Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

1993: The Destiny Makers (Turner, George)

Bleak look at decisions to population: cull or control (5/5)

I was first introduced to George Turner by picking up a nice looking novel in the science fiction section of my local second-hand bookstore. The novel was Down There In Darkness and the cover alone was hypnotizing enough. Once in the meat of the novel, the plot, too, was captivating with its essences of psychology and dystopian post-apocalypse Australia. That same novel also happens to be his last novel. Destiny Makers also has the psychological element but pre-dates the apocalypse, where the Earth is home to 12 billion people. Destiny Makers is about the cusp of cataclysm. (PS: I just realized that the same characters are used in Down There in Darkness. The themes are similar, so the two are actually linked... which teaches me not to space books like this 34 months apart)

The setting of Destiny Makers is one to make you stop and think. There are many passages which describe the bleak future of an over-populated earth and the decisions which must be made in order for earth to survive and humanity to thrive again, once free of the restrain from the shackles of unbidden growth. The two major solutions to population decline are found on page 67; " to restrain birthing. Or perhaps, how to expedite dying." With only two solutions, the protagonists must decide... but keep in mind, it is also humanity which must decide the curtailing of population.

"We are sufficiently civilized to know what we should do; our problem is what we are." (Page 250) Harry is a police detective born of lowly Wardie status. His honesty and integrity highlight him for a specific job of guarding a mysterious man in a mysterious hospital. It's known soon enough that the man is the once-senile father of the Premier who has undergone the illegal operation of age-reversal, which has also unclouded his mind. This breach in population law by the Premier himself is large enough for a major issue, so security is tight.

"Humanity is a disease that slaughters everything in its ambit; now it must slaughter its own flesh in order to preserve a viable core." (Page 259) The Premier is clearly disturbed by his inability to make the decision of all decisions. International pressure is on shoulders on the Premier, which is why he brought back his father from the brink of death. However, any counsel sought by the Premier belittles the voice of the majority of Wardies. With a choice needing to be made, will the Premier crack under pressure?

"Who's killing the world? People. Can't stop eating, can't stop f***ing, can't stop living, can't stop anything. Everyone says it's the other man's fault so kill him but leave me alone to do as I like. You got to get people out of the world to let it live." (Page 275) Compound the hi-so Premier's break down in leadership with Harry's lo-so perseverance and the result is a gathering of peripheral characters which stabilize the plot: a psychologist, a trained security man and right-hand of Harry, political opposition, a blackmailing doctor, and the pregnant teenaged daughter of the Premier. It's wide enough cast to allow for all sorts of contingent outcomes and will have you guessing exactly WHAT decision must be made.

"...the race bred like maggots across the carcass of earth." (Page 310) As bleak and pessimistic as it may sound, the realist in me sees The Destiny Makers as a stepping stone in what the real world must eventually do in order to curb its own population. It's sadly inevitable that we can't naturally cull ourselves like rabbits facing starvation... a decision must be made. This is exactly what Georoge Turner puts forth in The Destiny Makers. He may have been aiming for the mind of reader when he penned this novel, but be aware that it'll leave you feeling as if you've been punched in the gut.

1999: Down There in Darkness (Turner, George)

Psychological  and Sociological sci-fi Masterpiece (5/5)  
From January 25, 2009

An amazing mix of sciences of psychology, genetics and sociology is unfolded into the plot, which spans 130 years (2033, 2068 and 2168) and touches the expanse of human consciousness.

During the 2030s, Earth is in an era similar to the Roaring 20s during the 1920s. The economy is growing (as well as the population) while everyone is blissfully ignorant of the imminent ecological collapse around them. At this time, an experiment is conducted to probe question within the mind through sensory deprivation, which ends in one man becoming comatose.

Fast-forward to the 2060s and the world has obviously taken a turn for the worst: global warming, joblessness, crime, paranoia... the works. Turner writes, "It was a time when murder was commonplace; respect for life was not a prime commandment in a world wherein the vast bulk of population had no hope of rising out of Suss poverty and nurtured little morality beyond self-preservation." Main character Harry gets a strange case about an experiment from the 2030s and is asked to probe the repercussion of the comatose man's wakening. It's shrouded in mystery as the man hasn't aged and has been given over to a cult church by his own wife. Harry calls on his friend Gus to assist him in the awakening along with a psychologist and a host of observers.

(I just realized that the same two characters Harry and Gus are in this novel as well as The Destiny Makers. They have the same disposition and jobs. Perhaps it's time for a re-read!)

The plot then links the story to the year 2168, one hundred years later, and we find Harry and Gus confronting a more terrible future. Here, the few people still alive are "products of an inheritance too garbled for resolution by nationality." They must confront a new world order and the unfortunate history which has passed them by.

It's a mind bending read, which isn't based far from the current speculative future we are seeing today

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

1987: In the Bone (Dickson, Gordon R.)

Exploring the Alien Condition and the Human Condition (5/5)

I've known Dickson by reputation alone: well-known for his Dorsai! series and once described as a science fiction romantic. When I first read his work in was, unfortunately, his 1977 revision to his 1965 novel Mission to Universe. Whatever had been revised must have been the downgrade quality compared his short stories in this collection, In the Bone. Mission to Universe was weak is nearly all regards.

