Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The People That Time Forgot, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 3
Pages: 153

The People That Time Forgot is the second of three books that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about Caspak. The three books are best read together (so I hear), but I had no trouble reading this one out of order.

Caspak is a land populated by beasts and men from Earth's prehistory: dinosaurs, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and cave men. Caspak is a huge island in the Antarctic Sea; the coasts are vertical cliff walls, completely cutting the island off from the rest of the world. Volcanic activity heats Caspak and maintains a year-round tropical temperature.

Tom Billings leads an expedition to Caspak to rescue his friend Bowen Tyler, who was stranded in that savage land. Billings scouts the terrain in an airplane, and meets with disaster: he is attacked by a pteradactyl and crashes into the jungle. Then he rescues a native girl from a band of savage apes, and together they make their way to the land of the Galus, where Billings hopes to find Bowen Tyler.

On their way north to Galu, the girl (named Ajor) teaches Billings all about Caspak. It is home to beasts from all of Earth's lost ages. The complete evolutionary history of Earth is represented, with the oldest and most savage creatures living in the south of Caspak. The farther north one goes, the more advanced and developed are the denizens of the forest--and more advanced are the people.

For Caspak is peopled by multiple groups of ancient men. First, the Ho-Lu, who are mere apes. Next, the Apu, the speechless men. Next the Bo-Lu, or clubmen, followed by the Band-Lu (spear men), Kro-Lu (hatchet men), and finally, at the pinnacle of evolution, the Galu (rope men). The girl Billings rescued, Ajor, is a Galu.

The most curious thing about Caspak is that the men themselves evolve. The Galu do not have children; instead, the most advanced Kro-Lu evolve and become Galu. Similarly, the Band-Lu become Kro-Lu. And so forth, with each tribe being made up of risen members of the tribe below it.

"[The Band-Lu] are no longer my people," To-Mar replied proudly. "Last night, in the very middle of the night, the call came to me. Like that it came into my head"--and he struck his hands together once--"that I had risen. I have been waiting for it and expecting it for a long time; today I am a Kro-Lu. Today I go into the coslupak" (unpeopled country, or literally, no man's land) "between the Band-Lu and the Kro-Lu, and there I fashion my bows and my arrows and my shield; there I hunt the red deer for the leathern jerkin which is the badge of my new estate. When these things are done, I can go to the chief of the Kro-Lu, and he dare not refuse me."

The basic question is: where do the Ho-Lu come from? Do they have babies? This question Burroughs does not answer--but he leaves clues. The precise nature of the curious accelerated evolution of Caspak is revealed in the next book, Out of Time's Abyss.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Masters of Everon, by Gordon R. Dickson

Rating: 3
Pages: 244

Everon is a newly colonized planet. The planetary ecology is still adapting to the introduction of Earth plants and animals. In addition to fruits and vegetables, two species of livestock have been brought from Earth: wisent, the European bison; and eland, a large African antelope. The native Everon wildlife is hostile to the newcomers. In particular, the maolot, a giant Everon cat, routinely destroy herds of wisent.

The story begins when Jef Robini arrives on Everon to study the maolots. He hopes to gain some understanding that will unravel the mystery of the native Everon wildlife. The key to Jef's research is Mikey, a maolot that Jef has raised from a cub. Mikey has lived on Earth nearly all his life, and Jef intends to watch Mikey as he is reintroduced to his home world.

Jef has another agenda, though. His brother William disappeared on Everon many years ago and is presumed dead. Jef intends to locate his brother's grave, if it exists.

As Jef disembarks at the Everon spaceport, he meets Martin Curragh, a fellow passenger. Curragh mysteriously helps Jef get Mikey through customs. (It takes about half a page to figure out that Curragh is Jef's brother William, whom Jef completely fails to recognize.)

Once on Everon, Jef and Mikey set out into the wilderness. As they hike, Jef gradually becomes aware that he is psychically connected to Mikey. The connection grows stronger and Mikey becomes more familiar with Everon. Soon, Mikey and Jef can communicate telepathically.

At the same time, Jef is learning that Everon is in civil war. The wisent ranchers are poisoning the eland, razing the forests, and expanding their herds onto the new swaths of grassland. The eland ranchers try to fight back, but the destruction of their forests is a terrible loss.

The conflict between wisent ranchers and eland ranchers is rendered moot when Jef finally understand what Mikey is trying to tell him. Mikey and his fellow maolots are part of a single living creature. All native Everon life is psychically connected into one planetary mind. The planet is a living creature; the maolots are its most advanced avatars, but every living creature is a part of Everon.

