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”→
”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”→
“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”→
Last summer, while I was waiting to get my hands on James Gunn’s latest novel, Transformation, I decided to fill in one of my few gaps in reading his fiction, so I took this one off the shelf.
It turns out it has some unexpected similarities to Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy and interesting on its own.
Review: Gift From the Stars, James Gunn, 2005.
As explained in Gunn’s preface as well as the introduction by Gregory Benford, this novel is part of a feedback loop with SETI research as well as Carl Sagan’s Contact.
Sagan was a great admirer of Gunn’s The Listeners, a set of novelletes turned into a novel which depicts the decades long quest for a signal from an alien intelligence and the effects of receiving one on humanity. Gunn took his ideas from SETI researcher Frank Drake as well as Sagan, and Benford says Gunn’s novel, in turn, influenced the paradigms of SETI efforts.
Sagan’s Contact was a response to Gunn’s novel, and Gunn started this novel, another one of his characteristic fix-ups of several shorter works, in response to the movie adaptation of Sagan’s novel. Specifically, Gunn didn’t find the end alien message or its purpose credible.
The result is an upping of scale from section to section. Benford says it puts him in mind of A. E. van Vogt’s famous method of writing 800 word scenes and then introducing a new wrinkle into the narrative. While that led, according to Benford, “gathering incoherence” in van Vogt, it leads to “expanding vistas” in this novel. Continue reading “Gift From the Stars”→
Everything I’ve ever heard about Stapledon is correct judging on the basis of this novel. He was a totally unique voice in sf when this novel was published, and he is still totally unique. His epic style in which millions of years can routinely pass in the space of a paragraph often has a religious flavor to it harkening back to psalms (his first book of poetry was called Latter-Day Psalms).
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (in a blurb at the front of this book) claims Stapledon is the second most influential writer in sf next to Wells. I think that claim is arguable. Certainly Wells introduced, or gave a big boost, to such perennial sf motifs as time travel, alien invasion, surgery on/genetic manipulation of animals, the far future story, the physical evolution of man. Stapledon creates few new ideas, but his epic style and his spiritual concerns are different than Wells’. [Certainly, I would put Stapedon in the top five most influential science fiction writers.]
“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”→