Archive for the ‘aliens’ Tag

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Explanatory Note

While organizing files associated with previously published work, I came across material that originally served as a prologue for The Courage to Accept, the fourth book in the War of the Second Iteration series. It was removed when I decided against making Andrew Kester a viewpoint character in the story. Something of what follows was ultimately incorporated into The Courage to Accept, when Kester explains to Jan Costa how he came to possess the answer to a major question regarding the Faceless. The following “deleted scene” gives the full story of how Kester first encountered the Faceless, and glimpses the horrifying truth about the nature of the enemy.

This offering – developed from that discarded prologue – will of course be of most interest to those who have read the War of the Second Iteration, just as a deleted scene included as a DVD bonus feature makes more sense after you watch that movie. I hope readers as yet unfamiliar with these books will enjoy it all the same. Better still, may it motivate you to give these books a try.

Either way, and as always, thanks for reading!

Thomas Watson

The Traitor and the Faceless

Andrew Kester sat on the gray cot, feet on the dull, scuffed floor and bald head bowed between hunched shoulders. The walls of his cell were a dull gray. The lighting in the cell had a flat, lifeless quality that he believed was incapable of casting shadows. Certainly, there were none beneath the toilet and sink that were the only other furnishings. The expression on his blunt, square face was as bleak as his surroundings, that of a man no longer young, holding inside himself a toxic mix of resentment, betrayal, and guilt.

Sorry, Jimmy. I should have followed your plan. Thought I saw a way to fix it all. Should have known better. You were always the smart one. I let you down.

Kester tried not to, but really had nothing better to do with his time than dwell on his failure. He would never have the chance to make that apology in person. He would never again live outside the facility holding his bare cell. For Kester, this was an article of faith. He believed it implicitly and absolutely. When he had inquired as to his trial date, the prison staff actually laughed. Kester took that to mean there would never be a trial, fair or otherwise. He expected to live what was left of his life in this dull, gray place, marooned out on the edge of civilization.

For Kester’s prison was near the fringe of known space, the far side of what star charts of the Republic labeled The Rift. Between the facility and the Republic was a zone in which stars, and their associated trans-dimensional nodes, were very few and far between. Outward from the prison was the sparsely and recently settled frontier of the Trans-Rift sector. All of this he knew because he had, very early in his career, been assigned here as part of an interrogation crew. He’d recognized it as soon as he was brought on board. The prison station itself had no proper name, just the designation RDF DET 1167. Of his current situation, this was all Kester, formerly a Commodore in the Republic Defense Force, knew for certain. His black-clad keepers would tell him nothing more. Grim people, those who managed the facility. Men for the most part; that there were women on the crew was no source of comfort, for they were as hard as their male colleagues. Harder at times. They spoke to him only when necessary, giving directions and issuing orders. If he resisted those orders, stunners were used. Once had been quite enough, on that count.

Kester had long since given up trying to draw people out and gain news of the universe beyond the dull gray bulkheads. He wanted very much to know what was going on. His overreach at the Pr’pri Star System had failed horribly and drawn the RDF fleet into the attempted coup, which they promptly brought to an end. Kester most wanted to know how things had fallen out in the Disputed Zone between Leyra’an space and the Republic, seeking clues to the fate of his friend James Calavone, instigator of the failed coup. He didn’t dare ask about Calavone. The Republic surely knew by now that their most wanted criminal was still alive and well, but Kester was damned if he would give even the smallest clue that might lead to Calavone’s arrest.

Somehow, Kester had survived the debacle that should have gone into the history books as the Last Battle of Pr’pri. His preference would have been to die with his ship, the redoubtable heavy cruiser Vengeance. An injury during the last desperate battle with the Leyra’an ship Han’anga had left him helpless, and some compassionate fool had made sure he was stuffed into an escape pod before the Vengeance transformed herself into a cloud of plasma when her engines blew up.

The RDF had taken him, whisked him deep into the Republic, not to put him on trial but to keep him somewhere safe and available for interrogation, until they decided what to finally do with him.

Somewhere safe.

Three times on the long journey to this prison out back of beyond, someone had tried to kill Kester. The three would-be assassins had died by their own hands when they failed. Kester had no doubt they were sent by James Calavone, and he really didn’t blame his friend.

Let you down, Jimmy, Kester thought as he contemplated his fate. Screwed up everything we worked for.

For not the first time, Kester was sorry the assassins had failed.

The temptation to take out his old adversary, Kr’nai Ersha, had simply been too great. Kester had been so certain it would work, and at first his plan had unfolded perfectly, delivering on his obligations to Calavone while putting Kester in just the right place to give him that moment of personal triumph. His task force had been on the point of overwhelming the defenses of Pr’pri Star System, when the RDF arrived. How had they known? How could they possibly have known? Kester was convinced he had been betrayed, and was equally certain he would never know the answer to the questions of culprit and circumstances.

Now he was slowly being driven mad by boredom, locked in a bland, gray world of gray clothing, gray food, and gray steel, populated by gray-clad prisoners and prison guards wearing unadorned black uniforms. Kester sat on his bunk, leaned his head back against a cold steel bulkhead, and sighed. He knew the time of day from the clock outside his cell, but had no idea what day it was, or the exact date and year. He was coming untethered in time, and that seriously bothered him for some reason.

The station’s daily cycle was as rigid as it was perfectly predictable. Which was why Kester was startled when he looked at that clock behind the officer on watch, out at the monitor station of the solitary confinement block. Lunch was late. It almost counted as an event worthy of note. Hard as these people were, they were also efficient, and things always happened the way they intended, when they intended. Delays of any sort were not tolerated by Commandant Worley. As Kester roused himself from his funk to consider this oddity, the lights flickered. They blinked again, and then the station’s general alert sounded. Kester came to his feet just in time to see the guard on duty rush to the door to the main corridor.

