Archive for the ‘sci-fi’ Tag

The Hugo Hat Trick: Thoughts Prompted by The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel:

2016  The Fifth Season

2017  The Obelisk Gate

2018  The Stone Sky

**Although to date I’ve written about Hugo-winning novels in chronological order, I’ve also read a few recent winners (some before they won) and rather than waiting years to get around to them, I will occasionally jump ahead.**

Far more often than not, I discover a new-to-me author through recommendations from acquaintances who are fellow readers. In fact, this process so dominates book selection that I can’t remember the last time I bought one just because it looked interesting.

The Broken Earth trilogy stands as a curious exception to that rule. I picked up the first book, The Fifth Season, because someone disliked it. It was the manner in which that reader expressed his dislike – in phrases that I frankly found offensive – that prompted me to take a look. It was only then that I discovered it was a Hugo winner, having lost track of the winners in recent years. Also that it was the first of three successive winners of the award. That a trilogy could achieve such success while prompting someone to treat it so harshly only increased my curiosity. By the time I finished The Fifth Season I owned copies of The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky. In due time I read them all. To say I do not share that reviewer’s opinion of the trilogy would be an understatement.

The story is set in a world prone to repeated, violent seismic upheavals. So frequent are these events – called “Seasons” by the inhabitants of this world – that everything about their civilization is geared toward preparation for the next inevitable occurrence. Some people have special abilities that allow them to influence such things as earthquakes using inherited psychic powers, and although you might think that would make them highly valued members of a society built on shaky ground, you would be wrong. They are called orogenes, a term that is used in ways that bring to mind cruel words in our own world, used to insult and belittle those who are different. Orogenes are instead, and ironically, feared for their abilities, discriminated against and often murdered without consequence to their killers. The fear that drives the hatred behind such acts is rooted in a time long past, and is a matter of belief, not of reason. Some members of this marginalized group are taken away by an agency known as the Fulcrum. In its hands they are trained and used for their abilities, but while they are protected and usually well cared for, they are little better than slaves. They are also entirely expendable.

The story blends science fiction and fantasy in a way I’ve rarely seen done, and even more rarely done so well. Many of the magical elements (not sure what else to call them) seem to be expressions of one of Clarke’s Laws, the one stating that any technology, sufficiently advanced, would be indistinguishable from magic. In the distant past of this world there existed a form of technology that might as well be magical. The present day events and troubles are the legacy of questionable use of that technology.

The heart of the story deals with the trials one orogene, who has for many years managed to conceal her true nature. The start of a new Season comes on, just in time for her family to self-destruct when her husband discovers that their son is an orogene – resulting in the boy’s murder. What follows is a backstory and history told in flashbacks, and a present time quest to rescue her remaining child, a daughter. The girl is also an orogene, but one of particular strength and power. The quest to rescue this girl takes place in a time of complexity and chaos, during which an already dysfunctional society is coming unraveled.  N.K. Jemisin writes some strong stuff, spinning this intricate tale, and pulls no punches. For me as a reader it was absolutely compelling. As a writer, I can’t help admiring – among other aspects – her ability to weave all the disparate threads of this tale together in the end.

The trilogy is unconventional in storytelling style, switching back and forth from first person present tense to a more ordinary narrative point of view as things unfold. Many readers find this not to their taste, which is quite all right. No writing style will ever have universal appeal. But the criticisms that led me to take a closer look at The Broken Earth trilogy were not confined to expressions of dislike regarding the narrative structure, although such are regularly seen in reviews.

The world built by N.K. Jemisin to hold this story could be our own Earth in a distant future, a thing not explicitly stated, although it’s all too easy to imagine it evolving from our real one. I say this because the people in it, especially their attitudes toward others who are not acceptable to the mainstream, are all too real. Change and crisis so often bring out the worst in people, especially when a marginalized population such as the orogenes is available as a target to be blamed, and punished. Our own very real history is filled with such tragedies, as are current events.

It’s this theme that that I believe triggers a negative reaction in some readers. They resent the mirror these stories seem to hold up, uncomfortable with what is reflected there. They react badly to a story that doesn’t shy away from depicting bigotry for the evil it truly is, and it seems to me they resent being reminded of its painful reality. They complain, as did the reviewer I recall being the most spiteful, that they want to read fiction, and not be “preached at.” For the record, saying that these books are at all preachy in the way they employ certain themes about inequality and prejudice goes beyond overstatement. It’s dishonest. Yes, the themes are there, and as I said earlier, the author pulls no punches. And I have no trouble believing that these themes are informed by the life of the author. How could it be otherwise? We all write from where we are, informed by our own life experiences. That’s simply how it works. That how it should work.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre   Leave a comment

Winner of the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novel

I’ve read Hugo Award-winning novels that I greatly enjoyed, and in a few cases, changed the way I see the genre. I’ve read others that left me frowning, wondering how the book could have risen to such prominence. (Very few of these, I’m happy to report.) Until now, there’s never been anything in the flatland known as “Meh.” If asked before now, I’d have maintained that such a reaction was highly unlikely. So imagine my surprise to find that the winner of the 1979 Hugo for best novel – Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre – left me without a strong reaction one way of the other.

