Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, October 11, 2012

2012: Helix Wars (Brown, Eric)

A pulpy effort with broader implications (3/5)

Eric Brown’s original Helix (2007) was merely an introduction in what the Helix has in store in terms of alien culture and alien architecture. Recall first reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and remember gaping at awe in the possibilities of exploring its swathe of cultures and plumbing the depths of its remarkable architecture? That is exactly the same anticipation I felt with Helix, possibilities for sequel was bountiful and which path Brown would choose had me titillated. When the sequel was finally announced, the dully titled novel diminished my hopes for a successful continuance.

Rear cover synopsis:
“The Helix: a vast spiral of ten thousand worlds turning around its sun. Aeons ago, the enigmatic Builders constructed the Helix as a refuge for alien races on the verge of extinction.

Two hundred years ago, humankind came to the Helix aboard a great colony ship, and the builders conferred on them the mantle of peacekeepers. For that long, peace had reigned on the Helix. But when shuttle pilot Jeff Ellis crash-lands on the world of Phandra, he interrupts a barbarous invasion from the neighbouring Sporelli, who are now racing to catch and exterminate Ellis before he can return to New Earth and inform the peacekeepers.”


Jeff Ellis is a man down on his luck. His marriage is failing and the death of their son didn’t rekindle the love he and his wife once shared. On a routine diplomatic mission, Jeff is shot down over the Helix planet named Phandra, which kills his two crewmembers and leaves his disabled on an alien planet with carnivorous plants and poisonous fruit. The meter-tall empathetic natives rescue Jeff and nurse him back to health. The clairvoyant Diviners predict that he’ll travel far and accomplish great things along with the native Healer Calla. Though Calla is two years from her destine death, she is predicted to share a tight bond with Jeff, in sickness and in health.

On one side of Phandra live the moderately technological D’rayni with their rich natural resources and the other adjacent side live totalitarian, resource-poor Sporelli. I order to obtain natural resources for their planned yet illegal expansion, the Sporelli aliens tread across Phandra unhindered by the puny passive empaths, “people with neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to commit violence” (124-125). The aliens’ destruction is sickening and their quest for power is sure to upset the Builders’ notion of causing no harm to other races. To enforce this peace, the Builders assigned the humans to be its peacekeeper while the Builders maintain a virtual existence aside from their prior corporeal reality: “Together they had set up the Peacekeepers and established the complex ground-rules and protocols governing the politically delicate matter of maintaining harmony between so many alien races” (165).

On the Helix, with “ten thousand worlds… and six thousand of them inhabited” (9) and “two hundred million kilometers long” (353), peace had reigned and the humans never had to militarily intervene. However, the Sporelli were “planning something, something which threatened the safety of the Helix and all the peaceable people upon it” (403). With the aggression, the Sporelli have surrendered their peacetime rights and become the focus of opposition from the Human Peacekeepers and the Mahkan Engineers, but both government are spineless to officially act in any capacity yet “will turn a blind eye to any individuals acting unilaterally” (286).

This unilateral attempt at defeating the aggressive Sporelli is spearheaded by the Mahkan alien named Kranda who initially set off to rescue Jeff from his downed craft because he had once saved her life. Together again and witnessing the rampant disregard for life, the two don a varnika exo-skeleton, which is Builder carbon technology that interfaces with the wearer’s nervous system, enhances perceptions, and renders the occupant invisible. With laser weaponry, the duo set off to rescue Healer Calla from the evil clutches of the Sporelli and get to the bottom of their greater intentions.

During an escape from the Sporelli, Engineer Kranda decides the best route of retreat is through the planet’s maintenance tunnels which deliver the two to the core of the Helix, a two hundred kilometer wide tunnel which bores through each planet and sea allowing the Engineers to traverse the Helix for repairs. This same system can also be used by nefarious tyrants bent on domination so Kranda and Jeff sneak onto the Sporelli planet to sift out the intentions of the planet’s authoritative ruler.


When the original colonists departed Earth and crash-landed on the Helix, they had been absent from Earth for one thousand years. Two hundred years after their arrival, they have established New Earth with “the ship’s vast cache of deep-frozen animal embryos” (11) yet the population of humans still wonder what has become of their home planet: “…what happened on old Earth? Did the rest of humanity die out? Do they still exist – and if so, then in what conditions?” (12). While the Helix is fascinating in its own right, the reminiscing of old Earth provides additional avenues of intriguing possibilities. The original colonization was attempted by earthman’s own feat, but if Earth were to near extinction, would the Builders save humanity? Five hundred light-years is no small hurdle for such technological achievers.

