My life in outer space

Posts tagged “native american

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 15 – Gardner R. Dozois (Ed.) (2002)

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 15

New Light on the Drake Equation – Ian R MacLeod (SCI FICTION May 2001)
More Adventures on Other Planets – Michael Cassutt (SCI FICTION Jan 2001)
On K2 with Kanakaredes – Dan Simmons (Red Shift (ROC) AC Sarrantonio Ed.)
When This World is All On Fire – William Sanders (Asimov’s SF Oct/Nov 2001)
Computer Virus – Nancy Kress (Asimov’s SF April 2001)
Have Not Have – Geoff Ryman (Magazine of F&SF April 2001)
Lobsters – Charles Stross (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
The Dog said Bow-Wow – Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s SF Oct/Nov 2001)
The Chief Designer – Andy Duncan (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
Neutrino Drag – Paul Di Fillipo (SCI FICTION 22/8/2001)
Glacial – Alastair Reynolds (Spectrum SF 5)
The Days Between – Allen Steele (Asimov’s SF March 2001)
One Horse Town – Howard Waldrop/Leigh Kennedy (SCI FICTION 4/3/2001)
Moby Quilt – Eleanor Arnason (Asimov’s SF May 2001)
Raven Dream – Robert Reed (Magazine of F&SF December 2001)
Undone – James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s SF June 2001)
The Real Thing – Carolyn Ives Gilman (Magazine of F&SF July 2001)
Interview: On Any Given Day – Maureen F McHugh (Starlight 3 (Tor))
Isabel of The Fall – Ian R MacLeod (Interzone July 2001)
Into Greenwood – Jim Grimsley (Asimov’s SF September 2001)
Know How, Can Do – Michael Blumlein (Magazine of F&SF December 2001)
Russian Vine – Simon Ings (SCI FICTION June 6 2001)
The Two Dicks – Paul McAuley (Magazine of F&SF August 2001)
May Be Some Time – Brenda W Clough (Analog Science Fiction & Fact April 2001)
Marcher – Chris Beckett (Interzone October 2001)
The Human Front – Ken MacLeod (chapbook – The Human Front – PS Publishing)

New Light on The Drake Equation – Ian R MacLeod

An atmospheric and poignant tale, set in France, in which a lifelong SETI researcher looks back on his life of fruitless searching for signs of extraterrestrial life from a future where genetic bodily restyling is all the rage. His memories are interrupted by the arrival of an old girlfriend, a woman who may be the alien he has been searching for all his life.
Beautifully written and evocative.

More Adventures on Other Planets – Michael Cassutt

A modern interplanetary romance (literally) featuring two older members of a Scientific Institute who operate waldos on the surface of Europa who are searching for signs of life beneath the frozen surface. It’s extremely well-written and amusing without having that annoying American habit of over-emphasising the humour.

On K2 with Kanakaredes – Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons never disappoints and here he is on top form, and on top of the world in a tale of a climbing crew who are ordered by the US government to accept one of the alien insectoid Listeners (as they are known) on a climbing expedition up K2. The characterisation is excellent, and despite the brevity of the tale we accept the idea of a large insect bonding with a pack of professional mountain climbers. Simmons provides one of his usual metaphysical clichés in the concept of the Listeners having come to Earth to teach us how to Listen to the song of the world.
Very memorable.

When This World is All On Fire – William Sanders

A global warming themed tale set in the American Midwest where white people are beginning to encroach on what remains of Native American land now that the sea level has risen, leaving much of North America under water.
Sanders employs the dry and desperate environment as a backdrop to a tale of a Native American security man and his obsession with the young white girl he hears singing one day when her family park on Indian land illegally.
Like all the stories so far it has a sad and poignant element to it, but is nevertheless an energetic and well-painted story. You can almost smell the smoke and the baking land.

Computer Virus – Nancy Kress

I seem to remember at least two TV movies of the Eighties or earlier which featured a computer going rogue and holding people hostage in some building or other. One featured Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels, but was otherwise unmemorable.
Thankfully Nancy has used this concept far more cleverly in a fast-paced story where an escaped AI invades a computer-controlled house into which a female scientist has retreated since her geneticist husband was murdered by eco-terrorists.
The AI wants to hold her and her children hostage unless it is allowed to talk to the Press, something its creators do not want it to do.
It is up to her to use her wits to defeat the AI, since her young son has contracted a mutated virus, and his temperature is steadily rising.
It says much about the media, about government, and a climate in which we seem to be more afraid of each other than posited foreign terrorists.

