“Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature continues.

Review: “Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress“, Brian Stableford, 1977.Opening Minds

Combining his training as a sociologist and literary criticism of science fiction, Stableford does a concise summary of the myth of human progress and how science fiction has used it.

Starting in the 18th century, the notion of progress in human affairs, “softened” manners, enlightened minds, and nations being connected by commerce, a move toward “still higher perfection” as French philosopher Turgot put it, started to appear.

It was an improvement sought in knowledge and technology.

However, soon the grandiose idea of “human perfectibility” was espoused by the French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also saw progress in human affairs though not pushed by knowledge but its manifestations in production technologies. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading

The Best of C. M. Kornbluth

Another entry in the alternate history series though this one only has a single story that fits the bill.

Raw Feed (1992): The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, ed. Frederik Pohl, 1976.best-of-c-m-kornbluth

“Introduction: An Appreciation”, Frederik Pohl — Discussion of C.M. Kornbluth’s career, including many mainstream works, and his work as a journalist (which explains the wide variety of characters in his work as well as a knowledge of the world’s workings and seamier elements), his education, his intellectual traits (showing in the wide knowledge illustrated in these stories), and bursts of writing. He started early, at a high level, and got better.

The Rocket of 1955” Story of the world’s first “moon-shot”, a con put together with blackmail, for money. It fails (in that what seems to be a tragic explosion but is entirely planned), but the plot is uncovered and the perpetrators are executed. It’s main interest is Kornbluth’s characteristic economy even at this young age (18) and a cynical element (a moonshot being a con) which marks many of the stories in this anthology. Continue reading

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

I’ve been a bit lax lately about posting, so here’s another retro review, from July 24, 2013, while I prepare some new stuff.

Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, Annalee Newitz, 2013.scatter-adapt-and-remember

I was rather hoping for kind of an updating of Isaac Asimov’s A Choice of Catastrophes: The Disasters That Threaten Our World, a survey of all the things that could wipe out humanity and how humans could prepare to survive them.

There’s a lot to like in this book. Newitz reminds us there were more mass extinctions in Earth’s history than just those two publicity hogs, the Permian and K-T. And even the dinosaur extinction may not be as simple as a big space rock smacking the Yucatan. She nicely sums up state of the current Neanderthal debate. Did we kill them? And, if they did leave us some of their genes, was it rape or a peaceful merging of cultures? Though she accepts the idea of harmful anthropogenic global warming, Newitz reminds us we don’t have to shut down industrial civilization to mitigate it. She reminds us that’s also not a path without plenty of technical, scientific, and political complications. But she also knows that environmentalists like the famous Bill McKibbin have chosen an arbitrary state of nature to preserve and fixate on. Finally, I can’t hate any book that touches on so many interests of mine: geology, the Black Death, and science fiction.

However, I think anybody who even pays just casual attention to science journalism is going to find this an overpriced book with a fair amount of padding and digressions. Continue reading

The Write Off Post

I’ve reached the blogger equivalent of bankruptcy

The blogging obligations have piled up the last five months. As other bloggers have noted, sometimes the books and stories slip out of your mind, and it’s not worth going back to them.

No sunk cost fallacy here.

Not even a real effort to firmly grasp an author’s arms to stop their slide into the pit of obscurity. At best, a half-hearted, weak snatch at their sleeve going by.

Sorry. Some of them deserved better.

This isn’t a rundown of everything I’ve read lately. Some of the books are going to get the usual treatment.

(After reading this whole post, you may think I should have went with a constipation metaphor.)

Low Res Scans: Awaiting Strange Gods: Weird and Lovecraftian Fiction, Darrell Schweitzer, 2015.

I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume One, ed. David W. Wixon, 2015.

Future Crime: An Anthology of the Shape of Crime to Come, eds. Cynthia Mason and Charles Ardai, 1992.

Dinosaur Fantastic, eds. Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, 1993.

Alternate Warriors, ed. Mike Resnick, 1993.

Alternate Outlaws, Ed. Mike Resnick, 1994.

I never actually intended to do a full review of Darrell Schweitzer’s Awaiting Strange Gods: Weird and Lovecraftian Fiction. A lot of plot synopses would give a bad impression of the varied tones and emotions of Schweitzer’s work.awaiting-strange-gods

As Pete Rawlik noted in his review in issue 329 of the New York Review of Science Fiction “a trope that Schweitzer often repeats, that of an unwilling companion who is constantly drawn back into the company of a more dominant personality whose story must be told.” In the context of a story not included here, “A Servant of Satan”, Schweitzer refers to this as “what I call the Old School Chum story, which I’ve written several times. The narrator tells of some remarkable person he met in his youth, who led him on an improbable, frightening adventure …”. That structure is used in several of the stories.

It should be noted that, unlike many writers, Schweitzer, though he has been writing critical works on Lovecraft since 1976, took up Lovecraftian Mythos tales only recently in his career.

And “Mythos” as in mythology is the appropriate term. Schweitzer uses the pantheon of Lovecraft’s aliens as we use the gods of classical myths – handy symbols, shorthand and fodder for stories that can venture very far in tone and subject from Lovecraft. It reminds me of what I recall Alan Moore saying about using DC Comic characters as ready-made symbols when he took over writing for Swamp Thing. (Though it could have been Neil Gaiman and The Sandman. Do you really think I’m going to take the time to fact check in this posting?)

Schweitzer uses Lovecraft for purposes of horror, but awe and terror are not the only emotions in his stories using the Gentleman from Providence’s fiction.

Thus the teenage lovers of “Innsmouth Idyll” are in a Ray Bradbury-flavored coming of age and mutation story. The adults of “Class Reunion” return to the Orne Academy (as in Simon Orne of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) in a story that sets off middle-aged regrets about lost opportunities against the secret occult purposes their parents have committed them to.

Original to the anthology is “The Head Shop in Arkham”. Sure things end horribly, but things are amusing on the way with references to Poe and underground comics. Human-like resentment seethes behind the words of the ghoul-narrator in “The Warm”, a parallax on Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”.

Schweitzer isn’t content to riff on Lovecraft exclusively. He has created his own weird town of Chorazin, Pennsylvania – home to a long lived cult. It shows up in “Why We Do It” and “Hanged Man and Ghost”.