The story takes place on a future Earth that, at an unspecified time in the past, was ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. The event is recent enough that spending time in a still radioactive crater can have lethal consequences. The descendants of the war’s survivors have adapted to a changed world, splintering into well-defined groups: desert nomads in the arid lowlands, clannish scavengers, scattered communities of town folk in the hills and mountain valleys, and a single city of high-tech xenophobes who have maintained a tenuous connection with an off-world civilization. (Whether or not these “off-worlders” are human was never clear to me.) One splinter of the human population is made up of Healers, who travel the region providing health care. Each of them is a sort of medical knight-errant. In addition to mundane healing skills, these Healers carry with them genetically engineered venomous snakes – an albino cobra, a diamondback rattlesnake, and the eponymous dreamsnake in this case – that are living pharmaceutical factories. These altered snakes can be used to provide anything from vaccines to cures for cancer. The dreamsnakes, one of which is assigned to each Healer, have a more specific purpose. They are alien creatures with a venom that has mind-altering properties, used to ease the ending of a life when death cannot be averted. The dreamsnakes came to Earth from that off-world civilization. They are difficult to breed and are therefore scarce and greatly valued. Without one, a Healer isn’t really a Healer.

While tending to a cancer-stricken child of desert nomads, a Healer named Snake – a name that is rarely bestowed upon one of her calling – badly misjudges the people she is helping. This results in the death of her dreamsnake, a gentle creature named Grass. The loss of her dreamsnake is devastating, leaving Snake unable to perform one of her most important functions. Snake’s quiet confidence runs headlong into her overwhelming guilt over the death of Grass, leading to a complicated combination of self-doubts and determination. What follows is a quest for redemption and understanding, as Snake seeks to replace Grass. Along the way she must endure a stalking lunatic, and comes to the rescue of an abused child.

Meanwhile, a young desert nomad, guilt-stricken over the crime his people committed in killing the dreamsnake, follows Snake with the intention of defending her reputation when the Healer community learns of the loss of Grass. The handling of this character weakened the story for me. He appears too seldom to make for an effective subplot, and the relationship between the two characters is rather sketchy, based essentially on a single scene at the beginning of the book. As he follows Snake, she goes on a quest to seek aid from the high-tech City, where she and her adopted daughter – the child she rescues – are coldly rebuffed. By pure chance, that event, and an encounter with the “crazy” who is following her, leads Snake to a very dangerous solution for her problem. The young nomad never really figures into any of her darker adventures, so until the very end I was never quite sure why he was in the story at all. How he does fit in at the end, I’ll leave readers to discover and judge for themselves.

All of this takes place in a landscape that came across to me as little more than stage dressing. Much of the setting is described only in broad strokes, with a sprinkling of details. As a result, for me the setting never really develops a life of its own. It’s just there, decorated with such exotica as tiger-striped horses, otherworldly seasonal storms in the desert, and – of course – dreamsnakes. The story seems to drift through this imagined landscape without the two really coming together as parts of the whole.

Fiction that works best for me balances world building with character development and plot. When this doesn’t happen, I find the story overall just sort of slips by me. I never fully engage. And that’s what happened when I read Dreamsnake. There were moments of interest and a lot of intriguing concepts – such as the ability of people, through training, to control their own fertility – but the balance of character, plot (the young nomad was a sporadic distraction that never quite gelled as a subplot), and world building wasn’t there for me. I don’t regret reading the story – it was an unusual tale and otherwise well-written – but I’m afraid that Dreamsnake goes on that list of books for which a single reading was quite enough. As for winning the award, this is a novel that would have stood out in the late 1970s on the strength of its unusual concepts, and the main character Snake. I’m not too surprised that it won. And so my recommendation is to read it for yourself, and see what you think.

