" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Last American by John Kessel




Earlier I briefly discussed the work of John Kessel here.  
(cover above by Edward Munch)


Some time ago I received this lovely copy of H.G. Wells The Shape of Things to Come from a friend. I had been looking over Last and First Man by Stapledon and wanted to compare the two. So that night I opened the Wells and read the introduction/fictional rational for his book. I will say, while I love historic science fiction and future histories these are books/tomes I delve into rather than read cover to cover. 


The next day I was meeting a friend at a pub for lunch so I took also the 13th volume of Hartwell's Year's Best. I noticed a Kessel story, 'The Last American The Life of Andrew Steele Recreated by Fiona 13 Reviewed by The Old Guy" Wow it was another future history. This kind of coincidence always charms me.

"In this new biography of Steele, Fiona 13, the Grand of her long career recreating lives for the Cognosphere. Andrew Steele, when he died in 2100, had come to exemplify the twenty-first century, and his people, in a way that goes beyond the metaphorical. Drawing on every resource of the posthuman biographer, from heuristic modeling to reconstructive DNA sampling to forensic dreaming, Ms. 13 has produced this labor of, if not love, then obsession, and I, for one, am grateful for it. Fiona presents her new work in a hybrid form. Comparatively little of this biography is subjectively rendered. Instead, harking back to a bygone era, Fiona breaks up the narrative with long passages of text—strings of printed code."

And what a story it is, we follow Andrew Steele from abused child to blogger, war criminal, incredibly successful writer/producer for movies, religious leader to president. And through the life of Allen Steele we see a world at times distressingly like the most appalling aspects of our own as it moves towards a far-off posthuman future. I don't intend to say more about the story. Rather I will try to convey my reaction. I read, my friend came we had lunch. On the way home I stopped at the CO-OP for groceries. When I went to check out I arrived at the line about the same time as another old codger. I waved him in and immediately pulled out the book to continue reading. I never do that. I seldom read in public and never become so engrossed in a story that I read in line. Kessel's work is very often quite good, the plots are interesting and the twists unexpected.  He often gets me to read types of stories I do not normally read, I don't like time travel, but read "The Pure Product" and "The Miracle of Ivar Avenue" did I like them? I am not sure, but I remember them and I looked for more of his work. I have no interest in stories about politics and the near future. That said "The Last American "is one of the best reads I have had in quite some time. I indeed to read it again just to see how he did it. And I will be reading more of Kessel's work in the future. You should as well.

I am a bit rushed today so I apologize for any typos, omissions or oversights etc. 


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Ian Sales; Far Voyager, New Arrivals; PS Publishing - Asimov's

 Normally new books fron the excellent publishing house, P.S. Publishing end up on my H.P.L. blog but these definately belong on Jagged Orbit. (These items were all on sale, and the shipping was reasonable.) As always I lean towards the short story format. I am especially interested in the story "Far Voyager" by Ian Sales whose blog I have followed for years.  https://iansales.com/ 

The Best of Ian Watson cover by Jim Burns
Extrasolar cover by Tomisalv Tikulin
Far Voyager coiver by Philp Simpson

"Far Voyager" by Ian Sales. I am not that big a fan of near future, Apollo era science fiction. That said "Far Voyager", an alternative history of the program is one of the best science fiction stories I have read in several years. Sales presents us with a manned Voyager 1 probe, which after 37 years is about to enter the heliopause. In his introduction, Sales speaks about the importance of the human element and in the character of the astronaunt, (the Admiral) we have a fully realized human being with all the foblies, frailty, vanity and the occasional impulse towards the heroic that one would expect in a man who went through the Apollo training. The story is low key, any information we need to understand the setting is presented naturally as part of the Admiral's thoughts or his interactions with Earth, There are no info-dumps, we get what we need and enough to fill in any blanks ourselves. The passsage of time is conveyed effortlessly with simple references to audiocassettes and a computer mouse. The other day I was reading Simak's non-fiction book  The Solar System; Our New Front Yard and in it he discussed the dangers of radiation in any attempt at long term space flight. Sales handles this problem casually and elegantly and when I mentioned it to my wife she said that was one of the potential solutions she had read about. I enjoyed the Admiral as a character and the opportunity to "listen" in on his thoughts was a high point of story. It really spoke to me about the era of the Apollo and Voyager programs and our thoughts about space exploration at the time. 


I also have been considering some science fiction magazine subscriptions, so I dug out some yard sale issues of Asimov's Science Fiction to see how I liked them.


