Actually About Clones

The Caryatids
Bruce Sterling
The Ophiuchi Hotline
John Varley

Today’s post is about two books that I picked up from the library expecting cyberpunk and space opera, but which both turned out to be about clones. I am not sure how it is I often end up unintentionally reading multiple books about the same thing, I guess one could call it destiny. In this case, Clone Destiny. Fortunately I am not watching the newest Star Wars series, or I would probably bring that in as well. I digress. These books are 30+ years apart and have nothing else in common, but it’s not every day that I read two books in succession about a hot-button topic, especially when I was completely primed for something different.

In Sterling’s case, the dust jacket is much more upfront about everything. I knew going in that the main characters were clones of each other. This being Sterling, I could probably have assumed that they were also bizarre and grotesque, but I was off-base in my expectation of a cyberpunky experience. Sterling is recognized as one of the fathers of cyberpunk, but none of his novels that I have read (this, Schismatrix, and The Difference Engine) is at all cyberpunk. Only The Caryatids is even near future. This is probably a reflection of my ignorance more his bibliography, however. Ramblings aside, Caryatids is a near-future, post-ecological disaster story about messed up clones. The summary claims that they are trying to save the world, but mostly they’re trying not to blow themselves up.

Sterling spends a fair bit of time dissecting the primary clone set’s dysfunction, a little bit of time on some crazy secondary and tertiary clones, and slightly more time telling a story. The Caryatids is more of a character study than a tightly plotted narrative, but even more of a world-building exercise. (This seems about par for the course with Sterling, judging from my limited reading.) The reader is taken on a whirlwind tour of the post-ecological collapse world, as seen through the eyes of three deeply disturbed people. There are a few interludes with one or another sane viewpoint in control of the narrative, but for the most part, it’s a mad world explained by mad people. Again, I would expect no less from Bruce Sterling.

The highlights are the three main power brokers in the new world: China, Los Angeles, and the Aquis. Each is an extrapolation of a current culture taken to its logical extreme, then pushed a little bit further. The Chinese are the only functioning State left standing; they dropped hydrogen bombs in the Himalayas to ensure adequate water supplies. LA is modern SoCal run amuck. The characters are wheeling and dealing capitalists, everyone has a plan, and life moves to a Hollywood beat. People assign themselves theme music and speak in declamatory monologues, complete with appropriate camera angles and punch lines. This is my favorite part. Finally, Aquis is kind of what might happen if Pacific NW hippie activism got a hold of battle armor and group-mind neural helmets. They are identified as being from Europe, and N. Europe probably has a lot of similarities with my damp neck of the woods, but I felt totally at home with Aquis. Not somewhere I’d want to live, but give them coffee mugs and grunge CD’s, and they’re basically Seattle supermen.

I have one final comment. I flicked through a couple of reviews of Caryatids, looking for some info that had slipped my mind. This appears to be a polarizing book, no surprise there, and people can’t seem to agree on whether or not Sterling was serious with it all, let alone whether or not it’s a good book. John Clute’s review is interesting for two reasons: first, the comments section where people obviously don’t get it. Second, Clute wrote this just as Obama was entering the White House in what Clute called a reaffirmation of the power of the State. He thinks that Sterling’s book is a repudiation of the State’s relevance, which may be true, and wonders how the book will go over when people seemed to be validating their belief in the State via Obama. I wonder what he would say now, as Ron Paul rages across the landscape.

On to John Varley. The Ophiuchi Hotline is on lists of seminal SF books, so I knew I’d better check it out. I previously read Titan, but that’s the extent of my Varley knowledge. Ophiuchi pretty much confirmed my initial impressions: interesting Big Idea, great set up, lots of delving into the minds of people I’m not really interested in, and a lot of random lesbian shenanigans. (More of the last in Titan.) What killed me with Ophiuchi is the brilliant setting. Aliens previously invaded Earth, wiped out much of humanity basically by planting trees, and then retreated to Jupiter, leaving the remnants of us to scratch out an existence under pressurized domes scattered across the Solar System. Sometime later, radio signals started arriving from the Ophiuchi Cluster, jam packed with technology and science, but little information as to the identity or motivations of the senders.

This is all back story – none of it happens on-screen, so to speak, but I couldn’t wait to dig into such a potentially fascinating world. Who is sending the signals? Will Second Contact be any better than the first? Do the beleaguered forces of humanity challenge the invaders? Are we again saved through our pluck and quick thinking? Actually, very little of this matters. We are instead going to read about clones! Not in the psychological way that Sterling looks at them, but as a functional bit of the story. Characters do the old backup trick, periodically getting new bodies when the original one dies, or wants a copy made, or is subjected to the nefarious purposes of one Boss Tweed. By the end, there are three or four copies of a couple of vaguely unpleasant people roaming through the story, performing important plot-related functions.

