“The Saliva Tree”, Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.

Since James Harris over at Classics of Science Fiction reviewed this story recently and since I’m not close to putting up any new posts, I thought I’d throw in my two cents about Aldiss’ work.

Raw Feed (1989, 2001): “The Saliva Tree”, Brian W. Aldiss, 1965.

TORDOB03A This is a fun pastiche of H. G. Wells and H. P. Lovecraft. Aldiss isn’t as terrifying as Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space“, his obvious model — though he does produce some scary moments in making his malevolent aliens tourists and giving us an image of space travel being the product of vicious, ruthless races, but he gives us gentle humor in his references to Wells (including all sorts of references to H. G. Wells titles and his inspiration for The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Food of the Gods, and The Shape of Things to Come. Aldiss clearly reveres Wells. Aldiss gives a pleasantly Victorian love story with a rivalry between men. (He also gives us rather muted emotion, but I suspect that is part of the air he wishes to achieve.). Aldiss shows his skill in using literary symbols. The misshapen stuffed animals of Mr. Grendon are a reflection of the aliens altering Earth’s flaura and fauna. The Grendon farm uses lower animals the way the Aurigans use us. The destruction of the electrical systems — and the Grendon farm itself (symbol of socialism’s hope in the value and betterment of the common man) — symbolizes the destruction of the naïve belief in inevitable progress and the linkage of higher morality with higher technology.

Upon reading this story the second time around, I noticed a lot more allusions to the work of H.G. Wells than just (as I did the first time) some references to the titles The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds or the presence of H.G. Wells at story’s end. The first time I read it, I characterized it as a cross between H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”.MNNHSTMBST1989

To be sure the basic plot follows the Lovecraft story: an alien lands on a farm, produces changes in humans and plants and animals that causes them to grow large, feeds on the altered organisms, literally maddens some people, kills even more, and returns to space. Aldiss compresses his story timeline relative to Lovecraft’s, has his protagonist intimately involved with the events rather than hearing about them second-hand as the narrator does in the Lovecraft story, has the aliens’ presence explained as a holiday outing, and has his protagonist drive the aliens off. (Of course, in the Lovecraft tale, as typical with a Lovecraft story, humanity is powerless in front of the cosmic menace and not all of it leaves at story’s end.)

This time I noticed the phrases that alluded to (at least, I don’t remember noticing them the first time around) H.G. Wells’ titles: “men like gods”, “food of the gods” (particularly apt for the enlarging effects suffered by the people, animals, and plants on the farm), and “the shape of things to come”. Of course, we’re to assume that Wells’ (this story seems to take place shortly after the publication of The War of the Worlds) gets some future titles from protagonist Gregory Rolles. The socialism — and lack of good socialist comradery on the part of the invisible aliens — of Rolles I caught the first time around. Continue reading ““The Saliva Tree”, Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.”

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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”

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.

“A Descent Into the Maelström”

Last week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing was . . .

Review: “A Descent Into the Maelström“, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Because this is Poe and you might know the story already, I’m going to spend less time discussing the plot and more time summarizing the criticism around the tale and its relevance as a scientific metaphor.

The tale is pretty simple in outline. The narrator has climbed to the top of a 1500 foot peak overlooking the sea. With him is an old, white-haired man who still seems spry despite his aged look. And he’s definitely not as nervous as the narrator as he overlooks the crashing waves and is buffeted by blasting wind.

Moskstraumen
Moskstraumen — Site of the Tale

On Mount Helseggen, they look at a gigantic whirlpool that’s been known to take down entire ships. The old man tells how he once was trapped in that whirlpool, but, unlike his two brothers who were also aboard, he escaped to tell the tale, an event which aged him and turned his hair white in a day. (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that Poe is the only known example in English of putting an umlaut in Maleström.)

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Harry Clarke Illustration for the Tale

The Sources

Stephen Peithman’s notes in his The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe’s reworking of various sources. The immediate inspiration was Edward Wilson Landor’s “The Maelstrom: a Fragment” from 1834. (Sam Moskowitz, in the “Prophetic Edgar Allan Poe” chapter of his Explorers of the Infinite says a manuscript of Poe’s story exists from 1833. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore says no original manuscript is extant. I know which version I’ll believe.) Both stories have a ship trapped in the whirlpool with a hero escaping alive. But, whereas Landor’s hero faints after he escapes and can’t remember how he did it, Poe’s story is very much concerned with the how of the escape, the epitome of Poe’s applied ratiocination — though it’s not quite that simple as we’ll see.

