Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, July 25, 2013

1973: The Best of John Wyndham (Wyndham, John)

Mere curiosities mar decent human introspection (3/5)

I remember reading Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) three years ago and finding an unsettled balance between cheekiness and seriousness. Perhaps the curious sensation of mistaking an honest attempt or horror and science for comedy and slapstick, and vice versa, is a symptom of the ages; some science fiction from bygone years have a similar feel: florid and friendly Venus, flying through the air causes clothes to burn or manifested and monstrous mutations caused The Bomb, to name a few. With The Day of the Triffids, I felt teetered upon the same fulcrum—should I take this seriously or casually? In the end, due to the rather horrific elements and struggle for survival, I found purchase with the serious side of The Day of the Triffids. Even when reading his short story collection here, I sometimes find it hard to choose between Wyndham humorously miming reality or heuristicly mimicking reality.

The Best of John Wyndham (1973), first published by Sphere with 318 pages, was later released by the same publisher in two parts: first in 1975 with The Best of John Wyndham 1932-1949 with 170 pages and later in 1977 with The Best of John Wyndham 1951-1960 with 159 pages. My copy, however, is a pirated EPUB edition with 210 “pages”. I generally condone downloading books because new books feel so good and old books smell so nice… but I’m ravenous for short story collections as my library is nearly bare of single-author collections. This John Wyndham collection fit its niche, but I no less intend to purchase a physical copy of it to line my 500+ book shelves.


The Lost Machine (1932, novelette) – 5/5 – Stranded on the planet Earth, a Martian scout robot unwillingly examines the rustic life of the circus and the simple lives of the villagers. Too smart for its own good, the robot, Zat, seeks out some form of intelligence to relay his story.

The Man from Beyond (1934, novelette) – 4/5 – Venusians gawk at the flora and fauna of its long history thanks to a natural gas which suspends all animation. One odd exhibit features a caged biped from the third planet. His attempts at communication reveal a troubled past with two of Earth’s biggest corporations, which is actually an old matter.

The Perfect Creature (1937, novelette) – 3/5 – In Membury, the Society for the Suppression of the Maltreatment of Animals gets a call regarding two odd turtle-like creatures in the town’s center. Their investigation leads them to the plush mansion of Doctor Dixon. The Doctor’s most recent experiment of artificial life wreaks his home and chases his guests.

The Trojan Beam (1939, novelette) – 3/5 – George is a double agent acting as a spy between the Chinese and Japanese armies in the future war of 1965. The Chinese have developed a magnetic beam which easily defeats the Japanese, but the Chinese emperor willingly divulges the information to the spy for his own ends, which George can’t fathom.

Vengeance by Proxy (1940, shortstory) – 3/5 – A number of telegraph, post, and telephone communications outline a curious incident just outside of Belgrade in which an injured man in the middle of a snowy road seems to transfer his personality to the Englishwoman named Elaine. The doctors in the correspondence debate personality transfers.

Adaptation (1949, shortstory) – 3/5 – The conditions of Mars barely suit the colonists. After eighteen years, Dr. Forbes treats the psyche of Franklyn whose wife Annie and daughter Janessa had gone missing some years ago. Meanwhile, Janessa complains of her difference from others and soon plans an unscheduled trip back to Earth.

Pawley’s Peepholes (1951, shortstory) – 4/5 – Disembodied limbs begin to appear in ceilings, walls and even in the streets but only to suddenly disappear without a trace. Leaning towards a logical explanation, Jerry and Jimmy bat around ideas but only the truth is stranger than their own—soon platforms cycle through town, as worrisome as they as spectral.

The Red Stuff (1951, shortstory) – 2/5 – Clarke Lunar Station is soon to be quarantined. The ships Annabelle and Circe fly out to the asteroid belt to respond to a curious incident involving a red rock and some red jelly-like substance. The jelly attacks their hull yet they’re still able to scamper back to the unsuspecting moonbase.

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1951, shortstory) – 4/5 – Ignorant of the humans’ ways, a colony of transparent silicate aliens meet hostile resistance in their approach but find respite in the vacant expanse of a desert. There, they try to understand Earthly ways while behind their glass dome. From cars to guns to microphones, the aliens are dumbstruck at the humans’ complexity and frequencies.

Dumb Martian (1952, novelette) – 3/5 – With five years of solitude expected while on a mood of Jupiter, Duncan splashes £2,360 for a Martian bride to bide his time with. However, her dimwittedness and despondent stare aggravates him soon after landing. A visiting geologist teaches Lellie, the Martian, to read and she soon voraciously digests the library, to Duncan’s displeasure.

Close Behind Him (1953, shortstory) – 2/5 – Spotty and Smudger burgle a house with curious, ornate fixtures and make off with an impressive loot, yet six feet behind their car are trailing footprints. Unable to rid himself of the prints through various at misleading the footsteps, Smudger grudgingly awaits the approaching footsteps as they draw nearer to his heel day by day.

The Emptiness of Space (1960, shortstory) – 3/5 – David’s on leave from being a spacepilot and spending his quiet time on Lahua in the Pacific. There, he meets George who has a defeated demeanor and soulless outlook. The locals fill in the gaps of George’s story, but David connects the dots of why such a young man is able to have a granddaughter.


The two best stories in the lot are “The Lost Machine” and “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down”, both of which feature an alien intelligence trying to understand the backwater ways of the common Earthling. I’m a sucker for this kind of story, so my bias shows. It’s rare this—a subjectively alien perspective on common things including dogs, cars, speaking and limbs. It’s fun to get into the mind of an alien and witness ourselves as the alien.

