Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, May 31, 2013

1958: Selected Short Stories (Wells, H.G.)

Storytelling in optimistic industrialism (5/5)

H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1897) was my introduction to both the bibliography of Wells and 19th century science fiction. I felt immersed in the familiar world of southwestern London (a map kindly provided here). While the “fiction” part of the novel was a fantastic story in itself, the non-fictional inclusion to the plot won me over. It was a sensation mix even though I wasn’t personally familiar with the geography of England.

Here in his Selected Short Stories, the non-fictional portions of each story lend an extra sense of earthly-ness, but it doesn’t take precedence over each story as much as The War of the Worlds; rather, in this collection, the steady stream of ideas is what captures the reader’s heart. This captivating aura of each story is assisted by the optimistic vision of industrialism and scientific progress. This sense of positivity and advancement isn’t dulled by the repetitive delivery of each story: storytelling in the most classic sense.

This 1958 publication, with 21 stories, draws stories from a much lengthier collection entitled The Short Stories of H. G. Wells from 1927, containing 63 stories. The stories within date from 1894 to 1921, but most date from pre-1900. Regardless of the century-plus age of these stories… they remain timeless.


The Time Machine (novel, 1895) – 5/5 – The Time Traveler, as he is known to the narrator, constructs a miniature model of a time traveling machine. His skeptical guests ponder upon the displacement of the tested machine, perhaps the victims of a slight of hand or some other tomfoolery. Yet, when the narrator and other guests return to the man’s house for a dinner party, they are met by the same man, yet this time disheveled, bloodied, and with an appetite of a waking bear. Could the glimpsed majestic machine, the “time machine”, actually be the real deal? The story spun by the Time Traveler is very detailed, lending it to credibility if it weren’t for the exotic claims forwarded by the Traveler.

The Time Traveler is optimistic of the progression of Man, so he takes his machine to the far future. During his voyage through time, he witnesses, albeit at a very accelerated rate which blurs past him, an England which builds up and up. Eventually, in the year 802,701 A.D., the Traveler stops his machine at the base of an enigmatic statue surrounded by lush forest and sentinel-like hills. The drastic difference of the reality compared to his expectation doesn’t immediately upset him.

The simple, curious, lithe, and innocent citizens of the surface of earth are friendly yet detached from the sudden appearance of the Time Traveler. He considers the people’s progression from technologically-oriented to one of bucolic harmony-orientation. He’s comfortable with the idyllic lifestyle until the disappearance of his time machine. The Eloi are disinterested in his loss, yet cower at the coming of dusk; the Time Traveler ponders if the dark harbors a manifestation of this fear.

He soon discovers a labyrinth beneath the plush, wooded surface, an underground world shut out from the piercing rays of sunlight and enveloped in a cloak of darkness which the Morlocks call home. These creatures, as human as the Eloi yet more visually regressive to animal form, stalk the meek human on the surface; the Time Traveler’s time in the caverns is limited for good reason, but the presence of throbbing machinery and prandial carnivorousness are an interesting contrast the Eden of the Eloi.

Eventually befriending a svelte, young Eloi for himself, the Time Traveler feels better equipped to explore the more mysterious buildings of the hills, one of which houses an ancient museum. Reliving history through the halls of technology, the Time Traveler feels the pang of nostalgia amid the verdant brush and sun kissed landscape. He becomes determined to find his machine, advance further into the future for a glimpse of things to come, and return to his laboratory to spin his extraordinary yarn. 75 pages


The Lord Ironclads (novelette, 1903) – 4/5 – An artist and war correspondent view a trench war from the side of the simple peasants. Prepared with rifles and howitzers, the army lies in their trenches expecting their enemy to attack from their own trenches; yet large dark figures are witnessed on the enemy’s horizon. Some of these machines advance with lethal intent and accuracy, overpowering the villagers and turning a war into a one-sided slaughter; the headlines will read, “Mankind versus Ironmongery”. 22 pages