Comfort Reads   Leave a comment

Recent troubled times – pandemic and politics – have tested the mettle and coping methods of us all. Although writing (see previous entry) provided me with a measure of escape, I remained anything but an exception to the rule. In some ways the pandemic, in its early stay-home-stay-safe phase, was less of a hardship for me than for so many others. I did miss gathering with friends, but as a writer, spending time alone is simply the way of things. You might say self-isolation was part of my job description. It certainly didn’t hurt that my wife retired just as the pandemic fell on us like a collapsing building. Being in the mess together offered a considerable advantage. Even the sporadic shortages, including food items, fall into the “It could be worse” category for us. Flexible menu planning – my wife and I both like to cook and have between us a respectable repertoire – prevented a major problem in that regard. And in that collection of recipes we have many that make you feel better about life just by cooking and eating them. They may not always be the healthiest eating, but some days it doesn’t pay to worry too much about that. You’re eating to relax and feel better about life, something that surely has therapeutic benefits, if not taken to extremes. Comfort food, in other words.

You can only eat so much, and stay healthy. When immersed in the writing process, I can ignore what’s going on, but I can’t write 24/7, and sooner or later I am out in the real world, coping. It wears you out. I doubt anyone reading this would argue that point. And so when I’m not writing, I seek other things to distract me without undue effort, and early in the pandemic one of those comfortable distractions was rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Returning to Middle Earth was a thing I did in my teens, when life challenged me in ways that made escape desirable. An old habit, then, brought forward to the present day. The feeling of comfortable familiarity provided enough relief that, when I turned the last page of The Return of the King, I found myself scanning the bookshelves, thinking of other works that had, in my teens and early adulthood, taken me from my troubles. I found myself making quite a list, and committing to rereading other old favorites while the troubled world continued to lurch awkwardly around me.

Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy was next up, a work that seemed to age better as the reread moved from Foundation, to Foundation and Empire, and finally to Second Foundation. Asimov was learning and growing as a writer as these stories evolved, and you can see things progress in that regard. That’s probably why the last book seemed less naïve than the first. Not that the first wasn’t a fine example of comfort reading, of course. It was simply an interesting progression, one that didn’t register during earlier reads and rereads.

As the year 2020 went on, adding wildfires and continent-spanning plumes of smoke to our woes, I indulged in more comfort reads. Cities in Flight by James Blish, The Stone That Never Came Down by John Brunner, Tau Zero by Poul Anderson, City by Clifford D. Simak, and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, among others, all passed under my gaze for the first time in decades. 2020 ended, but 2021 seemed to look back and say, “Here, hold my beer.” So I kept reading – and writing.

Although some of the worst-case scenarios have not played out as we feared, the world seems inclined to remain a thing that challenges sanity, so this habit of pulling old favorites from the shelf and indulging in comfort reads is likely to continue. And if things ever settle down? To be honest, I’ll probably keep reading those old favorites. It’s been a fine thing to revisit these books that meant so much to me, once upon a time, and there’s no shortage of such books in this household. It will surely be a habit that endures past the pandemic’s end.

Posted September 5, 2021 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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With Neither a Bang nor a Whimper   Leave a comment

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the Hugo Award for best Novel, 1977

The subgenre of science fiction that deals with visions of a post-apocalyptic world is certainly nothing new. In this rather drawn-out series of essays on Hugo Winners, I’ve reviewed The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1961), both of which deal in some fashion – one more overt than the other – with a world that has crawled out of the ashes of destruction. An argument could be made that Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in The High Castle (1963) is a post-apocalyptic vision of a different sort. In recent years, interest in this subgenre seems to have increased significantly. Considering the state of the world, these days, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising.

It’s not a style of fiction I often get into. Perhaps the unsettled times in which we currently live have made me too sensitive to disturbing visions for such tales to be entertaining or thought-provoking. For my money it’s bad enough the real world is overflowing with tales of a dysfunctional world; I need something different when I read for pleasure. So it’s a rare work of this subgenre that finds its way to my reading list, and when that happens, it’s generally a book that in some way transcends its marketing niche. A case in point would be the subject of this entry, a book that for me counts as one of the most outstanding and unusual examples of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a different take on this subgenre, something that is illustrated clearly by the way the apocalypse itself is handled. It’s clear at the beginning that terrible things are happening, and that both the natural world and human civilization are collapsing. Multiple symptoms of the slowly unrolling catastrophe are seen, but there’s no specific disaster scene, no single blow up that takes everything down, and no single smoking gun as a culprit. The crash is more of a long slide that takes years and generations to unfold, but is no less devastating for that slow pace. The reader knows what is going wrong with the world at large through discussions of the situation by the viewpoint characters, a group of families living in a valley off the beaten track, as they watch the combined ecological and social collapse close in around them. The world of Humanity seems to simply fall apart and die under its own weight, regrettably taking much of the natural world, or at least the animal kingdom, down with it. A truly massive, if slow, extinction that, for humankind, takes the form of a plague of sterility; extinction through attrition. When the collapse is complete, the extended families of the valley are all that remain, and it is how they survive that drives this story. They keep the human species alive, dealing with the plague of sterility, by cloning themselves. Multiple copies and multiple generations of cloned individuals push back the final extinction of humanity, while changing what humanity means with unforeseen and possibly unhealthy consequences.

