Judgment Night, CL Moore

judgmentnightJudgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
Review by admiral ironbombs

This was what the loss of civilization really meant. For the first time the full impact of the Galaxy’s great loss overwhelmed her. So long as she could see those lost worlds she might hope to win them back, but to be struck blind like this was to lose them forever. She knew a sudden agony of homesickness for all the planets she might never see again, a sudden terrible nostalgia for the lost, familiar worlds, for the fathomless seas of space between them. Ericon’s eternal greenness was hateful, strangling in its tiny limitations.

‘Judgment Night’ (1943)
The ancient Lyonese empire is looming towards disaster; the barbarian hordes of the H’vani have been razing planet after planet as they head towards the heart of the empire, Ericon. The aging emperor is preparing for peace talks to stave off the carnage, but his daughter Juille disagrees with him, urging no quarter against the barbarian hordes. After a spat, she storms off to the artificial pleasure planet Cyrille to interact with “normal people” under a disguise, where she meets the mysterious Egide; the two have a whirlwind romance, but something about Egide puts Juille on edge. Returning home, she finds her plot to kill the H’vani ambassadors has failed – and Egide himself is the nominal leader of the H’vani. Infuriated, she attempts to shoot him, only to find herself a H’vani hostage. And unknowingly, she may have set in motion unstoppable events that could doom humanity.

‘Judgment Night’ isn’t quite a full novel, in reality a serialized novella, but it’s got a lot packed into it as you can see – and that’s leaving out quite a lot of details, such as the godlike Ancients who put forth wisdom and lies to their supplicants, or the envoy from the now-conquered planet Dunnar who offers a mighty weapon to fend off the H’vani. Moore’s typical prose, lush and poetic and brimming with imagery, is at its full-blown glory. There’s quite a lot of moody ambiance and quiet introspection, just as there’s some brilliant action pieces – Juille blasting apart a planet with a lightning-gun was priceless. The story has a good balance and great flow, though it could drag at times when the focus became more internalized.

Also, it’s a real downer, a poetic examination of what could be humanity’s downfall – if you haven’t noticed, the story’s got a strong “barbarians against Rome” feel taken to the extreme, because this war could be the apocalyptic doom of all humanity. (Granted, the ending is a dose of cautious optimism, at least for our two main characters who reach tranquility as the world around them burns. But the atmosphere and general message are tense and pessimistic.) I’m curious how it slipped under the radar to get published in Astounding, since it runs counter to editor John Campbell’s belief of homo sapiens superior. As I see it, ‘Judgment Night’ is a brutal indictment of war… and by proxy, human nature, which inevitably leads humanity to the conflicts which doom itself.

I’d like to say that Juille is a strong, independent female protagonist, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate; she is independent, but also headstrong, stubborn, more the spoiled brat of an interstellar empire then a sympathetic character. She acts out of her own selfish motives which causes no end of trouble for her, and taking matters into her own hands sets up the story’s despondent climax. And, by the end, her love/hate relationship with Egide has eroded down to just love. Still, she’s an active protagonist and the driving force behind the story; a lot of Moore’s fiction – especially the Northwest Smith and Jirel tales—have the protagonist just standing around while things happen to them. Not so much with Juille, who knows what she wants and goes after it with strict tenacity. She reminds me a lot of Moore’s earlier Jirel of Joiry, only more fiercely passionate.

‘Judgment Night’ is a perfect display for Moore’s biggest stylistic themes, as evident in her Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories as they are here:

  • A barely-contained sensual element lurking just beneath the surface. In this case it’s the duplicitous seduction between Juille and Egide on the pleasure-planet Cyrille, which sets off a love/hate relationship that builds steam throughout the novel. Love and death go hand in hand in Judgment Night as well, an interesting allegorical pairing… very Romeo and Juliet.
  • Paranoia and duplicity. None of the characters’ motives are obvious, and twists and double-crosses are frequent. At one point, Juille’s mind runs wild as the betrayed girl imagines adversaries around every corner; at another, she’s physically put in a paranoid, tense situation, during a game of cat and mouse as the she’s hunted by the well-armed Jair, who himself is not what he seems.
  • A miasma of grim unease which oozes forth from the story. The tone and atmosphere of Judgment Night forecasts a future disaster, a feeling that something is going to happen, and that that something will be terrible. A distinct melancholia where, despite the positive, hopeful elements within the story, the atmosphere is pervaded by a pessimistic mood.

