Half of humanity's planets are ruled by the Legitimacy, strong on order and stability. Half are under the sway of the Grand Wheel, a shady organisatio...moreHalf of humanity's planets are ruled by the Legitimacy, strong on order and stability. Half are under the sway of the Grand Wheel, a shady organisation devoted to gambling and a more free-wheelin' existence. Scarne is a trained 'randomatician' whose skills at last bring him to the notice of the Wheel. Recruited to their ranks, he finds himself embroiled in a forthcoming gamble with aliens in which the stake is the future of humankind.
Throw in a clairvoyant who can predict stars going nova, addictive poison, equations for manipulating luck, and a variety of exotic locations, and it all sounds rather promising. However, although the ideas are there, the telling is a little colourless. Characters are flat and emotion lacking. Bayley's too-similar names don't help the reader: Hakandra, Haskand, Hadranics; Shane, Cheyne, Scarne.
Nonetheless, there are memorable moments, such as the chasm city, and the preposterous but arresting climax. The novel's more philosophical notions, especially towards the end, are interesting enough to justify the tale.(less)
A mysterious and grumpy stranger takes a room in a country town and performs secretive experiments. Eventually people discover that under his wrapping...moreA mysterious and grumpy stranger takes a room in a country town and performs secretive experiments. Eventually people discover that under his wrappings he is invisible, and he becomes a dangerous fugitive.
Wells thinks through many of the difficulties that invisibility would lead to: lack of clothing, visible food in one's gullet, people bumping into you, inability to carry anything, and more. Our anti-hero Griffin quickly finds the state intolerable, and seeks a cure, until he hits upon the idea of acquiring a co-conspirator; though this too is easier said than done.
I was a little disappointed that Wells went no further with his gimmick than providing a chase thriller. Griffin is a nasty piece of work, and his ultimate fate seems less a consequence of invisibility than of immorality. The story seemed an opportunity wasted: another author (Algis Budrys springs to mind) might have made a more philosophical adventure from the same material. In comparison to, say, The Time Machine, this tale is no more than interesting.(less)
This is an original take on the science fiction theme of colonising a new world. Tommy and Angela were accidentally stranded on a wandering, starless...moreThis is an original take on the science fiction theme of colonising a new world. Tommy and Angela were accidentally stranded on a wandering, starless planet they named Eden, and founded an inbred dynasty. Eden's perpetual night is relieved by the coloured lights of the curious fauna and flora, its whole ecology driven by underground heat.
We join the story six generations later, when everything about the couple and their origins is memorialised in murky ritual and puzzling hand-me-down facts. The Family now number in the hundreds, and it is a youth called John Redlantern who recognises that they cannot survive, let alone flourish, if they remain in the confines of Circle Valley, waiting for rescue from Earth. His challenge to the established order throws all their lives into chaos.
Beckett's writing is vivid and boldly imagined. Emotional moments and confrontations are sharply observed. The first-person narratives alternate between several characters, pointing up the many sides to the dilemmas faced by their fledgling society. John's frontier spirit is necessary, but also necessarily harmful, and everyone else is forced to swirl in his wake. The conclusion, albeit owing a lot to an unlikely discovery, is satisfying yet realistically messy.(less)
While I'm a big fan of Joyce's novels, these short stories didn't do much for me. His trademark is edgy, creepy entities subtly protruding into everyd...moreWhile I'm a big fan of Joyce's novels, these short stories didn't do much for me. His trademark is edgy, creepy entities subtly protruding into everyday life - like a shark's fin glimpsed too close to the beach. In these tales, it's as if the shark is floundering in a puddle: the short form means that the fantastic elements are foregrounded, and at the same time there isn't the space to slowly and meticulously develop them.
For instance, the story The Pylon concerns a group of children who play beneath an electricity pylon that seems to have some spooky power of its own. But in so brief a tale this is barely more than flatly stated, with neither its cause nor its consequences clear. One unresolved mystery like that might serve to spice a collection; but several of these tales follow a similar formula.