Have Not Have – Geoff Ryman

Ryman’s work is very much character-driven, but there is always an interesting backdrop, an exotic setting against which the drama can be shown to best effect. Here we are, it is supposed, in China, where a young woman makes a living by adapting the fashions she sees on screen and in magazines to make dresses for the peasants of her village. The stark poverty of the villagers is contrasted by the advent of technology and a development of the internet which will allow everyone to have TV ‘in their heads’.
It’s a startling, evocative and original tale, in which individual characters are carved intricately like small jade sculptures

Lobsters – Charles Stross

A bewildering and disorienting romp through a future world of predatory ads, AIs, and world where the minds of lobsters are uploaded into a digital environment, their minds employed as processing slaves. Quite brilliant, but very difficult to describe. It’s easier to read the story for yourself.

The Dog said Bow-Wow – Michael Swanwick

As usual Swanwick has created a bizarre and exotic world in which to set his tale, which features a genetically engineered dog of the far future who joined forces with a human man and hatches a scheme to steal the jewels of a member of the aristocracy.
In this future, the Queen (an almost immortal creature with multiple brains set deep into her vast body) lives in a Buckingham Palace which surrounded by a labyrinth.
Vivid, surreal, amusing and memorable.

The Chief Designer – Andy Duncan

An emotional and poignant view of ‘the chief designer’ of the USSR space programme, rescued form a Russian concentration camp to become the main force behind Russia’s bid to conquer space.

Neutrino Drag – Paul Di Fillipo

Very stylish fast and amusing SF from Di Fillipo who tells the story of how an alien got involved in drag racing with an American gang. When the human hero accidentally ‘bonds’ with the alien’s specially-cloned girlfriend, he is challenged to a ‘chicken’ race into the corona of our sun.
Di Fillipo evokes a sense of place and his vision of contemporary gang culture in the US is, if a little romantic, vivid and realistic.

Glacial – Alastair Reynolds

One of the best stories in this collection features Clavain, the renegade conjoiner from Reynolds’ ‘Redemption Ark’. Here, the action is set long before that of the novel, at a time when the conjoiners have set off to find a habitable world to start a colony. Felka, the mind-damaged conjoiner and Galiana, the leader of the group along with Clavain land on the frozen planet Diadem, only to find a dead Earth colony has already preceded them. One man has frozen himself deliberately in the hope of being revived.
Like the later story ‘Moby Quilt’ in this volume, a vital part of the plot is a gestalt of seemingly low-level intelligence creatures (in this case, worms) which seem to be acting as an information processing device; i.e. a self-aware organism composed of thousands of smaller creatures.
Fascinating reading, and suggesting that Reynolds may be planning other Clavain stories to fill in the gaps between this and ‘Redemption Ark’

The Days Between – Allen Steele

An interstellar ship, whose passengers are all cryogenically frozen for the long-haul light-years-long trip suddenly awakens one of its passengers only a few months into the mission.
The AI controlling the functions of the ship refuses to re-freeze him – for complex reasons having to do with a sub-plot involving conspiracies and mutiny – and we follow his descent into madness as he realises that he will die years before the ship reaches its destination, and his slow return to reason.

One Horse Town – Howard Waldrop/Leigh Kennedy

Far too similar to Howard Waldrop’s novel ‘Them Bones’ for this to be an original story, it tells of three different time-periods intersecting; The siege of Troy; Homer’s adolescence, and a modern day archaeological team. Visions and impressions of the periods overlap and bleed through, affecting the action and the destiny of those involved.

Moby Quilt – Eleanor Arnason

Another of the best stories in this volume is a peculiar tale of love which sees Lydia Duluth, a future PR guru and location-scout visiting a waterworld. Also visiting is the alien K’r’x with whom she is put into mental contact via a pair of AIs. While investigating the mystery of the vast circular mats which float on the oceans, she begins to fall in love with the vast squidlike creature. As with ‘Glacial’ this also deals with the subject of gestalt or multi-symbiotic organisms working together as one organism.

Raven Dream – Robert Reed

An odd piece featuring Native Americans who live in a seemingly secret part of our world – to them our world is known as the spirit world – and the coming of age of Raven, a young man who slowly begins to learn who and what he is and how his world relates to the world outside.
Reed has used Native American characters before but not to such concentrated effect. What works in this story is that we are looking from a perspective of the belief of Raven, which gives us doubts as to what is real and not real – and indeed how we actually define the word ‘real’.

