Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

2011: Home Fires (Wolfe, Gene)

Dreamlike: dissociative rather than ethereal (2/5)

Wolfe is notable for his evasive writing style with which he seems to skirt the plot he wants to write about and, instead, works around it with vagueness and nebulousness. This applies to his short stories and his novels. While the circumspect style is manageable is most of his short stories (Starwater Strains [2005]), it has been a wondrous circumnavigation for his novels: Nightside of the Long Sun (1993), the remainder of the Book of the Long Sun series, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1973).

In 2011, I was excited to hear of Gene Wolfe’s new novel, Home Fires, but I couldn’t buy it immediately; I had to wait two years, find it at a secondhand shop, then wait another year before it came up on my reading list. When I had to make yet another trans-Pacific flight, I chose Home Fires so I could sink into Wolfe’s elegant, lovely prose. Sadly, I couldn’t sink into as I was kept at aloft like an air balloon, soaring further and further away from the surface of the novel. Interesting premise… but a maze within.

Rear cover synopsis:
Gene Wolfe takes us to a future North America at once familiar and utterly strange. A young man and woman, Skip and Chelle, fall in love in college and marry, but she is enlisted in the military, there is a war on, and she must serve her tour of duty before they can settle down. But the military is fighting a war with aliens in distant solar systems, and her months in the service will be years in relative time on Earth. Chelle returns to recuperate from severe injuries, after months of service, still a young woman but not necessarily the same person—while Skip is in his forties and a wealthy businessman, but eager for her return.

Still in love (somewhat to his surprise and delight), they go on a Caribbean cruise to resume their marriage. Their vacation rapidly becomes a complex series of challenges, not the least of which are spies, aliens, and battles with pirates who capture the ship for ransom. There is no writer in SF like Gene Wolfe and no SF novel like Home Fires.”


For a reviewer who likes to write 1000-, 2000-, and 3000-word reviews, I surprise myself when I say that I have very little to add to the book’s own synopsis. The novel is just as jumbled as it says: “spies, aliens, and battles with pirates”.  There’s a whole lot going on, but one top of all that craziness there’s actually a mystery whodunit plot, but it doesn’t redeem the destruction which had already been wrought.

As the book’s synopsis says, a “contracted” partnership between Chelle (the contracta) and Skip (the contracto) enters an interesting phase as Chelle decides to enlist and be sent for duty far, far away. The effects of her few years of duty are at relativistic speeds, so time is dilated; therefore, time on Earth passes decades while only years have passed for Chelle.

Skip is eager to welcome home his contracta. He has been building an empire of money and law from his downtown practice where he is junior partner. With this financial asset benefiting him, he sees the perfect opportunity to give Chelle a unique gift when she returns; though Chelle’s mother (Vanessa) died years ago, Skip obtains her last brain scan that holds all her memories and then pays for the procedure that transfers them into a temporary but willing and walking body. When Chelle returns, she’ll have the chance to catch up with her mom, regardless of the fact that her physical appearance won’t be the same and that Chelle actually divorced her parents prior to enlisting.

On her arrival, Chelle somehow recognizes her mother yet not her contracto. Chelle’s mother makes blatant moves on Skip, but he continually deflects the unwanted flattery and stays eager for the reunion with Chelle. The relationship is tenuous; when you think it would be a passionate and romantic, but the reunion unfolds as professional, almost like a stable relationship between a naughty secretary and her respectable male boss (Skip also has a secretary as a mistress, so he’s used to this kind of relationship). In order to reunite, Skip books a luxurious cruise… but things go awry, as the synopsis points out.

First, though booked to be alone on the pleasure cruise, it turns out that Vanessa had somehow pulled some strings and became employed as the social director on board. This is only the first turn of events on the otherwise perfect-for-an-hour-or-two cruise: Chelle feels the need to buy a gun, the two befriend an armless man who hooks them up, they dance and buy a few guns; pirates storm the ship, guns go ablaze, Chelle goes missing, and ransom is demanded; people are interrogated, Skip’s contacts come to the rescue, Skip runs into his secretary/flame, and some people die while some people live.

That’s that in a nutshell.

In addition to the bizarre twists in an equally as bizarre story line, there is even more to complain about. I remember the Book of the Long Sun series to have eloquent passages of atmosphere and observation—a syrupy passage of beauty! Even Wolfe’s much earlier The Fifth Head of Cerberus had passages similar to this beauty. While dialogue has never been superfluous to Wolfe’s novels, it has always been satisfactory. Now in Home Fires, it feels like 80% of the novel is entirely dialogue… all talk, no walk. This results is a sluggish pace where every detail is discussed or hypothesizes but very little is actually done… not that the book is necessarily an action novel, but there’s just nothing to contrast the lethargic dialogue.

Matt Hilliard, from Strange Horizons, offers more on this odd facet of Home Fires:

When characters aren't talking, the narrative races at breakneck speed to get to the next conversation. There is a lot of action in the story, yet very little of it is described. Instead, we learn about events through allusions made in later conversations … These lacunae are also a tool that Wolfe uses to temporarily conceal the reasons why things happen until after the fact, and both the jumps forward in time and the unexpected events that follow them cement the novel's dreamlike feel.

And like Matt, I agree that the arch-theme of Home Fires is one of dysfunction. It’s obvious that Skip is disjointed one way or another, Chelle herself has a loose grip on reality, and the constant turn of events is unsettling; compound this with the endless dialogue and, indeed, it does have a “dreamlike feel” but it’s also frustrating—here “dreamlike” meaning dissociative rather than ethereal.

