Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, July 21, 2014

1992: Alien 3 (Foster, Alan Dean)

Repetitive themes bolstered by plot pace (4/5)

The Alien trilogy—by the end of 1993—ends with the appropriate but rather generically titled Alien 3. Though now technically a quadrilogy with Alien: Resurrection, I've always viewed the fourth installment as an afterthought, sort of a cheap addition to otherwise semi-tidy trilogy. (Side note: the novelization of Alien: Resurrection was written by a different writer—the late A.C. Crispin.) It was also subject to much interference even after the final shot was taken. Foster himself wouldn’t even touch the novelization because of the amount of flak he caught from trying to pen the proper version of Alien 3.

So, casting off Alien: Resurrection and returning to the main trilogy, I have the same one-of-these-is-not-like-the-others feeling: Alien 3 feels forced, like the screenwriters had an idea off the shelf and they had to sledgehammer the duology into fitting the mold of their idea. What could be such a fantastic idea: aliens run amok in an abandoned refinery where prisoners reside (yea, yea, Ripley will fit in there somehow). Now, while the idea is half-assed and the movie is a half-hearted attempt, the actual production of the novel came off alright... just alright. Foster has said that his hand was forced in its production so that it comes out just as the movie did, without any dramatic changes (not exactly true).

I read the Omnibus edition (Warner, 1993), so the page numbers may differ from the cover featured (Titan Books, 2014).

Movie tagline:
“This time it's hiding in the most terrifying place of all.”


Hicks, Ripley and Newt, secure in their sleep pods, fling through space after meeting untold horrors on Achernon; Bishop sits idle, deactivated, having been torn to pieces by the alien queen who stowed away to reach the Sulaco. But not all is silent aboard the Sulaco: At least two facehuggers creep in its systems, one a curious predator intent on attacking Newt in her sleep pod. With its immense strength, it tries to pry open the glass-topped pod, only to shatter its rim and impale itself, thus causing it to spray acid blood. The acid immediately eats through the room’s floor while building up a lethal amounts of explosive gas and electrical fires. The Sulaco realizes the emergency and evacuates the four sleep pods from the ship, which explodes soon after the four pods are well away.

On the harsh but survivable surface of the planet Fury 361 (or Fury 161 in the film and in the novelization’s dialogue), a once functional refinery cum prison is home to “two jailers, twenty-five prisoners” (484). The company has sent the worst of the worst of their prisoners to this backwater planet so that they can maintain the refinery equipment. For their simple work, the Company sends them token supply runs for want of one day opening the refinery for full production in case the planets metals can once again be exploited. Meanwhile, one of the prisoners—Clemens—, yet also its head medic (once being a doctor but his crimes had had him demoted), is out on a coastal stroll when a meteoric event catches his attention. The descending trail of fire plunges into the sea near him, where he sees the ejected sleep pods of four individuals; alone on the beach, he saves Ripley first.

The twenty-five prisoners are all “double Y chromos—former career criminals, thieves, rapists, murders, arsonists … scum” (503). The all-male population of the prison is intrinsically controlled by their self-formed religion, “some sort of millenarian apocalyptic Christian fundamentalist brew” (521) which helps them maintain discipline amid their isolation. Dillon is the authority figure among the prisoners and also acts as the chaplain of their religion, in which he leads prayer that relates to the coming of times and the escape from worldly drudgery. Though they are complacent and conforming to their humble, planet-bound existence at the refinery, theirs is a fragile environment in which even a single female presence can shake their faith, upsetting the equilibrium of placidness and angst. Welcome to Hell, Ripley.

Expectedly, her presence is unwelcome. She bonds with the medic named Clemens who urges her to remain in the infirmary, away from the prison population. Andrews, the jailer supervisor, is adamant about the separation of sex, but Ripley’s stubbornness proves inimical to his direction as she mingles with the edgy prisoners. Her title of lieutenant instills the men with a smidgen of respect and fear, but soon their hormones gain the upper hand when they try to take advantage of her solitary visit to the refinery’s dump in order to retrieve the discombobulated remains of Bishop. Dillon, the authoritative yet straight-laced leader of the prisoners, saves her from a more disrespectable fate among the attempted rapists.

Ripley’s trip to the trash heap was impelled by Clemens’ description of her arrival and the deaths of both Hicks and Newt. Her curiosity is piqued by two threads of her situation: (1) First, as Ripley connects Bishop to the escape pods flight recorder, she learns of the fate of the Sulaco and the Company’s constant awareness of all events which took place on the ship; (2) Lastly, the Company’s non-committal behavior toward the prison’s communication with them—“message received” (479 and 605)—and their oddly dissociative message “PERMISSION DENIED TO TERMINATE XENOMORPH. AVOID CONTACT UNTIL RESCUE TEAM ARRIVES” (606).

The presence of the xenomorph at the prison/refinery comes as little surprise to Ripley. A series of unfortunate deaths in the prison/refinery led up to her surmising that an alien is alive in the vents, that its stalking them, that it wants only two things: their deaths and its survival; after all, “that’s what it’s designed to do: kill and multiply” (620). Having experienced the horror of battling the aliens twice before, Ripley has almost become immune to fright; rather, she is tormented by “her inability to forget” (568).

With the assistance of the prisoners, Ripley is able to plan a chase and bait scenario where they capture and isolate the alien. While it may safely remain behind nearly impenetrable doors, the mind of man is an untethered ball of whim, especially for those with minds struck with horror, such as Golic, who becomes obsessed with the vision of the Beast and seeks spiritual communication with its apocalyptic aura. Though he had always been considered the most peculiar among the atypical prisons, his presence had always been tolerated at best; now, with delusion visions of the apocalypse, his innocent whims of spirit endanger everyone. He sees himself as immune to the Beast’s rage, much like Ripley soon sees herself as privileged in commune with the alien, but for a very different reason; she scans herself in the autodoc and discovers a long-term affliction which has only began to display its twin symptoms of internal pain and external invulnerability.

As they fight the alien and flee from its stealth attacks, the prisoners’ hope rests on the arrival of the Company, only hours away.


There are four common threads which tie the trilogy together, three threads of which are forgone expectations: (1) Ripley, (2) the xenomorphs, (3) terror, and (4) grungy locations. I understand that isolated and grubby locations heighten the sense of unease, but it does become a tad repetitive: dingy space tug from Alien and an unkempt space colony from Aliens. The third part of the trilogy offers a twofer: neglected prison/refinery. At this point in the Alien series, one begins to wonder if the screenwriters have any imagination left, if anyone cares to break the mold, if anyone has any vision for the series. The movie Alien 3 earns a paltry 3/5 in my book for this lack of imagination and drudgery.

While the plot of this sequel, and its accompanying novelization, feel forced in contrast to Alien and Aliens, Foster overcomes this slipshod story with gusto for plot pacing. The atmosphere is always tense, be it when a prisoner is decapitated or when Ripley queries Clemens about her arrival. There’s an electric sense of foreboding, an eerie static which permeates the novelization—something more than the movie did. Foster has some obvious skill in this regard, to somehow make a novelization more tense than the movie. This, in turn, results in a more impressive 4/5.