The plot is fine, taking the reader on a tour of the Solar System and the societies that inhabit it. Some of the questions are partially resolved. This is not, however, an epic space opera or the type of story that opens up into the galaxy in a soul stirring fashion. It is much more claustrophobic, personal, and, if not dark, then certainly dim. It is not at all what I was expecting.

In terms of recommendations, the reader’s reaction to Caryatids likely depends almost entirely on the reader’s feelings for Bruce Sterling. He is a mad visionary, not a purveyor of light summer reading. Ophiuchi is fine, maybe not Hall of Fame worthy, but equal to the demands it makes on the reader. (ie, readily available in the library and not too long) Had I paid more attention going into the book, I probably would have enjoyed it more. With my unrealistic expectations chopped off at the knees, however, I was left with a persistent feeling that, while the book is alright, it’s not the story I wanted to hear.

Rating: Kolo and Yaya Toure. I obviously don’t know of any clones that play football, nor could I come up with identical twins. Jose pointed out that this pair of brothers both play for Manchester City, so that will have to suffice.

The Book of Common Dread

The Book of Common Dread
Brent Monahan

[Ed. note: Brad again joins us with a touch of the supernatural. He is due a byline and photo, once one or more of the Two Dudes gets around to it.]

José, bless his pea-pickin’ little heart, has been pretty busy these last few days, poking people’s eyes out.  From what I have heard through the rumor mill, the redoubtable Senhor’s index fingers are shagged out after a prolonged jab—placing him on injured reserve for the moment; he can’t type book reviews until said fingers recover their dexterity and drive.  Having recently lost my own gig on the pitch and finding myself waiting on fickle suitors, I have a few spare moments to while away with the finest in fiction.  And today I bring you a real jewel:  Shy but gallant bookworm saves the day and wins the hand of fair damsel, while thwarting the dastardly plot of an urbane and truly wicked vampire.  Place this struggle in the intellectually rarefied climes of Princeton University, include the ubiquitous staple of a hidden tome of vast arcane powers (thank you once again, Umberto Eco, for hooking up with the ghost of H.P. Lovecraft and making eldritch lore hidden away in forbidden books a necessary prop in almost all dark fantasy!)[1], and you have all the makings of a memorable, if somewhat bloody, mess.  All of that, and more, abounds in The Book of Common Dread.  Translation:  I liked this book, a lot!

Vincent DeVilbess is more than an unusually charming charlatan who has a way with the fair sex.  He’s also a merciless killer, a sort of hit man for a local vampiric cabal.  In this case, the undead powers-that-be have tasked Vince with finding and destroying an ancient rare book located in the Special Collections at the Princeton University Library.  This book, rightly understood, holds the key to the total and utmost destruction of vampires in general and in particular.  It’s in the care of young Simon Penn (no relation to Sean Penn that I’m aware of), one of the curators at the Library, and remains safely ensconced within a hermetically sealed chamber at the Library that even Vincent cannot penetrate.

If that’s not enough, there’s also the obligatory love interest, in this case the beautiful but disturbed Frederika Vanderveen, whom Simon loves from afar.  This young lady, as they say, “has issues of her own,” in this case an unresolved relationship with her late father.   His premature death left the girl fabulously wealthy but emotionally and psychologically unprepared to meet the challenges of adulthood.  Frederika attempts the use of black magic (necromancy) to raise her father’s spirit from the dead.  As Simon is drawn more and more into her orbit, he finds himself pitted directly against Vincent; the vampire has decided the best way to get to Simon, and hence to the book he covets, is through Frederika.  But Simon, for all his apparent meekness and gentleness, is made of sterner stuff than one would think, and this will be tested in his battle of wits with the amoral, cold-blooded Vincent.

It is here that The Book of Common Dread gets a little more convoluted and contrived than it need be.  However, Monahan paints his characters sympathetically; in most cases, the mortals (such as Simon and Frederika) act within the bounds of what one would expect.  There is no deus ex machina that rescues the characters when they’ve been cornered.  Simon is brave, but not foolhardy.  Frederika isn’t the most attractive character—I often wondered what Simon saw in her.  And Frederika’s change of heart regarding Simon— she totally ignores him, then suddenly invites him to move into her late father’s mansion with her—is contrived.  Simon’s presence in Frederika’s home is necessary for plot development, but this sudden change in the protagonists’ relationship one with another is perhaps the least satisfactory part of the book.  But it’s a minor quibble—this isn’t Madame Bovary; it’s a vampire novel!  In general, Simon is a believable character—moreso than Frederika.  Vincent is a cool vampire; capable of wit, charm, and affection; yet utterly ruthless and sadistic.  But he is not invincible, something that makes the book even more interesting, as the protagonists puzzle out the most likely ways to best him at his own game.

