Rings

I’ve exhausted my existing Robert Silverberg material for now, so I’m moving on to a new favorite: Charles L. Harness.

Harness was a patent attorney and many of his works are legal and courtroom dramas, but that is not the case with the novels in this omnibus.

Raw Feeds frequently feature spoilers and that is definitely the case here.

Raw Feed (2002): Rings, Charles L. Harness, 1999.Rings

“On Rings of Power”, Priscilla Olson — Very brief and perfunctory introduction listing Charles Harness’ major themes and tying this omnibus of his work to an early short story collection, An Ornament to His Profession. (Yes, that will be reviewed in a future post.)
“Charles Harness:  Wielder of Light”, George Zebrowski — The most interesting part about this introduction to the omnibus is the phone interview Zebrowski conducted with Harness.  Harness says that each of the four novels in the omnibus are tributes to certain people.  The Paradox Men was a tribute to A. E. van Vogt, a major influence on Harness.  The Ring of Ritornel is a tribute to Harness’ brother Blandford Bryan Harness who died at the age of 26 when Harness was only 19.  Firebird is a tribute to Richard Wagner and the story of Tristan and Isolde.  Drunkard’s Endgame is a tribute to Isaac Asimov.
The Paradox Men — It’s a curious book in that it is one of my favorite sf novels but that I can’t remember the plot until about half way through rereading it.  However, I always remember one of my favorite sf lines:  “The beastling had joined the drama as a full-fledged member of the troupe, with lines to speak, and a death to die.”  I probably caught, on my other readings, the obvious van Vogt influences of powerful, hidden manipulators and mutant superman.  But I don’t think I caught before the influence of the Cold War on this 1953 novel.  There are East and West Federations poised to start a nuclear war.  Arnold Toynbee’s influence is obvious, of course, since his theory of civilizations rise and fall is alluded to.  The latter always comes after a time of “universal state” and “universal peace”.  Harness also seems to engage in a bit of political commentary with his Toynbean historians stating that no civilization can stand the continual aggrandizement of its ruling class.  Here that aggrandizement is shown by slavery being reintroduced as the penalty for going into debt.  Indeed, a nasty sort of slavery since some are sold to the “charnel-house”.  Indeed, Harness wanted to name the novel Toynbee Twenty-Two, the same as the ship that takes Alar on his journey of transformation.  I was again impressed with the almost hard sf working out of relativity theory to make his time cycles plausible.  I am impressed by the ways Harness does plot in obvious ways.  There is no happy ending for Keiris (who loses her arms in the novel) and Muir.  Muir-Alar is not the avatar of a new race.  Rather, he travels back to prehistory to alter man’s very nature to make him less warlike.  Harness puts temporal cycles inside temporal cycles.  Muir leaves to return five years earlier and then, returning to a point shortly after his crash (and the destruction of civilization), he is transformed.  I wonder if the idea of a superman being created by the deliberate application of lethal stresses inspired the method of superman creation later used in Alfred Bester’s The Computer Connection.
The Ring of Ritornel — This reading added little to my earlier reading of the novel.  The introduction to this omnibus edition does confirm the influence of Fred Hoyle’s steady-state theory.  The crystomorphs reminded me of elements of cyberpunk fiction where computers are used to model people’s reactions to various stimuli.  (It was never totally clear whether Vang and his Aleans manipulated Oberon with a bogus prediction of Andrek’s attempted assassination of Oberon or if it was a legitimate prediction.  If the latter, it is another example of the book coming down on the side of free will.  Paradoxically, by using such the crystomorphs, the Aleans are practicing a type of Ritornelean determinism.)  This time around I appreciated more the Master Surgeon being the founding Ritornelism — a religion modified by its later practitioners.)  I also caught the irony of Omere being the disembodied (at least, not housed in a human body) house for Oberon’s emotions (though Oberon does, at the end, seem to be fearful) but begging for his own death because he is not human.  The final melding of Andrek-Omere was another example of Harness’s love and continual concern and memory of his beloved dead brother, the inspiration for Omere.