Asimov's covers L to R Bob Eggleton, Gary Freeman, Greg Lafevere

Friday, July 19, 2019

July 2019 and A Simak Summer


I am a terrible procrastinator, so every summer I surround myself with art supplies, carving tools, and books and magazines to read. I accomplish none of it. I have also set goals this summer I decided to read 3 digest magazines representing the major science fiction titles Galaxy Science Fiction, Astounding Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. All are the July 1956 issues, so I can see how the contentts, authors, themes, etc. differ. At the last minute I picked a couple more 1956 Galaxy magazines, cool covers after all. I did not look at the ToC first, so they were not cherry picked in that respect. I am not sure if I will read them cover to cover. I am already way behind so we will see. 


The second project, that is even more behind is A Simak Summer. In my youth when I began reading science fiction, the so called big three were Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke and I read them all. But I also had another big four that were equally important to me, Andre Norton, I am firing my Norton blog back up there is a link on the right under My other blogs. 


John Wyndham, I am sure we covered some of his books in school but it’s foggy. I read much more of his work than was required because I enjoyed it. Ray Bradbury whose stories are still with me. And last but not, as they say least, Clifford Simak. I have read many of his novels and short stories.

Collecting different editions and appearances of his work has also been one of the focuses for my mania(?), which sees me with way too many books.  Open Road is publishing his complete short fiction, I think it runs to 12 volumes, so there is a lot of material to cover. I have included a link in part because of the crazed look a younger Simak has on the author photo.

https://openroadmedia.com/contributor/clifford-d-simak/

Simak is also an author Doug and I often discuss in our weekly talks, so it seems doubly appropriate. Simak’s story was “All The Traps of Earth” was also the first story covered on this blog. Given Simak’s recurring use of autumnal settings and imagery maybe the series should be called Simak the Autumnal Man, but whatever. With luck the series will run for years regardless of the season. 


Now I am off to put together a post on our friends the Franklin's Ground Squirrels, which will appear here, and at least demonstrate that I do complete some posts over the summer I include the link.

http://thatsjustthewildwood.blogspot.com/

Then I have some reading to do.



The first illustration is by John Schoenherr, for Clifford Simak's "New Folks Home" Analog Science Fact - Science Fiction, cover by Van Dongen


Astounding Science Fiction, cover by Van Dongen

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, cover by Chesley Bonestell

Galaxy Science Fiction,1956 July cover by Jack Coggins
August cover by Virgil Finlay
April cover by Emesh

Sunday, July 7, 2019

New Writings in SF5 edited by John Carnell (Part Two)


“Acclimatization” by David Stringer

I hated this story, I was unengaged with the main character, a spacer Gerry Kaufman, who returns to earth from his first trip to Deepspace then whines about it. I also found the future history setting and plot uninteresting. So I will stop here, one thing I said when I started this blog was if I have nothing nice to say…, sometimes I am unsuccessful. But I try.

If you want to read some stories about rather odd conquests of space I suggest Larry Niven’s stories of Beowulf Shaeffer, “Neutron Star” is a great place to start or the many really enjoyable stories of Cordwainer Smith, I don’t have his books at the cabin but start with “Scanners Live in Vain” and “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”. Or better yet find them all by reading everything he wrote. Moving on. 

“The Expanding Man” by R.W. Mackelworth

from Carnell’s introduction, “ Not all science fiction stories require a complex plot or setting to make them acceptable. The following story, set in a park, is solely a conversational piece, but its implications prove far-reaching.” 

The conversation is between Algie Ryan and a stranger he has met in the park. They are seated on a bench while Ryan recounts a somewhat incoherent story concerning his wife. While the stranger ( he provides the name Smith) pretends to lend a sympathetic ear, this is not what he is interested in. It seems that Ryan had spoken to another stranger, who subsequently vanished. Smith wants to know what Ryan told him. As he says “you are the kind of man who confesses, Mr Ryan. All confessions fun along the same line-a protest, a windy grumble with tensions running out in an acid stream.” (107)

Spoilers ahead
I am going to quote a bit more because this is a really well-written story. The description of the park, the back and forth between Ryan and Smith are beautifully realized. 

