My life in outer space

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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.


Year’s Best SF 6 – David G Hartwell (Ed.) (2000)

Year's Best SF 6


The Reef – Paul J McAuley (Skylife Ed Benford/Zebrowski 2000)
Reality Check – David Brin (Nature, Vol 404 2000)
The Millennium Express – Robert Silverberg (Playboy, Jan 2000)
Patient Zero – Tananarive Due (F & SF 2000)
The Oort Crowd – Ken MacLeod (Nature, Vol 406 2000)
The Thing About Benny – M Shayne Bell (Vanishing Acts, Tor 2000 Ed Ellen Datlow)
The Last Supper – Brian Stableford (Science Fiction Age, Mar 2000)
Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN – Joan Slonczewski (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
Our Mortal Span – Howard Waldrop (Black Heart, Ivory Bones, Avon Books/Eos, Ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Wilding)
Different Kinds of Darkness – David Langford (F & SF, Jan 2000)
New Ice Age, or Just Cold Feet? – Norman Spinrad (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
The Devotee – Stephen Dedman (Eidolon #29/30 2000)
The Marriage of Sky & Sea – Chris Beckett (Interzone Mar 2000)
In The Days of the Comet – John M Ford (Nature, Vol 405 2000)
The Birthday of the World – Ursula K LeGuin (F& SF, Jun 2000)
Oracle – Greg Egan (F& SF, Jul 2000)
To Cuddle Amy – Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, Aug 2000)
Steppenpferd – Brian W Aldiss (F&SF, Feb 2000)
Sheena 5 – Stephen Baxter (Analog, May 2000)
The Fire Eggs – Darrell Schweitzer (Interzone, Mar 2000)
The New Horla – Robert Sheckley (F&SF July 2000)
Madame Bovary, C’est Moi – Dan Simmons (Nature, Vol 407 2000)
Grandma’s Jumpman – Robert Reed (Century, Spring 2000)
Bordeaux Mixture – Charles Dexter Ward (Nature, Vol 404 2000)
The Dryad’s Wedding – Robert Charles Wilson (Star Colonies, 2000)
Built Upon The Sands of Time – Michael Flynn (Analog July/Aug 2000)
Seventy-Two Letters – Ted Chiang (Vanishing Acts, Tor 2000 Ed Ellen Datlow)

Annual collections have evolved like dinosaurs from the slim volumes of the 60s and 70s into the paperback versions of Tyrannosaurs, vying for attention with their garish colour schemes (Sadly, the text for the cover of this issue completely obscures the artwork, looks like it’s been thrown together hurriedly in a copy of Adobe Illustrator and doesn’t do the volume itself any justice at all).
This series, ably edited by David G Hartwell, goes head to head with the Gardner Dozois series and a whole subspecies of other annual compilations which somehow survive to re-emerge next year, so good luck to them.
This volume purports to be the best SF of 2000. I say purports to be since the publishing history is a little strange, giving a first paperback publication date of June 2000, when some of the stories included were not published until July/August 2000. Looking at the publication dates of the stories included we notice that, yes, it seems that possibly all of the work included comes from a time before August 2000, which is unfortunate if your excellent SF story was published in, say, November 2000.
However, it is nevertheless an excellent collection and Hartwell, whatever publishing constraints he is bound by, has to be congratulated on selecting not only brilliant pieces of work, but those which complement and enhance each other. McLeod and Slonczewski, for instance, both deal with the theme of intelligent bacteria, and there are other examples of synchronicity throughout the collection.

The Reef – Paul J McAuley

One of my favourites in this collection, which tells of an expedition to find the result of a lost experiment in genetically engineered zero-gravity organisms.

Reality Check – David Brin

This is the first of several examples of the short pieces that were published in Nature throughout 2000 to celebrate the Millennium. David Brin takes a very Dickian turn with this piece which suggests that there is embedded code within the text which can wake certain people up to face a truer reality.

The Millenium Express – Robert Silverberg

On the eve of the Third Millenium, an investigator is tracking four men: Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Vjong Cleversmith. His aim is to find out why they are planning to blow up (or implode, since the matter is still under discussion) The Louvre, and to stop them. But can he, and more importantly, should he?