“Hey! What’s going on?”

There was no answer. Kester saw people hurrying through the corridor, briefly glimpsed beyond the man in the doorway. There was a muffled exchange of words, then the watch officer stepped out into the corridor, closing the door behind him.

 The alert siren continued to wail and the lighting system dimmed and brightened twice more, then flickered rapidly before returning to a normal steady glow. A feeling of something not being right rose up in him, and almost at the same moment Kester understood why. The usual steady breath of fresh air circulating through the cell had been stilled. The ventilation system had failed. Only the ear-pop of decompression could be more alarming to one who had spent a life in space.

“Hey!” he yelled again, hoping the electronic monitor systems were still functioning. When no response came, he shook his head and turned to sit back down. Whatever the emergency, there was nothing he could do but sit quiet and conserve his strength. And his breath.

Kester hadn’t quite settled when the door to the solitary confinement block retracted and three men rushed into the outer room. Two clutched rifles in white-knuckled hands and stared back out into the corridor. The third was Commandant Quint Morley, who had a sidearm drawn and ready, and wore a grimace of stark fear on his normally round, bland face. “Morley! What the hell’s going…”

Morley punched something on the vacant duty station. He looked at Kester and said, “Out!”

The bars slid away on Kester’s right even as Morley barked the order and Kester stepped out of the cell. Before he could react to the abrupt change in his situation, Morley headed out the door and into the corridor at a trot. The troopers with him hesitated just a moment, and Kester took his cue, following Morley at the same pace. It was immediately obvious that the armed men following him were far more interested in what might be behind them than in what their prisoner might do. Which made no sense to Kester, and more than anything else to that point worried him.

“Morley, what’s this all about?”

“Keep moving, Kester! Just keep moving! I’m damned if I’m leaving anyone to those fiends. Not even you.” All of it said without so much as a backward glance.

“What in God’s name is…”

“God has nothing to do with this!” Morley snapped.

They jogged through an intersection. From the passage on his left Kester heard weapons firing and voices raised in fear and anger. Morley led them straight on, and spoke into the com unit fastened to his collar. “Jepson, status! Good, you only need to hold the bastards a few more minutes. Davis will be ready to blow that deck any time now. Davis? Don’t make me a liar, Davis. What’s your status? Right, okay, it’ll have to be enough.”

Kester’s alarm was swept away by a cold rush of adrenaline. Blow a deck? Last resort for a station being boarded. It sounded like they were fighting for their very lives.

Morley was still talking. “Peterson! Transport One, status? Good! We’re on our way. Palmer has the rest of the prisoners on their way to you and Transport Two. Jepson! Fall back to the core, now! Meet us there and we’ll take the VIP launch.”

They turned a corner and flat-out ran the short distance to a lift station. Kester didn’t hesitate, but matched their pace. He was beyond asking questions. His gut told him they were on the edge of disaster, even if he didn’t understand the cause. From the right, down the corridor that fronted the lift station, came a dozen men and women, all of them with rifles. Two of them wore prison garb.

“Right on our asses, sir,” the leader of the group said between gasps of breath. “Not a lot of them, but they’re here.”

“Don’t take a lot of them,” muttered one of Morley’s people.

Morley cursed and slammed the call button. The station shuddered suddenly and people clutched at each other for support. “That was deck nine, where they first came aboard. Let’s hope that buys us the time we need to get clear.”

“We’ll need it, when the reactor blows,” a prison guard said.

“Oh, shit!”

The woman who had cursed was raising her weapon, and Kester looked in the direction of her aim. The corridor was filled with silvery forms, generally humanoid in shape, some taller than others. The armed men around him formed a line and opened fire. Where the advancing beings were hit, they vanished into clouds of glittering dust. The attackers surged forward, heedless of loss, and for a moment came within arm’s reach before being driven back. In that moment they made physical contact with a prisoner and a guard. Both men screamed, voices shrill with agony, then fell writhing to the deck, gleaming with silver light that seemed to come from within. They were swept back with the silvery white horde as it retreated.

Kester caught the rifle of one victim before it hit the deck, and started shooting. The defense was hot enough that the creatures drew back all the way to the next intersection, where they regrouped. One of the taller creatures faced him, and where a face should have been there was only a blank, silver space. Suddenly it had a face for real. It shifted, transformed, became recognizable.

With a shout of outright terror, Kester shot the thing, reducing it to a cloud of shining dust. The rifle was on full automatic and his spasm of fear kept the trigger engaged even as someone grabbed him from behind and hauled him into the lift. His last shot blew a hole in the lift capsule’s hatch.

“Jesus, Kester!” Morley shouted.

“That wasn’t real, that wasn’t real!” Terrified and disbelieving, Kester couldn’t stop the words rushing out. “That wasn’t him! Couldn’t have been him! No, it couldn’t…”

Morley twisted him around and slammed him into the wall of the capsule. “Kester! Get a grip, we need you!” Then, into his com, said, “Transports One and Two, depart immediately and make for the alternode. We blew the deck they boarded, but that’s not going to hold them. We’ll take the VIP launch and follow you.”

“What about that ship out there?” one of the guards asked. “Damned thing’s a heavy cruiser.”

“And it’s right on top of us,” Morley replied. “Four minutes and this whole place blows. Their ship is close enough to be disabled, at least. But I’ll settle for the diversion giving us time to make a break for it.” Morley glared at Kester. “You get to keep the gun, for now. All hands on deck.”

