Review: Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones

Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-681, $0.50, 157pp, 1967 [1]

If you’ve read my other reviews in this series [2], you basically know how the last verse (at least for now) of this song goes. The only significant difference is that, while Jones’ powers of invention never flag, his patience with ending stories seems to be running low.

Neil R. Jones would probably not welcome comparisons to Robert L. Forward on the one hand or Ursula K. Le Guin on the other, but the first tale deals with political unrest on “Twin Worlds” a mere 100,000 miles apart. It begins when the Zoromes enter a four-planet system – no, five! – and pick one of the two twins to land on, which they find is called Selimemigre from the first person they meet, who happens to be a good exile they can help. Said exile, Kamunioleten, tells how the evil Bemencamla (Harris?) has taken control of Dlasitap by murdering five of Kam’s fellow administrators and framing him for it. In punishment, Kam has been placed on the low end of an island which is inundated daily with the monstrous tides between the two worlds. Unfortunately, his home is springing a leak. The ship with most of the Zoromes goes to Dlasitap to find out what’s going on over there while we stay with Kam and a few Zoromes, including the Professor. After the ship has been gone an unduly long time, the Professor starts reminiscing on the Double Planet about the time he was waiting alone a (very!) long time at the Double Sun. He must stop his reveries when it turns out that workers who had supposedly come to repair the leak had, in fact, come to ensure it “accidentally” got worse and there follows a rather thrilling effort to reach high ground before the tides peak (impossible for Kam alone and not a given for the machine men trying to help him). After waiting still longer at high ground, Jameson finally resolves to try the local method of transportation to reach the other world and search for their ship. Steampunk fans will rejoice because that method involves a Verne-like bullet being fired from a steam-driven flywheel (depicted on the cover). This is dangerous, to say the least, and the doughty machine men do indeed crash-land in shallow water but are able to catch a ride hanging on to the underside of an ocean ship headed for port. There they learn all about Bem and the tardy ship. After some running about, it’s all wrapped up in moments and one of the big surprises (regarding where the Zorome ship has been) will surprise few.

A great moment in prose from this one is when Professor Jameson calculates the length of a local unit of measure and declares that it is “7.193 feet and some few inches.” Possibly topping that is this lengthy bit from immediately after Jameson and friends have crashed into the shallow bottom of the ocean:

…the water grew darker. It seemed too soon for late afternoon twilight, and the three Zoromes looked up to see a dark object hovering above them. Into the mind of Professor Jameson flashed a memory of the huge fish which had swallowed 88ZQ4 and himself when they had sunk into the depths of the hydrosphere, yet this shadowy object above them moved too mechanically and majestically to be a fish. Moreover, its movement was too sluggish for association with the marine denizens.

“A boat!” flashed 6W-438.

After that adventure, the Zoromes find themselves “On the Planet Fragment,” which is a rectangular prism or cuboid. This leads to some almost Eganesque planetary exploration with Clementine gravity, while Jones populates the bizarre surface and shallow atmosphere with a menagerie of odd creatures, from the friendly disc-shaped Uum (whom Jameson originally calls the “Disci”) who are preyed upon by the floating aerial pseudo-jellyfish Eiuks to the gigantic, hugely powerful Ooaurs from the high-gravity regions on the long end of the fragment, to the Oaos who are enemies of the Eiuk but otherwise turn out to not be what they seem. Why the Eiuk seem to only attack at night and how they can be brought down in the Land of Exhaustion (as the Uum call the high-gravity regions) but then fly away the next day, are some of the key questions and each answer is replaced by “still another of the puzzles confronting the machine men of Zor on the planet fragment.” Eventually, the nature of the Uum city of Ui, the Ooas, and more come clear after much exploring and fighting.

Though this also stops suddenly with a weird non-ending followed by an epilogue of just over a page which recounts a novel we don’t get to read, and though it also features winning prose where something “shot like a plummet into the rarefied atmosphere above” and we are always trying to defend the “tender and delectable Disci,” I enjoyed this wild tale the most of this trio.

Finally, despite the epilogue, we do experience one more adventure on the planet fragment when, in an effective in media res opening, the Zoromes have traveled to volcanic lava regions, fight the Fire Dwellers there, and eventually meet “The Music Monsters.” (Other than the alliteration, I can’t think why they’re called that. Though semi-barbaric, they are sentient, friendly to the Zoromes, and not at all monster-like. Such creatures are never otherwise called monsters.) The fighting, gambling, accidentally musical “monsters” are quite memorable, as are the very different plant-creatures encountered further along the way. Even the Eiuks make another appearance and our perspective on them undergoes an interesting change. Perhaps the best part is how the Uum have been getting along generally and do get along specifically with the “monsters” when they meet. Still, this all feels like an episodic appendix to the prior tale, though it does end well.

