Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I don’t have anything new to post right now, I’ll respond to a mention of this collection on Classics of Science Fiction. And a reminder unusually relevant with this one — Raw Feeds come with spoilers.

Raw Feed (2001): Man in His Time: Best SF Stories, Brian Aldiss, 1989.MNNHSTMBST1989

Introduction” — Aldiss talks briefly about how he was influenced by the first Shakespeare play he read, The Tempest, and how the short story, unlike the novel, has no hero and, again unlike the novel, is never about the search for truth but features a truth of the author’s. Aldiss, responding to a critic’s remark that his stories don’t as much explain as mystify, sees mystification as a tool to reveal the truth that we do not know everything about the universe.

Outside” — This story is dated 1955 (It’s unclear if that’s a date of composition or date of publication.), so it’s possible that it may have been inspired, if Aldiss saw the magazines they were published in, some of Philip K. Dick’s earlier work (he is an acknowledged fan of Dick), specifically the Dick story “Imposter” which has published prior to 1955. On the other hand, it’s possible he came up with the idea for this story all by himself or was inspired by A.E. van Vogt, Dick’s model for some of his earlier stuff. The story here, a man sharing a house with some other housemates, a house that none of them ever leaves, that none of them even has the desire to leave though they can’t see out of it (and get their supplies from the “store”, a small room by the kitchen), and the man eventually discovering that the house is an observatory where humans observe captured, would-be alien Nititian infiltrators (they kill humans and shape themselves into exact replicas), and the man discovering that he is, in fact, one of those Nititian, is pretty Dickian.  The protagonist was so passive because Nititians tend to adopt themselves to the psychological coloration of the humans around them. In this case, a human observer in the house was in the passive, watching mode.

The Failed Men” — An interesting story, a witty look at the uncleavable union of culture and language. The humans of the 24th Century, called the Children by those of that future, are roped into the Intertemporal Red Cross mission made up of humans from many different periods in the future, to save the bizarre, strange case of the Failed Men, a culture of the 3,157th century. They are deformed in shape, and have, for some unknown reason, buried themselves in the Earth. They literally have to be dug out to help them. The 24th Century protagonist, and his comrades from the same century, find the Failed Men so disturbing that psychiatric hospitalization is required. There are hints that some action of the ancestors created the Failed Men, but no one can be sure. No one has been able to fathom the motives for the path they took.  It may have been religious or a failed attempt at transcendence. The Failed Men are no help in explaining their action. Their language is a melange of abstractions, some seemingly redundant, some seemingly contradictory — at least, to a non-native speaker. Continue reading “Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

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”

Georgia on My Mind and Other Places

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, ed. Charles Sheffield, 1995.GRGNMYMNDN1996

Introduction” — Short, no nonsense, no-frill introduction for a collection of stories ranging from “silly to personal and serious.”

The Feynman Solution” — This is a fantasy. The mechanism of time travel is never rationalized beyond the point of artist Colin Trantham saying he’s a sort of positron which physicist Richard Feynman described as an electron traveling back in time. The story involves Colin, suffering from a brain tumor (the major scientific interest of the story is the descriptions of cancer therapies, their successes, methods of operation, and failings) and seeing visions of increasingly ancient and mostly extinct life which he draws with his usual precision. The relationship between Colin and his paleontologist sister Julia and his oncologist James Wollaston (eventually Julia’s lover) was well handled. The Tranthams, like Bey Wolf in Sheffield’s Proteus novels, love to quote all kinds of things from Samuel Johnson to movies. I suspect Sheffield does this too.

The Bee’s Kiss” — Like Sheffield’s “C-Change”, this story involves aliens who are concealing things. A very skilled voyeur is forced by a tyrant (after the voyeur is caught spying on him) to spy on some enigmatic aliens, the Sigil. It turns out the aliens have become alarmed after learning humans use sexual reproduction. The Sigil are asexual and use a parasitic means to reproduce like Earth’s sphinx wasp. This story has good psychological insight into a voyeur. Continue reading “Georgia on My Mind and Other Places”

The McAndrew Chronicles

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): The McAndrew Chronicles, Charles Sheffield, 1983.

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Cover by Vincent di Fate

 Introduction” — Sheffield notes his confusion at separating the science from the pseudoscience be encountered as a teenager reading science fiction. He says no stories in this book violate current scientific theories.

First Chronicle: Killing Vector” — Introduction of the absent-minded and brilliant physicist McAndrew and his work in kernels (charged, rotating Kerr-Newman black holes). The McAndrew name and kernels seem to link this story to the Proteus Universe of Sheffield’s. A terrorist being transported on the ship McAndrew works on is sprung by his confederates though his plan goes very awry (he’s booted out of the universe) because of his incomplete knowledge of physics. The terrorist Yifter is head of the Hallucinogenic Freedom League which kills a billion people by putting hallucinogens in many of the water supplies of the world. This seems to point to a conception date for this story of sometime in the seventies [publication in Galaxy magazine in 1978, actually]. References to bio-feedback machines regenerating lost limbs, the central technology of the Proteus stories, are also mentioned made here.

