Birthday Reviews: MacLeod, Simak

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

Ian R. MacLeod (1956-08-06)

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

chop-girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Asimov’s Centennial: The Martian Way and Other Stories

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

Contents:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday Reviews: Bretnor, Stableford, Watt-Evans

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Stableford (1948-07-25)

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

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

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

Lawrence Watt-Evans (1954-07-26)

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

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

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

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus

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Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 186pp, 1954

Lucky Starr’s third juvenile adventure dedicated to “the advancement of man and the destruction of the enemies of civilization” begins when a college friend of Lucky’s, Lou Evans, is accused of being corrupt. Lucky and Bigman go to investigate, despite being warned off by Evans, himself. While taking the “planetary coaster” (shuttle) down from Space Station #2 to Venus, the pilot and co-pilot [1] freeze with the ship on a downward trajectory. Lucky tries to right the ship, prompting the pilots to begin fighting him, but he does fortunately manage to reduce the impact of the crash. Even more fortunately, Venus is covered in a mat of vegetation riding over water and not rock. Once out of the ship, away from the now alert, but cluelessly amnesiac pilots, and in the dome of Aphrodite, the largest city on Venus, the Council of Science section chief tells Lucky and Bigman that the “accident” was engineered by Evans. His theory is that Venus has lucrative zymocultural knowledge that could benefit the system but Evans must have thrown in with the Sirians, enemy of all that is good and just, to steal these industrial secrets through some mysterious means of mental domination. Lucky doesn’t believe it but his interview with a taciturn Evans is unproductive and, when everyone is distracted by a worker who seems to threaten the city with opening a lock to flood and crush it, Evans escapes. (Bigman, however, has a heroic moment by virtue of not being “as big as all that.”) The dynamic duo head out in a “subsea craft” on the trail of Evans and Lucky begins to unravel the mystery of several layers but also gets trapped under “two hundred million tons of monster” – a giant, mind-controlled, water-jet shooting, omnivorous creature called an “orange patch,” which is like an inverted bowl which consumes everything under it. Getting out of this fix and several others, and solving a mystery more than once, occupy the second half of the tale.

While all the Lucky Starr books are at least somewhat Asimovian, this continues the process of becoming still more so and, whatever knowledge of the authorship there was before, after this book was published, Asimov publicly identified himself as the author. This contains many core concepts and items found in many other Asimov works such as the Council of Science possibly being the nucleus of an eventual Galactic Empire, psychoprobes and, obviously, the yeast-based food supplies. Not to mention that, conversely, Lucky’s lost his magic mask.

The best thing about this book is its setting. Asimov writes his usual foreword warning about the science, saying that it wasn’t counter to our body of knowledge at the time it was written but had become so by the time of the paperback reprint. [2] Amusingly, within the book, Lucky Starr says that until “the first explorers landed on Venus… they had weird notions about the planet…” It’s Asimov’s own weird notions that make this fun. It’s depicted almost like a microcrosm of the Ptolemaic universe of concentric spheres, with a shell of white/gray clouds, followed by one of brighter rainy air, followed by the blue-green vegetation, followed by the sea, followed by a surface dotted with domes. The sea is full of “buttons,” “arrowfish,” “scarlet patches,” “orange patches,” and “V-frogs,” some of the last having even been brought inside as pets. Under the crushing ocean, humans in (what I couldn’t help but think of as) the pleasure domes of Venus dine on delicious varieties of food (which, to the surprise of the guests, is all made from refined strains of yeast) and listen to magnetonic music (perhaps akin to theremins).

This initially seems like the best of the first three adventures as it avoids the “first episode” awkwardness of the first and the “space pirates” melodrama of the second (and still may manage to be with its setting) but it eventually suffers from some problems that are difficult to detail without spoiling the mystery. I’ll just say that both part of what is revealed and the method of dealing with it seem silly and, though matters are recast by later information, that still doesn’t help the disengagement caused by appearances. Further, the closing moral seems to be an extended variant of that in Pirates but isn’t quite as successfully argued. It’s still a fun tale, though, and Venus is quite an experience.


[1] Oddly, the co-pilot is given the name “Tor Johnson,” which is the same as that of the actor who had appeared in many things by 1954 and would go on to achieve infamy in Plan 9 from Outer Space and who actually appeared in an episode of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger within a year of this being written. Stretching further, the pilot is “George Reval,” which makes me think of George Reeves, who was flying across TV screens through the 50s as Superman.

[2] While this may not anticipate discoveries about Venus, it does anticipate computers in its future. Asimov, who was just talking positively about “massive” computers in The Caves of Steel, here has a character carrying what’s basically a laptop.

