Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, August 30, 2012

1980: Out There Where the Big Ships Go (Cowper, Richard)

Tour de Laughter, Heartache, and Boredom (3/5)

Richard Cowper isn’t a very accessible author, something which you could say of many 1970’s and 1980’s authors whose novels and collections print any more, like this one-time publication collection. Regardless, my exposure to Cowper has been favorable, the novels I’m combed having been of rich diversity from humor (Profundis [1979]), to shades of science fiction (The Road to Corlay [1978]), and fictional historical revival (ATapestry of Time [1982]). When I found a copy of Cowper short stories, I was eager to see this diversity shown throughout. True to form, exhibiting his multiple talents of humor, science fiction, and history, Out There Where the Big Ships Go is a small tour of what Cowper is capable of: bringing laughter (“Paradise Beach”), bringing heartache (“The Hertford Manuscript”), but also serving up a large dose of boredom (“The Web of the Magi”). I’ve had better experience with his novels, but there may still be gems of his out there with one other collection, The Tithonian Factor and Other Stories (1984).


Out There Where the Big Ships Go (1979, novelette) – 3/5 – (29 pages)

The crew of The Icarus was sent beyond the planet Eridanus to a “planet that they called ‘Dectire III’” (26). Inhabiting that planet were the humanoid Eidotheans and the wondrous game they called Kalire, or The Game. While the crew remained on the planet, the captain, Peter Henderson, being the most proficient in the Game, was sent back to Earth so that they too could learn of its exquisite delights. The one hundred forty-four squared board, “each of which has its own name and ideogram” (27), is played with one hundred forty-three pieces of double-sided coins: red and blue. The game mimics the Eidotheans’ belief in the dichotomous struggle of the galaxy between the two heavenly sisters of Kalirinos and Arimanos.

Having hardly aged a year since his departure, the still youthful captain returned to an Earth two hundreds older than when he left. The world was ripe for the introduction of The Game, with the Japanese “and their long tradition of Zen and Go” (27) allowing them to understand The Game more clearly than other early competitors. Later, the Russians and Chinese would come to understand The Game, but still, Peter Henderson remained The Master.

At a tourney in the Caribbean, young Roger Herzheim’s mother is attending The Game as a competitor thought nowhere near the highly ranked Master, Peter Henderson. At breakfast, Roger spies the famous man in the corner. Staying at the same hotel, the two later serendipitously meet. Peter offers advice: What’s red for you may be blue for me. “You only say it’s red because you’ve been told that’s what red is. For you blue is something else again. But get enough people to say that’s blue, and it is blue” (22).

Roger extends this kernel of insight to another man on the beach, the same man who’s the competitor of Peter—Guilio Amato. Guilio interprets this to mean that the names for things aren’t the things themselves; rather, the names are ideas and the thing is the thing itself. Using this semantic device to his advantage, Guilio enters the competition.


The Custodians (1975, novelette) – 5/5 – (36 pages)

In a Persian valley rests the monastery Hautaire, a sanctuary once visited by Meister Sternwärts in 1273 A.D. Having visited the mysteries of the East, Peter Sternwärts convalesces in the monastery and pursues a personal interest in ocular focus of the ancient Apollonius. The paradoxographical literature convinces Peter to locate the ocular focus within the grounds of the temple and building the site himself. From the visions within, Peter creates his work entitled Praemonitiones.

Much later in 1917 A.D., a doctoral student comes to the monastery after being interested in the figure of Peter and his Biographia. Once in the sanctuary, Brother Roderigo curates the ancient manuscripts to the young Spindrift. When Brother Roderigo dies only days later, Spindrift is left with the early works of 13th Century Peter Sternwärts, and within contains predicts setout by the scholar.

Another young student of life comes to the monastery in pursuit of further knowledge regarding the ancient, enigmatic Peter Sternwärts. Now 1981 A.D., Spindrift has remained in the sanctuary replacing the Brother Roderigo as the contemporary of Peter Sternwärts from six hundred years ago. Spindrifts own visions within the ocular focus have been hazy but, like his predecessors for centuries before him, he has added his visions to the prophetic tome of Illuminatum. Now a young man, J.S. Harland, has come to explore the spiritual wealth of Peter Sternwärts, but Spindrift’s vision calls for the coming of a young woman. During prayers, the two are in attendance with the Abbot who announces a war breaking out in the Middle East. This devastating news can only be reaffirmed by contrasting Spindrift’s own foresight with J.S. Harland’s foreboding within the ocular focus.


Paradise Beach (1976, novelette) – 4/5 – (19 pages)

The sybaritic wife, Zeyphr, of a wealthy banker is drowned in her exclusion from her husband’s recent art purchase: a ten-square meter anamorphic landscape of a Caribbean beach where each viewer of the piece projects their own stories onto the landscape. When her husband moves the framed piece to his personal study, a series of odd discoveries jostles her womanly intuition.

Zeyphr’s friend Margot consoles her, Zephyr proclaims to have made a copy of the study key. The duo make their way up to the room where the anamorphic landscape is placed in front of a darkened window. The image in hauntingly realistic, but surely not realistic enough for her husband to scatter sand through the study, or track seaweed into the shower, or sop seawater onto his robe.

Margot is later contacted by the police regarding Zephyr’s 100-meter suicide dive in a bikini from the study’s blackened window. Alcohol may have had something to do with it.


The Hertford Manuscript (1976, novelette) – 5/5 – (34 pages)

A curious manuscript bound in a 1665 book, but with paper produced two centuries after this time, comes into the ownership of a man. His great-aunt having bequeathed the book to him along with the story of having known both H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, continues with having known the original Dr. Pensley, or The Time Machine fame. His curious real-life disappearance enthralled both H.G. Wells and his great-aunt, as it confirmed their suspicions of having truly traveled time.

The manuscript, a diary penned by none other than Dr. Pensley himself, begins on an August day when the doctor becomes stranded in time due to two cracked crystals. He soon finds that the year is 1665 and the bubonic plague has smitten the city of London during months prior to his unfortunate August arrival. Determined to return to his proper era, Dr. Pensley braves the “evil miasma” (116) and sulphurous air of London to find a lens grinder so that he may craft the octagonal prisms. With the services found and payment agreed upon, Dr. Pensley settles into the city for a week until the prisms can be properly crafted.

Still suspecting the manuscript as a forge, the man turns to experts to verify its physical authenticity, the author’s comparative penmanship, and the relevant historical accuracies.


The Web of the Magi (1980, novella) – 0/5 – (65 pages)

A man Her Majesty’s service during WWII is encamped in Persia where he is detailing the geographic plans to lay cable. His two Persian guides are hesitant to continue their journey into djinn territory, but the man scoffs at their meek sense of adventure. On the next day, the man sees a natural cataract through his telescope and sets off to crest the ridge while leaving the two guides behind. One upon the ridge, he ascends to a plateau in which rests a valley unseen to modern man.

