Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

1962: Worlds of When (Conklin, Groff)

Bleak pictures of accepting our human state (5/5)

Groff Conklin was the editor of more than forty collections from 1946 to 1968, many of these with thematic concepts rather than the generic mill of “award winners” or “most popular” stories. If this collection and his co-editorship (with Isaac Asimov) of Fifty Short Science Fiction Stories (1963) are mere examples of his editing, then I believe Conklin surpasses many editors of more modern times… who, in my opinion, have forsaken the art of the “collection” in favor of heartless “Best of…” anthologies and pop culture chaff. Conklin furthers this notion in his introduction:

[T]his little collection of novelettes needs no sloganeering send-off; the stories, each one of them, encompasses not only plenty of tension and drama, but also much stuff for thoughtful consideration, sociological, ethical, historical, what have you. This is the hallmark, in my opinion, of all good science fiction stories: they offer an added dimension to melodrama or romance—the dimension of something worth saying. (7)

While the title and actual content differ slightly to the reader, the theme of “accepting our human state”, as mentioned in the title of the review, is found throughout and is exemplary for its time prior to Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1967). Worlds of When, without lamenting on its noir or fatalistic/humanistic content, precedes the era of Ellison’s vision for the future of science fiction.

Of the five stories, only one has been published throughout the year… of course, that’s Clarke’s own “Death and the Senator” (1961). Thankfully, Clarke’s story carries its own weight but there are two other stories which are equally paramount to the collection. The other four stories haven’t been as prolific as Clarke’s, but Chad Oliver’s “Transfusion (1959) and Margaret St. Clair’s “Rations of Tantalus” (1954) are just as great! “Transfusion” was included in Oliver’s own collection The Edge of Forever: Classic Anthropological Science Fiction (1971) and three anthologies co-edited by Martin H. Greenberg in 1983, 1985 and 1992. However, “Rations of Tantalus”, my favorite story in the collection and now one of my favorites of all time, is nearly completely without reprint in English; originally published in Fantastic Universe (July 1954), the only other reprint aside from Worlds of When is its inclusion with fur other stories in Three Worlds of Futurity (1964) in an Ace Double with her own Message from the Eocene (1964).


(Future)—Past = Chad Oliver: “Transfusion” (1959, novelette)
5/5 – Ben Hazard is a professor of anthropology at Harvard and a senior scientist of a temporal research project. Unable to change the past, the paradox-free time travel is an observer’s dream which the professor would love to test on the skeletons of some humans found in a dated cave. They should have been interred in 254,000 BC but recurrent observations find that the skeletons were buried in 24,571 BC under the most bizarre of circumstances. 38 pages

Returning to his pet theme, Oliver delves into a hypothetical conundrum in the future’s field of anthropology. The invention of the paradox-free time machine allows anthropologists to journey back to Mankind’s pre-historic times and observe their culture, language, and habits; however, no one can be found, anywhere (until 24,571 BC, that is). Oliver makes an exaggerated posit on what happened to the humans or where did the humans come from? The result is an eerily sympathetic story which humbles the protagonist and soothes the reader. Oliver surely packs a large “What if…” factor with his hook, line, and sinker. Are you as human as you think?

Approximately the Present = Fritz Leiber: “Bullet With His Name” (1958, novelette)
4/5 – Ernie Meeker is everything his surname suggests; he’s just a guy living with his sister and his idea of good conversation is idly talking about his razorblade’s lifespan—one blade for every five days. A dubious pair from the Galactic Citizen Committee decide to use humble Ernie for their citizenship test by giving him Gifts, the first of which is the eternally sharp razor blade, which Ernie throws away with suspicion. His week only gets stranger with speed reading, mind reading, and glowing eyes. 31 pages

Leiber provides a more humorous story after the sobering addition from Oliver. Good ‘ol Ernie disbelieves his good fortune with the steadily sharp razor so throws it away; he finds his new skill of speed reading to cram his brain with too much nonsense; his “aqueous fuel catalyst” (51) is too troublesome to keep hidden from other’s suspicions; and his glowing eyes are too alluring to the opposite sex, finding him in conversation with the beautiful and the beasts. He finally finds himself aging at a slow rate and, so, finds this last gift a burdensome. Clearly, the humble Ernie is too habitual, like most humans, to make use of exotic gifts be they concrete or abstract. Honored by the Galaxy for a gifted life, Ernie squanders the opportunity because of his human nature, resulting in a rather melancholy story. Could you adjust to the change?

Decade After Tomorrow = Arthur C. Clarke: “Death and the Senator” (1961, shortstory)
5/5 – Senator Steelman has only months to live due to his failing heart and now all he wants to do is spend quality time with his children-in-law. With no earthly reprieve for his ailment, the senator is surprised to learn of recent advances in the same field by the Russians in their Mechnikov Station satellite hospital. However, his cure is tainted with politics and the senator must make a choice. 20 pages

Continuing with the melancholy tone, Clarke foregoes his YA science fiction full of hope and wonderment for a tale of a man facing death. The story starts as one would expect, the senator accepting his fate with his head high and his hopes realistic but, rather bluntly, his expectations are raised when he hears of the Russian hospital satellite. Here Clarke indulges in his own pet topic of very progressive and seemingly easy technological change with satellites, but all the senator is concerned about is his fate… or so it would seem until his American government grows fangs over Russia’s help with his sickness. Who would you appease: yourself, your family, your government or your humanity?

