ORBzine - 1999.04 Book Reviews

ORBzine - Book Reviews April 1999

by John Kane

The Stars My Destination

Number five in the Masterworks series; Alfred Bester's novel from 1956, originally published as Tiger, Tiger after Blake, continuing a fashion for turning to the highest human cultural icons to convey the emotions we've forgotten how to manufacture our own symbols for. As a general principle, I deeply resent this ripping off of classical culture (Yes I know Blake was a romantic poet, but the details, ah, the details...) by people who aren't fit to lick the seventeenth century's boots, as a rule. Oh, there are exceptions; you can do anything you like to Zarathustra as far as I'm concerned, for instance, because the opening few bars are the only part that bear any relation to the work it purports to be a rendition of. Which is probably just as well. Zarathustra, the book, when you strip the magnificent language away from it, is not much more than a hymn in praise of human savagery and ability to destroy- and as such eminently suitable as a companion volume to Vacuum Diagrams. But I digress.

Some people, on the other hand, should be allowed away with more than others, because they can add something to human culture rather than merely rehashing it. Bester, for instance, is very far from being perfect- the twist in the tail is idiotic- but he is one of the few. Rather refreshingly, he believes that the twenty- fifth century will be much worse than the twentieth; not something that I would normally consider possible, but there are good reasons for it. The social conditions; corporation economic dominance, although they have formed into hereditary clans with a great measure of monarchial arrogance; the general choice that your life alternatives are those of wage slave or freak; this is true now, five centuries early. Even with this, there is something badly amiss. It is a definitely refreshing change to find a SF society cast as a going concern- however unpleasantly for those within- and fully rounded out, and then questioned and elaborated by the meat of the story, rather than simply and somewhat childishly built around it's problems. For the most part this is done. What happens to the Solar System is the development of psychokinetic teleportation, or 'Jaunteing'. Whoops, there goes the infrastructure. The delicate economic balance between inner and outer system breaks down; sanctions, threats and economic blockade turn eventually into a shooting war. In the real world- and don't let anyone tell you otherwise- nations make it up as they go along; vague notions of where we should be going and far less than definitely effective means of getting there. Companies are much better at the how; less clear on the where or why. We also try very hard to pretend that this isn't the case. This book has that feel, for the most part, and it is good. If the introduction, describing how the people of the twenty- fifth century systematically misrepresent and misunderstand their own society, isn't in the Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, then it deserves to be.

The hero, Gully Foyle, could- I can summarise this easily for moderns by saying that apart from far higher intelligence, greater natural aptitudes, and more social savvy, he could have been the prototype for Donaldson's Angus Thermopyle in the Gap series. On the other hand, if this is the case then something has clearly gone wrong with the evolutionary process. Foyle is a far more sound character. He was on board a spaceship, as a technician's mate - the same rank, and for the same reasons (apparent total lack of useful skills) later held by Dave Lister- jaunteing does not work at interplanetary, still less interstellar, distances; they're still necessary. The ship was mauled by Outer Planets raiders, he being the only survivor, and left there - actually as bait for anyone coming along to help, but how was he to know that? Five months alone in a survival locker in deep space, and by chance- on a trip into the mangled body of the ship for supplies- he spots another vessel. He fires distress flares, sends a message; it flies right by. (Never mind this 'match velocity and vector' business.) After five months in space, cabin fever doesn't even begin to describe it. The incident preys upon him; developing a ferocious, clearly institutionalisably intense, lust for vengeance. It becomes not merely his chief, but only, motive. He is eventually picked up by some of the aforementioned freaks, degenerate descendants of a scientific survey team (nice touch), who amongst other things tattoo him with a full face tiger pattern- later removed, but it leaves scars; the flush of blood to the face in any situation of emotion gives him away- forcing him to develop the extreme self- control that is actually this driven, obsessive, naturally intelligent but ludicrously uninformed character's first step on the route to civilised behaviour and some kind of idea as to what to do afterwards.

Describing what happened is never really enough, is it? You should also describe the movement of symbols. Sorry, but I believe that while semiotics might be intrinsically honest and perceptive, many of those who employ it are not. It's an entirely subjective science. The introduction picks up on wombs. What should we do, build buildings with one wall missing? Do you prefer hypothermia or explosive decompression? Typical semioticists' comment. Idiotic.

In any case, there are some strange adventures that follow. Foyle rises quickly in skill and power, driven by revenge but channelling his drive into increasingly subtle means. A psychotic superman, who under cover of the owner of a circus infiltrates earth, and starts to ferret out the secrets of the ship he was on, why it was there and why it was left abandoned. There is a fairly major McGuffin involved- a psychokinetic explosive, on the order of 'let there be light...' He is superfluous; an accident, an intruder in the power games of the powerful of the system. The Intelligence Tong of the Inner Satellites (staffed by chinese- no point letting millennia of cultivated subtlety go to waste) pursues him, the outer satellites attack, and eventually the high chiefs of the inner satellites discover he holds not merely the McGuffin but the secret of deep space teleportation just at the moment that he realises tha the daughter of one of them, who he had fallen in love with and whom her father was willing to trade away as a bargaining chip, was in charge of the ship which had left him there, and busy about her own crime; that the crew of the ship were all dead or very hard done by anyway; and that everything he went through was at least pointless, if not elaborate self-destruction.