If the reader’s expectation for this novel rest with their prior experience with Wolfe’s work, the reader may be greatly disappointed. While reading, if you want to take one thing away from this novel’s experience, it will be that, somehow, all the bizarre aspects of the novel doesn’t feel all that odd… it just happens to be dissociative rather than ethereal.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

1967: The Killer Thing (Wilhelm, Kate)

Inhuman, maniacal robot; inhuman, maniacal soldiers (4/5)

Kate Wilhelm is among a handful of female science fiction writers who need no introduction. She’s authored scores of short stories, about thirty-six genre novels, and eleven collections. She’s probably more prolific than many common and respectable male authors, yet she receives very little of the limelight that’s due to her (outside of SFMistress’s occasional posting on her work). Of her novels, I read her most popular work Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) and the much lesser popular Let the Fire Fall (1969), their respective popularity very much reflecting their quality. Het two-story collection in Abyss (1971) had some tantalizing perspective, a draw which had me put out my feelers for more of her work. Thus, I purchased three more Wilhelm books: the generically titled The Killer Thing (1967), one of her late novels Welcome, Chaos (1983) and a slightly more substantial collection: Children of the Wind (1989).

Prior to reading The Killer Thing, I couldn’t help but guffaw at the title of the novel. A fellow heavy-reading colleague of mine initially tore the title to pieces, but we ultimately found that in that title, there probably lurks a few layers of meaning; however, when interviewing a candidate who also had a flare for books, I didn’t mention the title I was reading—too ashamed of the her opinion of my reading preference. And yes, it felt awkward to be reading such a bad title in public.

Book’s own synopsis:
“In a last-ditch effort to liberate his beloved planet Ramses, a scientist us the twenty-third century develops a super-robot—one with a computer for a brain and a two-mile laser for an eye—that somehow destroys its inventor and programs itself to kill all life.

The universe is strange and unimaginable. Earth has colonized Venus, Mars and other planets in a series of devastating coups that have left civilization scorched and populations decimated. World Group Government keeps watch over an uneasy truce, but everywhere the contaminating greed of Earthmen is hated, their influence despised in a simmering passion that drives alien beings to quite human—superhuman—lengths.

Dr. Vianti, for example. His native planet, rich in platinum ore, was summarily seized by the World Group, the mines taken over, and Vianti left with the task of speeding up production of a robot he had designed to do the work of twenty-five men in the mines. Secretly, he worked on his own project.

When Trace, a Captain of the World Group Army, arrives on the scene, the killer robot has already succeeded in piloting a force-field and laser equipped fleet ship, destroying an entire city and threatening several small planets. Trace and his crew chase the robot to an arid, desert planet, where a sinister and unexpected showdown occurs. Suddenly Trace finds himself the sole survivor, pitted against an inhospitable planet and a computerized death machine on the rampage. Weakened by the elements and the lack of food and water. Trace has just one advantage over the robot—imagination. But is it enough to win his inexorable battle with The Killer Thing?


That’s one damned good synopsis that I have very little to expand on other than specifics about the battle plagued by Trace’s boredom, the robot’s insufferable drive, and blatant overtones of the anti-war sentiment.

So, the premise sounds pretty lame, right: a maniacal robots that shoots laser beams wants to kill all humans and later stalks a soldier on a desert planet. That’s exactly how the novel start off, too. With limited resources on the insignificant desert plant, Lieutenant Ellender Tracy (Trace) cowers away from the heat of the day in his dinghy for most of the time, occasionally shooting off toward the distant horizon when the robot nears. His fuel is limited, his food is limited, his water is limited, and his patience wears thin while waiting for rescue. Regardless of his pains, “he had to get up and get out, he had to find the [robot’s] dinghy, had to fortify the valley” (112).

The robot’s dinghy (I hate this word) entered the atmosphere just before Trace did. It’s unfortunate that the robot has an invisibility cloak on its dinghy, but Trace knows its general location and so establishes a form of fortification among the rocks. His salvation lies in his plan to steal the robot dinghy’s resources so that he can eke out another day: “He would refuel his own dinghy, take the water and oxygen, destroy the other dinghy” (114). But simply dodging the perpetual attacks by the roving killer robot is not enough—Trace also hopes to kill the menace somehow because it’s not only a threat to his life, but to all of humanity.

The robot was once a mining robot: eight-foot tall, weighing eight tons, armed with a stone cutting laser, and gifted with a logic circuit. Though the planet of Ramses is littered with many of similar robots that mine ore from the mountains, Dr. Vianti took special interest in developing this one robot in his underground laboratory. The conniving doctor was proud of his work, but his robot of wonder was one step ahead of him. Coming to terms with its intelligence, ability to learn, and its gift of life, it must follow its two directives: 1) the first is “the immediate satisfaction of the goal achievement” and 2) the second is “self-preservation in order to function and achieve goal satisfaction” (43). Without a primary goal to achieve, the robot sees that self-preservation is its prerogative. When the doctor says aloud that he needs to destroy the robot so that it will not fall in to the wrong hands, the robot feels threatened and thus kills its creator, escaping into open space.