Twenty Year From Now = Mack Reynolds: “Farmer” (1961, novelette)
 3/5 – A vast tract of once arid desert spans Africa from Mali to Egypt and from the Mediterranean to mid-continent. Now, along the Niger River around Timbuktu, America has altruistically established a reforestation project with saplings being fed from groundwater by thousands of pumps. Derek and Johnny, nearly all alone at the desert station, discover sabotaged pumps at the same time as a high profile journalist comes to report on the project’s progress. 28 pages

Reynolds has the weakest of all the stories in the collection, perhaps because his name is a stigma with stories which I haven’t found all that interesting, which is odd because I used to read a lot about socialism. In “Farmer”, Reynolds doesn’t include much humanism or melancholy, unlike the other four stories, and falls flat with its reliance on a spy and their sabotage. The setting of aerating the Sahara is curious and the involvement of the meddlesome American hand is suspicious, thereby creating tension thousands of miles away from the supposedly benevolent homeland of Derek and Johnny. Whether the intentions of the Americans are for their own good or for the greater good, some prosperity is being brought to the lifeless wasteland in Africa, and still, someone has a problem with it. Would you support the good intentions of your enemy without fear of reprisal?

A Far-Off Tomorrow = Margaret St. Clair: “Rations of Tantalus” (1954, novelette)
5/5 – Six days; three euph pills left. Having exceeded his monthly quota of the ubiquitous turquoise pill, Harvey must confront his day with the chance of developing a shameful Rage. Platonically leaving his wife at home, Harvey experiences a strange day of shame, guilt, and intrigue before succumbing to the lulls of rhythm from another woman’s guitar; her words aren’t the only thing to inspire his newly found sense of humanity. 34 pages

A pill for this and a pill for that; rather than cure what a foreign body inflicts upon us, St. Clair has taken the exact opposite position—cure what we are. There are ubiquitous pills for the suppression of hair growth, sweating, and menstrual cycles but the one pill most revered is the euph pill which calms, placates the user; without the euph anger arises from the most common of problems. I could easily write 1,000 words to exalt this work, but to truncate the praise I will simply say that, though written in a piecemeal manner, the story reflects one man’s struggle with posing socially awkward questions and overcoming the taboo placed upon him. This victory isn’t a hero’s triumphant conquest, but a simple man’s personal growth toward challenging a system which exists in the shadows of rhetoric and complacency. Excellent.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

1972: The Stardroppers (Brunner, John)

Sweet first draught with tiresome and bitter aftertaste (3/5)

Show me a man who has read more than 24 Brunner novels and I’ll show you a new unsung hero of mine; that man would have read just as any as I have. It ain’t easy being a Brunner fan: the pain of reading “No Other Gods But Me” (1966), the tediousness of spies and hypnotism, but also the joys of discovering gems amid his prolific career, the brilliance of some older Ace paperbacks like Meeting at Infinity (1961). I admit there are ups and downs, but like the Chicago Bears fan that I am, I vigilantly stick through the bad and relish the good, occasionally waxing poetic during the great.

Stardroppers starts as an “up”, finds some time-honored but unappreciated Brunner themes, and ends on a flat note… yet another mediocre Brunner novel.

Rear cover synopsis:
“A stardropper got its name from a belief that the user was eavesdropping on the stars. But that was only a guess… nobody really knew what the instrument did.

The instrument itself made no sense scientifically, but what you got from it were some very extraordinary noises and the conviction that you were listening to being from space and could almost understand what you were hearing.

What brought Special Agent Dan Cross into the stardropper problem was the carefully censored news that users of the instrument had begun to disappear. They popper out of existence suddenly—and the world’s leaders began to suspect that somehow the fad had lit the fuse on a bomb that would either destroy the world or change it forever.”


The accidental invention of the stardropper was due to the device’s simplicity. The inventor, Rainshaw, “brought together a powerful magnet, a chamber containing a hard vacuum into which he was introducing counted quantities of ionized and non-ionized particles, and delicate instruments for tracking those particles” (42). Resembling a portable radio, the signals which the device received and transmitted to the listener did not come from an external source. Another scientist, Berghaus, offered his best hypothesis based on a non-Einsteinian continuum that “the normal sense of space-covered-in-measure-time” (71) did not exist and that instantaneity ruled (Feynman’s One-Electron Universe?).

The phenomenon of listening to the stardropper had spread worldwide, but the center of the buzz is in England. Special Agent Dan Cross has been sent to England to penetrate social circles dedicated to listening to the stardropper and talking about the stardropper because curious, unexplainable incidences have begun to arise: twenty people have been documented who had “literally and physically vanished” (18) while listening to the stardropper. Governments have begun to worry about the knowledge which the device may be imparting, knowledge which may point to teleportation. Whose hands could grasp this knowledge and how would a country defend itself against instantaneous teleportation of, say, a nuclear device? Dan Cross is on it.