I am perhaps over-harsh, having expected stories more pointed from the author of books like The Tooth Fairy. But if I wasn't entirely satisfied with the resolutions, Joyce's other trademark, razor-sharp characterisation with dialogue that bleeds off the page, is much in evidence; so the collection is never less than enjoyable.(less)
Somewhere around the end of the 21st century, Monique Calhoun works as a spin doctor for a public relations 'syndic' known as Bread & Circuses. Sh...moreSomewhere around the end of the 21st century, Monique Calhoun works as a spin doctor for a public relations 'syndic' known as Bread & Circuses. She is chosen to promote a mysteriously-funded UN conference on climate change in Paris. There she meets Eric Esterhazy, captain of a steamboat-cum-nightspot and low-rung operative in a barely-legitimate mafia-style organisation called Bad Boys. Monique's client is the Big Blue Machine, a corporate collective selling "climatech" remedies for global warming, while Eric is a catspaw of the Green faction, the rich who get richer by exploiting the new opportunities that a changing climate provides. Monique utilises the luxurious and heavily-bugged facilities of Eric's pleasure-boat to spy on conference delegates, and finds herself in an uneasy dance with Eric and his opposing interests as they both try to figure out whether the Earth is doomed, and what to do about it.
Spinrad paints this post-warming future in meticulous detail: the southward-crawling Sahara has become unsurvivably hot; Manhattan, protected by a high wall, is five metres below sea level; and in Paris, crocodiles bask by the Seine, vines creep up the Eiffel Tower and parakeets wheel above the Tuileries (whatever they are). The machinations of the Blue and Green movements are equally intricate, and the book has something of the intrigue (if not the grace) of John le Carré. Admirable as this density of detail is, it made for a slow read. I regretted too that having constructed this world, Spinrad exhibited so little of it: after opening scenes in Libya and New York, the bulk of the book is confined to Paris, though both the setting and the plot could surely have provided a little more globe-trotting action.
Typically, Spinrad supplies sex, sensationalism and savvy cynicism. Here Monique surveys the climatech 'solutions' on offer at the conference's trade show:
Suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by reforesting every available meter with Qwik-grow trees. Or with a new gene-tweaked hemp supposedly able to thrive in desert extremes. Or by enriching oceanic nutrient upwellings with iron to increase photosynthetic plankton.
Would you buy a used planet from these people?
Welcome colour is provided by a pair of hard-drinking super-rich shamans from Siberia "the Golden", the world's new breadbasket, and by a zombiefied mathematician whose lunatic ramblings could save or damn humanity; and there's plenty of humour along the way too. It is a book with a point though, conveyed through a clever climax that, whilst more than a tad contrived, bleakly reflects a symmetry of moral and commercial interests in suppressing knowledge of the effects of our own hubris. Douglas Adams would have nodded sadly.(less)
Tom Godwin's place in SF history is secured by his classic short story, The Cold Equations, in which human concerns batter uselessly against an indiff...moreTom Godwin's place in SF history is secured by his classic short story, The Cold Equations, in which human concerns batter uselessly against an indifferent universe; so I was intrigued to find out what he could achieve at greater length. Alas, not much.
A human colonising spaceship is captured by the evil Gerns, who dump the unwanted half of the colonists on a hostile planet called Ragnarok, expecting them to die. Indeed, most of them do, falling prey to the local fauna, climate and diseases, as well as the strain of the 1.5g gravity. However, some few survive (the novel's original and better title was The Survivors) and arrange that their descendants will not forget the wrong done to them by the Gerns. Then ensues a couple of centuries of harsh adaptation and scheming for revenge.
Meh. This mundane and linear plot might have been enlivened by a colourfully imagined setting and engaging characters; but neither is present. The fauna seem entirely unexotic (there are goat-analogs that even provide milk, for heaven's sake!) and the planet, despite its extreme climatic swings, sounds boringly Earth-like. Even the Gerns are just humans with no sense of humour, spluttering and fuming like badly-written Bond villains: give me Vogons any day.
However, it's the characterisation that really lets the book down. Peter Hamilton would have gotten a thousand pages out of this story, no bother, and peopled it with vibrant characters; but Godwin (writing, to be fair, in 1958, long before the age of the blockbuster) tries to tell his 200-year epic in 160 pages, and it ends up feeling more like a synopsis than a novel. 'Characters' flash past, lucky to be granted a first name, let alone a motivation. We're given no time to get to know or care about anyone, and their single-minded vengeful bloodlust is not attractive to the modern eye even when it's well conveyed. Probably the best-developed character is a talkative chipmunk, who, like everyone else, dies within a few pages.
Worse still, the sexual politics are anything but futuristic. There are barely any women in this book, and what heroism they are permitted is almost entirely confined to the domain of motherhood. After two centuries of shared pioneer survival, the "women and children" are still sent to hide when the enemy shows up. In this respect, the book tells us more about the past than the future!
