Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, April 21, 2014

1985: Walking on Glass (Banks, Iain)

Layers and parallelism of influence tantalize the reader (5/5)

I’m no stranger to the works of Iain Banks: I’ve read six of his fiction novels and all of his science fiction, all totaling twenty books. All of his books (literally, all of them) linger in my mind with unique storytelling. Though I love them all, I’ve only reread The Algebraist (2004) and The State of the Art (1989). Again, though I love them all, they are difficult for me to synopsis, as if they are beyond the reach of my circumspection. At the end of 2012, I read Walking on Glass and began to write a review for the book when my laptop crashed. It took me a year to get around to fixing the bugger and, lo and behold, all the files were intact. So, I knew I had to reread this tantalizing piece of fiction.

Walking on Glass sounds quirky enough, speculative enough to warrant the purchase and accolade of being chosen for my 100th book of 2012. When opening an Iain Banks novel, I have never known disappointment… slight dismay or mild boredom, yes, but never discontent. Walking on Glass is the first novel of Banks to really push my mental envelop toward grasping the linkages between the three stories. Only three stories, you may guffaw, but the fictional distance and hazy parallelisms throw the reader for a loop. Bear with it, absorb it, and try to relish the experience of being challenged… something which 99% of today’s fiction has forgotten to do.

Rear cover synopsis:
”Graham Park is in love. But Sara Ffitch [sic] is an enigma to him, a creature of almost perverse mystery. Steven Grout is paranoid—and with justice. He knows that They are out to get him. They are. Quiss, insecure in his fabulous if ramshackle castle, is forced to play interminable impossible games. The solution to the oldest of all paradoxical riddles will release him. But he must find an answer before he knows the question.

Park, Grout, Quiss—no trio could be further apart. But their separate courses are set for collision…”

------------

Story #1:
Graham has been steeping in the tepid water of love for weeks, fuzzily reminiscing of his first encounter with the intoxicatingly beautiful Sara ffitch (“not one big ‘f’; two little ones” [97]), all thanks to his flamboyantly gay friend Slater. Though not a typical romantic first meeting, Graham tolerates her sour disposition after her recent separation from her husband. Weeks go by and still he swims in the syrupy sea of expectation with the lovely lass of Sara. Walks along the canal, visits to the zoo, loving confessions over the phone—Graham plays the waiting game for her love and attention. She’s not forthcoming with beginning a new relationship, though she still sees and speaks of her biker fling named Stock. Lightly laden with jealousy of Stock, Graham looks forward to later today when he is allowed to actually entire the home of the hesitant vixen.

Story #2:
Amid the persecuting eyes of his sewer facilities managers and under the duress of their hidden microwave beams which cause him to sweat and panic, Steven Grout does the unexpected and quits his job. Fearing their reprisal, Steven makes a break for it and heads to the unemployment office, where he greets the receptionist and officer with a cynical degree of disdain because they, too, train their microwave beams on him! Yet to qualify for unemployment because of their sinister planning (or because of his voluntary leaving), Steven leaves the office dodging hubcap laser beams, sugaring gas tanks, avoiding his droning impassable landlady, and sulking with his well-earned money and a local drunk from the bar. A man tolerating misfortune leads an insufferable life.

Story #3:
In a castle made of illegible blocks of books, Quiss is subjected to spend his days away from the Therapeutic Wars for his travesties while attempting to solve two things: the impossible complexities of nonsense games and the nebulous answer to the question, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object?” Thousands of days are spent learning the rules and playing one-dimensional chess, open-plan go, spotless dominoes, and Chinese scrabble with his only partner in the castle—Ajayi—but his main focus is exploring the depths of the castle and torturing information out of the cherubic masked servants. Being imprisoned angers Quiss, yet several of his discoveries cause him to question his reality and the reason why he’s being used, punished, and borderline tortured.

------------

I love the respective quotes by The Times and Observer: “A feast of horrors, variously spiced with incest, conspiracy, and cheerful descriptions of torture… fine writing” and “Inexorably powerful… sinister manipulations and magnetic ambiguities”. I usually disregard any sort of benediction from other authors or reviewers on a book’s cover, but these two hit the nail on the head, especially the bit about “magnetic ambiguities”.

It’s exactly these “magnetic ambiguities” which tantalized me endlessly. Even when writing this review, bursts of additional insight are ricocheting off my previous ideas, creating echoes of reinforcing understanding. Though the book’s own synopsis says the three plot lines are “set for collision”, the actual degree of crossover/influence/relevance/analogy depends on the reader’s perspective: (1) superficial, (2) insightful and (3) metaphorical.

1. Superficial. The overlapping of the plots of Graham and Grout is nearly singular, but the resulting influence Grout has on Graham’s life is dramatic; what could have been emotionally chaotic turned out just to be an emotional train wreck instead. Grout’s action of physical sabotage ends up probably saving Graham’s life but also nearly ending Grout’s own life. The storyline with the weakest link is the Quiss plot. For a reader to disregard this entire thread would dilute the book of most of its enticing perspectives; however, the books of the tower can reflect the towers of books in Grout’s home, thereby providing a weak psychological element between Quiss and Grout.

2. Insightful. There are some scenes in each plot which focus on a commonality between two or three of the plots: (A) tunnel, (B) books, and (C) game.

A. When “tunnel” is used in each plot, the literal inference is a passageway, a way to gain access to somewhere; this access into Sara’s home for Graham, access into safety for Grout, and access into knowledge for Quiss.

B. Books are more prominent in the Grout and Quiss plots, books as a prison and books as a blanket, respectively, but Graham also has an affair with books—Graham sees books as translucent windows into a soul, a superficial and inaccurate glimpse in the end.

C. Each character is involved in a game of their own, whether it’s obvious like the pointless games Quiss is involved in, the cat and mouse game between Sara’s love and the distance she keeps, and Grout’s vigilance against the vague powers of Them. Victory can be seen as a chance at redemption (Quiss), a chance for love reciprocated (Graham) or a chance at escaping Them (Grout); ultimately, victory is to reveal the truth of their respective reality, in one form or another.

3. Metaphotical. Adopting both the superficial and insightful elements of inspection, one last attempt at probing the novel needs to be taken to understand the absurd life which Quiss and Ajayi endure… and absurd is what it is, as Ajayi reflects, “What the hell was the point of trying to rationally to analyse what was fundamentally irrational? … [L]ife was basically absurd, unfair and–ultimately—pointless” (129). At a deeper level, the absurdity they live in and the impossibility they play with could merely be a fantasy experienced by Grout; he himself lives in a world of absurdity and impossibility and this becomes clearer towards the end of the novel after he is hospitalized. My own metaphor of the castle made from books, you may ask? Well, it could be a metaphor of (A) knowledge and (B) experience:

A. Knowledge can be manipulated, tested from theory to application, and it can stand as the scaffolding for the way we understand the world. The higher part of the castles walls are stacked books which Quiss sometimes destroys in frustration but the minions of the castle eventually replace with another tome. It’s Ajayi who takes these tomes from the walls in order to understand more of the reality she inhabits, which opposes Quiss efforts to probe deeper and deeper into the solid bedrock of the castle—that of experience.

B. Memories of experience are often malleable from their onset but soon solidify into a vague yet concrete sensation. Just as the tunnels below the castle act as a labyrinth, so too are the cornucopia of experiences and memories we all have; navigating each memory individually in chronological is impossible, which parallels Quiss frustrating attempts to map out and understand the maze or memories under the castle. Eventually, one memory (one room) provides an impossible yet remarkably clear vision of reality and, of course, the experience is addictive.

