Birthday Reviews: Bear, Egan, Forward, Lovecraft

This week, I wish a happy birthday to four authors, including two Gregs, who have moved into the forward ranks of writers with their love of their craft. Greg Bear takes us out to the galaxy and Greg Egan takes us into our heads in can’t-miss stories. Additionally, Robert L. Forward takes us down to an unusual money pit and H. P. Lovecraft takes us up to a strange high house.

Greg Bear (1951-08-20)

“Hardfought” (IAsfm, February 1983)

Several years before Stephen Baxter would begin to mine this sort of thing for at least nine novels and three fat collections, Greg Bear wrote this single remarkable fusion of space opera and cyberpunk about an infinite war between an old species that evolved from the Population II stars versus other species, especially humans, which evolved from Population I stars and its cost to humanity, even if they’re not losing in terms of combat. Most of the story occurs in a virtual reality computer interface aboard a dead Senexi starship inhabited by one Senexi (who is crazy in Senexi terms), two clones of an original human fighter from thousands of years ago (one modified by the Senexi), and a much more modified Senexi/Human hybrid. They learn about human history, hope, and passions, all of which have been lost but for the memory stores of the “Mandate” or the VR/computer. While chapters might have been welcome for breaks, the long, continuous novella speaks with inexhaustible detail which is still mind-blowing in 2020 and does so through a compressed, altered, future-slang-filled style which is conceptually accessible but creates a timeless remoteness (successfully timeless in that it still feels fresh in 2020) and which deals with subject matter which has only grown more relevant with time. This story, snapped up by the under-appreciated Shawna McCarthy, shows why Bear’s golden decade (approximately) of 1983-1993 (about) was one of the most remarkable in SF’s history.

Greg Egan (1961-08-20)

“Learning to Be Me” (Interzone #37, July 1990)

Some people think horror is madmen running around with axes. This story is true horror. Tomorrow or the next day, people have “jewels” implanted in their heads, or a device that is trained to “be them.” Every reaction, experience, event: all is mimicked by the jewel so that, when the time comes–say when you’re thirty and feel you’ve lost a mental step–you have the jewel hooked into your nervous system, your brain scraped out and replaced with something more like an artificial liver or kidney, and go about your business as the same person you always were, except immortal. Half the story follows the life of the protagonist at various ages with various reactions to the concept of the jewel and his attempts to get himself to undergo the operation. The second half of the story takes a sharp turn and, while somehow already having you on the edge of your seat from the freaky ideas and black humor, it turns into a calm, sedate, contented horror the like of which few if any stories have achieved. Or maybe that’s just me.

Robert L. Forward (1932-08-15–2002-09-21)

“Self-Limiting” (Analog, May 1992)

Forward’s best short fiction is probably the sequel to his second-best (“Acceleration Constant” and “The Singing Diamond,” respectively) but I wanted to review just one story. This one ran in the Probability Zero department and is thus a far-fetched (though sound) gimmick/joke that’s hard to describe without ruining it. Basically, this uses a bit of science and a bit of humor to explain why “there are no millionaires on Xanax,” and we might do worse than to adopt their standard.

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-08-20–1937-03-15)

“The Strange High House in the Mist” (Weird Tales, October 1931)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-30 review of Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies.

This is more of a fantasy than horror. Even leaving aside the magazine it was published in, it’s a very weird tale in which nothing much happens and it’s all told in a very mannered way but that achieves a sort of mesmeric effect conveying an awe-fulness symbolized by the unforgettable “strange high house in the mist” which the protagonist strives to reach.

SFTV Re-Views: Rogue One, Star Wars

 

star-wars

I’ve finally done something I meant to do almost since Rogue One came out on DVD and that’s watch it and Star Wars back-to-back.

Rogue One

This isn’t a full-dress review (I sort of did that on Mk I of this blog and didn’t manage to do a very good job) but just some notes on the assumption that people have seen it (though this is an even worse job).

The new non-Williams music, the subtitles, and the CGI actors still bug me. The grimdark rebels also bug me in theory but it’s done well. While some of the organic effects like the truth-reading organism weren’t great, the mechanical effects (ships, etc.) were fantastic. The movie found the sweet spot in its homages avoiding the big chunky ham-handed stuff of the sequel trilogy and instead focusing on the largest scale of being a Star Wars movie and the small scale of quick little bits. It also didn’t restrict itself to that with nods to Indiana Jones and others.

The plot mostly made a sort of sense and created some small-scale action before blossoming into full-blown space opera battle. There was a strong sense of old WWII movies generally (what with an Imperial tank and many rebels wearing WWII-style helmets) and of a Battle for the Pacific, specifically, with the island and palm trees. So that kept everything interesting and exciting (with a lot of the emotional ups and downs of Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi in one) but that needs characters to fully work and this had them. When Jyn is meeting Chirrut, and Andor says, “We’re not here to make friends,” it’s deeply ironic because they are there to make friends. I think Jyn is very pretty (and don’t care if people can’t take that as a compliment) but she’s also an interesting person who’s lost her biological parents and the last straw is losing her foster parent so that she’s drifted without connection or anything to believe in until she finds out things about her father and hooks up with her band of rebels, eventually even being able to embrace the notion that “rebellions are built on hope.” Andor is also lost, in that his hands are so dirty he’s turning into a stormtrooper for the rebellion but he still finds some compassion and independence within. The next tier of Chirrut (“the force is with me and I am one with the force”), Baze (Mr. Machine-Gun-Laser), Bodhi (Imperial Shuttle Pilot on the Road to Redemption), and even K-2SO (the least Asimovian “good” robot ever) is also strong. One might argue that they band together too quickly and that Jyn and Andor’s necessarily platonic romance is too automatic but it just recalls the quick banding together of the rebels in the original movie. More seriously, the Empire has some weird damn data protocols [1] but it made for interesting drama before the space opera morphs into a disaster movie (embracing on the shore) and then into a horror movie (as Vader goes through the corridors like Jason and Freddy and all rolled into one).

One small-ish spoiler (for anyone who hasn’t seen it) is that I loved that the Death Star bad guy was on the tower when that tower got obliterated by the Death Star.

Star Wars

As far as how they run back-to-back, the first movie was made about forty years earlier when pocket calculators cost hundreds of dollars and any PC-like things people had were built by hobbyists out of kits so there are going to be some differences in feel, despite Star Wars being shockingly beyond the state of the art of its time. (I mean this generally but, speaking specifically, it was interesting that the slick new movie managed to keep old Death Star graphics and the like and get away with it.) Still, after some FX-shock, Star Wars seemed as wonderful as ever. But the most glaring thing is how tiring that assault through the corridor must have been for Vader because, in Star Wars, he just sort of strolls through the next corridor and his duel with Kenobi is very gentle.

Perhaps the most important thing is that Rogue One dramatizes most of the opening text crawl of Star Wars and fixes one of the weird issues in Star Wars of why the Empire would built such a massive contraption that has such a glaring flaw. On the other hand, it’s not clear why the Empire is tearing things apart trying to find any evidence of Galen Erso’s sabotage in the prequel and then everybody seems quite content that the Death Star is invincible in Star Wars until the guy reports to Tarkin that they’ve analyzed the attack and there is a weakness.

