Category Archives: Reading

James White: The Outlying “Sector General” Short Stories

Original publication covers of James White "Sector General" short stories
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Like a sprawling, misshapen Christmas tree the lights of Sector Twelve General Hospital blazed against the misty backdrop of the stars. From its view-ports shone lights that were yellow and red-orange and soft, liquid green, and others which were a searing actinic blue. There was darkness in places also. Behind these areas of opaque metal plating lay sections wherein the lighting was so viciously incandescent that the eyes of approaching ship’s pilots had to be protected from it, or compartments which were so dark and cold that not even the light which filtered in from the stars could be allowed to penetrate to their inhabitants.

James White “Sector General” (1957)

I’ve already introduced James White when I reviewed four of his stand-alone novels recently. At that time, I mentioned that he was best know for his series of twelve Sector General novels, and promised that I’d have more to say on Sector General in another post.

The Sector General series started life as a cluster of short stories (strictly, novelettes), published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Almost all these stories ended up being incorporated into the early Sector General books, which were fix-up novels. That left only a few scattered stories sitting outside the novel sequence, which is what I’m referring to as the “outlying” stories in the title of this post.

But first, a little background. At the head of this post are the very first words of the first published Sector General story, which appeared in the November 1957 edition of New Worlds Science Fiction. It was introduced by the editor, John Carnell, with the following prescient words:

This month’s novelette is one of the most unusual and interesting plot ideas we have published for a long time. Undoubtedly, it is James White’s most powerful story to date and could well form the basis of further plots built round an intergalactic hospital ship.

Carnell eventually turned out to be right about the “intergalactic” bit, despite the complete lack of mention of anything beyond our own galaxy in the story he was introducing—after a few stories White did introduce visitors from another galaxy. He was certainly wrong about the “ship”—Sector Twelve General turns out to be a gigantic cylinder containing 384 decks, floating permanently at the edge of our galaxy. But he was undoubtedly right about the “further plots”—White went on to write Sector General stories for more than forty years, the last novel appearing in 1999, shortly before his death.

As the quote above makes clear, the multiple decks of White’s hospital station are designed to accommodate the many and varied species of the Galactic Federation. After a few stories, it becomes evident that, despite its name, Sector Twelve General Hospital is nothing less than the tertiary referral centre for the entire galaxy—there are other multienvironment hospitals, and other doctors trained in alien physiology, but Sector General takes on the trickiest cases.

In order to get a handle on the environmental requirements of patients (and staff), White’s medics assign each species four-letter physiological codes. In the first story we encounter the VTMX “energy eaters”, the elephantine FLGIs with their symbiotic OTSBs, the human DBDGs, the water-breathing AUGLs, the chlorine-breathing PVSJs, the low-gravity LSVOs … and so on. To accommodate all this different anatomy, physiology, pathology and psychology, the hospital’s medical staff use “Educator Tapes”—knowledge copied from the minds of alien experts, which is impressed temporarily on their brains so that they can deal with the illnesses of alien species. In his first Sector General story, White introduces the idea like this:

This was Conway’s first experience of an alien physiology tape, and he noted with interest the mental double vision which had increasingly begun to affect his mind—a sure sign that the tape had ‘taken’. By the time he had reached the Radiation Theatre he felt himself to be two people—an Earth-human called Conway and the great, five-hundred unit Telfi gestalt which had been formed to prepare a mental record of all that was known regarding the physiology of that race. That was the only disadvantage—if it was a disadvantage—of the Educator Tape system. Not only was the knowledge impressed on the mind undergoing ‘tuition’, the personalities of the entities who had possessed that knowledge was transferred as well. Small wonder then that the Diagnosticians, who held in their mind sometimes as many as ten different tapes, were a little bit queer.

In story after story, White went on to invent new pathological quirks for his burgeoning cast of aliens, which posed new diagnostic and therapeutic challenges for his medical staff (and sometimes put them in danger). And through all the stories runs White’s trademark sentiment that conflict comes from misunderstanding, and problems are solved when people (and aliens) work together with good intentions. Indeed, White was one of the very early proponents of “pacifist space opera”—although the military “Monitor Corps” features repeatedly in his stories, their job (prefiguring Star Trek by a decade) is one of peace-keeping and exploration. The stories are also suffused with White’s gentle humour, some of which might easily have graced Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

They were an old, wise and humble race, O’Mara concluded; intensely humble. So much so that they tended to look down on other races who were not so humble as they.

All the early Sector General stories appeared in New Worlds, and the relevant issues are all available through the Luminist Archives. (My links below will take you to the pdf files of the named issues.) The first five stories were “Sector General” (November 1957), “Trouble With Emily” (November 1958), “Visitor At Large” (June 1959), “O’Mara’s Orphan” (January 1960) and “Out-Patient” (June 1960). In these early stories, White introduced most of his major characters: the protagonist Dr Conway, who first appears as an intern, two months into the job, and who has reached the rank of Senior Physician by the start of “Out-Patient”; the constantly rude Chief Psychologist, Major O’Mara (“My job is to shrink heads, not swell ’em”); Dr Prilicla, the fragile, insectile empath from a low-gravity planet; and the elephantine Diagnostician-in-Charge of Pathology, Thornnastor. Even Conway’s later love-interest, Nurse Murchison, has a walk-on part (in “Visitor At Large”). These stories were fixed up into the first Sector General novel, Hospital Station, in 1962, with just a little light editing to provide linking text at the end of each story to lead into the next one. The story “O’Mara’s Orphan” was also bumped to the start of the novel (and renamed “Medic”), because it’s a prequel set during the construction of Sector General.

The next novel, Star Surgeon (1963) merged together the short story “Resident Physician” (September 1961) and the novel-length story “Field Hospital”, which had been serialized in the January, February and March issues of New Worlds in 1962. The stories work well together—the alien patient treated by Conway in “Resident Physician” goes on to precipitate the events of “Field Hospital”, in which Sector General becomes the focus of an intergalactic war (and Conway’s romance with Murchison blooms).

Shortly after the publication of Star Surgeon, John Carnell relinquished the editorship of New Worlds, and moved on to edit the paperback original-anthology series New Writings In SF. White’s outlet for Sector General stories moved with Carnell. Another series that followed Carnell from New Worlds to New Writings was Colin Kapp’s Unorthodox Engineers stories, which I’ve written about previously. And, as with Kapp’s work, it was my local public library’s regular subscription to New Writings In SF that gave me my first encounter with Sector General.

For New Writings, White produced a linked series of stories, all dealing with the unlikely denizens of the planet Meatball, which is entirely covered by continent-sized life-forms. These were “Invader” (New Writings 7, 1966), “Vertigo” (New Writings 12, 1968), “Blood Brother” (New Writings 14, 1969), “Meatball” (New Writings 16, 1969) and “Major Operation” (New Writings 18, 1971). By the end of that sequence, Murchison had managed to make an implausibly abrupt transition from nurse to senior pathologist, presumably because White wanted to give her a more major diagnostic role, and the role of nurses in hospital stories of this era was largely restricted to being caring, being alarmed, and handing things to doctors. It was “Vertigo” and “Major Operation” that first caught my teenage attention, and I was tantalized by the obvious fact that there must be more of these stories out there somewhere, while remaining ignorant of Hospital Station and Star Surgeon until their reissue by the Corgi SF Collector’s Library in 1976.

These five stories were brought together in the fix-up novel Major Operation (1971). White retained the format of interlinked episodes in his next two novels, Ambulance Ship (1979) and Sector General (1983), but the short stories featured in these novels were never individually published.

So that ends my gallop through the various short stories that White assembled to produce his first three Sector General novels. But there are other stories that link into the Sector General universe, and they’re what I really wanted to write about, since they’re a collection of curiosities.

The easiest one to describe is “Countercharm”. This is a comparatively short piece, written in haste to fill a slot in the hundredth issue of New Worlds (November 1960). There’s no diagnostic puzzle to be solved—it just describes Conway’s struggle with the personality he absorbs from an Educator tape, which not only turns him into an expert in ELNT medicine, but also leads him to fall in love with a crab-like alien, a predicament from which he is rescued with the aid of Nurse Murchison. Chronologically, the story lies between the end of Hospital Station and the start of Star Surgeon, and it provides the explanation for Murchison’s transformation from walk-on character in the former to love interest in the latter. But its light tone is inconsistent with the darker theme of Star Surgeon, and it’s clear why White, or his publisher, chose not to incorporate it.

Then there’s “Spacebird”, which appeared in New Writings In SF 22 (1973). This is a classic Sector General puzzle story, in which the crew of a Monitor Corps scoutship chance upon what appears to be a huge bird covered in barnacles, floating in interstellar space. And still, apparently, alive. Conway, Murchison and Prilicla are presented with this gigantic patient, and need to puzzle out not only what’s wrong with it, but how and why it ended up drifting between the stars. Depending on which edition of Ambulance Ship you buy, you may or may not discover “Spacebird” as its opening chapter. It wasn’t included in the first Ballantine editions in the United States, but turned up in the British Corgi edition of 1980. Then it disappeared again from the 1986 Orbit edition, before appearing again in the version of Ambulance Ship included in the Alien Emergencies anthology of 2002.

White also managed to draw a couple of his previous stories, unrelated to Sector General at the time they were written, into the Sector General universe retroactively. The first time he did this was with the opening story of the novel entitled Sector General. This was an “origins” story entitled “Accident”, which describes how Sector Twelve General Hospital came to be conceived, specifically as a way of promoting understanding between the different intelligent species of the Galactic Federation. It tells the story of two war veterans, one human and one Orligian, both painfully aware of how interspecies misunderstanding can lead to conflict, who are caught up in an major accident at a spaceport. The survivors, from multiple species, must cooperate to save the more critically injured, despite having next to no knowledge of how to administer first aid to alien beings. In this story White reuses characters from his story, “Tableau” (New Worlds May 1958). In this story, set many years prior to the events of “Accident”, the human and Orligian protagonists encounter each other on the battlefield. Both are severely injured, the human dying. They come to understand that they have been fighting a war based only on an interspecies misunderstanding, and then they become instrumental in ending the conflict. It’s a poignant and rather shocking story, albeit one that needs a rather contrived set-up to work. And I can see why White wanted to place these same characters, now allies championing the cause of peace, in the story of “Accident”—it works very well in narrative terms. But it sits uneasily as part of the history of the Sector General universe, invoking as it does a raft of exotic technologies that are absent from the other stories, including an interspecies telepathy device that would have made life a great deal easier for the medics of Sector Twelve General.

In the tenth Sector General novel, Final Diagnosis (1997), White introduced a protagonist named Hewlitt, and a centaur-like alien race called the Duthans. Hewlitt runs Hewlitt the Tailor, which is a “small but very exclusive company that can charge the Earth and moon for its services, which is to provide handcrafted, custom-built garments made from the original, handwoven or spun tweeds and fine worsted materials.” This is a reference to one of my favourite White short stories, “Custom Fitting” (1976), which first appeared in the paperback original anthology Stellar #2. (And inspired its memorable cover illustration by The Brothers Hildebrandt.) In this story the Duthan ambassador has arrived in London to welcome humanity into the Galactic Federation, but needs some appropriate formal dress to wear when attending the royal reception in his honour. And so a traditional tailor named Hewlitt finds himself designing a morning suit for a centaur. It’s a gentle tale, full of humour, and it draws on White’s experience working as a tailor in his early life. It’s nice to know that the original Hewlitt spawned a successful dynasty, and “Custom Fitting” sits slightly more easily in Sector General’s early history than does “Tableau”, though it’s not entirely consistent with the history of the Galactic Federation as depicted in the novels.

