Emphyrio, Jack Vance (1969)

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I read Jack Vance’s 1969 novel Emphyrio, a speculative fiction set on another world, where a society of artisans must produce beautiful handcrafted goods in return for a subsistence level stipend from a welfare state operated by overseer lords who live in towers above the city. Duplication and machine-working are punished severely; and one of these memorable punishments can be seen on the cover of the DAW edition that is pictured.

The story concerns the rebellion of an idealistic young woodworker, Ghyl, who wishes to enlighten, escape, and change his society after being inspired by the incomplete tale of a mythical figure in a fragment of old parchment. We see the protagonist’s arc within his city society, which is comprehensively built by Jack Vance. Fortinone’s geography, history and culture are depicted in immersive detail without ponderous passages of info-dumping.

As well as world-building, the book crams a lot of observations and big ideas into its two hundred pages. Broadly speaking, it’s a coming-of-age story and an observation of the way societies are constructed by (objectively silly, but subjectively orthodox) assumptions, and how these are enforced by bureaucracy. By the treatment of its protagonist it also looks at the role of idealism and force of will in changing society.

Emphyrio is less episodic than Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books, with more character study, a protagonist to root for, and memorable supporting characters – notably the father figure – along with picturesque scenes of a well fleshed-out city. The language is also less grandiloquent than his other books. Additionally, the ‘big’ secret (conspiracy) at the heart of the book keeps the pages turning. This book isn’t flawless; the closing chapters of the book feel rushed, and the first couple of chapters have a steep learning curve. But overall, this is an engaging story of youthful rebellion with plenty to think about. 4/5

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Robert Heinlein, Red Planet (1949)

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Well, I finished Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet from 1949 (one of his ‘juveniles’) and it was an altogether enjoyable read. The young and timid protagonist lives on a Martian colony with his exotic pet and staunch best friend. They are all whisked off to a Martian boarding school where they encounter a draconian headmaster and a rapacious company scheme which would be disastrous for their colonist parents back home.

It’s a simple coming of age story of friendship and overthrowing authority. The Martian landscape is depicted romantically; beautiful, mysterious, and full of peril; a world of vast ice-filled canals, ancient native cities, exotic vegetation and dangerous creatures. The Martians are enigmatic, a twelve-foot, three-legged race of mystics whose spirituality and forbearance are contrasted with the rapacity of some of the human colonists.

There’s also a recurring subtext about the nature of a frontier society, the general idea being that these people should not live by the same ideas as settled societies. Here, colonists should be more daring, self sufficient, distrusting, and even adolescents should carry guns and be prepared to fight in the name of freedom.

All of these unfashionably red-blooded fancies, traditional storytelling, exotic visuals and unabashed masculine displays won me over. 3/5

Note: the pictured edition is the censored print. Post-90’s prints restore the text to Heinlein’s original intentions, with more fleshed-out characterisation and mature themes.

Short fiction sweep; Mammoth 50s SF, part 1.

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I’ve been reading short stories over the last month, mostly from Robinson’s The Mammoth Book Of Vintage Science Fiction: Short Novels Of The 1950s. This book collects ten short novellas/novelettes from the decade, works originally anthologised in Galaxy and F&SF from a mixture of well known and more obscure names from the field.

We begin with Poul Anderson’s vaguely Wellsian fifty page novelette of time travel, Flight To Forever. After a fairly dry, routine and straightforward first third it suddenly becomes a romping Empire Strikes Back/Foundation style space opera (with cat men), a gear change that was unexpected, but which goes a long way to redeeming the overall thing. 3/5

Isaac Asimov’s The Martian Way is a story of Martian scavengers who make a living by reclaiming junk metal in space. Their livelihood is endangered by a fear mongering populist politician on Earth, who wishes to restrict the export of water to off-world colonies in an ‘anti waste movement.’ After racking heads together for a solution, the scavengers head for the rings of Saturn. The contrast of Earth VS Martian colonist behavior, and how this is formed from their differing environments, is the most interesting thing about this story. Colonist frontier ingenuity is contrasted with Earth’s complacency and politics of fear. Written in Asimov’s usual dialogue driven style, this is an amiable if unremarkable tale. 3/5