The Door in the Wall (shortstory, 1906) – 3/5 – What begins as a childish tale of fantasy and secrets becomes so much more convincing when the storyteller dies under strange circumstances: walking through a door which led nowhere but down. The tale spun relates to a childhood memory of a fantastic garden with playmates and emotional umbrage, all accessed by a door which is invisible to all else. Through the bard’s life, the same door appears but he ignores its draw… so he laments. 17 pages

The Country of the Blind (novelette, 1904) – 5/5 – Ascending an unclimbed peak deep in the Andes mountains, Munez stumbles at night and falls down a series of slopes to softly land on a forested plateau. Below, he discovers a community of blind villagers shut off from the outside world. Reciting his mantra of “In the County of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King”, Munez is frustratingly unable to overpower the perfectly adapted blind villagers. His ability to “see” is symptomatic of insanity, says the village doctor. 24 pages

The Stolen Bacillus (shortstory, 1894) – 4/5 – Showing of his laboratory to an interested admirer of bacteria and science, one bacteriologist throws in a shade of bravado before he realizes that his guest has slipped away with the bravado bacteria itself—cholera! Fleeing in pursuit without hat or slippers, the man hails a cab to chase the thief down, and the bacteriologist’s wife chases her husband with hat and slippers in tow. The visitor accidently breaks the phial and assigns himself to Anarchist martyrdom. 7 pages

The Diamond Maker (shortstory, 1894) – 3/5 – Drained from work and loathe of additional work or entertainment, a man takes a respite to the riverside where another man, of ragged appearance and defeated will, spins a story of diamond making. His dangerous method in his Kentish Town flat runs akin to bomb making, so after two years of growing his prized diamonds, the diamond maker is on the run and desperate to sell his “hot” diamonds, yet £100 is too steep for the tired man. 8 pages

Aepyornis Island (shortstory, 1894) – 4/5 – Butcher had gone to Madagascar to find the remains of an Aepyornis bird. Having been extinct for nearly one thousand years, only the bones and eggs remain in the salty swamps of the northern delta. He’s able to retrieve three eggs but a series of unfortunate events leaves him with one egg, alone, and on a nearly deserted isle. For two years, the bird kept him company and grew to fourteen feet; but back home, he expects compensation for his duty. 12 pages

The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes (shortstory, 1895) – 3/5 – In a freak laboratory accident, Davidson lost his sense of vision; however, his vision was replaced by that of the sight of another man on a ship and, later, on an island. Davidson’s other senses were grounded in the reality of Harrow Technical College, but eventually the divergent sensory input lapses back to his normal vision in patchy foci. His experience in remote viewing is bolstered by a visiting sea captain. 10 pages

The Lord of the Dynamos (shortstory, 1894) – 5/5 – The Camberwell dynamo station is run by the slightly sadistic, borderline belligerent man James Holroyd and his noble savage Azuma-zi. The hum and throb of the dynamo offers a stark contrast to the idle Buddha statues of Rangoon, so the savage whispers to the Dynamo, asking for signs and begging for omens. His sacrifice to the Dynamo God is the life of James, a crime which his superiors attribute to suicide. 9 pages

The Plattner Story (shortstory, 1896) – 2/5 – A greenish powder from a local kiln is tested under amateur scientific experimentation by the Modern Languages Master of a small private school in the south of England. The resulting explosion leaves no trace of the man for nine days until he unexpectedly drops upon the school’s principal. Mr. Plattner, the Language Master, tells a bizarre tale of experiencing a reverse polarity world and has, since his return, had his body laterally reversed. 19 pages

The Argonauts of the Air (shortstory, 1895) – 3/5 – Monson’s Flying Machine has been under construction for five years and though its namesake suggests it actually flies, in reality the massive construction project is still amid its metallic scaffolding. Tourists take the train through the project, gawking at its grandeur while journalists mock the once multimillionaire and his grounded money pit. Sick of the bad press and desperate for success while so close to being broke, he finally sets flight. 12 pages

In the Abyss (shortstory, 1896) – 3/5 – Five miles above the floor of the Atlantic Ocean rests the exploration ship Ptarmigan, her crew, a nine-foot iron sphere and its passenger to the deep—Elstead. While the crew debate the sphere’s safety, Elstead is confident of his design and so descends to the unknown depths with only one last resort for escape—up. His tardy return to the surface is accompanied by Elstead’s amazing tale. 16 pages