Dan’s own stardropper model is an elite, homemade kit which everyone envies. He doesn’t feel drawn into the secrets in the soundwaves, but many others have become addicted to the alluring susurrus of the mysterious signals claiming they are on the verge of some greater understanding. Others maintain they are eavesdropping on the minds of great alien beings. Regardless, top scientists understand that this is a “totally new phenomenon, unforeseen, inexplicable” (102). People are willing to steal to hear it, willing to risk insanity to understand it, and actually eager to transcend into oblivion with its knowledge. Is this all an “escape from reality, like drugs” or “a path to new knowledge” (77)? One thing was known: stardropping could provoke a form of trance and in this trance, exactly like a hypnotic trance, the person was capable of incredible feats such as superhuman strength and total recall. To Dan’s Agency, this sounded dangerous.

Gathering this common knowledge from the social circles, Dan Cross informs his department of his findings. His official presence and task hidden behind his tourist façade, Dan makes his report in the agency’s secretive way, which relies on hypnotism and idiosyncratic syllogism. “Ordinary language was a series of labels invented by other people; Agency codes were derived from remembered events that were exclusively significant to the user” (63) where the clarity, length, and grammar “depended on Dan’s personal memories and not on a process that could be attacked statistically” (62). With the addition of standard Agency vocabulary implant by deep hypnosis, the method of transmitting information data to the Agency was secure. “Dan himself could not decipher a transcript of one of his reports; it required a post-hypnotic trigger” (62).

Public knowledge of the disappearances had been muted. Dan’s penetration into the social circles of stardropping seemingly scrapes the surface of the global addiction, but soon Dan finds himself too deep in the cover-up. He befriends a scampy girl who tries to steal his own stardropper and, feeling sorry for her but also seeing a chance to delve further into the circles, Dan goes to the community house where she stays. He lets her listen to his ‘dropper alone in her own room; the only sign of her disappearance is a note which reads “Thanks”.

Uncanny but still possibly explainable, Dan shrugs it off and attends a meeting a store, Cosmica Limited, which acts as a hub for stardropper sales and stardropper seminars. Sitting in the group expecting to be entertained by the charlatans and antics, Dan is soon entranced by the shared aural spectacle of stardropping. He awakes with a thud, lying on a seat that was once occupied but now empty, having been vacated by a sudden “pop”. This is the most public of disappearances and Dan is unfortunately at the center of it all when he should be keeping low-key. Dan is anxious to solve the mystery and the Agency is upset with his open cover. For Dan, it is now or never.


The premise of the transmission of an undecipherable signal which cannot be detected is, in modern physics, a bit far-fetched. Suspending this disbelief, I found myself being snared into Brunner’s plot featuring a popular device (the stardropper) which spurs social intercourse, hermetic intrigue, and unexplainable disappearances. The gravity of the trio captured my attention and plunged me into a 5-star sense of wonderment and into a well of ruse; my mind pivoted on the idea that everything wasn’t as clear as Brunner was making it—a realistic basis based on having read prior Brunner novels…

…yet, having read other Brunner novels, I also foreshadowed a few of his pet plot twists for his pulpier novels: the importance of the spy agency and the stratagem of hypnotism. Naively, I held out on my suspicions yet fell on my face when Brunner’s typical turns were finally unveiled.

Aside from the expectedness, Brunner, as mentioned, does spin an entrancing web of addiction around the stardropping. Each stardropping receiver transmits different transmissions, so not all people experience the same signal at the same time, yet a very rare few are able to decode the “alien” signal and supposedly “sublime” from the translated data. The addiction comes from the common user’s cups on this translation—some continue on the verge of understanding while others plunge from the precipice of sanity, the ridge of perception which separates what is corporeally perceived from what is only imagined. Dan pertinent mission and lingering theories fall upon the question: Do the sublimed transcend from their former or latter state?

Brunner poignantly touches upon the focus of recreational drug use: Do most people use consciously for relaxation or for habit? Yet, Brunner skirts the users’ responsibility aspect of partaking through occasional use for easement or habitual use for addiction. Addiction seems widespread but goes undefined.

Other Brunner morsels of knowledge find their way in the novel, possibly a forced insertion into the narrative but, in when reading, imparting a glimmer of needed intellectual depth (though actually superficial) into the 144 pages. One ort of insight comes from a brief oration on evolution:

So what’s human evolution? Basically a story of learning to impose a desired form on environment, right? But not just physical environment: also the sequence of events experienced. The more man evolves, the more he consciously plans ahead and … manipulated randomness, trying to ensure that future experience are desirable ones. (80)

On the same page, Brunner continues this string of intrigue with the propagation of knowledge à la knowing of knowledge versus use of knowledge:

[C]an you think of a better niche [the sales of stardroppers] in a commercial society for someone who’s concerned to propagate knowledge he considers important? … So tell me what makes knowledge dangerous. Which seems more innocuous, in your view—to teach a man to read and write, or to make gunpowder? Yet more revolutions have been carried through with literacy than with shot and shell. (80)

This intellectual interlude spans the gap between the novel’s two parts: the enticing trio (social intercourse, hermetic intrigue, and unexplainable disappearances) of Dan’s investigation and the unraveling of said investigation in a very Brunner pulp style. It’s reminiscent of, if not a complete rip-off of, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956).


