Birthday Reviews: Clement, del Rey, Walton

The week’s birthday stories blur the line between man and machine and explore religious and gender conflict.

Hal Clement (1922-05-30/2003-10-29)

“The Mechanic” (Analog, September 1966)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of Space Lash from 2014-05-06.

In “The “Mechanic,” Clement does cyberpunk ’66! An ocean-going vessel has an accident made all the more horrific by the calm, clinical, precise tone with 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 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 dealing with the humans in the repair shop after the accident.

Lester del Rey (1915-06-02/1993-05-10)

“For I Am a Jealous People” (Star Short Novels, 1954)
“The Seat of Judgment” (Venture, July 1957)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from my review of The Best of Lester del Rey at Black Gate from 2018-10-27.

“The Seat of Judgment” is an astonishing tale from 1957 which involves the titular form of punishment which is almost incomprehensibly horrible, incestuous group sex, and fairly explicit alien sex. An old colonial official of a decaying Earth empire returns to a planet of green marsupials, where he’d been instrumental in averting a religious uprising a generation before, and is tasked with repeating his feat. Despite the natives having only goddesses, a male prophet has arisen and the priestess and the official work together (the latter somewhat unwillingly) to deal with him. The twist to this tale is truly brutal and the whole is fascinating from multiple angles which include personal, historical, social, and religious. “For I Am a Jealous People” is another remarkable tale of religion. Rev. Amos Strong and Dr. Alan Miller are friends despite the latter’s atheism and the two friends go through a vicious and multi-faceted ordeal when aliens invade Kansas. The two friends are nicely characterized individually and together and the Reverend’s quandary about what to do when God is not on our side is compelling. His ordeal rivals Job’s and some may find it excessive but others will find it seizes them and won’t let go.

Bryce Walton (1918-05-31/1988-02-05)

“Too Late for Eternity” (Startling Stories, Spring 1955)

Reprinted with minimal tweaks from a discussion board post from 2014-09-27.

“Too Late for Eternity” is stark raving mad, but thoroughly competent and effective. It’s about how women live longer than men. Do they ever. The longevity difference started innocently enough but the gap continued to widen:

And then the Third World War. Records, statistics destroyed. A lot of men destroyed too. And after that, three women for every man.

Matriarchy. The women had taken over. And a lot of those women hated men and hated science. Some of them formed anti-male cults. Who needs men?

They took over everything, Joad thought, lying there with his face pressed against the floor. Everything.

Joad is about 120 and comes home to find the young up-and-coming business exec he’d recommended to his wife in bed with her, as is natural when it’s time for the old guys to be retired and the ever-youthful wife needs someone with more, um, stamina. Hilariously, in this matriarchy where women control everything, the morning after her wild night with her new guy, she makes both men breakfast. There are similar persistent 1950s notes through this 2700ish matriarchy and the Freudian weirdness and misogyny is kind of staggering, though it is counterbalanced by an eventual misandry – let’s just call it a general misanthropy. But a couple of aspects of the story really work. First, it’s a completely whacked-out future that has a compelling nature – like Pohl and Kornbluth on a bad day. Bad acid day. And the protagonist’s pain and anger at getting old and being replaced and finally getting wise to how he’s been programmed to accept everything–and how he doesn’t accept it–is quite effectively portrayed. It’s kind of the madman or Ancient Mariner effect of a guy grabbing you by the lapels and conveying a tale of lunacy with such intense conviction that it works. And he hits a lot of birds with this stone – age, sex (kinda shocking sex for ’55, I’d think), gender, cults of beauty, pointlessness of some societal ambitions, the bad aspects of exaggerated masculine and feminine traits, etc. Wild stuff.

Edit (2020-06-04): Added images.

Review: The Planet of the Double Sun by Neil R. Jones

The Planet of the Double Sun by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, F-420, $0.40, 123pp, 1967

The Planet of the Double Sun is a collection of three novelettes. I’d reviewed the first, “The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing, July 1931), for the latest weekly “Birthday Reviews” post. That introductory story stands more or less by itself. Between stories, the Zoromes and Professor Jameson (who has acquired the Zorome moniker “21MM392”) have had many unspecified adventures before the next two connected stories begin.

The first is the title story (Amazing, February 1932), and involves the Zoromes arriving in a system of an orange sun and a blue sun, and investigating the first planet. There, they find an odd form of life or two, but not much, and also find the bones of thousands of “Tripeds.” The reason for these bones becomes apparent before too long, as the beautiful planet with the orange and blue sun becomes a nightmare world when the orange sun sets and the blue sun is left alone. Ghostly flying creatures making horrible sounds appear and drive the Zoromes to suicidal and/or murderous madness. It is determined that there is some sort of other colored dimension through which the creatures can affect this world (but still can’t be affected by it) when the orange sun is not neutralizing the blue one’s baneful rays. (Spoilers for the second story follow, in order to get to the third.)

After several settings of the orange sun, only a handful of Zoromes make it back to the ship and take off. Even then, all the remainder but one suicidally jump out and the one declares “Death to 21MM392!” and attacks Jameson (whose Earthly brain is immune to the creatures’ influence), forcing him to fight and fling the last Zorome out of the ship. After all this, Jameson is not in top condition and the ship is worse, being badly damaged and circling the planet in a decaying path which would cause it to crash if not for an erupting volcano which hurls the ship up into space, leaving Jameson trapped alone in orbit, perhaps for eternity.

Or perhaps not. In “The Return of the Tripeds” (Amazing, May 1932), Jameson has spent 571 revolutions around the double suns with nothing to do but daydream (Zoromes do not sleep) and observe the second world in the system through the Zoromes’ immensely powerful telescopes. It turns out that there is some seed of hope because that world is the home of the Tripeds and, despite having shown no signs of spaceflight earlier in Jameson’s vigil, they are now heading out into space once again. Indeed, they find Jameson and relate their history of failed colonization of the first planet and descent into barbarism on their home world, and the long climb back up to wreak vengeance on the first world’s interdimensional interlopers. So Jameson and his new friends set off with some interdimensional tech and prepare to wage war on the enemy. After some difficulty with the transfer, they manage to arrive and, as one of two surprises left in their story, find a much stiffer fight awaiting them than they’d expected.

