Birthday Reviews: Cherryh, Schroeder, Wilcox, Zahn

This week’s birthday authors take us to the clouds of Jupiter, to a world six hundred years’ voyage away, and present us with two variations on Cassandra.

C. J. Cherryh (1942-09-01)

“Cassandra” (F&SF, October 1978)

Cherryh is mostly known for her novels (I’ll be reading at least my thirty-fourth of hers soon, which is now less than half the total), which include some fantasies and many set in realistic future space milieus, but she’s written several stories collected in Sunfall, Visible Light and, ultimately, in the Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh. One of her earliest, and one which made one of the biggest impacts, was this updated myth of mad Alis, who staggers through life in and out of mental hospitals seeing a double vision of her current reality of people and places and her possible future of ghosts and destruction after the War. It’s a short and seemingly simple tale but Alis’ agony (and ours) is firmly, judiciously depicted, with depth.

Karl Schroeder (1962-09-04)

“The Pools of Air” (Tesseracts 3, 1991)

A filmmaker, her on-air talent, and a tech guy are trying to save their skins after the helium-3 refining ship they are filming on crashes into something while cruising the clouds of Jupiter, destroying its front-end and cutting them off from direct access to their shuttle. The protagonist has baggage, both figurative and literal, which is not helping her or her companions. In a way, that element is the whole story so it’s hard to say it should be minimized but, in ways, a lot of hard SF [1] is damaged by writers who have drunk the kool-aid and overtly bow to what Asimov called “the tin-god of characterization” in an effort to be accepted as literature. There’s a certain kind of SF where that usually works and sometimes hard SF can be fused with it but, generally, it’s a distraction and hard SF works better on a scientific and social level than a personal one. Be that as it may, this is a concise and energetic story that takes the reader to an impressive setting.

Don Wilcox (1905-08-29–2000-03-09)

“The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years” (Amazing, October, 1940)

This is an honorary happy birthday because parts of this story are painful to read but it is the first full treatment of the generation starship (a year before Heinlein) and it’s oddly clever in ways. Akin to how puns are contrived but still work, this is a pile of author fiats but is at least elaborately contrived. The first generation starship takes off from Earth with what turn out to be seventeen couples and one “Keeper of the Traditions” (our narrator) who goes into suspended animation [2] for a century at a time before coming out to see how things are going and to try to set anything wrong to right. However, he takes a couple of steps backward for every one he takes forward. The time lapse view of the society leads to a certain propulsive effect and the variety of this civilization’s discontents maintain some interest.

Timothy Zahn (1951-09-01)

“The Cassandra” (Analog, November 1983)

Going out through the in door, this Cassandra is quite different. Zahn portrays this as a generational mutation (with characteristic physical markers of white hair and green eyes) on a colony which then collapses due to group trances of apocalyptic visions and the ensuing dislocations and stress. Now a few Cassandras are back on Earth, suffering in a more isolated way and we follow the effort of one such highly educated man struggling to get and keep a job as a dishwasher. This is a story in which there is a problem to be solved (whether it is solved or not) and, despite the author’s afterword talking about how atypically tragic it is for him, there is actually a sense in which it is uplifting because it’s not an inexplicable and pointless affliction or a parable of human blindness but is a natural problem with a cause and actually has some gain come from the pain. This is yet another example of how you can give twelve authors one theme and get twelve unique stories back. If you only think of Zahn as a tie-guy or even just a novelist, check this and his other short fiction out.

[1] I call it hard SF because it seems like it generally, despite being insufficiently concerned with Jupiter’s radiation. The trio breathe a sort of liquid air which, among other things, helps them deal with gravity and I suppose it also wouldn’t hurt regarding radiation but, so far as I recall, radiation is never mentioned.

[2] If it was ever explained why there is suspended animation tech and the mission was designed to (a) have such a tiny population and (b) not provide them all with the tech so as to avoid having to endure such a difficult and uncertain voyage, I missed it.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Naked Sun

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 187pp, 1957

The Naked Sun is a sequel to The Caves of Steel and, like it, features a heavily populated Earth with few and despised robots in a sort of ghetto within the fifty lightly populated and heavily robotic Spacer Worlds after Earth had founded the core of them in an earlier age. On one of these worlds, Solaria, a man has been murdered for the first time in the world’s 300-year history. Solaria’s Head of Security, Hannis Gruer, has heard of Elijah Baley’s work and, though an Earthman has never set foot on an independent Spacer world, he is convinced the Earther’s unique experiences and talents will be helpful and contacts Aurora about getting in touch with Baley. The Aurorans agree to make this happen with the price being that one of their agents will accompany Baley. Baley is informed of part of this when he leaves the comforting enclosure of his City to undergo the ordeal of flying to another to meet with Undersecretary Albert Minnim in Washington. He is not pleased to have done this only to find that he must undergo the far more difficult ordeal of spaceflight to another world. Minnim orders Baley to go, overtly as a detective and covertly as a spy, because the conflicts between Earth and the Spacer Worlds are growing sharper and Earth’s sociologists predict Earth will be “virtually wiped out as a populated world” in such a conflict. Earth needs to know better what it’s up against.

