Saturday, 13 September 2014

Beyond the Barrier by Damon Knight

Damon Knight was an American SFF writer who was at the heart of the genre throughout its golden period. The first of his four dozen or so short stories was published in 1940, and seventeen novels followed in the period 1955 to 1996, the last appearing six years before his death. As his Wiki entry says, as well as winning the Hugo Award, he was "founder of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), cofounder of the National Fantasy Fan Federation, cofounder of the Milford Writer's Workshop, and cofounder of the Clarion Writers Workshop." His most famous work is probably the short story To Serve Man, which I read long ago and still remember vividly for its shock ending.

I have to say that in general his writing didn't strongly appeal to me, except for the one novel I have kept: Beyond the Barrier, originally published in 1964 as The Tree of Time. I hadn't read it for more than thirty years so decided to refresh my memory.

Gordon Naismith is a professor of science at a Californian university, a former air force crewman who had lost his memory in a plane crash four years earlier. His life is routine to the point of boredom when he is asked a question by one of his students: "What is a Zug?" He finds this a strangely disturbing question and is thrown further off-balance by a series of events which suggest that his forgotten past holds a secret – one that is known by some people of dubious origin who are determined to manipulate him for their own ends. He is forced to question who – and what – he really is.  As a result, he finds himself travelling into a far future in which humanity is about to implement a drastic measure to rid itself of its most deadly enemy, and he plays a crucial role in determining the outcome.

In the fashion of the time, the book is short at 150 pages. There is no padding, no leisurely scene-setting or background character development, the story hits the ground running and doesn't slow down at any point before Knight's characteristic terminal twist. I found it an irresistible page-turner and read it at one sitting. Recommended to all fans of SF of this period.


The second season of Under the Dome has started on UK TV. I reviewed the first series in September and November last year and pointed out numerous unrealistic plot elements, concluding that: "It isn't great SF but has been just about worth watching so far for the performance of the major characters". The first episode begins at the exact moment that the first season ended and the story continues unchanged. As do its strengths and weaknesses. After a couple of weeks of being cut off from the rest of the world there is still no apparent difficulty in finding food to eat, whereas any modern town so isolated, used to "just in time" deliveries of frozen and chilled produce, would begin to run out of supplies in a few days. I'll keep watching for the time being and see how it goes.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

TV – Dollhouse (2009)

In my hunt for decent TV SF series I came across some favourable mentions of Dollhouse, so I put it on my view list.

The MacGuffin for this series can be summed up as "mind wipe and personality transfer". Criminals faced with a long jail term are given the option of volunteering to spend five years working for a secret corporation that removes and stores their personalities and substitutes those recorded from other people with specialist skills. The criminals (known as "Actives" or "Dolls") are then sent out on missions which range (in the first few episodes) between acting as a good-time girl for a rich man, a bodyguard in the guise of a pop singer, a master safe-cracker and a hostage negotiator. At the end of the mission their borrowed personalities are wiped and they are left as robotic blank slates until they are prepared for their next mission.

The principal Doll on which the series focuses, played by Eliza Dushku, is given the code name Echo. This part is a gift to an actor since she is on screen much of the time, playing dramatically varying roles (rather like Orphan Black in that respect), and Dushku is a convincing heroine. There are strong supporting roles, especially Olivia Williams as the person in charge of the Dollhouse, Harry Lennix as Echo's "minder", and Tamoh Penikett as FBI agent Paul Ballard who is certain that the Dollhouse exists, although his colleagues disagree.

It soon becomes clear that the mind wipes are not entirely effective: Echo appears to be slowly recovering some of her memories and personality, while one of the Dolls (Alpha) accidentally recovered the skills of all of the people he played and went rogue, threatening the Dollhouse. As the series continues, the plot switches away from the Actives' missions and becomes more complex. It focuses on the Dollhouse organisation itself, tensions within the management, and its real purpose, along with Agent Ballard's attempts to discover what is going on.

