The [library] stacks contained only scant information on such things as sun, moon and stars—as if atrophy by disuse had allowed these items to be dropped. Hive flora included bountiful species of vermin—sharing the warmth and nutrition of Big Earth Society—lice, roaches, meaty rats (cross-indexed under game food), and insects. Nothing else. Nothing was reported swimming in the seas, flying in the air or walking the land. Fish, birds, reptiles and mammals—gone. Moses didn’t miss them, never having known them. He was just a little amazed that the total mass of protoplasm on the planet was concentrated in one species and his food chain. Man had proved to be a very successful creature indeed.
Thomas J. Bassler, MD, wrote science fiction under the pseudonym T.J. Bass. His publication history in that genre spans a mere five years, from 1968 to 1973, comprising two novels and a handful of short stories; but both his novels were nominated for the Nebula Award, although losing on both occasions to genre colossi—Robert Silverberg and Ursula K. Le Guin. These were the “Hive” novels, which is what I’m writing about today.
Bassler was a pathologist by profession, famous in some circles for his claim that marathon running induced an immunity to atherosclerosis, such that no-one who had run a marathon in under four hours would die a cardiac death in the next six years.
His medical knowledge sits front and centre in these two novels, which are deliberately layered with medical jargon to produce an effect (to borrow a phrase from James Blish) of intensive recomplication*. Here’s a typical bit of writing from Bass:
Kaia, the aborigine, sat hidden in the tall grain while he savoured the aromatic juices of fennel. Rich sharp flavors jolted pristine taste buds and stirred violent parasympathetic storms. Copious gastric juice flowed. Peristalsis gurgled.
His characters frequently lapse into med-speak, too, showing an easy knowledge of physiology and genetics. For instance, here are two men, faced with a woman who has secretly given birth to an “unauthorized” baby, and who is now bleeding heavily.
They both glanced down at the cooing infant. Dark eyes watched them. They smiled.
“The nipple-midbrain-uterine reflex,” said Tinker.
They carried the infant back to Mu Ren. She was trying to massage her uterine fundus, but the hemorrhage continued.
“Breastfeed,” said Tinker, handing her the infant.
She fumbled weakly, but the infant quickly locked on to the nipple—sucking strongly. Immediately she felt her fundus cramp and harden. The bleeding stopped.
With repeated episodes like this, Bass lets us see how his future society relies on the routine manipulation of human biology in the same way we current rely on, say, mobile-phone technology.
His writing also seems to tap into some of the values of the British New Wave in science fiction, which was peaking at the time Bass was writing. There’s the same weary pessimism, the same dystopian world-view, and the same experimental approach to writing—chopping up conventional plot and narrative structures, inserting odd bits of word-play. And then there’s another of the New Wave’s notable features—unappealing depictions of sex. Or perhaps, in Bass’s case, depictions of unappealing sex. There’s a fair amount of sex in his novels, and it falls entirely within a spectrum ranging from odd to frankly disturbing. Bass deepens that effect with his use of medical jargon and a sort of clinical detachment that is often shared by his … um … participants.
The “Hive” novels have a typical 1970s dystopian setting. When science-fiction writers of that era weren’t writing post-apocalyptic fiction, they were often preoccupied with the issues of overpopulation and ecological catastrophe. Bass imagines a future in which the population of the Earth has risen to three trillion. The entire fertile land surface of the world is given over to farmland that feeds this population, who cluster underground in crowded “shaft cities”. In order to tolerate this environment, the citizens have been subjected to genetic and physiological modifications, rendering them weak, passive and short-lived. Rigidly regulated from conception to premature grave, these members of “Big Earth Society” are called Nebishes (presumably a reference to the Yiddish word nebbish, “an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless, or hapless unfortunate”. Their society is ordered for them by the CO—the Class One artificial intelligence that, in effect, runs the planet.
Outside the cities, a few hundred thousand wild humans of the old genetic stock eke out a marginal existence, living in the high mountains and sustaining themselves with raids on the farmland below. This makes them destructive vermin in the view of Big Earth Society, and they are regularly stalked and killed by hunters from the shaft cities. Bass calls these wild humans Buckeyes, a reference that is opaque to me. The neolithic culture of the Buckeyes is augmented by their ownership of pieces of ancient technology, including compact intelligent machines that can speak and advise them. Bass’s two novels chronicle conflicts between the Nebish “Hive” and these free-living humans of the “Outside”.
The first novel, Half Past Human (1971) consisted of interleaved parts of two novel-length stories that Bass had previously published: “Half Past Human” (Galaxy, December 1969) and “Song of Kaia” (Worlds of If, November-December 1970). You can read these on-line—my links take you to archived versions of the two magazine issues.
It’s difficult to summarize the seething plot of Half Past Human, which tends to shoot off in random directions fairly regularly. Along the way there’s cannibalism (as my quote at the head of this post describes, the world of the Hive is notably deficient in other sources of animal protein), and body horror (courtesy of Bass’s interest in pathology and trauma), straight-faced and tragic humour, and one excruciating pun that Bass sets up a hundred pages in advance.