That ending is especially fortunate because, while Jones probably couldn’t have known it, T. O’Connor Sloane was to leave the editor’s chair of Amazing with the very issue that contained this story and Raymond Palmer was to arrive and take the magazine in another direction, so this first run of twelve stories from 1931-38 ended here. After a short while, Frederik Pohl (who was running a pair of shoe-string magazines as a teenaged editor) published another quartet of the stories in Astonishing from 1940-42. Jones published nothing from 1943-47 (indeed, aside from a 1948 fanzine story and a 1951 magazine novel, Jones’ non-Jameson career ended in 1942) but, when Ejler Jacobson took over Super Science Stories, the Jameson series grew by another five stories from 1949-1951. Nothing new appeared from 1952-66 until DAW books collected the first dozen Jameson tales in four books and added a fifth book which took one from the Pohl era, one from the Jacobson era, and added two previously unpublished tales. More silence followed until, finally, a last unpublished tale appeared in a 1989 fanzine shortly after Jones’ death.

I’m not saying I’ll never review Doomsday on Ajiat but I don’t have any intention of doing so anytime soon, so I’ll just end this with a list of the Jameson stories I enjoyed the most:

  • “The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing Stories, July 1931)
  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Labyrinth” (Amazing Stories, April 1936)
  • “On the Planet Fragment” (Amazing Stories, October 1937)

[1] Original publications:

  • “Twin Worlds” (Amazing Stories, April 1937)
  • “On the Planet Fragment” (Amazing Stories, October 1937)
  • “The Music-Monsters” (Amazing Stories, April 1938)

[2] Previous reviews of the Professor Jameson stories:

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.”

Review: The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones

The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-631, $0.50, 189pp, 1967 [1]

This second book installment of Professor Jameson’s adventures contains the fourth through sixth magazine installments and, given that the opening and closing stories are novellas rather than novelettes, this is a significantly longer (though still short) book. Incidentally, there is an oddity in the two book titles: in the last volume, we had a world of the double sun and, in this one, we have a sunless world. I guess it all averages out.

In the first tale, we go “Into the Hydrosphere.” The Zoromes discover a planet which appears to consist entirely of water – not just over the surface but through and through. On reaching the surface, they find cities of kelp and make ultimately friendly contact with the native Plekne. However, they meet another race, the Uchke, on much less friendly terms as the Uchke regularly send out raiding parties from parts unknown to enslave the Plekne. It is during a fight with them that Professor Jameson and a companion are hurled into the water. After a desperate struggle to regain the surface despite their metal bodies, they are swallowed by a sea creature. After fighting their way out of the unfortunate animal, they plummet to the bottom. As if this weren’t enough, it turns out that there is a tiny rocky core to the waterworld. Not only that, it is a hollow rocky core with a sort of Pellucidar inside which is the Uchke base. And there are yet more revelations in store as the Zoromes help lead the Plekne below to revolt against the Uchke. Much fighting and many cataclysms ensue.

As in the last Jameson review, I have to make incidental spoilers to the prior story to describe the next (which the third story aptly describes as a “parade of worldly events”). In “Time’s Mausoleum,” the Zoromes find out that the Uchke’s science actually comes from the Qwux who once enslaved them. They succeeded in revolt and the Qwux, being sybarites, are content to be kept in comfort by the Uchke in exchange for their scientific knowledge. So the power of the Uchke is broken by the simple expedient of the Zoromes carrying off the one Qwux who knows anything about space flight. He’s also working on time flight, so to speak. Time travel, as such, is impossible but it is possible to create a machine which can move through space and view that space’s past. The Zoromes are on their way back to Zor but will pass by the Earth again and Jameson excitedly encourages the Qwux to work on his machine. On arriving at Earth, there follows a time-lapse journey through humanity’s past (with a special emphasis on Jameson’s life and death). At the start of this point, we get the priceless line “‘That-that’s me!’ Professor Jameson exclaimed, rustling his tentacles nervously.” It very economically gets at some of the essence of Jameson’s long strange trip. It’s interesting that Stapledon had only had a single hardcover U. S. edition of Last and First Men at the time this was published and I wonder if Jones read it because the future vision culminates in a pulp-man’s Stapledonian look into the past which is our future. It ties in Jones’ “Durna Rangue” series and perhaps other stories, demonstrates that he was remarkably pessimistic about space travel, only giving it to us in the twenty-third century, and that he was only somewhat optimistic about humanity, indicating that humanity was extinct in the solar system after five million years. There follows a fairly arbitrary disaster for the climax of the story.