‘Judgment Night’ is the epic space opera to end all space operas. Highly entertaining, if a bit slow at times, rich in imagery and backed by a brilliant premise. One of those requirements for the reader interested in Golden Age SF, it really ought not to be missed. I was surprised to find the story wasn’t really a full novel, falling closer to short novel/novella territory. As an added bonus, the original Gnome Press version – as well as the shiny new Singularity & Co. ebook – feature four additional stories, so there’s plenty more material to read.

‘Paradise Street’ (1950)

The explorers and the drifters and the spacehands are misfits mostly, and, therefore, men of imagination. The contrast between the rigid functionalism inside a spaceship and the immeasurable glories outside is too great not to have a name. So whenever you stand in a ship’s control room and look out into the bottomless dark where the blinding planets turn and the stars swim motionless in space, you are taking a walk down Paradise Street.

Jamie Morgan blasts onto the planet Loki with a cargo full of Sehft valued at 50,000 credits, only to find the market has bottomed out thanks to new ability to synthesize the substance. Morgan, a caustic loner, is already angered; his intense hatred of the settlers that come in his wake and inhabit the planets he opens up was set off as soon as he saw the humble Ancibel Station here on Loki. Now that his valuable cargo is worthless, and desperate for the credits, he turns to the criminal underworld to unload his goods. Bad choice; Morgan is too used to dealing with isolated, open worlds and not conniving career criminals.

‘Paradise Street’ reads more like a frontier western with its parallels of pioneers against settlers. There’s a country sheriff, a ton of Western jargon, and the climax includes the stampede of local alien cattle. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the author had cranked out an unsellable western – or maybe just re-used one of their old ones – and, after bolting on some futuristic gadgetry, submitted it to Astounding on a whim.

But this is Catherine Moore, and you can tell the allusion is intentional; her lyrical prose is more down-key but her writing is still exemplary, and it rises above to subvert the “western as sci-fi” cliche. The story’s focus is on civilization versus the rugged frontier, and it’s pretty engaging; I can see why it was picked up by Astounding. A solid tale, considering. It’s one of the longer entries in the collection, and a sharp contrast to ‘Judgment Night.’

‘Promised Land’ (1950)
Mankind’s attempts to colonize the planets have become based on decades of genetic manipulation and selective breeding, with the idea to use those created to adapt as first-line colonizers. After some centuries of terraforming the planet, they will have evolved their way back to become baseline humans, while developing their planets’ ecosystems along to allow unaltered humans to live there, paving the path for human space colonization.

Some of the attempts fail miserably, like Torren, product of generations forced to live in a centrifuge to gain the musculature needed to survive on Jupiter (what, it’s written in 1950): Torren himself cannot lift his great mass at all, forced to live in a water tank suited to his gigantic bulk. Others are wild successes, like the colonizers of Ganymede who can survive to its harsh, frozen climate and oxygen-less atmosphere thanks to their functioning genetic modification.

Torren is now the ruler of Ganymede, “the only child of the centrifuge to get out and stay out;” now the bitter old man wants to move forward ahead of schedule and terraform Ganymede early, making it hospitable for baseline humans while killing off all the Ganymedans in one fell swoop. His adopted foster-son, Ben Fenton, is the only thing standing in his way: tired of his foster-father’s brutal tendencies and in love with a Ganymedan woman, Ben refuses to let the entire Ganymedan race be slaughtered.

Brilliant idea behind the story, though it is itself very straightforward space opera. Also, somewhat short. There’s an epic showdown between Torren and Ben, and a variety of intrigue working in the background, but it’s free from major action set-pieces; mature and thoughtful for standard space opera fare, with a great surprise ending. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though its brevity gives it some jerkiness, unevenness, and its ending’s lack of finality makes me wish it had been a novella or serial. Alas, it’s not; I’ll make due.

‘The Code’ (1945)
A pair of scientists muse over their recent development – a special formula, in part deciphered from the works of ancient alchemists, which can rejuvenate its imbiber, returning their youth. Their subject is the one scientist’s aging father, brought back from the brink of terminal illness. As he grows younger, they realize how he’s changing, body and mind, and watch in abject horror as the situation develops. An exceedingly slow burn, very much a thinker, that revisits the old legend of the changeling babe, with a lot of thought put into the alchemists and their philosophy.

Kind of a modernization of Faust with overtones of Lovecraftian dread, I thought the story more fitting of a 1930s issue of Weird Tales than an issue of Astounding in its heyday; interesting overall, but far too passive. Not much happens on a physical level, and it mostly consists of the two protagonists sitting around at various times, discussing the changes wrought in their subject. Still, while it’s my least favorite in the collection so far, its wealth of ideas outshines its motionless pacing.

