Tag Archives: Science Fiction – General

Venus on the Half-Shell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Venus on the Half-Shell [Amazon, Amazon (1975), Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Kilgore Trout (Philip José Farmer).

Kilgore Farmer Venus on the Half Shell 1975

Farmer Venus on the Half Shell

This interstellar picaresque novel by Philip José Farmer was written under a pseudonym taken from a fictional author described by Kurt Vonnegut. To pile Pelion upon Ossa, “Trout” has his main character refer often to the life and works of an imaginary 20th-century American science fiction writer named Jonathan Swift Somers III.

Many 21st-century readers will compare this book to Douglas Adams’ later Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Both begin with the destruction of terrestrial humanity, aside from the protagonist who then becomes a wanderer in outer space. The book is full of allusions to The Wizard of Oz, but I think that The Phantom Tollbooth is also a likely influence. The prose style reminds me of no one so much as R. A. Lafferty, for the sake of qualities I find difficult to describe. The humor in “Trout’s” book is a little more broad that what I usually find in Lafferty, the atmosphere decidedly less mystical. 

The book recounts the adventures of the banjo-playing Simon Wagstaff, a character who was promptly animated in my mind by the ghost of Duane Adam Rostoker. Following the calamity that visits the Earth during Simon’s visit to the Sphinx at Giza, he quickly acquires animal companions after the manner of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, but Simon’s are a dog and an owl, perhaps figuring his “lower” and “higher” awarenesses. 

The proper names in the story are a raft of anagrams, from the randy cat planet Shaltoon that is a hot Salon, to the planet Longalor of nomadic wheel-creatures who roll aLong. The beautiful android Chwortkap is a patChwork of the optimized DNA of hundreds of donors. These and many others put me in mind of James Branch Cabell, whose Jurgen may also have been a model for Farmer here. 

Although replete with frank sexual content, Venus on the Half-Shell is not really erotic at all. It merely refuses to repress the importance of sex in the dilemma of life. It contains a variety of episodes with different intelligent species that demonstrate the illusions and falsehoods that enslave societies and individuals (“yet therein is the mystery of redemption” –Liber B). The whole thing reads quite quickly and can be written off as a farce, serve as a puzzle, or even inspire serious reflection.

Tales of Nevèrÿon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tales of Nevèrÿon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany, book 1 of the Return to Nevèrÿon series.

Delany Tales of Nevèrÿon

At first glance, the title and table of contents for this book make it look like a set of disparate fantasy stories in a shared setting, but it is in fact an integrated novel. Each “Tale of” people and doings in Nevèrÿon ends up linked to the others on multiple levels, and all of them take place over roughly a single generation.

This fantasy is imaginative, but far less “fantastic” than most. There are no supernatural elements, no storybook giants or fairies.* If Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a step closer to our world than Dunsany’s Pegāna, Delany’s Nevèrÿon is a considerable stroll in our direction. I was a little puzzled by the characterization of this book in the appended note on the author as “sword and sorcery,” since there is certainly no sorcery in it at all. But on reflection, it does represent a new turn for the sort of fabulous prehistory supplied by Robert E. Howard’s seminal stories of that genre, and I can easily imagine that Delany was responding to them (among other fictions and factualities) when writing Nevèrÿon.

The appendix (“Some Informal Remarks on the Intermodal Calculus, Part Three,” alluding to the appendices of his prior science fiction novel Triton) summarizes some fictional scholarship to place Nevèrÿon in our actual (pre-)history, via the study of the apocryphal Culhar’ Text. The effect of this retroactive framing–in combination with the philosophical motifs of the main text–is positively vertiginous.

The epigrams for the individual tales are drawn from post-structuralist philosophy, while the book as a whole is paradoxically concerned with the imagined origins of cultural systems: language, money, gender roles, slavery, politics, and so on. There are nested stories and digressions that highlight these concerns, but the characters of the general narrative are unusual and vivid, and the setting is carefully developed, so that the book doesn’t degenerate into a string of deconstructivist parables.

Those chiefly seeking escapism from their fantasy reading should avoid this book, while philosophical readers will find much to enjoy in it.

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* I realized on my return to this review that the key characters Gorgik and Small Sarg might be read as a “giant” and a “fairy” respectively. But not in the customary fantasy sense.