Firebird — A much better book than I expected.  Its style is rather different than the the preceding novels in the omnibus, The Paradox Men and The Ring of Ritornel.  The book opens with an engimatic list of terms and their definitions.  It refers (in the novel’s first words) to “The matrix within which all things move, but which defies definition.”  Three of the eight terms show up just once as synonyms of the mysterious emotion of love.  One word is “kaisch”.  It is a rather chess like game (chess is something that shows up fairly frequently in Harness’ short fiction) in its pure form, but psi-kaisch seems, like the Alerean twelve-sided dies of The Ring of Ritornel, serves as both a model (though the dies are not used in that way often in the story) and predictor of future action.  Here Dermaq and Gerain use it as a predictive model of their future and to military tactics.  Three of the other eight terms don’t seem to ever be mentioned in the text; their significance unexplained.  While a since of looming fate and predestination figures in The Ring of Ritornel (it’s a central thematic question and plot point there) and the end of The Paradox Men, it is manifested in those novels as temporal paradoxes or as impersonal fate.  Here, the conversations between the two-headed, utterly callous and evil computers, Largo and Czandra, have a feeling of gods talking.  They are known jointly as Control.  There is a feeling of destiny unraveling as Dermaq and Gerain wonder how the Wine of Elkar will be irradiated, how the woman wielding it knows to show up and who she is.  Volo, when Dermaq and Gerain visit the silent quarter, tells them that Control has driven them there.  The same feeling hangs over the book as Dermaq and Gerain, Harness’ version of Tristan and Isolt, are driven to their fate.  Indeed, Dermaq eventually realizes he has (and will) killed himself.  Another difference in style is that the protagonists in this novel are all non-humans.  Dermaq and Gerain belong to a race of cat-like humanoids.  The prose has more emotion and description than The Paradox Men or The Ring of Ritornel.  All three novels feature characters of hidden identities.  Gerain, it turns out, is the old woman of the first chapter.  However, there are also similarities.  The themes of temporal loops and regenerating universes (the Diavola hope to close the universe so that another Big Bang can lead to the evolution of life without the bane of Control) are here as befits the themes inherent in the omnibus title Rings.  All three novels feature plots of hidden manipulators (here courtesy of a temporal paradox), temporal paradoxes (as in The Paradox Men) or regeneration (the Ritorneleans in The Ring of Ritornel want to ensure the transplantation of sentience to a new universe — here the Diavola seek to remake the universe without Control), and the remaking of the animal that carries sentience in each universe (ancient man is retooled in The Paradox Men, Amatar and Kedrys as mutants in The Ring of Ritornel, the emergence of homo sapiens to replace Phelex sapiens here).  All three novels feature speculations using cosmological ideas:  implications of special relativity in The Paradox Men, Fred Hoyle’s steady state ideas and antimatter in The Ring of Ritornel, and more relativistic ideas here as well as the idea of the oscillating universe.  Firebird is a more mystical novel in tone and plot.  Not only is Control very god-like, but no real explanation is given for how the emergence of  homo sapiens can be predicted — right down to the emergence of another Tristan and Isolt.  (This is Harness making a statement on the mystical, perennial mystery of love.)  Harness does some interesting things with Firebird traveling at near light speeds.  Its mass disturbs oncoming ships and missiles.  Its huge mass means ramming is possible.  The winding down of the universe means little fuel is available.  I also liked burning Firebird’s furnishings for their hydrogen atoms.  I also liked the telepathic communication of Largo and Czandra and the biosilicon implants enabling them to control the bodies of their subjects.  However, there are some problems.  Largo and Czandra seem like cruel gods, but they don’t seem much like computers.  Also, for people supposedly educated in cosmological matters, Gerain and Dermaq seem rather ignorant of the implications of relativistic flight.  Their conversations seem there to provide explication to the reader.  One thing that seemed to be a problem — the notion of a lag between the disappearance of matter and its appearance as energy — is explained at the end.  Cor will re-engineer the universe (what is to become ours, thus explaining the alien protagonists and different physical laws).  Cor is another mystical element.  A portion of Cor’s mind, seemingly an intelligence that survives the universe’s oscillations and can guide its evolution, seems to inhabit Firebird.  Another unexplained plot device is how Control expects to get energy in an ever expanding universe.  I liked the shrunken descendants of the Diavola who have kept the faith through millions of years, ready to give their life to defeat Control for eternity and beyond.  There sacrifice is like Dermaq willingly going to his death.  The latter was an interesting time paradox:  killing a time traveling, future version of yourself.

