Saturday 2 December 2023

The SFF Blog

 

To all readers of my blog: I have decided that this will be my final post. Not that I am about to expire in the near future (I hope) but I have become increasingly aware that my days are ticking by, so I need to focus on finishing the activities which are most important to me. 


When it comes to time spent in writing, a series of books on military technology take priority.  For the curious, details can be found on my website here: https://quarryhs.co.uk/ 


This does not mean I am forsaking fiction. I intend to continue reading novels old and new in various genres, and hope to participate in discussions in the Classic Science Fiction discussion group here: https://groups.io/g/ClassicScienceFiction/topics


I will leave my SFF Blog site as it is, for however long google lets it stay there: 

https://sciencefictionfantasy.blogspot.com/


Finally, I hope you enjoyed the SFF Blog. 

Basic data: 604 posts, from 28 June 2007 to 2 December 2023


Fare Well,


Anthony G Williams 


Friday 1 December 2023

 

Prospero’s Children, The Dragon-Charmer, and Witch's Honour, by Jan Siegel


After a couple of months devoted to stories about Atlantis, I've been reading a modern fantasy trilogy by Jan Siegel in which Atlantis is a major element. Unlike most trilogies, this one doesn't seem to have one over-arching title, just the three individual volumes: Prospero's Children, The Dragon-Charmer, and Witch's Honour, published between 1999 and 2002. 


They are mostly set in the present day Yorkshire Moors, apart from the scenes in Atlantis which are many thousands of years in the past, and also in various indeterminate places not locatable on any map. They tell the story of Fern (Fernanda),  a teenage girl who gradually discovers that she has magical powers - she is a witch. This means she has considerable value to powerful magicians who want her for their own nefarious purposes. Fern gets caught up in ferocious magical battles which lead to her being thrown back in time to Atlantis, just before it is destroyed by its internal conflicts. She acquires allies, both in Atlantis and Yorkshire, most notably Ragginbone and his werewolf companion, Lougarry,  and with their aid manages to return home. That's Prospero's Children, which can be read as a stand-alone.


The next book, The Dragon-Charmer, picks up the story a dozen years later, by which time Fern has been making progress through life with the discreet application of her witch powers. She is still being sought by inimical beings, who between them have acquired control of a dragon, a being of devastating power. Again, the action is divided between present-day England and certain other dimensions in which Fern's enemies reside. 


The final book, Witch's Honour, sees Fern further tested, leading up to the climactic battle, after which she seems to have won - but has she?


It is difficult to do justice to this story. Just describing the plot makes it seem trivial. In fact, it is a powerful tale not really suitable for children, and it contains some of the most beautiful writing that I can recall reading. The following extract is just one example: 


They lay in the cave while outside the tide rose and fell, and Fern thought that in this life and maybe in all lives she would remember that love sounded like the sea, and the beat of her heart was waves on a beach, and she would hear its echo in the nucleus of every shell.


As the blurb for the third volume says:

Witch's Honour concludes the lyrical, richly atmospheric and enthralling tale begun in Prospero's Children and continued in The Dragon-Charmer. Spellbinding in its depiction of places both familiar and strange, it is classic English fantasy at its finest.


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Wednesday 1 November 2023

 

The Lure of Atlantis (part 2) Edited by Michael Wheatley


Resurrected:


Once in a Thousand Years by Frances Bragg Middleton (published 1935).  The Editor has some fun with this one, first in exploring the genuine identity of the author (usually identified as female but, the Editor believes, probably male). Identifying the source for the basic plot is easier, being inspired by the poem The Lemmings by John Masefield (helpfully included in the text) which concerns longing for the unattainable. 


A group of young men goes for a night-time swim in the Sargasso Sea. One of them, Shane O'Farrell, does not return. Three years later he reappears, greatly changed both physically and mentally. With some reluctance, he is persuaded  by one of his friends to give an account of his adventures - in the land known as Atlantis, among very superior people. This is rather more than a simple adventure story, though. O'Farrell starts talking about some "principles of heredity"; among them the idea that if two people were both physically and mentally identical, then they would share memories. Eventually, O'Farrell has to choose between remaining with the Atlaneans or returning to his life in our present. 