Undone – James Patrick Kelly

A marvellous densely-packed modern space opera in which a feisty heroine of the resistance – standing up for her right to be an individual – escapes into the future but is pursued by a mine travelling six minutes behind her. Any attempt to travel backwards in time beyond that point will wipe her mind and reprogramme her memories. Cleverly, the story ends up going in a most unexpected direction.

The Real Thing – Carolyn Ives Gilman

Another story which features a Native American lead character in the form of Sage Akwesasne, who volunteers to be dismantled and projected – via a slingshot black hole process which is not that important to the plot – fifty years into the future.
She arrives in a world where she is literally a commodity since the courts have ruled that she is not the original Sage, but a copy, and the legal property of a megacorporation in a world where hype and spin are the be-all and end-all of business.
Obviously it’s a commentary on the direction in which our media-obsessed society is moving, and a very clever one, managing to be both funny and dismayingly accurate if we dare to hold a mirror to our own society now.

Interview: On Any Given Day – Maureen F McHugh

Transcript of a fictional TV programme in which a teenager infected with a retrovirus mutated from a longevity treatment is interviewed. Not only interesting structurally, but showing a strong command of voice and character, since through the testimony of one girl McHugh brings to life those about her, described in a ‘Talking Heads’ style confessional.

Isabel of The Fall – Ian R MacLeod

In a far and complex future, Isabel tends the mirrors which redirect light to various parts of her community, part of a society in which social roles and responsibilities are rigidly controlled. When Isabel fails to correct a mirror misalignment, part of her community experiences an unheard-of twilight, which leads to a friend ship with another woman, a dancer at the cathedral. It’s a tragedy of consequence, of the terrible events which lead from the simple error of the mirror misalignment. Powerful and haunting.

Into Greenwood – Jim Grimsley

Grimsley’s story is a clever examination of the concept of relative freedom. The hero is a revolutionary, attempting to promote independence on worlds controlled by the efficient and mysterious Prin. After years of silence she is invited to visit her brother, a man who has been genetically altered to become a symbiont; a vegetable creature living in symbiosis with an intelligent tree.
One of the better stories in the collection it examines issues surrounding slavery and freedom while at the same time creating a vivid and realistic world.

Know How, Can Do – Michael Blumlein

Michael Blumlein showed in his novel ‘The Movement of Mountains’ that he has a deep interest in scientific and medical ethics and shows this again to good effect in a disturbing love story where the narrator is a cloned human brain linked to the nervous system of a roundworm. As his psyche grows and learns he slowly falls in love with the female scientist who created him.

Russian Vine – Simon Ings

Aliens infect humanity with a virus which renders them illiterate and therefore incapable of developing complex societies and science and thereby destroying themselves. The aliens think of themselves as gardeners, conserving the races of the galaxy. Against this backdrop one of the aliens forms a relationship with an Earth woman. Very well-written, from an odd point of view; i.e. that of one of the alien earthdwellers.

The Two Dicks – Paul McAuley

A clever tribute to Philip K Dick, set at the time of Dick’s famous exegesis in 1974, but in an altered timeline in which Richard Nixon remains in power, having somehow derailed the careers of influential creative figures. Dick himself has been dissuaded from writing science fiction, although pirate copies of his one SF novel ‘The Man in The High Castle’ are much in demand. Elvis Presley appears at one point, asking Dick to sign his last mainstream novel ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ (the title of the novel within ‘The Man in The High Castle’) while mentioning obliquely that they have something in common. They both have dead twins. Elvis in this timeline runs an ice-cream business.
Beautifully written, very much in Dick’s style.

May Be Some Time – Brenda W Clough

Famous explorer Titus Oates is snatched at the point of death from his own timeline and taken to a New York of 2045, only to discover that his rescue was just an experiment employing technology provided from a First Contact message sent from Tau Ceti.
Highly readable and enjoyable.

Marcher – Chris Beckett

A topical tale involving an immigration officer who is called in to examine cases of ‘shifters’, disaffected people who take ‘seeds’ which have the effect of switching them between alternate worlds.

