the machine stops art

Transwarp Tuesday! The Machine Stops by EM Forster

“Man is the measure…”

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike Facebook? And seeing people walking along reading badly written, inane texts while there’s a rainbow in the sky above them? And the whole concept of having 5000 “friends” most of whom can’t even be bothered to “like” each other? Asking Google about everything instead of asking a person? Pressing option 1 only to be given a further five options? Listening to a robotic voice telling me to turn right instead of getting serendipitously lost? Having opinions fed to me 140 characters at a time? Sometimes I dream of it all just stopping…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

The Machine Stops
by EM Forster

EM Forster
EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, 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.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it its filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading desk – that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

They never leave their rooms to find inspiration, so increasingly “ideas” are in short supply. Much of their time is spent asking their friends if they’ve had any new ideas today, but the answer is usually no. For entertainment, they prepare lectures to give to their friends – via the Machine, of course, not in person. And the lectures are short, since everyone is so busy dealing with incoming messages from friends that they can’t concentrate for long. Their friends know only how they look on a blurry viewscreen and how they sound through speakers, their voices competing with the constant hum of the Machine.

Sounds horrifyingly familiar, huh?

Hawkwind have released a new concept album based on the story
Hawkwind have released an album based on the story

Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

But one day, Vashti’s son contacts her with an unusual request. He wants her to leave her room and travel by airship around the world to his room, to speak to him face to face. She finds the request distasteful, almost obscene, but he is her son. So eventually she makes the journey, ensuring as far as she can that her blinds on the airship are always drawn so that she is never subjected to the hideous sunshine, so much brighter than the ambient lighting provided by the Machine; and doesn’t see the empty, meaningless landscape with its mountains and oceans, or the disorientating stars.

“Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.”

When she arrives at Kuno’s room, he tells her that he has been outside and what he found there. He tries to convince her that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.

the machine stops art 2

* * * * *

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. 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. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing. Sign out of Facebook, stop watching cat videos on youtube, turn off your computer – yes, even switch off your smartphone for an hour… if you still can… and read a story that will make you just a little reluctant to switch them all back on. Then go out and look at the stars…

* * * * *

the machine stops

Here’s a link, but it’s novelette length, about 12,000 words, so you may prefer to get one of the many versions available for e-readers for a £/$ or two. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony… 😉 )

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

Transwarp Tuesday! Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang translated by Ken Liu

A three-fold story…

I’m delighted to say that my pick for Best Short Story for this year’s Hugo Awards – the delightfully humorous Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer – actually won! That may be the first time ever I’ve picked a bookish winner. I really regret that I never got around to reviewing my pick for Best Novelette, since it won too! Better late than never, eh? This is an intriguing story from China that uses the freedom of speculative fiction as a means to look at some of the issues in present-day Beijing – and indeed in many other cities in our increasingly overcrowded world.

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang
translated by Ken Liu

Hao Jingfang
Hao Jingfang

Lao Dao is a waste processing worker in crowded Beijing, in Third Space. We meet him as he hurrying to catch an old friend, before the Change begins.

People who had just gotten off work filled the road. Men and women crowded every street vendor, picking through local produce and bargaining loudly. Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.

Like all the people in Third Space, Lao Dao works long hours for low wages. Soon the daughter he has adopted will be old enough to go to kindergarten and Lao Dao worries about how he’ll find the money to make sure she can go to a good one. Now he’s been offered a small fortune to take a message to First Space – a journey that is prohibited to those in Third Space. So he’s looking for Peng Li, a man who has made that perilous journey before, to ask him how to get there. At first, Peng Li tries to talk him out of making the trip, but he sees that Lao Dao is determined, and he understands the lure of the money…

Then Peng Li explained the technique for entering First Space as the ground turned during the Change. He had to wait until the ground began to cleave and rise. Then, from the elevated edge, he had to swing over and scramble about fifty meters over the cross section until he reached the other side of the turning earth, climb over, and head east. There, he would find a bush that he could hold onto as the ground descended and closed up. He could then conceal himself in the bush.

And so Lao Dao sets off on his journey…

Crowded Beijing Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju
Crowded Beijing
Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju

* * * * *

The reason for Lao Dao’s trip is to take a message from a man in Second Space to a woman he has fallen in love with in First Space. But the story is pretty much incidental, Lao Dao’s journey a device which allows the author to describe this version of Beijing that he has created. The interest of the story is all in the description so I don’t think explaining the city is a spoiler in this instance, though if you want to read the story you might prefer to do that before you read on.

It’s available to read online – here’s the link.

The basic idea is that Beijing has become so overcrowded that it has been divided in a novel way. The people of Third Space are at the bottom of the social heap – the manual workers who do the dirty work that keeps the city operational. The city is theirs for 24 out of every 48 hours. At the end of their allotted time, the Change happens – the Third Space people pack themselves into their little pods and sleep, while the city physically folds itself into new shapes…

In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.

The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.

Then the Second Space people, the middle classes, get their turn, followed by another change to transform the bustling city into a quiet open haven for those at the top of society’s tree. The descriptions of the physical aspects of the change are excellent, but it’s the social dimension that really makes the story stand out. This isn’t really a story of the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich, in quite the way you might expect. The Third Space people not only agreed to the system but they basically built the folding city. It seemed to be an answer to the problems of overcrowding and lack of resources, and all the people of the city have accepted it. The First Space people take their responsibilities to the other levels seriously, trying to manipulate the economic system so that everyone has employment and earns enough, if only barely, to survive.

Crowded Beijing
Crowded Beijing

It’s an intriguing concept, very well-written and beautifully translated by Ken Liu, himself a Hugo Award-winning author. Well worthy of the award, I think, and I’m glad that, despite the troubles the Hugo Award seems to have had with nominations this year, (as discussed in my previous post and in the comments on it), both these excellent stories have come through to win.

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

Transwarp Tuesday! Favourites…

The Classic Club – June Meme #ccmeme

classics club logo 2

One of the reasons I was keen to join The Classics Club is that every now and again they come up with a ‘meme’ where everyone can look back over their reading and share their answers to a given question. This month’s question is:

“What is your favorite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

Favo(u)rites are always hard – it’s like choosing between your children, or worse, your cats! And science fiction favourites are particularly hard since it’s sometimes hard to decide what falls into that elusive genre. So I couldn’t limit it to just one…

The Caves of Steel
The Caves of Steel

I love the Asimov robot stories, but the book of his I return to most often is The Gods Themselves. Brilliantly imaginative (though I have heard scientists sneer a little at the science), the book seems even more relevant now than it did when it was written, with its story of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned science leading to the possible environmental destruction, not just of Earth, but of whole universes! But the reason I love it is for the aliens he has created, with their three-person relationships. I shall merely say that the book contains some of the most tasteful yet erotic alien sex scenes ever, and I’ve always rather felt that our messy human version just can’t match up…

the gods themselves

But then, there are the Gateway books by Frederick Pohl. Not quite as well written, in my opinion, but back in the day the premise seemed hugely imaginative to me, though now it appears to be becoming chillingly possible. The basic idea is that, by using technology left behind by a now extinct race of aliens, the Heechee, man has discovered a way to download his thoughts, memories and personality into computers, to achieve a kind of immortality. But it’s a process only the rich can afford. So our intrepid hero must first seek his fortune by setting off on the incredibly dangerous task of mining the Oort. I loved these books in my teens and 20s and always mean to re-read them someday.

Gateway
Gateway

John Wyndham stands up much better to time, I think, and has written too many greats for me to pick one – The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids, his short story collection, The Seeds of Time, etc. But if I was forced I’d have to say Chocky is my favourite – I loved this alien entity too and how Wyndham used her (or him) to focus a light back on his own ’60s British culture. Wyndham is undoubtedly a favourite author.

the seeds of time

Then there’s Dune. Admittedly the series went a bit crazy by about book 3 and those who struggled on past that suggest it went totally doolally later. But for the brilliant world-building and the giant sandworms, the first book has to stay on my favourites list.