I’m not going to actually “review” this one at all – if you somehow haven’t seen it, you simply must. But a couple of random notes I thought about this time: Star Wars has a much greater appreciation for non-verbal communication. In Rogue One, someone’s talking almost non-stop. Star Wars is much more like THX 1138 in that regard. Speaking of verbals, though, I love the audio effects during the Death Star battle scene when they cut from “camera in the cockpit” to “camera somewhere else” and the voices go from “in the cockpit” to “over the comms.”

I still love the scenes between Tarkin and Leia, especially when he tells her “You’re far too trusting” and, moments later, is scandalized when he declares to Vader, “She lied! She lied to us!” (Jyn’s cool but nobody will ever top Leia. Speaking of topping Leia, yes, it still bugs me that Chewie doesn’t get a medal but my theory is that Chewie’s too tall for Leia to get it over his head, so he got his in a separate ceremony. And the hold in that scene where C-3PO is shown and the camera cuts away before the camera returns and then pans down is classic.)

The main thing I thought about in this experiment of running the films back to back is that they are superb but I so deeply wish I could unsee the prequel trilogy. Also, I’m amazed at how good Rogue One is when I had to make so many allowances for The Force Awakens, didn’t even like its sequel and don’t have to unsee the sequel to that because I’ve never bothered to watch it.

Still, while I’m glad I finally did this, it worked pretty well, and I enjoyed it, it’s probably best to let some time elapse between the two. (But it is kind of hard not to at least want to watch Star Wars right after Rogue One.)


[1] And why shouldn’t there be weird data protocols and mechanisms in Rogue One if tractor beam mechanisms are so weird in Star Wars?

Asimov’s Centennial: The End of Eternity (Two Versions)

The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 191pp, 1955

Like Pebble in the Sky, The End of Eternity is another novel with an alternate version (in this case, a prior novella) in The Alternate Asimovs. I’ll cover both, beginning with the most familiar.

1955 Novel

The central organization in this temporal novel is Eternity, which had its genesis in the 24th century as a result of Vikkor Mallanssohn’s work on Temporal Fields, though it wasn’t until the 27th that Eternity was founded as a organization outside time which facilitated trade up and down the timeline of Reality. (Depending on orientation, Eternity can be seen as a giant corridor or elevator where Eternals on one side live and work at the stations of different centuries and, on the other, can pass into the Timed realm of those centuries.) Later still, Eternity became more and more focused on Reality Changes, though this second aspect was kept hidden from the “Timers” within the ever-fluctuating timestream the Eternals manipulate. They would be disturbed to know that, as in one extraordinary scene, an Eternal using the principle of Minimum Necessary Change can move a container from one shelf to another to destroy a technology, kill millions, create millions, and alter the personalities of millions more. After fairly modest beginnings even as Changers, Eternity created access to the far future, tapped into the power emitted by the Sun, which will somehow go nova, and is now powered by Nova Sol and has access to all Time, excepting only the 70-150 Thousandth Centuries in which Eternity exists but out of which Eternals cannot pass into Reality. And, after that, there are no humans in the higher centuries anyway.

Eternity is also a bureaucratic organization. Eternals must be drawn from Timers (usually at the age of 15), spend ten years as Cubs, before becoming Observers (who actually go into Time and bring back data), before finally becoming Specialists which, among other things, may mean Computers (those who compute the Reality Changes), Plotters (who determine the nature of analogous people after Changes), Sociologists (who study societies generally), or Technicians (who determine the methods and then implement the Changes – and who are ostracized by the others much as judges are admired and hangmen are are not – scapegoats for the “collective guilt involved in playing God”). Those who fail become Maintenance though, without them, Eternity could not function. Eternals are also not allowed to marry or reproduce and must have even temporary liaisons submitted for approval.

The Eternal the book focuses on most is Technician Andrew Harlan, a 32-year-old native of the 95th Century who recently worked in the 482nd Century but is now primarily based in the 575th Century after attracting the attention of Senior Computer Laban Twissell, the most powerful member of the Allwhen Council, and being transferred there to work with him. The engine of the plot began before the story opens, when he received his first assignment as an unsupervised Technician, though still under the authority of Assistant Computer Hobbe Finge who increasingly dislikes him. Harlan returns the favor when his puritanical morals are offended (and his jealousy stoked) by Finge’s new secretary, Noyes Lambent, a Timer from the 482nd Century who is a sexually liberated and barely clothed aristocrat of a hedonistic society with matriarchal elements. This brings out much psychosexual conflict (though it turns out Finge has other motivations) and, when Harlan is assigned to observe from her home in the 482nd and ends up sleeping with her, one result of this is a feeling of victory over Finge but another is that he decides he must continue this relationship with her, Eternity be damned if necessary. The night he slept with her, he also had an insight into a secret about Eternity that he believes gives him great power so that he can force them to let him have Noyes.

Meanwhile, Twissell has assigned Harlan, who has an interest in Primitive history (the time before Eternity) to teach this history to Brinsley Sheridan Cooper (a new Cub, unusually old at 24, who was even married in his time of the 78th Century) as Cooper is being prepared for a special mission which is critical to the existence of Eternity. Harlan’s connections to Noyes and Cooper come together when a Change will erase Noyes, he pulls her from Time and takes her “upwhen” where they stop at the 111,394th Century, which is in the Hidden Centuries. He intends to hide her there until he can work out something better but, on a return visit, he finds he’s blocked at the 100,000th Century and, thinking Finge may be responsible, returns to violently confront him. One thing leads to another and Harlan is prepared to sabotage the Cooper mission when revelation is followed by revelation and Harlan’s intent is changed again and again.

Aside from the story and its technical execution, there are a couple of particularly interesting conceptual elements to this (aside from, obviously, the quietly awe-inspiring concept of Eternity, itself). The most isolated is the character of Noyes Lambent. There are aspects in which she’s the girl of one’s dreams and a sort of trophy, at least in part of Harlan’s mind, but his puritanical disapproval (driven by sublimated lust) is broken by actual contact with her and, while he suffers from some virgin excess and aspects of the romance both ways strain credulity, she is ultimately an independent woman. This (complete with bedroom scene) is remarkable coming from the previously almost sexless Asimov writing in 1955. Later, Harlan wants to ask her about previous relationships but doesn’t when he attains a new perspective about her different background: “He might as well ask a girl of his own homewhen if she had ever eaten in the presence of a man and how dare she?” This might not be impressive to some now (or maybe it would be, with aspects of a New Puritanism creeping in) but, in terms of 1950s science fiction, this seems to me to be an extraordinary depiction of a “liberated” woman.

Even more interesting, but tied to extrinsic things, is the comparison of this with its prior version and with the Foundation series. In ways, Eternity is to Time as Foundation is to Space. Given the insignificance of Gaal Dornick’s character, Seldon essentially stood alone, whereas Harlan and even Cooper have relatively more prominent roles but Twissell (despite the poor name) is something of a Seldon figure. Much is made of Heinlein’s garrulous know-it-alls such as Lazarus Long but Asimov also seems to have had his own icon of a wise old man of deep technical prowess. Also, like Heinlein, you can’t necessarily read too much into it in a simplistic way, as the Seldon of the Foundation and the two Twissells are all three portrayed with very different moral evaluations. Moving to the organization itself, “Harlan liked to think that Eternity was like the monasteries of Primitive times,” and both the Foundations and Eternity have something of the medieval cloister to them. Both have a public front of commerce or academia but, behind the scenes, they really shape and mold humanity for good or ill (making foreknowledge a problematic thing). And that’s precisely one of the more interesting things: Asimov usually sees this as good, but not always. This book wrestles with the notion of beneficial and harmful technologies (whether mass duplicators, “atomic wars and dreamies,” or space travel), the costs of promoting or suppressing one or the other, whether one can sensibly choose one’s own adventures and whether this will help or harm the species (raising again Asimov’s nightmare of “blind alleys”), what “the good” in life is, and perhaps fails to wrestle with, but implicitly raises such issues as how one can have diversity in an empire or cohesion in chaos.