The Stardroppers doesn’t so much draw the reader in and repel the reader away as it does draw, settle, and tepidly stew. Like many Brunner novels, this is one for Brunner completists or maybe someone who hasn’t read The Stars My Destination and needs a few hours to kill on a plane. Memories of this novel's onset will linger with me, but I will most likely forget the entire middle half.

Monday, December 16, 2013

1982: The Crystal Singer (McCaffrey, Anne)

On a plateau of mysticism, wonderment and growth (4/5)

Prior to Anne McCaffrey’s death in November 2011, I had heard only good things about the author’s work—her ability to snare the reader with wonder and enrapture the reader in adventure. With her passing, I took advice from a number of posts on Amazon’s Science Fiction forum and bought one of the author’s novels: The Crystal Singer. The synopsis is obviously science fiction but the word “crystal” carries many fantasy connotations with it, a cousin of the science fiction genre which I scorn. When taking the rest of McCaffrey’s bibliography into scope, words like “dragon”, “unicorn” and “Pegasus” are notable, all of which instantly turn me off… but her popular Dragons of Pern series, often recommended by others, is a testament to her talent, so I assumed. Regardless, after two years of sitting on my shelf, the book found its way into my hands in December’s to-read stack.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Killashandra thought her world had ended when she was told she would never become a concert singer. And then she met the stranger from off-world.

He said he was a Crystal Singer—one of the unique ones of the Galaxy—and when Killashandra tried to find out what a Crystal Singer was the answers were vague, obtuse. All she could discover was that they were special people, shrouded in mystery, and danger, and beauty—and something altogether incomprehensible.

It was then that she decided she too must try and become a Crystal Singer.”


A promising student of vocal talent for 10 years, the culmination of Killashandra’s study ends with damning praise from Maestro Valdi: “You have the gift of perfect pitch, your musicality is faultless … But there is that burr in your voice which becomes intolerable in the higher register” (10). Her dreams shattered by her one mentor, she dwells upon a life of unfulfilled dreams and pathetic careers when compared to her idealized ambition of becoming a top-rank concert singer. Sulking at the Fuertan spaceport restaurant and sipping wine for her jangled nerves, her talent is serendipitously recognized when the piercing whine of descending craft disturbs her extra-perceptive senses and an enigmatic Crystal Singer named Carrik enters himself into her life, her abating lonesomeness, and her future.

Given ample warning of a Crystal Singer’s lifelong dedication to art and idiosyncratic solitude, Killashandra Ree (Killa) shrugs off the advice and follows a whimsy compulsion to attain the status of Crystal Singer. Her aspiration is multiplied by the luxurious lifestyle Carrik pours upon her and even more so by the unfortunate injuries he sustains when the faulty screech of an ascending craft predictably explodes, rendering Carrik unconscious and likely to never revive. Even with the Maestro’s damning words of a Crystal Singer as a “silicate spider paralyzing its prey, a crystal cuckoo pushing the promising fledglings from their nests” (33), Killa follows the disabled Carrik to the home of Crystal Singers—Ballybran—where she will strive to learn to become a Crystal Singer like Carrik.

However, one does not simply become a Crystal Singer. One must be accepted by the Heptite Guild (with its 4,425 singer members and 20,007 support staff) and, most importantly, one must be exposed to the planet’s crystal spore symbiote, a “carbon-silicate occurring in the unorthodox environmental economy of Ballybran” which improves human “visual acuity, tactile perceptions, nerve conduction and cellular adaptation” (72). The transition is not without its own peril, where some under its transition experience a failed change leading to sensual loss or even death; then there are others, a select few without any prerequisite for doing so, undergo a Milekey transition (named after one of the founders) where they exhibit no ill effects—only a greatly enhanced corporeal tactility. Killa, the envy of her fellow recruits, is lucky enough to experience a Milekey transition and is able to be first out in the field with crystals glimmering near her very eye: shards of pink, slivers of green and splinters of the most sought-after crystal in human space—the Black Quartz.

The crystals, some exclusive to Ballybran, are used in a variety of industries ranging from “integrated circuit substrates” to “musical instruments” and applied to “tachyon drive systems” (24). The legendary and outrageously expensive black crystal has its own specific function, a utilization which human space cannot live without: instantaneous communication across five hundred light years. When black quartz is segmented, the parts of the crystal are still “able to achieve simultaneous synchronization” (24) with its counterparts when subjected to “synchronized magnetic induction” (48), thus allowing for the “most effective and accurate communications network known in the galaxy” (121-122).

The cutting of crystal, whether the lowly pink or the resplendent black, is a solitary affair done by a singer in their own claimed tract on the planet. Killa already has the reputation of being resonant with Black Quartz having handled it from one singer’s supply whose ship crashed onto the Guild’s headquarters. With an uncanny inkling, Killa ventures out to stake her own claim on the planet of Ballybran where crystal could make her fortune or be her demise. Some of her former classmates steep in jealousy of her meteoric rise to minor singer fame; another more authoritative figure, Guild Master Lanzecki, first acts avuncularly towards the promising pupil but when her talents begin to develop, so too does their relationship.

