Archive for the 4:Stellar! Category

Review: Mel Oliver and Space Rover on Mars

Posted in 1954, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , , on February 16, 2012 by Aaron

William Morrison
1954

This book achieves the distinction of being the first of my collection that I’ve read for review without actually reading the book itself – it was read through the Kindle app on my iPhone.  I talked a bit about that in a recent post.  I have two more books to get through in this way Invaders from the Infinite and The Vortex Blaster, and I’m looking forward to it.  Three actually if you count Highways in Hiding when I re-launch into that.  The whole Kindle experience has re-inspired and reinvigorated my reading.  There is also the not-insignificant benefit of eliminating the chance of accidental damage to my precious books!!  Another advantage of reading on the iPhone is that it’s very easy for me to make notes for the review.  I can bookmark pages or highlight text for reference later using Kindle, or pop out of the app and make short text or audio memos using the Evernote app that will sync with my MacBook the next time I connect to the ‘net.  This is awesome.

I’ve occasionally mentioned in this blog about my formative reading years, checking Mr. Heinlein and Hugh Walters out of the Napier Public Library.  This was a time around 1980 just before I became a teenager.  I used to love going to the library after school.  My mum (that’s British English. For those who use inferior versions of the language, translate that as ‘mom’) , took me there and let me go for an hour or so while I grazed along the shelves, sampling the fare on offer.

Just to digress a little here, I hardly ever write in British English anymore (I think it’s referred to as International English these days..), I almost always use American English.  The reason for this is that in Korea here, where I’ve spent the last 8+ years living and teaching, the education system uses American English – a legacy of the American participation and occupation since the Korean War.  If I slip up and spell a word on the black/whiteboard the way I was taught in school, the kids pull me up about it.  “Teacher!!  Wrong spelling!!”  So I’ve adopted ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’ and ‘theater’ as opposed to ‘theatre’ to name a couple of examples.  The students find it quite interesting when I explain some of the differences between the two versions of the language.  Some foreign English teachers here are quite militant one way or the other, but it doesn’t worry me too much.  Just so long as the kids understand that neither is right or wrong, they’re just different.

Anyway… the Napier Public Library.  It’s not there anymore.  At least, not the one I enjoyed going to.  It was bulldozed and rebuilt nearby.  Rebuilt as a big, bright, airy and soulless structure in the late ’80s I think.  Actually, if I’m objective about it, it needed to be.  It had become way too small for Napier’s growing population and a new facility was badly needed.  I’m just bemoaning the fact that it’s gone, the place that I loved so much.  The place where books like Starman Jones and Journey to Jupiter became touchstones of my lifelong love of science fiction literature.

I’ve gotten (more British English, got, for you AE speakers..) quite a bit off track here.  Why have I spent some space rambling about stuff not related to Mel & Rover?  Books like this and those I’ve mentioned bring back treasured reading memories.  Despite my younger brother turning 40 in September last year, I still just love well written juvenile SF, and this particular book falls into that category for me.  There is a real skill writing in this style.  Heinlein was an absolute master at it.  To be able to connect to the young reader, to make you feel as a youngster that this really could be you.  The protagonist in these tales thinks and reacts to fantastic situations in ways that you yourself could imagine or relate to, or aspire to from the point of view of the young reader looking up to teenage maturity.  It’s a skill I fear is disappearing, or at least, no longer viable as the young reader these days (are there any?) is so much more sophisticated and cannot relate to a time when the telephone for example, was a household fixture in the same way as refrigerators or toilets are.  Of course, there’s a tried and true formula for writing YA novels which I’ll touch on later, but I can’t really think of any decent modern YA or juvenile SF around at the moment.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is probably the best example I’ve read recently.  The Hunger Games also springs to mind.  But they’re just not the same.  Or maybe I’m somewhat blinded because I’m older now and fall prey to nostalgia.  I’m getting off track again…

What this reinforces to me, and the reason I give this a Stellar! rating, is that if you enjoy YA SF then you’ll enjoy this.

But what about the author William Morrison?  Joseph Samachson (William Morrison was a pseudonym) was a biochemist and besides writing in that capacity, of interest to us he wrote for comics and magazines, and this was apparently his one and only novel.  A pity.  You can learn more about him on wikipedia or check out his bibliography on the ISFDB.

