Links: 2019-10-07

Science Fiction

Science

  • Sabine Hossenfelder: Backreaction: Windows Black Screen Nightmare. This particular item is tech rather than science. It illustrates one of the many reasons I go to great lengths to run Slackware. (Speaking of science and tech, I still love Bruce Sterling’s bit in one of his novels: ‘Computer science was a fraud. It always had been. It was the only branch of science ever named after a gadget… Now physics, that was true science. Nobody ever called physics “lever science” or “billiard ball science.”‘ Now I have a hard time thinking of physics without “lever science” popping into my head.)

Other

History

Politics

Liberals who value free thinking and the constitution might wonder, with friends like “the trans left” and many of the Democratic nominees, who needs enemies?

Liberals who value democracy, reason, and integrity might wonder, with enemies like the following right-wing writers, who needs friends?

Humor

Music

For a second consecutive post, we’ve lost two more. I’ll get to them next time, maybe, but I already had the music loaded up (overloaded), including one that “should have been aborted” and others that might be even worse in Baker’s book:

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Review: The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

This originally appeared on my old site on 2013-12-19. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. (Note: this isn’t especially spoilery in novel terms, though I come closer to it than usual and it does contain spoilers for some of the individual stories contained within as chapters. Also, it isn’t quite time for this in the sequence of my Silverberg reviews (Nightwings and a few other stories were supposed to be next) but I’m not ready to do those yet.)

rs-twi

Date: 1972-09 (originally 1971-07)
Format: Paperback
Cat#: Q5176
Pages: 174
Price: $0.95
Publisher: Signet (originally Doubleday)

The World Inside is one of Robert Silverberg’s relatively few fixups [1], being composed of six stories published from 1970-71 [2]. It was published in book form by Doubleday in July 1971, though the book I read was the September 1972 Signet paperback.

The stories feature distinct plots (though they aren’t very strongly plotted) but recurring characters in which a peripheral character in one story will be a main character in another and vice versa. They all share the same basic setting (Urban Monad 116) and, together, paint a picture of a future society in 2381 where overpopulation has been embraced and many billions of people actually take up less land area than they do now, as almost everyone has been packed into immense skyscrapers called “Urban Monads”, several of which form physically proximate but socially isolated “constellations”. Within these vast and heavily populated buildings, a velvet-gloved dystopia lurks behind lots of late 60s/early 70s sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Almost all of Silverberg’s 70s works are a barrel of laughs but this one is even more Leonard Cohenesquely suicidally depressed than most. And I have a hard time taking the physical and social structures seriously. But it is a very thought-provoking book that focuses on a kind of social science fiction that seems to have undeservedly become less popular than it was. The books that most spring to mind in connection with this are Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (for the overpopulation), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (for the hedonistic dystopia), and both The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (for the claustrophobia/philia and the packed/isolated social structures).

The first chapter/story (1/”A Happy Day in 2381″) uses the “strange visitor gets a guided tour by the native” method of showing us this timid new world. The native is the sociocomputator, Charles Mattern, and the stranger (whom we never see again) is Nicanor Gortman who is visiting from a terraformed Venus which has a horizontal social structure more like what we’re used to. (Siegmund Kluver, who stars in the final story, is a side character here.) Via the proud tour guide, we learn that procreation is a religion, that men prowl the building at night, randomly sleeping with other husbands’ wives which is considered “blessworthy” by all – indeed, to refuse is a capital offense, which results in getting sent “down the chute” to have one’s combusted matter provide energy for the urbmon. At the start of our story, Urban Monad 116 has an ominously young population of 881,115 and the “Chipitts” constellation (what used to be the region of Chicago to Pittsburgh) has a population of 40,000,000 [3], while the earth has a population of 75 billion. Aside from natural births and deaths, it’s one less by the end of the story as we meet a “flippo”, or someone who just can’t handle so much utopia and starts attacking people but is apprehended and disposed of. “It has been a happy day in 2381, and now it is over.”