In regards to the plot, some of my expectations were met, but its delivery was reminiscent of a pulpy 1980’s science fiction novel: laser guns and invulnerable heroes. It also reminds me of why I dislike Star Trek so much: ubiquitously bipedal aliens fluent in English. This ease of language conveyance is a derelict jalopy from its predecessor, Helix: all these bipedal aliens are amazing adept at the nuances of the English language! Engineer Kranda may not know the word “haystack” but she’s certainly knows what “haiku” is. Even when the exo-skeletons are doing the translating, the alien vocabulary is suddenly expansive, eloquent, and thorough. I hate this ease-of-translation aspect in many other SF novels, too.

Helix Wars presents some intriguing technology, care of the Engineers and the Builders. The motives of the Builders, for their Helix construction and their seemingly benevolent attitude, isn’t explored so much in the plot (in the conclusion, it’s a different story). This isn’t a hard science fiction novel so don’t expect lengthy explanations or diagrams of the Helix’s construction. Brown offers up a few tidbits of technology which the reader has to take at face value (i.e. The Gaia Machines) and bits that keep revealing more applications (i.e. the varnika exo-skeleton).

Some of Eric Brown’s other novels have a deep humanistic nature, something which Helix lacked. Perhaps Brown has returned to his humanistic roots with the characterization of Jeff and the separation with his wife. This relationship and his attitude toward it greatly characterize Jeff and his rapport with the meek Healer Calla and the aggressive Engineer Kranda; where Calla suggests he show more emotion, Kranda proposes he show no remorse. Being the awkward human Jeff is, he is torn between the two lines of advice in his personal life with his wife and in the matters at hand with thousands of lives at stake. Jeff may be well drawn out, but the anthropomorphic alien cast dims the overall shine of the cast.

The title of the novel is a little strange if you can remember the noble efforts the original colonists wanted to infuse in their future society: “…we aren’t doomed to repeat our mistakes. I think we’ve learned from them, so that we can move on, build a successful society that doesn’t consume resources” (Helix [2007], p.21) and “We might be human, but that doesn’t mean we’ll take our flaws to the stars—or if we do, then we’ll have systems in place to ensure that they don’t destroy us, or our new world” (Helix [2007], p.21). With this in mind, the Builders granted humans the job of peacekeeping, but while peace reigns on the Helix, the insurgency of the Sporelli is cause for the human to take to arms to defend the peace… thereby reverting to war when they were promised to promote peace. The human bureaucracy’s inaction resulted in the murder of thousands on Phandra and D’rayni… that’s not peacekeeping.


Aside from Jeff’s decent characterization and some wow moments concerning the Helix, there’s not much else within Helix Wars. I read 280 pages in one day, so obviously it’s a pretty quick and easy read. I suppose there will be a further continuation of the Helix series, and if this continuation has anything to do with the conclusion, then sign me up! It pays to read this quickly so that you’ll absorb the nuances (the numbers!) to understand the possible implications of the conclusion because it’s not spelt out for you.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

2012: Great North Road (Hamilton, Peter F.)

Surveillance, xenophobia, and a few loose ends (4/5)

Back in 2008, I first read Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth series and was blown away by its depth and complexity. Pandora's Star (Commonwealth 1) (2004) held as many surprises as it did characters, really an astonishing feat of space opera. The sequel, Judas Unchained (Commonwealth 2) (2005), pushed the plot full-throttle only to offer a poor conclusion ripe for further sequels: The Void Trilogy (2007-2010). Again, but not to the extent as Pandora's Star, Hamilton craftily constructed a grandiose space opera plot only to conclude weakly with, yet again, enough open ends for further sequels: The Chronicle of The Fallers (2014). This ties in directly with Great North Road because the elements within can all be found scattered throughout the Commonwealth duology and also share the unfortunate concurrence of a weak yet open ending.

Rear cover synopsis:
"St Libra is a paradise for Earth's mega-rich. Until the killing begins.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, AD 2142.

When Detective Sidney Hurst attends a Newcastle murder scene, he discovers the victim is one of the wealthy North family clones. Yet none have been reported missing. And twenty years ago, a North clone billionaire and his household were horrifically murdered in exactly the same manner,on the tropical island of St Libra. So if the murderer is still at large, was Angela Tramelo wrongly convicted? Tough and confident, she never waivered under interrogation, claiming she alone had survived an alien attack.

