Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

My third and final look at some H. Beam Piper works.

Raw Feed (2002): Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, H. Beam Piper, 1965.Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

This was a fairly engaging book.

Its battle sequences were clearer than the action sequences of some of the stories in Piper’s Paratime. I didn’t really try to keep track of the corresponding geographical locations in our world as Lord Kalvan aka Calvin Morrison of the Pennsylvania State Police builds an empire along this alternate version of the Atlantic coast of America.

Piper does, at one point, give a geographical listing which would make such a reconstruction at least partially possible though no maps are given. I kept thinking I was missing some in-jokes like some of the battle sites were fought on the site of American Civil War or Revolutionary War sites. I suspect Nostor is the same as Georgia since there is a song called “Marching Through Nostor” which sounds suspiciously like “Marching Through Georgia” from our American Civil War.

While this is certainly far from the first work of military sf or even (probably) the first sf work where a man displaced from his time or dimension builds an empire with his technological and historical knowledge, I suspect it was influential on Piper’s friend Jerry Pournelle and others. Continue reading

Paratime

Since his name recently came up in some of the discussions about the ongoing “pulp revolution”, I thought I’d pull a couple of items on H. Beam Piper out of the archives.

Raw Feed (2002): Paratime, ed. John F. Carr, 1981.Paratime 

“Introduction”, John F. Carr — A long and detailed introduction to Piper and his Paratime series. Carr gives a very brief summary of Piper’s life, but he mostly details how Piper’s belief in volitional reincarnation (essentially, being sentient between physical incarnations and being able to choose your next body) and interest in the theory of time put forth by one J. W. Dunne were combined for his Paratime series. Dunne’s theories held that a person’s “supermind” existed outside and apart from a person’s entire life. He also postulated a “supertime” which measured the rate other “times” pass, an infinite number of them. The supermind exists at all points in a person’s life. It exists outside the life. It’s rather (Carr doesn’t note this) like Boethius’ notion of God existing outside of time thereby explaining how he knows the future without causing it. Dunne’s supermind becomes detached, when we are unconscious, from our “ego”. This explains recovered memories and precognitive visions. Piper seemingly combined these notions to conceive of a vast series of parallel worlds where people’s superminds can hop from line to line. Piper’s interest and knowledge of history came into play in conceiving this series in which alternate histories are the central feature. He created a classification system for his multitude of worlds. The most interesting part of his alternate histories is that their basic grouping is based on how successful the Martian attempt to colonize Earth was 75,000 to 100,000 years ago. In some worlds, it succeeds entirely. In others the colony regresses, and the people of Earth forget their origin (our world belongs in this category) and in others the Martians all die out, and quasi-humans evolve a civilization on Earth. Carr also presents pretty conclusive proof that attempts to link the Paratime series (which also includes Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen) with Piper’s Terrohuman Future History series are misguided. [See my review of Piper’s Federation.]

He Walked Around the Horses” — This story was the motivation for reading this collection since it was inspired by an incident mentioned in a Charles Fort book: the disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst, British envoy to the Austrian Empire, in November 1809 as he walked around some coach horses to inspect them. Disappointingly, Piper simply snatches Bathurst up and transplants him to an alternate Europe of 1809 without rationalizing the mechanism by which this is done. Still, Piper presents an interesting alternate Europe without Napoleon (though there is a Napoleon Bonaparte, he’s just a “brilliant military theoretician” who is loyal to the French crown). The deviation seems to start with Benedict Arnold’s death at the Battle of Quebec in January 1776. He is not there to help win the Battle of Saratoga (thus Piper reminds us that Arnold contributed greatly to the cause he later betrayed), and the Revolution fails (George Washington dies at the Battle of Doylestown though no year is given). The European consequences are that, lacking the inspiration of an American Republic, the French Revolution does not take place, and Napoleon does not become a would-be conqueror. The epistolary story ends on a humorous note as the British officials in this world are puzzled by the documents Bathurst carries from our world. In particular, Sir Arthur Wellesley is puzzled by continual references to the Duke of Wellington. Jerry Pournelle, Piper’s friend, says that Piper claimed this story was based on a past-life experience of his. Continue reading

Pirate Utopia; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Purely by accident, I seem to be caught in the 1920s for the next few reviews.