Several stories feature young, threatened protagonists or absent fathers. A young girl can break dimensional barriers with a scream to escape in a story with a horror plot and non-horror joy, “Sometimes You Have to Shout about It”. A young orphan boy is brought to the house of an English relative in “The Runners Beyond the Wall”, another story related to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The survivor of an abusive family meets “the stone man” who guides him into alternate dimensions but not away from his despair in “Howling in the Dark”.

Schweitzer shows his historical interest – though, unlike S. T. Joshi’s introduction, I don’t find his historical erudition all that remarkable even for a pre-Internet age – in “On the Eastbound Train”, which fuses elements of Robert W. Chambers The King in Yellow, Lovecraft, and Byzantine history, and “Stragglers from Carrhae” which is narrated by a Roman legionnaire wandering the desert with a fellow survivor of that crushing Roman defeat. Medieval Europe in the era of the Crusades is the setting of “The Eater of Hours” which seems to be part of a series featuring the extraterrestrial Chronophagous.

Schweitzer is a skilled borrower of other authors’ voices and themes. “Ghost Dancing” is a Cthulhu Mythos story run through Donald Westlake.

One of the best stories belongs to no series: “The Corpse Detective”.  A bit of Kafka (the narrator, a private detective, says “the investigation is not going well”) in a story set in the Dark Place, a land of the dead. But the dead are vanishing, becoming undead, and the Minister of Dreams hires the narrator to investigate.  It’s a conservative world of tropism and habit where politeness prohibits mention of the sensual world of the living the inhabitants remember to varying degrees.

Definitely worth a look if you are interested in modern weird fiction.

i-am-crying-all-insideI feel bad about the next short-shrifted author: Clifford D. Simak. Open Road Media has finally released all his short works. (Don’t make the mistake I did and buy a paper copy. I’m not at all sure their multi-volume publication of Simak’s short fiction will get paper editions.)

Chris over at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased has been taking a close look at them, and I urge you to check his site out. I really hope someday to thoroughly cover Simak’s work, but it’s not going to be now.

Installment Plan” from 1959 is one of those anthropological stories (why are those aliens acting so weird?) common in 1950s and 1960s science fiction. Simak is best remembered for his dogs-and-robots novel City. This story cuts out the dogs but the human-robot relationship is described in terms of man and dog. A team from Central Trading is sent to a planet to make a trade deal with the local aliens who have a herb, podar, which is the perfect tranquilizer. (Don’t get smug about 1950 Americans and their tranquilizers. We consume a lot more prescription psychotropics today.) An interesting ecological detail is that humans have tried to cultivate the herb, but only some protozoan on the aliens’ planet allows it to grow there. The robots of the story have skill modules they swap out of their bodies according to the task at hand.

But it’s what happens at the end to the story that makes it memorable and another version of Simak’s wariness about capitalism.

I have to admit that the main point of interest for me in Simak’s “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” was finding out what was considered cutting edge, taboo breaking science fiction by Simak when he wrote this for Harlan Ellison’s never published anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. Like Simak’s “Desertion”, it has a man transformed into an alien form. A new body requires new goals, new drives, new urges right? Not to mention new thoughts and emotions. Our hero is very definitely not grateful for his transcendence.

Simak had a fondness for time travel and “Small Deer”, set in a geologically accurate version of Wisconsin’s past, is a fine example. It’s a tale of a mechanical genius and his idiot savant friend building a time machine to watch the dinosaurs.

Simak’s “Gleaners”, from 1960, seems partially an answer to T. L. Sherred’s famous “E for Effort” from 1947. The latter story imagined the documentation of the historical past made possible with time travel causing international chaos when cherished historical myths are overthrown. Spencer, the protagonist of Simak’s story, specifically rejects the notion that his time travel agency, publically chartered Past, Inc, is going to undertake a similar project with religion. What it does do is retrieve lost artifacts and genealogical research for wealthy patrons. But political pressure is starting to be brought to bear to change that policy. There are also nice asides on the psychological toil on Past, Inc’s temporal agents as they spend years in the future, with no ties beyond vacations, to their home time.

Ogre” with its sentient, musical plants, a possible plot to subvert human civilization, and an annoying, rules spouting robot accountant was also a standout story. I’m usually a sucker for “vegetable civilization” stories.

The collection has an example of one of Simak’s western stories too.

Open Road Media is not collecting Simak’s stories in the order they appeared which is probably a good thing.

And next we have three anthologies from the early 1990s. As to why I was reading so many 1990s anthologies now, I will come to in another posting.

Future Crime turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable anthology. Also surprising was that four of the twelve reprints were either from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That was ok with me. When I was young and wasn’t reading science fiction yet, I used to read Ellery Queen’s regularly.future-crime

Standouts (or, it must be admitted, stand out in my memory after three months) were several.

Isaac Asimov again churned out, with 1976’s “The Tercentenary Incident”, another paean to rule by technological elite. It turns on whether the president of the World Federation is or should be a robot. It all seems even more divorced from political plausibility 40 years later when centralization and elites do not seem to be doing too well in managing the world.

I was an admirer of John Shirley’s cyberpunk work of the 1980s, particularly his A Song Called Youth trilogy, but I had forgotten how good and serious and grounded in plausible tech (as far as contemporary science went) it was. “The Incorporated”’s hero senses part of his memory has been wiped and learns it was because he developed a “Media Alarm System” which detects “special interest distortion” in the news.

Orson Scott Card’s “Dogwalker”, from 1989, was his celebrated foray into cyberpunk. Now it’s suspenseful and gripping enough, but I suspect a lot of its acclaim came from the damaged nature, a perpetually thwarted puberty, of its narrator, the Password Man.

I’ve long heard of Harry Harrison’s “I Always Do What Teddy Says”, and it was enjoyable with its bunch of discontents in a future near-utopia plotting its overthrow via a child’s toy.

As you would expect, a fair number of these stories turn on speculative technologies and the world they created, so it’s not unexpected that, if you’re one of these people who don’t like dated science fiction, you’ll find their worlds, lacking our internet or the mobile devices that became so prevalent, stale after their near quarter century ago appearance.

One story that surprisingly isn’t as dated as you would expect is C. J. Cherryh’s “Mech”, original to the book. Set in a future Dallas, it involves a police call about an assault at an upscale apartment building. If rewritten today, it would involve drones and robots, but here one of the responding officer’s serves as a human sensor platform with his partner combining his feed with other data. The ending surprisingly opens the story into much broader political concerns.

