Beyond the Fall of Night

Since I recently brought up Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, I thought I’d also mention Clarke’s earlier version of the story and Gregory Benford’s sequel.

Raw Feed (1991): Beyond the Fall of Night, Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford, 1990.BNDFLLFN1990

My reactions to this book follow three veins: comparing Part 1, Clarke’s “Against the Fall of Night” with the expanded version The City and the Stars, Benford’s sequel to Clarke’s novella in its own right, and the combination as a whole.

As an alternative to The City and the Stars, I liked the latter better than “Against the Fall of Night”. The novel gave full rein to Clarke’s mournful vistas of an ancient Earth where man huddles fearfully. The novella has the same feel but Clarke simply doesn’t have as much space to portray these emotions. Also the novel had many interesting details, notions, and speculations: the psychological and social effects of no new births in Diaspar — just recycling of personalities with undesired memories edited out — and immortality, the instant creation of desired forms of matter (for role-playing games and much else), the sex games of Diaspar’s inhabitants and their evolved state, the mysterious Jester and the more mysterious matter of Alvin actually being born not recanted, the creation of the Mad Mind and Vanamonde (dealt with here but not in as great detail), and the religion of the Master and the enforced silence of his robot servant to spare him embarrassment. The mere length of the novella lessens the tone and emotion that goes so far in making the novel a classic.

I’m not sure if Benford’s addition really stands alone, but I liked it. From what I’ve heard of his novels (I’ve only read his collaboration with David Brin in Heart of the Comet), this story has his characteristic concern with man’s evolution and his place in the vaster evolution of life and intelligence. The vistas of millennia are reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon I suppose, but this part reminded me most of the bizarre future of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse. Benford’s life forms are just as bizarre, even more rationalized (particularly the creatures whose consciousness exist in the magnetic fields of the galaxy), but less well described. Which is just as well. Benford’s creatures are too vast, too alien to be minutely described like Aldiss’. They can just be suggested. Continue reading “Beyond the Fall of Night”

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The City and the Stars

The reading has been running far ahead of the blogging this summer. I’m working on a long series of related posts, and I’m not putting them up until they’re all done.

Since this book will come up in one of them, I thought I’d post this.

Raw Feed (1990): The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke, 1953, 1956.City and the Stars

This was one of those sf classics I didn’t know much about and really wasn’t too interested in reading till I read Clarke’s comments on it in his Astounding Days. However, I really enjoyed this book.

Like Clarke’s Childhood’s End, this book uses the metaphor of childhood to weave a story of loss, gain poignancy, innocence, and adventure. Hero Alvin’s adventures propel man from the fearful adolescence of Diaspar’s and Lys’ stagnation to its place — again — among the stars.

Clarke builds, block upon block, a suspenseful story that moves ever outward. We start the narrative in a cave (at least the image of one) and end with the stars, with the illusion and threat of white worms to the reality of Vanemonde’s pure mentality and the threat of the Mad Mind which will be freed one day. The people of Earth, locked in decadence, are the new children of the cosmos. The other intelligences of the cosmos and Man have left the universe.

As in Childhood’s End, transcendence is a theme. It is also, as critics have noted, a “what’s over the next hill” story.

The novel obviously owes its lyrical, sweeping, poignant, grandiose tone not only to John W. Campbell’s “Night” and “Twilight”, but also Clarke’s reading of Olaf Stapledon and his uniquely sweeping vistas. Clarke may not have been the first to address some typically sf themes in this novel, but they seem early examples of the treatments. Specifically I’m talking about the dichotomy of the Diaspar/physical sciences and Lys/mental and biological sciences society and the central question of illusion via the Central Computer being indistinguishable from reality.

Clarke, in this novel, seems to have been one of the first to think of the computer as a tool for social administration. Diaspar, though a stagnant place, has some interesting features: storing popular, well-liked art, the simulations (Clarke was quick to grasp this feature of computerized information processing), its twisted byways.

This novel is also interesting for its religious (typical of Clarke) themes: there is a rationalized form of reincarnation with the Hall of Creation. Man — with the creation of the Mad Mind and Vanemonde — assumes the role of Creator God and transcends the universe. There is a prophet (I really liked this idea) and his last disciple who faithfully awaits his return over millions of years and the Master’s robot servant — compelled to silence least he reveal the truth of the Master.

Clarke’s ruminations on religion are interesting, and I wonder if they’re personal. He chides religions who insist they alone are true, calls the religious impulse a uniquely human aspect. Yet the Master’s message appeals to alien and human, and Clarke takes a ecumenical viewpoint in saying a religion that appealed to so many must have had much that was true and noble even if the master’s evangelical message of miracles and prophecies was false and eventually deluded even its speaker.

I liked the polyp (interesting biology) patiently awaiting his master and the robot who — at story’s end — becomes a messenger to the galaxy of man’s rebirth.

I liked many other elements of scenes of this novel: Vanemonde’s childlike state, and Clarke’s use of immortality and the Halls of Creation. (I’m not sure I agree with Clarke’s ideas about immortality leading to cultural stagnation and the necessity of ending the process at novel’s end. But Clarke seems to see immortality destroying personal intimacy by eliminating the need for the family and procreation and dulling life by taking the cutting, driving edge of death away.

Also interesting was the legend of Shalmirane which turns out to be a myth to cover up Man’s cowardly retreat to Earthly isolation and stagnation, epitomized by the starship buried in the sand. Alvin eventually questions whether or not he’s just been obsessively selfish> The city of Diaspar, at the end of time, was eerie.

Lastly, I liked Alvin being a rogue agent, a sport in the social planning of the closed system of Diaspar (sounds, probably intentionally, like Diaspora) specifically intended to revolutionize, abolish, and change that system.

