Stealing Other People’s Homework: “The Turner Legacy”

turner-legacy

Since the heated up rhetoric before the U. S. Presidential election, I’ve been pondering doing a series on future American civil wars.

And the rhetoric has only heated up since then. (California seceding?)

Well, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The project — not the war. Do you think I’m some kind of prophet?

(Though I would refer you to my reviews of Richard Peters’ Power Games trilogy for both a satirical yet militarily plausible description of how such a war might turn out.)

One of the books I contemplated reading and reviewing was the notorious The Turner Diaries.

I’ve had a copy for years but never got around to reading it.

J. M. Berger takes a look at it, and its political legacies in “The Turner Legacy“.

The same page has articles on its literary ancestors including works by Jack London.

I don’t buy all of Berger’s political assumptions and values, but it looks to be an interesting look at some dark (no pun intended) byways of American science fiction.

Incidentally, I would be happy for title suggestions for any future American civil war titles regardless of the political axes they might grind.

The Guns of the South

The alternate history series continues with a time travel novel.

As I recall, Turtledove said the inspiration for this came from a conversation with Judith Tarr. Griping about inaccurate cover art for one of her historical fantasies, Tarr said it was like giving Robert E. Lee a Kalashnikov.

Raw Feed (1994): The Guns of the South, Harry Turtledove, 1992.the-guns-of-the-south

If alternate histories are to be judged by the skill they evoke another world and the rigor and seriousness of their extrapolations, than this is one of the best alternate history I’ve ever read.

Even though only the first paragraph of this book (a quote from Robert E. Lee) is from history, I had to remind myself several times that this was not a history of my world, an account of something that really happened. The book had that much verisimilitude.

Turtledove makes two excellent choices in viewpoint characters: Robert E. Lee to give us the large scale picture of the political and military matters he is involved in and First Sergeant Nate Caudell to give us the common man’s view of the changes that sweep the South in the wake of the change to history Turtledove postulates. Specifically, Turtledove introduces time travelers in the year 1864. They can only travel back 150 years into their past – no later, no sooner, and they didn’t get a time machine quick enough to help Lee earlier in the war. They are white supremacists from South Africa who think things for their cause begin to go wrong with the defeat of the Confederacy. They propose to arm the Southern army with AK-47s to make up for their smaller numbers and fewer resources. With the aid of the new arms (and a few rifle grenades during the taking of Washington and some nitroglycerin pills for Lee’s heart condition – however, the time travelers aren’t willing to reveal their knowledge of computers or radio), the South wins.

Turtledove doesn’t have the time travelers on stage a lot – though their existence looms large in the minds of the leaders of the victorious Confederacy. Turtledove makes a few points about the limited use, out of historic context, of the technology and knowledge of a time traveler. The South has problems manufacturing the cartridges and powders suitable for an AK-47 nor is their metallurgical skill up to duplicating them. The South Africans’ knowledge of Civil War history is only of use in the first stages of the Battle of the Wilderness – the first battle after their intervention. Latter, when they are suppressed, Benny Lang – the most decent of the South Africans – tells the South that they’ll only be able to use their captured computers until they break down. Continue reading

Stealing Other People’s Homework: The Sonora Aero Club

 

A secret history of lost technology?

Another example of early science fiction disguised as hoax?

Proto steampunk?

The strange case of Charles Dellschau: “Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club” with more pictures of Dellschau’s art from Claire Voon’s “Early-20th-Century Drawings of Fanciful Flying Machines“.

A World of Difference

I’m off catching up on my reading for LibraryThing’s weird fiction discussion group, so you’re getting another posting on another Harry Turtledove alternate history. This one is a relatively obscure one.

Raw Feed (1994): A World of Difference, Harry Turtledove, 1990.world-of-difference

This is one of those alternate histories (like Harry Harrison’s Eden series) based on a variation of physical science. Here Mars (called Minerva here) is big enough to support an atmosphere and an intelligent race has evolved there. Human history has altered a little, particularly astronomy and mythology. About the most Turtledove gives us of altered human history is some mention of various near clashes of Soviet and American forces in Beirut and a shortened Gorbachev regime.

It’s this history of Soviet-American tension that forms the background of this story about a joint Soviet-American mission to Mars after the Minervans trash the Viking lander. A proxy war results as each side lands on different sides of the Jötun Canyon (the scenery of Minerva, particularly this huge canyon with its mighty seasonal floods, is one of the best parts of this book) and gets involved in a local war of expansion. The expansionist side is backed by the Soviets because Marx tells them this tribe, somewhat industrialized, is further along the path to revolution.

