Tag Archives: Life on other planets

As the Green Star Rises

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews As the Green Star Rises [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Lin Carter, DAW cover and illo by Roy Krenkel, illo Michael Kaluta, part of the Green Star series.

Carter as the Green Star Rises

The fourth Green Star book was much like the third, continuing the plots begun in the sky city and the forest floor in the new environment of an inland sea and its jungle islands. It was perhaps a tad “spicier” than earlier arcs of the series, although largely through threat and peril, leaving it relatively tame compared to the larger sword-and-planet field. There is also an unwitting and highly ironic non-consummation of the love-quest central to the series. (Other reviewers have called that part of the story “contrived,” but in this sort of exoplanetary fantasy what isn’t?)

The most notable feature of the story was its blind narrator. The boy Karn had been blinded at the end of the previous volume, and while parts of the book held out some hope for recovery of his sight, he spent this entire segment unable to see. But despite the fast pace and surfeit of action, the story isn’t told as an immediate reportage. It instead recounts multiple threads of plot as companions and allies are separated and adventure in parallel. Karn is supposed to have learned later what had happened to his friends, but his telling interweaves the various developments along a synchronized timeline.

The illustrations in this book are collaborations between Roy Krenkel (whose pictures were in the previous one) and notable comics artist Michael Kaluta. None of them particularly thrilled me, though. Krenkel’s cover art is an adequate representation of the moment on page 60, when the women escape an island by means of a great hawk-steed. The rider is thus Arjala, while Niamh the Fair is hanging from the stirrup.

The Gods of Xuma

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gods of Xuma, or Barsoom Revisited [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by David J Lake.

Lake The Gods of Xuma

The Gods of Xuma is a mildly metafictional take on Burroughs’ Barsoom, framed by a “harder” SF scenario of attempted 24th-century emigration from the solar system. Instead of being the nearest planet in our system, as Barsoom was, Xuma is in the nearest star system that has an Earth-like planet. The explorers have read the old Barsoom stories, and they are intrigued by the arid planet with a canal-based civilization. The protagonist is the crew’s linguist Tom Carson (note the shared meter and assonance with “John Carter”), who is the first to land on the planet and engage the natives.

In an interesting counter, Carson is not given low-gravity superpowers by the below-Earth gravity of Xuma, because he (like all healthy surviving humans) has actually grown up in even lower gravity among the human settlements on the Moon and Mars. What the humans do have is excessive military technology. The Xuman natives, while suspiciously advanced with respect to cultural continuity and general sciences, have no automated transport or weaponry beyond a medieval standard. But the humans barge in with beam weapons, tanks, and orbital barrages. Thus the star-faring humans are mistaken, first by the natives, and later by themselves, for “The Gods of Xuma.”

Communications between the humans and Xumans are established quickly and easily, although without any cross-species telepathy or magical translation. Although superficially quite humanoid, the Xumans have a very different developmental and sexual cycle, which produces real but not insurmountable cultural distances from the explorers. The book does not shirk from an account of the first sexual encounter between humans and Xumans, along with the subsequent developments of this possibility.

The human characters are reasonably fallible, sometimes verging on pathetic, and the Xumans are a little incredibly benevolent. On the whole, the book is a pretty effective anti-imperialist fable. It has a sequel (Warlords of Xuma), but it doesn’t cry out for one.

Transit to Scorpio

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Transit to Scorpio [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Alan Burt Akers, part of the Dray Prescot series.

Akers Transit to Scorpio

Transit to Scorpio is the first of dozens of sword-and-planet novels by Alan Burt Akers (nom de plume of Kenneth Bulmer) set on the planet Kregen in the binary star-system of Antares (Alpha Scorpii). The scorpion figures as a symbol and a portent throughout the story, beginning with the death of the hero’s father from a scorpion sting.

The book is certainly better than some Burroughs pastiche I’ve read, although it keeps rather rigorously to the formula. Akers makes his alien princess a cripple at the her first meeting with the protagonist, which is an interesting choice. As in other sword-and-planet milieus, manipulations by superhuman agents are responsible for the narrator’s travels between Earth and Kregen. In this case, they are called the “Star Lords,” and their attributes and motives are left entirely unspecified. 

There’s an overt allusion to John Norman’s Gor books, in the form of a continent called Gah that is reported to host gender relations of the Gorean type. But that’s just peripheral detail, in this volume anyhow. The issue of slavery is addressed squarely, though. Unlike Norman’s late 20th-century academic Tarl Cabot who has never encountered slavery on Earth, Bulmer’s hero Dray Prescot is from 18th-century Earth, and learned to buckle his swashes in a nautical career. He is familiar with the mercantile slave industry, and antagonistic to it. (Note the repeating meter of “John Carter” in the names of the heroes. No other is permitted!) His initial aversion to lethal violence fades quickly in the course of the story. 

On the whole, the book was a quick and pleasant read. The prose is palatable, with a little bit of affectation that seems to suit the narrating character’s 18th-century origins, and the occasional seeming-anachronism stemming from the fact that he has returned to Earth periodically, well into the 20th century. The scorpion omen and some avian signs seem to be related to the Star Lords, but that whole dimension is left opaque, and it is clear that Bulmer intended this to be the first of many linked novels. I’ll probably read more from this series.

Men, Martians and Machines

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Men, Martians and Machines [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Eric Frank Russell.