Next I came across Charles De Vet & K Maclean’s 1958 SF novelette, Second Game, a highlight of the collection. At the outset, Earth is flourishing and colonising thousands of worlds except one holdout, a planet inhabited by a proud race of warriors who prefer to be left alone. An envoy is dispatched from Earth to begin diplomacy and gather intelligence, and the story is told from his POV. He plans to ingratiate himself with the ruling caste by beating them at their national past-time, a complex game much like chess. The writing is noticeably above 1950’s pulp standards and reads more like 70’s New Wave or something by Ursula Le Guin; particularly in its observations of the differences and reconciling of the logic driven Veldians and the more emotionally driven Terrans. The prose is smooth and the dialogue is cerebral without being overly verbose and complex. As far as novelettes go this deserves full credit. 5/5

In Walter Miller’s 1951 occasionally profound post-apocalyptic novelette Dark Benediction, a space borne virus has landed on Earth. Those who are contaminated by it turn grey and are inflicted with a frenzied desire to lay hands on others, thereby passing on the contagion. With no cure found, the virus soon spreads widely, and society regresses to murder and brigandism; civilisation collapses. Two years on, a young man scavenges for food around Texas (Houston and Galveston) where the action takes place. He encounters dangerous men, a love interest, and a religious hospital who aim to research the virus and rebuild society. Here there is much of the same imagery and meaning as can be found in Miller’s later novel A Canticle For Leibowitz. However, this is arguably better written: a more concise treatment of similar aspects (of sublimation, and the role of knowledge) in a more approachable package. 4/5

A lighter tale altogether is Frederik Pohl’s 1954 satirical short story The Midas Plague. Here, cheap energy and robotic industry means an overabundance of goods, and so every citizen must fulfill a consumption quota. By fulfilling their quota, people progress into a higher class of society where the amount of compulsory consumption is less. By this, the poor live in large mansions full of trinkets and grow fat while the rich live in simpler houses. The story follows a couple of newlyweds of a lower class as they negotiate and overcome the rules. Overall this is a buoyant piece of satire which humorously explores a single idea. Domestic troubles, boozy antics, robotic shenanigans and group therapists abound; a bit like crossing Mad Men with I, Robot and Philip K Dick. 4/5

Frank M Robinson’s 1958 short novel of sixty pages, The Oceans Are Wide, is an SF story set on board a generation starship. Five hundred years after embarking for a habitable planet its hereditary ruler dies, with his timid young son being the sole heir. However, rivals seek to murder him and usurp the throne. The story follows his exile and growth among the ordinary families of the starship, and his mentoring by a mysterious figure named Joseph Smith. This is a structurally traditional coming-of-age story with many of its usual tropes, but it’s written in a slickly modern style that wouldn’t feel out of place forty years later. It’s also a dark story, full of murder, political scheming, compulsory euthanasia, bloodsports, and public executions – but it is also simply written, and this along with its blatantly didactic asides make me believe this was written for the YA/juvenile market.

Robinson is mainly preoccupied with what qualities it takes to be a leader, and what is required for the prosperity of a large group of people. He writes with a lot of literary allusions, with epigrams and references from the Psalms, T.S. Eliot, Pope, Coleridge – and, more importantly, Machiavelli. Interestingly, in a surely deliberate machination the novel’s mentor figure shares his name with the founder of Mormonism. Overall I enjoyed this dystopian take on the exiled prince tale. 3/5

Part 2 soon, where I finish the roundup with stories from Eric Frank Russell, Sturgeon, Tenn, and Farmer.

Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977)

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Gateway was highly acclaimed when it came out in 1977. It won awards for best novel from Hugo, Nebula, and the Locus poll. After reading it, I can say it still remains a good book, a page turner which combines space exploration and alien relic hunting with the inner psychological exploration of the protagonist, who is a profoundly flawed and yet recognisably human individual.