Finally I might start talking about this book now!! Mel is a teenager whom we meet while he’s stowed away about a thousand miles above Earth’s surface, accelerating into a journey to Mars.  He ventures forth, meets fellow stowaway Rover, gets in (and out) trouble, joins the circus and all the while is uncovering a murderous plot against him.  That’s it!!  In true YA fashion the story is as straight as an arrow.  I would just like to elaborate on some aspects of the book.

First, the science, or aspects of the science.  Mr Morrison tries to keep everything grounded in reality, but of course this is the reality of the 1950s, so many ideas are of course dated.  One example is when Mel & Rover are in transit between Earth and Mars.  Mel sends a message ahead to his father’s business partner, Mr Armstrong.  When no reply is forthcoming, it’s assumed that Mr Armstrong is traveling and won’t get the message until he returns home.  Reasonable assumption 60-odd years ago, but today I can get email or messages on my iPhone from anywhere worldwide instantly wherever I might be.  Mel’s human race are a part of a system-wide civilization, inter-planetary travel is routine, yet they can’t receive messages because they aren’t home??  Hmmm…  But, being the die-hard golden-age scientific fiction aficionados we are, we accept these things.

In terms of the hard science that keeps the book grounded (excuse the pun, you’ll see why in a moment..), Mr Morrison employs gravity in several different ways.  There are several examples throughout the book, in fact, I felt he could (or should) have found other devices to showcase his skills in illustrating his grasp of literary hard science. Before I mention a couple of gravitational examples, one non-gravitational example he did use (also on more than one occasion..) was the thin Martian atmosphere – distance didn’t significantly diminish clarity.

With regards to gravity, he used a couple of very interesting examples.  One was when Mel and his circus employer/friend, Bolam the strongman were in a taxi.  Mel becomes frustrated at the lack of speed.  When they hit a low or high spot in the road, the cab’s wheels left the ground to spin uselessly.  Bolam comments that there are some advantages to higher gravity such as that on Earth.  Mel wonders why not just make the vehicles heavier to simulate a higher G?  Bolam responds that it would be a waste of precious materials and power.  They also encounter the necessity to remove a lot of speed to negotiate corners.  Bolam explains that due to the low gravity that applying hard braking easily capsizes the vehicle going around the corner or leads to spinning out. “Accidents of that kind are fifty times as frequent here as on Earth, although it’s true they’re less serious when they do happen.”

Mars has apparently just the right gravity for circus-style acrobatics.  The Moon allows prodigious leaps, but everything is performed much too slowly to engage the audience.  Earth’s gravity allows for fast and exciting routines, but the higher gravity raises the risks of injury.  Mars in comparison offers the large leaps yet the one third G means that the potential for injury is greatly reduced while still providing an engaging performance for the punters.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot is crystal clear and there are no side issues or significant deviations.  We’re with Mel the whole way.  It’s well paced and the book maintained my interest consistently by keeping the action up.   These things are typical (and important) for a juvenile novel, and there’s still a bit of a twist at the end to keep things interesting.  If I had one gripe about the story it’s that we never get a satisfactory resolution for Rover.  Why was he stowing away en route to Mars?  He was the number two character in the book after all… I felt there was a story there to be told.  Perhaps William Morrison planned to explore Rover a bit further in a subsequent volume.

This is clean, innocent fun, and any fan of golden age YA fare will absolutely enjoy this.  I really wish that Mr Morrison took Mel and Rover on further escapades around the solar system.  An interplanetary circus would have been the perfect vehicle for some simple adventure.

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Review: Address: Centauri

Posted in 1955, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on December 6, 2009 by Aaron

F.L. Wallace
1955

Wow, I’ve been really lucky lately.  I’ve been treated to some excellent space opera from the Gnome Press stable.  Following the mediocre reading experiences that were Pattern for Conquest and Cosmic Engineers,  I’ve had the pleasure of The Mixed Men, The Starmen and now Address: Centauri.

But who is author F.L. Wallace??  Well, this is his one and only novel.  Check out his pages on Wikipedia and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.  Somewhat dissimilar to the majority of authors published by GP, he wrote entirely in the 50’s and the very early 60’s.  The very early 50’s, the 40’s and even the 30’s provided the majority of the material for Gnome Press.

I hinted that this is a space opera, but upon a bit more reflection I’m not so sure.  Space opera is typified by it’s large scale – planet hopping, vast distances, extremely advanced yet poorly described technology and often rather thin characters.  While all of this is more or less present here in Address: Centauri, it’s arrangement sort of dissuades me from attaching the ‘space opera’ label.

