Sunday, 27 October 2019

Orconomics, by J. Zachary Pike, and The Question Mark, by Muriel Jaeger

I decided to acquire Orconomics after some enthusiastic comments by members of the Classic SF Group. It is subtitled "A satire", about which more later. The setting is a land populated by a wide variety of more or less humanoid races (the usual dwarves, goblins, trolls, elves etc) with technology at the usual medieval level, plus magic wielded by suitably talented and trained wizards.

The story is a tongue-in-cheek variant of a traditional fantasy quest, with an assorted group of unwilling adventurers all press-ganged into undertaking a search for some stolen marble heads of symbolic importance. Their leader is an experienced "professional hero", a dwarf called Gorm, who has fallen on hard times. On the way the group encounter various dangers, set-backs and surprises, with the ending being rather different from what might have been expected.

Apart from the names of the races, there are other borrowings from elsewhere – both fact and fiction. For example, a firm making fine quality edged weapons is named Vorpal, which is first used in Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky poem. Also, the stone heads are known as the Elven Marbles, presumably a reference to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, sculptures which were "liberated" from the Athens Parthenon long ago and are the subject of a long-running ownership dispute. 

There is a lot of humour in the story with the satirical element being focused on economics. The economic system of the entire country is based on heroic adventures, with speculators trading in the profits to be expected from successful adventures (those being ones in which vast wealth is recovered, e.g. from stolen hoards). There is an organised system for professional heroes or quest-givers to lay claim to some expected hoard before setting off to recover it, bringing in investment to fund the mission, with any profits being divided up pro-rata among the investors.

The author explains at one point: "The speculators who bought those shares often bundled them into plunder finds, which were then divided and sold to other companies, who were owned by other companies, and beyond that…well, it hurt Scroot's head to think about who owned what." The target of this satire is obviously the packaging of sub-prime mortgages which were a major factor in the 2008 financial crisis. The problem from the dramatic viewpoint is that this specific event happened years ago and the details have probably been forgotten – if they were ever understood – by most potential readers. Satire based on current affairs dates rapidly.

At first I was rather underwhelmed by the story, but as it progressed and the characters developed I became increasingly engaged and ended up thoroughly enjoying the tale.

Orconomics is the first of the Dark Profit Saga trilogy, the others being Son of a Liche (already available) and Dragonfired (being written). I was looking forward to reading the sequel until I saw that the price for a paperback (the only format I buy) listed by amazon as just under £15, which is two or three times the going rate for a standard paperback, so I'll pass on that.


One of the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series, The Question Mark was first published in 1926. It was the author's first novel, followed by three more over the next decade. As Wiki says: "Her novels deal with such topics as extrasensory perception, utopian speculation, and genetic engineering and are considered important for their place in the history of science fiction. At the time, her work was not well-received by critics, and she abandoned her career".

The plot of The Question Mark concerns a young man from the 1920s who wakes up two centuries later. He finds himself in a socialist paradise, with economic equality for all having been achieved and automation having reduced the need to work to a bare minimum. However, that does not mean that there aren't flaws – and these concern human nature. The population is divided into the great majority, described as "normals", who are poorly educated (by choice) and driven by emotion rather than reason, and the rational "intellectuals", who run the society and drive its technological advances.  Jaeger has some sympathy for the normals but shows how they are infantilised by their lack of responsibility, flitting constantly between different fads, fashions and esoteric religious beliefs (a theme picked up by various later SF books I have read – the one which first springs to mind being The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys).

One aspect of the future society which is portrayed as controversial is the availability of peaceful euthanasia on demand, also used as a means of disposing of hardened criminals and other troublesome individuals. However, another aspect of population control which would be even more controversial today is eugenics – specifically the used of selective breeding to weed out undesirable characteristics from the gene pool. This was historically very popular among intellectuals when the book was written, but forever discredited as a result of being put into practice by Nazi Germany. The author seems to assume that population control would have been drastically enforced, given that her England has been turned into a pastoral country with a relatively thinly spread population, but there is little comment about this. The ending is rather vague, as the story just stops when the author has said what she wanted to.