Child of Atlantis by Edmond Hamilton (published 1937). A honeymooning couple are shipwrecked when their yacht crashes into a large island which suddenly appeared in front of them. It turns out that the island is inhabited by survivors of other shipwrecks, who explain that it is impossible to escape since the island is ruled by "the Master", who can exert mental control over the islanders. The Master turns out to be a massive and ancient metal robot, apparently invulnerable.


Reimagined:


The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune by Robert E. Howard (published 1929). A very different style of fiction from the ones seen so far, best described as being within the "sandals, swords and sorcery" fantasy sub-genre. The plot centres on King Kull of Valusia, a powerful and successful monarch who is now becoming bored with life, as "he hears no more the sea-songs heard as a boy on the booming crags of Atlantis". He is approached by one of the girls at his court  who advsises him to seek out Tuzun Thune, a wizard of the Elder Race who lives in Valusia in the House of a Thousand Mirrors. All things are known to him, she says, all of the secrets of life and death, for "he speaks with the dead and holds converse with the demons of the Lost Lands". Eventually Kull is tempted to seek out Tuzun Thune and to look into the mirrors which cover the interior of his House. They show him first a view of the past, populated with archaic monsters, and then of the future, "when the Seven Empires are crumbled to dust and are forgotten. The restless green waves roar for many a fathom above the eternal hills of Atlantis". There is even a helpful sequence: "Ere Atlantis was, Velusia was, and ere Valusia was, the Elder Nations were". Kull becomes fascinated by the mirrors, spending his days staring into them, until he begins to doubt his own existence and very nearly falls into a trap set for him. Rather to my surprise, I found this to be the most interesting and philosophical of the stories in this book.  


A Voyage to Sfanomoë by Clark Ashton Smith (published 1931). Smith was a prolific SFF writer, principally of short stories, many of which are grouped into "cycles", or related families of tales.This one belongs to the Poseidonis cycle, several stories concerning "a great island adjoining the main continent which itself had vanished a vast period before, sank down beneath the waves", the island being the last remnant of Atlantis.  Two brothers, Hotar and Evidon, are faced with the loss of their home due to flooding, and with their advanced knowledge of astronomy seek a remedy to this on another planet. The one they choose is Venus, known to the Atlanteans as Sfanomoë, and the brothers begin the process of designing and building a spacecraft to travel there. They arrive after a journey of many years, and find a wild land with no trace of civilisation, but with spectacularly beautiful flowers with disconcerting capabilities.


Spawn of Dagon by Henry Kuttner (published 1938). This one is an early version of the "sword and sorcery buddy" stories, with a mismatched pair of rogues taking on the Dagon-worshipping evil monsters of the deep in order to defend Atlantis from destruction.


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This is a rather more varied collection than most in the British Library's Tales of the Weird anthologies, and provides some remarkable contrasts. This can only reflect a tiny proportion of the published works on the topic - a quick scan of the amazon book store revealed well over a thousand volumes with Atlantis in the title.


The continued interest in the subject is demonstrated by a recent Netflix series Ancient Apocalypse, which argues the case for regarding the myth as being based on fact. Sadly for the romantics among us, professional archaeologists overwhelmingly disagree.



Thursday 5 October 2023

The Lure of Atlantis (part 1) Edited by Michael Wheatley

 

This is one of the British Library's ever-growing collections of mostly forgotten short stories and extracts from novels, all focused on particular themes. They have recently been concentrating on "Weird Tales" which consist mainly of fantasy and horror stories. This anthology, consisting of ten stories, is subtitled Strange Tales of the Sunken Continent and is devoted to the tale of the marvellous island civilisation which was drowned in ancient times. A review copy was sent to me by the Library.


In Wheatley's introduction, he makes the point that the Atlantis myth has proved remarkably durable considering that there is only one ancient source for it: the Greek philosopher Plato, who lived about 2,400 years ago. Since then, countless stories featuring the fabled land have emerged. Different authors have taken different approaches to such stories, and Wheatley has chosen to identify four categories, which he lists as follows: 


Atlantis Rediscovered (deep sea encounters with the vestiges of a drowned civilisation)


Atlantis Revisited (journeys through time via the memories of Atlantean ancestors).