Earth is the province of beautiful people, medical and cosmetic technology is advanced enough to remedy a great many problems.  But not all.  For those for whom finances or the technological limits are a barrier we have ‘Handicap Haven.’  An asteroid that houses an advanced medical facility catering to societies physical and mental rejects, and we indeed do have a motley bunch of starring characters drawn from this pool.  Which brings me to something I mentioned in the Close Up about the cover illustration something about the story.  I’m talking specifically about the main characters.

First, looking a bit like a Weeble, is Jordan – a genius engineer who has no legs.  Next is huge Anti.  Formally a talented dancer, but infected by some kind of rampant flesh-building organism.  Next our main man, Docchi.  Through a near-fatal accident, his tissues have been saturated with a partially organic ‘cold lighting’ fluid that responds to his emotional state by lighting his skin.  Jeriann looks great physically but has no digestive system whatsoever.  Finally the beautiful face of Nona.  Emotionally retarded and unable to communicate but with a kind of telepathic empathy with, and ability to influence, electronic and gravitic systems.

To cut a long story short, it’s Nona’s ability to control the artificial gravity of Handicap Haven that sets our population of rejects on their way to Alpha Centauri in a race to be the first to reach another star system, find a true home and perhaps establish contact with an alien civilization.

But, getting back to the question of whether this is a true space opera or not, lets check the boxes.  Vast distances and planet hopping – we go from Sol system all the way to Alpha Centauri.  Check.  Extremely advanced yet poorly described technology – artificial gravity and medical marvels.  Check.  Rather thin characters – barring Docchi, we spend very little time on the motivations and personalities of the other characters.  Check.  However, the vast distances are not a feature but a vehicle or framework for the story to take place in.  The means of setting up a time frame and a duration within which the story can transpire.  The advanced technology is in fact analyzed in a little more detail than we might expect from traditional space opera.  Sure, it’s still a bit sketchy, though to Mr Wallace’s credit, what he does describe leans more towards the harder side of science and it does have an air of credibility.  And we do develop real sympathy for the characters and their plight.  Indeed, the author has provided a very interesting group for us to enjoy the story alongside, and the two most interesting for me are Docchi and Nona.

We don’t really get to know Nona that well aside from her ability that unlocks faster-than-light travel by manipulating gravity, or to be more precise, mentally manipulating the systems that manipulate gravity.  It is her mysteriousness that is attractive however, and she also develops a relationship with Dr Cameron – the only able-bodied and initially very reluctant (he was effectively kidnapped after all) member of our crew.

Docchi is the leader.  He organizes the rebellion that leads to Handicap Haven’s departure and we experience his angst and frustration at having to evaluate and cater to the special needs of the asteroid’s various maladies and juggle (amongst other things) the rationing of power and the allocation of medical supplies en route to the Centauri system.

To wrap this review up without giving too much away, we learn that this rag-tag bunch achieve their goal, find a new home and are viewed as the true representatives of the human race.

There is a great base here from which F.L. Wallace could have built a couple more books around our team’s efforts to establish their home and relations with the denizens of the Centauri system. It’s a real shame he didn’t as I really enjoyed the ride out there, and would have liked to tag along on some more adventures with Docchi, Nona, Anti and their interesting friends.

Review: The Starmen

Posted in 1952, 4:Stellar! with tags , on November 14, 2009 by Aaron

Leigh Brackett
1952

I was rather pleased to pick this up.  Check out the Close Up for some visual goodness.

In looking into the writing career of the author Leigh Brackett, I learned some interesting trivia.  Thanks to that fount of all human knowledge, Wikipedia, I discovered that she was, amongst many other notable things,  involved in the writing of several prominent movies, the most notable (from an SF perspective) was the original screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.  It was eventually entirely rewritten, but she was included in the credits.  Check her out on wikipedia and at the ISFDB – very interesting reading.

This is a good story.  I especially enjoyed the way it began.  On a contemporary Earth, our hero Michael Trehearne (an interesting choice of name) is chasing his origins.  From the U.S. to England and finally to the French countryside he has searched and finally feels he is closing on the source of his difference.  There are no real hints at this being an SF tale until about chapter 4.  A refreshing start, and this is where we pick up his real adventure.