Also original to the collection is George Alec Effinger “The World as We Know It”. It’s part of his Budayeen series with the same narrator as those novels. Do I remember much of its plot? No, but then I don’t remember much of the Budayeen novels’ plots. I just remember liking the world and narrator’s voice. Same here.

Alan Dean Foster is probably one of science fiction’s most enthusiastic world travelers and often giving to setting his stories in parts of Earth that don’t often show up in Anglophone science fiction. “Lay Your Head on My Pilose”, also original to the anthology, isn’t at all fantastic and involves a womanizing con man embarking on a new scheme in South America.

I’ve read a fair number of Mike Resnick’s anthologies. He tends to have a stable of writers he goes to again and again.

dinosaur-fantasticI’m not sure why I bought Dinosaur Fantastic – perhaps some temporary paleontological enthusiasm (I’m more interested in straight geology).

I was expecting, frankly, a lot of time travel stories and dino resurrection stories a la Jurassic Park, and there are certainly stories in that category. But a surprisingly number aren’t either, and that led to a relatively rich theme anthology.

However, if I would have thought about it for a bit, I should have realized how many metaphorical and symbolic uses our culture puts dinosaurs to.

Capitol punishment via mind transference to the Jurassic is the idea behind Robert J. Sawyer’s “Just Like Old Times”.

Time travelers introducing dinosaurs to Ancient Rome is only the beginning of a sort of wacky alternate history in Robert Sheckley’s “Disquisitions on the Dinosaurs”.

Gregory Feeley’s “Ways of Looking at a Dinosaur” surprised me. Normally, I’m not keen on metafiction and Feeley’s piece is that. It combines rumination on the symbolism of dinosaurs while spinning off several mini stories on the theme. However, it was one of my favorite pieces. However, it gets points taken off for the mealy mouth piece of pc rhetoric of “… the nineteenth century discovered that the Earth was hundreds of millions of years old”. No, it wasn’t “the nineteenth century”. It was European scientists.

Sure you know where Frank M. Robinson’s “The Great Dying” is going with its contemporary research into the possibility of a dinosaur plague, but it’s a sure-footed and enjoyable journey.

Bill Fawcett’s “After the Comet” is exactly what you would expect, but I enjoyed it, and it reminded me of the old writer of animal tales, Frank Ernest Thompson Seaton.

The speculation that St. Columba encountered the Loch Ness monster is the idea behind Laura Resnick’s “Curren’s Song”. Another story with particular historical resonance, for a 1993 anthology, is Jack Nimersheim’s “The Pangaean Principle” with is ex-Soviet scientist hero and ruminations on vanished worlds geological and national.

Nicholas A. DiChario’s “Whilst Slept the Sauropod” is a fable like story of an isolated island with its own dinosaur.

David Gerrold’s “Rex” is a nasty combination of domestic troubles and household dinosaurs – miniaturized T-Rexes to be specific.

And anyone with a fondness for conspiracy theories will love Roger MacBride Allen’s “Evolving Conspiracy”. Chock full of conspiracy theories, the one it’s most concerned with is the very grand and very encompassing evolutionist-Communist conspiracy.

As you could probably tell in my reviews of the Mike Resnick edited anthologies Alternate Presidents and Alternate Kennedys, I was frequently annoyed by purported alternate history stories that don’t pick up the heavy speculative burden of what a change in history would mean. Rather they do the far easier moment of change. And that moment of change often isn’t very interesting or plausible. (As part of my generally slipshod approach to this posting, I am not going to critique the finer points of the alternate histories either.)alternate-warriors

However, in reading the introductory notes to one of the stories, I realized that Resnick really never intended for all the stories to be serious alternate histories. These books use historical figures for jokes and odd juxtapositions.

Alternate Warriors is the least interesting of the two. As you might expect, we get a lot of stories that rely on the startle factor of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, and St. Francis of Assisi as warriors.

Still, there are some high points.

Resnick’s own “Mwalimu in the Squared Circle” centers on a real, if obscure, historical story. General and President-Elect-for-Life Idi Amin Dada of Uganda challenged Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to a boxing match to settle the war between their two countries. The challenge is accepted here.

Yes, Michael P. Kube-McDowell’s “Because Thou Lovest the Burning Ground” is a Ghandi gone bad story – gone Thuggee as it happens, but it’s atmospheric and has details on the Kali worshippers.

Maureen F. McHugh’s “Tut’s Wife” is a serious, moody look at what its heroine must do to preserve the Kingdom of Egypt. Judith Tarr’s “Queen of Asia” is a well-done look at how Persian Queen Sisygambis confronts Alexander the Great. Mercedes Lackey’s “Jihad” is a plausible seeming look at T. E. Lawrence’s conversion to Islam.  However, essentially, these are “how things changed” stories which end with the reader being invited to speculate how history will develop – as if the same questions couldn’t be spurred by regular history books.  Both Tarr’s and McHugh’s stories end with their heroines seeking marriages not seen in our history. Essentially, that’s just stretching out the moment-of-change concept and not a real alternate history

Marilyn Monroe has connections to Castro and Che Guevera in Jack C. Haldeman’s II “The Cold Warrior”. Despite not being much interested in the Kennedys and Marilyn, I liked this depiction of Monroe as spurned Commie agent.

It was Resnick’s introductory notes for Beth Meacham’s “One by One” saying it was “a true alternate history” that tipped me off that these anthologies are, by and large, not real alternate histories.

Meacham’s story is probably the best in the book charting into our time the consequences of a different life for American Indian Tecumseh. It’s tale of irredentism in which the Alliance Warriors Society continues the Two Hundred Year of the Shawnee Alliance with the European invaders. Perhaps inspired by Balkan events at the time of the writing, it still, with its Army Counter Terrorism units operating in several parts of America, seems contemporary and, for me, a fictional (though I doubt Meacham intended this) argument that whites and Indians could never equally and peacefully inhabit North America.

Dishonorable mention for the book goes to David Gerrold’s “The Firebringers”, a cheap, implausible, and bad literary collage depending on odd juxtapositions. We not only get some tired arguments about the immorality of using the A-Bomb and with the following characters:  President Cooper, Bogey the bombardier, General Tracy, Drs. Karloff and Lorre, Colonel Peck and Colonel Regan, and Captain Fonda, etc.

alternate-outlawsAlternate Outlaws is even less a real collection of alternate histories, but it is at least unchained to the cheap ironies and paradoxes of humanitarians and pacifists turned warrior.