“Understood.” He didn’t, not really, but Kester knew then they really were fighting for their lives. He was, before anything else, a soldier. He shook himself and took a deep breath, fighting for self-control.

The lift capsule was shifting them toward the core, and the feeling of up and down faded away. Every time something clicked or banged those crowding inside with Kester gasped and looked around.

“Jepson? God, it’s good to hear your voice! How many of – ah, damn it!  I’m sorry, son. It’s not your fault. Best possible speed. Get the hell out.” Morley looked like he was about to burst into tears. “Half my command,” he said through his teeth. “Half of my people. God damn it!”

Kester only half-followed the exchange, his thoughts clouded by what he had seen, the face of the silver apparition. Not him! Not him! Can’t be him. How could it…?

“What the hell were those things?” Kester demanded, shaking himself out of that circle of thought. “What’s going on?”

When Morley set his jaw and said nothing, one of the uniformed prison guards unbent from the usual unresponsive posture. “No one knows. It’s some kind of invasion. Been hearing reports from all over the Trans-Rift frontier. These ships, RDF designs, appear but don’t answer hails. Then they attack with boarding parties of those – things. Don’t need weapons. They just come on until they can touch you. You’re dead, then. After word is received of an attack, nothing else is heard.”

“Hell, systems are dropping out of the loop without a word,” someone behind Kester added.

The lift capsule slowed to a stop; they left it as quickly as possible. They were in the small, brightly lit null-g docking facility of the station. The tube beside theirs released another half dozen men and women, all armed, all clearly and grimly frightened. Some of the men wore prison garb; no one seemed to notice or care.

Kester followed Morley into the passenger compartment of the VIP launch, flipping the safety on his rifle as he did so. He found himself small ship that had clearly not been design for prisoner transport. The compartment held rows of comfortably padded seats and there was fancy holographic projector in the ceiling of the forward end. There was a null-g wet bar on the bulkhead opposite the airlock. The disconnect between his surroundings and his bizarre circumstances blossomed into something like a waking nightmare.

People were moving too quickly, fumbling with straps and buckles in the crowded space. Curses were muttered between clenched teeth. The hatch to the command compartment was open and the pilot leaned into view. His short white hair was mussed and spiked out as he glared back at the crowd for a few seconds until he found Morley, who had taken the seat beside Kester’s. “Where’s the senator?” the pilot demanded.

“Dead,” Morley replied. “Saw him go down, along with his staff.”

“One of those things was wearin’ his face,” someone behind Kester said.

The ship shuddered violently and the pilot faced forward, tapped keys on instruments, then cursed vividly. “We’re boosting!”

Morley twisted in his seat and shouted, “Grab something. Now!

Those not yet secured in seats scrambled and flailed. A woman in black was free-floating near Kester, nowhere near a seat or even a take-hold loop. He grabbed her leg and hauled her down. Without a word of protest, she curled against him, holding tight.

It felt as if something had kicked the ship sideways, a lurch that nearly tore his fellow passenger loose. At least two people were not so lucky, and Kester heard their bodies hit the bulkhead, wincing at the gasps of pain that followed. He saw Morley turn a horrid shade of paste white, clutching at the armrests of his seat. A moment later the kick was replaced by several seconds of crushing force as the ship’s main engines fired. The woman he held gasped and whimpered, and Kester was certain his chest would be crushed as acceleration pushed her down onto him.

Acceleration was mercifully brief. From the sounds that followed, more than one of his fellow refugees had been hurt, and quite possibly badly injured at that. Kester released the woman, a prison guard he remembered as one of the less friendly of the crew. Their eyes met and she nodded a wordless thanks, then performed a null-g crawl to the nearest seat and strapped herself in. “We’re clear and headed away,” the white-haired pilot of the VIP launch announced. “Transport One and Two report the same.”

“Show us what’s happening,” Morley demanded.

A holograph filled the forward display area. The unadorned space station was front and center, a fat ring connected by three spokes to a long, slim spindle. Just beyond it was what looked like an RDF heavy cruiser, a sight that brought a puzzled frown to Kester’s face. The Leyra’an had copied Human warships; were they behind all of this? Something in his gut denied it. Kester knew the Leyra’an better than most veterans of the long war with snake-skinned people. The things they’d shot in the corridor had nothing to do with the Leyra’an.

Small objects were pulling away from the station, headed toward them. Someone pointed that out.

“God,” said Morley. “If they reach us…”

“Missiles?” Kester asked.

“Some sort of transport device,” Morley replied, shaking his head. “That’s how they boarded the station. They…”

With a flare of light so bright the imaging system couldn’t quite control the glare – almost everyone looked away and blinked – the station turned into a ball of incandescent gas. The cruiser parked beside it vanished into the glare, then added its own explosion to the lurid display of destruction. All of the small transports vanished into the conflagration.

No one cheered. Someone half-whispered, “Holy Christ, it worked!”

“Davis was right,” Morley said as if speaking to himself. “The reactor was big enough. May God accept and keep his soul.”

Kester stared forward at the expanding ball of glowing gas and debris. For one horrible moment the silvery after-image, in hue so very much like the shining humanoids he had seen on the station, lingered in his vision. His imagination and memory, in a heartbeat of perversity, supplied the face Kester had seen on the creature he had destroyed. Fear and disbelief curdled within him, threatening to become nausea.

It wasn’t him! That’s just not possible!

In the moment before Kester had fired the rifle and killed the silver demon, it had worn the face of a friend. The friend he had accidentally betrayed.

The face of James Calavone.

