Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life

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The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with “plots of creation”, specifically ones where life is created.

Gunn is no vitalist, so he draws no distinction between “chemical life” and “mechanical life”. The former is based (as far as we know) exclusively on carbon, the former is based on inorganic compounds. Chemical life is “vitalized in the cell; mechanical life is vitalized in the ‘mind’ and power center”.

Of course, the creation of artificial life and seemingly sentient machines has a history before sf. It features in legend and folklore. There’s even a flying brass horse in The Canterbury Tales.

Creating “chemical life” seems more magical, a veritable resurrection of the dead according to Gunn. By doing that, humans assume God-like powers as opposed to creating “mechanical life” which has more the air of supreme artisanship or mechanical skill though, especially when creating machines that seem or are sentient, it can also seem God-like. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life”

The Flesh, the Blood, and the Fire

I continue to troll the archives for old stuff on some favorite authors.

This exhausts my S. Andrew Swann material.

Raw Feed (1998): The Flesh, the Blood, and the Fire, S. A. Swiniarski, 1998.Flesh, the Blood, and the Fire

I’ve very much enjoyed Swiniarski’s Moreau series and his Hostile Takeover series, both published under the pen name S. Andrew Swann.  I’m normally not a fan of vampire novels, but I decided to read this one because of its author and an historical setting involving Cleveland’s notorious Torso Killer.

Surprisingly, given that he’s a Cleveland native and set two of this three Moreau books in Cleveland, I really didn’t get a sense of place from Swiniarski here or in his other Cleveland books.  His characters are interesting and serviceable enough to interest one while reading but not real memorable.  His real skill is plotting, and this novel is no exception.  The story starts out quickly, and Swiniarski introduces many unexpected plot complications (as well as doing his usual fine job of suspenseful pacing), not the least of which is having main protagonist Stefan Ryzard succumb to vampire Melchior and become a vampire, later redeemed (at least until he kills Melchior in a suicide mission known to history as the East Ohio Gas Company explosion) by his Catholic faith.

The mystical details of vampire telepathy and thralldom are, as befitting a horror fantasy, rather vague though I liked the reasonable society of vampires utterly outclassed and destroyed (the rationale for the Torso Killer’s decapitations) by Melchior.  The relationship between veteran detective Ryzard and new detective, Nuri Lapados went through many unexpected turns.  I thought Swiniarski would kill off Nuri, but he didn’t.  Nor did he save Ryzard from becoming a thrall to Melchior.  I thought, when he went off to war, Nuri was gone for good (after helping to save Ryzard’s soul and I liked the idea of communion freeing him from Melchior by, in effect, substituting the power of Christ’s blood for Melchior.  However, he returned to witness (but not really provide any aid) Ryzard’s killing of Melchior.

 

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DAW 30th Anniversary Science Fiction Anthology

Another retro review while I work on something for another outlet.

From January 12, 2010 …

Review: DAW 30th Anniversary Science Fiction Anthology, eds. Elizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert, 2002.DAW 30th Anniversary

Apart from the introductions by Wollheim and Gilbert covering Donald A. Wollheim’s contributions to American publishing culminating with his founding of DAW Books, there’s nothing that makes this book stand out from DAW’s many other anthologies except it doesn’t have a theme. The ratio of good to adequate to bad stories is pretty standard – not nearly high enough for a celebration of 30 years of quality publishing. That’s probably inevitable for a group of all original stories, but this anthology, which features installments in several DAW series, also doesn’t serve as much of an enticing sampler of DAW’s goods.

The two stand out stories are Tad Williams’ “Not With a Whimper, Either” and Ian Watson’s “The Black Wall of Jerusalem”. Williams’ story is told through newsgroup exchanges as various users try to figure out what is behind several disruptions of communications and utilities. It’s a worthy and ambiguous addition to a science fiction tradition of sinister machines including Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands”, Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, and, especially, Frederic Brown’s “Answer”. Watson’s story is surprisingly Lovecraftian in structure and theme. Its poet narrator is troubled by dreams he’s been having since returning from Jerusalem where he went for inspiration to write a William Blake style work of religious mysticism. There he encountered the Black Wall, a gateway that pops up in different parts of the ancient city, and goes beyond it to investigate the lethal beings of another dimension. Continue reading “DAW 30th Anniversary Science Fiction Anthology”

Prophets

A retro review from November 20, 2009.

Review: Prophets: Apotheosis: Book One, S. Andrew Swann, 2009.Prophets

This novel has just about everything I want in a space opera: lost colonies, political intrigues (here the Caliphate and Roman Catholic Church vying for control and influence in the worlds of human space – a space that includes the human/animal chimeras called moreaus), vividly described violence, forbidden technologies (genetic engineering of humans, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence), espionage, and subversion.