Self-pressured by her quest for professional glory, clearly on the road to crystal fame, Killa does not indulge in childish temerarious acts of whim. Rather than openly socialize with her peers on a bonhomous plain, Killa is reserved, favoring her cultural sense of privacy, yet autonomously finds herself in submission to the electrifyingly erotic kisses of Lanzecki and the alluring captivation of the soulfully resonant Black Quartz. Her last prandial intemperance is Yarran beer. Frequently consuming the semi-narcotic brew, she doesn’t allow herself to gormandize herself into inebriation; reservation defines her.

Her ascent to singer stardom peaks when she is guided under the tutelage of the experienced yet absent-minded Moksoon. His grace of cut and dexterity of handling gives Killa what she needs for her first jaunt on her own tract of land, the same tract where the Black Quartz originated. Armed with her cutter, a piezo-electirc device tuned by her perfect pitch, Killa is ready to unburden herself of the surmountable debt which the Guild places on all cadets; Killa’s debt is soon to be absolved but her vernal duty to humanity nulls the bounty of her first crystal trove. Thence, after her debacle, Killa is called to duty during a time when all crystal singers are at their most vulnerable: Ballybran’s epic planet-wide mach storm during the three-moon syzygy and spring equinox.

Will this reprieve be a blessing in disguise?


According to Crystal Singer’s Wikipedia page, the novel is partly autobiographical as Anne McCaffrey herself had also trained as a vocalist but eventually “suffered a crisis when she was informed that a flaw in her voice would limit her in that avocation”… much like Killasandra. So, it seems McCaffrey attempted to intertwine part of her life story and the mysticism of crystals with speculative crystal science. Regardless of my distaste for crystals, lutes, cloaks, and other figurative fantasy language, Crystal Singer is actually a solid through and through success with the only fault being repetitiveness.

According Google’s Ngram Viewer, “crystal” was a more popular word in literature in the early 1960s but much less than the 1970s and 1980s. I have a friend of an older generation who adores crystals and all their mystical properties. He’ll talk on and on about the benefits of using crystals and the auspiciousness of finding natural crystals. It really puts me off and I have no idea how he goes on about when I have nothing to add to the conversation without being rude and saying, “Jesus, that’s all bullshit!” Typically, when crystals are used in science fiction I see it as a weak inclusion to any plot, like no other idea could have been thought up; prime irksome examples of such are:
·         the “crystal nodes” in Pohl & Williamson’s Reefs of Space (1963),
·         the “mysterious alien crystal” in Greenleaf’s The Pandora Stone (1984), and
·         the “crystal flute” in Van Scoyc’s Cloudcry (1977).

However, McCaffrey’s inclusion of crystals in her plot is central rather that peripheral, occasionally returning to the science or use of the crystals in her fictional universe. Because of Killa’s rapture singing and gazing at her crystals, because the Guild of singers is held almost sacrosanct, the mystical affiliation with crystal cannot be ignored. Not all applications of the crystal sound plausible, like the instantaneous transmission of data between sections of the same Black Quartz (quantum entanglement [Einstein’s spooky action at a distance]?). Crystals aren’t beyond the scope of our modern understanding of physics… I doubt any planet’s geography could produce physics-bending materials. Also, the cutting device which is tonally linked to the perfect pitch vocalist cutter sounds a bit silly, but I tried to put it behind me and be immersed in the fine narrative.

The narrative is very easy to become lost in for two reasons: first, McCaffrey’s writing is beautiful, engaging, emotive, and descriptive; last, McCaffrey is deft with her plot which has no notable crests or troughs in the “action”. The 302 pages feel like seamless plateau, far from featureless but even and tempered (not in the musical sense). Each of the thirteen chapters, lasting 22 pages on average, continue on without pause until its end, but even then the chapter divisions are flawless… more of a pause in thought than a chronological gap. It’s a breeze to read!

But her writing isn’t all flowers, crystals, and verbose language. McCaffrey has one knick in her grammar armor which annoys me greatly: she over uses the emphatic did before simple present tense verbs (verb 1). A smattering of examples: “I did remember that all right” (26), “I did tap data retrieval” (47), “She did cast surreptitious glances” (55), “her nervous system tingled with the after effect, she did groan” (63), “The drink did clear the last miasma of the threshold test” (63), “I did hear her come out” (93), “She did skim along the first ridges” (99). Either McCaffrey is being overly emphatic or she has chosen to present past tense actions by using did + verb 1 rather than simply using verb 2 forms. Either way, it got under my skin.

Lastly, it seems as if Killasandra likes her beer; more specifically, she likes loves Yarran beer. How much does she like it? Well, it’s mentioned 38 times (according to my count). Maybe the beer her more sociable, making Killa come out from her cocoon of privacy which she is used to thereby characterizing her as a butterfly. But 38 times? That’s a bit overkill.


If you’re not distracted by the emphatic use of did and the over abundant Yarran beer, then The Crystal Singer should be an easy, breezy read full of wonderment and growth. Don’t expect a crescendo, an escalation, a fitting conclusion, a chase scene or bodice ripping. McCaffrey sets the pace slow and steady, kind of like a placid boat ride with your grandparents… just shinier, more entertaining.