The Question Mark was a reaction against the idealised future societies portrayed in fiction popular at the time, and was intended to paint a more realistic picture of how society might develop if everyone's physical needs for food, housing and travel were met. The apparent utopia gradually becomes more dystopian as the protagonist learns more about it, so this story is really an initial step towards the far more dystopian Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949).

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Menace of the Monster, edited by Mike Ashley

This anthology, subtitled Classic Tales of Creatures from Beyond, is one of the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series of reprints, sent to me for review. As with others in this series, it begins with a substantial introduction by Mike Ashley, who also provides a short intro to each of the stories.

The editor traces the origins of monster stories to The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from around 4,000 years ago, which includes the monster Humbaba. Greek legends are full of terrible, frightening monsters such as the Minotaur, such tales being given credence by the discovery of fossils of dinosaurs and other huge extinct animals. Much later, SF enthusiastically featured monsters, mostly from other worlds (and I might add, at the less intellectual end of the publishing market, mysteriously attracted to scantily-clad human females). This anthology concentrates on monster stories from the "classic period, the 1890s to the mid-1960s", with the 22-page introduction providing the usual comprehensive and worthwhile survey of the field.

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. Those hideously alien monsters from Mars are too well known to need any introduction, but this particular version of the story is of interest in that it is only 14 pages long, written (by Wells himself, in 1919) to provide a "compact summary" of the story, apparently to accompany illustrations by the Dutch artist Johan Briedé. Unfortunately the illustrations are not included in this publication, so all we get is a colourless precis; a graphic novel without the graphics.

The Cloud-men, by Owen Oliver. The author (real name Joshua Albert Flynn, 1863-1933) was a senior civil servant in the War Office who wrote many short stories, mostly SF, from 1898 onwards. This 1911 example, set in an alternative 1915, is very strange. It begins with some offical government notices laying down draconian punishments for (among other things) distributing false news (we could do with that today…). It included the results of a recent census of the UK population, totalling 120,000 people (the actual number at that time was around 40 million). The main part of the story explains how this disaster occurred as recounted by a couple of eye-witnesses. The monsters were "Cloud-Men" who could vary their size and density from being huge creatures as diffuse as clouds, to being much smaller beings as dense as people; their touch was usually fatal. A particularly imaginative approach to monsters.

The Dragon of St Paul's, by Reginald Bacchus & C. Ranger Gull (1873-1945 and 1875-1923 respectively; Gull was also published as Guy Thorne). A more conventional story from a pair of journalists who collaborated on various strange tales. This one features a dragon found in an Arctic block of ice which was thawed out and escaped to terrorise London. The plot seems very familiar, but given that this story was published in 1899 it might well have been the first to include such elements.

De Profundis, by Coutts Brisbane (real name Robert Coutts Armour, 1874-1945). An entirely different form of monster terrorises the Earth in this bleak and horrific 1914 story from a prolific writer of SFF, which demonstrates that numbers can be more important than size and strength.

Dagon, by H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). The author is of course very well known as a specialist in horror stories – particularly the Cthulhu Mythos – and this one emerged in 1919. It takes the form of a farewell note from a sailor who has witnessed a horrific event at sea and is now being hunted by a hideous monster.

In Amundsen's Tent, by John Martin Leahy (1886-1967). A curious but apparently influential tale first published in 1928. It is set against the background of the race to be the first to reach the South Pole (actually achieved by Roald Amundsen in December 1911).   A later visitor finds a tent which contains the severed head of an explorer, together with a written account of the events which evidently led to his death. The account involved the discovery by the explorers of a tent close to the Pole, which contained something so hideous that the witnesses could not describe it. They fired at it with a rifle but it came in pursuit… Again, strong horror elements in this tale.