Compared with other series, Dollhouse is a slick production with a typically American glossiness about it. In contrast, the Canadian Orphan Black is grittier and darker but also much funnier, with the humour balancing what would otherwise be a rather grim tale. Dollhouse may lack much humour but the premise is intriguing and well-enough executed to hold the attention, and the script is intelligent. One long scene sticks in the mind in which Ballard confronts a rich man who hires Echo once a year to play "house"; Ballard is contemptuous but the rich man explains his motives and challenges Ballard's, and the viewer is left feeling rather sympathetic. I do like drama which goes beyond the usual Manichean good/evil contrast to show that the bad guys are not always evil and the motives of the good guys are not always pure.

The final episode of Season 1 – Epitaph One – is entirely different. It jumps forward to 2019 when the world is in chaos due to the uncontrolled spread of the mind-wiping technology. I understand from the Wiki summary that Season 2 then reverts to the present-day timeline to reveal how this catastrophe occurred, before the finale of Epitaph Two which jumps again to 2020. However, at the time of writing, Season 2 has not been released on DVD in the UK.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Chaos Weapon by Colin Kapp

I was intrigued by The Patterns of Chaos (reviewed here in June this year) and having discovered that there was another novel set in the same universe I located a copy. The Chaos Weapon, first published in 1977, is set at some indeterminate later time than Patterns, and features an entirely different cast of characters; the only link between the two novels is the concept of studying Chaos Patterns. To copy from my previous review:

This works by analysing the consequences of significant events and how they interact with each other. The analogy given is with the ripples that spread out from any disturbance in a pond. In principle, the pattern of ripples can be analysed and tracked back to identify the precise location, size and time of every event that created them – and projected forwards to determine how they will look in the future. So far so good, but the Patterns of Chaos also spread across time in that they are affected by events which have not yet happened. This enables Chaos analysts to predict future events, although the exact nature of such events may not be clear.

It is the far future and humanity has been successfully defending its section of the galaxy against hostile alien cultures when it becomes apparent that it is under a new form of attack. Its most important and influential people are being systematically killed off by what appear to be natural catastrophes. Investigation reveals that the circumstances that lead to the catastrophes are being altered through manipulated of the Chaos Patterns, causing (for example) an event to be delayed until it could hit the target individual. Someone had devised a Chaos Weapon.

In search of a response to this, Space Marshal Jym Wildheit – a galactic troubleshooter – travels to the distant planet Mayo. This had been colonised long before by human Sensitives, people with a variety of paranormal abilities, who had closed off their world from the rest of humanity. It had been reported that the Sensitives included a Chaos Seer; someone with the ability to see the Patterns of Chaos directly rather than waiting days for the results of a computer analysis. Wildheit believes that this ability would give humanity the necessary edge to track down and destroy the weapon, so tries to persuade the Sensitives to agree to their Seer joining the search.

What follows comes under the category of what has been described as "Widescreen Baroque" SF: it includes parallel universes, one of which is collapsing and dying, vast alien starship fleets, multi-dimensional gods symbiotically paired with humans, a novel explanation for the origin of humanity, and much devious double-dealing, with one unexpected twist after another. Kapp was not a literary stylist but was certainly a story-teller and, like his earlier novel, The Chaos Weapon is a real page-turner which I finished in two sessions. Recommended.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

I reviewed Star Trek: Insurrection here a couple of months ago, and was surprised that I hadn't seen it before. Well, on watching Star Trek: First Contact I thought that the same thing had happened again, since I remembered almost nothing about it.

First Contact has two key plot elements: time travel and the Borg. In the New Generation TV series, the Borg were the greatest threat, not just an implacable foe but one which put Captain Picard through the most stressful experience of his life. There is a peculiar horror about their ability to assimilate rather than kill their victims, turning the most loyal comrades into robotic enemies.

This time, the Borg use time travel to return to the Earth just before that critical first contact with the Vulcans which led to the opening up to humanity of the galactic civilisation. Their aim: to prevent that contact and reserve the whole planet for assimilation. However, the Enterprise, in hot pursuit, is dragged into the past as well, triggering a 21st Century battle for the future of humanity.

The story alternates between scenes on Earth, where first officer Riker is leading a team to try to ensure the success of the historic first warp flight which catches the Vulcans' attention, and the Enterprise, which the Borg are trying to take over. The contrast in setting and mood between the two scenarios adds enjoyment to the film; particularly the humour provided by the character of Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell), the inventor and pilot of that first warp-capable craft. He is a decidedly reluctant hero and is horrified to learn that he is due to become one of the most famous people in history. Meanwhile, Picard and Data come face to face with the leader of the Borg, played by Alice Krige, who delivers a bizarrely seductive performance despite her repulsive make-up. It was, in fact, Krige's performance which was the only element of this film that I recalled.

