" 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

Friday, May 22, 2020

New Arrivals Soviet SF and a Badger Book

 Some years ago my wife and I visited London. A visit to the Barbican Estate was on our list. We have long been interested it this complex as an example of British brutalist architecture. It is on my list of cool places to live should I ever win (really really big) on the lottery. We had just missed the exhibit Into the Unknown A journey Through Science Fiction, but I bought the catalogue.

The first two illustrations below come from this catalogue.
I have just received Soviet Space Graphics, Cosmic Visions from the USSR  by Alexandra Sankova from a local bookstore and I knew Into The Unknown discussed the topic as well in the chapter, "Space Odysseys, Visions of the Cosmos in Soviet Science Fiction" by Alyona Sokolnikova. So I wanted to look at both essays as well as the illustrations. Soviet Space Graphics is a great book. The introductory essay is only about five pages long but the book is lavishly illustrated, some 267 in total. The reproductions are a bit matte but they allow one to get a real overview of the different styles that were employed over the years. 

One thing that struck me immediately was the similarities between these illustrations and those found in the science fiction pulp magazines of this period. They were also quite reminiscent to the more futuristic covers of general technical magazines like Popular Mechanics

In discussing the new Soviet era periodicals Sokolnikova notes "A significant number of these publications focused their attention on the exploration of Earth, its subterranean and oceanic depths, as well as the endless mysteries of outer space-each of the frontiers representing the promise of a bright, new Communist future." (8) 

These were not, at least initially, fiction magazines intended for entertainment. Sokolnikova tells us that, "In 1934, the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers was held. At this event, the genre of science fiction was defined exclusively as ' literature for young people' which was required to focus on readers' scientific and technical education in the spirit of social realism. Ideas about human flight were criticized as being too remote from everyday needs, and even utopian. Hence a more pragmatics genre of the science fiction essay, devoid of literary plot, evolved 5." (55) what a buzz kill, it sounds a bit like John Campbell's essays/diatribes in Analog education not fun. Sokolnikova notes that in the late 1960's the work of the Strugatsky's among others spurred the growth of a softer less technical or adventure oriented science fiction from the Soviet Union. 

And for something completely different, or is it? Maybe it's just a different vision of the future? I became interested in Badger books after following the unsubscribedblog's Badger Book on Sunday, posts. Now whenever I see one at an almost reasonable price, especially with the kind of garish covers I love I cannot resist. This cover is by Eddie Jones. Is it just me or is our hero standing in an old style a beer glass surrounded by equipment purloined from a hair salon. Now that is science!

Monday, May 4, 2020

Murderbot Diaries by Martha Well, plus a couple of new arrivals

Before I discuss Martha Well's Murderbot Diaries I wanted to share the covers of two books I received today. Cheesy as some may find it I love Laumer's A Plague of Demons, I also love this cover by Carlos Ochagavia. Really, does it get better than demon dogs trying to maybe gnaw on human brains encased in robots.

My discussion of A Plague of Demons appears here;

Joachim Boaz discussed “Testament” a short story by Vincent King here:

I noticed the bookseller that had A Plague of Demons also had Light a Last Candle by King, with a pretty cool cover by Robert Foster. The discussions on Good Reads sounded intriguing if a bit mixed so the four armed diaper guy joined my collection.

All Systems Red - The Murderbot Diaries 1 (cover).jpg

And now to Murderbot

I  really enjoyed The Murderbot Diaries. Murderbot is a fun character. Murderbot's various adventures take place across a a number of locations within the Corporate Rim. Most of the citizens we meet, we do not meet many, are people working in space in an economy geared to exploiting existing worlds or exploring for new resources at least within the planets and space stations where most of the action takes place. The society in the Rim is dystopian with many citizens indentured or leased to corporations, criminals or the mega-wealthy. The story feeds us enough detail that we can envision the societies and culture overall without becoming so dense that we bog down in back story and infodumps. Instead, the details are inserted into the narrative, emerging as needed without appearing forced or slowing down the action. These are action stories with a very good pace. They are also novella length which as means they are quick reads

Wells understands the human condition and offers a vision of how bleak the society she has extrapolated is for many people, via the experiences of Murderbot a security unit assigned to a mapped expedition on an unexplored planet. SecUnits are a merger of machine and cloned human parts created for tasks too challenging to be handled by even augmented humans or smart machines.  "When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot, but you can't put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security." (Artificial Condition) This would require human supervisors and slow down the unit's reaction time, among other things.  Therefore constructs have some freedom of choice but only within the limitations set by their programming and governor module. 