Drunkard’s Endgame — The internal evidence — references to Dr. Penrose (probably Roger Penrose), envirogenic male sterility from pollutants, microcillia that resemble a nanotechnology, and fractals — points to a composition time no earlier than the mid-1980s (this is the novel’s first publication) yet this book has an almost fatal feeling of datedness in its android civilization.  Harness, in the omnibus’ foreword, says this novel is a tribute to Isaac Asimov.  That’s true in its depiction of human-like (in nobility and evil) androids, but advances in information technology and its possibilities make this novel seem (apart from the above references) like something out of the 1950s though, if I remember correctly, Clifford D. Simak successfully got away with depicting androids in a similar way in 1981’s Project Pope.  The androids seem improbably dumb in their specialization instead of just swapping programs (this is particularly true with the Chief Navigator not realizing that the ship has returned to Earth).  It is unclear if their bodies (or, for that matter, their processors) are grown or manufactured.  The idea of Mendellian inheritance via robot sex was interesting (particularly as a rationalization of ancestral memories), but Harness doesn’t go into enough details.  Does the genetic material guide the development of a mind grown by nanoagents?  It’s never stated but, given the mention of Penrose’s name (a critic of the strong AI notion), Harness may be implicitly agreeing with Penrose that sentience must exist around a physical matrix resembling a brain — with attendant flaws in speed and irrationality.  I liked some aspects.  The disembodied khu resemble the inner ego’s voice in humans.  I liked Penuel looking for a great crime to negate his great gift (though it seemed improbable that, even as brain damaged ex-engineer, it took him that long to think of sabotaging the ship’s nuclear drive).  Some characteristic Harness themes show up here.  The whole in-ship society seemed reminiscent of an Italian Republic.  A corrupt republic shows up in The Paradox Men and Harness’ time travel story “The Tetrahedron is set in Renaissance Florence.  In keeping with the Renaissance inspired setting there is an aristocracy and barbarians without the ship.  Prophecy and the notion of fate show up with Penuel and Al’s prophecies (the notion of fate and prophecies also figures in The Ring of Ritornel and Firebird).  As with the rest of the novels in this omnibus, this one also has a theme of regeneration — both in the return to the neighborhood of Earth after 1,000 years but also in the purging of evil android society and Hollis and Rodo becoming an android Adam and Eve on an Earth poisoned by man.  With this novel and the omnibus’ foreword quotes from him, Harness seems to becoming one of those old people who cynically fear man is headed for a variety of extinctions — here via nuclear war and pollution.  Like The Paradox Men and its ending of nuclear war between East and West, The Ring of Ritornel‘s promise of universal destruction via a war fought with antimatter, and Firebird‘s renewal of free, sentient life after Control’s destruction, this novel also features the notion of an entire civilization needing to die before a better order can take its place.  Here, protagonist L’Ancienne orchestrates the destruction.  Chess shows up here as does a fascination with order out of randomness in the Drunkard’s Walk (also referenced in The Ring of Ritornel).  Like Firebird, this novel also features the notion of love and specific couples surviving after death.  Indeed, in the final paragraph L’Ancienne and Korak are reunited.  (I liked the exchange between Korak and John Berry, the man who entrusts him with the gluon-severing Algorithm.)  I did like L’Ancienne starting out as a humble mining robot, and the glimpses of the androids before their mutiny were interesting.  However, this novel is not successful, and the sole reason is the dated treatment of the idea of sentient robots.  Harness might have been able to pull it off with a more detailed rationale.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.
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6 thoughts on “Rings

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