The way it weaves these two distinct narratives is the engrossing aspect about the book. Gateway is a spaceport built and abandoned by an elusive and mysterious race of aliens 500,00 years ago. After human discovery, it is administered by a corporation who wish to unlock its technological and interstellar secrets via its remaining group of alien-built space ships. This is a risky but potentially lucrative business which attracts ‘prospectors’ far and wide from an impoverished Earth. The novel is told from the perspective of one of these prospectors, Robbie, and through him we see the day-to-day life within the Gateway settlement.

Inter-weaved with this relic hunting story is a second narrative, where Rob is seeking help from a robotic psychiatrist. By this caricature of Sigmund Freud the vaguely referenced and horrific events of the Gateway narrative are unpacked and elaborated on by methods of subtle questioning and Freudian dream analysis, and so by the end of the novel we realise the sources of Robbie’s mental problems (which are myriad; his profound guilt, sexual hangups, and mother issues.) In this way, Gateway is largely a character study, rather than an all-out action thriller or space opera, as one might surmise from Boris Vallejo’s cover.

Gateway is thereby an examination of the kind of men who can be found in dangerous frontier societies; men who run away from home and family (and themselves) in seek of either wealth, adventure, or distraction, people who are capable of momentary acts of bravery while living profoundly frightened and insecure daily lives. These psychological explorations add a human interest to the tales of alien relic hunting and exploration, which in themselves are depicted more engagingly than in something like Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. The sense of the thin veil between life and death, success and failure, is emphasised throughout.

All of these concerns are plotted so that the book is neither too prosaic or sorrowful. The tone is earthy, and buoyed by the variously officious, sexy, gregarious, and sagacious presences of its minor characters. Furthermore, Pohl’s occasional insertion of Gateway Corporation mission reports, rosters, contracts, memorandums and classifieds is noteworthy, an eye-catching device which embellishes the sense of the wider life in the spaceport outside of the narrator’s POV.

Overall, then, Gateway is a well-balanced work of SF which combines the vicarious pleasures of space travel and the New Age preoccupation with internal landscapes.

The Best Short Stories of Philip K. Dick

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I’ve been reading more of PKD’s short stories. He is outstanding in this format of 10-20 page pieces. They are more robust, better edited, less meandering, more potent treatments of the themes from his novels. They express his ideas on war, technology, government, the media, and the nature of reality, in a way that is thought-provoking and digestible in one sitting.

I’ve read about twenty of them. Here are five I have selected for special consideration, short stories of his that deserve to be widely read, and have yet to be made into film or TV.

If There Were No Benny Cemoli (’63) is a story about revolution, the media and constructed realities. An extraterrestrial reconstruction team arrive on Earth after triumphing in war. They revive an automatic newspaper press on Earth, which begins to report on a revolutionary pacifist; however, he isn’t real.

The Mold Of Yancy (’55) is about how the government and TV can influence a population, and build a consensus among them. Here, civil servants from Earth investigate an off-world society ruled by a fictitious benign dictator called Yancy. He broadcasts Ike Eisenhower-esque speeches that are full of cozy home-spun wisdom, which is without substance, but is well received; the same kind of glib and specious lines that are recited regularly by our modern politicians:

“…Yancy likes people to take a spiritual view of matters. He’s strong on God and honesty in government and being hardworking and clean-cut. Warmed-over truisms.”

The expression on Taverner’s face hardened. “Interesting,” he murmured. “I’ll have to drop by and meet him.”

“Why? He’s the dullest, most mediocre man you could dream up…”

Foster, You’re Dead (’55) depicts a society which has wedded Cold War nuclear paranoia and consumerism, where the newest bomb shelters are the must-have status symbols; even the children of those without are ridiculed. It’s full of observations that are remain relevant to modern life, where capitalism tries to play on our insecurities:

“You know, this game has one real advantage over selling people cars and TV sets. With something like this we have to buy. It isn’t a luxury, something big and flashy to impress the neighbors, something we could do without. If we don’t buy this we die. They always said the way to sell something was create anxiety in people. Create a sense of insecurity — tell them they smell bad or look funny. But this makes a joke out of deodorant and hair oil. You can’t escape this. If you don’t buy, they’ll kill you. The perfect sales-pitch. Buy or die — new slogan. Have a shiny new General Electronics H-bomb shelter in your back yard or be slaughtered.”

