Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, August 29, 2013

1965: The Escape Orbit (White, James)

Details of escape eclipse the flaws of motivation (4/5)

James White: a middling author famous for his Sector General series, of which some have been hits and others have been duds. This mediocrity extends to his non-series books as well. His novel Lifeboat (1972) felt heavily structured and thus as dry as the emergency protocol card in the airplane pouch, taking on the feeling that it must certainly be for the juvenile audience. Then there’s Tomorrow is Too Far (1971) which had a grand design and mentally titillating unfolding—sophisticated. The Escape Orbit (variant title: Open Prison) was written in the first quarter of White’s career as an author well before his 1980s slew of Sector General novels.

Aside from the collections of Monsters & Medics (1977) and Ambulance Ship (1979), this is the last unread White novel in my collection. I’m keen on his non-series novel, but the draw of the Sector General series has been latent for a while now.

Rear cover synopsis:
“When the survivors of his starship were taken prisoner by the insect-creatures against whom Earth had fought a bitter war for nearly a century, Sector Marshal Warren expected to be impounded in a prison camp like those the Earthmen maintained. But the ‘Bugs’ had a simpler method of dealing with prisoners—they dumped them on an uninhabited planet, without weapons or tools, and left them to fend for themselves against the planet’s environment and strange monsters. A ‘Bug’ spaceship orbited above, guarding them.

Escape was impossible, the ‘Bugs’ told them—but it was absolutely necessary, for reasons Warren couldn’t tell even his own men.”


Imprisoned in a Bug ship awaiting transport to their holding facility, the crew of Warren’s ship expect similar conditions to their current cell: stale air, artificial food, and watchful eyes above. They are transferred to an atmospheric ship, rather than a spaceliner, where they catch a glimpse of a luscious planet below. The ship descends on rockets, they are kicked out of the ship, and the ships speeds away back into orbit. Their disbelief is as dramatic as some of their injuries—they have been left on the surface of a planet, without walls or guards, yet also without provisions or assistance.

Their descent to the surface had been witnessed by competing bands of prisoners who confront Warren’s crew. These prisoners, also once enlisted men fighting in the war with the Bugs, assess Warren’s rank and his immediately make him decided which camp to choose—the camp of “civilians”, who aim to adapt to the planet and make it their own or the camp of the committee, whose one desire is to find a way off the godforsaken planet and return to fight the war.

Unbeknownst to the bands of men, Warren outranks all of them as Sector Marshal and, therefore, is the honorary head of the Committee. His leadership approach of “taking the bull by the horns” is appreciated by the already committed member of the escape plan, but the civilians are nonplussed by his long-term drive and desire for everyone’s involvement. While some plans for escape call for a homemade spaceship and direct assault on the guard ship in orbit, Warren is most struck by the ingenuity of the Anderson Plan which calls for high levels of subterfuge, hijacking, and hurdles of assumption.

In order for the plan to succeed, cooperation between sects and villages, committee and civilian camps must be sought. Deciding a fixed date is best for motivation, Warren begins his massive with more than 1,000 days leading up to the day of escape. The men grin with irony at the T-minus 1,033-day mark.

The itemized agenda for the master escape plan entails a massive amount of detail ranging from cross-continental logistics, to digging a maze tunnels, to casting iron, to reproducing the Bug atmosphere—all of this to be done without modern technology and under the watchful eye of the guard ship. Inventiveness and coordination are the two most essential keys to the plan and Warren has them in his hand, but there still remains the group of civilians—enlisted members who have rescinded their duties—who secretly concoct ways to deter Warren’s plans in one way or another: “Like his arguments, they [the civilians] needed to be worked into better shape. Because it had become very plain to Warren that the main obstacle to the success of the Escape was not, as he had hitherto thought, the Bug guardship” (63). The opposition’s sloth hampers progress, their destruction of property ruins the need for camouflage, and their manipulation of protocols aim to unbalance Warren’s firm stance on escape.

Through Warren’s gift of social foresight and knack for problem solving on the fly, he is able to deaden the impact of the sabotage and focus on the goal—escape. The opposition’s last attempt at executing the escape plan, with hundreds of days’ work complete and decades of man-hours invested, comes by word of a recent prisoner—his message of mutual Human and Bug defeat aims to destabilize Warren’s gung-ho attitude of escape, but little does anyone know that Warren actually has more reason than it seems. Beyond mere faith and logic, Warren is destined to prevail over the planet and the guard ship.


The novel’s premise is simple and alluring.
The actual plan for escape is logical and appealing.
The on-goings are feasible and compelling.
It’s all a bit too neat, however. Everything, with mighty Warren at the helm, goes smoothly, predictably. Warren can do no wrong and even the women find him sexually attractive; he’s the ideal hero who the men wish to become and the women wish to be with. In essence, the hero is a great leader yet without character, he has a great vision yet without a history, and he has reassurance without any track record. So, while everything it prim and proper and has its place, it’s all too neat, too structured.