All That Bedevils Us   Leave a comment

NEW RELEASE!

All That Bedevils Us: A Tale of the Second Iteration

Also available through Kindle Unlimited.

If not for the intervention of the insectoid beings called the T’lack, the Faceless War would have ended with the extinction of Humanity and its Sibling Species. That intervention came at a great cost for the T’lack. No one knows or understands Humanity’s debt to the T’lack better than Jan Costa, who paid his own terrible price at the end of that war.

Now the T’lack are themselves in grave danger, facing a devastating civil war between rival factions and threatened by a mysterious race of beings on the far side of T’lack space.

Jan Costa leads a multi-species expeditionary force into the unknown, seeking to save his alien friends both from themselves and the new threat they have aroused. What he discovers out beyond the frontier will change everything, with the very existence of the T’lack hanging in the balance.

All That Bedevils Us Final

What Just Happened?   Leave a comment

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Winner of the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Some might consider what follows to contain spoilers. If you have not yet read this book and believe you might do so someday, proceed at your own risk.

Science fiction has a seemingly endless fascination with a particular set of ideas, and perhaps foremost among them is the dream of encountering an intelligence not of this Earth. I can’t begin to count the number of such stories I’ve read over the years (many years, now) that I’ve been a fan of the genre. Whether it’s a first contact tale or we step right into a well-populated universe, the so-called aliens are there, story after story. The popularity of this trope seems to me to be a modern manifestation of an ancient desire to seek and discover the “other,” even if we might fear the consequences. We are, after all, the animal that invented gods.

Whether humanoid in form or not, these aliens are usually reflections of us, of humanity. Depending on the author and the nature of the story, the motives and behavior of these imagined beings may be more or less human in appearance, even when stretched and strained to be something unusual. It’s rare that the tale is told with aliens involved that are utterly incomprehensible, though these are the most interesting such tales of all.

One of these, the first of the sort I ever read, is Rendezvous with Rama, by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke. Here we have a tale of an alien encounter without the aliens. A great ship appears at the edge of the solar system, on a course that will take it around the Sun and sling it back into deep space. A mission is sent to intercept this gargantuan object and, if possible, enter and explore it. The crew succeeds in doing so, gaining access to a vast inverted world of wondrous sights and often dangerous mysteries. At first inert and filled with darkness, as the object they now call Rama approaches the sun its systems are activated. It lights up and comes alive. An inner sea thaws out and fills with apparently synthetic life forms. Creatures that may or may not be robots prowl the interior. The intrepid adventurers endure storms generated by the differential heating of the inside of the cylinder. They gather data, take pictures, and manage to escape Rama before it shuts down and speeds from the solar system. They leave the encounter with more questions than they had when they first approached Rama. And they never find an unambiguous sign of the builders of the artifact.

Aliens of some sort built the thing and sent it on its journey among the stars, that is clear. But who did this? Why did they do it? The artifact itself, while providing plenty of interesting experiences, reveals next to nothing about its origins, much less its purpose. The aliens behind it are not revealed, although hints are provided. We have an encounter with their automated emissary, and following the adventure of the encounter, are left scratching our heads.

The sketchy account of the story I’ve just provided might give you the impression that this isn’t a book worth reading. What’s the point, after all? There are several points to this book, including the adventure of exploring the unknown and the tale of those explorers and how they react to the artifact and interact with each other in the process. But the main idea here, to my mind, is to illustrate the possibility that what we find as we venture forth out there may simply be incomprehensible. Our motives may not be their motives, our ideas of purpose may not have common ground with theirs, and there are bound to be cases in which – should we ever meet anyone in the first place – this will be true. Rendezvous with Rama is such a tale, an adventure experienced by humanity that shows us plainly that we are not alone, while at the same time leaving us to wonder what it all means. An encounter that leaves us guessing. Science fiction has a tradition of asking the question “what if?” To my mind “What if we can’t figure them out?” is as legitimate a “what if” question as any. In this case it generates a science fiction adventure that deserved the award it received and its continued popularity so many years later.

Of course, the big questions left hanging at the end of Rendezvous with Rama are answered in the sequels that followed – or I assume, having not yet read any of them. While I need to get around to that someday, it is I believe a testament to the strength of this story and the wonders that unfold in it, that I’ve only ever been mildly curious about the sequels. Rendezvous with Rama works as is, and is as satisfying a read now as it was when I first picked it up more than forty years ago.

The Gods Themselves   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1973

In the early 1970s the range of science fiction available to me increased enormously when I joined the old Science Fiction Book Club. My personal library didn’t exactly explode in size – I was earning just enough money with odd jobs to keep ahead of the membership requirements – but the variety of science fiction I had the chance to read increased significantly. This led to a deeper appreciation for what science fiction could be, building on the eye-opening experience of reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, reading Dune was part of the motive behind joining the SFBC. I wanted a more durable copy of that book, having read the paperback to death, and although book club editions were hardcovers only by a technicality, it was an acceptable compromise.

The SFBC did more than broaden my reading range. One of my first acquisitions, along with Dune, was the two-in-one volume of Hugo Award winning short fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, one of my favorite authors then and now. The Hugo Winners was a feast of ideas and imagination, and Asimov’s science fiction convention anecdotes left me with a powerful desire to attend such an event, one day. I enjoyed those stories so much that any book offered up by the SFBC that had received the award was immediately ordered. I’d read a few Hugo award-winning novels before, but not until then had there been any context. Knowing what the Hugo Award was, and what it meant to science fiction fandom, made all the difference.

