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[November 6, 1962] The road not taken… (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

What if the good guys had lost World War 2?

Imagine a United States split in three pieces: the East Coast is a protectorate of the Reich.  The West has been colonized by the Japanese.  A rump free state sprawls across the Rockies and western Plains.  The Holocaust has extended to Africa, and the two fascist superpowers are locked in a Cold War with stakes as high, if not higher than in our real world.

Philip K. Dick has returned to us after a long hiatus with a novel, The Man in the High Castle.  It is an ambitious book, long for a science fiction novel.  Castle‘s setting is an alternate history, one in which the Axis powers managed to defeat the Allies…somehow (it is never explained).  Dick explores this universe through five disparate viewpoint protagonists, whose paths intertwine in complex, often surprising ways:

Major Rudolf Wegener: An agent of the Abwehr, the German foreign espionage service known for its subversive, anti-Nazi activities. Wegener is desperate to make contact with the Japanese government to inform them of a German plan to turn the Cold War hot – a conflict the Japanese cannot win.  His contact intermediary is…

Nobusuke Tagomi: Head of the Japanese trade mission in San Francisco, a deeply spiritual and traditional man who abhors violence.  Like many Japanese posted in the former United States, he has an outsized fancy for American antiques such as those provided by…

Robert Childan: A prissy antiques dealer, who accepts the superiority of the ancient civilizations of the Far East, having adopted the Japanese mindset almost entirely.  He is resolved to dismantle the cultural heritage of his nation one little treasure at a time – that is, until he discovers a new American culture growing like a flower in a footprint, a culture represented by the art whose creator is…

Frank Frink: Formerly a forger of American historical artifacts, he has turned his expertise to the creation of exquisite modern jewelry.  He is a Jew in a world where being a Jew is a capital crime.  He is married to but long-separated from…

Juliana Frink: A ravishing beauty and Judo expert living on her own in the Rocky Mountain States.  She links up with a mournful Italian truck driver who turns out to be an SD (Nazi secret police) assassin tasked with murdering the author of…

The Grasshopper lies heavy: A sort of sixth character that unites the protagonists.  It is a novel of alternate history in which Germany and Japan lost the Second World War.  Banned in the Reich and Reich-controlled countries, it is a best-seller elsewhere.  Its window on a world in which fascism did not triumph offers a scrap of hope, a vision of a world where sanity prevailed.  It is interesting to note that the timeline of Grasshopper is not that of our universe, but one in which the British and Americans are the post-war superpowers. 

There is a strong suggestion that what makes the world of Grasshopper so compelling is that it is, in fact, the real world.  This goes beyond wishful thinking.  At one point, Tagomi actually wills himself away from Castle’s timeline.  Castle’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen confesses that he did not so much write Grasshopper as simply draft it per the dicta of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese oracle book whose use is widespread in the Japanese-influenced regions, and which Abendsen consulted throughout the writing of his book.

Castle takes a good third of its length to really get started.  Ostensibly a thriller of an alternate Cold War, it is really a character study focused on the myriad minutiae of interaction.  How do conqueror and conquered interact?  How complete can cultural assimilation be?  What is the character of pride in a defeated race?  These are all good questions, and Dick does a decent job giving his take on their answers.

There are significant problems with Castle, however.  For one, it suffers from lazy worldbuilding.  The book is an opportunity for Dick to draw a wide cast of characters and depict their complex web of interactions.  But the underpinnings of the world they inhabit are implausible.  First and foremost, it would have been impossible, logistically, for the United States to have fallen to the Axis Powers.  For that matter, I have doubts that the Soviet Union was ever in existential danger.  Certainly the Reich never came close to making The Bomb – their racial theory-tinged science wouldn’t have allowed it.  It is sobering when you realize that the Allies managed to fight two world wars and develop the most expensive and powerful weapon ever known all at the same time.  An Axis victory in World War 2 resulting in the conquest of the United States is simply a nonstarter.

Setting that aside (since we’d have no book otherwise) the Nazi feats in Castle, accomplished in just 17 years and including the colonization of Mars, Venus, the moon; as well as the damming of the Mediterranean(!) are just silly.  In fact, a clever touch would have been to suggest that those feats were actually purely propaganda.  They might well have been, but Dick plays it straight in the book. 

Dick also seems to have not done much homework before writing Castle.  The politics and depictions of Nazi characters could have been (and likely were) derived from a cursory read of Shirer’s recent instant classic, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, without much elaboration or extrapolation.  Fair enough.  Dick spends most of his time in the Japanese-occupied Pacific States of America, anyway, so he doesn’t need to develop the German side too much. 