Review: Space War by Neil R. Jones

Space War by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-650, $0.50, 158pp, 1967 [1]

The third Ace installment of the Professor Jameson saga opens with the seventh Amazing Stories installment, “Zora of the Zoromes.” In quick succession, there are three surprises. When the idea of returning to Zor was first raised, I was expecting the journey back to be an epic, perhaps never completed, quest but, nope, we’re just on Zor in this story. Beyond that, it turns out that the immortal Zoromes don’t just die in proximity to Jameson, but all over, and must replenish their numbers, so the initial impression of the entire species having adopted the metal way of life and adopting occasional others into their ranks [2] gives way to the notion of there being fleshy Zoromes who live to reproduce before becoming machine men. Princess Zora is one such. And in a series of stories that have been literally sexless, far beyond the decorous silence of the Lensmen, Jameson, the brain in a box, is eying the shapely, eyelashed, tentacular, noseless lady speculatively, with some appreciation. But her heart is given to Bext (Jameson observes them together in “a confusing intertwining of tentacles”). Naturally, Bext is captured by the Mumes of Mumed. Turns out that Jameson and the tripeds are decent and honorable folks but some species, when given the gift of theoretical immortality in metal bodies, might lord it over those of their species who remain flesh and seek to dominate the galaxy. This is what the leader of the Mumes has set out to do, waging war on his benefactors, the Zoromes. The Zoromes set out to save Bext and Zora stows away to do her part. They have invisible ships, the Mumeds have guns which disintegrate metal, and the war between them begins until the story sort of stops in the middle with a partial invalidation of what has gone before, until it is finished in “Space War” which, itself, ends on a fitting note in action terms, but leaves Jameson and another Zorome in an odd predicament with even odder dialog.

Even in Jamesonian terms, “Zora of the Zoromes” is the worst story so far by far. It’s a novella but the first half is a conversation between Jameson and Zora in which they do discuss the apparent absence of life after death (though Jameson allows that his preserved state after death may have thrown off the results) and the notion that brains are ungendered but it’s generally very dull. Then there are more pages about creeping around in enemy territory before action finally occurs two-thirds through but the story then only moves from inert to incoherent. “Space War” is a little better, but not enough to save the pair. There is one good part in that this was written between World Wars and Jameson is not only depicting power-mad dictators but understanding that both sides will need to develop new technologies, counter the technological advances of the enemy, and expect their own advances to be countered in turn when many actual generals would be fighting the last war about five years after this was written. And, as always, there is the delightful, apparently unintentional Jamesonian humor, such as spaceships colliding in space with results similar to cars in a grocery store parking lot, somber reports of battles informing us that “[t]hose who had met death were 38R-497, 176Z-56, 34T-11 and 32B-64,” (No! Not 176Z! He was my favorite!) and priceless lines like:

6N-24 leaped headlong into the jumbled fray below them where 34T-11 was beset by several mechanical Mumes who had pulled him down and were attempting to pull off his all-important, yet independently helpless, head.

While military SF doesn’t seem to be Jones’ specialty, “Labyrinth” compensates for the rest of this book by returning to exploration. In this case, the Zoromes are pretty bored by another ho-hum strange new world out among the stars. The only interest it has are odd bare patches in its terrain and a small mystery about the barely-intelligent native lifeforms, the Queeg, who work with metal but use wooden weapons. Nevertheless, before leaving, the Zoromes decide to accompany the Queeg on a hunt for what turns out to be big pale slugs (called “ohbs”) who passively let themselves be slaughtered. That is, until one of the Zoromes makes physical contact with one, it lights up in brilliant colors, and a horror story erupts. Most readers will be able to guess what happens and why before the characters do (or the author seems to expect them to) but it has the effect of singing along to a favorite song you know the words to. The horror of the slugs and the labyrinth is pretty effective despite Jones trying to sabotage himself by describing a Zorome suffering a horrible death and telling us ungrammatically and unterrifyingly that “[h]e died uncomplaining.” Still, the initial danger and the compounding of it as the Zoromes repeatedly jump out of frying pans and into fires (or, as Jones puts it, “from Scylla to Charybdis, from the Casket to the Ortach Stone” [3]) comes to produce some genuine effect.

And, even in this one, there’s still some great Jamesonian inadvertent humor. Once the Zoromes find themselves cut off from escape. A Zorome exclaims, “The tunnel is full of ohbs!” and asks the brave leader Jameson, “Shall we try a dash through them, weapons ready?” – “Two of us can try it,” said the professor. “You and 9V-474 can go.”


[1] Original publications:

  • “Zora of the Zoromes” (Amazing Stories, March 1935)
  • “Space War” (Amazing Stories, July 1935)
  • “Labyrinth” (Amazing Stories, April 1936)

[2] I think I thought of this prior to returning to watching some DS9 episodes but it’s kind of like an extreme version of the Federation: you see these alien heads sticking up out of uniforms simultaneously indicating everyone’s differentia and their joining to the greater whole of the Federation. When a human and some tripeds become Zoromes, they put on the metal machine body which is a “uniform” in a major way.

