Monday, 9 April 2018

Lost Mars, edited by Mike Ashley

This anthology is subtitled "The Golden Age of the Red Planet" and is a companion volume to the British Library's Moonrise, reviewed in my previous post. Like that book, this one includes some of the more interesting but largely forgotten SF of the past, and starts with a substantial introduction in which the editor gives an overview of how Mars has been treated in fiction from the earliest times to the mid-20th century.

Interest in stories about visits to Mars were kindled by the development of the telescope. The most notable early tale appeared in 1744: The Speedy Journey, by German astronomer Eberhard Kindermann, who put all of the current knowledge or informed speculation about the planet into a fictional form. Just as with the Moon, actually getting to Mars was the problem early authors faced: the best Kindermann could do was to adopt a 17th century proposal for an airship held aloft by globes from which all air had been evacuated, with forward progress being made by the means of oars. His space travellers find intelligent humanoids living on Mars, and spend much time discussing religion. Other stories followed, always focusing on the Martian inhabitants who were generally held to be more advanced, intelligent and peaceful than humanity.

Interest in Mars moved up a gear after the close conjunction of 1877, during which the two Martian moons were discovered and the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli believed that he had observed straight lines which he called canali (channels). He never claimed that these were artificial, but others jumped to that conclusion (most notably the US astronomer Percival Lowell) so there was an explosion of fiction featuring the "canals" of Mars, constructed to channel water from wet poles to the dry deserts. These continued to represent the Martians as humanoid, wise and benevolent, until the rude shock of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, which created a sensation when published in 1897.

Fiction set on Mars then tended to spilt, one strand being the "planetary romances" (hero from Earth rescues beautiful Martian princess etc), initiated by the highly influential Edgar Rice Burroughs and followed-up by the US "pulp fiction" magazines, before being revived in a more thoughtful form by Leigh Brackett who in turn inspired Marion Zimmer Bradley. The other strand pictured Mars as a dead or dying planet, as in stories by E.C. Tubb, Walter M. Miller and most, notably, Ray Bradbury. One of my favourite novels, The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys, which I reviewed here a few years ago, also gets a mention.

So to the stories:

The Crystal Egg by H.G. Wells: first published 1897. Published in the same year as The War of the Worlds, this is a very different kind of story. It features an object rather than a person, a sphere made of crystal which belongs to the elderly owner of an antique shop. In certain conditions, he discovers that he can see what appears to be another world through the crystal. He involves a young experimenter who is able to determine that the world is Mars, populated by a variety of creatures. The story is notable for the depth of characterisation of the people and their relationships. A memorable and rather haunting tale.

Letters from Mars by W.S. Lach-Szyrma: first published c.1889. The author wrote a long series of stories purporting to be letters from a Venusian, a flying being who visited other planets and reported on his findings. In this selection of letters, he studies the Martians and the way in which they live. There are some interesting observations: the Martians keep warm by occupying deep cave systems heated using geothermal energy (the author argues that this form of energy should be adopted by humanity, along with tidal power). He also mentions fish farms as a way of resolving food shortages. A curious mixture of a dated approach with some modern ideas.

The Great Sacrifice by George C. Wallis: first published 1903. Despite the success of The War of the Worlds, many authors continued to portray the Martians as superior and benign compared with humanity. In this story, a warning is received from the planet concerning a vast meteor storm heading for the Solar System, which on plunging into the sun will cause it to flare up, burning life on the inner planets to a crisp. The Martians have a solution…

One point worth noting is that the main female character is psychologically stronger than the men; not that common in fiction of those days. 

The Forgotten Man of Space by P. Schuyler Miller: first published 1933. A miner on Mars finds himself stranded, with no means of returning to his base across a vast desert. Help arrives from an unexpected quarter, and the miner finds himself living a very strange life.

A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum: first published 1934. Another story featuring a man stranded far from his Mars base who benefits from unexpected local assistance, experiencing various adventures on his way home.

Ylla by Ray Bradbury: first published 1950. A very different kind of writing from the author of The Martian Chronicles, of which this is the first story: evocative, atmospheric, dream-like and poetic are all words which come to mind. The story is written from the viewpoint of a native Martian lady who dreams of strange men arriving from the third planet out from the Sun, even though it is of course known that conditions there would not support life…

Measureless to Man by Marion Zimmer Bradley: first published 1962. Humanity explores the almost-dead Mars, from which intelligent life has disappeared, leaving behind one empty city dubbed Xanadu. This is extremely difficult to reach due to distance and terrain, and several expeditions to it have met with disaster, with no survivors. The fate of the final attempt is seen from the viewpoint of a young expedition member, who discovers that the planet is not quite dead after all.