As interesting as all that is, as compelling as some of the characterological and conceptual drama is, and as unusual a time travel book as this is (with few paradoxes and little actual travel in Reality), it does suffer from some of the ills that time travel fiction is heir to. Though there is a reason for the Hidden Centuries, there are other limits in time and space to this shaping of Reality which are not explained and it certainly seems like there would be an easier solution to the entire dilemma of Eternity than what is actually applied. There are structural issues such as the narrative POV’s poor handling of Harlan’s frequent reveries in subjective time about his real past (as in the scenes with Voy in at least Chapters 1, 6, and 10) which even leads to his discovering something about Noyes twice and, probably due to the expansion from the novella, there are a couple of flabby chapters including 6. Even more significantly, chapters 12, 15, and 17 have contrived elements regarding Harlan’s actions for and against Eternity and an action toward him, as well as an issue—though it ends up not mattering—that Cooper should be puzzled about after his trip to the past. The fact that it doesn’t matter is yet another problem, as this suffers from what might be described as Chekhov’s bazooka or a red whale-herring, though I can’t get into it (or most of the problems) without spoiling the surprises.

All in all, this is an audacious and interesting book and I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to avoid it, but I can’t fully recommend it to the general reader, either. Asimov fans or time travel buffs basically have to have it, though. [1]

1954 Novella

As The Alternative Asimovs details [2], this all came about on November 17, 1953, when Asimov was in the Boston University library looking over old issues of Time and saw what looked like a mushroom cloud. Though it turned out to be a line drawing of Old Faithful, he started wondering about how it could have come to be if it had been a mushroom cloud and, from December 7, 1953 to February 6, 1954, he wrote what he came to see as a “dehydrated novel” which he could not get anyone to accept. Finally he gave it to his book editor and asked if there was potential for a novel and the editor said there was, so he rewrote it from April 21 to December 5, 1954. Even that could not find anyone to run it as a serial, so it came out in book-form only.

Unlike the relatively mild changes to “Grow Old Along with Me”/Pebble in the Sky, the differences in these two versions are extreme, though there are minor differences as well. For instance, Andrew Harlan was originally named Anders Horrem and Vikkor Mallansohn was Harvey Mallon. Harlan and basically everyone else are a few years younger and sometimes come from different centuries. More significant changes include the elimination of some people and ideas. [3] Even the essential plot, until elements of the end, are about the same (though the major element of the Hidden Centuries was missing). However, in the original, Horrem is a sort of villain and Cooper is a much more important character (who almost disappears from the novel) while Noyes is a significant plot motivator but minor character. Even beyond that, the story doesn’t wrestle with the definitions of “improve” or “the good” and the entire philosophy and conclusions of the two versions are diametrically opposed.

The effects of some of these differences are to make the original much more concise (obviously) with some stronger scenes (such as the container-switching scene) but also more coherent in plotting, though at the cost of diminishing the still huge scope and being less focused on central characters. It also produces odd fallout where, in the novel, the reduction of Cooper’s character and his interactions with Harlan versus those with Manfield make the psychological profiling for communication methods at the end even less convincing. On the other hand, the ending to the novel is vastly stronger than the parts of the two-step ending of the novella combined. I was pleased to note that even Asimov admitted in the Afterword, “I was amazed I had made the ending as weak as I had.” So, in ways, the novella is initially stronger but ultimately pales in comparison to the novel.

There are a couple of funny things about this, though. One is that having two versions of The End of Eternity is perfectly fitting, as Asimov simply worked a vast Reality Change on the story just as happens multiple times within the stories. Also, the two versions make this perhaps the first example of Asimov’s revision of a work to hew closer to the One True Series, a process which came to a climax with the mid-80s novels. Some changes are made to relate this to the Foundation universe and an Afterword at the end of Foundation’s Edge implies this is officially “in universe” though this is abandoned for the list in the Author’s Note in Prelude to Foundation.

Ultimately, I think this novella has an amazing concept and is generally well-executed and has several characters with compelling backstories but the underwhelming ending and deflating twist don’t do justice to the material. I wouldn’t have wanted to reject it and certainly wouldn’t have wanted the total revision that Gold did, but I would have wanted Asimov to write a better ending. I find the novel version superior and the novella version is probably only of interest to major fans or writers but, due to its differences, it’s of more interest to those major fans than even “Grow Old Along with Me.”


[1] It’s my impression that it’s a well-regarded novel and that I’m in a minority of the less impressed but Asimov, himself, says “I do consider it underappreciated, however, and feel it is unfairly drowned out by my Foundation novels and my Robot novels. Someday, after I’m dead perhaps, it may come into its own.”

[2] I read the Foreword, this version, re-read the novel version, and thought about them prior to reading Asimov’s Afterword but we make many of the same points.

[3] For instance Cooper’s teacher, Manfield, disappears, with half of his character being given to Harlan and half to Twissell. A character named Attrell is deleted along with his interesting perspective that “The last millennium of Primitive times was a kind of straight-line development with a steadily developing technology,” but “You’re going to find out the human pattern of history isn’t a line; it’s an irregular sine curve… A given era is just as likely to be similar to your own as different.”

Birthday Reviews: Davis, Keyes, Slonczewski, Varley

This week’s birthday celebrations provide us with satires on how to get science into society and how to get tuberculosis into the UN, as well as giving us tickets to Mercury (where we’ll learn that the future may not see us as morally pure as we see ourselves at this time) and to some progress reports on one man’s experience with intelligence enhancement (which will stick with us for all time).

Chan Davis (1926-08-12)

“Adrift on the Policy Level” (Star Science Fiction Stories No. 5, 1959)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-21 review of The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.

Though in the editor Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective.

Daniel Keyes (1927-08-09–2014-06-15)

“Flowers for Algernon” (F&SF, April 1959)

Through the progress reports Charlie Gordon writes, we learn that he is a 37-year-old man with an I.Q. of 68 who works as a janitor at Donnegan’s Plastic Box Company and takes night classes with Miss Kinnian because he wants desperately to be smarter. This has led to his chance to be selected by Doctors Nemur and Strauss to be the first human to undergo a brain operation to triple his intelligence, as has been done in mice such as Algernon, who beats Charlie in maze races several times. We then follow the arc of Charlie’s selection and the results of his surgery.