Finally, there’s the oddity of “Occupation: Warrior” (1959), which deals with a peace-keeping force called the Guard who seem to have a role very similar to that of Sector General’s Monitor Corps (and wear the same green uniforms). When interspecies conflict arises in the Galactic Union of the story (which seems to be similar to the Galactic Federation of Sector General) and cannot be resolved politically, the Guard oversees a sort of sanitized and carefully even-handed version of war, on planets carefully set aside for that purpose, fought by carefully picked soldiers who don’t really want to be involved, and subject to continuous psychological intervention by the Guards which is designed to highlight the horrors of war. The story is set during one such stage-managed war, between humans and Kelgians (a caterpillar-like race that also features in the Sector General novels), and features the efforts of one officer, Major Dermod, to turn the pantomime war into a real war. For those who know the Sector General novels, “Occupation: Warrior” is an oddly dislocating read, clearly not part of the Sector General story, but full of links to it.

The explanation for this comes in White’s essay “The Secret History of Sector General”, which appeared at the start of Ambulance Ship. In it he describes writing a long novelette entitled “Classification: Warrior”, intended to be the fourth of the Sector General stories. It explored the peace-keeping role of the Monitor Corps. Editor John Carnell thought it was far too serious a piece to accord with the established lightness and humour of the three previous Sector General stories, and persuaded White to lightly rewrite it. Carnell then placed it, retitled “Occupation: Warrior”, in the UK incarnation of Science Fiction Adventures, a magazine which he also edited—almost as if quarantining it from the main stream of Sector General stories running in New Worlds.

White doesn’t seem to have been happy with this outcome, and writes:

In “Occupation: Warrior,” which should have been the fourth Sector General story, “Classification: Warrior,” the leading character was a tactician called Dermod; and the same character turned up again as the Monitor Corps Fleet Commander who defended the hospital in Star Surgeon as well as having an important part to play in Major Operation. I don’t know why I went to the trouble of establishing this tenuous connection between the series proper and the Sector General story that had been deliberately de-Sector Generalized, but it seemed important to me at the time.

And that’s it. Those are the five “Sector General” stories that sit outside the run of twelve novels. “Countercharm” is a minor piece, but solidly part of the canon. You can find it in White’s short story collection The Aliens Among Us (1969), and also in the expensive hardback tribute to White from NESFA Press, The White Papers (1996), which is a book for White completists only. “Spacebird” is a typical Sector General story. As well as appearing in British editions of Ambulance Ship, it was included in White’s collection Futures Past (1982). Both “Tableau” and “Occupation: Warrior” are too bleak to sit easily in the Sector General universe. Both feel slightly contrived in their set-up, but both have striking endings that reflect White’s commitment to pacifism. They’re both also collected in The Aliens Among Us. “Custom Fitting” is a delight, and has very much the same light and humorous tone as the Sector General series—it’s included in Futures Past, as well as being widely anthologized elsewhere. So you can read all five of these stories if you track down copies of The Aliens Among Us and Futures Past. Unfortunately, unlike almost every other classic science fiction author I’ve written about here, White seems not to have been the subject of a major e-book revival, which I find rather sad. There is a Kindle edition of The Aliens Among Us, but not of Futures Past.

And if you’re looking for the novels in e-book format, some of the later ones are available for the Kindle in the USA, as well as three anthology editions which together include the first eight in the series, but these are mysteriously unavailable in the UK at time of writing, which is a shame.

(Be the first)

James White: Four Novels

Covers of four novels by James White
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I usually respond well to editorial criticism, and I invariably take notice of a constructive review. Generally speaking, however, those people who like my stories show great sensitivity and intelligence—those who don’t, don’t.

James White, quoted by Graham Andrews

James White was a Northern Irish science fiction author, who deserves to be better known than he is. He had this to say about himself in the author’s note to the Ace edition of his novel The Escape Orbit.

I first started writing for fan magazines, and wrote my first story partly as a joke and partly because I was fed up with all the atomic doom stories which were current at that time and wanted to write one with a happy ending. Submitted this first story to Ted Carnell of New Worlds who said he liked it and had I any other ideas … I’ve been writing professionally as a hobby ever since.

White continued to “write professionally as a hobby” for the next twenty years, retaining his day job until he was forced to retire through ill-health, and writing in the evenings in his loft conversion—his stories never seem to have made enough money to make a full-time writing career an option. Most of his novels and story collections are now long out of print, and (unlike so many other science-fiction authors of his vintage) he has yet to be granted a second life in e-book form. Which is a shame. In my view the world needs more exposure to White’s gentle humanity, deeply felt pacifism, and wry wit.

He is now mainly remembered for his “Sector General” series of novels, featuring the activities of a huge multi-species hospital on the edge of the galaxy. Most of the early novels in that series were assembled from short stories—at first published in New Worlds magazine, and later in the anthology series New Writings in S.F. And it was in New Writings, which regularly appeared on the shelves of my local public library, that White first came to my attention, with memorable Sector General short stories like “Vertigo” (1968), “Meatball” (1969) and “Spacebird” (1973).

I’m going to write something about Sector General another time, but for now I’ve been re-reading four of his (now largely forgotten) stand-alone novels, spanning a decade beginning in the early 1960s. They all manifest the things that people of “great sensitivity and intelligence” like about White’s stories. For one, his characters have vivid internal lives—we share their stress, fear and confusion as White’s intricate plots buffet them around. For another, almost all his stories (Open Prison a partial exception) feature antagonists who mean well—in White’s stories, conflict arises because people misunderstand each other or their situation, and conflict is resolved by good people making their best efforts to reach mutual understanding. And finally, there’s White’s gentle humour, sometimes exquisitely timed to place a beat of relief into a rampingly tense situation. And, interestingly, three of the four feature medics as principal characters, despite the fact the drama comes from something other than medical practice.

Here’s a quick summary of the four novels I recently dug out of the attic. (White, in his loft conversion in the sky, might find that amusing.)

Open Prison (1965) was original serialized in 1964 in New Worlds. UK publishers retained White’s original title, while in the USA it appeared under the slightly misleading title The Escape Orbit (but with much better cover art). It was nominated for the inaugural Nebula Award in 1966, losing to Frank Herbert’s Dune, so no shame in that.

The premise of the story is that humans have been involved in an inconclusive interstellar war against insectile aliens, predictably called “Bugs”, for sixty years. The chlorine-breathing Bugs have addressed the problem of dealing with thousands of oxygen-breathing prisoners-of-war by simply dumping their prisoners to fend for themselves on an uninhabited planet with an oxygen atmosphere. The story starts with the arrival of a senior officer, Sector Marshal Warren, on the prison planet. He discovers that the humans have divided themselves into two groups—the Committee, who have devoted themselves to formulating some method of escape (which they’ve been working on for decades with little success); and the Civilians, who have simply abandoned all pretext to military organization, and started making the best life for themselves that they can, under the circumstances. Warren aligns himself with the Committee, and starts driving the escape attempt forward towards a definite deadline.

At first, I couldn’t work out why this one had been nominated for a Nebula—the first half of the novel is a very slow burn, largely taken up with political manoeuvring, as well as some breath-takingly blithe sexism which serves as a reminder that even the relatively recent past is a foreign country. But when the escape attempt begins, with the humans luring down and then storming a Bug shuttle-craft, using cross-bows and improvised spacesuits, it really starts to rattle along. And there are two twists in the final few chapters, each of which recasts the context of the narrative, leading to an ending that is simultaneously downbeat and hopeful.

I kept thinking of other novels while reading The Watch Below (1966). It reminded me in turn of Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, then Andy Weir’s The Martian and then Robert Heinlein’s Orphans Of The Sky. (Heinlein’s novel, which predates White’s, gets an acknowledgement in The Watch Below when it is discussed, though not named, by some of the characters.)

The novel has two parallel story strands. The first, which dominates the narrative, involves the fate of five people (three men and two women) trapped below decks on a large oil tanker, the Gulf Trader, when it is torpedoed in 1942. The tanker is being transferred, empty of oil, from the USA to the UK, where it will be refitted for some vaguely hinted-at anti-submarine role. But for now its empty tanks have been crammed with food and equipment to aid Britain’s war effort. So the sunken survivors find themselves two hundred feet underwater, sealed into a very large watertight space that is packed with the necessities of survival. As they await rescue they set up a generator and lights, a still to desalinate water, and plant beans under artificial light to absorb carbon dioxide and replace oxygen. (While they wait for the beans to grow, they have access to cylinders of oxygen from multiple oxy-acetylene welding kits.) But rescue never comes.

The other strand deals with a crew of water-breathing aliens, fleeing the destruction of their home planet in a colony fleet. The flight to a new world will take many of their lifetimes, but the crew will spend most of that time in artificial hibernation, being woken only occasionally to serve watch duty and keep the fleet on course. Except they discover that repeated episodes of hibernation will cause brain damage, rendering the crew unfit to keep watch. Or indeed, feed themselves.

Both narratives then turn into distorted versions of the classic “generation ship gone wrong” science-fictional trope, of which Heinlein’s novel is a fine example. The alien crew decide to stay awake and produce children, who will, generation after generation, be trained to pilot the fleet and its hibernating passengers to their destination. And the five people trapped in the sunken tanker  … well, they start having children, too. And decades pass, and their children have children. (I know, I know. There is a point with this one at which you just need to take a deep breath and go along for the ride.)

The two stories then proceed in a sort of narrative lock-step, with successive generations of aliens and humans encountering progressively worsening problems as each group struggles to survive. Of course the two strands are going to converge eventually, and the rough outline of how they’re going to come together is fairly evident. But White pulls it all off neatly in a couple of chapters, with a fine plot development I didn’t see coming.

All Judgement Fled (1967) is a “First Contact” novel—a big mysterious spaceship enters the solar system, and a small band of humans travel out to investigate it and explore its interior. Yup, that is indeed the set-up for Arthur C. Clarke’s later and much more famous novel, Rendezvous With Rama (1973). Mike Resnick once wrote*:

I never knew quite how to describe [All Judgement Fled] until Rendezvous With Rama came out and won the 1974 Hugo. Now, I just tell people that if they want to read Rama done right (sorry, Arthur), pick up All Judgement Fled.

That’s a bit of a false dichotomy, I reckon—it’s possible to do “exploring giant mysterious alien artefact” right in more ways than one. Clarke’s beautiful “sense of wonder” novel won him a well-deserved Hugo award, but left his spacecraft as an open-ended mystery. White’s novel sets a puzzle, puts his characters through an emotional and physical wringer as they try to work out what’s going on, and then reaches a conclusion with the puzzle solved.

White’s astronauts are attacked on entering the alien spaceship, but are uncertain if they’re dealing with vicious alien animals or the builders of the craft, and their situation becomes increasingly perilous as some of their spacesuits are damaged, trapping some members of the exploratory group aboard the ship. They are forced to push deeper into its interior, fighting off repeated attacks with improvised weapons while attempting to understand what they’re dealing with. Meanwhile (in a marvellously prescient version of today’s social-media hate-storms), public opinion back on Earth turns against the astronauts, who are accused of slaughtering the ambassadors of an alien race. White evokes the emotional strain this imposes on the exploratory team very well, as they simultaneously fight for their lives, doubt their own decisions and deal with increasingly fatuous and bullying messages from their controllers on Earth. The whole thing eventually builds to an almost cinematic climax (and I’d certainly pay to see the film adaptation of this novel, if one is ever made).

Dark Inferno (1972) originally appeared in serial form in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, then had its title changed to the more literal Lifeboat when published in the USA by Ballantine. UK publishers retained White’s original (and in my view more pleasing) title.

