In a far future, some human beings have developed the ability to “jaunte” – to travel long distances by the power of their mind. This has led to major changes in how society operates, as rich men have to find ever more elaborate ways of securing their properties against jaunting invaders, and of keeping their womenfolk safe from potential rapists jaunting into their rooms at night. For some reason (I have no idea why – maybe he told me, maybe he didn’t – I don’t care) this has all led to interplanetary war between the inner and outer settlements in the solar system. In the midst of all this, Gully Foyle is trapped all alone on a wrecked ship in the middle of space and when another ship passes by and refuses to rescue him, he swears revenge.
This has very high ratings on Goodreads and lots of people claiming it’s the best book ever written in the history of this galaxy or any other. I guess they must all like following a bunch of despicable people doing despicable things for no logical reason. Some SF novels suggest that humanity will improve as we continue to evolve – others, and this is one of them, suggest that humanity has no redeeming features whatsoever and will gradually revert to a sort of savagery. For some reason, the latter seem to be respected more than the former, in the era of modern SF anyway. This, I now remember, is why I hate most SF from the late 50s, 60s, and 70s. Bad taste pulp.
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Gully rapes the first woman to put in an appearance in the book. This is pretty much a signal for the casual misogyny that runs throughout. All the women are possessions and sex toys, rising or falling in the social order by virtue of whose daughters they are, who they sleep with, or who they are raped by. They are not all victims though – they are just as vile and vicious as the men on the whole. Torture and murder are the norm in this society, not to mention genocide. How can any reader possibly care about the outcome for any of these characters? Beats me. I certainly felt that they would all be improved by death.
Trying to see what all the 5-starrers (mostly men) saw in this that I didn’t, it appears that in fact they love all the things I hated. They love that Gully is disgusting – it seems to enthral them that he is viciously violent without compassion or regret. Some of them suggest that he becomes good in the end – hmm, depends on your definition of good. They buy into the collapse of society brought about by jaunting, as if it’s to be expected that if we could break into other people’s houses and rape their daughters, we would. They seem to understand why jaunting has led to interplanetary war – odd, since the point of jaunting is that no one has found a way to jaunte through space. They claim it’s an SF version of The Count of Monte Cristo – I haven’t read it, so I’ll take that as a warning not to.
Clearly I’m not on the right wavelength for this one, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. If you want to read about a vile man doing vile things in a vile society, highly recommended!
A new anthology in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series, this one brings together ten stories each featuring a crime mystery in a futuristic setting. It is edited as usual by Mike Ashley, who also provides a short introduction to the collection and an individual mini-bio of each of the authors. Most of the stories date from the 1950s and ‘60s – still in the heyday of the science fiction magazines – and there’s a lot of play on time travel, telepathy and advanced technology, with the occasional alien thrown in for good measure. As always, some of the authors are so well known even I, as a dabbler in SF, know of them, such as Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey; some have become familiar to me through their inclusion in earlier anthologies in the series, such as John Brunner and Eric Frank Russell; and a couple are new names to me, such as George Chailey and Miriam Allen deFord. While most of them are SF writers crossing over into crime, crime fans will also be intrigued to see PD James putting in an appearance, crossing in the other direction into SF.
As in any anthology, the quality of the stories, or my enjoyment of them at least, varies quite a lot. Overall, I gave three of them five stars while another three really didn’t work for me, and the rest all rated four stars, so I’d consider this as a solid collection rather than an outstanding one. In tone, they range from fairly light-hearted amusements to rather bleak, almost dystopian tales, verging on noir once or twice.
Here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most:
Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972) – This brings together Asimov’s famous detective duo who appear in several novels together – Elijah Bailey, an Earth police officer, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot built by the Spacer community. Daneel is on a space-ship, where two famous mathematicians are also partners. They each claim to have had a brilliant mathematical idea and consulted the other, and now accuse the other of having stolen the idea from them. Each has a robot servant, and each of these robots, programmed not to lie, is backing its own master’s version of events. Daneel persuades the ship’s captain to consult his friend, Elijah. While Elijah uses the Three Laws of Robotics in working out the solution, it’s really his knowledge of human nature that gives him the clue he needs. Very well told, ingenious plot, and it’s always a pleasure to meet with this duo.
Murder, 1986 by PD James (1970) – A disease brought to Earth from space has ravaged humanity. Most of the remaining population are carriers – Ipdics (Interplanetary Disease Infection Carriers) – and are subject to severe restrictions by the relatively few unaffected humans. Ipdics are not allowed to marry or breed, or have close contact with the unaffected. So when Sergeant Dolby discovers the body of a murdered young woman, the general feeling is that it’s unimportant since she was only an Ipdic, and one less Ipdic is a good thing for humanity. But Dolby can’t see it that way, and decides to carry out his own investigation. This is a bleak story, but very well told. Although only thirty pages or so long, James finds room to show the cruelty with which the Ipdics are treated, driven by the strength of the human survival instinct. As you might expect, this is one of the strongest stories in terms of the mystery plotting, fair play and an excellent, if depressing, denouement.
The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965) – This is a light-hearted bit of fun – a nice contrast to some of the grimmer stories in the book. Our anti-hero Mervyn is tired, very tired, of his nagging, over-bearing wife. For the last couple of years he’s been trying to think of a foolproof way to murder her (because despite this being in the far future, apparently divorce laws haven’t moved on from the mid-twentieth century). Now he learns that time travel has been made commercial, and decides to pop back into the past and do the deed there. While the twist in the tail might be a little obvious, it’s entertaining.
Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943) – Mr Partridge invents a time machine that can only go back a maximum of two hours into the past. Needing money to develop it and to win the love of his life, Mr Partridge decides to use the time machine to commit a murder that will result in him inheriting his rich great-uncle’s wealth. But private detective Fergus O’Breen gets involved in the murder investigation and he’s not a man to let a little thing like time travel baffle him! This is a great twist on a standard locked room mystery and on a novel way to create a perfect alibi. While the time-travelling paradox aspect befuddled my mind (as it usually does), the mystery plotting aspect is excellent. It’s well written and very entertaining, and probably my favourite story in the collection.
So plenty of good stuff here, and it’s fun to see how the authors try to stick to the conventions of mystery writing while incorporating the more imaginative SF stuff. Recommended to SF fans, but also to mystery fans who dare to step a little out of their comfort zone.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
The latest of the themed anthologies in the British Library’s excellent Science Fiction Classics series, this one takes as its theme living in space, either on space stations or ships. As always there’s an informative introduction from the series editor, Mike Ashley, in which he gives a short history of the development of the ideas of how man might make the colossal journeys around the solar system and beyond. The nine stories in this collection date between 1940 to 1967, so late enough for the scientific difficulties of space travel to be well understood, but early enough for the full play of imagination still to have plenty of scope.
There are some well known names among the authors although, since I’m not very knowledgeable about science fiction, several of the authors are new to me, or only familiar from other stories having featured in some of the earlier anthologies in the series. Anne McCaffrey is here – often thought of as a fantasy author but her story here is undoubtedly science fiction. James White, a star of one of the earlier books for me, shows up with another story about his hospital in space, a place designed to deal with all kinds of alien lifeforms. John Brunner, whose stories about The Society of Time the BL recently reissued, finishes the collection with an excellent novelette-length story about a generational starship.
Because of the theme of this collection, only one of the stories involves aliens and the characters rarely land on a planet, but the authors show how varied stories can be even when they share similar settings. A couple of them depend too much on technical problems for my taste – as soon as widgets break down and need to be repaired by ingenious scientific methods my brain seizes up and my eyes glaze over, but that’s simply a subjective issue. The other seven stories are all about the side of science fiction that interests me much more – examining how humans react when placed in unique situations.
Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (1961) – in this society, space ships are manned by a team of two. One is an ordinary human, the other is human too, but integrated entirely into the ships system so that she becomes its brain and controls everything that happens on board. Helva is our ‘shelled’ human here – a child born with such deformities that her only hope for life is to be merged into the technology that will allow her to live for several centuries and become a ship’s “brain”. But underneath it all she is still a female human, and her team-mate – the ship’s “brawn” – is a young and attractive man. Highly imaginative and with quite a bit of emotional depth, although some aspects of the treatment of children born with disabilities sit a little uncomfortably in today’s world.
