My life in outer space

Posts tagged “maguffin

Halcyon Drift (Hooded Swan #01) – Brian Stableford (1972)

Halcyon Drift (Hooded Swan, #1)

Grainger – he has no first name – was half of a two man trading team who bought and sold goods through the human settled and alien worlds of the galaxy.
Encountering problems in the Halcyon Drift – a nebula where gravitational forces distort the laws of physics – Grainger crashlands on an unknown planet, killing his partner, Lapthorn and wrecking the ship, ‘The Javelin’.
He is eventually rescued but not before his body is invaded by a sentient alien parasite. His rescuer, Axel Cyran of the Cradoc Company, having been pulled away from his mission of finding a legendary lost ship for the rescue, lands Grainger with costs of twenty thousand. Twenty thousand what is never made clear.
The lost ship ‘The Lost Star’ is the Maguffin in this novel, a semi mythical wreck believed to be carrying priceless cargo.
Grainger then gets an offer by which the company who wish to hire him will clear his debts if he agrees to pilot an experimental ship for two years.
The ship is a hybrid of alien and human technology, an odd reflection of Grainger and his alien mindrider now fused into one body. The ship is called ‘The Hooded Swan’.
Its test, and its first mission, is to beat Cyran to ‘The Lost Star’ and claim the cargo.
From this summary one would assume a fairly standard bit of space opera of the time, but it is far more than that.
The setting is an interplanetary culture, bound by the Laws of New Rome, where Earth is becoming a backwater as other worlds become the centres of trading and industry, carrying out business with at least two other alien cultures. Stableford’s aliens, if humanoid-ish in physiology, are suitably alien in other senses, although the crew of the Hooded Swan do encounter truly alien life during their search for ‘The Lost Star’.
Grainger himself is a fascinating psychological study. There’s possibly a little of the sociopath about him since his frequent memories of his dead partner, with whom he spent fifteen years in close quarters, are resisting any emotion, any grief.
He has an awkward meeting with his partner’s parents who tell Grainger – to his surprise – that their son worshipped him.
Indeed, it is the alien presence in Grainger’s mind, from which no secrets can be hidden, who forces Grainger to face some of his self-deception issues.
There is a solid reality with Grainger that one seldom finds in genre novels of the period and particularly within Space Opera.
Stableford, a very important figure within the SF world, is paradoxically very under-recognised by SF readers in general in my view which is a terrible injustice.
If you have never read Stableford, give this series a go.


The Sun Smasher – Edmond Hamilton (1959)

The Sun Smasher


“It can’t be true! It must be some kind of hoax!” These were the words that went spinning through Neil Banning’s mind when the Greenville authorities told him that the house he had grown up in, the aunt and uncle who had raised him, had never existed.
So Banning found himself in jail, charged with disturbing the peace – and maybe insanity. But when a stranger from outer space came to his cell at midnight and hailed him as the Valkar of Katuun, then Banning decided that maybe the authorities were right, maybe he was crazy. Because the only alternative was to believe the impossible explanation of the Outworlder – that he really was the exiled ruler of a remote star-world, and the personality of Neil Banning was an elaborate fraud.
It didn’t really matter, though, who was right. Banning was on his way to Katuun whether he liked it or not. And as Banning – or the Valkar – he would have to save that star-world from the terror of THE SUN SMASHER…or perish with the loyal subjects he might never have known!’

