Review: To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg

Date: December 1984 (originally May 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-24502-3
Pages: 222
Price: $2.75
Publisher: Bantam (originally Ballantine)

After “To See the Invisible Man,” (review) Robert Silverberg published five more short stories* before embarking on a series of five novelettes, all published in Galaxy, which were collected as To Open the Sky (1967). The blurb to my 1984 Bantam paperback says it is “filled with a scope and vision comparable to Asimov’s Foundation series.” This is hyperbole, as Asimov invented a science, set it in a galaxy-spanning epic, and covered a half-millennium of the fall and rise of interstellar empires, initially in three volumes. To Open the Sky invents a technophilic religion, is bound to this solar system (specifically, Earth, Venus, and Mars), and covers about a century of effort towards longevity and interstellar travel in one volume. Still, the comparison is interesting, for there is a master visionary (Vorst in the role of Seldon) who creates a social force which takes over a world and then creates a schism for even greater control. However, with the religion and the longevity, there’s as much of Heinlein’s Future History as Asimov’s Foundation Universe.

Blue Fire” (June 1965) is set in 2077 and introduces Reynolds Kirby, a U.N. diplomat, who has to play host to Nathaniel Weiner, a Martian settler. Kirby tries to hold the drunken and rambunctious visitor in check and that hard-bitten frontiersman comes into conflict with a religious cult, The Brotherhood of Immanent Radiance or Vorsters, whose members “worship” science, as symbolized by the glow of Cerenkov radiation. An initially skeptical Kirby, on the other hand, find that his internal emptiness (indicated by his dependence on a Nothing Chamber, or ultimate sensory deprivation chamber) might possibly be filled by something these cultists have.

The Warriors of Light” (December 1965) advances to 2095 and introduces Christopher Mondschein as a man desperate for the immortality the Vorsters promise to achieve. His overzealous efforts to gain entry to their scientific citadel lead to his being compromised by the schismatic sect of Harmonists. They turn him into a spy and send him to the very redoubt, governed by Brother Capodimonte, which started his troubles. The somewhat melodramatic plotting for this tale is more action-oriented than most of the stories.

Where the Changed Ones Go” (February 1966, set in 2135) sends the orthodox Brother Martell to Venus. There, he finds Mondschein settled in to a position of power among the heretics and a minority of susceptible Venusians, despite most of the society being violently opposed to them. Martell high-handedly tries to convert them to the orthodox faith with bad results which compels him to fall in with the schismatic group, himself. This tale expands on the notion of a poisonous Venus which is habitable only with radical changes to one’s body which also results in radical changes to one’s offspring, including the manifestation of psi powers.

Lazarus Come Forth” (April 1966, set in 2152) is a sort of origin story for the Harmonist schism. The sacred texts of the Harmonists tell how Vorst, or his acolytes, martyred David Lazarus. Thus Lazarus’ being found on Mars in a suspension chamber causes some consternation. This story shows the ruthlessness of Noel Vorst and his devious machinations, particularly as seen by Kirby, who has risen from empty diplomat to being Vorst’s right hand man. Vorst draws the powers and resources of the disparate societies of the three worlds together through this prophet ex machina and continues to drive towards his goal of interstellar immortality.

To Open the Sky” (June 1966, set in 2164) deals with the final stage. (I won’t spoil its doings but will note that, somewhat as Silverberg “invented the CD player” in a 1961 article (fascinatingly described in his Reflections column in the September/October 2018 Asimov’s) so he has a prescient description of the exoplanet hunt which began in earnest in 1992: “Astronomers had found hundreds of planets scattered through other systems. Some could dimly be picked up by telescopic sensors; other could only be inferred by computations of disturbed stellar orbits. But the planets were there.” This sounds like Doppler spectroscopy which was postulated in 1952 but not practicable until four decades later.)