After arriving on Solaria, he meets the Auroran agent who is none other than R. Daneel Olivaw, who is himself traveling covertly in the sense of not revealing to any Solarian that he is, in fact, a robot. In the car that is taking Baley to his headquarters for the case, the two get into an argument about Baley’s safety in relation to his agoraphobia but Baley is determined to confront his fears, tricks Olivaw, and gets the robot driver of the car to put back the roof. It doesn’t go well, especially as Baley, having left his cave of steel, stares “at the naked sun,” but Baley will continue working to overcome his phobia (while the physical reality of the sun will take on a changed symbolic import). Once at his home base, he experiences the culture shock of a gigantic mansion all to himself and Olivaw (except for the many, many generally unobtrusive robots), and embarks on the first of what is essentially two series of interviews. He experiences his second shock when, at the end of his first meeting with Gruer, Gruer disappears. He learns that, while Spacers generally have a phobia about contact with dirty Earthers, Solarians have a phobia about any contact at all and will generally only “view” one another with a complicated system of telepresence. It turns out that, while Spacer worlds like Aurora have small populations and fifty robots per human, Solaria has a rigidly controlled population of 20,000 on a hospitable world 9,500 miles in diameter and has 10,000 robots for every human. They live on vast estates and their point of pride about not needing to see their neighbors has turned into a rigid social and psychological extreme of isolation. Marriages are based on gene matches and people “see” one another only for necessities such as certain doctor visits and the rare and unpleasant necessity of replacing a death. In fact, they are working on artificial insemination to make this completely unnecessary and to further perfect their gene screening. This all plays into part of why the murder is so inexplicable. Rikaine Delmarre is a “good Solarian” who has volunteered for the socially necessary but unpleasant work of “fetologist,” or one who works on the baby farms. That he is found to have been bludgeoned to death is inexplicable. Why would one rich isolated Solarian want to kill another and how could they in this way without personal contact? The only suspect is Rikaine’s wife, Gladia (pronounced Gla-DEE-a) and she is a small woman who found the body and collapsed in shock. Other than her, robots such as one rendered non-functional by seeing a human death, and the doctor who arrived on the scene, no one was or has been there and no murder weapon was found. Any more subtle evidence that would have been there has been destroyed as the robots of this crime-free world cleaned up the murder scene as they would any untidiness. Baley at one point notes that, “This is a rather peculiar case. No motive, no means, no witnesses, no evidence.”

In the first sequence of interviews, Baley “views” Gladia and other relevant parties after viewing Gruer. From this, he decides that the lack of weapon and Gladia’s lack of strength clears her though, given the lack of any other options, all Solaria is convinced she’s guilty. [1] He also learns that there is strife between Aurora and Solaria and Gruer had actually wanted an Earth sociologist (or what’s nearly the same, a detective) because of Earth’s greater understanding of humans. Aurora is the most powerful Spacer world but Solaria’s contribution to the Worlds’ robot economy is essential. There is also conflict within Solaria, between those who like things basically as they are and those who would push even further. According to Gruer, there is a conspiracy at work which, in what precise way he isn’t sure, threatens all humanity. While saying this, as if on cue, he drinks from his glass and collapses from poison.

Baley feels stymied in his remote investigations and, when Gruer’s replacement, Attlebish, turns out to be an ass who punches Baley’s buttons, Baley uses a pretense of connection to Aurora’s power to threaten him into concessions which will allow Baley to move about the planet and “see” people if he can get them to agree. Because Gruer has been poisoned for investigating this case and because “seeing” would put Baley in direct danger from a similar attempt, Olivaw is required by the First Law to prevent Baley from going. Again, Baley tricks Olivaw, this time into revealing that he is a robot to the other household robots and orders them to guard Olivaw. Feeling euphoric over his victories over a Spacer human and robot, Baley heads out on his second series of interviews, again confronts his fear of the open and, again, it doesn’t go very well. However, he does manage to meet with Solaria’s version of a sociologist, Quemot, in which we learn that Quemot can barely stand to “see” another and eventually flees back to viewing. Meanwhile, we also learn about Solaria’s history, its relation to Earth’s Sparta and Athens, its Traditionalists, and Solaria’s great weapon: the positronic robot. It is Quemot’s contention that society is pyramidal and now robots can form its base while humanity occupies its apex. Further, a robotic economy is unidirectional, always pushing towards more robots and, without lifting a finger, Solaria will witness the galaxy adopting Solaria’s social structure. More directly to the nitty-gritty of the case, he also informs Baley that Delmarre had an assistant fetologist. Going to interview her, he learns about the biological basis of Solaria and that he should next talk to Delmarre’s friend who is a roboticist who can stand physical proximity even less than Quemot. Before leaving the farm, Olivaw is proved correct when an attempt is made on Baley’s life. On Baley’s meeting with the roboticist, the mystery begins to move into the home stretch but there is one more fascinating chapter I can talk about when Baley first “sees” Gladia (another in Asimov’s line of memorable female characters) and learns about her abstract light art (another in Asimov’s line of fascinating future arts). She does a “portrait” of him which is flattering but for it being contained within a gray box, “holding Baley’s imprisoned soul fast in the gray of the Cities.” Not to be hypocritical about forcing Solarians to “see” him, he once more forces himself to face the outdoors in an attempted exchange to get Gladia to remove the box from her art. The chapter ends with a remarkably vivid sunset which affects Baley even more than the reader and, with just another step or two, gets us to the moment when Baley can put the case together and even package it for proper consumption by several parties.

While The Naked Sun has a completely separate case, explains its own milieu well enough, and can be read alone, I’d still recommend reading The Caves of Steel first because I feel like a deeper knowledge of what Earth is like would produce a better understanding of Baley’s character. And, obviously, because I also think The Caves of Steel was a great book. In some ways, while definitely not perfect [2], this is even better. Like Caves, it works on the level of a personal murder mystery and on the level of a social science fiction novel. This inverts Caves, however, in showing us an extreme Spacer society while still never losing sight of Earth. In fact, the book is full of comparisons and contrasts. Frequent reference is made to the notion that robots are logical but not reasonable which, I think, ties into elements of many other Asimov stories where logic is respected but it’s pointed out that an impeccable chain of abstract logic can be unreasonable (or at least inaccurate) when applied to concrete situations. Another is between instincts and education where the Solarians could be said to “view-train” their children to educate the gregariousness, which they find disgusting, out of them. One thing I found particularly interesting about this element was how it relates to our current “social networking” system of Skyping and Zooming (leaving aside how it’s now exacerbated by the plague) which is nothing but a primitive form of “viewing.” (He also mentions how youth is necessary for beneficial change but specifies that the change should be moderate.) And Asimov, through Baley, again returns to the recurrent concern over “blind alleys” (here called a “dead end” at one point, which is the same principle) as Earth’s clustering and Solaria’s isolation are both seen as unhealthy extremes. Indeed, while he heads in the right direction but overshoots the mark in a couple of extreme moments of psychological pressure on the roboticist and on Baley, himself, the psychological and sociological depictions are superb, especially in the scene in which Quemot struggles with reason vs. emotion (another contrasting pair) and tries to explain to Baley the difficulty with “seeing” him. Through it all, Baley never spares himself in his effort to be an exemplar and undergo some of what he puts on others as he tries to get over his dependence on the security blanket of the Cities. Though it’s in a different context, he even cites a principle that will become important in much later Robot novels when he says to Olivaw, “It’s as much my job to prevent harm to mankind as a whole as yours is to prevent harm to man as an individual.”