O’Mara’s Orphan by James White (1960) – During the construction of what is to become a space hospital for all lifeforms, an accident happens that leaves a young alien orphaned. O’Mara, a human man, is suspected of being responsible for the accident, so while they wait for the investigators to arrive, he is told to look after the alien baby until more of its species can come to take it home. The baby is enormous and very little is known about its species, so O’Mara has to work out how to feed it and look after it. And then the baby gets sick. This has a couple of incidents in it that jarred me a little – again changing attitudes in changing times – but otherwise it’s great. These space hospital stories give White so much opportunity to develop imaginative life-forms and have fun with all the strange features he gives them and with the way his human characters have to deal with things they’ve never come across before.
The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox (1940) – A spaceship has been sent to colonise a far-away planet, but since the voyage will take 600 years, many generations will live and die before it gets there. So our narrator, Professor Grimshaw, has been sent along as the Tradition Man – he will spend most of the voyage in suspended animation, coming out once every hundred years to remind the voyagers of Earth’s traditions and values and the purpose and importance of their mission. Things don’t go to plan! This is great fun – every hundred years society has changed radically, from out-of-control over population, to civil wars, to dictatorships, to feuds between families that last for generations. Grimshaw has to come up with ways to get the mission back on track each time before he goes back into his freezer, and each time is harder than the last. And an amusing, if rather obvious, twist in the tail…
I rated four of the stories as five stars, with the others ranging between three and four, so another very good collection overall.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
As a young man, Enoch Wallace fought at Gettysburg. When the war was over, he returned to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin, soon finding himself alone there after the death of his father. One day, he met a stranger who put a strange proposition to him. Ulysses, as Enoch named him, was a being from another world, a representative of the Galactic Council, who wanted to set up a way station on Earth for intergalactic travellers wishing to explore this remote sector of the galaxy. Ulysses had chosen Enoch to be in charge of the way station because of his interest in the stars and his readiness to accept new ideas. Enoch accepted, and now, nearly a hundred years later, Enoch is still running the way station, and he’s still a young man. It is his seemingly eternal youthfulness that has at last attracted the interest of US Intelligence…
First published in 1963, this, like much of the science fiction of the Cold War era, is steeped in the fear of nuclear holocaust. The world is on the brink of another war, about to hold a last-ditch Peace Conference that no one expects to succeed. Enoch longs for Earth to be able to join the Galactic Confraternity because he has glimpsed some of the wonders out there and wants his fellow humans to be able to access the accumulated knowledge of a myriad of civilisations. But he knows that war will destroy the chance of that – only worlds that have moved beyond constant wars are invited in.
Enoch lives a solitary life on the farm. When he is inside the station – which used to be the family home and still looks that way to the outside world – he doesn’t age, but outside he does, so he restricts his outings to an hour a day, and his only real contact is with the mailman who brings him whatever he needs in the way of supplies. It’s an isolated, sparsely populated community, who keep themselves to themselves, so his apparent non-ageing is quietly ignored by his neighbours. But when an incident brings him into conflict with one of those neighbours, his anonymity is threatened. And on top of this, something has happened on Earth that has offended an alien race and the Galactic Council are threatening to withdraw from the sector. Enoch must decide whether to stay with humanity, and age and die, or leave Earth forever.
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This starts out slowly with a lot of information about the way station and Enoch’s life, all of which is interesting and much of it highly imaginative. After a bit, though, I began to long for the appearance of a plot, and happily it turned up just before I lost patience. As we get to know more about the Galactic Confraternity, we see that it isn’t quite as perfect as Enoch had thought – things are beginning to go wrong, and just like on Earth there are squabbles and power struggles arising within it.
The writing is excellent and the characterisation of Enoch is considerably more complex than is often the case in science fiction of this period. The concept of the way station allows for all kinds of imaginative aliens to visit, and Simak makes full use of the opportunity, plus the actual method of intergalactic travel is both fascinating and disturbing – personally I’ll wait till they get Star Trek-style matter transference working, I think! Although Enoch often has alien company, we see his desire for human contact too, and the impossibility of this without endangering his secret. As the plot progresses, it develops a kind of mystical, new-age aspect – an odd mix of the spiritual with the technological, and a hint of supernatural thrown in for good measure, but although that makes it sound messy, it all works together well. The ending is too neat, but the journey there is thought-provoking in more ways than one. The book won the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel – well deserved, in my opinion.
This new volume in the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series contains three stories. The title story is the longest and rests somewhere between novella and short novel in length. The other two would probably be best described as novelette length. Each story deals with the idea of time in some way, but they are very different from each other, showing Brunner as an imaginative and thoughtful writer who, like many of the SF greats, often used his stories to reflect on issues within his own society. My limited reading of science fiction meant I hadn’t come across him before, but the introduction by Mike Ashley tells me that he was a well-regarded British writer of the second half of the twentieth century, though his major successes all came early in his career, mostly in the 1960s, the period from which all three stories in this collection date.
The Society of Time – itself a trilogy of sorts, but with an overarching storyline that binds the three parts together, this tells of an alternative history where the Spanish Armada won and Britain became a colony of the Spanish Empire. The story is set in 1988, coming up for the 400th anniversary of that victory, and Brunner does a good job of showing the ascendancy of an essentially Spanish aristocracy ruling over a still recognisably British population. A method of time travel had been discovered almost a century earlier, but is strictly controlled by the Society of Time to avoid the kind of paradox that could arise by people from the present interfering with and changing their own history. Don Miguel, new licentiate of the society and our hero for the story, is attending a social function when he spots an artefact that he recognises as Aztec and as being so new looking that he fears it has been transported into the present from the past. Is there some kind of smuggling going on? This would imply corruption within the Society. As Don Miguel finds himself caught up in the investigation, he learns much about the fluidity of time and the possibility that time travel is causing fluctuations in human history.
In the second part, a quarrel leads to an irruption into the present of a race of warrior women from a possible past, while the third part widens the idea of the Society out to show that there is another grouping of nations known as the Confederacy who are the adversaries of the Empire and have their own time travelling society. As the two forces go back in time to compete for ascendancy, the present and future are put at risk. It’s very well done, although I admit that sometimes the complex paradoxes left my poor muddled brain reeling – this is my normal reaction to time paradoxes though! Although I felt the ending was a bit too neat and obvious, it is an interesting look at how our present is very much determined by our past – we are a product of our history whether it’s a history to be proud or ashamed of.
Father of Lies – a group of young people have found a strange place where no one seems to enter or leave and where modern technology doesn’t work. They set up a base just outside the area and investigate. As Miles (our hero) enters the area on foot (since cars don’t work) and carrying an axe (since guns don’t work), he first spots a dragon flying overhead. Then he sees a young woman in peril… While there are aspects of the fairy tale about this one and lots of references to Arthurian legends, there is a real darkness at the heart of it. It’s very imaginative and Brunner does an excellent job of giving a full picture of the strangeness of this place in a short space. Again, my one criticism would be that the ending feels a little too pat and convenient.
The Analysts – I found the first half of this very strange and intriguing, and again felt that the ending didn’t quite match up to the quality of the bulk of the story. A society called the Foundation for the Study of Social Trends wants a building built to their exact specifications but the architect to whom they take their plans thinks it’s all wrong. He calls in Joel Sackstone, an expert visualiser who can imagine from plans how a building will work for its purpose. When Joel considers the plans for this building, he begins to see that it is not flawed as the architect thinks – rather it is designed to achieve a very specific purpose. He makes a mock-up from the plans and… well, I’ll leave you to find out for yourself what happens then. In this one, Brunner is using an imaginative story to look at racism within his own time – just beginning to be recognised as an issue in Britain at that time. As might be expected, some of the language and attitudes are out-dated now and feel somewhat offensive to our current sensibilities, but his anti-racism intent is quite clear, so I gave him a pass on that.
I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the stories. They show a lot of originality in dealing with what has long been an overcrowded sub-genre of time travelling stories, and he moves well between the somewhat harder edge of science fiction and the softer fantasy elements. In the first, longer story, he has room for some good character development in Don Miguel, and all of the stories are very well written. A good introduction for newcomers like me, while existing fans will be pleased that this is the first time The Society of Time has been collected in its original, unabridged form.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
This collection of ten vintage science fiction stories takes us on a tour of our Solar System. “Ten?” I hear you ask. Yes, there are six of the seven actual planets in the system (excluding Earth). Saturn’s moon Titan is included instead of the planet itself. (Well, obviously one couldn’t live on Saturn, silly!) Pluto is included because it was considered a planet until Neil De Grasse Tyson viciously demoted it to lump of rock or some such. The Asteroid Belt gets its own entry since there have been lots of stories about it. And there’s a mysterious planet, Vulcan – never seen but once postulated to exist by scientists trying to explain the oddness of Mercury’s orbit before Einstein’s theories provided a better explanation; and exercising a considerable magnetic pull on the imaginations of SF writers of the time.