‘Heir Apparent’ (1950)

He shook his head at the bright world in the sky. He would have to get over the habit of regarding the heavens as a chart with a glittering pinhead for each planet, and so many thousand Thresholders, ex-Earth-born, bred for the ecology of alien worlds, pinned up there upon the black velvet backdrop for study and control. It wasn’t his problem any more.

We return to the future of ‘Promised Land’ with its modified humans exploring the galaxy, but are now dealing with Edward Harding. Ed used to be a member of an Integrator Team, a band of seven special-forces-esque humans who are “integrated” via a machine to perform terraforming duties. (They also gain latent superhuman abilities due to the mutations inherent in the process.) Ed, recently booted off the force, is tracking down one of his old adversaries – Mayall, another ex-Integrator who was booted off the team by Ed. Rumor has it that Mayall’s forming his own Integrator team, on the payroll of Venusian or Ganymedan seccessionists. Ed will join, kill Mayall, or die trying.

A twisty-turny tale with plenty of suspense and intrigue, this is one of those tales where you’re never sure who is on who’s side. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, as well as one (arguably) the most fast-paced—”Heir Apparent” leaps forward in its tangle of betrayal and subterfuge, reaching twist after twist without any sign of slowdown. And as the capstone of the collection, it’s good that the tale is so strong: in my opinion it’s one of the strongest of the shorter works on display, and a perfect way to end the collection. Be ready for numerous surprises and a complex future, which can make things enjoyably confusing.

When these works were first collected for their 1952 Gnome Press edition, they were meant as a definitive collection of CL Moore’s modern science fiction stories, working as a solo author without any of the collaborations she wrote with her husband, Henry Kuttner. I would argue that the definitive collection of Moore’s work would have to include some of those collaborations, as well as some of her earlier Weird Tales fare like ‘Shambleau’ or ‘Black God’s Kiss’.

But what this collection sets out to do, it does well: a selection of her better works from ’40s-’50s issues of Astounding. ‘Judgment Night’ is the obvious best here: it’s longer, thematically deeper, beautifully written, and is so far the best display of Moore’s writing I’ve read. The other stories are interesting, but not required; I preferred ‘Promised Land’ and ‘Heir Apparent’ though all were readable.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.

Advertisements

Beyond the Gates, Catherine Wells

beyondBeyond the Gates, Catherine Wells (1999)
Review by Paul Kincaid

There is a rumour to the effect that science fiction is a fresh, forward-looking, innovative literature. This is, of course, all false. Science fiction is old and weary, forever picking over its own bones, preferring some petty variation on what has gone before to anything approaching novelty. Beyond the Gates by Catherine Wells is an object lesson in how to wring as much variation as possible on a tired theme without once daring to be new. Wells’s previous novel, Mother Grimm, was a finalist for the Philip K Dick Award; for the sake of the award one can only hope that her talent has taken a nose-dive in the interim, or else the judges faced an extraordinarily lean year. Certainly there is nothing in this new book that might excite the interest of a judge.

Which is not to say that this is a dramatically bad book. It is highly competent, smoothly written, hits all the right buttons in more or less the right order; if there is a formula for a novel that will be pleasantly entertaining to the many and not too upsetting to the few, then Catherine Wells has found that formula. If her prose singularly fails to reach any of the poetic heights that her chosen manner of storytelling would seem to demand, then at least it contains no outright horrors. The trouble is, the whole thing is too smooth, there is nothing to snag in the memory, five minutes after closing the book you would be hard put to name anything which distinguishes it from a thousand other novels ploughing more or less the same furrow.

This is the old, old story of science versus religion; and as practically always happens in science fiction the odds are stacked in favour of science. Science, after all, provides the drama, the motivation, the charming central character; all religion does is serve as the force of repression and provide the baddies who are trying to hold the good buys back. Ah, but that doesn’t begin to do justice to the planet-building-by-numbers that Wells is practising here. Let’s see: you have an entire planet given over to one religion; and since the planet is largely a desert world, the religion is inevitably a clone of Islam. Since this is Islam in all but name, then there must be unthinking obedience to strict rules of religious observance, and of course an oblique way of phrasing everything, that Americans seem to think is de rigeur when presenting a Moslem-like religion. Since you have unthinking obedience to strict rules, then the people who enforce those rules, the mullahs (they’re not quite called that but that’s what they are), must be corrupt and are keeping a big secret from the world. Since the religious masters are corrupt, then it is the absolute duty of science to be heroic and defy convention and chase knowledge come what may. And since this is another story of how good science inevitably defeats bad religion, the results of that pursuit of knowledge are of course unfailingly positive: science would never introduce anything dangerous that might upset a peaceful and prosperous world, no siree.

