Proteus in the Underworld

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): Proteus in the Underworld, Charles Sheffield, 1995.

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Cover by Gary Ruddell

 I got the impression that Sheffield, listed as the main science advisor in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Green Mars, wanted to do a Martian novel of his own. As with the Robinson Martian trilogy, this novel features two groups in conflict over what to do with Mars. Old Mars wants to terraform Mars. It’s opposition wants to alter man for Mars with form-change equipment – a technology of human will and the subconscious altering the human form via biofeedback that figures as the centerpiece of the Proteus series and seems to link it with the McAndrew series. Sheffield not only deals with the surface of Mars but also the Underworld, a series of natural caverns underneath equatorial Mars.

The story involves the seeming failure of the “humanity test” given to human children. (Failure to pass it gets the child killed and sent to the organ banks.) It has failed to detect “feral” and definitely non human forms.

The character of the now retired Bey Wolf (ex-head of the Office of Form Control and hero of the series) was ok, and I liked his many quotations. Likewise, I found his distant relative Sandra Wolf Dearborn acceptable. I didn’t even mind their romance at novel’s end. The plot of who is sabotaging the humanity test kept me turning the pages. Continue reading “Proteus in the Underworld”

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Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8

 

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re in the next subcategory of Gunn’s “plots of circumstances” where a protagonist must deal with problems inherent to the world he finds himself.

That subcategory is “a future being in a future world”.

The future is a great place to set a story, and a successful science fiction story only has to worry about the credibility of his imagination, and Gunn notes “credibility can be stretched a long way”.

However, Gunn isn’t too keen on past examples of stories in this subcategory. He thinks its potential has been abused more than any other plot category. Writers wrenched

the future into any shape they liked – utopian writers the foremost among them. They set up unlikely characters doing implausible things in absurd places; the plot form was undisciplined and chaotic.

Modern sf, realistic sf, occurred when readers started to demand plausible future and writers responded. Attendant to that was better characterization and dialogue. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8”

Year’s Best SF 5

This one mentions a work by Tom Purdom, one of this blog’s pet projects.

Raw Feed (2001): Best SF 5, ed. David G. Hartwell, 2000.Best SF 5

Everywhere“, Geoff Ryman — On first reading, this seems like a pleasant enough, poignant story about a young boy dealing with his grandfather’s death in a utopian future. (As Hartwell notes in the introduction, Ryman is not an author associated with utopias.) Through means never really explained (alternate time tracks in different dimensions of an 11 dimension universe? editing of a life in another dimension?) the sf equivalent of a soul is shunted off to “everywhere”, seemingly to live a past events again. I’m not sure how desirable that would be. I’m also not sure how utopian it is to live in a society of abullients who need a computer to suggest the next recreation activity. Nor will I grant Ryman the hypothesis that a great deal of the world’s problems stem from being not knowing what they next want to do with themselves. Granted, that is a major problem in some people’s lives. More frequently, I suspect, people know what they want to do but can’t, for a variety of reasons, do it. Even assuming a benevolent computer who could surveil you (and not abuse the gathered data), it’s still a creepy idea to be so completely and accurately modeled as to have a electronic nanny suggest the next playtime activity. Ryman recycles an old utopian notion of everybody taking their turn at certain undesirable jobs for “readies” unconvincingly depicted as an alternative to antique money.

Evolution Never Sleeps“, Elisabeth Malartre — This is essentially a hard science, rational, plausible version of all those fifties’ monster sf movies or the revenge of nature films popular in the seventies. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds (as the characters point out, it’s scary because the reason the birds become menacing is never explained, formerly benign creatures becoming threatening) and the suggested title for the movie version of events here is “The Attack of the Killer Chipmunks”. A researcher discovers that chipmunks have began to hunt in packs and become a formidable predator of creatures larger than them. As the title points out, there’s absolutely no reason that the process of evolution has stopped working on current lifeforms. Malartre also points out (and I assume it’s true given that she’s a biologist) that true herbivores are rare. Most animals will eat meat if given the opportunity and that meat is easier to digest than plant food. At the end, it’s clear this new breed of chipmunks is willing to attack man. [Incidentally, this version of the story accidentally omitted the author’s ending. Malartre sent me the ending, but I don’t know what I did with it. And, no, we’re not buddies. She put a notice in Locus that readers could request the ending from her.] Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 5”

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.