On top of all this - and prose that is plain, bordering on clumsy - there is some wildly implausible plotting. For example, a great deal of effort is spent (by colonists and author) on building an electric smelter to extract aluminium to make wire to build a generator to power a hyperspace transmitter. But no explanation is offered as to what was used for wire in the smaller generator built to power the smelter! And whilst the humans advance from zero-tech to hi-tech over ten generations, the Gerns have not so much as changed the internal layout of their spaceships!
I think Godwin intended this story to be an optimistic portrayal of the human spirit grasping opportunities and overcoming adversity; but to me it seemed like a bunch of dogmatic psychotics blindly pursuing their ancestors' outdated agenda, engaging in torture and hinting at genocide to come. I was kinda hoping they'd fail. Instead, the book does.(less)
This book's reputation goes before it, and it's a shame it doesn't wave a red flag too. Famous for being intentionally boring, it certainly succeeds i...moreThis book's reputation goes before it, and it's a shame it doesn't wave a red flag too. Famous for being intentionally boring, it certainly succeeds in its aims.
An ordinary house is being closely watched over the course of a day by men who live in its surrounding outbuildings. The universe in which this thrill-less adventure occurs is known as Probability A by the people in a parallel universe(?) who are reading the eponymous report (along with us), never wondering about what kind of maniac would write it. They too, it transpires, are being observed from another world, and once you've grasped that trick - it's turtles all the way down - there's no other developments worth a mention.
The Probability A world is described - and this forms 90% of the book - in numbing detail, deliberately devoid of excitement and internal characterisation, "enlivened" only by the odd snatch of Pinterish dialogue. There are one or two hints of oddness about the place ("vivisection clinics" - does this mean vets' surgeries??), but it is essentially crushingly mundane. The guys watching the house seem obsessed with the woman who lives there, but we are denied more than the tiniest crumbs of back-story. Instead, the reader is required to plough through bloody-minded prose like this:
The puddles were not all of the same size. Some were bigger than others. The bigger ones were larger than the smaller ones. The smaller ones were not as big as the medium-sized ones... The puddles lay on the floor. The puddles wetted the floor. The floor was wetted by the puddles lying on it.
It's like chewing through cardboard. I'm sure Aldiss is making several important points about perception and consciousness and stuff: about how it is emotional affect that lends significance to existential reality, and how any narrative we find in the world is interpretive rather than intrinsic, and so on. But, while I applaud his technical achievement in sustaining this for 150 pages, I think he could have done it far more effectively and accessibly in short form.
It's possible there is some subtle clue I missed - there is much discussion of the symbolism of Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd, for instance, which reflects off the story - but really I think it's as dull as it looks. Original, certainly. But dull.(less)
This is a collection from 1974 of early SF stories. Some of them are mundane: The Perihelion Man, for instance, is a one-man-against-the-Venusians tal...moreThis is a collection from 1974 of early SF stories. Some of them are mundane: The Perihelion Man, for instance, is a one-man-against-the-Venusians tale that could have been written by any of a hundred hacks of the time. Double Consummation presents a rather clunky dystopia in which everyone lives a double life, mediated by a 'transition' drug, to increase consumption in a depopulated Britain; its concerns appear as dated as its solution does contrived.
On the other hand, the writer's voice is beginning to poke through the snow here and there. The Head and the Hand tells of a man who has made a stage career of self-mutilation, and is memorably repellent, placing the reader in the voyeur's seat. A Woman Naked presents a chillingly plausible form of 'justice' which hideously entrenches men's power over women, and which is nonetheless only a millimetre beyond how some Islamic societies treat them today.
But with the title story, which ends the collection, Priest's voice becomes not only interesting and compelling, but unique and instantly distinctive. The narrator (the first of this author's many untrustworthy narrators) lives on a mobile laboratory sent to an alien world, and acts as liaison between its staff and the mission controllers on Earth; except that, as it transpires, nothing in that summation can be depended upon. Verging on the metaphysical, it's a story about perception, solipsism and disconnection, and as such it prefigures Priest's novels, such as Inverted World, The Affirmation and The Separation.
There's enough good stuff here to make this required reading for a Priest fan.(less)
Our narrator is Doogie, a fifteen-year-old schoolboy bumbling clumsily through his own life. He fancies the new girl in school and asks her out. Thing...moreOur narrator is Doogie, a fifteen-year-old schoolboy bumbling clumsily through his own life. He fancies the new girl in school and asks her out. Things are going well, despite his ill-judged reliance on a website of dating tips, when he suddenly begins to suspect that Angelica is actually an alien, a notion that rather eats away at his commitment to the relationship...