Russell Men Martians and Machines

This slender 1950s sf volume (my copy is from 1965) contains an introductory short story regarding the “emergency pilot” Jay Score, and then a series of three novellas about the extrasolar voyages of the spaceship Marathon. All are told in the voice of Sarge, a sergeant-at-arms for space-going vessels. Even in the opening pages, there’s some suspect attention given to racial difference, implying that the “Negro” humans who are given medical duties are as different from “white Terrestrials” as are the many-tentacled and alien-brained Martians who are another part of the crew.

Each novella introduces a new exoplanet, and the encounters with indigenous intelligences are all ultimately hostile. Captain McNulty’s perennial caution about harming natives gets mild scorn from Sarge. The whole thing has a sort of “boys’ adventure” feel to it, with lots of “thrilling” violence and “good-natured” grumbling banter.

These tales offer nothing like sexual impulse or even identity for their characters. The “mixed” crew doesn’t include women. Everyone of whatever species on the Marathon uses masculine pronouns, and the details of Martian sexuality aren’t given even the consideration of a passing enigma. Nor does any notion of gender or sexuality arise in considering the newly-encountered creatures of distant worlds.

The Martians are notable for being near-delirious chess enthusiasts, to the extent that they are never not thinking about the game–while their peculiar mental constitutions allow them to direct their attentions simultaneously for other tasks. I wonder if Russell was cued by Edgar Rice Burroughs to make chess an essential part of the Martian culture.

It almost goes without saying that there’s no technological speculation of current interest in this book, and there are a few mild clunkers–most notably the primitive approach to photography. It was not a read I’d counsel anyone to seek out for pleasure or enlightenment, although it was hardly a heavy lift.

House of Suns

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews House of Suns [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Alastair Reynolds.

Reynolds House of Suns

I hadn’t previously read anything by the successful contemporary sf author Alastair Reynolds, and rather than start with any of the series books for which he is perhaps better known, I read the standalone House of Suns. This doorstop novel is a far-future space opera centered on a “shatterling line,” i.e. a star-faring community of immortal clones, capable of stellar engineering, who explore the galaxy individually and rejoin to pool their knowledge and memories at intervals of many thousands of years.

(Reynolds is about my age, and I wondered at one point in this book if it had been partly inspired by a childhood reception of the mysterious allusions to the ‘Clone Wars’ in the 1977 Star Wars film, before those were fleshed out into the typically disappointing fare of the later development of that franchise.)

There are three characters with narration duties. At the start, and at wide intervals throughout, a much earlier story is told by Abigail Gentian, founder and clone parent of the House of Flowers, or Gentian Line of shatterlings. Otherwise, the narrative voice alternates chapter-by-chapter between a pair of incestuous Gentians in a “present” setting millions of years later.

Important to the plot and the setting of the book are a race of autonomous “Machine People” who vastly surpass humans in physical and mental capabilities at the individual level. I thought it a little odd that these were often referred to as “robots” as if the term were not pejorative. There are allusions early in the book to an interstellar human faction (“human” is used to include a wide range of post- and trans- humanity) called the Disavowers, who are antagonistic to the Machine People, but this notion is never fully developed.

In reviews and commentary on this book, I have seen it characterized as “hard” science fiction. Reynolds certainly has the scientific chops to write hard sf, but this story is set amidst technology so very advanced beyond our immediate ambitions, and so speculative, that it read as fairly fantastic to me. Only the willingness to take seriously the relativistic limitations on interstellar polity seemed “hard.” The stasis technology used for “abeyance” and “chronomesh” time drugs in particular seemed almost as hand-wavy as superluminal jump drives.

In its galactic scope and range of humanity-stretching concepts, this novel most reminded me of two other space operas, Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and MacLeod’s Engine City. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t deliver an itch to seek out and read more of Reynolds’ work immediately.

Network Effect

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Network Effect [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 5 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Network Effect

After the four prior novellas (to be fair, the last two really were full novels, if short ones), this fifth Murderbot diary is about twice the length of any of the ones to precede it. The story makes for reading just as compulsive as the others. In many ways, this one is Artificial Condition 2.0, revisiting and expanding on the protagonist’s relationship with the intimidating research starship AI who had been introduced in the second book.

The functional ways in which sf readers can identify with Murderbot really jumped out at me this time, even though most of them had been present through the earlier stories. In particular, the construct’s appetite for “entertainment media” distractions (like mine for the book I was reading) and its ability to attend to coded inputs outside of direct sensory experience (like mine to the book I was reading) provide a vertiginous mirroring for the reader. The resonance of the Corporation Rim interstellar governance with US-imperial neoliberal nightmare was increasingly vivid, this time amplified with a focus on the dynamics of settler colonialism and its cruelty to the colonists, let alone any indigenes.

One interlude offered a little reflection on Murderbot’s unwillingness to use the proper name of the bond company that originally owned (and presumably built) it. I have been wondering if a future book will include a revelation that explicitly identifies that malefic corporation with some actual 21st-century commercial or political entity.

There were a couple of clever twists, but the plot was pretty well determined and predictable prior to the action climax, which thus had a little premature feeling of denouement. Still, I did enjoy the book all the way to the end. As usual, the AI characters were better defined and more compelling than the humans, but as Murderbot has come to understand itself better, affections and motivations regarding humans in the story have become clearer and more interesting. The arc of the relationship between Murderbot and Mensah’s daughter Amena was a highlight.

These parallel worlds are a knotty problem, he realized. I wonder how many exist. Dozens? With a different human sub-species dominant on each? Weird idea. He shivered. God, how unpleasant . . . like concentric rings of hell, each with its own particular brand of torment.

Philip K Dick, The Crack in Space [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Dick The Crack in Space parallel worlds knotty problem rings of hell particular torment