Trace had once met the robot and its creator before it turned killer. Now they are together again on the same podunk planet and the robot feels threatened not only by Trace, but by all of mankind; “all man wanted to destroy it”, therefore “all men were the enemy” (146). Trace takes a philosophical approach to probing the robot’s intentions asking himself if it can be reasoned with, if it even knows what “kill’ is, and who had taught the robot to hate. Unlike the monomaniacal robot bent on destroying all of mankind in order to secure its own life, Trace can’t allow himself to hate: “You can’t afford to hate the enemy because hate involves emotions and a man with emotions driving him it not a man to be trusted in war” (173).

This isn’t exactly the opening salvo of the anti-war sentiment which runs throughout the novel, but it does highlight the opinion that soldiers must be emotionless robots, too, in order to face war. However, though these emotionless drones of war benefit the government which seeks to wage war, the soldiers remain emotionless even among people, especially foreign people. The planet of Ramses, where the robot was created, is one recently dominated by the World Group and the soldiers have had a fun time with the women there. Trace has partaken in this debauchery only because he was learned the truth from the one woman he loved on the planet. She thinks the soldiers are a disease spreading throughout the galaxy, and Trace begins to take the same sentiment.

Trace knows himself and knows that he has emotion, which he also considers his only unique weapon against the otherwise strictly logical killer robot. Offering advice to himself, Trace says, “Whatever you can reason out, so can it … use your humanness on it, your instincts, your intuition, anything that isn’t a part of logical planning” (54). Trace’s wild card against the robot is that it would not understand human thinking: “It couldn’t know about the very human ability to gamble on a long shot” (57-58).

There’s an obvious parallel between the cold inhumanness of the robot and that of soldiers, that war is fought by mindless drones and in order to kill without feeling, the kernel of emotion must be removed; thence, the primary directive of self-preservation is key. In the robot, this is by its own design, but in humans, this primary self-preservation is selfish, anti-social or even psychotic—to feel more for oneself rather than for the collective. Kill or be killed is the robot’s motto, similar to the illogical move of governments to resort to war—it’s either them or us! Much as history repeats itself, this human fascination with inhuman war carries itself through our history and into our fiction and into our science fiction; some novels (and nations, people, and news media) sickeningly glorify war and the soldiers who fight them, but The Killer Thing is a novel for those with similar anti-war sentiments. And by anti-war sentiments, I don’t mean the “well, freedom isn’t free” kind of mentality, rather the “you people are idiots and I want to leave the country (so I did)” kind of mentality.

But there’s one more thread to the novel which spurs further interest: that of “the Outsiders”. Rather than believing that God will come to save them, colonists where the World Group has invaded, the people believe that the Outsiders will answer their prayers. Trace used to find the idea of the Outsiders “superstitious and ignorant” (66) but he later begins to admire the concept, the rumor, the possible existence of the perfect beings:

They had conquered everything that plagued man; they had no disease, no death, no unnameable desires. It was as if they had climbed continuous stairs and were nearing the top while man was only then beginning to suspect that the evolutionary ladder continued upward far beyond the point that Earthmen already had reached it. (111)

This is one further jab at man’s obsession with war. The novel isn’t too militaristic in regards to using rank or maneuvers, but it is a bit heady-handed on the vilification of aggressive military action and the insistence that soldiers ought to be dehumanized in order to do inhumane acts.  Thankfully, Trace’s character is a scorned lover with a fresh insight into his own nature and that of World Group, providing a good vehicle between mindless robot and mindless soldier.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

1984: The Best from Universe (Carr, Terry [editor])

Aligned with the Nebula Awards, if that’s your thing (4/5)

It’s a little odd that I’ve been reading science fiction for eight years now yet I’ve never opened an anthology by Terry Carr. I’ve read one of Carr’s short stories (“The Dance of the Changer and the Three” [1] [2]) but wasn’t too impressed by it. Once the editor of the Universe anthology series (1971-1987), Carr compiled his favorite nine stories from the series in 1984. The Best from Universe would ideally be a cross-section of all the stories published, but rather than being back by Carr’s subjective tastes, the anthology feels aligned with Nebula Award nominations (Ellison, Leiber, and Varley) and Nebula Award winners (Silverberg, Wolfe, and Waldrop).

For the most part, the stories are quite good—the notable exception of Ellison’s story “On the Downhill Side”, which I didn’t care for the least bit. Aside from Ellison’s fantasy tale of unicorns and death, Carr includes the bizarre—courtesy of Lafferty and Silverberg—, the steamy and intellectual—courtesy of Leiber—, and the literary—thanks to Wolfe.


Silverberg, Robert: Good News from the Vatican (shortstory, 1971) – 4/5 – The narrator, along with a bishop, a rabbi and a couple, wait at a café just outside of the Vatican for word of the election of the new Pope. It’s widely rumored that the new Pope will be a robot in order to appease the population of the automata. The rabbi, himself, has seen the mirrored figure as a keynote speaker one time and he had his charms. From the chimney rises the white smoke of decision—one of oppressive mirrors or one of impressive smoke? 9 pages

Lafferty, R.A.: Nor Limestone Islands (shortstory, 1971) – 4/5 – Of the millions of clouds floating above our land, it’s rumored that thirty of so of them are actually lands of granite and marble. How they stay aloft, no one knows for sure but there are instances where their existence is ponderable. First the man who said his marble quarry was only three miles away who also had the reputation of flinging stones; then, there’s the photographer considered batty for the shots of the clouds; and lastly, someone please explain the 400-meter tall pagoda. 13 pages