This story is an example of why the ancient Greeks conceived of Muses: once in a great while, everything just seems to fall into place and an author is blessed with a perfect story. This tale is splendidly simple in concept and structure and complex in detail. It’s simultaneously the purest of science fiction and deeply humanist. Charlie Gordon is the ultimate naive narrator who innocently conveys heart-wrenching pathos and painful double visions but, through his innocence, we get some experienced and hard edged-perceptions as the god-like Doctors become mortal, the untouchable woman becomes attractive, the businessman is saved ten thousand dollars a year which he repays with twenty-five dollars, and perhaps every reader is made complicit through punctuation (however gently we laugh). The main experience he conveys is that of being expelled from the Purgatory of Eden into both heaven and hell in deeply emotional terms without ever descending into mawkishness. Perhaps the saddest thing about the story is that it points out that humans can be unhappy across the spectrum of intelligence, though the specific scene of the belated visit to class tears me up every time. I don’t seek the sentimental in fiction and it doesn’t usually work very well on me but this story touches me as I’m pretty sure it’s touched most everyone who has read it. If you haven’t, go do so! If you have, it’s probably time to read it again! [1]

Joan Slonczewski (1956-08-14)

“Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN” (Nature, June 29, 2000)

First and foremost, this is clever short-short with the fascinating idea of “building computational macromolecules into the genomes of pathogens known for their ability to infiltrate the human system” to get around the problem of nanobot failures when they are introduced into the human body for medical purposes. In short, you end up with cyborg AI bacteria. This is delivered in the form of a press release declaring that this nation of beings has been admitted to the UN. Secondarily, today’s self-righteous might find something in it to consider.

John Varley (1947-08-09)

“Retrograde Summer” (F&SF, February 1975)

A Mercurian meets his loonie (that’s Lunarian!) clone/sibling, shows her the ropes, and finally learns the dark secret of his family. The exposition of the setting is as smooth as a magician’s trick and that setting, with people in amazing space suits swim/sliding in/on mercury on Mercury and then being trapped in a cave-in from the frequent Mercurian tremors is enthralling and unforgettable. Incidentally, this was talking about “gender-fluidity” before most of the people who say they have nothing to learn or gain from old, evil SF were born and it points out that one person’s moral righteousness is another’s moral perversion and that these categories are also fluid.


[1] I often think of this as one of the best stories of all-time and will often say, “Well, Story X is good, but it’s no “Flowers for Algernon.” Lately, I’d been wondering if I was looking at the story through rose-colored glasses and it wasn’t as good as all that. So it was definitely time for me to re-read, to remind myself that it is as good as all that. My only criticism is that, while I wouldn’t really change a word of what’s written in the progress reports, I would have them occur over a slightly longer span of time. It still needs to happen in a compressed time frame but, even with a science-fictional operation, a lot of the top of the arc happens awfully fast.

Review: The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell

The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell
Hardcover: Dennis Dobson, 13/6, 203pp, 1962 [1]

The prologue tells us that the result of Joahannes Pretorius van der Camp Blieder’s fixation on levitating a coin was the accidental invention of a stardrive and the result of that was “the Great Explosion,” or the diaspora of every weirdo from Earth to the stars. The rest of the book tells us how Earth eventually recovered from the loss of these eccentrics and proceeded to attempt to bring them into an Imperial fold. In this book, we follow one particular (and particularly mine-is-bigger-than-yours) starship in one particular sector as it voyages to four planets.

After an elaborate and pompous departure we meet and mock the crew, troops, and bureaucrats. Especially the bureaucrats. The first world they come to, like the state of Georgia or the country of Australia, has been settled by people exiled for running afoul of the law. They develop a family/gang-centered social structure in which they distrust anyone outside the family and despise work, gullible people (and gnoits, ponks, and snelks). Their only contacts with outsiders (other than our would-be imperialists) come on the few days of the year that make up trading season. Mainly, women who don’t like any of the men in their “family” demand to be traded. As an example of some of the humor, after the native leaves, the Colonel says he thought he saw him on the far side of the river waving an official-issue knife and asks the Sergeant Major if that was possible. “Sergeant Major admitted that it could be possible. In fact, it gave him much pain to describe it as practically a certainty inasmuch as the presence of the knife over there had been found to coincide with the absence of one over here.” And, as an example of some of the sociological arguments, when the Ambassador points out that their society has “No comfort, no security, no progress, no morals,” the native adds “No taxes, no work, no regimentation.”

Unable to establish a beachhead on a paranoid planet of multiple groups, the ship moves on to Hygeia. There are no “friendly” worlds according to the regs, but there are hostile and non-hostile worlds. Having determined this one to be non-hostile, the bigwigs debark, followed by the lesser ranked, and then the lesser still. It is wryly observed that, had the planet been determined to be hostile, “the order of exit would have been reversed.” This world takes the notion of a “nudist colony” to a whole other level. It demonstrates the relativity of social mores as the native naked fitness freaks are repelled by the Earthers’ dirty bodies (exemplified by their boozing and smoking) and dirty minds (exemplified by their clothes fetish). Under the “when in Rome” theory, when the men go on leave, they are ordered to go nude but this only offends the natives differently as the Earth folk, um, expose their relative lack of fitness. Despite these problems, the Terrans are finally granted an island on which to establish their embassy under various onerous conditions, so the remainder depart for the third world, but not every colony manages some variety of success. The Terrans moves on to the fourth world without stopping after finding the third depopulated, perhaps from a plague.

Finally, they arrive at the last world and, in one of the funnier scenes of the book, have difficulty making contact with Zeke, a native who finally tells them “Myob!” [2] and even more difficulty making contact with “Ginger Whiskers,” the next native who’s on his way to meet with the first. In a large-scale Keystone Cops routine, a bunch of soldiers are initially unable to corral a man determinedly headed “Zekeward” and finally have to carry him to the ship as he simply refuses to do what they want. They have no better luck stopping a guy who has “a gold ring in his nose” and “a pigtail four feet long” who is riding a fan-driven ball-wheeled motorbike (it’s especially interesting to note that this part was first published (in John W. Campbell’s Astounding) in 1951). Much of the contact goes like this, without useful result, until Harrison, the bicyclist among the stars, rides into town and starts making the slightest of headway, learning about how the natives are Gands and the Terrans are antigand. Eventually, even Sergeant Gleed joins in and they get a better understanding of this libertarian/anarchist society (“That’s freedom, isn’t it?”) they’re supposed to conquer. Contrary to the Weapons Shops sort of freedom, though, these folks explain how they have a weapon that can defeat all comers and there’s nothing secret or violent about it. It’s encapsulated on a sign that says “F-I.W.” and the remainder of the book will show the power of ideas in a clash of worldviews.

Humor is in the funny bone of the beholder but I thought this had very funny moments and was generally amusing, while it was also definitely “about” something and full of interesting and debatable points. For instance, the Terrans frequently use the notion of alien conquest (when there is no evidence of alien intelligence anywhere) to try to frighten worlds into joining them, which speaks to any general politics of fear. While I personally believe in strong international alliances, other elements may be making the point that they could form a single point of failure and that conquering varied forces could be harder than herding cats. On the other hand, I certainly support the diversity of states and the individuality of people within a larger framework. This seems to echo that with its various social conditions on world to world and with the Gands themselves. For instance, when trying to explain the Gands’ negative reaction to the soldiers’ uniforms, Harrison says to the Ambassador, “They seem to take pleasure in expressing their individual personalities by wearing anything from pigtails to pink boots; oddity in attire is the norm among the Gands.” It can also get rather existential or echo Rousseau (whom I loathe but that’s beside the point). When Sergeant Gleed isn’t being the usual SOB and Harrison remarks on it, “‘I’m off duty,’ replied Gleed, as if that explained everything.” This points to Gleed’s adoption of a role in “bad faith” or to the notion that men are by nature good and only made bad by institutions. The economics (as is often the case with that aspect of libertarian/anarchist theory) was interesting but more ideal than real. I had a hard time seeing how an “ob” (or the obligation one puts on another for returning a good deed) was all that different from money (though it mercifully frees people from the larger machinations of finance) or how the “size” of an ob could be determined (that is, when it could reliably be canceled). Russell does try to seriously tackle some of this with a character’s story about “Idle Jack” in response to a Terran asking about people who just tried to take advantage of the system. The point is, whatever your philosophy (unless it’s to not have philosophy in your fiction), there is something in this comic thought-experiment worth considering while you’re being entertained and amused.