While “The Jameson Satellite” was highly problematic but entertaining, instilling curiosity about the subsequent tales and hopes for improvement, the second tale defines “sophomore slump” as all that was bad in the first story becomes worse and most of what was good is lost. The sketchy writing becomes astonishingly stiff and awkward [1], the traces of psychology are dispensed with as Jameson is untouched by his half-millennium of isolation, and the unscientific “science” becomes ever more fantastic. Worse, a big deal is made of the Zoromes’ practical immortality in the first tale so the very next one proceeds to kill them easily in droves. The lack of plotting in the first tale had been compensated for by the novelty of the concepts but this is an action-adventure tale which just sort of mills around futilely. I can see how a young reader of the early 1930s might have still found a sense of wonder in all this but a current reader, even one capable of being as retro as I can be, will be hard-pressed to find much here, though the volcano-rocket bounce has the sort of free-wheeling preposterousness of the 1930s Flash Gordon serials that is almost as much a virtue as it is a vice. “The Return of the Tripeds” recovers somewhat. It has a similarly flailing plot and bad writing, but the Triped/Zorome interaction is appealing, and the recovery of Jameson and the assault on the enemy at least has a forward momentum. Basically, I’m still willing to carry on with the next volume (perhaps as much to see a crash as to see any successful lap) but can’t encourage others to do so.

As a last note, if you wonder where the mocking stereotypes of “sci-fi” come from, this is one example. While lines like, “Truly, the mental vision of heaven by the early saints of Christendom could not have excelled this world of paradise for the optical senses” and having a Zorome be “greatly impressed by the professor’s impressive conclusions” are, um, impressive, this was my favorite bit:

“Why did you wait seven hundred years before returning?” asked the professor. “Didn’t you use spacecraft during all that time?”

“That is a story in itself,” explained the Triped, whose name the professor later learned was Glrg. “Briefly, it is this: Our expedition to this planet was the second of our initial trips following our conquest of space and a realization of the ability to journey to other planets in our system. Living on the second planet,” (here the Triped gave voice to a name which sounded to the professor like Grvdlen) “we first of all explored our moons and the nearer planets. We found the third planet (Uzblt) devoid of all life. Here upon Trulfk we found, even as you machine men discovered, a beautiful world. We have never been to the fourth and last world of our system, Lkpfud.”

[1] At times I wondered if he was aiming to emulate the style of Greek heroic poetry with fixed epithets (“the machine men of Zorome”) and a sort of “lofty” (stilted) diction as done by 19th century English translators but, if so, he doesn’t hit the target.

Birthday Reviews: Blish, Ellison, Jones, Landis


This week we’ve got alien sex, AI hell, a brain in a machine forty million years in the future, and a mind in a machine at the precipice of a black hole, via stories from before the Golden Age through the New Wave to the end of the millennium.

James Blish (1921-05-23/1975-07-30)

“How Beautiful with Banners” (Orbit 1, 1966)

Blish is best known for his novels or the long stories that were fixed up into novels (various forms of “Surface Tension,” “Beep,” A Case of Conscience, Cities in Flight, etc.), but here tells a shorter and (I think) more isolated tale with interesting observations along the way, such as how “four years in the past” is “a long distance, when one recalls that in a four-dimensional plenum every second of time is one hundred eighty six thousand miles of space…”

Dr. Ulla Hillstrom is on Titan, observing examples of a species of “flying cloaks” while wearing the latest in high-tech astronaut gear, which makes her especially interesting to a cloak in a way that may have disastrous and/or transformative consequences.

This tale of many things, including sex both human and alien, may try to do too much and is certainly overwritten (though consistently so) but it is an extraordinary, um, conception, and a bizarrely effective blend of the classic problem story of woman against nature and New Wave concerns and conclusions. It also seems like the soundtrack to the story, both superficially and otherwise, could be The Rolling Stones’ “She’s So Cold.”

Harlan Ellison (1934-05-27/2018-06-28)

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (If, March 1967)

As we learn in an embedded story midway through this one, after starting WWIII, some warring nations created AIs which merged into AM, which then killed off all of humanity but five people, all of whom it torments endlessly in a technological Hell. Prior to that, we are introduced to those five and their torments and, after that, we witness a crescendo of agony and violence before the final denouement of silent horror.

Ellison’s stuff worked extraordinarily well when I was a teenager, although seemingly less so now. It packs a punch, though the punch is often a flailing, shakily guided one. For instance, AM expresses its hate directly in both powerful and juvenile terms which the protagonist then characterizes.

AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball. AM said it with the bubbling thickness of my lungs filling with phlegm, drowning me from within. AM said it with the shriek of babies being ground beneath blue-hot rollers. AM said it with the taste of maggoty pork. AM touched me in every way I had ever been touched, and devised new ways, at his leisure, there inside my mind.

Certainly, there’s an objective correlative to this speech. Certainly, either way, the sentences should be arranged so that maggoty pork follows ground babies as much the greater horror. Certainly the “every” and “ever” and then more “new ways” is precise.

Still, by aiming at a Poe-like single effect and then just throwing everything at it that occurs to him, Ellison does achieve a generally memorable story.

Neil R. Jones (1909-05-29/1988-02-15)

“The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing Stories, July 1931)

Professor Jameson wants to outdo the Egyptians and preserve his body for as long as possible after he dies, so devises a plan to have himself launched in a rocket into orbit around the Earth which his nephew duly implements when the time comes. So far, so good. Forty million revolutions of the Earth around the sun later, the Zoromes enter the Solar System, looking for things to excite them. They were once biological beings but had their brains implanted in conical heads with six eyes all around (plus one on the top) which are mounted on cubical bodies with four articulated legs and six tentacular arms and are now, barring accidents, effectively immortal. They discover Jameson’s satellite and, with him being dead and a possible source of information and excitement, they revive his brain and transfer it to one of their body-types. Jameson comes back to life and consciousness in a state of understandable confusion and, then, while observing a tidally locked Eath orbiting close to a red sun, and facing the prospect of being the last man alive with nothing but Zoromes (however nice they are) for companions, he feels crushing loneliness and hopelessness vying with the possibilities of a boundless future in waves of suicidal conflict.