Blurb from the 1959 D-351 Ace Double paperback edition

Young Neil Banning, on a business trip, decides to take a detour to his old home town. On reaching there however, he finds that not only is his childhood home a vacant plot, but that there was apparently never a house existing there. Getting more and more frustrated by what he sees as a deliberate attempt by the townspeople to cover up the past he is eventually arrested and thrown into a cell.
During the night, a stranger arrives and stages – in Banning’s opinion – an unwanted rescue. The stranger is Rolf, who tells Banning that his past life is a fiction, that he is in fact Kyle, the lost Valkar of an interstellar Empire.
Kyle is needed to reclaim the throne from those who altered his memory and exiled him to Earth, and locate The Hammer, a weapon of interstellar mass destruction whose location only Kyle/Banning knows.
This is one of those odd romantic flights of fancy that imposes a medieval feudal culture on an interstellar civilisation. It features the literary devices of the amnesiac hero and the Maguffin which in this case is a device (as can easily be deduced from the title of the book) capable of triggering a nova in any sun.
Banning has to come to terms with the fact that he may not be who he thinks he is, while leading an army of loyal followers across the galaxy in search of a lost and terrible doomsday weapon.
Added to that, we have a feisty princess, a sundered love affair and a race of deadly telepathic spider people loyal only to the Valkar.
It is explained early on that Earth is a lost part of the Empire that has not yet been reclaimed as we are a fringe world and somewhat retarded.
One day we’ll be really advanced and united under an unelected hereditary galactic monarchy. Can’t wait.

The Arsenal of Miracles – Gardner F Fox (1964)



‘Was this the key to the universe?


When Earth’s stellar empire was attacked by the Lyanir, a powerful race from the uncharted stars, it was Bran Magannon, High Admiral of Space, who met their battle-challenge. He saved the Empire, but he also fell in love with the beautiful young Lyanirn queen Peganna, and to the people of the Empire his name became that of traitor. Now he was a lone, brooding outcast among Empire’s outpost worlds, called Bran the Wanderer.

Then Peganna of the Silver Hair returned and told him of a fabled cache of deadly weapons left eons ago by the long-dead race of the Crenn Lir. She wanted those weapons for her people, to use against Empire if need be.

Bran the Wanderer laughed, and showed her how to find them. ‘

Front cover and interior blurb from the paperback 1964 F-299 Ace Double Edition.

Gardner F Fox is an interesting character, who began to write for DC Comics in his twenties during the Great Depression, and despite his name being somewhat obscure these days was an incredibly prolific writer, producing an estimated four thousand comic storylines and at least a hundred novels, which covered SF, Fantasy, Crime, Westerns and Sports stories.

Bran Magannon, an Admiral with the Empire Forces, was on the point of securing an engaging peace between the Lyanir and the Empire and had also fallen in love with their haughty queen, Perganna of the Silver Hair.
However, a false message was sent to the Lyanir, and their subsequent actions caused the Empire to think they had been double crossed.  The Empire attacked and the Lyanir retreated to ‘the uncharted stars’.
Magannon, a tad depressed, resigns his post and goes wandering through the galaxy, using the ‘teledoors’ of an Elder Race called the Crenn Lir, although it’s not clear why Bran is the only person to have ever discovered them.
One day, Perganna finds him. Once misunderstandings have been cleared up, she tells him that she needs his help to find the lost arsenal of the Crenn Lir.
Meanwhile, Perganna’s evil brother has usurped her position and is planning to sell his people in slavery to the Empire.
Once more we have this concept of Empires and Royalty, and two multi-planetary forces which are each unified, socially and racially, it appears.
For its time, the concept and the style is dated. In context, Philip K Dick was publishing ‘Martian Time Slip’ and ‘The Penultimate Truth’, Frank Herbert was about to publish ‘Dune’. The times they were a changing.
This is also a novel which is high on Romanticism and low on actual science, and seems coloured by Fox’s comic-book traditions. We encounter spaceships, matter-transmitter portals, odd alien machines and storage facilities, and not even an attempt to explain even the history of the science behind the Empire technology.
It’s not a bad read, but it does seem like a piece that would have sat more easily ten or fifteen years previously.

Way Station – Clifford D Simak (1963)

Way Station

‘Enoch Wallace survived Gettysburg and lived through the rest of the Civil War to make it home to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin. But his mother was already dead and his father soon joined her in the tiny family cemetery. It was then that Enoch met the being he called Ulysses and the farm became a way station for space-travellers. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the US government is taking an interest in the seemingly immortal Enoch, and the Galactic Council which set up the way station, is threatening to tear itself apart.’