Finally, Ryan describes his encounter, “ I sensed he wasn’t ordinary, that he was from out of this world, and I accepted it. Then, as I told my troubles he seemed to grow until he filled the whole of my view.” (108) As Smith is able to demonstrate Ryan means this literally. Because Smith and the previous stranger are aliens from two different factions and in contacting Ryan a rule have been broken. Ryan goes on “ “he took them on he grew larger with them…until he was enormous, a great skinful of my problems, of small household nags and big bank tyrannies. I thought he would explode.” “It is trick, a conjuring trick for ignorant natives! He broke every political agreement and every solemn pact of non-interference that’s ever been made in this sector of space-time merely by speaking to you.” Smith spoke like a small-town politician who hadn’t time to fix the ballot boxes and knew he had lost to the other candidate. The other side was breeding a nimbler race of mice.” (109)
From this description, it may seem like a fairly ordinary story of two extraterrestrial visitors vying for mankind’s support, but Mackelworth’s story is far more complex than that, and Ryan is very much an unreliable narrator. This story has, to me, more of a New Wave vibe than the other fairly conventionally plotted stories in this collection. But I absolutely loved it, well written, nicely plotted with great dialogue Mackelworth is another writer I will look for in the future. This collection seems to be it’s the only appearance of this story.

“Treasure Hunt” by Joseph Green

Professor Soames Chalcedony was a Philosophy Professor and spokesperson for a group advocating that longevity treatments be extended to everyone, at present, they are restricted to the rich and the influential. At 80 years of age, while still in good health, Chalcedony has opted to have his body submerged into the Mediterranean in a coffin. Here Chalcedony will live through a thousand years of dreams for each day his body takes to die. But his body has now been stolen for use in a treasure hunt. He is told “You are a mental pattern, a matrix of electrical fires taken from one mind and forcibly imposed on another. “ (118) in a few hours the original mind will reassert itself and Chalcedony’s mind will fade. They go on. “We are on a treasure hunt. We are after the fresh-laid egg of the firebird, The most beautiful object in the galaxy, and this is the only way one may be obtained. You were chosen to share this effort with us because our computer selected you as the philosopher most likely to succeed. It seems Chalcedony has been retrieved by four adventurers who found alien mind transfer equipment on a remote dead planet and decided to retrieve an egg to pay for longevity treatments. One has already died and a second has been brain damaged. The other two men have tried but failed to retrieve the egg. 

To retrieve the egg one must assume the form of chariot-horse.

Chalcedony sees his new body as a reflection in a pool of liquid mercury “seeing the plump, rounded armless body, heavy tapered tail, snake-length of neck topped by a blunt and broad-nosed dragon’s head, the open mouth showing pointed tongue and diamond glitter of teeth in the wide wicked jaws. He looked at the two wheels of bone that supplied his locomotion as he moved away, at the massive bones which protruded from both sides of the muscular abdomen” (117) 

He is on a planet where life is based on silicon, a world of crystal growths. “When he moved he gave off light, and he now realized this was true on every plant and animal on this sphere. His borrowed eyes knew and allowed for this. He was a humble vegetarian, with teeth of diamond and stomach of hydrofluoric acid, there were growths of prisms, seed carriers of crystal bells, fruits of gemmed translucency that were his food.” (122) If he succeeds Chalcedony will be rewarded with longevity treatments and a place on the crew if he wants it. But first, he must navigate a very strange landscape. 

The story is not long but Green has offered a really beautifully depth of description for the silicon-based forest. Honestly, this is what I originally signed up for when I began reading science fiction. Utterly alien, aliens and strange planets based on totally different physical laws and an adventure to boot. All that it needs is a great cover by Frank R. Paul dripping with crystal forests, prism mountains and battling dragons with wheels. Again it looks like this collection was its only appearance.  

“Sunout” by Eric C. Williams

With this title, and the description of the death of the sun in the review, (the story is falsely attributed to Mackelworth in the review), I am not too worried about spoilers, this is an okay story dealing with the discovery that the sun is about to go out, by the staff of an observatory. The plot revolves around what to do with the information some opt to publicize it right away and some including the head of the observatory wants to tell the president and other heads of state so they can prepare of the resulting panic. I said in discussing the first story in that collection that otherwise so so stories can be redeemed by the ending. “The Secretary went down a step and greeted the President with an urgency showing his held-down panic. “This is Professor Weiner,” he said, turning.
The President extended his hand.
The Sun went out.” (162) 


Great stuff. I did not know what to expect from a collection put together by John Carnell but as I said in Part One once I had read a few I knew that I was in good hands. The overall quality and the sheer variety of plots really made for a great reading experience. I have a few more of this New Writings in SF collections and I will keep an eye open for more, as well as looking for other stories by some of the writers I discussed here. 