The Human Front – Ken MacLeod

MacLeod examines his usual themes of Scotland, Communism and grey aliens in an unusual novella originally published as a chapbook. The son of a Scottish doctor remembers his father treating the occupant of a crashed ‘bomber’ during the war, and had always considered the pilot to be a child.
Later we realise this is not the world we know, and that the Americans have been using alien anti-gravity technology in military technology.
It’s dense and complex, but very much character-driven and manages to explore themes of politics, communism and propaganda against a backdrop of alternate worlds and civil war.

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The Greks Bring Gifts – Murray Leinster (1964)

The Greks Bring Gifts (#50 418)

‘The Greks promised a world in which everyone would be rich – provided the Greks were allowed to rule. It was a bargain few Earthmen could resist.

The Greks were people-haters.

They came to earth in their space ship, bearing fabulous gifts – such as machines that did any job automatically, and fertilizer that made plants shoot up overnight. But they presented their gifts with contempt, and with a look in their eyes that made people feel ‘creepy’.
Still, because of the brave new world they promised, the Greks could be forgiven anything – until they left and people discovered that the machines were breaking down. Then their only choice was to beg the Greks to come back, on their own terms. And they knew the terms would be hard…’

Blurb from the 1968 Macfadden-Bartell paperback edition

An enormous ship appears from behind the moon and announces that it houses the Greks, a benevolent race who wish to bring gifts of science to mankind.
The Greks are humanoid, grey-skinned and their technological gifts (such as broadcast power which can run cars and power electricity stations) destroy Earth’s economy and plunge the world into economic and social chaos.
One man, Hackett, and his girlfriend Lucy, suspect from the start that the Greks are up to no good and set out to investigate what is really going on.
It’s a decent enough tale, reminiscent of movies of the previous decade, and suffers in the main from Leinster’s style of excessive reportage rather than providing a narrative composed of action sequences. Leinster tells us, rather than shows us, what is happening in the world.
Additionally, the extended metaphor of the novel – which is an allegory of any superior human culture encountering a more primitive one – is weakened by Leinster’s needless descriptions of what the white man did to the US Native American.
It’s an idea which hasn’t been over-used in SF and it’s a shame that Leinster didn’t rework or revise this into a longer more structured piece since the morality, the message and the parallels with actions of the human race are the stuff of which great SF is made.


Mappa Mundi – Justina Robson (2001)

Mappa Mundi

‘As medical nanotechnology completes a map of the human brain, radical psychologist Natalie Armstrong sees her cutting-edge research suddenly leap out from the sidelines and into the heart of a black project intended to create comprehensive mind-control…

FBI science specialist Jude Westhorpe is on the trail of an elusive genius who’s involved in everything from gene sequencing to biological warfare. But Jude’s investigation has started to dig too deeply into matters affecting national security, putting his own and others’ lives on the line…

Could there really be a conspiracy among the international scientific community, bent not only on changing the world order but on creating a radical shift in human identity? When Mappa Mundi reaches completion, the race will be on to seize control of it – for winner takes all when you can alter a human mind with the flick of a switch.’

Blurb from the 2002 Pan paperback edition

Natalie Armstrong is a cutting edge researcher, engaged in a branch of the Mappa Mundi Project which seeks to initially map the human brain and ultimately, to use nanotechnological programmes to effect repairs to victims of aberrant brain functions. The US government has its own plans for the potential of ‘Selfware’, as does Mikhail Guschov, a sociopathic genius who has worked his way through several identities and criminal careers to a position of power in the Mappa Mundi hierarchy.
The potential for Selfware is terrifying. Solid religious belief (or indeed belief of any sort) could be spread through the population like a virus.
Jude Westhorpe, a Native American CIA Agent, travels to England to speak to Natalie following an incident on a Native American reservation where several previously sane individuals went on a destructive and murderous rampage.
Natalie concludes that the incident was caused by a crudely altered Selfware programme which had been released into the community as a test of Selfware’s military potential.
Robson shows a flair for characterisation and it is to her credit that all her characters have depth and flaws; are strong, yet vulnerable. The very nature of Selfware and the Mappa Mundi project is that it can correct the fatal flaws within the self and yet, Robson seems to be asking, would that not make us perhaps happier but less human? Dan, Natalie’s gay friend, is a case in point. His dependence on drugs and his lax attitude to work might be corrected by nanotechnology. Dan dies, as does Jude’s sister, White Horse, as indeed do others as a result of their basic natures. Selfware may have prevented this, but would the same people be living their lives? Robson does not make a major issue of this question, but it is one which surfaces subtly, long after the novel has been finished.
The novel is split between settings in England and North America, bringing a sense of vivacity to both. It’s a fast-paced conspiracy-based thriller, as well as being a first rate science fiction novel and Robson keeps the elements well-balanced while also fleshing out fully-rounded characters who live and breathe easily on the page, as consistently real in York as they are on the highways and reservations of the USA.