The editor, Mike Ashley (who is wonderful at these anthologies, by the way), has chosen most of the stories from the ‘40s and ‘50s, with just a couple of earlier ones and a couple from the ‘60s. He explains that this is because he wanted to “select stories that took at least some notice of the scientific understanding of the day”. Before each story there is an introduction to the planet, giving its dual history – the advances in scientific understanding of its physical properties over the decades, along with a potted history of how it was viewed and used over time by SF writers. These intros are fantastic – pitched at absolutely the right level for the interested non-scientist and packed full of examples of authors and specific stories to investigate further. (Would make the basis for a great challenge, and I may be unable to resist!) Each story is also prefaced with fabulous pictures of the relevant planetscape, mostly as envisioned by Lucien Rudaux, a French artist and astronomer of the early 20th century. I must say that, much though I enjoyed most of the stories, it was the intros in this one that made it extra special – of all the great anthologies the BL has produced this year, this one is my favourite by miles… or I should probably say, by light-years!
On to the actual stories! Of the ten, I gave six either 4 or 5 stars, and only a couple were duds for me, one which went on too long and another which I simply didn’t understand, so it may work fine for the more science-minded reader. Here’s a flavour of a few of those I most enjoyed:
Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcy. A story of the various races and species all living in New Reno, a frontier town on Venus, with all the violence and vice that usually comes with that. The story tells of a child found in the street by a young woman, and we gradually learn how he, and she, came to be there. I used this one for a Transwarp Tuesday! Post.
The Lonely Path by John Ashcroft. Mars! The first manned flight has landed on Mars, sent to examine a strange tower standing hugely high in the desolate landscape. The astronauts gradually discover the purpose of the tower and what happened to its builder. It’s an excellent, novelette-length story, well-told, interesting and thoughtful.
Garden in the Void by Poul Anderson. Set in the Asteroid Belt, this tells of two prospectors, hoping to strike it rich so they can return to earth. One day they spot a green asteroid and land to investigate. They find it is covered in vegetation and has its very own gardener – a human who was stranded there many years before and has developed a kind of symbiotic relationship with the plants. I found this quite a creepy story, very well told, with lots of science that mostly went right over my head, but I was still able to follow the story easily.
Wait It Out by Larry Niven. This is “hard” SF – i.e., based on real science, but explained well enough that there’s no need to be an astrophysicist to understand the story! Our narrator is one of the two men aboard the first ship to land on Pluto. But they land on ice, and their nuclear powered engine temporarily melts it. As soon as they switch their engine off, the ice refreezes and their ship is trapped. This is a bleak story but very well told, and I found the ideas in it left me feeling a bit discombobulated.
So some excellent stories in here, enhanced by the fantastic introductions. If you’re interested in science fiction in even the mildest way, then I heartily recommend this anthology to you. Great stuff!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
Another themed collection of vintage science fiction short stories from the great pairing of Mike Ashley and the British Library, this one brings together eleven stories each with a focus on some aspect of ecology. It starts with an introduction in which Ashley discusses the rise in ecological awareness since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, but goes on to point out that SF writers had been considering ecological subjects for decades before that – dystopian destruction, animals and nature fighting back against man’s intrusions, symbiosis, settlement and terraforming of new worlds, and so on. It’s a bit longer than some of these introductions usually are, and very interesting, filled with lots of examples of stories and novels, dating all the way from back before Jules Verne through to the golden age of early/mid-twentieth century SF writing and beyond. These intros would form a great basis for anyone wanting to go off and do a bit of exploring of the genre on their own account. (I’m resisting a new challenge…)
There’s the usual mix of well known SF authors, such as Philip K Dick and Clifford D Simak, together with some I’d never heard of, though since I’m no expert in this genre perhaps they’re more familiar to those who are. Two or three of the stories are a bit didactic and preachy for my taste, too busily making a point at the expense of entertaining. But the majority are very good – it’s always fascinating to see how imaginatively SF writers can deal with basically similar subject matter. Overall, I gave four of the stories four stars, while five got the full five, which not only seems quite neat but means that overall this gets one of my highest average ratings for these themed collections.
As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:
Shadow of Wings by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding – birds have suddenly started behaving differently, flying in huge flocks of mixed species, on routes they hadn’t taken before. The worrying thing, though, is that they have stopped eating insects. Very soon the world is threatened with famine and society is beginning to break down. Our hero finds a way to track one of the birds, and discovers the cause of their change in behaviour, which of course I’m not going to reveal! It’s very well told in that ‘50s strong-husband-taking-care-of-the-little-wife kind of way – enjoyably imaginative.
The Gardener by Margaret St Clair – a stark warning of what happens when an arrogant man chops down a tree held sacred by the residents of another planet. Short, and a very effective mix of horror and humour.
Drop Dead by Clifford D Simak – A planetary exploration team land on a planet with only one type of life-form, which they poetically call “critters”. And very strange critters they are, being made up of everything to provide a balanced diet – red meat, fish, fowl, even fruit and veg. And conveniently one comes to camp each day and drops dead, allowing for scientific experiments and even a food source when an accident destroys all of the food the team brought with them. But you just know things are going to go wrong… Great story, highly imaginative, and fun, but with enough of a serious element to give it a bit of depth.
Hunter, Come Home by Richard McKenna – Another one with a beautifully imagined alien life-form, this time on a planet where animal and plant life never separated. The resulting “phytos” act as leaves, but can also leave their plants and flutter around, like gorgeous butterflies. Of course, man wants to clear the planet’s indigenous ecology so they can use it for their own purposes. But the phytos may have unique ways of fighting back. Bit of a too good to be true ending to this one, but otherwise I loved the imagination and the descriptive writing.
Adam and No Eve by Alfred Bester – an apocalyptic tale of how one man destroys the world through arrogance and mad science. Very bleak, and with some dark scenes that might upset the animal lovers among us, but again imaginative and well written, and frighteningly possible, with a thought-provoking ending.
So, as you can see, a real mixture of style and content in the stories despite the overarching theme. I enjoyed this one a lot.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
A collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, this is a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. There are nine stories in all, and I gave six of them five stars, two got four, and only the last story in the book, which I freely admit I didn’t understand, let it down a little for me at the end. But not enough to spoil my overall enjoyment – some of these stories are brilliant and the quality of the writing is superb.
As regulars will know, I love early science fiction, books from the colonial era, and stories set in fog-bound, sooty old London, and Mason manages to tick all those boxes in this slim collection, so I think it’s fair to say I was destined to love it. It could all have gone horribly wrong though if he’d got the style wrong or dragged in accidental anachronisms. Fortunately, he does an amazing job at catching just the right tone, and I could imagine HG Wells and the lads nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder while he was writing. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, but includes those observations so subtly it becomes part of the style. So the anachronisms that are there are quite intentional and disguised so beautifully that they’re barely noticeable, except in the way that they make the subject matter resonate with a modern reader. In short, what I’m attempting – badly – to say is that there’s no need to have read any early science fiction to enjoy the stories – they work twice, as a homage as I’ve said, but as a fully relevant modern collection too.
Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I loved most:
The Ecstasy of Alfred Russell Wallace – Wallace is a collector of bugs and birds and animals, which he sends home for the many scientists studying such things. During a fever, he has an epiphany and realises that living things evolve to survive. He writes to a scientist he knows vaguely – Charles Darwin – and waits for a reply. And waits. And waits. And gradually he begins to doubt himself, and to doubt the scientific community, fearing they will take his idea for their own since he isn’t one of them and doesn’t deserve recognition. This reads so much like a true story I looked it up, and Wallace did indeed exist, although his real story seems to be rather different than the story Mason gives us. It’s truly excellent, full of insight into how the scientific world worked in that era.
On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases in the Midst of the Smoke of London (Phew! He likes his long titles!) – This is the story of an asthmatic child and his anxious mother, and the lengths to which she will go to save his life. Mason gives a superb depiction of nineteenth century sooty London, industrialized and choking. Also of medicine, at a time when the treatment was often worse than the disease. It has a wonderful science fiction element to it which I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but it’s a fabulous story that brought the tears to my eyes at the end.