His difference is physical.  Not an obvious difference, but as a very successful test pilot for the USAF his ability to withstand heavy ‘G’s and other subtle differences leads him to suspect something special in his origins.  Though he doesn’t suspect how special.  He does indeed locate his ‘kin’ and thereafter his real adventure begins.  I’m trying to avoid giving too much away here, suffice to say that he embarks on a cosmic adventure with his erstwhile relatives and succeeds in helping to bring interstellar travel to the various peoples of the galaxy.

This is a typical space opera and not really unusual in any respect except for the cool device around which the story is built.  The monopoly the Vardda people have on interstellar travel and its jealous protection provides the interesting backdrop against which this story is penned and it is engaging.  While not being a page-turner, it is consistent with quality golden age space opera in that there is a constant upbeat pace and many interesting changes of location.

In the course of his adventures, Trehearne – what we would now consider true Star Trek or Star Wars fashion – discovers that the galaxy is peopled with many different races based on the basic humanoid form, and to Ms Brackett’s credit she does provide a somewhat reasonable explanation for this:

Trehearne had been amazed at the persistent recurrence of the humanoid form even when the root-stock from which a particular race had evolved was not even remotely human, and Yann had explained to him what every Vardda school-child was taught in General Biology, that the development of the humanoid form [….] rested simply upon the necessity of a species that intended to progress beyond the animal level of intelligence to evolve hands, or a workable substitute, and free them for use.
page 112

Cool.

In subsequent editions known as The Galactic Breed or The Starmen of Llyrdis, it is a well paced, expertly crafted and thoroughly enjoyable tale.  If you’re a fan of fine space opera, I highly recommend taking to the stars with The Starmen.

Review: The Complete Book of Outer Space

Posted in 1953, 4:Stellar!, Review, Summary Review, The Complete Book of Outer Space with tags , , on October 19, 2009 by Aaron

Jeffrey Logan, editor
1953

Well, I’ve pretty much said it all in each chapter as I delivered each in this blog, but this is just to deliver a final few thoughts overall.  This book brings back some nice memories for me.  The feeling I got while reading it is similar to the feelings I had when as a boy between about 5 – 10 years old I would browse the various volumes in the Time-Life series – the Life Science Library and the Life Nature Library.  We had these two series at home and I would sit for hours just flicking through looking at the pictures and reading what I could.  The illustrations and photographs in those books captured my imagination like not much else has since.  The Complete Book of Outer Space is delivered in much the same way.  Not-too-technical-nor-long articles accompanied by interesting and imaginative photos and pictures.

Much of it is very outdated now, but as I pointed out often in the brief intro to each chapter, it’s incredibly interesting from a historical perspective.  It takes us back to a time when sending man into space was still a goal, and the possibilities for the conquest of space seemed immediate and endless.

Here it is, all in one click or chapter by chapter:

The Complete Book of Outer Space – All 14 parts

Part 1 – Intro & The Development of the Spaceship
Part 2 – Station in Space
Part 3 – Space Medicine
Part 4 – Space Suits
Part 5 – The High Altitude Program
Part 6 – History of the Rocket Engine
Part 7 – Legal Aspects of Space Travel
Part 8 – Life Beyond Earth
Part 9 – Exploitation of the Moon
Part 10 – Interstellar Flight
Part 11 – The Spaceship in Science Fiction
Part 12 – A Plea for a Coordinated Space Program
Part 13 – The Flying Saucer Myth
Part 14 – The Experts

This work of non-fiction is an interesting accompaniment to the Gnome Press stable of Golden Age Science Fiction.  It provides a ‘hard’ backdrop to the creative fiction all around it – in some ways giving us a glimpse of the ‘pegs of reality’ on which the imagination of authors like Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov spent some time hanging.

It’s been an incredibly enjoyable and interesting way to deliver this book over the past 6 months and I’m sad it’s over.  I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have.

Review: The Mixed Men

Posted in 1952, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on October 10, 2009 by Aaron

A.E. van Vogt
1952

What are the Mixed Men??  It’s a question I had when I started into this book.  It turns out that the ‘Mixed Men’ are a product of the union between men and robots.  A union under normal circumstances impossible, but made feasible with the ‘cold fusion’ process.  Sound interesting??  Intriguing??  It did to me.  Actually, the story isn’t about how the Mixed Men came to be, or the specifics of their biology, it’s about how events unfold when the giant space battleship Star Cluster uncovers a civilization of ‘humans’ collectively called The Fifty Suns in the Greater Magellanic Cloud – a culture lost for fifteen thousand years.  Before we look into it a little further, what about the author??