One aspect which falls flat is the role of women on the planet, in society, in the committee, and in the Escape plan. Is this glaring flaw White’s intention or White’s ignorance? It boils down to this: women shouldn’t be trusted with information because they’re naturally too emotional; women shouldn’t be involved with the heavy work because they are too weak and should be concerned about rearing children; women should stick to the simplest of tasks because of their inexperience, feebleness, and illogic. The entire planet, society, committee, and Escape plan is a misogynistic “boys only” club. The one female with a lead role, Warren’s chief psychologist, while intellectual and influential, succumbs to her womanly duty and the subtle charms of Warren—she falls in love.

As mentioned, the lure of the book is the plan of escape. Thankfully, White nails this point. All of the planning, throughout two-thirds of the novel, is meticulous and necessary. Mentally keeping the string of details is fascinating but actually reading the fast-paced escape is more captivating; deaths ensue, small details go awry, and success seems imminent. While the reader is privy to the details of the escape on the surface of the planet, once the hijackers are airborne, the reader experiences the point-by-point advance and retreat with rapt attention.

The motivation for escape is understandably palpable, but White offers very little background on the history of the Bugs or the Humans, the onset of the war between the two, and the warring affairs of the either side. If the humans are to be made sympathetic characters, the reader would want to know the militaristic drive to vanquish the enemy. The enemy, in this case, has a generic name and nothing else. Considering the humans were captured and imprisoned with some level of decency, any attempt of hostility against the aliens seems excessive. The war-like passion which humans desire appears to be funneled into a pressing need to kill the enemy in the name of some intangible goal. Case in point: I sympathized with the aliens in the conclusion rather than the humans.


The original ace paperback edition has 188 pages. The conclusion was tidy… to a point, but the level of detail involved with the planning needed an outlet—a sequel. The Bug benevolence toward prisoners is unexplored and the Bug aliens are generally untouched (aside from a few splashes of blood). I rarely ever say a novel needs a sequel, but The Escape Orbit would be one novel which could spawn a decent continuance. While White’s take on women and aliens is without effort, his attention to detail on the most crucial part of the novel—the escape, itself—is grand. Come for the escape, stay for the escape, and pay scant detail to the glaring flaws.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

1997: Toward the End of Time (Updike, John)

The flawed mind & body of an imperfect man (4/5)

Some titans of the English language line my shelves, among them: Gene Wolfe, J. G. Ballard, Dan Simmons, Iain Banks and Neal Stephenson. Though the I love the science fiction and borderline fantasy of these five men, one author, above all others, entrances me with his masterful use of the language: John Updike. Toward the End of Time seems to be Updike’s only science fiction-esque novel so I was eager to read it with my experience of Rabbit, Run (1960), Of the Farm (1965) and Afterlife and Other Stories (1994). Languid passages of ambiance, unique and precise descriptions of objects of affection, and the literary exhibition of human flaw are among the reasons that spark fires of inspiration in my mind.

While labeling him a “penis with a thesaurus” may suit some, a thesaurus is used for renaming lingual units in a text and cannot greatly alter the context (the text around the text) without the author’s intention. If you like reading words, read the dictionary; if you like reading context, read a book… Updike is most suitable. A dictionary or thesaurus can put perspective on your search for language origin or pronunciation, but offers very little in terms of context with other words. Updike, however, offers nearly a pure sense of context within the reasons of the prior paragraph: ambiance, affection and human flaw. I read this author’s work with moderation, not because the experience is too rich, but because I like to think about which novel I would like to read next; now, this stands at Rabbit Redux (1971), The Witches of Eastwick (1984) or Terrorist (2006).


“Ben Turnbull is a sixty-six-year-old retired investment counselor living north of Boston in the year 2020. A recent war between the United States and China has thinned the population and brought social chaos. In Massachusetts, the dollar has been replaced by scrip; instead of taxes, one pays protection money to competing racketeers. Despite the vast political upheavals, Ben’s life, traced by his journal entries over the course of a year, retains many of its accustomed comforts.

A science buff, Ben soon finds his personal history curiously connected to the ‘many-worlds’ hypothesis derived from quantum theory. And, as his identity branches back through history and ahead in the evolution of the universe, his own moral, nature-enshrouded existence moves toward the end of time…”


Nuclear war with China has thinned out the American population, gutted Washington D. C., and largely destroyed the west coast… but China was the bigger loser in the game of mutually assured destruction. Life in America, specifically in Massachusetts, goes on. Grudges are still held, the weather is still the center of conversation, water and electricity still run, and FedEx still delivers packages, yet a frission exists between Ben and his reality—a disbelief in the order of things which causes him to fantasize and detach himself from the sluggish reality of his autumn years. Yet, ever the rascal, Ben occasionally waxes poetic about the benefits of the war: “One advantage of the collapse of civilization is that the quality of young women who are becoming whores has gone way up” (39).

His undated journal entries of the year 2020 chronicle the fallacy of his mind. It begins when his mind glimpses a gory image of shooting his wife in the face with a shotgun, whereby he envisions a life where he marries a young prostitute with a sumptuous derriere and experiences the tribulations of living with her, his third wife. Their relationship is libidinous yet tense, casual yet strained. Where Ben considers himself the pinnacle of experience, his whore wife is a recovering addict who is “like a kite whose string is still held in my [Ben’s] hands but whose distant paper shape I can see fluttering and dipping out of control” (91). This coquetry of angst and passion of Ben’s continues until his fantasy reaches its end where his fantasy wife leaves and his real wife, Gloria, returns from a trip.