New Writings in SF5 edited by John Carnell (Part One)


  Sorry I have been sitting on this for months.  I was reading a post on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations (great blog) when in the comments section Joachim Boaz had provided a review of Heinlein's Farnham’s Freehold (a truly awful book) from the New Worlds issue  for Nov. 1965.

The image included a review by Hilary Bailey of John Carnell's New Writing in SF5 which I found much more intriguing. I had the Carnell anthology and was able to find the review on my New Worlds dvd.

Cover uncredited. I read Colvin's (Michael Moorcock) "The Wrecks of Time', which was interesting, I am not sure if it will be a post.





John Carnell was a UK literary agent and anthologist. He is perhaps best know for his association with New Worlds magazine. While Michael Moorcock receives most of the credit for using New Worlds to launch science fiction's, "New Wave", the Encyclopdia of Science Fiction notes Carnell "also gave active encouragement to many of the writers who were later to become strongly associated with Michael Moorcock''s New Worlds …, including Brian W. Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, John Brunner and Moorcock himself."

http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/carnell_john

In an earlier post, I tried to explain why I am attracted to some science fiction works more than others.

"Other times it is more immediate, there may be is a feeling of familiarity or comfort, like sitting in a favourite chair, that occurs the minute I read a certain passage, as in “Epilogue ” by Poul Anderson when the robot gathers his spears and sets off on his quest. Sometimes it is not the text but the feeling the work leaves, say the exuberance I felt after completing Robert Sheckly’s somewhat silly, “Specialist". Some because I recognize them as part of a continuum, Niven’s Gil Hamilton stories, for example, lead me to Linda Nagata’s "Nahiku West"."

https://ajaggedorbit.blogspot.com/2018/06/science-fiction-and-me-why-i-read-what.html

I was reading my second story in this anthology when I realized this was going to be one of those books. Bailey seems to think five of the seven have were possibly better but none particularly memorable. As for how memorable these stories will be (for me), only time will tell, but I quite enjoyed six of the seven. I like British science fiction and these had a real range in that the settings or plots of the stories were all quite different. I am going to discuss each story, some in more detail, and I will try to warn of spoilers. Carnell does provide a one paragraph introduction to each story, which I may quote in full or in part. 


Cover unattributed. 

Potential by Donald Malcolm

The story begins with Dr. Edward Maxwell, the Director of D.R.E.A.M. who is monitoring the subjects of a dream study at a university sleep clinic. His wife Jill is expected to deliver their first child at any moment so he is a bit distracted. But not that much, as I will discuss later. The subject of the greatest interest is Gerry McLean when roused McLean begins to dictate a dream of swirling clouds or mist, sparks within the mist begin to form decimate patterns, then McLean begins to see the back of someone's head. Maxwell then lets his mind drift, so we are treated to a page and a half on information on dreams and dream research I could have done without. Then McLean begins to dream again even though two dreams in 45 minutes is unusually frequent. " There are no clouds, now, only a uniform blue-grey background that seems to extend everywhere. There are no random sparks, either. All are in some pattern or other. There's much more activity …looks purposeful, as if a stimulus were being applied… or-or supplied." and " The pattern moves…it's as if the mechanical action of a typewriter were being translated into terms of light.."(7) McLean also begins to dictate equations which neither he or Maxwell are able to understand. At present McLean is a manual labourer. He is generally unpleasant, brusque, sardonic and pushy. Intrigued by his dreams Maxwell begins to investigate McLean's background. From a former employer, he learns that McLean embezzled money, but was never charged, and impregnated, then deserted a young waitress. From his former Headmaster, he learns that McLean was often in trouble but also a mathematical genius. As the story continues McLean begins to dream more and more frequently and indeed he begins to show up at the clinic when he is not scheduled and demands to use the facility. 

There are several elements about the story I found jarring. There is a brief visit between Maxwell and his wife after the birth of the baby but it is pretty perfunctory. Indeed a day or two after the birth Maxwell is unable to supply the child's name when asked, saying he has not really thought about it that much? Really? Also, the treatment of women in science fiction is often less than stellar, as is the case here, when a young woman gives Maxwell a saucy eye, he dismisses her as a candidate for the world's older profession. This not only seems harsh in general abut also in terms of the story. Virtually every woman in the story, the matron in the hospital, female colleagues, students etc. indicates some sexual interest in Maxwell. I have no clue why the author included this element or the pregnancy of Maxwell's wife since, neither advance the plot and serve only to interrupt the story. 