Not that I needed such incentive to pick up Asimov’s The Gods Themselves when it became available. I was quite familiar with the work of Asimov, by then; a big fan of both his fiction and nonfiction. The Early Asimov began my fascination with writing short fiction of my own. I’d read the iconic story “Nightfall,” a number of the robot stories, and all of the Foundation Trilogy before picking up The Gods Themselves. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find it something of a departure from the work I knew. That impression came back to life when I recently reread the book a short time ago.

There are two points of view used by Asimov in The Gods Themselves, one human and the other that of truly alien beings in a parallel universe. This is by far the most notable departure. With the exception of some of his earliest short stories, I can’t recall anything else by Asimov in which the point of view is shared by a nonhuman being. (Some would argue his robot stories fit this bill, but I disagree. His robots are far too human to be considered alien life forms.) The plot involves predictably short-sighted motives of pride and profit on the human side, and a desperate bid for survival by the parallel universe aliens. The alien biology and the culture that evolved from it are drawn simply, clearly, and plausibly, creating a fascinating contrast to the more familiar human realm. Due to difference in the life spans of the aliens, and a difference in how time works in the parallel universe, there are more human characters to keep track of than alien, but the author handles this aspect easily enough. Overlapping sets of human characters hand off the tale across the years, finally ending that side of the plot on a lunar colony.

The colony Asimov imagines puzzled me. His speculations were always based on the real science of the time, and are generally well thought-out. This lunar colony, as described in the novel, doesn’t exactly inspire the reader to dream of a lunar life. Cramped living conditions, food of limited variety (mostly grown from algae and yeast) and visible dental health problems – seriously, you’re going to plant ten thousand or more human beings on the Moon and forget everything that was known in the ‘70s about hydroponics? And neglect to bring along a dentist or two? The lunar setting ended up, in some ways, feeling less plausible than the biology and sociology of the aliens.

Where this novel works best is the material detailing the parallel universe aliens, and their struggles to survive as their world dies around them. It is one of these beings, a misfit in a highly ordered society, who is the real hero of this story. She is moved to risk everything for the sake of strange beings in a universe parallel to her own, about which her people know almost nothing, and who are endangered by the very struggles of her people to preserve their own species. This basic conflict is the true heart of the tale, and is handled well.

Lunar distractions notwithstanding, I’ve always found The Gods Themselves to be one of Asimov’s best novels. In terms of style it’s a bit of old school sci-fi persisting well into the time of the so-called “New Wave,” and yet held its own in terms of innovation. Well enough, at least, to earn its author the Hugo Award in 1973.

It was several years after reading both the Hugo Winners and The Gods Themselves before I made it to a science fiction convention. It was the 1978 WorldCon, otherwise known as IguanaCon II, held in Phoenix, Arizona. I watched Frederik Pohl received the Hugo Award for his novel Gateway at that convention. I grabbed a copy in the vendor’s hall before the weekend was out and read it before the convention was a week behind me. But I have a few novels between that one and The Gods Themselves yet to reread for this series of essays.

It Works That Way, Sometimes   Leave a comment

A while back, in “The Process, Part One”, I very briefly discussed matters to do with imagination and where story ideas come from. What follows illustrates one way the tales I tell can get started. It isn’t always a daydream that points the way to the destination. On this particular occasion – and it has happened before – I had to sleep on it.

I’m currently under treatment for hypertension, and one of the medications I take has, as one of its few side effects, the tendency on my part to have “lucid” dreams. And they really are lucid. More than once I’ve not so much woken from such a dream as segued from the dreamtime into the dimly lit real world of the bedroom, early in the morning. Balanced between the two I am, for just a moment, convinced of the reality of both. All too often this segue comes as a relief, as the realization comes that it really was just a dream, and I don’t need to come up with a resolution for whatever awkward situation the dreamtime concocted for me that night. And these dreams are, far more often than not, weird. Some are seriously weird and even disturbing.

Sometimes they’re something more, posing puzzles that linger into the waking world, puzzles that I find myself thinking through whether it makes much sense to do so or not. Like the one last night, during which I was in the midst of an alien invasion. It was sort of a cross between the films Independence Day and Skyline. Strange machines in the sky, people in a panic, buildings collapsing under an avalanche of inexplicable lighting effects – you know, the standard Hollywood stuff.

Weird, yes, but after the fact, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that the dream took the form it did, considering how much of my time is taken up by reading and writing fantastical fiction. And I’ve enjoyed my share of alien invasion fare over the years. There was an oppressive quality to the dream and the waking-world residue that reminded me of the film Skyline, a movie I actually dislike because of its realistic hopelessness. Yes, faced with such a situation, it is unlikely humanity would prevail, but who wants that for entertainment? The aliens would surely have their way with us. All of which begs the question of why they’d want to have their way with us. Science fiction writers have, since the days of H.G. Wells, dreamt up a variety of motivations, the majority of which are most likely to be nonsense. Resources? Living space? Women? Please…

That’s the puzzle that lingered after the nightmare anxieties faded. It’s not a new question; I’ve heard and seen numerous readers and writers of science fiction raise it in the past. For some reason, this morning it was my time to tackle it, all because a weird dream triggered that train of thought. So – a species capable of traveling through the vastness between the stars would surely be able to tap the raw materials of the universe as needed. Why would they need to come here and make a fuss? There would have to be something about this Earth of ours they desired, something that didn’t accrete routinely from the interstellar dust from which stars and worlds are formed. Skyline was actually on the right track, in that regard, with the aliens after something you’d only find on a living world like Earth. (The way they employed their plot device struck me as being as biologically absurd as aliens wanting human women, but still…) Yes, it would have to be something very rare, if not unique.

