Friday 29 March 2019

A Plague of Demons, by Keith Laumer (2)

I reviewed this classic SF tale on this blog over eight years ago, but as it has recently been the book of the month for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group ( ) it is worth reviewing in the light of points raised in that discussion. First, extracts from my review from 2010:

This novel, first published in 1965, was one of my favourites from the period and I still have my well-worn 1967 paperback. It's several decades since I last read it so I thought I'd see how it stood up today.

I've already posted one review of a novel by this author (A Trace of Memory, reviewed 15 December 2007) which I started as follows:

"Keith Laumer (1925-1993) was a prolific American SF author who specialised in fast-paced adventure stories (of which the Bolo series, concerning intelligent tanks, is best known) and comic satire, notably in the Retief books about an interstellar diplomat. A Trace of Memory, published in 1963, is a stand-alone novel in the former category."

A Plague of Demons falls into the same category, being a short (170 page) and exciting adventure thriller. It is set on a near-future Earth and features a government agent, John Bravais, who is tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of large numbers of soldiers involved in the formalised battles then being used to settle disputes. He observes a dog-like alien - one of the demons of the title - decoying soldiers away from a battle and attacking them. He is able to kill one of these extremely tough creatures and take back evidence of its alien origin. His task then becomes the investigation of what is going on, and to assist him he is given a new programme of internal biomechanical enhancements which greatly increase his strength, endurance and survivability. The demons are quickly on his trail, assisted by their ability to manipulate people's minds so they can appear to be ordinary humans, and what follows is a running battle which ends up off the Earth as Bravais desperately tries to fulfil his mission against heavy odds. I can't say more without spoiling the surprises for any new readers, but I will say that this is the book whose popularity inspired the Bolo series.

The story is told in the first person with the laconic hard-boiled style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, including one-liner gems such as: "I was as weak as a diplomatic protest". There is also something of the flavour of Eric Frank Russell's novel Wasp, reviewed here on 26 August 2007. The introduction in particular reminded me of the start of a James Bond movie - I could visualise the film scenes as I read. In fact, the whole book would make a good film, with little need to change anything. Inevitably, the complex plotting and character development which feature in most modern novels are notable for their absence, but in this kind of story they would only slow the pace.

Some of the issues raised in the discussion group have wider implications for the way in which we read and appreciate SF – especially the classic variety – so are worth exploring.

One complaint is that the story is set in a future (date unspecified) in which the general technology level seems not very different from ours, but there are some improbably advanced exceptions (e.g. medical science, recovery speed from operations etc). This surely should not be a surprise, something like it happens in reality. If it were possible to bring SF fans from 1965 into the present day, they would be astonished: blown away by the amazing capabilities of gadgets like smartphones, but appalled by the number of expected developments which have not happened. Where is the free nuclear fusion power?  Why haven't the computerised production machines freed people to work only part time? Where are the permanent bases on the Moon and Mars, or the manned explorations of the outer regions of the Solar System?  Why are we still lumbering around in subsonic passengers jets when in 1965 the Mach 2 Concorde was on the drawing board – surely we should be using hypersonic planes by now? Where are the very high speed maglev trains intended to revolutionise ground transport?  Why aren't flying cars or strap-on jetpacks not routine forms of transport? Even worse, travel on our urban roads is often slower than in their time due to the traffic densities.

Progress is always uneven, and can happen in unexpected areas, while expected developments often fail to happen at all and most things only evolve very slowly. And the further you are down the socio-economic scale, the more slowly your life changes.

Which raises the wider issue of what we are prepared to believe (or not) in SF. Some suspension of disbelief is almost always required (with the exception of Mundane SF, in which anything beyond known science is banned), but we are notably inconsistent in what we are prepared to accept, and what we are not. Logically, developments which are contrary to some fundamental laws of science as we understand them should be the hardest to accept: that would obviously include faster-than-light spacecraft (that's most of SF wiped out in one blow); time travel; and anti-gravity. It also includes "psi powers" beyond human capabilities (goodbye superheroes!). Next would come capabilities which are not contrary to scientific laws, but which we really can't see any way of achieving for now (that's most of the rest of SF gone, particularly anything with an AI capable of exceeding the capabilities of the human brain in all respects). Finally come things which we can't do now but can see a path to doing in the future (that's the Mundane stuff, like setting up a base on Mars). In practice, though, people sometimes seem more ready to accept "impossible" things in a story rather than those which are merely improbable.

So, to return to A Plague of Demons. It includes alien empires with FTL spacecraft, and an anti-gravity harness (not alien; made on Earth). But what has caused more comment (apart from the medical capabilities mentioned above) are issues like the ability of Bravais, trapped in his massive battle tank, to regain consciousness, make mental contact with the aliens and even control some of them. (For the record, the consciousness bit is explained earlier in the story, the result of hypnotic mental training to split off a personality fraction so that Bravais can see the Demons for what they are, while the mental contact is initiated by the aliens – it is their method of command and control – but it turns out to be a two-way system that Bravais can utilise.)

What it comes down to, in my view, is that if you are really enjoying a story you will be prepared to suspend disbelief as far as necessary and to swallow almost anything the author gives you. If you don't like it, then it's not difficult to pick lots of holes in it, because most SF relies on the suspension of disbelief to work at all.