And Everon wants nothing to do with Earth-type life. Jef is on trial. If he can convince Everon that he deserves to live, he will be spared. If not, he and all Earth-type life will die. Dickson cleverly arranges it so that Everon comes off looking like the good guy, standing up against sinful, depraved humanity. I don't buy it. Everon is threatening genocide, and I'm supposed to believe that Everon is good and righteous? Everon is frightening. A hive mind that controls an entire world, that permits no individuality, that threatens genocide when it meets a form of life that will not submit to its control? Everon is evil.

Dickson supplies what he thinks is a happy ending: Jef proves his right to live by using his newfound powers of telepathy to reach out to a wisent, drawing it into rapport with himself. He reaches back and draws on racial memories of ancient times, when cave-man and paleo-wisent existed together in a primitive form of collective consciousness. But I don't think it's a happy ending. Everon let humanity live, but only because it has decided to reshape humanity into a group consciousness like itself. That is no victory for mankind. It means the death of mankind, the loss of individuality, and the subjugation of the self to the collective.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Long Night, by Poul Anderson

Pages: 310

These are some of Anderson's best stories. Dominic Flandry does not appear in any of them. Coincidence? Maybe not. Instead of the same old Flandry, we get to see other characters. For example, John Ridenour, a man who loves his wife and stays faithful to her even when he is thousands of light-years away on an alien planet. It's refreshing.

The cover of my paperback copy states: "Van Rijn saw [the Long Night] coming. Flandry lived through it." Who writes this stuff? Trained apes? Flandry most certainly did not live through the Long Night. Flandry lived in the waning days of the Terran Empire; he foresaw the Long Night and worked to delay it. He did not live through it. The Long Night began a hundred years or so after his death, and lasted for millennia.

  • The Star Plunderer: After the fall of the Polesotechnic League and the Commonwealth, Earth is sacked repeatedly by the Gorzuni. Manuel Argos, a slave serving on a Gorzuni ship, hijacks the spaceship and lays waste to the Gorzuni home world. Then he founds the Terran Empire.

  • Outpost of Empire: In the waning days of the Terran Empire, the agricultural planet Freehold is in turmoil: the Nine Cities are fighting their Arulian slaves, as well as the wild human outbacker population. Imperial agent John Ridenour spends some among the outbackers, and realizes they are the Empire's best bet for holding Freehold as a strong outpost against Merseia. The problem is convincing the Empire to overlook the fact of their rebellion.

  • A Tragedy of Errors: After the fall of the Terran Empire, Roan Tom tries to land his spaceship on an unknown planet. The native humans are unnaturally hostile. Eventually they discover that this is due to linguistic miscommunication--both Roan Tom and the locals speak Anglic, but the language has shifted enough to make proper communication problematic.

  • The Sharing of Flesh: A scientific expedition to a barbarous lost colony finds a race of men where every culture practices cannibalism as part of a male puberty ritual.

  • Starfog: The lost colony of Kirkasant contacts the Commonalty--but cannot navigate find its way home. Ranger Daven Laure helps the expedition search for its home. They narrow the search to a thick, metal-rich globular cluster, but the heavy interstellar gases and the overcrowded riot of variable stars makes navigation impossible. Unless the cluster is seeded with millions of beacons to aid navigation, Kirkasant will never be found.

Monday, August 20, 2007

More Things in Heaven, by John Brunner

Rating: 3
Pages: 221

The Starventure is Earth's first hyperdrive spaceship. When Starventure returns from her maiden voyage to Alpha Centauri, impossible things start happening. Colossal ethereal monsters appear suddenly in the skies, and vanish into nothingness just as rapidly. Violent solar radiation storms hit the Earth, despite the sun being in the low part of its cycle. And the UN is withholding all information about Starventure and her crew.

Reporter David Drummond, whose brother is on Starventure, has experiences a more personal surprise: before the Starventure crew returns to Earth, David sees his brother Leon on Earth. David investigates relentlessly, and finally convinces General Suvorov to tell him the whole story. Starventure has returned, but the crew have been transformed into hideous monsters. Some unknown, possibly malevolent force, has converted the crew and given them new bodies--and the crew's bodies are on Earth, being used as vessels for these unknown powers. Faced with beings of such power, David feels helpless:
Suppose an ant, immensely proud of her race's vast public works, mastery of building techniques, and the art of farming and domesticating other insects, were suddenly to become aware of the existence of man: she would feel very much as I felt now.

David agrees to hide the truth, and to feed the public a cover story. And that is the weakest part of the book. There is no compelling reason to deceive the public. The public's reaction to the sky-monsters proves they will not panic. No good reporter would agree to play part in a vast conspiracy to deceive the public for no good reason--particularly when so many people are privy to the secret that the truth will leak out within weeks if not days.