His sudden, violent conversion to extreme libertarian humanism is- I thought it although beautiful, utterly implausible and psychologically dubious. Which undermines it, actually; not sufficient to justify it at the last. The sudden change of direction at the end is - poor writing, no other term for it. Too much, too hard and too late. Although you usually are in suspense, this is ridiculous. It doesn't seem to follow at all.

Imagination; excellent, but overrepresented; A-
Science; thoroughly bogus, psi also; D
Scene- setting; good but should have been followed through on; B+
Characterisation; hard to know what to make of it- goes squint at the last; B-
Overall; Aims for the first rank; apart from the twist at the end, would have made it. B

A Heroine of The World

As most people probably do, I have a filing system of sorts in operation on my shelves. As most people probably are, it's something of a chaotic mess. There are principles I adhere to- at the expense of letting the rest go hang. The main top shelf is textbooks and cartoons (and which has the higher information content I doubt I could give an instant judgement), as are most of the sideboard- cupboard stacks and piles on top of them and the small bookcases. Among the floor stacks, there are three 'pending' piles, for things to be read next- as soon as I finish what I'm currently on; one of things that I'll almost certainly not get around to reading in the foreseeable future (including an irresistibly cheap second hand copy of the Tale of Genji and Moorcock's Jerusalem Commands - not because I don't want to, but becuse it's the third of four and although immense fun it looks, I want to start in proper order), one of things to be read on a very rainy day indeed (David Zindell- complex, brilliant, highly recomendable, but you may want to read something lighter like Daniel Dennett to warm up for making sense of the mathematics and brain theory therein; which I think are dubious in many particulars, but the sheer brilliance of the ifness makes it all worthwhile), and a small ready-reference stack, including the Writers and Artists' Handbook and a copy of the Koran. Considering the amount of praying that the manuscript will be accepted this time that I usually do, it seemed only advisable to put the two together.

On the darker reaches, behind things and tucked into corners, are the evidence of an immature literary taste, and some of the things that after reading I decided I shouldn't have bought after all. Give to charity, maybe, but I've only ever binned one book, and it was On Wings of Song, by I think either Delany or Zelazny. It was touted as one of the hundred best SF novels. Hundred sickest, perhaps. Top ten, probably.

Perhaps not quite second in line for the bin, but pretty close, has to be Tanith Lee's A Heroine of The World. I actually quite like some of her work; because some of it is far better than this, Nightshades for instance. This...it was either Benford or Baxter who said in one TV interview that their purpose for writing SF was to warn us against technology; you can certainly disagree if you want to, and I do, but they have their reasons, and the least we can do is read and enjoy what comes out of that. My first considered reaction on finishing the book and thinking about what I thought of it, was that it was unnecessary; no purpose behind it at all.

If fantasy can be said to be about anything, it is about the human condition- when you change all the external circumstances that we operate under, what remains? What is nature, once you have done away with nurture? Providing alternate circumstances by feeding to our least ordered, most sheltered and irresponsible dreams seems a damned strange- and cripplingly impausible- way to do it, as well as that the mythology invariably gets in the way. This is why good fantasy is so impossibly hard to write. I'll say this much; it's better that way. The setting of the stories, the technology and attitudes, is not so much Dark Ages or Early Middle as Low Napoleonic; cannon and musketry predominate on the battlefield, there's a fairly formalised diplomatic structure (only arraged in 1750, incidentally), something of the same muddled mix of commercial and chivalrous.

Granted this is a new departure; not a worthwhile one. This was the Age of Rationality, remember? What of that has anything to do with fantasy? Also, I am no fan of girl power- immature, self- obsessed, arrogant, shouty, imperceptive, charityless viragos are among the very last people who should be given any authority whatsoever- but the central, female character is irritatingly passive. Nothing she does works properly- her inadvertent saving of her early lover is a case in point- and it takes an attempted rape to get her to do anything much. Lee writes like a woman who accepts the viewpoint of unreconstructed neanderthal male chauvinism. Granted all consideration to the way things were- but why should it be that way at all? (Especially when there is some doubt as to whether or not it was.) When you can do anything, why do this? In a way it has the feel of a genre work, a victorian bodice ripper gone very badly awry- to the detriment of the literary quality of it. As far as female central characters go, you would be much better off making the acquaintance of Angel Archer or Amelia Underwood, or Tohalla in Anne Gay's Mindsail - which I mention in particular because if anyone else out there managed to make complete and coherent sense out of the plot arc, can you write and let me know?

As a love story, even, this makes little or no sense. There is no real romantic attachment at any point. Much of the characters desperately trying to talk themselves into believing that there is, a fair dose of hanging on to the shreds of thre past- well done, but none of the characters are greatly inspiring; some of them fit well, but into what? The whole seems to be less than the sum of it's parts somehow.

I do not see why it had to be this way. It is a book about nothing- or at least what it is supposed to be about could be done far better somewhere and by someone else, and certainly has.

Imagination; undeployed; E
Wierdness; Insufficient; D
Characterisation; the best part but wasted; C-
Scene- setting; Dire, futile. E-
Overall; E


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At this point, you may well wonder what the underlying principle behind the decision to review these books is. I mean, that was almost sixty years ago, for goodness' sake. Well, there are essentially three underlying principles;

  • Anything newly bought.
  • Anything already on the shelf that I feel sufficiently strongly about to sound off on.
  • Anything the Ed is too cheap to buy himself and wants a potted commentary on.