The Line Agent Pascal – a story set in colonial Brazil. Pascal is one of the agents who live along the communications line that crosses the country, each many, many miles from the next along. Every morning, a signal is sent from head office and each agent confirms in turn that the line is working. But one day, one of the agents doesn’t respond. This is a great character study of Pascal, a man who struggles to fit in with other people, so his solitary posting suits him perfectly despite the dangers lurking in the forest around his station. But he has grown to think of the other men along the line as some kind of friends despite never having met them. The colonial setting is great, with the feeling of loneliness and constant danger from nature or the displaced indigenous people. Worthy of Conrad, and in fact reminded me not a little of the setting in his story, An Outpost of Progress, though the story (and the continent!) is entirely different.
On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c. – The story of a female aéronaute – a balloonist – whose exploits have made her famous. But when one day she sees an odd rift in the sky she discovers that her gender and class mean that the scientific community not only don’t take her seriously but actually ridicule and humiliate her. So she sets out to prove her story true, taking along a witness. Another science fiction one, but with a delightful quirk that takes it into the realms of metafiction. (I swore I’d never use any word beginning with meta- on the blog, but I really can’t think of another way to describe it. 😉)
So plenty of variety linked, as I said at the beginning, by style, subject matter and wonderful writing. A great collection – highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan.
Isherwood Williams has been on a field trip in the wilderness for a while when he is bitten by a snake. For a few days he’s out of it, feverish as the poison works through his system. On recovering, he drives to the nearest town only to discover that while he’s been in isolation, a plague has destroyed nearly all human life. He sets out on a road journey through America, looking for other survivors and gathering material for his forthcoming travelogue…
OK, I made up that last bit, but honestly that’s what this feels like – a guide book to America written by someone rather boring. Maybe it would resonate more if these were places I knew or had some kind of emotional response to, but I don’t, and so it’s just a list of street names interspersed with amazing insights like, in the absence of man, weeds sprout between paving stones, and dogs go hungry.
A few pigeons fluttered up at Rockefeller Center, disturbed now by the sound of a single motor. At Forty-second Street, yielding to a whim, he stopped the car in the middle of Fifth Avenue and got out, leaving Princess shut up.
He walked East on Forty-second Street, the empty sidewalk ridiculously wide. He entered Grand Central Terminal, and looked in at the vast expanse of waiting-room.
“Waugh!” he called loudly, and felt a childlike pleasure as an echo came reverberating back from the high vault, through the emptiness.
I believe later in the book he finally meets some people and sets up a kind of back-to-nature life, but I gave up at the 20% mark – rapidly becoming the standard point where I abandon books for boring me to death. To be fair, this may have seemed more original when it first came out in 1949, but it’s been done so many times since, and done better. It doesn’t compare in any way to the brilliance of The Day of the Triffids, for example, published just two years later, or more recently to the unsettling starkness of The Road. Where both those authors recognised that the primary thing that makes even post-apocalyptic novels interesting is the interaction of humans, Stewart chooses to have Ish, as he’s known, feel superior and judgemental towards the few remnants of humanity he encounters, and quickly decide he’d rather be on his own than with them. So all that’s left is endless unemotional descriptions of the effects of nature returning to a world without humanity, sometimes through Ish’s eyes, and sometimes through annoying little inset sections in italics where Stewart chooses to give a kind of running lecture on the subject.
Book 69 of 90
And perhaps because our own pandemic has allowed us to have a tiny insight into how the world reacts when man retreats, I didn’t even feel he’d got it right. He says, for instance, that wildlife continues to shun the cities – not what happened during our various lockdowns when the internet was awash with pictures of all kinds of creatures revelling in our absence and dancing in our streets. He also has Ish constantly fearing he’ll come across piles of the dead, but he doesn’t. Where are they all? If everyone suddenly got sick all at the same time, so sick that most of them died, who on earth buried them? Stewart hints that everyone died in hospitals so has Ish avoid them, but no hospital system in the world has capacity to take in the entire population simultaneously, a fact of which we have all recently become only too aware. Ish wanders round New York and sees no corpses, smells no putrefaction, etc. It’s as if humanity has been vaporised by aliens rather than killed by disease (which frankly would have been a more fun story).
Perhaps, not being a housekeeper, he had not previously noticed dust, or perhaps this place was particularly dusty. No matter which! From now on, dust would be a part of his life.
Back at the car, he slipped it into gear, crossed Forty-second Street, and continued south. On the steps of the Library he saw a grey cat crouched, paws stretched out in front, as if in caricature of the stone lions above.
At the Flatiron Building he turned into Broadway, and followed it clear to Wall Street. There they both got out, and Princess showed interest in some kind of trail which ran along the sidewalk. Wall Street! He enjoyed walking along its empty length.
I’ve been abandoning an excessive number of books this year, due to my own plague-inspired blues, so perhaps I’d have had more patience with this at another time, and perhaps it becomes more interesting once Ish finally becomes part of a community. But right now it’s simply boring me, so I’m giving up the struggle and don’t see myself ever returning to it. As post-apocalyptic books go, this is the dullest I’ve ever tried to read. In a world full of interesting people, what a pity that tedious Ish is the one who survived…
Even more than usual, I’m dreaming of escaping this grubby old world and seeking purer air and better manners somewhere far away, where inventing Twitter is a criminal offence, politicians must take a vow of silence, and chocolate grows on trees. Perhaps Venus will be an idyllic vacation spot… let’s see…
Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcy
(I have no idea what this picture is supposed to represent since there is absolutely no scene in the story like this!)
Unlike Gaul, the north continent of Venus is divided into four parts. No Caesar has set foot here either, nor shall one – for the dank, stinging, caustic air swallows up the lives of men and only Venus may say, I conquered.
Hmm, so not an environmental paradise then, but surely the inhabitants will be advanced, peaceful, artistic? Well, apparently the Africans exploit their quarter, the Asians engage in…
…the bitter game of power politics, secret murder, and misery – most of all, misery.
… and the Martians use their quarter as a penal colony. So it looks as if my last hope rests in the American zone…
The Federated States, after their fashion, plunder the land and send screaming ships to North America laden with booty and with men grown suddenly rich – and with men who will never care for riches or anything else again. These are the fortunate dead.
I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve selected the right location, but look! There’s a town, built just at the intersection where all four quarters meet! Maybe it will be a perfect spot for tourists…
From the arbitrary point where the four territories met, New Reno flung its sprawling, dirty carcass over the muddy soil and roared and hooted endlessly, laughed with the rough boisterousness of miners and spacemen, rang with the brittle, brassy laughter of women following a trade older than New Reno. It clanged and shouted and bellowed so loudly that quiet sobbing was never heard.
Think I might have a staycation this year after all. Anyway, one day a young waitress, Jane, comes across a little child, sobbing as he sits on the street, apparently abandoned.
….Oh, my!” she breathed, bending over the tiny form. “You poor thing. Where’s your mama?” ….The little figure rubbed its face, looked at her blankly and heaved a long, shuddering sigh. ….“I can’t leave you sitting here in the mud!” She pulled out a handkerchief and tried to wipe away some of the mud and then helped him up. His clothes were rags, his feet bare.
She takes the child home and feeds him and puts him to bed, but he’s still wide awake, so she begins to tell him a story – the tale of a ship that crashed on an unknown planet…
“The big, beautiful ship was all broken. Well, since they couldn’t fix the ship at all now, they set out on foot to find out where they were and to see if they could get help. Then they found that they were in a land of great big giants, and the people were very fierce…”
(Nope, this scene doesn’t exist either!)
* * * * *
The actual story of this is quite slight and it’s not too hard to work out what the twist at the end is likely to be. But it’s a lovely description of a frontier society, much like the Old West but transplanted to a truly hostile environment where people can’t venture outside without protection from the very air they must breathe. It’s also got a few nicely imaginative touches, like the Martian society as shown by their attitude towards their penal colony, or the way the crash victims set out to survive. It’s very short, but well written and entertaining, and with just enough substance to scrape into the thought-provoking category – thoughts that are not very complimentary to Earthlings, I must admit.
(Bland, but better.)
I read it in Born of the Sun, edited by Mike Ashley – a collection which promises to take me to each of the planets in our solar system, so I haven’t given up all hope of finding my paradise yet. Maybe I’ll visit The Hell Planet next – I hear it’s nice this time of year…
Meantime, if you’d like to read this one, it’s available on Project Gutenberg – here’s a link.