Needless to say, the ending is ambivalent—Monahan wrote a sequel, which I haven’t read, entitled Blood of the Covenant.  (I will read it, once I get José’s fingers out of my eyes.)  But all in all, this is a most worthy addition to the venerable genre of vampire fiction.

For those who wonder, I wrote this review while listening to Blood Libels by Antaeus.  Fine blackened death metal, menacing and thoroughly evil.

Rating:  A match between AC Milan and Juventus.  Some dirty play, a few dives, but thoroughly entertaining—although afterwards, you often feel like you should take a shower just to wash the grime off.

[1]Eco, of course, wrote perhaps the greatest literary thriller of the late 20th century, The Name of the Rose, in which a rather disreputable bunch of Benedictine monks—with the odd Franciscan friar thrown in—kill each other off in imaginative ways, over a lost manuscript of Aristotelian literary criticism.  He built on that theme in his next novel—my favorite of all his books—Foucault’s Pendulum, wherein a group of editors at a Milan vanity press construct a harebrained scheme for world domination from the crackpot theories of crackpot authors who self-publish  with the vanity press; only to see this most unlikely of conspiracy theories take shape before the editors’ very eyes.

Lovecraft, of course, is the creator/propagator of  the Necronomicon, the prototypical book of forbidden knowledge; the history of that blasphemous tome of blackest magic, the product of the fevered mind of “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” hidden away in the bowels of Miskatonic University in Providence, Rhode Island, oozes its way through Lovercraft’s Cthulhu mythos.  One is never quite certain if this grimmest of all grimoires actually exists somewhere, or if Lovecraft succeeded merely in creating from whole cloth a cultural artifact that speaks to our darkest desires.

Needless to say, both Eco and Lovecraft are very high on my list of authors!  Now it seems as if every author is jumping on the bandwagon—hidden manuscripts here, black books of satanic power there, everywhere a big bad book.  Monahan has joined the fray, but handles this part of his novel with aplomb—the manuscript at issue isn’t contrived, it’s important to the plot-line, and it doesn’t overwhelm the other aspects of his story.

Night Train to Rigel

Night Train to Rigel
Timothy Zahn

The thing I miss the most about Japan, after quality ramen and bathhouses, is the train culture. Our own nascent train culture was swallowed up by the vast distances from sea to shining sea and the machinations of General Motors, a true American tragedy. While trains are fantastic from a pragmatic point of view (as I was once again reminded by my worst week of commuting nightmares), there is a certain romance to the rails that buses and airplanes will never duplicate. They are also iconic settings for storytelling, a fact which Timothy Zahn is kind enough to remind us of in Night Train to Rigel.

Zahn is perhaps best known for his work in the Star Wars universe; the original Thrawn trilogy is widely considered both good reading and the spark that set off the current Expanded Universe explosion. (Does that mean it also takes responsibility for the Episodes 1-3?) Those books were my introduction to Zahn, followed shortly after by the Cobra novels. I thought they were pretty good, but 14 year old me thought a lot of things were pretty good, so that might not be the best indication. No matter, Rigel is another fast-paced, adventurous yarn, with explosions and derring-do to placate the masses and just enough Deep Thought to entertain a more discriminating clientèle.

Rigel is hardly the only SF to use a train theme, Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth books come to mind, as does the anime Galaxy Express 999. Nor does Zahn beat the theme into the ground – the trains are there as a nod to past stories, much like the periodic Hitchcock references. The trains are also his convenient FTL mechanism: a race called The Spiders operates an interstellar rail service that forms the only way of traveling through the galaxy. No spaceships, no armadas, no jumps to hyperspace or stars lengthening into incandescent white lines, just train stations in the outer regions of solar systems and regular rail service to other planets.

The story itself is fun and fast moving. Frank Compton is a former UN operative and current man for hire. He is kind of a general troubleshooter with a broad range of skills that are put to convenient use throughout the plot. Zahn does have the grace, however, to keep him a couple of notches below superman level. Other people are better at one thing or another, and Compton is likely what would happen if people could min-max their stats in real life. (For the non-gamers out there, min-maxing is when someone creates a character by maxing out useful stats, like strength, at the expense of superfluous ones, like charisma.) Frank spends the book on a wild goose chase to defuse a potential galactic crisis, riding the rails, meeting exotic creatures, and immersing himself in a giant conspiracy built on undersea critters. Everything moves at a brisk pace, with Zahn demurring to dig too deeply into his world. There are hints of broad galactic history and other tales to be told, but for now, the focus is clearly on the matter at hand.