Friday, December 6, 2013

1984: Fire Pattern (Shaw, Bob)

Forgivable mediocrity of the paranormal (3/5)

Bob Shaw is an author who was introduced to me by Joachim Boaz. We both found Ground Zero Man (1971) predictable but also found the character admirable. Another common read of ours is One Million Tomorrows (1971), which had a pot-boiler plot with some tasty futurism. In addition to these two shared novels, I’ve also read Shaw’s Vertigo (1978) which had a very middling feel to it and finished the novel feeling unimpressed yet content.  The last Shaw novel I read was his popular Orbitsville (1975). What exactly made it popular was beyond my reckoning because it only warranted 2-of-5 stars; it felt stale and lifeless. To finish my stack on Shaw, I’ve dusted off Fire Pattern—enigmatic cover (still can’t figure it out), good title, lame tag, and terrible synopsis… why did I even pick this book?

Rear cover synopsis:

It is the year 1996, and science reporter Rayner Jerome has been assigned to investigate a case of spontaneous human combustion. Setting out to prove the incident is some sort of giant hoax, Ray learns to his growing horror that spontaneous human combustion does indeed occur, and further that its cause it extraterrestrial in origin. And this knowledge catapults Rayner on a nightmare journey of discovery—a journey stretching from a quiet, backwater town on Earth to the heart of an alien stronghold. And as Rayner uncovers a frightening, centuries-in-the-making plot to invade Earth, he is plunged into the midst of a titanic struggle between two super-human factions, one bent on finding a peaceful means of coexisting with mankind, the other determined to enslave all of humanity.”


Mauve Starzynski speaks with her father, turns around to the kitchen to make coffee and returns to the living room to find a plume of sweet, bluish smoke, a pile of fine ash, and a severed hand with tapering char at the wrist. She had been away only a minute or two, so what could have reduced her father to nothingness? Could it have been an ember from his pipe, some medication for his abdominal pain, or the disused TV next to his shadowy corpse? All signs point to the ridiculous notion of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) and Rayner Jerome, the science savvy reporter for the Whiteford-Examiner, has been tasked to actually investigate the pseudo-science. Leery at first, Jerome becomes entrenched with the details where no correlation can be drawn, no coincidence can be found, no reason can be given.

The news in the town of Whiteford must be slow. The demanding, Amazonian editor-in-chief of the paper, Anne Kruger, gives Jerome the opportunity to run a full-page spread on the man’s SHC death and the likelihood of SHC as truth. Also in the news is manned mission to Mercury sent to investigate an artificial metallic object; this, and other science related news, is most interesting to Jerome, yet he peruses the literature of SHB, locations and hypotheses, times and people. His scientific reasoning indicates that something must correlate but the absence of any parallelism indicates to Jerome that this odd element of history may actually be true: “[T]here has to be an explanation. For every effect there has to be a cause” (31). Determined, Jerome set his thesis: “there had to be a logical explanation for SHC, no matter how deeply buried” (34).

Thanks to an eidetic memory, Jerome places a heart-shaped pillbox at one SHC with another at the Starzynski scene, but when he confronts Mauve, she retaliates against the accusation that the good doctor, who gave her father the pills, would ever be fingered, let alone involved, in the death of her father. Having the doctor’s name, Jerome goes to the lush manor where he lives but is disappointed when the doctor isn’t on the premises; instead, he spends a few minutes with the feeble-minded gardener, Sammy Birkett. The gardener, diagnosed with cancer but given a job by the seemingly righteous doctor, pulls out his own heart-shaped box, drops a mint into his mouth and offers one to Jerome—needless to say, Jerome is gobsmacked. Suddenly, the feeble gardener began to feel ill, then

opened his mouth and emitted a writhing, roaring tongue of blue flame ... bright fire spread radially from the gaping mouth to annihilate the face. He [Jerome] saw the torso swell, collapse and swell up again as it was consumed by a terrible heat which, miraculously, was slow to ignite the constraining clothes. He saw the nastic twitching of the limbs as they were consumed, turning the body into an obscenely dancing puppet …. his mind was aware that the reduction of Sammy Birkett to a crackling cinder was taking place as an incredible speed. A minute went by … perhaps two … then the visitation was over. (53-54)

Rushing home in fright, Jerome reevaluates his investigation. “[U]nless his conclusion about Pitman were totally false … he had made a major breakthrough in little more than a day. Either he was fantastically lucky, or the parameters of the problem were changing” (57). When he flees the town to think things over near his lake house, Jerome soon begins to understand just how much the parameters have changed. Eerily, the doctor is already there, who confronts him, buries thoughts in his mind with inhuman telepathy, threatens him with a shotgun, and makes him row a boat to the center of the lake… all the meanwhile, Doctor Pitman is spinning an exotic story involving a displaced alien race, transferences of the mind into human vehicles, and the real cause of SHC.