Here, the reader must confront the unreliable narrator.

In the land where police are ineffective and government inoperable, petty criminals create rackets to extort money from households so that they are “protected”. Ben trusts his local racket and even pays a premium for extra services of security, a transaction which Gloria detests. Eventually as seasons change, so too does the governance of racketeering. A band of mere teenagers begin their dominance of Ben’s neighborhood and meet resistance to their corruption with ill acts of violence and destruction. Initially resistive to their juvenile surge of occupation, Ben grabs a gun a meets the gang which is starting to squat on his property. Ben’s gentler side soon sees the impressionable teens for their worth; he channels his knowledge and experience to the teens for a cut of their profit and the shine of their admiration, but having an affair with the 14-year-old Doreen is icing on the cake.

Ben’s fantasies are not limited to the sexual exploitations of a philandering elderly man, but also touch upon historical elements of the initial spread of Christianity and back to the turn of the millennium. These penned dalliances of daydreaming follow the deteriorating mind and body of Ben who has a strong self-image of himself as source of knowledge and experience, yet without an apprentice to bequeath his trove of a lifetime’s existence. His wife, Gloria, is not impressed with his air of intellectual glory and he condemns her inability to see the logic in all of his arguments; only Ben is apt to see his self-worth, yet this worth lessens in value when he is diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Succumbing to the air of death, Ben corporeally digresses from once an independent and mobile individual to the house-ridden façade of a man who has been cast out of his own bedroom, changes his own diapers and suffers the personal humiliation of a leaky catheter. His still considers his mind strong but his fantasies are limited due to the lack of exposure he has to his environment; he condemns the frailty of his body and reflects, “We are herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle. Death will release us from his responsibility, which grows, morning by morning, ever heavier” (51). And with death, Ben, the patriot, still has a reservoir of resentment: “Sometimes I think the thing I’ll mind about death is not so much not being alive but no longer being an American” (230).


Ben’s resentment for non-intellectual affairs is manifested through his misogyny. Two marriages had failed him and even at the wilting age of sixty-six he isn’t keen to support the flame of his third marriage with Gloria. Through the eyes of Ben, our occasionally humble yet unreliable narrator, the reader is taken through his extra-marital affair with a cherubic, bubble-bottomed hussy named Deirdre. Considerably his intellectual inferior, Deirdre is simply an outlet for Ben’s carnal forays both in corporeal form an in verbal form; their trysts are vulgar as is their conversation. Eclipsing the gluteus goddess is yet another object of carnal affection: the scamp and racketeering Doreen. Her male companions permit Ben to explore her juvenile body because of his great business advice, an allowance which Ben doesn’t attach any emotion or significance to—she’s simple another woman to exploit.

In the introduction, I mention Updike’s gift of providing “unique and precise descriptions of objects of affection”. In his Afterlife collection, these descriptions focused on the warm waves of reminiscing for lost love and childhood; the emotional draw of such memories were wondrous with melancholy. However, in Toward the End of Time, Ben’s objects of affection stray greatly from mere memories; rather, it seems that the female caboose is the center of his more poetic passages. I hesitate to say that the descriptions are derogatory because the language Updike uses is both beautiful and humorous; the awkward fulcrum between the two is interesting, oddly gratifying as if Updike was trying to lessen the impact of a graphic pictorial of Ben’s fantasy. Ben’s curious focus on the female rump takes on three forms: by play, by sight and by function.

(1) By play: “She [Deirdre] had put herself in doggie position, presenting me with the glazed semi-rounds of her tight young buttocks, and, visible in the moonlight between them, the lovable little flesh-knot of her anus, suggestive of a healed scar” (42).

(2) By sight: “I tormented myself with remembering the silken rivers of dark body hair that loving inspection discovered everywhere on her limbs, and … the drier other aperture like a tight-lidded reptilian wink” (139).

(3) By function: “I shied my mind away from picturing my daughter-in-law settling her white bulk on the toilet seat and letting her ample fundament part to give nature its daily toll of fecal matter. Feels good, does it?” (195).

Ben’s poetic turns of lingual introspection doesn’t stop with curious description of butts, but extends to hauntingly warm sensations of familiarity: “Furtive footsteps were detectable below and beyond me, fait as thumbprints on black glass” (45). Transient passages such as this make Ben Turnbull make him an occasionally relatable character to the reader, these eerie parts of common human life made poetic strikes the reader in the heart and in my mind (that’s if you fancy language at all). On the opposite spectrum, Ben is familiar with the taxonomy and classification of all the plants in his garden yet he is unable to write about poetically; rather, his stale prose when writing about his wife’s garden is hollow, written down for matter of fact, for due process. The reader could intuit that Ben’s intellectual side is much more formal when describing reality, the names of things learnt. This botanical exposé is also rather boring if one is not accustomed to the seasonal varieties of New England flora… which I most certainly am not.