Two spoilery comments. First, I appreciated that the potential love story resolved itself the way it did. Second, I’m not sure how I feel about the “twist” that was really more of a punchline. With all the dark foreshadowing about Frank’s terrible secret, there really wasn’t anything to it. It could possibly have been left out all together.

How to summarize? Rigel is mostly for fun. The characters engage in brief philosophizing and moralizing, but never for long. Frank is sharp and a quick thinker, but he is not a profound thinker. The mystery and the story are kind of goofy and pulpy, but in a good way. Mind warping sea life! Killer chipmunk-like alien commandos! Faster than light trains! I liked it. By the last couple pages, I was thinking, “Zahn feels like he’s setting himself up for a possible franchise here.” Lo and behold, he did. There are apparently four books in the continuing Frank Compton Saga, so I will probably read them as long as they remain interesting.

Rating: A mid-season, mid-table clash involving two teams the viewer has no strong feelings about. Good fun, a nice way to kill an afternoon, but nothing to get too worked up over.

Nov. Stats

Work, music, and life got together and decided that last week would be a good time all blow up on me, so the blog got the short end of the stick. We here at Two Dudes are uncompromising in our standards, so rather than throw together something shoddy and quick, I thought I’d put out a fun post of blog stats that has been rattling around in my head for awhile. It’s fun to keep tabs on who’s looking at what here, but there have been a few surprises. For your reading pleasure, here are our Top 10 pages and Top 10 search hits so far.

Top 10 Most Popular Pages

  1.  Salmonella Men on Planet Porno  – 99
  2.  Stories of Ibis  – 42
  3.  2011 Seiun Award Winners – 22
  4.  Space Battleship Yamato – 22
  5.  The Club Dumas – 21
  6.  NPR Top 100 SFF – 19
  7.  The Salamander War – 18
  8.  Servant of the Underworld – 16
  9.  Nausicaa – 16
  10.  The Black Company – 15

(tie)      All You Need is Kill – 15


  1. Reviewing Salmonella Men on Planet Porno was the best thing I’ve ever done for the blog.     More below.
  2. This review was tweeted by the publisher, who has since ignored everything I put up.
  3. A scoop for Two Dudes here – we had this posted before almost anyone else. It also let to a trackback related to #8.
  4. The most popular anime post.
  5. Odd, since this is the least SFF-y post on the board.
  6. NPR’s list generated a lot of traffic for a lot of sites; we were no exception.
  7. Why? This isn’t even a good book!
  8. The author came to our page when looking for Seiun info. We have since become email friends, talking about Asian culture, SF, and other interesting stuff. She directed her own blog followers here for this review.
  9. More anime. I need to get back on that train.
  10. Both generate a fair amount of traffic for old and/or niche work.

Top 10 Search Terms – I’m going to combine similar terms here for the relevant post.

  1. Japan porno, porno japan, porno, porno men, japanese porno, sf porno, porno in japan, srilankan porn pic and video (my favorite!), video porno japan, salmonella men on planet porno, japan shorts porno, j-a-p-a-n p-o-r-n-o, planet porno, japanese prno live, porno sf, men porno, porno stationary (??), porno panet (sic), attic porno hard, and a couple of others.
  2. All You Need is Kill
  3. Seiun Awards
  4. The Salamander War
  5. Aliette de Bodard
  6. Space Battleship Yamato
  7. The Moon Maze Game
  8. Mardock Scramble
  9. Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD
  10.  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Honorable funny mention to: “spy on dudes,” “npr awesome flowchart,” “extra credits august 18,” “war do slamenders id,” “sexyfalms,” and “anime is awful.”


  1. A remarkable variety of terms hits for Salmonella Men. Considering how deep one would have to dig to finally reach our humble page, I must admire these men (and I’m certain they are men) for their efforts. I can only imagine the disappointment when they arrive.
  2. This seems more popular than I would have thought.
  3. Scoop!
  4. Seriously, why are people looking for this? Where to they hear about it? It’s a crap story! I’ve put up something like 50 reviews, and this outdraws almost all of them.
  5. Yay Aliette.
  6. Not sure why this outdraws Gundam. Maybe less competition?
  7. Good thing I grabbed this as soon as the book came out.
  8. I’m glad that people are finding Mardock. It deserves wide recognition.
  9. Also happy that people turn this article up. It’s a book that everyone should enjoy.
  10. I know this book is popular, so no surprise here.