“It’s Chung Fu,” Juliana said. “Inner Truth. I know without using the chart, too. And I know what it means.” Raising his head, Hawthorne scrutinized her. He had now an almost savage expression. “It means, does it, that my book is true?” “Yes,” she said. With anger he said, “Germany and Japan lost the war.” “Yes.”

Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Dick The Man in the High Castle chung fu inner truth i know what it means true yes

Venus Plus X

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Venus Plus X [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Theodore Sturgeon.

Sturgeon Venus Plus X

In his introduction to The Book of the Law, Aleister Crowley wrote: “Observe for yourselves the decay of the sense of sin, the growth of innocence and irresponsibility, the strange modifications of the reproductive instinct with a tendency to become bisexual or epicene, the childlike confidence in progress combined with nightmare fear of catastrophe, against which we are yet half unwilling to take precautions.” 

These are precisely the observations that undergird Sturgeon’s prescient 1960 novel Venus Plus X, about human gender, religion, and social control. The protagonist Charlie Johns is transported into a strange time in which the not-quite-any-longer-homo sapiens seem to have realized the Law of Thelema on the level of an entire society. One of its advocates explains its religion thus:

“We worship the future, not the past. We worship what is to come, not what has been. We aspire to the consequences of our own acts. We keep before us the image of what is malleable and growing–of that which we have the power to improve. We worship that power within ourselves, and the sense of responsibility which lives with it. A child is all of these things.” 

In common with Sturgeon’s work generally, this book has an awareness of the tragic aspects of human interaction, and an assertion of the redemptive power of love. Parallel to the exotic utopian scenario, he presents vignettes from the life of an American middle class family, highlighting the relevance of the issues addressed by Charlie Johns’ adventures in the strange country of Ledom. The deft prose style makes the reading an easy pleasure throughout, despite the extensive descriptions and lean plot. One substantial “sermon” is compensated by an equally substantial plot twist.

While this book is not about homosexuality (although some thickheaded reviewers have understood it thus), it is certainly a timely read when the issue of gay marriage is an object of political contention. And it should be abidingly provocative to those of us who have affirmed our entrance into the Aeon of the Crowned and Conquering Child.

Len Deighton was not an author of spy thrillers but of horror, because all Cold War–era spy thrillers rely on the existential horror of nuclear annihilation to supply a frisson of terror that raises the stakes of the games their otherwise mundane characters play. And in contrast, H. P. Lovecraft was not an author of horror stories—or not entirely—for many of his preoccupations, from the obsessive collection of secret information to the infiltration and mapping of territories controlled by the alien, are at heart the obsessions of the thriller writer.

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Stross The Atrocity Archives spy trillers existential horror nuclear annihilation frisson terror secret information mapping territories alien heart writer

Babel-17 / Empire Star

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Babel-17 / Empire Star [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany.

Delany Babel-17 / Empire Star

Delany’s Babel-17 is a very sophisticated space opera written in the mid-1960s. The protagonist is a linguistic savant and intergalactic celebrity poet, and the plot is focused on military espionage and a mysterious new language. The number of unlikely anachronisms (such as tape spools to hold data) are surprisingly few. There is not much explanation for the fundamentals of the “stasis shift” technology that makes interstellar travel possible, but its ancillary operations are fascinating in that they use “discorporate” people (i.e. technologically-sustained intelligences of the dead) to help parse and represent much vaster energy spectra than human senses can perceive. The story also presents a caste society, with some castes participating in extreme “cosmetisurgery” and marital “tripling.” Philosophically, Babel-17 epitomizes a linguistic turn in science fiction, according to which the powers and limitations of societies and individuals both are grounded in the characteristics of their language. 

The novella Empire Star is here bound tête-bêche with Babel-17 (as the author had originally hoped), and the former is in fact a metafiction putatively written by a lover of the protagonist of the latter. The smaller page-count of Empire Star does not make it less interesting or significant: in keeping with its name (and the cover design of the Vintage edition), it has a lapidary quality. “The multiplex reader has by now discovered that the story is much longer than she thinks, cyclic and self-illuminating.” (89) And in these respects, it anticipates, as much as do the psychedelic linguisticisms of Babel-17, the work that Delany was to accomplish in his spectacular Dhalgren a decade later.