Reveling in his discovery, the man descends to gather his guides, but they seem to have left camp, leaving the man to once again scale the cataract alone and to uncover its mystery by himself. Traversing the face of the cataract with his mule and coming to the crest of the plateau, the man is greeted by four faceless robed figures who lead him to the Petra-esque cave sanctuary at the end of the plain of irrigated olive trees.

Therein, the man is treated to the womanly company of Amazonian concubines and the piqued interest of Anahita, whose surreal aura casts the man’s reality into uncertainty. The plateau’s valley being their home without chance for leaving, the man is a true outsider among hermetic insiders. Revelations of their reality slowly unfolds itself… and by slowly I mean I skimmed that last 45 pages of the 63 page novella.

1980: The Demu Trilogy (Busby, F.M.)

Horizontal frolicking with aliens... oh, that's a plot? (1/5)
From May 18, 2010

My original reason for seeking out and procuring this Busby trilogy (three novels: Cage a Man [1973], The Proud Enemy [1975], and End of the Line [1980]), like many of the purchases, had been forgotten. Trusting my earlier self for writing the name of the book down, I bought with a shrug and swore to my earlier self that this had better be good. And good it was not. If this is Busby's best, the chaff must be gag-worthy.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The Unstoppable Barton!

The Demu have laid plans to conquer the galaxy. And to transform all its inhabitants!

Barton has to stop them. But, threatening as the Demu are, Barton discovers an even more dread fact--the Demu are only the seed of an even more ominous alien master race.

In a universe peopled with single-minded aliens, star-traveling Tilari, Terran slaves, despotic space-fleet commanders--and Limila, a most unusual heroine--Barton never gives up. Against insuperable odds and formidable foes, he fights to the finish, flying to the far-reaching frontiers of space and back again, plumbing the secrets of alien races!"


Busby has a good thing going (a great thing actually) when he wrote the first 45 pages of this trilogy. A mini-synopsis would go something like: "After awaking, Barton finds himself imprisoned with strangers of human and alien. Later, being in solitary confinement, Barton plays mind games with the mysterious aliens who hold him captive." This alone was a great story, albeit short. It had all the great nuances which evoke concentration to the reading, absorption in the plot and a yearning for the conclusion...

...THEN Barton introduces Earth into the plot, where the politicians, scientists and military analysts are all plotting around getting back at the Demu race, who have kidnapped humans and tortured them in their experiments. Here is where the plot loses all steam as page after page is full of planning, more planning and a countdown until the plan is unleashed. All the while, Barton's sex toy of an alien is getting plastic surgery so that they can commence their horizontal frolicking.

When the Earth-made ships are off into space and arrive at friendly alien planet, a party is thrown where humans and aliens alike scamper off to bed each other. Once all the gear is aboard, the ships set off, more eye-rolling frolicking continues and finally the ships reach the Demu planet where their ultimate plan is set aside for a better alternative- all with a terribly predictable ending.

The remaining 37% of the book has nothing whatsoever to do with the Demu (IMHO) and only adds more sex scenes for Barton, more sex scenes for the other cast, more sex scenes for the plot in general and a obvious conclusion to the end of the book... which, predictably, ends with a Barton, again, in bed with his alien sexpot.

Reminiscent of Busby's other novels that I've read reviews of, the author throws sex scenes around so casually it seriously distracts from the plot, which had little to hold my attention anyway. Perhaps if I were a 12 year old boy, my attention would have been undivided but for a non-stop science fiction reader like me, the plot is flat after page 150.

One other reviewer said it was a love story, too. If you consider someone shallow like Barton who urges his sexpot to change herself physically through surgery after surgery to make her look more appealing and sexually functional... and you think that's love, then yes, it's a love story. How romantic.

My 45 page love affair with Busby was shot down with the resulting 480 pages. How sweet romance the first 10% of the book was, then my eyes were raped with terrible prose, a cliché plot, and bountiful, peripheral sex scenes with aliens. Why, why, why was it so bad?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

1952: Vault of the Ages (Anderson, Poul)

The moral high-ground awards materialism? (3/5)

With a slight word of warning from Joachim on the juvenility of Vault of the Ages, I forged ahead on my sixteenth Poul Anderson book knowing the above objective truth with my own subjective truth: Poul Anderson has his hits (Tau Zero [1970] and Three Worlds to Conquer [1964]) more often than he has his misses (Day of Their Return [1974] and Orbit Unlimited [1961]). Sadly, the familiar theme of The High Crusade, minus the aliens, comes across as shallow entertainment with a flowery epimyth or a conclusion. It’s not a dud, but doesn’t hearken to Poul’s own science fiction traditions of wonderment and/or zany originality.

Rear cover synopsis:
“20th Century, Mystery Century!

Once upon a time (which hasn’t happened yet) the fierce Lann army thundered down from the North to conquer the peace-loving Dalesmen. The ‘Doom’ had destroyed nearly all concepts of civilization 500 years earlier. Defying charges of witchcraft, Carl of Dalesmen entered the forbidden city and the vault which held secrets of the long-ago twentieth century.”


With the winters being colder and longer than in recent memory, the northern clan of Lann has dispatched an army to the south in order to find new land to settle and cultivate, but not before killing and pillaging. Their reputation as a ruthless clan has reached further inland has become known as the fiercest, largest army. Lann’s King Raymon’s own son Lenard is the captain of the thousand-man platoon; both the leaders and the led are driven by the need to make a settlement further to south to ensure their clan’s survival. In their way is peaceful town of Dalesmen.

Democratically governed by Chief Ralph, the village has survived through the decades with the assistance of the town’s “Doctor,” Donn. As with every village, the Doctor bears holy symbols, beats drums, and chants spells against witchcraft (130). One law of the Dalesmen tribe, and many tribes like them, is to not enter the City, where the scaffold remains of an ancient city still stand amid the rubble of concrete, steel, and glass. Though inhabited by a industrious yet cowardly band of so-called witches, the town is off-limits, especially so for the Time Vault within the city proper.

Chief Ralph’s son Carl treks through the forest and happens upon a country home where two boys, Tom and Owl, decide to tag along to enter the city, their mission to find reinforcement against the Lann horde. Their horses packed, they travel towards the City only to be chased by the Lann band, but they find solace in the City where they are greeted by the City’s own Chief Ronwy. Permission is eventually granted for them to enter the Time Vault, where books and machines abound. To prove to his own clan that the City holds power enough for them to defeat the Lann clan, Carl takes a hand-crank flashlight to impress everyone.

Denounced by Doctor Donn, the trio are ever eager to prove themselves potent in the eyes of the village and, most importantly, in the prying eyes of the Lann. Though the magic white light emanating from the contraption may have scared the army once, further technology must be attained so that they may conquer the horde of heathens at their threshold. Captured by the Lann eventually, the trio of Carl, Tom, and Owl defuse their situation craftily and return once again to their village where another challenge is thrown at them: the death penalty for trespassing on the ground of the City and overstepping the boundary of the Time Vault and the demons which lurk within.