There again, however, we have no depth.  The inner monologues of the Japanese (and the most Nippophile of subjects, Childan) are distinguished mostly by Dick’s eschewing of the definite article.  In other words, there is no “the” and precious few pronouns.  That is technically how the Japanese language works, but it’s not as if those concepts don’t exist – they’re simply implied.  Moreover, it doesn’t make sense that Childan would speak and think this way.  The execution is clumsy.  It makes the Japanese come off as pidgin-speakers, incapable of erudition in English.

The Japanese and Easternized Americans also exhibit a painful stiffness, and utterly spartan adherence to the ancient arts and ways.  It’s as if Dick had read Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture (one of the recent wave of books the Japanese have released to rehabilitate the image Westerners have of them) and took it as representative of all Japanese culture.  I’ve been to Japan ten times.  I’ve studied Japanese for two decades.  I have a great many Japanese friends.  They are as varied as any other set of people, and this monodimensional portrayal does them no favors – nor does it interest particularly. 

Add to this the sterile, detached atmosphere of the book, as if the words were cloaked in gauze, and it makes for an often sloggish read.  I understand that the style underscores the bleak hopelessness of life in the new America, but there should have been some variation among the characters.  They all think similarly.  A sort of cynical weariness.  It’s even justifiable, but it’s oppressive and monotonous. 

The reason for Dick’s long absence from the science fiction genre (alternate history is not strictly science fiction; one of Dick’s characters even says as much in Castle, but let’s not split hairs) is that he, like Sturgeon and many others, tried to make it big with a mainstream book.  Like Sturgeon, he was not successful, so it appears he has tried to bridge the gap between SF and the mainstream by picking a particularly popular topic.  Shirer and Suzuki have certainly plowed the field for Dick, and early buzz around Castle is strong. 

But unlike Heinlein’s mainstream success, Stranger in a Strange Land or Sturgeon’s less successful (but better) Venus Plus X, I find it difficult to discern an overall message in Castle.  I find myself comparing Castle unfavorably with Orwell’s 1984, a book that was not only an excellent novel, but also a profound cautionary tale against Communism and the pursuit of power for power’s sake.  Castle doesn’t really say much other than “life under the Japanese would be pretty lousy, albeit better than under the Nazis.”  The interesting relationships between characters, and what Dick tries to convey through them, are subverted by the lack of plausibility of Dick’s alternate 1962 and by the flawed and flat portrayals of those who live in it. 

Of course, maybe these flaws are intentional.  The ending suggests that the world of Castle isn’t even real, just some sort of half-baked flight of fancy.  One might conclude that all of the stereotypes, all the shallow history, the mind-numbing sameness of the characters are just beams to support the structure of a colossal cosmic joke.  That Castle really is just a Dickian daydream set to paper, and that the styling of its components is designed to underscore the unreality of the story’s proceedings.  Seen in this light, Castle would be subtly brilliant.

However, I suspect that gives Dick too much credit.  I think Dick was really just throwing vague ideas out there and hoping we’d Rorschach them into something coherent.  Castle is a readable book, a well-timed book, and it knits a number of characters together somewhat entertainingly, at times profoundly.  But it’s also a sensational, shallow book.  An overwrought, affected book.  It’s not bad – Dick is never bad – but it is not the masterpiece I think many people feel it is destined to be. 

Three stars and a half stars.




[Oct. 25, 1962] The Cold War is all wet (Dean McLaughlin’s Dome World)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

There is one singular difference between the Cold War and all conflicts that have preceded it: for the first time in history, both adversaries have the power to wipe each other out utterly.  Direct conflict is madness, and indeed, while we may rattle the sabers incessantly, it is this mutually assured destruction that may preserve the peace for longer than in any era before it.  Perhaps the Chinese and Indians, whose border is seeing the greatest conflict in the world since Korea, need their own atomic bombs.  On the other hand, the deployment of Russian nukes in Cuba, and the responsive blockade, may well turn our Cold War hot any day now, so the jury is still out on the deterrent value of the weapons.

As luck would have it, the Cold War has crept into my SF reading, too.  Dean McLaughlin describes a new variety of the conflict in his new (and first!) science fiction book, Dome World.  Deep sea dome cities have been set up by the world’s new superpowers — the United States of the Americas and the African Union.  Their tenuous peace is deteriorating fast as both powers escalate claims over the rich mineral deposits on the ocean floor.  The fragile domes are vulnerable to even the slightest attack.  As the warships start to circle overhead, what can anyone do to preserve the existence of the undersea communities?

Dome World is really two stories in one, the second half taking place some time after the first.  Part I was originally the March 1958 Astounding novelette, The Man on the Bottom — a piece of which I have no recollection whatsoever.  Set at the beginning of the above-described conflict, it is up to Mason, the manager of the American Wilmington dome to find a middle path between the nuclear Sympleglades on either side of the Atlantic.