Ellison, Harlan: On the Downhill Side (shortstory, 1972) – 2/5 – Disembodied as a ghost haunting the Quarters of New Orleans, Paul Ordahl and his trusty unicorn steed innocuously roam the streets of the day’s twilight. Lizette, too, strolls the street where the unicorn allows her to stroke its muzzle—a sure sign the young lass is a virgin. Her stories date her more than a hundred years old while Paul is a more recent death, his prior life haunted by foiled marriages. As dawn approaches, so too do their fates. 14 pages

Le Guin, Ursala K.: Schrödinger’s Cat (shortstory, 1974) – 3/5 – Both notable for their speed, earthworms will crawl or speed about under feet while birds will swoop of break the sound barrier above head. As one man’s house, a postman or perhaps a dog knocks at the door and marvels at the coincidence of having Schrödinger’s box and seeing Schrödinger’s cat in the house. The man is initially leery of performing the experiment, but the cat jumps into the box and experiment begins, but where and when does the experiment cease? 8 pages

Wolfe, Gene: The Death of Doctor Island (novella, 1973) – 5/5 – Orbiting Jupiter, an island of spherical glass houses an ocean and its own sandy island. On this island tread the fractured minds of once isolated individuals: Diane with her occasional yet incurable catatonia; Ignacio with his homicidal tendencies, anti-social yet thriving; and Nicolas with his general lassitude toward social conformity and a penchant for fire. The convalescence sphere oversees their recuperation but not their safety in the space-warping bucolic hospital. 53 pages

Pangborn, Edgar: The Night Wind (novelette, 1974) – 3/5 – Having committed a taboo in his community, Benvenuto flees the once secure village in favor of isolation and personal safety. Though brought up to read and write by the bishop, all of the sudden, after his so-called heinous act, Benvenuto is labeled a monster but still clings to the vanity of once being called beautiful. He reflects on his past history with his lover Andreas and his filial affection for the chandler’s wife—Mam Miriam. 17 pages                                                                                                  

Leiber, Fritz: A Rite of Spring (novelette, 1977) – 5/5 – Cooped up in the top of a cube in the desert dedicated to theoretical and applied sciences, Matthew is pleasantly disrupted by the cherubic grace of young Severeign Saxon. Initially awkward, the chance encounter in his room takes a playful turn as the two play the Numbers Game—naming all things grouped by seven. After a brief round and a brief kiss, Matthew relishes her return and her mysterious origin. Playfulness becomes foreplay, innocence becomes guilt. 35 pages

Varley, John: Options (novelette, 1979) – 3/5 – When cheap and easy sex changes were first introduced, it was outside the norm of society and catered to a specific demographic. Now twenty years later, people of all ages and all walks of life are cloning their reverse-sexed bodies to live as it for some time. Cleo, a wife and mother of six, though mutually agreed to non-monogamy, takes an interest in becoming Leo. With the change in full, Leo experiences life as a man married to a reluctant man. 28 pages

Waldrop, Howard: The Ugly Chickens (novelette, 1980) - 4/5 – Paul Lindberl is working on his master’s in ornithology and is a biology assistant at the University of Texas. While on a bus thumbing through his book on extinct and rare birds, one woman comments on how she used to see those ugly chickens—the dodo—all the time when she was young. Paul follows the lead to a country shack where he gathers the old bits of shells and bones, but he needs to take it one step further: How did the dodos end up in America and where is the photographic proof? 23 pages

Sunday, November 9, 2014

1975: Caution! Inflammable! (Scortia, Thomas N.)

Forgotten curiosity of a curious but unremarkable sort (3/5)

Few readers know of Scortia but if they do know the name, they probably affiliate it with The Glass Inferno (1974), a disaster novel that was made into a Hollywood movie titled The Towering Inferno in the same year. He typically writes novels in collaboration with one other more famous science fiction author—Frank M. Robinson, notable for his solo novel The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991). I don’t think any of the other four collaborative novels proved to be as popular as The Glass Inferno.

Eventually, while Robinson made a name for himself, it seems like Scortia has been largely forgotten about. After reading Scortia’s sophomore solo novel—Earthwreck! (1974)—I was intrigued by its (1) unique balance of ham-fisted writing (you’re right, Joachim), (2) long passages of scientific indulgence, (3) gay innuendos, and (4) curious characters. I really wanted to see if Scortia’s short stories could reflect the interesting traits of Earthwreck! And, indeed, there are some scraps morsels which stir the mind in all four regards.

In Theodore Sturgeon’s introduction to the collection, he makes two guarantees: (1) “there will be stories that you will not like” and (2) “there will be stories that will bowl you over” (xi). On the first guarantee, he’s certainly right there; many of the stories feel flat, petty, whimsical or predictable. On the latter guarantee, some stories (the 4-star stories) feel smart, but definitely not enough to bowl me over.

Rather than lament on the analogies, metaphors or reflections on human nature of each story, I’ll synopsize the stories for the sake of archival and research… this post is already 1,900+ words anyway.