Patient Zero – Tananarive Due

A good, if a little schmaltzy, tale of a young boy who was one of the first to contract a lethal virus, and one of the only people to survive. He is kept within an isolation unit and we see the world through his eyes, via the doctors and helpers who come into contact with him, as the virus destroys society.
Well-written, and from an unusual perspective.

The Oort Crowd – Ken MacLeod

This is a prequel of sorts to MacLeod’s ‘Dark Light’ books, and is one of two tales here dealing with the concept of intelligent bacteria.

The Thing About Benny – M Shayne Bell

An unusual tale, set in the aftermath of climate change, or at least an ecological disaster, where a savante of sorts – who is also an obsessive Abba Fan – hunts through office blocks in search of rare plants which unwitting workers may have been keeping in a plant pot. His aim is to discover a new species and name it after Agnetha.
Very original and readable.

The Last Supper – Brian Stableford

A celebration of genetically-modified food in this gloriously politically incorrect story set in the restaurant of a renowned chef whose dishes are all genetically modified, and some ingredients are not what one might call strictly legal.
Elegant, satirical and memorable

Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN – Joan Slonczewski

Another millennium tale from ‘Nature’, this time told as a news report in which a civilisation of bacteria join the UN.

Our Mortal Span – Howard Waldrop

I have a problem with Waldrop. As a writer he is good, descriptive, poetic, emotive, and pushes all the right buttons, but there is always something I don’t quite get.
This a tale set in a near future Fairy Tale Theme Park where a mechanised troll goes on the rampage, accusing the other characters of not being true to the original scripts, or so it seemed to me. It might be a little more complicated than that.

Different Kinds of Darkness – David Langford

This is what I would term a ‘real’ SF story, the sort of thing one used to get in SF monthly. It’s full of meat and character and fascinating concepts, such as pictures designed to drive the viewer insane and schools where the pupils have their perceptions altered.

New Ice Age, or Just Cold Feet? – Norman Spinrad

A short satirical tale from Spinrad in which a future Earth is struggling to reverse the effects of Global Cooling

The Devotee – Stephen Dedman

An interesting noir-esque tale featuring a hard-boiled private eye and covering issues such as amputee fetishes, porn and cloning. Despite what some people may find to be distasteful subject matter, this is an excellent tale, stylishly written and conveying a sense of verisimilitude to a complex near future society

The Marriage of Sky & Sea – Chris Beckett

A clever story which exploits our current obsession with media celebrities, one of whom is the hero – if that is the right word – of this short gem. He is an author, travelling the galaxy in a sentient ship, each time landing on a primitive world and writing about his experiences with the natives, despite the fact he is well aware of what the effect of his intrusion – along with his advanced technology – has on the cultures he visits.
On this occasion, however, he may have underestimated both the natives and his own feelings.

In The Days of the Comet – John M Ford

And yet another tale featuring the microcellular, or smaller, particles of the universe, in this case, infectious proteins or prions, which have been seeded in comets. Extraordinarily well-written for such a short piece.

The Birthday of the World – Ursula K LeGuin

A beautiful and poetic work from Le Guin, who never fails to marry the base human and the exotic into a powerful piece of work. Here, a race which has, as the basis of its culture, hereditary gods who foresee the future, is thrown into turmoil by the failure of the system and the power of ambition and greed working within the family.
It’s a haunting and mysterious piece, but one which seems firmly grounded in its own reality.

Oracle – Greg Egan

Although not made that clear in the text, Egan here fictionalises a rivalry in the late Nineteen Forties between two characters based on Alan Turing and CS Lewis, and sets up a battle of essentially, science versus religion.
‘Turing’, trapped by the police into admitting a gay relationship, is blackmailed into working for an unscrupulous government scientist, but is rescued by a mysterious woman who turns out to be an AI, one of the descendants of his research.
Following a series of brilliant scientific developments on ‘Turing’s part, ‘Lewis’ believes ‘Turing’ to be in league with The Devil, and sets out to expose and discredit him.

To Cuddle Amy – Nancy Kress

Another tale that features children, which seems to be a popular subject in this volume, although this is a short and quite chilling tale, examining what morality we may eventually ascribe to producing children if it becomes a simple matter of ordering another one if the first one doesn’t work out.