This one made me think of the film Airport (1970), and I’m pretty sure that’s not merely a coincidence. White’s novel similarly introduces a cast of characters and then loads them aboard a doomed flight—on this occasion, the spaceship Eurydice, bound from Earth to the Jovian moons. (The spacecraft’s name refers to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and, like White’s original title, hints that its passengers are destined for a hellish experience.)

The point-of-view character is Mercer, the ship’s doctor, who mixes freely with both the crew and the passengers, and its through him we experience the gently ramping tension as the Eurydice‘s systems go from nigglingly not-quite-right, to very slightly wrong, to really pretty badly wrong, and then to an acute failure that precipitates the sudden chaotic abandonment of the ship in a tiny fleet of lifeboats. The crew are housed in individual cabins, detached from the body of the ship—Mercer’s “lifeboat” is the original ship’s sick-bay, in which he is tending the severely injured captain of the Eurydice. The passengers are housed in fragile inflatable pods, each designed to keep three people alive for a couple of weeks—but in the chaos of departure, some are overloaded with four passengers, and one contains only a ten-year-old boy.

The lifeboats must first move away from Eurydice while waiting for it to explode, but then turn around and make rendezvous in a group so that they can be picked up by a rescue mission. It’s Mercer’s job to talk the panic-stricken passengers through that complicated process, as well as helping them deal with a succession of emergencies, using a radio that broadcasts on an open channel to all the lifeboats simultaneously. The Eurydice‘s course had taken it inside the orbit of Venus, so the temperature starts to rise in all the lifeboats, particularly the overcrowded ones. And when the Eurydice takes longer to explode than anyone had predicted, resources begin to run low …

Again, White really ramps up the tension in the closing chapters, with a succession of skin-of-the-teeth rescues.

Although I enjoyed rereading all of these, I was least engaged by Open Prison. The alien Bugs, who serve little other purpose than to be shot, are a serious departure from White’s usual approach. Instead, his trademark “search for mutual understanding” is confined entirely to the opposing human factions on the prison planet. But it’s full of nicely observed moments, like this one:

With gestures which were an improbable combination of salute, cheery wave and thumbs-up sign, Kelso and Sloan disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel heading for Number Two Attack Point

The Watch Below is certainly strange, but oddly compulsive. The human decision to found an informal underwater colony is obviously bonkers, and it wouldn’t actually work, but White manages to usher his readers past all that, and engage them with the dramas that arise from the crazy premise. And in the middle of all the grim stuff, there’s always a little glimpse of humour:

With the passing years the doctor’s hair had gone white, Dickson’s had gone gray, and the lieutenant commander’s had gone completely.

All Judgement Fled is psychologically the most intense, as the humans fight for survival while being undermined by their own Mission Control. White constructs an exponential rise in tension, showing us in a series of cameos that the starfish-like aliens attack from ambush, that they are able to clutch a human being tightly in their tentacles, and that they also possess a central, stabbing horn at the base of those radiating tentacles. So the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen, but not when. The inevitable fatal attack occurs in zero gravity, and White stages it so that it’s almost off-screen, letting his readers draw their own pictures. This reader has had the picture in his head now for thirty years:

There were shouts, curses and a scream that jerked on and off regularly, as if someone was trying to hold a high note while his back was being clapped. McCullough swung round and raised his weapon, but the center of the room was a confused mass of twisting, struggling bodies which were rapidly becoming obscured by a growing red fog and there was nothing he could do.

But Dark Inferno is still my favourite. It has its problems—the organization of the lifeboats into well-appointed crew quarters and marginally equipped passenger compartments is designed to serve the needs of the story and doesn’t bear close examination; and there’s a little problem with conservation of angular momentum that drove me mad on first reading, back when I was a judgemental teenage physics nerd. But it’s beautifully paced and genuinely tense, shot through with memorable moments. The scene in which the doctor, Mercer, listens helplessly on his radio while two men start a murderous fight in one of the lifeboats, sticks in the mind, as does a classic “defuse the tension” moment during the fraught rescue sequence. Here’s the radio exchange between Mercer and one of the other crewmen, who is returning to the rendezvous point after being out of touch for hours while chasing down an errant lifeboat:

‘That was quite a chase, Mercer. It will take me five hours to get back there, but I have them aboard.’
‘Are they all right?’
‘Two of them are doing fine. But the other man, Saddler, is running a bluff with a pair of threes.’

So I’d recommend both All Judgement Fled and Dark Inferno as exciting and well-constructed reads, though a modern reader will wince from time to time at the authorial Male Gaze to which female characters are subjected. The Watch Below is marvellously odd, but probably not for everyone. And Open Prison is really too much of its time—although cleverly constructed and pacey in its second half, it very much shows its age.

* Resnick was writing in the introduction to NESFA Press’s The White Papers (1996), a celebration of White’s work

. I’ve now written about the “Sector General” stories, here.

Jack Williamson: The “Seetee” Novels

The "Seetee" novels, by Will Stewart (Jack Williamson)

[T]he same men who split the terrene atom had also written the theory of contraterrene matter—of atoms inside out, with negative nuclei and orbital positrons. Duplicating every element and property of the matter all men know, that other stuff is entirely stable, the theory shows—until it touches something terrene.
But contact between these two types of matter ignites pure fury. Unlike charges are attracted. Unlike particles collide and cancel out. Einstein calculated the energy released—some twenty-five billion kilowatt hours—for every kilogram of matter consumed.
Undismayed by that untouchable stuff, the spatial engineers have named it familiarly seetee, and they are reaching daringly to grasp it now.

Jack Williamson, Seetee Shock (1950)

Jack Williamson, one of several writers to rejoice under the informal title of “Dean of Science Fiction”, was born in 1908 in what was then Arizona Territory, and amazingly published works in the fantasy and science fiction genres over a span of nine decades, from the 1920s to the 2000s.

On my shelves I have a smattering of Williamson in paperback. The Legion of Space series is a rollicking bit of space opera, in the 1930s style of E.E. “Doc” Smith, but enhanced by its whining Falstaffian antihero, Giles Habibula. The Legion of Time (1938) took much the same approach to time travel, and gave us the concept of the “Jonbar point”—a critical point in history at which a very slight tweak to a single event will resonate and magnify to produce an entirely different future. And Darker Than You Think (1948) was an innovative take on the werewolf story, in which a journalist discovers a secret history of conflict between Homo sapiens and Homo lycanthropus.

But my hardcover first editions of Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock are not the first copies of these novels that I’ve owned. I first encountered them in the Lancer paperback editions of 1968, and had my eleven-year-old mind blown by Seetee Ship. The impression from that novel is so vivid that I can recall the exact circumstances of the purchase—my mother bought me a bundle of four science fiction paperbacks from a “reduced to clear” bin in what at that time was pretty much the only bookshop in Dundee, a rather pokey little outlet of John Menzies on Whitehall Street. The “Seetee” novels were bundled with a rather nice anthology, An ABC of Science Fiction (1966), and a deeply forgettable item entitled The Throwbacks (1965), by Roger Sarac ( which, as it turns out, was a well-advised but rather transparent pseudonym for the wildlife photographer and conservationist, Roger Caras).

With that bit of personal history out of the way, we now have two puzzles to address: why are the books illustrated at the head of the post authored by “Will Stewart”, and what the heck is “seetee”?

“Will Stewart” was a pseudonym adopted by Williamson, derived from his full name, John Stewart Williamson. The two novels were based on short stories and a serial originally published in the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction, and it was common practice at that time for prolific authors to assume pseudonyms for some of their stories, which gave editors more flexibility in putting together their magazines without having to run two stories under the same byline in a single issue. Seetee, as the quote at the head of this post hints, is a phonetic rendering of “C.T.”, for Contra-Terrene, an old adjective for what we now call antimatter—matter composed of anti-particles which will annihilate with regular (“terrene”) matter, releasing a very large amount of energy.

Williamson (in his guise as Will Stewart) started writing about antimatter in 1942, and was one of the first science-fiction authors to do so. First came three novellas: “Collision Orbit” (July 1942), “Minus Sign” (November 1942) and “Opposites—React!” (January & February 1943). Astounding later published a three-part serial novel, Seetee Shock, in February, March and April 1949. You can read all of these on-line—my links take you to the relevant issues of Astounding held on the Internet Archive. Seetee Shock was picked up in largely unaltered form by Simon and Schuster, and published in 1950. Williamson then mashed up the plots of his three earlier novellas into a coherent novel, which was published by Gnome Press as Seetee Ship in 1951. The novels should therefore be read in reverse order of publication—Seetee Shock is very much a sequel to Seetee Ship.

The stories are set in the late twenty-second century, but much coloured by the politics of the 1940s. Planetary colonies have been founded—the Japanese and Chinese are on Venus, Germans on Mars, and Russians inhabit the larger moons of Jupiter; the latter two referred to as the “German Reich” and the “Jovian Soviet”. The resource-rich asteroid belt, thinly populated by hardy asteroid miners (the asterites), is under the effective control of a mega-corporation called Interplanet, whose exploitation of the asteroid miners is backed up by the military forces of the High Space Mandate. The parallels with the East India Company and the Royal Navy in British colonial America are fairly obvious. Indeed, Williamson was one of the originators of the now well-worn science-fictional trope of asteroid miners as tough-minded, resourceful and oppressed, and therefore ripe for rebellion.

But Williamson introduces two interesting plot elements, which set these stories apart from the works that have followed. The first is the idea of paragravity—a force that is a hybrid of magnetism and gravity. His asteroid colonies sit on top of buried paragravity generators, which give them Earth-like gravity and let them retain an atmosphere. The main asterite city on Pallas sits on a shallowly buried paragravity generator, and Williamson has fun describing how quickly the local gravity vector changes, so that anyone walking away from Pallasport across the flat surrounding terrain finds themselves apparently climbing a progressively steeper slope into thinner and thinner air. He coined the word “terraforming” for this method of giving asteroids Earthlike gravity and air pressure, and the word is now a technical term for proposed methods of converting lifeless planets into Earthlike environments.

But his main narrative innovation is the way he treats antimatter—his version of the asteroid belt is full of antimatter asteroids, which the asterites call “hell in chunks”, as well as orbiting clouds of antimatter dust, the “seetee drift”. I don’t know of any other science-fiction writer who has placed his characters within arm’s length of stonking great lumps of antimatter, and set them the task of controlling and exploiting it. However, in his original stories, Williamson severely underestimated the amount of energy that would be liberated when even the microscopic dust of his seetee drift came into contact with regular matter. In reality, a speck of antimatter weighing about as much as a pollen grain would release the energy of a stick of dynamite, if it annihilated totally with matter. But Williamson seems to have initially imagined something no more energetic than a conventional chemical reaction. In an early short story, for instance, he has a character use a long length of wire to test whether a chunk of metal is matter or antimatter, just by giving it a cautious poke and seeing if there’s a blue flash. But by the time that scene found its way into Seetee Ship, the character uses a seetee detector that fires a single alpha particle at the target and then detects the gamma rays produced by annihilation.

In reality, Williamson’s asteroid belt would be a lethal zone of massive explosions and intense radiation—but it’s a marvellous setting for his tales of adventure and engineering derring-do. His asterite heroes seek to control seetee, with the eventual aim of harnessing it as an effectively unlimited source of power. Their plan is to eventually build seetee machines that can process and control a flow of seetee particles, directing them into an annihilation chamber from which power can be extracted. But first they have to find a way to build seetee machines …

That quest, for a way of building a crude seetee machine that can construct a more complex seetee machine, is one plot strand of Seetee Ship. The “spatial engineers” desperately need a seetee bedplate—some method of safely and securely anchoring a piece of seetee within a workspace made of conventional matter. The other plot strand is the investigation of a damaged alien spaceship, which seems to have simply materialized out of a sudden explosion in the asteroid belt. The two strands come together as the spaceship is explored, with paragravity stirred into the mix for a satisfying conclusion. Oh, and there’s time travel. The novel also introduces what feels like one of the earliest sympathetic and positive depictions of autism, in the form of the socially awkward spaceship pilot, Rob McGee, who has an intuitive understanding of orbital mechanics—the name Rob is in fact a cruel nickname, short for “robot”.