This is very much a scientifiction story which has a direct reference to Haggard, nephews doing things for extraordinary voyages like Burroughs, “sleeping” people like Malory, far future Earths like Wells, characters with names like “25X-987” like Gernsback, and backyard rocket inventors like most everyone, and which influenced others in turn [1]. While it starts at the end of Jameson’s life, it starts very much at the beginning of any possible narration and continues through step after step with almost nothing but description and explanation until the end, though the narration is full of such weird ideas and imagery as to scarcely need a great deal of conflict. Readers might ask why Jameson thought it was so important to preserve his corpse or they might grant that some form of permanence is a common desire; might find the technological notions sloppy (to be extremly generous) or handwave it; and might find some of the writing, in which telescopes possess “immense” power and things travel at “inconceivable” speeds to be nearly as sloppy, though it’s generally reasonably crisp on a line-by-line basis. Many SF stories might have had a happy immortal or angsty last man and I thought it was interesting that this had both in one. While it certainly won’t suit everyone, I’ve had the Jameson stories in the Pile for a long time and, having finally read one, I’m curious about how the series progresses.

Geoffrey A. Landis (1955-05-28)

“Approaching Perimelasma” (Asimov’s, January 1998)

Eleven centuries prior to the opening of our story, which may be set in the early Fourth Millennium, wormholes were discovered and manipulated. They play a significant role in the protagonist’s journey into a black hole. That protagonist is a one-millimeter tall humaniform construct with a variety of powers including necessarily UV vision, variable hyperspeed and ultraslow perceptions, and staggering resistance to gravity and tidal forces, with an uploaded personality from a novelty-seeking post-human, and he plans to fly a peanut-sized spaceship into the black hole with the aim to explore, experience, perhaps find information that will lead to the holy grail of FTL travel and, just before he becomes trapped forever, to use a wormhole to escape. Naturally, things don’t go right from a couple of perspectives and the effort to deal with at least one of them draws on some quick thinking, quick action, and chance.

There are some stories that have SCIENCE FICTION emblazoned on them, burning like a nova, casting most other stories into relative shade, and this is one. There are concepts sprinkled several-to-a-page resulting in repeated mind blowings and, because it’s in initially elliptical, confusing present tense, has a ship named Huis Clos (as well as a funny nod to Frederic Brown), and is about psychology as much as physics, it’s even literary, too. Fun for the whole family! I feel like I gave away too much but that also seemed like the minimum to have it make sense. Rest assured, there’s one or two gems about the protagonist and one or two climaxes that I didn’t detail and, even if I had spoiled everything, nothing would be spoiled because it wouldn’t capture much of anything of the actual experience of reading the story which takes just a few pages to strain and unchain your brain with an expedition into a star as a mere appetizer, which makes you think about life and death and pseudo-religious concepts on human and cosmic scales and is just everything science fiction, and short science fiction, ought to be. I was thinking this was one of my favorites of all time and it absolutely still is.

[1] Asimov himself credits the Zoromes with influencing his conception of benevolent robots.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Stars, Like Dust


The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 218pp, 1951

Young Biron Farrill, the son of the Rancher of Widemos (a noble position on the world of Nephelos in the Nebular Kingdoms), is attending the University of Earth, partly to get an education and partly to find a precious document his father wants. He wakes one evening to a puzzling situation in which his room’s ventilation system, communications system, and even the door aren’t working. At first, he thinks it’s a prank but comes to realize that he’s been trapped in a room with a radiation bomb. Fortunately, Sander Jonti (an associate who is from Lingane, also in the Nebular regions), is able to break him out of his room. Through Jonti, we learn that Tyrann is a budding empire in control of fifty worlds and has imprisoned (and will soon execute) Biron’s father as a disloyal threat to them. Jonti convinces Biron to flee to Rhodia, a world ruled by the half-idiot Hinrik, to avoid being killed by Tyrannian powers like his father. After Biron is on his way, we learn that Jonti and his companion, Rizzett, are also looking for the document but that, wherever it is, it’s been stolen from Earth quite some time ago.

Biron, traveling under a false name, is recognized aboard the starship en route to Rhodia and is brought to Simok Aratap, a powerful “Commissioner” of Tyrann who seems to be both a frustrated artist and conqueror (since Tyrann has been ruling its fifty worlds for fifty years and hasn’t expanded since being checked by its “Associate” world of Lingane). He lets Biron go to see if the young man will lead him to bigger game. Biron meets Hinrik, but also his lovely daughter, Artemisia, who is facing a forced marriage to a repulsive Tyrannian lord, and Artemisia’s Uncle Gil, a man with a scientific bent who does his best to appear harmless by playing the part of a ridiculous dilettante. Determining that Biron can pilot a spacecraft, both beg him to take them away. However, acting with uncharacteristic decision with only a few hours hesitation instead of the usual days, Hinrik has already decided Biron might be a test from Tyrann and has turned him in and Aratap has already arrived. Much running and fighting follows before the trio finally do escape, stealing Aratap’s own ship (which is not the good fortune it seems to be).

Gil then relates the tale of his experience of accidentally discovering a rebel base while lost in a damaged spaceship. He doesn’t know where he actually was but he believes the rebellion may offer a refuge if he can find it again, whether it’s nearing readiness to face Tyrann or not. Believing the Autarch of Lingane to know something of the rebel world (and after Biron and Artemisia discover their affection for one another), they point the ship to Lingane where they discover something surprising about the Autarch (who also finds Artemisia appealing and isn’t above creating animosity between her and Biron). Thus begins a very uneasy alliance to search for the hidden rebel base which takes the trio’s ship and the Autarch’s into the murky depths of the Horsehead Nebula, with both crews unaware that Aratap and a fleet of Tyrann warships are right behind them. Before the deeds of this tale are done, some will be lost and much will be found, but not always what was expected.