Aside from the lyrical and questionable prose of the buttocks and the purposeful outlining of his wife’s garden, Toward the End of Time offers the reader with a man maintaining a strong yet sporadic mind and a strong yet sporadic body. While his poetic musings charm the mind, Ben’s dalliances are insightful detours to his coping with a mundane life; while his feats between the sheets are suggestive of his physical prowess, lurking in his body is the corruption of cancer, a silent enemy which robs him of his independent mobility and control of his lower sphincters. His once preoccupation with the bottom and its functional disposal comes full circle when he is constantly aware of the contents of his diaper and the soreness of immobility.

Though a repulsive man at times, the reader can’t help but sympathize with the frail scaffolding of a man around an insightful mind… Ben said it himself, “We are herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle” (51); as his body decays, his corporeality still maintains a brain of wit and knowledge, a mind which nurtures experience and applies experience, yet now his body, his physical onus, limits him to his lonely house where his own wife has expelled him from her company. This is essentially the death of Ben, the mind.


Flawed for its detours of fantasy from Ben’s mind into the realms of history, Toward the End of Time still has a solid core of exploring the death of a man. This is not a spoiler to the conclusion, but the series of steps in Ben’s life is synonymous with the death of his mind. His journal is testament to his intelligence and insight, yet it will remain is only outlet for intellectualism as his body goes to waste. The reader can find humor in Ben’s unusually specific descriptions and, in the end, this reviewer hopes others can see the mortal mind behind the words of the journal, those words of both slight repugnance and sympathetic recurrences.

Monday, August 19, 2013

1956: Pincher Martin (Golding, William)

Sympathetic plight turn suitable purgatory (4/5)

William Golding’s debut novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), is widely known for its portrayal of the savage child, the regressive state of human nature when faced with hardship. When stranded on an island and without adults for leadership or their rules to live by, the children descend into primality, vindictiveness, group delusion, and murder. Pincher Martin is similar in this regard but set on an isolated rock with one man, his plight, his thoughts and his delusions in solitude. Where Lord of the Flies can be seen as the state of individuals in society without control, Pincher Martin could be seen as the state of individual control without society.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Drowsing in the freezing North Atlantic, Christopher Hadley Martin, temporary lieutenant, happens upon a grotesque rock, an island that appears only on weather charts. To drink there is a pool of rain water; to eat there are weeds and sea anemones. Through the long hours with only himself to talk to, Martin must try to assemble the truth of his fate, piece by terrible piece.”


His navy ship having been sunk, Martin drifts in loneliness upon the Atlantic currents prone to undulation of oceanic waves and persistence of the blurred sun above. The valleys and hills of the wet ebony expanse seamlessly morph into a rocky island, a minute outpost of life amid the bleak seascape of his ship’s destruction. Assessing his clothing and pockets, Martin sets his will to triumph over idleness while evaluating the topology of his rocky pinnacle for food, drink, shelter and zenith. With everything accounted for, he begins his monotony of daily routine, sets plans for his inevitable rescue, and bides his time with pet projects: digging channels for fresh water, constructing a dummy for sign of rescue and giving himself an enema.

Succumbing to the chill of the north Atlantic and the icicle of isolation, Martin’s mind begins to slip into fantasy and nostalgia, flashes of disconnectedness with reality and the present; his personality fragments and regroups, temporarily destabilizes into a vivid chaos of confusion and impossibility. Martin idly longs for the boots he cast off soon after the sinking and cherishes the limited number of other items he has on his self, including a lifejacket, foil squares and string—each item is vital to his sanity and survival.

Lethargy and boredom dance at the periphery of his forced preoccupation; each idle second allows the ennui to well up and consume him, “there was nothing to do but protect normality” (175). Yet, the pain throughout his body makes his sluggish, a signal from the center of himself to rest for recuperation. “The chill and the exhaustion spoke to him clearly. Give up, they said, lie still. Give up the thought of return, the thought of living. Break up, leave go” (45). Thus, the cyclic battle of action and inaction grips Martin’s life. Each errant detour into idleness is shaken back into life by Martin’s “center”, his central command for survival:

There was at the centre of all the pictures and pains and voices a fact like a bar of steel, a thing—that which was so nakedly the centre of everything that it could not even examine itself. In the darkness of the skull, it existed, a darker dark, self-existent and indestructible … The centre began to work. It endured the needle [of pain] to look sideways, put thoughts together. (45)

This center of sanity is linked to his life before the accident, before entering the navy, before making enemies; his choice of actions from his past haunt even the busiest of his moments while perched on his rocky island. The restive center of himself “that could not examine itself danced on in the world behind his eyes” (84) where his own motives are shadowed by his struggle to merely survive. Atonement for his past sins is marked by this pebbly purgatory where he is unable to be saved or enter death.


Pincher Martin is as minimalist of a novel as you can get—one character, one location. This minimalism results in a dichotomy: while scenes, sensations and occurrences often repeat, the entire still remains intense and somewhat dynamic. Martin bides his time by doing little construction projects on his islet—a channel for fresh water and a stone body to signal for help—but the majority of his time is seemingly spent scurrying around the same islet discovering landmarks of crevices, cliffs and crannies. His sense of wonder borders on naivety while his mind slips further into a delirium ripe for his undoing.