Steppenpferd – Brian W Aldiss

In a strangely parallel story to Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Century Rain’ Aldiss takes us to a strange system where copies of the earth are trapped inside Dyson Spheres. On one of these worlds, in a pre-industrial Scandinavia, a priest is tormented between his faith and the reality he sees around him, doubting whether his fellow priests are real, or merely the transient bodies of the shape-changing asymmetrical aliens who have created these worlds.

Sheena 5 – Stephen Baxter

Baxter examines the ethics and possible consequences of genetic experimentation in this tale in which a tailored squid is sent out to the asteroids to set up a mining operation. The squid however, was pregnant and gives birth en-route to other equally intelligent offspring.
An alternate history of Sheena can also be found as part of Baxter’s 1999 novel, ‘Time – Manifold 1’ where the pregnant squid is diverted to Cruithne, Earth’s other ‘moon’ and the destiny of her children changed.

The Fire Eggs – Darrell Schweitzer

An odd and borderline surreal tale of luminescent eggs which appear all over the world, hovering slightly above the ground. Impervious to any form of force, and seemingly inert, they are eventually relegated to the status of inexplicable curiosities by most of the population. There are a few however, who claim that they can hear the eggs singing.

The New Horla – Robert Sheckley

A reworking of the classic tale ‘The Horla’ by Guy Du Maupassant.
I’ve never really ‘got’ Sheckley, and this fairly recent piece of his didn’t help me to get him any further.

Madame Bovary, C’est Moi – Dan Simmons

It is discovered that works of literature generate their own universes in which, more often than not, the central figures do not realise that they are the central figures. This is probably the best of the ‘Nature’ stories, conveying a tremendous amount in its brief number of words.

Grandma’s Jumpman – Robert Reed

Reed as a writer is very much at home in America’s rural backwaters, and before he began his recent style of vast post-vanvogtian space opera with planet-sized ships and immortal post-humans, his work was more redolent of Clifford Simak, as here, where a young boy visiting his aunt’s farm discovers the true nature of her relationship with the alien farmhand.
As with much of Reed’s work, there is a bittersweet undertone to the piece, where idyllic surroundings are the background to a coming of age and a loss of innocence.

Bordeaux Mixture – Charles Dexter Ward

The subject of GM crops (and other foods) seems to have inspired many writers, here, Charles Dexter Ward foresees vegetation which emits pheromones to make one want to grow and eat it.

The Dryad’s Wedding – Robert Charles Wilson

On a colony world a woman has an accident and lies in a river with half her brain missing before she is found, When she is awoken after a regeneration procedure she finds the empathic flora and fauna around her trying to make contact, and has unaccountable memories of Brussels, which she has never visited.
Apparently a prequel to a Wilson novel, this is a deep and complex, highly detailed piece of work, rich with scientific ideas and the atmosphere of an alien planet.

Built Upon The Sands of Time – Michael Flynn

A very literary and Irish piece set in a bar in which scientists and others discuss matters of scientific import over a Guinness or two, and in the course of things hear a tale of alternate worlds and altered history.

Seventy-Two Letters – Ted Chiang

This is a strange novella set in an alternate Victorian world where golems can be brought to life by placing a sequence of seventy-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet under their tongue.
Also, it is discovered, each individual male sperm, when examined, contains a complete foetus. How these two scientific discoveries relate to each other is at the core of this tale of weird science, murder, espionage and the very future of the human race.

Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon (1930)

