Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, January 31, 2013

1992: Quarantine (Egan, Greg)

Suspend belief and absorb speculation (5/5)

My first foray into the mind of Greg Egan was in 2007 with this same book—Quarantine. I hadn’t had a lot of sci-fi reading under my belt yet, but the novel floored my imagination and reignited a love affair with metaphysics and the bizarre realm of quantum mechanics—one branch of philosophy and one branch of science which are merged together by Egan to really push the reader’s imagination and subjective definition of perception. It’s not only Quarantine which pushes the limits of theoretical science and the limits of the reader’s mind, but Permutation City (1994), Diaspora (1997), and Teranesia (1999) all smack the bell of curiosity which leaves the reader’s mind resonating.

Rear cover synopsis:
“It’s late in the 21st century and bioengineering has become such a commonplace that people are able to modify their minds in any way they wish. It is an era which has been shaped by information systems so vast that security, in any form, is easily breached. You can be just exactly what you want to be, but the world outside and your life in it aren’t going to run any more smoothly…

Because one night, thirty three years ago, the stars went out and everything disappeared from the sky. ‘The Bubble’—a perfect sphere centered on the sun—made its appearance and isolated the earth from the solar system. Humanity has been cut of… Quarantined.”


Nick Stavrianos has been a retired cop since his wife died, a seemingly eclipsing moment in anyone’s life but one that Nick accepted with the cool demeanor of objectivity thanks to his “priming mods”.  Now in the year 2067, Nick is a private investigator who is still capable of superhuman objectivity, but also able to probe computer systems, manage information, and project a virtual reality atop his perceived reality thanks to the same “mods” in his skull. Though cold and calculating, Nick is the person he wants to be.

Using any of his six “priming mods”, Nick is able to enhance or suppress certain characteristics of his mind: P1 can change his biochemistry, P2 can alter information processing, P3 can focus attention and eliminate distractions, P4 can heighten his physical reactions, P5 can increase his spatial awareness, and P6 can improve coding and communication. In addition to these mods, Nick also has a cache of other mods (i.e. von Neumann, Hypernova, RedNet, Boss, MetaDossier, Déjà vu, CypherClerk, Backroom Worker, and The Night Switchboard) which assist in his data collection and analysis or improve his timeliness. His last mod, Karen, is the virtual presence of his deceased his wife; a minor testament to his ignored admittance and grief.

An anonymous client provides Nick with information about a severely handicapped woman who has gone missing from her hospital. Unable even to operate a doorknob, the woman, Laura Andrews managed to escape from her room on two prior occasions, but most recently she has left without a trace from the Hilgemann Institute. Data mining various leads, Nick discovers only one promising though unlikely lead which steers him to New Hong Kong.

Nick is unable to fathom why anyone would want the woman, one without ability, money, or persuasion. Scouring companies who would be able to provide Laura with the drugs she needs to live, Nick narrows the field down to one choice, a choice which he is casually determined to seek to his best abilities. The facilities for Biomedical Development International (BDI) are easily penetrated, but some regions define themselves as “no data”—a sign for Nick to personally investigate—where he sees Laura inside a double-walled room, locked out from the outer wall and locked out from the inner wall. He doesn’t have time to consider her disposition as he’s subdued with tranquilizers that even his “mods” can’t cope with.

The company doesn’t kill him, persecute him, or brainwash him; rather, they implant a “loyalty mod” in his brain, a reaffirming group of nano-machines in the brain which elevate the importance of the idea. In this case, the idea of the “Ensemble” is greatly important to the life of Nick now that he is under their wing. With secrecy paramount, Nick is aligned with a security job at Advanced Systems Research (ASR). The curious experiments of altering an ion’s spin seems repetitive and convoluted, but it’s not the spin that meant to be altered—it’s the outcome that’s meant to be tested. Nick is soon plunged into philosophical and quantum discussions of observation, collapsed universes, and multiple selves; all this gets him no closer to Laura, but the “loyalty mod” in his mind is still linked to cause.

