Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, September 30, 2013

1984: Empire of the Sun (Ballard, J.G.)

On helplessness and independence during wartime internment (5/5)

Curious, precocious, and cultured, J. G. Ballard (Jim in this semi-autobiographical novel), as a young man, grew up in Shanghai when the city was experiencing a lucrative growth from international trade and a melting pot for cultures. Jim’s experience in the city highlights the city’s dichotomic existence of lush international acclaim and luxuriousness of its expatriates versus the deprived and underdevelopment of its native population. Merely concerned about the war raging in Europe, the city of Shanghai was absorbed in its own economic boom prior to the shelling of its only defense against the imperial Japanese. When the bombing started, Shanghai’s progress and Jim’s own childhood ended. Thus began Jim’s experience penned in Empire of the Sun, “a mesmerising and hypnotically compelling novel of war, of starvation and survival, of internment camps and death marches, which blends searing honesty with an almost hallucinatory vision of a world thrown out of joint” (Harper Perennial [UK] edition, 2006).


It’s 1941—war rages in Europe. On December 6, the United Kingdom declares war on Finland and the Soviets push the Germans back from Moscow. Meanwhile in Asia, tensions are taut over the aggressive Japanese but life goes on for the expatriates in Shanghai—dinner parties by the pool or country club outings with the family are common. Though only eleven years old, Jim is an only child whose curiosity entertains him to no end. His forays into the city of Shanghai go unknown to his mother, his social observation of his parents’ friends’ antics are kept to himself, and his dowsing rod of curiosity always finds Jim returning to a downed Japanese fighter plane in the Hungjao Airfield (from a 1937 battle between the Chinese and Japanese).

Jim uses his intelligence to ire the constant stream of adults around him; he desires to tell older confidants that he’s “left the cubs and become an atheist, but he might become a communist as well” because “the communists has an intriguing ability to unsettle everyone, a talent Jim greatly respected” (27). This notion he will carry on through the wartime period and consider using it as a saving grace when confronting Kuomintang foot soldiers, offering to explain “that he too had once thought seriously of becoming a communist” (290). But the days of scavenging for food and nimbly avoiding punishment are years ahead… on December 7, 1941, Jim’s inquisitiveness  finds him in the cockpit of the Japanese fighter plane where, just meters away, sit a unit of Japanese soldiers awaiting their orders to strike the city. Wide-eyed and naïve, their illustriousness pique Jim’s curiosity and admiration.

The sleek Japanese fighter planes sooth Jim’s aesthetic eye and kindles a sympathy within Jim for the Japanese occupation. The airmen and soldiers also display pomp and circumstance which sing to his heart and inspire the words, “A flicker of light ran along the quays like silent gunfire. Jim lay down beside his father. Drawn above them on the Bund [Shanghai’s waterfront on the Whangpoo River] were hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Their bayonets formed a palisade of swords that answered the sun” (49). Glimmers of defection to the Imperialists danced in Jim’s mind. Mere escapism in a young boy’s state of daydreaming, the notion of surrender, defection, and survival under Japanese reign enticed the boy through new next three years.

Separated from his parents, raised by strangers, fed enough gruel to deter starvation, Jim enters the awkwardness of puberty in the awkward confines of imprisonment. His initial isolation and later confinement imbues him with a misguided sense of evitable conclusion, a sense of naivety penetrates his daily thoughts. These first thoughts of the war’s early conclusion stalk him as he bikes around Shanghai looking for his parents, revisiting nostalgic domains of recent childhood all the while wanting “the war to end soon, that afternoon is possible” (69). This tract of steady disappointment follows him to 1943, now nearer a man than a child, when optimism still serves as a security blanket for parent-less existence in the camp, he keeps maintaining that “the war was about to end” (190). Ignorant of the reality in the Pacific Ocean theater, his unimpeded optimism for the war’s end and for reunion with his parents keeps his spirit alive.

However, these years of internment aren’t without their troughs of sorrow and hardship. Widespread disease threatened to dilute the camp’s hope; malnutrition weakened even the hardiest of the prisoners. Ever inquisitive, Jim studied the camp doctor’s books on disease and when Jim’s own ease bruising and bleeding occurs again, Jim humorously became “curious to try out some new disease” (149); yet, I there were destitute times when pessimism was prevalent and death welcome, “He welcomed the air raids, … the deaths of the pilots, and even the likelihood of his own death. Despite everything, he knew he was worth nothing” (194).

As the Japanese are gradually defeated by the United States, the imperial soldiers endure reduced food rations, so too do the prisons; once moderately well fed, their rations were cut in half and the delirium of starvation snuck into their daily life. “Jim stared at his pallid hands. He knew that he was alive, but as the same time felt … dead” (273). Even after evacuating the prison for brief encampment at the Nantao Stadium, where a weak aura of the war’s end tinged the barren dreariness of the barren landscape, Jim felt impoverished of hope: “He remembered his fears that his body died … even though his body had survived. If his soul had been unable to escape, and had died with him, would feeding his body engorge it like corpses in the hospital?” (303). Sadly, near the end, he is wedged firmly on the precipice between life and death.

However, as a prologue of sorts after this semi-autobiographical story, J.G. Ballard relates his experience in 1992 when he returned to the Lunghua internment camp in the, “The End of My War” (1995), in the [London] Sunday Times: “[T]his is where I had been happiest and most at home, despite being a prison living under the threat of an early death”.


Could this nostalgia for his wartime internment be reflective of (a) the rabid curiosity of this late-childhood/early-adult years which consumed his time and salved his eager mind; (b) the avuncular and materteral spirit of a few of his fellow inmates; (c) the deepest of impressions of superiority which shifted paradigm from that of Japanese regal imperialism to American speed, glimmer, and heroism; or (d) the realization that our everyday prandial hunger is only that for the hunger of habit rather than the hunger of necessity.

Though semi-autobiographical, the story is imbued with a sense of realism, which is ironic considering Ballard’s reputation as an absurdist. His knowledge of the, to the reader, foreign land lends credibility and authenticity to the background of his story, on top of which lays Jim’s own foreignness to city of backward natives and an army of staunch imperialists. As mentioned in the introduction, the three words “curious, precocious, and cultured” clearly characterize Jim between the ages of 11 and 14, and most certainly before and after the time represented in this book. His imprisonment adds other layers of characterization to the boy’s humble start: humanistic care for others, eagerness to please for the ambivalent praise of the Japanese wardens/occupiers, naivety spanning the bridge from childhood which allows him to place and maintain childish assumptions, and even the onset sexuality during a time of depravity.

