‘TWO WORLDS IN CONFLICT
Azrael – Where pain was the only reality, and murder was not a crime but a ritual
Ipewell – Where motherhood was honored and manhood meant a life of servitude and fear.
These two worlds were at the heart of a taut and dangerous situation which threatened to explode, and Jorgen Thorkild, director of the Bridge System that connected forty worlds among the stars had to try to tame them.
But Thorkild faced still another problem: the loss of his own sanity…’
Blurb from the 1964 Ace Double F-299 paperback edition
Earth is slowly reuniting herself with her lost colonies on worlds settled centuries before The Bridge which is essentially a wormhole gateway to the rediscovered worlds.
the latest worlds to be discovered are Azrael and Ipewell. Ipewell is a matriarchal society where men are treated as an inferior species. Azrael is a darker society where the inhabitants court death as a regular ritual in order to remind themselves of the reality of their own mortality.
Before the worlds can be opened up to this galactic community their society has to be analysed and assessed by a ‘programmer’, one who can accurately map the factors within an alien human society, determine what ‘makes them tick’ and how they can be prepared for integration into this Galactic civilisation of almost forty worlds.
In this decidedly van-Vogtian piece programmers are, it is suggested, an evolutionary advance. They are van Vogt’s logical pacifist hero. On Azrael, the last programmer made a fatal error and engaged in a ritual which ended in his death. His successor must use all his Programme training to find a way to analyse and undermine the Azrael philosophy before they can be admitted to the Bridge system.
Jorgen Thorkild, upon meeting the formidable leader of the Azraelis has a nervous breakdown and has to be relieved of his post. He is also plagued by the suicide of his predecessor.
Much of it is about people whose world-views are dramatically altered, most of them painfully but to their own benefit.
It’s an odd piece which perhaps has concepts which could not be properly explored within the word-count constraints of an Ace Double.
It was revised in 1982 as ‘Manshape’.
This is Hamilton’s sixth ‘Commonwealth’ novel. The series began with the wonderful two-part classic depicting the events of the Starflyer War, ‘Pandora’s Star’ and ‘Judas Unchained’.
The Void Trilogy, which picks up some years after the Starflyer books, followed. Now we have a new two-parter set just before the events of the Void trilogy and again (my heart sank a little when I first realised this) following another planet trapped within the Void.
Before I go any further one should realise from my previous reviews that I am a big fan of Peter F Hamilton. Not only has he helped to revitalise the British SF scene and spearheaded the New Space Opera movement, revival, or whatever one chooses to call it, he has revived my own faith in SF and given me back that ‘sense of wonder’ when I first read ‘The Reality Dysfunction’ back in the late 90s.
In retrospect I think his Magnum Opus was the Starflyer War duo; a magnificent and densely written epic which (as is Hamilton’s style) combined a huge cast of characters with multiple storylines, beautifully detailed societies, edge of the seat action, strange alien mysteries, conspiracies, terrorists, artificial intelligences etc. etc.
Then came the Void trilogy, the premise of which being that for at least a million years the Raiel have been watching an anomaly called The Void which threatens to eventually engulf the galaxy. In essence, it a separate universe with its own laws of physics. Intelligent life has been captured and taken inside where there are stars and planets. Technology does not work there but humans are telepathic and telekinetic.
I had a problem with the Void trilogy in that the Commonwealth sections featured the Hamilton I was used to, with complex politics, human immortals, and all the features from the Starflyer books. The sections set on the Void planet of Querencia, however, are achingly deadly dull; a mind-numbing bit of pre-industrial Romanticism where a lowborn hero rises to take on the corrupt rich oppressors. I have promised myself that if I ever read the Void trilogy again I will simply skip past Inigo’s telekinetic Catherine Cookson dreams and keep to the Commonwealth sections. If you haven’t read the Void trilogy I would suggest you do the same. You miss nothing. Trust me.
And here we have a new two-part Commonwealth adventure, the first part of which is very promising until we return to the Void, to another pre-industrial world where strangely enough a lowborn hero, Slvasta, rises to take on the corrupt rich oppressors. It’s all sounding a bit familiar.
Regular readers will also recall that in the Nights Dawn trilogy humans were forcibly possessed by souls escaping from another continuum and became immensely stronger with odd new powers.
Here, humans get absorbed by alien eggs and are reborn… immensely stronger with odd new powers. It’s all sounding a bit familiar. (There are alien technobiological artefacts in space which grow eggs and seed them on the planet. The possessed/cloned humans are called ‘Fallers’)
Much like Querencia, this new world of Bienvenido is far too entrenched in a class war battle. All the rich people, it appears, are uniformly evil and corrupt. The eldest son of The Captain (a hereditary title from when the ship first landed) being the First Officer has to be wickeder than everyone else and is a sociopathic serial rapist torturer and murderer.