Ensconced in ASR with the research advancing at a slow yet steady rate, the Ensemble circle also slowly begins to widen. Fellow Ensemble members congregate to understand exactly what it is they are loyal to; “What if it [the Ensemble] fragments, and re-forms with new goals, new priorities? Or, fragments and doesn’t re-from?” (126). To steel themselves against the possible dissolution of their higher organization, they form a lower, more secret organization called the Canon which discusses their loyalty: loyalty to the organization, loyalty its ideals or loyalty to the loyalty mod: “Forget Hegelian synthesis; we have pure Orwellian doublethink” (140). The resulting mental clout of loyalty offers a “distinct kind of freedom. The mental knot the loyalty mod has created can’t ever be untangled—but it can be endlessly deformed” (145). Thus beckons the question: “How radically can I deform the knot?” (151).

Nick becomes entrenched in the effects of the study on human observation affecting the outcome of events, where the act of observation collapses all lines of possibility to a single event with a registered result. The consequence of such innumerable universes of possibility leads Nick to believe that when all universes are collapsed as a result of observation, innumerable deaths are occurring in the parallel worlds of other possibilities. The part of the brain which collapses each eigenstate is controlled by yet another mod; this mod is installed in the test subject controlling the spin of ions, but Nick has also secretly procured the mod. However, the text subject is the only one who is able to “smear”, or embody and select the eigenstate which is most favorable out of the near-infinite number of possibilities.

Nick soon learns that he can “borrow” the smear mod when the subject is asleep. In the adjacent room, Nick is able to roll dice to consecutive shakes of snake-eyes, choose the correct combination for a lock on the first try, and even factor an impossible number is a short time, an impossible (actually, very highly unlikely) feat which should have taken the entire age of the universe to complete. This ability to choose the best path of possibility is not limited to party tricks, Nick realizes that even the attention of passers-by can be diverted to best suit his goal… this goal soon materializes in the penetration of the BDI complex and the pilfering of their own smear mod.

Little known to the Canon group are the dire consequences of using the smear mod and why the test subject has been limited to simple methods of measurement. The comparatively extreme forms of measurement and collapsing which Nick is perpetrating may cause grievous destruction to the world and may, actually, concern The Bubble: a star-occluding sphere twice the size of Pluto’s orbit which enshrouded the solar system on the morning of November 15, 2034. The question of “Why?” has been thrown around for the last thirty-three years and still no one understands the origins of the perfect sphere which caused worldwide panic and spurred the creation of cults which deify The Bubble: “Quantum mysticism, pop cosmology, radical Gaiaist eco-babble, Eastern transcendentalism, Western eschatology” (45) or the likes of the Children of the Abyss, who see any research into the mystery as an aberration of its godliness.


I think it’s misleading that the book’s synopsis overemphasizes the The Bubble, the solar system’s cutting off from the rest of the universe. Its presence and the resulting hypotheses are definitely some of the most interesting threads within the book to be knocked about, but being so blatant about it in the synopsis looks gimmicky. The sheer amount of mind-boggling ideas which Egan can produce and spin into a novel is impressive—it always has been (with the exclusion of some short stories for Luminous [1998] which didn’t strike a chord in me). So, the bait from the publisher is The Bubble, but the switch comes courtesy of Egan who teases the reader’s philosophical and metaphysical side.

If you have a multi-faceted brain with many areas of interest, a sort of generalist in knowledge and jack-of-all-trades, then the philosophical and metaphysical sides of your cerebral gem will intrigued. Quarantine keeps coming back to this point: What makes a human an observer? Lesser species aren’t considered observers, so there must be a biological mechanism in our brains which has evolved. It’s this mechanism which causes humans to observe the result of probability and collapse all of its eigenstates, or the plethora of possible outcomes. This is exemplified by Schrödinger's cat: hidden from observation, the cat in the box is either alive or dead, but quantum mechanics suggests that the cat is alive AND dead. The human, or rather the mechanism within the human brain which Egan hypothesizes, causes those two states to collapse: alive OR dead rather than alive AND dead.

I’m not one to go into the specifics about quantum mechanics because I know my knowledge of it is rough and I’m not going to take the time to outline it from Wikipedia. I do, however, have a long relationship with being wowed by futurism (don’t all sci-fi geeks?), parallel worlds, and scientific hypothesizing. Some of the first books I ever read were Micho Kaku’s Hyperspace (1994) and Visions (1998). Along with those mind-benders I also picked up random books about similar topics from Barnes & Noble and my local second-hand bookstore. I amassed about twenty of the books on various hypothetical and scientific philosophical topics ranging from the ‘50s to the ‘90s. Greg Egan puts similar topics into the format of a novel; the results are amazing.