    You can probably identify this as a clear example of the latter. Asimov's Foundation saga, although it occupied a fairly large slice of the time it depicted passing to actually write (and forms into a coherent greater whole, incidentally), has admirers writing sequels and extensions and developing ideas found in Asimov's files, is basically from the forties, so it's not new. On reflection- and as I'm sure any Traveller gamer will confirm- it's just too familiar, like a well- worn sofa, to have any strong opinion about in this post- everything day and age.

    You should have already been able to tell that this isn't my website. I'm just doing this partly for fun, partly for, well, fellowship- read Martin Amis' Information to see what I mean. Nothing like that, of course, not really.

    The story itself, one thing you have to beware is the tinsmith factor. Something that required a genius to do the first time can be done by a tinsmith the second time- once the precedent that it can be done has been established. The Foundation novels- the first three at any rate- were genuine first times, but they have their weaknesses and the subsequent three and prequels seem almost as if he is plagiarising himself. Perhaps he did degenerate from a genius into a tinsmith, in fact. Tell me that Arcadia Darell isn't intrinsically ridiulous and I have no choice but to assume that you believe Star Trek is completely possible and just around the technological corner.

    Never mind. Here we are concerned with the first in the order of writing in the very long series, Foundation itself. The scene should be familiar; a mighty Galactic Empire, encompassing everything, immeasurably strong, immensely old- and according to one man, Hari Seldon, about to crumble into oblivion through inability to support its own weight. Normally he would be dismissed as a nut. In this case, he is a mathematician, which may well amount to the same thing; but he has balanced and differentiated the historical pressures, and he is deadly accurate. A couple of centuries more life, thirty millennia of interstellar wasteland. So he- fraudulently (and why is it that beaurucracies are always portrayed as evil, rather than the truth- snowed under?) sets about arranging means to avoid the interregnum, by setting a team of scholars to draft a summary of all human knowledge to prevent the need for rediscovery. Also arranging to have them exiled on the grounds of endangering imperial security. Is this some kind of uniquely American obsession with avoiding telling the truth? Again characters never tell each other anything, except when it would make the plot go.

    I mean, how do you, as an individual, go about living like this? Politeness is one thing, but this isn't british reticence, it's full blown Yankee line-them-up-for-the-dagger-in-the-back lying. Also character intelligence. The IQ of the characters only rises to respectable major-player levels when Asimov needs it to, and then never too high. All of it well below Asimov's. This is not excusable; cardboard cutouts do not an arresting novel make.

    Of course the team of scholars is not supposed to safeguard knowledge, but provide a nucleus for the Second Galactic Empire. They have to struggle, wriggle, and weasel out of trouble time after time. Crises - plotted out by Seldon well in advance - with their immediate neighbours get more severe as the Empire begins to crumble and the Foundation's sphere of influence expands.

    On rereading, there are far better novels out there. Asimov is from the tea-and-chocolate-biscuit school of cozy apocalypses; I can say this safely now he's dead. Only in short stories does he rise to the searing heights of an idea pushed to it's limits - the kind of tension you can see coming through in every line of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. He telegraphs the course of the future from the very beginning. Just like Star Trek, you know the good guys are going to win. Foundation, if it had had no sequels, would have been an absolute classic. As it was, he got ever more absurd as it went on, to come up with new threats and oppositions. The foundation itself is also a clear candidate for Most Genially Corrupt Society In Serious Science Fiction - Tammanny hall rides again, in effect. How it supposed to produce anything other than barren, spiritually devoid lives- the kind of absence of value core that is causing American life to disintegrate from the inside out right now?

    Although 'empire culture has lost whatever virility and worth it once had' I can't quite see how it would have been put together when it was in fact a going concern. Are we talking about some giant cosmic Albania or something? Asimov does not himself have the skills he attributes to Seldon as a knower and engineer of societies. Period.

    You have to suspect him of not playing to his strengths. Here is a skilled faculty-level biochemist. So he writes about a universe without aliens. Huh? An emigre from Stalinist Russia writes a sympathetic novel of social engineering and absolute despotism. Huh? I think we have a clear case of getting with the wrong program. That said, some things - like Mallow at Korell - are superficially extremely funny. Shame it doesn't hold water on deeper inspection; economic but no military sense at all.

    If written now, I suspect it would sink without trace. As it is it is severely dated - which can be excused, said the fan of Conrad - but also quite badly flawed.

    Imagination; once upon a time, it was good- C
    Science; power to make symbolic gestures; D+
    Scene- setting; dubiously bland on the whole; D
    Characterisation; I wouldn't want them running my country; C
    Overall; I preferred the original Nightfall ; C

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  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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    Number four in the SF Masterworks series. Famous, notorious, as Blade Runner, the movie novel that made America sit up and notice Philip K. Dick - after it had ignored him for the previous twenty- seven years.

    What is there that is new can be said about it? As a fan, if not Otaku, then a very great deal.

    One essential point has to be cleared up; it was never a technological novel. I think it was K.W. Jeter- who claims not to have been portrayed as Kevin in Valis - who accused Phil of not knowing how a lightbulb was supposed to work. Phil's science fiction is frequently either very gritty, near future, or sometimes ultrascience, beyond coherent description anyway. See Rautavaara's Case for an example that if it doesn't make your spine run cold, then I feel sorry for you.

    In any case, it was always only props for the actions of the people. A Doctor Who wobbly set would have been adequate. As for togetherness between human and android - nonsense. A perversion of the literary intent.