Atlantis Resurrected (what if Atlantis had never been lost, but remained hidden by design?)


Atlantis Reimagined (experimental tales of Weird Fantasy, tentacled cultists, and Atlanteans in space.


The ten stories, and my thoughts on them, are as follows:


Rediscovered


 A Submerged Continent, by Jules Verne (from his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, written 1860-70. This episode from the author's famous novel is concerned with a walk along the sea floor by the two main characters - Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus and Professor Arronax, using an advanced aqualung system. After seeing numerous sea monsters and other strange sights, the pair come across a vast area strewn with the ruins of a huge city - Atlantis. Added drama is provided by a continuously erupting submarine volcano providing illumination. Verne typically provides a sciency-sounding commentary explaining how the volcano can burn underwater.


I recently tried re-reading 20,000 Leagues for the first time in half a century but was disappointed with it. Despite the fact that Verne was essentially an SF rather than fantasy writer, with a mission to educate as well as entertain, in my view he did not pull this off quite as convincingly as he did in Journey to the Centre of the Earth reviewed here previously.


The Lure of Atlantis by Joel Martin Nichols Jr. (published 1925). In contrast to Verne, Nichols firmly planted his flag in the fantasy field. This story concerns a search for Atlantis by two professors, Tyrrel and Randolf, who locate the island under the Sargasso Sea (which itself was regarded as mysterious at that time).  They discover a temple, still intact and containing the crystal tomb of the perfectly preserved Wynona, fabled daughter of the last king of Atlantis. This discovery prompts an intense rivalry between the professors and stimulates a battle in which semi-sentient Sargasso creatures become involved.  This tale is a curiosity rather than a must-read.


The Temple by H. P. Lovecraft (published 1925). For the benefit of readers who do not normally delve into the horror/fantasy sub-genre, Lovecraft (after a slow start)  is now recognised as among the foremost writers in this field. This story has an unusual setting, on board a German U-boat in the Great War, and the events which take place within it only come to light because of the traditional message in a bottle, released from the submarine. 


An explosion in the engine room strands the U-boat on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, virtually unable to move. The commander of the fictional U-29 is the source of some sardonic amusement; his name is given as Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, and he is the most arrogant and merciless character imaginable. He casually mentions machine-gunning lifeboats from the ships he had sunk as routine, and doesn't hesitate to shoot his own crew members if their performance is unsatisfactory (they are not real Germans - i.e. Prussians - after all). Unsurprisingly, a general mutiny follows, after which only the commander and his deputy remain alive - the deputy commits suicide shortly afterwards.


The vessel slowly sinks to the ocean floor and ruins become visible, gradually increasing in size and extent. The commander realises that these must be the ruins of Atlantis.The submarine gradually loses power, condemning the commander to await his fate in darkness. He observes a phosphorescent glow and hears wild music and demonic laughter, while he prepares to leave the vessel to enter a huge temple which is the focus of the light and sound. This is another rather strange story, in this case with relatively little in the way of obvious fantasy elements. The commander assumes that his experiences are symptoms of insanity until close to the end.


An internet search reveals that there was a UB-29 which served in the Imperial German Navy during 1916. Despite its short existence it managed to sink 36 ships in 17 patrols before being depth-charged. Even more curiously, the wreck of the UB-29 was discovered in 2017 "exceptionally well preserved and with the hull still intact". As far as I know, there have been no reports of imposing ruins being found in the vicinity...


Revisited: 


Under the N-Ray by Will Smith and R.J.Robbins (published 1925). Another change of mood, switching to a pseudo-scientific fantasy/horror theme. Madame Losieva, a medium, and Professor Ember, a physicist, have developed a method of reading the suppressed experiences of past ancestors and projecting them onto a screen via the mysterious "N-Rays". The story mostly consists of a public demonstration of this apparatus, preceded by much testing and explanation. 