Aside from the science and philosophy, Egan is keen enough to add some variety to the pages. When each “mod” is initially used or described, the manufacturer and the price are listed, giving the novel a small reality to ground the reader: e.g. Backroom Worker (Axon, $499), Meta-Dossier (Mindvaults, $3,950), and Hypernova (Virtual Arcade, $99). The mods aren’t difficult to keep track of because each is unique in function. Empowering two or three mods at a time can lift the user, like Nick, to perform superhuman functions or computing, data mining, or self-awareness (and selflessness on the other end of the spectrum).

One of the more subtle inclusions to the future history of the universe in Quarantine is the nuance of modern music. The music of the time, one particular piece called “Paradise” by Angela Renfield which Nick listens to, “is one of hundreds of thousands of identical copies, but each piece it creates is guaranteed unique. Renfield has set certain parameters for the music, but others are provided by pseudorandom functions, seeded with the date, the time and the audio system’s serial number” (22). At first the pieces hardly had anything in common, but after having run the piece over one hundred times, Nick can “see it resembling  a family tree, or a phyolgenetic classification of species … one piece can be judged to be a near or distant cousin of another, but the concept of ancestry doesn’t really translate” (22).


Egan has some newer novels out which, sadly, aren’t carried by the wonderfully stocked Kinokuniya bookstore here: Zendegi (2010) and The Clockwork Rocket (2011) with its sequels The Eternal Flame (2012) and The Arrows of Time (2013). His entire bibliography is chock full of scientifically bizarre tangents, ideas, and landscapes where the reader’s mind is left to grow, expand, and sublime. I can’t compare Egan’s stuff with anything else out there in the genre of science fiction; if you don’t read Egan for the bountiful ideas, then read Egan for his originality. Come for one or the other, but get smacked by both!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

1960: Deathworld (Harrison, Harry)

Valued for nostalgia, not artistic merit, obviously (3/5)

Deathworld has been on my “to-read” list for a long while but I’ve never come across a copy of it at a second-hand bookstore. Nearly all the works of Harry Harrison seem to have a cult following for one reason or another, but having read two of his novels and one collection, I haven’t seen much to be impressed about. I summarized both The Jupiter Legacy (1965) and In Our Hands, the Stars (1970) as being simple and linear: a plot based on one man with one big problem with little attention paid to either the start or end of the novel… wouldn’t you know, Deathworld exhibits these exact same characteristics and also comes away with a 3 of 5 star rating, just like the two novels above and the collection, Prime Number (1970). I’d be willing to try Make Room! Make Room! (1966) or The Stainless Steel Rat (1957), but I really don’t think Harrison can redeem himself after a steady string of mediocre science fiction.

Deathworld (free on Project Gutenberg) was originally serialized in three 1960 editions of Astounding Science Fiction: January, February, and March. The synopsis which follows is taken from the inside page of the first Bantam edition from September, 1960:

“Survival School was the Pyrran substitute for Kindergarten. Even the tiniest tots packed guns, and they knew how to use them.

The teaching method was simple: rooms were set up full of native animals, real in substance, but deactivated. Each time a child approached a dangerous animal a loud speaker blasted: "Kill Instantly!"  Eventually, killing became a reflex....

The final examination was the exposure to the live terrors of Pyrrus. Failure meant instant, violent death.”


On a furlough, Jason dinAlt, a gambler with a penchant for high stake risks, is approached by a bulky man who he wittily assumes is a “retired wrestler” (1). The densely built man is named Kerk Pyrrus and hails from a planet with the name as his surname; he also happens to the ambassador to a number of planets. Kerk’s issues a proposition to Jason: take the twenty-seven million credits earned from two years of mining, gamble with it, earn him three billion credits, and Jason can have whatever earnings are above that mark. How could Jason resist? Little did Kerk or the Casino staff know, Jason has a psi-talent which he uses to influence the roll of the dice. His game is craps and he hauls in the money, but not before the pit boss and the Casino security nearly capture him and his hard-earned loot.

