Birthday Reviews: Vinge

Vernor Vinge (1944-10-02)

There is only one journey this week but with an interstellar journey of extreme importance as well-written as this, you only need one.

“Long Shot” (Analog, August 1972)

Via third-person limited narration, we accompany an AI named Ilse through her experiences as she goes through a sort of school in orbit around Earth, gets equipped with a new and much larger body, takes a thrilling jump down to the Sun before dispensing with that body and hurtling outward from the Solar System with the gravity-assist to begin her 10,000 year journey to Alpha Centauri. Along the way, something epochal occurs in an offhand line (fortunately, Ilse is a bit naive but, unfortunately, the reader is not) and Ilse struggles with the ills that circuits are heir to, threatening her mission with several angles of failure.

This is very nearly a perfect story. Maybe it’s a little too slow in parts before the stakes are raised, but they are raised. Maybe a word or two could have been different but it does have an understated, evocative style. Maybe the journey is too clear and straightforward but it’s a tremendous journey and complications do occur before its effective completion. Essentially, it’s a superb realization of what an interstellar journey would be like and is a fascinatingly humanist story despite being diamond-hard SF [1] with an AI for its only character. Again, a truly superb and strongly-recommended story.


[1] Hard SF for 1972, though exoplanet hunting technology has progressed by leaps and bounds beyond where Vinge has it in this story.

Birthday Reviews: Binder, Bradbury, Tiptree, Vance

Eando Binder (Otto has the birthday this week) introduces us to one of science fiction’s more significant robots while Jack Vance takes us to an ancient alien battlefield where the fighting’s just begun and Ray Bradbury and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) bring us visions of damsels with dulcimers in their completely different ways.

Happy birthday also to Vonda N. McIntyre (1948-08-28–2019-04-01). While not generally the biggest fan, I would have re-read and reviewed her remarkable “Aztecs” novella but I intend to read the novel expanded from it sometime this eon, so didn’t feel like getting into the novella right now. The birthday party is still full, anyway.

 

Eando Binder (1911-08-26–1974-10-14)

“I, Robot” (Amazing, January 1939)

Shortly before Isaac Asimov was to set his stamp on robot stories forevermore, Earl and Otto Binder wrote this bildungsroman/Frankenstein-revision about a robot with an iridium-sponge brain (it’s the platinum that makes Asimov’s robots so good) who was created by Dr. Link and raised and named Adam Link by him. The “to whom it may concern” letter structure written in a quiet space amidst much trouble makes it a little distant and it’s a bit sentimental, but it’s an interesting and effective tale now and was even more unusual when written. It’s good stuff for anybody but essential for Asimov and/or robot fans.

Ray Bradbury (1920-08-22–2012-06-05)

“The Anthem Sprinters” (Playboy, June 1963)

Everybody’s gotta love The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 but I’m actually not otherwise the biggest Bradbury fan. However, this is a story that I’ve read twice, with a grin the whole time both times. And it’s not even science fiction.

An American is in an Irish pub when he learns about a “bug under a microscope [which] is the greatest beast on earth,” in this case, the betting sport the gang has to entertain themselves based on what needs to happen at the ends of movies… unless still greater things intervene. Actually, while not SF, and without anything that flatly contradicts the natural world, this is a species of fantasy just because everything in it is imbued with such improbable joy.

James Tiptree, Jr. (1915-08-24–1987-05-19)

“Milk of Paradise” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

This story resists synopsis in the way that poems resist paraphrase and, as the references both within and in the title of the story to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” indicate, that’s not an accident. To put it baldly and rob it of its texture, Timor was the son of a scout who, with his father dead, lived with aliens as a boy until he was rescued at age 10. Now apparently a young man, he can hardly associate with humans who are repugnant to him, as he is to himself, for not being like those wondrous aliens. This is especially hard to understand for the people who come into contact with Timor because humans generally know of only one other species, the sub-human Crot. When Santiago shows up, strikes a familiar chord in Timor, and wants to take him on a space journey, Timor’s isolation changes and changes again, each time in an ambiguous way.