    The grandiose glass and steel monoliths of the movie were never what Phil had in mind for post- World War Terminus San Fransisco. What is happening is that a shattered, post holocaust civilisation has picked itself up just far enough to be able to run away, to the colony worlds- purely systemic- but someone has to stay behind and keep it on it's feet. In the long term, all causes are lost - except the need to strive for a good cause. Ocasionally you can find one again, as eventualy happens to Deckard. Eventually, after long hard struggle.

    In a way, actually, Blade Runner is a far better satire on Vietnam than The Forever War; It contains a fictional religion, popular after the war, which has many interesting elements- little mysticism, great practical concern on not doing harm, in which he rewrites the christian Fifth Commandment, to read that Thou Shalt Kill Only The Killers. If everyone were a perfect mercerite, the only killers would be the androids, and some poor tormented soul would have to hunt them down and kill them.

    Enter policeman Rick Deckard. Key differences from the movie; he is married to a shrewish woman (Phil too often cast female characters in the role of predators, bloodsuckers with few if any redeeming features), officially employed by the San Francisco Police Department, and an economically and emotionally struggling minor functionary, who owns the electric sheep of the title because he can't afford a real one. Being able to care for something is the key tenet of Mercerism; fake animals the logical American reaction thereto. Androids are despicable, because they have no facility for empathy; and if this book has a serious flaw, it's that it's too concerned with being than becoming; I would like to have seen more of where he thought empathy arises from.

    Most people are Mercerites; a noble, gentle belief coming far too late - is the wake of a thermonuclear war the only place and time we would learn to do this? Jack Isidore, Chickenhead, is one of the Everymen that litter Phil's science fiction and that of damned few other authors. Disturbing in a way - emotional intelligence can succeed in leading a worthwhile, if furtive and harried, life where analytical intelligence turned itself to radioactive ash? No, not really, because he is kind even to the killers. His faith in the androids, who come to him - and he has an idiot-level IQ, not the genius in the film, and works for an artifical animal repair firm - is a source of the reader's, and Deckard's, doubt.

    There is one depressing notion that comes out of this; the knowledge of how to go about living came at a tremendous, devastating price- and it continues to exact it, because it is not easy knowledge to put into practise. (In his own real life, of course, Phil never quite managed to complete the transaction.)

    The Rosen Association, manufacturers of top-line androids, does an excellent job, or did, of protecting it's creations. The movie is simpler, but the scene where they try to shake his faith in the Voight-Kampff test is similar enough. Rachael's androidness is more dubious; Deckard's opinion flipflops. She is an android. A special one, used by Rosen to trick bounty hunters, force them to grow empathy towards androids, and so destroy their hunting efficiency. She leads him through a complex affair, in the end failing; she admits to being an android - but that could be part of the strategy. In the end, in a gesture of malice that could have been typical android or extremely irate human, she pushes the real, live goat he bought with the bounty money of the roof of his apartment building. Not Roy Baty at all. The irony of buying life with death, also, should not be ignored.

    They also have a fake, parallel bounty hunting organisation of their own, to destroy everyone else's rogue androids, and protect their own. Also to destroy the odd official bounty hunter, as nearly happens to Deckard. A brilliant, bold device of storytelling, and one so complex as to be easy to understand why it couldn't be filmed. The bounty hunter working for this organisation contrasts with Deckard - Resch is an honest man, with no idea he was working for a front, but a cold and lethal one, ready to kill anything he feels is android.

    Other wierdness; Mercer is a fake. We could know that from first principles, but the androids set out to prove it. The shared experience trudge up the rocky hillside - which Deckard acts out at the very end- into the tomb, and ascent therefrom - was done on a sound stage; they track down the drunken old sot of an actor. They want to destroy empathy. In theory, they do, but in practise nothing changes. People still believe, because it is good to believe, even in a fake sometimes. Can you say 'Clinton'?

    In many ways this is one of the most optimistic of Phil's books. Deckard, although he achieves very little material benefit out of his labours apart from an electric toad, survives, and grows within himself; there are leftover problems, though. How do you differentiate a replicant from a radically underperforming or simply very grouchy human? Diligence, intelligence, very hard work, and forgiveness for the occasional honest mistake? Probably. Is thare any alternative? It was wrong, but you have to do it anyway, as Mercer said. A book with many wonderful but no simple answers. What's more, it's well into the category of a genuine 'what if', attacking the same problems as the greatest mainstream literature. Intelligent characters who try to second-guess each other, torment one another with the truth (such as they understand it), and are true to their own presented strengths and failings.

    The movie may have been cyberpunk; the book is not. Rather if it were adhered to, it would make it unneccessary to be a cyberpunk. It's much more intricate, much more complex, much less facile. Not so much worth reading as mandatory.

    Imagination; detail, with follow- through; A
    Science; dubious, C-
    Characterisation; real people with intricate and appropriate lives, A+
    Scene- setting; well carried off, invented 'Kipple'; A-
    Overall; incredible storytelling power; A

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    Memoirs of A Space Traveller

    When Arthur C. Clarke- like him or not, the man is seminal- said in the introduction to Sentinel that 'there are at least a dozen writers active today who can match all but the giants of the past (and probably one who can do even that, despite the handicap of being translated from Polish)' Stanislas Lem, the author of this work, is who he had in mind. Although I think he has lost the thread a little since the early nineties - face it, compare Tales From The White Hart to 3001 and ask yourself which is wittier, more adroit, more scientifically alert, more astounding? I think you'll agree that Harry Purvis beats Heywood Floyd every time. Nonetheless, his judgement from the early eighties is sound enough, and so is Stanislas Lem.