Chapter 2/”In the Beginning” introduces us to Aurea Holston and the idea of people just short of flippos and what happens when an urbmon becomes overpopulated by even its own standards. A misinformation campaign is launched magnifying the number of volunteers who will be shipped off to a newly built urbmon and however many necessary people fail to volunteer are randomly drafted. Since the urbmon is the whole world any of them know and womblike in many ways (while being symbolically phallic as well) this is too traumatic for some, such as Aurea, who is sent off to be reprogrammed when she too vocally expresses her inability to accept her fate. If “blessmen” (priest-like) or “consolers” (psychologist-like) can’t pacify her, the “moral engineers” will. I guess the title must refer to “the beginning” of a new monad or perhaps to the “new” Aurea but it’s not very clear to me.

Chapter 3/”All the Way Up, All the Way Down” is Dillon Chrimes’ story. He plays the vibrastar in a cosmos group. His is the sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll-iest story of them all, perhaps, being a musician who takes a drug and has sex while high so that he becomes one with the building. But it’s a Silverberg story, so he comes down.

Chapter 4/”The Throwbacks” may be my favorite of the tales. In a way, it’s silly but I still like it. Jason Quevedo is a historian whose thesis is that the humanity of the urbmons has become genetically distinct from, e.g., 20th century humanity due to rigorous self-selection for surviving in a very distinct environment. Modern humanity is free of jealousy and sexual hangups and so on. His wife, Micaela, disagrees with his thesis. This story is not all that much more strongly plotted than the rest but due to the psychological paranoia and the sense that a crisis is approaching and some nice misdirection as to its nature (I thought Jason might well be going batty and imagining everything, for instance, but wasn’t convinced either way) this story was more compelling than some others. I also enjoyed its historical perspective and some of Jason’s reflections on profanity and so on. And, of course, the real point of subversion and being alone together was more optimistic and less punitive than most of these tales.

We were introduced to Michael and Stacion Statler in “The Throwbacks” but they (primarily Michael) star in the novella that splits “We Are Well Organized”: “The World Outside”. Michael is on a work detail which enables him to forge an exit/entry pass to… leave the building! There follows an exciting and interesting, if largely conventional, tale of meeting strange aliens in a strange world, though the aliens are just farmers and the strange world is the farmland and a village outside the urbmon. It’s interesting that the urbmons are much like spaceships that never take off (which is thematically significant, in my opinion) but that Silverberg doesn’t have the city fed by internal hydroponics or some magic but has a secondary culture outside growing good old-fashioned crops (albeit with robot help).

Finally, Siegmund Kluver, who’s a social climbing administrator/ruler-to-be and has been popping up throughout the book finally gets his own story. At a climactic part of his testing for rulership, the story stops, goes to “The World Outside”, and then picks up in Chapter 7 where it left off in Chapter 6. Mattern and Chrimes reappear and the concepts of the blessmen, consolers, and moral engineers and many other themes reappear. And it’s another happy day.

One of the things I think is particularly interesting about this book is that, despite sledgehammer negativity, the urbmon’s dystopia has its subtleties. While there is some monitoring of exits and entries and there are cops of a sort and at least one character has a sort of personal paranoia, there’s little of the “police state” feeling of, e.g., a Nineteen Eighty-Four. While there is a small administrative elite, there is not much of a feeling of the oppressed masses being controlled by the few, so much as the masses controlling themselves. And it’s also reflective of our own current (1970 or 2013) society, as much good SF is. There is an ultimate death sentence for extreme non-conformity but, to a greater or lesser degree, that applies to all societies. And the groupthink has most people self-brainwashing themselves into thinking the urbmon is great and even being unable to survive outside of it. Which applies to a greater or lesser degree to our own technological society (and by “technology”, I mean fire and skins and caves and I certainly mean plows and whatnot, as well as computers and drones). And, in its own terms, it’s interesting to think about a society where, despite a population of billions, procreation is “blessworthy” and the great evil is “sterility”, which trickles down to figures of speech like we might say something is a “bummer” – it’s a “sterilizer”. And, as I say, it does make one think about being “trapped” on “spaceship earth” whether inside or outside an urban monad and what that does and will do to us as a species – what must we become if we stay here – what must we become to leave?