In this instance, science is represented by Marta, a graduate student who discovers a dead dinosaur on one of her field trips. The only trouble is, there isn’t supposed to be anything like a dinosaur in this planet’s native fauna. So she organises another expedition, this time bringing in a scientist from off-world, who turns out to be cowardly, impetuous and more concerned with personal glory than the service of science. Unfortunately, Marta’s sponsor has a rival, who organises a rival expedition with a rival off-world scientist. This scientist turns out to be not only the galaxy’s greatest expert in his field, but also a super-competent soldier, the sort of muscle-bound figure who could win a war singlehanded and not break into a sweat (science fiction writers sometimes seem to have a very peculiar notion of what scientists are like). Of course, Marta manages to outwit the super-soldier, but this is only the start for their discoveries lead them to the forbidden continent (there always has to be a forbidden continent), which the not-quite-mullahs have always claimed is barren. What secret are they hiding? Will the self-serving scientist reveal his true colours and put everyone else at risk as a result? Will Marta and the super-soldier join forces and make the great discovery that changes the world forever?

What do you think?

This review originally appeared in New York Review of Science Fiction 140, April 2000.

Millennial Women, Virginia Kidd

millwomenMillennial Women, Virginia Kidd (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

The mid-1970s appears to have seen a brief surge in interest in sf by women authors – not just this anthology, Millennial Women; but also Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder trilogy (1975 – 1978), a series which would not be repeated until twenty years later. Though long-deserved, it’s hard to know what triggered this interest. Ursula K LeGuin had won the Hugo Award in 1970 for The Left Hand of Darkness, the first woman to do so; and she won again in 1975 for The Dispossessed, only the second female-authored book to win. In 1977, Kate Wilhlem won; and in 1979, Vonda N McIntyre… and books by women writers have won several times ever since – three times in the 1980s, five in the 1990s, and three in the  first decade of this century. It’s by no means parity, but it’s a huge improvement on earlier decades – prior to 1970, only two women had ever been shortlisted for the best novel Hugo: Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1963 and Andre Norton in 1964.

Kidd’s introduction in Millennial Women provides no clues to her motive for putting together the anthology. She gives a few comments on each of the six stories – one is actually a short novel – but there is little real discussion of the role of women in the science fiction field, except this:

But what seems to me one of the most impressive aspects of the collection is that all of these science fiction writers avoid hard-core science fiction for sociology, soft-pedal radical feminism for humanism, and write about women simply as women. (p 3)

Which, if anything, reads like a shot across Joanna Russ’s bows. And it’s certainly true that the contents of Millennial Women are not in the least bit radical. They are, in fact, well-crafted science fiction stories very much in keeping with the less-pulpish elements of the genre of the time. If it was known as “social science fiction” back then – either to distinguish it from sf involving space battles and such, or simply to differentiate it from sf written by men – the label is no longer used, and any need to hold it apart from heartland genre sf has long since vanished. But that quote does feel a little like it’s feeding into the stereotype of women writers in science fiction: “unlike men, they only write a particular kind of sf (which you might like)”. This is nonsense, of course. True, not all women sf writers wrote “radical feminist” sf, but it is deeply unfair to characterise what they did write as “social science fiction”, no matter what characteristics it shared with other subgenres. As Russ herself described it in How To Suppress Women’s Writing: “she wrote it, but she isn’t really [a science fiction writer], and it isn’t really [science fiction]”.

So, it should come as little surprise that the stories in Millennial Women cover a number of subgenres of science fiction, from near-future (mundane) sf to that involving galaxy-spanning spaceships. The various focuses of the stories are no different to what might be expected in any other non-themed anthology of the time, irrespective of the writers’ genders. Perhaps the fact all the stories feature female protagonists might have been considered notable in 1978 – though, in truth, Le Guin’s takes a chapter or two before settling on its eventual female protagonist – but to a modern reader, there’s nothing remarkable in it. Nor should there be.

To be honest, ‘No One Said Forever’ by Cynthia Felice doesn’t even actually read as science fiction, and it’s slightly baffling that it would be considered genre – even in 1978. Carol and Mike are both working professionals – he is a miner, she works for a computer company. And now she’s been offered a contract in Antarctica which she cannot afford to turn down. Neither wants to give up their careers, nor are they keen on separation. Eventually, they reach a solution, but it’s a dilemma predicated on attitudes and sensibilities which no longer hold sway (mostly), and so makes the piece feel bizarrely dated rather than futuristic.