In amazing shift of probability, In the Bone is a collection of very thoughtful pieces gently revolving around two similar themes: fathoming the alien condition and alienation from humanity or the human condition. These two themes are something I give some spare thought to from time to time. Such as, if humans were to be contacted by aliens, would communication even be feasible? My thoughts on this are that aliens will be exactly what the world implies in all regards: will be know they even exists, if we do then our modes of communication will be wildly different, and if we can communicate then our worldviews and sensation will not be translatable. This is reflected in Dickson's short stories. In this regard, I've felt a syzygy of thought with Dickson and has led me to really love this collection! In fact, Dickson has about twenty more collection out there! Wow, I'm getting dizzy with near-giddiness.


Twig (1974) - 4/5 - Twig is a human connected with the planet-spirit, named Grandfather, of Jinson's Planet. Remaining hidden in her nurturing forest, the slash and burn farmers wish to find and kill the Grandfather but her communication with the Earth visitor from Paraplanetary Government may thwart the witch-hunt. 33 pages

God Bless Them (1982) - 5/5 - Merlin snags a chance to train for work in space amidst the failing American economy. His only expense is paying for Californian detective agency to search for his wife and his only annoyance is a tag-along by the name of Church adds to his pressures; but which one will put the nail in his coffin? 25 pages

Hilifter (1963) - 4/5 - Locked from the outside, a hijacker is stuck in his cabin cubicle and must find a way out of the room, through the levels of the spaceship and into the control room to wrestle control from the commander for the good of the colony planets. 19 pages

Brother Charlie (1958) - 4/5 - Human mediator and two individuals of the two terrestrial species of intelligent life on a planet crash in the sea (home of one species), make it to land (home of the other) and head for the human's Base. The human tries to have them understand each other's viewpoints and to just get along. 32 pages

Act of Creation (1957) - 4/5 - Man witnessing the death of the son of the creator of androids in the Dorsai universe pays him a visit and witnesses for himself the humanity of the creator, himself. 11 pages

Idiot Solvent (1961) - 5/5 - Art only sleeps only seven hours per week and is hired for a study in sleep deprivation and intelligence. After ten days of no sleep, being doped with the "monster", and escaping the building, the man babbles incessantly and is eventually brought back and given hypnosis. 18 pages

Call Him Lord (1962) - 5/5 - (1966 Nebula: Best Novelette) Prince and heir-apparent to the galactic throne visits earth to sample what life is like on the backwater planet, original home of humankind. His conceited palatial attitude is accepted by his bucolic bodyguard even when the Prince causes trouble with the villagers. 22 pages

Tiger Green (1965) - 4/5 - Plagued by paralyzing nightmares and suicidal tendencies, Exploration Team 529 is stranded on a planet which is attacking its ship and crew. Four of the seventeen have put off the xeno-possession and attempt contact with the natives, whose circular logic has them very confused. 23 pages

Of the People (1955) - 3/5 - With charm, influence, and inventiveness as his attributes along with the power of ultimate persuasion, Sam leaves New York to seek out a Himalayan yogi in order to transcend. 5 pages

Dolphin's Way (1964) - 5/5 - Dolphin researcher fosters a notion that successfully communicating with the dolphins will open up communication with extra-terrestrials. With research funding on the brink of collapse, the researcher is eager to spill forth his knowledge and ideas to a beautiful visiting reporter. 18 pages

In the Bone (1966) - 5/5 - Man technologically equipped to traverse the stars and explore new worlds finally meets another intelligence, who zaps him from the sky, disables his precious machinery and reverts the modern man back to his primal self to survive in the alien landscape in the shadow of the alien pyramid which struck him down. 22 pages 

1973: The Alien Condition (Goldin, Stephen [editor])

How aliens may live, work, die, breed, etc. (4/5)
From July 19, 2011

A collection of one dozen science fiction stories which attempts to "examine the Human Condition - by examining the much larger and more general problem of the Alien Condition." The collection has a fantastic start with back-to-back stories which are unique and inviting. It was surely headed for a perfect 5-of-5-stars rating for the collection until the last three stories (about 40% of the volume) make a terrible ending. You might as well just SKIP the last three stories altogether.


Kathleen Sky: Lament of the Keeku Bird - 4/5 - Female carnivore must cross the desert on her belly to Long Rock so that she will transform into an Old On. With pieces of her flesh and matted hide behind her, a vulture-like Keeku trails. 18 pages

Vonda N. McIntyre: Wings - 4/5 - Crippled hermetic winged alien accepts the unexpected visit of a crippled youth. Combating loneliness, habit and his religious vows, the old man nurses the youth back to health even though his departure is likely. 17 pages

Alan Dean Foster: The Empire of T'ang Lang - 5/5 - The alien named T'ang Lang is the master of his environment. He taunts mountains, sharpens his knives and lives in solitude to wait for his next kill. 9 pages

Mirian Allen deFord: A Way Out - 4/5 - Scaled alien ambassador to earth is disgusted by all things human and misses all things of his homeland. With very different laws between the two planets, an escape by a felonious act is his only solution. 12 pages

Arthur Byron Cover: Gee, Isn't He the Cutest Little Thing - 4/5 - A rather cynical little alien is stranded on earth, kept as a pet. He vents his cultural and sexual frustrations by lambasting all earthly things including cats, pigs and talk shows. 7 pages

Rachel Cosgrove Payes: Dead Listener - 4/5 - Survey ship finds no intelligent life on a gaseous, barren planet but when scooping and compressing the gases, the hull starts to dissolve wherever they go. 8 pages

