Review: Space Lash by Hal Clement

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-05-06. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged.

Cover of Space Lash

Date: December 1969 (originally January 1969 as Small Changes)
Format: Paperback
Cat#: 8039
Pages: 206
Price: $0.60
Publisher: Dell (originally Doubleday)
Contents (modified from IFSDB):

Page Title Year Cat Var.Title
7 Dust Rag 1956 short story
27 Sun Spot 1960 short story Sunspot
49 Uncommon Sense 1946 short story
66 “Trojan Fall” 1944 short story Trojan Fall
80 Fireproof 1949 short story
96 Halo 1952 novelette
113 The Foundling Stars 1966 short story
128 Raindrop 1965 novelette
175 The Mechanic 1966 novelette

Dust Rag” is a tale of electrostatic dust difficulty on the moon and is a classic-style problem story, as are most of the tales. “Sun Spot” involves a scientific observation mission based on (in) a comet as it approaches the sun. “Uncommon Sense” is an especially clever tale of a man whose two villainous assistants are trying to maroon him on an alien world. Acute observation and scientific understanding of the fascinating indigenous life forms come into play. ““Trojan Fall”” (don’t ask me why the title is pre-quoted) is an unusual tale in that the focal character is a bad guy. It deals with orbital mechanics. “Fireproof” takes the more usual perspective of the good guys trying to deal with a bad guy who doesn’t understand the interactions of fire, atmosphere, and gravity. “Halo” involves some very unusual alien farmers and indicates we might not appreciate our asteroid belt enough. “The Foundling Stars” features broadly similar aliens but in the context of two human scientists trying to prove that stellar formation is or is not a purely random result or requires a particular process to account for varying densities. This perhaps does the best job of directly portraying the scientific endeavor. “Raindrop” is perhaps the most elaborate tale in the collection, being about a bunch of comets being gathered up, melted down, and turned into a giant water balloon in space, in which our two workers and their new genetically modified bosses get into conflict – underwater in space! John Varley’s “Blue Champagne” (1981) has some similarities to this one. And the collection concludes with “Mechanic” in which Clement does cyberpunk ’66! An ocean-going vessel has an accident made all the more horrific by the calm, clinical, precise tone in which it is described in great detail. The cyberpunk of this story comes from the fact that humans are developing artificial life that blurs the division between machine and organism (a la Moya in Farscape) and medical science has gotten to the point where it blurs the division between organism and machine. The three major movements are getting to know folks and their activities before the accident, the accident itself, and then the last third deals with the humans in the repair shop after the accident.

One of the recurring features of these stories is that Clement just dives right in – the stories are not deliberately obfuscated – rather they end up being quite clear – but it sometimes takes a few pages for the reader to get his bearings, producing excellent sfnal cognitive dissonance followed by the sensation of learning and finally knowing. Also, Clement is not generally given much credit for characterization (as is the case with almost all critics and hard SF writers) but he’s actually quite good at producing individuals by concisely detailing their different experiences, areas of expertise, expectations of causes and effects, and reactions to them. It’s not a “tell me about your childhood” characterization on one hand or a “this guy talks with a funny accent” characterization on the other, but serves to populate each tale with distinct individuals who nevertheless serve a social/archetypal purpose. Unfortunately, the greatest weakness in these tales is that, while well and logically plotted in most senses, the overall arc usually ends in some anticlimactic twist, or so it seemed to me. Some might react to this as a classic “ah, you got me – nice fresh perspective or humorous element” but I reacted more along the lines of “huh, well, the main story was great up to that point, but at least the ending doesn’t ruin anything even if it doesn’t finish it off with an ascending bang.”

Be all that as it may, I very much enjoyed the collection and it indicates that, while Ballantine’s The Best of Hal Clement (1979) did a fine job in collecting the best (taking “Dust Rag” and “Uncommon Sense” from this collection), it still didn’t have room for everything (at least “Raindrop”, “The Mechanic”, the fairly short “Sun Spot”, and possibly even “Halo”/”The Foundling Stars”) and this is a worthwhile supplement. It appears to be very purposefully arranged, too – I liked all the stories (perhaps “Trojan Fall” was my least favorite) but the first three and last two are the strongest, so that the middle is okay but it starts and ends very well.