The real mystery of More Things in Heaven is: who or what changed the crew, and why? The answer is interesting enough. Earth's universe--the Einsteinian universe--is a special case of the real universe, the hyperspace universe. Humanity has been condemned to its bubble of Einsteinian reality because of some crime it committed, eons ago. The crime is long forgotten by mankind; the hyperspace creatures are watching mankind, to see whether it will choose to emerge from exile and join the greater universe.

It's a satisfactory answer, and I almost gave the book a score of four. However, the flaws--particularly the deception of the public--ring untrue. More Things in Heaven scores a three.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2007

Pages: 240

Surprisingly, my favorite story in this issue is pure fantasy. I stayed up until 1am reading Dead Money. The poker stories in it are engrossing, although any real enthusiast will probably be disgusted. How often does a straight flush happen anyway? (Although, in Texas Hold Em, maybe it happens often enough. I got one once. I remember the cold chill that gripped my body when the final card was turned over and completed my hand.)

The Rocket into Planetary Space is disappointingly dull and tame. The River Horses isn't bad, but I'm tired of Steele's Coyote stories. Of the others, all are fantasy except End Game (which is interesting) and Fifth Day (which is just insulting to anybody religious.)

  • Novella: The River Horses, by Allen M. Steele - A Coyote story. Marie and Lars are exiled and sent out to chart an unexplored portion of Coyote; the savant Manuel Castro accompanies them. Marie meets some settlers and helps found a town; Lars is attacked by river horses.

  • Novella: Dead Money, by Lucius Shepard - A sickly professional poker player who bursts onto the scene is an undead zombie reanimated by voodoo magic.

  • Novelette: The Rocket into Planetary Space, by William Barton - A private expedition to Jupiter's Fore-Trojans strikes oil.

  • A Small Room in Koboldtown, by Michael Swanwick - A locked-room murder mystery directs suspicion on the building's haint janitor, but it's a frame-up.

  • Wolves of the Spirit, by Liz Williams - The keeper of Baille Atha lives alone and guards the selk; she nearly falls in love with a visiting hunter, but her knife Iskir identifies him as vitki.

  • The Eater of Dreams, by Robert Silverberg - A man who eats the nightmares of the queen is sickened when he realizes the scenes of destruction lie in Earth's future, not its past.

  • Lilyanna, by Lisa Goldstein - A librarian is haunted by the spectre of a woman from the 1930s.

  • Distant Replay, by Michael Resnick - An old widower meets a young woman who looks exactly like his wife did 50 years before.

  • End Game, by Nancy Kress - A scientist finds a way to eliminate mental static, thus allowing total concentration on a task. The condition is contagious.

  • Always, by Karen Joy Fowler - A cult lead by Brother Porter promises immortality, but one by one, the adherents lose faith and die; eventually only one faithful believer remains.

  • Fifth Day, by Jack McDevitt - A brilliant scientist dies, and his unpublished papers reveal the answer to how life on Earth began.

  • Green Glass, by Gene Wolff - Alien abductees liken their position to bugs trapped under a green glass bottle.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tanar of Pellucidar, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 2
Pages: 250

Tanar of Pellucidar is another perfunctory Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, which is to say it's exciting but forgettable. In the hollow inner-Earth world of Pellucidar, David Innes rules over a savage empire. His empire is attacked by mysterious pirates called Korsars. Tanar is taken captive. He wins a reprieve from death by promising to teach his captors the secret to gunpowder.

Tanar has no intention of teaching them to make gunpowder. Instead, he escapes with the lady Stellara, an Amiocapan woman who grew up among the Korsars. They have numerous adventures, are recaptured, escape again, are recapture, escape again, etc. As so often happens to ERB's characters, Tanar and Stellara fall in love but don't realize it until it's nearly too late.

The most interesting villains are the Coripies, known in Amiocap as the Buried People. These subhuman fiends live underground and feast on human flesh. No one captured by the Coripies has ever escaped--until now, of course.

Tanar of Pellucidar doesn't hold a candle to any of the Barsoom stories.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tomorrow Might Be Different, by Mack Reynolds

Rating: 3
Objectionable material: Economic blasphemy
Pages: 190

The Premise: The Soviet experiment is successful. The communists lagged behind America for several decades, but during that time they sowed the seeds for success. In America, success bred a generation of decadent hedonists; in the Soviet Union, a generation of hardworking communist scientists and engineers grew up to inherit a self-sufficient nation with a well-planned economy and an enormous industrial capacity. They quickly outstripped the rest of the world.

The Man: Mike Edwards, noted American economist, works as a tour guide in Spain, showing Russian tourists the rustic sights of Europe. Edwards is lucky to have a job; the Russian industry is so far advanced that nobody can compete. Russia floods the markets with superior products at rock-bottom prices, and destroys whole industries at a whim. Robbed of the ability to compete in the marketplace, the Western world is perpetually in economic depression.