Ballard keeps a fair balance between Jim’s helplessness and independence. Though left without a next-of-kin to care for him after the air raid, Jim is still able to live day-by-day because of his knowledge of the International Settlement where stores of food, beds of luxury, and comfort of isolation can all be found. This independence is superseded by Jim’s inability to surrender to the Japanese: “I tried to surrender, but it ain’t easy” (99). After his capture, Jim is intellectually weaned by a number of people but his physical efforts are largely by his own volition, efforts which allow him to pilfer potato skins, whole potatoes, and goods to trade with the business savvy Basie, an American opportunist also interned at the Lunghua camp. This helplessness/independence, which defines Jim’s early life, knits into the story of Empire of the Sun a sense of community, of altruistic intentions by some for the benefit of the many.


Later, after the Japanese had left the camp, Jim returned because he had nowhere else to go. Shanghai was too far of a walk but he was comfortable with the confinement in the Lunghua camp. Ally B-59 planes began to drop care packages for the prisoners of war and Jim was exposed to the heroic war stories from the American perspective, courtesy of the Reader’s Digest and Saturday Evening Post magazines. With the stories came captivating advertisements belonging to a world he’d never known, and products of a place thousands of miles away—all providing Jim with the wonderment of escapism. This escapism is evident in Ballard’s modern writing with Terminal Beach (1964) and Vermilion Sands (1971).

As a bonus, the Harper Perennial [UK] edition (2006) has some insightful non-fiction material to J.G. Ballard’s experience during the war, which is the “The End of My War” (1995) article mentioned above. Here, he says some controversial things about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

The claims that Hiroshima and Nagasaki constitute an American war crime have had an unfortunate effect on the Japanese, confirming their belief that they were the victims of the war rather than the aggressors. As a nation the Japanese have never faced up the atrocities they committed, and are unlikely to do so long as we bend out hands in shame before the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The bonus material isn’t essential reading but it’s insightful into Ballard’s feelings about the true events rather than a filtered portrayal found in Empire of the Sun.

Monday, September 23, 2013

1970: Mutants (Dickson, Gordon R.)

Funny and reflective—humor, duty and chance on display (4/5)

I’ve read three Dickson novels, only one of which, The Alien Way (1965), could stand on its own two feet. Two of his other novels slumped to the ground on their gelatinous legs of tedious dialogue or lack of wonder: Mission to Universe (1965) and TheForever Man (1986). I’m skeptical about Dickson’s novels because of this experience, but I do, however, relish the opportunity to pick up one of his collections! I had the pleasure of reading his “best of the best” in In the Bone (1987), which held a plethora of fun, wit, and uniqueness.

Mutants is Dickson’s first collection. Two stories, “Of the People” (1955) and “Idiot Solvant” (1962), are also in In the Bone, but Mutants has the rare addition of “Miss Prinks”, a bizarre-from-the-start story which is sure to titillate. With “Miss Prinks” and “Idiot Solvant” providing the entertainment of humor, other stories offers words of duty and chance—the perils of accepting, the challenges of persisting, and the drawbacks of following through with both.


Warrior (1965, shortstory) – 4/5 – Tyburn, of the Manhattan Complex police, waits for a Dorsai man, Ian Graeme, to arrive on Earth. The military man is instantly put under suspicion of the likelihood of committing murder against millionaire James Kenebuck. Ian served with James’ brother, Brian Kenebuck, where Brian led thirty-two men and himself to death. Ian came because of his sense of duty, but Tyburn keeps a watchful eye on Ian as the military man visits James. 22 pages

Of the People (1955, shortstory) – 3/5 – Secretly the head of numerous companies which manufacture his dozens of inventions and designs, Sam Grossman is a man of money, respect, fame, and power. A sense envelops Sam one day and so flees his city penthouse for a private flight to Bombay, where he walks north for six weeks in order to seek guidance from a special guru. He has ample time to arrive. 5 pages

Danger—Human! (1957, shortstory) – 4/5 – An ursine race of aliens is aware of three separate diasporas and cultural conquests of a humanoid species—humankind is the prime suspect. The legend of humankind’s ferociousness and explosiveness makes the aliens cautious regarding their kidnapping of one human—Eldridge Timothy Parker. Imprisoned on their planet, he’s surrounded by guards, brass bars, an acid moat, and an energy wall. With the subject safely secured, now they can observe its true nature. 19 pages

Rehabilitated (1961, shortstory) – 3/5 – Jack Heimelmann just ordered his last drink. A late-twenty-year old and high school drop-out, Jack has an unspectacular history and an even dimmer future, until Peer Ambrose takes him under his wing. In what Jack calls “the Mission”, he’s given the job of operating an elevator. Also he’s seeing the on-site psychologist to cure the source of his drinking problem and relearning the things from school. Now, at Peer’s request, is his once chance to emigrant off the planet. 15 pages

Listen (1952, shortstory) – 3/5 – “The only reason humans have successfully conquered throughout the galaxy is because they have always respected the attitudes and opinions of the people they conquered” (70). A four-year old boy named Teddy is watched by one of the native aliens, Reru of the Mirian race. While at Teddy’s favorite play place, a swamp Teddy calls “the silver-and-green place”, Reru tells him of its origin and importance, yet Teddy’s father doesn’t seem to respect the Mirian love for their world. 7 pages

Roofs of Silver (1962, novelette) – 4/5 – Above one of mankind’s colonized planets orbits a centennial survey ship. Moran and Jabe are on the ground to assess the adaptability of the local humans—one group of social silver miners and another population of anti-social scavengers. Jabe kills Moran because of his belief that the scavengers have de-volved, so Jabe enters the human society with his emotion recorder in order to prove Moran wrong. When he meets one such outcast, his acts don’t match his intelligence… much like the townsfolk. 26 pages

By New Hearth Fires (1959, shortstory) – 4/5 – “The last dog on Earth [Alpha] was dying. It was a small, but important, crisis” (103). Unable to revive the ill dog into play, appetite or spirit, the curator of Earth, now a museum, sends for Dr. Anius, a famous historical psychologist. With him is his son Geni who becomes interested in Earth’s past yet also takes a liking to the moping dog. Geni takes Alpha, Earth’s last dog, on a walk when he loses the pooch to its nature. 18 pages