    I would go so far as to say that Lem is almost Gogolesque. (For those of you who don't know what that means, think of Gogol as a version of Kafka genetically reengineered to be able to see the funny side of life.) Think of the sense of humour of someone who survived life under Communism. Lem has it. Or for the dedicated SF fans, he inhabits the same territory of parable cum parody as Douglas Adams, but manages to make Adams look in retrospect like a latecomer and self-satisfied dilettante.

    This is as good a place as any to discourse on a minor theory of comedy. There may well be only six kinds of jokes, but there is at least one clear principle of differentiation; the intellience of the characters in the joke. The comedic value of extreme idiocy is obvious; it is the backbone of slapstick and most short jokes. As is the comedic value of extreme unkindness and extreme antiempathetic tendency- all most reprehensible, most life crippling traits. The comedy of intelligence is much, much rarer, and not terribly unakin to hysteria caused by cosmic angst. We laugh at our ridiculously petty limitations; but once in a while someone points out just how big the universe is, how awkward and hard to get a clear grip on reality is, and just how limited the best of us are by comparison. Yes, Minister is one good example. Philip K. Dick, also, was intimately familiar with this - in fact, he and Lem corresponded, and had a falling out once, over dues to be paid to the Science Fiction Writers of America association, that did neither of them any credit.

    There is actually a great deal of literary connectivity between the two; similar scope, concerns, choice of topics. The real difference is in the attitude. Phil may have been that great rarity, an intelligent and sincere American; in his writing at any rate, he cared, about his characters and the questions he was asking, far too much for his own mental health. Lem - well, as they say in central Europe, it's fatal, but not serious. More lighthearted, less hysterical.

    The Space Traveller in question is interstellar scout Ijon Tichy - who I don't think is anywhere actually described, letting the reader come to their own conclusions- and the Memoirs contain two voyages and various conversations with mad scientists and others of that ilk while on earth.

    He opens with the big one; the Eighteenth Voyage is a tale of the grandest scale. The universe is a giant vacuum energy fluctuation; an artifact of chance, borrowing on cosmic credit that really isn't there. Like a giant meson - and the physics of everything except the cannon shot is accurate enough - it violates the rules, temporarily, but then must fall back under them. We could disappear at any moment. Something Must Be Done. Tichy comes up with the idea of creating the universe, retroactively, to ensure that it would actually exist. Think about that for a moment. From the inside? Crazed. But an exceptionally good story idea. (Also, according to Baxter - with asymmetric decomposition of GUT energies- possible.) Of course, Tichy cannot leave real enough alone, and determines to make improvements on the etched positron they fire at the dawn of time. A much less wasteful universe, for one thing - fewer novae, no senseless waste of pulsar and quasar energy. Also evolution - so that people and all other forms of life would have leaves, and exist as photovores, not preying on one another. Of course it all goes wrong, disastrously so, in a very Gnostic joke whereby three characters with very suspicious names make a series of changes to the electron to be as they think the world should be. Saving human civilisation in the process. Lem's changes would, as we understand the world, lead to a universe without intelligence. Even so, it's a good story.

    The Twenty-Fourth Voyage is the other, and depicts a society, populated by Phools and much like the ancien regime (pre-1789 Europe), overrun and changed by very modern industrial machinery. The workers starve - because the law forbids the Eminents (nobility )to give succour - not unknown here on Earth; the rule outside Europe and China- and as unemployed as they are, of course, they earn nothing to buy the products of the factories with. So they build a newer, larger machine to rule them all fairly and viably- which it does by reducing them to nonsentient giant frisbees. Screams 'parable' at you; uncomfortably accurate.

    The Further Reminiscences are a mixed bag; all very well done, but mostly tales of failed or futile progress; ranging from a mechanical proof of solipsism, through an artificial soul, a Frankenstein's monster who switches places with his maker, a tragically non- tunnelling time machine, and the fifth is an absolute classic, a tragically unrewarded tale of sentient appliances gone rogue, nonsentient politicians gone cybernetic, and a man who turns himself into a stellar body five hundred miles across, apparently for fun.

    The last long story is a tale of a man and his fungi, also gaining a clever revenge by turning the tables on the character in the first story- doing the same to him as he had to his own creations. Neat, and the rest is good - something the rest of the wold should have realised long ago. This is genuine scientific criticism. He is trying to create spontaneity in machines, the character - Tichy is as ever a spectator - and it needless to say does not go according to plan. The closing letter on interstellar conservation is funny, pre-Pratchettian and displaying the same sense of things as the .303 bookworm, but not a fit swan song.

    On the whole, the passivity of the central character is annoying at times, and his description of so many of the people he encounters as 'mad, brilliant children' is essentially accurate. Nonetheless, it is funny, witty, and highly recommendable.

    Imagination; ringing the changes rather than the truly new- B+
    Science; accurate in it's day and nuts and bolts, squiffy on macro scale; B
    Scene- setting; never really tries to paint a picture-sound sequence of vignettes; C
    Characterisation; perhaps not sufficiently depthful; C-
    Overall; a cut- or particle beam- above most; B

    Foundation and Empire

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    Once we've started, we might as well go on. This is the second of the initial Foundation trilogy, and to be blunt it was downhill from there. It is several stories cobbled together; the last throw of the dying Empire against the Foundation; the fossilisation of the Foundation into inertia spawning the would-be rebellion of the outer parts of it - and the forestalling of this by the appearance of a Seldon Plan-defying anomaly; the search by a frantic band of heroes for something to fight him with.