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Links: 2019-09-17

Site News

  • This re-starts the ever-popular “Links” posts. (I deleted the rest because there was so little of anything else left that they made the site look like a “Links” site though the fact that they would have required a lot of detailed editing in the Science Fiction sections also wasn’t appealing. But I still like doing them. Sort of.)

Science Fiction

  • Simak’s “All the Traps of Earth” | Futures Past and Present
  • The Peace-Loving Military Robots’ Plot – Reason.com. (PKD.)
  • In Memoriam – Katherine MacLean – SFWA. I really like her collection The Trouble with You Earth People and I love her collection The Diploids. I also really like her novel Missing Man and I love the novella of the same name which makes up the bulk of it.
  • Should they rename the Tiptree Award, too? / Boing Boing. It never ends. I like the way this takes for granted that they, in fact, should have renamed the Campbell. I also like the way “both narratives fit the story.” So we will take it upon ourselves to pick the least charitable and judge her guilty over three decades after the fact with no evidence. Because we are the pure, the righteous, the omniscient ones. Who cares if she was one of the greatest SF short story writers ever? Who cares if maybe we should feel sympathy that her life ended in great tragedy as her husband wanted to die and she couldn’t live without him or with what she had to do? No. We know she was a murderer and an unperson.

    So who’s next? Shirley Jackson smoked. What a horrible role-model. Ted Sturgeon was worse: in addition to smoking, he was a member of an all-male club. PKD used drugs and his drug-addled visions probably contribute to the opioid crisis. Cordwainer Smith was a right-winger. Arthur C. Clarke was gay and that used to get you jailed rather than honored. Maybe it will again someday. And he was still a white male and British so, y’know: imperialist. (Bram Stoker actually explicitly was.) Chesley Bonestell designed the Plymouth Rock memorial which, as we know, is all about slavery and genocide. Ray Bradbury? “In young adulthood Bradbury read stories published in Astounding Science Fiction, and read everything by Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and the early writings of Theodore Sturgeon and A. E. van Vogt.” Another “fucking fascist.” And all these people were white and all male except Jackson and all published in Astounding except Smith, Jackson and, of course, Stoker. So rename all the awards. None of these people did anything worth honoring.

Science

Other

History

Humor

Music

We lost two more. To be honest, the only Eddie Money song I really like is below, but I like it a lot. And Ric Ocasek (who wrote most everything, played guitar, and sang lead on most tracks (including the one below) and the Cars produced a lot of really good stuff.

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The Incredible Shrinking Blog

One month ago, I said, “I hope the April Summation will follow in a few days and I’ll catch up completely before too long but technical difficulties may slow me down…I’m going to be messing around with a new laptop and, depending on how it goes, I may not be very productive for awhile.”

Well, since I’d previously avoided stuff like UEFI and GPT, I got to learn about that and, because I don’t think it was even an issue the last time it would have come up, I got to learn about “Secure Boot,” for three examples, but I actually got the system installed just fine and am the proud operator of a bouncing baby Slackware-current Linux system on my new HP laptop.[1]

Rather than any installation problem, what initially caused the extended delay was that I realized all my files, scripts, and more were horribly disorganized and out of date. Getting the system just exactly perfect has been much more tedious and is taking longer than expected, especially as other things seem to keep coming up. I’m still not 100% there, but the bulk of it is done.