Three other stories are memorable: (a) “The Man From Beyond” is a borderline sarcastic/serious look at corporate competition and alien zoology, (b) “The Trojan Beam” is a straight shooter about tactics in war and the cleverness of those who create first, and (c) “Pawley’s Peepholes” is an obviously silly story where time travelers are able to be seen but not heard or interacted with. The rest of the stories either have a predictable plot course and ending (“Adaptation”), a gimmick which is tiresome or non-sci-fi (“Close Behind Him”) or simply a plot which falls dud at your feet (“The Red Stuff”).


I doubt this is the “best” of John Wyndham’s collection from 1931 to 1960. Wyndham as about eight other collections which feature selections of his shortstories, novelettes, and novellas, from 1954’s Jizzle to 1979’s Exiles on Asperus. Regardless of which collection you pick up, all stories will have been published between 1931 and 1968, a short career for an author with glimpses of genuine talent.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

1969: Timescoop (Brunner, John)

Brunner serves up spoonfuls of sugar and silliness (4/5)

Though I’ve read twenty-three Brunner books, I can only recall one where he showed his light-hearted side: The Productions of Time (1967). With seven Brunner novels still unread on my shelves, I was hesitant to draw Timescoop rather than The Day of the Star Cities (1965), Stardroppers (1963) or even The Tides of Time (1984). I naturally have an inclination towards Brunner’s more emotive novels, but discovering new facets to Brunner is always a pleasure.

However, the tagline on the cover is misleading: “He summoned the monsters of the past to help him rule the world.” The monsters are actually a selection of one man’s relatives from the last thousand years and, rather than rule the world, he just wants to hold a family reunion for publicity. Even the rear cover synopsis mars the book’s actual plot.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Frietas [sic], master of a vast world-wide commercial empire, had commissioned his engineers to build him a device that could ransack the past.

All the riches of the ages would be his for the taking but riches alone were not what Freitas craved. He longed for supreme power—and from the Pandora’s box of the past he picked out the cunning men and women who could help him achieve absolute mastery over his rivals.

He had not counted on opposition but there was a major frightening flaw in his scheme—the power these human monsters from the centuries past would have over him—the reign of terror was about to begin.”


Harold Freitas had unwilling assumed control of his grandfather’s company after his untimely death in space accident. Now in control of one of only two major companies specializing in the lucrative trade of space freight, Harold funnels profits into a pet project: the Timescoop. With the proper coordinates, this machine can transport a copy of an original artifact such as a painting—da Vinci’s Mona Lisa—or a sculpture—Praxiteles’ Hermes. However, the artifacts are copies of the original and therefore in a like-new condition without the wear and tear, corrosion or aging. For their attempt, the copies are just that—reproductions.

If Harold could copy static piece of history, why not animated pieces of history? He realizes that this machine could make him lots of money from curious academics, but he needs to promote the abilities of this machine in a spectacular manner. Thinking of his competitor’s previous family reunion stunt, bringing together all the living Schatzenheims, Harold begins to masterminds his own thousand-year family reunion with the assistance SPARCI (Self-programming Automatic Rapid Computer and Integrator) and the genealogist Mr. Flannagan. Thinking that Harold was simply trying to trace his lineage with enthusiasm, Mr. Flannagan paints a rosy, inaccurate picture of the decency of Harold’s family reaching back all the way to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Harold ignores the inquisitive remarks of his friends and family, shrugging off their concerns and questions while he busily prepares his grand reunion after New Years on an inflatable platform suspended above the Grand Canyon. Eventually, nine individuals are selected and temporally transported to the year 2065 where they convalesce in a sedative sleep. Their diseases are cured and their lice destroyed prior to unleashing them under the eye of the public at large, but first their misaligned manners must be tamed and their modern English skills improved. Little did Harold realize that manners and language were the least of his worries because their quirky habits soon become the thorn in his side, the thorn which his friends and family had been warning him about.

(1) Sprung from the Battle of Hastings, Sieur Bohun de Freitas is a repugnant barbarian whose people skills are only worsened by his table manners.

(2) With a Crusader mindset, Sir Godwin de Freitas-Molyneux is a monomaniacal zealot on a warpath to destroy all Mohammedans.

(3) A celebrated composer and church choir leader, Reginald de Freitas, Earl of Winchelsea and Poitenne, actually cares nothing about music and favors the delights of young boys and married women.

(4) Edgar Freitas is a young man of 18 years of age with cherubic charm impressing the ladies yet his chivalry keeps his pants on.

(5) Least adaptable about being transported to the year 2066 is Reverend Ebenezar Freitas who considers all things of demonic possession, a quirk which traces back to the Salem witch trials where he executed his own wife and daughter while under the influence of mass hysteria.

(6) The rowdy cowboy named Buffalo Hank Freitas is a manipulating trader with Injuns, habitual gambler, and pornographic purveyor whose six-shooter rarely leaves his side.

(7) Joshua Freitas is, seemingly, a wealthy sugar trader and worthwhile gentleman in all regards, aside from his dark history of trading African slaves to the Caribbean; his reckless disregard for modern racial equality gets him killed by Harold’s assistant, Chester.

(8) The sympathetic spirit of Tabitha Freitas once housed Civil War soldiers in her country, but only because she’s a nymphomaniac, a habit which isn’t quenched when being transported 200 years in the future.

(9) Horatio Freitas seems harmless enough being an old politician, but his delusion of being sought after by assassins highlights his paranoia as he questions everything as if his life hangs by a worn thread.

Beyond the cahoots of the dinner party, Harold’s plight of familial reunion transfers to his assistant’s plight of being charged with the murder of Joshua Freitas. His assistant, Chester, is of African descent and simply cannot tolerate Joshua’s unreserved bigotry. Freitas rival, the Schatzenheims, actually carefully orchestrates the seeming act of rage and murder. Chester is arrested and brought to trial in order to be judged by the court’s coldly logical judicial computer. However, not every is cut in dry with this bizarre case of murder.