There would also need to be a compelling reason to acquire that “something.”

And just like that, I had an answer. A thing we have here that might provide a motivation for aliens to come here, and a reason for them to want what we have, although perhaps not with hostile intent. In fact, there almost certainly wouldn’t be any hostilities. And with that answer, that idea, I found myself making note of a new place to go, and a trail in need of cutting to the destination that is a story’s climax, to reuse that metaphor I apply so often when I write about story telling.

I got up, went into the space I call an office, and jotted down some notes. Not sure when I’ll get to this one – it has a few competitors for my writing time – but the idea has been safely recorded, the trailhead marked for future exploration, and it will someday become either a long short story, or a novella. Because now that I’ve glimpsed this new story, I’ve got to write it. For me, there’s really no choice about it.

Crazy, perhaps, that it came about as it did. And yet, it just works that way, sometimes.

A Return to Known Space   Leave a comment

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1971

World-building is a term used to describe what science fiction and fantasy authors do to create the setting for the story being told. Any work of fiction requires some degree of world-building, of course, though in a murder mystery or a work of historical fiction this can be accomplished by describing the real world. In science fiction and fantasy, the world of the story may have few connections with the real world, and quite likely would have no connection to it at all. We often build worlds “from scratch,” so to speak. The “world” built for the story sometimes provides little more than a backdrop, but more often than not it becomes a powerful tool for moving the plot forward. It may even be the central element of the plot to begin with. To say that this is the case in Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning novel Ringworld would be an understatement.

Ringworld is a classic example – perhaps the best-known example – of world-building that results in the so-called Big Dumb Object (BDO). The first use of the phrase is usually attributed to British writer Roz Kaveney, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It was apparently intended as a tongue-in-cheek expression, but science fiction is a genre not afraid of playfully making fun of itself, so the phrase is now used on a regular basis. The idea is that you have a plot element, and often it’s the plot element, take the form of something mind-bogglingly huge and complex. The BDO is frequently (though not exclusively) of a nonhuman origin, and the humans who discover it generally experience a serious “holy crap!” moment when they do so. Then they begin to investigate, and therein lies the tale. The BDO can be done to great effect, as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and John Varley’s Titan. And of course, there’s the ever popular “That’s no moon!” – the Death Star of the Star Wars Trilogy. Science fiction has an impressive collection of BDOs, but few – the river world in Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go comes to mind – can compete with the Ringworld for sheer scale.

The artificial world Niven builds for this novel is beyond the range of the superlatives of the English language. It’s an astronomically large band big enough to wrap around its star at about the distance that Earth orbits the sun. Its foundation is an impervious substance that defies analysis by the story’s heroes. This ring structure is broad enough that oceans larger and deeper than anything on Earth can be found within, and standing in the middle of it, you can’t see all the way to either side. Big Dumb Object, indeed, although I’d debate the “dumb” part in this case, tongue-in-cheek or not.

The Ringworld is one of the grandest examples of world-building you can find in science fiction, and Niven puts it to marvelous use in the tale of the first investigation performed on the object. He drops a curious cast of characters in the now decrepit Ringworld – the builders’ civilization having collapsed thousands of years ago. Two are human, a man who has lived two centuries and “seen it all,” and a young woman born lucky, which is a story of its own.  With them travel two aliens, one of the warlike Kzin, and a cowardly two-headed Puppeteer who happens to be the leader of their expedition, which is soon stranded on the Ringworld. To find a way off, they must cross to one of the edges, a journey that involves crossing a distance that would encompass all the continents on Earth. Along the way many things are revealed, of the Ringworld itself and the universe of which it is a part, and of the characters and their respective species.

For fans of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, the Ringworld adventure, and its sequels, form a sort of hub. So much of this tale touches on other works of Niven from that universe that you have the pleasant feeling of things tied together into a network of storytelling. And yet, for someone who stumbles onto Ringworld without prior Known Space experience, the novel stands on its own quite well.

I’ve reacted to previously read Hugo Award novels a number of different ways since I started this project. There have been numerous revelations of ideas missed, and disappointments that tales haven’t withstood the test of time. This rereading of an old favorite has started an episode of rediscovery. Ringworld brought me back to a sci-fi universe that I enjoyed immensely once upon a time, and a long time ago at that. So many comments and asides from the characters invoked half-remembered tales in the same universe that I find myself pulling old paperbacks off shelves, and hunting down copies of Ringworld sequels that I never got around to reading when they were new. Aside from the Hugo award winners for these reviews, I don’t reread fiction very often. There’s so much new (and new to me) to read! But I’m going to make an exception here, and revisit in a big way one of the first multi-book sci-fi universes to ever grab my attention.

A Deeper Appreciation   Leave a comment

Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970

Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.

I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.

This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.

In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.

There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.

 

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award, 1968

In the late 1960s change and turmoil swirled around me, and I took almost no notice. I knew as little of real world affairs then as I did about science fiction. The only news that registered on my mind was that regarding the “space race,” and for me science fiction was all about Tom Swift Jr. and the occasional Heinlein young adult novel about teenagers skating down the frozen canals of Mars or navigating swamps on Venus. Well, of course, there were the black-and-white B movies, watched when the weather didn’t permit outdoor activities. This was Illinois, so in the winter at least, I spent a lot of time watching macho dudes fighting bubble-headed aliens and giant insects. I suppose that counts as sci-fi on some level. That the world was changing, and changing rapidly, around my small rural town, was invisible to me. The same was true of the steady evolution of science fiction as it was influenced by and reflected those times. The genre was expanding its reach, and bringing in ideas from an ever-widening set of sources. A case in point, the winner of the 1968 Hugo for Best Novel, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I was all of twelve years old, that year.