On the other hand, I find it odd that, in a world full of flippos, people are supposed to leave their doors unlocked so “nightwalkers” (always male) can come in and sleep with whomever they happen to find in a given room – and how this doesn’t result in more collisions of ten people in one room and none in nine others (not to mention other logistical/timing problems). And I was never clear on whether, in this procreative society, the children of a given woman had a variety of unknown fathers or not. And I can’t believe societies as distinct as the inside and outside (far more different than even our own urban and rural societies and with no movement from one to the other) could exist in harmony rather than splitting apart entirely. And, while some nods were made to the physics of heat and waste management, I’m not sure about even the architectural feasibility of his monads. So this is more in the way of a very solid-seeming, literal-feeling fable (underscored by the somewhat disconcerting present-tense narration) than an actual blueprint of a future. But it’s a book that was interesting to read and bears more thinking about. I can understand its being nominated for the Hugo award [4]. At this point, I wouldn’t say that it was great, but it’s certainly good and worth checking out.


[1] Some, perhaps all, of his fixups were:

  • To Open the Sky (1967)
  • Nightwings (1969)
  • Majipoor Chronicles (1982 connected collection)
  • Roma Eterna (2003)

[2] The full contents (each story simply being a chapter except for “We Are Well Organized” being split into two discontinuous chapters) are:

Chapter Title Date Source Category
1 A Happy Day in 2381 1970-02 Nova 1 ss
2 In the Beginning 1970-12 Science Against Man ss
3 All the Way Up, All the Way Down 1971-07/08 Galaxy ne
4 The Throwbacks 1970-07 Galaxy ne
5/7 We Are Well Organized 1970-12 Galaxy ne
6 The World Outside 1970-10/11 Galaxy na

[3] The current population of the Chicago and Pittsburgh metro areas alone is about 12 million. “If this goes on,” I don’t see it taking 368 years to less than quadruple.

[4] Silverberg declined the nomination, though it’s probably more accurate to say he withdrew its nomination, presumably to give the Nebula-winning A Time of Changes, which was also nominated for the Hugo, a better chance to win (but it still lost to Phil Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go).

Review: Doyle After Death by John Shirley

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-08-05. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. I said I wouldn’t exclude this century and this is an example (of fantasy, even). There’s a retrospective near-coincidence in that I was calling for a TV series based on this and the very different but also redemption/afterlife-oriented The Good Place premiered 2016-09-19. Further in the Near-Coincidence Dept., it’s opening its final season in a few days.

[Cover of Doyle After Death]
Date: 2013
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-06-30500-8
Pages: 341
Price: $6.99
Publisher: Witness Impulse

Nick Fogg is a private detective in more or less present-day Las Vegas when he dies from misadventure. He comes to find himself on a beach in an afterworld and, after being greeted by the lovely Fiona, makes his way into the town of Garden Rest where he meets a guy who soon becomes a friend, along with a couple of guys who don’t, a bartender who wants to make sure he’s good people, a boardinghouse owner, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Yes, that Doyle. And, while a variety of people have died and come to Garden Rest (one of the many places in this plane, which is one of many planes of existence) over the eons and many have departed once more to other planes, there is a 19th/turn-of-20th Century English tone to much of Garden Rest, though it is mixed with traces of other things.

Naturally, it turns out that one of the dead people, Morgan Harris, has been murdered (yes, people can be “deformulated” in the afterlife) and Doyle and Fogg team up as a post-mortem Holmes and Watson to solve the case.

John Shirley is primarily a science fiction and horror writer but here turns his hand to fantasy (and mystery) and the SF flavors it by making it a more concrete and rational afterworld than many might be and the horror flavors it by occasionally producing good frissons of creepiness but it is a remarkably sedate and gentlemanly book from the often vigorous and violent Shirley. Though mostly rational, it’s often a whimsical rationality. One of the most enjoyable aspects is exemplified in the early part of the book when Fogg is still getting his bearings, though already investigating the case. He’s asking the mayor, Chauncey, about Harris.