‘The Song of N’Sardi-El’ by Diana L Paxson, as can probably be guessed from the presence of an apostrophe in the title, is much more blatantly science fiction. The narrator is a xenolinguist aboard a merchant ship which is rushing to the world of Cithal in order to be the first to sign a lucrative trade deal with its natives. They also have aboard several survivors from the lifeboat of another ship that was destroyed by aliens while leaving their world. One of these survivors is a young girl who’s suffering from nightmares. The narrator befriends her and then discovers that her ship was destroyed leaving Cithal, and that the girl can speak the native language, Xicithalian. As a result, the traders are well-prepared when they arrive on Cithal. And then the girl recognises the alien repsonsible for the death of her family… The title refers to a Xicithalian epic poem, and its story allows the narrator to use the aliens’ culture to demand concessions and open trading.  There’s nothing untypical about ‘The Song of N’Sardi’ and it would not look out of place in pretty much any sf anthology. Its focus on xenolinguistics does not make it “social science fiction”, though it does it in parts read a little like a story from an earlier decade.

‘Jubilee’s Story’ by Elizabeth A Lynn is post-apocalypse. A group from a women-only settlement stop off en route to another in a tiny hamlet, and find a pregnant young woman close to term. Her husband is afraid she’ll die, so the travellers stay to help. But it seems the situation in the house is somewhat fraught – the husband’s brother claims the baby is his, and the father is an old school Christian fundamentalist, who calls the the young woman a whore and wants her gone. Events come to a head. The set-up may be science fiction, but there’s little in how the story plays out that makes it genre. It could just as easily have been set in some rustic part of the US and nothing would really need to be changed. When you wonder why a story has been written as science fiction, you have to sometimes wonder why it was written at all.

Older women do not appear very often as protagonists in sf stories, but that’s what the narrator of ‘Mab Gallen Recalled’ by Cherry Wilder is. She served as a medical officer aboard a starship, but now she has retired. Much of the story consists of an extended flashback, describing a scene in which she had to stabilise an injured person in the cargo-hold of a damaged ship. Also present was a lay preacher, and the narrator tries to stress on her the importance of not sacrificing her air in order to save the injured man. She does sacrifice some of it, of course. But they all survive. And the narrator thinks back on that lay preacher, and on a lover she saw defect to the other side, and she compares them to the fresh-faced young medical missionaries to whom she is about to speak.

‘Phoenix in the Ashes’ by Joan D Vinge is also post-apocalypse, but in this world South America has remained technological while North America has devolved to an agrarian society. A Brazilian is prospecting by helicopter in south-west USA for oil, when his helicopter crashes in California. Which is where a theocratic society descended from immigrants from further south now holds sway. The women are very much second-class citizens, especially Amanda, who refused to marry the man her father had arranged as her husband. She has been exiled from the family homestead, and now lives in a hovel on the family land, and weaves cloth to pay for food. The helicopter pilot did not die in the crash, though he was left for dead. Later he stumbles across Amanda’s hovel, and she takes him in and tends to his wounds. He has lost his memory, and can remember nothing of his life before. Eventually, they marry, and he introduces crop rotation to the local farmers – including Amanda’s father, which helps ease his entry into the family. Such societies are almost a staple of the genre, and while ‘Phoenix in the Ashes’ predates The Handmaid’s Tale by almost a decade, the two stories are not dissimilar.

‘The Eye of the Heron’ by Ursula K Le Guin is the longest piece in the anthology. It’s a short novel and this is its first appearance in print. It’s been subsequently reprinted as a standalone novel. In fact, Millennial Women was published in the UK in 1980 under the title The Eye of the Heron and Other Stories, with LeGuin’s name considerably more prominent than Kidd’s. In an interview in Whole Earth Review, LeGuin said of this story:

“While I was writing ‘The Eye of the Heron’ in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. “Hey,” I said, “you can’t do that, you’re the hero. Where’s my book?” I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn’t know how to write about women. I blundered around a while and then found some guidance in feminist theory. I got excited when I discovered feminist literary criticism was something I could read and actually enjoy. I read The Norton Book of Literature by Women from cover to cover. It was a bible for me. It taught me that I didn’t have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.”