C.F. Hensel & Stephen Goldin: Nor Iron Bars a Cage - 3/5 - Fifteen-minded alien senses, hears, then views a tall metallic object surrounded by a gas-created char. The minds debate on the source and move to investigate. 11 pages

Thomas Pickens: Routine Patrol Activity - 4/5 - Playful security duo sing-song their way through their patrol. When confronted by an unidentified object, the two attempt to establish contact the only way they know how. 11 pages

William Carlson & Alice Laurance: Call from Kerlyana - 4/5 - An avian intelligence and a potty-mouthed reptilian intelligence are at limited war on the continent they share. One of each of them is chosen as an envoy by an alien third party to establish a peace agreement. 15 pages

S. Kye Boult: The Safety Engineer - 1/5 - Subterranean safety inspector of a delicately balanced ecosystem relying on cooperation, dadada - it's unbearable to read and stopped after only fifteen page. No wonder it was only published once. 61 pages

James Tiptree, Jr.: Love is the Plan the Plan is Death - 2/5 - Some sort of giant dinosaur/spider hibernates after a long winter to fall in love with a tiny pink being, who he binds in woven silk as she grows to maturity through the warm summer months. 19 pages

Edward Wellen: The Latest from Sigma Corvi - 3/5 - Radio DJ reads the 6:25 news summary but fails to understand the gibberish pronouns and links the occurrence to an astronomical anomaly. 4 pages

Saturday, November 19, 2011

1982: The Eye of the Queen (Mann, Phillip)

Humanistic SF with journal plot device (5/5)
From October 20, 2011

I had never heard of Phillip Man before reading Wulfsyarn but while reading it I was unexpectedly impressed with the level of humanistic writing Mann was capable of. His usage of the journal-like device was fascinating and I searched for his most acclaimed novel Eye of the Queen soon after.

Using a more pronounced device of the journal-like narrative, the style is captivating in its detail and chronological unfolding. The journal of Thorndyke chronicles his contact from beginning to end with the alien species Pe-Ellia, through the initial contact, the first awkward days on the new planet and the dismissal of his subordinate Tomas. The thirty-eight journal entries are often accompanied by Tomas's commentary on the specifics of each matter or historical background. This duo-layered journal device imbues the novel with rich detail spread out for the reader to mull over and consume.

The Pe-Ellia species are difficult to wrap your head around, seeming to be as alien as the title implies. Yet their commonality in their spiritual devotion and altruistic aura unveils a human-like base to touch. The Contact Linguists they both are, the road to understanding their alien counterparts must be lightly tread for risk of giving offense. The penultimate guide for this contact was established by Thorndyke but we witness him withdrawing from the very procedures he established. This alarms Tomas but, being the subordinate, he continues to chronicle the visit.

Mann seems to be able to create a humanistic character (like Wilberfoss in Wulfsyarn and here with Thorndyke) and allow the reader to sympathize with the self-styled human he has created in the pages. Certainly, these two characters are well developed but then they become a sort of empty husk, unsubstantiated by personal and external conflicts- the level of sympathy is always on the rise.

For fantastic insight and intimate detail, I can hardly look at any other author with the same passion Mann exudes in both Wulfsyard and Eye of the Queen. This is the pinnacle of humanistic science fiction along with Eric Brown's The Fall of Tartarus and J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands.

1977: The Last Transaction (Malzberg, Barry N.)

Peek into a President's Public/Private Life (4/5)

Rear cover synopsis:
“…The Last Transaction is a deep and fascinating glimpse into the memories, inner compulsions, torments, triumphs, and events in the life of a President of the United States in a world gone mad, from 1980 to 1984. Even more, it is perceptive vision of the major issues our society will face tomorrow. Sure to be controversial, possibly prophetic, like anything Barry Malzberg writes, this novel is an experience you will not forget.”

This is my first Malzberg novel but it happens to be one of his later novels (1977). Unfortunately, I had to start somewhere and this novel struck my interest. It’s not so much science fiction as it is a twisted look into one man’s mind in the years 1980-1990, so it’s more of a weird fiction novel set in the future than a science fiction novel.

Malzberg writes a novel portraying, much as the synopsis says, the internal logic of one man. These thoughts and memories spill forth from a man slowly sinking into dementia. Now a very frail 80 years old in the year 1990, the 1980-1984 ex-president of the United States is housebound and attempting to complete the memoirs of his life. However, his failing physical health and diminishing grip on reality affects his ability to think clearly and act rationally.

ENTER William Eric Springer
The marriage with his first wife ended on a sour note as she grew continually more haggard and their love life tapering off into negligence. Even the offspring, born out of casualness rather than love, cannot keep them together. With the divorce finalized, William seeks out more steady liaisons with a woman twenty years his junior. They both attend his ex-wife’s funeral and continue with life with the fateful direction of sitting in the presidency. While acting as president, a terrorist group blows up two nuclear plants and threatens to hijack more. With the same casualness of producing a son, the President lightly assesses the situation, which paints him as the man he truly is.

