Birthday Reviews: Bear, Egan, Forward, Lovecraft

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

Greg Bear (1951-08-20)

“Hardfought” (IAsfm, February 1983)

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

Greg Egan (1961-08-20)

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

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

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

“Self-Limiting” (Analog, May 1992)

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday Reviews: Blish, Ellison, Jones, Landis

jameson-satellite-interior-crop-scale

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

James Blish (1921-05-23–1975-07-30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil R. Jones (1909-05-29–1988-02-15)

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

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

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

Geoffrey A. Landis (1955-05-28)

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

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

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


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

Review: Spacehounds of IPC by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Spacehounds of IPC
by E. E. “Doc” Smith


Date: 1973-12 printing (1931 serial, 1947 book)
Format: Mass-market paperback
ISBN: 0-515-03300-6
Pages: 220
Price: $0.95
Publisher: Pyramid Books

Percival “Steve” Stevens is aboard the Inter-Plantetary Vessel Arcturus, as a “computer” who is checking on some navigational problems. These turn out to be the fault of some lazy “astronomers” who haven’t been correcting the position of their stations in the space lanes. That problem solved, he’s tasked with entertaining the daughter of the head of the Inter-Planetary Corporation. This turns out to be, not a little girl as he originally thought, but the young, intelligent lady golfer, Nadia. She and Steve, who is a burly swimmer/diver in addition to being a great scientist/mathematician, are a perfect match. He’s showing her the ship when, suddenly, he feels something amiss and learns that the Arcturus is being sliced apart by rays emanating from an alien ship. They end up in one of the many airtight sections of the ship which forms a little short-range ship of its own, but all are dragged off to Jupiter in the aliens’ tractor beams. Finally, Steve and Nadia make their break when the time is right and end up on a habitable Ganymede where they play Robinson Crusoe together and Steve must rebuild civilization from scratch in order to produce a communications device with which to contact Earth, turning into a Herculean Hephaestus. Meanwhile, Nadia also develops “amazingly in musculature” and becomes the huntress Artemis, bringing home the bacon (or “boiled warple,” anyway) while her man does his work at the base. With part of the necessary fundamentals complete, they go off to a comet for metals and meet the enemy again, but also a new group of aliens (from Saturn’s moon, Titan) who turn out to be human, like ourselves, but much mutated. Working together, the two strains of humanity manage to fight off the enemy and help each other out in other ways. Finally, Steve sends out the signal and can convey to “Tellus” (Earth) the knowledge of what happened, and what the IPV Sirius will face and how to soup it up so that it can deal with the alien challenge. At this point, the view shifts and the milieu recomplicates as more ships and races and angles of combat are introduced, culminating in the overwhelming appearance of the Vorkuls: generally isolationist flying snake-things of South Jupiter with their omnipresent motif of seven-pointed stars and mega-ships. Their planetary and space combat with the intrinsically violent North Jovian hexans (who have been our enemy all along) forms the climax (which humans helped trigger but don’t really participate in), followed by a more human-centered denouement.

This novel is about 86,000 words and first appeared in three 1931 issues of Amazing before being published in book form by Fantasy Press in 1947. As Smith is mostly known for his Skylark and Lensman series, I was hoping it would be an unjustly neglected gem but its secondary status turns out to be fair. Those who are not fans of Smith or 30s SF or space opera would almost certainly have no interest in this while even those who are might not be fully satisfied with it. I enjoyed it, overall, but it has problems, mostly in the POV-shifts and time overlaps of the second half. Its main points deal with the “complementariness” of genders and multiple races of humanity (Martians, “Venerians,” and the people of the Jovian and Saturnian moons) and the idea of omni-competent people being pro-survival, being able to wage “a war of applied physics” (despite earlier saying that earth had united under one government “so that wars could no longer interfere with progress”). A further element in this war is that friendly interaction or isolationism each have their virtues but intrinsic aggression is unacceptable and must be met with greater, albeit momentary, aggression. For an urban American in 1931, some of the details in attitudes were remarkably “advanced” though they certainly wouldn’t pass muster with today’s ideologists. In this, Smith is much like Heinlein and, indeed, this is probably the book where Smith’s influence on Heinlein comes through most clearly. Much of the Steve-and-Nadia portion reminds me irresistibly of Heinlein.

In “Larger Than Life,” a 1979 essay on Smith, written at the request of Smith’s daughter (and the dedicatee of Spacehounds of IPC), Verna, on the occasion of MosCon I which was dedicated to him, Heinlein made the point that Smith was, himself, omni-competent, honest, hospitable, and “the perfect gallant knight” and that all this was “reflected in his stories.” He goes on to mention various attacks on Smith by the critics of that time and proceeds to defend his style (even dialog), love scenes, plots, and social values (Good and Evil, inequality of men (and women)). While the love scenes of IPC are certainly chaste and in keeping with the slang-filled general dialog, they’re actually not all that painful. The rest would certainly give some of today’s audience problems but Heinlein’s defenses are mostly reasonable. Smith actually does write proper English in a consistent and oddly effective way in narrative voice and his dialog may be “all x, no fooling!” but it contributes to a gee-whiz-bang feel blended with the, “Say, Bob…” old-style movie feel in everything from The Thing to even 2001. Heinlein gives Smith too much credit for plotting originality in terms of dynamics (and, in a different sense, the uneven plotting is my major problem with this particular book), but it is true that Smith basically invented the space opera and any critique of what came to be its cliches is, in Smith’s case, historically naive and backwards. As I touched on before, the social values are a curious mix. In 1931, they might have been seen as liberal and/or radical while, today, they would be seen as hopelessly incorrect. The hexans are not so much evil as just bad, like a plague of locusts, and the humans in all their strains are good as groups. Between those good groups, however, the question of whether they’ve diverged so much that they are no longer interfertile isn’t clear but interplanetary romance isn’t seen as acceptable by the hero. (The question as to whether this should be taken literally in science fictional terms or symbolically is also open.) Within these groups, men (and women) are not treated equally. The hero is better than the lazy navigational bums and certainly better than his enemies. While Nadia is smart, athletic, muscled, and hunts for their food and the two form a pair from the start, the hero is more mathematically and scientifically skilled than the heroine and the heroes certainly outnumber the heroines. There is also a question about whether Nadia will turn out to be a “spacehound” (able to handle zero-G and the general environment of space) or a “weight-fiend” (a landlubber), but she does turn out to be as spaceworthy as Steve or anyone else. These things will strongly affect those of any stripe who read SF primarily as social symbolism, although in different ways.

What most affected me were the “complementary intelligences” and “war of applied physics” concepts. For the first, the Tellurians (as Smith calls us), Venerians, and Martians work together to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts (as do men and women) and this motif is played out again when we meet the people of both the Jovian and Saturnian satellites. For the second, curiosity, intelligence, and an engagement with the actual physical world is seen as providing the keys to the kingdom. There is a remarkable blend of far-out super-science and nitty-gritty plausible engineering. There are wonderful perspective shifts such as a reference to the natives of Titan and their relation to Saturn’s rings and, of course, to Tellurians in relation to the various moonfolk. There are amazing set pieces such as the descriptions of the city and race of the Vorkuls and their war with the hexans. For people who respond primarily to such things and fun, super-science epics, Spacehounds of IPC may appeal.

Edit (2018-05-26): re-positioned cover image, added bibliographical information, “ex libris” tag.