While I was doing this, I was discouraged from rushing back to do reviews by the John W. Campbell business. In many ways (especially socioeconomic) I’m a pretty liberal guy, but I have next to no patience with “political correctness” or historical “revisionism” or any number of the other manifestations of “theory” prevalent these days. This has always been a drag on my enjoyment of current SF and contributed to the burnout I was feeling which led to my falling behind in March, but I felt like I was ready to get back on the horse and was making good progress catching up (having read all but the selectively reviewed zines through June) until I couldn’t avoid the laptop problem anymore. And while I was doing that, we got the Awards Formerly Known As Campbell. While the attack was vulgar and ignorant, it was also irrelevant to short SF. However, people who are relevant to short SF and should know better have not only failed to be voices of reason but have added to the unreason. It just underscores that I signed up to read a body of literature with a significant emphasis on creative ideas and positive visions of futures with technologically and rationally advanced natures and what I’ve been reading is mostly a subgenre of LGB,eTc. fiction[2] which is populated by Orwellian erasers of the giants whose shoulders they stand upon insofar as they are SF at all (or Wile E. Coyotes sawing off the limb they sit on). The great Katherine MacLean died recently. One guess as to who published her first story in 1949. One guess as to who published Asimov and Heinlein’s earliest, most influential work. One guess as to who published people as politically diverse as Poul Anderson and Mack Reynolds. One guess as to who elevated the genre from largely BEMs and blasters to a body of largely serious science-based speculative fiction with room for the occasional BEM and blaster both through his writing and his editing. No, I do not agree with everything he said on issues other than SF and it would probably be more accurate to say I agree with very little. But guess what – I don’t agree with much of what anyone says and I’m surprised (and dismayed) at people who do find others to be in lockstep with. I do think that he was one of the greatest editors of all time (when most of today’s editors can’t even present their authors as having a basic grasp of grammar and spelling) and every SF fan should hold him in their hearts as someone who helped make the field great.

So. You may have noticed my blog is not the blog it used to be. Well, “cancel culture” is the thing, right? I’m supposed to object to things on ideological grounds, rewrite history, make unpleasantness disappear, and not promote anything that’s not completely in accordance with the One True Way of Thought (which is My Way), right? So here it is.[3]

It’s ironic. As a lover of the unpopular field of print science fiction and the even less popular field of short SF, I made the promotion of contemporary short SF the purpose of this blog, only to have to admit that short SF has become unpopular for very good reasons and I now wish to do anything but promote it. From now on, this blog will focus on tomorrow through the past. Anything written in the 20th century will be covered and certainly not everything from the present century will be excluded but will be rare. More non-science-fiction items will probably also make their appearance. Because the nature of this blog has changed so radically, I expect the always modest interest in it to plummet, much like current magazines’ circulation figures, but I hope some people will continue to visit. If not, it’s still a price I’m willing to pay. I was just on a mistaken mission based on the notion that short/current science fiction was unjustly overlooked and still merited promotion when, really, it does not. There are great stories out there but not very many of them make it into professional anthologies, even fewer win awards, and the percentage of them is too small to make finding them on an unpaid basis worthwhile for any but the most fanatical. There are few, if any, magazines that I would even remotely consider subscribing to and, while I have always honestly praised the individual stories I saw as good and ignored or disapproved of those I saw as bad, how can I honestly continue to promote the current field at all with that fact staring back at me?

I want to say with crystal clarity that this is not “about” the Campbell thing and not even about the response of some people to it but it’s just the last straw from a systemic malaise in “SF” that has long been repelling me, like so many others, from the field and finally made me decide to abandon it in its current zeitgeist.


[1] It’s also the last HP laptop I will ever buy for several reasons. Also, running -current isn’t ideal – I haven’t run it in years and I’d rather have installed a release-version like the Slack 14.2 I was running on the previous laptop but, since Slack’s been living up to its name and hasn’t had an actual release in over three years, I doubted it would have worked on a new machine.

[2] I have recommended several good-to-superb pieces of fiction including or focusing on these characters or issues. I just feel these themes occupy fiction disproportionately and often eclipse any emphasis on true scientific (or even fantastic) speculation and/or are often inauthentically obligatory. It just really feels to me that, in genre terms, the tail is often wagging the dog.

[3] It pains me to have wasted a significant percentage of several years of my life (I’ve deleted 93.6% of this blog and J-Sun-Space, which contained some reviews going back to 2012, has been completely deleted, though I may bring some reviews of classics from it to this blog) and it pains me that recommendations of a few great stories by innocent people have been caught up in this, along with the comments a few people took their time and effort to write which were attached to posts which I’ve deleted. Similarly, it’s unfortunate some good sites which promote current SF aren’t on my sidebar and that my banner, which was designed by an ezine editor, has gone away.