Yet another timely escape brandished by the young whippersnappers of Dalesmen sees them charge back into the City once and for all to gain control of the technology within the Time Vault, whether the City inhabitants or the Lann can stop them.


Joachim is right when he states the juvenility of this novel. The gallivanting between their village, through the enemy’s encampment, to the derelict perches of the City’s skyscrapers is repetitive. The Vault holds such wonder to the trio of boys, but it also holds wonder in the reader. However, don’t expect to be immersed in the ancient wonders of the Vault’s bounty because only a handful of pages pertain to the Vault’s treasures.

You should familiarize yourself with some of the science lingo before dipping your toes into this science fiction novel:
Smiting sabers, lancing pikes, gleaming shields, fringed buckskin breeches, sledging hammers, silver-studded boots… stop me when this begins to sound more like science fiction than fantasy or historical fiction… thudding hooves, drawn bows, quivers of arrows, moccasined feet, fur-lined tunics, saddle blankets, catapults… I could go on… hamstringing swords, creaking wagons, fur-trimmed boots, etc.

It’s not really that bad but it does drag on.

I wasn’t sympathetic with anyone in this novel, be they a person or a tribe: the morally high-grounded post-apocalyptic tribe (before post-apocalyptic was “cool”) of Dalesmen pitted against the advancing threat of an impoverished clan from the Lann. Perhaps the Lann came at the encroachment the wrong way, with force, rather than diplomatically, but I didn’t feel sorry for the villages left in their wake or those who had yet to feel the brunt of the great Lann warrior clan.

The greedy territorial advance of the Lann army is synonymous to the technological lust of the Dalesmen youth. Where the Lann simply wanted land to live and thrive on, the Dalesmen youth look to the non-solution of technology to solve their problem of invasion. In the Time Vault itself, there were more than mere inventions of gunpowder and electricity, but there must have also been the inventions of the mind, something which they felt they could easily bypass. This reliance on knowing of technology rather than the knowledge of technology casts a dim view on the young bandits, be it for the greater cause or less. Even when they discuss to share the treasures within, they mention the material good rather than the good of knowledge.

Even Doctor Donn says, “There is no evil in the vault. There is only evil in the hearts of men. Knowledge, all knowledge, is good” (187). If this were true in the context of the story, then why would the Dalesmen tribe offer to share the Vault’s technology with competing clans when the exchange of ethics, morality, or religion could better change the “hearts of men” than a schooner could? Presuming the Vault is full of not only the world’s most important technologies, but also full of the virtues of the world’s most gifted thinkers, I would think the first thing to share would be the goodness of words, not the goodness of the material wealth.

This will be one of the few Anderson novels that will be taken back to the second-hand bookstore. It’s a pity that even the cover isn’t noteworthy. I’ll remind myself in the future to steer clear of Poul Anderson’s historically themed novels if they don’t include absurdity like The High Crusade. Now I’m only left with Psycho-technic League (1981) on my shelves… an ominous sign that I either need for Anderson, or none at all. Considering his wealth of material, there must be tastier morsels out there.

1960: The High Crusade (Anderson, Poul)

"...God always favors the English." (4/5)
From September 10, 2010

I first started to read The High Crusade (book #63 of 83 that year) in October 2008 but I accidentally left the book on the train into Chicago and it stands that it's the only book I ever lost. But the novel left such a unique impression on my mind that I decided to track down another copy and finish it... without losing it, again.

Rear cover synopsis:
"In the year 1345 A.D. (by Earth reckoning)... the might Wersgorix, undisputed rulers of outer space, landed on Earth in their conquest for new worlds to conquer. Their ship guided missiles and thermonuclear devices, but they had long since forgotten how to use the weapons necessary for hand-to-hand fighting.

So they were easy prey for a band of knights armed with battleaxes and broadswords. But it was a victory won by surprise, and only temporary. The invaders were thousands of years ahead of Earth in technical knowledge--and knew countless ways of blowing up the whole planet."

This being my twelfth Anderson novel, I have a pretty good feel for his writing style, which sometimes strays from romantic into the realm of Poul's idiosyncratic prosaic prose. The general prose and vocab is similar to his other works of Mirkheim (1977), Horn of Time (1968) or Planet of No Return (1956). It's not quite gripping, but when Anderson introduces, rather abruptly, the item of the medieval humans overtaking the star-faring aliens and their colonial planets does one's interest become piqued. I've never read a silly Anderson novel before, but how the humans find themselves in situations are lip-bittingly bizarre, how the humans culturally chest thump is patently absurd, and how they defeat advanced aliens with broadswords, cavalry, and simple medieval military tactics is smirkingly ridiculous... but, most importantly, fun.

Amongst the silliness, Anderson throws in some paragraphs and sentences which read more like poetry than pulp sci-fi. One example: "...she... stood there denouncing him in the enemy night. The larger moon... touched them like cold fire." Then there is Anderson at his best when he stirs up some formal English: "His declensions are atrocious and what he does to irregular verbs may not be described in gentle company." I won't probe into what exactly Poul means, but I'm sure it's both cheeky and true.

From the gems I further uncovered after only reading the first half the novel in Chicago, I'm delighted to have finally finished the novel from cover to cover. The only other silly novel of Anderson's I can recall is Brain Wave (1954), but High Crusade is on a whole new plateau on par with the likes of Sheckley's Dimension of Miracles (1968). Not exactly a perfect novel, but a great 160 page romp.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

1977: The Extraterritorial (Morressy, John)

The outsider dissecting the propaganda from within (3/5)

I gather from online sources that John Morressy hasn’t been a very widely read author, perhaps best known for two fantasy sequences in the 1980’s and his novel Starbrat (1972) has a small cult following it seems, but I didn’t care much for it. I guess if one theme could be pulled from Morressy’s bibliography, it would be the recurrence of revolt over dictatorship by a lone, determined man. It may be the miasma of machismo which is too overbearing to take these novels seriously (keeping in mind, I’ve only read Starbrat and Extraterritorial), but even the characterization of both protagonists seems to be similar.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Everyone knows the extraterritorials protect the Association’s interests outside the Barrier; no one really understands how. Even Martin Selkirk, an extraterritorial himself, has only a hazy idea of his work. And that is how the Association likes it. But when Selkirk begins to dream—ugly, terrifying images that grow increasingly vivid—he realizes they are not dreams, but memories of hideous atrocities he has committed for the Association. And Selkirk plans his revenge.”


After twelve years of being outside the resplendent confines of the Association’s city comforts, Martin Selkirk visits the city between missions in order to visit his brother Jack and his wife Noreen. Everyone he meets lauds the efficiency and security that the Association has given the northeast corner of the once United States, but Martin sees the perfect order and ignorance of life beyond as a sign of governmental gangrene. Those belonging to the Association don’t take kindly to his way of thinking.