One tactic Foster utilizes is the use of investigation by the characters; they know something isn’t right in their banal prison/refinery, but after Ripley shows up, things become a bit peculiar: a large insectoid is discovered (an unusually large facehugger), a slimy cowl is discarded in an air duct (from the queen’s molting?), and a hollow, oblong black skull is found (again, from molting?). Much like in Aliens, the plot takes the reader through the species building of the xenomorphs—quite similar to character building.


Thankfully, this is a trilogy. At this point, the rehash of Ripley, xenomorphs, terror and grimy locations has reached the end of its steam. Alien: Resurrection is a movie time has forgotten (except for that exceptionally creepy alien/human hybrid). There have been many other novels published in the same Alien Universe, most recently is the Out of the Shadows series by Tim Lebbon, which somehow—in a curious why-was-this-needed way—fills a gap between Alien and Aliens. If Alien 3 is considered cursory to the series, Out of the Shadows (2014) can be considered extraneous, superfluous, unwanted and unneeded.

My thoughts on Prometheus (2012)? S-w-e-e-t.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

1986: Aliens (Foster, Alan Dean)

Aliens run amok, terror reigns the weak (4/5)

The Alien series blends science fiction wonder with the terror of being stalked—lions, tigers and bears are for children. The xenomorph in the series epitomizes our most basic fears: it’s dark, unctuous, and scaly. On top of this, the xenomorph can’t be reasoned with, can’t be stared in the eye, and can’t be intimidated.

The movie’ sequel—Aliens—,and its novelization, develop the xenomorph a lot more… thereby making it even scarier: how it breeds, where it prefers to nest, how the hive is structured… all but the purpose of the xenomorph. If you thought the unknown was terrible… think again.

I read the Omnibus edition (Warner, 1993), so the page numbers may differ from the cover featured (Titan Books, 2014).
Movie tagline:
This time it's war.”


Ripley and Jones drift blindly while in cryo-sleep. After fifty-seven years away from the horror of the Nostromos, her sleeping figure is still haunted by the loss of her crewmates and the impossible terror which stalked them. She’s rescued by a passing ship and taken back to Earth orbit—Gateway Station—where she meets Carter Burke, a representative of the Corporation. Predictably, he’s most concerned about the loss of the Nostromos and its cargo, something which Ripley has an understandably difficult time accepting. After a short convalescence, she appears at an inquest where she tells her story, of which they are very skeptical of. Ripley, of course, becomes emotional and curses their intention. In the end, they simply revoke her pilot license due to mental instability.

Meanwhile, on Achernon, a colonists is dispatched by the Company is investigate a previously “unexplored” region on the planet. There, the family discovers a giant alien ship. While mom and dad are out scavenging the relic, Newt and her brother make due in the transport… until her mom bursts through the door and her father slung to the floor with an abomination latched on to his face.

Ripley continues to live her life with the knowledge that her only daughter had died some years ago at an advanced age. She is working as a dock operator and maintaining a quiet life at home with her cat Jones, when an unwelcome visitor comes to her door with an even more unwelcome offer: join a platoon of space marines for a search and rescue mission on the godforsaken, bootstrap colony of Achernon, on the same dustball she and her tug found the alien. She would act as a consultant because of her knowledge of the aliens, but the Company is straightforward about their task: investigate the colonists and go in shooting if any aliens are found. Very reluctantly, with the promise of receiving her pilot’s license back, she leave her cat with the troop aboard the Sulaco.

Along with the twelve marines, Bishop is a “synthetic” whose primary role on the mission is the executive officer. Because he’s an android, Ripley is initially defensive because of her experience with Ash on the Nostromos, whose actions killed the entire crew save herself. The commanding officer, Gorman, seems to be an unskilled lackey who somehow became in control of this dangerous yet important mission. Hicks is one of the other marines whose calm demeanor and general niceness endears him to Ripley. Though she may be unknowingly walking into a hive full of aliens, at least she has someone to watch her back… one with a pulse rifle and a shotgun (the best kind of friend!).

With the marines on the ground and in the colony, two things quickly become apparent: (1) no one is left alive and (2) there was a major holdout and battle around the infirmary. The mayhem of the colony offers a surprise of one survivor, a solitary girl who had been living in the air ducts, of which she knows so well. Ripley treats her like a long-departed child of her own while the marines search for the colonists, who seem to be amassed to the atmosphere exchange tower where the fusion reactor continually cleans the atmosphere for terraforming.

When a small exploratory unit descend to Level-C of the tower, they encounter bizarre organic additions to the facility. They are perplexed how or why the colonists would construct such additions, until they realize that the colonists probably aren’t responsible—they see gutted remains and bodies pinned to the walls, where one utters, “Please—kill me” (333). Behind them, a alien stirs. The marines torch the pained bodies and engage the aliens. Being so close to the reactor, they are commanded to resort to flamethrowers, but the knavish smartgun operators clip in and spray the level with gunfire, resulting in the death of a few aliens and piercing some vital systems.

Ripley demands their retreat, but the inexperienced and reticent commander Gorman refuses, to which Ripley asserts her strong character and leads the retreat for the marines. While racing from the scene, aliens attack the armored transport, tearing off alloyed reinforcement like stickers from a child’s coloring book. Gorman is incapacitated by the tail-sting of an alien while Ripley makes showy exit by running over an alien, its acidic blood splattering the pavement and pocking the wheels.

Back in the main complex, Bishop studies the dead facehuggers while two of the monstrosities remain in stasis in the infirmary. As Ripley and marines retreat to the main colony, they begin to evacuate the compound but the atmospheric craft is attacked and destroyed by an alien, making them withdraw into the complex again in order to mount defenses in expectation of an alien offense. They establish autoguns at the main subterranean thoroughfare, a blockade which kills hoards of the marauding ebon hunters.

After a particularly selfish and cowardly act by the now revived Gorman, Bishop and Ripley conceive of a plan for their rescue: for Bishop to guide the last atmospheric craft from the Sulaco down to the surface, where it can pick them up and take them to the safety of orbit. There only remain two limits: (1) Ripley must rescue Newt from the aliens’ nest and (2) the reactor is about to go critical. Choice: slow death by playing host to an alien chestbuster OR quick death by nuclear meltdown?


Even before I begin my watered-down synopsis, I digress: terror or horror? The word “terror” is derived from a Latin word which means “to frighten”; the word “horror” is also derived from a Latin word, but its meaning is “to tremble”.

Some common words used in association with definitions of “terror” include intense fear, panic, and dread. Common associations with “horror”, rather, include abhorrence, shocking, and fearful. So, to revert to an SAT tactic:

If terror is to fear; then horror is to shock.
If fear is to reaction; then shock is to inaction.
If reaction is to survival; then inaction is to death.