Certainly the female protagonist is not at all obvious in the opening chapters. ‘The Eye of the Heron’ opens with an expedition returning home after exploring the wilderness. When the explorers reach their home village, they call for a meeting in order to describe what they’ve discovered. But one of the Bosses is also present, and he tells the villagers that they are to make no move without the Bosses’ approval – even though it is plan the villagers wish to found a new settlement elsewhere in order to no longer be in the Bosses’ thrall. This is an alien world, settled by two groups of people – the People of Peace, who live in near-poverty and perform peasant labour; while the other live in luxury from the fruits of the first group’s labours. It’s such a polarised set-up that it’s hard to swallow. The Spanish Colonial feel to the world only helps obscure that this is a new world, and not some colonial period in Earth’s history. At least if it were the latter, there’d be the weight of history to justify the blatant inequality of the society, and bolster the arrogance of the Bosses. The desire by the People of the Peace to found a new colony away from the Bosses precipitates a confrontation, made worse by the Bosses’ plans to open new areas locally for farmland – or, as they see it, plantations with themselves lording it over People of the Peace labourers. Caught in the middle of all this is Luz Marina, the daughter of the head of the Bosses. She doesn’t want to marry the man her father has picked out for her, nor does she want to be like her married friends. When she learns of plans by a new troop of musket-armed Bosses’ sons to attack the People of the Peace, she runs away to warn them. And ends up staying, further throwing the two groups into conflict.

‘The Eye of the Heron’ is perhaps a more blunt story than LeGuin typically writes. The People of the Peace are so committed to their ideals, it seems a miracle they’ve survived as long as they have. The Bosses insist they represent “law and order” and so must be obeyed, but you can’t help wondering whose law and order they represent, and why they should be obeyed given they’re outnumbered. Indeed, the People of the Peace do practice civil disobedience, but a violent confrontation proves unavoidable (and incidentally is the event LeGuin refers to in the first sentence of the quote above). There’s perhaps a little too much suspension of disbelief required for ‘The Eye of the Heron’ to work as smoothly as it should – especially since, like some of the other stories in Millennial Women, it’s only really the setting that characterises the story as science fiction. Having said that, it’s clearly the best of the six stories in the anthology, and certainly bears rereading.

If the reasons for putting together Millennial Women are not entirely clear, the end result is still an anthology worth reading. Perhaps the other stories suffer somewhat in comparison to the LeGuin, but in other venues they would be more than strong enough to stand on their own. There is nothing genre-redefining or remarkable about Millennial Women. If anything, it amply demonstrates that labelling sf by women writers as anything other than sf does both women and the genre a huge disservice. There is no plausible justification for segregation, even if it takes a women-only anthology to prove it…

The Mile-Long Spaceship, Kate Wilhelm

wilhelmThe Mile-Long Spaceship, Kate Wilhelm (1963)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Kate Wilhelm, famous for her Hugo-winning masterwork Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), started her writing career with more modest works. The Mile-Long Spaceship collects some of her earliest short stories from the late 50s and a few written for the collection in the early 60s — Clone, her first novel, co-written with Theodore L Thomas would come out in 1965. However, her best sf was published in the late 60s to the mid-70s. Before then her work tended to be straight-forward with an occasional interesting idea or poignant scene but generally unremarkable….

Three stories are worth reading in this collection: an early work of feminist science fiction – ‘No Light in the Window’ (1963), a moody rumination on the claustrophobia of space travel – ‘The Man Without a Planet’ (1962), and an intriguing but underwhelming first contact story – ‘The Mile-Long Spaceship’ (1957).

Recommended for fans of Wilhelm who are curious about her earliest forays into the genre or those (like myself) who are obsessed with 50s + 60s sf. Less fanatical sf fans will be disappointed.

‘The Mile-Long Spaceship’ (1957): Telepathic alien explorers make mental contact (of the non-verbal kind) with an Earthman. Unfortunately, contact causes him to crash his car and end up in a hospital. In their moments of contact the telepaths “transport” him to a conjured mile-long spaceship. The aliens attempt to find out how to visit Earth by suggesting he watch various “films” on the “spaceship” in order for him to identify stars which might suggest Earth’s location. But the Earthman doesn’t have much interest in astronomy, and assumes his delusions are a result of his crash…. A slightly atmospheric tale — but lacking wonder.

‘Fear is a Cold Black’ (1963): Wilhelm’s take on sf/horror is a slightly claustrophobic tale but plods over old ground. An interstellar space cruiser is stricken with a mysterious illness after investigating an abandoned spaceship wreck. The passengers are transformed by their fear: “Giroden making plans for his funereal pyre, Perez creating an enemy to be destroyed, even poor Custens, the least imaginative man on the ship, theorizing that the thing traveled with the food, depriving himself of the sustenance hoping to forestall further spread” (p21). Soon, the true nature of the disease is discovered and the captain has to make a controversial decision to save the crew.