Ancient Shores – Jack McDevitt (1996)

Ancient Shores

‘Tom Lasker is about to have his life turned upside down. In the midst of his wheat fields two thousand miles from any ocean, he digs up the remains of a forty-two foot sailboat in near perfect condition. It’s true the wheat fields had once been on the shoreline of a great inland sea, but that was ten thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age. Stranger still, the vessel is made from alien materials and bears an impossible atomic code.

When a subsequent discovery is made, a structure called the ‘Roundhouse’, the region becomes the focus of dangerous political conflict and self-seeking ambition, for the Roundhouse is revealed to be the doorway to another world….’

Blurb from the 1996 Voyager paperback edition

When a farmer in North America digs up a yacht of unfamiliar design on the shore of a sea which hasn’t seen water in ten thousand years, people start getting interested.
The yacht and its sails (looking brand new) attract a far different sort of interest when it’s discovered that they are composed of an impossible and stable transuranic element.
Later, a local scientist begins to wonder what else is buried in the area and something is discovered buried in Native American Territory.
It is a building, christened The Roundhouse which, as well as being confirmed along with the yacht as being of extraterrestrial origin, is a teleportational gateway to other worlds.
As in ‘The Hercules Text’ McDevitt focuses on the effects of this discovery upon the world or rather (a regular thing for McDevitt) on the USA. In this instance, however, he may be forgiven for his Americocentricity as much of the novel is concerned with the relationship between the government and Native Americans who ostensibly own the land on which The Roundhouse is situated.
Interestingly, we visit a selection of random characters whose lives have been changed (for better or worse) by the discovery. Otherwise we follow three main characters, fighting to stop the government from destroying what could be our gateway to the stars and our first meeting with extraterrestrials. This is set against a background of depressing headlines, stock market crashes and religious extremists hanging about and shouting ‘Work of The Devil’ or whatever religious extremists generally shout at extraterrestrial structures.
There is one disembodied extraterrestrial which comes in through the Roundhouse and seems to give people rather too religious experiences. It’s a superfluous element which seems a little pointless. The aliens were made far more interesting by their absence. Throwing a holy ghost into the mix so late in the novel seems a trifle odd.
All in all though, it’s a decent enough novel with good characterisation and a realistic view of the local community.
See also Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’.


Birds – Sheila Finch (2004)

Birds

Bear Neilsen is only a child when she witnesses her astronaut sister, just returned from a mission to a satellite, being put into a Faraday cage before convulsing and dying. Her sister, it appears, encountered something and may have brought some of it back.
Ten years later, someone is killing off all witnesses to the incident. Bear, who is having trouble in her living accommodation because she has adopted a homeless malamute dog, gets a call to tell her that there is better accommodation on offer. The caller is the Divine Cleopatra, a drag queen who works at the Serengeti restaurant, owned and run by Alex, an old friend of Bear’s sister. Meanwhile, something is glitching satellites around the world and a millennial Jesus the Astronaut cult is growing in strength.
It becomes clear that someone is keen to silence anyone involved with the original project and Bear that she herself must go into space to deal with whatever it is.
It’s a short read which combines first contact, native American mysticism, cross dressing, satellites and a quick visit to the Thames barrier in London.
It’s a workmanlike novel, but nothing out of the ordinary. Sheila Finch wrote an outstanding short story (‘Out of the Mouths’ F&SF 1996) based around one her specialities, linguistics. I cannot see that the magic has transferred to the longer form here, but I have every faith that she will get there.


Mars – Ben Bova (1992)

Mars

‘To the harsh landscape of Sol’s fourth planet travel thirteen astronauts, the best scientists from eleven nations, on a history-making voyage into the unknown. The international crew of the Mars mission have spent nine months in space, crossing too (sic) million kilometres, to reach the last great frontier.
Their voyage is fraught with disputes, both personal and political, and their time on Mars limited to ‘footprints and flags’: yet while there they come face-to-face with the most incredible and shocking discovery of all.’