King Kong, by Draycott Dell & Edgar Wallace. An oddity, this one, as the story started off as an idea for a film by director Merian C Cooper in around 1930. Edgar Wallace, a famous author of popular thrillers, was recruited to work on the script which was duly delivered in 1932, just before Wallace's death. Other writers then became involved before the film's release, and a novel based on it also appeared, Wallace still being credited for publicity reasons. The short story in this anthology was written by Dell, the editor of a British boys' magazine, and was published in 1933. The tragic story of the giant ape is too well-known to require repeating here; this story is a straightforward version.

The Monster from Nowhere, by Nelson S. Bond (1908-2006). The author produced a large quantity of SFF stories, often amusing, but with some darker tales such as this one, which emerged in 1939. The narrator is a journalist who is contacted by an explorer who had disappeared two years before on an expedition to Peru. Now the explorer wants advice about what to do with something he has brought back. This takes the form of a black mass of constantly and rapidly changing size and shape, whose nature he is unable to determine. I will say no more about this interesting story, except that I was evidently mistaken when I commented in my review of Flatland by Edwin A Abbott (on this blog eight years ago): "It is difficult to describe or draw parallels with this book, since as far as I'm aware it is unique."

Discord in Scarlet, by A. E. van Vogt (1912-2000). Van Vogt needs no introduction here (reviews of several of his works are listed in my blog index) so there are plenty of tales to choose from. This one was first published in 1939 and eventually, in modified form, became part of the 1950 fix-up novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. It concerns an alien stranded in space, who takes an opportunity to board a passing human spaceship. Typical of this author, the viewpoint lies with the alien monster for part of the story, not just the frightened humans, which adds another dimension to the tale.

Monster, by John Christopher (real name Samuel Youd, 1922-2012). I remember this author from several decades ago, principally for writing The Death of Grass, a 1956 catastrophe novel (the title tells me all I want to know…). This 1950 tale is one of his many short stories and, like the van Vogt story above, features the aliens' viewpoint as well as the humans'. An intelligent acquatic race is facing extinction due to attrition by predators but is aware of the existence of a land-living race, so one enterprising soul is fitted with a pressure suit and sent to ask for help. Unfortunately, there are problems…. Interesting in that the conclusion ties events into our modern world.

Resident Physician, by James White (1928-1999). This author is best-known for his long-running series featuring the Sector Twelve General Hospital, located in space and equipped to deal with all alien races. This is one of those stories from 1961, concerning a patient who is certainly a monster, but (as it turns out) not a hostile one. I have to say that I found the basic premise – of skilled medical staff trained to deal with all races – unconvincing, in view of my experience of the profession. The tendency is for surgeons to specialise in some particular type of medical problem (e.g. ankle injuries) so that they become very skilled and experienced in dealing with that, and that's just with one race – ours.  However, it's a fun story!

Personal Monster, by Idris Seabright (real name Margaret St. Clair, 1911-1995). This author wrote many SFF stories, notable for their sophistication and the high quality of the writing. This one was published in 1955 but seems much more modern than that, simply presenting events as they affect a young girl and leaving the reader to work out what is really going on (in fact, the clues are not enough to be able to infer the whole story, just the flavour of it). The girl has found an ugly monster in a pit in the garden, but seems to have some connection with it. There is also something odd about the couple who have adopted her…

Alien Invasion, by Marcia Kamien (born 1933). In this 1954 tale, a scientist finds herself mysteriously pregnant with a child which is part-monster. She discovers that her pregnancy was the result of an experiment by an alien race trapped on a doomed planet. The story is atmospheric but takes too cavalier an attitude with some basic (and well-known even then) astronomical facts.

The Witness, by Eric Frank Russell (1905-1978). One of my favourite authors of my youth, Russell wrote fast-paced SF thrillers, often well-laced with humour. This 1951 story entirely concerns the trial of an alien who had arrived on Earth, for the crime of potentially presenting a threat to humanity. The arguments of the opposing lawyers are covered in detail, and the prosecution were clearly gaining the advantage until some additional facts became available. This actually has that rare thing in classic SF, a genuinely moving ending.