Idiot Solvant (1962, shortstory) – 5/5 – Eccentric yet highly intelligent, Art Willoughby is also pressed for cash, so he signs up for a medical trial where he confesses his third unique trait—perpetual sleeplessness. Under observation, Art keeps his sleepless state for ten days while running as his full intellectual capacity. This is when the doctor delivers “the monster” to Art, who abhors coffee due to his jitters. The monster sends Art into an unfathomable fit of conjecturing. The doctor prescribes hypnosis. 14 pages

The Immortal (1965, novelette) – 3/5 – Impossibly cruising through enemy Laagi territory, he visually derelict human craft named the La Chasse Gallerie is somehow under power and control by its pilot Raoul Penard. Aside from his knowledge of Laagi territory, Earth also wants to know how this pilot has been able to remain alive, albeit insane, for over 200 years. Walt Trey of the geriatrics Bureau teams up with pilot Major Jim Wander to find and bring the stray man’s mind back home. 38 pages ------ This story is a precursor to Dickson’s later novel The Forever Man (1986). The novel does a much better task of developing the Laagi race, but fails big time in developing the characters. Jim Wander and Raoul Penard return in the novel but Walt Trey is replaced by the svelte psychologist named Mary Gallagher. Stick to the short story… the novel will leave you screaming mad.

Miss Prinks (1954, shortstory) – 4/5 – When the clock struck thirteen o’clock on her apartment’s grandfather clock, Miss Prinks, “every inch a lady” (178), thought it queer. However, the very mannerly “scientist from the eighty-third Zanch dimension” (175) who materialized in her living room explained it quite clearly and, on his sudden departure, made several improvements on her “condition”. With her condition improved, Miss Prinks, in all regards a lady, leapt out of the building, over a train, and into the atmosphere. 13 pages

Home from the Shore (1963, novelette) – 2/5 – For three generations, an enclave of mankind has made the seabed their home. The Cadets from under the sea have made ideal trainees in the Landers’ space organization, the Academy, one of which is the legendary Johnny Joya. Returning from his service as a hero to the Cadets yet fugitive from the Landers, Johnny grudgingly acts as a “ringleader” for his people’s treaty with the Landers while coming to terms with his newfound fatherhood. 34 pages

1991: The Silent Stars Go By (White, James)

Lengthy evidence of White’s passion and skill (4/5)

Though it may surprise many SF enthusiasts, James White had no actual training in the medical field; rather, James White lived vicariously as a doctor and a healer through his stories. His ambition to become a doctor was stilted by financial limitations, but this didn’t smother his sense of imagination. A series of Sector General novels marked the end of this writing in the 1990s, all around the 300 page mark, a word-count of which most of novels hover around. There is only one exception to the length of his novels—The Silent Stars Go By, a densely packed 441-page novel which probably trumps the word-count of any other of his novels by a factor of two. It seems that James White really put his heart into this one at the ripe age of 63—and it shows.

Having read fourteen other pieces of his work, this is by far the most mature, the most detailed, and likely the most loved by James White himself. And thanks to the legendary Vincent Di Fate for the terrible cover of the only publication of this novel—it’s a terrible clichéd sketch, nothing from the book has been manifested onto the cover.

Rear cover synopsis:
“The Kingdom of Hibernia had risen from its sleepy emerald isle to befriend the native Redman of the West, and, with the technology brought out of the ancient Egyptian lands, had forged a mighty industrial empire. And after generations of development under the Pax Hibernia, the Empire was poised for humankind’s greatest adventure—settling a new world under a distant star.

Healer Nolan was a lone male in the traditionally female healing profession and an unbeliever in the religion of the priest-kings of Hibernia. He had to be careful to avoid any trouble that could jeopardize his place among the crew of the starship Aisling Gheal. But the lowly Healer was unaware of his part in a struggle for control of the future colony… until he discovered evidence of a plot against the project: a secret plan for the new world that did not include heretics like Nolan.

And as betrayal and deceit followed Nolan into the silent depths of space and on to the surface of a raw, untamed planet, he was challenged to become the one thing he had never dreamed of—a hero.”


Healer Nolan is a doctor, psychologist, botanist, and therapist—the title of “Healer” is as much of a burden as it is a necessity, where the doctor must treat the mind of the body, they must also be abstinent. The career of Healer is traditionally and historically female because, “in body and mind they are born to the work … sensitivity, sympathy, and empathy” (231). Healer Nolan is a surgeon by trade and, in the words of his soon-to-be superior Dervla, “seem[s] to always consider the feelings and needs of others to the exclusion” of his own, yet he is a “great, fat jelly of a man with no backbone, no mind of his own, and a man who can refuse nothing to anybody” (209). These biting words don’t deter him from accepting a crewmember position in one of humanity’s greatest endeavors.

The Kingdom of Hibernia (modern-day Ireland) is funding a vast project to send Earth’s first starship, the Aisling Gheal (Bright Vision), to the distant world of the New World. However, due to the physical immensity, staggering logistics, and exuberant cost of the project, nations from around the world are pitching in to help yet also demand their cultural representation among the cryogenically stored colonists: Nippon (Japan), Aztec (Central America), Skandia (Scandinavia), West Land (North America), Cathay (China), Teuton (Germany), and India. The crew, however, are mainly clerics, priests, and cardinals of the Hibernian religion; this management by the church has its expected results of heretical suppression and plans to proselytize to non-believers.

Ireland’s rise to global power and industrial expertise came after

sketches  of the aeolipile of Hero of Alexandria found their way to Ireland, to the court of the High-King, and brought about a many-centuries-premature industrial revolution that made the country militarily unassailable and the most technologically advanced of its time.(440)

This very early advancement in steam power and, thus, more modern technology allowed Ireland to bypass the Dark Ages’ religious persecution of knowledge and forge ahead to conceptualizing colonizing the stars. The year A.D. 1491 looked to be the greatest year of mankind.