Blurb from the 1993 NEL edition

Released during a period which saw a brief flourish of Mars-related releases, Bova’s novel breaks no new ground, and invites inevitable comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson’s infinitely superior ‘Red Mars’ published in the same year.
Bova’s dual timeline structure – which returns from the contemporary narrative to examine the former lives of various crew members does little to add depth to the characterisations.
In fairness to Bova, the central character, Jamie Waterman, is an interesting creation; a geologist of Amerindian descent, whose parents have – to a certain extent – abandoned their roots in favour of a middle-class American lifestyle. Jamie has rediscovered his heritage through his grandfather and now, despite political difficulties and the added problems of international quotas, has been selected to be part of the first team to set foot on Mars.
The science is well-researched, the political aspects are a clear and important part of the novel, but Bova fails in giving us any real feeling of Mars itself. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars, in contrast, becomes almost a character in its own right, but on a first reading of Bova’s ‘Mars’ one is left with the impression that it looks a little bit like new Mexico.
Had this novel been shorter, one might not be so critical, but in its 566 pages, much is redundant and other issues are dealt with peremptorily, such as the Jewish biologist Ilona Mater’s reaction to the Russians. It’s a Hallmark plotline. Initially she irrationally blames all Russians for the massacre of her family, but later, when a Russian saves her life, her viewpoint is completely changed. This is simply too simplistic a device for such an emotive and complex issue which is not dealt with enough in the text to begin with.
Bova also, perhaps unintentionally, gives us rather caricatured characters from outside the US. The Austrian geologist – whom Jamie replaces on the mission – is depicted a sexist misogynist egomaniac. The English medical officer, Tony Reed, is initially a cowardly manipulator whose only aim seems to be to bed an unattainable female crewmember. He, in another Hallmark moment, ultimately faces his fears and saves the day.
The Russians are standard fictional Russians, efficient and humourless, but who display a more human face when disaster strikes. Conversely, the American characters, Waterman, Brumado and Pete Connors, seem to have no character flaws.
The mission eventually succeeds in finding primitive life on Mars and there are a couple of unimportant loose ends left for an inevitable sequel.
It’s a good novel for a long journey or a rainy afternoon, but pales in comparison with other Mars-related works of the Nineties.


The Penultimate Truth – Philip K Dick (1964)

The Penultimate Truth

“World War III is raging – or so the millions of people crammed in their underground tanks believe. For fifteen years, subterranean humanity has been fed on daily broadcasts of a never-ending nuclear destruction, sustained by a belief in the all powerful Protector. But up on Earth’s surface, a different kind of reality reigns. East and West are at peace. And across the planet, an elite corps of expert hoaxers preserve the lie.”

Blurb from the 2005 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition.

