Ten stories from Eric Brown, of varying quality, set in various parts of the world or universe.
There are recurring themes of Death (or perhaps mortality) and identity. There a couple of stories which are a little weak, although on the whole they are fascinating little gems, featuring well-rounded characters, and not all of them Anglo-American Anglo Saxon folk either, which makes a pleasant change.
A very easy and enjoyable read.
Venus Macabre (Aboriginal Science Fiction, Winter 1998)
A tale of two men obsessed with death. One is a conceptual artist who is equipped with a device which records his mind. He perpetually destroys himself as a performance before spending seven days in the impervious device while his body is being regrown. The other, who attends his final performance, is a TV host who employs empaths to track suicides. Their final days and their actual suicides are filmed and shown on a popular prime time show.
This tale cleverly unravels the history of the two protagonists and what else they have in common.
The Frankenberg Process (Interzone, #171 September 2001)
A fascinating story with a very retro feel to it. The Frankenberg Process splits top level executives of a vast Corporation into two separate but identical individuals, keeping one on Earth and teleporting the other to work on a distant alien world, never to return.
It’s a tale of corporate greed and control, but also examines the human effects of such a process.
Skyball (The Edge, Vol. 2, #5, August-September 1997)
In a near future Far East, a form of quidditch is played, with teams zooming about in powered harnesses. A telepath, who used to be employed to scout out talent by seeing their potential in their minds, is now employed seeking out criminals. He is at an important Skyball final as a tip has been received that someone will attempt to kill one of the players.
While there, he discovers a crippled girl who has the mind of a brilliant Skyball strategist, and conceives the idea of temporarily transferring her mind into that of a fading star player. .
Bengal Blues (The Angels of Life and Death 2010)
A weak but atmospheric story about a telepathic detective on the trail of a man who has married a prostitute. The ending is a little rushed and awkward for me. It seems as if it should be part of a larger work.
The Nilakantha Scream (Interzone, #48 June 1991)
Telepaths again feature in this odd tale of an interstellar contact crew returning from a world where they were deeply traumatised and have been emitting a daily psychic scream on their way back home. This is however, more about the central figure and her relationship to her boss and to one of the crew returning from space.
The Thallian Intervention (The Edge, Vol. 2, #2, February-March 1996)
One of the weaker tales in ‘Angels of Life and Death’ is an attempt at an early Twentieth Century style, where Mr Meredith, a passenger on a liner to Singapore meets an alien visitor from the future.
The Earth is doomed, but the aliens plan to effectively copy the Earth, transport it to their own time period, and hopefully save Humanity from destroying itself.
It ultimately looks at the same themes as ‘The Frankenburg Process’ but not to any great degree.
The Tapestry of Time (Fantasy Adventures 12 – 2006)
An archaeologist is struggling to come to terms with an anomalous corpse from the 11th Century that has turned up. Not long after an old colleague invites him to have a tour of his project, which appears to be a working time-travel process.
Without giving too much away there is not enough of a mystery, and the piece could have been longer with a little more plot.
The Frozen Woman (Interzone, #190 July-August 2003)
A gardener for a large private estate is discovered frozen, as if in stasis, in Sainsburys. A year later he recovers, apparently none the worse for his experience. However, he will only speak with one specific reporter, a woman about whom he seems to know and care a great deal, although she has never met him.
Brown’s aliens and evolved humans (as are described here and in the stories in Angels of Life and Death) seem in the main to be benevolent, which is interesting and a little refreshing.
Crystals (New Moon #2, January 1992)
An alien ship crashed just off an island on Britain’s coast. It has been thoroughly examined by most of the world’s specialists and the alien bodies removed.
When the story begins the ship has become merely a scenic view for the islanders. The narrator moved to the island following an acrimonious divorce. His estranged daughter is due to arrive for a visit and her mother has not told her that the man she calls father is not her father.
As she arrives, the island is beset by a storm and the next day alien crystals are found on the beach, crystals that can one record one’s thoughts and experiences.
It is not a bad story but would benefit with some extra length and more conflict.