All of the usual suspects appear in the cast but most of the Star Trek regulars have relatively little to do: Picard very much takes centre stage in one of Patrick Stewart's strongest appearances in the role, aided by Data who is tempted by the Borg leader.

The mixture of darkness and humour makes this one of the best films of the franchise, in my view, and in a different league from the weak Insurrection that followed it. I have yet to see Nemesis, the last of the NG films (at least, I think so!) and, though the comments I've read are not encouraging, I might as well complete the set.

Just in case you hadn't noticed, I have made some minor changes to this blog. I have added a section in the column on the left with links to longer SFF articles, mostly derived from earlier blog posts. The photos of my book covers are now live links to web pages about the books, including reviews plus (in the case of The Foresight War) the first couple of chapters, and (in the case of Scales) the ability to download the entire book. I am working on revised versions of both novels, but don't hold your breath… Finally, thanks to Hermione on the Blogger Help Forum I've at last managed to correct the glitch that was messing up the alphabetical ordering of the links to my book and TV/film reviews - keep scrolling down the column on the left to find them.        

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Devil's Nebula by Eric Brown, and Gunner Cade by Cyril Judd

Ed Carew is the owner of a spaceship in a distant future in which the huge human Expansion has collided painfully with the empire of the ruthless and alien Vetch. With the aid of his two crew members, Carew has been living on the fringes of the law, making a living by means of occasional smuggling and other activities frowned upon by those in control of the Expansion. So he is more than a little surprised to find himself and his crew forcibly recruited and sent on a dangerous voyage through Vetch space to discover what happened to a long-ago human expedition to a remote part of space known as the Devil's Nebula. What they discover poses an even greater threat to humanity than the Vetch.

I have read and reviewed on this blog three other books by Eric Brown and have formed a high opinion of his story-telling ability. I therefore regret to say that, although the story keeps the pages turning effortlessly, in my view this one fell short of the standard set by the others. The reason is that it seems to have been written with an adolescent audience in mind; it is too simplistic in its content and style, too superficial in its characterisation, too focused on introducing extravagantly weird aliens that make little or no sense.

While it is complete in itself, the ending of the story suggests that The Devil's Nebula is intended to be the beginning of a series, but I won't be looking out for any sequels.


Cyril Judd is a pseudonym for Cyril M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril who collaborated over two novels, both published in book form in 1952: Outpost Mars and Gunner Cade. I have owned a copy of the second of these since the late 1960s so thought it might be worth seeing if the story still stood up today.

On a far-future Earth, Gunner Cade is an Armsman; a cadre of professional soldiers highly trained from childhood, living ascetic and celibate lives completely detached from those of the Commoners. They are in the service of the aristocratic Starborn, who are constantly fighting each other, but swear allegiance to the Emperor who rules the planet – and Mars, colonised long before. This situation has lasted for 10,000 years, which was officially the date that the world and everything in it was created. There is no concept of evolution or change – everything must always stay exactly as it is and has always been.

Cade's rock-solid belief in the rightness of all of this begins to be shaken when he falls among Commoners who are planning rebellion, and he is unwillingly forced on a journey of discovery that steadily erodes his faith. Almost everyone he meets seems to want either to use him or kill him, but it should surprise no readers that he works out a satisfactory solution in the end.

While people can draw various lessons from this tale, it is more than a didactic thriller. The observations are laced with humour, and I especially enjoyed the official "Klin philosophy", based on an ancient book whose text is solemnly interpreted by Klin teachers to support the status quo – but we can understand that Klin was a cynic who usually meant something very different.

At almost 200 pages Gunner Cade is fairly long for the period in which it is written, but it's still a quick page-turner. It benefits from a relatively strong characterisation, at least as far as Cade is concerned – the viewpoint character throughout, whom the reader comes to understand and empathise with as he is gradually changed by his experiences. The only jarring note to modern sensibilities was the statement that the atmosphere of Mars, although thin, was breathable. Well worth reading again.