Blurb from the 2000 Gollancz SF Collectors Edition

Enoch Wallace, the only survivor of the massacre of his regiment during the American Civil War, returns home to his farm in Wisconsin and a hard but maybe too-idyllic existence since Simak is nothing if nostalgic for a perfect America which has been lost. In this – an undoubted classic of the genre – he once again paints a portrait of a backwoods America of ignorant but basically decent countryfolk, people who protect their neighbours’ privacy as they jealously protect their own, even if the neighbour is rumoured to be well over a hundred years old and looks no older than thirty.
Shortly after the death of his parents when he returns from the war, Enoch is approached by a mysterious stranger and is recruited to convert his farmhouse into a way-station. The exterior looks exactly the same as it always did, but it is now protected by a force-field which only Enoch can open. Inside, some force protects Enoch from getting older which means that a hundred years on, Enoch has only aged a fraction of the years that have passed.
The interior houses complex equipment for the reception and forwarding-on by matter-transmission of alien travellers, the details of which Enoch meticulously transcribes in large record books.
Now however, Enoch is being watched by government agents, suspicious not only of his background and true age, but of an alien body which they have retrieved from his family burial plot.
Added to that, the world seems headed toward the brink of Nuclear War and even the peaceful Galactic Society of which only Enoch knows the existence is in turmoil, its factions warring over further expansion into the spiral arm beyond Earth and also suffering from the loss of the novel’s MaGuffin, an ancient artifact called The Talisman which can put its bearer into contact with the spiritual force of the Universe, i.e. God.
Enoch – one of Simak’s trademark loners – has few friends. One is the mailman whom he walks out to meet each day, a man who is also a talented woodcarver, not knowing the true origin of the pieces of alien wood (from which he carves exquisite pieces) which Enoch is occasionally given as gifts by the visitors who pass through.
Another is Lucy, a deaf mute daughter of his neighbour Hank. She has a natural affinity for Nature and appears to exhibit occasional extraordinary powers, as when Enoch witnesses her heal a butterfly’s wing.
Written against the backdrop of the recent Cuban Missile Crisis, The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the growing anti-war movement, Simak’s novel contains some obvious messages regarding the futility of war, despite some rather – perhaps misplaced – nostalgic support of the American Civil War which Enoch, and perhaps Simak himself, felt was a just and honourable war, fought within strict parameters of code.
The novel succeeds in its juxtaposition of the pastoral and the futuristic, haystacks, pitchforks and fabulous galactic technology sitting side by side which, in the hands of Simak, somehow works due mainly to his deep love for the open spaces of the US.
The plot is simplistic and ultimately flawed since the denouement relies too much on an unexpected criminal turning up at the way station at the last minute with the long-lost Talisman. It would have made more sense had the Talisman been hidden there for the last hundred years which would give the criminal a reason for going there. Despite this minor quibble however, this is one of the most romantic and evocative novels of the Twentieth century and possibly Simak’s finest single work.

The Centauri Device – M John Harrison (1975)