The test subject is a reporter, Jack Hodge, who is hypnotised. Some of the scenes show him being tortured, others are in ancient Egypt, before the destruction of Atlantis is shown. As the N-Rays go further and further back in time, so the humans become more and more primitive, until the appalling conclusion.


The Lives of Alfred Kramer by Donald Wandrei (published 1932). More pseudoscience in this tale, this time focused on "Kappa Radiation", which allows an individual to "revisit the suppressed memories of past lives housed within their cells." A chance meeting on a train between the narrator and Alfred Kramer revealed a shared interest in psychology in general and dreams in particular. Kramer describes his discovery of Kappa radiation, which allowed him to visit a wide range of events from his cellular past, including the destruction of Atlantis. Just as with the N-Rays, the subjects gradually lost control of the process which raced backwards in time before reaching its ultimate conclusion.


(to be continued)



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Friday 1 September 2023

Slow Lightning by Jack McDevitt

 

To quote the blurb:


We are alone in the universe. After 1,000 years of searching humankind simply believes that there is nothing out there. Space is a magificent, but sterile, wilderness. That's the received wisdom, anyway. But a new expedition investigating a mysteriously aborted mission 27 years earlier is about to turn that wisdom on its head.


I don't normally quote other reviewers in my reviews but given the enthusiasm and identity of this one, I'm making an exception:


Jack McDevitt is that splendid rarity, a story-teller first and a science fiction writer second. In his ability to absolutely rivet the reader it seems to me that he is the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. If you've never read McDevitt before you couldn't find a better book to start with than Slow Lightning - a nail-biting neo-Gothic tale that blends mystery, horror, and a fascinating look at how first contact with an utterly alien species might happen.


Stephen King.


I have in fact read and reviewed half-a-dozen of McDevitt's other books here, namely the Priscilla Hutchins series (Slow Lightning is a stand-alone, published in 2000). While the author certainly has an inventive imagination, I am not quite as enthusiastic as King, since I find his writing style not entirely to my liking. If you are curious I suggest you look at my earlier McDevitt reviews. 


A couple of detailed points: I was intrigued by the author's suggestion that the reaction of humanity to the apparent lack of any other civilisation would be to lose interest in further exploration, with colonies gradually shutting down and being abandoned. It seems reasonable - if there is nothing there to see, why bother to go looking?


The other point concerns the book's title, as explained in the text:


The nearby nebula NGC2024, stretching for light years across the restless sky, was a kaleidoscope of bright and dark lanes, of exquisite geometry, of glowing surfaces and internal fires. Enormous lightning bolts moved through it, but it was so far that they seemed frozen in space. 

"Slow lightning," said Solly, "Like the mission."

Kim looked at the nebula. "How do you mean?"

"We've known for a long time that contact might eventually happen, maybe would have to happen, and that when it did it would change everything. Our technology, our sense of who we are, our notions of what the universe is. We've seen this particular lightning strike coming  and we've played with the idea of what it might mean for at least twelve hundred years. We've imagined that other intelligences exist, we've imagined them as fearsome and gentle, as impossibly strange and remarkably familiar, as godlike, as incapable, as indifferent. Well, I wonder whether the bolt is about to arrive. With you and me at the impact point."



Tuesday 1 August 2023

The Good, the Bad and the History by Jodi Taylor

 

Yet another volume in Jodi Taylor's Chronicles of St Mary's, The Good, The Bad and the History continues the story of Max the former historian and now bounty hunter, tracking down time-travellers who are trying to alter the past. The seriousness of the opposition steps up a gear with the growing strength of Insight, a mysterious organisation from the future with sinister aims, so Max arranges to be recruited in order to discover what they are up to. 


This is fully up to the standard of Jodi Taylor's other St Mary's books, with its unique blend of action, humour, and fascinating insights into the less explored corners of history. I enjoy the way that gags are scatter-gunned through the book (I particularly liked a new character, introduced as the Head of the Provisional Wing of the British Museum). The series is also educational; for every mission into the past the Historians research the culture and current affairs in detail.  I commented in my previous review on the quality of the descriptive writing. The author is skilled at bringing other times and settings to vivid life; smells, dirt, sewage, disease, brutal violence and all.