Pride of place actually goes to David Gerrold’s “What Goes Around”. Charles Manson’s the subject here, still criminal, but a different sort of criminal. An alternate Harlan Ellison shows up under his pseudonym Cordwainer Bird.

The only real clue to the identity of the heroine of Beth Meacham’s “A Spark in the Darkness” is a back cover blurb about Helen Keller as a safecracker.

Thomas Paine lives a much shorter life, and dies in England, in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Common Sense”.

The James Gang goes straight and play a large role in early Hollywood westerns in Allen Steele’s “Riders in the Sky”.

Frank M. Robinson puts his knowledge of pulp and early science fiction history to good use with “One Month in 1907” which features Hugo Gernsback, affectionately known as “Hugo the Rat” by some early pulp writers.

Walter Jon Williams’ plays it straight in “Red Elvis”, the cover story. Nicholas A. DiChario’s “Giving Head” features Sigmund Freud trying to learn what makes the Red Baron so good at what he does.

Most of the rest of the stories are extended jokes, and I gazing at the table of contents again only brings back memories of a few after reading them only a couple of months ago. (And I can’t be bothered to go into the details of others.)

Comrade Bill” from John E. Johnston III is about a certain ex-President. “Good Girl, Bad Dog”, from Martha Soukup, features a certain famous canine gone rogue. As for the rest, well, I remember a lot of jokes but specifics have already faded from my mind in the less than two months since I read the book.


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

Eric S. Rabkin’s Science Fiction Lectures

As a consumer of the Great Courses lectures, I’ve looked at Eric S. Rabkin’s Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works for a few years. But somewhere in the back of my mind I had the idea — maybe from paging through something he had written, that he was a dry writer full of tedious literary theory.

I was mostly right.

However, amongst all the Freudian references (how can anyone still use the old fraud’s theories for any literature written before he published his work?), post-modernism, and symbolism (does no one see that the surface details of a story can be worth studying?), there are some things of value. Maybe even enough to justify its current selling price of $29.95.

For me the deck didn’t really get cleared for service until lecture six, “H. G. Wells: We Are All Talking Animals”. The idea is proposed that The Island of Dr. Moreau is told by an unreliable narrator. (Personally, I see it as Wells’ unintended satire on the folly of blank-slatism. The flesh, in other words biological drives and identity, can not be molded by the surgery of Moreau’s mini-island state.)

It’s sort of a semi-arid spell to lecture 14, “Mary Shelley: Grandmother of Science Fiction”, where Rabkin puts forth the idea, I think plausible, that Frankenstein is about the dangers of putting yourself outside of the human community. Doctor Frankenstein choses to exile himself. His creation has no choice.

“Hawthorne, Poe, and the Eden Complexion” among other things talks about how Poe used the rhetoric of science (passive voice, precise and objectively quantified details) and romanticism.

“Wells — Industrialization of the Fantastic” actually convinces me that there are several Christian symbols in The War of the Worlds. (We are increasingly entering an age where people have to have even basic biblical allusions explained. In my English major days, a professor rightly said every one of us should have read the King James Bible so we knew the sources of allusions and phrases. If you were studying medieval lit, you had to read large chunks of the Catholic Vulgate.)

“The History of Utopia” actually mentioned in passing a couple of titles I hadn’t heard of and made Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We sound more interesting than it is (though it’s an important predecessor to more famous dystopias). However, I don’t buy the assertion that Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was a response to Thomas More’s Utopia.

“Science Fiction and Religion” is a good (and too brief) look at an important topic.

“Asimov and Clarke — Cousins in Utopia” provoked the thought that Judaism was a more important influence on Isaac Asimov than I thought. His Three Laws of Robotics (which he actually credited to John W. Campbell, Jr.) is rather rabbinical. And I certainly agree that Asimov was a believer in technoutopia. That seems to me a manifestation of the Jewish belief they should work to perfect the world. The theme of machines to beneficially manage our affairs is there in Asimov’s robot stories. But (and Rabkin doesn’t mention this) Asimov’s essay “By the Numbers” endorses the idea of rule by impersonal, bureaucratic computers.

“Cyberpunk, Postmodernism, and Beyond” is very wrong-headed. The influence of the spy and noir genres — John Le Carre and Dashiell Hammett– seem as important to William Gibson as postmodernism not to mention the fact that Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17‘s opening paragraph is rather similar to Neuromancer (and Gibson is a Delany fan). Claude Shannon’s information theory and digital technology, the idea that information can be easily recorded, edited, combined, analyzed, and synthesized, I contend is more important than literary theory to cyberpunk. On the other hand, Rabkin does make the intriguing observation that the plot and images of Neuromancer closely follow T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

Human Voices

While I’m working on new stuff, the Gunn series continues. Turns out I had more in the archives than I thought.

Raw Feed (2003): Human Voices: Science Fiction Stories, James Gunn, 2002.Human Voices

“Introduction” — Useful introduction which talks about the origin of all this collection’s stories and how they relate to Gunn’s other works.

The Old Folks” — In the collection’s introduction, Gunn explains how this story (seemingly written in 1962) went unpublished until Harry Harrison bought it for his Nova Two anthology and then it was reprinted in a best of the year anthology. Gunn said that it was rejected by sf places as not being sf, and mainstream magazines as being sf. The reactions are understandable. There really isn’t anything of a fantastical nature in this story — at least fantastical in terms of technology or science, no violations of expected history as in a time travel or alternate history story. Yet, this story has a science fiction feeling. If Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Tim Powers’ fantasies are “secret histories”, this is a secret sociology. It postulates that old folks, at least in the retirement village of this story, are engaged in a bitter struggle with their children and those younger to spoil their kids, spend their money to leave nothing to inherit (yet present the illusion of a possible inheritance to manipulate the young) and generally avenge themselves for the trial of having children. And, as Gunn wryly notes, it’s a self-perpetuating conspiracy since the young become the old folks

The Voices” — It was nice to revisit this very literate story from Gunn’s classic novel The Listeners with its cynical journalist protagonist and the frequent allusions to Dante.