He’s a stubborn man is his later years. He was once mildly uxorious but transmogrified into something blunter, more forward. As an example to his stubbornness during his convalescence, he says, “I am entitled to the integrity of my prophylaxis.” (pg115)

William’s attitude towards tackling major issues is relative to his attitude towards his sex life, which Malzberg isn’t timid writing about in detail (sometimes too graphically, too detailed, too unnecessary). The serious issues, like the intimacy experienced with a wife, are taken vulgarly and off-hand. Oppositely, the lighter issues, such as detailing his memoirs, are taken with single-minded ferociousness.
EXIT William Eric Springer

William’s sexuality characterizes him to a great degree so the sex scenes are validated, but the carnality of some of the scenes is a bit much. The Last Transaction is a 163-page characterization of a growingly blunt man, sinking into senility, resistive of advice, and indolent with sexual reminiscing.

More Malzberg novels is a must for me if his knack for characterization is prevalent in his other works but, hopefully, will lessen the sexuality to a more acute degree.

Friday, November 11, 2011

2010: Hull Zero Three (Bear, Greg)

Internalizing the essence of exploration and fear (5/5)
From July 21, 2011

It appears that Hull Zero Three hasn't been very well received on Amazon and that's pretty sad. I greatly anticipated its release and was mystified by the Vine program's negative feedback. To truly appreciate Hull Zero Three, I think the reader needs to meet two criteria, like myself:
1) The reader needs to understand most of Greg Bear's work, including his 1980s and 1990s grand space spectacles of The Way series and Forge of God series). Also, the reader must feel distanced by Bear's work since the millennium (Quantico, Vitals and especially City at the End of Time). This will give you a proper lead-up to what Bear has accomplished and why Hull Zero Three is a return to his grand tradition of space spectacles.

2) The reader must be disappointed in the state of the art of American science fiction. I don't read any of the stuff since the millennium as there's been a preferred chasm of difference with British SF. US SF tends to have very short paragraphs with lots of dialogue and it nearly always reads like a Hollywood scrip for people with short attention spans.

NOW, open up the deliciously ambiguous book entitled Hull Zero Three. Granted, from the onset, the initial "man wakes up on ship with amnesia" isn't exactly unique but banish that from your feeble mind as the subject is at the masterful (er, with the exception of End of Time) hands of Greg Bear. Like the main character, Teacher, we, too are borne unto this novel with little knowledge of what is happening but we grow to understand the environment, the dangers, the expectations and direction: where the Teacher learns so the reader, where the Teacher panics so the reader panics. Identify with this: "I'm just a pair of eyes on the end of a stalk of neck with a brain and some hands and legs attached."

I won't to expose too much detail about the greater scene of the book because it's important that the reader, like to protagonist, learns as he/she goes. So, to just glance over the plot, here it is: Three separate hulls are on a 500-hundred-year journey to inhabit the stars. Something has gone wrong, albeit a malicious deviation of course or a natural phenomenon. People are being awoken, these people are being killed by the Ships machines. On board is the entire Gene Pool of earth and the landing crew will make use of this gene pool to adapt to the environment of the one planet they will fall upon. They have only the one shot to establish their civilization.

I must mention the Gene Pool part of the plot because it's by far the most titillating potential in the entire book. Stop and think about the variation of life on earth and how, in the future, it may be possible to alter man in any way, always abiding by the gene pool, to suit Man for life on other planets. Hull Zero Three visits some minor shifts in the human DNA but always tiptoes around some of the more exotic spectrum of what humans could become. The details revolving around this 500-year trip and the gene pool are hugely enticing and very rewarding.

Like mentioned in criterion #2, Hull Zero Three is unlike anything the US SF has recently produced (this includes Vinge and the peripheral Star Wars, Star Trek and Halo series). No author has gotten it right except for our friends across the pond, many of whom I'm a great fan of: Banks, Hamilton, Reynolds, Stross. Greg Bear writes in a style similar to the British friends, where there is more of a focus on describing environment, emotion, experience and detail with longer paragraphs, more internal monologue and less frivolous chit-chat.

"Exploring," in his purest essence, isn't about banally chatting about what you're seeing... it's about internalizing the experience and relating yourself to your surroundings. Much like Hull Zero Three - you'll explore the Ship (Hulls One AND Three!) through the internalized experience of Teacher. However, you'll also be grappling with the fear of death, dismemberment, starvation and suffocation. Great contrast.

2011: Humanity's Fire 3: The Ascendant Stars (Cobley, Michael)

Book 3: Out of the Blue Heroics (2/5)

I had read Book Two in about 4-5 days and had little problem following the braided plot threads. The day after I finished Book 2 I started Book 3 and finished it in three days. It would be logical to think that I had a flawless grasp as soon as I laid my eyes upon page 1... and yet, I was shaking my head and putting the book down again and again through the first 150 pages (of 467 total pages). It was a very frustrating 1-star beginning that held little hope of rising from its own ashes. Somewhere along the remaining over-sized and somewhat bloated pages, a dwarf of a phoenix rose and whimpered.

The first third of the book is bogged down by the compound difficulties in trying to understand the character fragmentation of Robert Horst and Julia Bryce and their respective plunges into the hyperspace-tiers/Godhead and the tiernet/Glow. The physical/virtual and embodiment/disembodiment of the two characters in these bizarre landscapes is most frustrating. Eventually, Julia's plot thread begins to become a little clearer while Robert's thread maintains its reality detachment until the very end. If you can follow those two threads alone, then the rest of the book is a cakewalk. Just be prepared for the last second heroics of Kao Chih and Henry and the late and abrupt predictable deaths of two adversaries (will be most displeased). And if you usually have difficulty in following plot lines, don't worry- it seems as if the plot is recapped every chapter as the character perspective is shifted.