Michael Bristowe is a young man with a strange talent – he can sense physical objects even when they are out of sight. It’s rather like the way dowsers can sense water underground only much more powerful. But is it a gift or a curse? It sets him apart from the rest of humanity leaving him as a perpetual outsider, and he has found no way to put it to practical use. But then he meets Hilda, a determined, highly educated young woman who becomes fascinated by his power and helps him to develop it so that he becomes ever more accurate but also more sensitive to all the things that remain unsensed by those around him. Our narrator is Ralph Standring, whose desire to marry Hilda draws him reluctantly into Michael’s life. From the beginning the story has a sense of impending doom – Ralph is leaving England for a long journey, and tells us that he’s writing the history of his knowledge of Michael partly because Hilda has asked him to but mainly as a form of catharsis, to help him work through his experiences…
As in her earlier novel, The Question Mark, and in the best tradition of early science fiction, Jaeger uses her story to examine concerns of her contemporary society. First published in 1920, she draws attention to the generation of men who came back from war to find themselves jobless in a society that had no place for them. She shows how people who are different from the norm are treated, especially when their difference is something others don’t fully understand and are therefore apprehensive about. She touches on questions of class and snobbery, and the increasing decline of the old rich, a process which the war had sped up. Mostly, though, her focus is on the place of women in society; specifically, the new breed of university educated women of whom Jaeger was herself one, and of men’s reaction to them.
All of which makes it sound like a weighty tome indeed, which is highly misleading since it’s actually a very entertaining, well written short novel, thought-provoking and dark at points, but with a delightful strain of wicked humour running through it to lift the tone. Ralph, our narrator, is unconsciously self-revealing as a rather pompous, self-important snob of the first degree, who is quite happy for Hilda to be educated, but purely because he thinks it will be pleasant to have a wife who can provide intelligent conversation when he comes home in the evenings. The humour is so subtle it took me a while to realise what she was doing and I may not have caught it at all if I hadn’t read her earlier book and known that the snobbery and prejudices of Ralph were certainly not an indication of Jaeger’s own viewpoints. Though I frequently wanted to slap him, I grew very fond of poor Ralph as a representative of a class and gender that was already feeling its foundations begin to quiver.
Hilda is a bit of an enigma to the reader because she’s a complete enigma to Ralph. Educated he can accept, but rationality is not a feminine trait in his mind. The emotional responses in their relationship are all on his side, and he feels this is all wrong. Hilda’s lack of enthusiasm at the idea of marriage must surely be merely a sign that she hasn’t yet fully matured. He doesn’t share her fascination with Michael’s abilities: she sees Michael as a possible further step on the evolutionary ladder, someone to be nurtured and helped; Ralph, on the other hand, finds him rather repellent, not just because of his strangeness, but because he breaches the social conventions that are so important to conservative Ralph. Plus he does get in the way of Ralph’s wooing!
In Michael, Jaeger shows us the psychological effects on a sensitive nature of being different in a world that values conformity above all else. In this society, a man is judged primarily by his earning potential unless he’s fortunate enough to be rich – nothing much changes, eh? Michael’s abilities are hard to market, but leave him psychologically incapable of taking up any kind of normal employment. It’s very well done – convincing and not overplayed. Jaeger seems to be questioning if humanity can continue to evolve at all in a world where difference is shunned.
The book includes a short introduction by Mike Ashley, putting it into the context of other books of the time examining similar questions. It also includes an essay at the end, extracted from Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists by Susan J. Leonardi, who analyses the book from a feminist perspective. I often find academic literary analysis destroys the magic for me, and so it began to be in this case, so I only read the first few pages before deciding not to continue. But from the bit I read it looked interesting, perceptive and well written so I’m sure others will find it a real bonus.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and am only sorry that Jaeger wasn’t more prolific in the science fiction field. I believe she wrote another couple, though, and have my fingers crossed that the British Library may add them to their collection in the future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…
There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.
However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.
The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.
So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.
My heart sank a little when I started this collection of thirteen stories on the theme of time travel. Like Captain Janeway of the USS Voyager, time paradoxes tend to give me a headache, and the first couple of stories did nothing to relieve my anxiety, since both were rather mediocre. But they were followed by a little run of four star stories and then boom! The five star stories started coming thick and fast! These collections are always arranged more or less in chronological order and I suspect that when the early ones were written, the idea of time travel itself was so original that the writers didn’t feel the need to do much with it. By the time of the later stories, though, the writers were vying to give an original direction to a well-worn path, so there’s much more diversity in how they use the theme.
There’s the usual mix of well-known and lesser known authors, although since I’m not well read in science fiction all but three of them – HG Wells, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding and JB Priestley – were unknown names to me. Some of the stories are mildly humorous, some tend more towards horror. There’s less variation in length than in some collections, with most of the stories coming in around twenty to thirty pages, which I always find to be a great length for pre-bedtime reading.
Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:
Friday the Nineteenth by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding – a story that is almost as much horror and almost as much psychological crime as it is science fiction. A husband wants to embark on an affair with his friend’s wife and she’s not unwilling. But somehow the day keeps repeating and only they are aware of it. Caught in a loop, they keep making the same assignation but never get to the point of keeping it, and we see how their guilt and selfishness begins to change how they feel. It’s very well told and manages to pack in a lot of suspense for such a short space.
Look After the Strange Girl by JB Priestley – a man slips back in time to an evening in 1902 and finds himself at a big party in the house which, in the present, houses the school he runs. There he meets a woman who seems to have been caught in the same time slip. It has elements of the tragedy of war, as the man knows the future of some of the people of the house, some of whom will die in France. It also gives a little comparison of the attitudes and habits of Edwardian women to modern women. Very well done, strange and mildly thought-provoking – quite a literary story.
Manna by Peter Phillips – this is a great story about two ghosts who were once monks and are doomed to haunt their old priory, which has now turned into a factory for making ‘Miracle Meal’ – a kind of food substance that is nutritionally perfect and tastes so wonderful it can be eaten for every meal. Remembering the hunger of their own time, they find a way to transport cans back to the 12th century, where this is seen as a real miracle. It’s well written, interesting and very amusing – the two mismatched ghosts themselves are a lot of fun.
Dial “0” for Operator by Robert Presslie – the last story in the book and a great one to finish with. An operator in the telephone exchange takes a call from a woman in distress. She tells him she’s in a phone box and there’s something outside – a kind of dark blob – that’s trying to get in. He promptly sends the police but when they get there the box is empty. However, the woman is still on the line and begs the operator not to hang up. The tension is great in this as gradually the operator realises the woman is speaking from a different time and there’s nothing he can do to help her except talk…
So from an uninspiring beginning this turned into a great collection, leaving me with a whole raft of new-to-me authors to investigate. Great stuff!
Little Green Men Rating:
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
In his introduction, Mike Ashley reminds us that there have always been monsters, from the Hydra and Minotaur of the Greeks, through the giants and ogres of fairy tales, to the more futuristic monsters of our own generation. This anthology contains fourteen stories mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, ranging from the evolution-inspired monsters left in remote places of the earth from the dinosaur era, to the monsters emerging from the unexplored ocean deeps, to the aliens from other worlds wandering among us, as friend or foe. No supernatural monsters here – these are all “real” monsters; that is, theoretically they were all possible at least at the time the stories were written.
Menace of the Monster edited by Mike Ashley
Monsters are not my favourite form of either science fiction or horror fiction so it’s perhaps not surprising that I didn’t enjoy this anthology quite as much as some of the others I’ve been reading recently. It is, however, a nicely varied selection with some intriguing inclusions, such as an abridged version of The War of the Worlds written by HG Wells himself for a magazine, and the story of King Kong, produced as an abridgement of the movie and credited to Edgar Wallace although it’s not clear how much he actually contributed. As stories I didn’t rate either of these highly, but I still enjoyed reading them as interesting bits of sci-fi history. Overall I gave about half of the stories either 4 or 5 stars, while the rest rated pretty low for me, I’m afraid. But they may well work better for people who enjoy monsters more.
Here’s a brief idea of some of the ones I enjoyed most:
De Profundis by Coutts Brisbane – a nicely scary story about killer ants which I used in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.
Discord in Scarlet by AE van Vogt – a longer story, about 40 pages, this tells of an alien space being that encounters a human space ship far from Earth. At first the humans are thrilled to find a new life form but it soon turns out that the alien is not looking to make new friends! This is very well done, and reminded me very much of an episode of Star Trek – not specifically, but in style.