While I remembered much of this book and even most of the twists, I had forgotten how little connected to the “future history” it is. This seems to be set about 10,000 years in the future or 40,000 years before Pebble in the Sky. There is no reference to Trantor and there is a bizarre reference to a “robot messenger,” albeit only one. Earth is radioactive just as in Pebble but in that novel, it was only assumed to be from a war and, in this, it is made explicit (which later novels ignore). On the other hand, it is known to be the birthplace of humanity at this point and there doesn’t seem to be any particular animosity to Earth – indeed, it’s got enough cachet to have noblemen send their children “abroad” for an education. The hyperspace Jump technology seems to be the same, there are blasters, neuronic whips, biwheels, and more (there is even the first visisonor), but many of Asimov’s stories re-use various bits of tech. So, at the time of this book’s release, it may have seemed very independent.

In addition to seeming less like Asimov’s other series books in terms of fitting into a future history, it also seems less like his in other senses. Unlike pudgy, bald, old Joseph Schwartz the tailor, who made for a very unusual and compelling protagonist in Pebble, Biron Farrill is a young (sometimes petulant), muscled, 6’2″ nobleman for whom violence is no last refuge. Similarly, while Artemisia seems like a nice enough girl, she’s no Arkady Darrell, but usually a “matrimonial object” and not always the brightest one. The triangle of the Autarch, Biron, and Arta also leads to a little too much soap opera in the space opera for my taste, though it may appeal to others. On the other hand, the villain of Pebble was a true foaming-at-the-mouth black hat which was unusual for Asimov (though this one has one, too, which I can’t get into for spoilers) and Aratap, who is the initial bad guy of this piece, is more like Asimov’s usual complex and not-entirely-evil villains and was more interesting than the heroes.

Some other common motifs are more problematic. Coming off of searches by the Mule and the Foundation for the Second Foundation, this search for a rebel world seems familiar and, although they are different people and Biron is providing the means of escape, Arta and Gil aboard ship feels something like Arkady and Homer. Some of the twists and turns have been used before, too.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this book is the logic. While there are the usual excellent Asimovian conversations such as that between Aratap and Major Andros on what sort of forces to deploy and Aratap also repeats a recurrent theme of Asimov’s in which a character develops a web of impeccable logic which perfectly describes events–until it doesn’t because it was a coincidental abstraction–there is also “peccable” logic. Much is made of Tyrann’s political considerations and how they can’t use all the brute force they might like, but it is overused to excuse things that really should be more direct. Further, Biron seems to swallow lies repeatedly, yet “always knew” better or comes to know without receiving additional information to explain his increased comprehension. Also, by giving us the singular subjectivity of duplicitous characters, Asimov doesn’t always seem to play fair with the readers in this one. And there is a particularly glaring issue with Gil’s eavesdropping habits combined with ignorance of certain key things.

That said, there are many things I like about this book. While there is some very dated technology (the corneal contact lens seems to be a cutting-edge invention thousands of years in the future and spaceships seem to have a lot of dials) there is also a really tremendous depiction of two ships docking and a person traveling between them which reads like science writing from the present rather than imagination over fifteen years before such things began to happen.

Early on in the book, aside from Biron’s locked-room drama, things seem to be moving toward action a lot more than being in a state of action, but the movement is interesting and, when the action kicks in, it’s engaging and entertaining.

Perhaps the best thing is the depiction of the bubbling state of the galactic region and the cultures and personalities of Tyrann, Lingane, Rhodia, Nephelos, and even Earth. The different economies, living habits, ship designs, political considerations, variations in powers, interrelations, etc., all make them almost as much characters as the individual people representing them.

At least as of 1979, this was the novel Asimov liked least of his but this was mainly due to the fact that Gold interfered editorially by making him include the “document” sub-plot. This is neither a great feature nor grave flaw to me, though. Still, considering The Foundation Trilogy, I, Robot, and Pebble in the Sky to have been written, whether they’d achieved final book form or not, I think it is actually fair to say that this is the weakest of them so far and not the first book I’d hand to someone unfamiliar with Asimov, but I still enjoyed the re-read.

Birthday Reviews: Saberhagen, Wellman

The birthday boys of the coming week bring us tales of berserkers and balladeers.

Fred Saberhagen (1930-05-18/2007-06-29)

“Starsong” (If, January 1968)

Within a powerfully grotesque framing story about a doctor determining if the brains (some vat-grown, some removed from their bodies) within a liberated berserker base are human or not (and disposing of those that aren’t), is the story of Ordell Callison, the galaxy’s greatest singer, and his new wife, Eury. When playing a mating game of ship tag, one man plays with an unwilling Eury, she flees and, like a wolf running down a sheep separated from the flock, a berserker [1] comes out of hiding and captures her. Ordell learns of this, madly tears out after her, and is also captured. However, his song powerfully affects the cyborg humans that had been under the thrall of the berserkers and he has one chance to escape the base with her.

A great virtue and vice of this story is the fact that it’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in science fictional terms. The vice comes from it being an extremely faithful adaptation that provides a rote feeling to the plot along with the discordant “singing SF” element but the virtue is that it is also a naturally powerful plot, is very creatively adapted, and even does some interpretation of the myth. Even more notably, it produces a very unusual and strong flavor which, while still very different, may come closest to some of the weirdness that is Cordwainer Smith. Effective and memorable.

Manly Wade Wellman (1903-05-21/1986-04-05)

“O Ugly Bird!” (F&SF, December 1951)

To borrow from the opening line, “I swear I’m licked before I start, trying to tell you what” this story is like. John’s a traveling musician with a silver-stringed guitar on his way through the mountains to the Bottomless Pool when he meets Mr. Onselm. That unworthy turns out to be a hoodoo man keeping the few folks of the local population under his thumb with the help of an ugly bird – a purely unnatural bird, at that. Onselm is a sight, and the bird is even more so, and things are creepy enough but, when Onselm takes a notion to more thoroughly possess the shopgirl, Winnie, and gathers a small posse to run off the troublesome guitar player who’s also taken a more gentlemanly liking to the girl, things get more urgent and even creepier.