Greg is in orbit around Darien for most of the book, trying to out-think various intruders, making alliances with numerous orbital participants and trying to survive the ever-growing military presence of the Hegemony. Theo and Rory are still hunkered down in and around Tusk Mountain while the Knight of the Legion of Avatars sits quietly around his fortress awaiting the arrival of his cybernetic counterparts from the depths of hyperspace Abyss. Kao Chih plays a very limited role in the plots unraveling but the Roug bring their technological prowess to the table to help out here and there. Chel and Kuros, too, play smaller roles while Cat sits upon her moon readying herself for the inevitable battle.

The prologues for Book 2 and Book 3 held a tantalizing clue about the Hyperion AI 150 years ago and its involvement with the great AI presence in the plot. I thought the prologues would eventually be woven into the greater scope of things but, in the end, the prologues were merely bits of interesting data relating to the early strike of the Darien colony. I had high hopes.

Like Book 2, Book 3 has symptoms of "deus ex machina" with the unforeseen, miraculous unveiling of the space-fold bomb (also later unhyphenated as "spacefold bomb") and the Roug smartgun. Not only are a few technological wonders dropped onto the scene, also small-bit but big-moving players are dropped in right as the most incredible moments.

Book 3 is a tad more consistent than Book 2 except for a few things which caught my meticulous eye: sometimes subspace is used to describe a communications network but hyperspace is used for transportation... are the two one-in-the-same? Why can a hyperdrive descend to Tier1 hyperspace but unable to go further to Tier2, and how can an impromptu adjustment allow it to descend even further? Regarding the Enhanced and referring to page 27, how could the Enhanced "undergone genetic engineering in the embryonic stage" yet still be "either an orphan or signed over"? If the engineering was done prenatally, then the Enhanced were obviously pre-selected, thereby they wouldn't have to be orphaned or signed over. Minor, I know.

One additional miff is found on page 127 where Captain Velazquez says he, "Lost over a seventh" of this complement (one-seventh = 14.28%). If the loss was more than one-seventh, why not just say one-sixth (one-sixth = 16.66%) which is a mere 2.38 percentage points more than one-seventh? One-seventh is a strange fraction to use, when "one-sixth" or "half of one-third" would have been equally as useful (sometimes I hate being the author of math textbooks).

Ascendant Stars isn't an out-right dud, a shame I rarely bestow upon any novel I can finish. If you can follow the first 150 pages better than I can AND not mind the continuation of the deus ex machina, then you'll probably enjoy the book more than I did. I look forward to seeing some more science fiction from this author. A one-off, all inclusive novel would be great to see, something which allows for a greater control over consistency in word usage, dialogue, historical background and fraction usage :p

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

2010: Humanity's Fire 2: Orphaned Worlds (Cobley, Michael)

Book 2: Heavy on the "deus ex machina" (3/5)

I had read Book One, Seeds of Earth, two months ago but I found it hard to start to get into Book Two right from the start. The character appendix in the back of the novel was too limited to refresh one's memory and the additional species appendix was just a terse blurb about the average height, body hair distribution, locomotion and vision of each species. A heftier appendix would have been much appreciated but instead the reader is left with a rather unhelpful few pages.

Once the plot gets moving, the bits and pieces from Book One begin to slowly fall back into place. Like Book One, each chapter shifts point of view between the characters and in Book Two we experience about nine perspectives. Like Space Opera ought to be, it's a large platter to eyes and mind to digest. As a means of synopsis, I'll review the nine perspective alphabetically and sequentially:

1) Cat has risen to become the keeper of the forest on the Nivyesta moon, where she witnesses the continual destruction of the forests by invading forces. 2) Chel assumes the role of middle-man between the Sentinel and Greg as the both begin to understand their true role. 3) Greg is the head of the rebel force on Darien and continues to hide and resist the Brolturan forces. 4) Julia and her Enhanced counterparts are raided by pirates and forced to use their minds for the evil purposes an organized quasi-religious cult. 5) Kao Chih remains a pawn in the great game of the galaxy he he finds himself used yet again, this time as he visits his home world. 6) The Knight of the Legion of Avatars is still striving for access to the warpwell through victories and setbacks after arriving on Darien. 7) Kuros, the Sendrukan occupier on Darien, maintains a calm demeanor even amid critical appraisal of his activities surrounding the warpwell. 8) Robert, the ex-Ambassador from Earth, continues his ethereal journey through the scores of tiers of hyperspace in search of deities and salvation. 9) Theo leaves his world of Darien for the realms of space with the captured Tygran soldier and his cohorts who aim to overthrown Marshel Becker.

Some of these storylines cross paths and some diverge through the 603 pages of text but there are two separate lines of activity going on. The one line Chel, Greg, Kuros and Cat limits itself to the planet of Darien is, for about 90% of the book, keeps a fairly low profile with more suspense building that actually getting things done. The other line of activity rests with Kao Chih and Theo, who are traversing the great expanse of the galaxy from base, to planet, to orbital and back again all the while collecting more minor characters amid minor skirmishes and observations... which is exactly the more exciting line of activity where the "deus ex machina" pops in.