In the third and title story, the Zoromes encounter a weirdly dim star and, when they think they’re leaving the system after passing all its planets, they encounter another world which is huge but strangely light. They also soon realize it is a rogue planet – the sunless world. Since the Zoromes are always eager to explore, they land. Once on the airless surface, they are attacked by strange headless symmetrical animals. When these are rebuffed, the creatures flee to a cave and the Zoromes follow. Third verse, same as the first. (Or similar.) Once below, they find the world is hollow and, while peering into the internal abyss, the ledge they’re on collapses and they find themselves plunging into it. This time, however, there’s no center at all and they end up on the opposite side. There, they find piles of bones reminiscent of “The Planet of the Double Sun” and meet Ielee of the Ayt of Ome. His people are not slaves to the headless creatures as such, but to their own superstitions. The old, feeble, or criminal Aytons are sacrificed to the creatures and it’s death at the hands of their fellows if they refuse to go. Once again, the Zoromes fight against the creatures and for the Aytons as well as encouraging them to fight for themselves, despite the Zoromes having initially been held prisoner by the Aytons who refused to surrender their superstitions. And, as if this weren’t enough, a rescue party of Zoromes (who had inadvertently driven the creatures into Ayt causing a massive battle) bring word that the rogue planet is going to collide with the third world of the system if the Zoromes’ efforts to disintegrate that world fail. More epic cataclysms ensue.

While Jones obviously respects science in the abstract as a good, intelligent, modern way to go about things (and have great adventures), his concrete notions of it are odd. The idea that removing one being from the interlocking and ever-evolving web of science will forever prevent the Qwux/Uchke from having spaceflight again is naive and the reader will not be able to catalog all the preposterous impossibilities in these stories but will note instead the two times something is scientifically accurate (when Jones has a character note the effects of an absence of atmosphere on light refraction and the one time he seems to associate mass and gravity. On the other hand, having stories about almost brown-dwarf-like stars and rogue planets in 1934 is prescient and his Zoromes anticipate Charles Stross’ interstellar robots (though I think Stross is wrong about that as an absolute requirement).

His style doesn’t seem to change, giving us odd poetry like “the headless inhabitants of the hollow planet,” weird phrases like “opined the buried Professor,” conundrums like “avenged a thousand-fold many times over,” scintillating dialog like “Quiet your fears, 21MM392. It is I, 744U-21, your very good friend,” and inadvertently comical dangers like “The Uchke are coming with their tools! They are about to take our heads apart!”

If these are dealbreakers, these stories are definitely broken. Jones is not a very good writer. However, if you can just get acclimated (swimming around after the shock of diving into these waters has worn off), these really can maintain interest. He is some sort of visionary. The crazy worlds and strange lifeforms, while unmoored from almost any sort of physics or biology, are fascinating, the action (usually) gallops, and the concepts for 1930s America are pretty radical. Like many activists, the Zoromes blunder in to fight for justice with insufficient information and a chance they’re actually doing wrong but, in this ideal world, they are almost always right. Unlike today’s activists, they are moderate. A specific point is made about how they do not intend to wipe out the Uchke, for instance, but only to “remove their menace.” The Uchke themselves, seem to suffer from a sort of battered child syndrome where the abused become abusers. Yet even the Qwux are allowed to go their way and the spaceflight-expert prisoner becomes essentially one of the crew. There is an excessive reliance on physical appearance as an indicator of intelligence but that appearance only has to avoid being brutish – how many arms or legs or whether you’re purple or not has no bearing. What is important is intelligence itself. Jameson observes that one species is “happily unburdened with the theological superstitions and weird practices which the Professor had found were all too common among the less intelligent order of creatures to be found among the worlds of the universe.” He also notes that some creatures’ “intelligence was not sufficiently developed for them to conceive of worlds other than their own. In this, they were not far removed from many people the professor had known during his Earthly life…”

Rather than attacking our science fictional grandfathers for any lapses we think we see in them, I think it’s much more amazing how they were among those who broke the fetters of conventional wisdom and were able to conceive of purple-skinned friends and multi-legged -armed and -eyed machine men adopting people from multiple worlds into their ranks as they zip through the cosmos seeking knowledge and understanding. This deserves respect and honor. While the second tale is a poorly structured mess, the other two are as good (or whatever the word is) as the best in the first volume and all three convey what is ultimately a large-scale broad-minded revelry.