This is a short novel which is so efficiently executed and packed to bursting with ideas that it contains just as many events as a novel twice as long and more ideas than most novels that are several times as long without feeling rushed or thin. I wish I could achieve Asimov’s efficiency and ability to provoke thought rather than producing this verbose review which still fails to convey how exciting and deeply-textured this experience of an alien world and society is but I can say that I recommend it highly.

[1] I probably hadn’t yet seen A Shot in the Dark (1964) the last time I read this but, the whole time I was reading it this time, with Baley’s obvious awareness of Gladia’s attractiveness and his frequent decisions on her innocence despite all evidence being against her, I kept thinking, “Maria Gambrelli is innocent!” By the way, an isolated moment which struck me funny was when Baley is told he must go to Solaria and, for a moment, he tries to place it – “Solaria, Australia?” – before he grasps that he’s being ordered off-world. Another amusing moment, which may be referencing Asimov’s annoyance about editorial interference in The Stars, Like Dust, is when Quemot and Baley are discussing the notion of the “pursuit of happiness” and when Quemot wonders where the phrase is from, Baley says, “Some old document.” Another reference comes when Baley, apparently oblivious to its antecedents, says that when you have “eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, is the truth.”

[2] Non-nitpicky readers should probably skip this entire footnote as it would just rain on the parade of enjoying this excellent novel, but one of the things that bothered me involved communications. Asimov seems to generally assume a lack of direct interstellar communications which is strange given that there is hyperspace and, though it’s not precisely in the same universe, Lucky Starr was just involved in a project regarding the properties of light in hyperspace (so what about radio waves?). If there were such communications, why would a Solarian even think that an Earther would need to “see” Solaria? If there are not, how do Solaria’s planetary communications (“viewing”) work with no lag at all?

While those are technical questions and easily explained or excused, there are more serious issues involving the robots of Solaria having a sort of omniscience at times and an almost total lack of awareness at others and this inconsistency is not restricted to them. Olivaw is creatively hyper-vigilant about not allowing harm to come to Baley yet, in a key scene, violates both the First and Second Laws, somehow disobeying an order (though it was psychologically more of a plea) and inadvertently causing harm to a human when he should have known better.

More than that, the perpetrator is convicted by the perpetrator’s own prior utterance. Baley attempts, in passing, to provide a psychological explanation for why the perpetrator was so dumb in this instance and it’s plausible but only barely. Also, I don’t really like who the perpetrator is or the punishment. (I’m being somewhat misleading here to avoid spoilers but it gets my points across.)

Finally, perhaps from a youthful sentimentality or from focusing on elements of The Caves of Steel (or maybe even The Robots of Dawn) more strongly than elements of this one, I remembered Baley and Olivaw’s relationship and attitude towards each other (especially Baley’s towards Olivaw) differently and didn’t really like aspects of the relationship in this book, though that’s more personal taste than a flaw (as is the second half of the previous paragraph).

None of these things significantly impair an extremely clever and multi-level novel that works perfectly otherwise, but they did make me scratch my head on occasion.

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: Bear, Egan, Forward, Lovecraft

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

Greg Bear (1951-08-20)

“Hardfought” (IAsfm, February 1983)

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

Greg Egan (1961-08-20)

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

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

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

“Self-Limiting” (Analog, May 1992)

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday Reviews: Davis, Keyes, Slonczewski, Varley

This week’s birthday celebrations provide us with satires on how to get science into society and how to get tuberculosis into the UN, as well as giving us tickets to Mercury (where we’ll learn that the future may not see us as morally pure as we see ourselves at this time) and to some progress reports on one man’s experience with intelligence enhancement (which will stick with us for all time).

Chan Davis (1926-08-12)

“Adrift on the Policy Level” (Star Science Fiction Stories No. 5, 1959)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-21 review of The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.

Though in the editor Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective.

Daniel Keyes (1927-08-09–2014-06-15)

“Flowers for Algernon” (F&SF, April 1959)

Through the progress reports Charlie Gordon writes, we learn that he is a 37-year-old man with an I.Q. of 68 who works as a janitor at Donnegan’s Plastic Box Company and takes night classes with Miss Kinnian because he wants desperately to be smarter. This has led to his chance to be selected by Doctors Nemur and Strauss to be the first human to undergo a brain operation to triple his intelligence, as has been done in mice such as Algernon, who beats Charlie in maze races several times. We then follow the arc of Charlie’s selection and the results of his surgery.

This story is an example of why the ancient Greeks conceived of Muses: once in a great while, everything just seems to fall into place and an author is blessed with a perfect story. This tale is splendidly simple in concept and structure and complex in detail. It’s simultaneously the purest of science fiction and deeply humanist. Charlie Gordon is the ultimate naive narrator who innocently conveys heart-wrenching pathos and painful double visions but, through his innocence, we get some experienced and hard edged-perceptions as the god-like Doctors become mortal, the untouchable woman becomes attractive, the businessman is saved ten thousand dollars a year which he repays with twenty-five dollars, and perhaps every reader is made complicit through punctuation (however gently we laugh). The main experience he conveys is that of being expelled from the Purgatory of Eden into both heaven and hell in deeply emotional terms without ever descending into mawkishness. Perhaps the saddest thing about the story is that it points out that humans can be unhappy across the spectrum of intelligence, though the specific scene of the belated visit to class tears me up every time. I don’t seek the sentimental in fiction and it doesn’t usually work very well on me but this story touches me as I’m pretty sure it’s touched most everyone who has read it. If you haven’t, go do so! If you have, it’s probably time to read it again! [1]

Joan Slonczewski (1956-08-14)

“Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN” (Nature, June 29, 2000)

First and foremost, this is clever short-short with the fascinating idea of “building computational macromolecules into the genomes of pathogens known for their ability to infiltrate the human system” to get around the problem of nanobot failures when they are introduced into the human body for medical purposes. In short, you end up with cyborg AI bacteria. This is delivered in the form of a press release declaring that this nation of beings has been admitted to the UN. Secondarily, today’s self-righteous might find something in it to consider.