Assuming persecution, Jason decides to be a passenger with his sixteen million credits on Kerk’s ship which is returning to his home planet of Pyrrus. He’s initially leery of joining because of the large amount of war machines which have been procured with the winnings, but Jason considers his services valuable to Kerk and his planet, a solid enough conviction which woos Kerk into accepting Jason, albeit with one condition: obey all instructions regarding his personal safety.

Pyrrus: “It is everything a humanoid world should not be. The gravity is nearly twice Earth normal. The temperature can vary daily from arctic to tropic. The climate—well you have to experience it to believe it. Like nothing you’ve seen anywhere else in the galaxy” (11-12). The planet’s geology is the result of having “thirteen super-novas in the immediate stellar neighborhood” (12) explode and give the planet its dense collection of minable heavy elements. Volcanic tantrum and thirty meter tides only exacerbate the planet’s eccentric axial tilt of nearly forty-two degrees. If the climate or natural disasters don’t claim the lives of the colonists, it may be the flora and fauna of Pyrrus because everything is “armour-plated, poisonous, claw-tipped and fang-mouthed” (12-13) if it “walks, flaps or just sits and grows” (12-13). “Ever see a plant with teeth—that bit? I don’t think you want to … Death is simple, but the ways of dealing it too numerous to list” (12-13).

Arriving on Pyrrus isn’t as simple as stamping a passport and taking a taxi to the hotel—months of training must be enduring; kinesthetic knowledge about the gravity, technical knowledge of the machines which guard life, and biological knowledge of what can kill and how (which is pretty much everything: grass, trees, insects, etc.). After months of training with six-year old children, Jason deems himself ready, a point grudgingly held by Kerk. With an eight-year old boy to protect him, the entrance lock opens and the first beasty is already slain: a stingwing oozing venom. Welcome to Pyrrus, AKA Deathworld.

Ditching the kid, Jason seeks out Kerk in the co-ordination and supply department to ask him about the history of the planet and why the wildlife is so dangerous. The answers are abrupt and empty, which spurs Jason into seeking his own answers, but the very questions he asks the natives make their blood boil with innate rage. In the library, he discovers one document which describes early Pyrrus as being a very livable place. Somehow, between the early days and the modern days, the city has become increasingly deadly. On hearing that there are “grubbers” which inhabit the forest, Jason is eager to see why these human “traitors” are able to live in the jungle without being consumed by it.

Stumbling upon one Pyrran who tries to outright murder him, Jason and Naxa soon realize that they share a common trait—they both have psi abilities. While Jason used to use his ability for gambling, Naxa utilizes his power for taming animals. This revelation is an epiphany for Jason, who uses this knowledge to further understand why the wildlife around the city is so fierce, why the “grubbers” are able to live in the jungle, and why life is only getting more deadly for the colony of thirty thousand souls.

However, after generations and generation of living to fight with the ever-penetrating claws and venom of the wildlife, they have grown content with the struggle: “The Pyrrans took satisfaction from any day that passed without total annihilation. There seemed no way to change their attitude” (55-56). Even Jason “tried to find one life form that wasn’t out for blood. He didn’t succeed” (32). But with this discovery of the sensitivity of the wildlife to psi-powers, Jason is determined, though admittedly “no doctor of social ills” and “not trying to cure this planet full of muscle-bound sharpshooters” (120), to change the tacit belief of the Pyrrans, that war can be stopped and peace can endure. Everyone hates this idea.


There are a few pages which are heavy in detail about the perils found on the planet Pyrrus, then there are a few sections which highlight the lethality of the wildlife of Pyrrus, but the entire basis of the novel is singular: big scary planet, hence the blatant title of the novel, DEATHWORLD. This is the sort of simple novel which is spun from a single idea, merely one example of many from the same era. Considering my previous Harrison reads, this “spun from a single idea” trend of writing a novel seems to be his forte, a rather dull forte to establish for yourself.

With an entire planet to play with, to explore, to lose himself in, Harrison oddly keeps the reigns taught in regards to indulging in his imagination. The physical aspects of the planet are detailed within a few pages. The flora and fauna, by far much more deadly than anything else on the planet, are casually mentioned in a few tense action sequences with their array of fangs, teeth, stingers, points, venoms, and poisons. A more focused synthesis of the wildlife is largely ignored, only mentioning a few unique species, never their relationships with each other or the environment around them; the should-be spectacle is given a cursory glance, at best.