[1] Original publications:

  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Time’s Mausoleum” (Amazing Stories, December 1933)
  • “The Sunless World” (Amazing Stories, December 1934)

Birthday Reviews: Campbell, Haldeman, Laumer, Wilhelm

This week’s birthday stories introduce us to a giant spaceship, a giant tank, and two far futures. All come from the same magazine (under two names). One is by John W. Campbell and published by Campbell’s editorial predecessor (F. Orlin Tremaine), the Keith Laumer and Kate Wilhelm stories were published by Campbell, himself, and the one by Joe Haldeman was published by Campbell’s successor (Ben Bova). [1]

John W. Campbell (1910-06-08–1971-07-11)

“Forgetfulness” (Astounding, June 1937)

The people of Pareeth have created mighty ships and have crossed the interstellar void to arrive at a new world, but it turns out to be an old world, inhabited by people who long ago basically gave the people of Pareeth the gift of fire. But now these people see the inhabitants as sadly degenerate, being unable to remember how the great technology of their predecessors, called “the city builders,” worked. Still, there’s something strange about them… When the rising civilization makes plans to colonize the world of the degenerates, reversals and revelations are in store.

This story is initially short on action and, like many “Don A. Stuart” stories (the pseudonym Campbell used for the second phase of his writing career), it’s long on mood, description, and concepts. Still, it’s an effective mood, with fascinating descriptions (including a mention of “mile-long ships”), and wild concepts, such as the generator used by the city builders called a “sorgan mechanism” which nearly causes one witness to lose his mind as he sees that it is hooked into another dimension which has a moebius-like relation to eternity. When the crisis comes, the mood, descriptiveness, and conceptual power are retained while the action rises. The conclusion is clever and satisfying.

Joe Haldeman (1943-06-09)

“Anniversary Project” (Analog, October 1975)

Reprinted unchanged from a 2019-12-11 post.

One million years after the invention of the written word, Three-phasing has been created to remaster the art of reading so that he may enjoy the cache of books that has been rediscovered after being left for posterity in 2012. Meanwhile, Nine-hover has been playing around with a time machine (which no longer exists, but that certainly doesn’t end a time machine’s usefulness) and, using the books as associative talismans of a sort, she captures Bob and Sarah Graham. They’ve been recently married and were enjoying their last days of Bob’s leave before he ships off to the Korean War. You see, even in a far far far future world of amazing abilities (and telepathy) it’s hard to recapture the mentality of such primitive people and really understand what reading was like for them. By Sarah’s efforts, the future people get to experience her mind as she reads and she gets to spend more time with Bob. Then the story drives on to its smashing conclusion, fusing tragedy and comedy.

The opening of the tale is interesting and sometimes amusing but the far future, while not specifically derivative of anything, seems very familiar. However, once the 1951 characters appear on the scene, the humor and interest ratchet up several degrees. It’s the painful and hilarious conclusion that really makes the tale remarkable, though. Some might be upset by a possible perception of anticlimax, but it strikes me the other way, as a poetic crescendo which encapsulates “one of those things” in a way that touches on something deep. As I say, if this were just a “far future society” tale, it would be adequate, but the whole thing is firmly recommended.

Keith Laumer (1925-06-09–1993-01-23)

“The Last Command” (Analog, January 1967)

Unit LNE is a Bolo Mark XXVIII and a member of the Dinochrome Brigade, which is to say a tank that’s forty-five feet from top to bottom. And those forty-five feet are buried in a special “ten foot shell of reinforced armocrete” which is all under more than 200 meters of rock where it was buried after a war which didn’t defeat it but did make it radioactive. But when some engineers are blasting in the area for a Mayor’s pet project, a circuit trips in “Lenny,” he awakens, assesses the situation, calls on the memory of his comrades and the last vestiges of emergency power, and begins smashing his way out of his confinement. There follows a thrilling scene of his gradual angled rise over and up while panicked and mystified engineers follow along and try to figure out what they could have done, with various workers theorizing about earthquakes or accusing the others of continuing to set off charges. Finally, Lenny breaks through and believes he’s still at war and that the busy suburban mall ahead is an enemy fortress, a notion which is confirmed when the Mayor calls aircraft out to attack Lenny. With mass death imminent, one old vet is prepared to serve one more time and attempt to stop the unstoppable.