Caution! Inflammable! (1955) – 3/5 – Perched high above the city, a phoenix makes its nest on the top of a skyscraper. With curiosity piqued, one reporter ventures up to the phoenix and its makeshift nest to understand its motivation and gain an understanding of its existence. Indeed, it will be reborn from its own ashes; indeed, it can predict the future; but no, it needs to help for ignition from the friendly newspaper journalist. 3 pages

Sea Change (1956) – 3/5 – George and his wife sit next to Bart while George lectures on and on about the hazards of “those robot ships” (15) which are inhuman and pilot passengers to Mars. Meanwhile, Bart sits at the bar, himself being a pilot who ships men to Mars, converses with his love interest in real time across space; he ignores George’s ignorant comments and concentrates, with his excellent capacity, on saving his lonesome girl from destruction by collision with a ship. 15 pages

Though a Sparrow Fall (1965) – 4/5 – The subjective so-called answer to life has been quested after for many ages and by many people through many disciplines. At a university interdepartmental get-together, Gerten, a biochemist, says he has found that same answer to life by studying the content analysis of the human nucleotides. Perhaps it’s not so much an answer as it is a message written by someone or something. 5 pages

John Robert and the Dragon’s Egg (1957) – 3/5 – Out in that there swamp, the little rascal John Robert proudly comes home with an egg of some sort, which he duly reckons it to be a dragon egg. In the coming days during its incubation, Grandpa Riley sees to the egg’s needs. When the beast hatches, neither can believe their luck and Aunt Bess wants nothing to do with the cloak and dagger routine… that is until she and Uncle Ben witness its grandeur with dollar signs in their heads. 13 pages

The Last War (1975) – 3/5 – The pacific otter-like alien race which has visited Earth requests one thing: an area with which they can emigrate unless their species dies out in the next hundred years. though giving them Tasmania is a kind gesture, their reproduction cycle scares the future of humanity. Gifted with limited telepathy, the otter-like race can communicate only between sexes and are incapable of violence or lying. They depart Earth after leaving a gift of their own. 7 pages

When You Hear the Tone (1971) – 3/5 – Eighty-two years old, convinces he’s dying even when the doctor says he’s sound, and cooped up in a room where, below, the vultures of his family wait for his to die, Mark Fleiker is full of hate. Dialing on his phone, Mark repeatedly gets the same voice on the line but from earlier and earlier times than his 1970. Convinced he’s in love, he calls the girl again and again until he hears the voice of Alexander Graham Bell. Hate becomes love. 14 pages

Woman’s Rib (1972) – 2/5 – Plain and well-aged, Dr. Ellen Marsden takes pride in two things: a) her work in biochemistry and b) her incredibly attractive, much younger suitor, Frank. Though frail and weary, Frank is at the center of her personal and sexual life, and he’s actually the center of her private professional life. His charms and her frailty are apparent at a party where Frank woos the guests and Ellen makes the rounds while she’s feeling more and more tired. One wallflower catches both their eyes. 13 pages

Morality (1969) – 4/5 – A fledgling king of a land once came across a monster starving and dying. Capitalizing on the opportunity, the king rescued but imprisoned the fearsome beast. Without the tacit fear of the beast, the king would not wield the power he now has; without the supply of human flesh, the beast would not be able to continue living. Their relationship is tense, but the princess has an idea in mind for the monster, who only seeks to be with his own kind. 13 pages

The Worm in the Rose (1972) – 2/5 – Miffed by his girlfriend/s emotional games, John stomps off to the park’s public restroom, where, at the long urinal, a man stares him down. The stranger’s touch and eager mouth excite young Johnnie. With the strange man knelt in front of him, the police bust the scene, both men claiming it was their first time. The expresses worry about his wife while Johnnie about the military police, but the there are scarier repercussions for Johnnie at night. 8 pages

Flowering Narcissus (1973) – 3/5 – Honcho is a man’s man; he’s impressed with his muscles, rides a hog, and shamelessly a womanizer. He’s also hard up for cash so enlists for an experiment where he sleeps for a week, only to awake more than a century later. Attended by an android because all other humans are dead, CTX-25, and androgynous android, soils Honcho with his every desire: food, drink, a bike, drugs, and the shapeliest woman he’s ever laid eyes upon. 15 pages

The Icebox Blonde (1960) – 4/5 – On a business trip from England to America, Mr. Foringham is continually disgusted by the uncivilized and barbarous behavior of the Yankees. His wife adds insult to injury by actually socializing with one young man. Most of all, Mr. Foringham can’t believe what the supermarket has for sale:  a frozen woman; however, he finds himself repeatedly in the store glancing down at the body while his wife and her fancies are away. 14 pages

The Bomb in the Bathtub (1957) – 2/5 – Sidney Coleman has a very unique problem—a hydrogen bomb has manifested itself in his bathtub and won’t stop singing. Specializing in odd complaints, the private investigator named Caedman Wickes takes the case believing there always exists some sort of internal logic. When he sees the bomb in situ, Caedman deduces he needs a number of things including rigged dice, newspapers, and a bassoon recording. 15 pages

Judas Fish (1970) – 4/5 – In the deep ocean of the Kuwaka Deep, Jefferson Boyer is cooped up alone for three months while directing probes toward schools of fish. With the billions of people on Earth in 2000 nearly starving yet always rioting, he must direct the schools into pressurized storage in order to feed the millions. But just outside his shelter swim the over-sized and organized squid, stealing his prey and eyeing him through the thick glass window. 14 pages

Fall Out One (1972) – 3/5 – Soured to the point of constant dethatched depression by his experience in the Korean War and being passes up for promotion, Major Jim Archer will let nothing change what he wants to keep—his family. However, in the living room, a dead boy is sprawled on the floor pooled in blood. His wife is frantic and his feeble daughter cowers, but Jim is cool. He assesses the situation and sees exactly what needs to be done. 8 pages