We nail together our own scaffolding of understanding of the world based on our bedrock of experience and the shifting, temporary glimpses of knowledge we all have. However, those experiences can be false: Graham’s reluctant belief to trust love at first sight and Grout’s delusion belief of Them trying to destroy his life. Regardless of new information, the hopeless romantic will always be a hopeless romantic and the conspiring paranoid will always remain a conspiring paranoid.

------------


Whichever way you interpret Banks’ novel, there’s always something more underlying are laying parallel to your thought process. It’s like that nagging shadow in your peripheral vision that’s never there when you turn around… but you know it’s there. For a real wide-eyed, even more introspective look at Walking on Glass, I highly recommend taking a look here after you’ve formed your own opinions: (1) insight into how Iain Banks weaved in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), (2) the importance of color and omen in the first few pages, and (3) the promise and destruction of resolution to force the formation of opinion.

1985: Skeleton Crew (King, Stephen)

Great sampler of horror subgenres (4/5)

Though a huge science fiction fan, I do occasionally dabble in the genre of horror, but the relationship is tetchy. It’s been my experience that most horror stories revolve around the occult, possession, supernatural or any combination of the three; these stories aren’t the least bit frightening. There is a certain flavor of horror fiction which tickles my sense of horror and now I know this type of fiction is called body horror, which is a more directly physical horror than the nebulous dark demons haunting the souls of deserving victims. Two lesser known body horror books I’ve read are Jeffrey Thomas’ Punktown (2000) and Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Angel Dust Apocalypse (2005).

Thankfully, Skeleton Crew has a few body horror stories which satisfied my need. Also, this collection separates itself from Night Shift (1978) as it doesn’t have as many stories featuring randomly possessed objects which kill unwary victims. That got kind of boring in retrospect. While King isn’t my favorite author, I don’t have much choice or experience to say otherwise in the genre of horror… but Dan Simmons’ The Terror (2007) and Hyperion (1989) still haunt me.

------------

 The Mist (1980, novella) – 4/5 – David, his wife Steff and their son Billy take shelter in their home when a freak storm rolls across the lake leaving trees uprooted and a thick, opaque mist settled over the water. David, Billy and their tetchy neighbor Norton go to Federal Foods in town to buy supplies only to become overwhelmed by the mist and in the middle of a murderous, tentacled fog from the nearby Arrowhead Project. 130 pages

Here There Be Tygers (1968, shortstory) – 3/5 – Miss Bird, the third-grade teacher, has it out for Charles and he’s always known it. Even something as simple as going to the bathroom can stress poor Charles . his need to urinate, as Miss Bid calls it, impels him to sheepishly pass the eyes of all the other students and walk to the boys’ room, where a crouching tiger awaits him. Stepping out again and accessing the situation, another boy comes to check his reason. 5 pages

The Monkey (1980, novelette) – 3/5 – One of Hal’s sons discovers a nappy-haired monkey doll with crashing cymbals in the attic. This causes Hal great alarm as he remembers throwing it down a well twenty years ago after a series of deaths related to the monkey’s jang-jang-jang. It keeps coming up in his life after finding it in his own father’s belongings. Now, the monkey makes its unexpected ominous appearance. 38 pages

Cain Rose Up (1968, shortstory) – 4/5 – Garrish returns to his university boarding house after a difficult exam, which he probably aced to maintain his 4.0 GPA but shares in his friend’s opinion of its difficulty. His friends are leaving for the summer and his only companion in the room is a .352 rifle loaned from the university. Cleaning and assembling the rifle, Garrish recants the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, then takes aim and fires at a girls’ dorm. 7 pages

Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut (1984, novelette) – 4/5 – Homer recalls his strange experiences with the eccentric out-of-towner Mrs. Todd. Though compassionate and social, she has one quirk which both annoys and piques old Homer. Mrs. Todd pines for a shorter route between Castle Lake and Bangor—normally 156.4 miles. Through her trials and errors in her Mercedes, she hits 129.2 miles, then 116.4 miles, just short of 79 miles as the crow flies… until… 26 pages

The Jaunt (1981, novelette) – 5/5 – Prior to jaunting his wife and two children to Mars, Mark recants the part-tale and –myth of the invention of the jaunt. In 1987, the Jaunt was funded by the US government and the sole researcher was Victor Carune. In is farm, his accidental experiment transports two of his fingers across the barn, followed by mice which come out stunned, then die. The curious children urge on the morbid conclusion of the story. 26 pages

The Wedding Gig (1980, shortstory) – 4/5 – Mike Scollay, a true-born Irish-American and serious liquor smuggler, hires a jazz band to play for his sister’s wedding. Their high rate fo pay for 1027 is clue to the increased likelihood of gang violence as the ceremony. Also dangerous is Scollay’s sensitivity about his sister’s massive weight, ugly looks and engagement to the scrawny Italian groom. To fume the Irish gangster, a Greek messenger arrives. 16 pages

Paranoid: A Chant (1985, poem) – 4/5 – Perched in his apartment, a paranoid man silently peers outside his window and in all facets of life at the creeping intrusion into his life: agent’s outside, agents across the street, agents crawling all the way to his toilet. The man envisions intrusions and remains delusions regardless of their physical lack of physical infiltration to his abode. His thoughts reflect his monotonous and delusion existence. 4 pages

The Raft (1982, novelette) – 4/5 – The dawn of adulthood at the dusk of summer is an intoxicating allure for nostalgic dalliances. Deke’s brutish impulsiveness leads a group of four, including his brainy roommate Randy, out to a lake where a pontoon sits at the center. Their initial bravado for the swim turns into horror when a blob dissolves one of the swimmers, leaving the rest facing death by blob or death by cold. 29 pages

Word Processor of the Gods (1983, shortstory) – 5/5 – His dead brother was an alcoholic, wife-beating jerk, but he had a beautiful wife and a genius son. Just two weeks after his brother’s death, his nephew gives him a birthday gift of his own creations: a mongrel of a computer, part IBM, Erector set and Liol train transformers. At first use, the word processor literally processes his typed word and the deletion thereof. First a picture appears, then gold bullion. What else foes he deserve? 19 pages

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands (1981, shortstory) – 4/5 – A rich elderly man tells a tale of a poker game which happened in 1919. A man who had recently returned from India decides to join the game but makes it absolutely clear that he cannot touch another person. The pot of the last hand of the night soars hundreds of dollars and the same solitary man wins big but the belligerence of another player perverts his taboo. The money may be lost, but the story is not. 17 pages

Beachworld (1984, shortstory) – 3/5 – The entire ship and one crew member are totally pulverized; the remaining two crew are left deserted on a planet covered with dunes, after dunes, after dunes without water or greenery. Shapiro observes Rand slip into a hypnotic fixation for the planet while he attempt to beacon for rescue. When it does come, Shapiro is quick to push the lift off as he’s leery of the planet. 18 pages

The Reaper’s Image (1969, shortstory) – 4/5 – In an ancient house full of worthless wonders rest a few priceless artifacts, including a rare DeIver mirror which Mr. Carlin is cautious to show and which Mr. Spangler is eager to inspect. The objective history of the mirror interests him most as he examines the authenticity of the piece but his unconcerned for the subjective myths of its reported viewers’ disappearances… until he looks just a little closer. 8 pages