Under the Knife (shortstory, 1896) – 5/5 – Morose as to his coming surgery, an emotionally despondent man rationalizes his detachment and hypothesizes about the attendance of his funeral; the low projection has no input on his psyche. At his surgery while under the anesthetic of chloroform, the man feels his body detach from his ascending extra-corporeal self. His physical death is superseded by his ascension into the vacuous heavens, where the universe’s reality isn’t what it seems. 13 pages

The Sea Raiders (shortstory, 1896) – 3/5 – The Haploteuthis ferox species of octopus reigns the deep sea where it battles whales yet is ignorant of humanity’s presence on the ocean’s shores… until the day they swarm offshore of Sidmouth, taking the life of a youth and whetting their appetite for human flesh. Mr. Jennings is the man who is beset by the advancing creatures yet escapes, sounds the alarm, and rallies a counterattack. 10 pages

The Cone (shortstory, 1895) – 3/5 – Raut is a man impressed with the effect of nature on man, how the moon shines, and how vibrant the viridity of the trees is; Horrocks, however, is an industrialist who finds beauty in man’s own creations: steel mills, iron forges, and steam trains. Raut is expecting Horrocks to show him the beauty which has escaped him thus far. Horrocsk expects the tour to go smoothly, but doesn’t expect Raut of perusing a personal agenda. 11 pages

The Purple Pileus (shortstory, 1896) – 4/5 – Mr. Coombes is a man of virtue and tradition with a timed fuse for those who counter his ways. Able to calm his previous grudges against his wife and her parasitic friends for years, one monumental night he verbally lashes out at them and storms out of his own house and into the forest. Unnerved into despair, he seeks forms of suicide, the most agreeable of which being the consumption of a mushroom patch. Rather than death, his spirits are lifted. 11 pages

The Grisly Folk (essay, 1921) – 3/5 – Mankind’s ascension to dominance on earth wasn’t without its epoch of struggle. A handful of sub-human races posed a threat to mankind’s existence, so they were systematically killed to make way for the expansion of man’s generational lineage, ideal, and customs. The flints of the technological progress of man and the other vanquished races stand testament to the size, importance, and struggle of the early diaspora. 14 pages

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (shortstory, 1898) – 5/5 – An argumentatively assertive man, yet innocuous in most ways, is debating the inexistence of so-called miracles. Hypothesizing the impossibility of a lantern burning upside down, the very lantern flips and burns as normal, much to everyone’s amazement. Fortheringay tests his new miraculous prowess by having candles, diamonds, and fishbowls materialize. Consulting the chaplain Mr. Maydig, the two test his powers on the worldly scale. 17 pages

The Truth About Pyecraft (shortstory, 1903) – 5/5 – Formalyn’s great-grandmother was of pure South Indian stock and bequeathed an array of odd potions for various ailments and magic. When Formalyn enters the smoking room of a club, an obese man instantly attaches to him, cajoling him into plying his secret elixir to cure his weight problem. Working through the proper translation of the correct potion, Pyecraft hunts down the ingredients but berates Formalyn for the unexpected success and consequences. 21 pages

Jimmy Goggles the God (shortstory, 1898) – 4/5 – A man dons his masked and weighted diving suit, which the three-man crew man have dubbed Jimmy Goggles. Submerged off a Papuan island looking for gold treasure in a shipwreck, the man sees his two crewmen sink to the ocean floor with spears through their bodies. His only path of escape is walking up the seabed’s incline to the nearest island, where the sight of his mechanical diving suit causes the savages to prostrate before him. His four months of godliness end with a missionary. 21 pages

The New Accelerator (shortstory, 1901) – 4/5 – Professor Gibberne is a wonder with pharmaceutical alchemy and he hopes to produce an accelerant for the whole body rather than one that only affects one or two systems. His end product is an accelerant for the human body that amplifies all sensations by 1,000-fold. Unhappy with being limited to the home, the professor and his friend take to the streets to observe life in slow motion—bees, an orchestra, a cyclist, and the neighbor’s infernally yapping dog. 14 pages