Without Bugles by E.C. Tubb: first published 1952. The only human base on Mars is struggling to survive in the face of the severe conditions, and is threatened with closure. But there is a reason why that can't happen.

Crucifixus Etiam by Walter M. Miller, Jr.: first published 1953. Workers undertaking giant projects on Mars realise that they can never return, and mutiny is threatened until the reason for their presence emerges.

The Time-Tombs by J.G. Ballard: first published 1963. A writer as atmospheric as Bradbury but better known for "collapse of society" novels, this is an unusual story set on a dead Mars on which the former inhabitants have left elaborate, and very valuable, tombs.

Another interesting collection, none of which I had previously read except for Ylla. Nearly all of the stories downplay the severity of the conditions on Mars; presumably partly due to a lack of precise scientific knowledge, at least when the earlier stories were written, but possibly also because it would limit the scope of the stories.  The bitter cold at night is noted, but it is commonly assumed that while the atmosphere is very thin, it will be more or less breathable, perhaps with some assistance.

The main discovery for me was Marion Zimmer Bradley: I have been aware of her name for as long as I can remember, but seem to have read little or nothing by her. Measureless to Man is my favourite story from this group (followed by The Crystal Egg and Ylla) and and I will be looking for more stories from her. The other take-away for me was a reminder of just how beautifully Ray Bradbury could write: The Martian Chronicles is due another visit, after a long absence!

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Moonrise, edited by Mike Ashley

This anthology is subtitled "The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures" and is the first, along with Lost Mars (watch this space), to be published in the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series. The publishers have kindly sent me copies to review, but frankly I needed no incentive to get stuck into these books, which are intended to retrieve some of the more interesting but largely forgotten SF of the past.

There is a lengthy introduction by the editor, pointing out some of the high points of fiction concerning voyages to our Moon. The stories have of course evolved along with our understanding of our satellite. Accounts of what might be found, if only it were possible to visit, have been around for at least 2,000 years, and until the 20th century they mostly assumed that some sort of humanoid life would be found there, probably gigantic. In many cases the purpose of the stories was merely to satirise, or contrast with, human society on Earth. For most of this time, writers faced the problem of how to reach the Moon; early solutions included being sucked up into the air by a waterspout or blown up by a volcanic eruption, climbing a beanstalk, or strapping on giant wings. Others dodged the issue by portraying everything that happened as a dream.

The invention of the telescope allowed astronomers to provide much better descriptions of the Moon's surface. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler put his knowledge into fictional form in Somnium (published posthumously in 1634), in which he speculates that there can be little if any atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon (confirmed a few decades later), and that there would be extremes of temperature between day and night. Other authors were more concerned with religious and philosphical debates with the supposed inhabitants of the satellite. The well-known author Cyrano de Bergerac was the first to propose the use of a series of rockets to make the journey. One interesting early novel, published in 1783 by Belgian baroness Cornélie Wouters, was the first to utilise the newly-discovered technology of lighter-than-air balloons to reach the Moon, which proved to have a society entirely run by women – and all the better for it!

Much excitement was generated in 1835 with the publication in a newspaper of the discoveries of the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel, made using a powerful new telescope in South Africa. These included forests and all forms of animal life. This turned out to be merely a hoax by a journalist, but it did spark much public interest, as did the use of some form of "anti-gravity" as employed by H.G. Wells but first proposed by other authors, starting in 1827. After various proposals for using giant guns to launch spacecraft (notably by Jules Verne) the use of rockets was proposed by the Russian scientist Tsiolkovsky, around the end of the 19th century. These of course ultimately led to Werner von Braun and the start of the space age.

So to the stories:

Dead Centre by Judith Merril: first published 1954. This is very different in focus and tone from most of the rest of the stories, in that it concerns the impact on a family – and especially a small boy – when the boy's father is sent to be the first man to land on the Moon. A well-constructed but depressingly downbeat tale. There is one oddity – the main limitation on the length of time people can survive in a spacecraft is assumed to be food, not air.