Investigating this potential alien threat now becomes the Human Defence Agency's top priority. St Libra's bio-fuel is the lifeblood of Earth's economy and must be secured. A vast expedition is mounted via the Newcastle gateway, and teams of experts are dispatched to the planet--along with Angela Tramelo, grudgingly released from prison. But the expedition is cut off deep within St Libra's rainforests, and the murders begin. Angela insists it's the alien, but her colleagues aren't sure. Maybe she did see an alien, or maybe she has other reasons for being on St Libra."


Wealthy North American Kane North thought his personal drive to be so important that he had himself cloned. Considering his war injuries in Afghanistan (141), this was Kane's only option. His three brother-sons (Augustine, Bartram, and Constantine) were born in 2012 and quickly assume command over the North family's growing financial empire. This domestic empire soon expands to other planets when gateways to other planets are opened with their specific interest on St Libra, a massive arboreally endowed planet lacking sentient life, animals, and even insects. Their nearly complete control of the newly founded bioil (bio-fuel) and its distribution to Earth makes each of the first generation of clones trillionaires. However, their intrinsic drive isn't perpetual or specific to the desires of Kane North.

While Augustine and Bartram remain loyal to the family’s affairs, Constantine founds his own community in the orbit of Jupiter due his concerns about the direction of human social inertia: “The dead hand of society’s inertia and the financial interest of the elite minority hold us back as a species. They govern us so they can continue to govern us” (864-865). His brothers chose to work for the corporate behemoth, content with the wealth while Constantine chose isolation in his own Marxist state for freedom and to follow his idiosyncratic fixation on perfectly technology for the benefit of his clan, never to fall into the hands of Earth’s military. Much like their drive for success, each North1 (first generation clone of Kane North) makes further clones, hence a blossoming vested interest for the North2 and North3 clones, but even this cycle fails when genetic degradation becomes apparent with the fourth generation.

In 2121, Bartram North is murdered in his St Libra mansion along with his entire staff, save for one member of his harem—Angela. Her professed innocence and accusation of alien intrusion is ignored with no evidence to free her from suspicion. She serves twenty years for the massacre but is later released when another murder is committed in exactly the same fashion—a five-fingered puncture wound to the chest, scrambling the heart and killing an unknown North2 clone. Angela’s innocence is superficial as her history is cloaked in mystery and deception. Armed with “dark weapons” and able to snoop through the mansion around the time of the massacre, her intention as a well-paid harlot is a shadow of her true cause.

The North2 clone found in the river Tyne stumps the local police, an investigation headed by grade-three detective Sid Hurst. The high-profile murder is kept low-key by the North family and the Human Defence Agency (HDA) wish to keep it that way since the murder was committed using the same method as the one on St Libra twenty years prior, a method never released to the public. Even with an unlimited budget, the investigation hits many snags and soon becomes apparent that the murder was a very professional job. The location of the body dump, the vehicle used in the transfer, the driver of he car, the location of the murder… all are difficult to come by when their tracks have been covered so well.

The HDA convince themselves that a sentient alien race can be found on the planet of St Libra and gather a large force to sample the genetic diversity of the northern continent in order to track down the alien which has consumed their passion. Having never discovered an alien race before, the main objective of the HDA is to monitor and attack any intrusion of the malevolent quantum-blossomed crystalline world destroyer. One planet, New Florida, was destroyed by the Zanth’s quantum intrusion even after the HDA's concentrated effort at nuking its quantum sources. With millions of human dead, the gate was sealed and the world left to the enigmatic Zanth—hostile, uncommunicative, insuperable, and all-consuming: “…nothing evaded to Zanth. Nothing survived. Everything became Zanth in the end” (94).

Largely composed of Gospel Warriors, the staff of the HDA fight a holy war against the Zanth as they see the crystalline entity a monstrosity in the eyes of God, “an incarnation of the devil” (504); they “believed Jesus would protect them, that God would ultimately show humans the way to salvation, and that the Zanth would eventually be broken” (92). This crusade against aliens extends to the St Libra exploration where the Gospel Warriors stand on the cusp of belief/disbelief about the alien’s existence. Their fear and anger are projected on Angela, who had been freed from prison in order to assist the team on tracking the alien so they can capture or defeat it. Given that she’s the only to have seen and survived its assault, her presence is either fortuitous or ominous. When murders begin in their isolated camp, all eyes turn to Angela as the suspect but soon the facts point to a much more ill-omened predator bent on blood-lust and revenge.