“Was he living with anyone here? Housemates, spouse, anyone like that?”

“No, he was a friendly chap but he had solitary habits. Obsessed with his work. Tramping around, trying to talk to the trees – claims to have had some manner of conversation with the trees. Might have been his imagination, however. Never heard of Garden Rest’s plants talking. The birds, of course – and the occasional dog. Heard a horse make a remark once. But trees? No. Just as well – wouldn’t care for it, I don’t think. Unsettling.” (70-71)

The sort of horror comes out in places such as the depiction of a “psychic storm” which straddles chapters “Seventh” and “Eighth” when Doyle announces:

“…Ah, here is the storm right on schedule.”

He nodded towards the window – which began rattling in its frame.

Something outside was rattling the window. Not the wind, though the wind was in fact rising. It was the thing’s grip on the frame that rattled it.

Something with a hollow-eyed face was shaking the window…

[Chapter break to enhance the antici… pation.]

The elongated visage, eyeless and suffering, disintegrated under pressure from another, quite distinct face, the way a form in flowing paint is pushed out of shape when another color is poured into the mix. The rounder face with owlish eyes, replacing the first, was quickly pressed aside by several others: human shapes with streaming hair, men and women and mixed gender, some faces well defined and some only sketches. Some looked directly at us; others didn’t seem to see us, and shattered themselves against the windowpane.

They sang, with some occasional harmony but mostly discord – they were the dissonant choir. Some of them looked fairly happy, or at least pleasantly distracted; a good many others seemed to be grieving, endlessly grieving… (178-179)

The weakness of this book is primarily three-fold, with possibly some secondary minor problems. Some or all of the following should strongly apply to the mystery: it should have someone we care about be the victim; we should be drenched in a paranoid air where it could be anyone; we either hate or love many of the suspects; we feel invested in whodunnit; the crime should be very cleverly done and/or solved. It’s not that any of this is utterly absent but it’s only present in trace amounts. (Also, I can’t get into it in detail but one of the keys would probably not escape many conversant with the Holmes canon.) That might not matter as much since the real focus is actually two-fold. On the one hand, it’s on Doyle’s relationship with his wives (sequential on earth but both present in the afterlife), the first being the one living with him but the second, elsewhere in that plane, perhaps holding a greater claim on his heart. On the other, it’s on Fogg’s relationship with his life Before and his self-opinion, especially as it is colored by a particular act in that life. The problems with each of these is that there’s nothing as surprising or revelatory or transcendent as one might hope for. Again, not that it’s not good and reasonable but it’s only in trace amounts. Secondary to these three are the possibility that Shirley (being very American) doesn’t “do” the English thing right or that his treatment of the historical Doyle might not be entirely “spot on” but, being very American, myself, and not conversant with the historical Doyle, I noticed nothing wrong.

There’s another element that is not a weakness but is an irony related to the book’s strength: I loved the tone or mood, and enjoyed the setting and so many of the characters so much that I actually wanted much more of them. I think this would make a great TV series. Not a movie, because that would be relatively short and not a book series because there are too many of those and much of this book is particularly visual anyway. I’d like to see it drawn out and gotten into in more depth and detail. I can see a Joss Whedonesque “found family” and “dramedy” to this that would be great fun. And, of course, it’s not all “fun” in the sense that it brings to mind that we may not get the same chance these fictional fantasy characters do – and few would believe we would in the same way – so it might be wise to try to get it right the first time.

In sum, I don’t know that this is a great and deathless book (so to speak), but it’s a good and very enjoyable one and I recommend it.

Review: Space Lash by Hal Clement

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

Cover of Space Lash

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

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

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

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

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

Links: 2019-09-17

Site News

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

Science Fiction

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

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

Science

Other

History

Humor

Music

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

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The Incredible Shrinking Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Review: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

berserker.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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