This collection is a very diverse one, ranging from straightforward alien invasion tales through examples of the horror sub-genre and finishing with some sophisticated and thought-provoking stories. One omission which rather surprised me was Godzilla – surely the best-known monster along with King Kong. This first appeared in Japanese comics in 1954 so should arguably qualify, but I suppose it has always appeared in mainly visual formats (films or comics) with some text versions coming somewhat later.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

The Universe Next Door, from New Scientist magazine

I've been reading a non-fiction science-fiction book! It's called The Universe Next Door and it consists of about sixty short "what if?" articles collated from the files of New Scientist magazine, covering a vast range of topics.

Titles such as: What if Earth didn't have a Moon? What if the dinosaurs weren't wiped out? What would a world without fossil fuels look like? What if we could redesign the planet? Could we save the world by going vegetarian? Is there an alternative to countries? Will genetically engineered people conquer the World? What if we don't need bodies?

There are enough ideas in here to fuel scores of SF stories. I'll focus on just one of them, by A. Bowdoin Van Riper, which particularly caught my interest: what if the invention of electric motors had pre-empted  the age of steam, and thereby supplanted it in powering the industrial revolution?

This article starts with a review of scientific knowledge in the 18th century. Scientists thought of electricity and magnetism as totally separate phenomena. It wasn't until the 1820s that Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère had shown that an electric current moving through a wire generated a magnetic field around it. Michael Faraday followed this up in 1831 by demonstrating the reverse effect – that moving a wire through a magnetic field created an electric current in the wire. He went on to draw the conclusion that electricity and magnetism were effectively two aspects of the same phenomenon, and recognised the technological implications. The use of an electric current to generate a magnetic field became the basis of the electric motor, and the use of magnetic fields to create an electric current became the basis of the electric generator.

The author makes the point that these developments occurred when they did for several reasons, one being a search by scientists for connections between phenomena, another being the invention of the battery. However, there was no fundamental reason why these developments could not have happened a century earlier, and he goes on to outline some of the implications.

In the author's alternate timeline, the electric motor would have become available in around 1740, when steam power was in its infancy. Primitive electric motors are so simple, compact, reliable and inexpensive that they would probably have dominated most applications, giving steam power little chance of becoming established. But where would the power to drive generators come from? That was already available in the form of waterwheels or windmills; waterwheels were the principal means of driving textile and other industrial machinery in the pre-steam age. Existing factories were therefore already located close to a reliable supply of fast-flowing water.

A significant implication of electric motors rather than steam power would have been the lack of the need to concentrate industry to the same degree. Steam engines were large and fuel-hungry, requiring a steady flow of coal, and it made economic sense to centralise the coal supply lines and hence build very large factories (leading in due course to large new cities). Electric motors were far more scalable, and could usefully provide power to existing small workshops.

There would also be implications for the electricity distribution system. The one which historically developed, in imitation of the complex coal-based gas supply system developed earlier, was on a similar scale, focused on large centralised power plants. If the electricity supply had developed in isolation a more decentralised system might well have evolved. Clearly, fossil fuel generation plants would have to be used to meet the demand for power, but these would probably be a lot smaller and more local, plugging into existing networks, with wind and water power likely to have remained in use alongside.

Electric road vehicles, which historically were competing with internal combustion-engined rivals early in the 20th century, would have enjoyed a considerable lead, and rail transport would of course have been entirely electric from the start. The internal combustion engine might mainly have prospered as an aircraft power plant, for which there was (and still is) no obvious alternative.

I am reminded of a separate article which appeared some months ago in the New Scientist concerning battery-powered electric buses. These were developed and in service in London in the early 1900s, getting over the range limitation by having interchangeable battery packs, which could be winched into place at the depot. They were much more popular with users than the contemporary noisy, and very smelly, petrol-engined kind, but sadly the organisation which introduced them became mired in legal issues and collapsed. Another "what if"! It is not difficult to imagine that if electric vehicles were fully developed and in use long before the first IC engine appeared, the latter might have failed to "gain traction" (sorry!) and might well have been banned from urban areas due to its noise and air pollution.