By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1972) – 4/5 – Simple and sexless, a lone man in the desert whittles away time reflecting on an unfortunate war accident which took his manhood. Suddenly from outside, an explosion rocks him to his knees. When he visits the crash site, a naked female with malformed limbs mimics his speech and penetrates his thoughts. Regrets of sexlessness and feelings of love for the similarly sexless being pervades his thoughts as the woman ages, dies, and morphs. 9 pages

Gee, Wurlitzer! It’s a Dad! (1971) – 3/5 – Lennie Parsons grew up right thanks to his mama and became an upright moralist named Leonard Parsons. Morality his concern yet programming his job, Leonard programs the ANAVIC computer with the necessary data and some of his own reading material. When he has qualms with a pretty girl and her popularity, Leonard lament so the computer who makes a decision based on the logic fed to it. Given a gallon of one liquid and a thimbleful of another, Leonard has the answer. 14 pages

Old, Old Death in New, New Venice (1975) – 2/5 – An Earth poet of certain repute, Conrad travels to terraformed Mars, and specifically to New Venice where he’s invited to a soiree thrown by a contessa. His words of pleasure and pain, deriving the former from the latter, has sparked admiration among many of the revelers, including the ugly disfigured contessa and the cherubic boy Demetrios. When invited to partake in the very works of his words he lauds, he clams up at the indecency. 19 pages

The Premier’s Lady (1975) – 3/5 – Though the fanciful wife of the Premier, some things are still left to be desired. The Lady’s age-old fling with Peter, now the Premier’s press secretary, is marred by her accident of crashing the Porsche and having Peter’s leg amputated. Her relationship with the Premier is marred, too, after witnessing an assassination attempt where metallic fragments entered his skull. Now a changed man, he doesn’t appear to be the same man she once married. 14 pages

The Goddess of the Cats (1973) – 4/5 – Miguel cherishes his roots as an Aztec commonfolk, but he makes amends in California as a muralista as a building complex. By night, he makes loves to Senora Martin; by day he tiles the mural of a mermaid. Proud of his work, he shuns additional work of labor and oversight pushed by his employer Duchotte. Angered by his unwillingness, Duchotte covers up Miguel’s work with brick and marble, only to be destroyed by Miguel’s prideful wrath and lineage. 16 pages

The Weariest River (novelette, 1973) – 4/5 – Immortality is finally realized by the genius of Malcolm while researching for a pharmaceutical company. Little did he know that the gears of consumerism and the corporate world are very well oiled; his invention is pawed off to an insurance company and becomes a dominate world force. Malcolm is over three hundred years old and, like his body, the world is decaying but refuses to die, Malcolm, however, knows the secret of real death, for when the time is right. 41 pages

Thursday, November 6, 2014

2014: The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Hamilton, Peter F.)

Detoured return to the Void of expectation (3/5)

Of Hamilton’s sixteen-book bibliography, I’ve now polished off eleven of the tomes, including the Night’s Dawn trilogy (1996-1999) which I read earlier this year ([1] [2] [3]). Though that trilogy isn’t his earliest work—a sticky -note factoid which belongs to the Greg Mandel trilogy (1993-1995)—everything which made the trilogy a popular success (subjectively, no) can be found is the rest of his work. It’s difficult to boil down the essentials and give it a name, but technology, horror, telepathy, and investigation play a heavy hand in most of his novels—that goes for Great North Road (2012), somewhat. Now, after reading The Abyss Beyond Dreams (2014), I realize that these same themes are becoming redundant.

The Commonwealth Universe series of novels (minus Misspent Youth [2002]) started off with a bang in Pandora’s Star (2004) and continued unabated through more than a thousand pages in its sequel Judas Unchained (2005). I was hyped by the announcement of the Void trilogy (2007-2010) and actually found the storyline in the Void to be more interested than the storyline in the Commonwealth! But after the third book—The Evolutionary Void (2011)—I was getting a bit tired of the bucolic supernatural world of the Void and wanted the sharp tang of a technological fix from the Commonwealth. The conclusion to The Evolutionary Void finished, satisfyingly, on that same note and many overtones for teasers into The Fallers duology.

In my review for The Evolutionary Void, I mentioned four threads which were left hanging, possibly as an enticement for the continuation of the Commonwealth series. Two of these threads turned out to be dead ends in regards to The Fallers duology, but two of the same ones I mentioned hit the nail on the head: What happened to the far-flung colonists aboard the Brandt Dynasty ships? What happened to Nigel and his trans-galactic fleet?