Project Itoh (Ito Keikaku)

When I was in 5th grade, my best friend loaned me a book that may have been called The Alliance. I can’t remember the author, save that he was Mormon. I suppose it was science fiction, set somewhere in a near future that may have been post-apocalyptic. (Memories are, of course, hazy.) Some heroic guy stumbles on a city where a scientist has implanted somethingerother in people’s brains so they can’t think of or do bad things. The hero opposes this and ultimately triumphs because 1) the author is American and 2) the author is Mormon. The former are huge on individualism and personal rights and whatnot, to an alarming degree. The latter are big into “Works,” which is why a lot of other Christians hate them. The point if this review is not to introduce everyone to an obscure bit of Mormon fiction, but this book was on my mind while I read Harmony, a similar retelling of the utilitarian vs. free will story that is utterly Japanese.

Harmony is a big deal. It won the Japan SF and Seiun Awards, the Japanese equivalent of a Hugo-Nebula sweep. It also won a Special Citation Award from the Philip K. Dick people for the English translation. There has been talk of adding Harmony to the Top 10 Japanese SF list. The author was battling cancer as he wrote the book and died shortly after its publication. If I have called out (mildly) Haikasoru in the past for publishing lightweight Japanese SF, this and Mardock Scramble more than make up for it.

Back to Japan and why it matters. The utopia in Harmony was constructed after a global political meltdown and is built on the premise that humanity is its own greatest natural resource. Thus, since everyone is dependent on everyone else, everyone has the obligation to be the best natural resource they can. Our bodies are not ours alone. In practical terms, each person’s personal health is of paramount concern to society; human health is maximized through a combination of technology and social pressure. Nanotechnology and pervasive internet infrastructure allow constant, expert monitoring of all facets of health, as well as unlimited care and advice. In Harmony, even colds and headaches are things of the past. Further, data overlays and an utter lack of privacy allow anyone to see anyone else’s health status, psychological ratings, body fat percentage, etc. While mortifying to people raised in a privacy-conscious society like we are, this is an effective means of social control: healthy lives through social shame. The main characters in Harmony are people on the fringe, those that cannot or will not fit into society or renounce their claims on their own bodies.

I don’t think this particular utopia could have come out of the United States, and not just because we have disturbingly high obesity rates and comparatively low life expectancy. The very foundation of Ito’s construction, people are the greatest resource, is not an idea with much traction here. This claim might seem exaggerated, but I submit our health care and education systems as Exhibits A and B. No country that treasures its people above all else would let these degenerate into a morass in the latter case, and a dumpster fire in the former. America views Freedom as its greatest resource, I suppose, since that is apparently what all the Muslims hate us for and is the primary reason we see fit to deny insurance to poor people. No, Harmony would have to come from somewhere else, probably somewhere that lacks vast geography and prodigious natural resources.

But why does it have to be Japan? Since Japan modernized, its leaders have known that, as a “small, island nation,” (their words) Japan has little arable land, no fossil fuels, and negligible natural resources beyond perhaps seaweed. This is a nation that is very aware that its place at the global table depends on an educated, healthy, placated, middle class. Japan’s modern social constructions explain the foundations of Harmony’s harmony, but what about the rest? Japan is a health obsessed country. For example, anyone who paid attention during the swine flu hurrah will remember that Japan sold out of protective face masks. Japan also pays far less attention to privacy than we claim to, frequent Facebook indiscretions aside. Things that are public record in Japan strike us as bizarrely invasive, like family registries or the police keeping track of who lives where on a block. Finally, the idea of social control through public shame is in full effect in Japan. The “eyes all around” (mawari no me) have great power to influence behavior. (Unless, of course, one is a foreign barbarian who is either oblivious or calculating enough to make the most of this.)

The most telling moment comes when the main character, Tuan, ruminates on how advances in nutrition and social pressure are narrowing the range of acceptable body types, making everyone look more and more alike as calorie usage and intake are normalized. Acceptable body types are already limited in Japan for these very reasons, though the control is analog rather than through nanobots. Indeed, Harmony is Japan taken to its logical extreme; Tuan’s battles with her society are fought over the same fault lines that Japan’s post-Bubble generations are battling over now. Ito’s final ambivalence with both sides reflects Japan’s current paralysis, as no faction has stepped forward with a convincing vision of Japan’s future, or the answer to how individuals fit into a supposedly homogeneous and unified society. Harmony‘s power comes from the questions it asks of the reader: what is peace worth to us? What about health? How do these relate to and define happiness? But I think it resonates even more in Japan, as the Japanese grapple with their place in a world so different from the one their society was built to conquer.

