-cylinders wallowing in dirty scrub like whales. In the depths below are lines of small shops and obscure franchises, cafes with peeling paint and businesses tucked into the arches over which the trains pass.p7
Saul returns home to his communist father’s tower block flat. Not wishing to confront the oddly-strained relationship he has with him he goes straight to bed, only to be awoken by police who have found his father’s body lying beneath the smashed living-room window. Saul is arrested, but is rescued from his cell by the shadowy and fantastic King Rat, who awakens the dark side of Saul’s nature, for Saul is half-rat and part of the Rat Royal Family.
In terms of plot structure it initially follows the standard format. The hero (Saul) is first established in his own personal environment before being forced (by the murder of his father and subsequent arrest) onto a ‘quest’. His mentor (King Rat) engages him to kill the Ratcatcher and restore King Rat to his mastery over the Rat Nation.
The Ratcatcher – as astute readers might have guessed – was once known as The Pied Piper of Hamelin, where King Rat was powerless to stop the drowning and thus lost the faith of the rats.
Now the Ratcatcher is out to catch Saul and has begun to inveigle his way into Saul’s circle of friends.
It’s a post-modern mix of Fairytale and Jungle music which works well but not brilliantly. In ‘Perdido Street Station’ the language and poetry is consistently rich and powerful where here it is intermittent.
The contemporary idioms and musical styles sit uneasily with the rich prose and metaphor with which Mieville creates his own peculiar London.
Having said that, the characters and settings are convincing and the Piper’s acts of dispassionate violence are chillingly rendered. The denouement is exciting, page-turning compulsion, if somewhat rushed.
In a somewhat amusing epilogue (bearing in mind that Mieville once stood as Socialist Alliance candidate for North Kensington) Saul – as a belated tribute to his socialist father – convinces the rats to form The Rat Republic after he abdicates his post as reluctant King.
If nothing else, King Rat works as both a fantasy novel and a portrait of late-Nineties London and the almost religious regard in which disaffected youth hold their music; in this case Jungle.
A poetic if depressing view of our social evolution in the Twentieth century.
After an automobile accident the victim – a director of TV commercials – finds himself increasingly drawn to Dr Robert Vaughan, a man who calls himself a TV scientist, who haunts the sites of accidents like a vulture, taking photographs and making films of the aftermath and the wreckage.
The narrator, who appears to be Ballard himself, becomes gradually aware of the erotic charge held by the twisted wrecks of cars, where he feels he can sense connections between the shapes and angles of wreckage, the impacts themselves and the act of sexual congress.
The novel builds to its natural conclusion which is a collision, both literal and metaphorical, between the two characters.
Ballard’s incredible descriptive powers turn this, quite shocking in places, novel into a sort of poetic odyssey.
The narrator, already immersed in the illusory world of the media, his wife, Vaughan, and the wife of the dead victim of Ballard’s accident, drive through a world of tubular steel, films, photographs, modernist buildings, airports, motorways, cars and sex. As Ballard is drawn more and more under Vaughan’s influence he become hooked on the temptations offered by technology which is opening up a whole new language of sex, pornography and death.
Collisions and impacts are not merely a metaphor sexual climax, they become the sexual climax.
Death is the ultimate climax and Vaughan plans to die in a car accident with Elizabeth Taylor as the culmination (the climax) of his life’s work.
I found the idea of dedication one’s life to planning one’s death quite appealing. Vaughan’s concepts – he is a kind of Nineteen Seventies performance artist – are pretty revolutionary. He seems to think of his life as a work in progress, bound within the parameters of car wrecks and sexual gratification.
The car is seen here in various symbolic ways. As penile extension, the extension of the entire body, the status symbol, the exoskeleton…
The book seems to be written through an artist’s eyes. Much is made of the ‘geometries’ of this or that, and the relationship between shapes and spaces with regard to twisted cars or human bodies. But then, it’s also as if Ballard is attempting to create a new language to define the world into which Vaughan and his narrator have evolved.
At the end of the day it all conforms to a twisted kind of logic, but I’m not sure I can explain why.
‘For Hundreds of years the Argonos, home to generations of humans, has trawled the galaxy searching for other signs of life. Now, a steady unidentified transmission has lured the ship to a remote planet.
On the surface the crew find evidence of a colony – but no inhabitants. Until they discover a trail deep into the planet’s steamy jungles, and their terrifying fate is revealed to them.
But this is only the first message.’
Blurb from the 2003 Orbit paperback edition
This is the novel that the movie ‘Event Horizon’ should have been, set in a surreal dystopian Universe which is huge, hostile and not a little scary.
The Argonos has been cruising space for untold generations, ostensibly on a mission to reacquaint lost human colonies (and new alien civilisations) with Christianity (forcibly if necessary). The ship has a cathedral, complete with stained glass windows set into the hull, the details of which can only be seen when one goes outside the ship in a suit.