The Americans decide to help the other side and also solve a very old Minervan problem: while Minervan males are very long lived, Minervan females die in childbirth. An American doctor, through surgical techniques, solves the problem. The plotting is competent, the characterization is adequate and the story held my interest, but it was nothing special. Apart from their morphology and reproductive biology, the Minervans could have been humans, and I think the story could have been shorter. Perhaps the problem is that Turtledove’s forte is alternate history of the intensely sociological and historical kind. Merely altering the planet of Mars doesn’t give him much opportunity to use that talent.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Worldwar: In the Balance

Did you really think my alternate history series wouldn’t have any Harry Turtledove?

I’ve done regular reviews of some books in this series already.

Raw Feed (1994): Worldwar: In the Balance, Harry Turtledove, 1994.worldwar

Turtledove sets the novel in 1942 when the free nations of the world are struggling against the totalitarian systems of Nazism and Communism. At that time – in June 1942 to be precise – aliens show up. They are intent on conquering all of Earth.

The central theme of this book is the same question that Britain and America faced in allying with Russia against fascism: Is the devil you know better than the devil you don’t? For a peasant in the Ukraine, can aliens be worse than the German armies’ path of murder and destruction? Should Russia actually help Nazi Germany develop the A-Bomb? Should America work with the Japanese? And, most heart-wrenching of all (and the most powerful conflict in the book) should the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto actually help their Nazi oppressors against the “Lizards?”

This is a long, but never dull, novel that features a large cast of both real and fictional characters through whose eyes we see the various political and military theaters of the war. Oddly, most of the real characters appear on stage briefly and aren’t terribly interesting in themselves. The exceptions are Otto Skorzeny and George Patton. All the military action in this book is well-done, and Skorzeny leads a daring commando raid to retrieve spilled weapons grade uranium from a destroyed alien “Race” ship. This marks at least the second appearance in sf of Skorzeny. (He was in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno.) The ship was destroyed by the huge Nazi artillery piece Dora – Turtledove doesn’t give an adequate impression of exactly how many men were needed to operate and support Dora. Another bit of WWII esoterica from our own history involves the Russian ploy of using bomb carrying dogs to destroy tanks. Here it works. In our history, the project was a complete failure since the dogs were accidentally conditioned to home in on the shape of Russian tanks and the smell of Russian fuel and not Nazi tanks. The winter battle at novel’s end where Patton defeats a large alien army on the plains of Illinois was well done, and a sense of Patton the man is conveyed. Another real character is a man I’d never heard of before – Mordechai Anielewicz. He’s a chemical engineer who turns out to be a clever guerilla leader during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Continue reading

Nimbus

Something a little different in the alternate history series — a partial satire of alternate histories.

Once upon a time, I was a fan of Alexander Jablokov — still am, but, as with many authors, I’m a couple of novels behind in his output.

I’ll just have to take my younger self’s word for how much I liked this novel. I remember almost nothing of it.

And that, after all, is why I made notes on it in the first place.

Raw Feed (1994): Nimbus, Alexander Jablokov, 1993.nimbus

In some ways this novel – Jablokov’s self-described attempt to do a cyberpunkish film noir – is Jablokov’s best novel. The story has the needed suspense and mystery to not only do credit to Jablokov’s attempt at homage but also to compel the reader to read more.

The themes include, but are not restricted to, Jablokov’s usual death and art as jazz musician and seller/installer of black market mental prosthetics, Peter Ambrose, is forced into the role of detective as his former fellow veterans of the Group (a secret research project in the Devolution Wars – Jablokov has a knack for suggesting complex historical events in the background of his stories with just a well-chosen phrase or bit of nomenclature) begin turning up dead. Naturally, for a film noirish story, he meets a woman and falls in love with her.

I liked what Jablokov did with some fairly off the shelf components of modern sf. Nanotechnology is used to redecorate homes casually overnight. Brain modifications (a lá George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen series) are common with implanted abilities, personalities, neuroses, and psychoses. Jablokov seems to be satirizing some elements of modern science fiction, particularly the alternate history and cyberpunk aesthetics. In this novel’s world, constructing alternate worlds is a craze. Ambrose’s friend Sheldon has constructed an elaborate time line where jazz took a different path and rock-n-roll was never invented. He fabricates supporting artifacts like photos and musical instruments and scores. Fellow Nimbus member Hank Rush, utterly devoted to transforming himself into a machine, ridding Earth of man, and a cohort of a ring of extorting environmental terrorists, has fake fossils which purport to document the evolution, from the Cambrian era, of his machine evolution. Cyberpunk is wryly poked fun at with passing references to a fad involving a fetish for industrial era relics including motor oil in coffee and on penises. Jablokov also makes the valid point that a computer Net is not a magic pathway to education and enlightenment but just another pathway for more of the same with “datadork” foolishness, error, rumor, and conspiracy theories.