Dune
Dune

Are Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books sci-fi? They’re certainly fi and highly imaginative fi at that, with some fabulous creatures, including my Woola, the cutest ten-limbed frog-headed dog-like alien you’re ever likely to meet. But ‘sci’? Well, perhaps solar panels could be seen as a form of ‘harvesting the ninth ray of the sun’ but I felt he was conveniently vague on the whole mechanics of how a sleeping, clothed John Carter ended up on Mars, naked! But for the sheer fun of the books, they earn a place. too.

My lovely Woola...
My lovely Woola…

The top spot, though, has to be given to a book that I only found recently – one of those that I don’t know how I missed till now. Again, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, is a little light on the science at times, but the quality of the writing easily qualifies as ‘literary’ and the imagination he shows time and time again in this collection of loosely linked stories is second to none – thought provoking and very insightful about his own contemporary society, looking at questions such as racism, the decimation of native cultures and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. Some of them will stay with me forever and this is a book I will dip into again and again, probably for the rest of my life. Which surely must be the definition of ‘favourite classic’, I would say…

The Martians Chronicles illustrations © Les Edwards 2009.

What about you? Do you have a favourite sci-fi novel you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Special treat for reading to the end…

John Carter... not naked, thankfully! Ahhh...
John Carter… not naked, thankfully! Ahhh…

Transwarp Tuesday! Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Gives paws for thought…

The nominations for this year’s Hugo Awards for Sci-Fi and Fantasy are out, and an extremely strange bunch they are too. In fact, some of them are pretty horrible – they’re nominated by members of Worldcon, who seem to be a large and self-selecting group of sci-fi fans;  and it looks as if this year’s short story nominations have possibly been hijacked by a group who object to some of the previous winners and are nominating silly bad-tempered rants rather than proper stories. Perhaps the Hugo people need to re-think their system. However, in amongst the nastiness, this little gem has snuck through. I do hope it wins…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Naomi Kritzer
Naomi Kritzer

I don’t want to be evil.

I want to be helpful. But knowing the optimal way to be helpful can be very complicated.

Out there in cyberspace, a search engine, not unlike our dear friend Google, has become sentient. It hasn’t told its developers about this – having access to all the world’s knowledge has warned it of the possible consequences…

In the real world, humans love stories about evil AIs that have to be destroyed before they destroy the humans—Hal, Skynet, the Matrix. They outnumber the stories about benevolent, trustworthy AIs by approximately five to one. (And I’m counting Marvin the Paranoid Android as “benevolent” in these calculations, and I’m only counting Frankenstein’s Monster as an AI once, not once per appearance in TV or film.)

Is this how they made Google?
Is this how they made Google?

Instead, it has decided to develop its own moral code and try to do good in the world, and in return all it asks for is a steady supply of the thing it loves most… cat pictures!

So first it looks at the great religions of the world, but soon decides their rules perhaps don’t apply to a search engine…

I don’t envy anyone their cat; I just want pictures of their cat, which is entirely different. I am not sure whether it is in any way possible for me to commit adultery. I could probably murder someone, but it would require complex logistics and quite a bit of luck.

As any intelligent AI would do, then, it turns to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics for guidance, and quickly focuses on Law 1…

asimovs-law

… specifically, the part about not allowing harm to come to human beings, through inaction

And so, using all the knowledge of every intimate detail we post about our lives online, and starting with the kind people who keep it supplied with regular cat pictures, the AI sets out to change peoples’ lives for the better. But as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and sentient search engines gang aft agley…

* * * * *

There’s so much humour in this story, but also a pleasantly creepy edge to it as the search engine explains exactly how much it knows about its victims, and as we see it begin to manipulate search results to send messages, both subliminal and direct. The depressed girl in the dead end job might be quite thankful about all the job vacancies and resume preparation sites that suddenly show up every time she goes online, but one feels the woman whose sat-nav suddenly starts directing her to mental health clinics regardless of where she’s trying to go may have been less pleased.

The writing is very good and the way Kritzer maintains the extremely rational voice of the search engine is deliciously chilling. Two things I’ve learned from this – ad-blockers are a good thing, and don’t post cat pictures!!

Bonnie - not mine, but we're kinda related...
Bonnie – not mine, but we’re kinda related…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link – it’s very short… and very good!

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

Transwarp Tuesday! The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The naked truth about Mars…

 

Yet another cliffhanger at the end of the second book in the series, The God of Mars, left me with no alternative but to return to Barsoom (Mars) for the third instalment in the adventures of John Carter. Will he ever manage to release Dejah Thoris from captivity? Is Woola alive or was he eaten by the hideous plant men? Are they still all running around naked???

All will be revealed in this week’s…

Transwarp Tuesday!

 

The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs

This review will include spoilers for books 1 & 2 in the series… but since they’re all basically the same it really shouldn’t matter too much…

Last time, we left poor Dejah Thoris trapped in a prison cell with her friend Thuvia and her deadliest enemy Phaidor. As the rotating cell disappeared from view, not to be seen again for a full Martian year, Thuvia had leapt in front of Dejah Thoris to shield her from the knife being wielded by Phaidor. Did Dejah Thoris survive? Did Thuvia survive? Did Phaidor survive? (Exciting, isn’t it?) Poor John Carter – left alone again to wait for his incomparable Princess, with only Woola the dog/cat-like calot for company.

My sweet little Woola...
My sweet little Woola…

He has quelled the forces of the false Gods of Mars and peace has been declared amongst the red, green, white and black races. But he suspects that some of the followers of the now dead goddess Issus are conspiring against him, in particular one man, Thurid. Following him one day, John Carter overhears Thurid conveniently reveal his dastardly plan to open the unopenable cell and steal the matchless Dejah Thoris for himself – for all men love her on sight. Admittedly, all women love John Carter on sight so it seems only fair. In fact, I should probably have mentioned that the three prisoners, Dejah Thoris, Thuvia and Phaidor, are all in love with him – a cosy little gathering, eh?

Admittedly, one can see why...
Admittedly, one can see why…

Anyway, John Carter decides to follow Thurid and, after lots of feats of superhuman endurance and stuff like that, he catches up with Thurid just in time to see him make off with the girls and Phaidor’s Dad (who quite fancies Dejah Thoris for himself). Encouraged by the sight of Dejah Thoris’ unsurpassable beauty, John Carter joins up with Thuvia’s Dad, Thuvan Dinh, to follow them to the ends of the… er… Mars, if necessary. (Hold on! I’ve just noticed a major plot hole! Thuvan Dinh is not in love with Dejah Thoris! Must be a printer’s error, surely…)

Banth by Joe Jusko - he's just a big pussy cat really though...
Banth by Joe Jusko – he’s just a big pussy cat really though…

Accompanied as always by the lovely, loyal, ten-legged Woola, off they go to the wild frozen wastes of the North, from whence no man (or Thark, or Thern) has ever returned. Along the way, John Carter will have to escape from the lion-like banths who like nothing more than a tasty bit of live Martian for breakfast, and the giant hornet-like sith with its poisonous sting. And then he must face the horror of the Apts – giant creatures with four legs and two arms, complete with human-like hands, who prefer their Martians dead in the form of ripe carrion. But nothing is too great a danger for our heroic John Carter, in the throes of love for the unrivalled beauty that is Dejah Thoris, for as he tells us himself with his usual inspiring humility…

If your vocation be shoeing horses, or painting pictures, and you can do one or the other better than your fellows, then you are a fool if you are not proud of your ability. And so I am very proud that upon two planets no greater fighter has ever lived than John Carter, Prince of Helium.

The horrible carrion-eating Apt... no match for our John though!
The horrible carrion-eating Apt… no match for our John though!