Finally, this all dovetails quite well with some thoughts of my own concerning the development of energy supplies in the UK. These would have to be based largely on coal, since that was the one fuel in the country that was available in vast quantities. However, in my alternative world all coal would be processed to produce gas and smokeless solid fuel but, instead of being distributed, the gas would be burned on-site to generate electricity; the gas distribution networks would not be developed. The smokeless fuel would be formed into various shapes depending on its purpose, with small "marbles" being suited to bulk handling by equipment like the Archimedean screw. This would automate fuel handling in ships, instead of having hordes of men heaving sacks of coal on board, followed by shovelling coal by hand into the boiler furnaces. 

The end result of these changes could have been a much cleaner, quieter and healthier environment in place of the "dark satanic mills" and the noise and fumes associated with combustion engines.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

A couple of months ago, this book arrived in the post. That was something of a surprise, as I had not ordered it, had in fact never heard of it, but as it is labelled "Advance Reader's Copy: Not for Resale" I assume that the publisher's marketing people had spotted this blog and sent it on the off-chance of a favourable review. I must stress that I do not encourage this and usually decline any such offers (the British Library's Classic SF reprints being a worthy exception). So I put it to one side and forgot about it, until I decided to trawl though my unread pile for something different, and found this one. It had the immediate attraction of being very short by modern standards (less than 200 pages) so at least it wouldn't waste much of my time.

On the face of it, the plot sounds unpromising. It is set in 1986 and starts with the narrator, a 15 year old boy called Nick Hayes, receiving the news that he has leukaemia, with about a 50% chance of surviving the next five years. His illness forms the backdrop to the tale, with unsparing details of the chemotherapy and its effect on him, while he is trying to live a normal life (which outside school largely consists of playing Dungeons and Dragons with a small group of friends). The author's depiction of adolescent life is good enough to make me wince in recognition every now and then (although I have to admit that Nick is a more admirable person that I recollect being at that age). He meets a girl who seems to like him, although as he attends a boys' school he hasn't a clue what to do about her (been there, done that!). He also falls foul of some nasty drug pushers and has other worries about a mysterious man who seems to be taking a close interest in him – a man who becomes the key to the rest of the tale, the focus of the SF element of the story, and the reason why the very law-abiding group of friends find themselves involved in breaking and entering while trying to avoid a homicidal nutcase. The friends discover the hard way that, just as in D&D, there are some real-life situations which cannot be escaped without a sacrifice.

The plot might not sound compelling, but I really enjoyed the writing. There are many authors whose writing and/or story-telling ability (not at all the same thing) impress me, but only very occasionally do I find an author who writes in a way which I would love to be able to emulate. Mark Lawrence has just joined that select group, and this story dragged me in, pinned me down and wouldn't let go until I had finished.

The writing style has the kind of dry, dark humour that I enjoy. A couple of examples, the first on chemotherapy:

They used to poison you if you got syphilis. I have my mother to thank for this little nugget of information. There aren't many boys of fifteen who can say that. Not so long before my blood turned sour, but a sufficient number of decades to take you back before World War II and the use of penicillin, the only effective treatment for syphilis was to dose the victim with arsenic. The logic being that although arsenic is a deadly poison it is more deadly to the bacteria that cause the disease and, with careful judgement, the doctor can kill one of you without killing the other. Chemotherapy is much the same. The chemicals used may not be such well-known favourites of celebrated poisoners, but the idea remained unchanged. The aim was to make my blood into a soup toxic enough to kill the cancer cells while allowing the rest of me to struggle on.

And the second, somewhat lighter, quote concerns the best way of buying alcoholic drinks when you are obviously too young:

The place for a teenager to buy beer was the supermarket. But you had to pad your basket out sufficiently to prove you were there on parents' orders. For best results, take a shopping list on which the beers are written, and sandwich them between a bag of frozen peas and some fish fingers. The true artist invests in some female sanitary products, too.

I see that the author has previously written three trilogies: The Broken Empire, Red Queen's War, and Book of the Ancestor. I will definitely be investigating these.