Review: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

berserker.jpg

Date: September 1978 (originally January 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-441-05404-8
Pages: 243
Price: $1.75
Publisher: Ace (originally Ballantine)

I was intending to re-read Nightwings and discuss it but caught a bug early this month and didn’t want to do that in that state, so picked up a different volume to correct a glaring omission in my reading which, coincidentally, also consists of stories published by Fred Pohl in the 1960s. (Some of them are online as part of The Berserker Wars, one of the needless, probably harmful, repackagings of parts of the series and are linked to in the individual story comments.)

Berserker collects the first eleven tales in the series of the same name, plus a twelfth “story” interleaved throughout, in which a pacifist alien presents all the others to us. All the stories have individual beginnings, middles, and ends but about half (and much the longer and better half) also tell a fairly unified main story with recurring characters (“Goodlife,” “Stone Place,” “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” “In the Temple of Mars,” “The Face of the Deep”) while several generally shorter, lesser stories tend to alternate with those (“Without a Thought,” “Patron of the Arts,” “The Peacemaker,” “Mr. Jester,” and “Sign of the Wolf”). Even though there is a unified story, it contains mild inconsistencies as exemplified by a belated effort in “Temple” to paper over the disappearance of the mind beams after “Thought.”) I’d recommend “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” and “The Face of the Deep” from the core group (but don’t read “Face” out of order) and “Patron of the Arts” from the others. “Masque” was rightly nominated for a major award and, inexplicably, so was “Mr. Jester.”

Given their reputation, I was astonished at how relatively inefficient and ineffective the Berserkers were. The New Wave of British Space Opera, with its Inhibitors and whatnot, were able to build on the Berserkers to great effect. That said, I still wouldn’t want Berserkers to be real and the stories are still often effective. Other influential elements that immediately spring to mind include an element in the later main stories which may have inspired a key element in Pohl’s masterpiece, Gateway; that the original Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons and Baltar (a character introduced in “Stone Place” and featured in “What T and I Did”) comes almost lock, stock, and barrel from here; and that the conclusion of Han Solo’s Bespin adventure could have come from here. (Though it’s also likely all these things have earlier precedents from Wells’ Martians to Benedict Arnold to the girl in Simak’s Cosmic Engineers or even King Arthur.)

Without a Thought” (originally titled “Fortress Ship”) is almost like Asimovian military SF as there’s a combat puzzle to be solved. A pair of human ships have a Berserker vessel checked but are waiting on a third human ship to arrive and make it checkmate. In the meantime, the Berserker is using its mind control weapon on the nearest human ship which is crewed only by Del Murray and his aiyan, or dog-ape pet-ally. The Berserker sets up a contest by which it hopes to know if the human has succumbed to its weapon and the human has to use his own very limited resources and his alien buddy of limited intelligence to try to trick the machine into believing he’s still in possession of his faculties. The machine’s mind control weapon is a bit of magic but the parameters are laid out fairly and the story’s pretty clever.

Goodlife” is a much more substantial tale and not just because it’s a novelette. One of three humans is dying when they are captured by a Berserker who has raised a captive human, known as (an example of) Goodlife. That human brutally finishes off the dying man and the other two are brought aboard the Berserker vessel. The man, Hemphill, has a bomb but is holding off until he can use it for maximum effect. The “nature vs. nurture” elements aren’t bad and the depiction of the Berserker vessel is excellent but Maria, the female prisoner, is a bit too sentimental without sufficient motivation. The stark and dark conflict in which suicide bombing seems like a decent plan made me think of some Baxter stories, such as the Silver Ghost tales.

While positioned third in the book, “Patron of the Arts” was actually the sixth published. It’s a very effective look at Piers Herron, an artist who is jaded past the point of most mere mortals, which produces interesting results when he’s captured by machines making war on life. The only problem here is that the theme may a bit too explicit at the end.

The Peacemaker” (originally flipped around with the title “The Life Hater”) involves the murderous machines, as usual, but also with a seemingly insanely naive man who wants to negotiate a peace with them. This is less aesthetically significant than the previous two, settling for a decently presented ironic result.