Another, more sinister, human doppelganger changes the situation abruptly, enveloping Jerome in own investigative target, which causes his mind to displace to a distant alien base. Not in his own body and struggling to keep his mind, Jerome must face the facts of his current existence while coming to terms with the aliens’ own sympathetic circumstances, which involve both Earth and mankind. His dilemma lays between choosing to act or not to act, how to act, who to act for, when to act and, most importantly, how to inform Earth of all the bizarre facts without sounding like a lunatic.


Honestly, I’m not sure how tolerant I am of paranormal or supernatural occurrences trying to be explained in science fiction. I’ve never read any SF with vampire though I know some exist. I accidently stumbled upon a werewolf story once; I read James Blish’s novelette “There Shall Be No Darkness” (1950) in his two-story collection entitled Get Out of My Sky (1980)… didn’t like it. I would have assumed that my toleration for fictional explanations for alien abduction would be low, à la Whitley Strieber, so I would have also assumed the same for spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Hmm… I wonder what other paranormal activities could get under my skin?

Actually, Shaw’s book starts off at a fantastic rate. The steady penetrating investigation of Jerome is as enticing as it is informative, be it true or fictional. The mysteries of SHC come fast and thick and when Jerome himself becomes witness to a case of SHC, the plot becomes electric. He takes information from history, applies the circumstances to other SHC, attempts to find similarities between a number of cases but ends up with nothing… absolutely nothing: men or women, alone or in a crowd, on land or at sea, alcoholic or teetotaler, smoker or non-smoker—nothing correlates. It’s enticing to see such a mystery, though supernatural, being tackled by a skilled hand. Pardon the cliché: However, he got more than he bargained for. He actually witnesses a case of SHC!

Yet, just ten pages after the descriptive and tragic SHC scene, another paranormal activity rears its ugly head—telepathy (dun dun dun!). I have a long history of loathing any mention of telepathy in SF; rarely is it ever believable or effective in a plot because it always seems like a lazy, ham-fisted inclusion. Shaw’s own inclusion of telepathy is useful (a rather tame adjective) but he grates my nerves by trying to explain the physical process of telepathy: [T]elepathy was partly a physical process, involving the teleportation of electrical charges into the receiver’s brain (144).

Telepathy is about the only thing that separates the humans from the alien Dorrinians; that and their alleged moral high ground where there praise themselves a “highly ethical people who revere life above all else” (79). They are bipedal and share all the sense of a human with the only exception being the lamely explained telepathy. They are so similar that an alien can easily pass off for a human. This scenario immediately puts me off, an personal miff of mine: of all the exotic alien ecologies, of all the species which exist, of all the planets they visit, they visit Earth with an alien race which resembles themselves—lame but accepted because the start of the novel was so enthralling. This likeliness in form to mankind is addressed later in the novel but it feels like a sad attempt to clarify the issue, like an afterthought.

So, two-thirds of the novel follows the fantastic beginning. It’s not all a ham-fisted jaunt through telepathy and similar alien physiology, some parts found be drawn back into Earth’s unknowing plight at the hand of the Dorrinians and Jerome’s place in saving or condemning the world. I feel that I can actually forgive the rest of the novel, like forgiving a man’s mediocre life because he was a child prodigy or being content with your ugly mutt because it was a really cute puppy. Get me?


With its highs and lows, Fire Pattern isn’t a keeper but it does provide some entertainment; if you want food for thought, Fire Pattern will not sate your appetite. Shaw, as I’ve said before, is a middling author but I haven’t damned him eternally, yet. If I come across anther Shaw novel as an acceptable price (below $1.00), then I might take another foray into Shaw’s mediocrity.

Monday, December 2, 2013

1972: The Darkness on Diamondia (van Vogt, A.E.)

Difficult to penetrate van Vogt’s logic (2/5)

A.E. van Vogt was one of the first authors I was exposed to back in 2007 when I seriously began to start reading science fiction. Of course, I read The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) and was titillated with the adventure, thrill, and horror of it all. I’ve also read three of his collections which have been hit and miss, where Monsters (1965) is a fun, indulgent foray into the creepy and Away and Beyond (1952) fell DOA. Aside from Beagle, his novels haven’t found purchase on my readership yet with Rouge Ship (1965) and Quest for the Future (1970) being the notable failures. Needless to say, I was leery on starting this last van Vogt novel on my shelves.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Colonel Morton was sent to Diamondia to report on the war between the Earth-descended colonists and the guerrilla warriors of the inhuman Irsk. Because something was going terribly wrong—a darkness was setting in, mental confusion was epidemic, and there was evidence of Outside interference.

The Darkness was impartial, and Morton’s encounters with it were the most disturbing events in his career. For it seemed as if the Outside were deliberately stirring up the planetary pot, mixing minds with minds, and personalities with personalities.

But when Morton realized that the only solution might be to find and use the incalculable power of the Lositeen Weapon, he realized also that the decision was too great for any one man—or even for all men together—to make.”


Below the book’s own synopsis, I almost always provide my own synopsis to the novel. Usually, this is a lengthy affair which touches on all the aspects of the novel which come into play without revealing any fundamental spoilers. Occasionally, this summarization is hampered by one of two things: (a) my inability to penetrate the author’s intentions or (b) my inability to understand the pivotal point of the novels existence. The Darkness on Diamondia is a case of the latter, where “finite logic” plays an essential and recurring role in the affairs of the protagonist Morton and his fractal fight against the Darkness. So, the brevity of the synopsis is both my own fault and one of the book’s most frustrating points.