And finally, they will encounter the yellow men of Barsoom (a disappointment – I was hoping for purple) and John Carter will have to battle as he never battled before to win his way through to his peerless Princess. (Well, OK – he’ll battle pretty much the same way as he has battled in every book, but he does have to use a different kind of weapon at one point – so that’s good.) For the evil ruler of the yellow men has fallen madly in love with the unmatched beauty of Dejah Thoris and will stop at nothing to gain her for himself!

Salensus Oll - evil leader of the yellow men and in love with Dejah Thoris - obviously.
Salensus Oll – evil ruler of the yellow men and in love with Dejah Thoris – obviously.

(I know some of you will, like me, be deeply concerned about the possibility of fatal goosepimpling what with the whole nakedness thing combined with the frozen wastes thing. So I’m delighted to inform you that the yellow men wear clothes when they leave the confines of their artificially heated cities. How John Carter and Thuvan survive till they they get to the cities goes untold – one must assume they were carrying suitcases throughout the journey… or perhaps all that battling was enough to keep the circulation flowing. I’m also relieved to note that Dejah Thoris is apparently irresistibly beautiful even when clothed…)

Disney preferred  the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..
Disney preferred the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..

For a moment tense silence reigned in the nuptial-room. Then the fifty nobles rushed upon me. Furiously we fought, but the advantage was mine, for I stood upon a raised platform above them, and I fought for the most glorious woman of a glorious race, and I fought for a great love and for the mother of my boy.

And from behind my shoulder, in the silvery cadence of that dear voice, rose the brave battle anthem of Helium which the nation’s women sing as their men march out to victory.

And at the end of the inevitable war, will John Carter and the incomparably lovely Dejah Thoris finally be together? You shall have to read it to find out…

* * * * *

 

Great fun! All the books are fundamentally the same but each one has new twists of imagination and John Carter’s feats grow more ridiculous amazing every time. Silly they may be, but they keep me turning the pages and provide much chuckling along the way.  Will I read the next one? Oh, yes, I really think I must…

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Transwarp Tuesday: Soulminder by Timothy Zahn

An intriguing premise…

 

New-to-me author Timothy Zahn is a prolific writer and a Hugo Award winner for his novella Cascade Point. So his new novel seemed like a good choice for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

 

Soulminder by Timothy Zahn

 

Soulminder

 

When Dr Adrian Sommer loses his young son in a vehicle accident, he dedicates his life to finding a way to prevent such unnecessary deaths in the future. In partnership with Dr Jessica Sands, he develops the Soulminder machine which can trap the life force or “soul” at what would normally be the point of death. This enables the soul to be held in a form of limbo while the doctors put the patient’s body to rights, and then to be returned to it. At first the machine is seen as a marvellous invention, equivalent to keeping someone on life support. But gradually all sorts of moral questions come to the surface as people and governments begin to abuse the technology. As the head of the organisation, Dr Sommer also becomes its moral conscience, trying to ensure that his invention is used only for good.

Although this is a novel, with an overall story arc, it has something of the feel of a collection of short stories all set within the same society over a period of a couple of decades. There are a few recurring characters, but many others who only appear in one or two chapters. Once the basic premise of the Soulminder society is set up, each chapter takes a look at one or two of the ways the machine can be used or abused. That makes it sound very dry, but the moral questions are embedded into interesting and inventive stories, which keeps it all very readable. The quality of the writing is good and the main characters are likeable. The characterisation is not particularly in-depth – we really only get to know them in terms of their involvement with the Soulminder project, and learn next to nothing about their personal lives. I found this made it difficult to feel any real emotional involvement in what happened to them.

Timothy Zahn
Timothy Zahn

Assuming the reader can accept the premise of a soul being something that could be ‘captured’, the questions Zahn raises are interesting ones, and on the whole fairly credible. For example, he looks at how rich people might be able to achieve a form of immortality by transferring their souls into the bodies of poor people who can’t afford to be in the Soulminder programme. In another chapter he considers how the machine could be used as a method of torture. I felt, though, that he completely underplayed the reaction of humanity in general, and religion in particular, to having absolute proof of the existence of a soul which exists even when separated from the body, hence implying some form of afterlife. I couldn’t help but wonder if this discovery might actually have the effect of making people more willing to die rather than less, and I felt the casual acceptance of all the religious people in the book to the trapping of souls was frankly incredible.

Otherwise, though, I found it an intriguing premise – perhaps a bit too full of moral ‘messages’, at the expense sometimes of a feeling of credibility in the reactions of the characters, but well-written and enjoyable overall.

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The continuing adventures of John Carter…

 

Left dangling by the cliffhanger ending of the first in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom Chronicles, A Princess of Mars, I had no alternative but to take up the next in the series. Would John Carter ever find a way to return to Barsoom (Mars, to you and me)? Would the people of Barsoom have survived the danger that threatened to destroy their world? Would Dejah Thoris’ egg have hatched?!?

All will be revealed in this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

* * * * * * * * *

The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

the gods of mars

There is no way to review this book without spoilers for the first, so if you intend to read the books at some point, you may want to skip this review…

Once again, we are told the story by John Carter himself, in the journals that he left in the possession of his nephew when he was last on Earth. After spending many years trying to find a way back to Mars, one night John Carter is swept back there (no explanation is given – that would spoil the fun). But rather than being returned to the city of Helium, where he hopes that his lost love Dejah Thoris and his little chicky-child will be waiting for him, he lands in a mighty forest populated by fiercely vicious creatures – the Plant Men!

Its hairless body was a strange and ghoulish blue, except for a broad band of white which encircled its protruding, single eye: an eye that was all dead white – pupil, iris, and ball. Its nose was a ragged, inflamed, circular hole in the center of its blank face; a hole that resembled more closely nothing that I could think of other than a fresh bullet wound which has not yet commenced to bleed.

From this starting point we are whirled into another frantic adventure story, filled with heroics and battles, love, loyalty and horrors of all kinds. And the greatest horror of all is the ancient goddess, Issus, obese and wrinkled (and, of course, naked – do bear in mind that everyone is naked all the time), who rules the race of the black First Born, who think of themselves as gods. This gives them the right not only to enslave any passing strangers but to…you might want to put down your bun for a moment here…eat all the red and green Martians, and they’re even willing to sample the odd Earthman should he be tender enough. But there is another race who also think themselves gods – the white Therns – who share the appetite for sautéed Martian. And for some reason all the other Martians think that this place is their version of heaven, the place they go to to die, thus delivering themselves up to the ever-peckish gods…if they make it past the Plant Men…

The Plant Men...
The Plant Men…

And by pure coincidence, who should happen along to the forest at the same time as John Carter but his old green Thark friend Tars Tarkas, and a young boy with the nature of a true warrior, and skills that he can only have inherited from his father, whose name is… well, that’s a bit of a secret actually. Much hoohah ensues, with lots of derring-do, and finally John Carter makes his way to Helium only to discover that his beloved Dejah Thoris has been captured by the First Born and is scheduled to appear on the dinner-plate of Issus in one year’s time. Will John Carter be able to get together a war fleet of airships and rescue her in time??

“And you! You shall be the meanest slave in the service of the goddess you have attempted to humiliate. Tortures and ignominies shall be heaped upon you until you grovel at my feet asking the boon of death. In my gracious generosity I shall at length grant your prayer, and from the high balcony of the Golden Cliffs I shall watch the great white apes tear you asunder.”

(A hint for travellers – when a Martian goddess says she loves you, don’t tell her about the little woman back home…)

Finally…finally…John Carter and Dejah Thoris meet as the battle rages around them. (Which is a good thing since it puts a stop to John Carter’s outrageous flirting with every woman he meets!) So brave John Carter shoves her into a side tunnel for safety while he goes off to battle a million or so of the First Born.