Monday, May 27, 2013

2013: The Serene Invasion (Brown, Eric)

Probing the human emotions of doubt and forgiveness (4/5)

Aside from Eric Brown, I can’t name any respectable modern authors who can push out two novels a year. John Brunner was prolific in the 1960s and 1970s, Greg Bear had two novels published in 1985, and Joe Haldeman had two novels publish in 1983. But since this time, I can’t point to any respectable author which has a consistent turnout of two novels per year. If you disregard the adjective “respectable”, one could include Kevin J. Anderson in this affair, but his inclusion is any list besides “Authors I Avoid” is a dubious distinction (averaging 3.54 novels per year since 2000). 

Eric Brown, however, has produced two novels in one year on four occasions: Penumbra and Walkabout (1999), New York Dreams and Bengal Station (2004), Xenopath and Necropath (2009), and The Devil’s Nebula and Helix Wars (2012).
Here in 2013, Eric Brown is again publishing two new novels; on May ninth he released a stand-alone featured here, The Serene Invasion, and on July thirtieth he’ll release Satan’s Reach, a sequel to The Devil’s Nebula. While he matches the quantitative definition of success, Brown has been letting me down on the qualitative side. He is a cauldron of ideas akin to Brian Aldiss or John Brunner, but his books tend to be more longer yet more mediocre. But with the drought of decent new novels published every year (eons of pain waiting for Banks, Reynolds, and Hamilton, mainly), I look to Eric Brown for a spritz of modern sci-fi. Thankfully, The Serene Invasion delivers, albeit after a bumpy ride.

Rear cover synopsis:
“In 2025, the Serene arrive from Delta Pavonis V, and change mankind’s destiny forever. The gentle aliens bring peace to an ailing world—a world riven by war, terrorism and poverty, by rising conflicts over natural resources—and offer an end to need and violence. But not everyone supports the seemingly benign invasion. There are those who benefit from conflict, who cherish chaos, and they will stop at nothing to bring back the old days.

When Sally Walsh is kidnapped by terrorists and threatened with death, it seems that only a miracle can save her life. Geoff Allen, photojournalist, is contacted by the Serene and offered the opportunity to work with the aliens in their mission. For Sally, Geoff, and billions of other citizens of Earth, nothing will ever be the same again…”


In northern desert plains of Uganda, Sally Walsh is a doctor on a humanitarian mission healing the ill of the impoverished region, but much of her disheartening work is caring for the dead rather than the recovering. Contemplating an early retirement after five years, Sally is kidnapped with her colleague by extremists from the Sudanese border. If she and Ben can survive the ordeal through common sense, Sally is assured of her retirement, but the radical ideas of the extremists have one mission: the beheading of the infidels. Ben’s head is literally on the chopping block and a gun is pointed at Sally, but the impulse to kill either is vanquished by, what seems at the time to be, a miracle.

Geoff Allen is aboard a flight from London to Entebbe to see Sally while on a photojournalism jaunt to capture images of elephants in the wild. He’s abruptly stricken with a sense of time lag, followed by a hallucination of being laid out, examined, implanted with a device in his skull, and told “Do not be afraid” (53). Surfacing from his torpid state, Geoff realizes that he alone experienced  the time lag, yet far below the plane on the African desert are enigmatic domes. Common sense suggests blaming the Chinese.

All around the world, the urge to commit acts of violence with met with a sudden lapse in muscle control; wars cease, hate crimes halt, and even suicides stutter to an unfulfilled desire. Suddenly at 11:31 GMT, Eight starships appear in the skies of earth, silent in their spectacle and mysterious in their silence. Their point of convergence seems to be an isolated region on the deserts of Mali; ground zero is an arid wasteland with no significance to the human race. The ships join in a massive snowflake-shaped ensemble and send an intense beam downwards to the desert, from which springs an oasis of flora and fauna unknown since the myth of Eden.