Nona (1978, novelette) – 4/5 – Childhood memory of rats in the cellar and lost opportunity for reciprocated love cascades into a tumultuous, prolonged affair with deep love-stricken longings for black-haired women with abrupt endings. One his sentences for life, the young man recollects his criminal-themed affair with Nona, a girl who stole his heart, started his murder spree and disappeared from his life. 39 pages

For Owen (1985, poem) – 3/5 – A school on Fruit Street spawns the imagination of a child into a plethora of categories for children in the same school based on characteristics of common fruit characteristics: small blueberries, fat watermelons, and the grouping nature of bananas. However, there are times when fruits act like other fruits, yet the subterfuge is both a façade and a unnatural perversity. 2 pages

Survivor Type (1982, shortstory) – 5/5 – Scorned during much of his childhood and university career, a young doctor exploits his Irish heritage during his doctor residency and later life as a surgeon. When his dollar doesn’t carry itself for enough into investments, he turns to importing heroin. This is the very same drug he is left with on a deserted island where his smuggling ship crashes and he’s left with very little to eat. 20 pages

Uncle Otto’s Truck (1983, shortstory) – 2/5 – A series of business ventures between Otto, born way back in 1905, and his financial partner Mr. McCutcheon ends in a huge tract of land around Castle Viewm a red Cresswell truck and a sour division between opinions of a business idea. Seventy years later, Otto’s involvement with his partner’s death under the same truck spurs controversy in the same town, which haunts Quinten’s whole adulthood. 17 pages

Morning Deliveries (1985, shortstory) – 4/5 – Spike’s morning delivery of dairy products starts with his standard list: milk, cream, yogurt, cyanide gas, nightshade, and a tarantula. Some deliveries are exact according to the household’s list, but other houses are dealt deadly surprises. His route ends with a sense of expectation for drinking with his friend Rocky and an expected conclusion to his services—a home with a blood splotch. 5 pages

Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (1980, shortstory) – 4/5 – With only hours left of validation on Rocky’s car, he and Leo get absolutely hammered on Iron City beer while enjoying an evening cruise. Hopelessly decrepit, Rocky has no chance at passing another inspection until he see an old high school friend with a car shop. Soon, with stories swapped and backslaps given, the friend gets wasted on beer. Meanwhile, Rocky simmers with hatred for the milkman who slept with his wife. 15 pages

Gramma (1984, novelette) – 4/5 – When George was five years old, he was scared of the white, fleshy sack he called a grandmother; he cried when she wanted to hug him. Now twelve years of age, George’s brother is in the hospital and his mother is by his side, leaving George alone at home with the grandmother in progressively poorer health. Steeling himself against fear, he checks on her room and finds her dead, but her mysterious past haunts him still. 31 pages

The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet (1984, novella) – 5/5 – A rising writer and his wife, his agent and his wife, and a long recovering alcoholic editor dabble in the macabre topic of writer suicides. The skittish author’s wife doesn’t withhold the editor’s bizarre tale of Reg Thorpe. After Reg’s initial success, he and his own wife withdrew to Kansas and, due to his growing strange behavior, cut off their electricity. Even more bizarre, the editor adopted Reg’s fantasy of having fairies in the typewriter. 51 pages  


The Reach (1981, shortstory) – 4/5 – Off the New England coast sits an island—simple, unremarkable, yet home to all things for Stella, an elderly lady who’s never left the island. Having experienced dreadful winters, the funeral of her husband and the uproar caused by a perverted outsider, Stella had had no wish to cross the Reach, the water between her island and the mainland. With frail health and inviting mummers of welcome for her dead husband, he considers crossing. 21 pages

Friday, April 11, 2014

1997: The Neutronium Alchemist (Hamilton, Peter F.)

An impressive task and challenge, more fill than fun (3/5)

Investing time in Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy is heart-breaking. I finished Book 1 in fifteen days during a long holiday, but I polished off Book 2 during a month of full-time work—all 30 days of it. While reading the 393,000 words of The Neutronium Alchemist, I could have read six shorter (and better) novels in the same amount of time. At the same time, I’m trying to make space on my bookshelves; with these tomes will have been completed, and most likely sold to my favorite second-hand bookstore, they will free up some much needed shelf room… though not enough for the 50 books which are stacked elsewhere. Alas, another book, another review, another slot made available on my to-read shelves.

Talking about numbers here, comparatively, Book 1 (The Reality Dysfunction) has 385,000 words and is 1,094 pages long, which is 46 pages shorter than Book 2. As these books are part of a trilogy, they must be read in order, with a behemoth conclusion in Book 3: The Naked God that tips the scales at 1,332 pages and 469,000 words (!). This is a trilogy with a total of 1,247,000 words—be prepared for the battle: focus, focus, focus and frequently consult the “Cast of Characters” appendix (pages 1139-1144).

Rear cover synopsis:
“The ancient menace has finally escaped from Lalonde, shattering the Confederation’s peaceful existence.

On planets and asteroids, individuals battle for survival against the strange and brutal forces unleashed upon the universe. Governments teeter on the brink of anarchy, the Confederation Navy is dangerously overstretched, and a dark messiah prepares to invoke his own version of the Final Night.

In such desperate times, the last thing the galaxy needs is a new and terrifyingly powerful weapon. Yet Dr. Alkad Mzu is determined to retrieve the Alchemist—so she can complete her thirty-year-old vendetta to slay a star. Which means Joshua Calvert must find Dr. Mzu and bring her back before the Alchemist can be reactivated.

But he’s not alone in the chase, and there are people on both sides who have their own ideas about how to use the ultimate doomsday device.”

------------

The aftermath of the Lalonde possession is a spreading wave of possession through the Confederation by Quinn’s cohorts.

A Saldana planet, Ombey, is invaded by a trio of the walking dead, but the swift action of the police force limits the spread of possession to a single town which becomes overrun with the malicious dead-returned. While many of the returned are unscrupulous heathens and sybarites, a handful of them actually have a kind side and take to caring for children, who are not possessed, and taking them back to civilization away from the growing red cloud which hangs over the village. However they channel their powers, the humans are worried… very worried:

The energistic power which was the inheritance of every possessed was capable of near-miraculous feats as it bent the fabric of reality to a mind’s whim. As well as its destructive potential, items could be made solid at the flicker of a thought. It was also capable of reinforcing a body to resist almost any kind of assault as well as enhancing its physical strength. Wounds could be healed at almost the same rate they were inflicted. (181)

The very progressive, technological center of the Confederation is New California, a planet with strong defenses and a strong security force, both of which fall to the man who is possessed by Al Capone. This criminal mastermind of the early 20th century find that, even though 600 years in the future, the basic elements of running a city still run true for taking over an entire planet. For Al Capone, already corrupt, with power comes lust for more power and there’s a galaxy of planets just waiting to be possessed!

But Capone is no dummy criminal. He changes the complete economy of New California, ruthlessly punishes those who stand in his way, and probes deeper into the powers which the possessed have. When the bodiless souls in beyond want to enter a body, Capone converses with the all-seeing souls to gather information about activities from around the Confederation; secrets and plans are revealed to Capone, and an enticing bit of information has come to him: a woman named Dr. Mzu has information about the most destruction weapon ever known to mankind—the Alchemist.

When Dr. Mzu’s planet was destroyed by the Omuta’s thirty years ago, much of her experience was invested in creating the Alchemist. Aside from Mzu, nobody really knows what it does except that it can destroy a star. In the realm of the dead exists souls from every planet, including Earth and Mzu’s home planet; logically, there must exist and assistant of Mzu’s, someone who can help build a new Alchemist if the original Alchemist cannot be discovered. This is Capone’s chance to own the great weapon known to man when he also knows that Mzu has escaped and is attempted to retrieve her deadly device.