Resident Physician by James White – space again, but this time set in a galactic hospital which caters for all kinds of life forms, as both staff and patients. A new patient has arrived – a form of life the staff have never before encountered. It is unconscious and is thought to have eaten its only ship-mate! The physician must find a way to treat it, while the authorities must determine whether eating a ship-mate is a crime, or maybe a normal part of this alien’s culture. Very well written and imaginative, this one is also highly entertaining, while gently examining the question of how to legislate for cultural differences.
Personal Monster by Idris Seabright – a little girl has discovered a monster living in the ash-pit in her yard. The monster is only small as yet, but it’s growing, and it forces the little girl to feed it. She’s scared of it, but she’s also too scared to tell her parents about it because they’re very strict and she’s a bit scared of them too. I loved this story – the author very quickly made me care about the girl and it all gets pretty creepy. The description of the monster is also rather vague, which makes it even scarier. I’d rather battle King Kong than deal with this one!
So some real gems in the collection which made it well worth the reading time invested. Having pulled together my favourites, I see the ones I liked best are mostly the space alien stories and I think that shows that my personal preference is definitely weighting my ratings here, since I’ve always preferred that kind of monster to the monster from the deep or the dinosaur. But there’s plenty of variety for people who prefer more earth-based monsters too. And as always, the introduction is an added bonus – well written, informative and entertaining.
Little Green Men Rating:
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
Ghosties and ghoulies are terrifying of course, but some people simply refuse to believe in them. However, there are other terrors lurking in the hidden places of the world which can’t be so easily dismissed. Time to meet some of them in this week’s…
De Profundis by Coutts Brisbane
It all begins with our narrator on a camping holiday in Cornwall. He drifts off to sleep next to a field where a horse is happily grazing. Next morning, he starts off to get the train back to London…
My direct route lay through the field in front and, climbing on the gate, I stood at gaze, seeing that close beside the walled shaft-mouth lay something which, I was absolutely certain, had not been there overnight – a large skeleton. I noticed, too, that my friendly horse was nowhere in view, though the boundaries of the field were all in sight and, exceedingly puzzled, approached the bones. They were fresh, raw, though not a particle of meat adhered to them, and unmistakably equine.
Unable to work out what has happened, he heads off to his home, where he is carrying out experiments on different types of petroleum to try to find a cheaper, more efficient fuel. His friend, Mayence, turns up with a barrel-full of paraffin for him to test. Mayence tells him of the strange fate that has befallen a policeman down in Surrey…
“Devilish rummy! Found the poor beggar behind a hedge, uniform on—helmet, too. Beastly! And I may have spoken to him – been held up thereabouts more than once. Poor chap!” “What are you gibbering about? Was he murdered?” I demanded irritably. Mayence shivered. “Ghastly, I tell you! Nothing but his clothes, only bones left inside ’em. Ugh!”
Our narrator tells Mayence about the horse, and at that moment they hear a disturbance from outside…
Right opposite, building operations were in progress, and a great hole had been dug in the earth, from which, as we looked, the workmen came crowding and jostling, howling gigantically, in a frenzied hurry to reach the narrow door in the hoarding along the street front. “Lord!” ejaculated Mayence. “What in thunder’s up! Look at that chap!”
Then they see, coming from the excavation…
A cloud of dust flew up and hid everything for an instant; then something which looked exactly like a wave of treacle – a brownish-black, shiny, wet-looking, lapping tide – flooded up over the edge of the hole, and flowed out towards the men jammed in the doorway.
As they wonder what it can be, suddenly another friend of the narrator, Vidal, bursts into the room in a panic…
“They’re coming up!” he screamed. “Shut that window! We’re done for! I saw ’em once before, but nothing like this!” Mayence grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him roughly. “What?” he shouted. “What the blazes is it?” “Ants!” quavered Vidal. “Millions of trillions! They’re stinging everyone to death; keep ’em out!”
Suddenly the people of London are fleeing in all directions as ants pour from various excavations sites all over the city in what seems to be a co-ordinated attack. Quick-thinking Mayence realises that paraffin will keep them off, so the three men cover themselves in the contents of the barrel he’d brought, and start out to make their escape from the city, seeing innumerable horrors on their way…
We trudged on towards the river without a word; pity, horror, terror, all capacity for emotion seemed numbed to exhaustion, and we moved mechanically. Blackfriars Bridge was choked by another dreadful barricade, the approaches to the stations were impassable. The river was dotted with people swimming or clinging to lifebuoys or fragments of wood, the barges anchored on the further side were hidden by men clustering like swarming bees, the outermost continually dragged down by others who struggled up from the water…
* * * * *
Well, this one scared me alright! I hate ants with a passion – even the tiny little ones we get give me the creeps, much less ones that are an inch and a half long and out to annihilate humankind! Brisbane manages to develop the three characters quickly, making them likeable and injecting a touch of humour into the story in their interactions, which lightens the tone a little but without detracting from the drama or scariness. It’s very well written with a lot of action packed into a short space, and there’s a deliciously chilling little climax at the end.
I’ve never heard of this author before, but the author bio in the anthology tells me he is an Australian of Scottish descent, real name Robert Coutts Armour, and that he was a prolific contributor of short stories to sci-fi and adventure magazines in the first half of the twentieth century. I’d happily read more of his stuff, though it doesn’t seem to be easy to get hold of. This one is available online, though, at the rather wonderful Project Gutenberg Australia. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link…
Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
NB I read this one in the anthology Menace of the Monster, provided for review by the British Library.
Guy Martin isn’t happy. It’s 1925, and he seems to be settled in a job as a bank clerk which gives him little satisfaction, either intellectually or financially. Thanks to a scholarship he’s educated a little above his class, but has failed to rid himself completely of the Cockney accent that gives away his humble origins. As a result, he feels he doesn’t really fit in socially anywhere except for the Socialist Club, which he has joined, not so much out of a love for the poor and disadvantaged, but for the access to people who don’t judge him by his class. But, of course, they do, especially the middle-class young woman on whom he has set his heart, whose egalitarian instincts don’t stretch to romantic liaisons with the hoi-polloi. It is in this mood of disillusionment about society that he finds himself suddenly transported to the 22nd century, where he finds that all humanity’s needs have been met by increased mechanisation and people are free to pursue whatever course in life they choose…
Jaeger was writing this in 1926 in response to the rash of Utopian fiction that was prevalent in that period. Her own introduction tells us that, to a degree, she buys into the idea of the socialist utopia, at least in so far as that she believes that soon, given the will, society will have the means to provide decent living conditions to all citizens, and that mechanisation will free people from the drudgery and exhaustion of repetitive and uninspiring work. However, she sets out to speculate what, in that event, would happen to humanity – how would we develop, individually and as a society? And she suggests that the Utopias that assume that, freed from poverty, suddenly all people will become good and kind and devote themselves to art and culture are perhaps not taking account of human nature.
While reading, I felt this owed more than a little to Wells’ The Time Machine and it also reminded me a little of Huxley’s later Brave New World, so I was glad to read in the short but very interesting and informative introduction by Dr Mo Moulton of the University of Birmingham that she sees this as a link in that chain too. She also says it alludes directly to Bellamy’s classic Utopian novel, Looking Backward, one I haven’t yet read but really must since it gets referenced so often.
However, I felt this had a more human feel than Wells’ far distant future, where humanity had evolved almost beyond recognition. Jaeger’s people are still very much like us – they smoke and drink and speak English, play sports, argue, marry, etc. (Though not necessarily in that order.) This makes them far easier to understand and empathise with than Wells’ Eloi. Also, by beginning the book in 1925 and letting us see the class and economic divisions of her own time, she avoids the odd kind of nostalgia that some dystopias indulge in, as if the past was somehow a lost idyll to which we should try to return. Jaeger’s depiction is nicely balanced – both her present and her future have good and bad in them, with the clear suggestion that economic and social changes will change our problems rather than rid us of them entirely.
At first, Guy is entranced by this new world. He finds himself living with the doctor who has, in some unexplained way, brought him to this time, and is introduced to the doctor’s nephew, John Wayland, who will be his initial guide to the society. Dr Wayland and John are both intellectuals, choosing to spend their days on scientific and artistic pursuits, and indulging in philosophical debate with their friends. But soon Guy begins to discover that this society is just as divided as in his own time. Many people don’t have either the capacity or the desire for an intellectual life. They are called the normals and, while all their physical needs are met, they are left somewhat purposeless, their empty lives filled with childlike emotions and pursuits. The intellectuals treat them kindly enough, but with an amused contempt at their antics. Guy finds himself again standing uncomfortably on the dividing line between two classes, and gradually begins to wonder if the advances of the last two hundred years have made things better or worse.