Fault” — This story, as befits a 1975 story set in San Francisco, has a surprising amount of sex and drugs for a Gunn story. I liked its story of the dilemmas facing the city’s mayor as he has to decide, based on the infant science of earthquake prediction, whether to evacuate the city. He decides to do it. The earthquake doesn’t happen. Hundreds die in the evacuation. The cost is over a billion. The people move back. The geologists appear with another prediction. As the mayor notes, he couldn’t order another evacuation if he wanted to, and an earthquake of 8.5 on the Richter scale hits the city in the final sentence.

Guilt” — This is one of Gunn’s philosophical stories. Here the central premise is that society’s criminals are those who don’t feel enough guilt. A vaguely described instrumentality and/or conditioning program is set up to make people feel the proper amount of guilt. If they don’t, an almost anonymous judge induces something like a panic attack in their bodies to make them feel uncomfortable. There are two characters: a judge who, with the aid of a computerized system, passes judgment on people, and the fiancé of a woman he thinks she has been unfairly judged guilty. The philosophical questions Gunn raises are valid — the morality of punishing people preemptively, the deadening effects of suppressing guilt, corruptibility of the judges, the effects on the arts of sublimating guilt. However, the story never moved me. The scenes where the man encounters various street performers who coerce him into acting out bloody dramas seemed too literary in their references to Oedipus (and, by nature, stagey though that didn’t bother me). The pressure on the judge to convict more was realistic but wholly expected. The ending, where the judge is punished with a surge of guilt, didn’t really move me.

Child of the Sun” — I read this story just to see what had been changed from its original publication to its inclusion in Gunn’s fixup novel Crisis!. Only the beginning has been changed, and it is quite similar to the opening of the novel. In the collection’s introduction, Gunn says that the idea for this story and its companions collected in the novel Crisis! started out as a potential weekly tv show. That explains a lot about the shortcomings and format of that novel.

The North Wind” — I liked this story a lot and not only because it’s set in one of my favorite disaster settings: an ice age. The story is simple. A farmer refuses to flee the coming glaciers because his ancestors have farmed the land for a long time, and his family, killed by looters, is buried on the ground. He sees the seemingly miraculous presence of an unmarred girl frozen in the ice. Her presence fascinates and tempts him into joining her in the ice. Eventually, however, he hears the “ancient voice of humanity demanding struggle, demanding survival”, and he heads south to help man survive. Gunn also does a nice job with capsule descriptions of the chaos the new ice age wrecks and different survival strategies including underground communities in Montana and Wyoming waiting for the ice to retreat.

Among the Beautiful Bright Children” — This is a curious story, later incorporated into Gunn’s novel The Dreamers and originally written to appear in a Harlan Ellision’s Dangerous Vision title that was never published. I liked it, but, frankly, I’m not sure I understood the ending. The ending seems to imply that the historian does dream since he seems to be taken a capsule of simulated memories labeled “Abelard”. At first, I thought Abelard was a plague historian since there are familiar sounding accounts of the Black Death scattered throughout the story. However, research taught me that Abelard was a medieval philosopher predating the plague. It seems the historian is writing a history under the influence of an artificial persona. Like his classic The Joy Makers, this novel is concerned with the question of living under illusion or in the realm of struggling with reality. This future seems decadent like that of The Joy Makers. (Gunn doesn’t clearly opt for reality here. After all, his protagonist is popping memory capsules.) The Abelard connection is reinforced when a young woman seduces the historian by adopting the personas of famous women including Abelard’s love Heloise. I thought the notion of a woman being quite seductive not by changing her outward body but her inward memories and personas was interesting. The historian, here, comes off as a figure pitied by the young members of a society he doesn’t understand in its rich decadence, pitied and found rather contemptible. However, he has more of a core than the “bright children” since his ex-lover shouts at him that she has no reality beyond what she pops in synthetic memories. I suppose the plague interludes serve a symbolic function of showing a plague of decadence destroying the humanity of this future.

The Futurist” — While this story has a good beginning and some valid insights into human psychology, it’s marred by a technocratic liberalism right out of the fifties which, I suspect from his other writings, is sincerely held by author Gunn. The intriguing plot is an indestructible Sphinx statue showing up in front of the United Nations. After a year, a visitor comes out. He/she turns out to be a time traveling historian from the future who hands out some advice about how to deal with the problems of the future. She scandalizes the delegates from France, Russia, and America (though, of course, about different things) with hints of a world of strange family arrangements, extreme sexual freedom, genetically engineered children grown in vats, and that is somewhat more socialistic than 2009’s America. (As the traveler points out, it is sort of a meaningless question much like someone from 1909 asking if America of 2009 was socialist). She further scandalizes them by stating humanity should try to give up legislating morality. The counterargument given is that religions and governments exist to do just that. The time traveler responds that with a bit of moral relativism that each society has morality appropriate to them. The time traveler then goes on to say that society can really only be molded by deciding what technology to develop. However, as the time traveler notes in the story itself, the consequences of technology can not be foreseen in their entirety which renders even that argument meaningless. The only really good point about the story, beside its beginning, was the time traveler pointing out that “misery isn’t terminal” and that, if the delegates were transported to his future, they might become accustomed to living there but they would never be at home there. The time traveler also points out that the future is ushered in because, even though they don’t want to live in a specific future, it beats no future. In his introduction to this collection, Gunn says that Kim Mohan, editor of Amazing Stories, called publishing this story one of the great pleasures of his editorship. I don’t see why.

Man of Parts” — This is a fun story inspired by a comment by Adam Smith in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. With the feel of a horror story, it tells of a man who becomes convinced he can alleviate or prevent the suffering and death of others by removing parts of his body. You can read the story as mental delusion or that the protagonist really does magically help others by his sacrifice. And, as the opening paragraph itself says, you can see it as a story of death and suffering and self-mutilation or a story of self-sacrifice and miracles and “feel good about the human race”. The bit from Smith that inspired by the story was his remark that a man, on hearing about the death of millions of Chinese, might go about his own business but that the thought of losing his little finger the next day would cause the man no end of worry. Obviously, Gunn turns that notion on his head with his self-mutilating miracle worker who eventually gives his head (after loping off his limbs), ingeniously taken off in a moving hospital bed, to prevent World War III.