Angels of Life and Death ( Spectrum SF, #5 February 2001)
Just after Ben, an artist, discovers he has terminal cancer, aliens arrive, announcing their intention to take Earth’s mortally sick for a trip around the Universe. Ben volunteers and is introduced to Tallibeth, his guide, a humanoid being who appears to be composed of light.
The Tallani, as the aliens are known, take Ben to various worlds across the Universe and ultimately tell him that they can, if he wishes, cure him.
As with some of his other stories there is an exploration of what it means to have quality of life.
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.
‘Exiles of an extra-galactic god
BEACHHEAD FROM ANOTHER GALAXY
Whether or not he had wanted to turn back at the last minute, he couldn’t have – the wave of dirty, hungry people carried him helplessly along in their fervor to reach the temple. Like dope addicts, he told himself, they don’t even care about themselves, only about the thing that is inside the temple!
He remembered the day ten years ago when his older brother had been made a Warden of Asconel, a prosperous and happy planet, and he and his other brothers had left in the interests of their people. Now they had returned to a world where a fanatical cult had usurped the Warden’s chair, and men and women were gladly offering themselves up as human sacrifices to Belizuek – whoever or whatever that being from beyond the galaxy was…
I’ll find out, he told himself grimly, when I enter these doors…’
Blurb from the 1965 M-123 Ace Double paperback edition.
Part of Brunner’s ‘Interstellar Empire’ series, As a backdrop to this novel; Humanity spread out into space and discovered many abandoned starships. Using these, a Galactic Empire was established which has now collapsed, leaving the galaxy in a state comparable to Asimov’s Galactic Empire in ‘Foundation and Empire’ where the collapsing Empire is too weak to sustain itself but remains a formidable force.
Asconel was a progressive world outside of the dominion of the failing Empire (with however a hereditary warden it appears). Hodat inherited the wardenship and his three brothers decided to leave the planet to avoid being used as figureheads in any opposition to his stewardship. The youngest brother, Sartrak, has dedicated himself to study in a pacifist brotherhood.
Sartrak’s hot-headed brother Vix arrives to tell him that Hoday has been murdered and that his position as warden of Asconel has been usurped by one Bucyon and his telepathic partner, Lydis. They have brought a new religion to Asconel, one that seems unfeasibly popular and which features voluntary human sacrifice.
Sartrak and his brothers along with Eunora, a young telepath, return to Asconel, determined to rid the world of the evil that has mentally enslaved its people.
It’s a very enjoyable read. The background, however, is far more interesting than the novel itself. The rump of the Empire, whom we encounter en-route are an aggressive paranoid lot.
‘DAWN OF A NEW DOOMSDAY
It was in the light of the swift star ‘God’s Eye’ – said to have been thrown aloft by the Ancients before the Desolation – that Beatra was captured by raiders from under the Earth.
Armed with only a psi-kinetic sand-sword and a Dire Wolf’s eyes, Jeremy Wolfhead followed, and found a strange city ruled by the descendants of an ancient government that had escaped the Desolation – a city that was preparing to emerge and bring to Earth a second, even more horrible, Doomsday!’
Blurb from the 1978 Berkley paperback edition
Jeremy Wolfhead lives with his grandfather in a Post Apocalyptic America, three thousand years after an atomic war. Life is good for Jeremy. He lives in a large house with his grandfather and his beautiful wife, Beatra. One morning the couple rise early to see the Gods Eye which we realise is the light of a satellite which orbits the earth.
However, a group of pale-skinned strangers appear and Jeremy’s dog, Goro, is killed, his wife kidnapped and Jeremy himself knocked unconscious.
He awakens under the care of a quasi-scientific brotherhood, and is able to hear their thoughts. He can also, it is soon discovered, use the power of his mind to create vortices of whatever matter is available. Thus a whirling disc of dust can be used as a weapon to cut wood or slice a man’s throat.
The Brotherhood have not taught Jeremy this out of the kindness of their hearts. There is a prophecy that says that a man with a Wolf’s Head will go amongst the people who live underground and destroy the Gods Eye. The descendants of the US President’s emergency bunker have remained underground and learned to live in darkness. Rather like Wells’ Morlocks they have evolved pallid white skin and large eyes. It is they who have kidnapped Beatra in order to discover information about the people of the surface.