Dick is in the midst of his most prolific and creative writing period and ‘The Penultimate Truth’ once again resurrects Dick’s favourite theme; that of perceived reality.
Seventeen years ago the world was at war, Wes-Dem and Peop-Pac were on the verge of nuclear war so their governments independently constructed underground ‘ant tank’ cities in which the vast bulk of the population could live safely until the war was over.
In the Tom Mix Ant tank, like all the other tanks all over the world, the inhabitants have been working to produce ‘leadies’ (basic robots) for the war effort.
Every so often the residents of the Tom Mix gather together to catch a broadcast from the Wes-Dem President, Talbot Yancy, who gives shining speeches urging the tankers to keep their spirits up and work on.
The leader of the Tom Mix, Maury Souza, has a fatal pancreas-related condition and so Nicholas St James is enrolled in a bold scheme to visit the disease-riddled, war-torn surface in order to obtain an ‘artiforg’ pancreas.
The surface is far from war-torn, since the war actually ended fifteen years ago. Society is being controlled by the corpulent Stanton brose; a physical fake in that apart from his brain, all his other organs are artiforg replacements. Brose is the de facto leader of the world. Talbot Yancy (another fake) is nothing but a simulacrum, programmed by a computer to deliver speeches written by Joseph Adams, who in turn has his speeches written by a computer of his own.
Joseph feels that the people living underground should be told the truth, but does nothing.
Meanwhile, Brose hatches a plot to discredit his enemy, Louis Runcible a man who has a vested interest in seeing the population return to the surface, since his company builds housing for those people who have escaped to the surface and can not be allowed to return.
Brose plans to use a time-travel device to send back some forged alien skeletons and weapons (more fakes) to be buried at the site of Lou’s next development. He knows that Lou will attempt to hide the artefacts when they are uncovered, since his site will be declared an archaeological site and his development plans will be ruined. Brose then planned to have Lou exposed and imprisoned.
However, Brose’s spy, Bob Hig, who was to have stopped the digging when the artefacts were uncovered, is shot, leaving the robot digger to churn up the planted ‘finds’, oblivious.
Subsequently, two of the people who knew of the plan are murdered.
Meanwhile, David Lantano, another Yance Man, as the people in the inner circle of power are called, has found Nicholas St James and is putting him up in his demesne, set in a thousand acres of land, but still with a high level of radiation.
It’s a very strangely structured novel, which has that van Vogtian feel of having been made up as Dick went along with elements thrown in along the way, but it’s no les satisfying for that.
It certainly, on many levels, raises questions on the nature of belief, or reality, such as the idea of entire populations convinced of a particular ‘truth’ quite easily. In this case, both superpowers convince their populations of the truth by a series of fake documentaries. The governments of the two powers have rewritten the history of World War II and beyond, and despite some glaring errors and anachronisms, it is believed by the majority of the population and enshrined as Truth, just as our Holy Books are today.
There are some wonderful Dickian set-pieces here and there, such as the 2004 Eisenwerke Gestalt-macher Machine, which is specifically designed to murder and leave incriminating clues. Ironically, the machine is a victim of the German ethic of efficiency and leaves so many clues to the identity of the killer that it makes it obvious that the victim was murdered by the machine… or has the man who programmed the machine foreseen its failure and thus incriminated himself in order that he will not be suspected, because the machine was programmed to frame him for the murder?
This is a haunting book, which creeps back to remind you of connections between characters and themes.
The are echoes of ‘The House That Stood Still’ in Lantano’s seeming immortality and Native American heritage.
Talbot Yancy, like Der Alte in ‘The Simulacra’ is a puppet president, operated from behind the scenes by a team of men in suits; and given their orders by a corpulent tyrant, pieced together from artificial organs. It would seem, however, that the design of Talbot Yancy was based on an actor from the fake documentary; an actor who happened to be David Lantano.
Ultimately, then, Lantano effectively is Talbot Yancy, and is waiting for his chance to replace the robot president with himself.
Oddly, there are no major female roles.


Juniper Time – Kate Wilhelm (1980)

Juniper Time

‘The technological dream is over…

Man reached for the stars – and failed to keep the Earth in his grasp. With the Western United States devastated by drought, the survivors huddle in squalid concentration camps in the east.

And still the dream won’t go away… In high orbit, an artefact is found that may be man’s first contact with aliens. The only woman who can decode it has found her future in the past, in the remote Indian territories of the Pacific Northwest.
But in which direction does the planet’s survival lie…’

Blurb from the 1981 Arrow paperback edition.

Wilhelm here gives us a bleak portrayal of a near-future America devastated by drought in which two childhood friends find themselves forcefully reunited due to their fathers’ involvement in an aborted space-station project.
Jean Brighton has begun a career working on a project to develop computer programmes which aim to decode languages without a Rosetta Stone.
Arthur Cluny is fighting to have the Space Station project reopened in a political climate where most of the American population is being moved away from areas which are turning to desert.
Both Jean and Arthur are involved in relationships which end badly, Arthur’s when he accidentally kills his wife whose death is recorded as an accident.
Later, out in space, Arthur’s team discover an apparently alien artefact containing a written message. Arthur then has to persuade Jean, who has joined a tribe of Native Americans, to help him translate the message.
It’s a beautifully written novel of an America facing disaster, and peopled with complex and very real characters.
In one sense this may be described as being only borderline science fiction, but that would be missing the point, since the very best SF is that which employs the devices of SF to examine the human condition and this novel achieves that end superlatively. It is very much character driven and is as much a novel about America itself as it is about the relationship between Jean and Arthur and how each of them had to suffer before discovering their real selves.
Although listed in Pringle’s ‘100 Best SF Novels’ this is a little-known gem which deserves a far wider audience.


An Exaltation of Larks – Robert Reed (1995)

An Exaltation of Larks

‘Jesse is the kind of callow, sly college man who has it all. He’s editor of the student newspaper, enormously popular with the female students, breezing through with terrific grades. But he’s oblivious to the fragile balance of life… until something unutterably strange strips away the surface calm of his existence and exposes a universe that proves uncontrollable and endlessly mutable.
For Jesse has become the focus of a conspiracy of creatures from beyond the end of time to re-create our universe anew. Blinded by sex and greed, Jesse can’t see the terrible flaw in their vast plan… until a wonderful woman named Sully comes into his life and turns everything right side up.
The result is a wild, erotic joyride, a no-holds barred tour de force, and, finally, a novel of sublime grace and beauty, a testament to the transcendent power of love.’