A word of warning - if you haven't read any of these books DO NOT start with this one. In fact, it is much better to start with the first volume and take it from there. The author doesn't usually bother with trying to keep her readers up to date. There is allegedly an extensive character list for each book but in practice I find that to be rather more frustrating than helpful (and managed an almost perfect failure rate this time - only one of the characters I looked up was actually listed)  However, do not be put off from getting stuck into these books. There are now 14 books in the St Mary's series (not including the Time Police spin-offs) and that represents a huge mountain of wonderful enjoyment. 


Saturday 1 July 2023

Flatlander by Larry Niven

 I doubt very much that anyone reading this blog is unfamiliar with the name Larry Niven. Starting in the mid-1960s, he wrote or co-authored scores of novels, mostly "hard" SF, and mostly fitting into one or more of several universes which he developed (many of the series being interlinked). His stories are always very readable, full of intriguing ideas and leavened with a sardonic sense of humour. His most famous novel must be Ringworld which emerged in 1970 and won several awards (including an informal one from me, as being one of my top three SF novels - for the record, the other two are Bester's Tiger Tiger and Herbert's Dune). As far as I can recall (I have about twenty of his books, but there are many I haven't read) all of Niven's stories are set in the future, but some are much closer to our own times than others, with the adventures limited to the Solar System. The "near future" ones are often collectively known as Tales of Known Space. Flatlander is a subset of these, with the subtitle The Collected Tales of Gil "The ARM" Hamilton. It should be noted that this collection first emerged in 1976 under the title The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton but was modified and added to in 1995, being reissued as Flatlander. This is the one I am reviewing here, with five stories which are effectively episodes in the life of Gil. For the sake of completeness I should add that, according to Wiki, another story in this series (Sacred Cow) was co-authored by Steven Barnes and published in 2022, but there seems to be some query about it. To add to the confusion, one of the stories in Flatlander - The Patchwork Girl (see below) - is also the title of another anthology which includes this story.


The world of Flatlander is one in which humanity has spread throughout the solar system, but with very different cultures: the "Belters" who normally live in the asteroid belt and make a living from mining the asteroids, the "lunies" who live on the Moon, and the "Flatlanders" who live on Earth.


Gil Hamilton was born a Flatlander but moved to the Belt to make his fortune. He loses an arm in an accident and after some months returns to Earth where replacement body parts are much cheaper. In the meantime Gil discovers that he has acquired a psi power: he retains a connection with his lost arm and can manipulate light weights with it, an ability which remains with his "ghost" arm even after he has aquired a replacement  genuine item. He decides to join the United Nations Police, known as the Amalgamation of Regional Militias or ARM, which in conjunction with his psi power inevitably gave him the nickname of "Gil the ARM". It also provides the framework for these stories, which are all murder mysteries which Gil has to solve.


There is one quirk which runs through all of the societies in these stories - medical science has advanced to the point that body parts damaged by injury or disease can be replaced without risk of rejection. In fact, the demand for replacement parts is much greater than the supply. As a result, an illegal trade in body parts develops (known as "organ legging"), and in due course the legal system is changed to permit disassembling criminals for their body parts, with the offences carrying the death penalty becoming ever more trivial.


The five mysteries which Gil has to resolve are:


Death by Ecstasy in which a former mining partner of Gil's dies through "current addiction" in which an electric charge is delivered directly to the pleasure centre of the brain, so powerful that the victim starved to death - but was it suicide or murder?


The Defenseless Dead in which organ-legging and its implications are explored in depth;


ARM, in which the invention of a kind of time machine facilitates new ways of committing murder;


Patchwork Girl, in which Gil gets involved in an international conference on the moon and is faced with solving a murder which seems to have only one simple solution - but one which would result in a beautiful woman being reduced to a collection of body parts;


The Woman in Del Ray Crater, in which a long-lost body is discovered in a crater of the moon; the problems here include intense radiation from fusion power plants and the shielding technology being developed.


In an interesting Afterword, Niven comments on the problems of combining SF with a murder mystery, and how the stories came to be written.


These are all very good stories, and as a collection make a great introduction to Niven's work.


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