The Gingerbread Man” — In the collection’s introduction, Gunn says this story was intended as a response to Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” (though only a very few readers picked up on this and the identical names of the protagonists and the dates in both stories). Gunn, an expert in Asimov’s fiction, sees the ending of that Asimov story as exceptionally sentimental compared to the rationality of most of Asimov’s fiction. Here, Gunn’s protagonist has more and more of his body replaced with cyborg substitutes and finds himself becoming a better person, more “truly human”, as he rids himself of the moral frailties inherent in the flesh.

The Day the Magic Came Back” — Gunn says he wrote this story as a response to what he saw as a longing for worlds, expressed as a growing “fascination with fantasy and fantastic phenomena”, where magic works. When a doctor discovers a man who really can heal people magically, he explains the consequences to a nurse of a world where magic has returned. It won’t stop with healing but will expand to create wealth and warfare, a world of no controls where only those chosen by some mysterious process or entity will have the power once developed through the hard, long study of science. The return of the magic, argues Gunn, is a return to the medieval. He makes a valid argument that science transformed the world and “created democracy and affluence and individual choice”. This is one of those good stories that takes notions of religion, though here only in the vaguest sense that magic works, and looks at the implications.

The Lens of Time” — According to his remarks in the collection’s introduction, Gunn, in the mid 1990’s, decided to do his own “reflexive” story about sf, here Fitz-James O’Brien’s 1858 story “The Diamond Lens” which, in the notes to the story in his anthology The Road to Science Fiction #1: From Gilgamesh to Wells, he claims is the “first modern science-fiction story”. This book fictionalizes the first meeting between O’Brien and his friend Dr. J. D. Whelpley and the discussion that leads to the creation of O’Brien’s story, “The Diamond Lens”. In this thoughtful story (whose details are all true except that of the conversation, Gunn notes), the dialogue between the earnest Whelpley, a devoted microscopist, and a distracted, ruminating O’Brien is not only a discussion of the transformative powers of mid-19th century science and technology but also the aesthetics and purpose of sf. Whelpley wants O’Brien to write a story showing how the world might be transformed by science, particularly the discoveries made possible through the microscope. O’Brien wants (and did) to write a romance story about a microscopist viewing an unattainable object of his desire through a novel lens (whose existence is owed to murder and theft). It’s not that O’Brien disagrees with Whelpley’s contentions, only the practicality of his goals. Whelpley wants to make the public aware of how science will not call down God’s wrath but free him from Nature’s tyranny. O’Brien wisely notes that nobody has that power, and that the only people changed by poetry and literature are those who don’t need to be changed, that “The people you want to reach don’t read Harper’s or The Atlantic.” (The argument that people who read literature are better is one I don’t buy. I wonder if Gunn is, perhaps, looking back on a career where he once thought he could mold minds through his writing.). I was interested to learn, in Gunn’s introduction, that Whelpley published his own sf story, “The Atoms of Chladni”, in 1859. I’d be curious to read it.

The End-of-the-World Ball” — Of course any story that takes place during the last three hours of the first millennium (the story was first published in 1989) is going to be dated. And there’s the brief psychological disquiet with the story taking place at the World’s Trade Center in New York City. The literary contrivance of having a bunch of disasters (nearby novae, climatic change, volcanoes, war, overpopulation, societal breakdown) seeming to reach a crescendo on New Year’s Eve was interesting. And I liked the character of Paul Gentry, specifically compared to Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich in that all three are overblown “propheteers” of disaster whose predictions were, at best, overblown. (This is interesting, especially, since Gunn really does seem to feel, in his Crisis!, that pollution and overpopulation and resource depletion threaten humanity, so he shares Gentry’s views though clearly regards his cynical profiting from them as unseemly.) I liked the sudden kiss that mathematical catastrophist Ng-Smith plants on his male ex-grad student. But I didn’t really understand the ending where ex-gymnast, ex-doctorate of philosophy, ex-actress, ex-hedonist Barbara Shepard hurls herself over the building at midnight in what seemed to be a fatal expression that Christ was returning. But, even though Gunn hints at something big happening in the new millennium, we don’t know if it does. I suspect Gunn’s point, especially knowing how he values man’s struggle to survive and develop, is that, as character William Landis notes, “. . . it’s not catastrophe I’m afraid of. What I fear is our love of catastrophe.” Various characters have a vested interest in catastrophe. Gentry profits from it. Ng-Smith seeks to reduce it to mathematical equations of predictability. CNN reporter Sally Krebs professionally covers it. Landis studies it but doesn’t thrive on it. We can’t know the future, I think Gunn is saying, so we shouldn’t live like the world is going to end.

The Giftie” — Interesting story where evidence of alien contact (and diagrams of their superior technology) are hidden in a book of seemingly crank ufology. Our protagonist tracks down the author, with the help of an elderly bookseller, who turns out to be an ex-SETI researcher whose writings got him thrown into an insane asylum by mysterious government forces. There are several knowing references to plot elements of spy novels. Gunn says this is the first installment of a fixup novel he’s working on, and I’ll be curious to read it. This is, in an odd sort of way, a self-referential work in that it was inspired by the movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact (a rebuttal, to be specific) which, in turn, was inpsired by James Gunn’s The Listeners which, in turn, was partially built on Sagan’s scientific work.


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

The Burning; or Adventures in Reader Reactions

The mini-James Gunn series continues.

As with the other installments, Joachim Boaz provides the parallel optics on this one.

Raw Feed (1991): The Burning, James E. Gunn, 1972.The Burning

This was an interesting book both philosophically and structurally.

This novel is a fix-up of three stories.

As usual Gunn is interested in exploring philosophical points and his characters are symbolic, but Gunn manages to flesh them out somewhat, usually through interior monologues, particularly Susannah of the last of three stories. This novel, at least the first story — “Witches Must Burn” — is partially a product of the fifties with its in passing talk of security issues involving scientists and its use of the slang term “eggheads”. But it is, in its own way, relevant to now. The novel’s burning of the universities as a reaction to the stresses of modern, technological civilization seems to be mirrored in the current environmental movement with its talk of slower development, “limits to growth”, the arrogance of science, the “fallacies” of traditional western thought. And, one could argue, that the universities are even more isolated from reality (present and historical) than ever now, and it is the isolation which Gunn sees as harmful.