I’m still working on my review of Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance (with 1914 being the most recent story in the anthology), but that’s going to take a while to make notes and write up.

By I already know what I’m going to say for some books I’ve finished since then.

So, today, we go to the island of Fiume in 1920 and the short-lived Regency of Carnaro, the so-called Pirate Utopia.

I’d heard of that short-lived “country” before on the Roads to the Great War blog. It was the brainchild of Gabriele D’Annunzio, poet, playwright, fighter pilot, war hero, and inventor, in the Regency, of a lot of the symbols later used by the Italian Fascists.

When I again pick up work on my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series, I’ll look more closely at the novella’s elements related to the war, but most of the story takes place post-war. The Regency of Carnaro is one of those European convulsions in the period between the world wars most Americans, including me, are ignorant of since we tend to think only of the Spanish Civil War in that regard.

I’ll probably also read Michael A. Ledeen’s D’Annunzio: The First Duce to see how closely D’Annunzio’s ideas matched Fascism. My sense is not all that closely apart from the political stagecraft Mussolini picked up from D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio seems, at least in this story, way too obsessed with a vision of a new world to be a true fascist. Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Concept only mentions D’Annunzio once.

Speculiction ways in with a more detailed review.

[Update: Fiume, now called Rijecka, wants to be a country again.]

Review: Pirate Utopia, Bruce Sterling, 2016.pirate-utopia

On September 12, 1919, acclaimed Italian war hero and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio stormed the city of Fiume, in what is now with Croatia, with 2,600 veterans of the Italian Army. He was angry that the Treaty of Versailles did not acknowledge Italian claims to the city. Thus the pirate utopia of scavenging weapons depots, more traditional piracy, extortion, free love, syndicalism, women’s suffrage, and casual drug use was born. To say nothing of the daily poetry readings D’Annunzio gave from a balcony, nightly fireworks, and uniforms that inspired many a European political extremist to come. It was a country where music was declared the fundamental principle of the state.

In our world, the fun ended on December 24, 1920 when the Italian navy bombarded D’Annunzio’s palace and declared the existence of the Republic of Fiume, an event known in fascist circles as the “Christmas of Blood”.

Sterling’s book is an alternate history of a sort and a work of “dieselpunk”. The departure from our timeline is the poisoning of Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. And, while it doesn’t really play into the onstage drama, Hitler fatally catches a bullet during a “beer-hall brawl”. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.” Continue reading

The Iron Dream

The Norman Spinrad series continues

Raw Feed (1991): The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad, 1972.iron-dream

This novel took awhile to get into because it comes across exactly as advertised: a novel by Adolf Hitler. It took me awhile to warm up to it, to read it in the gulps necessary, but, towards the end, I enjoyed it a lot.

This is sf as Hitler would write it right down to a wishful plot that partially mirrors history — here Feric Jagger justifies the cynical killing of Sons of the Swastika leader Stag Stopa as Hitler justified killing Ernst Rohm and the SA who performed a similar function in history. Here author Hitler treats us to constant references to urinating, defecating mutants; a novel where “fanaticism” is a complimentary term; where military maneuvers are improbably conducted like a parade or opera; where there are constant, obsessive references to the colors of red, white, and black and swastikas (even in floor tiles); and genocide and forced sterilization are portrayed as merciful acts. But most pervasive, most hilarious is the constant, not-so-hidden sexual imagery from the awkwardly described motorcycles (Hitler goes on at great length in describing a machine whose appearance is presumably known to the reader) with their throbbing engines slung between the riders legs, to the super-phallus of the Steel Commander, to the barely disguised homoeroticism between Feric Jagger and Best, to the descriptions of the Helder army penetrating and pushing aside the Zind forces to the numerous towers and rockets, to the final scene of Jagger clones and Jagger seed rising to the stars on a rocket as a barely disguised orgasm.

