West of Honor

The Raw Feeds on Jerry Pournelle’s Co-Dominium series continue while I work on new stuff.

Raw Feed (1990): West of Honor, Jerry Pournelle, 1976.West of Honor

Pournelle is a master of deftly creating a plausible society, exploring the interaction between politics, the military, economics, and human psychology — in short, Pournelle explores the ecology of human society. Pournelle’s ideas are much like Robert Heinlein who he admires very much: rugged individualism, little government interference, the importance of honor and the military, and a hard headed realization that life must be lead according to pragmatic truths rather than pleasant fictions.

But I think Pournelle is a better, in some ways, propagandist for those values, better because his prose incorporates the moral and philosophical statements into the story better, and, while Heinlein is given to lecturing, Pournelle shows the human consequences of the argument. Pournelle is not given to straw men for the opposing side. Nor are the solutions to problems in Pournelle’s stories entirely good with no moral taint or bad consequences.

Often the solutions pose their own problems — they are just better than not solving the problems. In this story, Governor Swale is seen as corrupt, cooperating with the convict gangs to terrorize Arrarat and destroy the CoDominium forces and a client of Grand Senator Bronson. (Pournelle, in taking a lead from the Roman Empire, mentions clientage as a corrupting influence in the CoDominium). Yet, Falkenberg says he is right in saying the convicts must be cared for and that Arrarat, despite the religious colonists’ wishes, must be industrialized. The River Pack gang, defeated by John Christian Falkenberg, is seen as not just convicts but involuntary colonists forced to survive, and they are not the most brutal of the convict gangs. The colonists, when the convicts are defeated, institute a tyrannical commission on morals and conduct brutal reprisals against other colonists suspected of helping the convicts. Continue reading

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Stealing Other People’s Homework: Otto Skorzeny — SF Character and Mossad Agent

I feel compelled to mention this story.

It’s got espionage, and Otto Skorzeny is a science fiction character. Really.

He shows up in Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series and in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno.

The Mercenary

Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium series is a product of the Cold War. It postulates a political solution (which ultimately fails) to keep nuclear war between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America from destroying civilization. They simply divide the world between them and attempt to suppress scientific research into crucial areas of weapons technology.

It has become, like many future histories in science fiction, a sort of alternate history.

I’ll be doing a few raw feeds on the series in lieu of proper reviews.

I will be doing it in order of publication.

More information on the series, including it’s many publication permutations, is at the Science Fiction Timeline Site. I will not be doing any of the War World series.

I’ll be omitting the usual Amazon title links due to that complicated publishing history.

Raw Feed (1990): The Mercenary, Jerry Pournelle, 1977.Mercenary

I enjoyed this novel a great deal.

It’s one flaw was having John Christian Falkenberg marry Glenda Ruth Horton and an implied kingship being set up on New Washington at novel’s end. While it wasn’t perfunctory, it still seemed to be part of the cliche of the hero/heroine (usually a lone, solitary hero/heroine) needing a significant other. It’s interesting to note that Pournelle enters Robert Heinlein territory when Horton wonders why she’s only attracted to Falkenberg. Heinlein spent a great deal of time trying to reconcile evolution with morals and human psychology. Here Horton wonders if there isn’t an atavistic streak in some women that makes them love warriors. In a similar vein, Leo Slater in Pournelle’s West of Honor wonders if man isn’t naturally attracted to war and violence since even pacifists talk of war’s horrors and not peace’s glories.

Pournelle doesn’t mock civilians, but he shows the soldier as a breed apart with their own virtues and vices fighting when civilians mess things up. They deserve respect, but they are no substitute for civilian rule and civilians are needed to build civilizations, soldiers to protect it. Granted it serves Falkenberg’s political end, and he suspects the CoDominium won’t last much longer. I don’t know if Falkenberg (and, thus, Pournelle as some critics have it) is endorsing feudalism. All I know is that Falkenberg is saying a monarchy on New Washington will bring order. As Falkenberg says earlier, soldiers aren’t very concerned with justice, but they do bring order. A monarchy will also protect civilization, a cause near and dear to Falkenberg, in a sense the reward of his mercenary. Continue reading

The Deceivers

His last sf novel was The Deceivers (1981), which features a Synergist hero who can perceive patterns; sadly, but interestingly in the light of Bester’s fame, the sf press almost unanimously failed to review this, presumably out of respect for his feelings. Despite many pale thematic echoes of his best work – chiefly Tiger! Tiger!, [aka The Stars My Destination] with the hero’s pattern-sensitivity deriving from “The Pi Man” (October 1959 F&SF) – it is not good.