Again, the details of the planet are the most drawing aspect of the novel. Rather than stretching the details out into a mediocre 124-page plot, a type of visitor’s guide or travelogue would have been more encompassing (think: Hitchhiker’s Guide to Pyrrus). The Pyrrans are an interesting lot for a short time, but their belligerence and stubbornness erode the attention of the reader because of their one-dimensionality; they’re all cut from the same cloth: built with muscle and bred for fighting. Only Meta, Jason’s part-time love interest but soon forgotten about after a few chapters, can encompass Jason’s understanding of Pyrrus. The rest, aside from the “grubbers”, fight tooth-and-nail until Jason orates, almost pontificates, his belief to the city dwellers, by which they are miraculously converted to his line of thinking and nod their head in appreciation.

I’ve never been a science fiction reader who appreciates the use of psi or telekinesis in the plot. It’s always been a fuddy-duddy science with very little actual science behind it; it’s more fanciful postulation or human idealism. More often than not, there is no biological basis or impetus behind the function and use of telepathy, psi, telekinesis, etc. Much like Jason’s use of psi; he has psi and that’s the end of that line of inquiry.

With all that said, at least it is mildly entertaining in terms of action and originality. Perhaps when the dialogue becomes playful with the brute sarcasm of a leering knave does the reader smile and suppress a giggle here and there. Then again, sometimes the dialogue is just plain dull and/or didactic. For much of the novel, the reader is either learning about the planet or learning about Jason’s intentions.


Like Joachim says of Gordon R. Dickson, “he might be average, but not all that horrible”, I feel exactly the same about Harry Harrison—four books of his read and I have yet to find any singular quality or trait which elevates him to a “grandmaster” ranking (from 2009), aside from the reminiscing of reading Harrison in other people’s younger days. While this book may have sparked the imaginations of teenagers in the 1960s, Deathworld has aged to become merely one more pulp novel from the same era.

As stated in the introduction and lightly touched upon in the previous paragraph, my ambition to read Harrison’s bibliography is next to nil. I gather that the important works of Harrison’s are attached to sentimental value rather than actual artistic value to the genre of science fiction.

Monday, January 21, 2013

1978: Night Shift (King, Stephen)

The horror of suspicion and personal choice (4/5) 

My relationship with the genre of horror is sporadic and often short-lived. Most of the horror out there deals with supernatural elements, a theme which doesn’t elicit any measure of fear or foreboding from my readership. I much prefer the human element of horror; where the manifestation of human evil is corporeal, where deadly deeds are dealt by the hand of a stranger. Regardless of my preference, I still managed to enjoy the supernatural elements found in Night Shift. Some stories just don’t have the right twist or right angle for maximum enjoyment, while others are creepy and direct to the point of utter success. I suppose I enjoyed the variety more than anything: supernatural, science fiction, dramatic, apocalyptic, etc.

I’ve read King’s The Running Man (1982) and The Shining (1977), but these two novels pale in comparison to this collection. Now that I’ve enjoyed this collection so much, I eye my copy of Skeleton Crew (1985) with eagerness. His other two novels on my shelves are The Stand (1978) and The Tommyknockers (1987), both of which I hope are as creepy as they are voluminous.


Jerusalem’s Lot (1978, novelette) – 4/5 – The ancestral home of Charles Boon in the year 1850 appears to be vacant, haunted, and shunned by the nearby villagers, who also shun the ghost town the house is situation in—Jerusalem’s Lot. A series of correspondence is presented from Charles and his life-long friend Calvin McCann which outlines their struggles and haunting with the little village, the cellar of his house, and the abandoned church, host to The Mysteries of the Worm. 31 pages

Graveyard Shift (1970, shortstory) – 5/5 – The third floor of the century-old nylon factory is infested with rats, which transient worker Hall picks off with aluminum soda cans. His meddling foreman offers him a dirty, week-long job over the holiday to clean the basement out—a job for a crew of men with hoses and a penchant for getting dirty. Here, the rat infestation reaches epic proportions and men are bit and sent home… then Hall discovers a wooden sub-cellar door. 15 pages