The human-colonized planet of Diamondia was inhabited with the simple Irsk aliens when it was settled. Gradually, the Irsk undertook menial labor posts, thereby exposing them to the common human habits, which they largely subsumed. For a long while, the billion Irsk and half-billion humans got along fairly well… until strife and resistance to the occupation began to spring up thirty years prior. To placate both parties, the native tentacle Irsk and the bipedal human Diamondias, Earth sent a Negotiating Committee which continually swelled in size and diminished in capability and effectiveness.

The onset of strife is mysterious, but a common sickness strikes at random with tight-eyed facial contortions are followed by unconsciousness and the memory of living through the eyes of another. Colonel Morton had be stricken once and saw through the eyes on a seemingly common Irsk laborer, but inside its house was another mystery, a possible solution or weapon to be used against the nebulous incursion or mind transference.

Morton is no common man, mind you. He’s not a man conflicted with so-called modern logic based on man’s nature of emotion and estimation; rather, Morton prides himself in the finite logic system which the universe and all life operates on though in infinitely differentiating realities of the same logic system. This finite logic, a mathematical system of sets of duplicates, enables a man to perceive his world with ample yet realistic possibilities, but also grant a man “courteous, generous, and almost completely nonviolent” (155). Certainly applicable to a military-minded man such as Morton, the skill also applies to his leisure, where women are attracted to him because, according to his memory, women “were attracted to him because they recognized that he was becoming a finite logic male” (69). Women love a mathematical mind. [Chapter 26 contains a much lengthier and rather perplexing explanation about finite logic.]

Utilizing his finite logic and the weakness of the Darkness which transfers minds, Morton is able to release his mind from its carnal carriage and penetrate the minds of others, even convincing other that they are his duplicate. Thence, thousands of people, of both human and Irsk descent, claim to be the original Morton, a subterfuge which frustrates the Darkness and its nefarious agenda.


I collected notes on the number of times van Vogt mentioned finite logic versus modern logic, I had page numbers and arrows and stars next to material; I tried to synopsize what “finite logic” was to van Vogt in the context of The Darkness on Diamonia and how it affects the outcome of the novel, but my attempt failed me. The closest approximation of what finite logic is harkens, rather predictably if you know a bit about van Vogt’s history, to Scientology: “Man is basically good, the he is seeking to survive, that his survival depends on himself and his attainment of brotherhood with the universe”. With this goodness and universality of one with finite logic, only the greater good for the greatest number can be attained. The pitfall of this “greater good” lays in ignoring the individual, the death of individuality or even the physical death of one for many. Morton, the conscientious colonel, sticks to his finite logic guns and attempts to form a greater good for both human and Irsk, alike.

Morton’s attempt to spread himself over the planet sounds a lot like brainwashing. Again, I’m not entirely clear about how Morton perpetrated his actions with the willing/unwilling assistance of the Darkness, but therein, again lays the problem: Why was this 253-pag novel so doggedly difficult to penetrate? Was it my lack vigilance? Was it my own lack of finite logic? Or was it van Vogt’s inability to write a smooth yet engaging novel? My guess it the latter… van Vogt seems to have failed somewhere. Where was his writer’s logic in writing for the reader?

Perhaps my inability to find purchase came with my repugnance with the inclusion of telepathy and hypnosis. These weak pseudo-sciences thereby weakened the book’s plot: a tower of sand built on the silty foundations of muddy scientific waters, where the build-up of silt blocks most upriver understanding. I didn’t quit the novel, I didn’t thrown away my oars of readership and drift to another book because some elements of the Darkness were actually interesting: the origin, the function, and the future. At the conclusion, the Darkness proved to be an excellent vehicle for the plot, but van Vogt was underskilled at presenting this with finite logic for the reader’s (or this reader’s) full understanding. Mentioning finite logic again and again should cement the reader’s understanding, but perhaps there were too many points spread across too many pages.

Another thing van Vogt tried to force into the plot is promiscuous women. All the females on Diamondia seem to be prostitutes because (a) the Diamondia male is a difficult man to deal with and (b) the Negotiation Committee has many members (ha) on the planet whose needs must be fulfilled. Isolina is one women who is part of the underground resistance against Earth’s nosiness, so to enlist double agents in her guerilla unit, she simply sleeps with men so that they will instinctively feel obliged to her. I guess there’s no better way to wrangle a man in the 39th century. Conversely, according to van Vogt’s novel here, what’s the best way to wrangle and/or tame a woman? Isolina’s own monologue reveals the answer: “While I am hurt … it will be a pushover for me to get him to marry me … I should like to die Mrs. Charles Morton” (232); apparently, this is a common thought among Diamondian women. How very subservient of them.


Accuse my impatience and poor note keeping or accuse van Vogt’s inability to transfer an idea to paper, but other Amazon and Goodreads reviews seem to have trouble understanding where van Vogt was going with this novel. The first inkling of frustration should have come from the book’s very first page; is it a teaser or a test, an invitation or an eviction notice?