John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

The last installment, for now, in my Alfred Bester series.

Raw Feed (1990): The Deceivers, Alfred Bester, 1981.Deceivers

This is Bester’s last novel. In one way, it’s a fitting end to his career because it’s a scrap heap of a novel. There are elements of practically every sf story or novel of Bester’s here, welded together in a plot that, while witty and full of occasionally dazzling detail and decadence, is not very exciting and lacks the blazing finale of his The Stars My Destination or The Demolished Man. The elements of other Bester works are: the sensitivity of Rogue Winter to patterns reminds one of the “The Pi Man” and his Moari past reminds us of Gully Foyle’s tiger tatoo in The Stars My Destination; there is passing reference to the title number 5,271,009; Thomas Young as Manchu duke hearkens back to a similar Chinese secret organization in the later novel; the attempted rehabilitation of Young using dolphins hearkens back to Reich’s rehabilitation in The Demolished Man; the children of Demi Jeroux and Rogue Winter being the next step in evolution reminds one of the climaxes of Golem 100 and The Stars My Destination; the con games remind one of Bester’s “Star Light, Star Bright”.

There are points of interest here. The idea of a zero-g chef is almost worth reading the book for, the sexual decadence of all sorts — remarked on explicitly enough to be sure of what’s described but not lingering in detail — is more explicit than any of Bester’s other works, and the idea of each planet and satellite belonging to a different nation or culture was wonderfully space opera-ish (And, as I recall, nary a word of terraforming to make Venus and other worlds habitable). The Manchu deathlock on Meta, that entropy reversing substance, was, I suppose, something of a satire on Arabs and oil or, perhaps, a manifestation of American unease at Japan (really getting started in 1981, date of the book’s publication). Bester does throw in some interesting science with the fluid inclusions on Titania and inclusions within inclusions ad infinitum reminds me of the fractal elements of chaos theory. There is a passing reference, of the unfortunately literal type, to the Gaia hypothesis. Continue reading

Starburst

The Bester series continues.

Raw Feed (1990): Starburst, Alfred Bester, 1958.Starburst

You’d be better off with another Bester collection though this has many good stories.

I’ll mention stories not found in Bester’s Starlight collection.

The Roller Coaster” — This creepy story reminds me of another story of time travelers from the future getting their violent kicks on hapless victims in our era: John Kessel’s “The Pure Product”. Bester, as usual, is a groundbreaker, and this is another of his novel uses for time travel in sf. Here people from the future provoke people into committing violence against them. The thrill of being attacked is sought for the same reason we seek the fear inherent in the roller coaster, hence the title.

Travel Diary” — This is a fluffy, slightly humorous piece (more vignette than story) about a Grand Tour in space. Nothing special here.

 

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Starlight

More Bester while I’m off working on new stuff.

I’ve actually written about some of the radio adaptations of Bester’s work at Innsmouth Free Press.

Raw Feed (1990): Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, ed. Alfred Bester, 1976.Starlight

5,271,009” — A delightful story. It is with this story that I first noticed the element of moral instruction that caps so many of Bester’s works. It is linked with the strong Freudian element in his works. His Freudian world view is that most of our individual and societal problems stem from the neuroses and compulsions we all have, the desire to escape reality. In Bester’s mind, we have to cast off these childish elements to achieve our potential. This is vividly illustrated, perhaps best of all the Bester stories I’ve read, in this humorous tale that mocks the childish cliches of sf as impractical and symbolic of childish wishes which keep us from psychologically maturing and realizing our worth. (Bester, in his intro notes, says this is also a satire on himself.) Jeffrey Halsyon, artist, who is unable to handle the burdens and responsibilites of his fame, has psychotically retreated into childhood, filled with lusts for sex, power, and revenge. Solon Aquilia is the mysterious demonic figure who admires Halyson’s work and wants to help. The story’s wit and humor is shown when Aquilia explores how being a warlock works in the modern age:

Witch’s Brew now complies with Pure Food and Drug Act. Familiars one hundred percent sterile. Sanitary brooms. Cellophane-wrapped curses. Father Satan in rubber gloves.