Generations in the making, the Aisling Gheal is set for a 500-year journey to the New World yet regardless of language, each country and its people called the New World with some similar resonance of hope and prosperity—“the New World, the New Home, or the New Future” (74). This world amid the stars has “no axial tilt and, therefore, no seasonal changes for the farmers to worry about. The world rotates approximately once every twenty-nine and one-half hours, its year is two hundred and ninety-six planetary days” (75) with an atmospheric composition and pressure close to Earth’s own. They longer they obverse their intended home, “the more perfect it becomes” (75). The singular continent of Dragonia is their colonial target—“close to twelve thousand miles long and more than two thousand at its widest point. It lay diagonally across two hemispheres with its [the dragon’s] head and tail touching the north and south polar icefields” (256). Lushly green and inviting, covered in water with tolerable weather, animal life flourishing yet without major predators—New World is as good as it gets…

…yet, an arduous journey awaits the crew of the Aisling Gheal. Unbeknownst the ecclesiastical crew, the cardinal-captain devices even more rigid terms of wakefulness during their period of watch, an occasional two-year term aside from being frozen. Only one crew member will be on watch at any one time for a span of “two long and lonely years” (152) when the individual would sleep in stasis for centuries and resume their watch… accumulating to a subjective four years of solitude manning a vessel in which very little could go wrong. They are forbidden to speak, walk on the hull, play games or read books; they are expected to depend on their own “mental resources for recreation, amusement and … constructive thought” (153). The cardinal-captain’s recurring words of persuasion are “We are no longer of Earth” (157), a salvo of reason which, at the very sound, the crew cower in future fear.

The first crewmember on watch is Healer Nolan. Being the only heretic among the crew, this appointment is seen as a punishment for his unreserved questioning of the feasibility and ethics of the new watch terms. Once on the planet and in the colony, his “job will be to bring healing, enlightenment, and knowledge to the colonists and their offspring” (26), but for his remaining time being “warm” prior to his cryogenic sleep, Healer Nolan must solve a riddle. The doctor-patient privilege is extended to verbal agreements, of which Nolan has several; he must watch the sleeper caskets of two females who have been matched to other colonists. Though these arranged marriage is forbidden, the influence of the powerful have entrusted Nolan with the care of their brides-to-be. However, many caskets were moved during his period of confinement, a questionable act of motive and ethics by the captain-cardinal which Nolan feels indebted to solve; however, entrance is to the sleeper sections is forbidden as they kept dangerously cold. Undoubtedly, the crafty Nolan knows the way.

Nolan’s intuition proves fruitful in his capacity as a reluctant leader. Once on the surface of New Home, the malevolent intentions of the clerics becomes clear when he and a number of other atheists find themselves thousands of miles from the colony. With huge tracts of unexplored territory ahead of them, Nolan makes the difficult choice of forging ahead, under the canopy of bizarre flora of New World, through the spans of time where boredom and strife persist, and among the bitter opinions of his fellow outcasts. Nolan’s knowledge of sampling flora for medicine and food greatly extends their appreciation for his efforts, but opinions are divided between pressing forward toward a colony resentful of their sacrilege or settling their own colony on a planet which seems uncaring for the humans scurrying through her underbrush. By land or by sea, Nolan knows the way.


This is James White’s epic novel, a combination of passions: Ireland and the medical profession; it’s also an alternative history novel, a planet colonization novel, and backwoods adventure novel. White had plenty of ideas to play with when writing this book, the details and length are obvious indicators of the amount of effort and passion he put into this book—like no other book he’s ever written.  Where some of the Sector General series books feel generic, forced or turned out, The Silent Stars Go By is an intricate work of love: embroidered rather than stitched, inscribed rather than chiseled, gilt rather than simply adorned.

Yet, the novel isn’t without one touch which touches base on White’s own Sector General series. Nolan makes a which in which he orates,

They [many wise men and women] believe that there is a very strong probability … that the microscopic form of life which inhabit all living creatures, and dwell in the soil, sea, and air of the New World, will have no effect on us whatsoever. They believe that the germs which may have caused pestilence among the creatures of the New World since the dawn of its history would find our bodies, and those of our breeding animals, so strange and unworldly that they would simply ignore us. Similarly, any germs which we chanced to bring with is, in spite of the many precautions we are taking to ensure that the colonists and crew are disease-free, would have no effect on the creatures that live there. (79-80)

The Silent Stars Go By is largely a linear novel about Nolan’s experience prior to his ascent to Aisling Gheal, his limited time on the Aisling Gheal, and his time on the planet of New Home. However, being an alternative history novel, White dedicates a few chapters to the most important historical periods which forged the future for Ireland, the Healers, and for relations during colonization; notably, chapters 10-12 and chapters 43-44. These intermittent pauses in the narrative are enlightening into the world which White has created, but the transitions are abrupt and disruptive. There’s an additional gap in the narrative between chapters 25 and 26; this transition is so abrupt that the reader needs time to pause, reflect, and predict the intended course of action; this is a very skilled transition between the expected and unexpected.

White’s characterization of Nolan is quite decent. He’s a man who must maintain solid morals but his intelligence and quick wit tend to outpace his sense of reservation. Some of his remarks are acerbic but poignant, where the truth is a bitter pill to swallow; trained as a doctor, truth is his prescription. His remarks scathe his superiors in the church and even prominent people in other countries and universities. This flaw of Nolan’s is exacerbated by the slowly sinking reality of captain-cardinal’s words, “We are no longer of Earth”. To this, Nolan molds his own vision of a colony outside the influence of centuries past, the onus of ecclesiastical dogma, and the dragging deadweight of the ruling elite. If there was ever a point in Earth’s history where tradition could be shrugged off for personal and/or mankind’s benefit, now would be the time.

I’m not too enlightened by White’s alternative history where Ireland and its religion have basically ruled the world on an industrial scale. The early start to the Industrial Revolution is interesting and the resulting rise of technology in an era devoid of the Dark Ages, thus mankind’s ability to rocket to the stars and able to colonize a planet in the year 1491. How the church played a pivotal role in Ireland rise to power, I don’t know, but it’s quite obvious that in White’s vision, the church’s influence spans beyond the common parish and district into the heavy-handed formal power of domestic affairs and even the further flung international affairs. Interesting, but a bit lost on me.


This, again, is the finest White novel in his bibliography… it’s also the longest and most essentially comprised of White’s pet projects. This doesn’t make it necessarily readable at times, but the skill and passion for the project is obvious. There’s not much left in White’s bibliography that I haven’t read yet, but the only other two books on my shelves are of his Sector General series, a foray back to his mediocrity which I’m unwilling and unprepared to undertake after reading his finest piece—The Silent Stars Go By.