Elsewhere, The Days Of Perky Pat (’64) looks at the ways a post-nuclear war society occupies their humdrum lives by playing a nostalgic virtual reality game featuring Barbie and Ken-like dolls and accessories. It’s a prescient story about the nature of escapism, where children are more worldly than adults, and the genesis of his novel The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch.

The protagonist of Electric Ant (69′) discovers that he is an android after a traffic accident. He begins to explore his machine anatomy; discovering an ability to manipulate his perception. This is a lucid speculation about free will and reality (is it entirely subjective?) with memorable flourishes of surreal imagery. It’s a worthy and arguably better written companion to PKD’s longer novel of robots in society, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? as well as the distinctly PKD-like television series, Westworld.

These short works are found in numerous compilations of Philip K Dick’s. I recommend Gollancz’s Human Is? volume in particular. The author is arguably at his best in here, where he is able to speculate about his preoccupations without the (difficult to negotiate) trappings of writing a longer novel. They combine cutting satire with acute observation, and philosophy, in a way that is entertaining and edifying.

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

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This British SF novel from 1962 depicts a London city centre which has been submerged by the sea following the effects of global warming. Here, Ballard presents many images where nature and the remnants of civilisation meet: iguanas in former board rooms, submerged planetariums, giant fern trees among high rise towers, pirates in tuxedos. Ballard’s detached and elegant prose renders these images vividly, in a surreal way.

The plot follows the psychological development of a close-knit group who choose not to go Northwards with the rest of humanity in search of cooler climes. Instead, they choose to remain in London, whose beating sun and warm waters begin a process of psychic metamorphosis:

“This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.”

The Drowned World lures Keirans and the group, as London becomes a place of beauty and quiet rapture, a place seeming to offer a womb-like homecoming for their subconscious. The story follows the attempts of Keirans and his small group to live the rest of their lives on these new personal terms. In their way are the meddling forces of civilised society: a stolid Colonel with his army detachment, and a professional looter/salvager. The latter is an intriguing antagonist, a white suited Kurtz-like figure who is characterised by his manic-depressive manner, and flotilla of giant alligators.

Overall this is a meditatively written book full of surrealist imagery and well observed psychological passages, to be recommended to readers looking for a post-apocalyptic tale that is more cerebral.

Hard to Be a God by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky

htoagHard To Be A God (1964) is a fast-paced and philosophical piece of science fiction from the Soviet era. It presents another planet much like our own, except its society has not progressed from the feudal, medieval-like stage of development – and so its mankind remains in an ignorant and primeval state. Among these brutes are a small number of undercover spies from modern Earth, who are employed in a strictly observational capacity; they are forbidden from interfering in political affairs, and must only record events for the benefit of off-planet academics.

Don Rumata is one of these observers, a man who is well-placed in this society as an aristocrat with access to more advanced  knowledge and technology than those around him. The novel explores the dilemmas arising from his elevated status. He is pulled in opposite directions by his academic duties as an observer, and moral duties to those around him, who become brutalised by a world in which he has the God-like capability to intervene. In looking at these problems, the novel examines the role of history in the development of mankind, and the role of the individual within a hostile society. In doing this, parallels are drawn with Russian and German history.

However, the book is not only a philosophical piece. For large parts it has the tone of a low fantasy, with its frail heroine, arch villain, court intrigues, daring rescues, and generally boisterous and alcohol-fueled antics. These genre trappings provide a pleasing counterpoint to the more didactic passages, and make the book read briskly overall. Hard To Be A God appears in the SF Masterworks line as a 2014 translation by Olena Bormashenko which feels fluidly written; I recommend it to readers of both SF and fantasy, and those looking for something which deftly mixes action and matters regarding the development of society.