The Dark Beyond the Stars

Over at Science Fiction Ruminations, Joachim Boaz is talking about generation starship stories again.

It’s an interesting theme, one I always intended to read more of.

So, since I’m still working on new reviews, you get this.

Raw Feed (1992): The Dark Beyond the Stars, Frank M. Robinson, 1991. 

Cover by John Harris

Up until the last six paragraphs, I was impressed by how much Robinson got away with in this book. 

He gives us 408 pages of little physical action or violence bolstered with off the shelf sf elements of dubious plausibility:  shadowscreens whose operation is unclear as is how the falsies (virtual reality projections filtered out — not created — by eye masks) work; a centuries old scheme to breed traits of empathy, sensitivity, and nonviolence into a “new” crew (deliberate breeding for personality traits seems barely plausible) [29 years later, I don’t find either of those things improbable]; an obsessed captain whose personality is locked by millennia old “conditioning” (always a pulp favorite — I remember one review of this book emphasizing Robinson’s love of pulp sf and how it show up here); computers that require great manual dexterity to use effectively.

Yet, it moves, it’s thrilling. 

The book reminded me, with its central character of Captain Michael Kusaka, of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick with their mad, obsessed, sometimes violent captains. 

The starship venturing for axons also reminded me of Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero

Robinson gives us a story relying on the quirks and interactions of personalities played (an interesting part is how the recombination of genes through the centuries produces, for Sparrow/Raymond Stone, an echo of previous crew members he’s known) played out (with the case of Stone, Kurasaka, and Thrush) over centuries, long term conspiracies of eugenics and mutiny, the loveliness of being the sole spark of life in the universe, a plausible ship’s culture (lots of sex in this book but it’s not graphic, contrived, or unnecessary), a starship never intended to voyage for longer than 80 years (40 out, 40 back), an Earth vacant of man (very probably, not definitely), the relations of a near immortal to the crew “mayflies”, Sparrow’s discovery of his past lives, constant revelations of intrigue, obsession, and personality. 

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 4

After about a year, I decided to finally finish reading S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu anthology series. Partly, that’s to read some David Hambling tales in later volumes, and partly to finally finish at least one of my reading projects.

Review: Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, S. T. Joshi, 2015, 2016.

Cover by Gregory Nemec

In his “Introduction” to the book, Joshi notes how several stories here rely on a sense of place. He also mentions the anthology’s one poem, Charles Lovecraft’s “Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount”, a retelling of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear”.

In Lovecraft, of course, terrors often come from the past, an idea he inherited from the gothic. Indeed, merely calling something “ancient” in Lovecraft is often used to evoke horror. For me, some of the most memorable tales here are archaeologically themed, an element in Lovecraft’s own The Shadow Out of Time.

Ann K. Schwader’s “Night of the Piper” is my first exposure to her Cassie Barret series. She’s a former anthropology student who now works on a Wyoming ranch, packs a revolver, and has two Rottweiler dogs for companions. Ranch foreman Frank, perhaps because his grandfather was a Crow “man of power”, appreciates the thinness between dreams and reality. Shortly after a flyer shows up in the mail advertising “THE PIPER WITH A PURPOSE”, a local branch of a non-profit advertising and its “Authentic Ancient Designs for a Stronger Community”, they both begin having strange dreams involving coyotes. And the Kokopelli on the flyer seems reminiscent of a sinister version Cassie has seen before. Soon, reluctantly, she gets out the journal of a vanished archaeologist who thinks that particular Kokopelli derives from a far more ancient culture.

Schwader cleverly splices the Cthulhu Mythos into the prehistory of the American Southwest. But, for me, the descriptions of Wyoming and rural poverty evoked things I’ve seen myself, and that made the story richer. Justly renowned as a poet, Schwader proves she’s also a talented fiction writer.

Continue reading “Black Wings of Cthulhu 4”

Home on the Strange

My look at David J. West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series concludes.

Review: Home on the Strange, David J. West, 2021

Cover by Carter Reid

A wagon train is wiped out by Indians leaving only Hannah, a girl, alive.

Captain Brady, newly out of West Point and sorry he just missed the action of the recently concluded Civil War, leads a cavalry troop to bring the Indian leader, Crazy Snake, and his men to justice.

Porter Rockwell serves as their scout. As a Mormon, he’s suspected of collaborating with the Indians.

And then, around the sinister outcropping of rock called the Pulpit, sentries begin to be picked off at night.  

It sounds like the elements of a typical western except it’s not because this is another in West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu tales. There’s something in the Pulpit besides hostile Indians. And there’s a voice in Hannah’s head who is giving her advice that she and Rockwell will need to drive the enemy in the mountain off.