Icefire

The brief Garfield Reeves-Stevens series end with a work written with his frequent collaborator and wife Judith.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers techno- or otherwise these days — though in my youth I read most of the Alistair Maclean catalog. It’s a matter of opportunity costs and not that I don’t like them.

However, around Christmas one year I found myself in a crowded house and needed to read something not requiring careful attention.

Raw Feed (1998): Icefire, Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens, 1998.Icefire

I read this very marginal sf technothriller (it’s set no more than 8 years in the future) because I’ve admired some of Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ works.

It was a combination suspense thriller and disaster novel. New Zealand and Hawaii get hit but not, unfortunately, the west coast of the US. I liked the idea of using nuclear weapons to collapse the Ross Ice Shelf and create a giant soliton to devastate many of the Pacific Rim economies and create a better situation for instigator China. It’s a return, after a century, of the Yellow Menace to popular fiction though I’m sure this is not the first to revive the Chinese menace – a plausible menace, and certainly there have been Japanese menace novels.

The main attraction of technothrillers seem to be the intricate description of technologies, usually of a military or intelligence variety, and, to a lesser extant, the inner workings of government military and intelligence units. Here, besides a well done calculation on the solition’s effect, we get SR-71s, Cheyenne Mountain, Harriers, and nukes. A lot of technothrillers like made up technology, and we get that here with seemingly too good satellite reconnaissance, a supersonic transport, a neat stealth sub, and the real use for Project HAARP (pinpoint manipulation of the electromagnetic field anywhere on Earth, EMPs to order).

There were a few faults. It seems required (early Frederic Forsyth novels seem the exception) that suspense novels feature romance renewed (as here) or blooming fresh. It was bad enough Cory Rey, oceanographer and expert in fluid dynamics, just happened to be on site without being the ex-lover of co-hero Mitch Webber (unusually cautious for a SEAL). Still, the authors don’t overplay this subplot. (Though we get a developing romance between Major Bailey and her subordinate.) Also, the fate of Charles Quincy Abbott was a bit ambiguous. I assumed he committed suicide. He’s an interesting villain in that he’s not a traitor or dishonorable. He is a representative of the culture of secrecy that, if the novel has a serious point, is the target of this novel. To further his own ambitious and anti-Chinese policy, he first fails to think nukes have been detonated in the Antarctic (though the authors went to Antarctica, this novel doesn’t much convey a sense of place like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica) then keeps the news away from the President and other members of the military. The President, never named, seems to be something of a Clinton stand-in complete with a troubled relationship with the military, though he ultimately comes across, in a brief scene, as a decisive and heroic. Another President unnamed but associated with the word “prudent” (Bush) is fondly remembered. Many lives are lost as the result of this, and he is removed from command. I was surprised how quickly the book started. No desperate race to stop the nukes here – the nukes are detonated early.

 

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

Remaking History and Other Stories

Kim Stanley Robinson is another author I like and haven’t read enough of.

So, I’ll continue the alternate history series with this collection.

I do have to say I put Robinson, definitely a political author, in the aesthetically pleasing, politically suspect category.

In the very unlikely (but not totally impossible) event that aliens nominate Robinson and me to come up with a constitution for global governance or the human race will be rendered extinct …. well, best to put your affairs in order if that happens.

Raw Feed (1998): Remaking History and Other Stories, Kim Stanley Robinson, 1991.remaking-history

Venice Drowned” — I’ve gotten the impression reading Robinson’s short stories, that if he could dispense with a plot, he would. This story confirms that opinion. It’s little more than a landscape story; here the landscape is a Venice even more submerged (after a great storm in 2040) than in our time. It’s a landscape being looted by rich tourists. This idea is an old one. It goes back to the first sf appearance of the Statue of Liberty and was better done (without the looting) in Norman Spinrad’s “The Lost Continent”. The plot doesn’t really go very far. At one point, Robinson seems to want to do a ghost story but steps back from that idea.