Last and First Men

Recently republished as part of Gollancz’ ‘Space Opera’ Collection (a gorgeously designed set of paperbacks with beautifully thought out black and white cover illustrations made from photographed paper sculpture and cut outs) this was a novel far ahead of its time when first published.
Stapledon, a communist and atheist it appears, here takes us through the twentieth century and then in leaps and bounds through Mankind’s sometimes enforced evolution, the downfall and eventual rebirth of civilisations, until mankind reaches a pinnacle from which one of the Last men reaches back through time to record this history through the pen of a 20th Century writer.
It had been a common convention of writers for some time previous to this novel’s publication to provide a rationale or a link to reality for their work, in order to give it a certain verisimilitude; an explanation as to how we could be telling a story of the future, or of another world far from ours (see also Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was a regular proponent of this practice).
It has to be said that the initial chapters that detail the way world society progresses in the 20th Century is woefully off its mark and seems to have been employed as a platform for Stapledon’s personal politics.
He has been criticised elsewhere for his extrapolation of US Society although in some ways his warnings of the dangers of Capitalism have been borne out.
Sadly, these chapters are a little tedious, and new readers should be encouraged to persevere, since once Stapledon moves away from the world with which we are familiar the novel accelerates and takes flight into the future.
Not many authors can communicate a sense of understanding of vast passages of time but Stapledon carries it off with aplomb.
One also has to consider that he is writing of subjects such as evolution, genetic engineering, even the concept of viruses as vectors for changing DNA sequences (although obviously it is not described in those terms) in 1930, at a time when most other authors were in the genre were zipping about in unobtainium powered speedsters and carrying American values to the four corners of the Galaxy.
Stapledon takes a more cautious approach to interstellar travel. His evolved men see travelling to another star as being impossible or at least not an option worth exploring. Interplanetary travel is another matter, since Humanity – after a protracted war with gestalt entity Martians lasting thousands of years – is forced to move to Venus when the moon begins to close its orbit on the Earth.
Later (a slight scientific faux pas on Stapledon’s part) Humanity moves to the surface of Neptune when the sun begins to swell and here mutates and evolves into an entire biosphere of human descended wildlife before one of the species again rises to an intelligent level.
Again, in an astonishingly prescient concept, years before Heinlein or Blish employed the idea, Stapledon had the Last men sending out ‘seed ships’ into the galaxy packed with micro-organisms which would be pre-disposed to eventually evolve into a form of Humanity. Man himself, by a fluke of the laws of physics was doomed, but there is always the chance that he can be reborn elsewhere in the Cosmos.
Despite the ending containing some dubious talk of spirituality and immortality, the novel ends leaving the reader enervated and acutely aware of the insignificance of our tiny planet, and how brief our lives upon it are.
It’s a stunning piece of work.

The Movement of Mountains – Michael Blumlein (1987)

The Movement of Mountains

‘The Domers were huge and stupid.

Genetically engineered with a five year life span, they were salve miners, created and maintained to work the ice-cold planet Eridis. They brought out the fungus that became Mutacillin, Earth’s wonder drug.
But the Domers were changing.
A viral infection had spread from earth. They were becoming mentally, intellectually awakened. Memories and hopes were stirring in them. And in their near humanity they were becoming useless for their designed purpose.
Doctor Jules Ebert had to cure them, turn them back into cloned, mindless effectiveness…’

Blurb from the 1989 New English Library paperback edition.