Yes. Rich people with no technology are always evil.
Having said that, the narrative receives a boost about halfway through the book when Nigel Sheldon (or a clone thereof) appears – having been injected into the Void by the Raiel in a largely organic ship.
From here on the story fairly cannons along with Nigel pulling strings in the background to help kickstart a revolution, while planning to steal technology from the original ship to enable him to destabilise the Void and hopefully destroy it.
We know from the Void trilogy that the issue of the Void was dealt with by others, so it is clear that Nigel’s plan to destroy the Void does not succeed.
However, the Void does expel the planet, its sun and some attendant worlds into intergalactic space, along with the ‘Faller’ forest of egg-producing artefacts.
The denouement leaves us with Bienvenido entering an Industrial revolution, still facing the ongoing threat of Faller eggs on their world.
Another minor grouch here is that most Hamilton novels weigh in at about 1200 pages while this is around 640. This and the sequel should really have comprised of one book then, surely? Given that this is about twice the size of an average novel anyway maybe that is a little churlish, but it kind of adds insult to injury seeing as the first half of this book was merely a reworking of old ideas and really not that exciting.
Hopefully, now that we’re rid of the flaming Void and its planets of Hallmark Channel Costume Drama, Hamilton might get his mojo back and do what he does best.
I really really really hope so.
‘When Captain Sir Dominic Flandry heard about Unan Besar, he thought carefully about the possibilities the planet might offer. It had been a Terran settlement, but in the vast confusion of galactic colonization, it had been lost in the shuffle.
Lost? Well, perhaps not so much lost as kidnaped. For a civilization can develop in strange ways over three hundred years – and it looked as if this one had deliberately withdrawn from the rest of the universe.
It was the kind of situation that Flandry liked. And because he knew there was profit in intrigue, he decided to invade the planet – alone. But as soon as he had landed he found himself playing a game for his very life – with all the rules made by his world-wide opponents!’
Blurb from the 1960 D-479 Ace Doubles paperback edition
Serialised in Fantastic Stories (December 1960, January 1961) under the title “A Plague of Masters.”
Captain Dominic Flandry has paid an unofficial visit to the planet of Unan Besar, a world which has been cut off the mainstream of human civilisation for centuries. Flandry hopes to profit from reintroducing trade to the world, although it would appear that the rulers are not keen to allow visitors.
To keep humans from dying from local biotoxins in the atmosphere, all the residents must take a pill every month. The issue of pills of strictly regulated and they are not issued until the recipient provides a bioscan.
Biocontrol has therefore risen to become the government of this world, as they control the source of life for the world’s population.
Under the premise of diplomatic security, Biocontrol have confined Flandry and plan to scan his mind for information about the outside galaxy.
Flandry escapes however and manages to team up with members of the local criminal underworld in order to devise a plan for a world-wide (and profitable) revolution. Refreshingly, Anderson does not fill his world with Americocentric stereotypes. This world appears to have been peopled by Indonesians.
This is a late story in Anderson’s tales of Dominic Flandry. Flandry is a semi-autonomous agent of the Terran Empire, an Empire in its decadent final stages and doomed to collapse. He has been compared to a James Bond of the spaceways since his every adventure seems to see him involved with a new love interest (in this case Liang, a wily female criminal) whom he abandons at the finale.
Formulaic though the tales may be, they are very well written and laced with a certain wit and panache. This raises this piece above the general level of Ace Doubles.
I confess to being a tad ambivalent about Baxter’s work which confuses me a little. They are eminently readable and my limited knowledge of Science gives me no reason to question any of the Chemistry or Physics upon which Baxter has based this novel.
This is the third in the Xeelee sequence, a loosely connected set of novels in which Humanity is an inferior race in a vast universe. The Xeelee, godlike beings far older than Man, are building an inconceivably huge artefact – a ring – through which they may be planning to leave for another universe in order to escape an as yet unexplained foe.
Baxter’s novels are generally set against this background focusing on the lives of humans in various circumstances. This adds a sense of scale of time and space, emphasising the contrast between the depths of space, the timescales of alien projects and the small lives of individual humans.
The irony in this instance is that the human factor is particularly tiny since the adapted humans are living within the mantle of a neutron star and are fractions of a millimetre tall.
One could argue that Baxter has here created the novel concept of a pocket universe within a pocket universe.