From this diminished separation of the two words—terror and horror—we can analyze the actions, reactions, and emotions of the characters in a story to see if (a) they are simply scared and plan action against its source or (b) they witness grotesque abominations resulting in non-logical action toward its source. Do the characters in Alien and Aliens react logically or illogically? Do Alien and Aliens induce terror or horror? Is the series a work of terror or a work of horror?

Considering the protagonist Ripley and her persistent rate of survival through the series, she seems to act logically while being able to coordinate both offensive and defensive tactics and she’s able to analyze her enemy. Thus, Ripley fights terror through the series; she stalks, attacks, retreats, recuperates, attacks again, and escapes. These are not symptoms of shock, so it is not a work of horror (the same cannot be said for parts of Alien 3, however).

You can only blame Ripley for putting herself into the terror she experiences yet controls. While circumstances in Alien may have been beyond her initial control (what with the hidden agenda of the Company and Ash’s tampering), but Ripley was either desperate, naïve or depressed for her to accept a mission to the same planet where the crew of Nostromo first found the facehuggers.

What did she honestly expect from the stingy, conniving Company?
(A) trophy for her consultation
(B) reassuring words for her good attitude
(C) generous bonus for her assistance
(D) free Jam of the Month membership
(E) knife in the back

Both the Company (care of Burke) and the Space Marines (care of Gorman) are unable to assess the danger they are in and are unable to assess the inhuman enemy; only Ripley has a basic understanding of the aliens’ motivations, methods of attack, and tenaciousness. When the Marines get destroyed and demoralized, Ripley takes charge; when the Company is overwhelmed and dumbfounded, Ripley leads the way. Amid the carnage, the now daughter-less Ripley seeks emotional shelter in the form of Newt, the motherless orphan. She has more forms of hope than either the synthetic yet trustworthy Bishop or the gallant yet wounded Hicks.

The one aspect of Aliens which is most appreciated—by me and others, I presume—is the development of the alien as a species rather than just a solitary killing machine. The reader begins to understand its lifecycle, basic social structure, limits, strengths, weaknesses, and even composition.

This is a novelization, so comparisons must be drawn between the book and the movie. Perhaps it’s my faulty memory, but I don’t remember the movie having such a large portion given to Ripley’s deep-space retrieval, recuperation, judgment, and life back on Earth. The novelization dedicates three chapters—or forty-five pages—to this. It’s a nice change and a nice, gradual complacency before the reign of terror begins.

There was only one scene in the novelization which ruffled my figurative feathers. One of the most iconic scenes from the movie was Ripley’s heroic donning of the Caterpillar P-5000 Powered Work Loader and shouting at the queen alien, “Get away from her, you bitch!” Thus ensues a pretty cool fight scene. However, in the novelization, Foster has decided to write a mickey mouse version of the classic one-liner: “Get away from her, you!” (457). This is strange because Valquez drops the F-bomb once and “damn” is used three times. Why the deletion of “bitch”?


Now two-thirds the way through the Alien trilogy, I can see a pattern emerge: (1) if the book's scene match my memory of the same scenes, then I'm a satisfied reader; if there's something extra, it's of minor interest, (3) if something like a memorable quote is changed, I protest. BUT, that's expected of novelizations. Aside from the Alien trilogy, I have only ever read the Back to the Future (1985) by George Gipe. While the movie was excellent, the novelization was quite forgettable... not the same with the Alien trilogy. Full steam ahead!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

1985: Whispers V (Schiff, Stuart David)

Personal histories pulse with creeping inertia (4/5)

The Whispers anthology series was recommended to me some time back as being one of the best horror anthologies. I had known that some of the horror in Whispers V was infused with fantasy, but my fingers were cross that the horror would outshine any bit errant fantasy (because, as you know, I have a low toleration for fantasy).

Psychological and body horror impress me much more than supernatural, demonic haunting horror. Save for one or two stories, none of them reek of the stereotypical horror that keeps me from reading some of the “favorite” books in the genre. So, my hats goes off to the editor, Stuart David Schiff, for providing what he calls in his preface as “something a little bit different”—the “out-of-common story, the beyond-the pale work, the unusual twist”. Indeed, Mr. Schiff; good show!

The star in this anthology is easy to pick out. My favorite story is also the shortest: Wade Kenny’s 3-page shortstory “A Country Home” (1985). It’s brevity is key to its punch and, boy, what a punch! My jaw slackened and I whispered a few expletives… it was that good. I had never heard of Wade Kenny before, which is no surprise because I only know three of the authors: Connie Willis, F. Paul Wilson, and Jerry Sohl. Sadly, Wade Kenny only wrote one additional short story, “A Telephone Booth” (1982), for another one of Schiff’s anthologies: Death (1982). That’s going on my to-buy list!


Willis, Connie: Substitution Trick (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
Houdini had mystified and fooled many with his attempts at escapism, but his wizened mind grew skeptical because of his entertaining deceit. Prior to his mother’s death, they shared moments unknowable to others; these memories Houdini has been unable to experience through mediums—thus his calling them fakes. After Houdini’s own death, he meets his mother who comforts him in the seasickness of the afterlife and helps him to contact his wife Bess through a medium. 9 pages

Drake, David: Dreams in Amber (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
A bead of amber drapes the neck of Saturnus, sending mental images and thoughts to the man so that he can fulfill a task for its occupant. Saturnus finds the Respectable Allectus, Chief of Imperial Accounts, for the mission of infiltrating the castle, gain entry to the strongroom, and confront the force there and its implications for not only the Roman Empire, but also the world. 13 pages

Cave, Hugh H.: Footprints in Perdu (1985, shortstory) – 5/5
An American nurse and doctor couple in Haiti catch wind of a girl in the hills who’s ostracized by the village for being a werewolf. The local lore makes no impression on them, so they continue to the squalid village of Perdu. Meat, and food in general, is difficult to come by so the locals smoke a weed that suppresses their appetite. The couple meet an influential man who is gracious enough to feed them meat and give directions to find the baby-eating werewolf. 11 pages

Wilson, Paul F.: The Last “One Mo’ Once Golden Oldies Revival” (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
Philip Goodloe has kicked the bucket. He used to rock, used to produce hit after hit, used to collaborate with Lenny Winter for his fame and fortune. Philip, birth name of Flip, can only blame himself for his downfall: young women and smack. When Lenny hears of Flip’s death, the radio begins to play a string of hits which he had helped support when he was an opportunistic DJ. Soon, the coincidences are too much. 14 pages

Kenny, Wade: A Country Home (1985, shortstory) – 5/5
With bucolic bliss comes responsibility; the toil of continual daily chores and the need to do one’s own dirty, yet necessary, work. The Casselman family—a husband and wife with their baby daughter Katie—live in such simplicity. Doug’s duty was to drown the kittens while his wife was out. He dug the hole, retrieved the sack his wife had seemingly filled, then drowned and buried its contents. His wife returns, looking for Katie. 3 pages