Also chasing the hermetic Mzu is Joshua, kind of as a favor to Ione Saldana and partly because his duty of gallivanting across the galaxy always includes these kinds of things. With his capable crew (and with Ione unknowingly stowed as a mechanical serjent), Joshua tracks down Mzu’s movements across space and is followed by Confederation Navy spies who also quest for Mzu’s capture and, with it, knowledge of what exactly the Alchemist is capable of.

Not to be forgotten, Dexter Quinn still roams open space with a burning vendetta against Earth. Being his primary target, Quinn shoots for Earth but is quickly deterred by his lack of preparation. Instead, Quinn visits a planet with a long history of strife and war—Nyvan, humankind’s first attempt at colonizing a world with multiple ethnicities. Due to the fractured nature of the social and governmental landscape, Quinn easily pins all the nationalistic forces against each other. Meanwhile, in the derelict asteroids orbiting  the planet, Quinn is planting fusion bombs for a grand spectacle of his vision: Final Night.

Pregnant, frightened, free and rich, Louise Kavanagh, along with her sister Genevieve and the gentlemanly possessed Titreano, head to the Sol system in order to ultimately find a ride to Tranquility. However, their progress is limited by Titrano’s interference with electronics on both the starship and at the Mars’ transfer facility. Louise considers Earth an impossibility but still thinks Tranquility is the best choice for her recuperation.

Tranquility becomes a hub of activity when it’s discovered that Capone is marshalling forces of voidhawks to fight the Confederation. His rate of expansion is impressive, so the Confederation governance takes extraordinary measures to fight the incoming fleet of warships. Their information isn’t exact, so precautions are spread across many regions, a fault which may either hamper Capone’s progress or seal his victory in one decisive battle. Inside Tranquility, Jay Hilton, a young refugee from Lalonde, innocently plays with the xenoc (Kiint) youth named Haile. Haile builds a remarkable sandcastle, a structure similar to one which was viewed by Ione but one which should never have been seen by Haile or anyone else in the Kiint race.

Questions and eyebrows are raised at Kiint’s passive attitude towards the possession of human bodies from the souls of the beyond. They maintain that all intelligent species must face this turn of events with their own fortitude, as each species will have a different solution to their possession. All information is scant about the Kiint’s history as is the reality of the beyond. When some of the possessed are captured and interrogated, reassurance is given to one scientist when he learns that time does indeed pass in the beyond, therefore space exists and so, logically, they dead can be beaten with familiar techniques: “It [the Beyond] obviously exists, therefore it must have some physical parameters, a set of governing laws; but they [scientists] cannot detect or define them” (666). However, the captured possessed have their own ideas of justice and they don’t play by our rules. When the Confederation take the possessed to court, hell breaks loose all over again.

------------

Rather than focusing exclusively on the physical war between the able-bodied humans and the possessed minds of other humans, The Neutronium Alchemist also highlights the metaphysical battle between the two. For the bodily humans, it’s damned if they do join yet damned if they don’t join:

I’m sorry, Ralph, but as I said, you simply cannot threaten me. Have you worked out why yet? Have you worked out the real reason I will win? It is because you will ultimately join me. You are going to die, Ralph. Today. Tomorrow. A year from now. If you’re lucky, in fifty years time. It doesn’t matter when. It is entropy, it is fate, it is the way the universe works. Death, not love, conquers all in the end. And when you die, you will find yourself in the beyond. That is when you and I will become brother and sister in the same fellowship. United against the living. Coveting the living. (165)

The damned, the supposed eternal souls living in the beyond, still live with the “naked emotions which drive us all” and they “know exactly what we are in our true hearts, and it’s not nice, not nice at all” (1079); their intrinsic drive for domination, possession and submission rests in their very nature.

This is an interesting turn on the once uni-faceted possessors who were once only out for two things: bloodlust and domination. It’s refreshing, in light of contrast, to see some figures of the possessed control their emotions for the benefit of the children, for the benefit of the innocent. Though not the majority, by far, at least there is a hint of hope in Hamilton’s prose that allows for some of the possessed to maintain the humane side of humanity rather than the more pessimistic animalistic side which is more often portrayed.

Originally, in my review of The Reality Dysfunction, I had a difficult time accepting two premises of Hamilton’s trilogy: (a) the very nature of dead souls living in the Beyond and (b) the nature of the Edenist affinity link which has a genetic source for its non-interceptable mental transmission (as for the Kiint [1089]). Considering the created universe of The Night’s Dawn trilogy is 600 years in the future, you would think that everything which could have ever been observed in the universe, all that which is affected by laws of electromagnetic forces of other forces in the predicted unified theory, would have already been predicted and/or observed. Therefore, the affinity and Beyond are part of the physical universe, in one way or another, and should easily have been predicted, observed or measured.

Yet, there are some not-so-subtle hints about the reality of the beyond: “[T]hey [scientists] sought out the elusive transdimensional interface” (800). There are also vague, unquotable inferences that both phenomena have quantum origins, perhaps non-interceptable because of quantum entanglement (or as Einstein had called it, spooky action as a distance [spooky… possession… get it?]). This theory of mine is merely a self-assurance that Hamilton has everything neatly planned out and won’t leave any loose science ends hanging; I’m assuring myself that The Naked God will herald all the answers to all the nagging questions in my mind.

One huge improvement in Book 2 is its typographical consistency. In The Reality Dysfunction, particularly in the second half, there were many abbreviated inconsistencies, changes in font, missing bold face and compound adjectives. I’m happy to report that The Neutronium Alchemist is much better in these regards, but still isn’t perfect; granted, you can’t exactly expect it to but still I, one reader, can point out at least things:

a) Helium-3 is used as fuel for the ships in the Confederation’s fusion reactors. Rather than use the lengthy term “Helium-3”, Hamilton understandably uses the accepted He3 abbreviation for the isotope. This would be fine but he also occasionally uses subscript for the “3” as in He3: notably, on pages 1049, 1050 and 1096 (three out of eighteen isn’t so consistent).

b) Hamilton’s use of the word prone greatly annoys me. Though the definition of the word is commonly used to imply a recumbent, flat resting position, the actual definition of the word prone suggests that the subject in laying “face downward”, in contrast to the word supine which means “having the face upward”. Hamilton’s disuse of supine and his awkward uses of prone are curious:

i. “Black figures were lying prone on the feed roads” (66);

ii. “The sidewalk was littered with prone bodies” (99);

iii. “He gingerly positioned Gerald’s buttocks on the side of the bed, then lifted his legs up and around until his charge was lying prone on the cushioning” (106);

iv. “The captain was lying prone on his acceleration couch, unconscious. His fingers were still digging into the cushioning, frozen in a claw-like posture, nails broken by the strength he’d used to maul the fabric. Blood dribbling out of his nose made sticky blotches on his cheeks.” (174);

v. “[T]he four crew members lying prone on their bulky acceleration couches” (328);

vi. “Two ceiling-mounted waldo arms had been equipped with sensor arrays, like bundles of fat white gun muzzles, which they were sweeping slowly and silently up and down the prone body” (445);

vii. “They even perceived Dariat and Tatiana lying prone on the escape pod’s acceleration couches” (960);

viii. “Alkad Mzu was lying prone on one of the spare acceleration couches” (1104).