The novel begins with a tribe of humans living in primitive conditions along the Maglines between ‘The Crust’ and ‘The Quantum Sea’. The star appears to be becoming unstable however and fluctuations in the magnetic field create the same results as an earthquake, tearing the community apart and forcing some of them up into the strange forest that grows down from the crust. Most of the tribe have no knowledge of what lies beyond their own territorial boundaries, although their oral history tells of their creation by Ur-humans from another world.
They are able to ‘wave’ through the air, guided and attracted by the vortex lines of the star’s magnetic field. Above is The Crust, covered by a forest of trees, and below is the Quantum Sea.
An old man, Adda, is injured hunting, but he and his companions are rescued and taken to the city of Parz at the star’s pole.
In this second, larger, pocket universe, the citizens have retained some knowledge of their forebears but have no real idea why they were placed there, although it is revealed that another community of humans, far more severely augmented, are living within the core of the star.
The fluctuations begin to threaten the city and when a Xeelee ship is seen firing into the star it becomes clear they must try and contact the ‘Colonists’ at the core, who may have technology to avert the Xeelee threat.
My ambivalence stems from the fact that I read this novel several years ago and have no recollection of it whatsoever. Therein lies the issue. Despite the fact that this is an exciting premise, the scientific basis is impeccable and the novel is a decent read with a good denouement, there is a lack of tension and excitement. Like some other works of Baxter it is slightly… dull.
Part of this is the characterisation. The main characters might well have stepped straight out of your average British town. They are generally well-meaning and polite and lack any psychological light and shade. Adda’s tribe have been living in isolation for ten generations and yet seem to slot into the civilised city of Parz without any major problems.
The overall concept, written prior to 9/11, is that the augmented humans are being used to drive the neutron star into the Xeelee Ring mechanism in an effort to damage it, making them (unwitting ultimately) suicide bombers.
Baxter could have made far more of the rationale and morality of this as it no doubt reflects the nature of what Humanity has become.
For me, and Baxter no doubt has an army of fans to leap to his defence, it is a flawed novel which could have been far better given a serious rewrite.
‘On the primitive Out-Polity world of Cull, a latter-day knight errant called Anderson is hunting a dragon.
He little knows that, far away, another man – though now more technology than human flesh – has resurrected a brass killing machine called ‘Mr Crane’ to assist in a similar hunt, but one that encompasses star systems. When agentt Cormac realizes that this old enemy still lives, he sets out in pursuit aboard the attack ship Jack Ketch.
For the inhabitants of Cull, each day proves a struggle to survive on a planet roamed by ferocious insectile monsters, but the humans persevere in slowly building an industrial base that may enable them to reach their forefathers’ starship, still orbiting far above them.
They are assisted by an entity calling itself Dragon, but its motives are questionable, having created genetic by-blows out of humans and the hideous local monsters. To make things even worse, the planet itself, for millennia geologically inactive, is increasingly suffering from earthquakes…
Meanwhile, Mr Crane himself doggedly seeks to escape a violent past that he can neither forget nor truly remember. So he continues mindlessly in his search for sanity, which he may discover in the next instant or not for a thousand years…’
Blurb from the 2006 Tor paperback edition
Following on from the events in ‘Line of Polity’, Ian Cormac, and a coterie of AIs are on the trail of Skellor, a scientist fast becoming subsumed by viral Jain technology.
The Jain are an extinct Elder race whose resurrected biotechnology has proven so dangerous that the AIs controlling the Human Polity worlds are prepared to destroy entire Star Systems to contain the threat.
Skellor has fled to a world outside the Polity, colonised by humans who travelled to it in a generation ship. Also making a home for himself on this world is one of the four spheres which once made up the single entity known as Dragon.
Meanwhile, it appears that factions have appeared in AI society and certain artificial minds wish to embrace Jain technology in order to accelerate their evolution.
The central figure in Asher’s characteristically complex tale however, is the Brass Man of the title, Mr Crane, the insane android/golem who first appeared in ‘Gridlinked’. The tale of how Mr Crane came to become a big scary trophy-collecting serial killer is told in sequential flashback throughout the novel.
Crane, thought dismantled and buried, has been resurrected by Skellor to use as a tool to his nefarious ends, although the golem is constantly attempting to reconcile the fragments of his shattered mind in order to become whole and sane.
As always, Asher has produced a page-turning barnstormer of a book set within his Polity universe. Thankfully, the quality of writing and content is being sustained and he clearly leaves us with questions about this civilisation which need to be answered.
I’m also happy to see that we may not have seen the last of Mr Crane, one of my favourite literary creations.