Rigid class structures have evolved and society is divided between the privileged and the downsiders who exist and work in the bowels of the ship.
Bartolomeo – the central figure – is adviser and childhood friend of the current Captain, Nikos. Bartolomeo was born with malformed limbs; in particular severely stunted arms and a club foot. He exists inside an exoskeletal suit and an important aspect of the novel, if not the most important aspect of the novel, is his relationships with a variety of other characters.
The Argonos discovers a life-bearing planet which Bishop Soldano – (political rival of Nikos and Bartolomeo) christens Antioch; a planet from which a signal is being broadcast.
Bartolomeo and his landing team however, discover nothing but evidence of mass murder and torture. Despite this, Bartolomeo is encouraged by his dwarf friend Par, to become involved in a scheme to organise a mass exodus of the disaffected who wish to leave the ship and settle on Antioch.
The conspiracy is discovered and prevented, after which Bartolomeo is incarcerated for months
The Captain is then forced to release him when a vast alien ship is discovered seemingly abandoned in the Antioch system. The ship appears to be empty, but is filled with elaborate traps for the unwary.
A woman is discovered on board – seemingly borderline insane – and is brought back to the Argonos, following which Bartolomeo discovers her to be not human. By this time the Argonos has docked with the alien ship, intending to tow it to a civilised world and have it studied.
The ship refuses to be unclamped and most of the occupants of the Argonos escape to Antioch while Captain Nikos drags the alien ship on a suicide jump into hyperspace.
One of the interesting stylistic points of this novel is that many questions are left unanswered. The aliens are truly enigmatic and are made all the more frightening by the fact that we never get to meet them, only getting a glimpse of them from Sarah, the woman found aboard the alien ship.
When ‘Sarah’ is discovered in a sealed compartment she has the initials S.C. tattooed on her arm and a photograph is found of a younger and older woman, both of whom resemble Sarah, but whether the original Sarah (if there ever was one) is the mother or daughter we never discover.
Many of Bartolomeo’s questions are never answered either, since he seems to be a man on a quest for Truth, Love, Answers and Friendship, many of which are in short supply. The one woman he is in love with – Father Veronica – is a Catholic Priest, and she is killed because of his opposition to the plans of Bishop Soldano.
His parents abandoned him as a child and so he has no family to form close relationships with. His relationships with Nikos and Par are also suspect in his own mind since they are inevitably entwined with the political machinations of both.
Bartolomeo is also a man who makes mistakes, a refreshing change for a genre hero. His decision to help Par with the mutiny ends disastrously, and later, he has to admit that Bishop Soldano, the man responsible for Father Veronica’s death, was right about the ship; the Bishop having maintained that the ship was evil and should be left alone.
Nevertheless, this makes for a fascinating characterisation, and one cannot help but like Bartolomeo and put oneself in his place in the decisions he has to make.
One might argue that Bartolomeo is being tested, as the hapless explorers of the alien ship are being tested.
Comparisons have to be made with Alastair Reynolds (in the industrial gothic elements) and Stanislaw Lem (particularly with regard to Solaris, since the vast ship is so Lem-like in its sheer unknowable alien-ness) and David Lynch (simply because of the sheer weirdness and the unanswered questions) but the style is a very individual one. Not many authors would be so brave as to throw in so many mysteries which are never solved: What was the Bishop doing at the start of the novel, supervising a gang of men who were linking two pieces of vast machinery?
What is the significance of the wooden box found in the alien ship? Why is a Cathedral at the heart of the ship and why can one only see its stained glass designs from space?
However, these sideline mysteries add a refreshing touch of verisimilitude to a novel which is a very worthy winner of the Philip K Dick Award.
This is ‘Alien’ for the David Lynch Generation. Russo is forcing us to look for explanations where there are none, just like Bartolomeo and the explorers of the alien ship; perhaps like the Bishop and the Captain who has no answer as to why his wife chooses to abandon him to his fate.
It is a book which will hide out in your mind for years to come.
Apart from the Perry Rhodan series, this may well qualify as the longest literary Space Opera of the Twentieth Century, at once both generally unrecognised and under-rated, it comprises of some 31 volumes published at roughly six-monthly intervals between 1967 and 1985, with a further two volumes published in 1997 and 2008.
Dumarest is a seasoned fighter with lightning responses, working his passage around a galaxy of thousands of planets, attempting to return to the planet he ran away from as a child: Earth. Earth however, so everyone believes, is a myth, but Dumarest picks up clues on his long journey, along with a secret which could put the Cyclan – a ruthless semi-religious brotherhood of scarlet-robed human computers who have had all their emotions suppressed in order to maximise the efficiency of their minds – in complete control of the Galaxy.