Wells, through Murderbot can find some humour or at least irony in rather dire situations, something I am increasingly challenged to do. Indeed Murderbot views the interactions of the humans with resignation, cynicism, paranoia and occasionally humour. Murderbot does come across as jaded, disengaged and very world weary. Also interactions with humans on a personal level are unwelcome and quite stressful. Indeed the first paragraph of All Systems Red provides a valuable insight in Murderbot's dilemma.

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don't know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.” (All System Red)

One thing that Wells did that works for me in this series is avoiding some of the standard science fiction terms for artificial life or machine intelligence.  The term bot is used extensively for machines that operate independently often prefixed by the function; examples include bot-driven transports, cargo bots, hauler bots etc.

We have augmented humans, but no cyborgs, Miki in Rogue Protocol is usually described as a human-form bot, although the word robot is used a couple of times generally as a derogatory term. ART, the research transport vessel in Artificial Condition, is described as a bot, although it has the characteristics of what would be called an AI in many science novels. I found this freeing; I did not immediately feel I knew the attributes or roles of these characters based on the term. Instead, I learned how they fit into the range of artificial life forms by their actions within the storyline.

I am becoming increasingly interested in depictions of mechanical life, artificial intelligence, robots, drones and all the other manifestations of artificially created sentient beings. So this series was something I quite enjoyed. Indeed I read All Systems Red and hesitated to read the other books for fear I would not enjoy them as much. But when Tor made the series available for download for free, I could not resist. So I will say now I loved the entire series and am awaiting the next addition to Murderbot's story, which I will buy immediately. The setting and action reminded me a bit of C.J. Cherryh's Allliance-Union books, which is never a bad thing. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Stories of Hope and Wonder: In Support of the UK's Healthcare Workers

Readers of my Lovecraft Blog will recognize that part of this post, (concerning my purchase of the anthology "Stories of Hope and Wonder) appeared there as well. For Jagged Orbit, I will discuss another story from this anthology "The Road to the Sea" by Lavie Tidhar.

A recent newsletter from PS Publishing noted the following new release.

"We all of us like—even THRIVE on—a little hope and wonder in our daily grind. Heck, it’s the marmalade on our morning slice of toast, the bracing and blustery wind off the North Sea and the sunlight in our most darkened days (and we’ve had some of those these past few weeks) so I want to sign off this week’s Newsletter with a nod of appreciation in the direction of our chum Ian Whates, head honcho of Newcon Press on a remarkable project.

STORIES OF HOPE AND WONDER contains a rich and varied treasury of quality stories, from dark to light, humorous to menacing, clever to exciting. Fifty-three stories in all, more than a quarter-million words of fiction, including several pieces that are original to the book, featuring some of the finest writers of science fiction, literary fiction, fantasy, horror, and more.

All proceeds from the sale of this digital anthology are being donated to support NHS staff and other UK healthcare workers. So come on, folks, buy your copy by going here—do it now."

My wife and I have watched a number of programs on the work of the NHS, a recent favourite is "The Secret Life Of The Hospital Bed, is a unique 15-part series where, across the 45-minute episodes, fixed-rig cameras tell the story of patients who enter four different hospitals across the country."


The NHS is a great cause, and I was more than happy to purchase this item. I have several anthologies edited by Ian Whates, including 2001: An Odyssey in Words, so I also knew the collection would be a good one.

"The Road to the Sea" by Lavie Tidhar

I have read several stories by Lavie Tidhar, and I have been quite impressed by them. His world-building is lovely, the stories are imaginative, and the setting and characters beautifully realized. The stories themselves are studies of the relationships between characters and their families, and the societies they live in. They are not overly dramatic or violent. They often act as quiet meditations informing us about Tildhar's imagined worlds and the beings who inhabit them.

I would describe the structure of this story as a fable. Events seem to have taken on the nature of a myth or origin story. The community or area that the characters inhabit is not described in any detail. The inner workings are vague. Instead, we are told, "When the world changed and the moon was hurt and our people came to the Land, the ocean remained." This is the story of little Mai's first journey with the band of salvagers her mother leads. They are going to spend the winter in one of the ancient cities by the ocean, searching for workable metal. They travel to the city via a network of old roads. They walk on the shoulders, Tidhar has Mai make a charming little play on words about walking on the shoulders of giants here. They come across rusting travel pods and avoid traps frequently broken ground, but there are references to wild machines.