This book pretty much stands on its own; come for the humor and awkward situation, don’t expect anything earth shattering. Brunner pens a nice, tidy story with a foundation of ludicrousness and paradoxes. The inculpable Freitas is flabbergasted at the ghastliness of his ancestors and struggles to cope with their quirks on personal and social levels. The antics each express in public is cause for Freitas’ own embarrassment and soon becomes a source of humor for his rival Schatzenheim AND the reader. If the steady stream of familial clumsiness doesn’t strike your funny bone, then the dementedly straight-forward conclusion you can at least smirk at and give an appreciable nod to Brunner for his cleverness.


If a humor-fix is what you need and you’d like to probe the depths of Brunner’s unique talent, I suggest Timescoop, The Productions of Time, and his collection Time-Jump (1973), the last of which I haven’t had the pleasure of reading yet. By their titles alone, these three books are an obvious indicator that the theme of time can be explored in many varieties by Brunner’s endless intelligence, playfulness, and wit. The bonus for Timescoop is its brevity, which is short enough to read in one or two days.—very easy to swallow with its copious spoonfuls of sugar-coated jabs of humor.

Friday, July 12, 2013

1975: Orbitsville (Shaw, Bob)

Stale characters amid a wonder made urbane (2/5)

I’ve read three Shaw books already and, as Joachim has said, he’s proven to be a mediocre talent. While Ground Zero Man (1971) and One Million Tomorrows (1971) both had a decent plot but were robbed by Shaw’s lazy approach at producing something refined; each had a superficial quality which disappointed me. I also read Shaw’s Vertigo (1978) which had some good character points but seemed to drift through Shaw’s general incompetence. Here, Orbitsville, is Shaw’s feather in his cap, which won the British Science Fiction Award in 1976. I’m not impressed with this feather-adorned fedora of Shaw’s.

Rear cover synopsis:
“For centuries the men of Earth had scoured the cosmos for habitable planets, and had found only one. They never found another—but one man discovered something better. Vance Garamond has discovered a Dyson Sphere—a space habitat the interior surface of which is larger than five billion Earths. Alas, from the point of the Powers That Be, the worst thing that could happen was the discovery of a place to which all the disaffected people of the world might flee—that’s why Starflight, Inc. will do anything to keep Garamond’s discovery a secret.


Starflight Inc. rules the world, the solar system, and the galaxy with its iron-fisted grip on the expansion of humanity to other worlds. At the head of this greedy monopoly is the president, Elizabeth (Liz)Lindstrom—powerful yet corrupted, aging yet precocious, welcoming yet back-stabbing. Vance, three-time star pilot, must play the part of the sexual prey to the president’s predator instinct prior to his departure. To bide the time, Vance accepts to babysit her son in the mansion. However, her son is also ruled by an iron fist and relishes the freedom under Vance’s watch. As the son climbs a statue, Vance realizes his mistake, but the damage to his reputation and his future flashes before his eyes as he sees the boy tumble to the ground, striking his head on the stone dais, and die. His first instinct: run!

 Before his dereliction of duty and irresponsibility are discovered, Vance gathers his son and demure wife in order to escape the inevitable wrath of Liz. His skills with spaceflight and his connections with various flight crews on Earth and in orbit enable him to flee from the most immediate effect of Liz’s insatiable fury. Once docked into a berth, Vance uses his rank and persuasiveness to push the starship out of Earth’s orbit and into a path which will save his family.

Acting on a hunch from an old myth, Vance and his dedicated yet shanghaied spacecrew aim for a place on an alien map which shows a landmark without any starlight. Hoping for an inhabitable world to settle upon and having the crew return to Earth, Vance directs the starship to the location where a massive sphere envelops a space with a diameter beyond Mars’ orbit. The material resists all attempts at measurement and any clue as to the existence of the object is only met with wild speculation rather than quantitative results. Eventually, a single kilometer-wide port is found. A landing party descends to the sphere’s metallic skin, peer into the hole, and pull themselves up into a field of grass and an atmosphere of oxygen.

They settle the vast grasslands around the starry lake which magically separates the vacuum of space from the rich, life-giving atmosphere of the Dyson Sphere. Dubbed Orbitsville, the crew organize themselves to establish a settlement using their ship’s factories, converters, and synthesizers. News is sent back to Earth telling of the unimaginably immense tracts of land ready for human settlement, for which Vance becomes an international hero. To witness this impressive structure and congratulate its discoverer, Liz sends an armada of eighty ships to the Sphere with herself at the helm. Vance considers himself untouchable given his newly found stardom and Liz’s calm demeanor and reassuring words sets Vance on an uneasy precipice between acceptance and leeriness. Should Vance accept Liz’s embrace as his dull wife suggests or should he stick to his gut and distrust the haggard magnate?

An orbiting body outside Orbitsville draws Vance’s attention because of some misinformation being spread about the aboriginal aliens’ massacre on the planetoid, when in reality the aliens are benign and uncommunicative to an animal degree. While probing the planetoid, Vance learns that his sheepish wife and son have been welcomed to Liz’s abode. Alarmed for their safety, he sets off back to Orbitsville only to have his ship’s engines blow, disabling any reasonable attempt for landing procedures and the safety of their own lives. With eight hours left to impact, the crew foster a crazy idea: fly through the port, strike the atmosphere with an ionizing laser, and come out alive… but their survival at reentry at one 100 kilometer per second is uncertain.