Soon, Geoff Allen and 9,999 others like him congregate at the request of the peaceful invaders. The aliens from Delta Pavonis V, representatives of a scare but benevolent race called the S’rene, have a message for the selected few of earth, chosen for their humanity and empathy:

We are intervening here on Earth because your race has, in the past few hundred years since what you term your industrial revolution, grown exponentially, a growth fuelled by a fatal combination of political greed and lack of foresight. What is even more tragic in your situation is that many of you—both on an individual level and on that of institutions—know very well what needs to be done in order to prevent a global catastrophe, but cannot enact change for the better because power and vested interest rest in the hands of the few ….No shame should accrue in light of these facts; no individual is really at fault. The process was vastly complex and incremental, a slow-motion, snowballing suicide impossible to stop. A hundred, thousand races across the face of the galaxy have perished in this way, before we had the wherewithal to step in and correct the aberrant ways of emerging races. (161-162)

“The galaxy teems with life, with civilizations, a concordance rich beyond your imagination” (139) yet not everyone on Earth is especially happy with the inescapable non-violence—mainly the makers of arms, the war machines, and, above all, James Morwell Jnr., owner the American corporate entity of Morwell Enterprises. In addition to the complete cessation of arms sales and the resulting dive in his company’s stock, James is also unable to partake in his form of pleasure: masochism. For this, he damns the passive aliens and establishes a digital community of directed distrust of the S’rene. Coddling James’ hatred for the Serene are the opponent alien species, the domineering Obterek, who contact James and supply him with five devices which enable them to “read” the minds of any human Serene representative they can find; however, the representatives are not easily tracked and the Serene are not easily defeated. The two races have been at odds for millennia and each knows the other’s weaknesses.

The representatives of the Serene describe themselves as “self-aware entities” and are “living, biological beings, self-aware, individual, conscious” (171) but grown and programmed with the interests of the Serene, their mentor race and benevolent saviors. The honor of meeting a living Serene is a rare occurrence as they are spread across the many light-years and none are found in Earth’s realm. Their projects for the human race include terraforming Mars and Venus, yet at the edge of the solar system, an aberration in the occlusion of some stars causes concern for astronomers and the pessimists.

By 2035, the people have Earth have grown use to the munificent offerings of the S’rene; kilometer tall towers of habitation spire above urban landscapes, oases of paradise dot the most desolate regions of terrain, and the aliens maintain they have “the best interests of the human race at heart” (475). The 10,000 or so human representatives, less now because serving the interests of the Serene is always an option, are subsumed for two days per month on mysterious duties related to the Serene Invasion. With no memory of their two-day duty, speculation of the Serene’s greater intentions is at the top of some representatives’ minds while others exalt the invader’s benevolence and ignore any doubts.

Eventually, the Obterek are able to penetrate the quantum-state of the Serene’s non-violence sphere around Earth, resulting in an outright assault by the neon blue bipedal figures of the Obterek and dozens of human victims. Yet, the golden hued translucent bodies of the “self-aware entities” to the scene, entomb the human victims within themselves, and heal them in the giant ebon obelisks which tower above every major city. At the same time, the Serene also penetrate the bodies of their militaristic opponents, stopping the carnage and saving every human life at the scene.

Even in 2045, with twenty years of serenity on Earth, the peacefulness has spread to the colonies of Mars, moons, and asteroids. Humanity expands and flourishes under matriarchal supervision, but the Obterek are not without their ploys to subvert the progress. Dreams of human utopia seem to be realized with nations dissolving, selfish interests waning, and self-righteous exfoliating from the human ego:

They worked together increasingly without the boundaries of nations to impede progress with concerns of petty national interest, freed from the malign influence of multinational business corporations. Religions had mellowed even the more radial sects of Christianity and Islam which in the past had threatened head-to-head conflict; millions still believed, but without the self-righteous fervor of old. New cults had sprung up, many with the Serene at their core. Of the old faiths, Buddhism was increasing in popularity, as citizens drew parallels between the ways of the Serene and the philosophy of Siddhartha Gautama. (459-460)

Still, the humans, and the 10,000-odd representatives among, question whether the Serene have any ulterior motives and whether the Obterek represent a legitimate opposition to the efforts of the Serene. Perhaps humanity isn’t destined to populate the galaxy, their local stars, or even their home system.