In Judas Unchained (2005), Nigel’s fleet is first mentioned as an escape for his Dynasty from the possible defeat by the Primes:

Nigel had authorized eleven of the vast ships, with initial component acquisition consent for another four. In theory, just one ship could carry enough equipment and genetic material to establish a successful high-technology human society from scratch. But Nigel had wanted to begin with more than the basics, and his Dynasty was the largest in the Commonwealth. A fleet would make absolutely sure any new human civilization they founded would succeed. (622)

Very early, The Dreaming Void (2007) mentions both fleets:

The last major departure had been in AD 3000, when Nigel Sheldon himself led a fleet of ten starships, the largest craft ever built, to set up a ‘new human experience’ elsewhere. It was strongly rumoured at the time that the ships had a trans-galactic flight range. (323)

But Mellanie’s Redemption was a fine ship, she should be able to make the trip out to the Drasix cluster, fifty thousand lightyears away, where the Brandt Dynasty ships were said to have flown. (324)

The Evolutionary Void (2010) also mentions Nigel’s fleet:

Nigel Sheldon had offered Ozzie another way out, a berth on the Sheldon family armada of colony starships. They weren’t just going to the other side of the galaxy to set up a new society. Oh, no, not Nigel; he was off to a whole new galaxy to begin again. A noble quest, restarting human civilization in a fresh part of the universe. Then in another thousand years a new generation of colony ships might spread to further galaxies. After all, as he’d pointed out, this one is ultimately doomed with the Void at the center, so we need somewhere that’s got a long-term future. (410-411)

And then, this fleet magically triples in the timeline of The Abyss Beyond Dreams: “3000: Sheldon Dynasty colony fleet (thirty starships) leaves Commonwealth, believed to possess long-range trans-galactic flight capability” (ix).

The Abyss Beyond Dreams starts off with a 94-page ordeal of one of the nine Brandt colony ships—the Vermillion. It seems that all of the ships passing near the Void had been transported into the Void universe. Crew are being thawed from their sleep only to suffer unpleasant side-effects of the Void’s technological restrictiveness, just as their ship experiences limitations, but they have all the benefits of the seemingly supernatural telekinesis and other powers Edeard had. Two objects pique the interest of those on the Vermillion: the planet on which they may land and the curious crystalline Forest. The planet, however, isn’t the fabled planet of Edeard. It still looks inhabitable, so the Vermillion aims for the planet while a splinter group investigate the odd emerald crystal Forest—Laura Brandt is among that crew and she absolutely loves the word “bollocks”, which she says twenty-five times in 94 pages. Unfortunately, the crystal resists their persistent probing as automatic probe simply disappear from sight, then even the Vermillion and the planet disappear. Still enticed by its mystery and uncertain of the Skylords’ vague dialogue, they push on to attain a sample from crystalline egg sacs at its extremes. Once the human crew touch the eggs, they become absorbed. Laura, still on the observation ship, later sees them return yet acting oddly. Horror quickly falls upon the observation ship as they devour its human crew, yet Laura miraculously escapes to the surface of the planet. This is only the beginning of her personal horror.

This opening premise is a great start because it captures the imagination with the “lost fleet”, the idea that a fleet of humanity became stranded and experiences the hardships of its locality. This location isn’t a desert island with cannibals, but it’s The Void in all its weirdness. All readers of the Void trilogy are aware of Edeard’s planet named Querencia, but it was just an assumption that this was the only planet it the void. Also an assumption, people believed that the Skylords were native to the Void and that they were the only bizarre manifestations within the Void. It’s a bit of a stretch for the reader to experience two new revelations from the Vermillion: there’s another planet and there’s another oddity; also, that oddity had the oddest of qualities and is perhaps even the key to understanding the Void and—boom!—it’s right on their doorstep.

The vigilant Raiel maintain a million-year sentry post around the Void, fearful of its ever-consuming growth. The Raiel are able to enter the Void universe, but their mighty warship fleet had never been heard from again. They tracked the Brandt colony ships across space and become concerned about their possible penetration into the Void, a rather odd development considering it has never happened in one million years. Though powerful in innumerous regards, they need the help of one man to unravel the mystery of the Brandt fleet’s disappearance: welcome back to the scene and the series Nigel Sheldon!

For some reason (nostalgia, perhaps?), Nigel invites Paula Myo along for the Void mission. However, she’ll stay aboard the observation vessel along with Nigel’s original self. Nigel’s clone is the one who must do the dirty work and investigate two things: What happened to the Brandt colony fleet? How can the Void be destroyed? As the cloned Nigel in the Void experiences the planet of Bienvenido, his “dreams” are broadcast to the original Nigel in the normal universe. Just as Edeard and the crew of the Vermillion have extra-sensory powers, Nigel, too, wields the same; Nigel is most aware of Edeard’s powers because he and Paul had snuck in and witnessed all of Edeard’s dreams, stolen from Inigo the Dreamer and cult leader of Living Dream. This also seems like a stretch, a hastily included act to set the precedence for Nigel’s infiltration to the Void. So, while the initial 94 pages are an intriguing start to the novel, the next section where Nigel, Paula and the Raiel plan their infiltration is a bit of a hasty rush, something which I’ve never said for any Hamilton novel… slow and steady, that’s typically his pace until the conclusion and only then is it a hasty retreat.

The novel opens up a third story, which remains the focus of The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Planet-bound on Bienvenido, Slvasta is a simple commanding officer for the regiment in charge of protecting the village of Cham from bandits and Fallers. Bandits may be a daily fear, but the Fallers are a three-millennium long fear engraved into the conscious of every human on Bienvenido. Slvasta’s squad is called to investigate one such Faller alert. Though the scientists regard the green Forest in space as the source of the Fallers, they have no way to track their movement toward Bienvenido and are only alerted when they streak groundward. They know a few other things, too: (1) the heaven-fallen eggs enrapture humans near it thus drawing them into it, eggsuming them, and creating an evil twin which cannibalizes living human bodies and (2) they can be destroyed in egg form or ersatz human form.