More than that glimpse of the plot would give away too much of the story, something I try very hard not to do. Suffice it to say that the grand scheme for survival proves more complicated than anyone imagined, leading to serious problems as flaws in the society of clones come to light. The story is of a world fallen silent, as the title implies, and in that silent and ruined world this pocket of survivors struggles to move forward and to remain human, even as they come to question, and then attempt to redefine, what it means to be human.

To my mind, the point of this story isn’t the apocalypse or its cause; the author certainly doesn’t dwell on the calamity as if writing the script for a disaster flick. For all that there is a clear message here regarding our ghastly track record regarding treatment of this world that sustains us, this is as much (or more) a story about the conflict between the value of the individual and the community, and the double-edged sword of conformity. Not enough conformity, and you can’t hold a society together. Too much, and you have a system incapable of responding to the unavoidable changes brought by the passage of time. It also, in its way, underscores the danger of reduced diversity, of relying too much on too few to bear the weight of all that matters.

Some feel this story ends on a hopeful note, others think it depressing to the end. I must confess that my own opinion is divided between the two extremes. In the end, my recommendation is that you read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, it truly deserves its place among the classics of science fiction.

The Book That Changed You   Leave a comment

People often ask me to name the writers who have influenced my own work. It’s a question writers of fiction are asked almost as often as “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s an easier question to answer, believe me. When you’re focused on a given genre, science fiction and fantasy in my case, the question tends to be asked by fans of that genre, and they expect to hear familiar names. More often than not, they do hear them, from me, at least. Committed writers of science fiction and fantasy are readers of the same. To tell such tales well and honestly, you need a lot of experience reading stories written by others. That familiarity with a genre is necessary, if you want to produce anything new in it that fans of science fiction and fantasy will want to read. A long familiarity allows you to do this without producing work likely to be branded as derivative, since you will generally recognize when something sounds just a little too familiar.

So when I’m asked that question, recognizable names come readily to mind. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien, David Brin, Gene Wolfe, Larry Niven, C.J. Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey – I could fill many pages with nameable influences on my development as a story teller, but by now you surely get the point. But whichever recognizable names come quickly to mind in a conversation of this sort, I invariably add other authors names that in most cases do not provoke a nod of recognition. Authors of work lumped under the broad heading of nonfiction have had as much of, and as long-lasting, an influence on me as a writer as most of the fiction I’ve enjoyed over the years. The historian Page Smith, Isaac Asimov (again), naturalist Edwin Way Teale, Annie Dillard, John McPhee, and Stephen Jay Gould, among a great many others, have altered my way of perceiving and thinking about the world time and time again. There’s no way I can talk about the multitude of influences on my own writing, that have come to me through reading, without mentioning authors such as these. It’s all storytelling, after all.

Because I’m a writer, anything that has directly influenced me as a writer assumes great importance in any discussion of my work. But the influence of things read, be they books or shorter works, can and does affect how a person lives in a more general sense. I grew up reading various works of science fiction aimed at younger audiences: the Tom Swift Jr. adventures and certain works by Heinlein come immediately to mind. These set a lifelong habit of reading fantastical things firmly in place, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1973, when I first read Dune by Frank Herbert and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, that I realized that good fiction could do more than provide a few hours of escape from the pressures of so-called real life. It could be said that those books changed me as a reader of fiction, encouraging me to read more and more widely, and in that change opening me up to endless possibilities. You could say those books changed my life.

You could say that, but to be honest, a change in reading habits would be the equivalent, for most people, of a side hustle. Real life – whatever the hell that really means – can go on, with all its cares and concerns largely unaffected by altered tastes in literature. That might well have been the case for me, all other things being equal, but because I cast a wider net at that time, I found myself including short story anthologies in my reading, something I hadn’t done until then. And because of such inclusions, ended up reading a book that literally changed my life.

I may have been given a copy of this book, or may have purchased it myself; I can no longer remember clearly how I came to read it. But I read this collection of short fiction and the autobiographical anecdotes included by the author, and my love of writing changed from a pastime to a career goal. The book – especially the autobiographical material – made me realize that being a writer in the professional sense was an achievable goal, and one well worth pursuing. It might take a long time (Oh, I had no idea!), but it was doable. This anthology provided an example of how it might work, and inspired me to give it a try.