With 1,087 pages between the covers, the reader would think that the book would be filled with bloated dialogue, verbose descriptions, and rotund rubicund filler. This is to be expected with any Hamilton novel of appreciable length, but what is space opera without the lulls of fanciful world-building? Much like the Commonwealth duology, Great North Road packs punch after punch of gripping plot twists during the lengthy police investigation (easily 5 out of 5 stars for that alone) and the spiraling triple helix of plot threads set for a collision course.

When it comes to world-building, Hamilton doesn’t disappoint in regards to his description of St Libra. The tropical Eden light-years away sounds heavenly, but it’s the terrestrial description of Earth’s status in the year 2143 which disappoints. The European Union has evolved into Grande Europe, a loose relevance to the circumstances developing within the HDA, Newcastle, and the world in general. America plays a small role in Great North Road, only being mentioned I relation to the Zanth-enveloped planet New Florida. As far as Asia or Africa is concerned, the world is limited to Grande Europe and its bureaucratic constituencies. Earth as a background, as a planet is generally ignored in favor of the arboreally rich St Libra, a focus which, given all its wonder, is too drawn out to be of any long-term endearment.

I’ve mentioned the Zanth seven times in this review, as if the Zanth plays a pivotal role in the book’s main plot. Sadly, the Zanth is merely acts a cursor to the xenophobia or HDA and the Gospel Warriors. What the Zanth is why it does what it does is never revealed, which pangs me to think that Great North Road could have a sequel one day in the future. The odd mention on the last page of a “Nuii-Zanth conglobate” (1,087), outside of any context so it’s not a spoiler, tilts the arrow of possible-sequel closer to certainty. But why was the Zanth so underplayed, so underdeveloped? Perhaps the novel was hacked down to a more manageable 1,087 pages and the Zanth become the victim of a merciless editor? And the “dark weapons” were also a failed spectacular. This had been hinted at, menacingly, a few times and when the time came to activate the weapons, I wasn’t at all impressed.

Sid, the detective, and Angela, the once-prisoner, are surely the protagonists in Great North Road. Angela’s deception is ripe for background history and Hamilton doesn’t disappoint as her past is continually brought into focus to explain her actions and her attitude—when it comes to Angela, the frothy tide of her yesteryears is animated with both nuances and grandeur. It’s Angela who ties the whole book together rather than the more prevalent Sid in the earlier chapters. Sid is a family man… that’s about it—he’s simply detective and family man. His ambition for closing the case is obvious but his later actions are questionable in terms of his prior remarks and solace.

The most trialing point of the novel is keeping track of the swathe of different North clones—the powerful North1’s, the middle-management North2’s, and lesser so for the North3’s and the almost non-existent North4’s. It’s hard to breathe idiosyncratic life into a clone who is similar in all regards to its father-brother. Augustine named all of his son-brother beginning with “A” as did Bartram with “B” and Constantine with “C”, yet the sheer amount of clones renders the reader nearly incapable of attaching importance and meaningful characterization to any besides the North1 clones. I finished the book in five full days of reading (my dear eyes ache) and even I was unable to keep track of the North cast without the aid of pencil and paper… not a habit I enjoy when reading for pleasure.

One pleasure found in Great North Road is Hamilton’s attention to detail in surveillance. Smart-dust can be smeared on walls to form a surveillance mesh, molecular trackers can be placed and data reaped when needed, silent drones can be dispatched for discrete scrutiny, and the police station AI can gather this massive amount of data and footage into a complete three-dimensional reproduction spanning days and weeks. The surveillance system sounds secure, but the nefarious elements of the underground gangs wreck havoc on the surveillance as they cover their tracks, rendering simple police work arduously time-intensive with a special need for a clever mind like Sid Hurst. When Sid takes the wheel in the protracted investigation into the unnamed North2’s death, avenues for inquiry are opened time and time again, each line of analysis taking his team deeper and deeper into the truth, whether they, or the HDA or the North’s, like it or not.

If you’ve read Hamilton, you know he’s not timid about including some brash, graphic sex, something which can be found in the Commonwealth duology, Fallen Dragon, and Misspent Youth. The author may have responded to this criticism by adding very little sex in Great North Road. Even explicit words are generally lacking, instead being replaced by the annoyingly ubiquitous curse of 2143: “crap on it” or “crap on that” or “crap on me” or “crapped on from above”—that potty word “crap” is used extensively and irksomely. Lesser so is the use of the word “harvest” which is used to show that data had been collected, but in the later chapters it seems like everything but wheat and corn is being harvested by the smart-dust or molecular snoops.