[3] I suspect most people are familiar with the Homeric expression and maybe they are with the other, but I had to look that one up. It’s from Victor Hugo: “The Caskets are a figuring iron with a thousand compartments. The Ortach is a wall. To be wrecked on the Caskets is to be cut into ribbons; to strike on the Ortach is to be crushed into powder.”

Birthday Reviews: Dozois, Kornbluth

This week we have two versatile birthday boys who were born on the same day, both of whom could write and appreciate very different sorts of stories. One is a slow and sad examination of a post-apocalypse and the other is a fast and energetic adventure in a growing culture.

Gardner Dozois (1947-07-23–2018-05-27)

“Morning Child” (Omni, January 1984)

One morning after an apocalyptic war of a surreal nature, a man and a boy go about their routine by the old destroyed homestead. What had seemed strangely normal soon becomes normally strange when we learn something odd about the boy and the war.

This tale feels a bit like the New Wave with its partly off-screen surrealism but, since it is partly off-screen, it feels even more like a belated Labor Day Group story (which it is) with its almost cozy catastrophe conveyed by wonderfully crafted prose. Still, even though it isn’t entirely my kind of thing, I can only admire the artistry and continue to miss the artist.

C. M. Kornbluth (1923-07-23–1958-03-21)

“That Share of Glory” (Astounding, January 1952)

While Kornbluth is better known for such classics as “The Little Black Bag” and “The Marching Morons” which, for all their virtues, can be a bit dyspeptic and leave one with alloyed joy, he could also write something like this.

Alen is a young member of a pseudo-religious pacifist mercantile order bent on uniting and enhancing a fragmented galaxy. For his first mission, he accompanies a trader and puts his massive knowledge of languages and cultures in the service of moving the trader’s goods and keeping him and his safe. Naturally, things initially go well as Alen breaks the social ice and makes decent deals for gems on a planet where metals are forbidden by its vested ceramic commercial interests. And, naturally, things go awry when a crewmember gets in a fight with the police, sending them down the rabbit-hole of the planet’s justice system with an unfavorable judge. Young Alen learns that things aren’t all as they seem and learns that he has within himself capacities he never knew.

This story is just a blast from start to finish, perfectly structured and paced, well-written, clever, funny, and wise. I first read and loved this in Kornbluth’s The Explorers but, speaking of the other birthday boy, I read it this time in Dozois’ The Good Stuff (an omnibus of The Good [Old|New] Stuff) and Dozois has an interesting theory in his introduction about how Kornbluth may have outsmarted himself or unwittingly revealed something:

…Kornbluth rarely wrote straightforward adventure stories, under the Kornbluth byline, anyway, especially Space Adventure stories of [this] swashbuckling, hard-nosed, rapacious, fast-paced sort […], where sharp-eyed cool-headed entrepreneurs haggle and brawl and wheel-and-deal their way across the Universe, out-thinking their adversaries and out-tricking them when backed into a corner. “That Share of Glory,” in fact, is such a perfect Astounding story, so much the Platonic ideal of what a story for John Campbell’s Astounding of that period should be like, that I can’t help but wonder if Kornbluth’s tongue wasn’t in his cheek when he wrote it, or if he wasn’t deliberately (with the cool-eyed calculation of the characters in the story) writing stuff that he knew would “push Campbell’s buttons,” a popular game among writers of the day. Even if one or both of those things are true, though, it hardly matters–Kornbluth may have told his friends or even himself that that’s what he was doing, but there’s too much conviction in his voice here, and he does too good a job, for me to believe that he didn’t like the stuff himself, whatever he may have claimed that he’d rather drink instead. For all of the cynical, jaded facade that he was famous for projecting, nobody but a True Believer at heart, one who somewhere down deep still thrilled to the dream of venturing out among the wonders and terrors of deep space, out to the unknown stars, could possibly have written [this] adventure…

I agree with Dozois that one or both may be true or that it may not and that it doesn’t really matter but I think Dozois’ observation matters, because it sheds light on both Kornbluth, Astounding, and some writers’ relationships with them. [1] Either way, Dozois is right about the conviction and the heart. It’s a great story.


[1] Coincidentally, I was thinking the same thing about button-pushing with the story of Julian May’s I covered a couple of weeks ago where I referenced its connection to Campbell’s “The Thing.” (And, incidentally, I said that “I can’t believe [it] wasn’t turned into a successful 1950s sci-fi-horror movie.” It’s true that it wasn’t, but it turns out it was turned into an episode of a 50s TV show and 1972 movie.)