Their terrific reentry speed and resulting tumultuous ballistic dive through Orbitsville’s atmosphere deposited the shipwrecked crew some fifteen million kilometers from the sphere’s aperture (the equivalent of nineteen trips to the moon and back). Vance is left with three choices: (1) walk back, an endeavor which would taken generations over a thousand years to complete; (2) establish a settlement, a defeatist point of view and a certain stagnant future; or (3) construct a fleet of ships to make the return journey. Some opt to stay but others enlist for Vance’s return. However, the 2-3 year trip aboard the aircraft seems uncertain when mechanical breakdowns are inevitable and when morale sinks due to cabin fever. Vance’s monomaniacal hatred for Liz drives him back to the aperture.


The exhibition of the Dyson Sphere is the obvious gimmick of Orbitsville. Essentially, it’s a Big Dumb Object, the kind of lore sci-fi geeks crave. Other examples include Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973), Niven’s Ringworld (1970), and Pohl’s Gateway (1977). All these objects, including Orbitsville, serve a mysterious function and display confounding properties beyond the scope of human understanding. This is the essence of exploration in a science fiction novel, but quite often the story accompanying that exploration is rather dull… much as the wonders of Orbitsville are muted by its blunt thrust and dull stereotypes.

Liz is an entrapping corporate president, vindictive and callous. Vance is an illustrious star captain, noble and experienced. Vance’s wife, Aileen, is duller than a moist turd, submissive and vacuous. Vance’s son, Chris, is a characterless entity given a name, hollow and equally as vacuous. And THAT is the cast of Orbitsville. Thank you. Like Chris’s cavernously hollow nature, each character lacks any oomph for the reader to give two cents for any character—Liz is predictable, Vance is the hero, and Aileen and Chris are Vance’s faceless motivation.

If you can stomach the hollow cast, you start to look at the starchy, stereotypical relationships: Liz versus Vance and Aileen versus Vance. The Liz/Vance relationship starts off badly, off course with her son’s death and all, but she seemingly turns the other cheek and offers Vance peace, all the while the reader understands her callous plot at revenge; no plot twists present themselves because Liz and Vance are too predictable. Then the Aileen/Vance relationship, as mentioned numerous times above, is based purely on Vance’s most excellent, unquestionable authority on all matters scientific, logical, etc. while his wife tamely follows her man wherever he may lead, all the while batting her eyelashes and probably making him decent ham sandwiches in the starship’s galley (I assume). For example, here are Vance’s thoughts: “[H]e found himself wishing it were possible to discuss the subject emotionlessly and on an intellectual plane with his wife” (125). Aileen accepts her "lovely wife" so perfectly that she even says, “I’ll be at home to cook you a meal when you arrive” (126), to which Vance kindly mutters to himself, “You silly bitch … Why do you never, ever, never ever, listen to anything I tell you?” (126). Ah, love.

Understand that Orbitsville is bigger than five billion Earths (Compare to Niven’s Ringworld [1970] of one billion Earths and Brown’s Helix [2007] of ten thousand Earths). One would expect an uninhibited exploration of its massive size, but juvenile you would also be because Shaw has had the handbrake on the entire time to demonstrate his skill of writing about strife and determination. There are aliens on Orbitsville but the characters don’t waste their time with them because they’re just too darn difficult to communicate with; to greener pastures they say. Even after four months in the settlement, the initial crew, with Vance, hadn’t even explored beyond a few radial kilometers of their encampment, a simple trek which two engineers accomplish in order to install a communication system for Starflight, Inc. I guess the draw to the novel is the obvious gimmick—accept its size but don’t ask any questions.

If you like the science and mechanics of starflight and Big Dumb Object construction, perhaps Shaw’s occasional lapse into wordiness jargon may appeal to you:

As soon as the signal announcing closure of the docking bay was received, he gave the order for the main drive to be activated. Initial impetus was given the ship [sic?] by the relatively feeble ion thrusters, but the propulsion system was shut down when the ramjet intake field had been fanned out to its maximum area of half-a-million square kilometers and reaction mass was being scavenged from surrounding space. (127)

After Vance and his loyal crew spearpoint at the aperture at 360,000 kilometers per hour (Mach 294), they are flung far, far upon the grassy horizon away from their settlement. If the reader came for the wonders of the Dyson Sphere, the reader must surely be disappointed at this junction in the novel, but should also stay for the relatively decent amount of angst and fortitude displayed by Vance and a select few of his posse who decide to make the 2-3 year flight on jury-rigged planes. It’s a tad far-fetched but Shaw handles it well showing that the makeshift flight isn’t without its peril and poison. Ultimately, this also serves well to conclude the story, albeit with a rushed sort of “I’ll never let you go!” kind of ending.


Shaw produced (I’m not sure if “authored”, “penned” or even “wrote” could apply) two sequels: Orbitsville Departure (1983) and Orbitsville Judgement (1990). Like most sequels written years after the first book, I will stay clear of these lifeless additions to an already static novel. If exploration of a Big Dumb Object is your forte, Eric Brown does a pretty decent job of exploration, world building, and character development in Helix (2007). I don’t think Niven ever did justice to his Ringworld series, so I can’t really recommend it, but I want to re-read it since it’s been a few years.

Monday, July 8, 2013

2013: Finches of Mars (Aldiss, Brian)

Dull characters, pointless ideas, directionless plot (1/5)

My first Brian Aldiss novel, the beginning of a beautiful author-reader relationship, was in 2008 when I read his 1964 novel Starswarm. From my memory, I gather it was a great read because it’s still on my shelves, along with five other Aldiss works which I further read in 2009, among them Non-stop (1958) and Long Afternoon of Earth (1962). These two works rank highly in parallel to Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) and Cryptozoic! (1967). I haven’t been disappointed with any Aldiss yet, so I thought, “Let’s see his newest work which is heralded as his ‘final science fiction novel’.”