Much as the river Alph, the story flows in what seems like a reasonably clear and accessible way which engages the reader but is obviously going to be deeper than many stories. Even feeling that, the waters at the chasm burst out with surprising force and depth of psychological action. Perhaps it’s a restatement of the poem in science fictional terms or perhaps it’s a reply. It also may be tangential to all that, only borrowing the poem for a title and a quote, and be saying something about the extraordinary power (for good or ill) of formative events, or seeing with more than eyes or, conversely be about us and, as Nietzsche had it, that we may need our self-deceptions to survive. Either way, it’s a fascinating and powerful experience that may err on the side of obliqueness but is otherwise excellently executed.

Jack Vance (1916-08-28–2013-05-26)

“Sulwen’s Planet” (The Farthest Reaches, 1968)

Professors Gench and Kosmin and Dr. Drewe are the focal characters of a mission to develop a plan of exploration of Sulwen’s Plain on Sulwen’s Planet which orbits Sulwen’s Star. The plain is the scene of a 62,000-year-old battle where no less than seven starships of at least two races have crashed. Gench is a philologist while Kosmin is a comparative linguist and they are constantly stepping on each others’ hated toes. Drewe is a mathematician and Director of the mission. We follow the dangerously serious games of one-upsmanship between the two wordmen before a clever double-ending.

This reminds me of something else I can’t put my finger on and any reader would be justified in being disappointed in the insufficient use made of the fantastic setting (as well as being put off by the personalities of both Gench and Kosmin) but the setting is so fantastic while the action within it is so believable, the plot is so clever, and the final perception of Gench and Kosmin is sufficiently modified that it’s an enjoyable tale.

Birthday Reviews: Benford, Deutsch, Farmer

This may be the first installment of a new regular feature of Featured Futures in which I post some of the upcoming week’s birthdays and review at least a story by one or more of the birthday boys or girls. This covers January 25-31, so please join me in wishing a happy birthday (whether they can hear us or not) to Gregory Benford, A. J. Deutsch, and Philip Jose Farmer.

Gregory Benford (1941-01-30)

“And the Sea Like Mirrors” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

Some stories open with a confusing scenario which either is–or, just as bad, seems like–a sign of incompetence but some open with a confusing scenario which is skillfully presented and some of the enjoyment of the story comes from its gradual clarification. With such stories, reviewing them is hard because you have to give away some of that in order to say anything at all. So I apologize for that and assure you that Benford skillfully presents a strange situation in which a man and a woman are on a raft in an ocean and who then deal with alien critters before revealing that we’re not on an alien world, but on an Earth which has been invaded by aliens who have sown our seas with a variety of life, some of which swarms and attacks like piranhas. Our two characters are the only survivors of a ship that was sunk by these beings. This is, indeed, a dangerous vision not to be read lightly and which succeeds wonderfully on the purely dramatic level of “survival at sea (plus alien invaders)” but which also has thematic depths such as contemplating the extent to which changes without may change us within.

A. J. Deutsch (1918-01-25–1969-11-11)

“A Subway Named Mobius” (Astounding, December 1950)

Deutsch was a respected scientist, but in science fiction terms, he was something of a one-hit wonder, writing only “A Subway Named Mobius.” In it, an elaborate subway network in Boston receives one more element that pushes it into infinite topological complexity and train 86 disappears. Most of the story deals with the station manager and a mathematician trying to understand what has happened and to determine what, if anything, can be done about it. It’s one of those simultaneously funny and freaky stories because the disappearance of 350 people is no laughing matter but lines about a very confused and frustrated manager (“Whyte gripped the edge of his desk and prowled silently through his vocabulary until he had located some civil words”) are. The story is hard to take as actual science fiction and it doesn’t really do much but it’s something like the spatial version (with some temporal aspects, too) of del Rey’s “And It Comes Out Here.” Regardless, it maintains interest.

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-01-26–2009-02-25)

“Sail On! Sail On!” (Startling Stories, December 1952)

I first read of Friar Sparks many moons ago and have read it several times since but it never ceases to amaze. In just a few pages, Farmer puts us on the Santa Maria in what appears to be an alternate world in which Roger Bacon has become a saint and his order has created marvelous things. Things like the “realizer” our good Friar with the large nose and large thirst operates which causes millions of cherubim to line up to convey messages over vast distances (a sort of telegraph interpreted through a different lens). But this is shown to be the least of the changes in what is actually an instance of the omniverse which carries on to a gigantic conclusion. Strongly recommended.