Night Surf (1974, shortstory) – 3/5 – College kids on the beach listen to the radio as the waves crash and the tide ebbs, except his day is one of the last for all humanity. Ghastly symptoms of the most recent flu outbreak, A6, have steeled the youth against such acts as immolating a diseased man, but when the silent killer rears its head among the motley crew, will they favor death’s prospect with fortitude or fatalism? 8 pages

I Am the Doorway (1971, shortstory) – 3/5 – Resting on a wooden deck next to the beach with bandages around his itchy hands, an ex-astronaut recounts his story of the Venus expedition he manned and the later paralyzing re-entry attempt on Earth. Passing his physical exams, Arthur begins to develop beastly eyes on his hands, whose visions haunt his life with their alien perception of his familiar world. His actions, too, soon seem alien to himself. 11 pages

The Mangler (1972, novelette) – 4/5 – Officer Hunton is called to investigate the grisly death of a worker who was caught inside a drying and ironing machine. An inspector deems the machine fit for use and up to standard, but the recurring injuries is too much of a coincidence when it’s discovered that the blood of a virgin had been spilled on the steaming, gnawing hulk of machinery. Their suspicion of possession points in many directions, both tame and deadly. 17 pages

The Boogeyman (1973, shortstory) – 2/5 – Visiting a psychotherapist after the death of his third and final child, a man recounts the sequential deaths of his three children by the closet-domained, sleek, black boogeyman. His initial belligerent attitude toward its existence distances him from his wife, but the creeping suspicion and closet doors left ajar soon make him realize its corporeal existence. 11 pages

Grey Matter (1973, shortstory) – 3/5 – Workman’s compensation has turned one man into a sybaritic beer guzzler/couch potato. His drowned miseries silently punish his son who he tasks with the beer purchasing. The local men at the shop are coolly called to arms when the boy arrives at the shop teary-eyed but with a weird tale involving a suspiciously skunky beer and the resulting metamorphosis of the man, his gelatinous father, in front of the TV. 11 pages

Battleground (1972, shortstory) – 4/5 – A professional hitman returns to his penthouse suit with a package under his arm from the front desk. Upon his opening of the package and seeing an innocuous set of war figurines, the miniature army suddenly comes to life, complete with jeeps, helicopters, and medics. Retreating to the bathroom, a barrage of rockets assaults the door, a dubious inclusion which the labeling failed to mention. 9 pages

Trucks (1973, shortstory) – 5/5 – Long-haul rigs circle a truck stop under their own volition. Trapped inside are the lucky humans who haven’t been run down or ran off the highway while the machines began to take over. Without power, the humans need water for their life while the trucks and machines state their demand for fuel by way of Morse code. The autonomous machines prowl the roads and stalk the sky, making escape impossible and slavery a realization. 15 pages

Sometimes They Come Back (1974, novelette) – 4/5 – Jim’s brother was killed by some hoodlums back in 1956, when Jim himself barely got away after wetting himself. How years later and teaching literature at a new high school, Jim is haunted by the memory of his brother’s death during his dreams, which soon begin to manifest in his very own classroom. Slowly coming to believe the thugs are the same from his childhood, Jim prepares to meet them on their own terms. 25 pages

Strawberry Spring (1975, shortstory) – 3/5 – The spring thaw welcomes more than flowers and birds to the campus of New Sharon—within the banks of fog rolling through the town stalks a killer. The early onset of spring lulls some into false comfort as the killer strikes again, dismembers again and yet still eludes police. A devastating winter squall eclipses the false spring and with it go the suspicions of the killer and his crimes. 9 pages

The Ledge (1976, shortstory) – 4/5 – Forty floors above the city streets, a tennis professional is remaining calm and collected even though confronting the rich husband of his extramarital love interest. Parrying with words, wages, and lies, the men come to a decision: the adulterer can tiptoe around the building’s ledge and, if successful, win the bag of money, the wife, and his freedom; the alternative is a forty-floor plummet or forty years in prison. 15 pages

The Lawnmower Man (1975, shortstory) – 2/5 – A man proud of his lawn but succumbing to the idle pleasures of summer weather watches his yard’s growth reach unparalleled heights. He phones a yard service company and a large man appears on their behalf. The unconventional mowing style—crawling behind the automatic mower while butt-naked and eating the trimmings—brings on a fainting spell to the yard owner, who soon decides that this type of behavior is miscreant. 9 pages