But in talking about the story, I have to come to terms with the end of the book. For 230 pages, Harmony is incandescent perfection. But suddenly, when the antagonist finally reveals her plans and motives, everything went sour for me. After everything up to that point, the resolution just rang false. It was jarring – reading along on the bus thinking what a great story I had, and one sentence later saying, “Ito has to be kidding here.” I had a full workday in between that moment and the final page on my commute home, but things never felt any better. Several days later, I still can’t reconcile the last 20 pages of the book. I am only speculating here, but I think the end has something to do with Ito’s impending death. As best I can tell, he knew he was about to die and Harmony, especially the end, is his attempt to make sense of it. I can’t explain why I think this, or how strands of the plot connect themselves to Ito’s life, but that is how I see it.

With out without the last 20 pages, and independent of what the book may say about contemporary Japan, Harmony is a major SF landmark that should not be missed.

Rating: Johann Cruyff. Though he failed at the last hurdle and couldn’t bring Holland the World Cup, his philosophy and style have made lasting and profound changes on world football.

Subspace Explorers and Triplanetary

Subspace Explorers
E.E. “Doc” Smith

Doc Smith’s Lensman series always comes up in discussions of SF classics and/or early space opera. It’s been on my list to check out for quite some time, but I never seem to get around to it. Half-hearted efforts have, however, scored me copies of Subspace Explorers, the first of a series I probably won’t finish, and Triplanetary, which claims to be the first Lensman book but is nothing of the sort. If nothing else, these provide a clear window into science fiction before the invention of minorities, feminism, or the color gray. Doc Smith: Where the heroes are white and strong, the women are weepy and helpless, and the bad guys twirl their moustachios and probably have small weenies.

First on the psychiatrist’s couch is Subspace Explorers. Immediate point against: psychic powers. As I have written before, I just don’t like psychic powers, psionics, mind-reading, clairvoyance, or anything of the sort. Any book that uses psionics has to use them carefully, or I am instantly turned off. (Unless said powers are used to break men’s wangs, in which case all is forgiven.) Further point against: psychic powers turning up at random and convenient times to move the plot along when no standard trick will do. “Wait, you’re important to the story, and hey, what do you know? Turns out you’re a psychic too and we didn’t know it til now! Great!” By the end of the book, all of the good guys (and their mostly superfluous girls) are psychics, reading each other’s minds, finding hidden treasures, confounding the bad guys, etc.

Next point against: good guys and bad guys. This is probably endemic to the age, and apparently to Smith’s writing in general, but I quickly tired of the Brave and Pure Capitalists. I can understand pinko commie Russians being the bad guys – the Cold War was pretty all-encompassing for me too back in the mid-80s and lots of SF has bad Russians. I get more tired of reading about how liberals, unions and labor are misguided fools while Big Business is full of benevolent, superior beings who just want what’s best for us. Think John Ringo mixed with 1950s TV. “Look Beav, that tree hugging alien has a ray gun! Jeepers!” So not only are the good guys all suddenly psychics and mind readers, they are also large business owners who have only the good of America on their minds, but are constantly thwarted by labor. If I were a Koch brother, I would probably love this book.

My rantings aside, however, Subspace Explorers is what they call a ripping yarn. When I wasn’t gnashing my teeth at the painful dialogue or offensive worldview, the action was amusing. It was good enough that I finished it quickly and still want to read the Lensman books. It wasn’t good enough, though, that I’m diving into the sequels.

Triplanetary is a little more troubling. I only checked it out because the cover said it was a Lensman book; of course it was completely unrelated. Instead, it contains three or four short stories and novellas, the details of which have since departed my memory. I suppose this means they were suitably pulpy, without being excellent. The one thing I do remember is a quote where Smith writes, “And then he comforted her as only a man can comfort a woman.” Double entendre aside, what on earth is that supposed to mean? He watched football and had a beer? He tried to fix her problems instead of just listening? He left the toilet seat up? Back and ear hair? SF is far from perfect on the gender equality thing, but at least we’ve made some progress.

Anyway, E.E. Smith is one of those things we read to appreciate our heritage but then forget about, like Leviticus or something. Some of his stuff is probably memorable, but it’s certainly not Triplanetary. Subspace Explorers is better, but I wouldn’t put it high on anyone’s recommended reading list.

Rating: Uruguay in the 1950s. The original World Cup winner, Uruguay was good at the time but would be torn apart today by better athletes and technicians.