Mercurial” — This is a fun sf takeoff of Sherlock Holmes, featuring tall, Nordic Freya Grindavik as a decidedly amoral Holmes (though Holmes also was not above letting murderers go, though out of a sense of higher justice) solving the murder of one Malvolio Musgrave, who, like the eponymous character of Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes’ story “The Musgrave Ritual”, is a scheming, dishonest employee who meets his end on Mercury. The narrator is the unwilling crime solver Nathaniel who doesn’t appreciate Grindavik’s amorality. The case involves Mercury’s art world where original artists are oppressed by the weight of the past, and collecting the treasures of Earth is the rage. A clever art dealer figures out a way of passing off his own brilliant work as long lost Earth work – or, more accurately, he alters records to create the illusion his artworks were created by great Earth artists. Philip K. Dick scholar Robinson has a Dickian moment of his own (and makes a good point that reminds me of the discussion of historicity in Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) when Nathaniel protests that a beautiful painting isn’t a Claude Monet original. “So what” responds Freya. Robinson makes the valid point that beauty is beauty no matter the source. The forger is exiled to Pluto where he can create his own works free from the distractions of Mercury’s snobbish classicism. The marvelous city moving with Mercury’s terminator featured in Robinson’s Blue Mars makes its first appearance here though the stories are not set in the same universe.

Ridge Running” — Little more than an excuse to write landscape descriptions of the Sierra Nevadas. This story’s thin plot seems to rest on three old friends reasserting their old bonds on a hike. One is worried his work as a lawyer has made him physically weak. Another is recovering from a brain injury (the exact method of the recovery is what give this story its thin sf element). Continue reading “Remaking History and Other Stories”

What Might Have Been, Vol. 4

The conclusion of the Raw Feed series on the alternate history anthology series.
Raw Feed (1993): What Might Have Been, Volume 4: Alternate Americas, eds. Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg, 1992.Alternate Americas

“Introduction”, Gregory Benford — Benford’s fair appraisal of Columbus and the effects of European contact with the New World.

Report of the Special Committee on the Quality of Life”, Harry Turtledove — It’s not that I disagree with Turtledove’s satirical attacks using the conceit that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella assembled a commission to look at Christopher Columbus’ proposed voyage to the New World. I agree with all his criticisms on the timidity of modern Americans, their refusal to run personal risks even with the chance of great gain, their obsession with personal safety and alleged environmental hazards, their technological pessimism, their pouring of money and resources into the rathole of social programs instead of space travel. The opponents of Columbus think his success would lead to inflation without more goods and services, but the story is boring and dull and not really even a story.

Ink From the New Moon”, A.A. Attanasio — I liked a few things about this story: its attempt to imitate an Oriental style, some of its humor (America still has the USA but here it’s the United Sandalwood Autocracies, and I liked Europeans being called Big Noses), and the end where the oriental native returns to Europe with Columbus. And I liked the whole idea of China colonizing America first via Buddhists who flee persecution in the Sung Dynasty. (Eventually, they break away from the Empire.) However, I didn’t really like the poetic/mystic ruminations on life and his relationship with his dead wife all expressed in thick, purple quasi-Oriental prose. He talks of falling, after he is hurled into the sky in an explosion, into emptiness, an emptiness that is a new freedom and that all reality floats in, that “mystery is the preeminent condition of human being”, that this freedom is the knowledge of utter loneliness and rootlessness. Is this existentialism with an Oriental face? I know its annoying and uninvolving as an explanation for the narrator to take off with Columbus.

Vinland the Dream”, Kim Stanley Robinson — This isn’t really an alternate history but a rumination on the study of history, history’s meaning and social value. I liked the central premise: that an unknown hoaxer (and I liked that his identity and character are never truly known) in the early 19th century created the elaborate illusion, through forged documents and fake archaeological sites, that there was a Viking presence in the New World. Robinson’s usual experimentation with style is here. The story is structured on the lines of a scientific paper. But I disagree strongly with the underlying philosophical message (similar to that in John Carr’s What Is History?) that history is ultimately unknowable, that it is less important that certain historical “stories” are true or false than that “certain qualities in the stories … make them true or false”. This is history as myth and propaganda and edifying and cautionary literature. Fictions can have some deep truth or edifying moral or pragmatic warnings. But history, as imperfect as it is, as provisional as the knowledge of the past is, isn’t the place for willful lies whatever the purpose. Just because the noble pursuit of the historian sometimes becomes tainted with willful lies or unknowing errors isn’t a reason to abandon the quest for the ideal.