“But please don’t think I’m any sort of robot.” His low voice was suddenly bitter. “I know I’m different. Not smarter—I can see I’m not as smart as lots of ordinary people, in most ways. Just different. And that gets pretty lonely.” He coughed and looked away. “Go ahead and call me Rob, but please forget what it means.”

One of the big changes I see, when comparing Seetee Ship to the short stories on which it is based, is how much Williamson’s writing style changed during the 1940s—Seetee Ship loses a lot of the more purple prose from the short stories, and is a more enjoyable read as a result.

Seetee Shock starts up a few years after the events of Seetee Ship, and centres on a new character, the spatial engineer Nicol Jenkins. As a result of events described in the previous novel, the asterites are closing in on their goal of harnessing seetee and using it to generate power too cheap to meter. However, the control of seetee brings with it the threat of seetee weapons, too. The analogy with the nascent nuclear arms race at the time Williamson was writing is pretty evident.

After a bit of scene-setting in the first three chapters, Jenkins and about half the cast of characters from the previous novel are exposed to a lethal dose of radiation from the explosion of a seetee bomb. There are forces at work who do not want the asterites to succeed in distributing free power across the solar system. Leaving the other casualties in hospital, Jenkins sets out to complete the project in the short period of time he has left before radiation sickness (the “seetee shock” of the title) incapacitates him.

Jenkins had no time for radiation sickness. Not even time to die. For the traitor Lazarene and the unknown power behind him must be already preparing to spread the deadly venom of seetee war through the Mandate and the planets, and he thought the unfinished Brand transmitter on poisoned Freedonia held the only hope of stopping them.

It turns out to be less exciting than you might think, however. There are betrayals, revelations and narrow escapes, but Williamson also spends a lot of time revealing the detailed history of his imagined future, and having his characters meditate on the desirability (or otherwise) of what he calls the “Fifth Freedom”, free access to electrical power. (His American readers in 1950 would immediately have picked up on the reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941.) And, disappointingly for me at least, Rob McGee’s talents suddenly expand to include telepathy. (Science fiction was at the start of its notorious “psi-boom” at the time, under the influence of editor John W. Campbell.) And another remarkable new attribute for McGee provides the novel’s deus ex machina ending.

I enjoyed re-reading these. Seetee Ship is a marvellous pile of innovative ideas, and rattles along fast enough that the reader doesn’t have time to wonder at the improbable lapses in curiosity among the major characters, at critical moments during the plot development. As a child, I found Seetee Shock impossibly bleak and too full of exposition, but I enjoy it now both as a glimpse of what preoccupied 1950s science-fiction writers, and for the moral ambiguity of some of its central characters.

Both novels are, it almost goes without saying, available as e-books from Gollancz’s SF Gateway publishing arm.

(Be the first)

John Warwicker: Churchill’s Underground Army

Cover of Churchill's Underground Army by John Warwicker

In order to stay behind, we needed somewhere to stay: and by sucking up to the Sappers we had already brought into being what might very loosely be called a network of subterranean hide-outs in which not only the striking force—[myself] and about fifteen other idiots—but our far-flung, hand-picked collaborators in the Home Guard, would bide their time before emerging to wreak, in a variety of ill-defined ways, havoc among the invaders.

Peter Fleming, The Spectator 8 July 1966

That’s Peter Fleming, elder brother of the James Bond creator Ian, writing about his role in the creation of what would become the secret Auxiliary Units of wartime Britain—a resistance organization established in 1940 in anticipation of a German invasion of the British Isles.

I first found out about the Auxiliary Units in an episode of Rob Bell’s excellent television documentary series The Buildings That Fought Hitler, which explores the Second World War infrastructure that still litters the British countryside. I knew about the coastal defences and stop-lines, the radar stations and underground factories, but I’d never heard of the Auxiliary Units and their elaborate and secret underground “hideaways” (officially, Operational Bases). So Bell’s programme inspired me to track down a book devoted to their history. John Warwicker’s Churchill’s Underground Army (2013) appears to be a successor to a previous work on the same topic, With Britain In Mortal Danger (2005), which he edited.

I can’t tell you much about John Warwicker. I suspect he’s not the British graphic designer of the same name, but wonder if he might be the man who commanded the Special Branch protection team at 10 Downing Street during the 1970s, who published a memoir in 2015. Certainly the Warwicker of Churchill’s Underground Army seems to be very much acquainted with firearms, explosives and terrorist tactics.

The Auxiliary Units originated when, after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the prospect of a German invasion of Britain could not be discounted, and thoughts began to turn to how Britain might continue the war even under German occupation. Plans were quickly drawn up for the recruitment, training and equipping of a network of secret civilian resistance groups, originally called the Home Defence Organization, and formed under the auspices of Section D, the Secret Intelligence Service’s “dirty tricks” department. Such civilian resistance fighters would have no protection under the Hague Conventions, and in the event of capture would most likely be interrogated and executed.

Warwicker steers us initially through the complex and ever-shifting organizational structure of the Auxiliary Units—so complex, in fact, that ex-members of these Units (styled “Auxiliers”), have scant idea of who was actually in charge. This was, of course, important—ideally Auxiliers knew only the members of their own unit, and the “Intelligence Officer” responsible for their recruitment and orders, because the less about the organization they knew, the less they could betray under interrogation. They were also required to keep their true roles secret from family and friends, and many were given cover stories involving attachment to the Home Guard, to account for their repeated absences for training.

The Auxiliers were necessarily recruited from professions exempt from conscription—someone eligible for military service who was not visibly in service would immediately arouse suspicion and comment in the local community, a real risk to the security of the whole enterprise. Certain occupations were favoured: quarrymen and miners, for knowledge of explosives; gamekeepers for their knowledge of firearms and the local landscape … and the occasional poachers, too, who had a grasp of the importance of silence and stealth.

A chapter on Operational Bases describes the underground hideaways constructed by the Auxiliers. Initially informal, unventilated, prone to flooding and occasionally discovered by small boys, these soon become more standardized structures, equipped with elaborate counterbalanced trapdoors cover by a metal tray full of soil and turf that blended in to the local vegetation. An Auxilier wanting to gain access would alert those underground by dropping a marble down a fake mouse-hole near the trapdoor. This rolled down a buried section of gas-pipe and then clonked noisily into a biscuit tin inside the hideaway. Because of the independent operation of each Unit, and the secrecy surrounding Base locations, there is no record of where all these hideaways were built. Some are probably still out there, unvisited for seven decades.

Auxiliers were trained in “thuggery” (close-quarters combat) by Brigadier Geoffrey Beyts, using fighting techniques developed by William “Dangerous Dan” Fairbairn and Eric “Bill” Sykes, who had developed their techniques while serving with the Shanghai police, and who went on to develop the Fairbairn-Sykes Command Knife.

The sabotage and booby-trap techniques taught to the Auxiliers were collectively referred to as “scallywagging”, and Warwicker’s chapter on this topic is full of grim but fascinating detail. Scallywagging involved, among other things, a positive shed-load of explosives. Warwicker recounts the story of the Auxilier who, twenty years after the war, eventually breached the Official Secrets Act and phoned the police to report that he had 14,000 rounds of ammunition and a half-ton of explosives hidden in his milking shed, but it seemed likely that the Army had forgotten they needed to come and collect it.

Eventually, as the threat of invasion receded and the Army massed for the Invasion of France, many of the Auxiliers found themselves conscripted—some going on to serve with the Special Operations Executive.

The Auxiliers signed up for what would, for many, have been a suicide mission if a German occupation had every occurred. They also maintained a list of local people that they would be tasked with killing at the start of any German invasion, as potential collaborators or as risks to the security of the Auxiliary Units. Warwicker quotes one Auxilier on this topic:

If we had received an order to kill a collaborator, would we have done so without compunction? Yes! Without compunction.

In other words, the Auxiliers signed up for a ghastly job that was very likely to end in their own deaths—but the secrecy surrounding their existence means that they have received scant recognition in the years since the war ended.

On the face of it, it’s difficult to see why the existence of the Auxiliers should have been kept secret for so long—knowledge of their prior existence seems hardly a risk to national security. Warwicker ends the book with his own speculation on what might have made the Auxiliers fall into the category of “state secret”—one involves the infamous Operation Basalt Commando raid on Sark; the other buys wholeheartedly into the conspiracy theories that swirl around Rudolph Hess’s bizarre flight to Scotland in 1941.

I enjoyed reading this. The personalities involved in establishing “irregular warfare” are fascinating, and the British seem to have had a curiously early aptitude for dirty tricks. Warwicker’s narrative ranges widely, full of drama abroad and ingenuity at home. As well as having an insight into a part of Britain’s wartime history that has gone largely unrecognized, I now know a great deal more about rivalry between intelligence services, handling plastic explosives, covert radio transmission, and the design of “dead drops” for secret messages. So that’s bound to be useful, sometime.

More About Bullshit

I’d originally considered entitling this post simply “More Bullshit”, but that of course would be misleading—The Oikofuge attempts to be a bullshit-free zone.

I’ve posted on the topic of bullshit before, when I wrote about Pennycook et al.‘s classic paper “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit“. Now I’d like to share with you a new exploration of bullshit—Turpin et al‘s “Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence“, recently published by the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

In two studies, involving a total of more than one thousand undergraduates (participating in exchange for course credit, as seems to be pretty routine in psychological research), Martin Turpin and his colleagues in Ontario, Canada, investigated the links between bullshitting, intelligence, and other people’s assessment of the bullshitter’s intelligence.

Here’s what they did, while in the process introducing some marvellous technical terms:

First, they assessed the Bullshit Willingness of the participants, by inviting them to score their familiarity with a list of ten concepts using a scale from “never heard of it” to “know it well, understand concept”. The trick being that, while six of the concepts (like “Cognitive Dissonance”) were real things, four (like “Neural Acceptance”) were entirely invented names. Participants were then scored on their willingness to pretend familiarity with fictitious concepts.

The participants then moved to the Bullshit Production phase. A subset of them were presented with the previous list of ten concepts, and asked to produce a “convincing and satisfying explanation” of each—making up an explanation for any terms they were unfamiliar with. After which, Bullshit Raters (the rest of the participants) scored the bullshit explanations of the fictitious concepts according to how accurate and satisfying they found the explanations, from which a Bullshit Ability score for each “explainer” was derived. In the second study the Bullshit Raters were also asked to say how intelligent they thought each explainer was.

Finally, all the participants completed a couple of measures of general intelligence (the Wordsum task and Raven’s progressive matrices) and were then given a task which assessed their Bullshit Receptivity and Bullshit Sensitivity. They were asked to assess the profundity (or otherwise) of thirty statements originally used in the study by Pennycook et al. Ten of these statements are mundane observations (“Some things have very distinct smells”). Ten are motivational quotations that contain some sort of observation on the human condition (“A wet person does not fear the rain”). And ten are meaning-free pseudo-profound bullshit, generated algorithmically by arranging profound-seeming words and phrases into random grammatical sentences (“We are in the midst of a self-aware blossoming of being that will align with the nexus itself”). You can find the whole list in Turpin et al.’s Supplemental Material. Participants who assigned high profundity to the pseudo-profound statements received a high Bullshit Receptivity score; Bullshit Sensitivity was assessed by comparing each participant’s rating of pseudo-profound bullshit with their rating of the motivational quotations.