The many ways the title number shows up is clever since this is one of those stories wrote to serve a cover illustration — in this case a convict with that number — chained to an asteroid. The first sf cliche, or childhood fantasy Bester pillories is the last fertile man on Earth having to be father to a new race. The women all begin to look the same even though beautiful; they hate him, and his one true love vows to die than let her touch him. The second fantasy is the classic one of childhood martyrdom. Here Halyson, falsely accused and imprisoned, knows the secret to defeat an alien invasion (“Those adults will be sorry they did this!!”). The secret is ludricous: all the scientists and experts are impotent because they don’t realize their calculators are malfunctioning. Then everyone realizes at the same time the same secret. Aquilia shows up in the fantasy, as he does every one except the last one, to show the folly of this childish fantasy:

“You are all alike. You dream you are the one man with a secret, the one man with a wrong, the one man with an injustice, with a girl, without a girl, with or without anything. Goddamn. You bore me, you one-man dreamers. Get lost.”

The next cliche is the “if I only knew then what I know now” one; Halyson is ten years old again. But his fantasies of power and adulation aren’t realized. He can’t remember the exact dates and outcome of all those sports events and stock trades; his ideas are out of sync with the time; the bully still beats him up; and the restrictions of society on a child make life miserable. Aquilia shows up to say children and adults are”two different breeds of animal”. The fantasy is that the universe is all make-believe, in this case a bizarre send up of the graveyard scene in Hamlet by Shakespeare. Halyson’s last fantasy is being the last man on Earth with the last woman on earth, a beautiful woman with an IQ of 141. In one of the most funny moments in all of Bester’s writings. Halyson asks her if she knows anything about dentistry. She says

“I’m a beautiful woman with an I.Q. of 141 which is more important for the propagation of a brave new race of men to inherit the good green earth”… “Not with my teeth it isn’t,” Halyson howled … and blew his brains out.”

After the fantasies, Aquilia say to Halyson:

“Too many adults are still children. It is you, the artists, who must lead them out as I have led you. I purge you; now you purge them.”

It is an archetypal statement which illustrates the tone of moral instruction infusing much of Bester’s work and his creed and purpose as a writer. Halyson’s face has aged to coincide with his new maturity. Aquilia reveals himself as Satan, bedeviled by his own childish fantasies which led to his own downfall. The title number takes on one more meaning as Aquila says it is the approximate number of decisions a persons makes in a lifetime and that they’re all big. This is a story central to understanding Bester’s work.

Ms. Found in a Champagne Bottle” — This is one of the earliest, that I know of, and wittiest example of the sub-genre of common machines taking over the world. Continue reading

Broken Meats

I do at least understand a little more how fact and fiction work together. It’s like a steak and kidney pudding: without steak, there’s no substance; without kidney, there’s no savour. You need the proper mixture. Pure fact is too indigestible without the imaginative part that fills in the spaces between. That’s the only way to make a satisfying pudding.
Like his character Harry Stubbs, David Hambling knows how to blend fact and fiction.
Review: Broken Meats, David Hambling, 2015.Broken Meats
Between jobs after the events of The Elder Ice, ex-boxer and bill collector Harry Stubbs, our narrator, finds himself conducting Mr. Yang about the Norwood neighborhood of South London. It’s a favor to his old friend and sometime patron Arthur Renville — the “Consignment Man” who makes his money disposing of items reported as lost to insurance companies. Arthur wants to know the real reason Yang, member of the sinister Si Fan triad, has come to England in 1925.
East meets West in an adventure that brings in Theosophy, real life occultist Robert D’Onston Stephenson, Chinese politics, and a walking corpse. H. P. Lovecraft fans will come to attention when we hear about the local Whatley family and the notion that you can reconstitute the dead from their ashes. (Technically known as palengensis, an alchemical notion Hambling talks about in an article at Lovecraftezine.com).
I liked the continuing hat tips Harry gives to his literary models and his asides on the art of boxing. Unflappable, a bit naïve at times, Harry keeps on growing as a man, and I certainly look forward to his next adventure.
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The Demolished Man, or Adventures in Reader Reactions

More Alfred Bester.