This is another winning entry in the series, and it is the closest yet to a classic western plot. It’s got the humor and well-done action of other stories in the series. It’s classic pulp adventure in the Mythos tradition and a good weird western whose many surprising delights I will spoil with no further plot reveals.

There are some nice scenes out of the main action like when Rockwell meets Tanner, an old acquaintance of his who knows firsthand the secrets in Pulpit.

And it was nice to see Wovoka, the Indian prophet who inspired the Ghost Dance, getting a mention.

The Day of the Triffids

Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951. 

Cover by Richard Powers

Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.  (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.) 

John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel.  There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death. 

Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law. 

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Out of the Deeps

Raw Feed (2005): Out of the Deeps, John Wyndham, 1953. 

Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Wyndham is often referred to as the founder of the “cosy catastrophe” sub-genre, a peculiarly British institution.  He is also said to epitomize post-World War II British fears. This is the first of his disaster novels I’ve read unless you wanted to stretch the point and call his The Midwich Cuckoos a disaster of alien invasion/hybridization. You could also see that novel as a metaphor for the unease of the World War II generation for their youngsters.

You can definitely call this a cosy catastrophe novel. Slickly narrated, this novel is presented as history being written by a radio reporter which allows him to present a personal encounter with the kraken and yet briefly summarive the invasion’s effect on the world and engage in lots of foreshadowing. The aliens who invade Earth, colonize the sea, and make incursions onto coastal areas are never referred to as krakens, but the novel’s original British title, The Kraken Wakes, suggests the word)

The cosiness comes in because, though the narrator and his wife narrowly escape being killed by the krakens in the Caribbean, we don’t get any closeup looks at famine victims, people battling for survival supplies, the triage of survivors, and the struggle for survival that makes the disaster and post-apocalypse sub-genres so compelling. (Wyndham — who wrote sf starting in the 1930s under a variety of names and quite successfully retooled his identity when he changed his pseudonym with The Day of the Triffids — paved the way for John Christopher whose disaster novels are far less cozy.)

We get those things, but the narrator and his wife survive in relative comfort compared to Britain’s woes.  It is those woes, Britain the naval power being denied (with virtually every other nation — though it is strongly hinted at novel’s end that the kraken will be defeated) the use of the sea, that could serve as a metaphor for Britain’s post-war dis-ease.  (Another unexpected sign of this is the complaint of the narrator and a citizen that the government — just like in World War II — doesn’t trust its citizens with weapons to defend themselves.)

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The Midwich Cuckoos

While I get some more new reviews written up, it’s time to look at John Wyndham, another author Science Fiction Ruminations brought up recently.

Raw Feed (1988); The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham, 1957. 

Cover by Dean Ellis

To my knowledge, this is the first John Wyndham I’ve read. 

You could have fun finding a sort of feminist subtext in this novel which is to say it would be fun defending an essentially not quite valid premise., One of the central plot features is, of course, the sudden, unexplained, and unwanted pregnancies of most Midwich women, cosmic rape if you will. There are veiled references to abortion. Differences between men and women are discussed in passing. Zellaby talks of women’s arrogance in assuming their perpetual place on Earth. (This goes against feminist ideology, of course, but Zellaby discusses women as Mother.) Zellaby also bewails women not being more independent. 

The novel was surprisingly full of wry wit. The retired major (a minor character) was a bit like a Monty Python character. 

Surprisingly, the narrator was a bit character in the whole drama which gradually gains a sinister, foreboding air. In keeping with Wyndham’s reputation as a writer of “cozy disaster novels”,  there is little, if any, horror here, and I can’t see it rightly being marketed as a horror novel which, as I recall, when I first saw it on the rack many years ago as a child, it was. 

The theme of the story is simple:  to protect “civilization” it may mean compromising its values of peace and justice.  (Very reminiscent of arguments on how to fight terrorism.) Wyndham manages to bring up major questions in a skillful, naturalistic way. 

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Terraplane

Over at Science Fiction Ruminations, Joachim Boaz mentioned Womack’s Ambient. One thing led to another, and now you get this while I work on new reviews. Remember, Raw Feeds are basically my notes after reading a work.

Raw Feed (1990); Terraplane, Jack Womack, 1988. 

Cover by Nicholas Jainschigg

Given the strange argot this book is written in, it’s obvious Womack saw or read A Clockwork Orange one too many times. This book’s dialect is quite similar. 