In order for Jeremy to see underground, the brothers have grafted part of his brain into the brain of the she dire wolf, Virgil, a creature whose species mutated due to the radiation and evolved infra-red vision.
And so, Jeremy sets off to the underground city of the President to destroy the Gods Eye and rescue his wife.
It lacks the verve and creative flourishes of Harness’s early work and invites comparison with similar novels such as Pangborn’s ‘Davy’, Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’ and the brilliant ‘Riddley Walker’. These other books are richer in ideas and characterisation. There is little of the detailed and colourful societies of ‘the Ring of Ritornel’ and ‘the Paradox men’ or indeed, the complex plots and structure.
Comparisons also have to be drawn with Star Wars which premiered a couple of years before this book came out and which exhibits certain plot parallels.
Jeremy (like Luke Skywalker) is an orphan who meets a mentor in the form of a robed man (Father Arcrite) and is taught how to employ his mind powers before being sent off to face the President (Emperor) and rescue the princess (Beatra).
This book has a Gods Eye, Star wars has a Death Star. Jeremy’s father is also revealed to be still alive, while Jeremy thought he was dead.
Whether or not Harness was influenced by these films is not clear. It’s unlikely he can have been unaware of them, although it also has to be pointed out that by the time ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, this book may have already been in print.
Another theory may be that Harness (presumably like George Lucas) was merely following the Campbell structure of narrative, of which films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are perfect examples. The hero is taken out of his/her environment and sent on a quest, facing challenges on the way, meeting allies and mentors, until eventually they must face the great enemy, be it Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West or (in this case) the US President.
The hero then returns, having gained the prize, but more importantly, wisdom.
Harness has some interesting points to make about how some species have evolved to fit particular niches. The Dire Wolf, for instance, as has been said, has developed infra-red vision, while crocodiles and humans have adapted themselves to life underground.
Hallmarks of Harness’ work are the prophecy, and the final twist which didn’t come as a great surprise since most astute readers would have worked out that Jeremy’s father was the returner, sent back by the Undergrounders, although maybe not that he is also father Phaedrus.
It’s also a relief that that Harness did not opt for a sentimental ending, which is again typical of his work. One gets the impression that life is moving on, rather than being halted by the emotional full stop of a happy ending.
‘BEWARE THE ONE-OF-A-KIND WORLD
To the crew of the exploratory vessel Alpha Tauri, Krado 1 was a planetary paradise waiting to be taken. But had nature gone wild? Was evolution non-existent there? No one could understand why, of all the forms of life that might have populated Krado 1, only one species of bird and one species of rodent existed.
The explorers could not have known what lurked behind the thousands of bright, beady eyes… what manifested itself to the telepath Roger Keim as a soundless roar in the corridors of his mind… what was waiting to be released…’
Blurb from the 1970 76096 Ace Doubles paperback edition
This is a very workmanlike variation on the ‘alien loose on the ship’ story, with echoes of Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There’ and van Vogt’s ‘Black Destroyer’
An exploratory vessel of The Empire, Alpha Tauri, lands on an uncharted habitable world. Apart from vegetation, the planet seems empty of life apart from one species of bird and one species of rodent. The T-man (telepath), Keim, becomes increasingly nervous as he is hearing a constant roar of mental static.
This is because a castaway is already on the planet. Its name is Uli, a virtually immortal being from the edge of the galaxy, and the last survivor of nine who set out to escape an apocalypse in their region of space.
Uli – a small egg shaped beast with an eye at one end – has the power to project portions of his being into other creatures, such as the birds and the rodents. His plan is to infect the crew one by one, and to use the ship to take him back to the Empire of the humans where he can begin his conquest of the galaxy.
There’s a definite van Vogt-ian influence here. The mysterious ‘Empire’ is mentioned in passing but we are given scant details. Keim is the paradigm of a van Vogt hero, logical and alienated from his peers, but who is eventually proven right.
Keim is helped in his battle by Lara, a young crew member who has had to admit her own burgeoning telepathic powers.
The major flaw in the structure is that Uli is revealed and explained to the reader immediately in a massive bit of info-dumping which is, one would think, unnecessary.