More than even “Without a Thought” or “Goodlife” (which are stories with combat elements) “Stone Place” is the first clearly “military SF” tale. With nearly twice the length of any other story in the book and multiple aspects (including bringing Hemphill back from “Goodlife” for a minor role), it’s also one of the more ambitious tales. It mainly tackles the “Great Man” concept and the power of belief as well as detailing some internal conflicts in the Solar System which manifest even under Berserker threat. It also throws in a difficulty with a woman who’s been reprogrammed by the Berserkers to reject the leader she’d been betrothed to and who, instead, jumps into the arms of his lieutenant. This later part could have been mined for some powerful effects but wasn’t especially convincing. I also wasn’t convinced by certain gung-ho aspects which aim for the adrenalized thrill of approaching combat but which plummet into bathos. (After one man is skinned by the machines, humans yell “Death to the flayers!” and the narrative voice observes: “The shout ran like a flame through the corridor.”) Finally, there is one moment where the narrative voice also observes: “Now for a time the fight would be computer against computer, faithful slave of life against outlaw, neither caring, neither knowing,” which begs the question why humans present themselves to the Berserkers for combat at all. Still, the story does generally move along and provides some food for thought.

What T and I Did” returns to a much smaller tale, but brings back “Baltar” (here called both “T” and “Thad” and ensconced as human leader of several prisoners in a Berserker ship after the battle of the last story) in an interesting little psychodrama involving the minds of a traitor. In its dark psychological focus, it’s akin to “Patron of the Arts” (which comes right after it in the original order of publication).

Mr. Jester” is a bizarre bit of inconsistency, dealing with a light-hearted man rebelling against the very serious government of an isolated planet with the help of an improperly repaired Berserker which he’s been able to turn into a comic assistant. Perhaps one could applaud the reach of a series which includes genocidal machines and humor and perhaps this coincidental riff on “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (published by Pohl a month earlier) would have worked in the abstract but it seems out of place in this book.

Poe! “The Masque of the Red Shift” slams things back into grim violence. Felipe Nogara has become emperor of humanity but perceives his half-brother, Johann Karlsen (featured in “Stone Place”), as a threat, so has frozen him (though not in carbonite) and told the galaxy he’s died of plague. The Berserkers also see Karlsen as a threat to them and want to confirm his death so, when a defeated and brainwashed rebel warrior and his sister are transferred to Nogara’s ship full of decadent revelers orbiting a “hypermassive sun,” they insert themselves in a most morbid and violent way. A very effective and exciting tale, albeit a bit conventionally puritanical.

Sign of the Wolf” is a sort of cute tale about a rustic shepherd on a planet that’s lost knowledge of its technological background stumbling into a situation in which a planetary defense computer wants authorization to defend against an attacking Berserker and he wants a god to help him destroy a wolf who’s slowly making off with his flock. The shepherd seems to not mind an inconsistency in the conclusion as much as I do, but it’s not a bad tale.

In the Temple of Mars” carries on the main story, with Hemphill (now an admiral) and a captain from “Stone Place” (now a journalist) taking a replacement vessel to Nogara but with the plan to divert and rescue an important person. Unfortunately, a group of secret police have turned to berserker-worshiping and a prisoner (now on the loose) has been brainwashed by them to kill Hemphill so that they can take the ship for their own purposes. The use of the female character is weak (as usual) and made worse by a rather ham-handed “Mars vs. Venus” motif (using Chaucer) but the story otherwise moves along at a good clip and holds attention (as usual).

I can’t get into “The Face of the Deep” at all without spoilers, really, so I’ll just say that it is in the main storyline and cleverly wraps up the volume with a nicely staged insight into human nature.

Silverberg’s Stories: 1966-1968

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Contents

  • “Halfway House” (If, November 1966)
  • “By the Seawall” (If, January 1967)
  • “Hawksbill Station” (Galaxy, August 1967)
  • “Bride Ninety-One” (If, September 1967)
  • “Flies” (Dangerous Visions, October 1967)
  • “The King of the Golden River” (Galaxy, December 1967)
  • “Passengers” (Orbit 4, 1968)
  • “Going Down Smooth” (Galaxy, August 1968)
  • “To the Dark Star” (The Farthest Reaches, August 1968)
  • “As Is” (Worlds of Fantasy, September 1968)

The first post in this series began with the first story Silverberg sold to Pohl under their special arrangement and jumped ahead to cover “Hawksbill Station” from this post’s period. The second briefly mentions the next five independent stories but focuses on the series of five stories which make up the book, To Open the Sky. This post will cover the stories between those and the series of three stories which make up Nightwings, except for the already-covered “Hawksbill Station” and “As Is,” which has never been collected. (This period also includes the one serial sold to Pohl from the many novels Silverberg was publishing: The Man in the Maze (Galaxy, April and May 1968). That is a good science fictionalization of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, using a human protagonist made intolerable to other humans by an alien-imposed psychic taint.)