I was chary of the effectiveness of novel’s theme: aliens come to Earth and save humanity from their human nature. The caginess validated itself in the first 300-400 pages of the novel where various predictable elements manifested themselves: an unforeseen alien adversary (Obterek) and a skeptical human with the power to influence others (James). Surely, these two forces would join to attempt a disestablishment of the Serene presence, somehow parry the quantum-state non-violence enforcement, and ultimately allow for the Obterek to “supplant the Serene” (435).

Then the last 100 pages started to expand on the efforts of the Serene to establish humanity amid their solar system with colonization of numerous celestial bodies. The 20-30 years of serenity had failed to produce a single human-on-human act of violence; therefore, their initial intention of creating a non-violent humanity had been successful and who are the puny humans to question the “authority” of a non-violence which their own religions stipulate in their respective texts. Eventually, the habit of tranquility mutes any sensation of contempt or ungratefulness; allow the humans a period of adjustment and the consistency of habit and they’ll follow you anywhere. The Serene read the humans perfectly… after all, they had over a hundred years with which to observe us in situ.

But Serene Invasion isn’t about creating a human utopia or peopling the orbiting bodies of sol; Serene Invasion is about acceptance and forgiveness. Over time, Sally is able to forgive her captor; Ana, an Indian woman and part of the human representative body, is able to forgive her brother’s desertion; and again, Sally is able to forgive the subterfuge which her friend Kath has led her through for most of her life. These characters accept, forgive, progress, and succeed while adjusting to all scenarios. Then there’s James who doesn’t forgive his abusive father, doesn’t forgive the Serene for disallowing him to commit suicide, and doesn’t forgive his assistant for treachery and abandonment. Predictably yet suitably, his fate isn’t as glamorous or glorious as the those with peace of mind. While the aliens are able to enforce a physical peace in society’s eye, it’s up to the individual human to achieve peace of mind.

Serene’s blanket non-violence isn’t without its controversy, however. James takes it upon himself to somehow undermine the quantum-state aura of non-violence so that he may achieve a small victory against the Serene: violence against self, the death of self through suicide. The Serene deprive humanity of this last grip of self-control, the control of one’s fate at one’s own hand. James takes his idea to the extreme: isolating himself asea with no provisions, walking in the Amazon without heed to heat, thirst, hunger or danger, and free soloing a rock edifice with a gun in hand (this method abusing the Serene’s intervention of “spasming” when committing violence). But the omniscience of the serene invaders quash his attempts and fuel his commitment to their defeat.


Serene Invasion, regardless of its utopian aim and predictable elements of confrontation, comes out extolling positive human virtues and shining optimism in parallel to Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth (2012). The novel exhibits the common, yet typically suppressed, human emotions of forgiveness and virtue over those more flamboyant and cynical kneejerk reactions of pessimism, suspicion, and illogical obduracy. The Serene’s blanket issue of non-violence isn’t without flaw; while the Obterek orate the of the Serene using the humans to spread “their own unnatural edicts, their own perverted ideals” (435), humanity must take what it can get, take the lesser of two evils: possible self-destruction through mankind’s own during or guided like a child to an earthly utopian diaspora, albeit without control over one’s own life, suicide or not.

Serene Invasion doesn’t ooze as much emotion as The Fall of Tartarus (2005), but it does give the reader more room for reflection upon the standards by which we judge benevolence, generosity, self-directed volition of self and society, and, most importantly, of doubting the hand that feeds you:

There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills. --- Siddhartha Gautama

Monday, May 20, 2013

1987: The Architects of Hyperspace (McDonough, Thomas R.)

How NOT to write a sci-fi novel (1/5)

There used to be one well-placed second-hand bookstore in Bangkok which had a rather poor selection of books, and pricey ones at that. But, one goes to second-hand bookstores for the sight of the thousands of books and the unique musty smell which hangs in the air. Before the store started to sell solely second-hand Japanese books, I poked my head in and couldn’t resist buying at least one book. That purchase became Thomas R. McDonough’s The Architects of Hyperspace. I must have been inebriated. Oh, dear.