If There Be Cause”, Sheila Finch — An overly long, usually dull alternate history based on the presumption that Francis Drake landed (as near as I can figure out) around San Francisco Bay and influenced the local tribes. Specifically, they instill in them a hatred for the soon-to-be-encroaching Spanish and teach them the rudiments of firearms and making wine. This story has one of those young woman (it could just as easily been a young man) learning to take her place as a shaman and learning the hard responsibilities of leadership. Here she oversees a war against the Spanish and kills her lover from another tribe who helps the Spanish and callously lets them kill her brother, “hard destiny” as the story calls her role.

“Isabella of Castile Answers Her Mail”, James Morrow — I didn’t hate this story unlike all the other Morrow I’ve read. I even liked a few things in this tale of culture shock as Columbus time-travels to modern New York. Columbus is horrified by the grotesque imagery of the “idol” of the Statute of Liberty, her inscription, seeming to point to human sacrifices in the pursuit of libertinism. Columbus is horrified at the sexual mores of his native Cuban New Yorker guide. He is also horrified at his guide’s brand of Catholicism, and the presence of wealthy, respected Jews in New York. However, there is the usual liberal tendencies of Morrow, here manifested by a comparison between New York’s homeless and the persecuted Jews of Columbus’ Spain.

Let Time Shape”, George Zebrowski — Like Zebrowski’s “The Number of the Sand”, this densely philosophical story considers a Panoptican civilization where all the variations of history are studied. Everything — fact, fiction, supposition, the human genome – is fed into a vast computer used to study history, and, here to place the observer in the virtual presence of a significant historical personage. All this in an attempt to find the crucial people of history, the variants which really are significant. Here Zebrowski envisions Christopher Columbus meeting a very superior (seemingly at about a twentieth century level) New World founded by the refugees from Carthage. They’re still bent on destroying Rome and its spiritual heir of the Holy Roman Empire. England has a secret alliance with the Carthaginians. The ambitious Columbus, smarting at the insults and delays caused by the Spanish aristocracy, sides with the Carthaginians in attacking the “Spanish-Italian empire”. It’s an interesting premise, but Zebrowski also manages to link the story to the spiritual plight of an unnamed observer in the Panoptica and his civilization itself. If I am reading the story right, the observer’s civilization is trapped in a psychic and spiritual dead-end, decadent. Their recent history consists of watching similar observers in other timelines, of standing aside from history, creeping along at a trivial pace, longing for a quantum transformation but unable or unwilling to find the means in all the observed histories. It’s no wonder the historian thrills to his vicarious possession of Columbus, that he longs to shape history too. But he is not one of history’s rare, finite (in an infinity of variants) significant personalities. A lot of good stuff here: alternate history and far future ennui.

Red Alert”, Jerry Oltion — Essentially a joke story with Red Wing, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo as fighter pilots combatting other pilots like George Armstrong Custer. There’s also the clever pun of the title and non-lethal coup missiles (air to air) used by the Indians. It’s too long too be carried by its jokes, and its too implausible. We’re not only asked to believe a level of American technology accelerated a hundred years ahead of our timeline but that Indians developed a scientific culture that matched that rate.

Such a Deal”, Esther M. Friesner — This is essentially – as befits Friesner – a joke story with a gruesome final punchline. Its humor was sustained throughout but not really enough to make me laugh out loud often. The story itself involves Columbus being financed by Jews and bringing back a contingent of Aztec warriors from the New World to help Spanish Jews overthrow Ferninand and Isabella and stop the Inquisition.

Looking for the Fountain”, Robert Silverberg — As always for Silverberg, this is an engaging, clearly written story. There is humor here of a subtle sort. The Fountain of Youth turns out to be a misnomer. It’s a cure for impotence. The narrator likes to constantly say “Trust me: I was there.” The central idea isn’t humorous, in fact poignant. A group of Frankish crusaders is blown off course, across the Atlantic, and on to the shores of Florida. They intermarry with the natives, convert them to Christianity. The crusading zeal is kept alive by the tribe until Ponce de Leon arrives looking for the Fountain of Manly Strength. They take him to it, though in retrospect the narrator believes they may just have been offering baptism. In return, Ponce de Leon is to bring them ships so they can go free Jerusalem. When he doesn’t return (no one believes he found the Fountain of Youth so he can’t sell the water he takes from the fountain) with the ships, the tribe fiercely turns on other Europeans they regard as false Christians.