There is an exciting ‘battle of wits’ denouement in which Keim and Uli both push their powers of cunning to the limit in order to destroy the other.
Probably the quintessential Space Opera of its time, the Lensman series has dated – although not so badly as the work of some of his contemporaries – due mainly, in my opinion, to Smith’s rather one-dimensional characterisation, his dialogue and his depiction of female roles. Paradoxically, given the rather limited characterisation of the humans his aliens are sometimes truly alien. Indeed, the mindsets of some of the non-human protagonists are often far more skilfully depicted than their human counterparts.
Despite that, provided one bears in mind the social climate in which this was written and reads the novel in context, they can still be hugely enjoyable.
The term ‘Space Opera’ is actually used within the text at one point when Kim Kinnison – the hero of the series – goes undercover posing as a writer of the genre. Whether the alter ego was based on anyone in particular is not known.
This is the finale to Smith’s six volume saga. Smith was an early forerunner of today’s ‘Big Concept’ writers such as Greg Bear and Stephen Baxter, and though some of his scientific fabulations seem somewhat preposterous by today’s standards it was Smith and writers like him who created that ‘sense of wonder’ for many readers, not only when this was published as a magazine serial in the Nineteen Forties, but when republished in book form in the fifties and (for reasons unknown) enjoying an unexpected renaissance in the mid-seventies. The series has recently been republished by an independent publisher and hopefully will find a new generation of readers.
Smith’s strength lies in his ability to convey the vastness of Time and Space, his premise being that billions of years ago a race of humanoids – The Arisians – was born in our galaxy and evolved far beyond the point at which humanity now stands.
They learned that by observation and the calculations of their powerful minds they could predict the future to a certain degree. They knew that a galaxy was about to pass completely through their own galaxy, and that the gravitational pull of suns against each other would produce billions of new planets, upon which Life would evolve.
They also knew that another ancient race, the cruel and tyrannical Eddorians, had plans to dominate both galaxies and sate their immortal lust for power.
The Arisians only advantage was that the Eddorians were not aware of their existence, and so was set in motion a plan which was to span millions of years, taking us through the fall of Atlantis, the Roman Empire and thus through the Twentieth Century and beyond.
In essence, this is an epic war of ideologies, in that the Arisians represent democracy and free will, while the Eddorians represent a system of Hierarchical totalitarianism, enforced by a militaristic regime (In this respect it is interesting to compare the physical description of Smith’s Eddorians with Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, who themselves are a metaphor for the forces of Communism. Both are sexless, emotionless amorphous creatures, who reproduce by binary fission, with each new half retaining the memories and skills of the original).
The Arisians’ secret weapon is a selective breeding programme which has been in operation on four different planets since intelligent life evolved.
Only one of the four races can go on to produce the super-beings capable of defeating the Eddorians.
Humans, of course, win the ‘race’ race and the couple selectively bred to give birth to the Homo Superior children are inevitably white and North American.
This idea of selectively breeding humans rather puts a dent into the concept of Arisians as benign Guardians of Democracy, and although one can argue that it was the Arisians’ only option, it is never really addressed as a moral issue within the text.
The Children themselves are four girls and boy who, in their late teens, have to conceal that fact that they are the most powerful – if underdeveloped as yet – beings in the Universe. We are led to believe that the girls will ultimately become the wives of their brother, and the mothers of the race that will replace the Arisians as Guardians of Civilisation.
An oddly incestuous episode also ensues between Kit (the boy) and his mother in a strange scene where she – in need of brain-restructuring and training, for want of a better phrase – allows the mind of her son to enter hers, rather than submit to mental penetration by the Arisians (of whom she has an incurable phobia).
The description of this act is oddly violent and not a little sexual, made worse by the rather stilted professions of love between Mother and son before the procedure.
But Hell, this is Pulp Fiction. It never pretends to be Shakespeare, and despite its political incorrectness I still find it a nostalgic and stonking good read.
Seven short stories featuring the early career of John Grimes in the Survey Service, put together in a sequential fashion. They’re light-hearted fodder, and follow a fairly standard formula in which Grimes finds himself in a bit of a scrape, not always through his own actions.