The citizens of the Association comply with its demands for the simple sake of comfort; they prefer “a comfortable lie over a painful truth” (143). Having been in charge twenty-one years since the America’s democratic end in 1991, life inside the Association in 2012 is greatly controlled: communication, old documents, books, papers, films; “everything we learn, everything we read, everything we hear, everything we see” (142). The complacent, comforted masses in Section One contrast the poverty and repression faced by the non-Association members in Section Three.

Martin brother Jack is simply an apolitical lawyer, loyal to the Association but also loving towards his wife and brother. After dinner with the two once night, he disappears after a visit to his office. Surmising that he’s working on a secret project, Noreen tries to continue her housewife life, waiting for word from Jack… she instead receives news from the Association: Jack had been killed by terrorists, the ring on his finger and the fingerprints lifted confirming the devastating news. In reality, Jack has been shipped to a concentration camp under the false conviction of breaching security. The Association knowingly wants Jack for his close genetic similarity to his renegade brother in order to understand why Martin’s mind has rejected the Bruckner Process of mind wiping.

Martin’s memory of his job as an Extraterritorial is unclear to him. He thinks he remembers being a mining expert, but after his mission is complete his memories are erased. His flashbacks of a burning jungle remind him that the Bruckner Process is safe, but at the same time the memories haunt him. When Martin visits Central Registry for his reassignment, the bureaucracy frustrates him for an entire day. The next day, when no one reaches him for more information about his reassignment, Martin goes again to Central Registry to confront the same staff member. He walks to the same office, but his prior visit was unregistered and any contact he made was impossible. When guards some to escort him away, he manhandles them and resigns to the fact that he must escape to Section Three.

After a month of despair and isolation, the Association storm Section Three to capture Martin. Rapping at the door reveals a familiar face from Central Registry, but his capturer turns out his rescuer, part of the Counterforce, a latent band of resistance established in the underground tunnels branching beneath the city. When the Bruckner Process is reversed, Martin realizes his ability to transform this lethargic sect of revolt into a lancing schism of rampage.

With “no army, no navy, no armed forces, no police” (152), the Association is left vulnerable to a well-organized revolution from outside its own walls. With the Barrier separating the former northeast US from the Outlands, there is little threat from the savages of the outside, western American nomads who’ve crossed the burnt, devastated western prairies because of the earthquakes which sunk their homeland and destroyed their cities. Are the Outlands the real threat to the peaceful existence of the Association or is the closer threat of the Counterforce more menacing? Martin is the strategist.


Martin’s motivation for resistance is understandable but closely parallels the strife faced by the protagonist in Morressy’s other novel Starbrat: the painful loss of family and lies about his existence. However, his recruitment to Counterforce is too convenient and the situation Martin found himself in when inquiring at Center Registry was too much of a tall tale. Considering that the Registry was the most closely watched area of the Association, the Counterforce’s high-level infiltration seems unlikely. Once ensconced, his near-maniacal bloodlust for revenge is too far-fetched. As Martin really doesn’t understand the history of the Association or the underpinnings of its existence, his desire for its destruction seem superficial; the demand for its demise too machismo.

The utopian Association world created by Morressy isn’t all too inventive. The situation America found themselves during the 1980’s gave rise to a benevolent group (far from a regime, dictatorship, or authority in their own regard) where “all belong to something and help one another” (37). However, the sheer size of the Association’s bureaucracy renders it malevolent by extent; the manpower it controls and the leverage it wields are too massive for a benevolent centralized government. Its offices are the façade of its strength but the ones in control remain hidden from public knowledge, not even the Counterforce knowing who’s truly in command. After twenty-one years of lenient intracity control, the first true resistance from the intercity weakens its grip on the city and its infrastructure.

At the same time, the utopian corner northeastern American, the Association, is an interesting mind experiment on how people inside and outside a supposedly benevolent society react to injustices beyond its walls. The propaganda machine is only propaganda to those who are being unjustly treated; the consumers of the propaganda are blissful of their ignorance. The citizens of the Association are kept from traveling outside their limited territory, thereby exasperating their condition of ignorance of the outside world. One outsider, Martin, a non-citizen but also not an Outlander, can plainly see past the lies and non-truths. One of his hosts, his brother, is sympathetic to his distrust of the Association, but his brother’s wife isn’t as open-minded to Martin’s intrinsic dissent.

Destroying much of the plot’s continuity, the necessary deaths of some characters come about erratically. These pivotal points weren’t planned out very well and their importance didn’t accelerate the pace of the plot or add dimension. The deaths simply take place to instill a sense of revolt in Martin, a ferociousness which was already encapsulated when learning of his true nature as an Extraterritorial.

One interesting aspect of the Association is its calendar reform. Instead of dividing the year between twelve unequal months with illogical names such as October (eighth month) and December (tenth month), the Association divided the year into four Quarters, each Quarter thirteen weeks long, starting on a Sunday and ending on a Saturday. Midyear between second and third Quarters, a non-calendar holiday called Association Day would occur. Additionally, every fourth year at the end of the fourth Quarter would be another non-calendar holiday named Progress Day, in lieu of the traditional leap day. Much to the tradition of the Association, “Everyone liked the new calendar. It solved all the old problems in a simple, orderly manner” (41). In place of February 10 would be “First Quarter 31” or instead of March 28, “First Quarter 87” would be used. Occasionally erring, the authors refers to some eras of time experienced by the characters as “months,” which ruins the congruity with the author’s created universe.


I finished this book in one day--easy read. During the five hours I spent reading it cover-to-cover, there were some high points: mainly Morressy’s creation of the Association, albeit heavy on the theory but light on the practice. Then there are the low points: the predictable doors which must be passed through for Martin to attain the proper level of revolt. Both the highs and the lows are very scripted. Include eight pages of carefully placed meta-documentation and you have yourself a well-organized but blocky structure. Considering that Morressy’s Starbrat also rated 3-of-5 stars, I don’t hold much hope for other Morressy novels.

1971: The Battle of Forever (van Vogt, A.E.)

Fingering the bureaucracy of alien invasion (3/5)
From February 28, 2011

After my eighth van Vogt novel to-date, I do consider myself a fan merely because of his wide range of pulp novels, which spur on my readership through the years of reading. His novels may be short (The Battle of Forever being only 173 pages long), his stories are always centered around an interesting theme which he tends to explore in unique ways. My favorite, of course, is Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) but Battle of Forever shares nothing in likeness to Voyage. Rather, it has more in common with Man With a Thousand Names (1974); likenesses that include the shifting of mindsets from the viewpoint of a single narrator... the narrator unknowingly changing realities.

Rear cover synopsis:
"For thousands of years--evolving a miniature physiology for a life of peace and philosophical contemplation. Modyun agrees grow his body large and to return beyond the barrier, where animal-men roam the world. His quest will lead him deeper into darkness and deeper into the uncertain..."