 

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

The 1000 Year Reich and Other Stories

Yes, it’s an actual book review of a title I committed myself to 25 months ago. I haven’t done a similar review in 10 months.

The reviewing mill of MarzAat grinds slow. Whether it grinds fine or even produces anything useful you will have to decide.

The mill’s scheduling is also erratic. This book wasn’t even the next in the chute, but I found myself limited to what was on the kindle one day, so I started it.

It came from NewCon Press whose offerings I’ve reviewed in the past: Dark Currents and David Hutchinson’s collection Sleeps with Angels. And I’ve enjoyed them. However, even my blogger conscience was starting to feel guilty about asking for any more of their offerings without reviewing what I had been given.

In fact, the next “new” title I will be reviewing is Simon Morden’s At the Speed of Light, also from NewCon Press.

Review: The 1000 Year Reich and Other Stories, Ian Watson, 2016.51wwhW8SFKL

I’ve enjoyed the Watson I’ve read before. There was the amusing bit of recursive science fiction in his “The World Science Convention of 2080” (fan experiences in journeying to the event in a world where technology has regressed). There was “The Great Atlantic Swimming Race” (the link takes you to James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction #5: The British Way so we haven’t escaped all Gunn references), a rumination on LiveAid charity stunts. A versatile writer, he turned in a couple of effective Lovecraftian bits with “The Black Wall of Jerusalem” and “The Walker in the Cemetery”. I enjoyed what seemed to be a witty takeoff on J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island in the short story “Long Stay” in a collection edited by Ian Whales, also associated with NewCon Press.

However, against my enjoyment of those short works, is The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s description of his novel The Embedding as a novel about perception molded by language with “erratic quicksilver shiftiness”. That doesn’t seem my thing, so I’ve read none of his novels. Continue reading “The 1000 Year Reich and Other Stories”

Transformation

Essay: Transformation, James Gunn, 2017.

Transformation
Covery by Thom Tenery

Well, that was anticlimactic.

That was my first reaction to finishing up Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy.

The second volume, Transgalactic, had a plot, according to Gunn, structured on The Odyssey, this one is structured along the lines of Jason and the Argonauts’ tale. Our questers are the two main characters of the trilogy,  Asha and Riley, and Tordor who didn’t, in fact, die at the end of Transcendental. Joining them is Adithya, son of Latha, leader of the covert rebellion against Earth’s pedia in Transgalactic.

They want to know what menace, revealed in the preceding book, is making the sentient races of the Galactic Federation go silent on the fringes of the galaxy.

A subplot also has Jer, cloned descendant of mad scientist Jak whom we met in Transgalactic, attempting to convince the staid Federation Council that the modified Transcendental Machine (named, what else?, the Jak Machine) poses no danger and works. These sections are sometimes humorous.  She also suggests that, to fight the destroyer of the “silent worlds” (whose nature she doesn’t know), the Galactics will need to be Transcended.

The trilogy concludes with the line “’It’s a long story,’ Asha said.” Continue reading “Transformation”

“The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe”, Brian Stableford, 1980.Opening Minds

In this long essay, Stableford presents a taxonomy of man-made catastrophes presented by science fiction.

The sense that humans could compete with nature in creating catastrophes started in the latter part of the 19th century.

There were works hostile to the growing effects of technology like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and William Morris’ News from Nowhere, but they didn’t present notions of true catastrophe at the hands of man’s machinery. Stableford claiming that Richard Jefferies After London (1872) left the reasons for a pastoral, medieval like England being created as “deliberately unspecified” doesn’t quite jibe with my memory of that novel.

While he doesn’t nominate it as the first work of man-made catastrophe, he notes that Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column had a world wrecked by the capitalist system. (And, I suppose, I should clarify that catastrophe does not equal a literal doomsday or human extinction.) Continue reading ““The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophe””

“Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature continues.

Review: “Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress“, Brian Stableford, 1977.Opening Minds

Combining his training as a sociologist and literary criticism of science fiction, Stableford does a concise summary of the myth of human progress and how science fiction has used it.

Starting in the 18th century, the notion of progress in human affairs, “softened” manners, enlightened minds, and nations being connected by commerce, a move toward “still higher perfection” as French philosopher Turgot put it, started to appear.

It was an improvement sought in knowledge and technology.

However, soon the grandiose idea of “human perfectibility” was espoused by the French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also saw progress in human affairs though not pushed by knowledge but its manifestations in production technologies. Continue reading ““Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress””

Earth’s Last Citadel

Well, there has been a fair uptick in traffic hear lately from a crowd interested in pulp, so I thought I’d get something out from the archives that might make them to stick around.

Frankly, though, this blog isn’t very tightly focused on any one type of book.

Still, it’s always nice to have more readers so maybe some of the new viewers will stick around.

One of my uncompleted reading projects is to read all 50 titles in “The 5 Parsec Shelf” in A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction by Baird Searles, Martin Last, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin from 1979. This title was listed.

Raw Feed (1992): Earth’s Last Citadel, C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, 1943.Earth's Last Citadel

I didn’t care for this novel all that much. I suppose Baird Searles included it on his list of classic sf novels because it’s pulpy and probably one of the earliest far future science-as-magic stories.

While I didn’t find the novel particularly entertaining, it was critically interesting.

First, the menacing Alien from beyond time — first and last of his kind on Earth, feeder on mental energy (a vampire of sorts) is reminiscent of a Lovecraftian horror. He is a Light-Wearer. The good Light-Wearers created, from human stock, the Carcasillans and protected them (and expected worship from them) from the bad Light-Wearers like the Alien. This lends a biblical flavor to the book.

This book is interesting as a midway point in the far-future sub-genre of sf. Continue reading “Earth’s Last Citadel”