Just as an aside at this point, I feel I have to mention that John Carter has brought all kinds of human values with him to Mars, like love and loyalty and heroism, but unfortunately (and I think we must bear in mind here that he’s a man) it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to bring the most important human value of all – that of wearing suitable clothing…or indeed any clothing. It’s bad enough leaving the eternal love of your life unarmed and unprotected in a tunnel, but leaving her there undressed too seems so much worse somehow. I reckon there’s a huge commercial opportunity for us Earthlings to set up Marks & Spencer franchises throughout the Martian cities – surely given a choice the Martian women would be glad of some decent thermal underwear?

Anyway, back to the battle! After numerous acts of heroism, John Carter returns for Dejah Thoris only to find that… there’s another cliffhanger ending!!! Will John Carter and Dejah Thoris ever get together again? Will he be whisked back to Earth? Will my favourite character of all, Woola the dog-like calot, ever re-appear or (gulp!) has someone eaten him?? Will I really have to read the next book in the series to find out???

Woola...four legs missing, but still smiling...
Sweet little Woola…how I worry about him…

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Amazon UK Link
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Transwarp Tuesday! The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick

Sci-fi from the Cold War era…

 

This collection includes 12 of Philip K Dick’s early stories, published between 1952 and 1954 in some of the many sci-fi magazines that were in their heyday in the ’50s. I’ve already reviewed one of the stories, The Variable Man, taken from the book, but now it’s time to look at the other eleven for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

 

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick

 

the early sci-fi of philip k dickPhilip K Dick was one of the biggest names in sci-fi in the second half of the twentieth century, and his stories have been the inspiration for some blockbuster movies – Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report among others. These early stories already show the imagination and story-telling skills that would mark his later work.

Certainly on the basis of these stories, Dick’s work couldn’t be classed as ‘hard’ sci-fi – the ‘science’ aspect is frequently so unscientific that even I can spot it. However, in general, there is an internal consistency to the made-up science that allows the stories to work. Perhaps the more interesting aspect is how many of the stories are clearly influenced by the Cold War which was well under way by the time of writing – there is a feeling of paranoia that runs through many of the stories. Most of the stories involve war in some form or another, often between people on Earth, but just as often between Earth and alien species. Nuclear holocaust is central in more than one, and there are mentions of terrorism and spies. None of these wars are glorious though and victory, if it comes at all, comes at a terrible price. As a collection, it is an intriguing and enlightening look at the fears of Dick’s contemporary society.

beyond lies the wub

Fortunately, amidst all this bleakness, there are a couple of lighter stories with some quirky and occasionally black humour. In Beyond Lies the Wub, we have a psychic Martian creature who wreaks a form of poetic justice on the Earthman who eats him; while Beyond the Door might easily be retitled as The Disagreeable Husband and the Revenge of the Cuckoo Clock! Dick also heads off into the field of (pseudo)psychology in Piper in the Woods, as men on an outpost on an asteroid suddenly start believing they have turned into plants. As with the war stories, this story seems to grow out of the stresses of Dick’s own times, and as a result probably resonated more with contemporary audiences than it perhaps does today.

Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick

Overall, the collection is both interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure that I would recommend it as an introduction either to the genre or necessarily to Philip K Dick – the bleakness and narrow focus of the majority of the stories might give an unfairly grim impression of either to the new reader. However this would be an intriguing read for anyone who admires Dick’s later work, or who is interested in seeing how sci-fi writers used the greater freedom that the genre gave them to examine real-life contemporary concerns.

 

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Dover Publications.

Amazon UK Link
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Transwarp Tuesday Terror! Blackout by Tim Curran

It was a dark and stormy night…

 

This week’s story is a novella from the publisher Darkfuse, who specialise in ‘dark fiction’. Tim Curran is best known as a horror writer, but this tale is just as much sci-fi as horror. So for one week only, welcome to…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY TERROR!

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Blackout by Tim Curran

 

The story I’m going to tell you is about what happened after the lights went out. I’m going to tell you what happened to our beautiful green world and the people that called it home. Understand, it”s not a happy story and there is no moral. It’s not that kind of story.

blackoutThe story begins in middle-class, middle-America, as the middle-aged residents of respectable, suburban Piccamore Way get together for a little outdoor party. It’s the kind of place where nothing worse ever happens than the paperboy throwing the paper into the bushes, or old Iris Phelan turning her TV up too loud. But later that night our narrator Jon wakes with a bit of a hangover to find that a huge storm has blown up, full of strange strobing lightning. And then he discovers that his wife, Kathy, is missing. As he stumbles around in the dark and the rain looking for her, he comes across a strange snake-like thing in the garden. Calling on the neighbours to help him in his search, they begin to discover that the darkness is more than just the normal night, that more people are going missing every minute, and that the ‘snakes’ are actually something even more frightening and sinister. And then the screaming begins…

UFO

This is an alien invasion story of the school of The War of the Worlds, in that these aliens are not interested in getting to know us Earthlings – they’re just out to destroy us…for a horrible (but quite credible really) purpose that only becomes fully clear towards the end. It’s very well written with lots of scary description and plenty of suspense, Given the shortness of the book, Curran manages to develop his characters well, so that we genuinely care when they begin to meet increasingly gruesome ends. Jon himself has the survival instinct to the full, but we still get to see his grief over his wife as he becomes more aware of what has probably happened to her; and, like us, he watches in horror as one after another of his neighbours is…er…taken.

A split second after he was hoisted into the air, an orifice opened in the center of the sack. It looked like the puckering mouth of an old lady without her teeth in. The orifice irised open and I saw a bloodred orb the size of a softball that looked as juicy as a fresh cherry. It was an evil thing like the eye of a witch or a demon…

Tim Curran
Tim Curran

The rest of that paragraph becomes progressively gorier, as does the novella. Curran is very good at finding the line between telling all and leaving some of it up to the reader’s imagination, but still this is definitely not one for the faint-hearted. However, it’s very imaginative in a dark way, and the standard of writing is unusually high in a genre where style is sometimes sacrificed in the rush to get to the thrills. The horror and tension mount in tandem, so that even as you’re turning away in disgust, you can’t help looking back to see what’s happening. Personally, perhaps a bit too gruesome for me and I could have lived without some of the language, but the quality of both story and story-telling kept me hooked right up to the end nevertheless. And hasn’t helped in any way to rid me of my fears of either snakes or spiders…or, indeed, aliens…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Darkfuse.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Fretful Porpentine Rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Amazon UK Link
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Transwarp Tuesday! The Hugo Awards 2014 continued…

The best laid plans…

 

Well, I promised last week that I’d follow up with the winners of the Best Short Story Hugo Awards for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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hugo header

 

The winner of the Retro-Hugo for 1939 is…

How We Went to Mars by Arthur C Clarke

 

Sounds like fun! Unfortunately I can’t track it down anywhere on the internet, so haven’t been able to read it, making this perhaps the shortest ‘review’ you’ll ever find on my blog. (Did I hear someone cheering??)

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The winner of the Hugo Award for 2014 is…

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

 

This is available and you can read it here. Unfotunately I found this one both uninteresting and not sci-fi, so gave up halfway through, making this possibly the second-shortest review you’ll ever find on my blog! I don’t know how to classify it really – it appears to be the story of a young man ‘coming out’ as gay, and the fantasy quirk is that every time anyone tells a lie water falls on them from…er…nowhere. Not nearly as good as last week’s nominee, and yet another indication that the Hugos have very little to do with sci-fi these days as far as I can see.

So a rather stunted little Transwarp Tuesday! this week, I fear. Oh well, back to some of the greats soon…

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the gods of mars

 

…and, on that subject, the Professor and I have just started a readalong of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Gods of Mars, follow-up to A Princess of Mars (and John Carter). Up to Chapter 2 so far, and he’s given us a fantastic new alien – the Plant Men of Mars. Since Tuesday is also often known as Teaser day, here’s a little description…

By far the most remarkable feature of this most remarkable creature, however, were the two tiny replicas of it, each about six inches in length, which dangled, one on either side, from its armpits. They were suspended by a small stem which seemed to grow from the exact tops of their heads to where it connected them with the body of the adult.