Halfway House” and “Flies” are two very different takes on a “cruel martyr” theme. In the former, a terminally ill man goes through a “singularity” to try to make a deal with the aliens on the other side which will save his life. What he ends up having to do is take the place of the guy interviewing him and deciding the fates of other petitioners. The existential reality of this is not what he expected. In the latter, a spaceship accident kills everyone on board but aliens rebuild one man from fragments and “improve” him. What follows is a brutal reunion with his three wives while the main character meditates, with flat affect, on the Shakespeare line which gives the story its title. This was published in Dangerous Visions and there’s overreach for effect. Given that the terminally ill man sought his destiny while it was thrust upon the dead man, one might think the conclusions would be different but they’re not, much.

As the preceding deal with martyrs of sorts, so “To the Dark Star” deals with scapegoats. A human man, a modified human woman, and an alien go to witness the birth of a black hole. None of the crew can stand each other and one of them must experience a mind-shattering mental union with the black hole (or something like that). Each human vigorously tries to force the other to do it until something gives. The narrative voice doesn’t contradict the internal rationale given, which reflects poorly on humanity. However, as the story actually plays out, I think it’s rather a “psychic physics” problem, so to speak. Either way, it’s not a bad story but the science feels like fantasy and, even so, that background is more interesting than the foreground of unpleasant characters.

Bride Ninety-One,” which Pohl bought, has a vibe like “Day Million,” which Pohl sold a year and a half earlier so I assume that’s no accident. In this strange and somewhat humorous tale, contract marriages are the norm and a human and a Suvornese contract a six-month marriage with both going through some odd changes given that they are so different, especially since the Suvornese is intent on having a human-style marriage. It doesn’t stop there, though.

While all four of the preceding have their points and are more interesting than most of what I read today, I’d put them in the back half. Moving to the better tales, “Going Down Smooth” is a sort of black comedy (with binary/ASCII profanity) which is presented as the stream of consciousness of an AI that’s gone mad, perhaps due to having the job of dealing with insane humans. (The title comes from its commentary on humans losing their adverbs (which also bugs me) and has to do with “garbage in, garbage out.” Everything going down smooth… they mean smoothly.) There comes a point in the story where it gets some counseling of its own and it’s feeling much better now.

Passengers” isn’t much interested in declaring its genre but powerfully presents what may be an alien invasion in terms of demonic possession. Humans are taken for rides which are somewhat like blackouts in which they are essentially absent and generally amnesiac but from which vague traces may remain. Society has come to ignore people when they are being ridden and continues to muddle along. One of the conventions is that what happens while being ridden stays there but, when a man realizes he’s in love with a woman after both were possessed and had sex together, he seeks to break that taboo. The ending might be read differently today than then but I think the general blackly ironic intent persists. The description of the social and individual madness, topped off with the paranoia involved with not even being sure whether you’re possessed or not, is very effective.

In “By the Seawall,” Micah-IV is an artificial person guarding a vast structure which, along with a poison zone and an electrified zone in the waters, fends off seamonsters. While a couple of sectors of the wall have become famous for having threatening assaults from monsters, his section hasn’t and he wishes something exciting would happen. That’s granted when a person circumvents safety protocols and commits suicide by leaping off the wall and using a “gravity chute” to propel himself beyond the barriers to be eaten by the monsters. This is the first in a wave of suicides which perplexes Micah-IV so much that he goes to extreme lengths to understand it. As with “Passengers,” it’s unfortunate that it’s so overtly New Wavy with its refusal to explain the seamonsters and its downer (literally) core of the story, but the description of the wall, monsters, and suicides are extremely effective and the existential plight of everyone down to the protagonist has its resonance. I was impressed by the milieu and the story produced an effective feeling of weirdness. (Incidentally, this may have inspired a couple of recent (2017, 2018) stories in Clarkesworld by Finbarr O’Reilly.)