It is interesting and good. However, at times, it was not detailed enough. (This may be unfair since I know there’s at least one other novel set in this universe and a forthcoming one as well I believe). 

Dryco, the (to use Bruce Sterling’s cover blurb) “sinister multinational cabal”, is not explained much at all. It seems to be amoral, apolitical and subordinates both Russian and the U.S. to its wishes via trade. Drasnaya seems to be its Russian equivalent; a corporation dedicated to ruthlessly enforcing the edicts of “sozializtkapitalism” (a rather silly term — at least so it seemed on first reading of the novel — that has actually started to be used in the last couple of months in the U.S.S.R.), a system of forced consumption in Russia — of Sov goods with the morbid touch of Stalin, the Big Boy, being the ultimate consumer icon. [In 2021, it doesn’t seem that silly a concept.] 

I’d like to know about the war fought between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (and its surrogates) all over the world including around New York City. It’s very important in the lives of the characters. 

Womack does throw in neat stuff: parallel universe travel via Telsa technology, Fortean events the results of travel between time tracks, an alternate universe where Lincoln was shot before he freed the slaves (Teddy Roosevelt did) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt dies before instituting the New Deal — a universe where time flows at a different rate than in ours. A cataclysm in ours (the Tunguska event and the first A-Bomb explosions) influence events there including the American Siberian Expeditionary bringing a plague back. Huey Long even makes an appearance as does a slave owning Coca-Cola Company which brands its human property. 

Womack brings us two worlds of grimness, sorrow, and despair. 

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R’lyeh: The Lost Realm

And my look at Byron Craft’s Mythos Project series concludes.

Cover by Eric Lofgren

Review: R’lyeh: The Lost Realm, Byron Craft, 2021. 

How to describe this book without sucking its vitality away with spoilers?

It’s a capstone, a wrapping up of threads, of all the Craft works I’ve reviewed.

It is, to borrow a phrase from drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, an “assemble the squad” story. It’s two years after Shoggoth 2, and Professor Ironwood puts out the call to some of the characters of the Shoggoth books to help rescue the grandchild of Faren and Janet Church. It seems that someone in R’lyeh wants a child with the blood of the Tanists in him.

Yes, Ironwood’s group dares – armed with some modern technology and weaponry – to go to R’lyeh though it is not, in this series, in the Pacific Ocean but in another dimension.

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Shoggoth 2: The Rise of the Elders

Cover by Pahapasi

Review: Shoggoth 2: The Rise of the Elders, Byron Craft, 2018

Yep, it’s a sequel to Shoggoth, and, yes, the Elder Beings aka the Yith do play a prominent role.

It’s been a few months since the events of Shoggoth. Jason Riggs and Gwen Gilhooey have married and are expecting a child, and Jason’s nephew Noah has come to live with them. Computer genius Cac survived being shot up. Thomas Ironwood and his former housekeeper, Amy Murchison, have become lovers.

Besides Noah, there are two other major characters, a mysterious scarred man who proves his professional monster killing metal in some opening chapters, and Pemba, a psychic empath from England. (Recommended by Professor David Hambling, no less!). Ironwood wants help in investigating some strange dreams and visions the locals of Darwin are having. He thinks the vast underground complex of the Yith exerts some kind of psychic influence.

And Senator Neville Stream is still around, still determined to get his hands on Yith technology and weaponize shoggoths for political ends.

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The Cry of Cthulhu

Review: The Cry of Cthulhu, Byron Craft, 2013. 

Cover by Tom Sullivan

This  ur-text for much of Craft’s later solo writings in the Cthulhu Mythos ranges from the last days of the Third Reich to the eve of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive to 1980s Germany and points far beyond in time and space.

Essentially, this is a haunted house story and a haunted world story. After all, aren’t most Lovecraft stories hauntings of a sort?

Not only is this the start of the Mythos Project serie, but the Windlass device, such a central part of the Time Loopers anthology and Craft’s story in it, “The Comatose Man”, is a crucial element. Professor Ironwood of that story shows up as do the pilot demons and Tanists of Craft’s Arkham Detective series.

The book has an interesting history. It started out as a screenplay adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” that was turned into the novel The Alchemist’s Notebook which then was retitled. Evidently, according to an interview I found with Craft, the film project halted when he and his partners wouldn’t sell the script to producer Dino De Laurentis. The novel even has some reproductions of pre-production artwork by Tom Sullivan.    

The book, between the foreword and afterword from Ironwood, is composed of three first person narratives: a transcript of Faren Church’s recordings, the notebook of his wife Janet, and the journal of alchemist – and Faren’s great-uncle – Heinrich Todesfall. 

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