SFTV Re-Views: Deep Space Nine 1.4-1.6

(My review of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is not relevant to this post but something went wrong when I posted it Monday and it never appeared in the WordPress Reader so I thought I’d mention it again in case you missed it and wanted to see it. Moving on…)

This is the first installment of a new series in Featured Futures where I log the science fiction and fantasy television and movies I’ve watched recently along with any thoughts that may occur to me (hopefully fewer of them in future installments). I may do this monthly or so because I’d like to include some visual media but don’t want it dominating this print-oriented site. With this post, I’ll pick up where I left off previously with my laughably prolonged re-watch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

ds9

DS9 1.4: “A Man Alone”

Relationships.

In this, among other things, Bashir hits on Dax, Sisko takes Dax (in her guise as “the Old Man”) out to eat (in an awkward scene that’s perhaps acted a little more awkwardly still), and Quark drools over Dax. On the other hand, Odo complains about women second-hand, and O’Brien and Keiko fight verbally, and Odo and a Bajoran fight physically, as well.

The verbal fight is related to the B story about Keiko (Mrs. O’Brien) feeling useless and unhappy until she notices the kids on the station are also at loose ends and getting into trouble. (It is funny how, after Jake and Nog make friends, Rom doesn’t want Nog hanging out with that Human boy and Sisko doesn’t want Jake hanging out with that Ferengi boy when kids can be wiser about such things.) She finally hits on the idea of opening a school and amusingly tries to convince Rom of the profit in understanding other cultures. That story culminates in a classroom being outfitted and a handful of kids showing up to sit in computerized desks that look more suited to Plan 9 than Deep Space 9.

The physical fight is from the A story. When Odo was doing security when the Kardassians ran the station, he put Ebudan, a Bajoran war profiteer, in jail. Ebudan is now free, but Odo wants him gone. When the Bajoran is killed in the “locked room” of the holosuite, it looks like he might have wanted him gone very badly. This results in Odo being removed from duty and in the Bajorans on the station turning into a mob out to get the “shapeshifter” they’ve decided is guilty. So both storylines involve multiculturalism, with Odo being easily scapegoated for his differences.

When Odo runs into his office to escape the mob, it’s questionable, but when he comes out again with the mob still there, it’s plain dumb (even if it’s arbitrarily written to work out). Both storylines end rather awkwardly and easily (though Rom’s line of telling Nog to sit down, but “Not next to that Human boy!” was good). The stories aren’t all that great conceptually or all that well-acted, but much of the interpersonal character stuff does work. Perhaps the best part is when a Bajoran is amazed that Quark would defend Odo, saying, “You’re his worst enemy,” and Quark replies, “I guess that’s the closest thing he has in this world to a friend.” In this episode, you can see the potential if everyone could just relax into their roles and gel.

DS9 1.5: “Babel”

This is the traditional Star Trek Plague Episode but gets points for being less silly than the first TOS or TNG ones. In this, nothing on the station works properly and, while repairing a replicator, O’Brien accidentally sets off a device that infects the food (and then the air), causing everyone to lose the ability to produce or understand speech and which seems to ultimately be fatal. The perpetrators of this biological warfare are unclear and learning more results in no moral comfort. And, as if a plague wasn’t enough, a crazy starship captain is so desperate to avoid getting sick that he’s wrecked his ship trying to break quarantine and may destroy half the station as well.

This episode was a little too close to the bone to be watching now, not least when people were shown filling up Quark’s bar. When Odo challenged him, saying everything was closed, Quark claimed an exception for himself as part of “essential station operations.” And then everyone got sick, of course.

Perhaps because this was such a dire situation needing contrast, there was a surprising amount of humor, though. As is often the case, wily Quark and stiff Odo provide much of it. (Quark and Odo are like brothers in ways: they mess with each other constantly but, when a guy at the bar tries to abuse Quark, Odo puts a stop to it. Nobody beats up Quark but me.)

The first of my three favorite exchanges is when Quark gets caught using replicators that don’t belong to him because his are broken. (I’m attempting quotes, but may be paraphrasing.)

Quark: How’d you figure it out?
Odo: You claimed Rom fixed your replicators.
Quark: So?
Odo: Rom’s an idiot. He couldn’t fix a straw if it was bent.

Later, Quark is yelling and gesticulating at a patient in a temporary sick room and claims “They could be faking the illness to avoid paying their bills!” Sisko is passing by and says, “No one could be that devious,” and Quark mutters, “I am.”

Finally, when Odo needs to be transported and Quark’s the only one left to do it, he tells Odo not to worry, as he served on a Ferengi freighter, then adds, “I must have witnessed the procedure hundreds of times” and, as Odo holds up a hand to protest, Quark happily shouts, “Energizing!”