This is a hard story to describe because, on its surface, it’s very simple and very short as well, but Wellman paces things and reveals things and describes things just so, producing a really effective low-key horror combined with a winning perspective conveyed through John’s mountain voice. The one problem with this is that people seem to forget and remember a thing or two when it’s pretty convenient but the tale is a gem, otherwise, and the first of many stories and novels featuring John the Balladeer.

[1] If you’re not familiar with the series, berserkers are machines whose ultimate purpose is to eradicate biological life throughout the galaxy.

Links: 2020-05-13

Science Fiction

  • THE SKINNER: Where do I Start? IMO, you can never go wrong with written order (Gridlinked, etc.) because that’s how it had to make sense in the first place. (Although I’d read a couple of Asher stories, Gridlinked is where I started in terms of books, although – in retrospect – it’s good but not the best. Certainly good enough, obviously.) However, it’s not usually wrong to start in internal order either (Prador Moon) because that’s how it’s been retrofitted to work. Also, Prador Moon is short and relatively self-contained, so it’s not a huge investment, and I think it’s a total freaking blast. (I’ve fallen way behind but, so far, it and The Line of Polity are my favorites, but the latter is the second of the main Cormac five, so not a good starting place.) Also, aside from the brevity – and Asher’s not as long-winded as many New Space Opera people, anyway – it’s sort of quintessential Asher. If you like it, you like Asher. If you don’t, you may well not like Asher (though maybe you still would like Cowl or Ownerspace or maybe even the longer, more connected narrative of the main Cormac/Dragon books could grab you). Whether you go internal, external, random, or other, the link takes you to the current state of things.
  • Retro Hugos: “Far Centaurus” by A. E. van Vogt | Adventures Fantastic / H. L. Gold’s “Trouble With Water” | Adventures Fantastic / Jack Williamson’s “Dead Star Station” | Futures Past and Present / Happy Birthday, Larry Niven | Futures Past and Present. I reviewed “Concealment” for van Vogt’s birthday and “Nonstop to Mars” for Williamson’s and “The Hole Man” for Niven’s; here are three alternate stories celebrating these authors, along with a fantasy which is Gold’s (first- or second-)most famous story.
  • Flogging Babel: “She Saved Us From World War Three”. I’m not going to pay any $20 for a pamphlet which seems to go out of its way to be minimal, but the Dozois/Tiptree connection is interesting and this post from Michael Swanwick touches on it.


Graphic from “Each of these ‘tiny’ threads of blazing-hot plasma on the sun is 125 miles wide | Space”



I don’t ordinarily do this sort of stuff but I just… I don’t know. On some of the staff writers answer some of the readers’ questions in a “Mailbag” and we have this absolutely stunning gem:

Q: What major differences will there be between Mike McCarthy’s offensive style and what we have seen from Jason Garrett’s offense?

A: …Hopefully, with three Pro Bowl-caliber receivers in the lineup, McCarthy helps the Cowboys get away from that 1995, ground-and-pound mentality.

Hopefully, the writer knows we have Pro Bowlers in the backfield, too. And knows what happened for the LAST time off the 1995 season. We had a Pro Bowler (to say the least) in the backfield then, too. I think I’d like a whole hell of a lot of “that 1995, ground-and-pound mentality,” myself (which Garrett was not exactly committed to, himself). It may not be nice to say, but it’s honest to say, that Mailbag answer is the stupidest damned thing I’ve heard in a long time and, what with current events, I’ve heard a lot of stupid stuff lately.

Super Bowl XXX: Dallas 27, Pittsburgh 17

Sorry. Extremely frustrated Cowboys fan. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.




Falling behind, and I can no longer say “hello in there,” so I have to say goodbye to both John and to David in this post. (I don’t know that anyone ever plays these songs I embed in these posts but, if not, you’re missing a hell of a song this time.)

Continue reading

Review: Mission to Methone by Les Johnson

Mission to Methone by Les Johnson
Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8305-6, $16.00, 298pp, February 2018
Paperback: Baen, 978-1-4814-8388-9, $7.99, 407pp, March 2019

It’s an ordinary day in the life of Chris Holt, as he leads a project for Space Resources Corporation, an asteroid mining company, until he’s informed that the asteroid his tiny solar-sail spacecraft have been set up to examine is artificial. His life suddenly becomes extraordinary as he goes from a meeting with the boss to a meeting with the President to a journey out to the artificial object. And all this is still only the beginning.

The geopolitical situation in 2065 is a strange one. Russia has joined the EU, China is a more or less civil rival of the US, India is another world power and a secretive and almost insanely pugnacious one, and there is a Caliphate in the Middle East which is almost what you’d expect from the abortive Caliphate of the early twenty-first century, except it has nukes from Pakistan.

The first half of the story involves a US/EU/Japanese ship and a Chinese one (the Indian ship failed) racing to the artificial “asteroid” with a Caliphate nuke hot on their heels. Holt and the gang find out (as we have seen in the prologue and will learn more about in a handful of lower-case roman numeral chapters distributed through the book) that the alien ship is, in a sense, the body of an AI which has been badly damaged in a war between Makers and Destroyers (those who would preserve sentient life in the galaxy as a natural resource and those who would destroy it as a threat). The commanding officers of the two ships try to work together to save the alien vessel but the gambit to block the missile with the American ship fails. Before the damaged alien is destroyed, it gives them plans for a fusion rocket and coordinates for another journey.

It turns out that the coordinates point to Methone, a satellite of Saturn. A tale of a second space adventure with a US/EU/Chinese ship and an Indian one follows, while, back on Earth, the geopolitical situation becomes apocalyptically dangerous with occasional nukes going off on Earth as harbingers of WWIII. What will become of the two ships? What will be discovered at Methone? Will WWIII be averted? The second half of the story provides the answers.