For the most part, The Neutronium Alchemist paddles along at a fairly even pace with a predictable lengthy action scene towards the conclusion. Yes, there’s a car chase scene but the hitch is it’s exacerbated by the coming of a megaton asteroid. Like a 100-car freight train crossing the Midwest (something I have familiarity with), the hulking mass of the plot moves along steadily, surely and with one hell of a momentum; once it gets rolling, it’s hard to interrupt or shift. Hamilton should stick to his complicated, interweaving plots rather than dabble in occasional and horribly awkward poetic passages, such as: “He was sure that someone had been watching the incident. A spoor of trepidation hung in the air like the scent of a summer flower” (812).

------------


With a few minor annoyances, a few premises which are unbelievable, a few typographical errors and a rather lengthy stretch of mediocrity (though the length is impressive, the performance is not [wink], wink]), The Neutronium Alchemist, and the entire Night’s Dawn trilogy as a whole I assume, is a moderately enjoyable task rather than a continually adventurous excursion. I need a break from the series so, while on another long holiday, I’ll be dabbling in some other, hopefully, more profound literature.

Monday, March 31, 2014

1996: The Reality Dysfunction (Hamilton, Peter F.)

Delectable SF space opera with hard-to-swallow premises (3/5)

I’ve plowed through most of Hamilton’s tomes, excluding the Greg Mandel trilogy (1993-1995) and The Night’s Dawn trilogy (1997-2000). I’m not a big fan of series, so I’ve always held off reading these expansive sets of books. I haven’t heard much about the Greg Mandel series but The Night’s Dawn trilogy seems to be the stuff of legend, whispers passed about its length and depth. Considering I’ve liked everything else Hamilton has written, including the collection of Manhattan in Reverse (2011) and his most recent novel Great North Road (2012), I finally decided to procure the weighty volumes and delve into the first tome while on 2-week holiday. This turned out to be excellent timing as it ended up taking fifteen days to polish off the 1,094 pages.

One additional note, in case you weren’t already aware, is that the original US edition of The Reality Dysfunction is split into two volumes: Emergence (1997) and Expansion (1997). The later edition combines them, thankfully, into one large volume… the same volume which is featured here.

Rear cover synopsis:
In AD 2600 the human race is finally beginning to realize its full potential. Hundreds of colonized planets scattered across the galaxy host a multitude of prosperous and wildly diverse cultures. Genetic engineering has pushed evolution far beyond nature's boundaries, defeating disease and producing extraordinary space-born creatures. Huge fleets of sentient trader starships thrive on the wealth created by the industrialization of entire star systems. And throughout inhabited space, the Confederation Navy keeps the peace. A true golden age is within our grasp.

But now something has gone catastrophically wrong. On a primitive colony planet, a renegade criminal's chance encounter with an utterly alien entity unleashes the most primal of all our fears. An extinct race which inhabited the galaxy aeons ago called it "The Reality Dysfunction." It is the nightmare that has prowled beside us since the beginning of history.”

------------

Joshua Calvert hopes to one day refurbish the inheritance of his father’s starship—the Lady Macbeth. His intuition for discovery proves fruitful in the decimated ruins of an xenoc (alien) orbital. The resulting dust ring, which orbits a gas giant, is picked by scavengers and the finds sold to a nearby research facility. The most significant finds are often intact leaves, trees and daily objects. When Joshua is pressed by opportunistic scavengers, he retreats in a large piece to debris only to find the mother lode: a ice-encapsulated computer core. The sale of the core allows Joshua to become a local celebrity, upgrade his ship’s systems, and even bed a few broads in the process.

One of his prized notches on his bedpost is bedding the Lord of Ruin, a title given to the bitek (organically grown) orbital’s ruler, whose bloodline is shared with the regal Saldana family, of which Alastair II is the reigning king over the Kulu Kingdom. Though part of the royal bloodline, the Lord of Ruin, Ione, and her affinity-linked (mind/message-linked) named Tranquility operate outside the sphere of influence of the royal family. Tranquility was originally established as an outpost to research the Laymil artifacts.

The facility researching the Laymil artifacts also investigates what caused the catastrophic demise of the entire massive orbital body. The leading theories include suicide and attack, but with centuries having passed since their destruction, the only source of new information will come from the data core which Joshua found. The researchers discover that stores amid the data are sets of sensory recordings, memories of the extinct xenoc race.

One of these researchers is Dr. Alkad Mzu, one of the few survivors of her homeworld’s utter destruction by antimatter by the hand of the Omuta navy. Her homeworld of Garissa is now but a memory, a memory which burns deeply with a sense of hate, revenge and justice that spans her 30-year confinement on Tranquility. Ione’s father made it his prerogative to keep Mzu within Tranquility so that she is unable to seek out that revenge with her fabled Alchemist weapon of purported unimaginable power. The weapon is hidden relic of the navy from Garissa who once wanted to strike the genocidal blow to their enemy the Omuta, who have only now started to emerge from their own 30-year quarantine. The Confederation of human worlds welcomes the genocidal brutes back into the fold of human affairs but the allegorical sins of a father are carried as a burden by the son.

Nothing is as burdensome as settling a new colony, like on the newly opened EuroChristian-ethnic world Lalonde. Emigrating from Earth, fine families gamble with their lives to have new beginnings, but wasters from Earth’s acrologies, the chaff of humanity, also tag along for hopes of a better future… or a darker non-future like Quinn Dexter hopes for. Gaining trust among the innocent villagers, Quinn establishes a separate house for the hard-working cons but Quinn is also gaining respect through fear by the other cons, who see him as a necessarily brutish leader. Quinn and his men’s brutish sexual acts of shamelessness reflect their growing infatuation with releasing the Serpent from themselves, inviting the Light Bringer into their lives.

In the early days of the universe’s formation, an intelligent race of energy being arose to sublime into the vacuum of space. Roaming the empty vacuum for the sake of study, the race of Ly-cilph visit star systems and study the interesting forms of life which are scattered among the stars. Rarely do these physical being interest the energy-patterned Ly-cilph, but some curious humans on Lalonde seem to welcome to energy, hungry for power. The resulting local influence of energy causes an unnatural rift in space-time, whereby the departed souls of mankind cross the gulf between the eternal yet painful observation and longing for physicality and that of our world.

The souls enter willing bodies in anguish. Once subsumed, the mind of the body cringes in the back of the brain while the transported soul becomes the dominant persona, and with it an incredible ability to manipulate matter and energy. White fire flies from their fingertips by their very wish, causing destruction where ever they tread. Not wasting the ability and sympathizing with the bodiless souls beyond, the possessed soon torture other people into begging for mercy, an opportunity which the sinister souls pounce upon and force themselves into the body. Their powers grow greater and more and more of them converge on the same city, manifesting historical wonders from yesteryears and forming an impenetrable red cloud which blocks out the horrible sight of the vastness of space. Happy with their corporal existence, they aim to expand the cloud, vanquish the world and transport the entire planet to a dimension where they can live in bodily form for eternity.

Meanwhile, Joshua is a captain of his own starship and proudly gallivanting about the Confederation looking for trade and tail, both of which he succeeds in snaring. His largest pull comes from collecting the hardest wood known to the Confederation, a special wood from Lalonde, and selling it to the pastoral planet named Norfolk. Norfolk is a planet constitutionally limiting their technology, so Joshua’s gamble of transporting a starship full of wood (ridiculous to many) pays off big time, earning him prime access to two things: a shipload of the Confederation’s finest alcohol called Norfolk Tears (made from a dying flower’s sap) and the young, naïve yet buxom beauty of a wealthy estate, Louise Kavanagh.