Battle of Forever is simply a miserable title--easy to forget and reflects very little from the story. It has to be one of the worst titles for a sci-fi novel right behind Philip K. Dick's Zap Gun E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space (neither of which I remotely enjoyed).

Modyun is a modified human living in the Ylem where all 1,000 humans live a multi-millennial philosophical existence. When the question of what is happening to the sentient man-animals the humans left behind, Modyun is set out to inhabit a human body and discover what has become of the world they departed so long ago. As four beast-men befriend the naïve Modyun, passing himself as an ape as there are no longer any humans to be found in the flesh, he experiences a shift in the laws the humans had left the animal-men to follow... which is where the story begins.

Finding that the hyena-men have taken the role of an unnecessary government, Modyun later finds the pusher of the move- the Nunuli race who conquered earth before humans hermetically secluded themselves. Behind this alien race is yet another race with a hidden agenda and so forth and so on. Modyun finds himself aboard a spaceship, the same ship employing his four friends, where they are off on a predestined route to search for new worlds to conquer.

The story begins to lose a lot of steam when the ship finally reaches a planet. I liked the story of dealing with alien bureaucracy but having to shift between true reality and perceived reality (if those are the right words to be chosen) is a tedious business which should be left to a much thicker novel (like Banks' Transition [2009]). In the last ten percent, especially, the reader must be vigilant about the mindsets of the entire cast, who can play who and which means to an end need to be met, etc. It might just scramble your brain or urge you to chuck it in the bin. I stuck it out and kind of shrugged, uncommitted to either liking or disliking the entire rigmarole.

So, like Man of a Thousand Names this novel is a bit heady with bodily disconnectedness but with even more ideas crammed into its future history. I liked the future history of the novel, it is quite unique but I just wish the plot wouldn't had been so spastic and far-flung. A nice terrestrial sci-fi story never hurt anyone. A must for any van Vogt fan but a polite pass for the non-so keen reader. I'm not even sure if it warrants a re-read, but I need more van Vogt in the collection before I can draw more comparisons to his earlier and later works.

Monday, August 27, 2012

1967: The Productions of Time (Brunner, John)

The meddling of a thespian; the conspiracy of the playwright (4/5)

You’d figure… after reading twenty books of a single author, you may become bored with the author’s prose, ideas, or reoccurring themes. Every time I pick up another Brunner novel, I open the pages expecting it fall between one or another of his novels—one with parallelism or atmosphere. Even his bad books (The Wrong End of Time [1971] and Give Warning to the World [1974]) maintain an intrinsic originality, yet flawed in its pulp delivery or flat plot pulse. This here is my twenty-first Brunner, a novel which I knew not to be the hardest of his science fiction nor one of his more renowned novels. The fact that’s it not well-known urges me on—I read it in one day. To say I relished it would be a stretch, but to say I found it intriguing would hit the nail on the head.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Masses of meaningless wire.
Seeing-eye TV sets.
Hidden tape recorders spinning subliminal suggestions.

With each discovery, Murray Douglas’ alarm grows. But it doesn’t seem to affect the others.

It’s just Delgado’s way, they say. He’s an oddball genius who has concocted his own method of writing and directing a play. All we want is an opportunity to act for him.

But Murray Douglas wants to know why Manuel Delgado has searches the stages of the world for these particular actors. Why has he isolated them in an unused country club and played to their weaknesses? Why are they being proctored by the odd, silent servants? Who is Manuel Delgado and what’s his game?

Little do the actors realize that the play is not the thing. That it is barely a cover for one of the most astonishing and surreal events ever to unfold. That they are puppets of a master intellect… pawns in the productions of time.”


Murray Douglas has spent some time in the sanatorium while recovering from alcoholism. Once a well-known actor, the now has-been is trying to recoup his losses by signing onto a play with a playwright of recent infamy. The playwright, Manuel Delgado, staged a play where the one actress admitted herself to a psychiatric ward, one actor committed suicide, and another woman ate her baby. Had the production been doomed from the start or had the dastardly result been Delgado’s intended goal?

When Murray arrives at the remote English estate, he is escorted to his room where he discovers a wet bar. Angered by the ignorance of his hosts, he demands the liquor to withdrawn from his room but later finds an half-empty bottle of whiskey in his medicine cabinet and a open bottle of Scotch in his suitcase, a bottle he didn’t pack. Smashing the bottles in the tiled bathroom, Murray confronts the director of the play, Mr. Blizzard. Blizzard pleads ignorance in the matter, so Murray turns to the other actors housed in the estate. They know him for his alcohol problems and the scent of booze emanating from his room confirm their suspicions.

Murray’s dislike for Delgado and Blizzard is heightened when he then discovers metallic gossamer woven into this mattress which is attached to a reel-to-reel machine in the bed’s frame. Without a speaker, the set-up isn’t meant for nocturnal lullabies and the lack of a microphone discredits the rig as an audio recording device. When Murray confronts the playwright and the director, they, again, seem to feign ignorance and blame the matter on the estate’s history as a country club. Unperturbed, Murray tells others of his finding, some of who are alarmed at the invasion of privacy.

Murray is trusted by two other members of the thespian troupe: a man with a heroine fix who finds copious amounts of “horse” in his room but trusts Murray to dose it out to him, otherwise he may double-dose himself to death; the other is a pretty girl without vice or reputation. This girl’s normalcy contrasts the rest of the thespians who have reputations of lesbianism, pornography, or pedophilia. Add to this his alcoholism recovery and his friend’s addiction; the result is a decadent mix of vices which no one could possibly want to organize together to perform a play of any sort. What ideas had Delgado formed to compose the group as such?

Murray’s infernal meddling in the estates electronics angers Delgado and the estate’s butler, Valentine. The odd console has continuous power even when the set it turned off; the power cord isn’t plugged into the wall but runs into the adjoining room. When Murray tugs the cord, a crash occurs and Valentine runs to the other room to attend to the resulting crash. Again, Murray is scolded but he continues his effort to persuade the other’s of the odd happenings in the estate. He’s committed to production because of his need to return to acting, but when circumstances become unbearable, Murray reflectively threatens his immediate departure but his curiosity gets the best of him. When he overhears, “That wasn’t the experience contracted for!” (106), Murray organizes a quick set-up of his own to wring the truth from the conspirators.


The commonplace, non-SF setting with an actor as the protagonists was a tad unsettling. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I tend to ignore reading synopses before reading the book, but I maintain faith in Brunner (rarely has he failed me, but I once damned him for writing the novella “No Other Gods But Me” [1966] in his Entry toElsewhen [1975] collection). Thanks be to Brunner that he had talent enough to carry the reader through some good amount of deception, chicanery, and good old-fashioned lying to rile up the protagonist. Murray’s inquisitive nature spoils the fun of the conspirators, though he has little idea who exactly they are or what exactly they are up to; Murray just knows that he doesn’t appreciate being played with and lied to. This amounts to a good amount of frustration resulting in petty destruction, something which the reader can empathize with.