Of minor note but somewhat important when considering Hamilton’s growth as an author, Hamilton has infused this novel with a bit of cheekiness, something which I can’t recall seeing much of in the Commonwealth duology or the Void trilogy. My smile brightened when I came across Hamilton’s sensitivity to the social sensitization of the once-called “Personnel Department” which has evolved into “Human Resources”, and here Hamilton takes it to a new level: “HR? …that kind of department is referred to as the Office of Personkind Enablement. Resources sounds like something you dig out of the ground” (71).


Great North Road is a great novel with some irredeemable flaws, surely. It’s not the best of 2012 (David Brin’s Existence and Alastair Reynolds’s Blue Remembered Earth as easy competition) but it’s a definite addition to any library of a Hamilton fan. If the reader wants to cliff-hang on the last page of Great North Road, then Hamilton has left the door wide open for a later sequel to further explain the Zanth and its relation to the rest of plot. Like with Great North Road, I’ll be first in line!

2011: Manhattan in Reverse (Hamilton, Peter F.)

Not as impressive as his novels (4/5)
From October 11, 2011

As a fan of the Commonwealth Series and the Void Trilogy, I was eager to grab an early edition of Manhattan in Reverse to quench my thirst for Hamilton's style of science fiction- wordy, descriptive and all-encompassing. Indeed, some of the stories in this 7-story collection uphold some the prior values, but the lack the sort of characterization which I fondly recall when the reading the five books mentioned in the opening sentence, a skill I thought which Hamilton was especially adept at. Unfortunately, Hamilton was unable to infiltrate characterization into these morsels of science fiction (it's a common symptom of short fiction, I know). Regardless, none of the stories fall flat on its face and all the conclusions leave the reader with something to ponder. It may not be varied at Banks's The State of the Art or as technologically wonderful as Reynolds's Zima Blue, but the collection comes across as a good addition to the Hamilton library lining my shelves.


Watching Trees Grow (2000, novella) - 3/5 - Justin Ascham Raleigh is murdered in his own room but police and Raleigh family representative Edward Buchanan Raleigh are at a loss to explain the motive. The 18th Century long-life Roman descendants of this parallel Earth operate battery-powered cars, have telephone and electrical usage, and are on the verge of creating nuclear fission. As Edward ages past his first centennial era, he makes very little progress on the case of his family member's death , but humanity, meanwhile, has at least colonized the solar system. After his second centennial era, more doors to the case become shut and the science of the time pushes the investigation deeper still. Humanity now colonizes the stars in the early 21st century. --- There's a heavy focus on the history of this alternative universe, which siphons page space away from some much needed characterization. While all together interesting along the lines of Stross' Accelerando, the cast are merely cardboard cutouts with names. 85 pages

Footvote (2004, shortstory) - 4/5 - A single wormhole to a new world is opened by a single man who is the only person alive knowing how it operates and who is the same man who has written the new stringent laws for entry onto the planet. Colin is the ex-husband of Jannette and has decided to find a better life on New Suffolk rather than eke out an existence in England during the current depression gripping the kingdom brought on by the exodus to the new planet. Collin packs for the trip to the wormhole with his kids while Jannette prepares for a wormhole protests. --- Using a bit of current news in his SF story, Hamilton throws in the ongoing economic hardship with the twist of a new wormhole. The cast may be limited but there's a good sympathetic quality to Colin and Jannette. 25 pages

If at First... (2007, shortstory) - 5/5 - Chief detective Lanson investigates a seemingly persistent stalker of a very wealthy, very industrious technology entrepreneur. Jenson, the perpetrator, spins a story of how the tycoon has built a time machine to inhabit the mind of his childhood self in order to make huge money. The detective is oddly intrigued by the story of logic and coincidences, and so decides to go after the truth. --- Short and sweet with a great ending. Great possibilities with the story, makes you think and smile. 11 pages

The Forever Kitten (2005, shortstory) - 4/5 - Creator of pre-pubescent rejuvenation is bailed out of jail by a wealthy family man. An original kitten from the experimental rejuvenation is in the man's possession and wishes for the procedure to be repeated before the deadline looms. --- A predictable but cute story engineered by Hamilton with traces of pre-Commonwealth commonalities. 4 pages

Blessed by an Angel (2007, shortstory) - 3/5 - A Higher "angel" covertly descends upon the anti-Higher planet of Anagaska (of the Void Trilogy), where it seeks to proselytize its Higher morals among the Advancer citizens. Police Chief Paul tracks down the Higher in order to stop its blatant infection of the population, where three youth are both the players and the pawns. --- Again, somewhat predictable by nature, the story unfolds in a linear fashion while ironing out the pleats of rising questions. A nice addition to the Void history. 18 pages