Swann’s style strikes just the right balance with his physical descriptions – cinematic but not too long to slow the plot down. And I liked every chapter having an epigraph from sources historical and fictitious. This is a continuation of Swann’s work in his moreau/Confederation universe and is chronologically the latest story but don’t worry. Swann provides enough background explication so that, if you’ve never read the Moreau series or the Hostile Takeover trilogy – or, like me, it’s just been a long time since you read them, you won’t be lost.

Actually this novel reminded me a lot of a stripped down version of Peter Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga: a human political order with its internecine squabbles is threatened by an invading force willing to do anything to alter that order. However, Swann’s universe is never as utopian as Hamilton’s world.

 

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Hostile Takeover

I’m off still working on other stuff so you get three retro reviews, all from 2009, of the contents of S. Andrew Swann’s Hostile Takeover omnibus. (I actually read these all twice in their original paperback incarnation.)

Spoilers obviously lay ahead.

Review: Hostile Takeover Trilogy, S. Andrew Swann, 2004.Hostile Takeover

Profiteer

Nature abhors a vacuum, and governments abhor competition. The loosely welded Terran Confederation is starting to show some strains, and some of its blocs think things would be better if something was done about the anarchic planet of Bakunin. Existing outside of the Confederation, it’s a place that allows everything the Confederation doesn’t including the “heretical” technologies of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence. Everything except a central state.

To Bakunin comes Colonel Dacham, officer of the Terran Executive Command – the real power in the Confederacy, an organization routinely willing to kill thousands to preserve the governments of its members. In tow are several Confederation Marines under his command. What the TEC wants on Bakunin is unclear. But Dacham’s personal motives aren’t. He wants to destroy Dominic Magnus, a local arms dealer, and anybody working for him. And one of those marines is increasingly uncomfortable with the lengths he’s willing to go – in an already legally unprecedented operation – to do so.

Throw in a computer hacker caught up in the TEC’s mission of destruction, a bored alien looking to put his encyclopedia knowledge of space navies to use, a safecracking lawyer and ex-revolutionary, a junkyard operator and his robot, and you have most of the cast. Again, Swann exhibits a near-perfect sense of pace in his tale of political intrigue and military action that, in its final phase, turns out to be a heist plot. Swann stretches his revelations out just long enough build suspense and doesn’t try our patience by trying to hide mysteries the reader has already guessed.

But the real star here is Bakunin, the setting. It’s not an anarchic, libertarian utopia. It’s full of extortion rackets, violent religions, street punks, and mercs. But it does plausibly, if violently, work after its own fashion. Along with Donald Westlake’s Anarchaos, it’s one of science fiction’s most vivid anarchies.

The chapter headings and epigrams, real and fictitious, are also a big reason I like this series, like it enough to re-read it.

The Hostile Takeover trilogy takes place after Swann’s moreau books, but you don’t have to read them first. However, I have a feeling that the ties between this series and Swann’s new series that opened with Prophets: Apotheosis will be more significant.

Partisan

After putting his brother Dominic Magnus out of business – and unsuccessfully trying to kill him, Colonel Klaus Dacham of the TEC initiates the second part of Operation Rasputin: forcibly bringing the anarchic world of Bakunin into the human polity of the Confederacy. But while ending, at the point of a gun, Bakunin’s days as a haven for smugglers, tax evaders, and revolutionaries seems like a great idea, it may tear the Confederacy apart.

Swann throws in new – and soon separated – lovers Dominic and Tetsami, alien artifacts new and old, fearsome nantechnology and transhumans, and time travel into the mix of political intrigue, chases, vivid violence, and clever chapter titles.

To be sure, at one point, Swann comes perilously near too convenient coincidence in his plot when a desperate rescue mission is mounted into the wilds of Bakunin to keep Tetsumi out of the grips of a mercenary army. And, while Swann does a credible job with his technology and describing the nanotechnology spookiness of the Proteus Commune – which makes even Bakunites a bit nervous, this isn’t primarily a work of new or breathtaking scientific ideas and speculations. However, he continues to create a credible anarchist society with Bakunin. What Swann offers is adventure and intrigue and mysteries from the past and terrors in the future. Unlike the first novel in the series, primarily a heist story, this one has more variety in its plot and scenes.

It is, still, the middle book of a trilogy. And, while definitely worth reading, you should first start with Profiteer.

Revolutionary

In the conclusion of the trilogy, protagonist Dominic Magnus realizes the Terran Executive Command’s plan to bring the anarchical planet of Bakunin forcibly into the Confederacy can’t be defeated on the ground. It must be defeated politically and at the heart of the Confederacy — the diplomatic quarters on Earth. First, though, he must avoid capture by his crazed brother Klaus and run the blockade of Bakunin.

And, if that wasn’t enough to worry about, he finds himself agonizing over Kari Tetsami when she’s shot up by a TEC prisoner, wondering if he can trust his ally Random Walk — an intelligent robot who is also a master manipulator, and learning a Dacham family secret.