I thought everyone, especially O’Brien, did their word salads well and particularly enjoyed Kira’s role in saving the day in her classic “cut the crap” style. On the other hand, the last episode ended with Sisko saying “life on the station has begun to return to normal” and this one ends with “things are slowly returning to normal,” which would be fine in fantasy and is often hard to really shake up in a TV series, but the show got much better when things began to sometimes change permanently.

DS9 1.6: “Captive Pursuit”

“I am Tosk.”

After the Federation has sent plenty of ships through the wormhole, DS9 encounters its first visitor from the other side when a strange and damaged ship appears with an even stranger being inside. Because O’Brien handled tractoring the ship in, Sisko also gives him the job of meeting the stranger and finding out what’s going on with him. The being will only say “I am Tosk” when asked his name and species and is obviously worried about something but won’t say what it is. The closest he’ll come to saying is, “I live the greatest adventure one could ever desire” and that he only wants to “die with honor.” Despite Tosk’s evasiveness, O’Brien develops a trust in and affection for him, though it’s an uneasy and conflicted feeling. Nevertheless, Odo catches Tosk trying to bypass security to get to the station’s weapons. A tense scene of Odo apprehending Tosk with forcefields follows, and he puts Tosk in a cell. Odo asks him if he’s running from the law having committed crimes and he seems shocked. “Never! I am Tosk.” At the midpoint, just where they should, things get exciting as another ship arrives from the other side, scans the station, begins transporting, is blocked by the now-raised shields, fires at the shields to lower them, and beams faceless, helmeted, armed soldiers aboard. A suspenseful break follows as phasers are drawn. Then station security (and command staff) exchange fire with them as they march into the security cells and we find out what’s going.

That’s all I can really say without spoilers and all I can say by way of impressions is that this is by far the best episode so far and one of the better ones of all. If you’ve seen this or don’t mind spoilers, carry on…

SPOILERS FOR “CAPTIVE PURSUIT” FOLLOW

It’s not much of a spoiler at first, because it’s probably no surprise by this point that Tosk is Big Game, being hunted by the helmeted warriors and under an oath of silence about it to prevent his actively soliciting help. Turns out that they have uplifted these beings into being an honored part of their society and Tosk more than accepts this, but demands it. Sisko is pretty thoroughly disgusted and argues with the aliens who turn out to be strangely reasonable despite having blasted their way onto the station without warning. The leader insists on Tosk being returned to them where, alas, he’ll live out a life of shame for having been captured alive. To pacify Sisko, he says that the newly discovered wormhole will be declared out of bounds for future games. Sisko, in obedience to the Prime Directive, may not like the aliens’ society but has no grounds for refusing. However, Kira has the idea that Tosk could at least ask for asylum and O’Brien runs to get Tosk to do so. Tosk insists this would be against everything he believes and that, though the shame he faces on his return is great, “to stay would be a greater dishonor.”

Another perfect break follows on this refusal for asylum and O’Brien moves into his end game. When the aliens begin to take Tosk to their ship, he gives Odo a load about Sisko saying this was a Federation matter and sending Odo away. Odo (convenience writing!) doesn’t use his communicator but goes to complain about this to Sisko in person. Then O’Brien gives the alien leader a load about it being the human way to accompany the aliens on the transfer. When the alien is leading the collared and leashed Tosk through the airlock, the enhanced weapons check O’Brien has set up zaps the alien leader, O’Brien punches him, and he and Tosk flee. Sisko has learned something is amiss from Odo and it’s determined that the pair are in the ducts. Odo says he’ll seal them off and they won’t get far. In one of the best moments, Sisko says, “Constable. There’s no hurry.” Odo looks perplexed but then understanding and confusion oscillate briefly and he slowly departs. Meanwhile, the leader’s response to having been temporarily knocked unconscious is, “The hunt has resumed,” and the aliens go after the loose Tosk, too, with much more urgency.

There are only a few problems with this episode. Usually very careful to make a point of the 26-hour Bajoran day, the writers have O’Brien talk about his eight hours of sleep and let Tosk later describe it as “a full third” of the day (which is true for humans but we’re not on Earth anymore, Toto). They have O’Brien talk about the Kardassian corridors being made such that he’s never seen a scanning device that could penetrate it (which I’m sure is never used again and, of course, the Tosk-hunters have no trouble with it). The physical action is mostly mediocre (though Tosk has a nice leaping moment) and, early in the episode, Tosk even accidentally kicks O’Brien in the face when they’re coming out the lower area of Tosk’s ship. I’m not sure if this is scripted or not, though I can’t believe it was. But this is all utterly minor stuff the like of which is present in almost every Star Trek episode.