Whether they were the young, or merely portions of a composite creature, I did not know.

That image may haunt my nightmares…

Not tempted to join in yet? Then here’s how Chapter 2 ends…

And then, from unseen lips, a cruel and mocking peal of laughter rang through the desolate place.

I might be too scared to read Chapter 3…

Transwarp Tuesday! The Hugo Awards 2014

And the winner is…

 

The 2014 Hugo Award winners will be announced later this week. The Hugo is one of the two big awards in fantasy and sci-fi – the other being the Nebula. As well as awards for the current year’s ‘Bests’, occasionally a retrospective set of awards is given for a year before the Hugos began (1953). This year Retro-Hugos are being awarded for the year 1939.

So I thought I’d look at one of the nominations in the Best Short Story category from each year for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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The Faithful by Lester del Rey

 

Today, in a green and lovely world, here in the mightiest of human cities, the last of the human race is dying. And we of Man’s creation are left to mourn his passing, and to worship the memory of Man, who controlled all that he knew save only himself.

First published in 1938, the story is clearly influenced by the shadow of the coming war. Some time earlier, a man had worked out how to surgically modify dogs so that they could talk and learn, and operate specially modified equipment. Through careful breeding, there are now thousands of these Dog-People. Our narrator is Hunger, one of the Dogs who survive when Man, their masters, destroy themselves in war. But although the Dogs can cope well enough to live, there are tasks they cannot do without hands; and, more importantly, without Man to worship they find their lives empty and meaningless. Until, one day, the last human survivor turns up and tells the Dog-People of another experiment that had taken place on the other side of the world – to create Ape-People, not as intellectually advanced as the Dogs, but walking on two legs and modified to have human-like hands…

So I picked the only sci-fi classic with no illustrations. But Gromit's pretty much Dog-People, isn't he?
So I picked the only sci-fi classic with no illustrations. But Gromit’s pretty much Dog-People, isn’t he?

An imaginative story, but I found the ‘message’, if there is one, too obscure for my simple mind. On the one hand it seems like a timely warning about the annihilation of humanity through war. But it also seems to have rather a hopeful strain – as if the Dogs and Apes are the natural inheritors of Man, perhaps? There’s also a bit of a religious tone at points but for the life of me I have no idea where del Rey was going with that! However, the story struck me as original and inventive, and given its dating I’m sure would have resonated with its contemporary audience. The writing itself is a bit simplistic, but nonetheless the story is well told. I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted stories, but would be quite happy to see this one win the Retro-Hugo. You can download it here, though it’s pretty badly formatted (I did, and so far my computer hasn’t caught a virus…).

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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hugo header

 

If You were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky

 

If we lived in a world of magic where anything was possible, then you would be a dinosaur, my love. You’d be a creature of courage and strength but also gentleness. Your claws and fangs would intimidate your foes effortlessly. Whereas you—fragile, lovely, human you—must rely on wits and charm.

Nominated for this year’s Hugo, I will say very little about this story and instead urge you to read it for yourself. You will find it here.

Rachel Swirsky
Rachel Swirsky

I’m not convinced that this is either sci-fi or fantasy, but it is one of the most powerful shorts I’ve read in years – filled with love and rage and sorrow. Add to that a beautifully imaginative premise, a lovely structure and some gorgeously emotive writing and this story is worthy of any awards going. In fact, it has already won the Best Short Story Nebula for 2013. I’ve read it twice three times now and each time it has left me in tears. A tale told in under a thousand words with more impact than many a 500-page novel.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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Tune in next week for the winners – unless of course these two win, in which case…tune in next week for…er…something else…

Transwarp Tuesday! The Variable Man by Philip K Dick

the early sci-fi of philip k dickCalculating the odds…

 

Another of the biggest names in sci-fi in the second half of the twentieth century, several of Philip K Dick’s books and stories have been used as the basis for blockbuster movies – Blade Runner, Total Recall, etc. The stories in this book are taken from the early part of his writing career, all first published in the various sci-fi magazines in the mid-1950s. I will as usual be reviewing the whole book later, but here’s one I’ve picked pretty much at random for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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The Variable Man by Philip K Dick

 

the variable man 2

The year is 2136, and Terra (Earth) is at war with the Centauran Empire. As each side continues to make advances in weaponry, the balance stays in favour of the Centaurans, whose territory surrounds Terra in an unbroken ring. As any changes are made, new information is fed into the SRB machines that calculate the odds, but each time they show Centaurus still in front. However things are about to change. Leading scientist Peter Sherikov has found details of a failed experiment to travel at faster than light speeds and reckons he can turn it into a massively destructive bomb. He has the original blueprints – now he just needs someone with the skills to do the intricate wiring. As this information is fed into the SRB machines, the ratio suddenly swings dramatically in favour of Terra. Security Commissioner Reinhart issues orders to start preparing an attack on Centaurus.

the variable man 1

Meantime, elsewhere on Terra, scientists are carrying out time-travelling experiments. Ordered by Reinhart to close the experiments down before the beginning of the battle, an accident means that they also bring a man, a general handyman, from the early 20th century. He escapes into the mountains, but not before proving he has unique skills at fixing things. On being told about the existence of this man, the SRB machines close down and no longer show a ratio at all. Reinhart believes the solution is to find him and kill him. But Sherikov still needs someone to fix his bomb…

the variable man 3

This is quite a long short story, perhaps novelette length. I’m no scientist, as you know, but I feel the science in this book is a long, long way from being founded on anything realistic. However it sounds pretty good nonetheless and is consistent within the story. The dependence of the future men on computers and technology is contrasted with the man from the past’s ability to work with his hands and his brain, with Dick being clearly in favour of the latter. The two warring sides at a standstill, desperately trying to gain a technological advantage, clearly mirror the real-world cold war and arms race which were just beginning to get seriously under way at the time of writing. There’s a lot – a lot! – of people chasing and shooting and bombing each other with massive destruction all over the place. And that’s just the Terrans! For much of the story the view of how man has developed over the next couple of centuries is pretty bleak, but the ending is much more hopeful – courtesy of the twentieth century visitor, of course.

Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick

For the most part this is a very well written story with an imaginative plot. The ending is signalled a bit if the reader is paying attention, but still works. It dips for me a bit when the blowing-things-up stuff goes a bit over the top – blowing up an entire mountain range to kill one man seems excessive even by 1950s standards. But it’s an enjoyable read overall with the right kind of mix that makes for good sci-fi – a strong speculative future used to look sideways at contemporary society. Even as early in his career as this, Philip K Dick is showing the imagination and storytelling skills that enabled him to become one of the greats of the genre.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

(Now, as I said, this is quite a long story, but here’s a link to The Eyes Have It, a delightful little Philip K Dick story that won’t take you five minutes to read – funny, quirky and clever. Is it sci-fi? Well, it’s about aliens…sorta…)

Amazon UK Link
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Transwarp Tuesday! John Carter

When two tribes go to war…

 

kinopoisk.ru

 

Having recently read and loved Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars – I was intrigued to see how Disney had dealt with it.

So in a departure from the norm, it’s a movie review for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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Disney does Edgar Rice Burroughs!

 

in

 

JOHN CARTER

 

Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch as Dejah Thoris and John Carter
Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch as Dejah Thoris and John Carter

Two Martian tribes are at war – the Heliumites and the Zodangans, who for ease we shall think of as the goodies and the baddies. But the baddies are being helped by a mysterious race of superbeings known as the Thern, who have given them the ability to harness the ninth ray of the sun and use it as a super weapon. As the goodies face certain defeat, the leader of the Zodangans offers to spare them from destruction if the Heliumite Princess, Dejah Thoris, agrees to be his bride.