A simple Wikipedia search for Pincher Martin reveals that the description of the isolated islet fits the features of Rockall, about 600 kilometers WNW of Glasgow. Martin partitions the topology of the rock, each part with specific use or personal history. As Martin’s scurries about the rock on his daily chores, the reader can oddly visualize the constricting clefts in the rock and barren winds outside of the rock. Then, when Martin splits from his reality, the reader also takes a trip from the islet to either his tainted past or his tainted perceptions.

There are very limited cues as to the passing of time on the island. Martin mentions not having had a bowel movement for a week, but the critical incidences of his stony abode are made without notation. Therefore, the reader can’t identify with Martin’s into sanity because it would seem unlikely that he would lapse into delirium in only a matter of days. Is hypothermia advancing his mental decay? Have more days or weeks actually passed than mentioned? Was his psyche already unstable? Relating a fourth possibility in the list, which crossed my mind when reading, would be a spoiler.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that the book is simplistically about “the state of individual control without society”, as mentioned in the introduction. On hindsight, the levels of depth in Martin’s purgatory are as numerous as Dante’s circles of hell. Which circle of hell does Rockall represent for Martin? As his concentration drifts, he relives moments in his past which point to the particular sins of his personal guilt. Martin is guilty of three of these sins, but which damns him the most: (1) The second circle of lust where he’s blown by endless winds?; (2) The fifth level of anger where he battles eternally with rage on the water of Styx?; or (3) The ninth level of treachery where he becomes coldly immobile?


Ignore any hype you hear or read of the reportedly shocking twist at the conclusion. Rarely am I shocked or awed by any conclusion, but I can appreciate the final twists of a novel like a connoisseur of cigars—with a sullen nod, tight-lipped grin, and softly-lidded eyes. Something mentally internal is definitely ratcheted when confronted by an ingenious twist or suitable conclusion. This is exactly what my general state of sensation felt when reading the final pages of Pincher Martin—satisfaction.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

1997: The Civilisation Game (Simak, Clifford D.)

Heavy on speculation in dialogue, light on wrapping it all up (3/5)

Among Clifford D. Simak’s plethora of twenty-two short story collections, seven collections were published after his death in 1988. These posthumous publication contain stories from Simak’s career spanning from 1932 to 1981—his entire career, actually. The Civilisation Game and Other Stories (1997) is one such posthumous publication of Simak’s short stories and contains stories from 1939 to 1969.

I won’t provide much analysis or commentary of this collection as I did with Strangers in the Universe. This collection is wittier or playful, at times, than Strangers’ thoughtful reflections on human inadequateness. Largely, with the exception of “The Big Front Yard”, the stories are flat and uninspiring, lacking any oomph to propel them to stardom. There are some smiles and snickers but also periods of protraction which felt like Simak was stretching the plot to infinite thinness with the characters’ conjecturing and speculation, namely “Hunch” which had an agonizing series of assumptions.

Even the conclusions of nearly every story felt unprepared, almost like an afterthought—plot elements didn’t tie together the end was merely a grasp for something outré or unique. Most simply fizzled at the end.


Horrible Example (shortstory, 1961) – 3/5 – Tobias is the town drunkard—“so low-down and despicable and disgusting” (13). Unbeknownst to the entire town save for the school janitor, Tobias is actually a robot designated by the Society for the Advancement and Betterment of the Human Race so that no other citizen could sink down to that level. His excellence at his duty and recent heroic behavior deter his own advancement in heading an interplanetary colony… or did it?

The Civilisation Game (novelette, 1958) – 3/5 – Humanity has colonized the stars but have forgotten their roots back on Earth. However, some still call Earth home and keep alive the ancient traditions so that they are never forgotten. Paxton practices politics yet is uncaring for his recent ascent to the presidency. His unscrupulous methods have pushed his opponent to the use of assassination. The only human tool to face this threat is that of war.

Hermit of Mars (novelette, 1939) – 3/5 – Kent and Charley know the Martian hills better than anyone and even know the savage instincts of the local Eaters and Hounds. One night, amid the creatures, they find a solo traveler on a quest for the expert guidance to Mad-Man’s Canal in order to visit the mythical hermit named Henry. The two scoff at her naivety but sympathize with her ignorance, so they lead her through the valleys to the realm of the ever-vague Ghosts.

Masquerade (novelette, 1941) – 4/5 – The four-man Mercutian Power Centre, led by Curt Craig, is host to Washington crony Page, a mischievous cat named Mathilde, and a score of human-mimicking Candles which are native to the planet of Mercury. During a space warp caused by the sun’s enormous strain, Craig discovers Page’s secret intention on capturing one of the pure energy lifeforms known as Candles. The tense atmosphere is ratcheted up when behaviors change in the Centre.

Buckets of Diamonds (novelette, 1969) – 3/5 – Old Uncle George is in a bind again. After having a few beers and watching the Yankees play the Twins in the seventh inning with Mickey Mantle up to bat, George loses his memory and is found in the middle of the road with a bucket of diamonds, a famous painting and a handful of unexplainable items. His son-in-law lawyer takes his side while George is in jail, yet George can’t be charged with theft is nothing is reported stolen… then George disappears from the jail.