More Adventures in Reader Reactions.

Your contrasting perspective on this is From Couch to Moon.

Raw Feed (1990): The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester, 1952.Demolished Man

I enjoyed this book the second time around but for different reasons. The narrative drive and excitement were still there, an even stronger reminder of Bester’s baroque touches.

What I especially noticed this time was the nastiness, compulsion, fury, drive, and charm of Ben Reich; Bester’s humor and wit (including only giving the punchline to a joke: “I’m only a tourist here.”) and skill here in rhythm, plot pacing, and suspense. I liked Reich and Lincoln Powell carrying on not only an overt struggle as policeman and suspect but also a titanic, covert struggle as esper and industrialist. If there is a weak point in the plot, it’s the underdeveloped concept of Reich as “world-shaker”.

And, of course, there is the brilliance of the esper’s typographed conversations and the concept of Demolition. This book has Bester’s quick dashes of color and concise characterization (especially in Jerry Church, pawnbroker and ostracized esper). It’s interesting to see how Bester hints at sleaze in passing. I didn’t find the end as pyrotechnic this time when the Esper Guild tricks Reich into thinking he’s the sole being in the universe. I found it a trifle confusing but certainly in keeping with the novel’s Freudian tones. I think it was just luck that the first time I read this novel I guessed the victim, Carye D’Courtney, was Reich’s father. The mystery didn’t seem so clear, oddly, on the second reading. I was amazed this time how hopeful the ending is with Powell the esper saying there is “nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice”. How uplifting. And, in keeping with the Freudian view, man is kept from this inner good by a veil of blindness caused by neurosis. Reich, charming Reich, can not kill his half-sister to save himself, destroys himself by killing his father. But his good can be retrieved in Demolition.

Like The Stars My Destination, this is a fast, hopeful tale of compulsion and redemption.

 

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The Computer Connection

More Alfred Bester while I work on new stuff.

Raw Feed (1991): The Computer Connection, Alfred Bester, 1975.The Computer Connection

This is not, as Bester said in an interview, an undefined failure.

The story works in terms of interest after a slow start. The novel picks up after the murder of Fee-5 Grauman’s Chinese. It is without the more strained typographical devices and incomprehensibility of his Golem 100. The story of immortals killing to increase their number and their eventual transcendence to virtual godlike omniscient was coherent.  It prefigures some cyberpunk themes in books like William Gibson’s Neuromancer as does his unusual emphasis on the criminal underworld — here less pronounced than, say, his The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination. I wonder if this was one of the first sf novels to show computers running society through electronic networks of linked devices — both inputs of data and executing machines — rather than a central monolith computer. These elements help explain cyberpunk authors listing Bester as an influence.

It’s interesting to see how Bester repeatedly uses certain elements at certain points in his writing career. Here the ecological themes and idea of a computer run society echo Bester’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, a violent America and Indians show up in his “The Four-Hour Fugue” and Golem 100.  (I liked his witty satire and rioting, illiterate students.)

I didn’t, after awhile, mind the contrived romance between Curzon and Natorna. I’m even able to overlook lapses in plot logic. (Why go to Titan to get the Neanderthal immortal to fool Extro? Why not just go back to the salt mine and detain Guess by force so he can’t serve as Extro switchboard by surfacing from the salt mine?.) I liked the brilliant, colorful group of immortals. But the story didn’t work nearly as well The Stars My Destination or The Demolished Man. Both these novels were, especially the former, rather grim books. In Bester’s latter novels, his wit and urbanity overwhelm his emotional effects, make the story an exercise in plot mechanics and cleverness with no emotional depth. In these latter books — especially Golem 100 — typographical devices are not as well integrated, seem to be present more out of habit than need.  To be sure, the glibness, wit, and superficiality of this book’s story was due to the nature of the narrating character but that makes it no more effective.

 

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