Now near the age of 88, it seems as if Aldiss has collected pet theories over the past eight decades, kept them locked in a drawer, then dumped them all out in random order to form Finches of Mars. It’s not so much about the number of ideas as it is the quality and transience of the ideas… like hitchhiking hippies.

Inside flap synopsis:
“Mars is in crisis. Ten years have passed since the formation of the Earth colony of the red planet, but it has yet to produce a healthy child. Every baby has been deformed and stillborn. With Earth overpopulated and at war the Mars experiment is crucial to the survival of the human race. Something must be done to ensure its success.”


Beyond the year 2112, humans have finally settled Mars. Aquifers under the Tharsis Shield have enough water to support humanity’s advancement on the red planet. Thus, robotic drills tapped the water source and constructors built six towers for man’s self-enforced segregation: (1) Chinese, (2) West, (3) Russ-East, (4) Singa-Thai, (5) Scand, and (6) Sud-Am. The reason for this segregation is unexplained though it may be due to funding by United Universities (UU), a collective of intellectual institutes which funnel money, research, and material for the fledging colonies on Mars. But if the universities are “united”, shouldn’t the towers be ethically and culturally integrated? Sadly, only the Chinese tower is explored to a deeper degree, leaving the other four towers as mere fodder.

Each colonist to Mars must sign on for life, with no hope for a return to Earth. After ten years on the surface of Mars, which seems to have friendly air pressure and fairly human-friendly, the colonies have yet to produce viable offspring; in the West tower alone, eighty-five births had been born, “some with no legs, some with eggshell skulls, one of them with no brain at all” (32). This worry of being unable to expand their colony with their genes plagues the minds of the colonists; other worries blow over like spring showers, but the fetal deaths rest like a boulder upon their shoulder while the wind blows on their bellies—their advancement is slow and painful.

To the average colonist and even the landlubbers back on Earth, “The knowledge of so many stillbirths had been suppressed … The images of Mars as a pure place, as a great desert not too far from holiness, had now been corrupted by a vision of desiccating corpses scattered like dead snail shells” (61). The scientists of Mars remain optimistic of their human organism’s ability to adapt and evolve citing the arduous voyage from Earth as the reason for their inability to properly birth a child; soon, they hope, the “trillions of bifidobacteria” will to the radiation and gravity of Mars so that the symbiotic relationship can prosper once again.

In addition to their waiver of ever returning to Earth, the colonists also must be free of any religion for fear that the inclusion of each religions dogmatic tendencies will bring war and hatred with it. The UU feared that “a new religion might spring up, become indigenous and prove even more of a cause for division than do terrestrial religions” (50). The atheists and agnostics of Mars, by their own hardship, look for ultimate answers to their pleads of “why me?” and “why us?”. If emotional destitution and adversity of hope give rise to religion, then the colonists are not immune to the tides of hope in the form of paternal salvation.

“Although an indifference to religion had lured them here, they were overcome by a sense of sanctity” (155)—Mars as purity manifested, as adventure meets despair, as regret meets sublimity (“metanipoko”).  This dichotomy of attachment and detachment transcending the nationalism of the six towers is so pervasive that even the discovery of life on Mars, which walks and swims, isn’t enough to tear their attention away from the generational plight. If only they had a sign.


 I don’t mention any characters in the synopsis above. There are characters in the book but none above mediocre or in the limelight enough to even mention. The majority of the book takes place in or around the West tower with a scene or two involving the Chinese tower, and while Aldiss includes many brief scenes with a slew of generic cast members, the sum is less than the whole—each participate adds too little to the overall picture, a mosaic-like snapshot of life on Mars but a mosaic composed of the dull colors of copper, coffee, khaki, and camel.

Aside from the prolific yet dull cast, Aldiss also includes a plethora of inane ideas which clog the stream of the narrative, much like water hyacinths block canals. These scatter-brained ideas, or possibly pet theories dug up from the depths of Aldiss’ junk drawer, amount to nothing.  Nothing is added to the narrative yet it does sap away any steam gathered in the prior pages. The crux of the Martian trouble is in its obstetric dilemma, yet valueless ideas keep flying past the reader’s eyes, here ranked by annoyance:

(1) The discovery of Martian life should be a joy for the people on Mars and Earth, alike. However, the colonists, eager for protein for their diet or simply substance for their stomachs, immediately take the creature to their kitchen. It’s saved, but little research is done on the subject and the whole matter dies in a few chapters.

(2) There’s a newly discovered form of radiation emanating from the Oort Cloud which is carried by the normon, “regarded as benevolent, indeed as a helpful propagator of microscopic life on early Earth” (24). This seems to be part of the universe as a life form itself (53): it’s a strip rather than a particle (86), travels faster than light (86), and contain amino acid similar to DNA (129). This, ultimately but very lamely, ties in with the conclusion, I believe. Booksquawk says the conclusion “goes for broke” but, while it does seem absolutely far-fetched, it actually does tie in well with the rest of the story… still, this doesn’t save the entire novel from being an amalgamation of concept inanity and narrative meandering.

(3) Nemesis, a “dull dwarf star” (52), is a companion star which orbits 1.5 light-years from Sol, making our solar system part of a binary system. The end. Aldiss writes, “Even the knowledge that humanity lived in a binary system did not greatly alter matter” (109), so too does this inclusion relate to nothing else in the novel, it alters nothing with its inclusion or deletion.

(4) In an attempt to portray the technology of communication in the future, Aldiss uses some idiosyncratic monikers:

(a) Squealers, as in “His squealer was ringing” (31), “some of the headlines in the squealers” (40) or “received a message … on her private squealer” (173). Supposedly, this is some sort of personal handheld device, but it also sounds like blog journalism.