From the outset this extraordinary novel sets us up for something rather unusual. Jules, the narrator of the novel, is a doctor, but one with an eating disorder. He and his lover Jessica live in separate areas of a future earth. Jules, being a professional, lives in an enclave where ‘guards’ will immobilise anyone not registered on their database. Genetically engineered Fargos Hounds roam the streets and consume waste plastic, before excreting it into recycling receptacles. Jessica lives in a less salubrious area where she pays her landlord and his son, Mingo Boyels, rent in the form of sexual favours.
Jessica is planning to move to the planet of Eridis, where a unique fungus has been found which produces Mutacillin, an antibiotic which mutates to combat even drug resistant bacteria. She has been offered a job working to discover how to grow the fungus off-world, something that has been so far impossible to do.
In the meantime, Mingo has visited Jules as a patient, exhibiting signs of herpes (thought to be extinct) but which may be a symptom of a new sickness called Barea’s disease, which seems to be beyond Mutacillin’s power to cure.
Jules and Jessica argue frequently. Jules will not believe the rumours that Fargos Hounds have begun attacking people until he hears a scream and sees Jessica running toward his home. Fargos Hounds are attacking her and others.
They argue again and Jessica tries to leave but is attacked by the ‘guards’ and is forced to stay.
The early sections are full of references to disease, both literal and metaphorical. The very shape of the town, Ringhaven, suggests a biological cell (it has a wall round it) which electrical antibodies are protecting against intruders.
The Fargos Hounds are like mutated cells. They have stopped behaving as programmed and have become cancerous, attacking the body that sustains them.
Jules, after much soul searching, decides to follow Jessica to Eredis, although his journey is delayed some months.
Mingo’s condition deteriorates and, although Jules referred him to a more experienced Doctor, he dies.
Eredis is a mining world where Domers, huge genetically engineered humanoids, toil through the short cycle of their lives to harvest Mutacillin. Jessica, it transpires, has become obsessed with the plight of the Domers who, as artificial life-forms, are treated as slaves. Both she and the director of the operation, Guysin Hoke, have been conducting clandestine affairs with two of the Domers, although their views on the creatures are fundamentally opposed, with Guysin viewing them as tools created for a purpose. Jessica looks on them as sentient beings, despite the fact that their lifespan is only five years, after which their bodies are destroyed and the organic residue used to grow the next generation.
When Jessica becomes ill, Jules realises that she has contracted Barea’s disease. Both he and Jessica have been experiencing other people’s memories. When Jules contacts Earth for up-to-date information on the disease he discovers that there is now a cure. In the meantime Jessica is close to discovering a way of growing the delicate spores which produce mutacillin off-planet, which will mean the end of the Eredis mining operation and the end of the Domers.
Shortly afterwards, she is found dead at the bottom of a mine.
Jules turns against all he has ever believed in and – with Jessica’s memories and personality in his head, comes to the conclusion that the virus is a good thing. It allows a form of shared consciousness and, if his theory is correct, will allow the Domers to survive as individual personalities when they are destroyed and reborn.

Fairyland – Paul J McAuley (1995)


‘In the twenty-first century Europe is divided between the First World bourgeoisie, made rich by nanotechnology and the cheap slave labour of genetically engineered Dolls, and the Fourth World of refugees and the homeless, displaced by war and economic turbulence.

Alex Sharkey is trying to make his mark as a designer of psychoactive viruses in London whilst staying one step ahead of the police and Triad gangs. He finds an unlikely ally in a scary-smart but dangerous child named Milena, but his troubles really begin when he unwittingly helps Milena quicken intelligence in a Doll.
It is the first of the fairies.

Milena wants to escape forever to her own private Fairyland, but some of the Folk she has created have other ideas about where her destiny lies…’

Blurb from the 2009 Gollancz paperback edition.

Somewhat Michael Swanwick-ish in style, McAuley takes us on a real trip through a near future Europe. Alex, a slightly stereotyped fat geek, designs and deals in hallucinatory viruses and is seriously in debt to Billy Rock, the local villain. Billy has a job for Alex, and it includes a young prodigy called Milena.
In this world, genetically engineered humanoids called Dolls are manufactured to be used as cheap labour and fashionable pets.. Rock has subverted this to create fighting dolls in a venture called The Killing Fields.
Rock wants Alex and Milena to work together to change the Dolls’ DNA so that he will be able to breed them. Milena, however, has other ideas and uses the research to raise a Doll’s intelligence to sapience, and creates the first of The Fairies.
The narrative jumps forward to where Alex is travelling Europe, searching for Milena. Disneyworld is controlled by fairies and reality itself is being subverted by virus attacks which can change one’s moods, beliefs or memories. Alex herself believes that Milena has infected him with some viral love potion which has caused him to follow her across Europe.
In the meantime Milena, herself originally a product of company research has become The Fairy Queen, an amoral monarch whose subjects have been killing young girls for their ovaries in order to raise changelings among themselves or, as Milena explains, harvesting the ovaries of their own experiments which they planted among humans.
McAuley’s attempt to turn myth into reality works remarkably well. Our original Celtic stories of The Fair Folk show them to be wilful, amoral and often cruel and illogical creatures who would trap people in time or replace their babies with fairy babies (another concept used in this novel)
There are no doubt other parallels which will be more obvious to others.