[1] Approximately the last two-fifths of this book is the novella “And Then There Were None.” I hadn’t read that in a while, so compared each every so often (in a casual way, so could be wrong), but the only changes I noticed were some soldering to join the old material to the new (including two bits of initial material scraped into earlier parts of the book) and some tweaks to words. On the question of preferred version, this is a fairly unusual case where they’re about the same. The novella is naturally more focused and is probably sufficient but the additions provide more philosophical elements to consider and more humorous parts to enjoy so it’s basically just a question of whether the reader would prefer a longer or shorter version.

BTW, I somehow got hold of and read the Panther edition (which is a fittingly UK book for a UK author) but it has perhaps the dumbest blurb in the history of man, so I’m going with the slightly less wrong Pyramid cover. (Both have decent, fun art.)

[2] After initial amusing confusion and guessing, the Terrans later come to find this abbreviates the wisdom of “Mind your own business!”

Review: Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker

 

tiac

Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker
Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8384-1, $16.00, 320pp, March 2019
Paperback: Baen, 978-1-982124-52-6, $8.99, 420pp, March 2020

This multi-generational novel follows the transformation of Medical Care Android BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662 into the person named Carey. Due to an element of his manufacture described well into the book and interactions between his emulation and empathy capabilities, he becomes self-conscious and self-driven. When the story opens [1], he is already an unusually self-aware and empathetic android who is taking care of Mildred Owens, an aging sufferer of dementia. In addition to his psychological emulation capabilities, he is capable of physical emulation, modifying his appearance to meet the needs of his patient. He often emulates her son Paul, sometimes her deceased husband Henry, or whoever will make Mildred most comfortable. Later, he stays with Paul, Susan (Paul’s wife), and Anna and Millie (their daughters, the latter Mildred’s namesake), then with Millie and her husband and children and, ultimately with Garrett, the eldest of Millie’s children, whom he had delivered in a wrecked car in a snowstorm. Over the course of these four generations and about eighty years (some of which are skipped over in a few multi-year jumps) he learns more and more about self-consciousness, will, empathy, and all the other parts of humanity such as pain and humor and love, convincing most that he’s not only a machine but a person, while always being plagued by internal doubt about his own nature.

As Paul says to Carey, “Fiction is our empathy net” and this is a very emotional novel which draws the reader in with well-drawn and appealing characters and both grants and demands much emotional involvement. This is both a strength and a weakness (aside from the obvious fact that it will appeal to some and not to others) in that everyone in this novel is implausibly decent. On the one hand, most readers without sadomasochistic urges wouldn’t enjoy a book in which everyone was evil and Carey was constantly mocked or abused and, on the other, a book about empathy would naturally try to depict everyone in depth with reasons for their actions which the reader could empathize with. But when almost everyone is nice except a Belizean colonel who threatens to dismantle Carey because of his anti-robot feeling stemming from having been wounded by them in combat and even he ultimately behaves moderately and when an officious city councilman rains on everyone’s parade because of safety concerns and even he ultimately turns out to have a sense of humor, I couldn’t help but wonder if people had undergone some sort of modification in this future.

Another strength and weakness is the plot. If Carey is “life-like” in a good way, this is “life-like” in at least a mixed way. Life tends to meander and move in cycles: youth, a new generation, death. Go to school, get a job. Do this, do that. Fiction tends to be more tightly bound and driven. This story makes you feel like you have lived it. You remember Millie as a child back on page 80 and see her as an adult who is silently traumatized by her mother’s deterioration from the recurring family curse of Alzheimer’s on page 270 and it does indeed seem like a lifetime and she does indeed seem like a real person. Still, some readers may wish for a more “save the princess, fight the villain, blow up the freakin’ Death Star!” sort of plot. The ending (no spoilers) is also a thing that different people will react to in different ways. While fast-forwards through time had occurred before, it seemed rushed to me after the leisurely pace before it and, in its substance, was understandable but dissatisfying to me.

There are also minor problems which are less complicated. There are a couple of continuity lapses when, at Mildred’s grave, years after her death, Carey tells us he has never seen it before (which seems improbable given that the family presumably has been and it’s repeatedly stressed how he’s part of the family) and when Dr. Zinta takes Carey to meet her friend, Dex, and, after a scene break, there’s a party at night and Carey mentions seeing someone “who must be Dex.” Apparently they looked all day but never found him? A more serious problem, though still relatively minor, is that many of the chapter titles spoil the chapter contents. As Carey has “privacy protocols” which prevent him from discussing some things, so I have “spoiler protocols,” but felt no compunction about describing Carey delivering Garrett because, despite the chapter involving a snowstorm, a car wreck, and a troubled birth that are supposed to threaten the lives of mother and child, it is called “Today I Experience the Miracle of Life” and it’s not going to be called that if Millie or the child die.

What aren’t mixed or minor are two of the books biggest strengths. While not seeming derivative of them, if you enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” or aspects of Data on Star Trek, you’ll enjoy following Carey’s arc of growth and viewing humanity through his lens. Arguably even stronger are Carey’s relationships. While all of them, from Mildred to Paul and Susan to Dr. Zinta, are very strong, I think the strongest relationship is with Millie, from the frog-crazy girl who gave Carey his name to the scientist/instructor she becomes and beyond. However, while not as central, his wonderful friendship with the brain-injured ex-circus juggler Luke (who calls Carey “Bo” all the time, initially in confusion about an old circus friend and then in homage) and everything that leads from that, including the bold but successful passages about the “Bo and Luke Creekside Circus” at the nursing home where Carey does volunteer work, was possibly as strong and one of my favorite parts. It’s things like this, more than the plot (the “spirit” more than the “mechanics”) that make this book, like its original story kernel, a “must read.”


[1] Here I feel I have to say something about the story this novel came from. Back when I was reviewing current short fiction for my pre-Wordpress site, I read and recommended the 2015 short story “Today I Am Paul” (and it would have made my “Year’s Best” had I been doing those then like I did in 2017-18 – I elsewhere called it a “must-read” and said that if it didn’t win a major award it would confirm my feeling that they had become useless (it didn’t win)) so when I saw it had become a novel, I naturally got it. It turns out there was also a second story (“Today I Am Santa Claus”) published in an obscure anthology in 2017. Both were worked into the beginning of this. I can’t speak to the second story, but I would recommend reading the first story before reading the book because of the effect of some of the changes. The novel introduces Carey’s designer (Mom), Dr. Zinta Jansons. The interweaving of this new element (and inclusion of her in a modified scene with the Owenses), the introduction of more clinical and legalistic motifs, and the simple fact of the slightly tweaked end of the story not being the end of the book all work well enough as part of the book, but markedly blunt the story’s superb structure and impact. (In other words, the story is sort of “melted” into the book.) While reading the story and then reading the novel will result in about 5,000 words of repetition in the first 12,000 or so words of the novel, that’s a small price to pay to fully appreciate both forms.