    At the end of Foundation, Hober Mallow replaced Salvor Hardin's policy of disguising failed, betraying science as religion - wouldn't work, would it? Try getting a fusion reactor to go by worshipping it and you'll see what I mean - with trade alone, expanding by economic warfare. Which I doubt would work in the unelectronic environment ofthe novels. A rich, soft state can't defend itself around a desperate poor state without using it's riches to fund superior military technology. Look at our friends the Mongols if you don't believe me - and does anyone seriously imagine a cruise missile-less America would get any international respect?

    The Empire, although crumbling at the edges - on the verge of complete disintegration, really - is still hanging on there, and it has a few people brought to life by the times; including one imperial general (the details of whose past career are pure four-colour stuff), he sees the Foundation as the greatest threat to the security of the Empire and sets out to defeat it. General Riose, who is portrayed as as good a man as he could be in that position, actually succeeds - as far as presence on the ground is concerned. It isn't enough; he is suspected of trying to sieze the power of the Foundation as a potential base for rebellion and a bid from the imperial throne himself - not true, incidentally; arrested and executed - and the invasion falls apart. Barr's explanation of the psychohistoric forces behind events here are one of the few genuine flashes of the kind of writing the Foundation series was supposed to be.

    Asimov writes a politician's war; this is not military SF by any means. (It doesn't make military sense, but let's not quibble.) His technology is vaguer than it probably could have been, considering this is post-fusion and post-maser also, I think, but it's supposed to be symbolic. Therein lies a difficulty. Symbols are largely man made, and you need people to make them; you have to anchor your message in your characters, or you aren't writing fiction at all, but politics and philosophy-which I have nothing against in principle, but even first rate science fiction usually involves third rate politics and philosophy. The second story element shows this up.

    There is a real problem in the second and third story elements. As Asimov points out, the equations Seldon used in drafting the Plan have several fundamental assumptions; on is that the number of people be sufficiently numerous as to have their reactions average out to a statistically predictable whole; the other is that they remain unaware of precisely what the future is plotted as being. There are other minor axioms - which presumably Seldon lied about - for instance that the spectrum of stimuli to which human can be exposed, and the human reaction spectrum to stimuli, not change in any significant detail. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Foundation, in ultraminiaturisation, has already done exactly that. The microminiaturisation that played such a part in the war against Korell, how could that be supposed to be in the Plan? How can the pattern of need and demand not be part of it, and how can that remain static?

    Any radical change in human qualities would also upset the Plan. Can you say 'cybernetics?' of course you can. We are in an ever changing sociey. There have been a few examples of undead walking, chiefly China- which was overrun how many times? Many. Survived how? Culture, civilisation, deep rooted beliefs. The Foundation - and the Empire - has and had none of those. Such Western-patterned cultures are like sharks, without swim bladders - we have to keep moving to maintain bouyancy, if we stop we'll sink. So whither the constancy required for Seldon's Plan?

    The Mule is introduced here, a quite ridiculous character - just like Star Trek, you set up your own invincible heroes and civilisation and then spend the rest of the run trying to find increasingly ridiculous loopholes in our own creation; but it would be interesting to know if Asimov had any idea of Gaia in advance. It would require foreshadowing and a coherent vision of the future that would be quite disturbing in a writer of that age and era. I mean, generally you knit things into place between novels, or work in different quadrants of the same setting, if you actually have this in mind, or become captivated by the potential in something and begin working backards and forwards from it. You could, I suppose, look at an older writer for inspiration and take example as to how to sketch out a long term plot arc, but whom? E.E. 'Doc' Smith? If so, it would explain a lot. (More of him later). He's a mind controlling mutant. Curse you, John W. Campbell, for wishing such things upon us. Reality aside - assuming such things are possible - Asimov himself doesn't take the Mule seriously. Just another problem to aim at the Foundation, nothing securely rooted in it's own consciousness - and when we finally get to Gaia, in Fondation and Earth, tell me exactly how it is that they could have produced an aberrant? A liberal society better insulated against rogues and deviants has not yet been put down. Olivaw's doing, obviously.

    A large part of the problem is that, like America, there's no reasonably valid way to threaten the Foundation, so things get increasngly marginal, or increasingly farfetched; I also have to say that a look inside the Foundation didn't impress. Not as dubious as the next in the series, though.

    Imagination; followup, strained- C-
    Science; what science? D
    Scene- setting; still not playing to his strengths; C-
    Characterisation; thin, stereotypical and silly; D
    Overall; not terrible, but it doesn't match the reputation; C-

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    The Dancers At The End Of Time

    Michael Moorcock strikes again. This is theoretically Volume Seven of the Tale of The Eternal Champion, which might require a little explanation. The majority of Moorcock's novels tie into one gigantic story arc, which weaves in and out of various times and places in fantasy, with occasional trips to science fiction and the wilder shores of the real world - alternate versions of it on occasion.

    Have you ever noticed how many SF and fantasy authors cluster round the first half of the alphabet? Asimov, Clarke, Poul Anderson, Dick, Gibson, Aldiss, Baxter, Benford, Heinlein...an overwhelming preponderance, and most of the rest around S or W. Moorcock, in his capacity as a distinguished editor, was responsible for furthering the careers of many good writers- and others, I suspect, simply out of alphabetical proximity, they being put on bookshop shelves next to him. Just an aside.