Despite its age, I found that this book is addressing questions which are perhaps even more urgent today. With increasing automation, we will soon have to decide what we as a society will do with vastly increased leisure time. While it’s easy to think that would be a great thing, as usual it will be the least skilled and least intellectually inclined people who will be affected most. Will we step up to the plate and find ways to give people a fulfilling purpose, or will we simply throw millions, billions, of people out of work and leave them with nothing to strive for? Jaeger doesn’t give answers but, although in her future people have not been left in material poverty, reading between the lines her society seems to be becoming depopulated – not in a healthy, planned way, but more as a response to the lack of purpose and hope; and with intellect as the new currency, there is still a major divide between rich and poor.
Well written, thought-provoking, and a rather more human look at utopian society than we often get. I thoroughly enjoyed this and, as so often, am at a loss to know why this would have been “forgotten”, since it seems to me as good as many of the ones which have been granted classic status. (I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that all the “classics” were written by men… 😉 )
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…
Shute’s depiction of the end of the world is a bleak and hopeless one, but it’s shot through with the resilience of the human spirit. This stops the read from being quite as bleak as the story – just. In most dystopian fiction, there are options even at the worst of times: will humanity rise again, or sink into savage brutality? Will some feat of courage or science stave off the end and bring about a resurrection, perhaps a redemption? There’s none of that in this. Any time anyone hopes that survival may be possible, that hope is promptly and definitively dashed by the scientists. So all there is is one question – how will the people choose to live and die? As civilised humans or as terrified beasts? It’s the ‘50s, so take a guess…
Born out of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust, this is a terrifying look at how easily humankind might bring about its own destruction. While that fear no longer consumes us to the same degree – oddly, since our combined nuclear arsenal now is even greater than it was then and a narcissistic moron has control of the biggest button – we have replaced it with other terrors: new pandemics, the failure of antibiotics, soil exhaustion, over-population, water wars, and of course our old friend, global climate change. We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.
It’s very well written with the characterisation taking the forefront – the war and science aspects are there merely to provide the background. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a new baby. Peter is a man, therefore he understands the science and has accepted the inevitable. Mary is a woman, therefore the science is way beyond her limited brain capacity (it’s the ‘50s) and she’s in a state of denial, planning her garden for the years that will never come. Peter is in the Australian navy, and has been assigned as liaison to the last American submarine to have survived, under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. Dwight knows his wife and two children back in America must be dead, but he is clinging to the idea that they will all be together again, in some afterlife that he doesn’t quite call heaven. Peter and Mary introduce Dwight to a friend of theirs, Moira Davidson, a young woman intent on partying her way to her end. These four form the central group through whose experiences we witness the final months. Gradually, one by one, more northern cities fall silent as the invisible cloud creeps closer.
If you’re expecting action, then this is not the book for you. The things that happen are small – difficulties with milk supplies, decisions having to be made about how to deal with farm animals, the heart-wrenching subject of what to do about domestic pets, whom the scientists think will survive for a few weeks or months longer than humans. Is suicide morally permissible when death is inevitable? Do people pack the churches or the pubs, or both? How long do people keep going to their work, to keep the streets clean, the shops open, the lights on? It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed.
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I found myself wondering how such a book would be written today. I imagine it would be filled with roving gangs, pillaging their way through the remainder of their lives, raping and murdering as they went. There would be desperate attempts to dig shelters, stockpile resources, store seeds and genetic material against a possible distant future. Perhaps people would be looking to escape into space, or build protective suits or find a way to place themselves in stasis. Refugees would flood southwards in advance of the cloud and turf wars would break out over territory and food. Rich people would be holed up in gated communities with armed guards to protect their useless hoards of gold and jewels. And poor people, just as stupid and greedy, would be looting everything they could lay their hands on. There would be screaming, hysteria, fights, panic, drunkenness, crazy cults and orgies. People would be leaping like lemmings from cliffs. No doubt thousands of young people would be recording it all on their iPhones, hoping against hope that they’d go viral just once before they die, while TV executives would have turned it into a mass reality show, complete with emoting diary room scenes… “So how do you feel about knowing you’re going to die horribly…?”
But in Shute’s version, there’s an acceptance, a kind of politeness about the whole thing, where everyone remains concerned about each other more than themselves, and people continue to pay attention to the instructions of the authorities. No refugees – people simply stay where they are until the fallout gets them, and then they quietly die. Were people’s attitudes different in the ‘50s because of books like this, or were books written like this because people’s attitudes were different? It’s this kind of stoic decency that makes me so nostalgic for that world, even though I suspect it never really existed. If humanity succeeds in bringing about our own extinction, then I’d love to think we could face it with this level of dignity. But I don’t.
A thought-provoking and intelligent portrayal of one possible end – well written and with excellent characterisation, and which, as so much early science fiction does, tells us as much about the time in which it was written as the future it’s ostensibly about. Not perhaps the most cheerful read in the world, but thoroughly deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.
Whenever anyone mentions driverless vehicles, a shiver of horror runs down my spine. Apart from the inescapable fact that computers notoriously break down at the most awkward moments, there is the social issue of man building himself out of jobs, and the added threat that artificial intelligence may one day be greater than our own – in some cases, I suspect it already is! This collection of fourteen classic science fiction stories examines the impact of the machine and warns of the various forms of dystopian nightmare we might bring down upon ourselves…
Menace of the Machine edited by Mike Ashley
And a lot of fun is it too! As much horror as science fiction, we have machines that murder, intelligent machines that decide they know what’s best for humanity, onlife life taken to extremes, automatons who follow instructions a little too literally, and robots who rebel against the ‘slavery’ imposed on them by their human masters. There’s an introduction by Mike Ashley, giving the history of the machine in fiction from the earliest times and showing how the stories in the anthology reflect the development of the machine, both in reality and in the imaginations of writers.
The authors include many of the greats, from Ambrose Bierce to Arthur C Clarke, via Isaac Asimov, EM Forster, Brian W Aldiss, et al, and with many others who were new to me. A few take a humorous approach while others go for outright horror, but many are more thoughtful, considering how the drive towards mechanisation might affect our society in the future. Since these are older stories, some of the predictions can be judged against our contemporary reality, and several are chillingly prescient. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-
Ely’s Automatic Housemaid by Elizabeth Bellamy. The narrator’s old friend from university is a mechanical genius. He invents a domestic automaton and, to support him, the narrator buys two, and sets them loose in his house to free up his wife from the domestic drudgery of cooking and cleaning. Written strictly for laughs, this is a farce about the dangers of machines when they don’t operate as planned.
Automata by S Fowler Wright. Man has created machines so advanced they can now look after themselves and make more machines as required. At first this gives humanity freedom from labour, but gradually mankind becomes redundant. Chilling and still relevant as we move towards some of the things the author envisaged, such as self-driving vehicles, the story asks the question – without the purpose provided by the need to labour, what is man for?
The Machine Stops by EM Forster. Man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions. But what would happen if the Machine stopped? The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. (I previously discussed this story at more length in a Transwarp Tuesday! post.)
But Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian W Aldiss. Far into the future, there are machines for every purpose, with various levels of intelligence. One day, they receive no orders from their human masters. The high intelligence machines conclude that man has finally died out, as a result of diet deficiency caused by soil exhaustion. With no-one to serve, the robots must decide how to organise themselves. Lots of humour in this, but also a chilling edge as we see the basic lack of humanity in how the machines behave when left to their own devices.
Overall, a very good collection with lots of variety – entertaining, scary and thought-provoking. Recommended to science fiction and horror fans alike, and always remember… you may not know how Alexa works, but she knows exactly how you do…
Little Green Men Rating:
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
A mysterious sea monster has been damaging ships around the world, so a team is put together to hunt it down. The famous French naturalist Dr Aronnax happens to be in America at the time, so is invited to join the hunting party. Soon he will discover that the monster is in fact man-made – a submarine built and captained by the enigmatic Captain Nemo, and Aronnax and his companions will find themselves unwilling guests aboard the Nautilus as Nemo takes them on a fabulous journey beneath the seas and oceans of the world. But Nemo is more than a simple explorer – gradually Aronnax begins to suspect there is a darker purpose to his travels…
The beginning of the book is very reminiscent of my old friend Moby-Dick, as the hunting party sets off to sail rather aimlessly around the vastness of the world’s oceans hoping that they might coincidentally happen upon the sea-monster. Aronnax’s servant, Conseil, accompanies him, and on board they meet Ned Land, a master harpoonist whose task is to kill the monster should they find it. When their ship finally has a disastrous encounter with the Nautilus, these three men will be taken aboard as captives, although for the most part they will be treated more as guests, free to participate in the submarine’s adventures but not free to leave it.