The novel takes an interesting tack. At first, we sympathize with protagonist John Wilson. He is a figure ready for an sf audience to sympathize with: a scientist who flees a mob burning his university, destroying his research, faced with betrayal, murderous irrationality, and cowardice on every side. (There is a parallel to A.E. van Vogt’s Slan here — not only in the hunting of an intelligent man by a less intelligent mob — but also because Wilson has a machine that reads brain waves and can, like a slan’s telepathic sense, warn him of danger.) But that’s only for the first 40 pages. Continue reading


More Bester while I’m off working on new stuff.

I’ve actually written about some of the radio adaptations of Bester’s work at Innsmouth Free Press.

Raw Feed (1990): Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, ed. Alfred Bester, 1976.Starlight

5,271,009” — A delightful story. It is with this story that I first noticed the element of moral instruction that caps so many of Bester’s works. It is linked with the strong Freudian element in his works. His Freudian world view is that most of our individual and societal problems stem from the neuroses and compulsions we all have, the desire to escape reality. In Bester’s mind, we have to cast off these childish elements to achieve our potential. This is vividly illustrated, perhaps best of all the Bester stories I’ve read, in this humorous tale that mocks the childish cliches of sf as impractical and symbolic of childish wishes which keep us from psychologically maturing and realizing our worth. (Bester, in his intro notes, says this is also a satire on himself.) Jeffrey Halsyon, artist, who is unable to handle the burdens and responsibilites of his fame, has psychotically retreated into childhood, filled with lusts for sex, power, and revenge. Solon Aquilia is the mysterious demonic figure who admires Halyson’s work and wants to help. The story’s wit and humor is shown when Aquilia explores how being a warlock works in the modern age:

Witch’s Brew now complies with Pure Food and Drug Act. Familiars one hundred percent sterile. Sanitary brooms. Cellophane-wrapped curses. Father Satan in rubber gloves.

The many ways the title number shows up is clever since this is one of those stories wrote to serve a cover illustration — in this case a convict with that number — chained to an asteroid. The first sf cliche, or childhood fantasy Bester pillories is the last fertile man on Earth having to be father to a new race. The women all begin to look the same even though beautiful; they hate him, and his one true love vows to die than let her touch him. The second fantasy is the classic one of childhood martyrdom. Here Halyson, falsely accused and imprisoned, knows the secret to defeat an alien invasion (“Those adults will be sorry they did this!!”). The secret is ludricous: all the scientists and experts are impotent because they don’t realize their calculators are malfunctioning. Then everyone realizes at the same time the same secret. Aquilia shows up in the fantasy, as he does every one except the last one, to show the folly of this childish fantasy:

“You are all alike. You dream you are the one man with a secret, the one man with a wrong, the one man with an injustice, with a girl, without a girl, with or without anything. Goddamn. You bore me, you one-man dreamers. Get lost.”

The next cliche is the “if I only knew then what I know now” one; Halyson is ten years old again. But his fantasies of power and adulation aren’t realized. He can’t remember the exact dates and outcome of all those sports events and stock trades; his ideas are out of sync with the time; the bully still beats him up; and the restrictions of society on a child make life miserable. Aquilia shows up to say children and adults are”two different breeds of animal”. The fantasy is that the universe is all make-believe, in this case a bizarre send up of the graveyard scene in Hamlet by Shakespeare. Halyson’s last fantasy is being the last man on Earth with the last woman on earth, a beautiful woman with an IQ of 141. In one of the most funny moments in all of Bester’s writings. Halyson asks her if she knows anything about dentistry. She says

“I’m a beautiful woman with an I.Q. of 141 which is more important for the propagation of a brave new race of men to inherit the good green earth”… “Not with my teeth it isn’t,” Halyson howled … and blew his brains out.”

After the fantasies, Aquilia say to Halyson:

“Too many adults are still children. It is you, the artists, who must lead them out as I have led you. I purge you; now you purge them.”

It is an archetypal statement which illustrates the tone of moral instruction infusing much of Bester’s work and his creed and purpose as a writer. Halyson’s face has aged to coincide with his new maturity. Aquilia reveals himself as Satan, bedeviled by his own childish fantasies which led to his own downfall. The title number takes on one more meaning as Aquila says it is the approximate number of decisions a persons makes in a lifetime and that they’re all big. This is a story central to understanding Bester’s work.

Ms. Found in a Champagne Bottle” — This is one of the earliest, that I know of, and wittiest example of the sub-genre of common machines taking over the world. Continue reading


I’ve exhausted my existing Robert Silverberg material for now, so I’m moving on to a new favorite: Charles L. Harness.

Harness was a patent attorney and many of his works are legal and courtroom dramas, but that is not the case with the novels in this omnibus.

Raw Feeds frequently feature spoilers and that is definitely the case here.