This story held up as well on a second reading as it did when it first came out. Swann throws everything into this book: espionage, superscience, political intrigue, straight up military combat, romance, and a family drama. All the plots are ably wrapped up in an emotionally satisfying – if not always happy – way from the fate of the Confederacy and its chief secret policeman, Dimitri Olmanov, to the future of human colonization of space, the superscience of the Proteus Commune, the guilt of Shane the deserter, and the troubled relationship of Dominic and Tetsami.

Swann never stumbles in his story though it threatens to wobble a bit during the Proteus bits. He throws in some sections clearly designed to sum up the story of the preceding books for those who haven’t read them. However, the very numbering of the novel’s parts indicates it’s not truly self-contained, and I wouldn’t attempt reading the series out of order.

 

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The Moreau Quartet, Volume 2

Here’s a follow up to my early review of the Moreau Quartet, Volume 1, two retro reviews from 2009.

Emperors of the TwilightMoreau Quartet 2Specters of the Dawn

Review: Emperors of the Twilight, S. Andrew Swann, 1994.

Swann takes the classic spy plot of an agent on the run from their employer and creates a very effective second entry in his moreau series. For the unitiated, moreaus are human/animal genetic chimeras designed for military use. In this world, after the Pan-Asiatic War ended, many of them ended up as refugees in the United States. However, Swann does a good enough job explaining the events of the earlier novel, Forests of the Night, that you don’t absolutely need to read the earlier novel to enjoy this book.

Moreaus and their politics show up here in significant ways, but the spy on the run, Evi Isham, is a “frank” as in frankenstein. In her case, her genome was modified by the Japanese, she was bred for the Jordanians, liberated by the Israelis, and, as a refugee after Israel’s destruction, compelled to work for the US government. Continue reading “The Moreau Quartet, Volume 2”

The Moreau Quartet, Volume 1

Forests of the NightFearful SymmetriesI like these books.  I’ve even read them twice.

Now they are available in one omnibus edition. (Yes, this is not the original publication order, but you can read them this way though it’s not ideal.)

Time to resurrect two retro reviews.

Moreau Quartet

Review: Forests of the Night, S. Andrew Swann, 1993.

I don’t re-read many books, but, after reading Swann’s Prophets: Apotheosis: Book One, I wanted to return to the same universe, so I started again at the beginning.

I wasn’t disappointed. This book still holds up with the exception of some outdated computer technology, but science fiction fans should be able to overlook that. With this, his first novel, Swann was already a master of plotting, of doling out information at just the right time, of writing cinematically vivid action scenes that are multi-sensory – particularly here where one of the prime senses of the hero is smell.

That hero is one Nohar Rajasthan. Nohar has a couple of crosses to bear. The first is that his father was a revolutionary who died in a gun battle with police. The second is that he’s a moreau – a genetic chimera of human and animal designed as a soldier. Nohar happens to be a human/tiger hybrid. But Nohar’s more immediate problem is that he’s almost broke. A private eye in Cleveland, his most recent client gets shot in a bar by a gun toting Afghan dog, and Nohar finds himself breaking one of his most basic rules – taking a case that involves a human. Said human, now dead, was the campaign manager for a virulently anti-moreau politician. And Nohar’s new client seems to be one of the few Americans more despised and with less rights than a moreau – a “frank” aka frankenstein, a genetically altered human. Throw in lots of gunfights, political intrigue with a surprising revelation, and even some interspecies sex and you have a very fast-moving, entertaining novel. (Swann handles the usual mystery/thriller cliché of the protagonist bedding someone he meets during the course of the investigation so well I didn’t mind much.)

Review: Fearful Symmetries: The Return of Nohar Rajasthan, S. Andrew Swann, 1999.

The tiger is ex-private eye Nohar Rajasthan, and he’s only part tiger and part part man, a rare natural descendent of moreaus – animal-human chimeras designed for war. It’s been 17 years since the events of Forests of the Night, seven years since Nohar left his human wife Stephanie. He lives on a homestead in California, part of a government program designed, in the wake of massive moreau-human violence, to get moreaus away from urban areas. He lives a simple life of hunting deer. His joints aching in the morning, his stripes faded, he knows he won’t live long.

But, after he turns down a generous offer from an anonymous client to find a missing moreau and a hit team descends on his cabin, he has no choice but to return to Los Angeles and confront his past and the world he left.

In some ways, this is not only the shortest but most contemplative of Swann’s moreau books. While it still has plenty of action, it also has Nohar confronting not only the fearful symmetries of his created purpose but also memories of his early life and the similarities between his own distant father and the murderous forces he must combat.

While Swann again adds another chapter in the troubled relations between human and moreau and even shows us the first moreaus to be created, this is not a good entry point in the series. It depends too much on resonances from early books. But, after finishing those early books, it is definitely worth reading.

 

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