‘Jenny with Wings’ (1963): A downright silly fantasy installment better suited for the Romance sf subgenre — a girl born with wings is raised by her grandfather and scares off all the boys who fall for her when she reveals her wings. They either think she’s an angel and start praying or want to sell her to the circus for some quick cash. She gets word of a nice doctor who cares for others with strange abnormalities (for example, people who sleep underwater). Her doctor’s office visit is filled with sexual tension as the doctor inquires about her life and examines her. She admits she is not well versed in the ways of sex — the doctors reveals (well, in an early 60s manner) that there are other positions. When she flies off to meet her “love” she discovers his true intentions…. Thankfully, there’s someone who really understands her. And they fly off together. A single word comes to mind, “lame.”

‘A is for Automation’ (1959): A sinister tale that ultimately fails to deliver. An automated factory — whose brain center is named Sarah — creates robotic toys. A government inspection arrives to see whether the facility is safe, if it is there’s the possibility of a lucrative Defense Department contract. Old Man Mike, kept on the payroll for goodwill purposes alone due to the automated nature of the factory, detects some strange occurrences but no one believes him — one better not “teach” Sarah too much or “she” might try to reproduce…

‘Gift from the Stars’ (1958): An unscrupulous urban developed wants to get his grubby hands on an entire city block… Unfortunately for him an electronics store with ridiculously low prices is the only business that won’t leave. Mr Talbot is convinced the store is a front for a racket of some sort — he breaks his watch on purpose in order to get the opportunity to scout out the place — he discovers, a (wait for it), “gift from the stars”. A simple, predictable, alien presence on Earth type short story with similar theme to ‘The Mile-Long Spaceship’ — mankind is too stupid, self-centered, and ignorant for first contact.

‘No Light in the Window’ (1963): Easily the best story in the collection…. A thought-provoking work of early feminist social science fiction dealing with relevant themes — in this case, the ramifications of careers on marriage. Connie, a biochemist, and Hank, an astrophysicist are recently married. However, looming over their shoulder is the possibility that both of them will not be selected for one of the few positions on a colonizing spaceship. Hank is calm and convinced that he’ll be going along with his wife. However, Connie is convinced that she will not be going and struggles to digest the potential ramifications for her marriage. Surprisingly, she is selected for the mission and Hank is not….

‘One for the Road’ (1959): A commentary on cold war paranoia, which strangely retains the “scientists are idealists that wouldn’t dream of hurting others” narrative instead of complicating said narrative. The scientist remains guiltless while the public is simply a paranoid mob needing guidance. Massive riots spread across the world due to a badly edited radio broadcast that claimed that the radioactivity due to atomic testing overseen by scientists would cause most people to die from cancer (the proper context removed entirely from the broadcast). Of course, science comes to the rescue before the rioting gets out of hand. A story weakened by its naive message… Of course, when the true ramifications of nuclear testing became known to the American public such stories would be strangely out of place…

‘Andover and the Android’ (1963): Roger thinks women are “simpering females” and would never dream of getting married. However, if he doesn’t get married he won’t get promoted to the vice-presidency of a company. So, he marries a robot. And falls in love with her…. A satirical take on 50s/60s views of women — humorous but far too slapstick for my taste.

‘The Man Without a Planet’ (1962): The second best story in the collection — a moody, psychologically taught story about the strains of a lengthy space voyage to colonize Mars. And, as the crew feels the effects of close quarters, seat thirteen with its strange occupant casts an aura of unease. This dark and contained rumination hints at the heights reached by Wilhelm’s later masterpieces.

‘The Apostolic Travelers’ (1963): A satirical tale about immortality… The Longevity Board on Earth randomly grants a few individuals every year immortality — all the others on Earth can live a prescribed 250 years. Two Brothers (of the monkish variety) of rather dubious standing are selected to appear before the Board in order to become immortal. The true downside of immortality is revealed but the monks agree anyway so that they can convert others for the faith… So they’re supplied with a FTL spaceship in order to prevent the overpopulation of worlds (if everyone could be immortal…).