‘WHAT PRICE ETERNAL YOUTH?
The Corps Galactica, the Galaxy’s police force, had pledged itself to a policy of non-interference with the backward Zarathutra Refugee Planets. Langenschmidt, the Corps chief on the planet Cyclops, was content with this ruling. After all, if the refugee planets could form their own civilization from scratch, logically they would come up with cultures suited to their own needs.
However, when the case of Justin Kolb came to his attention, Langenschmidt was forced to rethink the problem.
Kolb’s accident with the wolfshark revealed to the Corp’s medicos the leg-graft that had been done on him. It was a perfect match – only its gene-pattern wasn’t Cyclopean, and limb-grafting wasn’t practiced on Cyclops. Where then had the leg come from, who had been the unknown repairman and wasn’t this something that might be violating galactic law?’
Blurb from the 1965 Ace Doubles Edition M-115
It is the far future where man has spread out to settle planets across the galaxy. The main body of galactic society in order to promote human cultural diversity, operates a non-interference policy on human-settled planets below a certain level of social development and agents are posted to those worlds to ensure compliance.
Hundreds of years before the star Zarathustra went nova and it was thought originally that that not many of the population of its single world escaped. later, known civilisation began discovering many settled planets, the Zarathustra Refugee Planets, which became known as the ZRPs.
Magdallena has just finished a twenty-year stint on a primitive backwater world whose renaissance was primed to begin until the planet’s brilliant and charismatic leader has assassinated by a less able rival, freezing the world into cultural stagnation.
Magdallena is suddenly immediately posted to Cyclops, a world whose female leader Quist is causing trouble for the Galactic envoys and troops/
Her lover, Justin Kolb, has lost his leg during a wolf-shark hunt and was rescued by a local fisherman and brought to the Corps Galactica base. It is then discovered that this is the second time that Kolb has lost his leg. The first time, the leg was not regenerated as would have been done on richer worlds. In fact, Kolb received a graft and the genetic make-up of the replacement leg was not to be found on Cyclops.
Magdellena and her longtime friend and lover, Gus, suspect that this is part of something larger, particularly as Kolb’s doctor is anxious to have Kolb transferred back to his care, and Quist unexpectedly rails against The Corps and insists that they leave Cyclops.
Ace Doubles are notoriously variable in quality, although they did publish some major talents such as Brunner, Dick, Samuel Delaney and Brian Aldiss.
Despite its sensationalist title, this is a very satisfying read and (rather like van Vogt used to) Brunner gives us tantalising titbits of the wider galaxy in which this tale is set which somehow makes it a richer experience with more depth.
Refreshingly, Brunner recognises that were we to colonise other worlds, it wouldn’t just be the US and the British that would be doing it.
The original Zarathustra colony, it transpires, had a large Iranian community, some of whom managed to escape to settle another world from which Quist’s doctor has selected victims for organ donations.
‘A ship is marooned on a planet whose existence has been mislaid by the galactic bureaucracy. And the planet’s ecology has gone wild, breeding deadly giant insects. the ship’s crew and passengers have no hope of rescue. Can they and their descendents (sic) survive? Tune in next millennium.’
Blurb from the 2003 Baen paperback edition
This is a fix-up novel composed of three rewritten stories ‘The Mad Planet’ (Argosy 1920), ‘The Red Dust’ (Argosy 1921), and ‘Nightmare Planet’ (Science Fiction Plus, June 1953). In the original first two stories, the action was set on a far future Earth. The rewritten novel was first published by Gnome Press in 1954.
The basic premise is that Seeder Ships who have discovered barren Earth-type worlds initially ‘seed’ them with lichen and algae and return in cycles of thousand of years to add fungi, vegetation, insects, fish and finally mammals.
Due to a clerical error a particular world is forgotten once the insects and fish have been delivered. Subsequently a ship crashes on the planet and its crew (surviving by eating mushrooms and evading what have evolved into giant insects) become isolated tribes of nomads.
The plot, if one can call it a plot, involves Burl, a resourceful tribesman who one day decides to employ the remains of a dead beetle’s carapace as a weapon and from there teaches his tribe to go on the offensive against rapacious wildlife. He leads them on a journey through the territories of giant spiders, mantises and poisonous puffballs to a plateau where the environment is rather more like that of forgotten Earth.
The colony is eventually re-discovered and its people given an instant education by means of downloading knowledge directly into their brains. Burl becomes the leader of a hot new tourist planet where jaded humans from rest of the galaxy go on hunting trips with the natives, pitting their wits against the outsize insects.