Hunch (novelette, 1943) – 2/5 – Chambers is a blind man without a handicap thanks to a telepathic entity he calls Hannibal, found on the outskirts of the Mars system—it’s entirely one of a kind. It helps him to see and takes a certain liking to Chamber’s friend Kemp. Some curious goings-on at the Sanctuary, an orbital asylum for mentally-diseased spacemen, has both Chambers and Hannibal astir. Once there in its revelations, the myth of the war-like fifth planet rears its head.

The Big Front Yard (novella, 1958) – 5/5 – Hiram Taine makes ends meet in his century-old ancestral home in Willow Bend. With his occasionally batty dog Towser, Hiram repairs electronics and sells antiques. The task of repairing a black and white TV becomes simple when it repairs itself as a color TV, thanks to an unexplainable impenetrable translucent ceiling in his basement. Later, he also discovers his stove and radio are also mysteriously upgraded. A door to another world opens in his kitchen and the military becomes interested.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

1957: Strangers in the Universe (Simak, Clifford D.)

Humans are a danger to themselves (3/5)

In 1956, Simak’s original publication (with Simon & Schuster) of Strangers in the Universe contained eleven stories, including “Contraption” (1953), “Kindergarten” (1953), “Skirmish” (1950), and “Immigrant” (1954). However, Berkeley Books narrowed this collection by the same name to only seven stories, as found below; therefore, this partial collection is dated as 1957 rather 1956.

The running theme of the collection is “humans are a danger to themselves”. Perhaps this reflects the title of the collection where humans are the ignorant strangers amid the lush multitude of offerings the universe has; the humans stumble about susceptible to their own nature, their own genetic patterning.


Target Generation (novelette, 1953) – 4/5 – The oral myth of the Mutter came true when the Ship’s walls became its floor and the latter becoming the former. Tradition has told of the beginning of the End and things are astir on the Ship. Only Jon Hoff has the key to the vault and knowledge of that vault, passed down to him through untold generations, of the true nature of the Ship—“The Ship has a destination. The Ship was going somewhere” (8). ------ A fine generation ship story marred by predictability. The mythic proportions of multi-centurial life on the Ship imbues the humans with a sense of religious righteousness, a veil of ignorance which they accept. Only one man, naturally, can assume the heroic role of revealing the Truth and true to form, the self-righteous revolt at the blasphemy. They can be saved by the empirical truth rather than the by the unsubstantiated Truth, yet ignore it.

Mirage (shortstory, 1950) – 4/5 – Merely dotted with life, the surface of Mars is a difficult place to survive for the colonial humans and the various regressive forms of its aboriginals. The seven-sex Martians have dwindled in number due to the human fancy for the luxurious pelt of one such sex—the “seventh”. Richard Webb strikes a deal with one clan of the aliens: if he finds a “seventh”, they’ll show him their mythical city. His solo trek is long and unfruitful, yet still meets one clan of seven. ------ Humans take advantage of a less sophisticated race. One man needs dire help from the heathen race but also wants something in return. Who’s at fault for providing mutual folly? Though not personally implicated for the aliens’ hardships, the punishment is fitting. Greed follows some of us unto death.

Beachhead (shortstory, 1951) – 3/5 – The Legion from Earth descends upon a virgin planet. They sample the atmosphere yet torch the landscape; they catalogue the fauna yet irradiate the soil into a boil. Prepared for every foreseeable danger, the team of Legionnaires and robots secure a camp yet also spy a group of humanoid figures near the riverside. Reading their minds, Tom Decker ignores the alien reassurance of the destruction of the humans… until their watches stop working. ------ Pride, plain and simple, is the fault of those with the most practical experience with success yet without the safety net of having experienced failure. An unknown threat remain unknown because of ignorance, but even with a hunch pride is stolid towards remaining on the subjective side of “right”.

The Answers (shortstory, 1953) – 5/5 – Scores of millennia have passed over a derelict human village on the outskirts of the galaxy when a scout team descends: a human, named David, along with his trio of benefactors—the Dog, the Spider, and the Globe. Yearning the experience of existing amid the ruins, David stays behind while the others depart to report their finding. Eventually, David discovers an enclave of humans who harbor the Truth—two simple answers to two simple questions. ------ This time, peril does not follow human discover; rather, enlightenment and understanding follow the line of Truth. Though this Truth may have been handed down, the villages treat the Truth as sacred rather than ritualistic, something to recite once every century and not every day… even when the Truth is humbling.

Retrograde Evolution (novelette, 1953) – 2/5 – The planet of Zan was once home to a Type 10 culture, a peacefulness which borders on barbarianism and pastoral boredom. However, the Google culture on Zan has broken into 37 distinct clans, all with a Type 14 culture. The de-evolution is a concern for the trading crew who are more concerned about trading for the miraculous babu root. Change among the chief village concernedly occurs at the slightest whisper from the crew. ------ Sometimes, humans meddle whether it’s their intention or not. Their mere presence changes a situation much as observation collapses a wave function. In this case, the unintended consequences of meddling doesn’t collapse the cultural wave front, but bolsters its advancement. Oops, the humans scurry away.