Spoilers ahead.

Eventually, with the help of Jason Brown, a male colleague Maxwell realizes that McLean is somehow in telepathic communication with the university mainframe. "The computer is running ahead of itself, giving out more information than it should according to the programme." (31)  Brown the university computer expert has we are told "more degrees than a heat wave of thermometers, and he could converse intelligently on most subjects at the drop of a capacitor." (14) ( I am not sure why the author is channelling Gernsbackian science fiction at some points of the story, but you have been warned ) Maxwell and Brown realize the computer must be sending out some kind of broadcast, possibly all computers do, and if they do, can they communicate with each other? I find some stories can leave me cold for a large part of the narrative, only to be redeemed by the ending, Disch's Camp Concentration is one such work and "Potential" is another. "Then, as his signal began to fade, on a planet of a star four and a third light years away, a mind became aware, fleetingly, of an alien presence. He smiled and was content." (33)

The Liberators by Lee Harding 

from Carnell's introduction, 

"In the far distant future, the City roamed the face of the Earth, its memory banks conjuring fantasies from the minds of the unhumans storied within its vitals. Almost omnipotent, it was yet growing old and senile, and slow to meet the threat of the new life stirring upon the face of the world." 

Between the introduction and the first line, "They tumbled blindly through the endless twilight of the tunnel under the World, Pallid little creatures with faces like polished pebbles washed smooth by time, and pursued by a growing sense of guilt."(37) the plot is fairly clearly laid out. But I felt it was an enjoyable story, it conjured up memories of The Matrix and Jones' The Cybernetic Brains, but without killer frogs which I discussed here.


Takeover Bid by John Baxter

As a Canadian, I think that John Baxter (an Australian) is writing about issues of national identity, that Canada as a member of the British Commonwealth, former territories of the British Empire, is still grappling with when it comes to our national identity and role in the world. As the story begins Bill Fraser Assistant Director of Civil Aviation is travelling in a fully automated bubble car to Crosswind Headquarters. As he travels he considers a number of recent events that will give us a sense of the "New" Australia in which the story takes place. "In the fifties the idea of Australia exporting anything but the most basic raw materials-wool, wheat, steel-would have been ridiculous. Nobody had bargained for the immense expansion that would following the opening up od Australia to Asian immigrants and the impetus this would give to the development of the inland desert. Up to 1970 settlement was in most cases confined to a narrow strip of coastline seldom more than one hundred miles wide. Now, in 1994, there were market gardens far to the west where a farmer had been lucky to graze two sheep to the acre," (59)

This increase in GOP has had another consequence, "So, when it suddenly fell heir to wealth its first impulse was to strive with other countries for goals that mattered, the cure for cancer, longevity, space. And so it happened that in 1993 an Australian scientist has stumbled on the forcefield and, almost by accident, given mankind the stars." (60)

This field is a perfect reflector, capable of great acceleration. Animals experiments using the forcefield bubbles went well and eventually, Colonel Peter Chart R.A.A. F. had been sent out. "And had returned. or at least his body had. His mind seemed somehow to have been lost among the empty reaches of space. He had been taken from the bubble completely catatonic and had remained that way for three weeks. Then, on July 2-yesterday-he had quietly risen from his bed, killed a guard and run off to the desert." (60) And it is not just Chart that Fraser and his second in command Col (Colemara Talura), one of the first aborigines to hold a Ph.D. and a B.S.c. that Fraser selected for the project in part because" His combination of soppistication and allegience to the old tribal ways made him a person worth studying. (62) face. There is also the meddling/spying of the ELDO, the European Launcher/Development Organization which will use an old agreement signed by the Australian Government to take over the project and all the technology involved. I loved this story on many levels, the discussion of issues like immigration, higher education and advances in science and technology that are so relevant today. The interactions between Col and Fraser mirror our own interactions with the Canadian Native Peoples The political interactions between Crosswind Project and ELDO remind me in part to the story of the Avro Arrow and the Canadian High Tech sector, which still rankles many Canadian today. I have attached a link should you be interested. 


As you might have guessed this story engaged me on many levels. Using the ISFDB  database,  aside from it's the appearance in the editions of Carnell's anthology I only see one other appearance in "Beyond Tomorrow" edited by Lee Harding (1975). 

I have decided to break this entry into two parts. I will try to complete part two promptly.