In Lord of Light, Zelazny tells the story of an alien world on which human settlers have used Hindu mythology as the framework for their civilization. Exactly why the original colonists chose this frame of reference never came clear to me, but the consequences were so well-realized that I wasn’t much troubled by this. The resultant civilization is ruled by Hindu gods and goddesses who are actually humans rendered immortal and given extraordinary powers through advanced technology. In general, this technology is kept from the rest of the human population, although reincarnation through the transfer of minds into new bodies can be earned by the faithful. This is not seen as technology, of course. It’s divine intervention. Centuries have passed since the original colonists arrived and tamed the world, a process that included the near extermination of the original sapient species discovered there. The battles that took place in that earlier era are recounted in the manner and style of epic Hindu myths and legends. Some of these indigenous inhabitants still survive, but are now considered demons and other manifestations of the supernatural. Almost everything about how humanity came to live in this place has been forgotten, a cultural amnesia encouraged by the “gods,” some of whom were the original colonists to settle the world.

One faction of the immortal population wants to reintroduce lost technology, with the goal of improving the lot of humanity on this world. The other gods, jealous of their privileged positions, want nothing of the sort. The novel is about the conflict between these factions. The book opens with the resurrection of a man named Sam, a clever fellow who dates back to the original colony, and something of a hero to those who would restore humanity to its full potential. How he came to be dead in the first place makes up the main body of the book, which is essentially one long flashback. (I missed this at first, and for a while the narrative had me a bit confused. Watch for an early chapter that ends with Sam sitting back and reflecting on his life.) The tale of Sam’s efforts to unseat the selfish gods of his world unfolds quickly and smoothly, a very different work from Zelazny’s previous Hugo winner, but clearly a work of the same mind and imagination.

The use of a non-Western mythological frame of reference was a departure for science fiction of the time, though Zelazny may not actually have been the first to do so. It was, however, one of the first novels to win the Hugo while recognizing the validity and utility of other mythic traditions for the sake of story-telling. (The other was Frank Herbert’s Dune.) That the book was written when it was is surely no coincidence, as the counter-culture inspirations of the ‘60s were at that time spilling out into the general public in a big way. The Beatles weren’t the only ones playing sitars and practicing transcendental meditation at that point. Anyone alive in that time would have been aware of how these “exotic” ideas were being embraced – and resisted – by the people around them. For those of a creative nature, it was all raw materials, grist for the mill. The science fiction genre certainly partook of these possibilities, and Lord of Light is one result. It’s a novel that remains very readable, having “aged” well, but is clearly a product of its time, as books so often are. The product of times that passed me by almost unnoticed, even as they changed the world.

 

 

 

The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1965

For the first time since beginning this series of essays, I find myself dealing with a new-to-me book. In the early 1980s I made it a project to read Hugo-winning novels (and short stories) in an effort to better understand the genre that inspired me to write fiction. During that earlier effort, I was unable to locate a copy of the 1965 winner. The book had apparently gone out of print (I was working in a bookstore at the time and couldn’t special-order a copy for myself), and the few copies I found in used bookstores were either too expensive, or in such bad shape that I passed them by. I always meant to bridge this gap, and this time around was determined to do so. Fortunately, during the intervening years the book was brought back into print, and so tracking down a copy through an online source proved no challenge. At long last, I could read the eleventh novel to win the Hugo Award. After all that time and effort, I suppose it sort of figures that this book doesn’t measure up to those preceding it.

The Wanderer is a tale of disaster on a planetary scale. During a lunar eclipse, a rogue planet suddenly appears in the solar system, so close to the Earth and the Moon that tidal forces are able to tear the Moon apart. The same tidal forces devastate Humanity, creating flood tides of Biblical proportions, triggering massive earthquakes, and setting off super-volcanic eruptions. As civilization is hammered by catastrophes, survivors on Earth and a lunar base seek to unravel the mystery of the Wanderer, as they all come to call the rogue planet. The hardships experienced on Earth are seen through the eyes of survivors scattered around the globe.

As interesting as the premise of this novel surely is, I had quite a bit of trouble getting into the story. There are a lot of points of view used, but there is a lack of consistency in the way they are developed. Three subplots are strongly developed and a number of others weave in and out of the main flow, apparently to add details to illustrate the horrors being inflicted on the people of Earth. Many of these subplots appear and disappear sporadically, and only those that involve the deaths of the characters involved are resolved. One of the throw-away subplots ends with what stands as the worst sex scene I’ve ever encountered as a reader of science fiction. These partially developed subplots ultimately failed to support the story, and left me feeling more distracted than informed. It’s as if the author (and the editor) couldn’t quite decide which story to tell. Two such subplots could have accomplished the job; a less-is-more editorial approach would have greatly improved the structure of the book.

Improved it, but perhaps not rescued it from the cardboard, heavily stereotyped characters that inhabit this tale. Remember how people reacted to the dialog between characters in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones? The characters and their interactions in this novel have that sort of awkwardness. And then there are the aliens responsible for the mess who, when the reader gets to know them, come across as little better than cartoonish.

By the time I was finished with The Wanderer, my reaction was one of puzzlement. This is not what I would call a very well-executed novel, especially when I compare it to Way Station, the previous year’s winner, or with either Dune or This Immortal, the winners (in a tie) of the best-novel Hugo the following year. Was the year in which The Wanderer first saw print a poor year for science fiction? That’s frankly hard to believe. And yet this imperfect book, written by an author who has done much stronger work (including The Big Time which brought a Hugo award to Leiber in 1958) took the honors in 1965. Fame is a fickle thing, and the ways in which it is bestowed often make little sense in retrospect. This is apparently as true in science fiction as it is with any form of entertainment.