With me so far? Fair enough. To recap, the experimenters ended up with a bunch of scores relating to a bunch of people: their Bullshit Willingness (readiness to bullshit); their Bullshit Ability (aptitude for bullshitting); their Bullshit Receptivity (readiness to accept bullshit); their Bullshit Sensitivity (ability to distinguish bullshit from non-bullshit); a couple of measures relevant to their intelligence; and an assessment of their perceived intelligence, based on their ability to bullshit.

The researchers than whacked all those data into a big correlation matrix, to see what correlated with what. Here’s what they found:

  • Participants’ Bullshit Ability correlated with both measures of their general intelligence
  • Participants’ Bullshit Willingness correlated negatively with both measures of their general intelligence
  • There was no correlation between Bullshit Ability and Bullshit Willingness
  • Participants’ Bullshit Ability correlated with their perceived intelligence
  • Participants’ Bullshit Willingness correlated with their Bullshit Receptivity and correlated negatively with their Bullshit Sensitivity

Accepting, for the sake of argument, that high scores on the two little intelligence tests administered in this study actually pick out smarter people, what the authors seem to have discovered is that smarter people are better at bullshitting, but more reluctant to bullshit, and that being a good bullshitter results in people perceiving you as being intelligent. If all this is true, one interpretation is that, in evolutionary terms, good bullshitting is an “honest signal” of intelligence—people correctly judge the good bullshitter to have above-average intelligence. The authors’ interpretation is as follows:

[W]e propose that the ability to produce satisfying bullshit may have emerged as an energetically efficient strategy for achieving an individual’s goals (such as acquiring status or impressing mates). That is, a person can engage in the arduous process of acquiring expert skills in domains that they could then leverage to accomplish certain goals, or can use bullshit as a strategy that potentially produces the same benefits at a much smaller cost. Of course, these strategies need not be mutually exclusive, as the ability to produce satisfying bullshit may help even highly skilled individuals achieve their goals over equally skilled peers.

Pity the poor person who has high Bullshit Willingness but poor Bullshit Ability, however—their audience will form an unfavourable view of their intelligence. And their Bullshit Willingness goes hand-in-hand with increased Bullshit Receptivity and decreased Bullshit Sensitivity. To quote the authors again:

Thus, contrary to the common expression, it may indeed be possible to “bullshit a bullshitter.”

George Alec Effinger: The “Marîd Audran” Trilogy

Covers of the Marid Audran trilogy, by George Alec Effinger

All in all, my life had changed so much that my days of poverty and insecurity seemed like a thirty-year nightmare. Today I’m well fed, well dressed, and well liked by the right people, and all it’s cost me is what you might expect: my self-respect and the approval of most of my friends.

George Alec Effinger was a science fiction writer and humorist mainly active during the 1970s and ’80s. He was a prolific short story writer during those decades, but is perhaps best remembered now for his three exotic cyberpunk novels featuring the cynical and unfortunate antihero, Marîd Audran. Effinger had sketched out a character arc for Audran across five novels, but, dogged by ill-health, he was unable to write during much of the 1990s, and died tragically young. After his death his wife, Barbara Hambly, assembled some additional material from Audran’s story universe, and these were published, with notes by Hambly, in a collection entitled Budayeen Nights (2003).

Effinger had a sly sense of humour, which lurks constantly in the background of the Audran books, but which is placed front and centre in the two other novels of his I’ve read, the surreal time-travel romps The Nick Of Time (1985) and The Bird Of Time (1986). And you can probably guess that the theme of the short stories collected in 1993 as Maureen Birnbaum: Barbarian Swordsperson (which also graces my shelves) is not entirely serious. The eponymous and deeply self-absorbed heroine finds herself magically transported to a variety of fantasy and science-fictional settings (Barsoom and Pellucidar, among others), and then returns to breathlessly report her adventures to her best friend, Bitsy Spiegelman.

So it was characteristic of Effinger to take a well-worn subgenre and to rotate it slightly, making it into something new and different. And that’s what he did with the emerging tropes of cyberpunk, which had blossomed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984).

The Audran stories take place at the start of the twenty-third century, and are centred on the inhabitants of a walled enclave called The Budayeen, a seedy quarter of an unnamed Middle Eastern city, which had its origin in a mournful New Wave short story “The City On The Sand” published in 1973. The wider world has undergone a process of political fragmentation (much like the world of Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, which I’ve previously reviewed), so the Budayeen plays host to an international cast of refugees and émigrés, as well as the local Arab/Berber/French population. Technologically, the main developments which drive the stories are twofold. Firstly, body modification is easy and routine—especially gender reassignment, which has become an unremarkable feature of Budayeen society. Secondly, neurological enhancement is similarly routine—people are fitted with skull sockets, wired into their brains, into which they can plug software and data. “Moddies” will modify your personality—so you can turn yourself into a more confident person, or a fictional detective, or something altogether darker. “Daddies” provide more basic functions—you can immediately have command of a new language, or make yourself immune to fatigue or boredom. Most of the inhabitants of the Budayeen spend much of their lives with moddies and daddies plugged into their heads.

When we first meet Effinger’s first-person narrator, Marîd Audran, he is a small-time hustler scratching a living in the Budayeen. He prides himself on surviving by his own native wit, without any neurological enhancement. He does, however, only manage to get through the day by using industrial quantities of drugs. He maintains a precarious independence from the two principal powers in the Budayeen—the corrupt local police, and the local equivalent of a mafia godfather, Friedlander Bey. The trilogy’s narrative arc sees Audran sucked into a succession of events that modify his relationship with all these major forces in his life.

So the context of these stories is reminiscent of the seedier side of New York in the 1970s, as depicted in the TV series The Deuce—a cast of characters hanging around in various sleazy locations, trying to make ends meet in various marginally legal ways, while staying out of trouble with both the law and the local crime lord. (Effinger reportedly based the society of the Budayeen on the French Quarter of his native New Orleans.) But the whole set-up is viewed through the prism of a Muslim Arab society as mannered and courteous as the Golden Age culture of One Thousand And One Nights. Characters quote the Koran to each other, agonize over their less-than-Islamic life choices, haggle histrionically, and exchange long series of courtesies and polite circumlocutions before getting down to business. Here, for instance, is Audran pleading for his life when wrongly accused of the murder of one of Friedlander Bey’s lieutenants:

[Friedlander Bey asked,] “Then, let me put this question to you: How does one revenge a murder?”
There was a long, glacial silence. There was only one answer, but I took a while to frame my reply in my mind. “O Shaykh” I said at last, “a death must be met with another death. That is the only revenge. It is written in the Straight Path, ‘Retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the murdered’; and also, ‘One who attacketh you, attack him in a like manner as he attacked you.’ But it also says elsewhere, ‘The life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds retaliation. But whoso forgoeth it in the way of charity, it shall be expiation for him.’ I am innocent of this murder, O Shaykh, and to seek revenge wrongfully is a crime worse than the killing itself.”
“Allah is Most Great,” murmured [Friedlander Bey]. He looked at me in surprise. “I had heard that you were an infidel, my nephew, and it caused me pain. Yet you have a certain knowledge of the noble Qur’ân.”

But Effinger’s dialogue can also get straight to the point:

She looked lovely. I hated to bother her now with my news. I decided to put it off as long as I could.
“So,” she said, looking up at me and grinning, “how was your day?”
“Tamiko’s dead,” I said.

And Audran has an occasionally Chandleresque instinct for the well-turned phrase:

Her lipstick, for reasons best known to Allah and [herself], was a kind of pulpy purple color; her lips looked like she’d bought them first and forgot to put them in the refrigerator while she shopped for the rest of her face.

At the start of the first novel, When Gravity Fails (1986), Audran is in the midst of being hired to find a missing person when his client is shot dead in front of him, by an assassin who is apparently wearing a moddy that makes him believe he is James Bond. A succession of other murders follow, in a variety of violent styles. Some involve people who are friends of Audran and/or employees of Friedlander Bey—at which point Audran is given an offer he can’t refuse by “Papa” Friedlander, and finds himself obliged to undergo neurological modification whether he likes it or not. The story rattles along as the body count increases and we encounter the colourful cast of supporting characters—Saied The Half-Hajj, who became distracted halfway through his pilgrimage to Mecca; Laila the elderly and subtly deranged moddy dealer, her brain damaged by endlessly sampling her own wares; Chiri the East African club owner, who has filed some of her teeth to points; and Bill the taxi-driver, who has had his body modified to continuously infuse a hallucinogen into his blood. (It’s not clear why Audran habitually uses Bill’s services, given Bill’s tendency to swerve to avoid hallucinations.) And it’s a typical bit of Effinger humour that, when Audran first reflects on how to use his new neurological implants to track down the psychopathic murderer(s) roaming the Budayeen, he decides to use a moddy that will turn him into Nero Wolfe, the fictional armchair detective created by Rex Stout. His plan to sit at home thinking deeply while someone else does the dangerous stuff is foiled only by the the Half-Hajj’s point-blank refusal to wear the companion Archie Goodwin moddy.

The novel was sufficiently successful to spawn an Infocom game, Circuit’s Edge (1989).

Opening screen of Circuit's Edge (Infocom, 1989)

A Fire In The Sun (1989) finds Audran deeper in thrall to Friedlander Bey—comfortably installed in a wing of Friedlander’s palace, and the owner of a profitable night-club. He is also, by Friedlander’s machinations, embedded as Friedlander’s eyes and ears with the local police department. The situation is not one that either improves Audran’s self-respect or wins favour from his former friends. The plot rapidly becomes extremely complicated—Friedlander wants Audran to murder someone; Audran has another murder that he needs to avenge; he also needs to tease out the oddly complex relationship between Friedlander and a commercial rival, sort out a mystery surrounding his own parentage, and try to heal the rifts with his old friends. Effinger expands on the uses to which moddies can be put, some of which are deeply unpleasant, and leavens the narrative with dark humour. My favourite from this novel is the moment when Audran, caught up in a police emergency, pops in a moddy that will turn him into an efficient police-officer … and then has to sit through a coffee commercial inside his head before the moddy takes effect.

The Exil Kiss (1991) begins with the sentence, “It never occurred to me that I might be kidnapped.” So you know what’s going to happen next. Friedlander Bey and his now right-hand-man Audran are picked up by the police on trumped-up murder charges and (after a series of less-than-legal events) dumped in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert and left to die.

So the first half of this novel is spent in the desert, where Friendlander and Audran are rescued, after various misadventures, by a tribe of nomadic Bedu. There follow more adventures among the Bedu, and the pair eventually manage to return to their home city, to solve the murder mystery and wreak revenge, in the latter half of the book. The conclusion is oddly rushed and inconsistent, and for me the more enjoyable part of the book is Audran’s adaptation to Bedu culture, on which Effinger lavishes much detail—I think in part derived from Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959).

The two opening chapters of the planned fourth novel, Word Of Night, which were published in the themed collection Budayeen Nights, show tantalizing promise, with Effinger drawing together a number of plot elements that had been seeded into the previous novels. But sadly we’ll never know how all that would have turned out.

I enjoyed rereading these. Effinger’s unique evocation of a Muslim cyberpunk culture is skilful and always engaging—Hambly reports in her story notes to Budayeen Nights that Effinger had read a great deal about Islam, and was always careful to have his stories checked by Muslim friends. And his matter-of-fact treatment of gay and transgender characters was ahead of its time in many ways.

There are frustrations, however. The murder mysteries are rather loosely constructed, and Audran’s approach to solving them sits somewhere between haphazard and perverse. The latter problem seems to be largely deliberate, however. Here’s Hambly in her introduction to Budayeen Nights:

It amused George that many readers take Marîd at Marîd’s own evaluation of himself: cool, clever, street-smart, sharp. But in fact, George said, if you look at what Marîd actually does rather than what he says, he is in fact cowardly, not nearly as clever as he thinks he is, and has a major drug problem which he never quite gets around to addressing.