The Heart of The Serpent: Soviet Science Fiction – Ivan Yefremov (1959)

The Heart of the Serpent: Soviet Science Fiction


The Heart of The Serpent – Ivan Yefremov (1959)
Siema – Anatoly Dnieprov (1958)
The Trial of Tantalus – Victor Separin
Stone from The Stars – Valentina Zhuravleva (1959)
The Six Matches – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1962)

Professor Ivan Yefremov (born 1907) is well known both as a tireless fossil hunter and a talented science fiction writer. His fantasy ranges between the mysteries of times long bygone and the distant future. His novels include ‘The Land of Foam’, where the scene is set in Ancient Egypt and Greece, and the world-renowned ‘Andromeda’ in which his fantasy roams two thousand years ahead.
‘The Heart of The Serpent’, given in this volume, was written in 1959. Its subject is related to that of ‘Andromeda’.
Anatoly Dnieprov (born 1919), the author of ‘Siema, which he wrote in 1958, is a distinguished physicist who works at an institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences. His first book appeared in 1946. His favourite subject is cybernetics – its amazing achievements to date and its breathtaking potentialities. Scientific authenticity is a salient feature of his writings.
Victor Separin (born 1905), a journalist by profession, is editor of the Soviet popular geographic magazine ‘Around The World’. His fiction, which treats of present day scientific and technical problems, is amazingly realistic. In this volume he is represented by ‘The Trial of Tantalus’, a story dealing with prospects of microbiology.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, authors of ‘The Six Matches’, are frequent contributors to Soviet popular science periodicals. Few readers know, however, that the two brothers are not professional writers. Boris Strugatsky (born 1933) is an astronomer and works at the computer laboratory of Pulknovo Observatory. Arkady (born 1925) is a linguist and translator specialising in Japanese.
Valentina Zhuravleva (born 1933) is a comparatively recent graduate of the Azerbaijan Medical Institute. She was probably prompted to try her hand at scientific fiction by the almost fantastic possibilities offering in the field of medicine. The bold flights of fancy in her scientific thinking make her stories particularly noteworthy. Bio-automation is the theme of her ‘Stone from the Stars’ written in 1959, and included in this volume.’

Blurb from the 2002 Fredonia Books paperback edition

Sadly, my copy of this very interesting collection is lacking the previous publication details, apart from some brief notes in the back cover blurb, although it would appear that the stories in this volume come the fifties or sixties and were presumably originally published in the Soviet Union of the time.
It would appear that Soviet SF writers mirror their Western counterparts in often being working scientists, which seems to be the case with some of the writers here.

The Heart of The Serpent – Ivan Yefremov (1959)

This, the longest story in this volume, is presumably a Soviet response to the famous SF story ‘First Contact’ which indeed is mentioned within the story.
A group of representatives from the now ‘classless’ world society of Earth have travelled to the constellation known to ancient Arabia as ‘The Serpent’ on a scientific mission. They encounter an alien vessel and manage to communicate with the alien crew. (It is here the Captain points out that the original SF story ‘First Contact’ had a crew with a very capitalistic suspicion about the motives of the aliens)
The Captain is also rather scathing about something of which many SF writers – but mainly Americans – are guilty today, and that is positing a future in which interstellar culture is mainly American, or at least Western.
The alien crew are from a fluoride world (these are rare in the galaxy) and are sad that the two races can never share the same atmosphere, although the Soviets suggest that perhaps they could be genetically redesigned in order to join the humans and other races on oxygen-based worlds some time in the future.
It’s an interesting tale, despite a complete lack of suspense or plot, and at least has the benefit of scientific accuracy and the likelihood of social change in the near future.

Siema – Anatoly Dnieprov (1958)

The narrator, on a long train journey, has his peace invaded by a man in pyjamas who wishes to share his carriage.
At first annoyed, and then intrigued, he is prompted to question the pyjamaed man, who then tells a tale of how he designed a thinking machine, Siema, a female thinking machine at that.
The science, for its time, is very credible, and the denouement quite interesting, since the reader is left to decide whether the man in pyjamas was telling the truth or simply mad.

The Trial of Tantalus – Victor Separin

An ecological tale which espouses the role of viruses in the ecosystem and their positive and negative benefits. An agricultural researcher is trying to determine the origin of the Tantalus virus which has suddenly attacked both sugar cane crops and caused the deaths of a number of African elephants after they ate infected reeds. the story also contains the interesting concept of a virus museum, postulating that viruses should be imprisoned and studied, rather than destroyed.