While this episode is pretty good on the level of sheer drama, what makes this episode great for me, is the weird, polite, possibly dangerous character of Tosk, the weird, arrogant, possibly harmless hunters, the strange relation between them, the dilemma that Federation-types find themselves in, and the ultimate decision on what to do about it. There’s nothing real easy here. Early on, Tosk is surprised that the Federation is looking to attract attention from the Gamma Quadrant and O’Brien explains that, “Our mission as Starfleet officers is to seek out new lifeforms so we can learn about each other.” What they learn in this event is that they may find some other societies repugnant but that situations can be complex and without simple answers. Early on, Tosk tells O’Brien “We are very different,” and, by the end, we certainly know that to be true in a very deep sense.


[1]: Previous DS9 posts:

Asimov’s Centennial: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 224pp, 1954

The Caves of Steel is a murder mystery embedded in a science fiction novel of complex, clashing societies. Both levels work hand-in-hand throughout the book.

It all begins when detective Elijah “Lije” Baley is summoned into Comissioner Julius Enderby’s office by the commissioner’s simplistic robot, R. Sammy. Enderby is an old college friend who has surpassed the doggedly competent Baley in status by being a political animal, especially capable of dealing with the Spacers (people of the now-independent and much more powerful ex-colonies of Earth). He was due to meet with a sociologist/roboticist, Dr. Sarton, in Spacetown (the home of the Spacers on Earth, just outside of New York City), but arrived to find the Spacers in a tumult because Sarton had just been murdered. While most everyone on Earth, including Enderby and Baley, could be considered “Medievalists” who revere Earth’s long-lost glory days, the Spacers believe a group of extreme Medievalists have conspired to commit this murder. Due to delicate tensions between the Spacers on Earth, those back home, and the Earthers themselves, the Spacers are willing to keep the incident quiet until the murder can be solved and are willing to let an Earth detective take the lead on one condition: that he partner with a Spacer robot. However, Enderby tells Baley that he, and not the robot, must actually solve the case. Thus Baley finds himself in what becomes “a nightmare of murder and robotics,” forced to work with a partner he initially despises (and who is nothing like Earth robots), which brings his family and himself into danger as the importance of the case and the extent of the labyrinthine conspiracy within it grows.

Except for things related to general points, I’ll let the second half of the book remain shrouded but, in the first half, Baley and the robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, try to learn about each other and their societies in order to develop a working relationship while also learning about the case itself. Baley develops his first theory of the case which leads to a dramatic confrontation with Dr. Han Fastolfe at Spacetown in which he lays out his theory, though he feels sure that, if he’s wrong, he’ll be “declassified” (that is, shamefully lose hard-earned status and be left in poverty with no privileges, just as his father was). And (it being the middle of the book), he is wrong. Nevertheless, Fastolfe is not offended by Baley but, rather, intrigued by aspects of the detective. He then explains to Baley the threat he sees to both Earth and the Outer Worlds and what he wants to do about it. As Olivaw later rephrases it, “We are not here just to solve a murder, but to save Spacetown and with it, the future of the human race.”

What makes this so is one of the strongest elements of the book (though it vies with many other strong elements for that title): the extremely complex depiction of contrasting and seemingly successful but perhaps fatally flawed societies. Earth has become a world of Cities and one of the foremost is Baley’s New York City which is nothing like the “Medieval” New York City (of our times) but is a cave of steel [1], completely enclosed and built above the motorways of the old city, which is now an otherwise empty basement used by emergency services for fast travel to points in the true city. Everyone lives packed together in a rigidly classified, hierarchical society, eating communal meals, taking semi-communal showers, and has grown into a society of agoraphobes. [2] They are dependent on yeast cultures and other hydroponics for everything from energy (“Petroleum had long since gone, but oil-rich strains of yeast were an adequate substitute.”) to food. The cities have held together so far but are strained and fragile, with the humans in them unwilling to leave them or the Earth, despite Medievalist cries of impossibly going “back to the land” which can no longer support them. [3] Meanwhile, the Spacers have developed a world of long-lived, disease-free, eugenically-filtered and population-controlled humans who live a life of robot-assisted luxury. And they, too, have become unwilling to risk that comfort and those long lives on colonizing new worlds, a practice that was given up 250 years earlier. The prospect facing humanity is the quick demise of an unstable Earth and the slower demise of the ossified Outer Worlds. The alternative to this is his vision of a “C/Fe” culture (what we might now call a “C/Si” culture) where the overly carbon-based (human) Earth society might fuse with the overly iron-based (robot) Outer Worlds society on newly colonized planets. However, the Spacers efforts at social engineering on Earth aren’t working, the Medievalists and anti-Spacer and anti-robot sentiment seem to be growing stronger, and the forces back home want Spacetown abandoned. This murder could be the last straw.