Raw Feed (2002): Rings, Charles L. Harness, 1999.Rings

“On Rings of Power”, Priscilla Olson — Very brief and perfunctory introduction listing Charles Harness’ major themes and tying this omnibus of his work to an early short story collection, An Ornament to His Profession. (Yes, that will be reviewed in a future post.)
“Charles Harness:  Wielder of Light”, George Zebrowski — The most interesting part about this introduction to the omnibus is the phone interview Zebrowski conducted with Harness.  Harness says that each of the four novels in the omnibus are tributes to certain people.  The Paradox Men was a tribute to A. E. van Vogt, a major influence on Harness.  The Ring of Ritornel is a tribute to Harness’ brother Blandford Bryan Harness who died at the age of 26 when Harness was only 19.  Firebird is a tribute to Richard Wagner and the story of Tristan and Isolde.  Drunkard’s Endgame is a tribute to Isaac Asimov.
The Paradox Men — It’s a curious book in that it is one of my favorite sf novels but that I can’t remember the plot until about half way through rereading it.  However, I always remember one of my favorite sf lines:  “The beastling had joined the drama as a full-fledged member of the troupe, with lines to speak, and a death to die.”  I probably caught, on my other readings, the obvious van Vogt influences of powerful, hidden manipulators and mutant superman.  But I don’t think I caught before the influence of the Cold War on this 1953 novel.  There are East and West Federations poised to start a nuclear war.  Arnold Toynbee’s influence is obvious, of course, since his theory of civilizations rise and fall is alluded to.  The latter always comes after a time of “universal state” and “universal peace”.  Harness also seems to engage in a bit of political commentary with his Toynbean historians stating that no civilization can stand the continual aggrandizement of its ruling class.  Here that aggrandizement is shown by slavery being reintroduced as the penalty for going into debt.  Indeed, a nasty sort of slavery since some are sold to the “charnel-house”.  Indeed, Harness wanted to name the novel Toynbee Twenty-Two, the same as the ship that takes Alar on his journey of transformation.  I was again impressed with the almost hard sf working out of relativity theory to make his time cycles plausible.  I am impressed by the ways Harness does plot in obvious ways.  There is no happy ending for Keiris (who loses her arms in the novel) and Muir.  Muir-Alar is not the avatar of a new race.  Rather, he travels back to prehistory to alter man’s very nature to make him less warlike.  Harness puts temporal cycles inside temporal cycles.  Muir leaves to return five years earlier and then, returning to a point shortly after his crash (and the destruction of civilization), he is transformed.  I wonder if the idea of a superman being created by the deliberate application of lethal stresses inspired the method of superman creation later used in Alfred Bester’s The Computer Connection.
The Ring of Ritornel — This reading added little to my earlier reading of the novel.  The introduction to this omnibus edition does confirm the influence of Fred Hoyle’s steady-state theory.  The crystomorphs reminded me of elements of cyberpunk fiction where computers are used to model people’s reactions to various stimuli.  (It was never totally clear whether Vang and his Aleans manipulated Oberon with a bogus prediction of Andrek’s attempted assassination of Oberon or if it was a legitimate prediction.  If the latter, it is another example of the book coming down on the side of free will.  Paradoxically, by using such the crystomorphs, the Aleans are practicing a type of Ritornelean determinism.)  This time around I appreciated more the Master Surgeon being the founding Ritornelism — a religion modified by its later practitioners.)  I also caught the irony of Omere being the disembodied (at least, not housed in a human body) house for Oberon’s emotions (though Oberon does, at the end, seem to be fearful) but begging for his own death because he is not human.  The final melding of Andrek-Omere was another example of Harness’s love and continual concern and memory of his beloved dead brother, the inspiration for Omere.
Firebird — A much better book than I expected.  Its style is rather different than the the preceding novels in the omnibus, The Paradox Men and The Ring of Ritornel.  The book opens with an engimatic list of terms and their definitions.  It refers (in the novel’s first words) to “The matrix within which all things move, but which defies definition.”  Three of the eight terms show up just once as synonyms of the mysterious emotion of love.  One word is “kaisch”.  It is a rather chess like game (chess is something that shows up fairly frequently in Harness’ short fiction) in its pure form, but psi-kaisch seems, like the Alerean twelve-sided dies of The Ring of Ritornel, serves as both a model (though the dies are not used in that way often in the story) and predictor of future action.  Here Dermaq and Gerain use it as a predictive model of their future and to military tactics.  Three of the other eight terms don’t seem to ever be mentioned in the text; their significance unexplained.  While a since of looming fate and predestination figures in The Ring of Ritornel (it’s a central thematic question and plot point there) and the end of The Paradox Men, it is manifested in those novels as temporal paradoxes or as impersonal fate.  Here, the conversations between the two-headed, utterly callous and evil computers, Largo and Czandra, have a feeling of gods talking.  They are known jointly as Control.  There is a feeling of destiny unraveling as Dermaq and Gerain wonder how the Wine of Elkar will be irradiated, how the woman wielding it knows to show up and who she is.  Volo, when Dermaq and Gerain visit the silent quarter, tells them that Control has driven them there.  The same feeling hangs over the book as Dermaq and Gerain, Harness’ version of Tristan and Isolt, are driven to their fate.  Indeed, Dermaq eventually realizes he has (and will) killed himself.  Another difference in style is that the protagonists in this novel are all non-humans.  Dermaq and Gerain belong to a race of cat-like humanoids.  The prose has more emotion and description than The Paradox Men or The Ring of Ritornel.  All three novels feature characters of hidden identities.  Gerain, it turns out, is the old woman of the first chapter.  However, there are also similarities.  The themes of temporal loops and regenerating universes (the Diavola hope to close the universe so that another Big Bang can lead to the evolution of life without the bane of Control) are here as befits the themes inherent in the omnibus title Rings.  All three novels feature plots of hidden manipulators (here courtesy of a temporal paradox), temporal paradoxes (as in The Paradox Men) or regeneration (the Ritorneleans in The Ring of Ritornel want to ensure the transplantation of sentience to a new universe — here the Diavola seek to remake the universe without Control), and the remaking of the animal that carries sentience in each universe (ancient man is retooled in The Paradox Men, Amatar and Kedrys as mutants in The Ring of Ritornel, the emergence of homo sapiens to replace Phelex sapiens here).  All three novels feature speculations using cosmological ideas:  implications of special relativity in The Paradox Men, Fred Hoyle’s steady state ideas and antimatter in The Ring of Ritornel, and more relativistic ideas here as well as the idea of the oscillating universe.  Firebird is a more mystical novel in tone and plot.  Not only is Control very god-like, but no real explanation is given for how the emergence of  homo sapiens can be predicted — right down to the emergence of another Tristan and Isolt.  (This is Harness making a statement on the mystical, perennial mystery of love.)  Harness does some interesting things with Firebird traveling at near light speeds.  Its mass disturbs oncoming ships and missiles.  Its huge mass means ramming is possible.  The winding down of the universe means little fuel is available.  I also liked burning Firebird’s furnishings for their hydrogen atoms.  I also liked the telepathic communication of Largo and Czandra and the biosilicon implants enabling them to control the bodies of their subjects.  However, there are some problems.  Largo and Czandra seem like cruel gods, but they don’t seem much like computers.  Also, for people supposedly educated in cosmological matters, Gerain and Dermaq seem rather ignorant of the implications of relativistic flight.  Their conversations seem there to provide explication to the reader.  One thing that seemed to be a problem — the notion of a lag between the disappearance of matter and its appearance as energy — is explained at the end.  Cor will re-engineer the universe (what is to become ours, thus explaining the alien protagonists and different physical laws).  Cor is another mystical element.  A portion of Cor’s mind, seemingly an intelligence that survives the universe’s oscillations and can guide its evolution, seems to inhabit Firebird.  Another unexplained plot device is how Control expects to get energy in an ever expanding universe.  I liked the shrunken descendants of the Diavola who have kept the faith through millions of years, ready to give their life to defeat Control for eternity and beyond.  There sacrifice is like Dermaq willingly going to his death.  The latter was an interesting time paradox:  killing a time traveling, future version of yourself.

Continue reading