Stone from The Stars – Valentina Zhuravleva (1959)

An asteroid which crashed high on a mountain slope is found not to be an asteroid at all but a cylindrical ship. Upon hearing knocking from within, scientists open it to find that its operating system is a living brain.
It’s an odd tale which ends up with a sense of bittersweet futility, since the scientists cannot communicate with the now dying brain or work quickly enough to duplicate the mechanisms to keep it alive. It is therefore left undiscovered whether the brain was a sentient life-form or merely an organic machine.

The Six Matches – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1962)

An inspector is sent to a research institute to discover the details behind an accident which left a senior professor in a coma.
It was known that the professor was investigating the effects of directing streams of neutrinos at various areas of the brain, and had lately been exhibiting strange feats of memory and performing party tricks by moving small objects about without touching them and extinguishing matches at a distance.
As is usual for the Strugatskys the piece is well written and characterised and obliquely says much about the scientific community of the time and their relationship with the authorities.

What all these stories have in common is that there is, from a Western perspective, a sense of incompleteness about them, as if something has been lost in translation although conversely one would argue that there is a subtle poetic element to most of them.
Yefremov’s ‘Heart of The Serpent’ is certainly very unsubtle in its ideological tub-thumping and its not very thinly-veiled attack on the Capitalist Nations of the world.

Maul – Tricia Sullivan (2003)


In Sullivan’s Dystopian future men are an endangered gender due to a gender specific retrovirus. Men are kept in reservations and those women who can apply for viable sperm opt to give birth to girls.
One cloned male in a laboratory has been infected with a tailored form of the virus in order to try and understand and cure the disease.
The clone is allowed certain privileges and is playing a computer game.
Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated time and place, a group of girls have challenged another girl on the internet and have arranged to meet her at the local shopping mall. Originally intended as a friendly meeting, misunderstandings have conspired to convert the meeting into something nearer to a fight challenge.
At the mall, events escalate to near riots and a siege situation. This is obviously not the world in which the cloned man exists, since in the Mall there are boys and security guards and other men not sequestered away behind a sterile screen.
The two stories run in parallel, and the reader quickly begins to realise how the two worlds are connected.
It’s a hectic read that barrels along energetically, raising questions about the medical ethics of cloning, but it is not a novel one would have thought capable of setting the SF world on fire.
There were no characters for which one could feel any empathy, apart from the badly treated clone, and that was sympathy rather than empathy. One would surely expect anyone to feel sympathy for a badly treated clone.

Darwin’s Children – Greg Bear (2003)

Darwin's Children

‘Evolution is no longer just a theory

Stella Nova is one of the ‘virus children’, a generation of genetically enhanced babies born a dozen years before to mothers infected with the SHEVA virus.

In fact, the children represent the next great evolutionary leap and a new species of human, Homo sapiens novus, but this is officially denied. They’re gentle, charming and persuasive, possessed of remarkable traits. Nevertheless, they are locked up in special schools, quarantined from society, feared and reviled.

‘Survival of the fittest’ takes on a new dimension as the children reach puberty. Stella is one of the first find herself attracted to another ‘virus child’ but the authorities are watching and waiting for the opportunity to strike the next blow in their escalating war to preserve ‘humankind’ at any cost.’

Blurb from the 2004 HarperCollins paperback edition.

The virus children of Bear’s ‘Darwin’s Radio’ are growing up in a terrified world. The children are being rounded up and kept in special schools where they are studied, but not allowed to learn anything which might help them escape.
So far Kaye Lang and Mitch have kept their daughter with them by fleeing from town to town. Stella however is keen to meet others of her kind and escapes. This results in her capture and incarceration in one of the isolated schools.
Bear sequels in the past have not lived up to the quality of the first instalment and sadly, this is the case here. Despite it being a good solid novel and streets ahead of most of the competition it lacks the tightness and pace of the original. It also includes a rather unnecessary exegesis on the part of Kaye who experiences an encounter with what appears to be God. Unfortunately this never really dovetails into the structure at all and lacks relevance.
However it is an exciting examination of Neo-Darwinism and Bear provides an excellent afterword which includes further recommended reading on the subject.
Taking the two books as a whole the work can be seen as a Twenty First Century update on Van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ with echoes of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. The nature of Bear’s homo superior is very interesting. They communicate on various levels; by scent, colour flashing of the marks on their faces and in a strange two-levelled speech by which more than one meaning or message can be conveyed at once. They form bonded ‘families’ which they call demes and seem to have lost any desire for competitive behaviour, finding co-operation to be a better genetic survival strategy.
In context ‘Darwin’s Children’ is a post-aids retrovirus-aware work of paranoia, set in a declining USA. Sadly, Bear gives us only brief glimpses of how the virus children are treated elsewhere in the world. An Indian taxi-driver, for instance, at one point talks quite happily of his ‘Shivite’ grand-daughter and of how proud the family are of her.
There is an upbeat ending in which society has grudgingly accepted its children and they live in their own communities. More and more Shivites are being born among the general population in waves every few years.
It’s hard to see how Bear could get a third novel from this idea but one suspects that there is another story in there somewhere, waiting to be hatched.