The prose rises to a shriek like one of Hitler’s speeches. The afterword is hilarious in revealing not only a literary critic’s naiveté in the book’s alternate world (he thinks it improbable a Jagger leader could take over a nation with parades and phallic symbols) but Spinrad’s satirical intentions. The afterword discusses the book’s plot holes (including an improbably rapid technological progress during the war), its sexual symbolism, and the underlying pathology — a compelling pathology — of its author. It’s a fun book, but I don’t think Spinrad ultimately convinces us of his points. Nazi symbols are compelling, but I don’t think they’re sexual images. Nor do I think Spinrad makes good his contention of a connection between the fascist mindset and the plots of some power-trip sf pulp stories. I have read Spinrad say elsewhere that this book (and this isn’t really brought out in the Afterword) is a satire on the hero-discovers-innate-magic-powers-and-saves-world plot of so much fantasy. Jagger discovers (in a strange twist on Arthuriana when he wields his Steel Commander) his racial purity and saves the day and will populate new worlds with his seed. It’s the logical, solipsistic, egomaniacal extension of that plot idea. Continue reading

The Peshawar Lancers

There are still alternate history reviews in my archive, but I think I’ve beaten (and flayed and crushed) this particular dead horse enough.

So this will be the last one for a while.

Raw Feed (2005): The Peshawar Lancers, S. M. Stirling, 2002.peshawar-lancers

Stirling thinks through the consequences of his alternate history. The point of divergence is a series of commentary impacts, mostly in the northern hemisphere, in 1878.

American civilization is wiped out. The British Isles are all but denuded of people. Prime Minister Disraeli marshals an exodus of the most important people, cultural knowledge, and technology and sends it to India. France is also wiped out but French culture lives on in Northern Africa. Islam is resurgent across the Middle East and Balkans. Russia has turned into a country of nominal Satan worshippers. Japan and China have combined. The Angrezi Raj, the cultural fusion of British and Indian culture, inherits the British empires (including new outposts in North America.)

The exposition is mostly in the first 60 pages of the book in which Stirling throws around a lot Indian/Hindu terms. He gets around to religious issues (basically the Anglican Church has accepted a lot of the Hindu gods and goddesses as versions of the Trinity) later on. To further show off his world building, he has five appendices with the background of the world. The culture is credible, and Stirling certainly makes this version of the British Empire seem noble and appealing with its personal ties of loyalty and honor and an intelligence run along informal lines.

Initially, I didn’t like my first exposure to seeress Yasmini, whose visions of the future, I thought, brought an unwelcome element of magic to this alternate history. Then Stirling got around to rationalizing using an obvious, if oblique, version of Roger Penrose’s idea that the brain is a quantum computer and thus (Penrose doesn’t say this) can see alternate timelines. The presence of a Kali cult was to be expected even if they were minor villains allied to the Satanic Peacock Throne.

The novel has two faults though neither was enough to disgust me. The reason — penetration of the Imperial intelligence services so vast that they can not be purged safely without first luring the traitors into the open –why Athelstane King and company have to sneak aboard the dirigible at the end seemed was a bit weak. I think Stirling, understandably, just wanted some scenes on a dirigible.

The end of the book descended into a wealth of clichés (presumably taken from the authors Stirling lists in the acknowledgements). There is not only a prince in disguise (the French envoy sent to arrange a marriage turns out to be the French prince who gets himself involved in a lot of combat during the book) but three marriages. The marriage of the French prince and Princess Sita was expected — after all, that’s why the envoy is there, to arrange it. But the marriage of Athelstane King and Yasmini, though hardly unexpected, was that old cliché of adventure plots. Worse was the convenient death of the Emperor and the marriage of scientist Cassandra King and the Crown Prince.

All three of the main women characters are of the same improbable action heroine mold beloved of modern authors. Stirling may have a thing for this sort of thing given the character of guerilla leader Skida Thibodeau in Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling’s Go Tell the Spartans. I think I was supposed to find the constant insults between King’s faithful Sikh Narayan Singh and would be Pathan assassin Ibrahim Khan (who also turns out to be a prince) funny. I didn’t mind them, but I usually didn’t find them funny.

 

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

 

What If?

The alternate history continues with a collection of essays from various historians and popular writers, a modern sequel of sorts to If It Had Happened Otherwise.