You can pick up second-hand paperback editions of the novels fairly cheaply. The original Bantam Spectra editions (shown at the head of this post) have cover art by Jim Burns and Steve & Paul Youll, much influenced by the visual style of Blade Runner. (There are, actually, no flying cars in the novels.) The current Kindle editions by Open Road Media are surprisingly expensive, and their digital edition of Budayeen Nights seems to be unavailable at present, which is a shame, because physical editions of that book are rare and expensive. Oh, and there’s also a hardback omnibus edition of the trilogy, grandly entitled The Audran Sequence, from the Science Fiction Book Club.

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Two Unique Polar Crossings

Covers two books about long-axis polar crossings

And of what value was this journey? It is as well for those who ask such a question that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask.

Wally Herbert, quoted in Across The Arctic Ocean (2015)

We repeatedly ask ourselves ‘why do we do this?’ It is impossible to say.

Geoff Somers, Antarctica: The Impossible Crossing? (2018)

In 1968-9, The British Trans-Arctic Expedition, led by Wally Herbert, made the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean, using skis and dog-sleds. The four men set off from Point Barrow, Alaska, on 21 February 1968, and made their next landfall at Vesle Tavleøya*, a tiny island in the extreme north of the Svalbard archipelago, on 29 May 1969, after crossing the Geographical North Pole and spending an astonishing 464 days on the Arctic pack-ice. They then trekked across the ice floes for a further 13 days before being picked up by a helicopter from their recovery ship, HMS Endurance. Only a very few people have made such a surface traverse since, and they’ve all done it the “easy” way, between Siberia and Arctic Canada—Herbert’s is the only expedition ever to have traversed the Arctic Ocean along its long axis. And it is likely that no-one will ever do it again, at least in the next few centuries, because the retreat of the Arctic pack-ice means that such a crossing would encounter open ocean on frequent occasions.

In 1989-90, the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition, co-led by Will Steger and Jean-Louis Étienne, crossed the long axis of the Antarctic continent, using skis and dog-sleds. The team of six set off from Seal Nunataks, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, on 27 July 1989, crossed the Geographical South Pole, and reached the Davis Sea coast at the Russian research base of Mirnyy on 3 March 1990, 6048 kilometres and 220 days later. This is the only long-axis crossing of Antarctica, and it is certainly unrepeatable in its original form, since dog teams were removed from the Antarctic in 1994. In addition, the early part of the journey avoided the mountainous, glaciated terrain of the Antarctic Peninsula by crossing the Larsen Ice Shelf—but large parts of the shelf-ice traversed in 1989 have now broken away.

Here, I’m reviewing two recent books dealing with these two journeys. Wally Herbert’s original memoir of the journey was entitled Across The Top Of The World (1969); he also wrote a more technical report for the The Geographical Journal in 1970, entitled “The First Surface Crossing of the Arctic Ocean”. The book I’m writing about here is Across The Arctic Ocean, published in 2015. It’s subtitled “Original Photographs from the Last Great Polar Journey”, and lists Huw Lewis-Jones as a co-author with Herbert. As the subtitle suggests, it’s a collection of Herbert’s photographs from the journey, combined with a short new narrative written by Herbert shortly before his death in 2007. Lewis-Jones, as well as being a historian of polar exploration was also Herbert’s son-in-law, and he has not only seen the work into print but has expanded it into a festschrift for Herbert, with the core narrative bracketed by contributions from other explorers, who reflect both on the hardships of polar travel, and on the lasting influence of Herbert’s pioneering journey.

There have been a number of memoirs relating the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Jean-Louis Étienne produced Transantarctica: La Traversée Du Dernier Continent in 1990, and Will Steger followed with Crossing Antarctica in 1991, in cooperation with Jon Bowermaster. All the other expedition members have now produced their own accounts in their own languages, but it was almost thirty years before the Briton, Geoff Somers, finally pulled out his old journals, realized that they “weren’t too bad”, and compiled them into Antarctica: The Impossible Crossing? (2018).

So both books have the advantage of a historical perspective. We can now appreciate the uniqueness of the two journeys better than might have been understood at the time. And we can now see them as having taken place during a narrow window of polar exploration—after the Heroic Age (because rescue by aircraft was at least theoretically possible), but nevertheless at a time when navigation was still largely being done with compass and sextant and a surveyor’s wheel at the back of the dogsled.

Route of British Trans-Arctic Expedition 1968/69
Click to enlarge
(Source of base map)

The photographs in Herbert’s book are the main focus—some distributed through the text, but many gathered together in groups (grandly labelled “portfolios”) between the chapters. The reproduction is good, and the best images are spread over one or two pages. The subject matter ranges from informal blurry snaps, to well-composed illustrations of what life was like on the ice, to beautifully composed vistas and portraits, and each carries a paragraph of explanatory text. Perhaps the most striking image, for its implications rather than its content or composition, comes early in the book—an unassuming lump of granite, picked up on the shore of Vesle Tavleøya at the conclusion of the crossing. Herbert wrote:

That modest piece of rough, wet rock was worth more than anything on this Earth at that moment.

Herbert’s text occupies three central chapters. The first describes his early adventures in the Antarctic, during which he did extensive mapping work on the Antarctic Peninsula (which involved the first ever crossing of the peninsula), made the first ascent of Mount Fridtjof Nansen, and descended from the Polar Plateau through the icefalls of the Axel Heiberg Glacier, reconstructing the route Roald Amundsen used when he returned from the South Pole. The latter two chapters describe the Arctic crossing itself. Although brief, they’re effective at conjuring up the dangers of spending more than a year afloat in the Arctic Ocean, supported by a few inches of ice that’s in constant motion. Floes suddenly fracture and open up leads of open water almost underneath the party’s tent; pressure ice builds up into chaotic walls at the edge of each floe, over which sleds must be laboriously hauled; open water in the middle of the pack must be circumvented, or sleds and dogs floated across. Travel across the ice becomes impossible both at the height of summer and in the depth of winter, so the travellers must make long-term camp in these seasons. Herbert had hoped to make his winter camp in a location at which the flow of the ice would carry his expedition northwards while they rested. But a back injury to one of his team means that they can’t get to the right location before darkness closes in, and they lose the benefit of the drift. And of course no supply caches can be laid in advance, after the fashion of Antarctic travel—the moving ice would make them impossible to find. So Herbert’s team are supported by air-drops. There’s probably no better way of showing the problem of trekking across drifting ice than by quoting the distance actually travelled. For a direct journey, Barrow-Pole-Svalbard, amounting to about 2700 kilometres, the drift of the ice and the constant route-finding deviations meant that the expedition actually covered 5987 kilometres.

The additional commentary by knowledgeable contributors means that the book is not just a gripping and beautifully illustrated account of a unique journey, but also a fine tribute to Wally Herbert himself.

Route of International Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1989-90
Click to enlarge
(Source of base map)

Geoff Somers’s story has more immediacy, constructed as it is from his daily journal entries, which he supplements with biographical, historical and geographical context. The present-tense narrative immerses the reader in the daily grind of living in the Antarctic. Anything laid on the floor of the tent chills to ten or twenty degrees colder than the warm, humid air higher up. When lifted off the floor, it immediately becomes coated in frost, and then soaking wet once thawed. If this is to be avoided, every single item must be put inside a plastic bag before it is set down. Then when the object is retrieved the frost that forms on the bag must be brushed off (but not inside the tent) before the warmed and still-dry item can be removed from the bag.

Somers’s principal duty was as a dog-handler. His love of the dogs shines through on almost every page, but it has to be said that the dogs suffered miserably, despite Somers’s solicitude and the fact that injured or sick dogs could be airlifted out. While the humans knew what they were getting into, the dogs had no say in the matter, and were operating over distances and under conditions that were well beyond their usual working environment. In a telling moment, two members of the expedition who have become separated from the others in a white-out try to discover the route taken by their team-mates by looking for the spots of blood left in the snow by the dogs’ paws.

A trans-Antarctic expedition has some disadvantages when compared to the Arctic—crossing crevassed areas and operating at the high altitude of the Polar Plateau, for instance. But there are advantages, too. The ground doesn’t drift below one’s feet, so all distance made good stays made good. It’s also possible to lay out supply caches along the route and have them stay where you put them—though there were still huge difficulties in actually finding some of the caches in confusing terrain and drifting snow. And finally, there are human habitations. The expedition made a huge detour around the Ellsworth Mountains to visit the privately operated Patriot Hills Base Camp to rest and resupply. At the pole they arrived at the American Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where they received the notoriously lukewarm welcome mandated by the National Science Foundation. In contrast, when they arrived at the various Soviet bases along their northward course, they were made almost too welcome, with some expedition members paying the penalty in hang-overs the next day.

Somers is frank about the irritations of expedition life—exhaustion, cold, anxiety and forced proximity make everyone irritable, and his journal entries frequently brood over the annoying habits and character traits of his companions. And the intermittent contact with documentary film crews and journalists drives him to distraction, as the expedition schedule is disrupted by the requirements of filming—towards the end of the journey, as impending winter brings plummeting temperatures and frequent bad weather, they’re told they’re travelling too quickly, and need to delay their arrival at Mirnyy until the documentary film-makers are ready. While accepting that expedition sponsors need pay-back in the form of publicity, Somers points out that such a delay actually put human and animal lives at risk.

The book is let down somewhat by the poor reproduction of Somers’s photographs, which are printed muddily on the same kind of plain paper as the rest of the book’s pages. But making a comparison with Herbert’s book, which was specifically produced to show photographs to their best advantage, would be unfair.

They’re both fascinating books, and the personal detail of Somers’s account in many ways is complementary to the photographic record of Herbert’s.

* Vesle Tavleøya is a remote and lonely place, rarely visited. The Boon Companion and I sailed past it in the late summer of 1999, by which time it was surround by open ocean, the edge of the pack ice lying many miles to the north. I dug through our old photographic slide library and scanned in this telephoto view for you.

This is the Romanization of Cyrillic Мирный used by Somers. Depending on the scheme used, it can also be spelled Mirny, Mirnyj or Mirnyĭ.

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Brian Stableford: The “Hooded Swan” Series

Covers of the 'Hooded Swan' series by Brian Stableford

I suppose that some people might consider it a great convenience to be sharing their skull with another mind, on the grounds that two points of view are better than one. They might even consider it to be especially convenient that the alien mind couldn’t stay alien, but had to organize itself along lines similar to their own—become human, in fact. It means, after all, that one need never be alone. It means that one never need be completely isolated from one’s own kind. It means the everpresence of a friend, which might be necessary in times of dire need […]. It means an extra force with which to oppose the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and illimitable seas of troubles, and an extra chance to end such troubles.
But as well as all that, it is also a bloody nuisance.

Brian Stableford Rhapsody In Black (1973)

Brian Stableford is a British science fiction and fantasy author, also active as a critic, translator and academic commentator. The Hooded Swan series of six novels, published between 1972 and 1975, is how he first caught my attention. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, (and certainly more importantly for Stableford) it also marks the point at which he significantly penetrated the American science fiction market. Since then, I’ve also enjoyed some of his fantasy alternate histories: The Empire Of Fear (1988), in which vampires are real; the David Lydyard trilogy (1990-1994), ditto werewolves; and the Empire Of The Necromancers trilogy (2008-2010), ditto Frankenstein’s monster.

But the Hooded Swan books, presented in Pan’s iconic silver-blocked titles with striking cover art by Angus McKie*, still hold a particular place in my memory, persisting across four decades. So it was clearly time I revisited them.