The Demon Trap (2008, novella) - 3/5 - The death of three Dynasty members aboard a shot down plane on the nearly barren planet of Nova Zealand is cause enough to assign the newly rejuvenated Paula Myo to the case. The investigation is done is a perfectly tidy manner put the ultimate motivation for the assassination will call upon Paula's own ties to her history on the infamous planet of Huxley's Haven (of the Commonwealth series). --- Paula shines in this story as her investigative skills are pressed full on. The sequence of events is a joy to watch but the after-the-fact sequences of working out the ultimate motivation is a bit hairy. Not so sure about the ending. 73 pages

Manhattan in Reverse (2011, novella) - 3/5 - The colony planet of Menard is having trouble with its indigenous species, which are classifies as non-sentient yet are now exhibiting some primal proto-sentient behavior. Who better in the Commonwealth than Paula Myo to wedge into an investigation like his! --- Paula is a very odd inclusion to the story which doesn't involve the Directorate whatsoever. Snip a few plot strings and the story could be bereft of the Commonwealth altogether, which would have improved the story's independence when compared to the rest of the collection. 44 pages

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

1969: Gentle Invaders (Santesson, Hans Stefan)

Humor and Emotion: how these monsters are different (4/5)

Aliens are often depicted as malevolent despots, unscrupulous pillagers, conniving bureaucrats, or savage warriors. It’s refreshing to see aliens in the spotlight at truly benevolent caretakers or maintaining an innocuous presence. Perhaps these latter two extraterrestrial dispositions don’t provide as much cinematic grandeur as the former three, but their seemingly innocent temperament easily allows for humor and emotion to bubble up through an author’s creative talents; the stories in Gentle Invaders generally follow this line of thought.

Rear cover synopsis:
“The Alien is most often described by science fictionists as a horror-inspiring monster with insidiously evil intentions.

Our monsters are different.”

Monsters are often synonymous with aliens because of their projected grotesqueness and wildly exotic physiology. But nearly have the stories in this collection feature humanoid aliens. Food for thought:
How many of the people you see around you every day, the anonymous people that just look a little odd somehow, the people about who you think briefly that they don't even look human--the queer ones you notice and then forget--how many of them aren't human at all in the sense that we understand that word? (Brackett, p.53)
It’s interesting to note that the first four stories are all by female writers: Sasha Miller (1933- ), Leigh Brackett (1915-1978), Miriam Allen deFord (1888-1975), and Zenna Henderson (1917-1983). The editor, Hans Stefan Santesson, either understood that women do have a place in the science fiction community (seeing their important stories through the 50’s and 60’s) or the editor found that the women better understood the benevolent of innocuous disposition of the aliens he had in mind. Sadly, the male writers (William Tenn, Mack Reynolds, and Eric Frank Russell) steal the show with their wowing stories.


Sit by the Fire (Myrle Benedict, 1958) – 2/5 – Crotchety old Uncle Rebel lives in the hills and don’t see much of anyone at all. A young girl, shy yet svelte, approaches his out of the blue and, out of kindness, lures her to stay in his cabin. The local boys take an interest in her but she cowers to Uncle Rebel when she explains her reluctance with the natives and details her own odd physiology. 9 pages ----- Myrle Benedict (pseudonym for Sasha Miller) completely penned the story in phonetic southern drawl with abbreviated words and “a-“ intensifier prefixes (i.e. a-sittin’, a-runnin’”). The first story isn’t one that grabs the reader because it’s the human who appears gentler than the alien girl, who acts as a catalyst for Uncle Rebel’s caring. Perhaps the notion of alien’s approached country-bumpkins was silly in the 1950’s, but the reader will soon see that this idea tends to be the norm of the era.

The Queer Ones (Leigh Brackett, 1957) – 4/5 – A small town newspaper owner, doctor, and county health officer visit a remote family. One boy whose features are dissimilar to the rest of the rest of the family also has an odd internal structure. When the doctor is killed and the newspaper owner befriends another of the odd-looking children, the secret of the aliens’ hilltop encampment is slowly exposed, but the investigators may be fighting for more than their lives. 37 pages ----- Another small town is at the center of the alien incursion, but this story involves the more respectable citizens of the town. It’s a straight forward mystery of who the boy’s father is and why the aliens have set up a camp on the hilltop of their community. The ending is a tad dark when compared to the rest of the Gentle Invaders entries, but it wraps up nicely enough.