OK, it's science fiction. All the sciences of ancient races can't exactly be known to everyone (especially the reader) and these science can seem like magic sometimes, as it has been said by Clarke. But when beams lock-out ship control, when wormholes are spawned between ships, when hyperspace missiles go undetected, when psi-symbiotic motes repel any given attack, when a handmade remote control tricks surveillance, when a pilot casually records and loops video footage... the long combination of the easy use of technology at hand teeters on unbelievability. One or two technological punches through the plot would have been acceptable but the wanton use of it is sloppy.

One more paragraph with minor quips... I felt that the pages from 150 to 160 were inconsistent with the rest of the book. The plot went through a transition from being like Book One to being inconsistent with its precursor. For example: After page 153 the now-dead drone of Drazuma-Ha* loses the star at the end of its name. The once amicable relationship between Greg and Chel begins to feel washed out after they urbanely reunite and exchange cold greetings on page 158. The dialogue between Kao Chih and Silveira seems to be missing another paragraph or two as Silveira refers to something Kao Chih didn't even mention (pages 150-151). Again, minor gripes but a little sloppy.

Not bad at all. A little long winded with all the inclusions of the ever present deus ex machina, but nevertheless it's an eye-opening space opera- it offers a sense of wonder at the array of species, planets, customs, modes of thought and visions of the future. Sometimes it's difficult to understand what the F is going on (like all the oddities down there in Hyperspace) but in the end I'm left wanting more. Bait and hook... ready for Book Three!

2009: Humanity's Fire 1: Seeds of Earth (Cobley, Michael)

Book 1: Almost too much to absorb (3/5)
From September 15, 2011
This is my first Michael Cobley novel as I'm sure it's the first of many who choose to begin this trilogy of Humanity's Fire. Like other trilogies (Cosmonaut Keep [The Engines of Light, Book 1] to name one) or quadrilogies (Lords of the Middle Dark [Rings of the Master, Book 1] to name another) I've completed, Seeds of Earth has the same problem of getting the plot off the launchpad when weighed down with a load of new characters, a shipment of proper nouns and crates full of exotic aliens, planets, flora, fauna, honorific titles... I could go on. It's one of those books which is difficult to find a toehold. It's also one of those books which lends itself to be read in one week in order for the reader to fully understand the setting Cobley has just placed.

The 9-page prologue of Seeds of Earth takes place on Mars when the Solar System is under attack by the Achorga Swarm. Plans have been made to launch fifteen arks to save humanity in case the Swarm prevails. The Swarm has been virulently persistent to only allow humanity to construct and launch three arks. Chapter One opens 150-years after the ark Hyperion has made landfall on the planet Darien. The mix of Scots, Scandinavians and Russians settle the hospitable planet and befriend a race of intelligent bipeds who inhabit the breathable atmosphere of moon.

Living in ignorance about the fate of the earth and the two other arks, the tiny outpost somewhat flourishes. Politics plays a big role in Book One, but not to the extent of what MacLeod includes in his novels (but you can bet they both emphasis the Scottish accent!). I'm not sure why a small outpost needs eight-story building with elevators. I ask the question: Did they strip the ark of the elevator of did they manufacture it? And if they stripped the ark, why did they put the elevator in something as unimportant as an apartment building? Much of the description of the infrastructure of the colony seems unrealistic for only be in operation for 150 years. The citizens also travel by dirigible. I'm getting sick of dirigibles.

Lemme see... only two of the cast have idiosyncrasies enough to be sympathetic with:
There's Kao Chih who's on a long, long journey from his domain (no plot spoiler here) and keeps running into difficulties including a menacing human, menacing pirates and menacing droids. Seems like deep space is a scary place to traverse... honest enough Kao Chih just keeps going in honor of his ancestors. However, one niggling detail remained: when the craft left its main port, it had six days of food for the two crew members. Later, it's quoted as having enough food for three months and nine days at quarter rations for one person. I can't massage those numbers!
Then there's Earthspace ambassador who carries around a virtual simulation of his dead daughter and plays chess with her, even when there's company around. Sounds kind of a disappointment to the government of Earth.

The writing style isn't as grandiose as Banks or as techy as Hamilton... it lays somewhere in between, but I much prefer the lengthy prose of Banks above all others. That said, Seeds of Earth doesn't have loquacious paragraphs like much of modern British Space Opera uses. The vocabulary isn't as challenging as Revelation Space or The Algebraist, but still maintains a certain sophistication. One more niggling point was the 3-time use of the word "concertaed" when describing the operation of a door (which fondly reminds me of Delanay's "the door dilated").

It's definitely NOT bad. It's just unfortunate the the trilogy has to start somewhere! Judging from the conclusion of Book One, I predict that books two and three will be at least 4-star reads. I've already bought Book Two and I've pre-ordered Book Three. How's that for eager!

Friday, November 4, 2011

1969: Beyond the Beyond (Anderson, Poul)

Two gems at the end of a dusty road (3/5)
From November 22, 2010

With a remarkably terrible beginning to a collection of short stories, I almost gave up hope with Anderson's collection in Beyond the Beyond. I've haven't come across many of his stories in anthologies but because I'm a fan of his linguistic and space opera novels (twelve to date, thank you very much), I decided that a peek into his short story talent might be worthy the effort to hunt down and peruse.