Monday, September 16, 2013

1982: Worlds of George O. (Smith, George O.)

Smith stuck in a technical, dull, and predictive rut (2/5)

The cover of the collection notes two things: (1) stories and (2) memoirs. This is fitting since George O. Smith is famous in the science fiction world for two dubious things: (1) the Venus Equilateral stories and (2) stealing John Campbell’s wife. The memoirs of much, much more notable than the stories, however:

(1) I’ve read the Complete Venus Equilateral (1976), which has stories published between the years 1942 and 1973, and found a wealth of humor and intelligence but the stories followed a similar track so they all felt repetitive—a problem spurs brainstorming resulting in a clever solution with vacuum tubes. It was kind of charming, but also irksomely old-school. Smith’s collection Worlds of George O. (1982) has exactly the same feel: cute in an old-school sort of way, but the plots are repetitive and the conclusions are as predictable as they are gag-worthy (how many stories could possibly end in a lovey-dovey marriage!!!).

(2) Between the stories, Smith pens a fascinating history of his experience in the science fiction world as a fan, a writer, as a professional, and as John Campbell’s bane of existence. The close relationships of the Golden Age is a great read, where Frederik Pohl and L. Ron Hubbard casually drop by for a drink, where John Campbell invites George Smith and L. Sprague de Camp for dinner, where Henry Kuttner and C. L Moore are on familiar terms, where L. Jerome Stanton and Theodore Sturgeon trade story origins. Then there’s the time Dona Campbell told John Campbell she wished to divorce him so that she could marry George O. Smith, which actually did occur, much to Campbell’s understandable dismay, and which also effected Smith’s career as a writer.

Each story by itself is average—all receiving a blank-stared, mollified 3-stars—except for the radio script of “Meddler’s Moon”, which is only notable because it has a distinction which all the other stories lack. As mentioned in the first point above, the number of marriages at the end of the stories is truly terrible—women are the prize, women are the feeble, women are the meek. This could be for two reasons: (a) Smith is a terrible writer with little imagination outside of his technical expertise or (b) this is an in-joke with Campbell after he married his ex-wife in 1949. Either way, it makes for gag-worthy reading. Taken as a whole, the entire collection is dull, repetitive, and achingly awkward, in of artistic flourish rather than technical knowhow. Stick with the Venus Equilateral stories.


Blind Time (1946, shortstory) – 3/5 – Peter Wright has a job no one loves but he happens to excel in his profession—insurance adjusting and insuring claims. The Oak Tool Works plant constructs train carriages and sues hidden rivets, which need a temporal treater… an odd contraption which causes certain parts to pass through time to match its counterpart. However, someone is always—always—injured in the process, which is where Peter Wright and Interplanetary Industrial Insurance come in.

The Planet mender (1952, novelette) – 3/5 – The one billionth arrival on Mars draws near yet the planet has become inundated with a torrential downpour of rain—water beamed from the planet Mercury. Phil Watson heads the Mars station and appoints himself savior of the planet by zipping off to Mercury to solve the problem of the overflow of water, only to realize that Mercury is half the problem. With Ms. Watson at his side, Phil embarks for Uranus to root out the true problem of overflow.

The Catspaw (1948, novella) – 3/5 – Tom Barden is met by an alien intelligence during his dream, yet his dream includes a clear dialogue and Tom having been imparted with a wealth of alien data regarding fantastic technology. Only a layman, Tom is unable to find a foothold in the professional world to exhibit the gift he has been given—until he invents a superior vacuum tube device. Thence, Dr. Ward takes his side with trepidation and they test their dangerous knowledge.

Rat Race (1947, shortstory) – 3/5 – During the war, factories have stopped making mousetraps so that they can focus their precious metals and industrial capacity to build war machines. Peter scavenges items from his lab to build a, literally, better mousetrap. The old trap’s unpleasantness came from disposing of the vermin’s corpse, but Peter’s Better Mousetrap sends the pests into oblivion. Curiosity gets the best of the scientist and tracks the place of their emergence, but he’s frustratingly unable to pin down the time.

Meddler’s Moon (1947, novelette) – 3/5 – The betrothed couple Peter and Laura are visited by a man of similar age to their own claiming to have come from the future—and as being the grandson of Peter, yet with a different woman. Marie Baker is Peter’s future wife yet the Peter and Laura are set against the mysterious plans announced by future Hedgerly, until Marie and her beau come to the door and make the future more probable than ever. Plans are soon concocted.

Meddler’s Moon (first aired in 1958/rebroadcast in 1965, radio script) – 4/5 – Unannounced, a man appears in Charles’ doorway expecting to see that Charles’ fate is set in stone. Confounded by the man’s claims of time-travel and direct lineage from Charles, he disbelieves everything the man says. His unexpected bride-to-be, Amelia, comes to his door with her own man beside her, a fact which reassures Charles of the unlikelihood of so-called fate. Amelia and Charles posit fooling the man from the future, only to realize their fate is actually quite probable.

In the Cards (1947, novelette) – 3/5 – The bizarre product of nuclear bombardment and the proper ownership of the government, zonium is a perfect conductor in as many ways as it has axes. Jim Forrest steals the perfectly transparent cube from Ellen Hayes’ ship, who has rightly stolen the object from the government because her father invented it and the government simply mothballed the little wonder. After the two thieves is Captain Turner, enforcer and protector.

History Repeats (1959, novelette) – 3/5 – On the purportedly peaceful planet of Xanabar, Peter and his cognizant canine named Beauregarde pound the streets scenting the trail of a kidnapped human female. Splintering doors and bloodying guards, the Earthly duo track the girl yet meet resistance upon their not-so-stealthy withdraw. Relying on the flawless companionship between man and his best friend, the two fight their way out with Earthly flare.

The Big Fix (1959, novelette) – 3/5 – As the Kentucky Derby draws near, Wally Wilson, a bookie for the bets on the horses, gets word from on high of a particular mobster’s interest in rigging the top three finishers. Powerful and persuasive, Wally cringes at the punishment and even possibility of fixing a race in a telepathic world. With the beautiful Tomboy Taylor on his heels and Gimpy Gordon begging for cash, Wally sees a glimpse of opportunity where he can make the Big fix.

