Tag Archives: science fiction

“The Rebel Worlds” by Poul Anderson (1969)

Poul Anderson’s The Rebel Worlds begins so promisingly:

Make oneness.

I/we: Feet belonging to Guardian of North Gate and others who can be, to Raft Farer and Woe who will no longer be, to Many Thoughts, Cave Discoverer, and Master of Songs who can no longer be…

And so on, for five hundred or so impenetrable, poetic, evocative words as Anderson takes us deep into the thoughts of the thoroughly alien race he’ll eventually (and all too briefly) introduce us to. Unfortunately, we’re cheated. The novel we’re actually given is a fairly standard, if entertaining, space opera enlivened by a chastely portrayed love triangle between doomed, heroic figures: Commander Flandry, the swashbuckling, womanising hero of a number of Anderson’s books, the rebel Admiral McCormac and his wife Kathryn, whom Anderson blesses with one of the more bizarrely rendered accents I’ve encountered in a major character. Possibly it’s meant to be Irish. It reads like the speech impediment I had as a child.

“Well, learnin’ does seem to go easier’n for our race, but ’tis not instantaneous…”

Overall, this is classicist stuff – readers of Heinlein and the ‘New SF’ of the late sixties will recognise the push and pull between reactionary libertarianism (men are men and women are…well, we’ll come to that) and counter-cultural mores (“We have the regular assortment of drink and drugs…and would you like a bite to eat?”).

The plot, hinging on the tension between rebellion for short-sighted but well-meanng motives versus long-sighted paternalistic imperialism, is well structured and pacey and the action sequences all you’d expect from the author of Broken Sword. Flandry is a surprisingly complex creation and the aforementioned aliens justify the entire book.

But seldom have I encountered a text so thoroughly (and, occasionally, comically) of its time – 1969.

“Because his object was not to enlighten but to simply to seduce her, he twirled his mustache and leered…”

Oh. My God. The lead character has a mustache. Which he twirls. The mission he’s sent on interrupts his birthday celebrations with “three gorgeous girls, ready and eager…” A page later, he meets another woman dressed in a ‘translucent wisp of rainbow.’ Fortunately, “she was constructed for it…”

Finally, however, Flannery meets his match in the formidable Kathryn. Astonishingly, she looks like his mother! And he promptly gets the hots for her like no other woman he’s ever encountered in his life. Perhaps its because she’s dressed in a “nacreous slip”?

What exactly is going on here? From ‘woman is the recreation of the warrior’ to Oedipus within a few hundred words? She is of course, a red-head. Every ‘strong woman’ in the whole history of 20th century SF has red hair, from EE ‘Doc’ Smith and his Lensmen onwards. She’s also broad-shouldered, muscular, bronzed and did I mention that she looks like his mother

Enough already. The Rebel Worlds is a product of its time and no more or less sexist than most of the rock music or art produced in the late sixties. The question one has to ask is “Shouldn’t science fiction writers of the time have known a little better?” One can make excuses for Dickens – I’m not so sure that ‘it was the times’ holds completely true by the time we were putting a man on the Moon.

Still, there are at least those aliens which provide another Freudian twist to the text. They’re tri-partite beings consisting of a lumbering manual labourer, a flittering bird of prey type thing and a vaguely chimp-like creature. Together, they form a single sentient being. It’s hard not to speculate about ids, egos and superegos, though Anderson’s id seems to take charge of his typewriter every time a woman wanders (slinks, sashays, flirts…) onto the page. 

Overall? Read with gritted teeth or (better) seek out Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, published in the same year. After that, things would change. Slowly.

The despair of the Inter-Galactic Hitchhiker

I’ve been re-reading Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels over the last week. It’s been an odd sort of ride, pulling me deeply into my past in some ways and highlighting the present in other, surprisingly depressing forms.

Encountering the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy proper for the first in thirty years time-warped me straight back to being fifteen and glued to Radio 4 via my family’s one pair of big, padded headphones, waiting at the dinner table for the expansive FM stereo of (unbelievably) The Eagles ‘Journey of the Sorcerer‘ (the rest of the music was provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). It was 1978. In the outside world, things were about to get seriously unpleasant. Then there’d the announcement of the title in those fruity Radio 4 tones that now seem so cemented to a certain time and set of assumptions.”The story so far…”

And then I’d be gone.

On another planet or spaceship or space-time continuum entirely, wrapped up in this strange little world that only I and a few privileged friends at school had heard of. To my family, it was utterly meaningly and once they’d established that there was no swearing, no readily discernible blasphemy and zero sex references (I was very lucky with the ten minutes they actually listened too), they left me and the luxurious headphones to it.

The show was wonderful. And hilarious. And utterly, magnificently true – the Universe (as I was discovering) really did make no sense. Forty two was as good an answer as any. A gang of white mice who were really extensions of pan-dimensional beings conducting frightfully sophisticated experiments on humans was as credible (and certainly more attractive) an explanation as a God who’d let his only son be flogged, nailed to a tree and stabbed with a spear after days of horrible torture.

I think there were many ways I’ve since forgotten in which it must have helped me survive a pretty grim adolescence*.

The book itself came after the radio series in 1979 and I promptly saved up and bought it, along with the first two sequels – The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (1979) and Life, The Universe and Everything (1980). After that, I went to university and lost touch with the series. Or did it lose touch with me? Loftier things (the worst relationship in the world, being in dreadful bands, drink etc) got in the way.