Part II is entirely original to the novel.  Years after Mason’s solution, conflict is brewing again.  This time, it is between newly independent domes and those settled by Mainlanders.  Macklin, a producer of private bathyscapes with a bad heart, is tapped to negotiate a peaceful settlement to end the increasing Mainlander raids on seabottom dwellings.  Can he succeed before time runs out…for his community and himself?

Mclaughlin’s undersea world is beautifully detailed, a logical extrapolation of the Aquanaut exploration of the ocean floor that began just this year.  His protagonists are weary, guilt-soaked men thrust into positions of moment by history — or are they in those positions because they are great men to begin with?  Neither Mason and Macklin asked for the responsibility of saving their respective peoples, and neither relish their positions.  Yet, they feel compelled to act, nevertheless.  The Journey’s editor recently observed that leaders are those for whom the drive to act is greater than the fear that they might be taking the wrong action.  That fear acts much like an atomic barrier — an electron jumps levels only in extraordinary circumstances, and similarly, it takes an extraordinary person to jump out of her/his level to the next.

Dome World’s stories are really quite good.  Unfortunately, McLaughlin tends to get in his own way.  Perhaps because he didn’t have enough material to fill a novel, he frequently repeats himself.  His sentences are redundant.  He says the same thing in slightly different words.  Often.  At first, this feels like a deliberate attempt to convey the ponderous inexorability of the upcoming war and the bone-tiredness of Mason.  It’s constant throughout the book, however, and smacks of padding.  Also, as William Atheling, Jr. pointed out in the August issue of AXE, McLaughlin also has a perverse aversion for the word “said.”  I’m as much a fan of creative dialogue as anyone, but McLaughlin takes it to extremes.  Particularly bad are the questions that characters “wonder” to others rather than say.  Wondering is something I take to be internal, not spoken.

In any event, if you can tolerate these literary tics, Dome World actually moves pretty briskly, and the two mysteries that are Mason and Macklin’s solutions are worth waiting for.  Three and half stars.




[October 12, 1962] What beats hate… (Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Lorelei Marcus

It’s a scary time to be alive. The Russians are sending “equipment” to Cuba — equipment such as soldiers and missiles. The Berlin Wall is forcing many Germans to remain trapped under Communism. On a larger scale, overpopulation is slowly overtaking the Earth. In 100 years our world may be nothing more than a depleted husk filled with hungry people, or maybe an empty rock polluted with radiation. If only someone could step in and say ‘time out’, and just make everyone get along.

But, when you think about it, is that really such a good idea?

A new book came out recently, called A Wrinkle in Time. It’s written by Madeleine L’Engle, a new writer on the young adult fiction scene. Wrinkle is about a young misfit teenager named Meg Murray and her adventures across time and space. With the help of three aliens (disguised as a trio of witches), she travels to unimaginable worlds to rescue her father, who has disappeared after experimenting with hyperdimensional travel. One world is a beautiful garden planet populated by flying centaurs. Another is a misty place inhabited by blind, sensitive creatures. And the third, where Meg’s father is imprisoned, is the regimented world of Camazotz ruled by IT, a domineering mind that keeps the population of humanoids running like evil clockwork.  Everywhere, planets are shrouded in the Black Thing, causing strife and hardship, edging them toward the machine-like conformity of Camazotz.  Even Earth is under a dark shadow.

Relying on her innate talents and those of her companions, precocious little brother Charles Wallace and the bright and alluring schoolmate, Calvin, Meg must defeat IT to win back her father.  In the end, it is because of Meg’s stubborn nonconformity, and because of the love she and her companions share for each other, that they are able to rescue Dr. Murray and vanquish, if only in a small battle, the darkness of IT.

Wrinkle dives into the dark problems of conformity, shows the hardships of being a genius, and most of all, highlights the true power of love. The world is a very dark and scary place with lots of problems. Problems that could be fixed easily by getting everyone to do things a certain way. However, Wrinkle‘s message is that it shouldn’t be so simple. Human beings are complex, and we all have differing opinions. These opinions define who we are, our personalities; take that away and we are no more than husks, performing duties like machines.

It is true that differing opinions are also the source of conflict and war, but that is not their only purpose. If our existence is to simply fulfill a task like we’re told, like a computer, then what’s the point to existing at all? Without opinions there is no desire, no discovery, no love. We live to please ourselves and others, and without that there is no point to living.

Seeing the world in this way makes it a little less terrifying. These challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. We’re not supposed to simply conform and give up. There are problems in the world and they come from the choices we have made, but the point is: We can make choices, and we need to value that ability, because it means we are alive. I have hope that we’ll make the right choices. Wrinkle’s author clearly does, too.