(b) Shriekers, as in “news shrieker” (27), “We must noise it in the press … and shiekers” (29), “he spoke on the shrieker” (41) or “Her shrieker went off” (162). This sounds exactly like a squealer, so I’m not exactly sure whether there’s a distinction between the two.

(c) Squeakers, as in “headlines in the … squeakers” (40) or “when the news came through on the squeaker” (55). This, too, sounds like a combination of a personal communication device-cum-news service provider. No distinction from squealer or shrieker is given.

(d) Screech, as in “record those worries on the UU screech” (101). This also sounds like a squealer, shrieker, and squeaker.

(5) There seem to be different types of computers in the Mars colonies, but there is no distinction made between the three types: compoutat (pages 56, 65, 67, 68, and 114), watputer (pages 60 and 151), and wakipurr (page 177). The inclusion of this jumble of gobbledygook makes no sense without any assistance from character dialogue or authorial aside, much as the squealer, shrieker, squeaker, and screech lose all importance when their function is ignored.

(6) The five footnotes are superfluous and useless. The additional comments add nothing to the reader’s understanding of the text and one footnote, the first on page 8, simply directs the reader to a synopsis from a fictional non-fiction book entitled The Unsteady State or, Starting Again from Scratch by the characters Mangalian and Beth Gul. The footnote refers to a three-page appendix at the end of the novel, which reads like Aldiss’ personal manifesto what humanity is doomed. This is just added weight to a ship which is already sunk.


There’s nothing redeemable here. Just because this takes place on Mars doesn’t mean it’s an “answer song” to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996); in my opinion, Finches of Mars is Brian Aldiss’ own swan song. This is my own opinion, which is shared by other on, but it seems that there are two professional opinions which counter my dislike for this novel: Paul Di Filippo at Locus Magazine and Adam Roberts at The Guardian. Like most “professional” reviews and accolades, I rarely ever see eye-to-eye with them.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

1991: The State of the Art (Banks, Iain M.)

Dark humor amid the themes of alienation and disappointment (5/5)

The first set of short stories I read was in 2007 and it is this collection showcased here: The State of the Art (1991) by Iain Banks. Since then, I've covered more than sixty other collections but none has made as big an impression on me as The State of the Art; the book is intellectually infused with humor, insight, emotion, the human and alien condition, and keen whit. Re-reading this collection, I realize that it remains my primary influence to write fiction—my few stories resemble the themes and emotions in The State of the Art.

Iain Banks has always been my favorite author ever since I read The Algebraist (2004) earlier in 2007, just before picking  and becoming immersed in The State of the Art. While Greg Bear may have started my love affair with science fiction in 2006, Iain Banks sent me in a head-over-heels throe of passion for the genre which hasn’t slacked even after six full years. I continue to read new books but still slake from the fountain of youth, the invigorating stream of science fiction (and fiction) from Iain Banks. I’ve always sought out every one of his novels and have always relished the contents, never once having been disappointed by a short story, a piece of fiction or a voluminous tome of science fiction.

I was crushed when I learnt of his pending death on April 3, 2013. When he died on June 9, 2013, I felt a loss almost as great as when I lost my grandmother. That was the day I finally finished by first piece of science fiction. Iain Banks, the author who could do no wrong, the writer who inspired me to read and write, the Scotsman who snuck his own regional lingo into my speech, the looming intellect who taught me words yet facilitated in fostering my appreciation for sentences, paragraphs, short stories, novels, and the language as a whole… yes, he’ll be sorely missed.


Road of Skulls (shortstory, 1988) – 4/5 – Jostled by the protruding skulls which line the Road, a singular carriage makes its way to the City. Its passengers, Sammil Mc9 and his nameless, dimwitted companion, pass the time sleeping in the dung-encrusted hay of the quadrupedal onuses. The distant, elusive city seems always perched upon the horizon, much as Sammil’s promise of a story to his companion is always set to begin. --- 6 pages --- I love the vague nature of this story—the where, why, and when. It’s simple in the sense that these two ruffians are on their way to the City on the Road paved with skulls, but the story of the City and its Road is given a cursory glance which is deeper in meaning than the rest of the compact plot.

A Gift from the Culture (shortstory, 1987) – 4/5 – Wrobik, a moniker for the man’s much longer Culture name, was once of a member of the Contact section yet now lives a so-called simple life on a non-Culture planet. Life isn’t simple because gambling and losing real money pisses off real people, and those people have real problems, too. Due to his debts, Wrobik is given a Culture gun in order to shoot down an approaching starship. He’s stunned to learn a Culture ambassador is aboard. --- 19 pages --- Most, if not all, of Banks’ work with the Culture involves people living life outside the Culture (on Earth with Contact or elsewhere with Special Circumstances). This probes the anti-utopian resentment some members of the Culture have—is the glossy, carefree life of freedom and expression everything to everyone? What would an individual sacrifice for a life outside of that comfort zone?

Odd Attachment (shortstory, 1989) – 4/5 – An arboreal shepherd tends his flock of juveniles while soaking in his melancholy of admiration ignored. Woebegone due to love and stymied by his precociousness of his dumb flock, the shepherd idly eyes the sky only to see a seed-shaped craft descend from the sky. The quad-furcated  being quarries the clueless flock and is shocked to see the plantlike being react. The man in his grasp, the plant counts the ways. --- 7 pages --- Simple yet humorous and horrific, this exemplifies Banks’ writing style; nothing is out of place, over the top or underwhelming. Chide the story for its role reversal in the conclusion, but one can’t say it isn’t rather silly.