This one disappointed me. I expected more of Leiber, being familiar with his work, and felt that The Wanderer fell short of the mark he usually hits. It isn’t a book I’ll ever read again, and as this review makes plain, isn’t one I’d recommend unless you share my desire to read all of the Hugo winners. Or unless you’re curious to see what it is about this book that makes it seem like such a train wreck to me. In which case, read it! I will never, in any of these reviews, tell you that a book is “bad,” or worse, heap venom and scorn on a work just because I don’t like it. If the book fails for me, it might be me and not the book at all. It may be that many others see this book the way I do, but in 1965 readers of science fiction saw The Wander in a very different way. They bestowed upon it the highest honor we have for science fiction. Who was right? Does that even matter? All I can tell you is that the book didn’t work for me and why I felt it failed. In other words, I didn’t like it. To go from saying “I didn’t like it,” to the conclusion that it’s a “bad book” that no one else should read has always seemed to me to be a step too far.

Hope and Melancholy   1 comment

Thoughts Inspired by Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1964

Growing up in the 1960s was a peculiar thing. We were surrounded, as children, by such a mix of confidence and anxiety, high adventure and social unrest, lofty visions loudly proclaimed and horrible nightmares manipulated to manufacture fear – and control. Such was American society in the Cold War. As a pre-teen growing up in that time, I sometimes had nightmares in which tornados, often a clear and present danger in rural Illinois, transformed into the mushroom clouds of nuclear destruction. I didn’t fully understand the nature of the danger, but I could feel the uneasiness, the anxiety, and sometimes outright fear in the adults around me, and images of “The Bomb” were commonplace. The black-and-white B-movies I watched on TV were often tales inspired by the mutant consequences of radioactive disasters. And there were all those duck-and-cover exercises at school, cleverly concealed as “tornado drills.” Our culture was saturated by the fear that the next big war really would be the war to end all wars, because there would be no one left to fight another. Somewhere in my memories of those years I recall telling an uncle that I wanted to be an astronomer if I grew up. I remember this because great concern was expressed over my use of the word “if.”

I was barred from watching the evening news for some time, after that one.

The science fiction of those days, film and print, was heavy with variations on a theme of ultimate war and its consequences. You see this in the novels that won the early Hugo Awards: Bester’s The Demolished Man is set in a post-apocalyptic future; Heinlein’s Starship Troopers depicts a civilization that rose following World War III. These books and others like them at least contain a note of optimism; as in wars past, we survive and rebuild. It’s an optimistic  assumption that shows these authors had not the slightest idea what they were talking about. Of course, to be fair, very few people did. More brutally honest is A Canticle for Leibowitz, which depicts the long and agonizing rebirth of a civilization doomed, by its failure to learn the lessons of history, to die again. So many novels, award winners and those passed over, assumed such a war would come, and tried to imagine the consequences of a thing that truly defied imagination. It is not, by its nature, an uplifting body of literature.

In the midst of this, in 1963, Clifford D. Simak added his own take on the troubles of those times, a book that stands in powerful contrast to so many other sci-fi tales from the Sixties. Way Station, winner of the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is the story of a man who survived the worst of the American Civil War, and who finds himself, shortly after, recruited to run a relay station for a galactic civilization. This civilization uses a strange form of teleportation to bridge the vastness of interstellar space, and knit a multitude of species into one star-spanning community. Enoch Wallace has hardly aged at all in the hundred years that followed, sustained by an aspect of the galactic technology for which he is Earth’s only, and completely unknown, custodian. Unfortunately, after a century of meeting and befriending hundreds of alien beings from dozens of species and cultures, Enoch’s quiet existence as station keeper is threatened. Someone from a government agency has realized Enoch is the same man who came home from the Civil War long ago. And in coming to the aid of an abused deaf/mute girl, Enoch has come into conflict with her family, and drawn to himself exactly the wrong sort of attention. Discord in the galactic civilization threatens to shut down his way station, leaving him the choice of being abandoned where he is on a world of which he is no longer truly a part, or himself abandoning the world of his birth forever. On top of all of this, that very same world is on the verge of blowing itself to bits. Calculations using the advanced mathematics of the galaxy show that Earth’s destruction by way of nuclear holocaust is inevitable, and the cure suggested by Enoch’s alien friends is almost as bad as war itself.

In resolving these conflicts, Simak weaves a compelling tale of interstellar intrigue and very human drama. The resolution to it all is sudden, a bit fanciful, but very satisfying. It’s also more than a bit melancholy, for the hero does pay a price to hold on to the life he has come to cherish. It ends not with a bang, but a whisper. But the story overall is one of hope, and not calamity. This is a novel that looks at the Cold War tensions of those unsettled and uncertain years not from the perspective of how bad things might turn out, but with the idea that what might seem unavoidable could, in fact, be prevented. Way Station stands apart in an era of sci-fi nuclear holocaust novels in a refreshing and thoughtful way. It also holds up well to the passage of many years, and seems not in the least bit dated. I first read this book when I was in high school, almost a decade after it was published, and was fascinated by its very different take on how a galaxy-spanning civilization might work, and how Earth might take part. Now, so many years later, with the bad dreams of glowing mutant tornado mushroom clouds fading into memory, I have a different and perhaps improved idea of why the book appealed to me. It presents a positive vision, based as it is on the thought that the worst need not come to be. It was a story of hope and melancholy, and what teenage loner growing up in troubled times could  resist such a tale?

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