Fire, 2016! (1964, novelette) – 3/5 – Scarce are the fires that ravage buildings. The tract of land between Boston and DC has seen very few fires, yet a full unit of firemen still await the call. Since they have so much free time on their hands, the firemen are urged to pursue advanced degrees. One fireman, Lansing, the son of a fire claim adjustor, fails to provide a useable thesis for fighting fires, but his time to shine comes when his suitor’s father’s house goes aflame.

Understanding (1967, novelette) – 3/5 – Terry Lincoln studies Understanding in the Scholar’s Cluster where the three sun system shines upon the youth striving for universal knowledge. Stopping on Xanabar on the way to Earth, Terry loses his way in the city of Coleban. Aimlessly running, Terry stumbles into the slums of the city and continually chances upon some curiously omniscient Peacekeepers. There to assist, Beauregarde guides Terry back to the spaceport and through even more curious circumstances.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

2013: The Quarry (Banks, Iain)

Banks’ swan song of context, context, context (5/5)

While I’ve been an avid fan of Banks’ science fiction novels and, having collected and enjoyed all them, I moved on to his standard fiction—a literary foray into the many cerebral folds that make a complicated man a complicated author. However, these cross-genre dalliances have been a mere sampling of a third of his bibliography of fiction: Wasp Factory (1984), Walking on Glass (1985), The Bridge (1986), The Business (1999), and Dead Air (2002). The recent passing of Iain Banks sent a tide of sadness through this year’s reading experience; Jack Vance and Frederik Pohl’s deaths this year didn’t affect me nearly as much as Iain Banks.

Aside from the new paperback edition of Hydrogen Sonata (2012), his fiction novels Complicity (1993) and A Song of Stone (1997) are still to-be-read on my shelves.

Inside flap synopsis:
Eighteen-year-old Kit is weird: big, strange, odd, socially disabled, on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end, to ‘nutter’ at the other. At least Kit knows who his father is; he and Guy live together in a decaying country house on the unstable brink of a vast quarry. His mother's identity is another matter. Now, though, his father's dying, and old friends are gathering for one last time.

‘Uncle’ Paul's a media lawyer now; Rob and Ali are upwardly mobile corporate bunnies; pretty, hopeful Pris is a single mother; Haze is still living up to his drug-inspired name twenty years on; and fierce, protective Hol is a gifted if acerbic critic. As young film students they lived at Willoughtree House with Guy, and they've all come back because they want something. Kit, too, has his own ulterior motives. Before his father dies he wants to know who his mother is, and what's on the mysterious tape they're all looking for. But most of all he wants to stop time and keep his father alive.”


The isolated estate of Willoughtree House borders a lonely stone quarry. Dilapidated and rickety, the house sits on land which the quarry wishes to buy in order to expand its operation, but Guy Hyndersley and his son Kitchener (Kit) still live in the rather unkempt house. In his late thirties, Guy is slowing dying of cancer yet remains a bitter man, “somebody with the reputation of a wastrel of legendary proportions” (138), and even his so-called friends call him a “feckless waster” (215); bitter about his awkward son, bitter about the attention and benedictions, bitter about the ramshackle house, he’s mostly bitter about the way his life is falling apart:

Maybe there’s always been something in Guy’s life that was falling apart. Until finally, as well as the house and the car and whatever else, the thing falling apart ended up being himself. Not that cancer makes you fall apart so much … as add bits on. Cancer makes bits of you grow that are supposed to have stopped growing … crowding out the bits you need to keep on living … (128)

Painted with disappoint in nearly all aspects of his life, the one ledge which Guy clings to is his keen intelligence, which he unfortunately brandishes with vindictiveness and degradation. His socially inept son absorbs the frequent squalls of bitterness directed at him, yet still cares for his father by cooking for him, checking his medications, and cleaning up after his bowel movements. Staunch of succumbing to the worst of his ailment, Guy simply feels numb, “yet to break down, yet to cry properly, yet to feel any terror or impending sense of doom” (44).

This acceptance of circumstance fails to penetrate Guy’s veil of hatred for all things progressive as his own body regresses, a cancer which is “entirely, perfectly personalized … a kind of unwilled suicide, where, initially at least, one small part of the body has taken a decision that will lead to the death of the rest. Cancer feels like a betrayal” (137). Where cancer is a betrayal, friendship stands on firm ground as his university friends from decades ago come to visit him, but their arrival is tainted by their personal histories and expectations. Their younger days, spent in the same house, was a time “full of hope, hash and hormones” (130) and a time where seven of them forged a friendship which they had thought would last forever. Even with Guy’s imminent demise, this broken group of petty iconoclasts, middling has-beens, and coke fiends is not squarely facing this fading reality of eternal longevity.

Kit feels the occasional tinge of regret for his father’s pending death, but his detached demeanor is unable to properly put circumstances into perspective. Holly is one of Guy’s friends who has taken Kit under her wing so that he can be more socially apt; her suggestions and criticisms of his verbal, facial, and bodily expressions are duly noted by Kit, who constantly reminds himself of the littlest social nuances, such as nodding in acknowledgement, filling gaps in conversation with “Ah”, and smiling at silence. For the most part, Kit simply stays home and lives a life of secrecy behind his father’s back.

Not wealthy by any monetary measure, Guy and Kit live with the bare essentials in their lean-to multi-storey house. Kit, in his secretive, almost shameful, manner, takes a very active role in an online game named HeroQuest. Once a mere hobby, his meticulousness spawned an obsession with note taking which resulted in something close to perfection in gaming—he has a legendary status among gamers and takes on challenges unfit for anyone lesser. From his skills, he has earned thousands of pounds sterling selling virtual goods in HeroSpace. This money is managed by Holly yet remains secret from Guy, as is Kit’s internet connection and smartphone.

But there’s one secret being kept from Kit—the mysterious content of an S-VHS-C camcorder tape. Everyone is at the Willoughtree House on the long weekend with that mission in mind: find, watch, and destroy the troubling tape. The seven friends maintain that the material would be embarrassing to all, but the evasive attitude of the group is having Kit simply guess that it must be a sex tape, an accusation which they continually deny. Being the domain of meticulous Kit, they allow Kit to organize a search party through the house, garage, and outhouses. Given the age and dereliction of the house, surely the rooms are full of random boxes, stacks of paper, shelves of miscellany, and drawers of doodads; all bases must be covered so that the tape can be found.