The Round-Eyed Barbarians”, L. Sprague de Camp — De Camp takes a very obvious (and surprisingly little used) turning point in history. Unlike our timelines where the Chinese launch seven expeditions using sophisticated ships and compasses in the early fifteenth century under the Ming dynasty and then mysteriously, suddenly stop, they continue with their expeditions in this alternate history. Eventually colonists from this China meet their technological inferiors with European explorers following in the wake of Columbus. However, most of this story concerns itself with culture clash. I suppose that’s an obvious thing to consider given the setup, but I’d have liked more long term exploration of the premise.

Destination Indies”, Brad Linaweaver — This was a disappointment, especially after the author’s excellent novel Moon of Ice. This entire story with Columbus’ rival the Dark Duke, Atlanteans, and the constantly abused narrator who is also Columbus’ Loyal sidekick (he graduated from St. Pedro’s Academy for Loyal Sidekicks) reminded me of the Raiders of the Lost Ark like movie in that novel. It was humorous and captured the flavor of a serial with its suddenly exploding volcano and ending of “To be continued indefinitely”, but it also represents an increasing corruption of the alternate history concept. While this story could be construed (though I don’t see any evidence of this) as an historical drama from a bizarre alternate timeline or a piece of fiction from an alternate universe. But its easier to just see it as an absurdist fantasy that happens to use historical characters in way that is not at all derived from an extrapolation of historical divergence. More and more alternate history writers seem to be writing fables and absurdist fantasies using history as inspiration and characters, but not using the sub-genre for rigorous (or not so rigorous) extrapolation, as a fictional lab for talking about the importance of technology, accidents, personages, and social forces in history.

Ship Full of Jews”, Barry Malzberg — Just when I thought I could get to like Malzberg’s alternate history, he writes this piece of crap that doesn’t work on any level. The story has Christopher Columbus taking a ship full of deported Jews to the New World along with a ship full on converts under the control of Torquemada. In Malzberg style, there are a lot of internal monologues with Columbus that detail his ambition and lust for Isabella. There seems to be some implication that Torquemada intends to literally offer the Jews as sacrifice in the New World as a sanctification. There also seems to be some implication that Columbus is, as one Jew says, “in the control of larger forces”. There seems to be the darker implication that the New World will not become a place of freedom in this world but will be a grim place founded in blood by the fanatical Torquemada, a very different New World. The trouble is that Malzberg’s prose is so muddled that none of this is made clear enough to derive a true thematic statement from or even a clever plot.

The Karamazov Caper”, Gordon Eklund — I liked a lot of things in this story: its grim tone, its grim setting (Alaska is not a site often used in alternate histories), its murder investigation plot, its alternate history involving Russian exploration of Alaska, another subject little discussed in fiction or non-fiction. The turning point is Pope Innocent VIII being murdered in this time line and his successor institutes a “Reign of Ignorance and Dread” that kicks off a genocide of the Jews and the Germans killing Indians of the New World. Columbus, being a Jew, is killed after returning from the New World and further voyages there are banned. Bering is credited with discovering the New World, and its personages. Trotsky is a police investigator for the Czar). However, Eklund throws it all away with his ending. He never really explains why the Indians killed two babies and ate their hearts. Is it revenge for German atrocities in America? If it is, why does Trotsky go along with the cover-up? Out of sympathy for the Indians?

The Sleeping Serpent”, Pamela Sargent. One of the best stories in this book. This book simply postulates a Mongol Empire that got bigger than in our world and endured. The plot involves a Khan’s son coming to the Empire’s holdings in America, forming an alliance with the Iroquois and their confederates. He regards the Indians with special reverence as his genetic relatives – they came via the Asian landbridge – and because they embody what he regards as original Mongol virtues unlike the decadent Empire. The son breaks away from the Empire to form his own Khanate. This story makes me heartily thankful the brutal Mongol’s did not endure. However, the story’s narrator makes clear the Indian’s style of government is more democratic than Mongol tradition, and that the new Indian allies may be tainted by the new warfare the Mongols bring. The story is lean (despite its length), engaging, and thought provoking in the effect the Mongol’s might have had on history.

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