All in all, I see nothing here which is out of line for this type of fiction written at this time, and no reason to change my previous verdict:

I can well understand why I liked this book so much and can warmly recommend it to readers who enjoy the style and pace of these 1960s SF thrillers. It's such great fun, with an added dash of nostalgia!

Saturday 9 March 2019

Noumenon, and Noumenon Infinity, by Marina J Lostetter

Noumenon is the first novel from established short-story writer Marina Lostetter. It takes as its starting point some well-worn SF themes: the invention of a method of avoiding the lightspeed limitation, making starships practical (the subdimensional or SD drive); and since the journey to other stars would still take several generations (ship time – many centuries on Earth), the construction of massive starships with populations of thousands, with the generations being reproduced by cloning to retain specialised skills.

The story begins with the discovery of an anomaly, an unusual and possibly alien feature around a distant star, at a time when humanity had developed the ability to build huge starships. Of the several Planetary United Missions (PUMs - exploration fleets) sent out to different destinations, one – Noumenon – is Convoy 7; the mission to the anomaly.

Because of the timespan of centuries, the book has an episodic nature, each chapter jumping ahead by (on average) dozens of years; which must have made the transition to novel-writing easier for the author, as the book is essentially a linked series of short stories. This structure does have the disadvantage that even though genetically the same individuals may be turning up in one episode after another, they are not the same people, so the development of a relationship between the reader and the principal characters is almost missing: almost, because the Artificial Intelligence which runs the mission forms a constant element.

Noumenon makes a slow start and I wasn't too impressed at first. There is something of a credibility issue concerning the starships; they are enormous, and nine of them are sent together in the fleet, carrying a total of around 100,000 people. Why such a huge number of people and ships is needed for a scientific exploration is never convincingly justified – the argument that this size of community is necessary to maintain social stability over the generations is questionable (and anyway, stability is not maintained). Also, making each ship specialise in one activity – e.g. just one produces all the food – leaves the fleet very vulnerable if any ship is lost. This creates something of a credibility problem at the start.

The writing style can be a bit breathless, as when one of the characters on the fleet exchanges messages with Earth and faces up to the reality of a left-behind friend ageing much faster due to time dilation: "I couldn't believe it. Seventy. So much of his life, gone. He'd been my constant these past few years, my Earthly touchstone, and now it was over. Over too soon." There is also some heavy moralising in places, such as when a small boy is being corrected over his sexist reaction towards a new baby sister. However, as the fleet aproaches the anomaly the tension increases steadily – the arrival, the first climax of the story, is less than halfway through the book.

As they return to Earth, the crew faces other problems and there are major cultural shifts among the population. All of this is leading up to the second climax – what they discover when they arrive "home" after several centuries. I do not wish to post any spoilers, so I will just say that this is not the end of Noumenon's story.

Despite the familiary of the basic plot elements, the author does well to weave them into a story which is original enough, and sufficiently dramatic, to hold this reader's attention. There is a sequel, Noumenon Infinity, reviewed below.


Noumenon Infinity is the sequel to Noumenon. It takes an unusual form, in that it returns to the start of the original novel, with the Planetary United Missions (PUMs) being sent out to explore the galaxy; only this time, the story begins by focusing on Convoy 12 rather than Convoy 7.  This was originally due to be sent to a system which appeared promising as a home for life, but its mission was changed to one of testing new discoveries in subdimensional space travel, with the prospect of much reduced journey times.  This work was undertaken not far from Earth, close enough for the crews to be changed regularly, so the self-sufficient culture  of the other convoys was not needed and only three ships were sent out. The lead character in this mission is Vanhi Kapoor, and readers do get a decent opportunity to get to know her and her immediate colleagues as the first chapter lasts for no less than 84 pages; once again, a rather slow start to the story.

Chapter 2 is entirely different as the scene switches to Convoy 7, which we last saw in Noumenon, heading outwards from Earth for a second time and intent on completing the Web, the huge structure almost enclosing a star, in the hope that it will supply vast quantities of energy which could be transported to Earth in a specially-equipped spaceship (an oddly vulnerable and impractical source for an energy supply, I would have thought). The key individual now is Caznal, who specialises in the history of the people now dubbed the Nataré, who had explored the Web long before Earth and left behind an enigmatic structure, the Nest, now aboard one of the Convoy 7 ships. A schism in the convoy occurs, with part of the PUM being diverted to explore the Nataré sites identified on a map they had managed to interpret, while the main body continues on its mission. Again, this is a long chapter, enabling the characters to be well-developed.

Chapter 3 reverts to Convoy 12, which is exploring some intriguing sub-dimensional features when an accident hurls the mission a long way from Earth – and into the company of several alien starships. A fascinating combination of diplomatic mission and detective mystery follows as the Convoy members do their best to discover as much information as they can about the decidedly uncommunicative aliens.

As the pace of the stories increases, so the chapters gradually shorten while retaining the alternation between Convoys 7 and 12. Various intriguing plot developments maintain the reader's interest, while Convoy 7 at last achieve their goal (850 years after events in their previous chapter!) and commence a mad chase across the galaxy to discover what the Web was really made for, while Convoy 12 make a breakthrough in their relationship with the aliens.

The novel ends with  a clear set-up for Volume 3 – which I hope will appear before too long!