Nolan, William F.: Of Time and Kathy Benedict (1984, novelette) – 3/5
For the 80th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, research specialist Kathy has the assignment of researching automobiles from 1902, specifically the “999” racing machine of lore. Relaxing out in a lake alone, a freak storm and wave capsize her boat. When she awakens, she realizes that it’s the year 1902 and the her hero is one of the men responsible for the famous “999”. Love blossoms, the car races, and a lake date looms. 22 pages

Etchison, Dennis: Deadspace (1985, novelette) – 3/5
The Holmly Hotel is Beverly Hills is like a closed universe where the same people perform the same actions, only Wintner is a stalker among the sheep. Wintner, a producer, aims to meet an actor named Joe Gillis so that he can cast him in a lead role, but Gillis never picks up the phone. As a hidden pool, Wintner has passing conversations with a sunbathing beauty and the hulking figure of a woman in a tent. News breaks his reverie; his universe shrinks. 22 pages

Sohl, Jerry: Cabin Number Six (1985, shortstory) – 2/5
A clairvoyant elderly lady and her son Henry own a rundown motel just off the new interstate. As she predicts, a couple arrive at the motel with a booking from Dr. Woodford, a marriage counselor. The exuberant rate of $50 for the room and $5 for ice makes George, the husband, sour with frustration while his troubled wife Joan antagonizes his foul mood. From outside, a sinister duo peer through the window; from within, the demons attack and claw the couple. 12 pages

Tem, Steve Rasnic: Father’s Day (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
Will didn’t have the most ideal childhood. His father was—still is—an alcoholic and starved Will of affection while his mother stood by her man. How with his own son, Will hasn’t visited his parents for seven years and his own wife insists they visit the lonely couple. Will realizes his authoritative relationship with his son is too tense, but the victimized child in himself is also the vindictive predator. 10 pages

Ryan, Alan: The East Beaverton Monster (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
The quiet town of East Beaverton is a sleepy town where the men work 9 to 5 in the city and where the housewives are bored alone at home… unless the exotic telephone repairman visits. When Dr. Lavalette opens a new women’s weight clinic in town, Beatrice and Candace are ager to shift their village gossip to the unexpected. They get wondrous results from the weight treatment but ignore the follow-up warning as they continue to watch their weight. 16 pages

Tinker, Libby: The Horse (1985, shortstory) – 3/5
Life is breathed into a newborn foal while its mother passes away amid its bloody birth. Struggling to stand on its own four legs, a woman comes to act as a wet nurse to the young colt, offering it sweetened fingers to suck on. Though born fingered and clawed, the woman applies her maternal instinct however, on its fourth day alive, the dreaded dusk approaches. 6 pages

Farber, Sharon N.: Return of the Dust Vampires (1985, shortstory) – 3/5
Dr. Insomnia  treat a B-grade film star of yesteryear—Rich Dutcher. Though he’s not proud of the work he had done, he memories are still alive in the doctor, one of his fans from the “Time Seekers” series. With Rich dying of metastasizing cancer, Dr. Insomnia tries to treat his mind with positive resonance so that he can fight the death with will. As the same time, the doctor, herself, comes down with illness. 12 pages

Morrell, David: For These and All My Sins (1984, shortstory) – 4/5
Driving eastward home through Nebraska, a man becomes stranded outside a small town just off the interstate. There to find a mechanic, he witnesses the grotesque ugliness of all the town’s people. Having to resort to asking for a beer and chips at the town’s only diner, the closed diner’s waitress takes him home, where she feeds him in the dark the best meal of his life. She also tells him of the town’s ugly history and of his ugly meal. 13 pages

Wagner, Karl Edward: Beyond Any Measure (1982, novella) – 3/5
Though much of Lisette’s family’s history is placed in London, she was born in America to her American parents. Now studying art in London, since her arrival, she has been experiencing a recurring dream involving a mirror, an antique watch, and blood. Her roommate suggests Dr. Magners, a fringe-science psychotherapist interested in hypnotizing her for free. After each session, memories of her past life effervesce and her own life is changed in undetectable ways. 45 pages

Friday, July 11, 2014

1970: The Steel Crocodile (Compton, D.G.)

Allegiances of faith, which for the greater good? (4/5)

I was first exposed to D.G. Compton thanks to Joachim’s posts regarding the author’s work, namely Synthajoy (1968). Since I was unable to procure that novel in a timely manner, I managed by first gathering a few novels of which I get first get a taste for his prose. While Farewell Earth’s Bliss (1966) may not be his flagship novel, it was a satisfying introduction to his work and whetted my appetite for more of his work. The next time I ordered second-hand books from online (thank you Powells), I managed to pick up one more Compton novel—the same one featured here.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Bohn, the omnipotent computer whose flashing circuits and messianic pronouncements dictate what tomorrow will—or will not—be.

But Matthew Oliver is flesh and blood and full of questions—not nearly as certain as the machine he’s appointed to serve.

And the right hand of science seldom knows what the left hand is doing…”


Through the popular yet nebulous underground organization calling itself the Civil Liberties Committee (the CLC), Matthew is hired by his contact, named Gryphon, to penetrate the Colindale Institute where mysterious work is being done on a large computational device; however, Matthew only knows that his social statistics expertise is need, which is an odd requirement for a computing job. When Gryphon is found murdered, Matthew feels compelled to complete his task for the CLC, but his religious wife isn’t as progressive as his professional consciousness.

Soon, through the passive-aggressive director Professor Billon, Matthew learns the truth of the massive complex machine: it dictates mankind’s future. Rather than being godly omniscient, a team of programmers tediously gather all quantitative data in papers—ranging from peer-reviewed submissions to undergraduate work—in order for the great machine to extrapolate qualitative data: “[O]nce you have an associative capability you can use it in non-quantitative fields. Anything may be expressed in terms of anything …. pride, love, hate, work incentives, conscience, aesthetics and so on” (113).

His assistant relates the broad power the machine has over human progress: “Did you know we put the stopper on climate control as too controversial … without the weather, what’d there be left to complain about? Except the Government, of course … Maybe that’s why they left us the weather” (165).

Physically separated from the outside world, the Colindale Institute is an obviously secret affair; more so, even the security arrangement is a secretive detail: phones are tapped, movements are followed, and houses are rigged with microphones. Matthew’s wife, Abigail, is well aware of the security amid their new home as she was the first to personally discover the microphones, so conversations of doubt about the entire project must be dampened for fear of reprisal.

Matthew’s faith toward his sociology field and his job at Colindale take precedence over his sensitivity toward the intelligence of his wife, a firmly resolute Catholic woman. His temper flares at her thoughtless indifference to the unheralded project, but his professional pride convinces himself that what man has created must be right—the facts of life must dictate what life will become. In contrast to her devotion of her faith, she feels that she must disobey her husband—though she’ll continue to feed him after work and make dutiful love with him—she sights her sights on exposing the truth behind the project. She’s able to shake her tail and contact her brother, the black sheep of the family who has enlisted himself in a variety of causes and who has recently asked for a considerable amount of money so that he can go to Africa for yet another cause; he is, however, still in town.