With its relatively small set of recurring characters and its overarching goals and themes, it reads very much like a novel though, with its changing settings, time jumps, and shifts in focus, it also reads like a set of stories. I’m not sure how satisfying each story would be alone, as there is relatively little action and few cataclysmic conclusions to end each tale but, as a single book, it reads well. The characters are all strangely interesting, the conceptions of Mars and, especially Venus, are vivid, and the drive for the satisfaction of lofty goals pursued by flawed men keeps the pages turning. This wasn’t a masterpiece and its themes would be visited again in later works such as Tower of Glass (1970) and The Book of Skulls (1971), but I did enjoy it.

* Four of the five stories are “The Shadow of Wings” (If, July 1963) which may be a misfired alien contact joke, “The Pain Peddlers” (Galaxy, August 1963) which is a biter-bit involving reality television, “Neighbor” (Galaxy, August 1964) which is set on a malicious version of Solaria and involves a weirdly mortal conflict between neighbors, and “The Sixth Palace” (Galaxy, February 1965) which may be a metaphor for getting the most out of an irrational universe when an almost Fafhrd and Gray Mouser-like duo confront a riddling robotic guardian of treasure. The last two are more interesting than the first two. The other is the uncollected “The Unbeliever” (Magazine of Horror, August 1963) which may have been written before the Pohl phase. Similarly, early in the course of the To Open the Sky novelettes (and possibly written before them), he also published the uncollected “At the End of Days” in New Worlds (which was reprinted in the May 1969 Magazine of Horror).


Twenty-Eight Offbeat Science Fiction Books

Inspired by Catherynne M. Valente’s “10 Essential Offbeat Science Fiction Novels,” I thought I’d add some (eighteen) of my favorite weirder books (aiming for novels but ending up with a couple of omnibi and a couple of novella-duos).

Alternate Realities (2000) by C. J. Cherryh. Cherryh is known for gritty realism more than being offbeat but this omnibus contains her oddest, most experimental novels. Wave Without a Shore (1981) is a personal favorite, about art, philosophy, and invisible people, but the Arthurian spaceship of Port Eternity (1982) and the alien mentalities conveyed by odd typography in Voyager in Night (1984) are also interesting.

Carmen Dog (1988) by Carol Emshwiller. Feminist trapeze dogs only start the surrealist meltdown which is nevertheless quite pointed.

The City Not Long After (1989) by Pat Murphy. Like her Californian compatriot, Lisa Goldstein (see below), Murphy writes a somewhat hopeful tale of surrealist revolution.

The Dead Trilogy (1998) by Richard Calder. This set of novels from 1992, 1994, and 1996 are somewhat like Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale in that I ordinarily have little patience for ultra-dense “style” books and this isn’t even about orgasmic starships but, rather, about sorts of sex dolls. A truly bizarre set but one which drew me in and kept me involved—an honest lunacy rather than just outre for outre‘s sake.

Divide and Rule (1948) by L. Sprague de Camp. I’m cheating here (and not for the only time) with a book composed of two novellas (“Divide and Rule” (1939), “The Stolen Dormouse” (1941)) but when people joust in the future and “kangaroos” ride motorcycles, category is a secondary consideration.

Dracula in Love (1979) by John Shirley. Almost every book Shirley’s written could be on this list, especially those around this time: Transmaniacon, Three-Ring Psychus, City Come A-Walkin’, etc. I don’t even remember this one that well but I’m listing it because I just remember thinking this danced on a sharper razor’s edge of “terrible” and “brilliant” than any of his other works. I can’t even remember if this is accurate but it’s the kind of thing that sounds right—from a two-star review from Goodreads: “The adventures of a vampire in love and his living, prehensile penis with yellow glowing eyes.

The Dream Years (1985) by Lisa Goldstein. “Everyone switch drinks!” Lisa Goldstein romps through time with surrealism and revolution always at the forefront. The evocation of the genuine surrealists of France in the 20s and the events of the 60s are particularly good but, unbound, she includes a futuristic component, as well.

The Green Millennium (1953) by Fritz Leiber. Fritz Leiber has done it all. Straight SF, fantasy (ranging from sword & sorcery to practically inventing urban), horror, humor, non-fiction, etc. In this one, an almost Phildickian protagonist meets a green cat and things just get weirder from there. This is a particularly offbeat book because it’s not written in an avant-garde style and isn’t artsy-surreal but is a tough, gritty noir sort of book – with fluffy kitties and farcical humor.

Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) by Jonathan Lethem. Speaking of noir: gun-toting, cigarette-smoking kangaroos.

Knight of Delusions (1982, revised from Night of Delusions (1972)) by Keith Laumer. Yet another book with noir traces. I hesitated to include this because I re-read it not too many eons ago and it seemed much more repetitive and less mind-blowing than I recalled but it was still plenty weird and I include it just for that first mind-blowing experience. The cover with the fish and the alien lighting the protagonist’s cigarette convey a lot but not the twists and turns and funhouse mirrors and inversions and…

Norstrilia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith. Everything in Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind universe is offbeat, with uplifted animals suffering Kierkegaardian spiritual angst in a Sino-Romanesque future. This is the only novel set in that universe, originally published in two halves as The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968). Stroon!

The Paradox Men (1953, aka Flight into Yesterday) by Charles L. Harness. I suppose this isn’t especially offbeat but is just a good old-fashioned van Vogtian adventure in time and space but, again, that’s plenty weird enough. This is another book which I enjoyed very much on a re-read but not as much as the first time. The first time, this probably came closer to making my head explode than any other book.

Rogue Ship (1965) by A. E. van Vogt. Like Shirley, most everything this wildman wrote could go on this list, especially The World of Null-A), but something about folded-up paper-thin spacemen frozen in time sort of sticks out. (This is fixed up from the 1950 title story (aka “The Twisted Men”—arguably all that’s required), 1947’s “Centaurus II,” and 1963’s “The Expendables.”)

The Solarians (1966) by Norman Spinrad. Like Shirley and van Vogt, most of Spinrad’s works qualify. He’s written a science fiction novel as though it were written by Hitler and others about hippies after an apocalypse, starships powered by orgasms, the power of the media in politics, mind-control cults, and mass-movement networked electronic voting… wait. Something about those last three… Anyway, I pick this one just because it’s like somebody gave John W. Campbell, Jr. a giant bag of Acapulco Gold. One of the most bizarre collisions of the Golden Age and New Wave I’ve witnessed. Harlan Ellison, in an otherwise complimentary piece about Spinrad, described this book as “so bad it cannot be read.” Spinrad’s first professional publication appeared in Campbell’s Analog but, if Campbell read the novel, I don’t doubt that he agreed. But, to me, it’s bad in a good way.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick. Y’know… PKD. Nuff said. Tough to pick the most offbeat but, damn…

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen (1951) by Henry Kuttner (as by Lewis Padgett). Kuttner wrote plenty of offbeat stuff from drunken amnesiac inventors to hyper-accelerated evolved cats but when “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (1947) opens with “He knew it was a dream when he shot Carolyn through the head. But not until then,” it’s a sign of the Cold War paranoia to come and “The Fairy Chessmen” (1946) immediately tops it with “The doorknob opened a blue eye and looked at him.” The latter is not just the weirder, but also the better, story of the two.

What Mad Universe (1949) by Fredric Brown. SF is real. Oh, the comedy! Oh, the horror! Dark, sharp-edged satire.

Wolfbane (1959) by Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth. Speaking of satire, few of Pohl and Kornbluth’s works are ordinary and everyone should read The Space Merchants. In terms of this list, a case could be made for Gladiator-at-Law but I feel like the wider scope and sense of mystery (Pyramids have carted the Earth out of the solar system) of the basically non-satirical Wolfbane make it offbeat even compared to their other works.

Note: I’m not going to redo this to include a nineteenth title but between writing and posting, I’ve realized I failed to include any one  of White Light (1980), Spacetime Donuts (1981), Master of Space and Time (1984), or most anything else Rudy Rucker’s written. If I left those off, there’s no telling what else I left off. And, of course, there are authors I haven’t even read (books of) who presumably have very offbeat volumes such as R. A. Lafferty. So I hope this list has lots of good and weird stuff but, in terms of comprehensiveness, it ain’t very. Feel free to add more in the comments or write your own blog posts to help fill it out.

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.