A Visit to the Moon by George Griffith: first published 1901. An episode from a longer story, A Honeymoon in Space, which was initially serialised as was usual at the time. According to the editor's introduction to this episode Griffiths, a prolific writer of "scientific romance" was even more popular than H.G. Wells in his day, but he died in 1906 at the age of 49 and has been forgotten since.

This is a story of curious contrasts. It starts with a decidedly old-fashioned feel as a rich and titled man, having funded the development of a spaceship with a new form of propulsion, has decided to use it to take his bride around the solar system for their honeymoon. They are accompanied by a talented engineer who, being their social inferior, of course lives and eats in a separate part of the spacious vessel.

Their first stop is the Moon, and here the mood changes to something much more modern. The description of the conditions on the Moon are (up to a point) so accurate that they might have been written in the late 1960s. I was particularly startled to read a comment that while there was a lot of fine dust on the surface it wasn't a problem since, in the absence of an atmosphere, it dropped straight back to the surface when disturbed instead of billowing around. The narrator also comments that the "dark side" of the Moon is much the same as the part we can see (contrary to common belief at the time). There is one technical oversight which seems to have been widespread: while the need to wear face masks and carry oxygen while walking on the Moon was understood, the need to use a pressurised suit was not, and well-insulated clothing sufficed to deal with the temperature extremes! Where the author's description of the Moon departs from reality is (inevitably) in the discovery of life, but even that is a lot more reasoned and credible than in most such stories at the time.

Sunrise on the Moon by John Munro: first published 1894. An oddity, this one, as it starts out with a dream sequence, written in decidedly purple prose, describing what sunrise would look like. This then segues into a lecture on the conditions to be found on the Moon (the author mainly wrote popular science articles). Like Griffith's tale this is surprisingly accurate in general, although the probability that life developed and might still hang on in some form inevitably features. One error which was common at this time is to attribute the Moon's cratered landscape entirely to vulcanicity rather than asteroid strikes.

First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells: first published 1901. An extract from the end of the novel. This is the one really famous story featured in this collection, so is unlikely to need much of an introduction. The main point of interest in this extract is the nature of the Selenites who (for once) are not humanoids, but more like giant ants. It is particularly interesting to note the way in which their development is channelled into different forms for different purposes: a precursor to Huxley's Brave New World. 

Sub-Satellite by Charles Cloukey: first published 1928. This is mainly notable for the precocity of the author, who was only sixteen when this (his first success) was published, and died at the age of nineteen having published only eight more stories. The editor observes that this story contains one of the first references in fiction to rockets being used to propel spacecraft, rather than anti-gravity or other mystical power sources, and the vessel also contains a computer (he might have added that the computer was coupled to a radar set in order to detect and avoid any meteoroids). The author also explores a possible effect of firing a gun on the Moon, in terms of ballistics: while his proposal is just about theoretically possible, it's practically impossible, but is anyway the product of a remarkable imagination.

Lunar Lilliput by William F. Temple: first published 1938. A very strange tale this with a very dated feel, for me definitely in the field of fantasy rather than SF. The title is a clue…

Nothing Happens on the Moon, by Paul Ernst: first published 1939. A man is left on his own to manage an emergency base on the Moon for a period of months. An exceedingly boring job since nothing ever happens, until it does… The basic scenario is strongly reminiscent of Moon, the 2009 film directed by Duncan Jones, but the story shifts into a more exotic kind of horror as it develops.

Whatever Gods There Be by Gordon R. Dickson: first published 1961. A tense drama as the crew of a moon rocket try to recover from an accident in order to fly home. It's those cold equations…

Idiot's Delight by John Wyndham: first published 1958. An episode from a series on the Troon family, collected as The Outward Urge in 1959. A nuclear war has devastated the Earth and led to fighting between the Russian and American Moon bases, but the smaller British one has been left untouched – so far. A psychodrama in which the base commander is faced with mutiny as he wrestles with his dilemma.

After a Judgement Day by Edmond Hamilton: first published 1963. Like the previous story, this has a Moon base surviving the devastation of human life on Earth, this time by an accidental plague rather than nuclear war. There are only two people left on the base, but there is still one worthwhile job they can do.

The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke: first published 1951. A famous story as it provided the initial seed of what became the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. An excellent, rather haunting short story, but I couldn't help thinking at the end that Clarke unnecessarily stretched credibility too far by the enormous time scale he chose. Would an advanced civilisation still be interested in something they set up hundreds of millions of years ago?