Lenny is quite a character, the massive AI battle tank is quite a concept, the situation is exciting, and the story has something to say about humanity, both good and bad, particularly regarding the things veterans often do and how they’re sometimes treated. There are several stories in the great Bolo series and this is one of the best.

Kate Wilhelm (1928-06-08–2018-03-08)

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” (Astounding, April 1957)

A man wakes up in the hospital with memories of being on a mile-long spaceship and is informed he’s survived a bad accident but his wife is okay. Gradually, his condition improves, but he still “dreams” of the spaceship. Similarly, it becomes clearer that there actually is a spaceship and it does not bode well for any species found by it. The telepath and other crewmembers aboard try to determine the location of the mentality that keeps visiting them but their task is made difficult by both a vice and a virtue of the mentality, but they keep trying. It ends in a surprising manner.

I feel like I’m missing something with this one but, even so, the ambiguity of the opening, the very, very remote, ethereal, calm conflict, and the irony make this a compelling read.


[1] And from the Department of Statistical Improbabilities: With seven days available, all four birthdays fall on one of two days and each pair (whose first initials are pairs of J&K) is separated by exactly eighteen years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Birthday Reviews: Blish, Ellison, Jones, Landis

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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.

Birthday Reviews: Tenn, Zelazny

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

William Tenn (1920-05-09–2010-02-07)

“Betelgeuse Bridge” (Galaxy, April 1951)

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

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

Roger Zelazny (1937-05-13–1995-06-14)

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday Reviews: Chandler, Delany, Vinge

This week’s birthday reviews give us two novellas around a novelette and the trio takes us from ships of deep water to gambling dens of Mars and ships of deep space where we meet merfolk, cyborgs, and stranger things.

A. Bertram Chandler (1912-03-28–1984-06-06)

“Giant Killer” (Astounding, October 1945)

Insofar as this story depends on a reveal at least midway into the story and another at the end, this doesn’t work at all because what is revealed should be obvious to most readers. Insofar as it depicts a strange society bent on eradicating members outside its bounds of normality while that society exists in a world it doesn’t really comprehend and insofar as it engages the reader’s interest by creating characters with strange powers fighting with each other and the powerful and inscrutable giants who dominate that milieu as some of them come to understand it better, it’s a fantastic success. It even goes beyond this in being quite philosophical and thought-provoking without stopping the action to pontificate. Very good stuff.

Samuel R. Delany (1942-04-01)

“Driftglass” (If, June 1967)

The protagonist was modified into a merman as a boy and then was modified further when an underwater industrial accident crippled him. Now near middle-aged, he spends much of the story with his fisherman friend and with the next generations of merfolk, contemplating his past and their future. The “south of the border” setting and elements like fishing for marlin (albeit in a way you’ve never been able to fish for marlin before), along with its viewpoint stoicism which observes many people who are less stoic, puts me in mind of a weird sort of Hemingway, though the style is more elaborate. Either way, the milieu is vivid and the characters breathe (whether in or out of water).

Joan D. Vinge (1948-04-02)

“Fireship” (Analog, December 1978)

If “Fireship” makes you think of something off the shoulder of Orion, you may be disappointed as this is not that. The “fireship” is a metaphor for the protagonist, which references ships set on fire and sent into an enemy’s armada. On the other hand, if you weren’t thrilled by The Snow Queen, you may still enjoy this. It’s a proto-cyberpunk story in ways, dealing with Ethan Ring, who is the symbiotic cyborg personality of a computer, ETHANAC, and Michael Yarrow, a sort of guinea pig or sacrificial lamb chosen to test the mind-machine connection because he was expendable. Having become a new being with the instinct for survival, Yarrow/Ring becomes known as a thief (and plays a mean game of cards) which results in his flight to Mars where he gets sandwiched between a dictatorial tycoon and the operatives trying to overthrow that ruler. In addition to the cyborg and the seedy underworld characters, it even has a faint whiff of noir style or at least a sardonic tone. While I don’t entirely buy some of the psychology of the conclusion, it contains interesting ideas that are at least worth entertaining and the whole story is involving and exciting.

Review: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silverberg’s Stories: 1966-1968

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Contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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