The book in question is The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying by, of course, Isaac Asimov. These are his first published stories, accompanied by the stories of his life in those time, and how all of that led to the stories being written and published. And I was, indeed, inspired to give writing a try as a profession because of this book. Would I have gone on to be a writer anyway? There’s no way to know, and the question is moot in any case. I did read this book, and it did prompt me to type up my first ever short story and send it off to a magazine. What followed took considerably more than eleven years, along with a technological revolution of truly sci-fi proportions into the bargain, but here I am at last placing my work out there in view of the reading public, and acquiring readers.

One book made me decide to give this a try, and that life-long effort to produce worthwhile stories and find a viable means for their distribution, has shaped or influenced almost every aspect of my life ever since. Everything that has happened to me since then has happened because where I was and what I was doing at that time was influenced, to some degree, by that decision to make writing the focus of my life. Every major decision has been made with writing added to one side or another of the balance. This is no exaggeration. My life decisions have all been made with thought given to how they might influence the writing I did at that time. Even my ill-advised decision to quit writing fits this pattern, since there would be no need to contemplate defeat if I hadn’t been in the fight in the first place. The Early Asimov actually changed the path my life followed. It was the trigger, and provides proof a single book – almost any book – can alter the trajectory of a life with profound consequences.

That’s my book, the one that set it all in motion.

What’s yours?

SOME STILL HEAR THE ECHOES   Leave a comment

Musings Prompted by Rereading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1976
(Mild spoiler warning.)

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman was not a book I picked up in a timely fashion, and it was already considered a classic of modern science fiction when I first read it in the mid-1980s. The 60s and early 70s were still relatively recent history for me, then, and so I had no trouble drawing the connections between this story and the Vietnam War so many, including the author, have pointed out. Having witnessed first-hand the consequences of PTSD in a Vietnam veteran I once knew, these connections resonated more strongly than might otherwise have been the case.

The story is told from the point of view (first person) of a man conscripted to serve in an elite military force meant to defend the human species from a hostile alien life form. Contact with that other species did not go well, although the recruits are a little unclear as to how and why it went wrong. Chosen for their unusually high intelligence, they are put through a basic military training that is as brutal as it is dangerous. Mistakes and mishaps can be immediately lethal, and casualties are all too common. Their first engagement with the enemy turns out to be a battle with a largely defenseless foe, and becomes an uncontrolled massacre. The enemy responds by upping the proverbial ante with lethal consequences for humanity as the war spreads. After surviving the required tour of duty, the narrator returns to an Earth so changed by the passage of time that he and his comrades simply cannot fit in. They are used as propaganda tools and then rejected by the society they fought to protect. Unable to navigate through a strange new world, the narrator and his closest comrade and lover re-enlist. Sent on separate missions, they are lost to each other due to the same temporal displacements that put them so out of touch with the Earth. (These displacements are caused by the style of space travel employed.) The narrator becomes a man out of synch with the times in which he lives, and cannot relate to the people he now commands in any effective way. The conflict in which he and the others are trapped alternately escalates and then stalemates, and even though the plot is complicated by the sci-fi trope of the relativistic consequences of interstellar travel, it all sounds horribly familiar.

As a story in its own right, The Forever War deserves its status as a classic. It’s a powerfully human story, full of the sort of speculations and imaginings that make science fiction what it is, a genre of ideas generated by the iconic question, “What if…?” The big what if question raised by this book, it seems to me, is what if we leave the confines of this world before we learn from the mistakes we’ve made here? What might the consequences be? The potential answer presented in The Forever War is all too easy to believe.

Many of us who grew up when I did, and more to the point, those somewhat older than me who were directly caught up in the Vietnam War, see the parallels here between fiction and reality all too clearly, from the false assumptions that led to the conflict all the way through to the dislocation and rejection of the veterans of that war. The Forever War is a mirror held up to our recent history, one that reflects it all too clearly.

Rereading The Forever War for this essay, I was at first quite surprised by how well it had “aged.” It still seems so relevant, even today. Then I realized I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. We are a society that places little value on history, our own or others, preferring mythologized versions of the events that made us what we are today to the truth, with its blemishes and all too frequent contradictions of dearly held beliefs. Because of this we are, again as a society, very slow to learn the lessons of even the recent past. There’s an old saying, that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat that history. This is all too true, and although the bells and whistles and the power of the bombs may change, the song remains eerily familiar. It’s also said that those who do come to understand the lessons of history are doomed to watch humanity reiterate its mistakes, often feeling powerless to prevent the repeated cycles, even as they listen to the echoes of their own recent past.

Deleted Scene   Leave a comment

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.

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