With Good Intentions (Hard Way Up 1972)
Lieutenant Grimes joins The Pathfinder to ferry a party of surveyors to a planet where a primitive humanoid race is extant. The Survey Service has a ‘Prime Directive’ rule not to interfere, but Grimes can’t help himself.
The Subtracter (Galaxy August 1969)
Grimes takes control of ‘The Adder’ and is chartered to ferry a passenger from one planet to another. the passenger turns out to be an excellent chef and becomes popular with the crew, although his real profession is somewhat darker.
The Tin Messiah (Hard Way Up 1972)
Grimes’ next passenger is Mr Adam, a messianic android, who becomes a little irrational.
Sleeping Beauty (Galaxy February 1970)
‘The Adder’, under Grimes’ command, has to transport the Queen Egg of an insect race to a colony world. Due to delays en route, the egg hatches and the truculent young queen transforms the crew into her drones.
The Wandering Buoy (Analog September 1970)
Perhaps written in response to ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ (1968), we see The Adder discovering a spherical object drifting in interstellar space, which turns out to be an autonomous machine designed to show primitive species how to make fire etc.
The Mountain Movers (Galaxy March 1971)
‘The Adder’ is grounded on a world the natives and culture of which John Grimes finds suspiciously similar to that of Australian aborigines. They even have their own version of Ayres Rock. AS it turns out, there is a reason for this.
What You Know (Galaxy Jan 1971)
John Grimes, in charge of ‘The Adder’ has to ferry a demanding female Commissioner along with her staff and robot attendants. The Adder, from lack of maintenance, breaks down in interstellar space and is forced to request help from Skandia, a ‘kingdom’ of Scandinavian humans, whose relationship with Earth is somewhat strained.
Grimes is forced at the end to resign his commission in the Survey Service.
Volume three of Carnell’s experimental magazine in book form. The quality of content has increased somewhat, helped to a large extent by the inclusion of Frederik Pohl and Keith Roberts
The Subways of Kazoo – Colin Kapp
Xenoarchaeologists call in a laterally-thinking engineer to help them solve the transport problem on an inhospitable planet of alien ruins. It’s an enjoyable if not ground-breaking exercise in science & deduction.
The Fiend – Frederik Pohl (Playboy, 1964)
As can be expected, Pohl here gives us not only a twist ending but a quite shocking – for its time – examination of the male mind. Comparing this with Colin Kapp’s ‘Subways of Kazoo’ (in New Writings in SF 3) which is very much set in the style of Fifties SF, it shows how much SF had changed.
In a few short pages Pohl gives us a male character whose somewhat twisted mentality – not only due to the nine years he’d spent alone piloting a ship of frozen colonists – gives in to his fantasy and awakens a young woman, ostensibly to terrify and enslave her for his own gratification.
Refreshingly, the young woman is capable of playing him at his own game and refuses to be intimidated. It’s a gem of a story, managing to pad more characterisation into its short length than some authors manage in entire novels.
Manipulation – John Kingston
A very literary and somewhat poetic examination of ESP in which again, as in Pohl’s piece the mind of a disturbed young man is examined in disturbing detail. Told in claustrophobic first person narrative we see life through the eyes of our unnamed protagonist and his fatal obsession with his ex-lover Julie.
Testament – John Baxter
A short mood piece which succeeds by what it doesn’t say than what it does. One of a race of drought-stricken aliens kills and eats a creature he finds in the desert, but which could very well have been a space-faring member of his own species returning to find a lost colony.
The economy of the prose cleverly leaves the reader to deduce the truth for himself.
Night Watch – James Inglis
This is an oddly nostalgic piece since one would expect a story of this style to have appeared in Astounding in the Forties or Fifties. Like ‘Testament’ it is a mood piece, telling the story of an information-gathering probe which achieves a form of sentience during its long examination of the processes of the Universe. It’s an enjoyable upbeat tale, the basic premise of which is very similar to that of ‘Star Trek The Motion picture’ and the original classic Star Trek episode on which it was based.