John Varley (1947-08-09)

“Retrograde Summer” (F&SF, February 1975)

A Mercurian meets his loonie (that’s Lunarian!) clone/sibling, shows her the ropes, and finally learns the dark secret of his family. The exposition of the setting is as smooth as a magician’s trick and that setting, with people in amazing space suits swim/sliding in/on mercury on Mercury and then being trapped in a cave-in from the frequent Mercurian tremors is enthralling and unforgettable. Incidentally, this was talking about “gender-fluidity” before most of the people who say they have nothing to learn or gain from old, evil SF were born and it points out that one person’s moral righteousness is another’s moral perversion and that these categories are also fluid.

[1] I often think of this as one of the best stories of all-time and will often say, “Well, Story X is good, but it’s no “Flowers for Algernon.” Lately, I’d been wondering if I was looking at the story through rose-colored glasses and it wasn’t as good as all that. So it was definitely time for me to re-read, to remind myself that it is as good as all that. My only criticism is that, while I wouldn’t really change a word of what’s written in the progress reports, I would have them occur over a slightly longer span of time. It still needs to happen in a compressed time frame but, even with a science-fictional operation, a lot of the top of the arc happens awfully fast.

Review: The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell

The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell
Hardcover: Dennis Dobson, 13/6, 203pp, 1962 [1]

The prologue tells us that the result of Joahannes Pretorius van der Camp Blieder’s fixation on levitating a coin was the accidental invention of a stardrive and the result of that was “the Great Explosion,” or the diaspora of every weirdo from Earth to the stars. The rest of the book tells us how Earth eventually recovered from the loss of these eccentrics and proceeded to attempt to bring them into an Imperial fold. In this book, we follow one particular (and particularly mine-is-bigger-than-yours) starship in one particular sector as it voyages to four planets.

After an elaborate and pompous departure we meet and mock the crew, troops, and bureaucrats. Especially the bureaucrats. The first world they come to, like the state of Georgia or the country of Australia, has been settled by people exiled for running afoul of the law. They develop a family/gang-centered social structure in which they distrust anyone outside the family and despise work, gullible people (and gnoits, ponks, and snelks). Their only contacts with outsiders (other than our would-be imperialists) come on the few days of the year that make up trading season. Mainly, women who don’t like any of the men in their “family” demand to be traded. As an example of some of the humor, after the native leaves, the Colonel says he thought he saw him on the far side of the river waving an official-issue knife and asks the Sergeant Major if that was possible. “Sergeant Major admitted that it could be possible. In fact, it gave him much pain to describe it as practically a certainty inasmuch as the presence of the knife over there had been found to coincide with the absence of one over here.” And, as an example of some of the sociological arguments, when the Ambassador points out that their society has “No comfort, no security, no progress, no morals,” the native adds “No taxes, no work, no regimentation.”

Unable to establish a beachhead on a paranoid planet of multiple groups, the ship moves on to Hygeia. There are no “friendly” worlds according to the regs, but there are hostile and non-hostile worlds. Having determined this one to be non-hostile, the bigwigs debark, followed by the lesser ranked, and then the lesser still. It is wryly observed that, had the planet been determined to be hostile, “the order of exit would have been reversed.” This world takes the notion of a “nudist colony” to a whole other level. It demonstrates the relativity of social mores as the native naked fitness freaks are repelled by the Earthers’ dirty bodies (exemplified by their boozing and smoking) and dirty minds (exemplified by their clothes fetish). Under the “when in Rome” theory, when the men go on leave, they are ordered to go nude but this only offends the natives differently as the Earth folk, um, expose their relative lack of fitness. Despite these problems, the Terrans are finally granted an island on which to establish their embassy under various onerous conditions, so the remainder depart for the third world, but not every colony manages some variety of success. The Terrans moves on to the fourth world without stopping after finding the third depopulated, perhaps from a plague.

Finally, they arrive at the last world and, in one of the funnier scenes of the book, have difficulty making contact with Zeke, a native who finally tells them “Myob!” [2] and even more difficulty making contact with “Ginger Whiskers,” the next native who’s on his way to meet with the first. In a large-scale Keystone Cops routine, a bunch of soldiers are initially unable to corral a man determinedly headed “Zekeward” and finally have to carry him to the ship as he simply refuses to do what they want. They have no better luck stopping a guy who has “a gold ring in his nose” and “a pigtail four feet long” who is riding a fan-driven ball-wheeled motorbike (it’s especially interesting to note that this part was first published (in John W. Campbell’s Astounding) in 1951). Much of the contact goes like this, without useful result, until Harrison, the bicyclist among the stars, rides into town and starts making the slightest of headway, learning about how the natives are Gands and the Terrans are antigand. Eventually, even Sergeant Gleed joins in and they get a better understanding of this libertarian/anarchist society (“That’s freedom, isn’t it?”) they’re supposed to conquer. Contrary to the Weapons Shops sort of freedom, though, these folks explain how they have a weapon that can defeat all comers and there’s nothing secret or violent about it. It’s encapsulated on a sign that says “F-I.W.” and the remainder of the book will show the power of ideas in a clash of worldviews.