Quitters, Inc. (1978, shortstory) – 5/5 – Coming across an old college buddy at an airport bar, Morrison is impressed with his successful friend’s demeanor, physique, and determination to never have another cigarette in his life… so comes the business card for Quitters, Inc. into the hands to Morrison. Playfully considering the secret success of the company’s secretive methods, Morrison drops by, signs the agreement, and learns, the hard way, why their method has proven itself effective. 18 pages

I Know What You Need (1976, novelette) – 4/5 – He says all the right things, buys all the right gifts, knows your every mood, and known your every enjoyment—he also happens to innately know a little bit too much about your personal life, but everything else sounds so perfect. Liz meets such a boy at university and falls in love with him after her boyfriend’s unexpected death. Her roommate is more streetwise and investigates his strangeness more thoroughly. 20 pages

Children of the Corn (1977, novelette) – 5/5 – Crossing America on the way to California, Burt and Vicky exit the turnpikes and enter the countryside for a better view. Met by the endless Nebraskan fields of corn, the couple bicker and argue before running over the body of a boy. Taking the corpse to the nearest town of Galtin, they discover it abandoned for twelve years—all but the church with its ominous Christ and cryptic epistle. 25 pages

The Last Rung on the Ladder (1978, shortstory) – 4/5 – Katrina and Larry are carefree siblings on a Midwest farm, sharing chores and sharing the thrills of falling seventy feet onto an earthy pile of hay. The rickety ladder fails them one day and Katrina falls into a hastily prepared bed of hay by her brother. Content with the reassurance of an elder sibling, the life challenges which follow through adulthood fail to reflect the safety of the fateful day’s fall. 11 pages

The Man Who Loved Flowers (1977, shortstory) – 3/5 – Even the numerous souls which populate a city can easily see the look of love on a young man’s face; the eagerness to please with flowers, the daydreaming gleam on the film of his eye, and the casual approach to conversation with strangers. His destiny with Norma lay within the city of tittering teenagers, well-wishing grandmothers, avuncular florists, playful pedestrians, and a murder wielding a hammer. 6 pages

One for the Road (1977, shortstory) – 4/5 – The warmest place during a fierce Maine blizzard is at the bottom of a capful of brandy. This capful of fortification revives the frostbitten man whose family is stuck in Jerusalem’s Lot six miles south. The look between the two barmen upon hearing this news infers a deep sense of fear and foreboding. Reluctantly, the trio fight through the snow to the burnt remains of a town rumored to be home to vampires. 14 pages

The Woman in the Room (1978, shortstory) – 4/5 – Stricken with abdominal cancer and bed-ridden in a hospital, a man’s mother loses her motor control along with her sense of pain. Her pathetic state drives the man to contemplate euthanasia, but also presses him to escape in his own personal way—by imbibing in the drink prior to his visitations. Loving his mother for better or worse, the man makes his ultimate choice personal. 12 pages

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

1962: Three Novelettes (Garrett, Randall)

Technical, touchy, and clever at times (4/5)

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg and, I've metaphorically thumbed through the speculative fiction of the 1960s and 1950s to put together a few collections. Last June I put together three novelettes by Milton Lessor and found that the variety of an unknown author appealed to me. Randall Garrett is yet another author with scores of stories in Project Gutenberg and I've put together three novelettes which are reviewed below. I have an Excel spreadsheet sorted by years with novella and novelettes waiting to be read on my Sony Reader and collected into a form like below.

Novelette: “Hail to the Chief” (4/5)
Pen name: Janat Argo and Sam Argo
First published: February 1962
Publication: Analog
Original length: 31 pages
Illustrations: Schoenherr
Word count: 12,690 words

“’Hey!’ Cannnon yelled good-naturedly. ‘Any more slaps on the back and I’m going to be the first President since Franklin Roosevelt to go to my Inauguration in a wheelchair!’” (18-19)