Characters have evocative names; there is Old Mercurial, who tells ghost stories, Old Grandma Toffle, Shosho Mosh, the hunter and Old Peculiar, who lost an eye when he disappeared into the blighted lands only to return long after he was presumed dead with a treasure trove of maps. It is clear that in the future little Mai will become a storyteller. This is the story of a post apocalyptic world with some hints about how it came to be, but mostly is the story of little Mai and how she came into her role. I will not say any more; instead, I will leave you with a quote, "but I remember that first glimpse of the ocean, how it went on and on until it reached the sky; it seemed to me an immense beast then, always moving, never quite still, its smooth back stretching across the world; and I thought, for just a moment, that it sensed me, somehow, and that it responded.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Robots and us

My wife recently subscribed to the Disney Channel (this is not an ad). We had planned to do this in the fall, mainly to see The Mandalorian. Since we are staying home, we decided to get it now. We have enjoyed Bedknobs and BroomsticksMickey Thru the Mirror, Frozen one and two, we liked two best. Both Wreck-It Ralphs, we liked one best. We watched James Mason in Journey to the Center of the Earth. and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was interesting that Mason's crazed killer Nemo is more sympathetic than his incredibly pompous and entitled professor. Friday, we watched The Mandalorian episode two, Cosmos episode two, the domestication of dogs and one of my favourite movies, Wall.E. When the scene comes on where Wall.E is fussily rearranging his many tchotchkes I turned to my wife and said that is me. This lineup made me think of robots, a subject I had been discussing with Doug during a Skype call earlier this week. Our discussion focused on the science fiction trope of humanoid robots and how, when commercial robots appeared, they were programable arms for welding and painting in factories, not Asimov's R. Daneel Olivaw or Simak's Richard Daniel. The Mandalorian reminded me that it was in the Star Wars universe that I became accustomed to robots in all sizes and shapes, even if some seem impractical or unnecessary. So I went to the shelves and looked for robots. I avoided scary robots, choosing instead depictions of robots who seem not only humanoid in shape but in character. Just like my hero Wall.E. 

Robots like roses just like me, 
actually the gardener in Project Pope is not at all nice.

They have dogs, 

and their taste in literature seem similar to mine. 

In art they might prefer the Bob Ross school, but that is fine. 

Their childhood pursuits seem somewhat familiar. 

Sometimes they get their own back,

and on occasion they must confront reminders of their own mortality. 
Stay well, stay safe.


Most are by the incomparable Mel Hunter for more on Mel see The Lonely Robot post at Ralph E. Vaughan's wonderful blog Book Scribbles.

Project Pope cover by Rowena Morrill

"Aesop" cover by Alejandro

Adam Link (t) may be by Jack Gaughan  (b) Jack Gaughan

If, October 1957 is also by Mel Hunter

Astounding, October 1955 cover by Emesh

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A Medicine for Melancoly (Or: The Sovereign Remedy Revealed!) by Ray Bradbury

  I began reading this story some time ago. Certainly, before our period of self-isolation started. This morning after completing Asimov's "The Winds of  Change", I decided to finish it, possibly because I associate both writers with the first science fiction stories I read. 

Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes have had several doctors attending to their daughter Camilla. None has helped, and finally when the last suggests bleeding her, they drive him off. She tells them she hurts, the list is long, but basically all over. "Since the start of spring, three weeks, I've been a ghost in my mirror; I frighten me. To think  I'll die without seeing my twentieth birthday."  (39) 

Her parents are at a loss; their son Jamie suggests they take her downstairs and set her outside the door. He reasons that someone going by might recognize her condition and suggest a cure. 

"Father?' said Jamie breathlessly. " Have you ever known one single man who didn't think he personally wrote Materia Medica? This green ointment for sour throat, that ox-salve for miasma or bloat? Right now, ten thousand self-appointed apothecaries sneak off down there, their wisdom lost to us!" (40)

When the crowd becomes unruly, Jamie suggests charging them a tuppence for providing a diagnosis. While Camilla's condition remains undiagnosed, the family raises a lot of money to the amazement of Mr. Wilkes. 

"Did you imagine, family, so many people, two hundred, would pay to give us their opinion?" 

"Yes" said Mrs. Wilkes. "Wives, husbands, children are deaf to each other. So people gladly pay to have someone listen. poor things, each today thought he and he alone knew dropsy, glanders, could tell the slaver from hives. So tonight we are rich and two hundred people are happy, having unloaded their full medical kit at our door." (43) The Vintage Bradbury

As is often the case, Bradbury's characters operate with a feverish, almost manic intensity. He has always been a romantic, unfettered by science and the somewhat unconventional solution to their problem is also typical of his work. I enjoyed the story, Bradbury offers some cynical but none the less accurate observations about human nature and our love for offering advice which seem particularly appropriate in our current era of internet charlatans, celebrity "influencers", and pontificating politicians. Also, the mention of ox-salve reminded me of my mother applying horse liniment to my dodgy ankle. The diagrams on the label showing how my fetlocks would be improved by several applications were particularly illuminating. 


The Vintage Bradbury ?

A Medicine for Melancholy ISFDB Dean Ellis?