When hell breaks loose on Lalonde, the trickle of information from the budding colony eventually reaches the Confederation. Rumors are thrown around on the ground of Lalonde as much as they are across the stars, but an early solid report of the chaos cuts a new facet on the rumors: an infamous rogue Edenist who destroyed an entire habitat is found on Lalonde. Has he anything to do with the demonic possessions? If so, why did he warn secret Confederation agents about the emerging human plight of possession? And if he’s so innocent, why did he send an intense word of warning via affinity when he killed himself? One thing is for certain: “on old Earth they used to say all roads led to Rome. Here on Lalonde, all the rivers lead to Durringham” (985), but the rivers of water aren’t the only streams headed towards Durringham; heavily armed starships are headed to the planet to confront the threat with precise orbital bombardment or, if the threat warrants its usage, strategic nuclear bombs.

The Confederation, though composed of billions of humans and two xenoc species, has never been under such a threat: souls invading living human bodies; to kill the body would send two souls (one sinister, one innocent) back to the bodiless dimension. This is the crux of the problem the Confederation faces; here, there must consider:

Our empathy means never hide from what we feel … the balance is the penalty of being human: the danger of allowing yourself to feel. For this we walk a narrow path high above rocky ground. On one side we have the descent into animalism, on the other a godhead delusion. Both pulling of us, both tempting. But without these forces tugging of your psyche, stirring it into conflict, you can never love. (118)

For a more thorough, accurate plot synopsis for The Reality Dysfunction, see Wikipedia.

------------

One of the basic premises which I glanced over in my own synopsis was the classic division of the human race into two sects: the Adamists (baseline humans) and the Edenists (genetically engineered with the telepathic affinity gene). The Edenists include not only gene-linked humans, but also their massive bitek habitats, their starships named voidhawks, and menial laborers of animal origin. The basis for Edenism comes from the affinity gene, which as mentioned above, links all Edenists together more harmoniously than the baseline Adamists: “with their communal affinity there was no hiding emotions or truth” (24).

I’ve always been skeptical about the reality of telepathy, treating it as a pseudo-science or calling it outright bunk. I find it difficult to swallow the pill Hamilton gives us: telepathy by genetics… not only that, but a telepathy which is impossible to intercept (926). Not completely outside the boundaries of physics, affinity is limited by distance. Certainly, if distance is a limitation, there some sort of signal must travel through some sort of medium—this is the essence of a transmission. I’m baffled by why it’s impossible to intercept its transmissions, as if human genes—little protein messengers—carry a mechanism which defeats the laws of the known universe.

Equally as hard to swallow is the other overarching premise: human souls exist (and are undetectable just like affinity) and reside outside of our normal space-time sphere, all in pain and all lusting for corporeal existence. Whether this is addressed in the remaining two books is unknown (now 75% of the way through The Neutronium Alchemist and something’s been hinted, but nothing solid). I don’t understand the ill intentions and evil motives of the returning dead; sure, some of them had been influenced by Quinn sadism and his lust for power and pain from the Light Bringer, but it seems like our kind human nature is vanquished once we return from the dead. However, this is not a certainty in 100% of the cases, as toward the end of The Reality Dysfunction was come across a noble spirit who assists in a rescue of children from the clutches the returning dead. Further, The Neutronium Alchemist (in at about the 75% point), sympathetic factions of the possessed arise.

One last piece of the plot annoyed me. While the Edenists’ voidhawks and the Adamists’ blackhawks can traverse space through wormholes, subjectively traveling faster than light, messages are unable to travel in a similar superluminal fashion. Crystal flecks (the standard unit of data exchange) are thereby loaded with information and send in a voidhawk or blackhawk, send across the gulf of stars to a far-off star system where they broadcast the message. For important news to travel around the entire system of the Confederation, great manpower and shiptime must be dedicated to the effort… which, conveniently, plays a part into the spread of the possessed.

Now come the uni-faceted characters: the protagonists of skirt-chasing Joshua and his skirt with a brain Ione; then the antagonist of hellbent Quinn. Aside from these prevalent characters, there’s actually a number of more interesting people who form Joshua’s entourage and some other crew members of other gallivanting ships which were left out of the already lengthy synopsis (again, see Wikipedia for that). For example, Father Horst Elwes emigrates to Lalonde because of his weak faith and when his faith is tested by the seeming resurrection of the dead, his kind god-fearing side comes to the surface. Lastly, Erick Thakrar (a Confederation Navy spy) and Captain André Duchamp (occasional smuggler) provide a great frisson which develops well into The Neutronium Alchemist.

Enough about the plot of this expansive space opera. Now, a word about consistency when using the English language; I’m sensitive to this kind of thing. For example, if you use the word “color” on one page then spell it “colour” on a different page, I’m going to notice… or if you “touchy” instead of “tetchy” then later swap their uses, I’m going to point it out. For Peter F. Hamilton, the one major inconsistency, which probably won’t mar your reading of the book if it hadn’t already been pointed out, is his use of the hyphen, which in this case is used to join words as compound nouns or adjectives (e.g. sun-dried tomatoes or sundried tomatoes, but not both). Consider:
a) “olive-green one-piece anti-projectile suit” (580) and “olive green one piece anti-projectile suits”(613)
b) “space-plane” (1091, line 4) and “spaceplane” (1091, line 6)
c) “thermodump panels” (9 and 108) while “thermo-dump” was more widely used
d) sometimes “combat wasp” is hyphenated, sometimes not as “combat-wasp”.

Even less obvious and easier to miss are some typeface issues or proofreading issue with the lowercase letter-L, the capital letter-L and the lowercase letter-I; for example:
                a) “Ione” instead of “lone” (973, line 4)
                b) “vold” instead of “void” (1031, line 11)

Lastly, the fine-toothed comb found one additional inconsistency: the full stop with the abbreviation of mister. Consider: “Mr Wallace” (1040, line 31) and “Mr. Malin” (1040, line 33) with a number of other examples on the proceeding three pages.

------------


It’s modern space opera; you should know what to expect: lots of transient characters, interweaving plot lines, untold pages going by without hearing from a character or two, loads of proper nouns (planets, ships, cities, etc.), and hints of things to come in a thousand pages or so within the sequel : The Neutronium Alchemist. In these regards, the beginning to the Night’s Dawn trilogy does not disappoint, but I just find it hard to enjoy a plot which heavily relies on gene-linked, physics-defying telepathy and the irrational returning souls of the dead. Having bought all three volumes of the trilogy already (with the inclusion of the third volume, The Naked God), I’m dedicated to finishing this popular trilogy.

Friday, March 14, 2014

1980: Players at the Game of People (Brunner, John)

Attack on sybarites and/or whimsical dalliance? (3/5)

In my quest to be a Brunner completist (now at twenty-five novels), I’ve had to tackle some of Brunner’s lesser known work in the 1980s. This work occurs after a five-year hiatus of novel writing between Shockwave Rider (1975) and The Infinitive of Go (1980). Are these works lesser known due to an eclipsing presence in the SF community or lesser known because of deteriorating quality? Therein lays my mission as a Brunner completist. This is my fourth foray into Brunner’s later work, another addition to his mediocrity pile.