Another of the strong elements is the characterization. Asimov consciously favored ideas over characters and critics often deduct points for this, yet he created Susan Calvin, The Mule, Bayta and Arkady Darell… and Baley and Olivaw. While a relatively minor character, Jezebel “Jessie” Baley is also memorable and sneakily important. The part of the book involving her name made a big impact on my first reading and has always stuck with me. Jessie is a nice girl whose real name is that of a “wicked” woman, which she treasures as a secret side to her superficial plainness which makes her feel safely spicy. The man who would write Asimov’s Guide to the Bible has Lije thoughtlessly trample on this by explaining away Jezebel’s wickedness (which also ties in to the novel’s theme of the tensions between the old and the new). This was not quite fatal to their relationship but caused a permanent scar. Interestingly, Elijah and Daneel (if taken as “Daniel”) are also Biblical names and, if I’m not mistaken, both have connotations of straight-arrows of justice and both contain the theistic name “El.” This is another theme as Olivaw’s notion of justice is initially “that which exists when all the laws are enforced,” and further notes that “[a]n unjust law is a contradiction in terms.” Later, Baley tells him a Biblical story related to this which has resonance throughout the tale. As even a robot can undergo some modification, so Baley shows depths and ability to change. He’s a fundamentally stable and grounded man but has a sort of poetic streak, a sense of wonder, and hidden depths of adaptability (especially when encouraged under certain circumstances). Further, the relationship between the two goes from Baley’s antagonism bouncing off Olivaw, to an almost McCoy-and-Spock sort of affection-and-antagonism, to something that may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This is a short book (probably 70,000 words which my Fawcett Crest paperback manages to crush into 191 pages) and amazingly takes place over only two or three days but is such a lean, mean, detecting machine, so packed full of events and ideas, that it just underscores how fat and wasteful modern bugcrushers are. In order to try to minimize the fat of this review, I can’t get to a fraction of what could be discussed. These range from major issues like how much this is supposed to be symbolize regionalism in the United States or be about race (unlike the Empire novels which clearly have a heavy component of that, I think parts of this are more purely about machines and, for example, the displacement of people by automation) to only slightly less important issues like this future Earth’s own “civism” vs. old “fiscalism” within the “C/Fe” notion but I also don’t want to leave the impression that this book is completely serious and deep. For instance, when Baley asks what Sarton died of, he’s told, “He died of a missing chest,” and there are many sheer adventure scenes such as trying to lose a group of followers by “strip-running” or dangerously crossing the “slidewalks” which run at various, often very high, speeds. [4]

There are a few problems with the book, though. This seems to be set 3000 years in the future which, like the Empire novels, leaves plenty of wiggle room but is excessive. Also, this crushing overpopulation so far in the future is quantified at a population of eight billion which is about what Earth’s population is today. Though Baley recalls a story he “viewed” as a kid, there are no instant communication or surveillance devices like phones or cameras (excepting Olivaw, himself, and he is impressed by Earth’s computers which are far more “massive” than those of the Spacers). Oddly, “one of the few luxury crops still grown on Earth was tobacco,” which no longer seems likely. And speaking of social engineering, I’m once again ideologically uncomfortable with Asimov’s apparent Rousseau-ian comfort at forcing people to be free or otherwise manipulating them into behaving as they “should.” (Though it is very good that the malleability and relativity of social mores is understood and given importance.) At one point, Fastolfe admits, “It is not pleasant to listen to the preaching of a stranger” and, though his points may have had their validity and the overall thrust was to colonize space, which I’m all for, I still had to agree with the principle. Speaking of that colonizing, everyone in the book seems to assume that people only colonize from negative reinforcement to get away from things, rather than to “seek out new life and new civilizations” or other positive motivations and I also question the specific argument that long-lived people would be less likely to risk their lives colonizing new worlds. I think they might be more likely to do so, being better able to see more of the result. More importantly, Baley is cast as a police officer and Olivaw is converted into one but, in some senses, they operate more like drawing-room sleuths than cops and there is some mild illogic which I can’t get into [5] though the big picture of the case works very well. I also have a quibble with one piece of tech which could have been introduced earlier or even dispensed with, but it was at least introduced early enough and, either way, it was a minor issue, as all these quibbles are.

This doesn’t have the obvious scope of the Foundation series (except in a common thread of forces engaging for the betterment of humanity over large spans of time). Still, it is a superb science fiction novel which addresses large social concerns through a fascinatingly deep and complex futuristic milieu and an excellent mystery novel which plays fairly and daringly with the reader [6], not to mention that it features a pair of great characters. While the Foundation stories punch my buttons the most, this is also a masterpiece.