‘The Last Days of the Captain’ (1962): The idea behind ‘The Last Days of the Captain’ is far superior than the forced/unexciting/dry delivery — Captain Winters is attempting to move all the colonist on a planet to the evacuation extraction point due to a suspected alien invasion. He holds the planet-bound colonists in low esteem — as do all spacers. However, he becomes personally responsible for moving to the extraction point a colonist named Marilyn, who is unsure whether her son and husband will get to the extraction point in time. Eventually, he overcomes some of his prejudice against the simple folk of the farms.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

A City in the North, Marta Randall

city

A City in the North, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

It sometimes seems that, at some point in their career, every Western science fiction author tries to write Heart of Darkness. For Marta Randall, that point came early – with her second novel, A City in the North. Though mapping Conrad’s themes of civilisation versus savagery onto a galactic stage now seems a trite and banal exercise, and literature no longer finds colonialism an acceptable subject, its appeal to genre writers of the 1970s and earlier is not hard to fathom. Science fiction is often about the supremacy of science and technology, and “primitive” cultures provided a cheap and easy backdrop against which to demonstrate this. Which is not to say that all such stories were lacking in subtlety or sensitivity. A City in the North is a story which treads a fine line between what was considered acceptable in the mid-1970s and what is considered acceptable in the 21st century, but is a surprisingly clever and subtle novel and a good deal better than any of its contemporaries based on the same theme.

Toyon Sutak and Alin Kennerin have travelled to the world of Hoep-Hanninah because Toyon has long had a dream of visiting the ancient ruins in the north of the planet’s only continent. The ruined city, Hoep-Tashik, is actually off-limits, but Toyon is a rich and powerful man and is sure he can sway the local authorities to give him permission. Hoep-Hanninah is a company world, administered by an ineffectual governor. It is also inhabited. The Hanninah are:

“squat, square creatures with long arms and bowed legs, covered with dark hair save for face, palms, soles, belly … Apes, they looked; apes, they walked, yet they had a name for themselves and their world, engaged in incomprehensible rituals, were sentient, aware of their own condition as living creatures on the way to death.” (p 10)

The humans find it impossible to believe that the Hanninah, who live a simple nomadic lifestyle, could have built Hoep-Tashik, and the aliens certainly refuse to explain themselves or describe their past. The Company employees on the world, seeing this, subsequently treat the Hanninah like either second-class citizens or clever animals – and that’s a narrative that’s all to sadly common in the real world.

Toyon gets permission to visit Hoep-Tashik, but only if he travels there by land. Meanwhile, Alin has been studying the Hanninah and appears to have some sort of unexplained affinity with them. The Company head on the planet, Haecker, has decided that Toyon and Alin are actually government spies, sent to discover what the Company is really doing on Hoep-Hanninah. When Toyon and Alin disappear from the governor’s house, having been offered a lift north by rogue Company driver Quellan, Haecker decides all three must be eliminated.

As the trio travel further north, they meet up with a tribe of Hanninah, and Alin begins to participate in their “incomprehensible rituals”. Clearly, the Hanninah are more than they appear to be. But Haecker is getting desperate, and he doesn’t care how many of the aliens die in his hunt for Toyon, Alin and Quellan.

There’s nothing new in the set-up of A City in the North, except perhaps the fact it’s set on an alien planet. The company outpost which rules a remote corner of some distant land has been a staple of both literature and cinema for decades. Throwing a pair of ingénus into the mix is par for the course. And as the story progresses, it is only expected that they should change just as much as their surroundings change as direct result of their appearance. Unfortunately, such stories are predicated on the superiority – not only technological, but also moral – of the intruders. They are played off against the company man, and the locals are typically little more than background colour. The plot of A City in the North, however, is very much predicated on the nature of the Hanninah. Haecker, the governor, Quellan, even Toyon and Alin, might well be stock characters, and they may be playing out a standard plot of Western literature, but it’s a plot that’s informed and progressed by the Hanninah themselves.

A City in the North is structured as a mixture of journal entries by Toyon and Alin, and tightly-limited point-of-view narratives by other members of the cast. Toyon is, perhaps, a bit of a cliché – the self-made zillionnaire who expects everything to go his way. Alin is better-drawn, with an interesting background – which, in fact, is used in Randall’s next two novels, Journey and Dangerous Game. For all that A City in the North may resemble a science-fictional Heart of Darkness, Randall has certainly put an interesting spin on her version, and that more than makes up for slight datedness in approach or sensibilities.

Marta Randall, a Mexico-born sf writer, seems mostly forgotten these days. While she only wrote six sf novels, published between 1976 and 1984, she was also the first female president of the SFWA. Judging by Islands and A City in the North, the two novels by her I’ve read to date, she deserves to be far better known. I can think of plenty of inferior writers of the same period whose books remain in print. If you ever stumble across a Marta Randall novel in a second-hand book shop, buy it. You won’t be disappointed.