The King of the Golden River” could be called “Wife of the King of the Volcano People” because the King isn’t the main character and the Golden River is less impressive and relevant to the story than the volcanoes. It actually did have a variant title in its original magazine publication but that was “King of the Golden World” which makes even less sense. Be that as it may, it involves Elena’s search for meaning. She ends up on an alien world where the native inhabitants are close enough to human for non-reproductive sex and becomes the wife of a king. His people live on a double-peaked volcanic island and she worries about getting everyone evacuated when the time of eruption nears. What ensues leads to the defining moment of her existence. I like that we can think whatever we like about Elena and even she isn’t sure what to think of herself. The setting is a bit contrived but is as vividly drawn as the one in “By the Seawall” and the atmosphere of tension and the eventual action of the relatively basic plot is effective.

Review: To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg

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Date: December 1984 (originally May 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-24502-3
Pages: 222
Price: $2.75
Publisher: Bantam (originally Ballantine)

After “To See the Invisible Man,” (review) Robert Silverberg published five more short stories* before embarking on a series of five novelettes, all published in Galaxy, which were collected as To Open the Sky (1967). The blurb to my 1984 Bantam paperback says it is “filled with a scope and vision comparable to Asimov’s Foundation series.” This is hyperbole, as Asimov invented a science, set it in a galaxy-spanning epic, and covered a half-millennium of the fall and rise of interstellar empires, initially in three volumes. To Open the Sky invents a technophilic religion, is bound to this solar system (specifically, Earth, Venus, and Mars), and covers about a century of effort towards longevity and interstellar travel in one volume. Still, the comparison is interesting, for there is a master visionary (Vorst in the role of Seldon) who creates a social force which takes over a world and then creates a schism for even greater control. However, with the religion and the longevity, there’s as much of Heinlein’s Future History as Asimov’s Foundation Universe.

Blue Fire” (June 1965) is set in 2077 and introduces Reynolds Kirby, a U.N. diplomat, who has to play host to Nathaniel Weiner, a Martian settler. Kirby tries to hold the drunken and rambunctious visitor in check and that hard-bitten frontiersman comes into conflict with a religious cult, The Brotherhood of Immanent Radiance or Vorsters, whose members “worship” science, as symbolized by the glow of Cerenkov radiation. An initially skeptical Kirby, on the other hand, find that his internal emptiness (indicated by his dependence on a Nothing Chamber, or ultimate sensory deprivation chamber) might possibly be filled by something these cultists have.

The Warriors of Light” (December 1965) advances to 2095 and introduces Christopher Mondschein as a man desperate for the immortality the Vorsters promise to achieve. His overzealous efforts to gain entry to their scientific citadel lead to his being compromised by the schismatic sect of Harmonists. They turn him into a spy and send him to the very redoubt, governed by Brother Capodimonte, which started his troubles. The somewhat melodramatic plotting for this tale is more action-oriented than most of the stories.

Where the Changed Ones Go” (February 1966, set in 2135) sends the orthodox Brother Martell to Venus. There, he finds Mondschein settled in to a position of power among the heretics and a minority of susceptible Venusians, despite most of the society being violently opposed to them. Martell high-handedly tries to convert them to the orthodox faith with bad results which compels him to fall in with the schismatic group, himself. This tale expands on the notion of a poisonous Venus which is habitable only with radical changes to one’s body which also results in radical changes to one’s offspring, including the manifestation of psi powers.

Lazarus Come Forth” (April 1966, set in 2152) is a sort of origin story for the Harmonist schism. The sacred texts of the Harmonists tell how Vorst, or his acolytes, martyred David Lazarus. Thus Lazarus’ being found on Mars in a suspension chamber causes some consternation. This story shows the ruthlessness of Noel Vorst and his devious machinations, particularly as seen by Kirby, who has risen from empty diplomat to being Vorst’s right hand man. Vorst draws the powers and resources of the disparate societies of the three worlds together through this prophet ex machina and continues to drive towards his goal of interstellar immortality.