Speaking of halves, through the first half, I didn’t think I was going to like this. There are three main problem areas and one seems nitpicky, but it was so pervasive that it really made it hard to engage. It may be a symptom of this being the author’s first solo novel and may improve over time. Though the writing aims for a nice, straightforward plainness, there are many, many examples of either awkward writing or conceptual awkwardness. You can take my word for it to save time or see this footnote [1] for specifics. Aside from specific weirdness, there’s just a general sense of stiffness or statements that are obvious or things that don’t ring right. As a couple of examples which are weaker out of context than in a flow of much of the same, Holt’s thoughts about his commanding officer are delivered by narrative voice which says, “Chris could tell that she was wishing she was the one to walk in an alien starship and actually talk to an extraterrestrial, but it wasn’t getting in the way of her professionalism.” And, earlier, Holt says to a White House bigwig, “I don’t know what agency or organization you represent, but your ignorance and ill-informed suggestions are counterproductive,” and, at the end of the paragraph, he astutely observes, “Shit, I bet I just made an enemy.

That last introduces one of the other problems, which is the characterization, especially of Holt. He is described by the alien AI as “the human with the thinking anomaly” and thinks of himself as a “type A personality.” I had to laugh when, again via narrative voice, he reflects that “getting along was hard work and sometimes he failed” because I hardly ever saw him succeed. As a perhaps autistic or otherwise atypical person, this may all be understandable but he’s much like a dramatic Sheldon Cooper without the depth and generation of sympathy such a drama needs. His passion for astronomy, exemplified by some backstory regarding his childhood telescope, comes through and he actually is astute when he thinks that people who manipulate others for personal gain are “assholes” and that he’s doesn’t want to be “that kind of asshole,” but he still is a kind of asshole. Further, other characters who are intended to be unpleasant obstructions like Fuji (as part of the first crew) and Janhunen (as part of both crews) are overdone or lacking in other dimensions. More importantly, a crewmember warns against anthropomorphizing the alien AI, noting that it “may sound human and speak English, but it is far from being human.” This is as it should be but, aside from its timescales and capabilities (often ruthless capabilities) it doesn’t really seem sufficiently alien most of the time. The humans can hardly be blamed for anthropomorphizing it.

The third problem involves both the current political scenario of 2065 and the extremely simplified distorted history the AI takes us through. If someone had written science fiction in the 1980s about official US policy being to undercut NATO and the US intelligence agencies in favor of a Russian dictator and to engage in economic warfare against Canada, it would have been prophetic, but also would have made for preposterous reading. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction should be plausible. And, in this, I just don’t buy a Caliphate (though we’ll see what happens now that the US has screwed up Iraq and is on the verge of screwing up Afghanistan) or the cozy relationship between the US and China when China still seems to be a “communist” dictatorship whose only change in 45 years has been to engage in “infamous” genetic engineering to make tall, strong, genius taikonauts. Unfortunately, I do more or less buy the possibility of the India depicted in this book.

Regardless of what one thinks about the political scenario, after back-to-back infodump chapters in 16 and 17, the story does begin to take off with the second mission, pitting those nations against each other in a thriller-like fashion which, after seeming like a distraction in the first part, comes to produce an interesting counterpoint to the activities in space with immensely powerful entities much as the movie 2010 did it. I know it’s not a real popular movie and I’ve forgotten how closely it hews to the book, but I love the movie and this book found that vein of earthly and astronomical scopes and excitement which had me carried away despite myself. The problems don’t go away, but they do finally get drowned out by the velocity and power of events.

Finally, the story does make an important point about humanity needing to develop a space-faring civilization (because, as it says on page 14, if we stay here, “some virus might wipe us out”) and, by focusing on Holt’s loneliness and showing how that can drive even AIs insane and indicating that our species is also alone but may not have to be, all its nuts and bolts of de Broglie transmitters and solar gravity lenses [2] has a human interest. I can’t recommend this for all readers but if you are like me and enjoy stories with near-future tangible spaceships and aliens you may enjoy it as much as I ultimately did or if you aren’t like me in the sense of being bothered by the occasional writing lapse, you may like it even more.

With the last Baen book I read, I congratulated the staff on excellent proof-reading but can’t say the same for this one because, when it rains, it really pores. There are some things like “vision-related” not having its hyphen (43) but the two that really stuck out were “poured” (7) and “pouring” (363) when “pored” and “poring” were intended.

[1]Examples of awkward writing:

  • The lowercase roman numeral chapters are focused exclusively on the alien AIs in flashback, yet include things like Saturn being “breathtaking” (149) and a probe that’s “about the same size as a schoolbus,” (204) which don’t immerse one in an alien AI perspective.
  • A character says, “Look at the surface. It’s damaged. Severely damaged. And the damage is extensive.” (121) This is technically not repetitive so much as, “Statement. Emphasis. Scope,” but it reads like DamageDamageDamage.
  • A character says, “Given the collegial atmosphere among our colleagues…” (215)
  • One character says “I never dreamed I would get to see something so beautiful in person” and another replies, “Neither did I, but I always dreamed of it.” (224) If the first had said something like “I never seriously thought” it would work.
  • We’re told that an alien avatar (repeatedly described as a gelatinous sort of “beach ball” (e.g., 369, 372) which does not have the intended effect for anyone who has seen Dark Star) “enveloped [Holt] like a hot knife sliding into butter.” This is precisely backwards but that’s understandable as butter rarely envelops a hot knife.
  • And the winner: a character is speaking to an audience and educates them about Saturn’s moon, “Methone, pronounced mi-THOH-nee.” (171)

Examples of conceptual awkwardness:

  • Holt determines the age of the artifact by the “size of the dust layer, the pitting from the occasional micrometeoroid strike” (28) when that should probably be the “depth” of the dust layer and I wonder how you can determine the age of something by its abrasions when you don’t know what it’s made of: strikes would be rare, regardless, but would have a greater effect on a weak material than a strong one. Speaking of determining the age of things, a single reference is made to a CEO having “the best anti-aging treatments his wealth could buy” and, though he’s seventy-one, he “looked more like a man in his mid-thirties.” (17) Only a few pages later, Holt thinks a woman could be “no more than thirty-five years old” and wonders “how someone so new to the political scene” could be in her position,” (31) when the natural thought might be that she’s been rejuved just like Holt’s boss.
  • The alien says, “Send Chris only,” (272) and a half-dozen pages later, when Chris and another arrive, the alien observes that “Two were not summoned,” and Chris replies, “You did not prohibit anyone from accompanying me.” While it may be true that the alien AI didn’t vaporize the second man, it sure lets Chris get away with some obvious sophistry. But that may figure, since the alien AI isn’t the most logical: it needs repairs made, time is of the essence, there are several people it could get to help… and it attempts to explicitly summon a single worker? Worse, when the alien AI first attempts to get the humans to help and they decide to block the incoming nuke with one of their ships (122), it doesn’t tell them that “it knew the missile contained multiple warheads,” (138) before the humans get one of their ships blown up to no purpose.
  • The caliphate plots to slow the American ship enough for the Indians to catch up, but it’s vitally important that the Indians not actually beat the Americans to Methone. So they come up with a plan. (182) When it’s implemented, we get the “You can’t fire me–I quit!” (or “an attempt to defuse the reader’s incredulity with a pre-emptive strike”) when we’re told “it was just short of amazing that one of the returning miners was actually a Caliphate sympathizer–a sleeper agent.” (191) Worse, the plan essentially ends the American mission until they exercise great ingenuity and come up with an alternative that will get them there just about three days ahead of the Indians. Just like the Caliphate wanted. But the Caliphate could not have known that!

[2] One thing that really bugs me (though, on the bright side, it gives the book a “classic SF” feel), is that there’s no nanotech to speak of. I figure the goop used to fix Holt’s arm is some other sort of alien magic but if it is nanotech, that’s even worse because then it does exist but is not generally deployed. On the flipside, there are nice notes about quantum computing re-establishing Moore’s law and how discovery of an alien artifact causes tech stocks to crash and a nice (well, awful, of course) assassination of someone using a disease genetically tailored for one.

Birthday Reviews: Tenn, Zelazny


This week is when Galaxy‘s collide. Both stories are about lust and life but one is a semi-comic brightly-lit tale of commerce from Gold’s era and one is a semi-tragic twilight tale of romance from Pohl’s era.

William Tenn (1920-05-09/2010-02-07)

“Betelgeuse Bridge” (Galaxy, April 1951)

When alien slugs arrive on Earth, an ad man is brought in to sell them to humanity while scientists (and the ad man) try to figure out what’s going on with them, hampered by the aliens’ flowery and roundabout speech. And, as the ad man is trying to sell them, they’re trying to sell to us. When the aliens reveal they’ve got life-quintupling machines, humanity is willing to trade almost anything for them.

Many readers will probably see the main ending before it happens and some may also see the denouement as too easy, but it’s an entertaining tale with a couple of bits of neat symmetry.

Roger Zelazny (1937-05-13/1995-06-14)

“The Man Who Loved the Faioli” (Galaxy, June 1967)

This is and isn’t a science fiction story of desire and death in which John Auden is and isn’t alive and Sythia is and isn’t a woman. She is a Faioli, one of those who can only see life and who stay with men for a month before they die, and he is a twice-smitten man in a half-life…

They crossed through the Valley of the Bones, where millions of the dead from many races and worlds lay stacked all about them, and she did not see these things. She had come to the graveyard of all the worlds, but she did not realize this thing. She had encountered its keeper, its tender, and she did not know what he was, he who staggered beside her like a man drunken.

His nature gives him an interesting perspective on Sythia and all she represents with unusual results.

Like so much of Zelazny, this isn’t my kind of thing in theory but is such a well-written and effective sci-fairy tale that it is in practice.

Asimov’s Centennial: Conclusion of Phase One

It’s taken awhile but this post will complete the first phase of my Asimov Centennial Project. I’ll review three last stories which will complete the coverage of I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy and provide an index to all the coverage of Asimov’s output from 1939-1950.

Robot and Foundation Stories

The first story to be written outside the timeframe of The Early Asimov and the final regular story to be written and included in I, Robot is “The Evitable Conflict.” In it, Stephen Byerley (who first appeared in “Evidence”) is now World Co-ordinator and dealing with a problem he wants Susan Calvin’s help with. A fascinating portrait of an Earth which has been reorganized into four Regions with Vice Co-ordinators under Byerley is painted and, in each of them, there are subtle but disturbing problems with what should be the perfect guidance of the Machines (or computers, or stationary robots, which still fall under the domain of the Three Laws which ensure no harm can come to humans). An array of impossible possibilities is presented, such as machine error (impossible by design and Law) or human error (impossible because the errors would produce other inconsistencies). Byerley believes it may have something to do with a “Society for Humanity” which is opposed to the role of machines in society. Susan determines that that is correct, but not in the way Byerley thought.

There are two problems in this successful story. A minor one is that, while the thematic fireplace element at the open and close and the trips through each of the Regions of the world demonstrates the story’s excellent structure, it’s almost too excellent – a little too deliberate and obvious. More importantly, the solution to the problem is supposed to rely on logic and it is logical at every step of the way except the sophistry involved in expanding a premise which anticipates a major, and more earned, change later in the Robot sequence. Still, the problem is suitably puzzling, Byerley and Calvin make for an interesting pair, the future world is imaginatively unusual (if a bit schematic), and there is substantial philosophical material to think about if the reader wants to, and a very good puzzle if that would be enough.

While not strictly a story, Asimov did add three or four thousand words of a framing narrative around and between the stories in I, Robot in the form of a reporter recalling, in 2064, a couple of interviews done with an elderly Susan Calvin in 2057. It rearranges the individual stories from their published order and weaves them into a narrative which describes how, after the last world war shortly before Calvin was born in 1982, the first limited robots were developed at the end of the millennium, grew in abilities, and essentially came to run the world. In the meantime, the nations of Earth coalesced first into Regions and then into the Federation of those Regions while, beyond Earth, interplanetary travel and commerce was developed, culminating in the hyper-drive and the first colonies around nearby stars.