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And what adventures! They will visit coral reefs and underwater passages between seas; they will slaughter all kinds of things for food or fun; they will visit islands inhabited only by savage tribes and find themselves in danger of being slaughtered themselves for food or fun, which seems like poetic justice to me! They will observe all kinds of strange creatures that live in the depths, some of them real, some mythical. Aronnax and his faithful assistant Conseil will catalogue hundreds – nay, thousands – of different species of fish and underwater plant life. And Aronnax, our narrator, will kindly list most of these, giving their Latin names and telling us their biological classification.
I must be honest and say all those lists of fish nearly did for me after a bit…
In the 89th genus of fish classified by Lacépède, belonging to the second sub-class of osseous fish characterized by a gill cover and a bronchial membrane, I noticed the scorpion fish, whose head has stings on it and which has only one dorsal fin: according to the subgenus, these creatures are either devoid of small scales or covered in them. The latter subgenus provided us with specimens of didactyls 30 to 40 centimetres long, with yellow stripes and fantastic-looking heads.
Now you may (possibly) be thinking that sounds quite interesting but, believe me, by the time you’ve travelled about four thousand leagues you will never be able to walk past another sushi restaurant without shuddering. Fortunately, I am a master of the art of skipping – obviously, or I’d never have made it through Moby-Dick’s interminable whales either – so very quickly learned to recognise when Aronnax was going to become the world’s leading fish bore and jump a few paragraphs. This worked excellently since, in between the excruciating fishiness and the mind-numbing technical descriptions of the submarine, there’s lots of adventure and some interesting insights on the world as it was in Verne’s day.
The characterisation is good too. Aronnax doesn’t much mind his status as prisoner since, as a scientist, the journey is giving him the opportunity to observe first-hand things that no man has seen before. Conseil is simply his faithful servant – wherever Aronnax is is where Conseil wishes to be – but he provides some gentle humour and acts as a bridge between Aronnax and the third member of the group, Ned Land. Ned feels his imprisonment harshly, especially since Nemo is not keen on letting him harpoon everything he sees, and he’s always pushing Aronnax to consider ways to escape. And Nemo himself is an ominous, brooding presence on board – a scientist too, but who has deliberately cut himself off from the world of men. Aronnax studies him much as he studies the other ocean life, and comes to think that he has perhaps suffered some tragedy or injustice that has driven him to this strange existence. He is another Captain Ahab, although he is sailing in the belly of the monster of the deep rather than chasing after it. But he is driven by the same desire – revenge!
Two hours after leaving the Nautilus we crossed the tree-line; the mountain peak towered 100 feet above our heads, its dazzling radiation projecting a shadow on the slope below. A few petrified shrubs ran here and there in grimacing zigzags. Fish rose as one before our feet like birds surprised in tall grass. The rocky massif was hollowed out with impenetrable burrows, deep caverns, and pits at the bottom of which I could hear frightening things moving about. I blanched when I spotted an enormous antenna blocking my route, or terrifying claws clattering shut in the darkness of a cavity! Thousands of luminous points shone in the darkness. They were the eyes of huge crustaceans lurking in their dens, of gigantic lobsters standing to attention like halberdiers and waving their legs with metallic clanks, of titanic crabs set like cannon on their mounts, and of awe-inspiring squid twisting their tentacles into a living brush of snakes.
This is a new translation by William Butcher who is an expert on Verne, and that expertise shows in the avoidance of any of the obscurity that can happen in translations, especially of older works. He also wrote the excellent introduction and notes, which give a lot of insight into the writing of the book – what influenced Verne, his ongoing negotiations with his publisher to get the book into shape, how the book fits into his overall body of work, etc., along with a literary analysis of the various themes. There’s lots of actual science in the book, and unfortunately I lacked the knowledge to know what was still considered true and what had been superseded since Verne’s day. I was a little disappointed that the notes didn’t do a bit more fact-checking, but there are so many facts it would have been a huge undertaking. However, the notes do explain many references to contemporary scientists and events that would otherwise have gone over my head.
Truthfully, if I factored in those endless fish-lists, I’d find it hard to rate the book as more than a 4-star read, but since I found it easy to skip them without missing anything essential to the story, they didn’t bother me (and fish enthusiasts might even enjoy them!). The descriptions of the wonders of the deeps, the glimpses of other civilisations, the mystery surrounding Captain Nemo and the thrilling adventure aspects all more than made up for the excessive fish-detail, making it a five-star read for me – a true classic!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. The illustrations, which I’ve taken from Wikimedia Commons, are by Alphonse de Neuville (1835—1885) or Édouard Riou (1833-1900).
Now that the days are getting longer and spring can’t be far away (surely), the porpy is about to go into hibernation. So to make sure he has some pleasantly fretful dreams, who better to give him a send-off than the Queen of Eerie herself…
The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier
Our narrator, Stephen Saunders, is an electronics engineer who has been sent to work in an isolated facility in Saxmere on the east coast of England, where the scientist James MacLean is carrying out secret experiments in creating methods of destruction for the military. Saunders isn’t thrilled at the assignment, since MacLean has a dubious reputation as an eccentric. His first sight of the place does little to lift his mood…
The sandy track topped a rise and there below us, stretching into infinity, lay acre upon acre of waste land, marsh and reed, bounded on the left by sand-dunes with the open sea beyond. The marshes were intersected here and there by dykes, beside which stood clumps of forlorn rushes bending to the wind and rain, the dykes in their turn forming themselves into dank pools, one or two of them miniature lakes, ringed about with reeds.
He meets the people who will be his colleagues: MacLean, or Mac as he’s known; young Ken Ryan, who doesn’t seem to do much but is a cheerful presence; Robbie, a medical doctor; and the steward Janus, who does the cooking and housekeeping. Then he makes the first awful discovery…
….‘Coffee or cocoa?’ he asked. ‘Or do you prefer something cool? I can recommend the orange juice with a splash of soda.’ ….‘I’d like a Scotch,’ I said. ….He looked distressed. His expression became that of an anxious host whose guest demands fresh strawberries in midwinter. ….‘I’m frightfully sorry,’ he said, ‘we none of us touch alcohol. Mac won’t have it served, it’s one of his things.’
Worse is yet to come! He soon discovers that Mac is carrying out another experiment, secret even from the people who are funding the facility. And this experiment qualifies Mac to join the long line of Mad Scientists who cross the boundaries of ethics in pursuit of knowledge. He plans to harness psychic energy – what he calls Force Six – and he intends to use Janus’ young daughter to help him…
….‘Children, like dogs, are particularly easy to train,’ he said. ‘Or put it this way – their sixth sense, the one that picks up these signals, is highly developed. Niki has her own call-note, just as Cerberus does, and the fact that she suffers from retarded development makes her an excellent subject.’
Saunders is already somewhat chilled, but he doesn’t yet know the worst. His predecessor was so appalled he refused to participate…
….‘He was a Catholic,’ explained MacLean. ‘Believing as he did in the survival of the soul and its sojourn in purgatory, he couldn’t stomach any idea of imprisoning the life force and making it work for us here on earth. Which, as I have told you, is my intention.’
* * * * *
Ah, yes, mad science! Where would horror be without it? The life-force can only be captured at the point of death, and Saunders soon realises what young Ken’s function is. Ken is a willing participant though, which is more than can be said for the little girl, Niki. However, Saunders manages to convince himself that the end justifies the means, and so they’re all set. But needless to say, things go horribly wrong!
It’s very well told and at 58 pages has enough room for some character development and for du Maurier to build up a chilling atmosphere of suspense. It is both creepy and quite moving as it reaches its climax, and raises questions about what happens to us after death – does any kind of consciousness remain? Is there an afterlife? Can we still suffer? What happens if we mess with the natural process of death? Du Maurier avoids the temptation to give pat answers, instead leaving everything deliciously ambiguous and consequently creepier.
I thoroughly enjoyed this foray of du Maurier into the realms of science fiction. It’s fairly standard in terms of mad science stories – nothing particularly ground-breaking nor deeply profound – but the quality of her writing and storytelling make it a shivery experience, and it’s thought-provoking enough to give it some weight. The porpy will have plenty to mull over during his long summer snooze…
Night-night, porpy! Sleep tight! Don’t let the mad scientists bite!