Thematically, at its most basic level, this is a novel on the perils and human toll (in alienation, loneliness, depravity, and death) of a mechanistic view of the universe – or, more correctly, an extrapolation on the consequences of mechanistic thought as applied to the human psyche. Narrator Ambrose supports himself by modifying brains to spec with everything from custom neuroses to increased associational abilities to increased sexual potency. He sees his clients brains as “complex gray oatmeal” and, as his ex-wife Corinne notes, he compulsively views others as little more than machines to be modified. Yet, he has resisted most modifications to himself – with the large exception of blocking his old memories of the Nimbus project and reconstructing a new personality – and realizes that his modification don’t “force the universe to make sense … [or] make you a better human … just a more efficient one”. Self-modification is practiced by several characters. Anthony Watkins, another Nimbus alum, habitually takes psychoactive drugs and deliberately induces psychoses in himself. Rush is utterly devoted to becoming more machine like and moving off world. Nimbus alum Lori Inversato has extensive modifications allowing her to change her body, sex, and personality at will. However, if psychic and body manipulation can be voluntary, it can be coerced too. Helena Mennaura, another Nimbus messenger, has constructed an elaborate fantasy life of marriage and a family complete with supporting artifacts (again, a sort of play on a personal alternate history) and has accepted, as part of her employment conditions, that she can only consciously recall her research when at work. Priscilla McThornly, Gideon Farley’s mistress and Ambrose’s lover, was covertly brought up to be a high price prostitute.

The methods used are social and psychological with no high tech but the goal of creating a personality by coercion is the same. Gene Michaud, as head of a security company, socially manipulates urban gangs in order to develop them into mercenary troops. Rush wants to force humanity to become like him and stop infecting Earth. Jablokov seems to thematically be saying that these scientific tools can be used, like all technologically and science, for good and ill. Sometimes the destruction is deliberately self-inflected as when Mennaura chops her mind to induce aphasias. And, of course, the novel ends on the note of Linden Straussman possessing, in sort of demonic fashion, the recently modified brain of Gideon Farley and somehow controlling, even after death, the Nimbus group. Of course, with manipulation comes deceit which also is engineered with the tool of this society. Corinne becomes an unknowing lock to Ambrose’s memories; Michaud is spied on by a supposedly inert machine of Rush; Mennaura is blackmailed into giving the tainted “virt” to Ambrose for implant in Farley.

In this world where everything – including the human soul and mind – can be broken down into bits for processing (the evil fallout of present tech trends) the only salvation, Ambrose seems to say, lies in honesty as he learns to confide in his ex-wife and current lover. It’s also significant that one of the moral compasses of this novel is a cop, Amanda TerAlst who, as an “Inherent Potentialist”, is philosophically opposed to modification. In short, this novel is thematically sophisticated, perhaps more than any other Jablokov work.

Yet, the novel didn’t quite work at the end. Jablokov does a little bit of handwaving at end to explain the book’s murders. I accept the psychic possession of Farley via the Straussman tainted implant. Yet, the explanation at to how Straussman was kept alive in the minds of the Nimbus Group was incomplete (especially given Ambrose’s technical expertise – Jablokov could have given some pseudo scientific explanation). It’s a notion that doesn’t mesh well with Straussman’s personality being resurrected accidentally because of TerAlst’s investigation. (I bought Straussman implanting tropism and different gifts in the Nimbus Group to be used later, but what “crimes” they committed and blamed on Straussman is not clear.) The philosophic point of the ending is that chance plays a role even in this mechanistic universe. Straussman dies in an accident; Priscilla’s transformation to whore is derailed by incest with a brother; TerAlst revives Straussman’s pysche by mistake; and Rush says that chance drives evolution; Farley’s original personality emerges to commit suicide.

Continue reading

The Best of C. M. Kornbluth

Another entry in the alternate history series though this one only has a single story that fits the bill.

Raw Feed (1992): The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, ed. Frederik Pohl, 1976.best-of-c-m-kornbluth

“Introduction: An Appreciation”, Frederik Pohl — Discussion of C.M. Kornbluth’s career, including many mainstream works, and his work as a journalist (which explains the wide variety of characters in his work as well as a knowledge of the world’s workings and seamier elements), his education, his intellectual traits (showing in the wide knowledge illustrated in these stories), and bursts of writing. He started early, at a high level, and got better.