Descendant (novelette, 1987) – 5/5 – Fallen from the wreckage of a spacecraft and isolated on an airless planet 1,000 kilometers of barren yet challenging terrain, a human body and its intelligent suit take the excruciating journey across the ubiquitously grey landscape towards an uncertain-existing base. Damaged internally and externally, both the man and the suit survive day by day with each other’s voice, though their companionship is also what divides them. --- 24 pages --- The perfect blend of abandonment and isolation, pain and suffering, and hope and illusion; little did I realize when I finished my first short story in 2013 did it strongly resemble this story that I had forgotten about from six years prior. The bleakness of its noir/Ellison-esque theme really awakens my involvement in the story, a turn for the better considering the amount of soppy optimism in modern science fiction.

Cleaning Up (shortstory, 1987) – 5/5 – An opalescent cigar-shaped object drops on an American barn—the humans are dumbfounded. More enshrouded objects fall all over the world and the humans learn little by little: these “gifts” are advanced and can be used for military application. In the gaseous realms of deep space lurks a conversion machine and its hapless crew who discover that they’re transporting low-quality objects to the wrong place, but the paperwork is a debacle and still weeks away from completion.  --- 19 pages --- This is the most memorable of the stories from the collection even after six years of idleness on my shelves. It’s not the reaction of the humans to the “gifts” but the continuing folly of the aliens which makes the story smile-worthy.

Piece (shortstory, 1989) – 4/5 – A man recounts his lifetime of experience and coincidences prior to boarding an aircraft on a December flight from London to New York. Penning a letter his son or nephew, perhaps, he tells a number of small incidences in which a book he had been reading involved him in an experience with his fellow man. These instances have instilled a pragmatic view of humanistic determination in 1988. --- 9 pages --- Not science fiction, but a great story nonetheless. If the reader understands a bit of 1980’s British history, then the conclusion will pack a punch. This also became one sources of inspiration when I had to write a narrative essay for my graduate course in Philosophy of Education; I wrote a similar piece but it took place in Belorussia 1986 (the professor loved it but I've never pushed its publication).

The State of the Art (novella, 1989) – 4/5 – It’s 1977 and the Culture have finally found Earth with its expanding halo of electronic emissions through near space. The Contact section sends its representatives down in human disguise to rummage through Earth’s more subtle nuances while the Mind in the General Contact Unit ship, the Arbitrary, funnels all of Earth’s most detailed data into its memory. The contacts earthside live comfortable is not busy lives. One contact member in Paris, Linter, becomes placidly adept with adjusting to life as a human and so wishes to remain on Earth. In the Arbitrary, a less human-standard man and lecher named Li stirs the metaphorical pot of whether the Contact unit should or should not make official contact with the Earthlings; further, Li humorously attempts to become the “captain” of the naturally captain-less ship in order to euthanize the pathetic human race of mongrels and rabble-rousers. --- 102 pages --- This novella so desires to be a 5-star read but is ultimately held back by the character named Li who predictably bashed humanity (as a spokesman for Banks, himself?) to a rather dull degree, all of which everyone has heard before. However, the story does ooze Banks’ singlehanded flare of alienation (no pun intended) from the Culture with Linter finding comfort in humanity’s backwardness, primality, and ability to hope. The capstone of artistic talent lays with Bank’s approach—the tale is told by the Drone (Offensive) Skaffen-Amtiskaw and is formatted with unique non-standard indentation (possibly a Culture norm?).

Scratch (shortstory, 1987) – 4/5 – A human tragedy born from its own genetic faults, fostered by the corrupting forces of bureaucracy and capitalism, and finally highlighted by its intrinsic motivation to entertain itself rather than speculate about everything else. The human tragedy can be witnessed through its petty focus on passing dalliances while the larger picture remains entirely unfocused, blurred along with the millions, billions of years of evolution. --- 9 pages --- Undoubtedly an experimental piece akin to the Brunner’s collage of passages and excerpts in the “The Happening World” of his novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Lacking sentence structure, common letter case or train of thought, the structure lies on a higher plane than word, sentence or paragraph—chapter, titles, conclusion, and composition.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

1978: Algorithm (Gawron, Jean Mark)

Linguistic and mathematical foray stuns/stumps reader (3/5)

I can’t remember the impetus which impelled me to buy the hardback novel named Dream of Glass (1993) because taking one look at the cover, I should have instantly been repelled by the irksome Trapper Keeper-like cover. Regardless, I knew it contained some elements of cyberpunk, so after reading William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), I was eager to explore a bit more in that blossoming sub-genre. However, the plot and/or meaning of Dream of Glass was hidden under an opaque dome of its own glass; Gawron’s attempt at a cyberpunk novel was lost is a menagerie of unfathomable digressions. I couldn’t even muster enough will to read it again, it was just so convoluted.

Dream of Glass is Gawron’s third novel, which has been just as unsuccessful as his first two: An Apology for Rain (1974) and Algorithm (1978). I decided to give the author another shot, but I had an uneasy feeling about the cover of his 1978 paperback novel—way too kitsch. I was in the mood for a challenging read and this certainly tested the limits of taxed neurons.

It’s pertinent to know that Gawron is a linguist in the scientific sense (with a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley). Thankfully, I have some experience in the science of linguistics because of the research I did from my graduate thesis (“Analyzing mission statements in Thailand’s international schools: A mixed methodology”) earlier this year. The 120-page snore-fest included a few citations for the linguistic content I analyzed, namely, Readings for Applied Linguistics: Vol. 1. The Edinburgh Course in Applied Linguistics (1966) and Language and Learning: Vol. 3. Language, Context, and Text: Aspects of Language in a Social-semiotic Perspective (1985). You may understand the words “context” and “grammar” until to read the two words in a linguistic sense. Your head will spin. Mine has been spun, and re-spun thanks to Gawron.

