Tag Archives: Science fiction

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.

Seven Surrenders

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Seven Surrenders [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 2 of the Terra Ignota series.

Palmer Seven Surrenders

In Ada Palmer’s “Author’s Note and Acknowledgments” appended to Seven Surrenders she mentions such earlier science fiction writers as Alfred Bester, Jo Walton, Gene Wolfe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Voltaire, Yevgeney Zamiatin, and Yoshiyuki Tomino, among others. She does not include Frank Herbert, but the book that I was most reminded of in my reading of this second of four books in the Terra Ignota series was Dune Messiah, in the ways it expanded on the inventive world-building of its predecessor volume and in the incredible pitch of political and personal intrigue. The scale of Terra Ignota is smaller than the vast interstellar empire of Herbert’s Arrakis, but a global terrestrial society of the 25th century seems big enough for serious work.

In the midst of the story, Palmer uses a metafictional device to reflect on the ambitions of science fiction: “Apollo didn’t really think the war over Mars in two hundred and fifty years would be fought with giant robots, it was just the only way they could describe a war that would be meaningful, conscionable, with space for human dignity” (249-50). I wonder which aspects of Palmer’s own sometimes extravagantly-imagined future she finds least likely, but it is clearly not a prognostication. It is an engaging, immersive way to describe in high relief the tensions and vulnerabilities provoked by secularism, feminism, humanism, and other species of thought that have emerged from the Enlightenment with consequences yet to be determined in our present world. It also seems to be trying to sound the humanity that we share with Hellenic antiquity, in order to understand what of us can be maintained and/or transformed in centuries to come.

The four books of the series are evidently divided into two pairs, and this second completes the opening arc concerning the “Days of Transformation” that bring to its end an existing world order. While curiosity does drive the reader toward “the Crisis still unfolding” in the next two books, this one (unlike the first) offers some sense of a plot climaxed and concluded.

Too Like the Lightning

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Too Like the Lightning [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 1 of the Terra Ignota series.

Palmer Too Like the Lightning

To begin at the end: this book is far from a standalone novel, and I would only recommend it to those with a reasonable expectation of continuing to the later numbers of the Terra Ignota tetralogy. It opens a variety of plots and questions, but it supplies very little closure. Mostly, this volume accomplishes the presentation of a future world society and the definition of key characters within it.

The setting is a 25th century that I found a little improbably optimistic in terms of the perpetuation of our contemporary civilization, although there are increasingly explicit references to upheavals that have happened in the interim. The questionably reliable narrator is a sort of public slave (“servicer”) with intimate connections to the global elite, and his conscious efforts to supply historical perspective mostly reference the 18th-century Enlightenment. It has really been a joy for me to read sf that is in overt conversation with Voltaire and de Sade!

Ada Palmer’s future world supposes a formidable transportation network that makes the whole planet local. Ethnic phenotypes and nationalities have become merely ornamental, while public expressions of human gender are socially discouraged. Religion has been actively suppressed by universal legislation, with individual spiritual needs ministered to by non-prostelytizing “sensayer” professionals. The largest polities are a handful of Hives which adults join voluntarily.

The Hive with the greatest population is that of the Masonic Empire, distinguished by–among other features–its official and social use of Latin. This detail reminded me at once of the Martian language in the Church of All Worlds in Stranger in a Strange Land. The connection is more than incidental. Like Heinlein’s touchstone work, Too Like the Lightning also concerns itself with sex and religion, and suspends much of its plot from the advent of a child with miraculous powers. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Valentine Michael Smith (267).

The style here is however more Wolfe than Heinlein, where the fictional narrator’s exposition assumes a hypothetical audience whose needs are different than those of the 21st-century reader. Palmer cleverly highlights this fact with a device that has apparently irritated some reviewers: The reader is conscripted to protest elements of the narrator’s presentation, and given the actual verbiage of doing so, with these interjections distinguished by italic type and archaic diction.

The book is an ambitious and intricate start to a work I will certainly continue reading.

We

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews We [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Евге́ний Замя́тин), foreword Masha Gessen; trans, notes, & introduction Clarence Brown.