Debatable Space

Debatable Space
Philip Palmer

While prepping for the Halting State review, I came across a short piece in The Guardian that talked about both that and this book. It was the first I had heard of Philip Palmer, even though The Guardian thinks he’s a major new voice in SF. He’s also from the UK; anyone keeping tabs on the current scene will know that a frightening proportion of the newest, hottest SF is coming from across the pond. (Apparently science fiction is yet another thing we don’t make here anymore. The US has kept epic fantasy production at home but is outsourcing space opera. I would demand a Congressional investigation if so much of the British stuff wasn’t so good.) Since I’ve been on a tear lately of reading brand new stuff, or at least reading old stuff that is new to me, I bumped Mr. Palmer’s book to the top of the list. (It’s about time to settle down with something old and familiar. Asimov perhaps, or a cookie cutter fantasy trilogy.)

If nothing else, Philip Palmer is utterly fearless. He mixes New Wave with the Space Opera Renaissance, adding a dash of Hard SF and creating a saga that starts out small, but opens up layer after layer until it spans a millennium of future history. But he does it, much like Frank Sinatra, His Way. There are wild technologies, gargantuan space battles, bizarre aliens, and all of the usual stuff that one would expect. There is also some avant-garde literary experimentation. But unlike most science fiction, none of the former is the centerpiece of the story. Instead, Palmer is most interested in getting inside the heads of his characters, which he does through a shifting first person viewpoint, and seeing how they react to the situations surrounding them.

Palmer immediately calls out Ringworld in his afterword; like Niven’s Known Space, Debatable Space is full of whimsical and crazy stuff on a foundation of hard science. But he doesn’t linger on the aliens and the technology like Niven, instead leaving just tantalizing glimpses. Likewise, any reader expecting the space battles to be intricate tactical affairs, ala David Weber, will come away disappointed. Crap blows up in ungodly amounts, but the space battles aren’t really the point. One bit of technology does stand out: the question of how to communicate across a galactic empire. Even when FTL is finessed one way or the other, there remains the problem of just how people talk across the light years.  The answer in Debatable Space makes it fairly clear by the middle of the book what will have to happen before Captain Flanagan gets what he wants. In this way, I was reminded more of Dan Simmons than any other author. In fact, the more I thought about it, Debatable Space has more in common with Hyperion than perhaps any other book. Palmer never mentions Simmons, and I haven’t searched interviews to see if he does elsewhere, but both have the same Full Speed Ahead mentality, doing insane things basically because they can. In both books, the authors take no prisoners, brook no dissent, and all but dare the reader to put the book down.

And so, when one goes into this expecting a pirate story and finds himself deep in the head of an old, psychotic, self-centered, hot woman, what is there to do but press on?

I haven’t yet come to terms with Debatable Space. It is eminently readable – brisk and engaging. I plowed through 200 pages in one day’s commute, which is higher than my average, and kept reading compulsively even when I was scratching my head. The characters are strangely sympathetic, despite not being Good People. Flanagan is no doubt the crowd favorite, since everybody loves heroic blues musicians, but he also chops people’s heads off. His best friend is a sentient ball of fire who loves bad jokes and soap operas. The other characters get weirder from there. Also, this book has possibly the foulest mouth of any I have read, which is saying something.

The plot is the best part of the story, I think, though to describe it here in any detail would remove half of the fun. It starts out simple, but quickly grows into something much larger and wilder than is ever hinted at during the opening act. Things are propelled by, not twists perhaps, but revelations that unlock layers of increasing complexity. There are also long, detailed passages where we learn why these people are as crazy as they are, but that don’t directly drive the plot.  This, I suppose, is where my own questions come in. Were I to write the story, I would spend less time delving into a batty old woman’s psyche and more time on exploding spaceships, but then it would be just like all the other books that blow up countless spaceships. Palmer made his choices, we either go along for the ride or find something else to read.

It’s difficult to boil all of this down into a one paragraph recommendation. Readers looking for safe, familiar fare may want to stick with the US mainstream. Readers who don’t like New Wave, aren’t interested in psychology, or don’t want to explore nooks and crannies of crazy people heads should probably stay away. However, someone looking for new, high-risk high-reward stuff should definitely pick this up. I can’t guarantee that it will be anyone’s cup of tea, but it will certainly be a new experience.

Rating: Paris St. Germaine. PSG was purchased by oil sheiks who have brought in expensive, skilled players in a bid to revitalize a boring team in a boring league. (Not to say that SF is boring, but I hope this gets my point across.)

