Friday 26 March 2021

Born of the Sun, edited by Mike Ashley


The British Library’s series of classic SF anthologies is now growing into a substantial resource which is well worth acquiring by anyone with an interest in the roots of SF. The format is now well established: the introduction by editor Mike Ashley sets the stories in their historical context and he supplements this with brief biographies of the authors at the start of each story. 

Born of the Sun (subtitled Adventures in Our Solar System) has one story set on (or near) each planet of our system - except Earth. There is even an imaginary one - Vulcan. The chosen stories were generally written when there was sufficient uncertainty over the physical characteristics of the planets to allow authors to exercise their imaginations, some more freely than others. It comes as something of a surprise to be reminded how recently some discoveries have been made: Pluto was only found in 1930; until the mid-20th century it was thought possible that Mars had a breathable atmosphere; Venus was thought to be a watery world until the mid-1950s; and Mercury was believed to be tidally locked to the Sun (with the same hemisphere always facing the Sun) until 1965. The cloud-covered worlds of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune still attract imaginative writers to consider what kind of life might be able to survive there, although the larger moons of these worlds are also favoured, presumably as they seem to be more manageable and less hostile. 

Sunrise on Mercury by Robert Silverberg (first published 1957). This is one of the “tidally locked Mercury” stories, with an impossibly hot sun-facing surface, a brutally cold dark side, and a narrow band in between in which human technology can function. If any life were able to exist on this planet, it would bear no relationship to “life as we know it, Jim”, as demonstrated by Silverberg.

The Hell Planet by Leslie F. Stone (1932). For half a century, beginning in the middle of the 19th, it was believed that an undiscovered planet orbited the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury; it was dubbed Vulcan. The orbital irregularities which had prompted the search were subsequently explained by Einstein’s work, but that didn’t stop some writers being attracted to this notion.  This story falls into the “planetary romance” category, with humanoid natives living in dense jungle. Incidentally, the author was a woman, despite the spelling of her name.

Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcey (1954). A small child is found abandoned on Venus, a world colonised by mankind although the air was barely breathable. The child turns out to be very mysterious indeed.

The Lonely Path by John Ashcroft (1961). Longer and more ambitious than most of the stories in this collection, this concerns a team of explorers on Mars who are focusing their research on a vast, ancient and clearly artificial tower. Much dedicated cogitation is necessary to persuade the tower to give up its secrets and the adventure that follows opens up the history of the planet.

Garden in the Void by Poul Anderson (1952). Pushing the boundaries here, Anderson imagines what must be the smallest of celestial bodies to have generated visible (i.e. not microscopic) life in the Asteroid Belt. 

Desertion by Clifford D. Simak (1944). This is the original short story which was later incorporated (with a modified ending) into Simak’s classic novel; City. Humanity has established some precarious bases on the surface of Jupiter, and is trying to colonise it by converting humans to “lopers”; native animals. However, every one who has undergone the change leaves the base, never to return. Eventually, there is only one thing left to try.

How Beautiful with Banners by James Blish (1966). A rather poetic short story concerning an unexpected “romance”, set on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Where No Man Walks by E.R. James (1952). Diamond mining on Uranus, where conditions are so extreme that the remotely controlled mining machines have a high wastage rate. Sometimes, only a human there in person can get the job done. 

A Baby on Neptune by Clare Winger Harris & Miles J. Breuer (1929). A fascinating story with an unusual combination of elements - some very unscientific, others remarkably advanced. In this story, every known planet except Neptune has its own intelligent life form, and there is an interplanetary communication system - but physical travel  has not been attempted.  Earth scientists eventually work out that as communications take much longer the greater the distance from the Sun, messages from Neptune are too slow to be recognised unless they are considerably speeded up - similarly, the Neptunians don’t pick up Earth messages as they are much too fast. Once this problem has been corrected and communications are established,  it is decided to attempt a physical journey to Neptune. This runs into a related chronological  issue, and it is fascinating to follow the reasoning of the human visitors in resolving the problem.

Wait it Out by Larry Niven (1968). A short, punchy story concerning an exploration of Pluto which goes wrong, and how one of the crew decides to survive until rescue can arrive.

The usual interesting mix of stories, of which my favourite is Ashcroft’s Martian exploration - in the best traditions of classic SF.

Saturday 6 March 2021

For the Good of All, by Ian J Ross


This novel has had a most unusual gestation. The author, a journalist, describes his experience of major heart surgery in 2015, followed by post-operative complications which led to three weeks in a coma. He had been warned by the surgeon that some memory loss might occur, which was surely an understatement. On returning home, he checked his laptop and discovered the text of this novel. He had written it in a seven-week period not long before his operation, but had no recollection of doing so. I received a publicity email from the publishers - something I normally ignore - but in this case I thought the plot sounded interesting so they supplied me with a copy to review.

So, what is it about? It is set in present day England and features Steve Diamond, a thirty-something unemployed journalist who has terminal leukemia. Fortunately, he has two loyal supporters; his girlfriend Noreen, and Toby, a life-long friend who works at the Porton Down government research centre. Toby is increasingly fed up with his job and intends to leave, and one day after rather too much alcohol has flowed he reveals the big secret he has been working on: a mysterious device of World War 2 invented by Wernher von Braun and known as Die Glocke (the bell). 

[I should say at this point that, not taking any interest in conspiracy fantasies featuring mythical Nazi wonder-weapons which could have changed the course of the war, I had never heard of “Die Glocke” but a couple of minutes on Wiki told me all I needed to know.]

Anyway, in this story Die Glocke is a large bell-shaped machine with room for one person to sit inside. It has a complicated control panel, a mysterious power source and its function is not obvious. After the war, it was found and transported to the USA and von Braun provided some information about it, but much remained mysterious. An experiment revealed that it was a time machine; but one which was lethally dangerous to travel in, the only person who tried it dying of leukemia not long afterwards. There were also major concerns about the risks of inadvertently changing history, so when the British government expressed interest in examining the machine, the Americans were relieved to be rid of it, which is why it is now sitting in a secure store at Porton Down, under threat of destruction.

Steve realised that as he had terminal leukemia anyway, he was the obvious person to try it.  He particularly wanted to extend the lives of two of his heroes who had died young: Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. He reckoned that he could do this without any dire consequences, acting “for the good of all”. He discovers, however, that life is not as co-operative as that…

I noted a couple of coincidences involving other books I have read recently: one is V2 by Robert Harris, in which Wernher Von Braun is a major character; the other is Mark Lawrence's Impossible Times series, in which the protagonist also has cancer and is also involved with time travel. Fortunately, the plot of that series is entirely different from Ross’s story, but one other comparison is the writing style. Ross and Lawrence both write very well in a similar style, with a thread of sardonic humour lightening what could otherwise be depressing tales.  Put it this way; if you enjoyed Impossible Times, which I did - very much - then I predict that you will like this one. Ross’s story takes its time to get going and is always more philosophical than action-orientated, but that is an observation, not a criticism. It held my attention from start to finish and I’m certainly hanging on to my copy for another read sometime.