Boulter’s Canaries – Keith Roberts
Keith Roberts is well-known for producing work at the quality/literary end of the SF spectrum and this short piece certainly shows his potential. It’s an interesting look at poltergeist activity and though the tale holds few surprises it has a depth of visualisation and writing which is missing from many other stories in this book (New Writings in SF 3), with the possible exception of ‘Manipulation’ and ‘The Fiend’
Emreth – Dan Morgan
An unremarkable story of a humanoid alien species inhabiting what appears to be a paradise planet. But who are plagued by shape-shifting predators who feed on life-force. The characters are, frankly dull and the denouement predictable.
Once more, as in the majority of these stories, male characters take the lead, although the life-force vampire takes the shape of an attractive female. Whether one should read very much into that is debatable.
Spacemaster – James H Schmitz
Spacemaster is oddly-structured in that the tale is told via an interview between a human captive and his Spacemaster jailer, during the course of which the captive begins to realise that things aren’t always what they seem. It’s also a little controversial since it revolves about the basic concept of Humanity being able to maintain its own stock by judicious ‘culling’ of the potential for weak genetic material to pollute the general gene pool.
Although a fascinating story, calling the ruling elite ‘Spacemasters’ was a rather naff touch that this otherwise decent story could have done without.
To our detriment, this is Smith’s only novel, his output otherwise being a large number of quirky short stories mostly set in this universe of The Instrumentality of Mankind. Having said that, ‘Norstrilia’ has a complex origin since it was originally published in two shorter separate parts in 1964 as ‘The Planet Buyer’ (which itself was expanded from a shorter piece ‘The Boy Who Bought Old Earth’) and ‘The Store of Heart’s Desire’
Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan to the Hundred and Fifty-First (known as Rod McBan) is a boy living on the peculiar world of Norstrilia, heir to one of the prosperous mutant sheep ranches.
Norstrilia, or Old North Australia, where the people are still subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, (despite the fact she’s been dead for at least fifteen thousand years) was originally an Australian farming world until a virus attacked the sheep. What could have been tragedy changed the fortunes of mankind as a by-product of the sheep’s illness was Stroon, a longevity drug. Thus Norstrilia became the richest planet in the galaxy. The Norstrilians did not want to change their way of life however, and so incredibly high taxes are paid on any imported items to their world. Their children are tested in their teens to see if they are physically and mentally fit to survive, and those that fail get sent to a painless death.
Rod McBan is about to be tested, and his family are worried. Rod seems unable to hier or spiek. In other words, unlike the other telepathic natives of Norstrilia, he can neither hear thoughts nor project them. A girl who loves him, Lavinia, knows that this is not strictly true as there are times when Rod can hier everyone’s thoughts for miles around and when he is angry his mind is powerful enough to disable or kill.
Having survived the test, with the help of Lord Redlady, a member of the ruling body – The Instrumentality of Mankind – it seems Rod is still in danger from one Houghton Syme, an old schoolmate of Rod’s who is determined to kill or destroy him. Rod has access to an ancient computer, hidden on his land which, when Rod asks it for help, puts a financial scheme in motion. By the next day, Rod McBan is the owner of virtually all of Old Earth and therefore has to travel there to take ownership of his prize and escape the murderous attentions of Houghton Syme.
Once on Earth he becomes acquainted with the Underpeople; races of bioengineered animals who have a prophecy of a rich man coming to Earth to set them free. Could this be Rod McBan?
Smith certainly had a facility for creating well-defined characters. Norstrilia is set in a marvellously detailed if slightly unrealistic landscape. The narrative is peppered with songs and poetry which adds to a certain undercurrent of joy that suffuses the book.
Eccentric and fascinating figures appear and disappear, such as The Catmaster, who is a kind of guru/healer figure and the only Underperson allowed (by special dispensation of The Instrumentality) to take Stroon.
Smith throws in ideas right. left and centre, such as the giant alien architects who once visited human worlds and built indestructible buildings on various planets (on a whim) before leaving.
It’s a marvellously clever mix of comedy, drama, satire and romanticism, interspersed with poetry and song.
At the end of the day, however, it is simply the story of a young man who (much like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) travels to another world, has adventures, makes friends and enemies and ultimately realises that what he wants and needs has been at home in his own back yard all the time.