Leviathan Wakes – James SA Corey (2011)

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)

Despite a bit of a boggy start in which we are entrenched in the names and backstories of half-a-dozen characters, ‘Leviathan Wakes’ isn’t a bad beginning to a postulated trilogy set in a future where man has spread through the system to the asteroid belt. There is an uneasy political balance between Earth, Mars and The Outer Planets.

Maverick belter cop, Miller, has been asked to cover an off-record assignment, finding the daughter of a rich businessman, Julie Mao. Meanwhile, maverick spacer Holden is on a ship which has been diverted to an emergency beacon. A ship is discovered, seemingly pirated, showing signs of being infected with an inhuman organism. It also contains evidence of a Martian military presence, but before they can investigate further, their mothership is destroyed by a precision hit from an unknown ship.
Unwisely, Holden broadcasts details of the Martian evidence on a wide-band channel that initiates riots and civil unrest across the system.
With the help of Fred Johnson, head of the Outer Planets Alliance, Holden and his crew attempt to find out who was really behind the destruction of his ship. As one might have expected, their hunt brings them into contact with Miller, who is on the same trail.
Interstellar politics, human experimentation, ancient sentient alien viruses, space battles and a journey across the Solar System. It’s actually a lot of fun.

Line of Polity – Neal Asher (2003)

The Line Of Polity (Agent Cormac, #2)The Line Of Polity by Neal Asher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Outlink station Miranda has been destroyed a nanomycelium, and the very nature of this sabotage suggests that the alien bioconstruct Dragon – a creature as untrustworthy as it is gigantic – is somehow involved.

Sent out on a titanic Polity dreadnought, the Occam Razor, agent Cormac must investigate the disaster, and also resolve the question of Masada – a world about to be subsumed as the Line of Polity is drawn across it.

But the rogue biophysicist, Skellor, has not yet been captured, and he now controls something so potent that Polity AIs will hunt him down for ever to prevent him using it.

Meanwhile, on Masada, the long-term rebellion can never rise above ground, since the slave population is subjugated by orbital laser arrays controlled by the Theocracy from their cylinder worlds, and by the fact that they cannot safely leave their labour compounds. For the wilderness of Masada lacks breathable air… and out there roam monstrous predators called hooders and siluroynes, not to mention the weird and terrible gabbleducks.’

Blurb from the 2004 Tor paperback edition

Asher brings back agent Cormac of ‘Gridlinked’ who is on the trail of Skellor, a rogue biophysicist who has somehow acquired an active piece of Jain technology (the Jain being an advanced Elder Race, long vanished from the galaxy).
meanwhile, Polity agents are attempting to covertly destabilise the political situation on Masada, the moon of a gas giant outside of Polity control and ruled by a greedy and insane Theocracy.
To add to all this, one sphere of the four-part entity known as Dragon has shown up.
Events conspire to send everyone in the direction of Masada.
Asher, it has to be said, seldom disappoints and this episode in the Polity chronicles is no exception.
It’s a hefty beast of a novel. Gone are the days, for now, when an SF or fantasy novel of 150 pages or so was the norm, as was the case in the Nineteen Seventies. You could fit four of those into an Asher book, eight if it’s a Peter F Hamilton.
These authors don’t pad out, though. One can never accuse them of not providing value for money.

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