Rear cover synopsis:
“War hero, jet-setter, gourmet—Godwin Harpinshield was all of these and more; his life was a game played among the Beautiful People whose fame, wealth and power set them above the law, and beyond the laws of nature. Because of a simple bargain that all the Beautiful People made, Godwin’s every desire was his for the asking. Seduced by luxury, Godwin never doubted his fortune, never wondered about his mysterious patrons.

Then the game turned ugly.

Suddenly, the ante was raised and the game was real. The stakes were his future, his sanity and, possibly, his very soul. All Godwin Harpinshield had to discover was: What were the rules of the game? And who—or what—were the other players?”

------------

Godwin works for an unseen employer, an employer who manipulates his reality as his reward. His latest task was to recruit a young woman, Gorse, from her life of prostitution and eventual destitution. To impress her, he lavishes her with fine drink, fine clothing, and an epic evening of sex but he pities her naïve youthfulness and mortal concerns; treating her finely yet with detachment, she’s led into the same mixed reality/fantasy world in which he lives, yet he’ll more than likely never see her again.

The rewards for such occasional tasks come in the form of a lavish yet closely guarded lifestyle: he drives a Lamborghini but parks in a public garage, he lives in a mansion accessed through a slum, he uses passports only once or twice, he rejuvenates and detoxes himself as needed; this secretive lifestyle also allows him to pop in and out of his friend’s bungalow in Bali or a restaurant in Hawaii.

[H]e had had ample time to think and reflect and study. He had no need to earn a living; he was occasionally obliged to invent a new ambition, but that happened seldom, and one conceived, a single ambition often lasted him for several years. (189)

One last reward is his ability to occasionally live out an impossible otherwise fantasy such as earning a George Medal for heroic efforts during World World II. The physical reward and relevant newspaper clipping is proof for his pride, but the emotional/sexual reward from a 10-year-old’s seductive kiss is more satisfactory, a lingering memory in his mind and on his lips. For successfully recruiting Grose, he is allowed another reward, a fantasy of his very wish but, prior to entering the trace-like state, he decides not chose any one scenario, a choice which sends him on a torturous sequence of punishment, imprisonment, and sadism. He awakes from his trance stupefied and uncertain, reflecting, “perhaps it had taken place at some kind of skew-wiff angle between the main line of reality and the diffuse world of simple fantasy” (119).

The unpleasant affair jilts Godwin’s waking life, a life which should be filled with riches and luxury yet has been infiltrated with the memory of pain. Then… he meets an impossible image from his WWII fantasy—the likeness of the same girl who kissed him is now following him, suspecting him of something with the police at her side. Rather than lead a life of suspicion, Godwin plies another of his special traits: the flex, an ability to manipulate people’s minds. Wiping the memory of his suspicion from the cops’ memory, Godwin leaves the blonde-haired woman untouched, yet later confronts her about his own disbelief of her existence. Shattered by the revelation, Godwin gawps at Barbara, “a handsome woman, a woman who had had the persistence—the guts, the bloody-mindedness—to struggle through a miserable life and somehow, nonetheless, create an identity, derived from nobody but herself and her own dreams” (186).

Gobsmacked perhaps by her simple human ability to rise from nothing to become a something, Godwin looks inwardly at himself and what he has achieved:

“Did I create that? Did I earn that? Did I invent or conceive it or design it?”

And felt the chilling knowledge overtake him:

Of course not. I simply accepted it when it was given.

Who have I been all these years? And, worse yet: What have I been?  (190)

His subjective reality shattered and his fantasies flattening, Godwin must look through his past to the time when he accepted his mixed fate, a deal which threatens his life and the life of another close to him and close to Barbara; it seems their fates are sealed.

------------

The above quote from page 190 summarizes one of the overarching themes of the book. One possible theme for this novel could be a shot at rich sybarites who bide their time dabbling in dalliances: women, cars, parties, restaurants and fantasy. These sybarites spend time and spend money but actually create nothing for themselves, much like Godwin doesn’t create his fantasies or even his fate. The novel looks at his coming to realize that his luxurious lifestyle is tainted with a underlying evil.

I’m torn between liking this novel and disliking it, so I’m stuck in the middle. The idea that there are people living on the fringe of our reality who experience their every last desire is enticing, but there are portions of the book which focus too heavily on describing the blurred line between Godwin’s fantasies and realities. The dialogue is a tiresomely echo of outlandish ideas proposed by the characters with very little actual fact-finding. The reader isn’t grounded to many of the concepts which Brunner has written into the plot. I guess you could say that the reader discovers the mysteries of Godwin’s abilities as Godwin himself discovers the inaccuracies and fallacies of his “work”.

However, I do enjoy the discovery; my own infantile conceptions of the newly introduced ideas slowly solidify, an general idea of the direction of Brunner’s young plot. There’s not too much spelled out for the reader—this where a lot of science fiction gets tedious, bogged down with data, stats and facts. Brunner keeps the reader engaged, but the dialogue of discovery—the ping pong postulations—has very little return and cements nothing. The conclusion doesn’t offer any solid evidence of who Godwin “works” for; their identity is vague, the reader’s suspicions carrying its own weight through the conclusion. This is where, at the end, I felt everything was perhaps too vague.

Brunner isn’t often a poetic writer, aside from his obvious wealth of poetry, which has been collected in books such as The Book of John Brunner (1976) and A Hastily Thrown Together Bit of Zork (1974). But many of his novels are written straight-forwardly, attention invested in the originality of the plot (or sometimes on the dollar return from an easy sell) or probing a subject to a great degree (or stumbling over himself in the process). Brunner is also an author who indulges in a few pet topics: spies, hypnotism and telepathy; in this regard, he can be an indulgent author but only to the point of favoring pet topics… he isn’t one to drop cutesy references, go off on a political tangent or fixate on sex.

Saying that, Players at the Games of People feels like an oddly indulgent novel by Brunner, a novel in which he flows poetically at times but also fixates on a specific type of sexual relations (mainly, direct clitoral stimulation); compare: “[H]e fretted ceaselessly as though he were an oyster doubtful about the advantages of being parent to a pearl” (144) and ”He recalled her capacity for orgasm. It has been impressive” (135).

One last oddity, merely a curiosity, about Players at the Games of People is its format. The 219-page novel is divided into 39 unnumbered chapters, nineteen of those pages blank due to pagination (the separation between the end of a chapter and the next so that each chapter begins on the same side—all on odd pages of all of even pages). This results in a choppy read as the chapters are rarely continuous. Aside from Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Sheep Look Up (1972), all my other Brunner novels have numbered chapters.

------------

Players at the Games of People is a Brunner curiosity. I don’t see it having much importance in his bibliography, but it does offer the Brunner fan a chance to follow his lead, look into his mind, and chase his indulgences. Interesting… but not essential to anyone other than the Brunner completist, like myself.

Monday, February 24, 2014

1983: Prelude to Chaos (Llewellyn, Edward)

Concentrated background frames diluted characters (2/5)

I bought this novel because of the motorcycle on the cover; simple as that. I had never heard of Edward Llewellyn and, after reading this novel, I may never hear again of Edward Llewellyn. We wrote his first science fiction novel at the ripe age of 67 (proof that it can never be too late). After that novel, The Douglas Convolution (1979), Llewellyn wrote only five more novels, two of which were published posthumously. Most noteworthy, which is perhaps too strong of a word to use in this case, is his Douglas Convolution trilogy in includes the novel of the same name (1979), The Bright Companion (1980), and this very novel being reviewed, which acts as a prequel to the series, Prelude to Chaos (1983).

Rear cover synopsis:
“Gavin Knox was bodyguard to the President of the United States and witness to a crime which could shake civilization to its foundations.