[1] The narrative voice describing Baley’s reflections uses “cave of steel,” Fastolfe mentions “caves of steel,” and a Medievalist (who is ironically also a zymologist) refers to “caves.” The first is semi-neutral but the other two are negative and associated, literally, with a mode of living, and metaphorically with wombs and even with a sort of “realistic Platonism” (to horribly misspeak) in that the caves can be seen as blocking off a real engagement with the actual universe. Conversely, the caves of steel are also like mini-proto-Trantors (though this recognizes that, literally, at least some of the world must remain unenclosed).

[2] Odd note: there is a passage where a mid-level character describes his fear of flying in a way that sounds like Asimov himself might be talking and this was serialized in the agoraphobe H. L. Gold’s Galaxy magazine.

[3] On this point, Fastolfe says that Earth is “in a blind alley” which recalls Asimov’s story of that name on a similar topic.

[4] The resonance with other works is also notable. I already mentioned a sort of McCoy/Spock motif but I also thought of Khan’s “2D thought” in Star Trek II when the idea of defending only a single point of Spacetown came up. The scenes in Bladerunner of administering the Voigt-Kampff tests would seem to be taken directly from this (there was something like that in Dick’s Androids, if I recall, but it wasn’t as exact). Almost Human featured a cop duo of human and robot. And Silverberg’s The World Inside would seem to be set in this exact Earth, (minus Spacers and robots, and moved to Chicago/Pittsburgh in the future of the 60s from New York in the future of the 50s.

[5] One trivial example I can give (because not related to the actual case) which gives a sense of the size of them (most are slightly bigger, but not much) is Baley saying to Olivaw, “You keep your mouth shut,” which might not sound like much, but is actually an order which Olivaw immediately violates. Similar lines having to be obeyed have driven the plots of at least two robot stories (“Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” and “Little Lost Robot,” if I recall).

[6] I’ve never been a reader of ordinary mysteries and I honestly can’t remember if I “solved” this the first time (though I doubt it) but I thought I remembered whodunnit right away. Then my confidence was shaken by some facts presented in the book until I remembered howdunnit awhile later. So I think the reader who does figure it out will feel pleased, the one who doesn’t will be fascinated and feel fairly treated, and the book still completely works even when you know the ending because of all its substance apart from the mystery.

Birthday Reviews: Gunn, Sheckley, Smith

One of this week’s stories takes us into one of the most unusually imaginative space battles ever and even sneakily connects to the other two, which are related stories that ask what it would be like if women really were from “Venus” and how a man could get a perfect woman. I’m going to discuss those together because they make a nice pair.

James Gunn (1923-07-12)

“The Misogynist” (Galaxy, November 1952)

Robert Sheckley (1928-07-16–2005-12-09)

“The Perfect Woman” (Amazing, December 1953-January 1954)

In “The Misogynist,” a naive narrator introduces us to Harry, the “wit” who can tell jokes like no one else. He then repeats a story of Harry’s which conveys his ideas about women and which the narrator thinks tops all his previous jokes.

In “The Perfect Woman,” the year 3000 has arrived. Through the viewpoint of a hungover Mr. Morchek, we learn about the conversation he had the night before with a man who has married a Primitive Woman and learn what a Modern Woman is like as we observe Morchek’s relationship with his own wife.

There are nice twists in both these tales. The naive narrator is utilized well to get to the one in “The Misogynist” while the reader’s initial naivete about the society of the year 3000 is utilized well to get to the one in “The Perfect Woman.” Both are very economical (though “The Misogynist” could have been tightened still more). And they both have several interesting angles. Both would probably be taken as literally misogynistic today and that’s a reasonable interpretation from the internal realities of the stories. However, they can also be taken in the reverse sense, as mocking some men’s desires, expectations, or worldviews. It’s also interesting that, even if interpreted simplistically, it would only serve to show that all sorts of sensibilities could be represented in the “conformist” 1950s while today’s “diversity” has narrowed the conceptual possibilities of the genre. In a way, this would (aptly if taken seriously, and ironically if taken ironically) prove some of the Misogynist’s theorizing correct. But, heavy topical stuff aside, these are well-written and entertaining short stories.

Cordwainer Smith (1913-07-11–1966-08-06)

“The Game of Rat and Dragon” (Galaxy, October 1955)

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In the far future of the Instrumentality of Mankind, people have progressed to the point of traveling through space via planoforming, but have encountered malevolent underspace beings who would make this impossible, if not for the telepathic battle teams of human and cat who perceive the enemy as dragons or rats, respectively, and, together, are capable of fighting and usually destroying the beings with light bombs. We learn of this amazing milieu and witness one such battle, as well as the effects of one mind upon another.

It’s hard to grasp that the first section or two-fifths of this story is essentially just an infodump because it’s so bizarre, fascinating, and enlivened with points of emotional connection. Then it moves step-by-step into the assignment of “partners,” the preparations, the combat, and the aftermath, showing excellent structure and control. But the greatest power of this story is its uninhibited imagination.