Birthday Reviews: MacLeod, Simak

This week we go back to WWII to struggle with luck and death and we also go forward to the end of the Earth and out beyond the universe to struggle with the Creator.

Ian R. MacLeod (1956-08-06)

“The Chop Girl” (Asimov’s, December 1999)

chop-girl

World War II is raging. The chop girl tells her story.

Death was hanging all around you, behind the beer and the laughs and the bowls and the endless games of cards and darts and cricket. Knowing as they set out on a big mission that some planes would probably never get back. Knowing for sure that half the crews wouldn’t make it through their twenty-mission tour. So, of course, we were all madly superstitious.

She describes how she went out with guy after guy and how guy after guy never came back from his mission. How she acquired the reputation of being the Chop Girl, the evil touch, the personification of ill luck and how she became a lonely figure observing from a distance. And that’s how she observed Mr. Lucky, Walt Williams, appear on the base one day. How he was so charmed that he could maybe even walk on water. How he got that way. And what happens when irresistible good luck meets immovable bad luck.

There’s an expression about the flak being so thick you could get out and walk on it and this story has atmosphere like that because the chop girl’s narrative voice is so convincing and the details are so numerous and varied, yet united, and the story is so focused on its similarly varied, yet united “single effect” regarding superstition, luck, life, and death. There’s not a wrong note anywhere—even the epilogue-like part manages to step across time and quickly depict the loss of youth that, even with the loss of so much terror, is still terrible, and to end on a rather daring but effective note. The whole is completely real and completely mesmerizing. It’s not a very Birthday Review thing to say but, while other stories by this author haven’t had the same effect on me, I thought this one was a masterpiece when I first read it and it still is.

Clifford D. Simak (1904-08-03–1988-04-25)

“The Creator” (Marvel Tales, March-April 1935)

Simak is best known for stories he wrote in the 1940s such as those that formed City and stories he wrote in the 50s which comprised the contents of essentially every story he collected in his lifetime, as well as those later tales which were received with respect and awards. They are often folksy, rural tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and the like. I recommend many of them, such as “The Big Front Yard.” But there was another Simak who wrote wild-eyed crazy adventures that I also recommend like Cosmic Engineers and this tale. It’s very much 1930s SF and does do a lot of ‘splainin’ with lots of technobabble until getting to the action but it’s a big, bold, dangerous vision.

The tale opens in a Wellsian mood with a narrator marooned at the end of time before backtracking to tell us the cause of this effect. The narrator is a psychologist theorizing about his “consciousness units” and his friend is a physicist theorizing about his “time force” and, together, they manage to think up and build a machine that takes them outside of this universe and into a laboratory that’s been haunting the psychologist’s dreams and visions. It turns out that our universe is a bit of gunk this being has created for his (or is that, His?) experiments. Our humans are not the only creatures to have made their way to this great Lab Beyond the Sky, as one pair of bizarre creatures who communicate by electricity and one even more bizarre single stickman are already there and going about their arcane business, creating entirely different time/space/dimension machines to return to the universe. The Creator veers wildly between angry and pleased, calm and frenzied, threatening and genial. But our psychologist has developed a knack for reading his mind and learns something terrible, resulting in some truly bizarre conflict.

As I say, this early tale is not Simak’s tautest construction or most plausible tale, but it’s certainly not what he was taught in Sunday School and, without aid of computers, anticipates some people’s contemporary questions about our universe being a simulation and doesn’t stop there. It’s a remarkable story and a lot of fun.

Review: The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy
Hardcover: Del Rey, 0-345-40856-X, $24.95, 325pp, August 2000

This is a very strange book, provoking two opposed reactions.

Once upon a time (July 1999, to be exact), “Once Upon a Matter Crushed” appeared as a novella. It was later lowercased and became “book one” of this novel. Now speaking structurally rather than historically, a second novella, “twice upon a star imperiled,” was added to be “book two” and a portion as long as those two combined, “thrice upon a schemer’s plotting” (which is either a very long novella or a short novel) was added to be “book three.” As far as I can tell, neither of these other parts were published separately, yet both repeat things in a way that would make sense for self-sufficient works but is unnecessary in a novel.

The part I mostly like is the physics superscience background. [1] In this book, in the not-too-distant future, people like Bruno de Towaji can manipulate things at the quantum level, crush things into micro-blackholes, create vacuum so empty of all things as to make ordinary vacuum a comparatively impenetrable sludge (with interesting effects on “light speed”) and even develop “ertial” devices (which are obviously shielded from inertia), not to mention “fax” things (including people, who may or may not later be merged completely or have various mental snapshots of theirs added to others). In this milieu, the terraforming of Venus with “wellstone flakes” (which cause “pseudochemical” atmospheric transformations) is child’s play, albeit rich child’s play. And, speaking of children, the fax technology also has an “immorbidity” filter which makes everyone effectively immortal and only at the beginnings of their lives as long as they don’t suffer from accidents. Even if they do, they still have fax backup copies. That is, if a madman doesn’t kill them all. The funny thing about this is that, for the longest time, this all seems rather plausible even if the protagonist is living in the Kuiper Belt on a world of his design which is 636 meters in diameter and made habitable (as long as you don’t get more than a few feet up) by its own artificial mini-star. Gosh! Wow! Sensawunda!

A part I mostly don’t like is the societal background in which humanity has decided to have itself a monarchy because, as is repeated in variant forms several times throughout the book, “The human brain was said to be wired for monarchy, for hierarchy, for the elevation and admiration of single individuals, and now the truth of this hit Bruno like a heavy gilded pillow.” (My reaction to that is, “Pfft. Show me the scientific proof.” And, if somehow there is any that is credible, my reaction to that is, “We’re also ‘wired’ to fling poo like our monkey cousins but we’ve mostly gotten over it.) This (at least I assume it’s this or something like it) leads to a part I also don’t like though it’s well done, and that’s the style, which is a combination of magic fairy tale tone and monarchical affectation but which also manages to be frequently funny which pays well until the end, when it becomes distancing.

Between all the tech, the monarchy and its underpinnings, and the style, I kept thinking of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which I didn’t like, either. At least until the end, when I felt like Graham Chapman’s Colonel should come out and say, “Stop! You had a nice bit there but it’s got quite silly!” Then it started to add a bit of Dungeons and Dragons action and, though I don’t think it had anything directly related, some feel of both Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and the bad part of Campbell’s Invaders from the Infinite.

In the first book, Bruno is called from his home in the sky to help with a problem. The Queen has had her tech wizard and lover (or her other tech wizard and lover, that is) build a Collapsiter Ring around the sun to provide a sort of high-speed beltway around the system: it’s longer, but you go faster. Unfortunately, it’s become unstable (a nod to Niven’s Ringworld?) and is due to crash into the sun soon which, with its being sort of a bunch of black holes, would destroy the sun. After much philosophy, characterization, and witty repartee, Bruno has an epiphany. In the second book, Bruno is called back once again, as the Collapsiter is falling into the sun again (this time due to the sabotage of muon contamination undoing the work of book one). After much philosophy, characterization, and witty repartee, Bruno has an epiphany. In the third book, the ring is actually destroyed by the saboteur and cleaning up that mess requires several epiphanies and much more.