Returning to the books, my 49 year old self notices two things. Firstly, I’m now at the age Douglas Adams was when he died (see the extended kvetch on this subject in my last post) and secondly, how astonishing it is in some ways that Adams lasted as long as he did. I can only assume he existed at the same level as some sort of Zen Master, serenely and ironically composed in the face of the singular horror of a universe with no rhyme or reason other than the entirely futile and random rationales that its hapless inhabitants project upon it. These are seriously depressing books if you approach them in the wrong frame of mind. A handful of pages into the first volume, the entire human race is wiped out to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Later, the ‘hero’ (the books don’t really have heroes, actually, except possibly for Trillian), Arthur Dent, finds himself returning to his doomed home planet again and again and each time the horrors and the pathos redouble.

Does anything lighten the existential murk? Well, a few things.

For one thing, the books are funny. Very funny, in the nihilistic, absurdist vein mined by Monty Python or the Goons (especially Spike Milligan). Adams was actually a minor Footlights alumni and had a couple of writing credits for Monty Python. He revels in demented neologisms (“the mattress flurried and glurried. It flolloped, gupped and willioied…” I should mention that we’re dealing with a sentient mattress here), silly names (Slartibartfast? Zaphod Beeblebrox?) and complex puns.

And they’re also bursting with ideas. Like Philip K. Dick, Adams is an ideas man first and a plotter second. One meets SEPs (Someone Else’s Problem) field generators, Infinite Improbability Engines and an altogether convincing general theory of time travel. Doors talk. The mighty marketing machine of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation embeds annoying personalities in every moving part of a space ship. A huge computer and a sentient drinks machine nearly kill everyone trying to solve the problem of how to make tea. And so on. The characters in his books are pretty much identical at the end to the way they are at the beginning. Their lack of progression is almost the whole point.

But as the series goes on (and I’m about to start the fourth volume, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish), it gets darker and darker and the satire shifts its targets from petty bureaucracy and marketing to bigger, less easily laughed away evils – war, genocide, environmental havoc, the entitlement felt by the very rich and the powerlessness of the rest of us to change, well anything. Very little light gets through.

Except for one thing. At the climax of Life, The Universe and Everything, Trillian the closest we get to a sympathetic character in the entire series, notices that the most hideously feared warmongers in the entire history of the universe quite possibly don’t want to kill anyone. They’d rather play ‘krikket’ with them. And for a few pages, a character changes the small, dark space around her through an outpouring of what is, effectively, love. Earlier, one saw her struggle to reach the titanically solipsistic Zaphod Beeblebrox, fail, and quietly walk away. Here, Trillian succeeds, on a planet where a cloud of dust has blocked out any of the light from the surrounding universe from ever reaching it.

Love. Love the people immediately around you. That’s the only meaning the books dare offer, they only way in which they attempt to make any kind of sense whatsoever. As things get bleaker and bleaker (and the books are full of appalling prophecies ranging from Kindles to the deforestation of an entire planet to avoid hyper-inflation of a currency consisting of leaves to a civilisation descended entirely from the survivors of a spaceship full of marketing managers and accountants) it’s as good a message as any.

*Believe me, the Ravenous Blugbatter Beast of Tral** would have been light relief, with or without a towel.

**Read the damn book, ok?

Andre Norton – Plague Ship, Storm Over Warlock and others

Andre Who?

Andre Norton, aka Alice Mary Norton (1912 to 2005).  Science fiction writer and Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  My high school’s library had many of her books – she initially defined herself as a writer of ‘juvenile fiction,’ back in the 40s and 50s – and I devoured them, sometimes two or three in a day.  Then I left school, went to university, got on with a myriad other things (and authors) and forgot all about her until  I added the invaluable Stanza e-book app to my iPhone and discovered that a number of her texts had passed out of copyright and were available on Project Gutenburg, one of my favourite websites.

So I downloaded half a dozen or so and read them and suddenly found myself keeping company with my 15 or 16 year old self.  And I’m just as much a sucker for an inventive, star-spanning, rollicking good yarn now as I was then.

So what happens?

I wouldn’t say that there was a formula to a good Norton novel but there’s generally a protagonist who, whether adult or teenager, has some kind of growing up to do.  All her novels feature some form of rite of passage.  There’s usually a strong environmental theme or engagement with the wild, either literally in the form of the wild oceans the heroes of Key Out Of Time find themselves adrift upon, or the symbolised by the wolverines who accompany Shann in Storm Over Warlock.

There are also aliens, frequently very convincing aliens.  In both the aforementioned books, the dominant gender in the alien races encountered are is female, with males either non-existence or powerless and firmly kept off-stage.  Critics might complain (with some justification) that witchy female aliens and action-oriented male humans reflect rather stereotypical gender attributes but there’s no doubting the power of her extra-terrestrials.  It’s heady stuff.

Why on earth would I want to read her?

Her books are  fun! And they’re also very well-written, in that economical, efficient prose that the best writers of 50s hard SF had down.  The ideas flow, plots accelerate and pages fly by.  There’s plenty of action to be had but some of the best (like Plague Ship) demand that their characters find non-violent means to solve their problems and grow up, whether through guile, science, negotiation or tough choices.  As with Heinlein’s ‘juvenile’ classics like Starship Troopers or the charming Star Beast, there’s a didactic undertow but never at the expense of the story

So these are children’s books?

Look, I think after Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and the rest, we’ve pretty much established that there are good books and bad books and that the ostensibly targeted age group is by and large irrelevant.  Good writers ultimately balance pleasing themselves with pleasing their audience. Norton loved to write and it shows. 

And where next?

Off to Project Gutenburg, of course, and search on Andre Norton.  Start with the ones I’ve mentioned then dig around for  copies of the Witch World series.  Her official site is here.  She deserves as much of a cult as is belatedly gathering around the wonderful Diane Wynne Jones and I’m happy to do my bit.