Poe then seems to have gone to the Encyclopedia Britannica – anywhere from the third to sixth editions – and the 1834 Mariner’s Chronicle (which seems to have copied a lot from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry). The Mariner’s Chronicle added the supposedly true account of an American sea captain who went into the Maelstrom and lived. The Encyclopedia Britannica article also used material from the 1755 The Natural History of Norway by Erik Potoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, and Poe references his name.

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Ian Miller Illustration for the Tale

The Style

Peithman notes that Poe is frequently criticized for obscure, vague, and convoluted language. That, however, is usually used by him when describing a character whose mental state is unbalanced by terror or insanity. The old sailor’s account is quite lucid in its details and straightforward. Continue reading ““A Descent Into the Maelström””

Starfire

The Charles Sheffield series concludes with . . .

Raw Feed (2000): Starfire, Charles Sheffield, 1999.

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Cover by Cliff Mills

 I wasn’t that impressed with Sheffield’s Aftermath, the prequel to this book. But here Sheffield writes an excitingly paced book, full of surprises, and with so much of his trademark hard science speculations that, in the discussion of the astrophysics of Alpha Centauri’s supernova and the surprising distributions and characteristics of the resulting rain of atomic particles, not only did I not have a clue as to the work of some of the mentioned physicists, but I didn’t even recognize their names.

Most of the characters from Aftermath are here.

Celine Tanaka, after 26 years, has become president of the U.S. That seems somewhat improbable, but John Glenn became a politician and this is a depopulated U.S., and Tanaka is a survivor of the Mars expedition.

Wilmer Oldfield, another survivor (we get no mention of what happened to the other two survivors of the expedition that were left behind in the Argos Cult in the first book), is here too. He and the semi-feral, rude, but very brilliant Astarte Vjansander, point our further evidence that the supernova was deliberately induced and its rain of strangely arranged particle emissions aimed deliberately at Earth and will arrive sooner than expected. (She has to be a genius to teach herself math and physics while a solitary survival of the supernova’s destruction in northern Australia) . Continue reading “Starfire”

Aftermath

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (2000): Aftermath, Charles Sheffield, 1998.

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Cover by Paul Youll

I thought this was going to be a post-apocalypse novel about life on Earth after Alpha Centauri goes supernova. But it’s clear that, except in the setting itself, Sheffield doesn’t have much interest in writing a true post-apocalypse novel.

There are multiple viewpoint characters apart from some brief opening scenes in which three characters, who we, of course, never see again, die to show us the opening effects of the supernova. This is a standard technique of the suspense blockbuster, and Sheffield here seems to be trying to write in that style since the hard science he is known for is at a minimum.

There are no scenes of desperate violence for precious resources, no calculation of whom is fit to live and die, no bands of marauders, none of the bread and butter scenes that the usual (and enjoyable) post-apocalypse story has.

The part of the novel I liked best was the part I expected to like least: the plot involving the brilliant scientist – and serial killer – Oliver Guest. My original fears that he seemed to be an imitation of Thomas Harris’ infamous Hannibal Lector were partly realized. He is brilliant and cultured with peculiar motivations to kill. Most of the information about him comes from his secret diary – which he explicitly acknowledges is meant, as all diaries are, to be read by someone else someday. Continue reading “Aftermath”

The Mind Pool

The Charles Sheffield series continues with a . . .

Raw Feed (1997): The Mind Pool, Charles Sheffield, 1993.

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Cover by David B. Mattingly

Introduction” — Sheffield explains that this is a revision of his 1986 novel The Nimrod Hunt which, he frankly admits, was greatly influenced by Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

The Mind Pool — This is Sheffield’s attempt to imitate Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. As he says in his introduction, Sheffield makes no attempt to imitate Bester’s wonderful style and is not capable of doing so. The lack of Bester’s prose style may explain why this story was not particularly engaging when I read it nor memorable.

To be sure there are plenty of baroque, Bester-like elements though Bester seems to not only show the influence of The Stars My Destination but also Bester’s The Demolished Man. The element of personality disintegration and reconstruction, epitomized by the Demolition of the latter novel, is the major theme. It is echoed in the novel’s end with the fate of two major characters, the brain-damaged Luther Brachis and the catatonic Esra Mondrian, facing possible reconstruction in the Sargasso Dump.

The submergence of individual personality into the Mind Pool is another example of this as are the alien Tinker Composites. Closely allied to this theme is the idea of personal transcendence a lá Gully Foyle in The Stars My Destination. Chan Dalton experiences this in the Tolkov Stimulator as do the participants of the Mind Pool. Continue reading “The Mind Pool”