McDonough has made two forays into novel-length science fiction, with The Architects of Hyperspace being his awkward first time. This was published once back in 1987 in paperback. The end… almost, because it was “back in print” in 2000 by the author’s fancy through some sort of self-publication website. Fast forward to 1992 and McDonough offers his sophomore novel, The Missing Matter, which becomes book #3 of the quadrilogy of The Next Wave. Supposedly, these books saw the light of day.

Rear cover synopsis:
“In a battered starship manned by two rugged adventurers, Ariadne Zepos heads for the alien world where her father perished twenty years before. Determined to unravel the mystery of his last message, she charts a dangerous course, unaware of intergalactic pirates bent on subverting her mission. To survive, she will have to conquer a world of unfathomable complexity constructed by a long-vanished race around a neutron star. Seductively beautiful, yet brimming with deadly traps, it holds the secret Ariadne seeks—one that will lead her to a far greater mystery.”


Having lost her father 20 years prior, Ariadne Zepos maintains that he died on a space mission and never heard from again. The pang of the early-childhood loss follows her through life until the day when a message is received from deep space. The message, sent from 20 light-years out, is intended for Ariadne’s audience. The shock of learning of her father’s true fate fills her with a hope for revisiting the circumstances of his mysterious disappearance, but there are minions of repression behind every move she makes.

Stefan is one man on Earth whom she thinks she can rely on, what with his job in the Ministry of Culture. However, he manipulates the amount of red tape needed to secure a starship and suppresses Ariadne’s urgent need of discovery. Ariadne has know-how and know-who limitations, but she still manages to find her way off of Earth, yet Stefan’s crony Wolf is close on her tail.

Once in the asteroid belt, she contacts the once person who her father said she could definitely rely on, the roider named Sean O’Shaughnessy. Sean and his posh English partner in petty space crime, Plum, are hesitant to equip themselves for a 20 light-year mission by a simple whim of Ariadne. Like Ariadne, their resources are limited and the whole idea of an adventure into the unknown unnerves them. Soon, the verbal recriminations of Wolf urge them to leave the asteroids at all cost, a pressure backed by Wolf’s booby traps on their spacecraft. With the physical booby trap disabled, the trio—Ariadne, Sean, and Plum—engage their hyperdrive to the required distance, only to return to normspace around a dangerous white dwarf. They realize Wolf tampered with their computer and Sean must pull them out of certain death if Ariadne is to further delve into her father’s disappearance.

Safe once again and away from the star’s well of gravity, the ship re-enters the 65th dimension of hyperspace to the exact coordinates of the message’s source point. There they find a massive system of tubular rings which surround a neutron star, a physical feat which the humans find impossible yet their very eyes stand witness to the architectural wonder. With each successive ring spinning faster and faster, the ship is only able to dock with the outermost ring. There, they find her father’s ship with his insightful data, maps, and suggestions… but Stefan’s ship also occupies the docking bay. The treacherous “friend” of Ariadne has beat them to it. The trio are more concerned with the perils of the rings rather than the intentions of their human rivals.

The thousand-year-old relic of a vanished species is full of enticing mysteries, but these same obscure functions within each ring also present unforeseen dangers to the explorers. With the accurate data provided by her father, Ariadne leads the two men further into the depths of the rings. There, they eventually meet Stefan and his crew held captive behind an invisible field. The ingenuity of the Sean reaps the reward of domination over the treacherous crew at the cost of their freedom; the uneasiness which penetrates the new group is occasionally broken by the illustrious words of the journobot, an entity which captures the moment through an objective sense of duty, yet leaning in favor towards the brave yet disloyal actions of Stefan.

Through mechanical monstrosities and wily wildlife, the group get cut down by a number of unexpected deaths by the rings’ many perils until they reach Ring 512, the terminal ring which is closest to the neutron star. The floor of the ring orbits just above the surface of the star and offers an amazing view though the starquakes upset the stability of their foothold. Descending into the corridor, Ariadne discovers her father’s final message, one which imbues her hesitant dread. Regardless, the growing relationship between the stereotypical Irishman, Sean, and the puritan goodie two-shoes, Ariadne, spur them to take the final step into solving the mystery of her father, the mystery of the rings, and the mystery of the vanished race which constructed them.


