My life in outer space

Posts tagged “widescreen baroque

The Ring of Ritornel – Charles L Harness (1968)

Ring of Ritornel


“The Deep is the Beginning and the End, at once the womb and the coffin of time and space, the well-spring of life and death, the mother of nodes”

James Andrek, brilliant young lawyer in the Great House of Oberon, mighty tyrant of the twelve Galaxies, has two obsessions: finding his Poet Laureate brother, Omere, and unravelling the mystery of his father’s death many years ago at the Node, perilous birthplace of the Universe.

Did Andrek’s quest end at the Node? or in the Great House, peopled by the beautiful and the sinister? or did the answers lie in the subtle mind of the arcane Master Surgeon?

A weird, mind-expanding thriller containing every element to delight the SF fan and newcomer alike.’

Blurb from the 1974 Panther paperback edition

James Andrek has spent years searching for his brother Omere, unaware that all the time Omere has been in the palace of his employer, Oberon, ruler of the twelve galaxies. Years before, Oberon had his Master Surgeon remove Omere’s brain and implant it into Oberon’s music and poetry machine so that (ostensibly) Omere’s genius for composition may never die.
James is also searching for information surrounding his father’s death in The Node, the area at the centre of the Universe where space is constantly being created, a perilous place at best.
Also at the palace are Kedrys, a highly intelligent centaur-like creature who may or may not be the future of the human race and Amatar, Oberon’s daughter. Amatar has had conversations with the Omere/music-machine since she was a child although she does not know his real nature, and Omere has often attempted to persuade her to turn him off and destroy him.
Like most of Harness’ work this is an exquisitely structured piece. The chapters are numbered and titled up to 12 and then back down from 11 to ‘x’ (which replaces 1) and the titles are reflections, distortions or reversals of the original 11 chapters.
James is sent out to the Node by Oberon to present the defence in a historic case. The planet Earth has been towed to The Node and stands accused of crimes against the galaxy. It will be destroyed. James’ part in this should be merely a formality, but he feels he can make a case to save the planet, to stop it from being hurled into The Deep. Attempts have been made on James’ life and each time, a grey-robed man called Iouve, glowing with a faint blue aura, has saved him.
In Chapter 12, James reaches the Node and discovers from Huntyr (one of Oberon’s soldiers and the man who tried to kill him) the details of his father’s death. From this point on, the present has some relationship with the past – as in the chapter headings. 12 is also the number of Oberon’s galaxies and is significant to the religion of Alea, whose die has twelve faces.
Brilliant and complex.


The Golden Age (Golden Age #1) – John C Wright (2002)

The Golden Age (Golden Age #1)

‘The Golden Age is 10,000 years in the future in our solar system, an interplanetary utopian society filled with immortal humans.
Phaethon, of Radamanthus House, is attending a glorious party at his family mansion celebrating the thousand-year anniversary of the High Transcendence. There he meets an old man who accuses him of being an imposter, and then a being from Neptune who claims to be an old friend. The Neptunian tells him that essential parts of his memory were removed and stored by the very government that Phaethon believes to be wholly honorable. It shakes his faith. Is he indeed an exile from himself? He can’t resist investigating, even though to do so could mean the loss of his inheritance, his very place in society. His quest must be to regain his true identity and fulfil the destiny he chose for himself.
The Golden Age is just the beginning of Phaethon’s story, which will continue in The Phoenix Exultant, forthcoming from Tor.’

Blurb from the 2003 Tor paperback edition

Phaethon (to give him his full three line name is unnecessary) is the son of Hellion and a citizen of the far future civilisation of Sol, spread across the planets to the bleak spaces beyond Neptune. Life is mostly lived under the beneficent guardianship of the Sophotech machine minds and experienced through computer-generated filters of perception. Everyone is immortal and the Golden Oecumene – as the civilisation is known – is divided into a multitude of cultures, philosophies and beliefs.
During the Millennial celebrations (during which the great minds of the Sol Culture dictate the general course of the next thousand years) Phaethon is approached by two individuals, both of whom suggest that he has a past of which he has no knowledge. Thus the seed is sown and Phaethon is set upon a path to rediscover himself and possibly destroy himself in the process.
It is, as some of the inside cover reviews suggest, a novel influenced by the likes of Bester, Vance and possibly Charles L Harness (especially since ‘the Paradox Men’ uses the very same device of the amnesiac hero), in that this is a ‘Widescreen baroque’ romance very much invoking the style and spirit of these authors.
It also, one suspects, owes a debt to Gene Wolfe, since Wright employs Wolfe’s literary tactic of embedding references which some will recognise and others not. There is, for instance, a Hamlet metaphor, in that Phaethon garbs himself as the Prince of Denmark while observing the celebrations and later, talking of his life, comments on his dead father and drowned wife. Indeed, his father is resurrected as a ghost of sorts. His original self died before he could upload the last hour of his life and his ‘back-up’ self is now legally considered to be not the original. His house’s computer persona, Radamanthus, manifests himself at one point as a HG Wells Martian War machine, although this is only made clear through the AI quoting a short reference from the first page of ‘War of The Worlds’
The most obvious reference, one which is acknowledged, is that of Helion and his son Phaethon, who wished to ride Helion’s sun-chariot, but could not control it and scorched the earth. There is a parallel within the narrative, which is rather too complex to explain in detail here.
It’s a verbose and witty package of great colourful wonders, cleverly combining baroque and decadent settings with a hi-tech infrastructure.
It also examines some important philosophical issues and explores the concept of the relationship between memory and identity in a society where one can edit one’s own or others’ memories and replace them with something else. This rather Dickian issue is at the heart of the novel since Phaethon has been castigated for an action he planned to carry out; an action of which he has no memory. His quest is to recover his lost memories even though he is told that his previous self erased the memory willingly, not wanting his future self to experience them.
Along with Will McCarthy, Wright is reinventing the Widescreen baroque novel for the 21st Century.