‘Man has conquered Space and spread throughout the galaxy. Many civilisations on several thousand planets are joined in a vast confederation whose very existence is now threatened by The Rull – a paranoid, murderous race from beyond the frontiers of human territory.
Equal to Man in intelligence, The Rull have a technology that may even be superior. Their spaceships have already captured several hundred planets. The final titanic showdown that will decide Man’s fate and the fate of the whole galaxy is imminent.’
This is one of Van Vogt’s more successful fix-up novels. Earlier published stories – Repetition (1940), Cooperate or Else (1942), The Second Solution (1942), The Rull (1948) and The Sound (1950) – have been re-edited and combined with fresh material into a novel-length narrative.
David Pringle, former editor of Interzone, describes Van Vogt as a ‘slapdash’ writer, and in some cases, one can’t argue with this. Van Vogt’s hastily-written work can be easily spotted and examples of it can be found here.
Van Vogt has other flaws also. The innate sexism in this novel in particular jars somewhat. The hero, Trevor Jamieson, when trapped (with a woman intent on killing him) on a moon teeming with predators, manages to overpower her. The woman accedes to his male superiority and Jamieson who ‘knows women’, is sure that she won’t try to kill him again, and indeed she doesn’t.
Later, Jamieson’s son is kidnapped by the alien Rull. He keeps the news to himself, sure that his ‘very feminine’ wife will not be strong enough to handle such news.
Of course, this is not a flaw exclusive to Van Vogt. Such misrepresentation of women was more or less the norm and in many cases was presumably endorsed or policed by editors with such views. Radical portrayals of women may well have been frowned upon.
Jamieson of course, is the hero, and despite the aforesaid flaws in the writing he is an unusual hero in that the solutions to his problems come from logic and reason.
It is logic and deduction which convinces him that the monstrous three eyed six-thousand pound six-limbed Ezwals of Carson’s Planet are not just dangerous beasts, but are highly intelligent and telepathic.
The human race is at war with The Rull, a shape-shifting insectoid race from another galaxy, and Carson’s Planet plays a key defensive role.
Jamieson’s character is very much in the mould of Gilbert Gosseyn (The Pawns of Null-A) in that he refuses to allow emotions to sway his judgement.
He moves from one adventure to another from the outset where he is stranded on a hostile planet with a hostile Ezwal – wanting to kill Jamieson to preserve the secret of Ezwal intelligence, but forced into an alliance with him in order to survive.
The best section is probably ‘The Sound’ set in The City of The Ship where for decades the people of the city – including Jamieson and his family – have been hard at work on a vast spaceship on which they will all eventually leave.
A rite-of-passage ritual has developed where once a year younger children are allowed to stay out all night to hunt for the source of the sound which permeates their lives.
This stands out from the rest of the novel for the attention paid to both the background and the detail.
The final section sadly, is the weakest and provides a far from satisfactory denouement, certainly not the ‘titanic showdown’ promised in the blurb.
The end depends far too much on unbelievable coincidence, a ‘Deus Ex Machina’ alien composed of electrical charges and little else.
Before you know it, the century long war is over, Jamieson has saved the galaxy and The Rull are pulling their forces back.
Having said that, this isn’t a bad novel. The disparate stories have been conflated cleverly into a single narrative, one of the bonuses of which is that we are given glimpses of various parts of Van Vogt’s huge Universe. They are tantalisingly brief and – particularly in the case of ‘The Sound’ – add an unexpected touch of realism to events.
The development of the Ezwal sub-plot is handled well but suffers from any conclusion in that we never get to discover how Jamieson’s Ezwal ally fares in negotiating with his own people.
Looking at this book from another perspective it does also show once more a view of diplomacy which is intrinsically American.
The Ezwals want the humans off their planet and so launch guerrilla attacks, killing many humans. Jamieson, after eventually befriending an orphaned Ezwal child, tells him that that if the Ezwals (who have a purely pastoral civilisation) develop a machine civilisation and can defend themselves from the Rull, then the humans will leave. No negotiation. No leeway. Essentially, the ‘American’ view is that if you develop your culture to be just like us, we’ll go away.