A preposterous quote from Charles Sheffield, on the very cover of the novel, states that Thomas R. McDononough is the “Jules Verne of the ‘80s!” Poppycock. While both Verne and McDonough may be adventure writers and proponents of science, Verne instills a sense of naïve wonder, limitlessness, and a love for the journey rather than the destination; McDonough, on the other hand, pushes and pushes for the destination and loses himself along the way, forgetting to metaphorically smell the roses. Any sort of originality which springs up is dulled by the ham-fisted fits of so-called humor and a preoccupation to inject prefixes to make the novel more sci-fi-ish.

I never understood the motivation of the characters to stay put in the gigantic alien relic, home to unknown dangers and organisms, rather than return to Earth to report their findings. They keep sinking deeper into the structure without heed to a proper human exploration. It’s frustrating to see Plum, the intelligent English gent, say, “There are too many tantalizing mysteries here for us to just abandon it when everything’s going so well” (146). I understand Ariadne’s desire to solve her father’s disappearance, but the weighty significance of the relic to humankind’s progress overshadows any selfish intention which they had as precursor to the adventure.

McDonough must have had fun writing this novel, throwing caution to the wind and chucking in everything he thought that would make a good novel: cheesy humor, scientific lingo, guns and booze, eccentric robot, and a computer which takes no responsible for its actions. Some of the passages are so stereotypically geeky that they make me cringe: “Evidently it is some microscopic or submicroscopic nonlinear ultrasonic vibration, as was surmised” (124). Justifying a technology through scientific wordiness? Very, very amateur.

Another amateurish stab at making the novel more user-friendly (?) is McDonough’s prefix- and suffix-ophilia. Nearly every page has some sort of word which has a lame, obvious prefix/suffix attached to it. Whether tounge-in-cheek or born from ignorance, McDonough even writes a line for Ariadne saying, “One can’t simply go around breaking English words in two and sticking pieces together at random” (175). For ease of annoyance, I have provided five categories for the prefixed/suffixed words along with an additional miscellaneous category, and ask yourself, “Do these words improve my reading experience?”:

Cryo: cryocat, cryorock, cryosuit
Roid: roidbucks, roidcycle, roidminer, roidscum
Quanta: quantarifle, quantagun, quantavision, quantabeam, quantaray
Robot: janitrobot, doctrobot, journobot, forestrobot, mechrobot
Vizi/View: viziphone, viziscope, viewcrystal, viewscreen
Miscellaneous: microgun,episuit, kelparette, sleepill, ultracutter, cryscamera, hypergenerator, hibergas, profuter, geobucks, textcrystals, metastable superatoms

Two last eye-rolling inclusions which McDonough must have thought important to the development of the novel are the noxious mild oaths (reminiscent of Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia [1975] mild oath of “Hot buttered moonbeam!”). McDonough likes to use “taxing” as one oath which reflects the asteroid miners' dislike for Earth’s bureaucracy, “moon dust” is also popular when describing something as worthless and plentiful, and there is religiously affiliated homage to Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger. All of these are odd eccentricities of McDonough’s which do not enrich the narrative experience the least bit; if anything, they are just silly and distracting rather than original and substantial.

After 260 pages, the novel ends in a predictive manner when opposites attract: the puritan Ariadne hooks up with borderline-hedonistic Sean to explore what lies beyond the endpoint of the system of rings around the neutron star. Within that door is the conclusion to their search, and while the unlikely-yet-predictable duo is gag-worthy, what they find is pretty interesting, ties up things nicely, and has larger implications. Aside from the non-dynamic duo, the book ends on a high note which McDonough suffocates with 5 pages of afterword. Damn.


This is a great example of “How Not to Write a Science Fiction Novel” and should be required-reading for anyone wishing to write science fiction: your idiosyncratic additions to the pages are just that—personal adornment—; don’t fall victim to stereotypes and do not, please do not, make opposites attract; don’t make the story more scientific than it needs to be, whether that includes real science or pseudoscience prefixes; and don’t fluff yourself to be the stylistic heir of a great author when in reality you’re a fledgling hack.