Rear cover synopsis:
“The Novak Transformation had altered the very shape of the universe and left proud Earth an outcast, a sleazy pleasure-colony at the outer edge of the Federation of planets ‘Way Up There.’ But the Federation must expand or die: first came the starship jammed with mercenaries from seven worlds; then came the Assassin…”


It’s impossible to paraphrase a novel which resides at the precipice of one’s understanding. I may not be able to fully describe the background/foreground elemtns of the novel, but I can sense the chasm off the cliff, the ideas causing gusts of wind which buffet my awareness of the themes therein. I rely on a number of excerpts which reflect my understanding of the montage of themes, diversity, and subtleties.

Algorithm has a very similar feel as Delany's Dhalgren (1975) and The Fall of the Towers (1970), which isn't much of a surprise because Gawron is known to be an expert in Delany's work. Algorithm is just as finicky, just as detailed, and as nebulous as Delany's work.


The first half is undoubtedly difficult to follow because there’s no foundation for the reader to build comprehension; there’s a weak scaffolding of a literal or metaphorical assassin, a system of mathematics several levels beyond calculus known as the Novak Transformations, and noir society of poets/bikers that have an affiliation with the ex-mercenary protagonist and his motley crew. So, the central focus of the reader rests on what the assassin is, what implications the assassin has on society, and how the assassin manifests itself. Everything is relevant to the assassin’s agenda, but like a kaleidoscope, it’s impossible to see each color individually without losing focus of the fractal whole; while the blue-hued facets are unrelated to the yellow-hued features, the actually form a larger, more complex picture. The mosaic in Algorithm is complicated, but still fathomable.

Contrariwise to the possibly understandable plot is the author’s incoherent rambling of linguistics:

[A] grammar is only a grammar is only a grammar when traced through the framework of its home system. Failure to recognize a change of systems leads to apprehension by an old and inadequate grammar, to systematically produced nonsense. This is the grammar of the paranoid, who performs the same transformations on linguistic input that we all do on sensory, translating words into feeling of words, making every image of the outside world an image of that image. This reinvents semantics; this leaves the paranoid mute and afraid in a nightmare world of nothing but meaning. Frequently, common-sense logic, with its propositions, its names for sentences and ideas, leaves us in the same world, the name of the nightmare being, paradox. (16)

If you understand that linguistic tirade on a more fundamental basis that I, then you might be interested in the other tidbits of academia which dot this mosaic. The excerpt above is part of Gawron’s fictional set of Novak’s Equations which “lay bare our logical systems” (16) and impels new truths from them: “the equations integrate two systems in to a third system with new axioms. This process of stressing one system with another was later called abstraction. Now, in abstraction, contradiction is defined as an operation; perform it and contradiction is clear” (123).

This is the best synopses of the fictional equations that I could glean from the text. If you don’t understand yet, perhaps Gawron’s gratuitous offerings of explanation will finally set firm the deciphering of his linguistic/mathematic madness:

In a sense one of the major tasks of Novakian Theory is to bridge this strange gap between micro and macro systems, to understand that transformations that make the small so elusive. One example of an important microsystem is an individual in a society, and here we are at home base. For all his impact, the assassin is only a particle ... Such momentary links between the fearfully large and the frightfully small may be more common than we think, may be built into the scheme of a redundant universe. (125)

Therein lies the Equation’s link to the Assassin—a nameless entity, a rouge individual—within the larger context of society, who have to abide by the madman’s game with their own individual emotion and, also, their collection emotion. The awareness of the assassin’s existence sets everyone into either a frenzy or calm anticipation, each unknown of the assassin’s movement bringing together a climax which no one can predict: “Would the assassin strike as per instructions? Is, as some seemed to think, he was a mathematical entity, an alternate syntax, an indeterminate component in a suddenly altered system, then we would” (65). And while the twenty-five faces of the assassin’s possible victims are known to all, now one exactly know who the assassin is: “The assassin might be anyone … After anyone, for any reason” (106). This set of unknowns in each anticipating individual results in an isomorphic result: an electric uneasiness which unsettles the individual so much that it upsets the whole of society.

For some reason, the existence of the assassin was foretold by the Novakian Equations which seem to predict the course of social history in terms more definite than percentages of probability. The crisis with the assassin “was determined predictable … the most extreme act of manipulation ever, the most visible, the most definite, the one that put manipulation into our thoughts for all time … he [the assassin] looks exactly like the future that is coming to us” (154-155). So, because the assassin has mathematic origins and physical repercussions, the citizens of the otherworldly city of Monotony must decide whether the assassin is a figment of their imagination, a figment of their collective imagination, or a realized fear manifested as a madman bent on social disorder. The essence of the victim selection is actually “crystallizations of the fluid state of victimhood” (186) or a seemingly random selection based on the ignorance of the population’s preconceptions of what victimhood entails. For those who are chosen, the stigmata of haven been selected for possible assassination stymies their sense of self-importance or self-worth: “Perhaps I am only another victim of the assassination syndrome … Voices? Yes, there were voices, but with me there are always voices, and only voices, and nothing but voices” (188). Doubt infiltrates the assigned targets, a craziness sets firm in the reason for their selection.


I’m the first to admit I have a peripheral understanding of the novel. Much may have been lost on my unreceptive mind, but I think the linguistic and mathematical themes are supposed to affect the individual and social elements… that being a generalization which needs validation from the oft-quoted section above. If a reader, aside from Gawron himself, could grasp the intricacies of Gawron’s brainchild of a novel, I’m sure there is something more to savor than the cursory enjoyment I experienced at times. Also, if the reader can stubbornly trudge through the first half in suspended ignorance, the last half of the novel offers more illuminating matters.

Whereas Dream of Glass found its way to the secondhand bookstore, Algorithm finds a place on my shelves and may actually be read a second time later this year. If I could just peer over that precipice of understanding/ignorance…