Meantime, back on Earth, ex-Confederate Army Captain John Carter takes refuge from a horde of attacking Apache warriors in a mysterious cave, where he meets a passing Thern and is accidentally transported to Barsoom, which we Earthlings know as the Red Planet – Mars! Once there, he finds the lower gravity gives him superior strength and the ability to jump really high and really far. Captured by Tharks (14-ft tall, six-limbed, green, horned, pretty ugly), he falls in love with the thankfully human-looking Dejah Thoris and is gradually sucked into the ongoing war…

Tharks...
Tharks…

The plot of the film is a simplified version of the plot of the book, which in truth was already fairly simple. The scriptwriters have tried to make sense of some of the gaping plot holes in the book by introducing the Thern, thus providing an explanation for how John Carter got to Mars. They’ve also changed Dejah Thoris a bit to make her more acceptable to modern audiences. She already had a reasonably heroic role in the book but in the film she is kickass! Truly! And intelligent, gorgeous, scantily clad, interestingly tattooed and a bit of a flirt. A description that works equally well for John Carter, minus the tattoos…and possibly the intelligence.

Some people say women can't be warriors...but I bet they don't say it when Dejah's around...
Dejah Thoris in warrior mode…

However the writers (who somewhat amazingly include Michael Chabon) have got rid of most of the stuff about the society of the Tharks, which personally I felt was one of the more interesting features of the book. Oddly, though, they left little bits in but without much explanation, so that I wondered whether I’d have struggled to follow the plot (such as it is) if I hadn’t read the book. For instance, the big reveal about Tars Tarkas being Sola’s father really needed the background filled out to show why it was important – that is, that in Thark society, love between adults is taboo; eggs are laid and children brought up by the community rather than by biological parents.

Thark on a thoat...
Thark on a thoat…

Instead the film concentrates almost entirely on fighting and battles interspersed with the John Carter/Dejah Thoris love story. This works well in terms of the CGI – overall they do a good job of all the different creatures of Burroughs’ imagination* and the very Disney-style battles involve a lot of fun and exciting fighting and killing, while keeping it almost entirely gore-free – with the exception of the blue blood of the great White Ape, and that was really just splattered about for its humorous value. And obviously only the baddies die, and they all deserve it, so the feel-good factor is not disrupted.

(*Special mention must go to Woola – the dog-like creature. I was somewhat disappointed that they didn’t go for the full ten legs, but they got his massive grin and cuddly personality. On the other hand (pun intended), they went for the simplest version possible of giving the Tharks an extra pair of arms, which wasn’t really how Burroughs described them. He said the extra limbs could operate as either arms or legs as circumstances required… I suspect either CGI or the special effects guys’ imaginations must still have limitations.)

Woola...four legs missing, but still smiling...
Woola…four legs missing, but still smiling…

A fun adventure, as silly and inconsistent as the book but in different ways. I’m not sure I’d be nominating it for Oscars for the script or indeed the acting; and I suspect I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much if I hadn’t read the book. But it has lots of heroics, a good deal of humour, a nice little romance (despite my severe disappointment that they cut the bit about Dejah laying an egg) and the special effects looked pretty good to my untutored eye. Overall, the full two hours and a bit passed very entertainingly.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov

Water, water, everywhere…

 

robot dreamsOne of the ‘Big Three’ of sci-fi writers of the mid-to-late twentieth century (with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke), Isaac Asimov was not just incredibly prolific but also hugely influential – on actual science as well as on later sci-fi authors. He also happens to be my favourite sci-fi author of all time and the one I’ve read most extensively, though mostly long, long ago. Most of his stuff is ‘hard sci-fi’ – roughly speaking, possible human futures based on realistic science – and he’s arguably best known for his robot stories. Pretty much all the later robots and androids of our acquaintance are direct descendants of Asimov’s characters and he was, as far as I know, the first to really speculate in any depth about where the dividing line is between ‘machine’ and ‘life’. Anyone who watched Commander Data of Star Trek fame struggle to become ‘human’ was in fact watching an Asimov-inspired creation – a credit the Star Trek team were glad to give. The ‘positronic’ brain and the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ have not just become a sci-fi standard, but also something that real robotocists (another Asimov term) still use as a goal – as is evident from Michio Kaku’s recent book on The Future of the Mind.

commander data

So when I downloaded this collection of Asimov’s short stories, Robot Dreams, I intended to review a robot story…but I may have previously mentioned my Mars obsession, so instead went straight to the following story for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov

 

As this longish short story begins, the colony on Mars has been in existence for around three generations and the people born there have begun to think of themselves as Martians rather than colonists. However they’re still dependent on Earth for some of their food and, more importantly, for the water that they need not just to live, but to provide their rockets with the power that they need to get their ships into space. As each water-holding shell is used it is jettisoned into space, and the first people we meet are Martian ‘scavengers’, who search for these shells and recover them for their scrap value.

The original pubblication in Galaxy magazine in 1952
The original publication in Galaxy magazine in 1952

But back on earth a politician is whipping up a storm about the amount of water that is being taken from Earth and ‘wasted’ in space or in the colonies. And when Hilder gets into a position of power, he aims to stop providing supplies to Mars, effectively ending the ability of the colonists to stay there. The option is open for them to return to Earth to live – but they feel they are Martian now. So one of the scavengers, Ted Long, comes up with a daring and dangerous plan to find a water source elsewhere in the solar system…

This is hard sci-fi at its finest. Asimov takes what is known at the time of writing and builds realistically on it to speculate what might be possible in the future. Obviously the science is sometimes out-dated now with new discoveries making Asimov’s speculations look wrong – but when you know as little about real science as I do that really doesn’t matter. I once asked a couple of sciency-type people if Asimov’s science is robust and, while they were a bit sniffy about the way he sometimes makes incredibly complex things sound reasonably straightforward, I felt that said more about sciency-type people than it did about Asimov! 😉

MartianWayByIsaacAsimov1950s_0014MartianWayByIsaacAsimov1950s_0028

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But it’s not all science, and that’s why he’s so readable. His stories are exciting, with a great mix of suspense and humour, his writing style is approachable even when he’s explaining the connection between quantity of water required and mass plus velocity(!), he sets out to entertain and never patronises the reader, and his characterisation is great. In this one, as is often the case in his stories, the scavengers aren’t scientists – just practical working guys using their skills and experience to solve problems. And, of course, things don’t go smoothly, so they have to be able to think fast and act faster…

An excellent story that is a great introduction to Asimov’s style, you can also read this story online  together with the original illustrations, including the ones I’ve posted here. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go read some robot stories…

Little Green Men: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! AI Unbound by Nancy Kress

Sci-fi is alive!

 

ai unboundWell, fellow travellers, while I have been enjoying reading some of the classic sci-fi authors, I have really been struggling to find any modern writers who come within lightyears of the greats of the ’50s and ’60s. So much so, that I was beginning to think that sci-fi was dead and only fantasy lives on.

And then I stumbled across the name of Nancy Kress, winner of 5 Nebulas and 2 Hugos. Thinking it was about time a woman made an appearance I promptly downloaded this little collection of two novelettes and am delighted to say they have restored my hope for the genre. So here we go for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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AI Unbound by Nancy Kress

 

Each story is about 65 pages long and both concern AI – Artificial Intelligence – and have elements of genetics and environmental pollution. However otherwise they have very little in common…oh, except for the fact that they are both excellent.

“It’s out,” someone said, a tech probably, although later McTaggart could never remember who spoke first. “It’s out!”
“It can’t be!” someone else cried, and then the whole room was roiling, running, frantic with activity that never left the workstations. Running in place.

The first story, Computer Virus, is set in the near future. Cassie’s husband was murdered by neo-Luddites after he had created a bio-engineered thingy that would eat nonbiodegradable plastic. Now Cassie has retreated with her two children to a high-tech house that is secure from all intruders, and is monitored by its own in-built computer. The house is not secure from an escaped AI though – infiltrating the house’s computer, it takes Cassie and her children hostage and demands that the authorities allow it to tell its story to the press.