The environments and societies are unremittingly bleak, controlled by exploitative corporate or feudal regimes, well-realised if a little romantic in style. The books are episodic and tend to become repetitive. Dumarest, for instance, is inevitably romantically pursued by unfeasibly beautiful women (and on at least one occasion by a man) while being pursued for quite different reasons by the agents of the Cyclan, who are more often than not despatched efficiently at the end of each book by our hero. Thus, Dumarest is driven on, both by the object of his search, and the pursuit by his enemies.
Frustratingly, the saga was not concluded until 2008 with the final volume ‘Child of Earth’ not long before Tubb’s death in 2010. It would make a good TV series. Certainly I always had a soft spot for the agents of the Cyclan who not only make excellent and dangerous adversaries but have fabulous scarlet robes.
The Cyclan are dedicated to statistics, facts, analysis, deduction and prediction, pure logical reasoning in fact (as in the Mentats of Herbert’s ‘Dune’ series which is how they are often able to deduce Dumarest’s most probable location. They are the wicked Sherlock Holmes’s of Space, the Evil Accountants of Satan, implanted with cybernetic links which, when they place themselves in deep trance, put them in communion with the rulers of the Brotherhood; a gestalt of disembodied brains from retired Cyclan agents, hidden deep below ground on a secret planet. It doesn’t take the powers of the Cyclan to deduce fairly early on in the series that the secret home-world of the Cyclan is Earth.
‘The Winds of Gath’ introduces us to Dumarest, a born fighter, travelling from planet to planet, eking out a living and the money to pay for the next passage, all the time searching for clues as to the location of the planet of his birth; lost mythical Earth.
While travelling frozen, his starship is commandeered by the Matriarch of Kund and her entourage, who charter the ship to take them to Gath.
Gath, like Mercury, does not revolve on its axis and possesses only the ribbon-like strip of habitable land between the sun-scorched side and the dark frozen side.
At the time of the famous storms, a geological formation in the mountains causes the wind to produce sounds which register on the human brain as the voices of the dead.
The Matriarch has employed the services of The Cyclan, and Dumarest gets himself unwillingly involved in the politics between the Matriarch and a sadistic spoiled prince of another planetary dynasty, just as everyone is joining the journey to the mountains to experience the voices of the storm.
Despite the gothic overtones and the interstellar feudal dynasties, religious brotherhoods and Tubb’s unrelenting depictions of man’s inhumanity to man, it is surprisingly up-beat, well-written and far superior to much of the episodic TV we have today.
Like Herbert, Tubb balances the almost medieval feudal with the futuristic. The monarchies and dynastic class structures, combined with the monks’ robes of the ideologically opposed brotherhoods, conspire to create a somewhat industrial gothic atmosphere.
Severian is an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers who have plied their trade from the Matichin Tower for centuries. While out swimming with other young torturers Severian nearly drowns and causes the boys to be late back. Having made their way through the locked gates into the Necropolis they are separated and, in the almost pitch black, Severian witnesses a scene involving the revolutionary Vodalus and helps him escape, for which Vodalus gives him a golden coin. This sets Severian on a destiny which is is not yet clear. The narrative is written by a much older Severian who gives very little clue as to what situation he ends up in.
Having given a knife to one of the female ‘clients’ as the torturers call their prisoners, who subsequently killed herself, Severian is given a broadsword ‘Terminus Est’ and as punishment for his crime, sent off to a post in the distant City of Thrax.
Comparisons have to be made with Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ from some thirty years prior, with his premise of decadent human civilisation on an Earth impossibly far in the future, orbiting a sun that was about to die.
Like Vance and the other proponents of Science Fantasy, Wolfe has employed some of the trappings of Fantasy but with a scientific or social rationale. David Pringle, in The Hundred Greatest SF Novels goes to great lengths to emphasise that this is Science Fiction, and SF of the highest calibre, despite the four novels of this tale being reprinted under the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks label.
In the best tradition of the classic quest tale, Severian is sent out of his normal environment and into a world filled with mystery and danger. He meets several odd characters along the way and makes both friends and enemies.
Wolfe has been very clever in his use of language since he employs archaic terms, or at least archaic-sounding terms since one is never entirely sure whether some of the words are real or invented, although I am subsequently informed that all the words are bona fide dictionary entries, although one presumes a larger dictionary than necessary would be required.
Titles such as ‘Portreeve’ or ‘Carnifex’, especially if employed in a tale with an almost medieval class structure – immediately puts the reader in a particular frame of mind.
One is given the impression that Humanity, having spread its genes to the stars has now devolved into a decaying decadent state where all important events have already happened. This entropic concept is also one of the themes of M John Harrison’s ‘Viriconium’ sequence where Humanity is feeding culturally on its own past, a thoroughly post-modern concept for a post-modern era.
There is also a direct route through stylistically from Clark Ashton Smith to Jack Vance to Moorcock and M John Harrison and Wolfe and on to some of today’s newer writers, McCarthy and John C Wright, who have added a hard science edge to the gothic SF style.
The next volume is ‘The Claw of The Conciliator’