There was a follow up volume I have not read.

Raw Feed (2004): What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, ed. Robert Cowley, 2000.what-if

“Introduction”, Robert Cowley — A cursory look at the current state of academic “counterfactual” writing, teasers for the essays in the collection, and a brief discussion of their genesis in the special tenth anniversary edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Infectious Alternatives: The Plague That Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C.”, William H. McNeill — Not surprisingly McNeill, the historian who really first put forth the idea that disease epidemics affected many events in history, chooses a plague as his turning point. We don’t really know why the Assyrian king Sennacherib abandoned his investment of Jerusalem. We know his army suffered severe losses, and it is probable that it was due to disease. McNeill briefly sketches, in cultural and religious terms, the consequences of the Assyrians taking Jerusalem and, thereby, killing Judaism as a cultural force for good. (It really isn’t that much of a stretch. The splinter kingdom of Israel had abandoned Judaism and disappeared in 722 B.C. Several cities in Judah were taken, and the King of Judea ended up paying tribute to the Assyrians.) McNeill sees the main effect of Jerusalem being taken is that the Jewish faith looses further confidence. The unique universal monotheism of Judaism is weakened. When the Jews are taken off in the Babylonian captivity, they become just another locally centered, ethnically based faith and exert no influence on the following centuries.

A Good Night’s Sleep Can Do Wonders“, Barbara N. Porter — A very brief alternate history that imagines the possible consequences (actually, it spends most of its time recounting the historical record and not imagining alternative outcomes) of the Lydian King Gyges not getting a good night’s sleep and impatiently attacking the Cimmerians before he was ready. The Lydians don’t form an alliance with Assyria and, years later, nascent Greek culture is overwhelmed by the expanding Cimmerians. Continue reading

Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places

The alternate history series continues with yet another Turtledove collection.

Yes, I’ve covered two-thirds of the material before.

Raw Feed (2002): Down in the Bottomlands and Other Places, ed. Harry Turtledove, 1999.down-in-the-bottomlands

Down in the Bottomlands“, Harry Turtledove — Apart from Turtledove’s Sim World series and Harry Harrison’s Eden series, there are few alternate histories that use, as their deviation point, an event of natural history rather than recorded human social and political history. This is one of those stories. It postulates that a chain of barrier mountains closes off the Mediterranean Basin from the Atlantic Ocean and that it dries up to form the deep, dry, landlocked Bottomlands, (Death Valley on a big scale). Turtledove does little, by way of alternate history, with the idea. The Krepalgan Unity (roughly the area of modern France, Spain, and Portugal) hatch a scheme, using buried nukes, to geologically breach the mountains between the Atlantic and the Bottomlands thereby flooding it so they gain sea access and Tarteshan, the nation of the hero Radnal vez Krobir, being deprived of the mineral resources of the Bottomlands. The plot reminded me of an Alastair Maclean novel (specifically his Night Without End in plot and Goodbye, California with its scheme to use earthquake inducing nukes) with its murder of a secret agent in the midst of a Bottomlands tour group and Radnal being pressed into service to detect and capture the murderers (the rather obvious suspects of Lofosa and Evillia given their reflexive prowess in unarmed combat) and find the nukes. We get little sense on how humanity’s history has changed in what appears to be a time contemporary to ours apart from that nudity taboos have altered, no Christianity appears present, brides are bought in Tarteshan and tortured in its pragmatic justice system. I don’t know enough about botany and zoology to comment on the animals and plants of the Bottomlands and their relation to our world. It’s an engaging enough story and the Bottomlands are an interesting jumping off point to an alternate history of the supercontinent of Africa, Europe, and Asia, but Turtledove doesn’t do much with it apart from the adventure plot of Radnal foiling the attempt to flood the Bottomlands and being rewarded with a title and the friendship of a noblewoman who is the niece of the tyrant of Tarteshan.