To Open the Sky” (June 1966, set in 2164) deals with the final stage. (I won’t spoil its doings but will note that, somewhat as Silverberg “invented the CD player” in a 1961 article (fascinatingly described in his Reflections column in the September/October 2018 Asimov’s) so he has a prescient description of the exoplanet hunt which began in earnest in 1992: “Astronomers had found hundreds of planets scattered through other systems. Some could dimly be picked up by telescopic sensors; other could only be inferred by computations of disturbed stellar orbits. But the planets were there.” This sounds like Doppler spectroscopy which was postulated in 1952 but not practicable until four decades later.)

With its relatively small set of recurring characters and its overarching goals and themes, it reads very much like a novel though, with its changing settings, time jumps, and shifts in focus, it also reads like a set of stories. I’m not sure how satisfying each story would be alone, as there is relatively little action and few cataclysmic conclusions to end each tale but, as a single book, it reads well. The characters are all strangely interesting, the conceptions of Mars and, especially Venus, are vivid, and the drive for the satisfaction of lofty goals pursued by flawed men keeps the pages turning. This wasn’t a masterpiece and its themes would be visited again in later works such as Tower of Glass (1970) and The Book of Skulls (1971), but I did enjoy it.


* Four of the five stories are “The Shadow of Wings” (If, July 1963) which may be a misfired alien contact joke, “The Pain Peddlers” (Galaxy, August 1963) which is a biter-bit involving reality television, “Neighbor” (Galaxy, August 1964) which is set on a malicious version of Solaria and involves a weirdly mortal conflict between neighbors, and “The Sixth Palace” (Galaxy, February 1965) which may be a metaphor for getting the most out of an irrational universe when an almost Fafhrd and Gray Mouser-like duo confront a riddling robotic guardian of treasure. The last two are more interesting than the first two. The other is the uncollected “The Unbeliever” (Magazine of Horror, August 1963) which may have been written before the Pohl phase. Similarly, early in the course of the To Open the Sky novelettes (and possibly written before them), he also published the uncollected “At the End of Days” in New Worlds (which was reprinted in the May 1969 Magazine of Horror).

Tunesday: The Best of Cat Power

Collage of Cat Power album covers 1-8 and 10 made with feh from wikipedia images.

  1. Rockets” 4:43
  2. Still in Love” 3:29
  3. We All Die” 5:01
  4. Taking People” 3:25
  5. Nude As the News” 4:23
  6. Metal Heart” 4:02
  7. Cross Bones Style” 4:32
  8. Naked, If I Want To” 2:47
  9. Free” 3:34
  10. Speak for Me” 3:04
  11. He War” 3:31
  12. Living Proof” 3:11
  13. Lived in Bars” 3:44
  14. Could We” 2:21
  15. The Moon” 3:45
  16. Ramblin’ (Wo)man” 3:47
  17. Aretha, Sing One for Me” 3:12
  18. You Get” 3:44
  19. Black” 3:57
  20. Woman” 4:51

Total time: 75:03

#1 originally from Dear Sir (1995), #2-3 from Myra Lee (1996), #4-5 from What Would the Community Think (1996), #6-7 from Moon Pix (1998), #8 from The Covers Record (2000), #9-11 from You Are Free (2003), #12-15 from The Greatest (2006), #16-17 from Jukebox (2008), #18-20 from Wanderer (2018).

All songs written by Chan Marshall except #2 (Hank Williams), #8 (Jerry A. Miller Jr., originally recorded by Moby Grape), #16 (Hank Williams), #17 (J. Harris, Eugene William, originally recorded by George Jackson).


“Cat Power: A Retrospective” might be a more accurate title. A strictly commercial selection would be mechanical and obvious but a strictly personal one would be too idiosyncratic and unrepresentative despite significant overlap. I tried to strike a middle ground and tried to get at least most of what most people might expect. All her albums are represented except Sun (2012). While the songs appear in their albums’ order, a couple are shuffled within their albums for pace. If you like anything you hear, support the artist!