This is a very funny tale, but since it is written by edgy-horror expert Graham Joyce, it is not without an undercurrent of unease and moments that verge on the creepy. IS Angelica an alien? Is Doogie a paranoid schizophrenic? Is it all some horrible misunderstanding? Can boys simply not understand girls, and vice versa? Will love conquer all? At any rate, the situation leads to any amount of yo-yoing, confused emotions and awkward conversations, sure to entertain teenagers as they fumble, like Doogie, to finding out what matters. Great fun.(less)
This story literally hits the ground running, with our hero White Jackson hunting a Amsir (the indefinite a...more(My edition is just called The Iron Thorn.)
This story literally hits the ground running, with our hero White Jackson hunting a Amsir (the indefinite article is a foible of his dialect) across a desert. He must stay within sight of the Iron Thorn, a clearly ancient man-made tower, or he won't be able to breathe. This limited environment is the first microcosm that Jackson explores and then abandons. His small tribe huddling around the Thorn with their frozen culture do not satisfy him, and in due course he breaks away to the next worldlet on his journey, the city of the flying Amsirs themselves.
It is less these imagined societies than Jackson himself that forms the subject matter of the book. Jackson's other names change several times, reflecting his restless inability to conform to social roles. He has no time for fakery, tradition or authority, ultimately finding even the world of the Thorn's creators a pointless mummers parade. Incidentally an accomplished artist, he has perhaps too sharp an eye for reality for his own good: "To me I am the only sane man conceivable."
Budrys is a neglected but very fine writer of SF, and even his lesser works, like this one, have a distinctive metaphysical edge. Here he shows us a rational man who will brook no nonsense, a modern post-Enlightenment man despite his upbringing in a backward society, and shows us too how that admirable hunger for truth makes peace of mind impossible. A far-future "Catcher In The Rye", it's a tight, thoughtful, slightly worrying book.(less)
Although the title suggests a time-travel tale, this is actually a story about persecuted paranormals, standing in a tradition with Stapledon's Odd Jo...moreAlthough the title suggests a time-travel tale, this is actually a story about persecuted paranormals, standing in a tradition with Stapledon's Odd John (1935) at one end and X-Men, The 4400 and Heroes at the other. Simak's 1961 novel has more in common with the former, in that it shares Stapledon's pessimism about the possibility of reconciliation between exceptional and ordinary people.
Our hero is the slyly-named telepath Shepherd Blaine. He works for Fishhook, a corporation that employs paranormals ("parries") to visit the stars remotely. The rigours of solar radiation have rendered it impossible for mankind to travel there physically:
And all the years were dead and all the dreams were futile and Man had finally ended up in a little planetary dead-end. For then the gods had toppled, and Man, in his secret mind, had known that after all the years of yearnings, he had achieved nothing more than gadgets.
Blaine encounters an alien who takes up squatting room in Blaine's mind. Former colleagues to whom this has happened have been abducted by Fishhook, so Blaine goes on the run. He travels through a little-changed small-town America (Simak's habitual terrain), looking for purpose, dodging not only his employer's pursuit but the blind prejudice and mob violence of ordinary people.
It's in this persecution that Simak's characteristic sadness about the human condition comes through. The attempts of Blaine and others to create understanding between the inevitably factionalised populations, parries and normals, are seen to come to naught: small-minded prejudice, ignorance and fear, Simak seems to suggest, are beyond the ability of reason and goodwill to defeat. Using the skills he inherits from the alien, Blaine has to make his own 'happy ending': it cannot encompass everyone.
Simak was a great SF writer, sadly neglected now, and unusual among the old US crop in infusing his folksy books not with indomitable optimism, but with a humane, clear-sighted melancholy. This is no classic of the genre, but it's intelligent, thoughtful and well-written.(less)
I have a lot of time for William Shatner, so I wanted to like this; but it was nothing much. Our hero Jake Cardigan is a 22nd-century cop, framed and...moreI have a lot of time for William Shatner, so I wanted to like this; but it was nothing much. Our hero Jake Cardigan is a 22nd-century cop, framed and incarcerated for dealing in Tek, a kind of electronic wish-fulfilment 'drug'. (Why these Tek chips can only be used once remains unanswered...) Strings are pulled by a detective agency to have him released so that he can track down a missing scientist, who may have invented a technology that would destroy the Tek trade.