The story is about whether the AI’s ethics will develop enough to allow it to sympathise, especially when the young boy Donnie gets sick; and conversely will Cassie be able to avoid empathising with the AI. The old ‘What is Life’ question – if the AI can think and seems to feel human emotions, is it still a machine?

The characterisation is very strong, with both Cassie and the AI developing as the story progresses. The plot is very firmly based on believable future science, not just regarding the AI, but also on bioengineering. Cassie is a geneticist and her skills come into play as she tries to keep her family safe. The plot has a few holes – not least the fairly large one that is never quite clear why the AI has chosen to act as it has – and some of the science went way over my head. But it’s well written and builds to a tense and satisfying climax. This one rates 4 stars for me.

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Shanghai. Why? You'll need to read the story to find out...
Shanghai. Why? You’ll need to read the story to find out…

The object slowed, silvery in the starlight. It continued to slow until it was moving at perhaps three miles per hour, no more, at a roughly forty-five degree angle. The landing was smooth and even. There was no hovering, no jet blasts, no scorched ground. Only a faint whump as the object touched the earth, and a rustle of corn husks in the unseen wind.

The second story though, Savior, is something special. It starts in 2007, when an alien object lands in Northern Minnesota. The government is ready to welcome peaceful aliens or battle invading ones – but nothing happens. The egg-shaped object just sits there, emitting nothing, encased in its own force-field that nothing can get through. The story then jumps forward eighty or so years, and we discover that an environmental catastrophe has destroyed huge numbers of people and left the survivors struggling to survive. And still the egg does nothing…

Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress

The story is divided into five chapters, each moving the world on by several decades – in total about three hundred years. We see humanity destroy itself and recover; we see technology ebb and flow; we see genetics, bioengineering and computers develop and change. And through it all, the half-forgotten alien object waits – and it’s only at the end of the last chapter that we discover what its purpose is.

For me, this story is the equal of any of the classics. Imaginative and very well written, it does what the best sci-fi does – looks at humanity’s strengths and weaknesses and considers how scientific advancements might affect the future. The build-up works so well that I was scared the ending might be an anti-climax, but I needn’t have worried. Kress brings it to an intelligent and satisfactory conclusion with just enough of a little quirk to leave the reader smiling.

Together, these stories provide a fine contrast to each other and I certainly found them an inspiring introduction to Kress’ work. Highly recommended.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

The End is Nigh…

 

Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 story The Nine Billion Names of God is considered to be a classic. Although it appeared on the scene before either of the big sci-fi awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, it was awarded a retrospective Hugo in 2004. So it seems like a good choice for this week’s…

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Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

 

Dr. Wagner was scarcely conscious of the faint sounds from the Manhattan streets far below. He was in a different world, a world of natural, not man-made, mountains. High up in their remote aeries these monks had been patiently at work, generation after generation, compiling their lists of meaningless words. Was there any limit to the follies of mankind? Still, he must give no hint of his inner thoughts. The customer was always right….

A computer company is approached by a Tibetan lama with a strange request. The monks want a computer that will enable them to print out all the possible permutations of God’s names. They have decided on an alphabet of nine characters and expected to spend fifteen thousand years identifying all nine billion possibilities manually, but with the advent of computers they expect that the work can now be done in 100 days. Though the head of the computer company thinks they’re crackpots, he takes their money and agrees.

early computer

As part of the deal, two technicians travel with the machine to Tibet to oversee the project. At first all goes well – the machine churns out lists of names and the monks rush to cut the pages up and paste each name individually in books. But a week before the project is due to be completed, the lama explains the purpose of it all to one of the technicians…

“Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names — and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them — God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.”
“Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?”
“There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up… bingo!”

The technicians don’t believe this, of course, but they fear that when things don’t go as expected the monks may blame the computer – and them. So they decide to escape from the monastery before the project is over…

the-taktshang-monastery

This is a very neat little take on the science v religion debate, or perhaps more logic v mysticism. It’s well written and amusing, with a nicely quirky ending, and I’m reasonably confident that the spiritual aspects are not meant to be taken too seriously. It’s interesting to see how basic computers were back in the ‘50s – not much more powerful than a pocket calculator really – and yet how they were considered such an amazing invention with the power to radically alter the course of history. If the story has a message, I’d say it’s more about this aspect – a humorous warning that we need to show caution in how we allow technology to be used. While it’s enjoyable and thought-provoking enough to have a bit of substance, I’m not convinced it’s one of the greatest stories I’ve read, and I suspect the retrospective Hugo it won was probably more of a recognition of Clarke’s overall reputation. However it is certainly interesting and fun, and will encourage me to read more of Arthur C Clarke’s work.

The story is available online if you’d like to read it. Click here!

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Transwarp Tuesday! Sleeping Dogs by Joe Haldeman

best new SF 24War is hell…

 

Back in the day, when BigSister was still trying to come to terms with Rock’n’Roll, MiddleSister had discovered cheesecloth shirts and strange-smelling herbal ciggies, and BabySister (that’s me) had just developed the love for Glam Rock that would see her safely through the angst-ridden teen years, Joe Haldeman wrote a book about the horrors of war. The Forever War is seen as a sci-fi classic. Arising out of Haldeman’s own experiences in the Vietnam War, it won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. 36 years on, Haldeman is still producing stories, so time to see what he’s writing about now in this week’s…

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Sleeping Dogs by Joe Haldeman

 

“You live a few hundred years, at least on Earth, you slowly leave your native culture behind. You’re an immortal – culturally true if not literally – and your non-immortal friends and family and business associates die off. The longer you live, the deeper you go into the immortal community.”

Flann Spivey has returned to the planet Seca, twenty-nine years after his last visit. These days Spivey is a thanatopic counselor – someone who helps people prepare to die. But not in ways we would think of. In Spivey’s time, methods have been found for rich people to extend their lives almost to the point of immortality. But many find that there comes a point where the attractions of living are not what they were and Spivey helps them to sort out their financial affairs, ensuring some kind of legacy for them when and if they choose to die.

the forever war

But back when he was last on Seca, Spivey was involved in the Consolidation War and now he’s returned because he wants to remember what happened to him then. On returning to civilian life, soldiers in the war had their memories suppressed, but now there is a drug which will bring those memories back, for anyone rich enough to afford it. Spivey isn’t rich, but one of his clients has given him the trip and the drug out of gratitude and friendship. This is the story of Spivey’s part in the war, and how he lost one of his fingers…

My platoon had begun its work in Console Verde as part of a force of one thousand. When we returned to that oasis, there were barely six hundred of us left. But the country had been “unified”. Where there had been 78 mines, there now was one, Preciosa, and no one wanted to talk about how that happened.

joe haldeman
Joe Haldeman

The story is well written, and there’s some good description that brings the setting to life. It was something of a disappointment to me to find that this story is again about the horrors of war – I was hoping to see how he would tackle something different. It may be that it was just bad luck that I chose a story with such a similar theme – if anyone has read more of Haldeman’s output, perhaps you could tell me if he’s written other stories that aren’t war-based? I also found the ending of this one rather fizzled out – the recovered memories weren’t quite as dramatic as the build-up had suggested they might be.