For its time his concept of terraforming must have seemed like cutting edge science, although the concept of a galactic human society which would have remained static during the thousands of years of the seeding programme is a little implausible. One can’t help also pointing out that for Burl to be the only human to discover these techniques of survival, all in a very short space of time, is even more implausible.
However, despite its juvenile feel it’s enjoyable hokum and kept me entertained through a hefty slice of a nine-hour transatlantic flight.
Part of Baxter’s Xeelee future history, ‘Raft’ postulates a universe where the basic force of gravity is much stronger than in ours, and therefore one where the formation of galaxies and systems will work very differently.
Generations before the events in the novel, a ship passed through the Xeelee artefact ‘Bolder’s Ring’ to emerge in this universe, only to find itself imploding under its own weight. Here, life can exist in nebulae where suns are small, and are created and die frequently. Mobile trees fly through the air rich nebula and the descendants of ‘the Raft’ live a precarious existence as they realise that their nebula is dying, and the air running out.
Rees, a young miner who works in a 5G environment on the surface of a collapsed star, stows away on one of the trees that trades between the mining community and the Raft itself. He finds himself an apprenticeship with the ‘scientists’ and the novel sees him trying to find a way to save himself and the people of the nebula.
As well as being one of Baxter’s best novels, this is also a tribute to other writers of Future histories, such as Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven, although far nearer to Niven in terms of hard SF and playing around with scientific extravagances.
Heinlein’s nod lies in the rite of passage theme which sees a young man taken out of his familiar environment to face adversity and hostility only to eventually prove his worth to everyone.
The beauty lies, as it often does with me, in Bob Shaw’s ‘wee thinky bits’, the fact for instance that here human bodies generate gravitational fields strong enough to attract other human bodies, and the entire concept of a nebula where planets can never form as they would merely implode, and small suns fall into the core of the nebula while new ones are generated regularly.
‘Two worlds to conquer – or to be conquered by
MEDDLERS FROM TERRA
The team from Earth had the task of raising backward planets to the home world’s high level. The situation on Rigel was this:
‘The most advanced culture on Rigel’s first planet is to be compared to the Italian cities during Europe’s feudalistic years… The most advanced of the second planet is comparable to the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish conquest…
These planets are in your control to the extent that no small group has ever dominated millions before. No Caesar ever exerted the power that will be in your collective hands. For half a century you will be as gods and goddesses!’
But the Rigelians were themselves descended from the lost colonists of old Earth and they could learn their lessons as fast as they could be taught.
In fact, they could even teach their teachers a thing or two. And therein lay the peril the professors from space never dreamed of.’
Blurb from the 1967 Ace Doubles G-632 edition
Centuries before, Earth sent out colony ships to hundreds of newly discovered planets and then abandoned them to their own fate. The plan was to contact the planets again when they had reached a reasonable level of civilisation.
Earth has sent out a test team to Rigel where the civilisations are thriving on two of its planets. One, at the level of the Incas is called Texcoco; the other, at the level of medieval Italy, is called Genoa.
The team has fifty years to bring the worlds to an industrial level. On a whim, the team splits into 2 and decides to compete, but they have not reckoned on either the addictive nature of power or the colonists’ own ambitions.
It’s a clever piece, but it needed to be either shorter and punchier or longer with better character development. A common failing of Ace Doubles is that the necessary brevity sometimes causes problems in pieces with several main characters.
As in many of Vance’s ’lost colony’ tales, this is another society at the feudal level, descended from a planetary colony abandoned by the rest of Humanity. The communities – who breed dragons for sport and warfare – are preyed upon every few decades by grephs, creatures who arrive in long black ships and take away humans as slaves.
Joaz Banbeck is the leader (or lord) of one of the local communities, Banbeck Vale, intermittently at war with his irascible neighbour, Ervis Carcolo.
One of Joaz’s ancestors once captured the crew of the greph ship which came on one of its random raids to acquire human slaves. Since then the humans have bred the grephs into what have become the ‘dragons’ in a variety of breeds, for competition, warfare and transport.
The grephs have not visited for so long that the humans begin to believe that they will not return. Joaz however has come to the conclusion that their predations are cyclic, and that a raid is imminent. He has trained his people to have escape routes and hideouts.
Another community living amongst them is the Sacerdotes, a sect who live naked and grow their hair long.
The competition between Joaz and Ervis escalates and continues even when the grephs eventually return as Joaz predicted. The grephs, it appears, have also bred humans in the same way that the humans have bred the grephs.
It features a marvellous range of characters and a complex, fascinating setting all packed into a very brief narrative.
One of Vance’s best.