Both Abigail and Matthew are surprised to learn that his predecessor was murdered, the reason of which for his quick employment. Abigail wants him to forego his position but Matthew maintains that everything is fine: his secretary is supportive—though a little too liberal and flirtatious—, his programmer colleague is knowledgeable and capable, and his colleagues are professional and goal-related. One link to his predecessor remains: the missing contents of a secret project between the late professor and the director, Billon. For the sake of both professional and personal curiosity, Matthew confronts the director for an explanation.

While some of his colleagues may be content to perform the secretive task because it’s simply an “intellectual exercise and a harmless way of keeping” the director’s curiosity piqued (175), at the same time some delve deeper into the nature of the machine’s task:

While it might be possible to deduce grass from the needs of a horse, to work the other way is utter nonsense. The ability to deduce a horse from the properties of grass is quite beyond us. (176)

While waiting for the initial results of the run program, Matthew stands at a conflict of consciousness; thought he’s committed to his work, he feels the ultimate goal of the project to be too distant, too far-fetched, too quantitative. While he and a few of his colleagues play poker, he observes:

He enjoyed cards for their own sake: their precise shape and texture, the excitement of each new hand, the skills of dealing and shuffling, he enjoyed it all. So that, within limits, he had objection to losing. (171)

Though he’s a quantitative, number-crunching analyst and fearful of the results of the ultimate project, he still convinces himself of his high-held pride in enjoying a simple game for its simplicity without realizing that every move in poker in a game of statistics—his precise area of expertise. Even the most knowledged of professional can be self-delusional; even the experts gamble with outcome.


Let me be honest: I hate, hate, hate the book’s own synopsis; it’s exaggerated, errant and misleading. The reader would suspect the book to be about the giant, god-like computer but, then the reader may be disappointed by, the lack of focus on the computer itself. Sure, there are scenes of jargon from the scientists in-the-know, but largely the plot revolves around Matthew and Abigail’s dealing with the truth of the machine; it’s a story of faith, a story of conviction and action on that conviction.

The initial dynamic of the relationship between the married couple of Matthew of Abigail is infusing to the plot; idiosyncratic yet acceptable tensions arise and set the course of Compton’s plot, yet the roles they accept slowly become stereotyped, almost one-dimensional: Matthew the scientists accepts his fate as a scientist while the receptive Abigail accepts her role as the church patron and blind follower. I suppose, one of the premises of the plot is that they are both blind followers of their faith—one of religion and one of science—but the outcome feels too one-dimensional.

Therein lays the fault: the one-dimensional frisson between husband and wife over the singularly controversial topic: the direction of mankind. Abigail’s uneducated role as housewife and uneducated role as conspirator plays tune to the weak, intellectually inferior in much of popular science-fiction literature (granted, not all); the male role as the logical scientist versus the emotional role as the housewife… could it get any more stereotypical?

Coming to the stereotypes of their roles, one particular exchange of theirs which stood out as unreasonable, non-natural…. who speaks like this? Sometimes the dialogue is just too eloquent for its own good: As the unreal Abigail speaks, “Who knows what we mightn’t whisper to each other in our personal post-coital stupor” (131). Really?

Aside from occasional detached robot-like conversations like this, there is a predictable plot thread which I found well conceived yet poorly executed; the entire conspiracy against the machine was predictable from the onset, meaning of course Abigail’s brother didn’t have any intention on going to Africa and of course he was planning to sabotage the project somehow. While the method of sabotage was indeed a mystery to me, the actual execution—with people and devices—was fairly pedestrian.

I can’t figure why it was written in that manner, but it still provided a good tension between the conflicting “what is right” of Matthew and Abigail and what others think—whose sense of “what is right” is justified by a terrorist act?


An excellent first third was ever-so slightly diminished by a tense yet unreal lackluster third, ending with the tarnished head of poor execution. Thankfully, while the predictability was its only flaw, the result stands on its own—a solid novel with a few flaws, like many other novels. He has proven to be a good writer and I look forward to much of his work which line my shelves: The Silent Multitude (1966), Synthajoy (1968), and Chronocules (1970).

Thursday, July 10, 2014

1969: The Avengers of Carrig (Brunner, John)

Excellent narrative weaving, obvious conclusion (4/5)

I’ve now read as many Brunner novels as there are in the English alphabet—for the less literate, that number is twenty-six—, nineteen of which are still on my shelves. That’s a pretty good keep-rate: better than A.E. van Vogt (6 of 10), a lot better than Frederik Pohl (9 of 18) and a hell of a lot better than Jack McDevitt (2 of 10) and Robert Silverberg (1 of 5). I’m a sucker for Brunner but he’s not infallible. This is my chief worry—that I may pick up a dud—whenever I chose to read a new Brunner novel; though the disappointment rate is low, it’s like a sword through my chest each time. The cover and synopsis of The Avengers of Carrig felt like the tip of that sword was already piecing the skin, waiting to be plunged hilt-deep.

Rear cover synopsis:
Once the city of Carrig stood supreme on this planet that had been settled by space refugees in the distant, forgotten past. From every corner of this primitive lost world caravans came to trade—and to view the great King-Hunt, the gruesome test by which the people of Carrig chose their rulers.

Then from space came new arrivals. And with them came their invincible death guns and their ruthless, all-powerful tyranny.

Now there would be no King-Hunt in Carrig, or hope for the planet-unless a fool-hardy high-born named Saikmar and a beautiful Earthling space-spy named Maddalena, could do the impossible…”


The inaptly named planet Fourteen is one of many populated by the displaced people of a once known system named Zarathustra. When that system’s sun exploded eight hundred years ago, a diaspora on an epic scale flung its people across all of space in hopes that they could settle new planets and have fresh beginnings. Earth and its Corps Galactica have known about the planet’s fate and have been safekeeping the population of each from marauding pirates bent on forcing them into slavery. The inhabits worlds from the Zarathustra diaspora tend to be backwater simple places with flourishing trade routes pulled by indigenous animals and a social hierarchy topped by kings and lords. When left untouched, each planet would have developed its own culture, its own technology, and its own destiny; when zealous marauders bring their superior technology to such a place, they tend to make themselves kings.

The yearly king-hunt in the planet’s largest city, Carrig, is a festival where the winner becomes the “legal lord of Carrig” (40). The status of Lord is the highest attainable title available to the people of Carrig with the title of King reserved for the winged creature which resides in the steamy, pocked landscape of the volcanic mountain range near Carrig. In the king-hunt, manned gliders take to the sky riding the currents of warm air in order to battle with the parradile (a pterodactyl-like creature), the King of which is the largest. When someone eventually strikes it down, he becomes the new Lord.

For the last eighteen years, no one has been able to slay the King—an unheard of streak which raises the suspicion of many participants. The most hopeful participant in the nearly king-hunt is Saikmar son of Corrie, a cherubic-faced man most favored by bookies in the city. Rumor is that the current Lord has been spiking soporific drinks for the most favored hunter, so Saikmar vigilant in the lead-up to the hunt. The Lord has a touch of guilt for having let the King grow too large to kill and for allowing himself to reign for the last eighteen years, so he will allow the hunt to continue without his intervention, a move which will usher in a new Lord, supplanting him.