The Collapsium – Wil McCarthy (2000)

The Collapsium (The Queendom of Sol #1)

‘In the eighth decade of the Queendom of Sol, three things form the backbone of civilisation:

WELLSTONE: programmable matter of almost magical properties

COLLAPSIUM: a deadly crystal composed of miniature black holes, indispensable for the transmission of matter and information through the solar system.


RIVALRY: a bitter competition between Her Majesty’s two most brilliant scientists. It is a rivalry that will threaten everything.

Combining rigorous hard science with the lyrical beauty of Michael Moorcock’s Dancer’s at the End of Time novels, Wil McCarthy takes us into a mythical realm of physics, court intrigue and stellar catastrophe.’

Blurb from the Gollancz 2001 paperback edition.

Wil McCarthy’s stylish and baroque tale of laconic scientist Bruno de Towaji is both original and refreshing, set in a Solar System where Tamra, immortal Queen of Tonga has been elevated (due to – it would appear – popular demand) to the position of Queen of the Solar System, attended by a court of Declarants and a royal guard of robots.
This novel could also be considered as the 21st Century version of Gernsback’s ‘Ralph 124C 41+’ since it features the most brilliant scientist in society as the hero, a dastardly foe, women to be rescued and problems to be solved by power of the scientific mind.
Bruno is the inventor of Collapsium, a material constructed of interlocked neutron sized black holes. It is a substance which has many varied uses, the royalties from which have made him inestimably rich.
Because of the dangerous nature of his further experiments, Bruno has been ‘banished’ to an tiny artificial world in the Outer System which orbits a just-as-artificial miniature sun. One day his solitude is interrupted by the arrival of the Queen who demands that he return to court to work on a scientific problem. A rival of Bruno’s, Marlon Sykes, has begun the construction of a Ringworld-style band of Collapsium around the Sun, a construction which will vastly increase the speed of human and data transmission across the system. The partly constructed ring however, has lost its position and is beginning to fall into the Sun. It goes without saying that the consequences of millions of tiny black holes falling into the Sun would be disastrous.
It is up to Bruno to find a solution and save the Solar System from Stellar collapse.
The joy of this book is both in its preposterously believable neo-Elizabethan social structure and the way McCarthy seamlessly welds it to the complex scientific theories around which the substance of Collapsium is based. It is also laced with a dry wit and a degree of characterisation absent from the work of many of McCarthy’s contemporaries.
Bruno travels from outrageous setting to outrageous setting – a banquet in a domed enclave atop a mountain on a partly transformed Venus; Marlon’s cylindrical space-habitat whose inner surface is dotted with Athenian architecture, and there is the Collapsiter Ring itself. These journeys are achieved by the use of the Fax, essentially a matter-transmitting device which destroys the original and reassembles a duplicate at the destination.
With the fax of course, one can make copies of oneself in order to work on several projects at once, and later conflate the copies back into one individual, complete with the memories of all the copies.
It’s a fascinating notion and one which McCarthy explores but perhaps doesn’t exploit as much as he could have, although the basic concept is important to the plot.
Having stabilised the Collapsiter, Bruno is called back again when the Ring is sabotaged, following which copies of Marlon Sykes are murdered at their various stations along its circumference. A solution to the crisis and the identity of the apparent saboteur are discovered, but four years later Bruno is visited by a dishevelled and psychologically damaged copy of himself who has been imprisoned and tortured for years by the real saboteur, Marlon Sykes. Once again, Bruno is called upon to save the Solar System from destruction
McCarthy’s retro writing style of course helps to add a certain verisimilitude to the baroque nature of the Queendom’s social structure which, in other hands, might appear a trifle ludicrous but here seems perversely a natural and inevitable political development. It has hints of Moorcock, of PG Wodehouse and of Gernsback but is nonetheless a unique voice.