Humor is in the funny bone of the beholder but I thought this had very funny moments and was generally amusing, while it was also definitely “about” something and full of interesting and debatable points. For instance, the Terrans frequently use the notion of alien conquest (when there is no evidence of alien intelligence anywhere) to try to frighten worlds into joining them, which speaks to any general politics of fear. While I personally believe in strong international alliances, other elements may be making the point that they could form a single point of failure and that conquering varied forces could be harder than herding cats. On the other hand, I certainly support the diversity of states and the individuality of people within a larger framework. This seems to echo that with its various social conditions on world to world and with the Gands themselves. For instance, when trying to explain the Gands’ negative reaction to the soldiers’ uniforms, Harrison says to the Ambassador, “They seem to take pleasure in expressing their individual personalities by wearing anything from pigtails to pink boots; oddity in attire is the norm among the Gands.” It can also get rather existential or echo Rousseau (whom I loathe but that’s beside the point). When Sergeant Gleed isn’t being the usual SOB and Harrison remarks on it, “‘I’m off duty,’ replied Gleed, as if that explained everything.” This points to Gleed’s adoption of a role in “bad faith” or to the notion that men are by nature good and only made bad by institutions. The economics (as is often the case with that aspect of libertarian/anarchist theory) was interesting but more ideal than real. I had a hard time seeing how an “ob” (or the obligation one puts on another for returning a good deed) was all that different from money (though it mercifully frees people from the larger machinations of finance) or how the “size” of an ob could be determined (that is, when it could reliably be canceled). Russell does try to seriously tackle some of this with a character’s story about “Idle Jack” in response to a Terran asking about people who just tried to take advantage of the system. The point is, whatever your philosophy (unless it’s to not have philosophy in your fiction), there is something in this comic thought-experiment worth considering while you’re being entertained and amused.

[1] Approximately the last two-fifths of this book is the novella “And Then There Were None.” I hadn’t read that in a while, so compared each every so often (in a casual way, so could be wrong), but the only changes I noticed were some soldering to join the old material to the new (including two bits of initial material scraped into earlier parts of the book) and some tweaks to words. On the question of preferred version, this is a fairly unusual case where they’re about the same. The novella is naturally more focused and is probably sufficient but the additions provide more philosophical elements to consider and more humorous parts to enjoy so it’s basically just a question of whether the reader would prefer a longer or shorter version.

BTW, I somehow got hold of and read the Panther edition (which is a fittingly UK book for a UK author) but it has perhaps the dumbest blurb in the history of man, so I’m going with the slightly less wrong Pyramid cover. (Both have decent, fun art.)

[2] After initial amusing confusion and guessing, the Terrans later come to find this abbreviates the wisdom of “Mind your own business!”

Review: Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker



Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker
Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8384-1, $16.00, 320pp, March 2019
Paperback: Baen, 978-1-982124-52-6, $8.99, 420pp, March 2020

This multi-generational novel follows the transformation of Medical Care Android BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662 into the person named Carey. Due to an element of his manufacture described well into the book and interactions between his emulation and empathy capabilities, he becomes self-conscious and self-driven. When the story opens [1], he is already an unusually self-aware and empathetic android who is taking care of Mildred Owens, an aging sufferer of dementia. In addition to his psychological emulation capabilities, he is capable of physical emulation, modifying his appearance to meet the needs of his patient. He often emulates her son Paul, sometimes her deceased husband Henry, or whoever will make Mildred most comfortable. Later, he stays with Paul, Susan (Paul’s wife), and Anna and Millie (their daughters, the latter Mildred’s namesake), then with Millie and her husband and children and, ultimately with Garrett, the eldest of Millie’s children, whom he had delivered in a wrecked car in a snowstorm. Over the course of these four generations and about eighty years (some of which are skipped over in a few multi-year jumps) he learns more and more about self-consciousness, will, empathy, and all the other parts of humanity such as pain and humor and love, convincing most that he’s not only a machine but a person, while always being plagued by internal doubt about his own nature.

As Paul says to Carey, “Fiction is our empathy net” and this is a very emotional novel which draws the reader in with well-drawn and appealing characters and both grants and demands much emotional involvement. This is both a strength and a weakness (aside from the obvious fact that it will appeal to some and not to others) in that everyone in this novel is implausibly decent. On the one hand, most readers without sadomasochistic urges wouldn’t enjoy a book in which everyone was evil and Carey was constantly mocked or abused and, on the other, a book about empathy would naturally try to depict everyone in depth with reasons for their actions which the reader could empathize with. But when almost everyone is nice except a Belizean colonel who threatens to dismantle Carey because of his anti-robot feeling stemming from having been wounded by them in combat and even he ultimately behaves moderately and when an officious city councilman rains on everyone’s parade because of safety concerns and even he ultimately turns out to have a sense of humor, I couldn’t help but wonder if people had undergone some sort of modification in this future.

Another strength and weakness is the plot. If Carey is “life-like” in a good way, this is “life-like” in at least a mixed way. Life tends to meander and move in cycles: youth, a new generation, death. Go to school, get a job. Do this, do that. Fiction tends to be more tightly bound and driven. This story makes you feel like you have lived it. You remember Millie as a child back on page 80 and see her as an adult who is silently traumatized by her mother’s deterioration from the recurring family curse of Alzheimer’s on page 270 and it does indeed seem like a lifetime and she does indeed seem like a real person. Still, some readers may wish for a more “save the princess, fight the villain, blow up the freakin’ Death Star!” sort of plot. The ending (no spoilers) is also a thing that different people will react to in different ways. While fast-forwards through time had occurred before, it seemed rushed to me after the leisurely pace before it and, in its substance, was understandable but dissatisfying to me.

There are also minor problems which are less complicated. There are a couple of continuity lapses when, at Mildred’s grave, years after her death, Carey tells us he has never seen it before (which seems improbable given that the family presumably has been and it’s repeatedly stressed how he’s part of the family) and when Dr. Zinta takes Carey to meet her friend, Dex, and, after a scene break, there’s a party at night and Carey mentions seeing someone “who must be Dex.” Apparently they looked all day but never found him? A more serious problem, though still relatively minor, is that many of the chapter titles spoil the chapter contents. As Carey has “privacy protocols” which prevent him from discussing some things, so I have “spoiler protocols,” but felt no compunction about describing Carey delivering Garrett because, despite the chapter involving a snowstorm, a car wreck, and a troubled birth that are supposed to threaten the lives of mother and child, it is called “Today I Experience the Miracle of Life” and it’s not going to be called that if Millie or the child die.