Blurb to the Tor 1998 paperback edition

Reed here manages to turn a seemingly absurd premise into a thought-provoking and beautifully crafted novel in a minimal amount of pages.
There are Turtles at the end of time, but these are no ordinary turtles. They are Godlike post-organic entities and they are on a mission.
Our Universe is destined to continue expanding rather than subsequently contracting into another Big Bang (thus recreating the Universe) and will simply slowly fizzle out and go cold. The Turtles’ mission is to rebuild the Universe into a cyclic one, one that will perpetually die and recreate itself. To do this, the Turtles travel back in time.
One of the turtles arrives in an America of the mid Nineteen Seventies (in the guise of a Native American) where any vertebrate destined to die within the following fifteen months is given immortality, fated to become the next wave of turtles in a trillion years time, from whence they will leap back to fifteen months earlier than before. Thus, in fifteen month sections, the creatures are working their way back to the Big Bang itself.
Those not chosen to become turtles are dismantled and stored in a virtual library.
It’s an extremely well-written piece which vividly creates US college life of the time and concentrates on the characters and the changes they undergo as a result of the turtle’s actions.
It’s very much a character driven novel, a love story that manages to examine teenage relationships from both male and female points of view. The central figure, Jesse, is a serial dater with a reputation for using girls for sex until he simultaneously meets The Turtle and falls in love with the enigmatic Sally Faulkner. Or does he?
Nothing in this book is what it seems. The turtles’ awesome abilities allow them to alter people’s perceptions and memories, and in the course of their hunt for a ‘criminal’ who has travelled back in time in order to live another trillion years, reality is warped in order that the truth, if such a word has a meaning in this context, can be discovered.
It raises many ethical questions about the nature of the universe, the integrity of the individual, and the rights of an individual against the concept of a greater good. Who, for instance, decides what is good or right when deciding the destiny of the universe? Certainly, the denouement leaves one with many questions which are unanswerable, pondering on issues raised in the book long after the pages have been closed.


Them Bones – Howard Waldrop (1984)

Them Bones

‘Madison Yazoo Leake of the bombed-out, radiation-ridden 21st century wanted to go back in time to stop World War III before it began. When he stepped through the time portal he thought he was entering 1930s-era Louisiana. Instead, he found himself in a world where Arabs had explored America. Christianity and the Roman Empire had never existed and Aztecs performed human sacrifices near the Mississippi as woolly mammoths roamed nearby…’

Blurb from the 1984 Ace Science Fiction Special edition.

A secret government project in a devastated US of the 21st century sends a team of soldiers back in time in order to stop WWIII from starting.
Madison Yazoo Leake is first to go and finds himself and his horse far too far back in the past; some time around 1200 AD in fact, on the banks of the Mississippi.
Christianity is unknown to the Greek and Arab traders who have already visited America, as is any history of the Roman Empire.
The Amerindians whom he befriends are living more or less in harmony with some neighbouring Aztecs, but all that is about to change.
Meanwhile in 1929, an archaeological team in the same area is racing against time to excavate burial mounds and are coming across unusual finds, such as the skull of a horse, unknown to America at the time when the mounds were built, and, more worryingly, the remains of a brass rifle cartridge.
A company of 150 men follow Leake through the time portal and set up camp in what seems to be the same area, although there is no sign of Leake. Their initial meetings with the local tribes go well, but it appears that the troops have brought with them a contemporary infection to which the Amerindians have no resistance.
The natives – masters of guerrilla warfare – besiege the camp and slowly decimate the soldiers.
It’s a fascinating read, comprising of three narratives in alternate chapters.
The viewpoint of archaeologist Bessie Level from 1929 is told in third person narrative while Madison narrates his own story in a dry laconic first person.
Acting Adjutant Smith’s tale is told via daily troop reports, statistics and a diary.
Nominated for the Philip K Dick award it is most definitely an original and thought-provoking novel, harrowing in places, but with a streak of mordant wit running through.
One could be fooled into thinking of this as a simplistic tale of time travel but it is far more complex and intriguing than the casual reader might think, and raises questions which remain with the reader, waiting to be answered.