The Fence (shortstory, 1952) – 3/5 – Mr. Craig’s passion is spanning across time to understand the complete history of one acre of land, season by painstaking season. However, his Personal Satisfaction rating has dropped from 120 to 75 in just one year. Going for a walk to clear his head, Mr. Craig encounters a man who fishes on his own and gardens on his own—this is this snub to the seeming “play world” in which they live, where everything is always provided… the big question is, “By whom?”. ------ Complacent attitude in today’s modern Westernization is prevalent because everything is ready to be used, consumed and thrown away. In the world of “The Fence”, even our jobs are fostered in a parental way to the nth degree. The societal disillusioned may not be so crazy after all.

Shadow Show (novelette, 1953) – 2/5 – Humanity has the knowledge and power to alter the human form so that it can adapt itself to any atmosphere or planetary difficulty, yet it cannot create new life. Scientists are scattered among asteroids in order to follow leads which may create that spark of life. Nine members of one such asteroid assume title roles to perform in a Play which projects their imagination onto a screen, yet one fellow had died and they fathom the absence and/or participation of his character. ------ Prone to the Prudence Trap of decision-making, the constant tinkering of adjusting expectation against reality causes the decision makers to lose focus of their ultimate intention, possibly because of an additional Framing Trap—they don’t know exactly what truth they are after.

2004: River of Gods (McDonald, Ian)

Culturally and technologically rich, almost too much (4/5)

Ian McDonald is a new author for me and my picking up the tome which is River of Gods was a daunting endeavor. Don’t you hate choosing a new book, voluminous to say the least, and end up hating the author’s writing style in a matter of pages? I’ve had that experience with Spinrad’s Child of Fortune (1985) and Lafferty’s Arrive at Easterwine (1971). I managed to choke down Arrive at Easterwine and regurgitate a review, but Child of Fortune had too many alarums flashing before me, thus I closed the book and sold it after less than 20 pages.

Thankfully, Ian McDonald has impressed me with River of Gods. It’s a cultural and futurological immersion which is both intoxicating and disorientating, yet the reader doesn’t experience each separately—the synergy of the two is an experience itself!

Rear cover synopsis:
“As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business—a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And is is Aj—the waif, the mind reader, the prophet—when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden.

In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of a nation.”


There are many plot threads which intertwine in a dazzling amount of ways, some of those character plots are central to the story and recur frequently, while other character plots add ambiance to the story. However, take any one of those away and it would all unravel. To the best of my ability, this is the synopsis of the synopsis, which should be titled “Meanwhile”:

Ray Power Electric, owned by the successful and reputable father of three sons, suddenly decides to forego the life of an eclectic billionaire and seek life as an ascetic guru. Mr. Ray divides his lumbering giant of a company into three parts, one for each son. Most importantly, Vishram Ray, once a stand-up comedian living a frugal life in Scotland, now owns the Research and Development portion of Ray Power Electric. Vishram reluctantly takes the reins of the department and becomes intrigued with one of its latest budding success: zero-point energy, being fed energy by tapping into higher universes. Maintaining his father’s immaculate reputation and following his work ethic propels Vishram toward the promise of free energy for the world.

Meanwhile in India, Mr. Nandha the Krishna Cop is tracking down artificial intelligences (aeais) which exceed the internationally-agreed limit of Level 2.0, thanks to the Americans’ Hamilton Act. Rouge aeais are always being found in computer systems around India, aeais which panic in their floundering power and inadvertently maim humans and attack the Krishna Cops who are there to execute it. An aeai Level of 3.0 is mythical in some circles, but Mr. Nandha has been tracking down curious leads which point to a massive multinational collaboration involving shell companies, transfer of large amounts of cash, and investment in esoteric research. Sadly, his private life isn’t as thriving as his work life—his socially displaced wife, from a much lower village caste to the city’s government worker’s caste, is awkwardly assuming her newly found place among the elite. However, a trip to the cricket test match reveals her true unreservedness of her caste, a shame which descends upon her and her home wrecking mother.

Meanwhile in America, the government has spotted an erroneous asteroid, one which seems to be shifting its direction of flight to coincide with Earth’s orbit. The government is quick to realize the alien possibility of such an action and assemble a team to delve into the orbiting rock which is imprinted with a vast triskelion. Lisa Durnau is called upon to examine the enigmatic find at the center of the asteroid. The archeological dig into the “Tabernacle” discovers a rippling sphere of black and white bits which, while undulating in mesmerizing ways, only conveys three pieces of information: the face of Lisa herself, the face of her missing ex-colleague Thomas Lull, and the face of an unknown girl. Recently, Lisa has been in charge of an advanced and accelerated push as artificial intelligence which utilizes an evolution based on organic principles, all mimicked by her powerful and handy computer. Millions of years have passed and life breeds on the artificial Earth for an aspiration to, one day, breed a genuine intelligence without human interference. This amazing concept is the brainchild of Thomas Lull, who abandoned his own project and sought a quiet life in India.