Freak Show (Miriam Allen deFord, 1958) – 4/5 – Rasi’s revolting image makes her perfect for the local freak show circus. Her mask makes her approachable and her secret mission is to see the land in order to render the humans docile before her species land on Earth to make another home for themselves. Rasi’s carnie subterfuge seems to fail and her species plight of nomadic drift may continue. 10 pages ----- Miriam would have been 70 years old at the time of this story’s publication, a remarkable feat for a woman who started to write science fiction in her 60’s. When thinking of Golden Age sci-fi, one recalls the sense of wonderment but not subtle finesse. Given the circus theme (a lรก Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels [1950]), both its lead-up to the conclusion and the conclusion itself were a stroke of intelligent follow-through.

Subcommittee (Zenna Henderson, 1962) – 3/5 – The Linjeni’s landed on Earth with vague intentions. Someone shot first and now the ships are being slaughtered by the humans. The truce is at a standstill with their request for the oceans, but when asked if they want the oceans, they desist. The wife of the major in charge of the negotiation cares for their son at their home just near the glass barrier of the Linjeni. Splinter, the son, digs under the dome to more closely understand the Linjeni. 21 pages ----- Zenna has an insight into what would most likely happen during an alien intrusion. The inhumane, disconnected attempt at a concrete understanding undermines the gentler humanistic attempt to bridge vague gaps of understanding in order to find what each species share. This story is more heart-warming than the others but weakens under its predictability.

Unnatural Act (Edward D. Hoch, 1969) – 4/5 – When the aliens come to America in October 1989, the first physical examination of the species reveals a distinct lack of sexual organs. While all the other facts of the aliens were released, the American government-backed Society for the Suppression of Salaciousness is leery of the truth, which is soon revealed in a metropolitan New York newspaper and the backlash of the puritan people is both extreme and deadly. 9 pages ----- This story was previously unpublished and remains the most conversational of all the stories. It’s cheeky in its implication in modern contexts but may have been shrewder when taken into the context of the seemingly innocent collection of science fiction tales. The fact that the aliens’ sex organs were also part of its vocal organs conjured images of “unnatural acts” from the puritan populace.

The Night He Cried (Fritz Leiber, 1953) – 3/5 – A sultry woman signals a passing car and reveals herself to be from Galactic Center where she urges the man of his wayward human passion of extracurricular coitus. The man shoots her in the abdomen, but her alien physiology allows her to strip the car’s chromium for a dress and her seven tentacles reform to the “seven extremities of the human female” (99) anatomy. Reformed, the vixen attempts to seduce the same man but this time in his own home when his own girl is there. 8 pages ----- Not the strongest Leiber story I’ve read, and I do like my Leiber short stories! This story has a straight forward alien seduction but its motivation is a bit vague to pull it off successfully. I’d say the story has more of a shock factor going for it more than anything really creative.

The Martians and the Coys (Mack Reynolds, 1951) – 5/5 – A hick Kentucky family (Maw, Paw, Hank, Zeke, and Lem Coy) live for shootin’ coons and making moonshine though Lem’s fancies shootin’ himself a Martian (or a “Martin” as he calls them). As if answering a prayer, Baren Darl and Seegal Wan confront the human with their English skills and three advanced weapons for destroying all of humanity, unless Superman stop them: the I.Q. Depressor, a poison called nark, and the lepbonic plague fleas. 12 pages ----- Another country bumpkin meets the aliens plot, but this one is more fun than all the others combined. Mack Reynolds is known for his Socialist science fiction, which is usually as off-putting as the last 10% of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle Socialist tirade. Thankfully, the fresh alien perspective of the incursion onto hick territory puts smiles on faces.

Quiz Game (Frank M. Robinson, 1953) – 4/5 – Having descended onto an Indiana farm, a Hoosier professor is tasked with compiling and limiting questions to ask the small, green, and scaly aliens who now appear to be dying in the university’s chemistry lab. Self-interest requests of cancer cures and atomic fissionables top the list, but considering their rate of mortal decay, sociological and government questions come next. Given their alienness, perhaps even these are unsuitable for a species on its deathbed. 12 pages ----- Much like Zenna Henderson’s story, Robinson takes the approach of seeing humans as being too self-absorbed to see the clarity of the situation. Are humans in such despair that questions must be direly put forth to alien visitors?