The cast are scripted to be have “been brought to ruin and disrepute by abnormal behavior” (1) but I found them all to be interesting and was rooting for their latent revolt against those conspiring and lying, whoever they turned out to be. They may be “down-and-out actors” (1) with some inhibition to resist revolt because they also need the acting job, but the reader actually puts a measurable amount of faith in Murray to continue his antics and get to the root of the meddling mystery. It’s fun… something which is hard to say of other Brunner books which typically waver between intellectually satisfying and curiosity stroking.

The inclination to the climax is steady, with the climax itself being very abrupt and fruitful. It snapped like a taught elastic band and stung like a being smarted by the same elastic band. The conclusion to the mystery is a bit grandiose and far-fetched, but don’t read any more of the page one synopsis (in the Signet edition) if you don’t want any inkling as to what that conclusion rests upon. Maybe since I read all 139 pages in one day, I found the conclusion suiting, even with its ‘deus ex machina’ quality (a lá The Wrong End of Time).

The Productions of Time may not be Brunner’s most challenging book or more intellectually satisfying book yet, but it’s one of his most fun reads. Be open to Murray as you are to the unique cast, and you may be open enough for the ‘deus ex machina’ conclusion. Simple and charming… I’m wondering if Timescoop (1969) holds a similar appeal.

1968: Catch a Falling Star (Brunner, John)

158 pages isn't quite an epic quest (3/5)
From February 16, 2011

My tenth Brunner... good going and getting stronger with little end in sight when considering his vast bibliography. It's a joy to delve into Brunner's mind, a mind which has created ten (the current count) versions of bizarre universes, strange humans and their circumstances, intelligent reflections of the future, and discerning visions of reality. While Catch a Falling Star may not really encompass any of those Brunner feats, it still has a Brunner-esque quality that this reader adores.

Rear cover half-synopsis:

"A hundred thousand years from now, it was discovered that a star was approaching the world on a collision course. Its discoverer, Creohan, figured there might be time to save the world if he could arouse everyone to the danger."


Creohan, who is housed in a mildly intelligent organic house hosting a telescope belonging to its prior occupant, spots bright star which becomes brighter and brighter with time. Consulting the Historickers, Creohan find that's that the approaching star has been approaching for millennia and will pass by earth in 288 years. With this knowledge he tells the townspeople who then dismiss his mourning as banal. Upon finding the free-spirited Chalyth, the couple begin a journey across the earth to search for other cities who they have lost contact with, to search for a technological civilization who have the power to catch a star, to save humanity, to allow humans to endure on their planet.

The quest that Creohan and Chalyth take themselves on spans wildly different landscapes, a wide scope of evolved or mutated humans, and a glimpse of fallen civilizations. The House of History or Tree of History is used to study the history of the planet's rise and fall of civilizations, each acquiring their own technology, their own ethos and their own catastrophe. Through the study of the past, the historians (histroickers) they hope the current civilization will live full and well, though each minor city is far and few between, the land and sea teeming with barbarians and heathens. The quest is epic for the pair and those who ally themselves with the bearers of bad news.

However, as the novel is only 158 pages, the epic quest is quite condensed and each chapter of six or so pages is a splash of action, a peppering of forging ahead, a swath of diversity. When progressing through 28 chapters of this, it's rather tiring and I would have liked to have many of the sections beefed up, each one adding some delicious value to the overall plot. As it is, each ort of a chapter barely sates ones speculative fiction pallet. A quest is a quest, so the inevitable divergences from a smooth plot is an expectation... but it would have been so much better to have seen this novel filled out to 400 pages or even a multi-book series akin to Jack L. Chalker's four-book series The Rings of The Master (1986-1988), which I was strongly reminded of while reading Catch a Falling Star. It's also a little bit like Brunner's own Maze of Stars (1991).

Being a Brunner novel, it carries his knack forportraying bizarre forms of humanity through evolution, mutation or manipulation... but it's not his finest piece, of course. As an astute SF reader it's a certain addition to my Brunner shelf, but perhaps for the more fair-weather reader this might as well just be a pass.

Monday, August 20, 2012

1993: Impossible Things (Willis, Connie)

Heaped with awards: some justified, some too whimsical (4/5)

There are those who enjoy a lengthy novel sopped in plot building and emotional candor--I am among them. I mentally swam in Doomsday Book (1992) and lounged along side of To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998). Willis has a knack for bring out emotion in the pages and also lightly layering humor along side it all. She’s had me smiling, laughing, and concentrated all in a small number of pages. The woman can write, as is obvious from the number of nominations and awards given to both of the books above. The exact some emotional and emotional nuances found in these two novels are also found throughout this short story collection (which actually won an award for “best collection”). Most of the stories are great, but a few find the author indulging in some whim or another. Many of the stories themselves are award winner, too!


The Last of the Winnebagos (1988, novella) – 5/5 – David McCombe is a photojournalist reporting on the last Winnebago RV, a dying breed on the American highways which have increasingly outlawed such behemoths. The elderly owners strike up conversation about dogs, reminding David of his last dog Aberfan and the circumstances of its death. David then becomes involved in the “Society’s” investigation into a dead jackal on the highway, a crime which caries a heavy penalty in a world devoid of canines. 63 pages ----- An interesting vision of the future, where dogs have all died and the roads are dominated by semis hauling water to parched landscapes. An extrinsically interesting story morphs into an unsettling intrinsic depth of empathy and forgiveness. A great start to the collection and the most emotional story in the mix.

Even the Queen (1992, shortstory) – 5/5 – The Liberation social movement has freed women of their monthly burden with the help of the drug ammenerol. Traci’s mother calls her with concern that her granddaughter Perdita has become one of the Cyclists, a group of women who accept their menarche and the subsequent cycles. A lunch meeting is made in order to dissuade Perdita from the pains of the Cyclists, but the meeting simply becomes a mix of innocent curiosity, male domination conspiracy, and menstrual reminiscing. 22 pages ----- The humor here is welcome after the soppy previous story. The two generations of women conversing about their experiences with menstruation with the new generation gasping in disgust and forwards awkward questions is added fun.

Schwarzschild Radius (1987, shortstory) – 4/5 – Travers visits a retired university biology teacher and WWI veteran because he has personal knowledge of Karl Schwarzschild (of a black hole’s Schwarzschild’s Radius fame) whom with he served with in the trenches. As the radio operator and medical practitioner, the veteran had access to the disillusioned physicist near the time of his death, but also at the time of his correspondence with Einstein. The Doppler effect of a shrinking black hole projects itself on the memory of the events. 23 pages ----- Like much of the collection, the present time is blurred with memories. The two interweave and the result is hard to unravel, but the war story and the physics story here are more easily unthreaded. Not as emotional as “Winnebagos,” but equally as unsettling.