The Problem: The Soviets only flood the markets to earn a few quick dollars for their tourists to spend. If Soviet citizens stop taking holidays abroad, the USSR will stop selling its products, and the rest of the world will have a chance to break out of depression.

The Plan: The United States government is grasping at straws to end the Soviet stranglehold on the world economy. Agent Frank Jones approaches Mike Edwards and asks him to suggest ways of stopping tourism. Edwards suggests they use religion: start a religion that teaches moderation and shuns ostentatious displays of wealth--like traveling abroad. Thus is born the Old Time Religion Church.

Bishop Michael J. Edwards: Edwards is made a bishop in the new religion. He starts his ministry in the States, then sends missionaries to Moscow. The religion spreads like wildfire. After decades of atheism, the Russians are starved for some meaning in their lives.

Dirty Jokes: The economics in Tomorrow Might Be Different are laughable, so it's no surprise that Mack Reynolds is a socialist. Ah well. It's still an interesting book. Just when the seriousness of it all gets too much, Reynolds livens it up with a dirty joke about Cinderella. The book never takes itself too seriously.

The Soviet Problem: The biggest punch line of the book comes when the Soviet government figures out that the Old Time Religion Church is an American plot. Andrei Zorin, dictator of the Soviet Union, interrogates Edwards. "Will the Old Time Religion Church really work? Will Russians really become straight-laced and puritanical?" Yes, Edwards replies. Then Zorin reveals his own problem: Russia is being overrun by tourists from Communist China. With the Soviets' promiscuous ways, Zorin figures his entire country will be Chinese within a generation. Russia's only hope is the Old Time Religion Church and its emphasis on sexual restraint.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A Stone in Heaven, by Poul Anderson

Rating: 3
Pages: 234

Here's a Flandry book with a twist: Dominic ends up with the girl. That is fitting; in A Stone in Heaven, Admiral Flandry is older, wiser, and less callous in his treatment of others.

But he's still Dominic Flandry, saviour of the Terran Empire. This time, the mystery is on Ramnu, a cold heavy planet where Miriam "Banner" Abrams is studying the sapient autochthons. Ramnu is entering an ice age that will kill the natives. Banner appeals to the Duke of Hermes to save the Ramnuans. He refuses.

His refusal is unexpected; the cost would be little, and the public relations gain would be significant. Even curiouser: the Duke goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent Banner from appealing directly to the Emperor.

Banner appeals to Admiral Dominic Flandry for help. Flandry suspects the Duke, Edwin Cairncross, is plotting to overthrow the Emperor. Ramnu holds the only evidence, so Flandry and Banner sneak off to the planet to gather what information they can. There they are aided by the Ramnuan natives, most particularly by Yewwl, the Ramnuan female that Banner has developed a close friendship with.

A Stone in Heaven is one of the better Flandry books. Poul Anderson has developed one of his most alien races. The Ramnuans are unlike any human culture. Unlike some of his other books, where Anderson's aliens are modeled on human cultures, these aliens are unique.

My copy of A Stone in Heaven is massively illustrated by Esteban Moroto. There are nearly a hundred black-and-white line drawings. Sadly, there isn't much you can do with black-and-white. Many of the drawings are unrecognizable blobs. Grayscale pencil drawings would have been better, but the printing costs would have been prohibitive for a mass market paperback.

The book also contains an essay by Sandra Meisel entitled The Price of Buying Time. It explores the fall of the Terran Empire, and examines the Empire's clash with Merseia, and draws parallels to Earth history.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Agent of the Terran Empire, by Poul Anderson

Pages: 282

The best part of Agent of the Terran Empire is the afterward by Sandra Meisel.

  • Tiger by the Tail: Flandry is kidnapped by the Scothani, an upstart empire with ambitions of ruling the galaxy; Flandry manipulates the Scothani factions and turns them against each other before they can mount an effective strike against the Terran Empire.

  • The Warriors From Nowhere: An unidentified raiding party attacks Fort Lone on Varrack, and kidnaps Her Highness Lady Morgan, granddaughter of the Emperor. The clues point to Merseia, but Flandry suspects Duke Alfred of Tauria.

  • Honorable Enemies: Flandry meets his match in Aycharaych, an alien sapient who can read minds. To defeat him, Flandry's consort Aline tricks him into believing the Empire is planning to occupy Betelgeuse, goading Aycharaych into taking premature action.

  • Hunters of the Sky Cave: A mysterious fleet besieges the planet Vixen. The obvious clues implicate the Ymirites, although the hydrogen-breathers have no reason to concern themselves with oxygen-based races. Flandry travels to Vixen, runs the blockade, and works to infiltrate the alien organization and discover who is behind the well-timed attack on the Empire.

  • Lurex and Gold: Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry Series, by Sandra Meisel: A broad overview of one of the greatest SF series of all time.