    Characters from some of his books pop up fairly frequently in the others, and it centres on one soul- the Eternal Champion, incarnated as many different characters; Elric (and probably Stormbringer as well), Erekose, Corum, Hawkmoon, Bastable probably, all manifestations; different in individual character, attitudes, methods and cause, but parts of the same whole, sharing some of the usually bitter and bloody memories of the other.

    I say 'theoretically' because this has looser connections to the main structure than most. It is a love story and a farce, the central characters being Amelia Underwood, initially reserved Victorian lady with more spirit than she gives herself credit for, and Jherek Carnelian- who is almost certainly a distant and by comparison rather reserved version of the oddest manifestation of the Eternal Champion and one not directly part of the canon at all, Jerry Cornelius- published, like Colonel Pyat, separately. The Cornelius stories in the Tale of The Eternal Champion are shared world tales, versions of him - occasionally her or it- by many different authors; very wierd and perhaps too strong a taste for lighter or occasional readers, the literary equivalent of a very potent curry.

    Of course, the best fantasy literature is like that; although you know it's going to bend your mind, you go ahead with it anyway, because it seems too much, too tantalising to ignore. So it does, and you come out of it changed. Moorcock at his best can certainly do this. I have to confess that for me that particular volume didn't, because there were too many hands behind it - could draw but not hold, in effect. This, I think, does.

    It's actually light relief from the Eternal Champion, in a way; what happens is that a decadent far future society, to whom all is aesthetics - afficionados of the much later and comparatively witless Eric Brown and Blue Shifting know what I mean- where all values, because they relate to the way people interact wth one another, are obsolete; with extreme power, they only need each other for amusement. Not viciously, though - they aren't Melnibonean; playfully, perhaps.

    The world gone by is their primary source of amusement, drawn on for masques, pageatry, mannerisms to amuse- both the characters and the readers through how astonishingly, grotesquely - and explicably- wrong they are; everything telescopes into everything else as seen from the End of Time, you see. The mixes and muddles over the reconstructions that are one of their chief entertainments...oh, dear.

    (Worth noticing in passing is a short story, not here, in which Moorcock takes a rise out of his firstborn character by transporting Elric- the moody, self dramatising one- to the End of Time, and satirises all fantasy by having them take his ridiculous quest, megalomaniac pronouncements, posturings and so forth with total deadpan seriousness- in addition to 'let's humour this lunatic, he passes the time'. If you ever wanted to know how the sane, mundane world thought of you...dazzling.)

    Of course he uses this to point out how ridiculous all the superficial trappings seem. Seen from near infinity, is there really that much difference between the twelfth and the twentieth centuries? We look like a bunch of ants jumping up and down with photocopied placards saying 'I'm Different!' And lord help us when we actually are, especialy when seen through the eyes of a jaded aristocracy. Perhaps I have, but Moorcock is too good to let opportunities lie that go by. Then one day- as the result of fiendish machinations- the real thing arrives on their doorstep; an unwilling time-traveller, Amelia Underwood, from the late Victorian age. Jherek promptly decides, for the sake of something to do, to fall in love with her. Two products of more utterly different cultures it would be hard to find anywhere in the Timestream. Unfortunately- and in liberating her from her immediate if gentlemanly captor, hilariously- he does; and she does not, yet.

    I have to admit, this is a book you lose track of as you read. I can imagine how frustrating it would be to read in individual volumes, but so much happens. The society of the end of time is careless about children, on the whole - Jherek was the first for a long time, and at the beginning of the book we find him in bed with his mother- but there is a paternity related plot, in connection with the imminent demise of the cosmos. Is there something deeply wrong with science fiction, that it throws up so much death imagery? There are Victorian policemen who try to arrest Jherek- a sequence somewhat Dickensian, but better and far more intrinsically funny scene, in which he follows Amelia home, effectively, to rescue her from her husband. I can't quite decide whether the Victorian sequences are a searing parody of the genre or merely a very fine example. They are whiplashed back to the future - their incomprehension is a joy to behold - along with conventional alien space travellers who have come to warn the Endtimers about the heat death of the universe in which their reckless power requirements have played a large part. Who completely fail to understand and perform, incidentally, the functions of the Three Stooges - or at least as they would if they were armed with rayguns and intent on rape and pillage, a threat which some of the citizens of the End of Time regard as just the thing to brighten up a dull afternoon. Pay careful attention. You may find yourself laughing - or boggling - so hard you inadvertently fail to follow the plot. Selective breeding, incidentally; Amelia and Jherek. A good deal of the humour is dark in tone, but very, very much worth it, far more intelligent than most SF humour which leans to cheap laughs. A worthy part of the Eternal Champion series, which probably deserves to be read for about that long.

    Imagination; seamless, soaring; A
    Wierdness; sufficiently advanced technology to be mistaken for magic; C+
    Scene- setting; A small society in which every one is their own creative minority, all moving in different directions; B+
    Characterisation; Moorcock can certainly write real people when he wants to; A
    Overall; one of the three or four wittiest pieces of SF ever written; A-


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    To the three reasons noted under Foundation, we may add a fourth; anything referred to in a previous review or that I think is connected to such. This is the first in internal order, but not in order of publication, in the Lensman series - superlatives a specialty. It does connect to Asimov; older reviewers than I have drawn the comparison. It's also been reissued by Ripping Stories Ltd. This is not fair reflection on either; the Lensman stories are of much higher quality - and I am aware of how ridiculous that sounds - than most of the execrable trash put out by Ripping. (I have an older, much battered and OJ - stained set of Grafton editions.)