As the participants gather, Saikmar stands proud. However, one man who had recently come to the city in a caravan—coinciding with the murder of its head trader and the burning of his house—one man seems more arrogant than all the others. Claiming himself to be a southerner, none are convinced of the interlopers origin, but the rules allow outsiders to participate in the king-hunt. As the king-hunt commences, excitement grips the city of Carrig as the King swoops from its cave—the king-hunt has just begun… until a white glider-shaped vehicle shoots down the King with one strike of its fierce lightening weapon. The King has been slain and a new Lord must be crowned.

 An Corps agent on Planet Fourteen—the same trader who was killed by the “southerners”—has been out of contact for a while, so Corps decide to send a replacement. Maddalena Santos may be one the smartest recruits of her base, but she also has one the most displeasing attitudes, making her an outcast even amid her colleagues. When Commandant Brzeska needs to choose one of his crew for the solitary mission, Maddalena’s poor attitude and her knownledge of languages make her he perfect candidate. She and Patrol Major Langenschmidt jump across space to Planet Fourteen, but are instantly attacked by a trigger-happy pilot in orbit which sends the two of them and their craft crashing to the ground. Having ejected, Maddalena trudges through the snow in search of shelter or Langernschmidt… whichever comes first.

Meanwhile, Saikmar is depressed about this stolen chance to win the king-hunt for his clan. Thinking himself a refugee, he flees Carrig for a winter’s stay at a northern sanctuary built into well-aged hull of the diaspora which had brought them to the planet they now call home. Before the sanctuary seals itself for the winter, Saikmar climbs in the frigid hills where he find a solitary parradile making itself a nest. Native to the tropical south and the steamy Smoking Hills of Carrig, the parradile is unaccustomed to a winter. Each day, he visits the beast; normally, the parradiles are feared for taking children and cattle, but this parradile is different—it exhibits intelligence. One day, Saikmar discovers the parradile had brought back a beautiful woman, who the parradile had saved from the lethal cold.

Flown back to the sanctuary by the parradile, the two settle in for the long winter. Maddaladen concocts a story about being from the south, but not everyone is sure of her origins. She is curious to find the ship’s reactors still working, creating channels of steam for heating and cooking. When she finds a passageway leading to a reactor-warmed room, she sees an ancient device used for making nutritional food in bulk. Savvy with such technology, the machine starts after centuries of disrepair, much to the reverent amazement of the sanctuary’s head priestess, Nyloo. When things begin to settle down, one event shocks them more than the rediscovery of food processing—the coming of the same mountain parradile.

Truth eventually reaches the Corps: The victor with amazing powers is actually a citizen of another system (Cyclops) who making slaves of Planet Fourteen in order to mine the heavy metals from the Smoking Hills, which he and his cohorts ship back to their planet. Combining their knowledge, Saikmar and Maddaladen unhatch a plan to bring down the nefarious Lord, but he might usurp himself from this throne with his poor understanding of the local people; they EXPECT a king-hunt every year and the new Lord is unwilling to fulfill their demands—anyway, he had already chased out all the parradiles because of their interfering with his mining. Either way, his end is near.

There are two aspects to this novel which, in many other instances, usually turn me off: (1) the medieval way of the life of the townsfolk, the importance of the titles such as Lord, and anything that resembles a dragon/pterodactyl; and (2) the far-reaching strength of a central organization tasked with secretly maintaining that statuses of entire planets. The former is often shared with many fantasy novels and the latter often found in early pulp SF; combine the two and the result should be unreadable—not so.

The weave of the two stories—Saikmar and Maddaladen—is a little too coincidental for the story’s length. Their meeting felt forced, but the unfolding of the story from the halfway point on is quite good, a pace matched with Fourteen’s history, more background about the Zarathustra diaspora, more depth to the culture of the Carrig, and an interesting turn of events regarding the parradiles. So, if the reader can ignore the coincidental affairs, the rest of the book is an excellent course of events… until the conclusion, which felt obvious every step of the way.

The Avengers of Carrig is the second book in a three-book series which explores the diaspora of Zarathustra through the eyes of three cultures of those affected. The first book in the series, Polymath (1974), highlights one ship’s inability to cope with the settlement on their new planet, even with the polymath on aboard. The third novel, The Repairmen of Cyclops (1965), I haven’t read it but it MAY crossover with some of the information about Cyclops found in The Avengers of Carrig: the planet has a very poor content of heavy metals and relies on imported metals from the asteroids and from other systems, yet without the metals they must make due… something along those lines.


I haven’t had the pleasure of reading “Secret Agent of Terra” (1962) from which this book is expanded. At least the novel-length version of the story has a better title! This is yet another addition to my ever expanding Brunner library, one of which will eventually, fingers crossed, come across all of Brunner’s greats and no more of his dreary flops… again, fingers crossed because, even as one of his biggest fans, I know Brunner isn’t immune from producing drivel.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

1979: Alien (Foster, Alan Dean)

Faithful novelization with poor pacing (4/5)

Having loved reading science fiction for a full seven years, one would suspect the reviewer of also loving science fiction movies; here, one would be incorrect to a great degree. Generally, I really don’t like many science fiction movies for a number of reasons: (1) over-glamorizing the science-y aspect, (2) injecting cheesy Hollywood drama, (3) rehashing so many SF clichés, (4) interweaving the genre with fantasy or the paranormal, (5) pushing the movie toward more action than substance, (6) featuring Tom Cruise or (7) basing the movie on some lame premise. Good science fiction movies are far and few between.

One movie stands out among all others for its original blend of science fiction and horror, action and substance, quality and appeal, and timelessness. To be blunt, Alien scared the shit of me when I was young; even now it sets my nerves on end (genuine horror or nostalgia, you be the judge). Considering that the story is now thirty-five years old and still haunts the memories of past impressionable minds… only Star Wars (I may never say this again) can be compared to its impression. For me, Alien, to this day, epitomizes an excellent science fiction movie plot (obviously without regard for social science fiction—give me flamethrowers, aliens and spaceships!).

Call is nostalgia if you like, but when a fan of Alien and science fiction literature, like myself, picks up a novelization of a movie, you can bet that the expectations are high and fuelled purely by nostalgia. Thanks to Alan Dean Foster’s fine prose and perspective, the novelization of Alien reflects the movie very closely. Although I didn’t almost pee my pants, my eyes did remain glued on the pages, all 218 pages of which I consumed in one day.


I read the Omnibus edition (Warner, 1993), so the page numbers may differ from the cover featured (Titan Books, 2014).
Movie tagline:
“In space no one can hear your scream.”


Light-years from Earth, the deep-space commercial tug Nostromo slides through the featureless void of subspace with two billion tons of crude oil. As the automatic refinery processes the oil, seven dreamers lay in their cryogenic chambers and Mother, the ship’s artificial intelligence, watches over them like its name suggests. When Mother detects something like a distress signal, it puts the Nostromo and its crew on a course to investigate the source of the signal. The crew is awoken.