The novels are very much of their era—there are sprawling spaceports, dotted with starships poised for take-off, and rimmed with the inevitable spaceport bars, where arguments end in fist-fights. The aliens are all comfortably humanoid, and there’s that old reliable contrast between the civilized central part of the galaxy, and the Wild West out on the rim.

To this, Stableford brings a noir sensibility via his first-person narrator, a disillusioned and down-on-his-luck pilot called Grainger (no first name), who has a Chandleresque line in weary cynicism. Here he is, telling his aspiring engineer Johnny Socoro how he got into debt after crashing his previous spaceship:

‘An outfit called the Caradoc Company charged me for their services in rescuing me from a rock where I went down. They took me to New Rome and got me clobbered for twenty thousand.’
‘Hell!’ Johnny was suitably impressed. You can judge the social standing of man even now by the sums of money he reacts to.

And here he is assessing the credentials of a group of men who have just abducted him and his companions:

The heavy mob looks the same the universe over. They have never really escaped the influence of the clichés laid down by the earliest exponents of the art of strong-arming. They always have big shoulders and slack features, and a casual swing to their movements deliberately styled to suggest that they can—and maybe do—bend iron bars between their fingers. Our welcoming committee was trying hard—if subconsciously—to give this overall impression, but they weren’t very good at it. Gangsters may be born or made, but these men had had gangsterism thrust upon them.

Only when he’s talking about his ship, the Hooded Swan, does Grainger allow himself to approve of anything. Here, he describes how it feels to fly a spacecraft to which he is neurological linked:

We climbed and we circled and we fell and we zoomed in a gigantic arc. Slowly, almost languidly, I began to tighten the arc, to reduce the radius of the spiral. My body bent and my wings billowed, and I could feel in the tenure of my bones and the texture of my skin and the tonus of my muscles exactly how much she could take. I knew beyond all doubt what my ship could do, because I was she and she was me. My ship, was the Hooded Swan. Mine.
I could fly faster than light.
I could fly higher than the stars.
I could fly through clouds and through rainbows.

So that’s almost all the set-up you need to know. Grainger is in debt. In order to pay off his debt, he is contracted to fly a starship that he falls in love with.

Oh. And then there’s the alien mind parasite. While shipwrecked alone for two years, Grainger begins to believe the wind is talking to him. After a while, he realizes that the voice in his head is real. He has been infected with an entity that uses his brain’s processing power to run in parallel with his own consciousness. It knows everything that Grainger knows, and it cannot help but adopt Grainger’s world-weary attitude. So that’s what’s going on in the quotation at the head of this post. The story arc, across six novels, is about how Grainger reaches a grudging modus vivendi with the nagging voice in his head, and how the “mind parasite” (actually, we’re told in the second novel, a commensal organism) slowly proves its usefulness to Grainger.

So, to the novels. The first, Halcyon Drift (1972), is largely concerned with establishing the structure for the later stories—Grainger’s shipwreck, the mind parasite, the rescue, the incurred debt, and the resulting indenture to his new boss, Titus Charlot, who is a sort of prefiguration of what we’d now recognize as a manipulative and amoral tech millionaire. The supporting characters are assembled, in the form of the Hooded Swan and her crew, and Grainger flies his first mission, to retrieve the cargo of a lost starship, wrecked somewhere in a dangerous region of space called (you guessed it) the Halcyon Drift.

With Rhapsody In Black (1973), Stableford begins to use his two areas of expertise (a degree in biology and a doctorate in sociology) to good effect. Grainger’s next mission takes him the planet Rhapsody, where an isolationist religious cult, who live underground in near-permanent darkness, have stumbled on a piece of exotic biology with dangerous implications for the whole of galactic civilization. Grainger’s hostile relationship with his mind parasite, whom he refers to as “the wind”, slowly develops into a sort of brittle interior banter. And he begins to realize that the wind can do more with Grainger’s nervous system than merely inhabit it.

Promised Land (1974) finds Grainger in the rainforest of Chao Phrya, trying to find an abducted alien child. The human colonists of Chao Phrya view the planet as their Promised Land, and have marginalized the native alien Anacaona, imposing human culture upon them—there are clear resonances here with the way European colonists dealt with indigenous peoples, historically, but Stableford is too good a writer to have his characters explain all that to the reader. As Grainger and his little party push into the rainforest, and the mission descends into chaos, he slowly discovers how alien the thought process of the Anacaona are. There’s a genuinely tense finale featuring two-ton spiders, in which Grainger’s relationship with the wind changes permanently.

The Paradise Game (1974) takes Grainger to Pharos, a planet with a very strange biosphere, where he finds himself in the middle of a three-way stand-off between law enforcement, a mega-corporation intent on developing the planet for its own use, and an environmental activist group who are using ecotage to thwart the proposed development. (Given the advent of Greenpeace a few years previously, the conflict was a topical one at the time of writing.) As Grainger pieces together the nature of Pharos’s ecology, an unexpected crisis point is reached, and he again has to rely on the wind’s subtle ability to tweak his physiology.

In The Fenris Device (1974), Grainger must attempt to recover an ancient alien spacecraft from the dangerous surface of a storm-wracked planet. The spacecraft’s original purpose is mysterious, but it is rumoured to carry a weapon capable of destroying moons (the “Fenris device” of the title). The already hazardous process is complicated by the presence of several competing factions, including a hijacker, and Grainger’s reliance on the aid of his mind parasite reaches a whole new level. By the end of it all, Grainger is ready to quit his job.

Finally, in Swan Song (1975), Stableford deploys the “called out of retirement for one last mission” trope. But he does it knowingly and gleefully. Here’s Grainger, summarizing the situation to a friend:

“Intrepid rush into danger. Old man on brink of death. Mock-heroic space pilot and aging crony. Youngster in the engine room. Seemingly impossible rescue attempt set against a background of cosmic concepts sufficient to make the mind boggle. Isn’t quite what it was in Planet Stories, though, is it?”

The action takes Grainger and the Hooded Swan on a rescue mission into a bizarre pocket universe, and Stableford manages to weave together multiple interpretation of the phrase “swan song” while bringing the series to a satisfactory, if melancholy, conclusion.

What I liked about these novels, and still enjoy on re-reading, is how well Stableford mashes up the narrative furniture of 1970s planetary romance with the sensibilities of noir fiction from the 1940s. In my head, Grainger raps out his lines in the rapid-fire clipped manner of a cynical private investigator in a black-and-white movie. The novels are all short (150 pages of mass-market paperback), so the individual stories are necessarily quite simply constructed, but there’s a well-planned story arc that spans all the books, and Grainger is an engaging anti-hero. I’m not sure about some of Stableford’s more purple prose, and some of his word choices seem a little odd (see “the tenure of my bones” above), but overall I greatly enjoyed revisiting them.

And, as seems to be the case for most of my obscure-but-classic science fiction reviews these days, they’re all currently available as e-books from Gollancz’s Gateway collection.

* McKie’s interpretation of the spaceship Hooded Swan as an actual swan-shaped vehicle was inspired. It aligns perfectly with the spirit of Stableford’s writing, in which the Swan swoops and soars like no other spacecraft, under the control of its ecstatic pilot. But the physical descriptions in the novels suggest that the Hooded Swan has a rather stereotypical upright “rocketship” design, with fins and engines at the bottom and a control station at the top. And, as the first novel makes clear, the name of the ship derives from a direct translation of the Latin binomial Cygnus cucullatus, once applied to (of all things) the dodo. So we must all bless Angus McKie for his feat of imagination.

Stableford, who has a degree in biology, was of course aware of the difference between a parasite, which harms its host, and a commensal, which does not. But, oddly, he also used the word symbiote for the commensal state. Symbiote was an accidental coining by Hal Clement, in his 1950 novel Needle, which subsequently achieved a certain currency in science fiction, but the standard term in biology is symbiont.

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Kim Stanley Robinson: The Ministry For The Future

Cover of The Ministry For The Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Possibly some of the richest two percent of the world’s population have decided to give up on the pretense that “progress” or “development” or “prosperity” can be achieved for all eight billion of the world’s people. For quite a long time, a century or two, this “prosperity for all” goal had been the line taken; that although there was inequality now, if everyone just stuck to the program and did not rock the boat, the rising tide would eventually float even the most high-and-dry among them. But early in the twenty-first century it became clear that the planet was incapable of sustaining everyone alive at Western levels, and at that point the richest pulled away into their fortress mansions, bought the governments or disabled them from action against them, and bolted their doors to wait it out until some poorly theorized better time, which really came down to just the remainder of their lives, and perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic—beyond that, après moi le déluge.

I’ve written about Kim Stanley Robinson before—a science fiction writer with literary leanings and environmentalist preoccupations, probably best known for his Mars trilogy, about the terraforming of that planet over a period of centuries. I have reviewed his novels Red Moon here, New York 2140 here, and his Green Earth trilogy here.

In this one, he returns to the topic of anthropogenic climate change which was the theme of Green Earth, and formed the backdrop to New York 2140. I’d suggest he has also returned to the theme of the Mars trilogy, because this novel deals, in effect, with the terraforming of Earth—a decades-long race to reverse or ameliorate the effects of global warming, before the planet becomes uninhabitable for much of the human race. Mixed in with that, a necessary part of the project, is the righting of the inequality Robinson eloquently outlines in the three long sentences with which I’ve started this post.

One thread that runs through the narrative is the activities of the titular “Ministry For The Future”—a United Nations “agency with no financial power and little legal leverage”, created to push forward the goals of the Paris Agreement. We follow its director, Mary Murphy, as she tours the world attempting to persuade financial institutions to move away from petrodollars and to adopt a new cryptocurrency that rewards countries and organizations who leave fossil fuels in the ground, or actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The other principal character is Frank May, an aid worker caught up in the lethal Indian heatwave with which the book opens. Damaged by survivor guilt and plagued by PTSD, Frank seeks revenge on the wealthy vested interests who are resisting a switch to a carbon-neutral economy. The fragile and ultimately poignant relationship between Mary and Frank is the only linear narrative running through the book. Mary embodies the cerebral response to the climate crisis; Frank the emotional—and Robinson’s message seems to be that both responses are necessary.

Mainly, however, the story is told in short chapters from multiple points of view and in multiple styles. There are first person narratives that feel like diary entries or interview transcripts; essays on economics, the Jevons Paradox and the Gini coefficient; minutes from meetings; even short riddle passages in which the reader is invited to guess the identity of the writer—one “writer” is a photon, another a carbon atom. By doing this, Robinson conjures up a sort of frenzied collage of people and organizations all doing their own thing to achieve one vital outcome. There are glaciologists pumping water from the undersides of Antarctic glaciers, to stop them surging into the sea; geoengineers temporarily increasing Earth’s reflectivity by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, and colouring the ice-free Arctic Ocean with yellow dye; complex rewilding projects to preserve Earth’s endangered fauna; efforts to level up the unequal distribution of wealth through social engineering … and, on the dark side, ecoterrorists conducting targeted assassinations and downing passenger aircraft.

it sounds all very worthy, but it’s constantly lightened by Robinson’s dry wit. Here he is on the annual World Economic Forum meeting at Davos:

With immense effort the percentage of women there had gone from six percent to twenty-four percent, we were told, and the organizers congratulated themselves on this progress and promised to keep working on the problem, which was difficult to solve, as most wealthy people and most political leaders are just by coincidence male.