What aren’t mixed or minor are two of the books biggest strengths. While not seeming derivative of them, if you enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” or aspects of Data on Star Trek, you’ll enjoy following Carey’s arc of growth and viewing humanity through his lens. Arguably even stronger are Carey’s relationships. While all of them, from Mildred to Paul and Susan to Dr. Zinta, are very strong, I think the strongest relationship is with Millie, from the frog-crazy girl who gave Carey his name to the scientist/instructor she becomes and beyond. However, while not as central, his wonderful friendship with the brain-injured ex-circus juggler Luke (who calls Carey “Bo” all the time, initially in confusion about an old circus friend and then in homage) and everything that leads from that, including the bold but successful passages about the “Bo and Luke Creekside Circus” at the nursing home where Carey does volunteer work, was possibly as strong and one of my favorite parts. It’s things like this, more than the plot (the “spirit” more than the “mechanics”) that make this book, like its original story kernel, a “must read.”

[1] Here I feel I have to say something about the story this novel came from. Back when I was reviewing current short fiction for my pre-Wordpress site, I read and recommended the 2015 short story “Today I Am Paul” (and it would have made my “Year’s Best” had I been doing those then like I did in 2017-18 – I elsewhere called it a “must-read” and said that if it didn’t win a major award it would confirm my feeling that they had become useless (it didn’t win)) so when I saw it had become a novel, I naturally got it. It turns out there was also a second story (“Today I Am Santa Claus”) published in an obscure anthology in 2017. Both were worked into the beginning of this. I can’t speak to the second story, but I would recommend reading the first story before reading the book because of the effect of some of the changes. The novel introduces Carey’s designer (Mom), Dr. Zinta Jansons. The interweaving of this new element (and inclusion of her in a modified scene with the Owenses), the introduction of more clinical and legalistic motifs, and the simple fact of the slightly tweaked end of the story not being the end of the book all work well enough as part of the book, but markedly blunt the story’s superb structure and impact. (In other words, the story is sort of “melted” into the book.) While reading the story and then reading the novel will result in about 5,000 words of repetition in the first 12,000 or so words of the novel, that’s a small price to pay to fully appreciate both forms.

Birthday Reviews: MacLeod, Simak

This week we go back to WWII to struggle with luck and death and we also go forward to the end of the Earth and out beyond the universe to struggle with the Creator.

Ian R. MacLeod (1956-08-06)

“The Chop Girl” (Asimov’s, December 1999)


World War II is raging. The chop girl tells her story.

Death was hanging all around you, behind the beer and the laughs and the bowls and the endless games of cards and darts and cricket. Knowing as they set out on a big mission that some planes would probably never get back. Knowing for sure that half the crews wouldn’t make it through their twenty-mission tour. So, of course, we were all madly superstitious.

She describes how she went out with guy after guy and how guy after guy never came back from his mission. How she acquired the reputation of being the Chop Girl, the evil touch, the personification of ill luck and how she became a lonely figure observing from a distance. And that’s how she observed Mr. Lucky, Walt Williams, appear on the base one day. How he was so charmed that he could maybe even walk on water. How he got that way. And what happens when irresistible good luck meets immovable bad luck.

There’s an expression about the flak being so thick you could get out and walk on it and this story has atmosphere like that because the chop girl’s narrative voice is so convincing and the details are so numerous and varied, yet united, and the story is so focused on its similarly varied, yet united “single effect” regarding superstition, luck, life, and death. There’s not a wrong note anywhere—even the epilogue-like part manages to step across time and quickly depict the loss of youth that, even with the loss of so much terror, is still terrible, and to end on a rather daring but effective note. The whole is completely real and completely mesmerizing. It’s not a very Birthday Review thing to say but, while other stories by this author haven’t had the same effect on me, I thought this one was a masterpiece when I first read it and it still is.

Clifford D. Simak (1904-08-03–1988-04-25)

“The Creator” (Marvel Tales, March-April 1935)

Simak is best known for stories he wrote in the 1940s such as those that formed City and stories he wrote in the 50s which comprised the contents of essentially every story he collected in his lifetime, as well as those later tales which were received with respect and awards. They are often folksy, rural tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and the like. I recommend many of them, such as “The Big Front Yard.” But there was another Simak who wrote wild-eyed crazy adventures that I also recommend like Cosmic Engineers and this tale. It’s very much 1930s SF and does do a lot of ‘splainin’ with lots of technobabble until getting to the action but it’s a big, bold, dangerous vision.

The tale opens in a Wellsian mood with a narrator marooned at the end of time before backtracking to tell us the cause of this effect. The narrator is a psychologist theorizing about his “consciousness units” and his friend is a physicist theorizing about his “time force” and, together, they manage to think up and build a machine that takes them outside of this universe and into a laboratory that’s been haunting the psychologist’s dreams and visions. It turns out that our universe is a bit of gunk this being has created for his (or is that, His?) experiments. Our humans are not the only creatures to have made their way to this great Lab Beyond the Sky, as one pair of bizarre creatures who communicate by electricity and one even more bizarre single stickman are already there and going about their arcane business, creating entirely different time/space/dimension machines to return to the universe. The Creator veers wildly between angry and pleased, calm and frenzied, threatening and genial. But our psychologist has developed a knack for reading his mind and learns something terrible, resulting in some truly bizarre conflict.

As I say, this early tale is not Simak’s tautest construction or most plausible tale, but it’s certainly not what he was taught in Sunday School and, without aid of computers, anticipates some people’s contemporary questions about our universe being a simulation and doesn’t stop there. It’s a remarkable story and a lot of fun.

Asimov’s Centennial: The Martian Way and Other Stories

The Martian Way and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $3.95, 222pp, 1955


  • “The Martian Way” (Galaxy, November 1952)
  • “Youth” (Space SF, May 1952)
  • “The Deep” (Galaxy, December 1952)
  • “Sucker Bait” (Astounding, February and March 1954)

After thirteen books (eleven of them science fiction and all of those either new novels or collections made up of the Robot and Foundation stories which were almost entirely from the 1940s), Isaac Asimov’s fourteenth book was a collection of exclusively recent stories, and generally long ones at that. This was the first of three 1950s collections devoted to 1950s stories (to be followed by Earth Is Room Enough and Nine Tomorrows).