Unbeknownst to the crew aside from the captain/pilot Dallas, their three-month journey home should have landed them in Earth’s orbit with the blue marble itself gracing their view screens. When they are unable to locate Earth or even contact traffic control, Ripley, the ship’s warrant officer, discovers that they are in fact in the system of Zeta II Reticuli. Dallas informs everyone of the beacon broadcast, a non-standard signal almost certainly of alien origin. The science officer, Ash, confers with Mother on a number of possibilities but it’s Ripley, again, who discovers that the distress beacon is actually a quarantine warning. Ripley begins to doubt Ash’s position among the crew and his loyalty to their humanity.

Ripley takes the ship down to the surface of the planet, which is nearly as dense as Earth but much smaller and covered in an inhospitable atmosphere choked with dust. It’s this dust which clogs intakes, overheats engines, and creates fires in power cells. Landing, the ship is in obvious need of repair while a team of three—Dallas, Kane and Lambert—venture through the yellow dusty mist to While Ash, Ripley and the two engineers, Brett and Parker, stay aboard the Nostromo, the latter two begrudgingly make repairs and bitch about not receiving full shares, the three who ventured forth discover the source of the signal: a giant, u-shaped craft held at a precarious angle on the planet’s surface.

The huge derelict alien craft has three open ports which Dallas, Kane and Lambert access and discover the physical source of the beacon. Curiosity gets the best of them and they attempt to explore the depths of the ship. Having set up a winch, Kane is lowered through an interior channel where he discovers a vast cavern he assumes to be a storage room. The oppressive heat of the cave causes him discomfort and the well-organized leathery sacs cause him confusion. In an ignorant attempt to pry one open, he succeeds and is gripped by the unwelcome embrace of a facehugger. When Dallas and Lambert reel him back up, the unsightly spider alarms them and they flee back to the ship with Kane in tow.

Ripley is unwilling to allow the three-man team back into the ship for fear of xenological contamination; even with the commands and threats of Dallas, Ripley does not open the exterior hatch, but Ash does comply, going against all protocols of decontamination. With Kane supine on the autodoc, Ash probes the facehugger with an assortment of tools, only to discover that it uses an extremely acidic defense mechanism—its blood dissolves linen, plastic and even the metal of the hull. Seeing facehugger regenerate its wound, the only option is to let it remain on Kane’s face for fear of either killing him via the parasite or destroying the ship via the corrosive blood.

Brett and Parker complete their arduous task of fixing a number of systems and prepare the ship to leave the planet and dock with its massive cargo of oil in order to return to Earth. Meanwhile, Ash watches over Kane and calls the crew to come observe two sequential events at the autodoc: (1) the facehugger detached itself from Kane’s face and is not lifeless and (2) Kane’s recent recovery, who has symptoms of amnesia and a ravenous hunger, but he physically appears to be in fine form. Homeward bound, the crew look forward to ten months of cryo-sleep and decide to share one last meal together. Kane’s three-meal hunger is interrupted by a pain in his chest, the cause of which bursts through his chest and scurries off to hide, a grotesque creature covered in Kane’s organs and blood.

The shocked crew decide it can’t exactly kill the creature because of its corrosive blood, so a method of shocking and netting the little creature is started. They have one week to capture it and send it out the airlock before the ships runs out of oxygen and before they return to cryo-sleep to await for their return to Earth. As they hunt for the creature with electronic trackers, Brett is assigned to recover Jones—the ship’s cat—but ends up being taken by the alien which stalks the air ducts. Both Ripley and Parker observe the alien’s incredible strength as it lifted Brett clear off the floor. As they cat had fled the equipment bay during the attack on Brett, so too do Ripley and Parker run away from the scene of fear.

Realizing that rods of electricity were not going to tame the alien predator stalking their lives, they upgrade their weapons to flamethrowers and remain convinced that they must corral the creature toward an airlock, where they can eject the fearsome hunter into the vacuum of space. After Dallas’s unexpected death, the five remaining crew are skittish to every susurrus or scrape made within the Nostromo. Parker is the first to warn Ripley of the alien’s location next to an airlock. From her console, she starts the sequence to close the airlock; the alien is mesmerized by the flashing green warning light, but when someone triggers the klaxon, the alien drops out of the lock, gets its arm stuck in the closing door and flees from the scene, knocking over Parker in the process.

The acid of its amputated limb corrodes the metal of the door; air leaks through the hole causing a hull breach. The crew panic and struggle to regain control of their precious atmosphere. When the incident comes under control, Ripley is the first to ramp up her suspicions of Ash; she consults Mother with the following query: IS ASH PROTECTING THE ALIEN? Is one man at fault in the Nostromo for the travesty unleashed, or is the Company—concerned for the matters of “maximizing profit, minimizing loss” (200)—the prime culprit?

Yet, the alien, a “perfectly organized organism” (203), continues to stalk the remaining crew.


From my memory, I presume the novelization of Alien to be faithful to the movie. The one aspect of the book which doesn’t make the movie is the pace; at the half-way point through the novel, Ash and Dallas discover the facehugger had detached itself from Kane’s face.

The first half of the novelization feels bloated with dialogue between the engineers Brett and Parker. There are sections where the reader is dragged through their technical conversations about power cells, welding, striping components, and replacing modules. The stodgy dialogue characterizes the disgruntled duo but adds very little to the plot. Perhaps it’s also an attempt to characterize the Nostromo as a sympathetic cause. While the name Nostromo lives well in our memories of science fiction—“This is Ripley … warrant-officer, last survivor of the commercial starship Nostromo, signing of this entry” (217-218)—no one really sympathizes with the ship… only the circumstances within the ship.

One sensation was captured beautifully in Foster’s novelization, which matches my memories of the movie: the sense of fear doesn’t rest in the physical sight of the alien, but in knowing that it’s there, anywhere. Just as the alien is occasionally glimpsed in the film, Foster pens a few brief scenes where only portions of the alien are visible to the crew: its arms tearing Parker from the floor, its hand pulling Dallas through the grating, its tail bobbing near the airlock, its arm stuck in the airlock door, its head peering through the glass of Ripley’s closet door. Here in the novelization, the fearsome alien is never seen in its entirety—only the innate fear of the creature is visible in the crew’s desperate attempts to drive it from their ship, their home.

Which brings to mind a famous JFK quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. To the reader, this means that the characters’ fear is the catalyst for the reader’s fear, not the manifestation of the fearful object. While the alien may scare them witlessly when their in its terrible presence, the lurking fear of its arrival and their death is their prime sense of hopelessness.

Because of the long introduction with all the technical dialogue, the conclusion is rather abrupt. The action sequences in the book weren’t as well paced as the movie, resulting in jittery scenes of flight or fight. The key scene of Ripley’s frustration with the self-destruction mechanism isn’t highlighted in the novelization—it’s given a cursory mention. That was one scene in the movie where my memory is the most vivid: the elaborate self-destruct sequence and the impending doom from the well modulated, comforting voice of Mother.