One thing I found striking is how Robinson has his two main characters, Mary and Frank, pretty much stumble into the realization that animals might just possibly be interesting, about three-quarters of the way through the book:

“How was your day in the Alps?” Badim asked her.
“It was grand,” she said. “We sat in a meadow and looked at marmots and chamois. And some birds.”
He regarded her. “And that was interesting?”
“It was! It was very peaceful. I mean, they’re just up there living their lives. Just wandering around and eating. It looked like that’s what they do all day.”
“I think that’s right,” Badim said, looking unconvinced that this would be interesting to watch. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

An outdoorsman and environmentalist like Robinson could so easily have foisted his own attitudes on his characters. Instead, we get the clear impression that Mary and Frank want to fix the planet just because humans have broken it and people are dying, and it’s a moral imperative to put that right—for them, the benefits to nature are simply a side effect which turns out to be pleasant.

Some climate-change solutions go well, and some go badly, and the story ends with hope for the future and melancholy for what has been lost. Near the end of the book, Robinson revisits Frank and Mary’s revelation about the significance of animals being free to go about their business:

In a high meadow, wild bighorn sheep. Their lambs gambol. When you see that gamboling with your own eyes, you’ll know something you didn’t know before. What will you know? Hard to say, but something like this: whether life means anything or not, joy is real. Life lives, life is living.

That paragraph, I think, sums up what the other 563 pages are about.

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Fred Hoyle: Two Coauthors

Coauthored books by Fred Hoyle
Click to enlarge

“Are you seriously proposing,” the Minister spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, as though they were chocolates out of an assorted box, “that some other beings, in some distant part of the galaxy, who have never had any contact with us before, have now conveniently sent us the design and programme for the kind of electronic machine—”
“Yes,” said Fleming. The Minister sailed on: “Which we happen to possess on this earth?”
“We don’t possess one.”
“We possess the type, if not the model. Is it likely?”
“It’s what happened.”

Fred Hoyle & John Elliot A For Andromeda (1962)

I’ve already reviewed some of Fred Hoyle’s solo novels. But he worked most often with coauthors—two novels with screenwriter John Elliot; thirteen works of various lengths with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle. In all these collaborations, the narrative voice is quite different from Hoyle’s own writing style, and it appears that Hoyle provided some scientific aspects of the plot, while the co-authors did the writing.

His first collaboration was with Elliot, who was then working at the BBC. Hoyle provided Elliot with the plot for a science fiction television serial, which Elliot developed into scripts for the eight episodes of A For Andromeda, broadcast in 1961 and starring a young Julie Christie. This is one the BBC’s many “lost” dramas from that era—the tapes were subsequently reused, and only one episode survives. Elliot went on to write the tie-in novel, also entitled A For Andromeda and published in 1962, with Hoyle’s name above Elliot’s. A TV sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough followed in 1962, and another tie-in novel with the same title appeared in 1964. Both novels have now been re-released under one cover, entitled The Andromeda Anthology, as part of Gollancz’s “SF Masterworks” series, in paperback and e-book formats.

The plot hook of A For Andromeda is more or less summarized in the quote at the head of this post. British radio astronomers detect a repeating signal coming from the direction of the constellation Andromeda. After much analysis, it appears to contain instructions for the design, program and data of a huge and complex computer. So they decide to build it. (What’s the worst that could happen?) This being in the midst of the Cold War, they build it secretly under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence, with oversight from the American military, in a remote research establishment at the fictional Thorness in Scotland. Once activated, the computer begins a dialogue with its builders, establishing the chemical and genetic basis of life on Earth. After a few plot elements that need not detain us, it then provides the genetic code for a (slightly tweaked) human—a young woman (the Julie Christie character) whom the scientists name Andromeda. Andromeda is the computer’s agent in the world—and the computer’s motives prove to be less than entirely benevolent.

The “construction manual in a radio signal from space” plot has been reused many times since—Carl Sagan used it in his novel Contact (1985); Donald Moffitt neatly inverted the idea in The Genesis Quest (1986); and the set-up for the 1995 film Species was essentially an uncredited retread of A For Andromeda.

Elliot’s writing is a little more evocative than Hoyle’s—I enjoyed his characterizations of languid British civil servants contending with a bullying American military presence. The description of a politician “choosing his words carefully, as though they were chocolates out of an assorted box” is typical of Elliot’s style. And there’s an extended metaphor involving the weather—the bleakly deteriorating situation in Scotland is reflected in the bleakly deteriorating Scottish weather.

Which makes me wonder how much of the sequel Elliot had in mind as he wrote A For Andromeda. Because quite early in Andromeda Breakthrough he has his male protagonist articulate the weather metaphor for us:

It was a day of abnormally high temperature for so early in the year. The air was saturated with moisture and the mist turned to a steady rain over the land. Out at sea visibility went from bad to worse. Even for Western Scotland, the weather was breaking every kind of record. Fleming normally ignored the climate, but now he found it oddly in tune with the melodrama of the crisis at Thorness.

And we notice that all the chapter titles make meteorological references: “Outlook Unsettled”, “Depression”, “Vortex”, and so on. It’s only in the second half of the book that we find the relevance of all that unseasonable and unsettled weather to the plot.

The sequel also picks up a number of plot elements from the first novel that were left hanging in an unsatisfactory way, and weaves them into a new narrative. So it all looks rather promising, as the action shifts from Scotland to a fictional Arab oil state which has built a copy of the alien computer, after which an end-of-the-world disaster starts to unfold. But for me, it all rather foozles after that. The motives of the Andromeda computer are muddied by an unconvincing piece of ret-conning, in a contrived twist that seems to have been put in place to deliver a moral message about science and scientists, rather than a convincing narrative. (Elliot is quite clearly not entirely on board with Hoyle’s idea that the world would be a better place if scientists ran the show.)

In summary, I’d say that A For Andromeda is a classic that still makes an interesting read today, despite its dated technology and dodgy biology; Andromeda Breakthrough, on the other hand, is a classic example of the “disappointing sequel”.

In 1963 Hoyle teamed up with his son, Geoffrey, to produce the novel Fifth Planet. Most of his fiction output over the next two decades was coauthored with Geoffrey Hoyle—seven novels, two novellas, and four short books for children. The novels and novellas are all now available as e-books from the ever-reliable Gollancz Gateway.

For reasons of symmetry, as much as anything, I’ve chosen to discuss the only series in their output—Rockets In Ursa Major (1969) and its direct sequel Into Deepest Space (1974). The closing paragraphs of the first novel are a cliff-hanger which forms the prologue to the second.

The first is based on a play for children that Hoyle père had written a few years earlier, and which was performed at the Mermaid Theatre in April 1962. A review in The Stage opened with:

With no less a personage than Professor Fred Hoyle as author, one assumes that the scientific side is beyond reproach, but theatrically “Rockets In Ursa Major” is considerably less advanced than, say, “Treasure Island”, and a great deal less exciting.

It goes downhill from there.

The plot of the novel largely follows that of the play. After being lost for thirty years, an exploratory ship returns to Earth unmanned, but with a warning message scratched into a metal surface:

If this ship returns to Earth, then mankind is in deadly peril—God help you—Fanshawe

(The expedition, being British and of a certain vintage, was commanded by a man known as Tubby Fanshawe.)

This is an excellent start, but during the course of the two novels it goes nowhere. We never get to hear what happened to Fanshawe and his crew, or why Fanshawe chose to be so non-specific with his warning. What happens instead is that the Earth in general, England in particular, and radar engineer Dr Richard Warboys especially, become embroiled in a galactic-scale war. A malignant group of aliens called the Yela are moving through the galaxy, destroying life-bearing planets, for reasons that are not adequately explained. Fleeing from the Yela are a small group of humanoid aliens who have come to warn Earth of the Yela’s approach, who rescue Warboys from the aftermath of a space battle in which Earth forces are roundly defeated by the Yela, and who subsequently land in England to advise the political establishment on how to deal with the Yela threat. Their advice can be summed up in a single word: “Flee!”

The Brits are, of course, not inclined to such a wimpish course of action. Warboys, with the help of the friendly aliens, finds a way to drive off the Yela threat … temporarily. At which point the first novel ends.

The second novel starts with the return of the Yela, and an abortive attempt to destroy the Earth. Warboys and his alien allies set out to investigate the Yela spacecraft, and through a series of largely unexplained (and largely inexplicable) incidents end up making a relativistic journey across millions of light-years to visit a quasar. When they arrive at the quasar, the reader braces for the Big Reveal, explaining all that has gone before—and the authors seem simply to run out of inventive steam and, in effect, A Miracle Happens.

I remember Into Deepest Space fondly because when it was first published it introduced me to the visual effects that appear when travelling at relativistic velocities, which I’ve written about here in my series of posts entitled The Celestial View From A Relativistic Starship. But I also remember being largely bemused by everything else in the book, and that sensation recurred on re-reading.

The hand of the older Hoyle is detectable in these two books in the discussions of radio technology, astronomy and relativity, which sometimes veer into excessive detail. But the writing and plot exposition seems to have been in the hands of the younger Hoyle—the style is certainly very different from Hoyle’s solo novels. Although the “about the authors” section of my copies of these novels suggest that Geoffrey “contributed the more ‘human’ side of their co-authored novels”, the characterizations are actually much less effective than those achieved by Fred working alone. Characters have long conversations about inconsequential things—every last word spoken to a taxi driver or a waiter is dutifully relayed—and then skip lightly over the massively consequential. Here’s Warboys returning to Earth after having trigger a massive solar flare in order to repel the Yela:

‘How’s everything here?’ I said.
‘Fine, but a little dangerous if you’re out and about. It’s been raining non-stop with tongues of flame darting through the clouds from time to time.’
‘And the radiation level?’
‘It’s been constantly above danger level, but most of the population is underground somewhere.’
‘Let’s get back to the main building. The world’s top brass will be coming to celebrate,’ Sir John Fielding said.
We all got into the lift.

And here, the characters realize there’s just a teeny-tiny problem with their journey to the quasar:

Betelgeuse began his pacing backward and forward again. Then he held up an arm in his characteristic dramatic gesture. “So it is like this, is it? Although we shall never see our own people again …”
“Why should that be?” broke in Alcyone.
“Because of the time dilatation again,” I explained. “Even if we manage to return, everybody on Earth, and everybody in your space fleet, will have aged by millions of years. Perhaps by hundreds of millions of years. In fact the human species will have evolved by that time into something else. Or become extinct!” I concluded, without too much enthusiasm.
“It is all this relativity. I do not like it,” Alcyone announced decisively.

The whole quasar journey ticks along like this—what could have been a real “sense of wonder” science-fictional outing is constantly undermined by the bathetic utterances of the characters.

The plot is problematic, too. It’s largely driven by unexplained actions and attributes of the mysterious Yela, and by contrived restraints on the actions of the protagonists. The Yela suddenly does some odd thing that endangers the lives of Warboys and his compatriots, and their problem is then compounded by some oddly random bit of engineering in their own spaceship. After a suitable pause to allow the protagonists to escape their near-death predicament, the Yela does some new odd thing, and the cycle repeats.

Given the marvellous things that were going on in science fiction writing during the late ’60s and early ’70s, these stories feel like they’ve been imported from a pulp magazine of 1930s. One does wonder if they would ever have been published at all, without Fred Hoyle’s name on the cover.

Note: The covers of the 1975 Corgi “SF Collectors Library” editions of the Andromeda novels (displayed at the head of this post) were something of a visual puzzle, which has undoubtedly become more puzzling with the passing years. Early, uncredited paintings by Patrick Woodroffe, they show a young woman (presumably Andromeda) in front of a complex background, apparently peering through a round window past some sort of odd pendulum. Or so it seemed to me at the time. It wasn’t until I looked at the covers again recently that I realized the “round windows and pendulums” are actually depictions of the old half-inch open reel magnetic tape drives used for data storage by mainframe computers in the ’60s and ’70s. Placing the two book covers side-by-side produces an image of the standard paired reels, with the tape running through a reading head between them, and Andromeda enigmatically superimposed.

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