Apart from First Men in the Moon (read too long ago to recall much) and The Sentinel, all of these stories were new to me. While many of the individual stories may be found elsewhere, it is fascinating and instructive to read them all together in this context. For me, the main discovery was George Griffith and I note that a 480-page paperback titled George Griffith, Science Fiction Collection was published in 2014, so I'll add that to my purchase list.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Beast Master, by Andre Norton and The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

These two novels appear together here simply because both were recently chosen by the Classic Science Fiction forum ( -  there is one 30+ year old and one modern book chosen for discussion each month)

With the exception of the Janus books, I had read very little of Norton's works until quite recently, and The Beast Master (first published in 1959) was new to me.

The story has a bold and dramatic start – with the Earth being burned to a cinder in a war with the Xik, and the surviving humans being dispersed around the galaxy. One of these is Hosteen Storm, a Navaho, a former commando and a beast master: someone who is able to connect mentally with genetically modified animals. He travels with his animal team to Arzor on a long-planned revenge mission, but finds on arrival that the circumstances are not what he expected, and he is tested to the limit in battling unexpected enemies before reaching an optimistic conclusion.

It has been noted by other reviewers that Norton had a penchant for setting stories in rural or wilderness areas rather than cities, and that native tribes often feature. Both are true of this book, which also shows what I am coming to recognise as her tightly-plotted adventures, with rich descriptions and, for the period, good characterisation. She was a very competent story-teller, and I finished this book in two sessions. However, the story did not seem particularly memorable to me, and did not capture my interest in the same way as her Janus novels, which are among my favourites.

I note that there was a sequel,  Lord of Thunder, published in 1962, then three more co-authored by Lyn McConchie no less than four decades later: Beast Master's Ark (2002), Beast Master's Circus (2004), and Beast Master's Quest (2006 – the year after Norton's death). There was also a US film, The Beastmaster, made in 1982 and a Canadian TV series, BeastMaster showing 1999 to 2002, but neither stuck to the original story.


The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin comes highly recommended, among other things winning the Hugo award in 2016. It is set on a tectonically very active world in which civilisation is routinely crippled every few centuries by periods of catastrophic earthquake and volcanic events – known as the Fifth Season – after which the survivors have to rebuild and start again. So the landscape is littered with the remnants of past civilisations – deadcivs – the most enigmatic and impressive of which are vast obelisks which hover and drift in the air, whose purpose was forgotten long before.

The people of this world appear to be mostly human, with exceptions: one variety of human has a special and spectacular talent, the ability to sense the structure of the ground beneath their feet and by an effort of will to draw energy from around them to stop – or trigger – tectonic events (echoes here of Orson Scott Card's A Planet Called Treason). These orogenes are widely mistrusted and are controlled by the Fulcrum, a paramilitary organisation whose Guardians train and discipline the orogenes. There is also another and very different form of humanoid life – the mysterious and highly dangerous stone eaters who rarely interact with people.

The structure of the story follows the current fashion of starting with separate plot threads which at first appear to be unconnected but are pulled together in the latter part of the tale. Jemisin adds her own twist to this as is apparent early on, in that she starts with a catastrophic incident close to the end of the story, and the various threads take place at different times; some before and some after the incident. So the first thread starts with Essun in the comm (community) of Tirimo, a middle-aged woman who is secretly an orogene. Then we start to follow the life of Damaya, a lonely young girl, from the time that her orogenic ability is discovered through the early part of her training in the Fulcrum. The final major thread follows a few years in the life of Syenite, a female orogene, and her relationship with Alabaster, a senior orogene with whom she works and who has a curious link to Antimony, a stone eater. The chapters follow each of these threads in rotation.

The story is cleverly constructed and well-written. One unusual feature is that it is told in the third person except for Essun's chapters which are related in the second person – the identity of the narrator, who refers to Essun as "you", does not become apparent until the end.  I found it slow to get going and didn't really become engaged with it until about half-way through, when the action accelerates to the point that I was eager to return to the book each day to discover what happened next. The story does not disappoint, but I admired it more than I liked it. The author has a habit of killing off not just characters but entire comms after describing them well enough to make the reader begin to care about them, the overall effect being rather depressing.

The Fifth Season is the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy. The sequel, The Obelisk Gate, is already available – and won the Hugo Award in 2017.