Senator James Harrington Cannon is unanimously chosen to be the next President-elect. Where “image” is important, Senator Cannon is the face of the campaign but he chooses Matthew Fischer as running mate and Vice President-elect. Once a State Attorney General, Fischer seems like an odd choice for a running mate, but Cannon stands behind his selection with conviction. Cannon is reassured of his choice when he receives word that an experimental American spacecraft had been shot down near the Russian moon base, a situation which is handled by the keen intelligence, natural tact, and effortless decision-making of Matthew Fischer. The resulting victory of decision by Fischer vaults the running mates into a victory over a televised debate with the current President. When Election Day dawns, the votes flood in for Cannon and Fischer, a situation which any President-elect could ever wish for, for Cannon has higher plans for his tenure and for his country.
This novelette has a very non-sci-fi feel to it, only lapsing into the realm of science when the situation on the moon in involved, a situation which highlights Fischer’s unique talent but a situation which could have easily have been something terrestrial of origin and non-scientific. It’s more of a story of a Presidential-hopeful’s idea of what makes a good campaign, what makes a good running mate, and what makes a positive influence on American progress. The unfolding conclusion is surprising, conniving, and touching, which is also sown with the seed of speculative fiction more than the steady foundation of fiction; one can only wish for politics to be so humanistic.


Novelette: “Nor Iron Bars a Cage…” (5/5)
Pen name: Johnathan Blake MacKenzie
First published: May 1962
Publication: Analog
Original length: 37 pages
Illustrations: Schoenherr
Word count: 16,760 words

“But the one thing that I am working on right now and will continue to work for is a real cure, if that’s possible. A real, genuine, usable kind of psychotherapy; one which is at least in a par with the science of cake-baking when it comes to the percentages of successes and failures.” (36-37)

A car thief has been rehabilitated, a fighter has been unconditioned to fight, and now the police are after a child murderer. His actions are heinous and he’s gotten away with one gruesome murder already, so their vigil against another is tense. The method of psychotherapy which the organization uses has caught the attention of an English Duke who is also a policeman over in England. Impressed by the results, the Duke rides shotgun with a detective to track down the murderer. When an urgent call comes of a recent kidnapping, the detective and Duke use cold logic to prevent a crime, free a victim, and capture the crook. Though the methods of psychotherapy are as controversial as those of Hammurabi’s Code, the resulting nature of the cured patient is improved and deviant behavior of the patient is radically changed—a better change for society against the victimization of the repeat offenders.

There’s a sinister initial unfolding of the plot, jarring the reader into facing the crimes within face-on, perhaps the writer’s method of justifying his psychotherapy theory by shocking the reader. The police work isn’t too detailed yet at the same time isn’t too lenient on the facts either; with the introduction of the nimble-with-a-cane Duke, the scene is set for bringing the reader up to pace with developments. Partially didactic with twists of malicious intent and acts of heroism, the flow is smooth and smacks the reader’s attention to an upright position. It would have been a 4-star reader if the author hadn’t thrown in doozy of a left hook right on the last page, a pirouette of sorts which neatly ties everything in one tight, little package of a novelette!


Novelette: “Anchorite” (3/5)
Pen name: Johnathan Blake MacKenzie
First published: November 1962
Publication: Analog
Original length: 45 pages
Illustrations: Schelling
Word count: 18,300 words

There's an old saying that neither money, education, liquor, nor women ever made a fool of a man, they just give a born fool a chance to display his foolishness. Space ought to be added to that list.” (39)

An assembly from Earth is concerned about the published number of deaths resulting from anchoring asteroids in the Belt. The Belt’s business/government arm has a touchy relationship with Earth, who hold tax regulations against the Belters in order to keep them where they are. For the benefit of the assessors, once man from Earth with space experience is chosen to undergo anchor training to prove that their methods and equipment are in perfect form. Earth’s man concern is the number of deaths and the resulting insurance payments paid to the Belt versus the minimal amount of actual injuries on the job. With a seemingly flawless system for anchoring asteroids, the assembly returns to Earth and the Belt is eager to hear of their findings, one which has financial ramifications to the Belt.

The main plot above doesn’t have much steam behind it; rather the plot is carried onward by the dynamic anchorites, Captain St. Simon and his eccentric pilot Jules Christian. The oddball duo set the story up with a technical, too technical, explanation of how they anchor the orbiting rocks. Their odd conversation breaths a fair bit of life into the rather drab technicalities, but the sudden shift to the Earth and Belt relationship is jarring. From there on, most of the plot dabbles in politics, details of the relationship, and some closed conversations on both sides. Only when Captain St. Simon is back on the Belter’s home of Pallas does he once again command the plot by training the Earthman in the finesse of anchoring.