Contrary to the usual method, this collection spends the best for first. “The Martian Way” is a novella which opens with Ted Long and a companion Scavenger hunting for the expended shells of multi-stage rockets which float around the system between Earth and Mars. Getting this valuable metal is how these Martian colonists make their living. However, an Earth politician named Hilder starts an anti-Waster movement, using the notion of Earth people “giving” things away, such as this scrap metal and the water the Martians need to survive, as a way to build up resentment against them and secure political power for himself. Matters come to a head when other politicians lack the spine to stand up to Hilder’s demagoguery and he convinces Earth to shut off the water supply to Mars, despite the cost being less than a thimble from a pool. Long has seen this coming and has been trying to convince the Martians to do things “the Martian way” and go to Saturn where there’s plenty of water in the rings but, as Thomas Jefferson perceptively observed, “Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The Martians believe the “common knowledge” [1] that a voyage to Saturn would be too long to take and remain sane but Long argues that Martians have adapted to different conditions and the time/distance argument is an Earth limitation. And, when the Martians are facing rationing and, ultimately, death or a forced return to Earth, the evils are insufferable, so the Commissioner greenlights Long’s dangerous idea. There follows a fascinating journey to the ringed world with some genuinely beautiful moments as most of the water prospectors spend their off-shift parts of the journey “space-floating,” that is, tethering themselves to the ship and trailing it at a distance, enjoying the euphoria of weightless infinity. [2] On arriving at Saturn’s rings (more beauty), a prodigious engineering project is undertaken to get a giant chunk of ice back to Mars and matters reach a new head when it takes longer than expected, the food is running out, and they have perturbed the orbit of their chunk and are about to collide with another mountain of ice.

Other than the wonderful (and sometimes frighteningly dangerous) experiences in space [3], one of the main features of this tale is the notion of change. At the start of these events, there is an “umbilical cord” from Mother Earth to Mars but the Martians are changing, whether they know it or not. While Earthmen couldn’t stand to be cooped up in a ship for extended periods, “Mars is a ship [4],” and Martians are better equipped to deal with these new demands. In fact, while blissfully floating, Long has the vision of generation starships populating the galaxy over eons and feels those ships must and will come from Mars.

A minor feature of this tale, however, doesn’t work as Asimov intended. He’s stated that he was satirizing McCarthy in this tale and was expecting a significant reaction but, on not getting it, theorized that he may have been too “subtle.” It’s not that it’s too subtle but that it focuses on the wrong thing. McCarthy was a power-hungry demagogue (as is Hilder) and this element and the spineless collapse of the people who are supposed to serve as checks and balances are acutely observed. However, McCarthy was specifically about “un-American activities,” which is to say, suppressing free thought and free speech through dishonest intimidation over “loyalty.” Hilder is about “anti-Waste,” or distorted bean-counting, used to agitate supporters. Had it been written later, the “anti-Waste campaign” would have applied better to Proxmire than McCarthy and generalized demagoguery isn’t specific to McCarthy but applies to many politicians. (Oddly, both the McCarthy and Proxmire satires combined could apply to the current occupant of the White House.) Regardless, Hilder serves to bring about the crisis in dramatically successful terms and the incomplete satire doesn’t harm the story which I see as a larger, positive take on the adaptability of humanity rather than a topical, negative take on politics, anyway.

Otherwise, I only notice a couple of problems in this tale. First, while Mars may be a harsh master, the benignity of Earth may be overstated and, similarly, while Mars may have a society that is growing more powerfully, I wouldn’t expect an Earth that was helping to support a recently colonized world to be quite as static as is assumed here. Second, while the plot does contain great challenges, it seems to move a bit too smoothly. Those minor quibbles aside, this is a superb, essential tale.

After that peak, there’s a marked descent in the next tale, followed by a climb back up. If “The Martian Way” has some Heinlein to it, “Youth” initially reads like a tale by Bradbury or Simak. In it, a youngster (“Slim”) is entrusted by his new friend (“Red”) with a secret: Red heard something like thunder the night before and found some animals in the morning. He’s put them in a cage and thinks they’ll be a passport to a life in the circus. Slim’s dad is an astronomer and Red’s dad is an entrepreneur. They talk about the aliens Slim, Sr. has made contact with and how this may get the species out of the rut caused by the apocalyptic wars of times gone by. But it’s strange… the aliens should have been here by now. There’s more to it than this and, whether you’d enjoyed it this far or not, you may find the story damaged or taken to a new level by the rest but, for me, I wasn’t that thrilled to begin with and was ultimately less so. [5]

The Deep” is a shorter and better novelette than “Youth” which opens with an editorial chapter which states that worlds die and species who don’t do what they can to avoid it will die with them. Then, in a way that somewhat anticipates The Gods Themselves, we witness the race of a dying world attempting to escape their (likely ironically symbolic) underground caverns where they huddle around the last heat of their planet and we fly in an airplane above Earth with a woman and her newborn on their way to visit her military husband. The plan is for the desperate race to expend virtually all their remaining energy on a single roll of the dice, in which a teleportation station will be specially materialized at the world they’ve detected (Earth) and one hero will inhabit the consciousness of one of the beings of that world to press the button on the machine to do what’s needed for “normal” teleportations to follow below the Earth’s surface. When the alien unsurprisingly comes to inhabit the consciousness of the infant on the plane, the mission becomes much more traumatic and difficult.

The most interesting thing about this story is that Asimov almost, though incompletely, “burns the motherhood statement,” as Greg Egan might say, in that the psychic egg-laying aliens live in a society where the good of the community is paramount so that any bond between mother and child is considered a perversion. Naturally, the alien is shocked and disgusted to learn that humans have eggs inside their bodies, give live birth, and have close familial bonds. This causes an additional tweak to the plan. Another virtue of the story is the weird and well-drawn scene of what happens when the alien inhabits the infant and how it seems to each of them and the others on the plane.

The collection ends with another novella, and the longer of the two. “Sucker Bait” takes its title from the notion that some planets seem too good for colonizing to be true. In a chaotic phase of expansion, a world coming out of an ice age which is in a stable orbit around two suns was settled but became a sort of lost colony when all its inhabitants died after a couple of years. Over a century later, in a more formal Confederacy of over 83,000 worlds, a ship with a corps of scientists as passengers returns to the world to try to figure out what went wrong. [6] The main thrust of this one is about specialization being for insects (or these scientists). However, one psychologist has his human computer along who eidetically (and somewhat autistically) absorbs every bit of data he can which may provide some unusual and valuable insights.