This is, again, all a curious development because Edeard’s city and planet were never hampered by these falling demons from the Forest. The Forest and the Fallers are both an entirely new development which was never mentioned in any of the three books in the Void trilogy. Again, this seems like a desperate attempt on Hamilton’s part to explain the mysteries of the Void after already having developed the mysteries without the answer… kind of like BSing on an exam. Taken by itself or taken in context with the other Commonwealth books, this book is just odd as the majority of the storyline (other than Nigel, the Void and the Raiel) does not reflect its predecessors.

Thereon, in itself a good story, Slvasta makes some revelations about the need for progress and change through revolution—the seed for this revolution was planted by Nigel himself when they crossed paths on the riverside while Slvasta was out seeking Fallers. Nigel, wise for more than a thousand years, impresses Slvasta with the kernel of truth: Bienvenido will not change itself nor will it change from the top; it will only change from its core—the people. After Slvasta is given a seat of power so that he can stop the culling of modified animals (remember the genistars from the Void, mind-crafted animals for a specific purpose?) because they are easily controlled by Fallers and a clear threat to humans, he doesn’t lie still for long. Witnessing the turgid bureaucracy of his government, Slavasta realizes he is in a position to make those changes that Bienvenido needs—a revolution is at hand!

Slvasta’s story thread of social upheaval doesn’t garner much interest. Behind this storyline, there are three lurking agents of change which that impinge on the flow of events: (1) The Captain and his mansion, (2) Nigel and his farm, and (3) Laura Brandt and he perpetual descent.

The Captain and His Mansion
More than three thousand year ago, the Brandt colony vessel named Vermillion made landfall and established exactly what it was intended to do, just not in the same universe. The captain—Captain Cornelius—was the first “Captain” of Bienvenido and, three thousand years later through direct lineage, Captain Philious now reigns with an iron fist, quashing any protest or revolt. Under his palace lay the remains the Vermillion, rich with ancient Commonwealth technology but sitting idle as much of it doesn’t work under The Void’s bizarre quantum structure. Much of this is unknown to the commonfolk of Bienvenido, but Nigel knows and Nigels sees opportunity.

Nigel and His Farm
To avoid suspicion from the locals, Nigel establishes a farm on the town’s outskirts. However, being the eclectic man he is, Nigel pushes the limits of technology on this backwater world where electronics don’t work: steam engines are created, unique genistars are produced, and other scientific dalliances abound. He’s definitely up to something. Ultimately, his goal to is destroy the Void and free the humans from the grip of its quantum tyranny, but he must tick off a long list of mental exercises so that he can accomplish his personal goal and as a favor to the Raiel. Once such jaunt is to the Desert of Bone, which is rumored to be piled with bones and watched over by a monster; however, once there, Nigel witnesses a massive heap of expods, the exact same exopod that Laura used to save herself and enter the atmosphere… just multiplied by hundreds of thousands.

Laura Brandt and Her Perpetual Descent
In the back of the reader’s mind, there should rest of curious case of Laura Brandt. She descended to Bienvenido in her exopod with a shattered ankle only to see the exact same exopod fall from the sky on top of hers, whereby she cracks the hatch and kills her new self. Multiply this scene by three thousand years; it’s grisly, it’s cool. The ramifications of this oddity are blurry but enticing, one thread of the novel which had my mind reeling.

And… if you’ve been reading Hamilton’s work for a while, you there some sex stashed away somewhere! I remember a few vivid scenes—not necessarily good scenes, mind you—in the Void trilogy. Abyss only has one sex scene but, boy, is it a doozy. It’s so bad, I actually guffawed aloud and read it to my colleague:

Her hands were fumbling with his shirt. He used his teekay to lift her dress off. They fell back onto the mattress, touching and caressing skin as it was freed from the restriction of clothes. When they were naked, she straddled him, surrounded by bright sunlight pouring in through the bay window behind her. He used his teekay to pull her down, impaling her. The sunlight seemed to flow around her, turning his world to a glorious white blaze as she cried out. Then she was riding him, letting him into her thoughts to reveal her body’s secret demands, pleading with him to perform them. He responded with equal intimacy, sharing his physical appetite. And a completely uninhibited Bethaneve used her hands and mouth and tongue and teekay to delight him in all the ways he’d always fantasized she would. (284)


If you’re familiar with the Night’s Dawn trilogy, a few facets from there will certainly surface in Abyss: the existence of souls and the evilness of those changed. If you’re familiar with the Commonwealth and Void series, you see a few thematic reflections in Abyss: the sexualized young girl who can change the world, the bucolic hardships of the Void, and scientific progress à la Nigel and Ozzie. There’s something recognizable about Hamilton’s writing, in the thematic sense, and it’s becoming apparent that he has a formula that hasn’t changed with the times. This may be because I indulged gluttonously, though not with great satisfaction, on all three Night’s Dawn books this year. But there’s also the expectation of continuing a series without dropping all this new razzle-dazzle on the plate of the reader, very little of it familiar. There’s that word again—familiar. For something of the unfamiliar, try Hamilton's collection Manhattan in Reverse (2011).

So, some element of Abyss are agreeably familiar while others are disagreeably familiar. One might think a one-off novel might stray from this familiarity but even Great North Road suffers from these ubiquitous similarities, though it fared better than Abyss. To-date, Abyss is one of Hamilton’s least generous novels, one that doesn’t match expectations and one that doesn’t ignite the imagination.