Second Chronicle: Moment of Inertia” — McAndrew invents a balanced drive spaceship capable of traveling at 50g acceleration. The trick is not generating that much power. It’s accelerating that quickly and keeping the passengers alive. McAndrew uses a moveable disk of superdense matter to cancel out the acceleration forces with gravity (the equivalence principle of Einstein). However, during the ship’s trial voyage, the disk gets stuck so McAndrew can’t decelerate safely. The narrator of the senses (his friend and occasional lover) saves him. [No, 22 years later I no longer have any idea of what the “narrator of the senses” means. I don’t have the book in front of me.] Continue reading “The McAndrew Chronicles”

The U.S.A Trilogy

If you’re a regular reader of science fiction reviews and criticism, you may have heard of the “Dos Passos technique”.

John Brunner was the first to use it in science fiction in 1968’s Stand on Zanzibar. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes them as “modernist.

Other writers followed. Of the top of my head, I can think of Joe Haldeman’s “To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal” and David Brin’s Earth as using it. Some recent works by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I haven’t read yet, have been said to use it.

I’m a fan of the technique and think it quite effective, so, in 1997, I decided to let Dos Passos show me what his technique was.

The John Dos Passos memorial website says

Dos Passos considered himself foremost a writer of contemporary chronicles. He chose the moniker of “chronicler” because he was happiest working at the edge of fiction and nonfiction.

Both genres benefited from his mastery of observation—his “camera eye”— and his sense of historical context. Dos Passos sought to ground fiction in historic detail and working-class, realistic dialogue. He invented a multimedia format of newsreels, songs, biographies, and autobiography to convey the frenzy of 20th century America’s industrialism and urbanism.

Dos Passos, incidentally, sort of fell out of favor with American literati because he stopped, unlike many of them, being a dupe of communist propaganda.

Dos Passos himself may have disagreed with my wish that more writers take up his style. In a 1918 letter, he said:

“About style—I think that reading people in order to get ‘style’ from them is rather soft-headed. Your style is like the color of your hair or the cut of your pants—half accident, half act of God—to take thought to change or improve it results usually in rank affectation.”

Raw Feed (1997): The U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos, 1930, 1960.USA

I read this trilogy — The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936) — to get some appreciation of the style so successfully used by John Brunner and Joe Haldeman, and I found that style interesting.

I liked the Camera Eye sections – impressionistic vignettes sometimes told from the point of view of some of the characters and sometimes they seem to feature viewpoint characters never seen elsewhere in the trilogy.

The Newsreel sections were compelling, and the very best thing about the trilogy is a series of biographies of historical personages. Told in a variety of styles, a variety of tones, they sometimes approach prose-poems and are always interesting and very revealing in the large and small details of the people’s lives (cultural, political, scientific, and business figures).

These techniques, together with straight fictional prose, create, as they do in sf novels, a definite sense of place and time – here America in the first approximately 25 years of the 20th Century.

Unfortunately, while this book evokes a time and place (I was particularly interested in the accounts of labor agitation and Wilson’s Versailles negotiations), it doesn’t work as drama.

Many of the characters blurred together in my mind. (The most memorable was Charley Anderson from Fargo, and Minnesota’s Twin Cities is a setting of some of the story). All were on the make – at least in The Big Money.

Unplanned pregnancies play a major part in the plot as they probably did in the real lives of people during the time of this trilogy since artificial contraception was often illegal, and, for that reason, I probably confused the female characters more often than the male, but all the fictional characters suffered from lack of memorable distinctions.

I’m glad I read this book to examine Dos Passos’ wonderful, groundbreaking, influential style and the history I learned. However, the trilogy didn’t work as drama.

War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches

Another review connected to the recent H. G. Wells series.

Raw Feed (1996): War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. Kevin J. Anderson, 1996.Global Dispatches

“Foreword”, Kevin J. Anderson — An ill-conceived and badly executed conceit for this anthology: that all the stories represent a unified, expanded view of the Martian novel depicted in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. Anderson would have been better off presenting each story as a particular riff on Wells’ story, not part of a unified suite on Wells’ story.

The Roosevelt Dispatches”, Mike Resnick — Not one of Resnick’s better alternate histories involving Teddy Roosevelt. Essentially, this is about Roosevelt discovering a Martian scout and expressing optimism about the innate American ability to resist Martian invasion.

Canals in the Sand”, Kevin J. Anderson — This story features Percival Lowell (the spiritual godfather, in a sense, of Wells’ Martians and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom) and draws most of its strength by using the historical Lowell – a haughty, Boston Brahmin who spent most of his life as a professional diplomat to Japan and Korea amongst other places – rather than the current conception of him as a crazed astronomer drawing maps of a dying Mars canals. Haughty, rich, strong-willed Lowell spends a fortune constructing an excavation in the Sahara so the (he presumes) peaceable Martians will meet him there thus making him man’s ambassador to them. The Martians do come. Anderson doesn’t explicitly tell us what happens to Lowell when the Martians come, but, having read Wells, we can guess.

Foreign Devils”, Walter Jon Williams — An intriguing, well-done story in which the puppet Emperor (he is under the control of the military faction of “Iron Hats”) and Dowager Empress use the Martian invasion to free themselves from the Iron Hats, the Boxers (the story is set during the Boxer rebellion), and China from foreign influence. The Emperor will use his new power to modernize the hide-bound Chinese state. Continue reading “War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches”

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 “Year’s Best SF 6”