In addition to being an example of the classic “lost colony” type, this story is also a mystery. However, while the clues are present in the story, the revelation still feels like it’s pulled from thin air. More significantly, the tale is a little too focused on its (very good) didactic point about specialization within much knowledge being equivalent to much ignorance. Also, structurally, the whole situation is slightly contrived and the story is too long for its content.

It’s easier to create a longer list of what’s wrong with this than what’s right but the right still outweighs the wrong. The situation, characters, and ideas are all interesting (and the dangerous unassailability of people’s “professional opinions” is effectively portrayed). In addition to the beautiful passages in “The Martian Way,” this also has wonderful moments such as describing the effects of the double sun on the planet’s significant ice caps. With that and other elements such as one of the suns producing a disturbing effect with the vegetation and the psychologist’s amusing gimmick with “chromopsychosis,” it seems like a massively updated, more rigorous take on Neil R. Jones’ “Planet of the Double Sun.” Going the other way, I wonder if one of the inspirations for Herbert’s later “mentats” didn’t come from the main character of this story.

In sum, the title story is worth a book all by itself, but the other stories provide nice additional value.

[1] You can take the boy out of Astounding but it’s hard to take Astounding out of the boy. This was published in Galaxy and has Goldisms like a virtual ad for “waterless dishwashers” on Mars but this upending of “common knowledge” is pure Campbell.

[2] This is all the more remarkable for being written by a guy who was afraid to fly and years before any man had been in space. Asimov was pleased that some of the astronauts did report a feeling of euphoria as he’d imagined.

[3] One thing that’s particularly notable and enjoyable about the environment of this story is its difference from much earlier SF with its harsh Mars and its vast solar system with an unusually and accurately spacious asteroid belt. The asteroids in this are apparently even rockier than we now suppose, necessitating the jump to Saturn’s largely icy rings but it’s a very sober, “Bonestell” sort of Solar System.

[4] “Spaceship Mars” doesn’t predate the notion of “Spaceship Earth,” but certainly predates its general use from the 1960s, though it’s used in a different sense here.

[5] I’d like to make two more points about this but they would completely spoil the story.

[6] One of the operational theories is that it was some sort of plague. When one character says he knows all about “the 2755 para-measles epidemic” and “the 1918 influenza epidemic,” I couldn’t help but think, “Missed one.”

Birthday Reviews: Bretnor, Stableford, Watt-Evans

This week’s birthday boys bring us a bassoon, a bullet, and burgers! The one is used to turn interdimensional critters into weapons, the second is a metaphor for a genetic endeavor with unforeseen and dramatic consequences, and the last is sold at a place where no one really knows your name.

Reginald Bretnor (1911-07-30–1992-07-22)

“The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” (F&SF, Winter-Spring 1950)

This is essentially a fantastic comic variation on “The Pied Piper” but, since it makes reference to dimensions and time, you could let it fly as SF if you wanted. In it, we’re at war with Bobovia and lecherous old moron/”chenius” Papa Schimmelhorn has invented a sort of bassoon with a tuning crystal in it which makes the gnurrs come from the voodvork out. He takes it to the public Secret Weapons Bureau which is intended to filter madmen and pranksters out but he gets in and, eventually, a pantsless lieutenant runs into the general’s office telling him they have an effective new weapon. The general, who hates new-fangled gadgets and believes the finest way to fight future wars will be with a sword atop a horse, is initially resistant but, when he’s convinced that the gnurrs who eat almost everything inanimate are actual animals, he’s more willing. There follows a dizzying ride in which the bassoon weapon is deployed by Papa alongside a crew of swiftly and repeatedly promoted soldiers before things inevitably go wrong and the day must be saved again.

This has a serious point regarding fighting the last wars, but is otherwise quite light. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and, while it’s not a side-splitter, its farcical but mild humor was grin-worthy throughout and chuckle-inducing more than once.

Brian Stableford (1948-07-25)

“The Magic Bullet” (Interzone #29, May-June 1989)

Lisa Friemann is a scientist and police officer but, on this night, she’s been called in to shed light on a case because she knows the scientist who has been shot and whose lab has been destroyed, killing the thousand mice he had for genetic experiments. She knows him very well, in fact, though perhaps not as well as she thought, as they’d had a sexual relationship for decades and he won’t tell her what’s going on in his final time before dying – at least not until the national security cop has to take care of other aspects of the case and leaves it in Lisa’s hands to get something out him. When he does finally tell the tale, it involves his experiments, a chance discovery with apocalyptic implications for half the human race, and his other lover.

If I understand this story and if Lisa is supposed to be the hero of it, rather than just part of it, then I ideologically dislike it but, aesthetically, the four characters mentioned above and their conflicting motivations are used to produce interesting dynamics which make a story which is arguably two infodumps feel sufficiently dramatic. The scientific ideas in this are of the biological/sociological sort which drove much of the author’s work in the late 1980s through the 90s and are stimulating and weighty enough to be used in that extended way. There is also the interesting (disturbing) line about “the so-called Plague Wars, which might not have been wars at all, but which wiped out a third of the human race in the early part of the century.”

Lawrence Watt-Evans (1954-07-26)

“Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” (IAsfm, July 1987)

The narrator starts out his tale as a sixteen-year-old needing money with not many options in Sutton, West Virginia, so he talks Harry into giving him a job at Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers. Harry warns him that he gets some pretty strange customers and not to stare or bother them or anything. Eventually, the narrator learns that Harry wasn’t kidding, especially when the three topless women come in and, later, the flying saucer parks in the front lot. As time goes on, he learns what’s going on and tells us about it. He also starts feeling like Sutton isn’t a place he wants to be any more and is about to take a very dangerous and irrevocable step when he has a transformative conversation with one of the strange customers.

This is a very hard story to describe because, in a way, there’s almost nothing to spoil and you can talk about 95% of it but that seems intrinsically spoilerish anyway, so you can hardly talk about any of it. What you can say is that it’s told with a very believable narrative voice which contemplates its central science fictional concept in a very effective Everyman way and ends just so. It’s a very personable story and fun to read.