The Centauri Device

Captain Truck, son of Annie Truck, is the last of the Centaurans; a humanoid race whom humanity mostly exterminated during a terrible war. What was left of the race fled into the galaxy and intermingled, sometimes breeding with humans.
It was thought during the final stages of the war that the Centaurans had invented a Doomsday device. Now, it seems, that device has been discovered, but it can only be operated by a Centauran, and Truck is the only one left.
In this somewhat baroque future where Truck’s ship’s engineer is a Chromian dwarf called Fixx, and his best friend is a somewhat dim individual but brilliant guitar player, earth is split between the Arabs and Israelis and an endless war is in its prime.
Truck is pursued by the Arab and Israeli military, an anarchist artist magician and the religious faction represented by the Openers, whose followers believe that the way to enlightenment is via installing windows in their bodies to expose their inner organs to the world and the galaxy.
It’s a rollercoaster ride through a Dystopian future which very much symbolises the stylistic SF of the 1970s. It’s interesting to note that the Chromian dwarf possibly links this novel with the Viriconium series. Harrison perhaps borrowed Moorcock’s ubiquitous idea of the multiverse – in which the world is duplicated and distorted through infinity – to use in his Viriconium series since some of the stories of the city seem to be set in an alternate version of that world. Maybe TCD is set in an earlier version of one of these universes, or maybe not.
The Seventies was a time when SF occasionally put on the Glam Rock drag of fantasy, and certainly this novel has its fantasy trappings, from the hats and cloaks to the baroque magician – who produces green carnations from behind the ears of unsuspecting gawpers.
There are the caricatured grotesques such as General Alice Gaw of the Israeli military, the hermaphrodite whore, Grishkin the Opener Priest, Fixx the psychotic dwarf and Truck’s paranoid and slightly disturbed wife.
It is an important novel of The Seventies, a signpost showing where we were and where we were going.

Dauntless (The Lost Fleet #01) – Jack Campbell (2006)

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless (The Lost Fleet, #1)
‘The Alliance has been fighting the Syndics for a century – and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is a man who’s emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he has been heroically idealised beyond belief…

Captain John ‘Black Jack’ Geary’s legendary exploits are known to every schoolchild. Revered for his heroic last stand’ in the early days of the war, he was presumed dead. but a century later, Geary miraculously returns from survival hibernation and reluctantly takes command of the Alliance fleet as it faces annihilation by the Syndics.

Appalled by the hero-worship around him, Geary is nevertheless a man who will do his duty. And he knows that bringing the stolen Syndic hypernet key safely home is the Alliance’s one chance to win the war. But to do that, Geary will have to live up to the impossibly heroic ‘Black Jack’ legend…’

Blurb from the July 2006 Ace paperback edition.

John ‘Black Jack’ Geary – rather like Adam Adamant in the cult 60s TV series, and rather less like Sleeping Beauty – has been asleep for a hundred years. In this case Jack was floating about in space in an escape pod following a space-battle against the Syndics. Now rescued, Jack finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being a legend and an example to those space-navy personnel who have lost much of the discipline of military life, due mainly to the fact that the space-navy has lost of its much personnel after a hundred years of war.
Following the assassination of the Admiral of the Fleet by the evil Syndics, Jack is forced to take command and lead the fleet back home, if only to hand over the secret of the hypernet key (a MaGuffin which may mean the difference between winning the war and losing it).
Is it Science Fiction? Well, to be fair, Campbell has a half-hearted poke, rather than a stab at relativistic effects and hyperspatial jumps. There are ‘Doc’ Smith-esque weapons installed on the ship which can destroy entire planets if necessary, but on the whole Campbell tiptoes quietly around the science, hoping that we won’t notice.
Having said that, Campbell makes a very decent fist of the space battles and the problems inherent in dealing with communication, time-delay and trying to find out what the enemy fleet is doing when both groups are travelling at fractions of light speed and the width of a solar system apart.
Normally, so I believe, Campbell writes standard war-fiction under the name of John G Hemry, and so things begin to make sense.
Substitute the space-ships for sea ships, the Syndics for Nazis or Japanese, and the planets for islands, and you’d have a passable WWII drama. Add the secret that might win the war for decent English/American democracy and you get your fleet into a race against time to get the secret back home.
Astoundingly, despite the rather cardboard characters and the Boys Own plot, it’s a very readable book. Granted, it’s not going to win the Booker Prize or (God Forbid) The Hugo Award, but it’s a novel that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is. Pulp Fiction.
Be warned though. There’s another five novels in the series. I suspect the fleet may be lost for some considerable time.