Check out wikipedia for some more in-depth info, but notable about van Vogt is the extent of his influence, with huge names such as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison crediting Mr van Vogt for inspiration.  This is the only novel-length story of van Vogt’s in the Gnome Press stable, though he does have several short stories in the various GP anthologies.  The book was apparently put together as a ‘fix-up’ of some short works published in Astounding Science Fiction pulp magazine in the mid-40s.  As we have seen with at least one other fix-up, thing don’t always hang together, but here they do.  Almost as seamless as a proper novel, it’s a great job.  However, here and there I found large passages of time – weeks or months – to have passed also seamlessly, fortunately they didn’t affect the flow of the story at all.

I really enjoyed this the first time I read it almost a year ago, and I think I enjoyed it even more this time.  I mentioned the Mixed Men being the product of robots and men.  This is a little misleading.  In the context of this book, the robots concerned are actually the products of some super-genetic engineering.  A mass panic and genocide against these ‘robots’ led them and their natural human rescuers to flee to the Greater Magellanic Cloud and subsequently over the course of thousands of years passed from our Galactic history.  But this is all back-story, basically at the start of the tale, a mapping expedition from Imperial Earth stumbles upon a ‘weather station’ outpost, thereby discovering the existence of the Fifty Sun society, and this is where we pick it up.

The story has two principle characters.  Peter Maltby is a Mixed Man…

Wait.  Perhaps I should describe what a Mixed Man really is before continuing.  There are three types of human resident in the Fifty Suns – normal (non-Dellian), robots (Dellian, don’t worry about the term, it’s explained in the book) and Mixed Men (Dellian and non-Dellian hybrid).  Mixed Men embody the best of both worlds – with a robot’s physical and mental prowess and normal human’s creativity and adaptability.  They effectively have two parallel minds with exceptional mental powers which puts them at a distinct advantage over both originating human strains.  However, their numbers are relatively few and they have been marginalized because of a failed uprising and have to live in super-secret underground cities.  They have no active participation in society.  Maltby is a captain in the Fifty Suns Navy and, unbeknown to society in general, the hereditary leader of the Mixed Men.

…and Lady Gloria Laurr is Grand Captain of the Star Cluster.  Ms Laurr is seeking to root out the Fifty Suns to bring them under Imperial Earth’s dominion, and Peter Maltby is trying to satisfactorily mitigate their discovery in a way that will temper Imperial Earth’s inevitable domination and reassert the Mixed Men as a functioning sub-group of the Fifty Suns’ government.

I’m getting a bit carried away here, I don’t want to describe what happens in the story but hopefully I’ve given you plenty to pique your interest in this tale, so lets move on and I’ll address a couple of cool things in the book.  First, as I alluded to in this comparison between Cosmic Engineers and The Mixed Men, the characterization here is good.  We really get a handle on our principle actors – their thoughts and feelings, their motivations.  Maltby is a talented leader, careful, considered and able to look at the long-term welfare of the entire Fifty Suns civilization.  Laurr is driven, ambitious but just sensitive enough to recognize when her single-mindedness needs curbing.  Usually.  You can see we are heading for a confrontation here, and we get it, although by the end of the book things between these two have turned out a little unexpectedly.

The second cool thing is the Star Cluster itself.  At about a mile long and with a crew of 30 000 it’s a very impressive vehicle.  Capable of rendering multiple planets uninhabitable and engaging the entire Fifty Suns’ Navy simultaneously, you don’t mess with it.  Unless you’re a Mixed Man.  One neat concept was that under physical stress the ship can split into thousands of self-sustained mini-ships, and reassemble itself later once the danger has passed.  This design feature is employed at one point in the book because Maltby navigates the behemoth into a storm.  Which brings me to another cool thing…

The ‘storms’ are an integral plot element.  I forget their mechanics and they’re described a little vaguely anyway, but they are born out of nova events and like terrestrial stormy weather, can be tracked and mapped.  Similar to their analog here on Earth, keeping tabs on them is vital for safe transit – an uncharted storm can prove disastrous for the unsuspecting spacecraft.  Several points of the tale hinge on these events.  The Star Cluster discovers a Fifty Sun weather station at the beginning of the story, not having local storm location information hampers the location of Fifty Sun worlds by the Earth men and Maltby attempts to destroy the giant battleship by plotting a course into a giant storm.