Imbibing in alcohol as a lesser vice to their later marijuana and cocaine, the dysfunctional septet relive their bygone younger years while letting Kit participate, though his social maturity flounders when exposed to group situations and seemingly intimate one-on-one circumstances. The hulking shape of the man-boy sits dourly with knees at chest level, straining to put into context the traffic of conversation, the mix of facial expression, and the barrage of body language. A much simpler world awaits him while playing HeroQuest or walking through the garden.

Beyond the garden’s wall is the void of the quarry, an ever-growing expanse of waste yet still churning our tons of rock for commercial use. Like Guy’s internal cancer eating through his tissue, the void is also a slowly advancing abyss of which there is no return; as Guy’s cancer will claim his life, so too will the quarry claim the house—Kit is naively unprepared for both inevitable circumstances.


Context. If it weren’t for Iain Banks’ untimely death, The Quarry would not have packed the wallop of emotion packed into the morbid scenes of Guy’s slow, cancerous demise. Largely, The Quarry has very little plot direction; the entire novel is set over the period of three days and doesn’t build much steam toward any purpose. The span of time, in one sense, does point toward the eventual finding of the S-VHS-C camcorder tape, but this quest is secondary to the main thrust of the novel: relationships.

The Quarry isn’t so much a plot-based novel as a character based foray-cum-sympathetic voyage; the reader should have come for the frisson of relationship but, admittedly, the reader has come for Iain Banks’ swan song. Being objective about your favorite author’s last book is too difficult for this reviewer… so take this into consideration: context plays a huge role when reading The Quarry. Going beyond the traditional “text with the text” or “text around the text”, The Quarry’s context lays in the circumstances surrounding the text; not only is the book relevant to the author’s untimely fate, the book also reflects life in the year 2013. The pang of timeliness may bestow a “period piece” denouncement upon the novel, but as the author’s last novel it seems all too fitting.

The accumulation of tension doesn’t arise from the ambient plot; rather, the frail Guy drags along an air of discontent which gathers momentum in the last quarter of the novel. Bitter as may be and as insincere as he may come across, Guy still maintains a very human element of regret, though his protracted sense of regret is a tad depressing; the mental depression is understandable given his morbid physical state—a transference of morbidity from body to mind. This calls to mind John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1991) where a similar cancer-ridden “anti-protagonist” (Ben Turnbull) faces his death with a similar sense of loath and regret: “We are herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle” (Updike, 1991, p.51). Both, Bank’s Guy and Updike’s Ben, cherish the capacity and brilliance of their mind yet lash out in antisocial regret when succumbing to age, idleness, and sickness.

It’s difficult to sympathize with embittered Guy (perhaps you’re not supposed to like him). He’s rarely passionate for anything other than denouncing the government or making snide remarks aimed at his son. His one element of comfort is the medication he’s on, a now necessary drug-state as opposed to his once recreational drug binges… but even when these opiates are failing: “Bit of a buzz off, that [opiates]. Though it doesn’t feel like a vice when it’s medicinal. Fucking cancer … Even takes the fun out of opiates” (123). His son measures Guy’s dosages so he can’t overdose and his friends doubt Guy’s will to live and keep a watchful eye on his location so he can’t suicide. When Guy does find a minute to contemplate alone outside the house, his precious time left on Earth is interrupted. He probably looks forward to the solitude of coma and death.

Compared to Guy’s acerbic remarks and foul language, his son kit is a blessed saint. Though a bit dull in terms of emotion and charm, Kit, behind his towering façade and unresponsive face, is an intellectual coming to terms with his social inadequacies. Because of his disconnectedness, Kit makes an excellent observer; from the perfect method for stirring tea,

The trick is to contra-rotate …. count eight rotations clockwise, then a brief pause, the seven the other way …. There’s less undissolved sugar to stir into the tea by now …. Then you can do surface stirring …. That’s when you’ve put too much milk in your tea and there’s hardly room even to put the teaspoon in … you need to blow across to one side … to get a bit of circulation going. (184-186),

to the nebulousness of saying “okay”,

[W]e all have our own definitions what ‘okay’ means, and we each might have several different definitions, depending on context. Which allows a lot of room for ambiguity and even misunderstanding. I sort of disapprove of such terminological inexactitude and laxity, but … this sort of leeway is exactly what people are looking for, especially in a situation where they hope to be reassured. (244),

Kit attempts to make sense of a world that isn’t aware of itself. He prefers clear, cut and dry situations in which language doesn’t use parisology or polysemy; a single word for a single object, a concise part of speech which dictates, without runaround or vagueness, exactly what it is trying to convey. The flexibility of language stymies Kit’s attempts at integrating himself in social circles, be it at his old school or with his father’s friends. Due to the circumstances, however, Kit is forced to confront his social awkwardness while the six friends stay at the Willoughtree House. This taxes his inexperience of applying his fine sense of observation and recollection; for the most part he simply observes, being unable to juggle the salvos of dialogue or the erratic undulations of facial expressions—it’s his nature to read into all of this.


Without the context of Iain Banks’ own death, this novel would have simply been a funny and acerbic three-star read; however, the accidental and circumstantial context of Guy’s cancer and Iain’s cancer is too large to ignore and, thus, plays a major role when reading the novel. If you’re not a fan of Banks, if you don’t love everything he wrote or if you don’t know about the man himself, this novel’s message, wit, charm, and draw would probably be lost on you. But as Iain Banks’ swan song, this is a fitting last novel having brought together most of the author’s reoccurring themes: Scotland, drug use, bitterness, castles, and regret. Because of the context, The Quarry offers more to think about than two of the author’s other great “ponder on this” books: The Bridge and Walking on Glass. In all of this, I still find comfort and joy.

Monday, September 2, 2013

1965: The Alien Way (Dickson, Gordon R.)

Deconstructing an alien psychology for mutual benefit (4/5)

You can’t mention Gordon R. Dickson as an author without mentioning his Dorsai! series. I haven’t read it. So, now that that’s over with, as a reader, I have found that Dickson is an author with many highs yet capable of achieving the very low: his short stories in In the Bone (1987) were fantastic yet his novels Mission to Universe (1965) and The Forever Man (1986) were utter duds. Hitherto, I have yet to cast him from my bookshelves; The Alien Way and Way of the Pilgrims (1987) are his last chance for redemption. Lucky for him, The Alien Way had a winning combination of both the alien condition and the human condition.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Kator Secondcousin, of the family of Brutogas, only two seasons grown, found that the Random Factor was smiling upon him.