It's only with the last three stories did I begin to enjoy the collection. The Sensative Man has a spy-thriller tone to it with some psychoanalyzation throw into the mix. The Moonrakers in a decent look into the future unfolding of human civilization in the solar system which naturally must include space pirates. Finally, the cherry on top is a story ala Tau Zero; Starfog is heavy in science, astronomy and language and you may even find yourself admiring the minor love story unfolding.

Certainly, there are a large number of short story collections which trump Beyond the Beyond, but this is a keeper for the sheer sake of the last two stories... but mainly Starfog, which has etched into my memory so soon after its completion.

Memory (1957) - 3/5 - Bygone unknowingly colonialists of a galactic empire find themselves in company with a mysterious amnesiac man who is later recaptured with his hopeful wife by the militaristic crew of an empire ship. 36 pages

Brake (1957) - 2/5 - Extremists aboard a vessel inbound to Ganymede pose as passengers and act mutinously to gain control or hold the vessel as hostage from the captain, who isn't taking this kind of thing lightly. 45 pages

Day of Burning (1967) - 1/5 - A supernova is approaching a once studied planet with its' scope of cultures but that datum is dated, where the archaic language is annoying and the dragging politics can... zzz, zzz, zzz. 42 pages

The Sensitive Man (1954) - 3/5 - A man from a psychodynamic institute is kidnapped by a conniving organization who wish to use his skills for world domination but how will the psychodynamist psychoanalyze the psychos? 54 pages

The Moomrakers (1966) - 4/5 - The tri-pillar economies of Mars, Asteroids and
Earth are pinned against one another in a bid to deal with or destroy the pirates which seep the earnings from the respective governments. 33 pages

Starfog (1967) - 5/5 - A seemingly human race appears on an isolated yet inhabited planet and say they have originated from a stellar cluster; a mystery which calls for an educated Ranger and a probe into their culture and history. 56 pages

1964: Three Worlds to Conquer (Anderson, Poul)

Must Read Anderson; Erelong be Smitten (5/5)

I'm a well seasoned in reading Anderson novels, this being my fourteenth. It also happens to have become my favorite Anderson to-date! Tau Zero ranks a close number two and Brain Wave a respectable number three. Three Worlds to Conquer has an intrinsic "oldie" feel to it, perhaps because of its 143-page thickness, its nebulously painted cover or simply because the plot has certain Golden Age qualities to it. Regardless, I'm very fond of this novel as it exudes a certain sexy nostalgia for science and space exploration, something missing in modern science fiction.

Rear cover synopsis:
"JUPITER: where no human could live- but where men had strange allies... and stranger enemies! GANYMEDE: where human settlers lay helpless under the guns of a spaceship directed by a madman! EARTH: freed from a planet-wide tyranny, but facing total destruction for space!
The destiny of these worlds were strangely linked- and in the hands of a man sentenced to instant death!"

Excellent synopsis for a novel! It pulls no strings, doesn't promise anything it can't deliver and offers little hint as to the greater scope of the plot. I tend to read the synopsis AFTER I've read the book because I like to be surprised by the content of the novel... somethings the damn synopses give away everything or promise too much. To further expound:

Mark is a contact specialist of sorts who is in contact with an alien race on the surface (!) of Jupiter. Having created a new language between his own tongue and the aliens tongue, Mark is the best at what he does. He is also skeptical of the arrival of battleship USS Vega at the mining base of Ganymede. The admiral spins a lengthy story of how earth government (controlled by the almighty USA of course) had fallen to rebels. The battleship is on the moon for the sake of taking control of its mining facilities in order to process materials for nuclear weapons so that they can oust the rebels with brute strength. Lorraine is a collaborator with intentions of sabotaging the tyrannical hold the admiral holds over the colony. When Mark and Lorraine conspire together, plans for escape and control grow rapidly.

In a parallel plot, the alien in contact with Mark is named Theor. His Nyarr clan is becoming close to being invaded by the larger, more brutal and uncivilized Ulunt-Khazul clan. The communicator (a neutrino communicator beaming conversations up to Mark) fails to impress the heathens after Theor fails to contact Mark. Thus begins a sea-battle and land-battle amongst the two clans. When Theor is captured, his relationship with his "mind-brother" Mark will be called upon for the sake of both individuals.

I think Anderson had a great thing going with the Theor plot line and having a human plot in parallel to this only strengthened each plot.

Three Worlds to Conquers suffers from one early SF element which plagues other novels but leaves this book without damaging effects: that of the "I got a sudden idea" syndrome, where crafty plans for escape or retribution are fabricated from thin air, bless the ever-whimsical protagonist capable of this feat! One more minor quirks which you'll come across is the 1960s fixation on the infinite wonders of pharmacopoeia. There's always a pill that'll fix something (effects of gravity, banishment of fatigue, unexpression of emotion, etc.). One last irk is one exclusive to Anderson, himself: he loves to use archaic Middle English or Olde English words throughout his early novels be it in dialogue or narration. Here's a short list of annoying words: behoven, erstwhile, yonder, erelong, belike, lest, beset, nigh and (my favorite) thundersmitten.

If you can look past the points above and suspend whatever science knowledge you have about the atmosphere and surface of Jupiter, then you're in a for a excellent action-to-the-last-page novel,easily read in one or two days.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

1974: The Dream Millennium (White, James)

Millennial colonists plagued by nightmares of death (4/5)
From June 30, 2010

James White continues his characteristic plot scheme by involving a doctor and medical science throughout the storyline even though it takes place outside of the Sector General universe. Rear cover synopsis: "Earth was a polluted, dying planet. Violence was rampant and civilization was doomed. If Man was to survive, John Devlin had to find him a new home somewhere in the galaxy. He had 1,000 years to look - and 1,000 years to dream. But all his dreams were nightmares..."