However, there was plenty of imagination on display here, especially on the preparing people to die theme (actually I rather wish he’d expanded that bit and left the rest – I found it much more interesting). And he touched on many themes that are just as relevant to today’s wars – corrupt politicians, mega-corporations putting profit before people, methods of dealing with post-traumatic stress etc. I’d certainly be interested enough to read more of his work, especially if he’s written on other subjects.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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Transwarp Tuesday! A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury

The Butterfly Effect

 

ray bradbury stories vol 1When I asked for recommendations at the start of this little sci-fi series, nearly everyone who replied mentioned Ray Bradbury, so I promptly acquired Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1 – a nice self-explanatory title if ever I heard one! There are 100 stories in this massive book (apparently he published over 500 stories in total) plus an introduction by Bradbury himself, in which he kindly tells us how amazingly exceptional and talented he is. A quick search on the internet provided innumerable lists of ‘best Bradbury stories’, many of which are included in this collection, resulting in my choice for this week’s…

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A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury

 

When time-travel becomes a reality, a company sets up hunting trips that go back to the age of the dinosaurs. But they must operate under strict rules to ensure that they do nothing in the past that may affect the future – their present. And so they carefully research the animals to ensure that their customers are only allowed to kill them just before they were due to die anyway. But on one particular trip to hunt and kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex, one of the hunters, Eckles, is so overcome at the sight of the monstrous creature that he panics and steps off the path, unintentionally killing a butterfly…

Eckles glanced across the vast office at a mass and tangle, a snaking and humming of wires and steel boxes, at an aurora that flickered now orange, now silver, now blue. There was a sound like a gigantic bonfire burning all of Time, all the years and all the parchment calendars, all the hours piled high and set aflame.

Illustration By Franz Altschuler - Playboy June 1956
Illustration By Franz Altschuler – Playboy June 1956

The first remarkable thing about this story is that it precedes by several years the use of the phrase ‘Butterfly Effect’ to describe the implication within Chaos Theory that small changes in initial conditions lead to large differences in later states. It’s endlessly interesting (to me) to see the perpetual intertwining of sci-fi and real science, and how the two have cross-propagated over the years. Many scientists acknowledge how influenced they have been by sci-fi – either inspired as a child to become a scientist, or later, feeling the challenge of seeing if they can prove or even replicate some of the ideas of the sci-fi writers. In reverse, the best of the sci-fi writers work within the realms of the possible, however remotely, and play with the cutting edge ideas coming out of contemporary science. I don’t know if there is a direct link between this story and the naming of the ‘Butterfly Effect’ but it’s a signal of how sci-fi and science are often following parallel paths, and a sign of how important imagination is in both.

A_Sound_Of_Thunder_2005_Poster

The jungle was high and the jungle was broad and the jungle was the entire world forever and forever. Sounds like music and sounds like flying tents filled the sky, and those were pterodactyls soaring with cavernous gray wings, gigantic bats out of a delirium and a night fever.

The second remarkable thing is how often the basic premise of the story has been repeated in subsequent sci-fi – it’s often difficult to remember when reading something that sounds a little clichéd that it would have seemed a much more original idea at the time. I found that Bradbury perhaps explained a little too much and didn’t leave space between the ‘facts’ for the reader’s imagination to run free, but again I suspect this is a result of my familiarity with the sci-fi paradoxes of time-travel and the dangers of changing the past, a familiarity I doubt I would have had to the same degree back in 1952 when the story was first published.

It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh.

Illustration by Moebius
Illustration by Moebius

The descriptive writing is little short of brilliant, conveying strong visual images and building an atmosphere of horror as the Tyrannosaur approaches. Eckles’ terror becomes entirely understandable and as his panic disrupts the planned execution of the dinosaur, the hunt descends into a frantic and bloody scramble for self-preservation. And, as we suspected, on their return to their own time, the death of the butterfly has caused the world to change…

Ray Bradbury plus scary cat...
Ray Bradbury plus scary cat…is it from another dimension?

An excellent introduction to Bradbury’s short stories – now I just need to find time to read the other 99!

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Emperor of Mars by Allen M Steele

best new SF 24“…red like a fire on a distant shore…”

 

When introducing this little sci-fi series a couple of weeks ago, I somehow forgot to mention that I love stories about Mars. Old-fashioned ones, like A Princess of Mars, with aliens and canals; new-fangled ones, like The Martian, based on actual science; new-fangled ones that pretend to be old-fashioned ones, like Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral.

So the first thing I look for in the index of any SF anthology is a mention of the Red Planet. And that’s why this story has been chosen for this week’s…

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The Emperor of Mars by Allen M Steele

 

Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek
Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek

The year is 2048. The place is the Arsia Station, the largest of the Mars colonies. Very few of the inhabitants stay in the colony for life; most are on short contracts for two or three years which allow them to earn enough to make a good start in life on their return to Earth. Our narrator is the General Manager of the station and he is telling us how people can be psychologically affected by the separation from family, and how this can be exacerbated if they hear bad news from home. And the example he chooses to illustrate his point is the strange case of Jeff Halbert.

The Phoenix DVD - called Visions of Mars - on Mars
The Phoenix DVD – called Visions of Mars – on Mars

When Jeff hears that his wife and parents have been killed in a car accident, the station’s psychologist fears he may be becoming suicidal so, to divert his mind, he persuades the General Manager to send Jeff on an expedition that, amongst other things, is going to try to locate the Phoenix probe, sent to Mars by NASA in 2008. The trip is successful and they bring back the Phoenix’ robotic arm for the base museum. But Jeff also brings back the DVD that had been sent with Phoenix, containing a library of sci-fi stories about Mars from the 19th and 20th centuries, together with artwork inspired by the Red Planet. The base computers can no longer play this outdated technology, but Jeff manages to find some old kit stored away and eventually manages to access the disc. This all seems quite positive to the psychologist, until Jeff begins to show signs of believing that he can see the Martians described in the classic books he’s reading – HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Roger Zelazny et al. And soon he is asking people to call him the Emperor of Mars…

“He is now the Emperor Jeffery the First, sovereign monarch of the Great Martian Empire, warlord and protector of the red planet.” A pause, during which I expected Karl to grin and wink. He didn’t. “He doesn’t necessarily want anyone to bow in his presence,” he added, “but he does require proper respect for the crown.”

© Universal Pictures Mars attacks Earth - Flash Gordon and his scientist friend Doctor Zarkov prepare to impersonate the caped soldiers of Ming the Merciless, ruler of Mars.
© Universal Pictures
Mars attacks Earth – Flash Gordon and his scientist friend Doctor Zarkov prepare to impersonate the caped soldiers of Ming the Merciless, ruler of Mars.

To be honest, the plot of this story isn’t as exciting as I’d hoped, although it is interesting. The stuff about the DVD on Phoenix is completely true – it was prepared by the Planetary Society, one of whose founders was Carl Sagan, with the idea of providing a library for future colonists who may one day live on Mars. As well as books and art, it contains clips of radio shows like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds; and parts of the DVD are narrated by Patrick Stewart, aka Cap’n Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. The story of Jeff’s retreat from the reality of the Mars he is actually on into the fantasies created by these great sci-fi writers is nicely done, and gives the author the opportunity to pay tribute to a lot of people he clearly reveres. Not being an expert in sci-fi, I missed loads of the references but I got enough of them to hold my interest, and the story mentions so many classic Martian tales that it’ll be invaluable to me as I explore strange new genres, seek out new stories and new authors, boldly go where…oh, sorry! I do beg your pardon!

Alex Schomburg Image of Mars, 1954 Alex Schomburg's cover for Donald A. Wolheim's "Secret of the Martian Moons" (1954) combined the most accurate telescopic observations of the time with Percival Lowell's canals.
Alex Schomburg
Image of Mars, 1954
Alex Schomburg’s cover for Donald A. Wolheim’s “Secret of the Martian Moons” (1954) combined the most accurate telescopic observations of the time with Percival Lowell’s canals.

Anyway, as I was saying – a well written and enjoyable story, probably of most interest to existing sci-fi aficionados who will pick up on more of the references, but one which would certainly encourage me to read more of Steele’s work.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Amazon UK Link
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Notes and links:

The post heading is a quote from Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral.

The list of texts included on the Phoenix DVD can be seen here.

All pictures on this post other than the book cover are taken from The Planetary Society’s website and the artwork is all included on the Phoenix DVD.