Thankfully, the novelization doesn’t self-destruct. Foster’s prose is occasionally eloquent and his choice of vocabulary interesting. Of course there are the occasional deeper insights into the functioning of the Nostromo or further depth to characters, but nothing is errant. On the technical side, there’s only one flaw concerning the Doppler effect and the speed of light: “The Nostromo achieved, exceeded the speed of light … Stars ahead of them became blue, those behind shifted red” (128): if you exceed the speed of light, there is no light to shift.


Back in 2007, Alien was my 22nd novel of the year. Later, Aliens was the 60th novel of the year and Alien 3 was the 101st (busy year of reading that was!). Now, seven years later, I’m on an eight-day holiday all alone and I will do the honor of reading the three books in sequence (along with some additional horror short stories). I may be scared of the dark during the next few days.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

1995: Limbo Search (Godwin, Parke)

All work and no play make them a dull crew (4/5)

Eons ago, I remember browsing historical fiction authors online while looking for one that might interest me. Having read only of smattering of SF, I settled upon some familiar authors: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) and Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years (1989). I’ve never been one very interested in studying history, so I wasn’t bowled over by the sub-genre of speculative fiction and wasn’t keen on venturing further in with authors like Harry Turtledove or Parke Godwin (pretty much the only two names I could recall from the sub-genre). While I was browsing Elite Bookstore (now selling mainly Japanese titles) in Bangkok, I spotted one of Godwin’s few science fiction titles: Limbo Search. Though the colors and composition of the cover were appalling, I bought and filed it on my shelves reluctant to peer into its chapters.

Rear cover synopsis:
A bloodied veteran of Limbo Search, it is Charley Stoner’s job to protect unmanned planets from deadly corporate exploitation. Until now, nothing has ever gone beyond the range of his considerable experience… Until now.

A mysterious, distorted message has been intercepted from the impossible blackness of empty, alien space—beckoning Stoner and an untested crew toward the dangerous uncertainty of entity invasion.

Combat readiness has been activated. All that is known must be abandoned. Hydri IV Search Mission is underway, moving Stoner and his raw trainees forward on the incredible adventure they only dreamed—and feared—was possible.”


Earth’s corporations are exploitive when it comes to new resources—namely, new virgin planets. Rather than allowing each mega-corporation full freedom to ravage the planets of their precious metals, UNESA (United Earth Space Authority) has set up listening stations around Earth’s galactic neighborhood to eavesdrop on the corporations’ chatter. One such station, Limbo Search, is placed around Hydri Beta; though the Corporations haven’t yet surveyed, let alone exploit, the planets of the system, Limbo Search keeps a polyglottic ear to the sky: English, Mandarin, Russian, French and Hispanic Complex.

While all search crew aboard listening stations must be multi-lingual and abstain from the vices of alcohol, tobacco and sex, Charley Stoner’s (Warrant Officer) station of Limbo Search only has the former requirement. Alcohol and tobacco are not condoned but can be found about while relationships on the mixed-sex on the station are a tepid affair spoilt by the nature of the stressful job. Pairing off is almost a formality and making any sort of future plans (be they on the station or on Mars) borders on taboo.

Rather than finding chatter between corporations, their survey ships and Earth, Limbo Search intercepts an alien signal from the planet of Hydri IV. The strange signal has dual harmonics and sounds like the lowed pitch of two singers crossing through resonance and dissonance. The ground-based transmission station is difficult to pin down at their distance so Stoner sends a Search Mission to the planet to triangulate the transmission. However, around the planet and coming out of sub-space is a gigantic alien ship. It simply sits there; the crew of the Search Mission wait for their deaths but realize that something is wrong with the ship. It doesn’t respond to any form of hail nor does it strike them dead; one crew member posits that the alien sub-space engine malfunctioned and the alien crew are disabled.

Much like the half-hearted love life on Limbo Search, the division between UNESA and the Corporation is blurred by time. Intelligence Officer Pauley, aboard Limbo Search, is eventually made privy to the fact that there is a corporate mole on the station. Though Pauley initially fingers Beaudry as the suspect because of his atypical flawless background, Pauley's senior (Waites) informs him that the innocuous Vietnamese-ethnic Thun. Pauley goes forward with the Waites' plan to rid themselves of the mole even though Pauley himself was certain Beaudry was the odd man out. Waites stands to the side, amused.

Meanwhile, amid the mild yet invasive turbulence of love and deceit, the land-based alien signal intermittently broadcasts and one fact becomes clear: it's speaking human languages, albeit very slowly. Are there alien-equivalent eavesdroppers like themselves beyond their galactic neighborhood, which has just gotten much, much smaller?


Limbo Search is a difficult book to start. Almost the first 20% of the book is crammed with acronyms, pilot-related vernacular and heavy detail related to the environment in which the crew are situated. It's not fun, it's not easy, and it certainly isn't friendly top the reader. BUT, this can be forgiven as the frisson of emotion works its way through the technical cracks of the plot to slowly effervesce; as this unfolds, the emotional content of the plot clouts the technical detail until it too is pure and difficult to grasp. As every dawn has a dusk, so too does the plot lapse back into a technical fixation but ends with a whip snap of emotion.

Because of initial loss in the techno-blabber, I may have lost the subtle characterization Godwin had been trying to establish and its repercussions. While the steady transition from technical to emotional was masterful, it was difficult to understand as a story-telling vehicle from a single read. In retrospect, I see the stress-laden crew in their heavily technical environment fighting with their basic humanity: freedom from restraint. The professional strain combined with the nanny state of their work environment compels them to accept superficial relationships which become the only drama in their rather placid lives.

Even the aliens are a—I can't really say “clever” because it's too obvious, but—good vehicle to shatter the technological pride of the humans and belittle their emotional understanding of humanity. I feel compelled to say that the aliens are “stereotypical aliens” but that’s almost an oxymoron, yet it will suffice for now. Aboard the Limbo Search, stereotypes are also abound: the Vietnamese man who still drinks rice whiskey, the German man who interjects his speech with Germanisms, and the addicted smoker who squirrels away cigarettes and willingly incurs the fines resulting from his habit.

While each personality may be nebulous as the corporations which exploit the cosmos, the surface-level emotional investment between characters creates a unique tension between them—a token pairing for the same of drama. This, too, imparts tension with the reader, who observes (in third-person omniscient) the unnecessary pairing-off and the resulting battle of soullessly authenticating the relationship. As mentioned before, even the conclusion offers whiplash of emotion; this whiplash isn’t directed at the reader to evoke a response, rather a coming-to-terms for the character in situ.


Beneath the overarching technological/emotional plot, there lingers a tang of absurdity which the reviewer can’t pin down. The sixth-sense of absurdity is bolstered by one of Parke Godwin’s other series: Snake Oil (Waiting for the Galactic Bus [1988] and The Snake Oil Wars [1989]). It seems he had had a pleasure for writing criticisms of modern life and history. I’m not sure if there is anything else in his bibliography which beckons my readership, but one may still catch my eye.