Ado (1988, shortstory) – 5/5 – Before teaching Shakespeare in the high school English class, the teacher must first go through each of Shakespeare’s works line-by-line in order not to offend any of the hundreds of organization who find one line or another offensive to their race, sex, trade, clan, profession, etc. One student even protests the works as the work of the devil, so when the student’s get their Hamlet, its reduced to a paltry few lines. With political correctness… nobody wins. 10 pages ----- Viewing political correctness gone horribly wrong, Willis paints a realistic nightmare of competing interests, petty squabbles, and dense red tape. Love this story!

Spice Pogrom (1986, novella) – 3/5 – In the Japanese orbital named Sony reside humans and their alien guests, the Eahrohhs. The Japanese translation team has difficulty between the alien tongue, English and their won. One alien, a compulsive shopper and hoarder named Mr. Ohghhifoehnnahigrheeh, is moved by NASA into an already crowded apartment, where even the stairway has residents sleeping. The translation difficulty, wanton sub-letting, compulsive shopping, and alien antics drive the leaser a tad mad. 97 pages ----- Slapstick comedy on the pages with long, derisive dialogue and a jumbled cast, this story is the hardest to follow. What’s supposed to be a comedy and love story just turns into a random jumble of people and items, but what I gathered in between, some passages were great.

Winter’s Tale (1987, novelette) – 2/5 – A two decade absence renders vague the memories of the wife and children of a returning man. Accepting the form of the man but partly hesitant of the actions of him and his men, the family rejoin but are yet rejoicing. At a later time upon his deathbed, the same man, imposter to the position of husband and father in the family, outlines the inheritance to the members of the same family that has adopted his person and prose. 28 pages ----- Something about Shakespeare. I’ll leave it at that.

Chance (1986, novelette) – 4/5 – Elizabeth’s husband’s recent job as associate dean at her old university correlates with a Tupperware party at a neighbor’s house brings back to many memories of her life and love in college that she finds herself hallucinating. At the university applying for a job, Elizabeth sees versions of her old self, her old roommate, and the love she lost. Through the alumni organization, she learns that her love interest from yesteryear is now dead from suicide, she wonders what she could have done differently. 38 pages ----- As in “Schwarzschild,” the blurred division between memory and reality is difficult to establish. With some silly nuances amid the emotional toll Elizabeth experiences, the contrast is weird. By now, the university theme is making an appearance.

In the Late Cretaceous (1991, shortstory) – 4/5 – The Paleontology department of a university comes under the eye of the dean’s visitor, Dr. King, a educational consultant with a rather unique vocabulary with words like “impactization,” “innovatizing,” and “ideating.” King aims to “do some observational datatizing” to assess the modern relevance of the program. The Paleontology professors are at a loss of words and draw parallelisms with the extinction of the dinosaurs and the evolution of mammals. 17 pages ----- A cheeky story chronicling the eminent demise of the department by the hand of a jargon-spewing consultant… I’m sure we all know the type and can sympathize with the dread the department must feel.

Time Out (1989, novella) – 4/5 – A quantum time travel experiment is scheduled at a grade school where the test subjects are students. The blind participants are those who are working with the eccentric Dr. Young. When chicken pox breaks out in the school, circumstances escalate and the present time becomes as confusing and opaque as the past. When lost love and reminiscing veils visions of the future, the doctor’s test results hinge upon the mysterious grey box with a simple on-off switch. 59 pages ----- Again, the blurred line between memories and reality, but this time even the past-present becomes blurred. Not as blurry as “Schwarzschild” but the resulting mixture is a wreck to unravel, but in the end the threads are pulled taught.

Jack (1991, novella) – 5/5 – Amidst the rubble and fire of Chelsea are the volunteer wardens who sight the location and find the survivors of the WWII bombing. One new volunteer has an uncanny ability to seek out bodies buried beneath the rubble. Without a shout of despair or rapping of desperation, Jack quickly becomes known for his peculiar talent, but another volunteer, also named Jack , is more intrigued with the man’s elusive nature when dawn rises—Jack discovers a man with no documentation. 61 pages ----- The best story in the collection! The eerie setting of blacked-out London during bombing raids and planes and bombs buzzing overhead compound the rising fear of the mysterious man named Jack. Is he a spy, a murderer, or something else entirely? Real gripping stuff here!

At the Rialto (1989, novelette) – 2/5 – At a hotel in Hollywood, a convention for the International Congress of Quantum Physicists is being held. Between the ditzy receptionists and implacable seminars, the bizarre effects and behaviors of the quantum world manifests itself in the seemingly chaotic relationships, conversations, and choices made among the physicists. With Benji, Bing Crosby, Charlton Heston, Donald Duck, and Red Skeleton all being mentioned… expect chaos and only chaos. 28 pages ----- Something about Hollywood. I’ll leave it at that.

1993: Flying to Valhalla (Pellegrino, Charles)

Utter crap - author's whims are the reader's torture (0/5)
From March 24, 2010

Utter crap. Flying to Valhalla has zero redeeming qualities, a feat rarely achieved in my foray of seriously reading science fiction for 3+ years. Besides being pointlessly detailed, repetitive to the point of nausea, scatterbrained and curiously random, the novel paints Pellegrino as a one-trick pony. His idiosyncratic interests should remain personal rather than being flung limply into the story. It's so disconnected and blatantly indulgent... I have no idea how this piece of crap ever got published. And you know, there's nothing repugnant or revolting about the book... it's just a moist turd written by a egocentric hack.

The characters of Chris and Clarice Wayville are perhaps the lamest duo ever to set foot in a science fiction novel (right up there with lame old Louis Wu from Ringworld) as they have no defining features, little or no background, and nothing at all which defines them as unique. They are just plopped down into a book which Pellegrino has written just to showcase his crackpot theories and historical curiosities. Just because he has written a book about the Titanic doesn't mean he has to pointlessly connect it with this novel (at more than one point)... and even though he has written a book about Hiroshima doesn't mean he has to stretch the chapter's banality to include this bit of information, too. It just all reeks of an egotistical intellect. It's painful to read.

It's just so,so, so bad--I can't stop shaking my head. There's even a 14-page sequence in which Asimov, Clarke, Sagan and Drake are all attending a meeting to discuss the first detailed design of an anti-matter rocket created by two scientists named Powell and Tuna... in reality, it was Powell and Pellegrino who were the ones who provided the first detailed designs of such. Cheeky, isn't it? Substitute Tuna for Pellegrino. When the lame team of Chris and Clarice land on the distant planet of Alpha Centauri (A-4) they name the first continent Tunaland (read: Pellegrinoland). Author patting himself on the back?

It gets worse. Honestly. The governments on earth are so concerned that the crew of the anti-matter ship will turn around and ram earth at relativistic speeds like a relativistic bomb. They dwell and dwell and dwell and dwell upon the somehow purposed 1% likelihood of this happening. I thought the book was supposed to be about first contact... but Pellegrino, again, follows his whim like a child chasing butterflies. On top of that banal thread the character Chris, too, is obsessed about the relativistic bombardment of earth from A-4 as well as the bombardment of A-4 from earth. I have no idea why it's made a repetitive point other than it's simply just another one of Pellegrino obsessions. It's not only Chris and the earth governments who have a psychosis... it's also Pellegrino who has mental diarrhea and has the honor of producing one of the worst science fiction novels I've ever read.