He slowly builds the picture of his world by telling his story from multiple viewpoints: Nebishes within the Hive, Buckeyes outside, a few Nebishes who choose to leave the shaft cities and venture outside, and a sentient machine named Toothpick that describes itself as:
… just a leftover cyber from the period when man had many of us. It was an age of high technology and low population density—man and his machines were all over this planet, in the sea and air—even off planet—the moon, near space—even Mars and Deimos.
Oh, and there’s also a near-immortal dog with gold false teeth, who is probably the last canine in the world.
All these characters mill around for a while, having odd experiences and odd conversations, before Toothpick eventually leads a strange alliance of Buckeyes and Nebish defectors to find a vast repository of old-stock humans who have been kept in suspended animation for a thousand years, in an attempt to swell the ranks of the Buckeyes so that they can take the fight into the shaft cities of the Nebishes. The Nebishes fight back. And then there’s a deus ex machina ending involving a sentient starship called Olga, which has been lurking in the narrative background throughout the novel. (So it’s more of a machina ex machina ending, actually.)
The Godwhale (1973) is an elaboration of a previously published novelette entitled “Rorqual Maru” (Galaxy, January-February 1972). True to the form established in Half Past Human, Bass starts The Godwhale by cutting one of his main characters in half.
In a future nearer to our own than to the time of the Hive, Larry Dever (subsequently cheerfully referred to as “the hemihuman”) is crushed at the waist after becoming trapped in machinery, and undergoes a hemicorporectomy (amputation of the lower half of the body), a last-ditch procedure which had been performed only a few times in the years before Bass incorporated it into his novel. After the surgery, Dever elects to enter suspended animation, in the hope of being awoken in a future in which medical technology is capable of regrowing the lower half of his body. Instead, he’s revived by the Hive, and quickly classified as a potential protein source rather than a useful member of Big Earth Society. He manages to escape his fate in the recycler, and falls in with the Tweenwallers—rejects of Hive society who survive in the service tunnels and abandoned infrastructure of the shaft cities.
Another story strand involves the godwhale of the title—a cetacean cyborg named Rorqual Maru, which had once worked as an ocean harvester, but was abandoned after the seas became lifeless. We first encounter it as it beaches itself in despair.
Dever and one of the Tweenwallers (who turns out to have been cloned from cells taken from Dever’s lower half—don’t ask) eventually escape the shaft city, and discover the oceanic society of the Benthics. The Benthics, like the Buckeyes of Half Past Human, are old-genetic-stock humans who live a neolithic existence with the aid of ancient technology—in this case, a network of semi-sentient submerged dome habitats. And, like the Buckeyes, they are hunted by the Nebishes.
Bass has fun with the Benthics’ command of gas physiology. Here, for instance, they adopt a clever treatment for someone with a gangrenous arm wound:
“There may still be time,” said the shaggy old Benthic. “Notice how the finger pulps blanch on pressure. Then they pink up. The capillary beds haven’t clotted yet. If we can get him down four more levels the increased oxygen might kill off the organisms. Clostridia is an anaerobic bacillus. Oxygen kills it.”
Then, suddenly, plant and animal life begins to reappear in the ocean. The Rorqual Maru revives. Dever, Rorqual Maru and the Benthics team up with yet another clone of Dever (don’t ask) with two objectives—to fight back against the Hive, and to discover what has brought life back to the oceans. And the story ends with a couple of chapters containing a blizzard of ideas that would seem to lay the groundwork for several more novels. But I can’t do better than to quote the Science Fiction Encyclopedia at this point:
Though his control over the overall structure of a novel-length fiction was insecure, the abundance of his invention conveyed to readers of the 1970s a sense of Bass’s potential importance as an sf writer. But he fell silent, his series incomplete.
That about sums it up for me. While I enjoyed rereading these, Bass’s endless fireworks display of inventiveness is simultaneously delightful and infuriating. Delightful, because his ideas are fun and you want to read more about them; infuriating, because he keeps dashing off in new directions to the detriment of narrative structure.
You can read these two books in any order. I read The Godwhale first, back in the seventies, and remained completely ignorant of Half Past Human for a couple of decades thereafter. Of the two, I recommend The Godwhale, which has something approaching a conventional narrative structure, while retaining Bass’s signature style and discursive invention. Half Past Human is a harder read, though—in part because the two original stories from which it’s constructed aren’t brought together satisfactorily in the merged form, but also because Bass’s style is more chaotic in the earlier work.
Both are available as Kindle e-books from Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series.
And if you want to know about Bass’s short stories, all set in (versions of) the “Hive” universe, I’ve written about them here.
* I wrote more about the narrative technique that Blish called intensive recomplication when I reviewed his “Cities In Flight” novels.