On a routine exploration mission, his scout ship encountered an alien artifact drifting in space. He returned to his native Ruml, determined to set his foot on the past of glory—determined that, against all the odds, he would win a Kingdom, and found a Famiy.

But Kator Secondcousin did not return to Ruml alone. All unknowning, he carried a tiny transmitter in his body, that opened his mind to a man on Earth. Kator’s plans for conquering his Kingdom would meet more opposition than he could imagine.”


Pesky, conniving humans have laid enticing relics in open space which they consider to be most likely visited by aliens. The human relics, derelict and open to vacuum, are not what they seem; what looks like a destroyed vessel is actually baited with a worm which transfers a sliver of a piece of equipment into the retriever. Once implanted in the alien retriever’s nervous system, the piece of equipment is able to transmit thoughts and sensations, at the speed of light no less, to the receiver on Earth. The technique had been perfected on Earth, but the implications for use on aliens causes a rift between the committee members involved.

A bipedal ursine race, calling themselves the Ruml, have sent a scout to a sector of space on a routine mission. There, one scout named Kator Secondcousin sees the derelict alien artifact and knows that the invisible guiding hand of Random Factor favors him. Killing his crewmate, Kator retrieves a bag from the relic and unknowingly infects himself with the sliver, thereby linking his mind on a one-way connection to a human named Jason Barchar back on Earth. Kator returns to his home planet and announces his discovery of the drifting artifact yet keeps mum about the worm, which he caches away.

In Washington D.C., the Foundation for the Association of Learned and Professional Societies has started the illicit program stated above. They are autonomous, without government oversight, and fully capable of handling immediate contact with an alien race. However, the six-member committee board is divided between keeping the project for themselves of handing it over to the government—Jason, the one who is able to see and experience the alien world and society—is member number seven who persists on voting to keep the project with the Foundation until he fully understands the alien society and thought processes.

Through Kator’s eyes, Jason witnesses, first-hand, the alienness of Ruml culture. The vicarious experience is so rich that Jason often hallucinates which reality is his own: the benign human world or the enigmatic Ruml world. As a mammalian sociologist, Jason is knowledged and experienced enough to be the first contact with a alien race similar to bears on Earth. Unlike humans, the singular motivation for the Ruml race is one of honor and honor above all else—honor for lineage rather than immediate family or self. In the eyes of the committee, the deaths witnessed and reported by Jason are indicative of barbarous race, but Jason hesitates to admit this; rather, Jason experiences of deep connection with the Ruml and aims to understand their basic intrinsic motivation. He stumbles upon one article which highlights the sensations and thoughts being delivered to him by Kator.

The scientists on the Ruml homeworld have been able to roughly locate the source of Kator’s artifact. Because of his righteousness and high degree of “luck”, Kator is assigned to be the honorary Keysman on the maiden flight to the home of the Muffled People (as humans care called because of the fabric they drape over their bodies) in order to investigate the prospects of colonization; with this advanced scouting mission, Kator hopes to one day found his own Kingdom and thereby preserve honor in his “family’s” memory. Jason, however, is privy to everything Kator has been experiencing and therefore knows of any plot or device the Ruml intend to use on Earth.

Modestly disguising himself as a human, Kator descends to the surface of Earth to investigate a cavernous underground bunker which may hide the human’s secret space defense fleet. Galloping to the subterranean structure, Kator crosses path with a human idly fishing in the creek, grinning with a cigarette lit between his lips. The conversation is terse and odd, but a connection has been made.


My synopsis and the book’s own synopsis don’t do the novel any justice; my synopsis may be too detailed while the book’s synopsis may be too vague. When the reader actually ingests the novel, the reader will discover that the crux of the novel lays with the parallel lives of Jason and Kator, how Jason becomes affected by the life of Kator, and how Jason has planned out the future of both the humans and the Ruml. Jason may appear, at times, unreasonably cocksure or errantly emotional,  but the mind of Jason’s is moving in an idiosyncratic tangent toward a mutually beneficial result—the Ruml will succeed as well as the humans… Jason just needs time and the luck of “Random Factor” on his side.

Jason doesn’t err on the side of caution due to the strong influence of his intuition, which is akin to Kator’s belief that all the coincidences in his life can be attributed to the sacred Random Factor. While Kator’s unsupported belief finds him gambling with his future, Jason’s ironclad resolution is corroborated by his intelligence and research methods. Jason has observed bears in the wild and remembers a particular research article explaining the ferocity of the mammalian family, and while this all applies to bears on Earth, Jason intuits that the same theory can be valid for an ursine alien race. This sounds like a stretch to the reviewer but it’s allowed to pass… however, as Joachim has stated, having the same zoological rant thrust into my reading pleasure is a tad pretentious and annoying.

My last gripe is quite trite but the idea’s been rattling around in my head for ages—considering the vastness of the cosmos, the eccentricity of organic chemistry, and the sporadic divergent branching of evolution, how likely is it that an alien lifeform will be bipedal, human-sized, furry yet human in appearance when shaved, and able to be understood by Earthly zoological standards. I understand many aliens in SF stories are similar to the Ruml, but exceptions to the norm are rare yet often memorable (a plethora of aliens in James White’s Sector General series, Greg Bear’s Braids in Anvil of Stars [1992] or Peter F. Hamilton’s Primes in Pandora’s Star [2004], to name a few). While the Ruml’s physiology may be generic, Dickson makes utterly sure that their psychology is alien, yet still understandable by human standards. As Tom Braden says in George O. Smith's "Catspaw" (1948), "we cannot interpret the thoughts of an alien culture in our own terms and hope to come out right."


Dickson has redeemed himself by a very small degree. He concentrated on the foreignness of the alien mind and one man grappling with understanding that alienness, trying to prevent catastrophe and benefit both races—the Ruml and the humans. Dickson seemed to have forgotten the appeal of drastically different alien cultures in The Forever Man (1986), where penned a vexingly annoying cast with disastrous dialogue behind the drone-like culture of the Laagi, where xeno-anthropology takes a back seat to the bickering and ping-pong dialogue. This Dickson is a keeper but I’m not yet eager to gamble my reading time on another Dickson novel any time soon.