Dear Devil (Eric Frank Russell, 1950) – 5/5 – Visiting a post-apocalyptic Earth, a crew of Martians find little to hold their interest before moving onto Venus, except for the poet aboard who voluntarily stays indefinitely. The telepathic poet, Fander, molds the blossoming mind of a young boy and eventually starts a thriving village which is eager to save humanity. His noble cause has seen the community expand and its technological prowess surpasses the poet’s non-technical mind, for years… then decades. 34 pages ----- As gentle as an alien comes, Russell’s story highlights the possible benevolence of an alien species, not through the eyes of a scientist or bureaucrat, but through the eyes of an artists, a poet. His “humanistic” outlook fosters the growth of the human community and while he has very little to teach in technical regards, the human brain can live and learn. Beautiful (and republished a number of times).

Party of the Two Parts (William Tenn, 1954) – 5/5 – The Gtetans are notoriously petty criminals and one named L’payr has just been accused of his 2,343rd felony for selling pornography to adolescents. The amoebic alien flees to remote, fledging Earth in order to procure fuel for his stolen ship.  The only possession worth trading, and not getting caught in trading technology to the humans, is his pornography. The biology teacher who buys the lewd alien material publishes it in a textbook and becomes ensconced in galactic law with L’payr. 20 pages ----- The silliest of the stories in the collection is also one of the most detailed in terms of perspective. The story is written from the point of view of “Stellar Sergeant O-dik-veh, Commander of Outlaying Patrol Office 1001625” to “Headquarters Desk Sergeant Hoy-veh-chalt, Galactic Patrol Headquarters on Vega XXI” (157). It covers so much alien physiology and galactic law to make the entire story silly on absurd on ridiculous; the perfect ending to the collection!

1965: Monsters (van Vogt, A.E.)

Each monster as beastly and unique as the last (4/5)
From July 14, 2010

My first van Vogt novel was the Voyage of the Space Beagle, which was brilliantly written even though the whole "space monster" theme was a repetitive cliqued idea. But van Vogt proved that each monster can be just as weird and frightening as the last. Indeed, he continues his fine "space monster" tradition in this collection, where, again, each proceeding monster is as original and well thought as the last. I was expecting some cheesy storylines as one would often find from 1940s sci-fi thrasher movies, but van Vogt surprised me when he took a mature stab at all these stories. A fine collection!

The stories are all written around 1945, with 1939 ("The Sea Thing") being the earliest and 1950 ("War of Nerves" and "Enchanted Village") being the latest. Your initial suspicions would rest on generically scary squid- or ant-based aliens with slimy skins and evil intentions. Guess again.

Monsters (1965) was later republished as The Blal (1976) with exactly the same stories in exactly the same order. The only difference is The Blal's addition of giving each monster its own classification through a "genre." For the sake of cinematic drama, I've also included the genre of each monster to give it that special B-Grade sci-fi quality.


[Space Monster] Not Only Dead Men (1942, shortstory) - 4/5 - Frog-like, benevolent race of aliens coyly renders the human whalers assistive in the hunt for the great galactic space monster hidden in earth's oceans. 28 pages

[Robot Monster] Final Command (1949, shortstory) - 3/5 - Robots assisting humans in their lives prove to be equal in humanity to the humans themselves; if only they could be aware of the fact and find the means to meet that equality. 29 pages

[Avianoid Monster] War of Nerves (1950, novelette) - 4/5 - Grosvenor of the Space Beagle is back to psychically manhandle the bully avian monsters light years away with the assistance of the ship's gear and his specialty in Nexialism. 29 pages

[Martian Monster] Enchanted Village (1950, shortstory) - 5/5 - A first person pure narrative about a man shipwrecked alone on Mars where his only possible source of shelter and sustenance is an abandoned organic alien village. 20 pages

[Mystery Monster] Concealment (1943, shortstory) - 3/5 - The Watcher senses an approaching Earth starship and attempts to suicide as his warning to Fifty Suns is shot off, but the crew capture him to find the origins of his people. 20 pages

[Oceanic Monster] The Sea Thing (1939, shortstory) - 3/5 - Island stranded shark hunters confront the supposedly island shark god, which poses as a man yet can revert to a shark at will. 39 pages

[Revivified Monster] Resurrection (1948, shortstory) - 3/5 - Character laden alien craft encounters vertebrate bipedal species who have an unknown apocalyptic past which they try to revive through resurrection, yet through ignorance, too. 23 pages

[Multimorph Monster] Vault of the Beast (1940, novelette) - 4/5 - Transdimensional xeno-morph takes the shape of various humans in order to bring a talented mathematician to Mars to unlock the prime number secured vault of a mysterious entity. 32 pages