While not dramatically plotted as an independent story, it does portray quite a future history and does powerful work in amplifying the Robot stories into a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

(This framing story is not available apart from this book. For instance, one of the weaknesses of The Complete Robot, aside from the fact that it became incomplete, is that it arranges the stories differently and drops this text. On the other hand, The Complete Robot contains two stories not otherwise available in book form.)

The Psychohistorians” was not initially published in a magazine like the other Foundation stories, but was written to ease the reader into the series as presented in book form and to lengthen the first volume of the trilogy to something more like the subsequent volumes.

Young Gaal Dornick makes his way from his small, remote world of Synnax to the capital world of the Galactic Empire, Trantor. Still deep in sensory overload, he finds himself being questioned by a stranger and explains that he’s a mathematician who has come to Trantor to work for the psychohistorian Hari Seldon. Leaving that meeting, he returns to his room and is surprised to meet Hari Seldon, himself. He’s even more surprised when Seldon proves to him that the Empire is near death. And he’s yet more surprised the next morning, when he’s arrested by the Commission for Public Safety and finds himself on trial, along with Seldon, for being a danger to the Empire which has a chance, however slight, of resulting in his execution. A courtroom drama with twists and turns then follows.

Even as an independent story, this would be pretty good and, as an establishing piece for the stories which follow, it’s excellent. Gaal is a sort of stereotyped “country boy in the big city” but is effective and Seldon steals the show as the Obi-Wan/Yoda to his Luke. (In fact, Gaal literally tells him he stole the show in one scene.) Trantor and the Empire are suitably stupendous. The fascinating concept of psychohistory is conveyed clearly, quickly, and dramatically.

(By the way, somewhat akin to the framing story in I, Robot, this story begins with a quote from the “Encyclopedia Galactica.” In the original versions of the other stories, some have quotes from the works of a Ligurn Vier and many have none at all. The Ligurn Vier quotes were rewritten as Encyclopedia Galactica extracts and more were distributed throughout the trilogy. The Foundation stories work superbly either way but the book version does result in a different perspective on the Encyclopedia (and related issues).)


In the future, I’ll be reviewing Asimov’s works more or less by the book. While, on the one hand, there were some fairly extended periods where he published no new SF novels (1959-81 saw only the novelization of Fantastic Voyage in 1966 and the original novel The Gods Themselves in 1972) and, on the other, there were no extended periods in which he didn’t publish a story in the magazines, he still shifted his focus to books generally and I think it will be better (certainly easier) to cover them that way. What has been covered so far are the contents of the following books:

  • Pebble in the Sky (1950; alternate version from The Alternate Asimovs (1986))
  • I, Robot (1950)
  • Foundation (1951)
  • Foundation and Empire (1952)
  • Second Foundation (1953)
  • The Early Asimov (1972; paperback version published in two volumes (1974))

Asimov’s Mysteries (1968) and Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) each include one story from this period and The Rest of the Robots (1964, paperback version containing only stories as Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robot (1966)) contained three.

They’ve been covered in the following posts:

(Half of Foundation is in “Eight Stories, September 1941-April 1943” and the other half is in “Eight Stories, June 1943-May 1945” while I, Robot and The Early Asimov are split over all the posts.)

I’ve also covered the first volume of his two-volume, 640,000-word autobiography, In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954, in the following posts:

Birthday Reviews: Collier, Smith

This week’s pair of birthday boys bring us a piece from The New Yorker and then, for something completely different, a piece from Comet.

John Collier (1901-05-03/1980-04-06)

“The Chaser” (The New Yorker, December 28, 1940)

Collier wrote for the slicks and this is one of the slickest. It’s hard to describe without spoiling but to try to be as oblique as it is, if not as witty, it explains why the business model of a seller of magic potions works when a young man wants a very inexpensive love potion.

E. E. “Doc” Smith (1890-05-02/1965-08-31)

“The Vortex Blaster” (Comet, July 1941)

In last week’s “Birthday Reviews,” I said of the van Vogt that, if you like van Vogt, you’ll like the story and if you don’t, you won’t. And I said of the Williamson that, though he was generally able to advance with the times, the particular story was a ’30s story. Well, both those points apply even more firmly to this tale and I’m afraid that, if I have any credibility, I might be blowing it by recommending this, but I likes what I likes. I’ve read Skylark and Lensman books (to which this series of stories is loosely connected) but I’ve never read this series before, and I’m sure going to continue.

Neal “Storm” Cloud is a physicist with an amazing intuitive mathematical sense who has recently suffered the tragedy of losing his family. He’s not suicidal, but ready to die, himself, and this has given him insight into how he may destroy one of the worst blights on the Earth (or “Tellus”). The use of “intra-atomic energy” generally works well but, when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong, creating vortices of incredible destructive power on Tellus, which will eventually render our world uninhabitable. So these vortices must be blasted with duodec bombs which have to be targeted with a speed and precision not even a computer has. And the climax is Storm Cloud’s battle with the biggest, oldest, meanest vortex of them all.

There is baseball and football and one shouldn’t evaluate a running back on how well he swings a bat. And there is “literature” and “scientifiction” and one shouldn’t evaluate this on its similarity to “literature.” To quote Storm, himself, “Z-W-E-E-E-T–POWIE!” It’s its own wonderful, intense, exciting thing, with a completely made-up bit of fantasy (atomic energy hadn’t been actualized yet and, when it was, it was dynamically much as Smith describes, but not literally like it) ensconced within a whole lot of science-like stuff. It may not be quite great, but it’s good! Smith goes for an effect and, while he goes about it like no one else, he gets there. I must quote this bit which will be the acid test: if this paragraph doesn’t break you, nothing will, and you should check out this story. (Two camps of mathematicians dispute whether the vortices will grow indefinitely or eventually explode and Carlowitz is in the latter camp.)

And now Cloud, as he studied through his almost opaque defences that indescribably ravening fireball, that esuriently rapacious monstrosity which might very well have come from the deepest pit of the hottest hell of mythology, felt strongly inclined to agree with Carlowitz. It didn’t seem possible anything could get any worse than that without exploding. And such an explosion, he felt sure, would certainly blow everything from miles around into the smitheriest kind of smithereens.