Additional negative points which I can't leave hanging like a wet tissue:
1) The timeline of the plot utterly unfathomable.
2) I bet Pellegrino wet himself in his indulgence of writing 39 pages of Afterword and Acknowledgements.
3) I bet Pellegrino had fun drawing all the nerdish little illustrations.
4) I've never ever seen an author write a full, to-the-margins one-page "About the Author" autobiography before. This just confirms my inkling that Pellegrino has a serious self-inflated ego.

Pellegrino. Damn you.

Friday, August 10, 2012

1958: VOR (Blish, James)

Long slow start, great cruise, quick landing (4/5)

VOR was written, as a novel, during the same years as Blish's much more famous Cities in Flight series (1955-1962). Oddly enough, VOR doesn't carry the same characteristics as Cities in Flight does: the lengthy sentences, abundant commas and semicolons, and the dry dialogue. VOR is a drastic departure from the starchy, iron-pressed pockets of Cities (don't forget your slide-rule!); VOR is a grittier, more down-to-earth romp through first alien contact. I wish, wish, wish I could compare this first contact novel to Blish's other first contact novel, A Case of Conscience (1958), but I, sadly, haven't been able to procure a copy yet.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The first 'alien' from outer space arrives on earth:
How 'it' comes and what 'it' wants.
How we greet 'it,' nourish 'it,' communicate with 'it.'
What we learn from 'it' of interstellar worlds, galactic powers, and void beyond.
And how--in the terrifying moment of Earth's ultimate crisis--we defend the complex civilization of tomorrow from 'it!'

This could happen tomorrow, or the next day--but the awesome moment is certainly within the realm of possibility--and may be close at hand!"


Marty Petrucelli has led a complicated life. He's been a WWII fighter pilot, a US senator, and married to a lithe pin-up girl. He's largely given up the glamorous life to volunteer in the Civil Air Patrol of Merger County, Michigan. His simply duty in the squadron is to identify aircraft, a hobby or Marty's since he was a young boy. However, some other volunteers in the squadron are frustrated with Marty's new-found fear for flying. He may be the most experienced flyer among them, but the flying to left to the other flyboys.

Compounding this fear of flying is Marty's inability to "maintain" his wife, a pulchritudinous woman who draws the eyes of men like vultures to a carcass. The other volunteers are aware of this discomfort and one man, the head-headed pilot Al Strickland, is even openly friendly with his missus. The defeated Marty keeps to his job. When a forest fire breaks, the crew are issued orders to fly over the area and spot the cause of the outbreak. With photographs taken, Marty examines the proofs and identifies the mirrored craft at the center of the fire to be an atomic missile. Only later, when the air force come to examine the radioactive craft, is the tubular craft assumed to be a alien spacecraft.

With radiation spilling forth and heat in excess of 2,000 degrees Celsius, the cooling craft opens to reveal a 15-foot black-sheathed monstrosity standing silent, standing tall, and not communicating in any way. A crane is hoisted to mobilize the metallic hunk, but when the crane tips and the alien uprights it, the black-clad behemoth follows the crane. With radiation still being emitted through the entire spectrum, the only likely place to contain the walking star is the disused fusion plant in Grand Rapids. Once behind the massive lead-impregnated concrete walls, scientific examination of the alien can begin.

Marty is chosen for the elite team because of his knowledge of the event since its onset. The politicking among the military and the advisors drives some of the team from inclusive plans on how to deal with the enigmatic alien. Eventually, the shifting colors on its skin reveals the pattern violent-orange-red, which reveals the aliens name: VOR. Patching a computer to the color analyzer, the linguists are able to build a vocabulary with the alien. Very limited to physical representations, the linguists find it difficult to express abstract ideas and gain meaningful answers from the ebony-clad alien, whose interior temperature climbs up to 6 million degrees Fahrenheit.

The linguists eventually asks the question, "What do you want?" The alien ambles towards the viewing platform, frightening the scientists, and says, "I want death." The hull of the alien is impenetrable by diamond drill, cutting torch, or cyclotron bombardment. Still, the alien passively sits in its cradle endlessly reciting its name--VOR. The same linguist who has cracked the alien's language and has been able to communicate with also poses theories as to why the alien needs a temperature so high, that consumes so much energy, and why it wants death in the first place. The train of logic proves to be true when the once stagnant alien ambles forward and announces, "Why will you not kill me... you have not tried... there is no more time."


The first forty-six pages (of 159 pages) are a slog to get through. With the initial observation of he object amid the forest fire and the levels of bureaucracy to commit an action plan, the pages are studded with decent attempts at creating a sympathetic, downbeat man--Marty Petrucelli. It feels like the novel is going nowhere, likes its one big hoax in the plot or one big hoax on the reader, until, "The nose was a circular door or airlock. It opened. It came out" (46-47). This is the fulcrum where the entire book tips from mundane bureaucratic red-tape to full throttle alien communication mystery!

The investigation of the radioactive alien and its gradually cooling craft proves to be some of the most enticing mysteries served up in any science fiction book, on par with Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. The entire situation of the alien's arrival and the alien's condition spawns so many questions and ignites the fire of possibility within the reader. It's a short read, so the momentum through the remaining pages is difficult to carry the reader through. For the most part, Blish is successful.

However, Blish is not immune to abrupt awkward plot transitions. At a crucial scene of action, Blish takes six full pages to detail the starting sequence for an old propeller plane and its ascent to the sky above Grand Rapids. This wholly kills all the momentum Blish had written prior to the transition. What follows feels like a hastily written, though fairly convincing, conclusion in the remaining nine pages. It may be a tad too simple, but I had a feeling that the course taken would be the same course I had plotted in my mind.

Marty as a sympathetic character is hard to like. He seems to rely on his fear of flight on basis alone, without having to tell anyone WHY he's taken an oath not to fly after his  service in WWII. Eventually, the truth is revealed and any respect the reader has for Marty is evaporated. Given that his wife is running around behind his back at the same time, Blish wrote the tale of a hero who is as unlikable as the situation he finds himself in.

VOR may be a tad boring at the onset and a tad predictable near the end, but sandwiched in between the two is an excellent, excellent mystery which will have the reader's blood a-boil with anticipation. In the last chapter, Chapter 10, the escalation of excitement is over and Blish pens a short epilogue of Marty's ranting about heroism, victory, and a possible Oedipus complex.

If Cities in Flight was written with the same fervor of mystery and enjoyment as Blish did in VOR, the four novels of the collection may have felt like a carnival more than a chore. Where Blish lacks in sophistication here he makes up for in enticement and excitement.