    This is something I doubt anyone would or could write today; space opera on the grand scale, without any trace of self-mockery or self-doubt, utterly serene in the integrity of it's delusion. I can't imagine what kind of state of mind you have to be in to write like this, but E.E. 'Doc' Smith did it more than once, which probably rules out - or points to the persistent use of - psychoactive drugs. Actually, I very much doubt that. Just some damned strange character traits.

    It was turned into Manga by the japanese; although some facets of the series would fit- there are some spectacular space battles (unless someone can come up with an earlier reference, E.E. 'Doc' Smith has to stand as the inventor of the dirigible planet) and much strange mental power - I have a very hard time believing that they got the point. It's so terrifically american - specifically, America of the immediate postwar years, on top of the world, secure, before Vietnam. Also desperately sexist, incidentally. However.

    It's a multi-parter; I think it was all published separately, in the pulps, in the same manner as Foundation - although later; the third in internal sequence, Galactic Patrol, is the first in order of writing, and predates Foundation by three years. It's about, on the largest scale, a struggle between good and evil- and now I have to misquote P. J. O'Rourke. In order to get anything of value from [intelligence] one must shine the cold, hard light of stupidity on it. [stupidity], to be worthwhile, must be approached with all the intellectual capacity at one's command. This is appropriate, because, apart from it's not being that simple, I can't for the life of me decide whether the series is the work of a very intelligent man throwing his inhibitions out of the window and writing what his inner child wants to read or a crazed, pretentious pseud with no eye for behaviour or ear for the ideas of his fellow human.

    There are elements of both; the overall plot of it- you can point to many occasions on which professional politicians have believed stupider and less complex things. When you try and stitch the inner lives of the characters together from their actions, they come out substantially more intelligent and better people to know than anyone in Vacuum Diagrams. One of these days I'll shut up about that book...or for that matter most of the characters in Foundation. Why are the bad guys evil? Because they're from a culture that could never slow down and find peace with itself; they had to fight to survive - and at the end, their choices were to try to dominate the galaxies or destroy each other in fratricidal boredom. Why are the good guys good? Ah...a much harder one to explain, that. Part altruism, part Panspermia, part wish to see if things really would turn out that way. You can imagine the human race doing the former, but probably not the latter. The setting implies a level of intellectual maturity the technical aspects of the writing utterly belie.

    All of this, however, is general commentary. Triplanetary is the earliest, and actually possibly weakest, of the series. It is also the only one in which there are no Lensmen, not yet. It opens with the grand conflict, the Arisian-Eddorian clash at the very beginning- the Arisians are the noble, civilised lot - the concealment of themselves from the Eddorians by the Arisians, to build a newer, more vital, more powerful civilisation to remove the Eddorians from existence, eventually. You know and I know that's going to be the humans, but nobody told the characters. It shifts onto Earth, the rise and fall of Atlantis - a couple of obvious and cheap twentieth-century references, and also violating Mary McCarthy's principle that you can't write about a cabinet meeting in fiction; and if Atlantis was like this, good riddance - one in the eye to the crystal freaks to suggest they nuked themselves out of existence, though. Don't worry, you could see it coming anyway. There is a planned breeding program, you see - another one, the damned things are everywhere - one constant male line, one intermittent, desiged to produce a perfect pair, who would do a great deal of the work against the Eddorians' minions and whose children would be the central director for the final battle. How this was supposed to happen with the many-sexed Palainians I don't know and am not sure I want to imagine. It follows the terran male line for the most part; the sequences in the world wars are disregardable, the WW3 bit - I love the klunktech of that Combat Rocket. I love it so much I want to steal it. (cf Zaphod Beeblebrox.) Also nuclear rocket kamikazes. The remainder, about Gharlane of Eddore's personal - and lunatically incompetent - effort to suppress terran civilisation and the Nevians' devastating entry as a third force, Gharlane's deflection, the Humans' short, sharp war with the Nevians - is as ridiculously over-the-top as you could possibly wish for. In this world, superweapons are designed on one day, manufactured the next, issued the third, and used on the fourth. Literally the case with the first human FTL cruiser. It may seem as if I'm skimping on the action here. This is hardly a blow-by-blow description. That's because I would be too embarrassed. You have to strip the chrome off to make it bearable. The amount of superlatives he uses is fantastic- almost as bad, if not worse, than H. P. Lovecraft, who had brilliant nightmares but really should have been ghostwritten. His Chthulu may have been less terrifying than his misplaced subjunctives. The technology is actually rather good; physically impossible - or depending on your views of the nature of space, improbable in the extreme - but internally consistent and immense fun; Inertialess Drive has to be considered a good idea by anyone's standard. Characters are very, but - and a good point - not effortlessly heroic; the good guys win by sweating blood over it, and taking risks which do get many of the supporting cast killed. All on purpose, of course; the Arisians engineered the entire incident, and they are firm believers in the 'if you do the kid's homework for him he'll never learn anything' school. The Nevians are actually unusually sophisticated by the standards of alien civilisations of the day, and you could like Nerado if you put your mind to it. In the last analysis, it is a novel of far better ideas than execution.

    Imagination; Weelah. Dementedly hyperactive; A
    Science; Ultra high PSB factor; D
    Scene- setting; Great extent, sound in concept, corners cut in places; B
    Characterisation; Shoddy, overblown; C
    Overall; Wildly exaggerated; good idea seed let down by hyperinflated writing; C+

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