Shatner's is an endearingly old-fashioned future: domed cities, walkways between skyscrapers, laser pistols, cyborg assassins with power-tool hands... The chrome-plated robots are fully intelligent but still conduct official business by printing out forms from a slot in their chests!
A thriller in this environment has the potential for fun, but unfortunately the writing is flat. There is precious little characterisation - Shatner seems not to want to interrupt the action with psychologising - and thus nothing for the reader to engage with. Although there's a lot of running around and fighting, it's all kinda dull. Better SF writers would have pursued the ethics (are the expendable androids here fully sentient or just automatons?) or the metaphysics (the fantasies induced by Tek could have been a potent alternate-reality device). Shatner only presents a prolonged chase with no emotional depth, and his mostly Earth-bound yarn delivers little of the space opera colour promised by the title, cover and indeed author. It's a straight-to-video kind of novel. I won't be seeking out the sequels.(less)
It's the 22nd-century and anyone who takes the injection will live indefinitely with their physical age fixed. The downside is that in men the shot ca...moreIt's the 22nd-century and anyone who takes the injection will live indefinitely with their physical age fixed. The downside is that in men the shot causes both sterility and impotence. Our protagonist, Will Carewe, works for a manufacturer of the drug, and the firm offers him an experimental version that won't destroy his sex life. Thinking this will save his 'old-fashioned' marriage, Will agrees - and quickly finds his marriage going sour and somebody trying to kill him.
The narrative is lean and compelling, as always in Shaw's work, and the naive-but-resourceful hero is easy to care about, making for an addictive read. The adventures display Shaw's usual approval of reason and self-reliance - his books are a celebration of Man the Toolmaker. There's also the trademark screwed-up relationship and the expansion of the story from a single SF what-if gimmick.
But this is an early effort by Bob Shaw and it does show. The society resulting from this unlikely drug, with sexually active women vastly outnumbering sexually active men, feels a little cardboard. And though the drug launches the narrative, it doesn't drive it: essentially this is a thriller after the first act, rather than a working through of the effect of the drug on the individual and society. And, alas, the climactic confrontation is more than a little silly.
Nonetheless the elements of classic Shaw are all there, making this a flawed but thoroughly enjoyable read.(less)
So far as I know, this 1968 collection is all that Masson wrote. If so, he certainly quit while he was ahead. These are great SF stories, including on...moreSo far as I know, this 1968 collection is all that Masson wrote. If so, he certainly quit while he was ahead. These are great SF stories, including one recognised classic of the genre.
Lost Ground is an impressive time-mess story, although the second of its big ideas, emotional weather, is a puzzling inclusion: either the story is cleverer than me, or it's a tad undisciplined. Not So Certain details some of the difficulties we might encounter in seeking to talk to aliens; but it's less a story than a light essay.
With Mouth Of Hell the collection takes off: one simple idea, a vast hole in the surface of the (unspecified) planet, is enough for Masson to evoke an atmosphere of High Strangeness, and then slyly undercut it.
A Two-Timer is a wonderful tale of a time-travelling chancer from the 17th-century who steals the unsecured time machine of a traveller from 1964 and comes forward to that time. The thing is written in first-person, through the language and perceptions of 300 years ago, and contains much witty satire on modern life, along with the usual gleeful ingenuity of time-travel stories.
The Transfinite Choice smoothly solves the problem of global overpopulation by time-slicing our existence; with, of course, a twist or two in the tale. Psychosmosis is some kind of cryptic allegory in which speaking of the dead is taboo, since those who do so disappear instantly. It's weakened by having no particular thread or single protagonist, but remains a worrying read.
If I say the final, famous story, Traveller's Rest (on the strength of which I spent years looking for this book) is the most perfect in this collection, it is no criticism of the other tales: Traveller's Rest is one of the most perfect science-fiction stories ever. Our protagonist, H, is a lowly soldier in the endless, insanely pyrotechnic war at the northern end of the bewildering time-gradient that runs up and down his world. Relieved from duty, he is able to travel south to an ordinary life for many years, while only minutes pass on the battleline. It's a superb entwining of an idea, a story and a metaphor.
Ideas are what these stories are about, although there is some decent characterisation in Traveller's Rest and, particularly, A Two-Timer. Masson is clearly knowledgeable on a range of subjects, enriching his stories with detail. It's a shame that he didn't write more, but it's great that he wrote this much.(less)