The Wheels of If“, L. Sprague de Camp — This is the second time I’ve read this story. This time I was struck by its similarity to de Camp’s classic Lest Darkness Fall in that both feature intrepid and ingenious protagonist thrust into a strange world and remake it for their own ends. The ultra competent protagonist Park is very much in the competent man tradition of Heinlein and the Golden Age: he learns languages, researches his historical place, fights a war, outwits violent political faction, and leads a double life as a political party organizer and bishop. (Though he doesn’t do much like with technology unlike the protagonist of Lest Darkness Fall.) It’s also interesting to note that, given this early stage in the development of the alternate history sub-genre, de Camp spends the opening four and a half pages on covering the real historical events that the world of his story deviates from: King Oswiu of Northumbria accepts the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope rather than the Celtic Christian Church, and Moslems lose the Battle of Tours. Now days, an alternate history would probably take much less space to cover the hinge events of the fictional timeline or just allude to them in passing. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 4

The alternate history series continues though there are only two stories in this book that fits that description.

Hartwell’s series is the only one I followed fairly consistently apart from Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Best SF series which was started me reading science fiction regularly.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 4, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1999.years-best-sf-4

Market Report”, Alexander Jablokov — I like Jablokov, but I didn’t think this story was good enough to be included in this anthology (of course, I didn’t read all the sf short fiction published in 1998). Still, on skimming the story again after reading it, I appreciated it more. It has a wry humor about it with its portrayal of retired suburbanites hanging out in a planned community which they’re planning to restock with Pleistocene flora and fauna and the women have primitive rites in its jungles, and the narrator’s parents, members of that community, try to comprehend his job as a spotter of self-defined groups that need to be marketed to. At first glance, the story doesn’t seem to be about much apart from its near-future extrapolation of sociological-based marketing and Pleistocene hobbyists. But, with its plot of a man finding a home amongst parents he’s spent a lifetime trying to understand, to “catch” the meaning of their conversation and the same narrator getting over a failed marriage, I suspect Jablokov was trying to do a sf imitation of John Cheever or John Irving, writers, I believe, Jablokov has expressed an admiration for. However, not being sf writers, my exposure to them has been minimum.

A Dance to Strange Musics”, Gregory Benford — This is a brilliant, austere, unsentimental, humbling, Stapledonian, classic sf tale. Its classicism is that it’s pure hard sf, a detailed working out of a surprising ecosystem in our galactic backyard — the Alpha Centauri star system — and little emphasis on individual characters (though Benford does put in some wry bits about how scientists relate to one another). The plot progresses from one hard sf wonder to another. A vast, elevated lake is found on a planet in the star system. It seems to be formed in the remnants of a crater and literally floats kilometers above the surface, the power to do so coming from the piezoelectric forces generated by tidal stresses from the three suns in the system. The planetary system is covered by tile-like creatures who constantly move about, dancing to “strange music”. Eventually, it’s speculated that their movements (they, and the whole ecology of the planet, feed off electrical energy rather than chemical energy) represent some giant, planetary computer at work. A manned probe into the atmosphere finds, before the pilot dies, surprising levels of electrical power and a sort of memory in the system. The giant, floating lake turns out to be a giant laser system which periodically sends messages to other star systems. More die exploring the planet, learning that the tiles feed on electricity and exchange, in sophisticated protocols, data with each other, and that planet fires off messages into space not intended for man. The first expedition descends to the planet but not before they realize that the lifeforms on the planet are engineered, that the intelligent life there has either left for space or engineered themselves into the tiles. Another expedition is sent from an Earth where people live in the “disposable realities” of computer created environments. They meet odd, disconcerting facsimiles of the first expedition. The facsimiles are a disturbing group mind with facial expressions that flicker at precise intervals and who each speak separate words in their sentences while inviting man to join their Being Suite, their bodies precisely spaced in a hexagon. The humans are appalled by what they see and, out of fear, do not go to the surface. They don’t know if the first expedition was seduced or raped into becoming part of the Being Suite. The second to last paragraph has a classic passage about the unknowability of the universe, its forever closed community of sentience: “It is one thing to speak of embracing the new, the fresh, the strange. It is another to feel that one is an insect, crawling across a page of the Encyclopedia Britannica, knowing only that something vast is passing by beneath, all without your sensing more than a yawning vacancy. Worse, the lack was clearly in oneself, and was irredeemable.” A classic sf statement, a classic sf tale. Continue reading