It’s been in print in various forms up until 1980 (mostly under the title Mission to the Stars – see the ISFDB here) so you could pick up a cheap copy off the Internet without too much hassle.  Do so.  A superb example of Golden Age space opera, I enjoyed The Mixed Men a lot, and compared to similar fare I have read recently such as Pattern for Conquest and Cosmic Engineers, there is nothing mixed up about this tale.

Review: Shambleau and Others

Posted in 1953, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , , , on August 28, 2009 by Aaron

C.L. Moore
1953

Catherine Lucille Moore is probably the better known half of the Lewis Padgett team.  Her husband Henry Kuttner – the opposite half – being more prolific but writing under numerous pseudonyms.  I use the phrase ‘opposite half’ here for good reason.  I read Padgett’s ‘Robots Have No Tails’ several months ago (see the Close Up & Review) and since discovered that it was in fact as claimed by Moore herself, penned entirely by Kuttner.  These two books provide an interesting basis for comparison and I do indeed find Ms Moore’s and Mr Kuttner’s styles to be opposite.  ‘Robots’ is light, whimsical, funny and is a breeze to read.  ‘Shambleau’ is very, very different.  Dark, heavy and serious are words I’d use to describe Ms Moore’s work here.

While we are touching on the style of prose in this book, a couple of other authors sprang to mind while I was reading.  It didn’t take long for me to identify similarities with H.P. Lovecraft.  Quite often a turn of phrase here, or a word there would remind me of the great man.  Here is an example as Northwest Smith reflects upon “fearful symmetry” as he regards Thag – the Tree of Life – for the first time.

Truly a more than human agency must have arched these subtle curves so delicately into dreadfulness, into such an awful beauty that the very sight of it made those atavistic terrors he was so sternly holding down leap in a gibbering terror.

The Tree of Life, p153/154

I’m sure you’ll agree, this could be lifted straight out of any Lovecraft story.  I’m not suggesting C.L. Moore is an H.P.L. knock off, just illustrating how similar the prose is at times, and apparently Mr Lovecraft was a fan of Ms Moore’s according to a brief biography at Red Jacket Press.  I think I would place her in a stylistic space somewhere between Lovecraft for the darkness and depth, Clark Ashton Smith for slightly less archaic expression of the same and Mervyn Peake for her descriptive use and control of color.  Color features very heavily in every tale; she uses it very well to help us enter and visualize her stories.

Well, enough observation on the style front, what about the stories themselves??

This collection consists of four Northwest Smith stories and three Jirel of Joiry tales.  Each of the seven is an excellent entertaining (if dark) read.  But first, lets get the negative out of the way.  The structure of the stories are the same.  If we look at the four Northwest Smith tales, they all go something like this:

  • Smith is hanging out somewhere on some unnamed errand/mission.
  • Some unexpected person appears or random event happens.
  • Smith gets sidetracked into some sort of alternate dimension.
  • After a cool little adventure, Smith saves the day or otherwise escapes.
  • Smith’s nefarious life gets back on track.

You could more or less throw the same blanket over the Jirel tales as well.  This gave all the stories a kind of sameness that bugged me a little.  But, Ms Moore’s aforementioned wonderful style overrode this structural similarity and allowed me to just enjoy each.

On the positive side, I keep mentioning the style as a big plus, but also we get to know these characters very well.  They are very similar in many ways despite being of opposite genders.  Hard, uncompromising, strong, practical, and at the end of each tale it isn’t Jirel’s prowess with the sword, or Smith’s speed and skill with his blaster that come through as the determining factors, it’s their mental strength that enable them to overcome the sticky situations they find themselves in.  Indeed, there is very little physical action at all throughout this collection.  This is part of the reason why for me these individuals are elevated beyond the archetypal hero of typical pulp fare, and into the realms of true literary characters.  They have so much, well… character.

Thank you C.L. Moore, you have introduced me to two people that will stay with me forever:  Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith.  Now I can’t wait to read the GP collection ‘Northwest of Earth’ for more dark adventures with these true heroes from the golden age of science fiction.

Review: This Fortress World

Posted in 1955, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on June 18, 2009 by Aaron

James E. Gunn
1955

James Gunn is a recent Science Fiction Grand Master and a very well respected figure in SF circles.  He has been the director for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas since it’s inception in 1982.  I recommend you exercise the link, where you can learn a bit about Mr Gunn, his accomplishments and the work done at the CSSF.  There are some interesting essays and other material there.