The Rocket of 1955” Story of the world’s first “moon-shot”, a con put together with blackmail, for money. It fails (in that what seems to be a tragic explosion but is entirely planned), but the plot is uncovered and the perpetrators are executed. It’s main interest is Kornbluth’s characteristic economy even at this young age (18) and a cynical element (a moonshot being a con) which marks many of the stories in this anthology. Continue reading

The Empire of Fear

While I continue to be a sluggard, the alternate history series continues.

I’m a great admirer of Stapleford’s critical and historical work on science fiction, but I’ve read few of his novels. (I’ve probably read more of his translation work than his novels.)

I’ve liked all the fiction I’ve read by him. I’d tell you that someday I hope to do a series about his works. However, I don’t need to. Phil Stephensen-Payne has already done it with the Brian Stableford website.

Raw Feed (1992): The Empire of Fear, Brian Stableford, 1988.empire-of-fear

This vampire novel has little visceral horror and fear in it despite the presence of those “children of the night”. Rather it’s an interesting scientific rationale for vampirism — here the result of alien DNA brought to Earth in a meteor. The alien DNA attaches itself it to the Y chromosome and infects women in sexual intercourse and men in anal intercourse — much like AIDS — or by infected semen coming into contact with blood. There the new vampire becomes changed: the skin changes its color, the hair changes color, the new vampire becomes resistant to most diseases, capable of healing quite serious wounds, very long lived, and needful of daily amounts of blood to replace enzymes whose productions is inhibited by the alien DNA.

The novel is also dedicated to exploring the psychological and spiritual implications of immortality on humans. The turning point of this history is Attila the Hun’s ancestors coming on to the secret of vampirism while exploring Africa, taking it back to Europe and setting up a dynasty (that includes Charlemagne and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and Vlad the Impaler) that preserves the Western Roman Empire. What the European vampires represent is a sort of ancien regime, the forces of superstition. Stableford has the vampires coming up with a very authentic sounding religious rationale for their place as rulers. The Catholic Church says they are better suited for rulership having the wisdom of long life while that long life keeps them further removed from the blessed reunion with God that death brings than the common man. Puppet popes preach this doctrine while heretics insist that the sodomy rites of vampire creation point to their origins in the devil. Continue reading

The Pugnacious Peacemaker & The Wheels of If

The alternate history series.

Raw Feed (1991): “The Pugnacious Peacemaker”, Harry Turtledove and “The Wheels of If”, L. Sprague de Camp, 1990.pugnacious-peacemaker
The Wheels of If” — On a historical level it’s notable for being, I believe, one of the first alternate world stories. But it also works for the modern, naïve reader.

One can quibble, as you always can in alternate world stories, over the author’s speculations on what may have happened in history if a couple of events had turned out differently.

Interestingly, de Camp picked two turning points seldom, if ever, used in alternate world stories even now: Arabs winning the Battle of Tours — a battle whose importance is widely recognized, and the obscure event of King Oswiu of Northumbria choosing not to accept Rome’s authority over the Celtic Church. Would the Indians have adopted European technology and military tactics? Wouldn’t they (as William MacNeill pointed out in Plagues and People) been wiped out by European disease even if European gunpowder wasn’t around? Would this world’s parliamentary procedure and legal system so closely match our own?

But one can argue many interpretations of history with equal validity much less the speculations of alternate history. Also, historical knowledge, theories, and interpretations change through time. This story, after all, is 50 years old. Continue reading

Baphomet’s Meteor

The alternate history series continues while I work on new stuff.

I was not aware until doing this entry that this novel was part of a series with the second book translated by C. J. Cherryh.

Raw Feed (1990): Baphomet’s Meteor, Pierre Barbet, trans. Bernard Kay, 1972.baphomet

I was looking forward to reading this novel, an sf alternate history of the Knights Templar. It was disappointing, much less clever than a typical Dr. Who episode set in Earth’s history.

The idea of Baphomet, the idol the Templars were accused of worshipping at their trial, being an extraterrestrial in league with the Templars, vaulting them to success, was intriguing.

The development of the idea was, however, very simplistic.

Baphomet trades a few atomic grenades, radios, and matter duplicators for food all the while plotting to forge a world government he can turn over to a rescue ship. The only suspense is how Baphomet’s plans will be foiled. The answer: unbelievably acute scientific perception on the part of the Templars (people of the Middle Ages weren’t stupid, but they were limited, as all people are, by paradigms of thought which are conveniently ignored). There is also the all too convenient, a deus ex machina, appearance of Tibetan mystics/telepaths who mentally subdue Baphomet.

Barbet obviously did his research, and one of the book’s few pleasures, maybe the only one, is the juxtaposition of so many factions (Christians, Templars, Assassins, Mongols) that existed contemporaneously, but the battles are boring, and even the idea of the Templars forging an enlightened world empire was not very interesting.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.