Zamyatin We

In the sterile land of numbers, only the Devil can save your soul.

Hadon of Ancient Opar

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hadon of Ancient Opar [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Philip Jose Farmer, illo Roy G Krenkel, with essays by Frank Brueckel and John Harwood.

Farmer Hadon of Ancient Opar

Hadon of Ancient Opar is a “prequel” to the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, if the term can be applied when the respective narratives are separated by a chronology of some twelve millennia! The story is set in and around the empire of Khokarsa, a civilization surrounding the interior seas of prehistoric Africa. 

During the events of Hadon, Khokarsa is on the cusp of potential change into a violent partriarchy from a matrifocal culture ruled by priestesses, with the eagle-headed goddess Kho being supplanted by the flaming god Resu. (The story thus bears interesting comparison to Aleister Crowley’s ancient Egyptian fantasy “Across the Gulf.”) Khokarsan religion involves a stunning frequency of blood sacrifice as a matter of routine, and the culture combines a high bronze-age level of technological development with totemistic, quasi-tribal social organization. 

The story begins with the youth Hadon going to compete in the great games of Khokarsa that are supposed to produce a suitor for the High Priestess of the empire. (Thus, the winner could become king.) Hadon encounters many obstacles to his ambitions, but remains a virtuous hero throughout the book. He is loyal to the old regime of Kho, and when a partisan of Resu proffers a paraphrase of Exodus 20:5, he characterizes it as “insanity” (159). There is a frank acceptance of sex in Khokarsan culture, but Hadon’s adventures here involve much more violence than sex.

Appendices to the book provide about twenty-five pages of maps and chronology, but they are largely superfluous, and they appear to have been the product of Farmer’s development of the Khokarsan context from the article “Heritage of the Flaming God, an Essay on the History of Opar and Its Relationship to Other Ancient Cultures” by Frank Brueckel and John Harwood in The Burroughs Bulletin. Roy Krenkel’s dozen or so illustrations for Hadon are ink renderings in a loose style, that were probably dynamic and exciting in the originals, but mostly come across as muddy and incoherent in their reproductions here. 

The most important observation I can offer to potential readers of this book is that it is not a stand-alone novel. It ends with a cliffhanger, and the sequel Flight to Opar takes up at the very instant that Hadon ends. Farmer repeatedly implies that he is kicking off a long series of books with Hadon, but Flight was the only other Khokarsa/Opar book to be published during his lifetime. It appears that Christopher Paul Carey has subsequently brought further materials into print, posthumously developed from Farmer’s MSS.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Memoirs Found in a Bathtub [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Stanisław Lem, trans Michael Kandel and Christine Rose, book 2 in the From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy series.

Lem Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

The twelve-page introduction is more overtly sfnal than the body text of this novel, which is a romp of epistemological ambiguity set in the dystopian Building. From the far-future documentary context of the intro we are led to understand that the Building contains a sort of continuity-of-government American microsociety in an underground site in the Rocky Mountains. And yet the exit from the windowless Building in the memoirs themselves is at the bottom rather than the top (185)–unless that “Gate” is merely a sham or a trap, as it may well be.

The narrator of the memoirs gives neither his name nor his origin. He begins in media res with an effort to “find the right room” (13) which quickly eventuates into his recruitment as an intelligence agent. Once he has achieved this status, the first parts of the book are concerned with his striving to acquire his “instructions,” which he accomplishes in a sort of tentative and temporary fashion. Later passages are more focused on determining the actual authority and allegiances involved with his activities, which tend toward the scripted and ritualistic, implying all manner of codes and betrayals.

I was already reminded of the Kafkaesque British TV series The Prisoner (1967-8) when Major Erms said, “Be seeing you” (58). I guess any intentionality there must be ascribed to the 1973 English translators, since the Polish original was written in 1961. Another comparandum for me was Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Authority.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but I was surprised to find satirical theodicy skirting the edge of nihilism in an anti-fantasy of espionage and authoritarianism. It’s a short book and I would read it again.

“I only know that you told me what they told you to tell me.”

“And you wouldn’t believe me if I denied that, and you shouldn’t, because even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be the truth. Who knows?” (169)