Basically, the science fictional concepts are wonderful. The style is artful. The situations are good, as well, though the resolutions are poor. It’s all vivid and lively. The characters are interesting. The crown lies heavy on the Queen’s head, Bruno has the weight of the solar system on his somewhat post-existential shoulders and feels like a mere man (and often an inept one) inside, the villain is a thoroughly black-hatted caricature but has some easily recognizable human motivations as the basis for the broad strokes of madness. All this is reason enough to like it as others have and will, but I just didn’t. It felt like some sort of overly-stylized neo-Victorian morality play. Once, early in the book, Bruno is dolled-up by some courtiers and observes himself, thinking his hat was the sort that might have an ostrich feather protruding from it. And this book is wearing just such a hat, when it could have simply worn its propeller-beanie.


[1] There is so much background that there are four appendixes of (in my edition) 31 of the book’s 318 pages, with the first, second, and fourth appendix all being “in character.” The first and fourth include many extracts from, or expansions of, the main narrative, mostly on the tech; the second is a technical glossary; the third is a technical note (the one that’s out of character with equations and references to scientific papers).

Asimov’s Centennial: The Martian Way and Other Stories

The Martian Way and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $3.95, 222pp, 1955

Contents:

  • “The Martian Way” (Galaxy, November 1952)
  • “Youth” (Space SF, May 1952)
  • “The Deep” (Galaxy, December 1952)
  • “Sucker Bait” (Astounding, February and March 1954)

After thirteen books (eleven of them science fiction and all of those either new novels or collections made up of the Robot and Foundation stories which were almost entirely from the 1940s), Isaac Asimov’s fourteenth book was a collection of exclusively recent stories, and generally long ones at that. This was the first of three 1950s collections devoted to 1950s stories (to be followed by Earth Is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows).

Contrary to the usual method, this collection spends the best for first. “The Martian Way” is a novella which opens with Ted Long and a companion Scavenger hunting for the expended shells of multi-stage rockets which float around the system between Earth and Mars. Getting this valuable metal is how these Martian colonists make their living. However, an Earth politician named Hilder starts an anti-Waster movement, using the notion of Earth people “giving” things away, such as this scrap metal and the water the Martians need to survive, as a way to build up resentment against them and secure political power for himself. Matters come to a head when other politicians lack the spine to stand up to Hilder’s demagoguery and he convinces Earth to shut off the water supply to Mars, despite the cost being less than a thimble from a pool. Long has seen this coming and has been trying to convince the Martians to do things “the Martian way” and go to Saturn where there’s plenty of water in the rings but, as Thomas Jefferson perceptively observed, “Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The Martians believe the “common knowledge” [1] that a voyage to Saturn would be too long to take and remain sane but Long argues that Martians have adapted to different conditions and the time/distance argument is an Earth limitation. And, when the Martians are facing rationing and, ultimately, death or a forced return to Earth, the evils are insufferable, so the Commissioner greenlights Long’s dangerous idea. There follows a fascinating journey to the ringed world with some genuinely beautiful moments as most of the water prospectors spend their off-shift parts of the journey “space-floating,” that is, tethering themselves to the ship and trailing it at a distance, enjoying the euphoria of weightless infinity. [2] On arriving at Saturn’s rings (more beauty), a prodigious engineering project is undertaken to get a giant chunk of ice back to Mars and matters reach a new head when it takes longer than expected, the food is running out, and they have perturbed the orbit of their chunk and are about to collide with another mountain of ice.

Other than the wonderful (and sometimes frighteningly dangerous) experiences in space [3], one of the main features of this tale is the notion of change. At the start of these events, there is an “umbilical cord” from Mother Earth to Mars but the Martians are changing, whether they know it or not. While Earthmen couldn’t stand to be cooped up in a ship for extended periods, “Mars is a ship [4],” and Martians are better equipped to deal with these new demands. In fact, while blissfully floating, Long has the vision of generation starships populating the galaxy over eons and feels those ships must and will come from Mars.

A minor feature of this tale, however, doesn’t work as Asimov intended. He’s stated that he was satirizing McCarthy in this tale and was expecting a significant reaction but, on not getting it, theorized that he may have been too “subtle.” It’s not that it’s too subtle but that it focuses on the wrong thing. McCarthy was a power-hungry demagogue (as is Hilder) and this element and the spineless collapse of the people who are supposed to serve as checks and balances are acutely observed. However, McCarthy was specifically about “un-American activities,” which is to say, suppressing free thought and free speech through dishonest intimidation over “loyalty.” Hilder is about “anti-Waste,” or distorted bean-counting, used to agitate supporters. Had it been written later, the “anti-Waste campaign” would have applied better to Proxmire than McCarthy and generalized demagoguery isn’t specific to McCarthy but applies to many politicians. (Oddly, both the McCarthy and Proxmire satires combined could apply to the current occupant of the White House.) Regardless, Hilder serves to bring about the crisis in dramatically successful terms and the incomplete satire doesn’t harm the story which I see as a larger, positive take on the adaptability of humanity rather than a topical, negative take on politics, anyway.

Otherwise, I only notice a couple of problems in this tale. First, while Mars may be a harsh master, the benignity of Earth may be overstated and, similarly, while Mars may have a society that is growing more powerfully, I wouldn’t expect an Earth that was helping to support a recently colonized world to be quite as static as is assumed here. Second, while the plot does contain great challenges, it seems to move a bit too smoothly. Those minor quibbles aside, this is a superb, essential tale.

After that peak, there’s a marked descent in the next tale, followed by a climb back up. If “The Martian Way” has some Heinlein to it, “Youth” initially reads like a tale by Bradbury or Simak. In it, a youngster (“Slim”) is entrusted by his new friend (“Red”) with a secret: Red heard something like thunder the night before and found some animals in the morning. He’s put them in a cage and thinks they’ll be a passport to a life in the circus. Slim’s dad is an astronomer and Red’s dad is an entrepreneur. They talk about the aliens Slim, Sr. has made contact with and how this may get the species out of the rut caused by the apocalyptic wars of times gone by. But it’s strange… the aliens should have been here by now. There’s more to it than this and, whether you’d enjoyed it this far or not, you may find the story damaged or taken to a new level by the rest but, for me, I wasn’t that thrilled to begin with and was ultimately less so. [5]

The Deep” is a shorter and better novelette than “Youth” which opens with an editorial chapter which states that worlds die and species who don’t do what they can to avoid it will die with them. Then, in a way that somewhat anticipates The Gods Themselves, we witness the race of a dying world attempting to escape their (likely ironically symbolic) underground caverns where they huddle around the last heat of their planet and we fly in an airplane above Earth with a woman and her newborn on their way to visit her military husband. The plan is for the desperate race to expend virtually all their remaining energy on a single roll of the dice, in which a teleportation station will be specially materialized at the world they’ve detected (Earth) and one hero will inhabit the consciousness of one of the beings of that world to press the button on the machine to do what’s needed for “normal” teleportations to follow below the Earth’s surface. When the alien unsurprisingly comes to inhabit the consciousness of the infant on the plane, the mission becomes much more traumatic and difficult.