Leaving Earth on a 1,000 year journey to ten solar systems with possibly inhabitable planets, the 200+ colonists of the craft enter a cooldown, where they agelessly sleep away the years only to be occasionally revived every hundred of so years to exercise and to remember. It is during this cooldown when Devlin experiences fantastic dreams of others' lives; of royalty, of saurian origin, of revolution, etc. Why is it that Devlin remembers each dream so vividly and why is it that he can recall pre-departure events just as clearly? His recurrent awakenings probe this mystery as the recall becomes stronger and as he discovers the body of one of his fellow colonists frozen to the cold steel of the bulkhead in an apparent suicide.

The first third of the novel has a bizarre yet wonderful scope involving Delvin's awakenings aboard the craft, his life prior to recruitment and his vicariously realistic dreams. This is entirely rich and vivid; unlike anything White has produced (this being my 7th White novel). The plot is more like a John Brunner novel, involving characters in extraordinary circumstances amidst the stars. The fallacy springs about midway through the novel when the majority of the text starts to focus on the vicarious dreams; life after life after life, only to end in death each time. The spotlight is taken away from the great millennium journey and its righteous goal of establishing a human colony on a distant star when Earth itself is dying.

I can see White's noble approach to probing one man's mind, his dreams and his meaning to the greater extent of the mission at hand. But the repetitious mini-lifetimes doesn't add much depth to the purpose of the very same dreams, which is made a little more clear towards the end of the novel. This journey inwards versus the journey outwards is a decent attempt but overshadowed by Pohl's Gateway, which is pristine in inwardness/outwardness. However, as far as a White novel goes, this is one of his more thoughtful and unique novels.

1988: Federation World (White, James)

Dry dialogue and lube-less action (2/5)

I'm a big James White fan. His Sector General series is a eye-widening look at a huge array of exotic aliens and how they cope with their interactions in times of calm and chaos. While the dialogue is often quite droll and the predicaments predictable, James White still injects some fun into the novels, Final Diagnosis (1997) being the best part of the series that I've read. Lesser know are James White's non-Sector General novels... and of which I've been after for years since reading Final Diagnosis. I've now read 7 of the 11 and I can say that they generally tend to be better written than the Sector General books.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The Federation of Galactic Sentients had a mission. As new planets and species were discovered and assessed, the deserving of their populations were invited to move en masse to the fabulous Federation World, a modified Dyson Sphere located in the galactic core.
But not all of the Federation inductees were suited to the idyllic life of the World. Martin and Beth were two of he rare ones chosen instead for the demanding job of First Contact. Their training was extensive, but all too soon the two Earth-humans were out on their own with all of the amazing technology of the Federation at their command.
Martin knew that training was no substitute, for experience. In First Contact, his first mistake would likely be his last..."

White's non-Sector General novels of The Watch Below (1966), Tomorrow is Too Far (1971), and The Dream Millennium (1974) are all maturely written with shared attributes of thoughtfulness and uniqueness- very clever stuff. On the opposite of the coin, there is the dud novel of Lifeboat (1972) which read like an emergency pamphlet on an airplane- dry and informative. Along similar lines, Federation World comes off as dry and informative.

Federation World isn't a fix-up novel but it certainly reads like one.
1) After Martin and Beth have been selected as First Contact specialists and go through their training, they are prepared for their first mission (38 pages).
2) Visiting a bipedal, four-armed race with a master/slave society bent of matters of "hearsay," Martin must decide whether of not to allow the society to continue as is or to instruct the leaders to change course in order to meet demands for Citizenship appraisal (55 pages).
3) Immediately after this intervention, Martin and Beth must appraise the elusive intelligent subterranean life on a vacation-like planet: breezy, bountiful and eerily quite. The xenophobic burrowers have no sight and rely merely upon their heightened sense of touch for communication, subterranean navigation and technology (55 pages).
4) The next 135 pages, or nearly half of the entire novel rest with the contact made on a planet already visited by the Federation. Martin and Beth are to re-assess those who still dwell on the planet three generations after the initial contact, descendants of the once Undesirables. Indeed, what Martin witnesses on the planet is an de-evolution of society from the Undesirables. This race, hard-lining the need to return obligations, teeters on the brink of self-destruction.

While five aliens are on the cover of the novel, only three are covered with the most inventive being the burrowers. The other aliens have their quirks but ultimately don't seem alien enough. They have human ideas, human reflections in their speech and are easy to converse with. I've always had a problem with books which treated translation of alien languages as a simple delineation of logic from a few given words. Ugh, what a crock! Even some Earth languages are difficult to translate to English, and those are both terrestrial! So I hate the way White handles the language with such ease as having the computer translate everything into impeccable yet dearly dry English. The dialogue alone kills any enjoyment of this novel.

One additional factor that capsizes the enjoyment of Federation World is the inclusion of an action lengthener, such as "Wait, we have another problem.." or "Oh, one more thing....". It seems like a cascade of folly for the the hopeless First Contact specialists. Pragmatic and tactful as they are, you wouldn't want to invite them to a dinner party as they'd just drag it out to a ridiculous degree and bore you the entire time.