I struggled to get into this book, but only for the first few pages.  I don’t know exactly why – if the very start of the book wasn’t as engaging as I needed, or whether it was my own frame of mind at the time.  Whatever it was, I had a couple of false starts getting in to it.  Consequently, the story had an uphill battle to regain what it had lost (or perhaps what I had neglected to appreciate).  Anyway, that it did, and some.

First, a bit of background.  Mankind had forged a Galactic Empire, but it has since decayed into an aggregation of insular planets, each apparently quite independent and mostly run by emperor-like figures.  Aside from the ruling classes, the mass of humanity is uneducated and in a very sorry state.  Humanity seems to be arranged in a kind of caste system, with serfs and noblemen and such.  Religion seems to be the only consistent cultural factor across the Galaxy.  The exact nature of this religion isn’t made explicit, but I took it to be a monotheistic organization something in the nature of a Benedictine or Carthusian order.  Religion caters to the masses while staying away from controversy and consequently the ruling elite are happy with this arrangement providing that it doesn’t evolve and threaten their hold over the people.

All the action takes place on the planet of Brancusi, almost entirely within the capital city.  Our hero, Dane, is an acolyte monk, having lived all his life within the huge walls of the monastery.  The monastery itself is a ‘fortress world’, a motif which recurs throughout the book and one which I’ll talk about later.  In strange and violent circumstances he comes into possession of a mysterious artifact that is believed to hold a secret that could bring great power to whoever can unlock it.  A pursuit ensues that lasts almost the entire book and in the end (to use a cliché) the good guy gets the girl.

The story is fast-paced and keeps it up pretty much the entire time.  Poor Dane finds himself in one predicament after another with the mercenary Sabatini always in close pursuit.

There are a couple of interesting things about the story which I’d like to comment on.

First is Dane himself.  He is a very interesting character and we see him develop from a very naive and cloistered individual into one with cunning and resourcefulness, despite never entirely losing that naivety.  His physical presence and prowess is considerable though it’s never made a big deal of over the course of the story, indeed Dane offhandedly describes impressive feats beyond the physicality of his co-characters.  I’m a huge Gene Wolfe fan and in this way Dane reminds me of the way Mr Wolfe writes many of his characters.  Often very blasé about apparently startling or disturbing events, and deadpan yet fulfilling with descriptions of things that other writers would likely see as opportunity for over-exercising creative prose. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Mr Gunn gives Dane a powerful and intimidating presence (apparently as a by-product of his healthy lifestyle and fitness regime in the monastery) through an accumulation of his actions and deeds, rather than laying it out for us.  I like that style.  It gives me credibility and makes me feel smart as a reader.

The other thing is the fortress motif I touched on earlier. This occurs time and time again throughout the course of this tale.  Because I’m no literary academic – I’m just an SF fan who does this for my own enjoyment and hopefully that of others – I probably wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been for one particular exchange in the book:

“But if people aren’t born evil, how do they get that way?”
“They’re afraid of getting hurt, and they build up a wall around themselves for protection.  They build themselves a fortress and sit inside it, sheltered and afraid.  Afraid that someone will break in and find them there, see them as they really are, alone and helpless.  For then they can be hurt, you see.  When they are naked and defenseless.  We’re a whole galaxy of worlds, revolving endlessly, never touching, crouched within our fortresses, alone, always alone.”

This came about half-way through the book, and was the first use of the word ‘fortress’.  That’s really what made me sit up and take notice.  This is a succinct summation of this societies individuals and it scales right up through the fortress of the caste system, to the fortresses of the independent planets and the only interplanetary organization – the religion – has fortress-like outposts on each world.  Even Dane in his quest to keep the artifact from those that hunt him, and his desire to uncover the motivations of those behind the scenes spends time in fortresses of one kind or another.  From the beginning of his adventure in the fortress of the monastery, to the various brief and secret havens he finds, to the cell Sabatini has him incarcerated in for a while and finally to old Earth which is sheltered from the rest of the Galaxy.

Despite the book being like a fortress itself in that I found it difficult to break into initially, once I was inside the adventure opened up and took me along for the ride.  I can see why Mr Gunn has had a very loyal fan-base for so many years.  I am looking forward to picking up James Gunn’s collaboration with Jack Williamson on the Gnome Press book Star Bridge.

Pop over to visit Bill the SciFi Guy and check out his reviews for Star Bridge and for Mr Gunn’s The Immortals.