Meanwhile, wandering in India in search for Thomas Lull, is Aj, a young girl with a mysterious past and in search for her parents. Her ability of foresight and seeming omniscience marks her as a prophet or sage, but the grounded Thomas Lull is intrigues by the photograph of her parents—two of his fellow scientists, the supposed mother with a barren womb. Aj’s calm demeanor and gifted intelligence are indicators of tampering, a dark possible truth which hangs like drooping vines of guilt from his shoulders. The recent death and possible assassination of Aj’s parents upsets them both and reaffirms some of Thomas’s suspicions.

Meanwhile on the war front, possible assassinations are being linked to the American autonomous military robots which scour the urban streets in stealth warfare against domestic and international insurgents. The daily battles which span the city echo the tensions on the Kunda Khandar border where the Awadh dam has caused tensions for the drought-stricken Indian nation as well as the intercity tensions with fundamentalists taking place around Sarkhand Roundabout. Shaheen Badoor Kahn is the president’s advisor and heads many of the truces, agreements, and talks with the afflicted parties. Renown for his opalescence and dedication, a developing affair creates a schism between himself and his superiors which, on a greater scale, upsets the political balance of a nation at the fulcrum of war and peace, death and drought. His love affair with the eunuch Tal, thus, goes beyond mere lust.

Meanwhile on TV, the hit soap opera named Town and Country and ubiquitously taken the nation by storm with its aeai-directed cast, some of whom have such stardom that the population is entirely unsure whether they are real or not. Tal, a gender neutral human by choice, has created many of the sets for the soap opera. Yt’s (the pronoun chosen for those who have chosen to be gender neutral) knack for interior design and contacts within yt’s media company has shown yt a wild life of fame, fortune and, ultimately, human fallacy. Without the organs needed to naturally produce hormones, yt is able to alter yt’s metabolism and array of artificial hormones in order to meet the circumstances in which yt finds; this comes in handy when yt becomes the hunted party.

Meanwhile, poised to break news as it happens, it the Afghani-native journalist Najia, whose past is as veiled as the dark underpinning of the war of assassination, the sheer amount of power being wielded by politicians and corporate entities, and the precipice of external and internal war the century-old nation of India finds itself on. Her sympathetic nature and astute awareness of the tides of change allow her to be a mercurial investigator amid the swathes of the corruption, decadence and war footing.


This review is being written two weeks after finishing the book, a circumstance which attests to the strong nature of the plot and its characters. The brilliance of the combined cultural and technological foreignness captivates the mind much like the dangling of a keychain in front of a baby; however, the dangling of the culture and technology in front of the reader is able to extend for hours on end, as long as the reader has an affinity for rich narration and seemingly alien foundations.

The one thing which River of Gods does not lack in is color—that vague notion of “color” extends not only to the visual pictures which McDonald paints of rural and urban India but also branches out to depictions of sexuality in the year 2047, graphic acts of seduction and illicit acts of passion, and the cultural thrusts of intrinsic motivation for each character’s parrying. The only aspect really missing from the heavily spiced curry which represents McDonald’s affection for India is the international element to ground it, just one additional perspective on the heap to give it a global feel; Sri Lanka, America and China are all mentioned in passing but none play a pivotal role in viewing the circumstances which India is entrenched in. This would have been an excellent opportunity to try “very tight limited third person" where an outsider would view the wild chaos of elements from their own perspective while the native southern Indians would not eye such commonplace elements.

Therefore, is River of Gods too rich for its own good? If the book were half of its size, the novel would have been easier to consume but given its voluminous existence, it’s difficult to grasp, masticate, and digest the kaleidoscope of language, culture, geography, nomenclature, etc. I didn’t find the web of characters to be difficult to understand; this had a long wind-up but proved fruitful in its execution well into the novel. The word count would probably match some of McDonald’s other contemporary British science fiction authors of Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton or Iain M. Banks. It’s dense, it’s heavy—consume if you have the appetite!

The technology prevalent throughout River of Gods is a mix of author-projected plausibility and some unlikelier elements. Where the visual electronic interface of the “hoek” is among the most plausible and versatile, the alcohol-fueled cars are also plausible but becomes repetitive for its own good. Some technologies in McDonald’s year 2047 seems too implausible: (1) the explosive growth of artificial intelligence, (2) the mechanization and autonomy of military robots in urban centers, and (3) the electronic counter-measurements. The author is fairly casual about using EMP grenades (pages 233, 474, 475 and 509). The most outrageous technological feat is the Bangladeshi towing of an Antarctic iceberg to the coast in order to reset the monsoon which had been absent and causing drought.


I’ll quote myself: “It’s dense, it’s heavy—consume if you have the appetite!” This is definitely an intricate though massive novel which whets my appetite for another McDonald cultural and technological exploration such as Brasyl (2007) and The Dervish House (2010). If I feel compelled, like I did a month ago when I started River of Gods, to open another tome, I am gifted with a number of voluminous novels on my shelves… so McDonald will have to take a backseat for quite some time. Anyway, I need a copious amount to resettle my appetite for another of McDonald’s sci-fi banquets.