The most interesting thing about this story is that Asimov almost, though incompletely, “burns the motherhood statement,” as Greg Egan might say, in that the psychic egg-laying aliens live in a society where the good of the community is paramount so that any bond between mother and child is considered a perversion. Naturally, the alien is shocked and disgusted to learn that humans have eggs inside their bodies, give live birth, and have close familial bonds. This causes an additional tweak to the plan. Another virtue of the story is the weird and well-drawn scene of what happens when the alien inhabits the infant and how it seems to each of them and the others on the plane.

The collection ends with another novella, and the longer of the two. “Sucker Bait” takes its title from the notion that some planets seem too good for colonizing to be true. In a chaotic phase of expansion, a world coming out of an ice age which is in a stable orbit around two suns was settled but became a sort of lost colony when all its inhabitants died after a couple of years. Over a century later, in a more formal Confederacy of over 83,000 worlds, a ship with a corps of scientists as passengers returns to the world to try to figure out what went wrong. [6] The main thrust of this one is about specialization being for insects (or these scientists). However, one psychologist has his human computer along who eidetically (and somewhat autistically) absorbs every bit of data he can which may provide some unusual and valuable insights.

In addition to being an example of the classic “lost colony” type, this story is also a mystery. However, while the clues are present in the story, the revelation still feels like it’s pulled from thin air. More significantly, the tale is a little too focused on its (very good) didactic point about specialization within much knowledge being equivalent to much ignorance. Also, structurally, the whole situation is slightly contrived and the story is too long for its content.

It’s easier to create a longer list of what’s wrong with this than what’s right but the right still outweighs the wrong. The situation, characters, and ideas are all interesting (and the dangerous unassailability of people’s “professional opinions” is effectively portrayed). In addition to the beautiful passages in “The Martian Way,” this also has wonderful moments such as describing the effects of the double sun on the planet’s significant ice caps. With that and other elements such as one of the suns producing a disturbing effect with the vegetation and the psychologist’s amusing gimmick with “chromopsychosis,” it seems like a massively updated, more rigorous take on Neil R. Jones’ “Planet of the Double Sun.” Going the other way, I wonder if one of the inspirations for Herbert’s later “mentats” didn’t come from the main character of this story.

In sum, the title story is worth a book all by itself, but the other stories provide nice additional value.


[1] You can take the boy out of Astounding but it’s hard to take Astounding out of the boy. This was published in Galaxy and has Goldisms like a virtual ad for “waterless dishwashers” on Mars but this upending of “common knowledge” is pure Campbell.

[2] This is all the more remarkable for being written by a guy who was afraid to fly and years before any man had been in space. Asimov was pleased that some of the astronauts did report a feeling of euphoria as he’d imagined.

[3] One thing that’s particularly notable and enjoyable about the environment of this story is its difference from much earlier SF with its harsh Mars and its vast solar system with an unusually and accurately spacious asteroid belt. The asteroids in this are apparently even rockier than we now suppose, necessitating the jump to Saturn’s largely icy rings but it’s a very sober, “Bonestell” sort of Solar System.

[4] “Spaceship Mars” doesn’t predate the notion of “Spaceship Earth,” but certainly predates its general use from the 1960s, though it’s used in a different sense here.

[5] I’d like to make two more points about this but they would completely spoil the story.

[6] One of the operational theories is that it was some sort of plague. When one character says he knows all about “the 2755 para-measles epidemic” and “the 1918 influenza epidemic,” I couldn’t help but think, “Missed one.”

Birthday Reviews: Bretnor, Stableford, Watt-Evans

This week’s birthday boys bring us a bassoon, a bullet, and burgers! The one is used to turn interdimensional critters into weapons, the second is a metaphor for a genetic endeavor with unforeseen and dramatic consequences, and the last is sold at a place where no one really knows your name.

Reginald Bretnor (1911-07-30–1992-07-22)

“The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” (F&SF, Winter-Spring 1950)

This is essentially a fantastic comic variation on “The Pied Piper” but, since it makes reference to dimensions and time, you could let it fly as SF if you wanted. In it, we’re at war with Bobovia and lecherous old moron/”chenius” Papa Schimmelhorn has invented a sort of bassoon with a tuning crystal in it which makes the gnurrs come from the voodvork out. He takes it to the public Secret Weapons Bureau which is intended to filter madmen and pranksters out but he gets in and, eventually, a pantsless lieutenant runs into the general’s office telling him they have an effective new weapon. The general, who hates new-fangled gadgets and believes the finest way to fight future wars will be with a sword atop a horse, is initially resistant but, when he’s convinced that the gnurrs who eat almost everything inanimate are actual animals, he’s more willing. There follows a dizzying ride in which the bassoon weapon is deployed by Papa alongside a crew of swiftly and repeatedly promoted soldiers before things inevitably go wrong and the day must be saved again.

This has a serious point regarding fighting the last wars, but is otherwise quite light. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and, while it’s not a side-splitter, its farcical but mild humor was grin-worthy throughout and chuckle-inducing more than once.

Brian Stableford (1948-07-25)

“The Magic Bullet” (Interzone #29, May-June 1989)

Lisa Friemann is a scientist and police officer but, on this night, she’s been called in to shed light on a case because she knows the scientist who has been shot and whose lab has been destroyed, killing the thousand mice he had for genetic experiments. She knows him very well, in fact, though perhaps not as well as she thought, as they’d had a sexual relationship for decades and he won’t tell her what’s going on in his final time before dying – at least not until the national security cop has to take care of other aspects of the case and leaves it in Lisa’s hands to get something out him. When he does finally tell the tale, it involves his experiments, a chance discovery with apocalyptic implications for half the human race, and his other lover.

If I understand this story and if Lisa is supposed to be the hero of it, rather than just part of it, then I ideologically dislike it but, aesthetically, the four characters mentioned above and their conflicting motivations are used to produce interesting dynamics which make a story which is arguably two infodumps feel sufficiently dramatic. The scientific ideas in this are of the biological/sociological sort which drove much of the author’s work in the late 1980s through the 90s and are stimulating and weighty enough to be used in that extended way. There is also the interesting (disturbing) line about “the so-called Plague Wars, which might not have been wars at all, but which wiped out a third of the human race in the early part of the century.”

Lawrence Watt-Evans (1954-07-26)

“Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” (IAsfm, July 1987)

The narrator starts out his tale as a sixteen-year-old needing money with not many options in Sutton, West Virginia, so he talks Harry into giving him a job at Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers. Harry warns him that he gets some pretty strange customers and not to stare or bother them or anything. Eventually, the narrator learns that Harry wasn’t kidding, especially when the three topless women come in and, later, the flying saucer parks in the front lot. As time goes on, he learns what’s going on and tells us about it. He also starts feeling like Sutton isn’t a place he wants to be any more and is about to take a very dangerous and irrevocable step when he has a transformative conversation with one of the strange customers.

This is a very hard story to describe because, in a way, there’s almost nothing to spoil and you can talk about 95% of it but that seems intrinsically spoilerish anyway, so you can hardly talk about any of it. What you can say is that it’s told with a very believable narrative voice which contemplates its central science fictional concept in a very effective Everyman way and ends just so. It’s a very personable story and fun to read.