Cities in Flight

Cities in Flight
James Blish

I’ve been reading a lot of brand new, cutting edge type stuff lately, so it felt like time to dig into something old and moldy. Enter James Blish, a name I have heard several times but never read. He won a Hugo for A Case of Conscience and put out a small mountain of Star Trek novels, but I decided to go with Cities in Flight, a four book future history. Cities is a single-volume compilation that includes They Shall Have the Stars; A Life for the Stars; Earthman, Come Home; and The Triumph of Time. Together they cover the near future (at the time, now the past) through the end of the universe, though the latter occurs just a couple thousand years from now.

The title is a reference to spacefaring cities. Blish has his scientists discover a form of gravity control called “spindizzies,” that neatly answers the problems of lifting mass into orbit. Anti-grav pretty much renders spaceships obsolete. After all, why build a whole new expensive contraption when anti-grav can just lift Los Angeles into space? (It is a bit more complex than that, but the effect is the same.) And so in place of gleaming starships, we have cities large and small careening around the galaxy. The cities call themselves “Okies,” a nod to the Oklahoma farmers that lost their land in the Dust Bowl and wandered over to California in search of work. This is something like what the flying cities do – moving from planet to planet offering labor. Tom Joad in Space, if you will.

Cities is an interesting hodge-podge. I guess future history fits well in this case, since life rarely conforms to a three act story arc and Blish seems to feel no obligation to constrain his story either. The first book takes 150 pages to give the background of the two crucial discoveries that power his universe. Today it probably would have been a prologue, but Blish was allowed to use the whole book just to explain an Earth that would soon be completely irrelevant. The second book is a coming of age story set in a pair of flying cities, starting on Earth but leaving with the lovely Scranton, PA when the city launches into space. Third is a bunch of episodes that were probably short stories. The first of these could have come in pretty much any order and show what life is like in the flying cities. The last take a sudden turn for the epic and turn the universe on its head (again). Finally there is a long and crazy practical physics problem about the end of time, briefly interrupted by a planetary crusade. To rephrase, this is not something I would expect to be published now. Any real history that has a taut narrative and carefully plotted structure is probably not good history. But I would be surprised if any teacher or mentor recommended writing sprawling, random stories with no defined arc and a new cul-de-sac every fifteen pages. Wait, did I just describe The Wheel of Time? (A good comparison might be music albums now and then. A CD now is a tightly planned, executed, and marketed musical document, whereas 50 years ago, a bunch of available cats would wander into a studio, lay down whatever felt alright, and sell it warts and all. Is one better than the other?)

Now for some collected thoughts about Cities. The world of the first book is my second consecutive review (after Falkenberg’s Legion) to start in what is now an alternate history of the Cold War. Much like Pournelle’s Co-Dominion, the West gradually falls to the USSR not through military conflict, but by degrading its own society to support the war effort. In Cities, this leads first factories, then whole cities to uproot themselves and float off into space. Near future dystopias have evolved quite a bit, especially within cyberpunk, and the bleak, grinding Cold War future seems to have gone the way of the dodo. (Or the way of the USSR, I suppose.) Young people should be forced to read a few of these so they understand why their elders lack the Gen Y and Millenial perkiness.

Besides a dated setting (which I don’t mind at all), Blish falls victim to the most common curse of Old SF: awkward and cringe-worthy human relationships. Part of it is simply a function of language. We’re going to chuckle now anytime someone says, “By Jove, you’re beautiful and I shan’t hear anyone deny that you’re made for me!” There’s not a lot any author can do about this; I fully expect my counterpart fifty years from now to write, “Nothing dates fiction writing like, ‘hey, chill out dude.’ Did people really talk like that?” There is something to be said, however, for women and men not acting like animatronic creatures from Chuck E. Cheese when emotion enters the picture. SF has a long, illustrious history of portraying women awfully, though, so I can’t lay it all on James Blish.

Finally, one other bit stands out as a characteristic of the age: economy of prose. I’ve noticed this in plenty of other books from the age, but Blish covers more time, bigger action, and grander scales with fewer words than most writers today. I don’t know if it is a reflection of editorial realities at the time, or just a different fashion, but authors long ago did much more with less. The entire Cities saga is around 600 pages, or about the length of one best-selling fantasy doorstop now. This is probably jarring to someone used to the author explaining everything, as the action will skip ahead months or years in a single page.

Looking over the article, my tone seems to be a bit more dismissive and snide that the book deserves. The dust jacket features quotes from people like Brian Aldiss and Poul Anderson; if they say something is good, it is very likely good. And Cities is an ambitious, engaging work, worthy of the praise. It doesn’t occupy a place in popular imagination like Foundation or Ringworld, but is worthy of more attention.

Rating: Kenny Dalglish. I selected a name somewhat at random from football’s illustrious past.