Judith Grenfell was a neurologist who discovered a side effect of the most common pharmaceutical on the market which could cause the greatest biological disaster in human history.

Both were prisoners in the most advanced maximum-security prison ever devised.

Without their information the few survivors of biological catastrophe could dissolve in bloody civil war. They had to escape, and fast, to safeguard the survival of the human race, or leave the world barren for eternity.”

------------

Savvy with technology and gutsier than most, Gavin Knox holds a special status among the prisoners on a barren peninsula where the Federal Penitentiary at Jona’s Point sits imperviously. The prisoners are confined within their prison at all times; they never see the natural color of the sky, never see the horizon, and never hear of news from outside their concrete confines; Gavin, however, has the duty to adjust the radio lines on the roof, thereby allowing him to spy on the only ship perpetually near the prison.

Also with a privileged status, Judith Grenfell has access to keypass codes and freedom in the medical ward and its morgue. Also with detailed knowledge of how bodies are packaged, shipped, and disposed of, Judith only needs assistance with technology to hatch her plan of escape, which is where Gavin Know comes into the picture. Though the prisoners are always watched, their time being intimate is knowingly less watched; so with sweet nothings mumbled into each other’s ear, they concoct their plan: bypass doors, hide under a frozen stiff, easily pass the defunct scanners, emerge from their coffins while on the offshore boat, clobber a guard or two, and make off with the mini-copter to freedom…

…if only a mini-copter weren’t so inconspicuous. On a less obvious route, the duo exchange their transportation for a car, which they switch often in order to stay off the law enforcement’s radar. Their once professional trysts in the prison morph into a less formal acquaintance, their respective personal traits bolstering their low profile and dependence on one another. Spooning in cold motels, their budding relationship doesn’t go beyond emotional and technical support, but Judith’s decision to relocate to a religious enclave may change the nature of their relationship.

The enclave, one of many remote places called Settlements by the puritan practitioner’s of The Light, is home to an Amish-esque commune; rather than limit their technology to eighteenth-century standard, the Light communities limit their use of chemicals to pre-1990 level. This single decree of their religion has kept them safe from the terrible effects of Impermease, the “cheapest, safest, and most effective insecticide” (183) but in reality, the chemical built up in the human body and destroyed the female ova even before birth, thereby rendering nearly every female around the world infertile. The Believers of The Light host fertile women, all of whom they encourage to reproduce through marriage. This fixed notion of marriage drives a wedge between Gavin, who makes the suggestion to ease their place in the community, and Judith, who fiercely decries the draconian measure against her feminine freedoms.

Another chemical drug which the community shuns is Paxin, a drug which was announced to have very little side effects other than its calming stat; Judith is one of the few people who actually know the truth: Paxin acts as a primer for subconscious suggestion. Gavin, having been arrested for murder of a colleague in the Secret Service, is under the impression what he had once been under the influence of the drug, a hypothesis which is consistent with his odd impulses. Since the Settlements do not take the drug of Paxin, they live a freedom which is unknown to those in the Affluent, any city or town which is outside of the Settlement. The Believers have a very strong opinion toward the Affluent, but so too do the Affluent have opinions of those in the Settlements.

…Judith, a fine scientist, who might have been adding her brains and skill to the struggle to discover some solution to the Impermease disaster, was more worried about the health of the few hundred children in the Settlement than the sterility of millions of American girls.

I mentioned this to her once. She sighed and said, “I’ve told you already, Gavin. All their research is hopelss. The eggs in those girls were sterilized years ago. I won’t waste my time trying to bring the dead back to life. What I can do is to help the living to grow up healthy and strong, fit to build a better world.

“So America means nothing to you anymore?”

She turned to stare at me. “Oh yes it does! The new America. The America which will rise from the cesspool of the Affluence. That is what we are working for here!” (157-158)

Judith’s opinions are largely shared among the Settlements, but outside the Settlements lurks jealousy and distrust:

…Rumors listened to with excitement and passed on with eagerness for the same conscious or unconscious reasons; to raise a sense of public indignation which might later justify burning the homes and looting the property of the minority concerned. And the hatred behind the desire was fueled by more than common resentment. It was fired by the fact that the Sutton Settlement still contained fertile women. (164)

This mutual dislike boils over during one of the Settlement’s trips to town where they exchange their last load to lobster for gold bullion, a tempting mark for marauders. With Gavin’s military expertise, the crew of the gold-laden truck make their escape after shooting and maiming their way through the local’s blockade. This stunt infuriates them enough to mount a larger sortie to the Settlement’s recluse location, but the organization of Gavin’s wartime awareness easily crushes the drunken yokels. However, the very act of hostility brings in the federal agents who want to capture their women, dismantle their camp, and reeducate the men. For refuge, there is only one resort: the Federal Penitentiary at Jona’s Point, the same penitentiary which imprisoned Gavin and Judith but which may now give sanctuary to the Settlement.

------------

What should be a story to “safeguard the survival of the human race”, according to the book’s own synopsis, fails to gain momentum after the prison escape and devolves into a story to safeguard against small-minded religious zealots, local yokels, and big brother. This has every feel of a potboiler: perpetually tepid action, sexual tension, misogyny, murder, a car chase, shootouts, a sleazy motel, a motorcycle, and the enticement of prison sex. This would be, at best, a mediocre novel if it wasn’t for (a) the overly-detailed background story, (b) the repetition of a few words, and (c) the complaining about women.

Aside from the four-page epilogue, there are 21 chapters, nearly each one with a page or two of background to the current story. This novel is supposed to act as a prequel to the proceeding two books, but the chunky bits of background feel like textbook snippets spliced into the narrative—almost like a prequel within the prequel itself. All of the history feels force fed, none of it has an organic presence in the story.

Within the first few chapters, I noted Llewellyn’s overuse of the word affluent as a proper noun (Affluence), as a common noun (affluence), and as an adjective (affluent). I estimated I had read the word seven times, so I kept a count thereafter: 25 times, about half of which the proper noun accounts for. That seemed a bit much, but another word was idiosyncratically over used, the German loanword “verboten”, which was used four times. I suppose it’s a loanword but while everyone knows what the word means, no one actually uses it… except for Llewellyn.

Gavin Knox is a pretty macho guy. He’s so wrapped up in his militaristic self that the concept of “woman” usually involves their admiration over his manliness or their secret desire to bed him; any experience a female has outside of these boundaries is unknown territory and best left to complaining about: “She strode down the alley, her skirt swinging, her head held high. She was a stubborn, willful, crazy, arrogant bitch … Once she married me, nobody would dare to insult or threaten her” (119). That is, nobody can insult her or all women unless it’s Gavin Knox himself: “That’s the trouble with having a female partner on any mission [aside from missionary, I presume]. Single-minded and resolute in the crunch; illogical and unpredictable when out of it” (144).

On a more minor note, be it an artistic inclination or unfamiliarity with writing novels, compound the three annoyance above with Llewellyn’s affection for sentence fragments and you’ll find a novel which is aggravating to read: word repetition, sentence truncation, rants about women, and exhibitions of textbook background.

------------

If Prelude to Chaos is an introduction to the Douglas Convolution, count me out of the proceeding two novels. The ideas of infertility are mildly interesting, but Llewellyn doesn’t possess the vehicle to move the idea toward fruitfulness. The novel ripens too quickly in and around the prison then tapers off into a distasteful mix of bitter misogyny, stodgy background, and vapid progress.