Now you didn’t just come here to read an analysis, so here are my personal thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time. I did not read the story conventionally — my father actually read the book to me and my mother in chapters at bedtime. Between his reading and the immersive story, it was truly an amazing experience for me. It was almost as if I was in the story with the characters! I believe this was partly because the main character, Meg, is so relatable in that she is super smart. Most stories for kids and teens right now are action comics, slice of life stories, or simple fantasy novels. Though A Wrinkle in Time could arguably fit into all three of these genres, it’s also something we’ve never seen before. All of the characters are very intelligent, including the children. After seeing so many stories with ‘strong boys’ or ‘beautiful girls’, it is so relieving to see intelligent characters with such depth in a novel aimed at teenagers.

I really love this novel. I love the story, I love the message, I love the settings, I love the characters, and I love the writing! I think my main nitpick would be the fact that Calvin is way too mature for a 14 year old boy. That aside, this novel incorporates many of my values and philosophies. Intelligence, and using one’s intelligence, is an important aspect of the story, mature themes about the world and its problems are displayed in an optimistic light, and love conquers hate in the end. These themes throughout the story are what make it so dear to my heart.

Overall, this is an amazing book that I highly recommend you read. Even if you’ve already read it, reread it again! I think it would be especially good to read when you’re feeling hopeless. In the end, there’s no way to make the world’s problems disappear, but that’s a good thing. The challenges we face every day to better ours and others’ lives are what make life worth living. I give this story a record 5 stars! I believe there is nothing in it that should bring it to anything less than a perfect score. I would love to hear what you all think of A Wrinkle in Time and what you believe the message is too! Feel free to drop a line about your thoughts on it, and as always,

This is the Young Traveler, signing off.




[August 25, 1962] Two Gallons of Adventure, Extra Pulp (Andre Norton’s Eye of the Monster and Sea Siege)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Science fiction is often profound.  It provides cautionary tales; it explores thorny social issues that are difficult to discuss without metaphor; it glimpses the future.

But much of the time, science fiction is just an escape, a genre ripe for stories of adventure.  The vast frontiers of space or under the sea or the frozen arctic wastes have been the setting for countless such tales since the dawn of the Pulp Era.

The prolific Andre Norton had made this type of story her stock in trade.  Whether set in a fantasy world, an historical setting, or in a far-flung galactic tableau, her works typically feature a young man gallivanting in a rough-and-tumble environment, surviving by virtue of wit and physical exertion.

American publishing house, Ace Books, also makes this fare its bread and butter.  They are perhaps best known for their “Ace Doubles:” For 45 cents, you get not one, but two short science fiction novels.  These are often novelized serials from sf magazines.  Occasionally, they are purpose-written pieces.  Some are subjected to unfortunate edits to cram them into the 250-page format.  In short, Ace is something of a bargain-basement venue — the pulps of the book world, if you will.

Ace and Norton are, therefore, something of a match made in heaven.  The recent Ace Double, F-147, features two Norton pieces back to back, one reprint novel and one new novella.  While it’s nothing to write home about, it will keep you entertained on a long round-trip car, boat, or plane ride.

Eye of the Monster

The novella half of F-147 is strongly influenced by the recent decolonization in Africa.  Monster stars Rees Naper, a teenager whose world is turned upside down when the reptilian inhabitans of Ishkur revolt against the Terran inhabitants upon the withdrawal of colonial police protection from the planet.  Towns are razed, laboratories smashed, religious missions demolished.  Naper must make a perilous trek across a treacherous jungle landscape in an armored transport.  His goal is simple: to save his own life as well as those of a colonist boy and two female Salarkans (one mature, one a child), feline traders from another star.  Can he make it to the better-protected starport before the Ishkurians find him?

Two factors, one positive and one negative, make this exciting but rather ordinary piece of adventure stand out. 

On the plus side, I greatly appreciated the character of Ishbi.  The resourceful Salarkan is as important to the story as Rees, tough and competent.  Moreover, there isn’t a shade of romance; just two resilient refugees overcoming obstacles.  I suspect that Norton made Ishbi an alien explicitly for the purpose of ensuring that there could be a male/female relationship on a platonic, equal basis.

The natives of Ishkur don’t make out so well.  Replace Ishkurians with Africans and you’ve got a dead ringer for a tale of noble White settlers and savage Blacks in the Dark Continent.  What a far cry from Reynold’s nuanced Mahgreb series, recently published in Analog.  It would not have taken much to add dimension to the story; instead, it comes off as insensitive.

Nevertheless, it is a good read, and though the Ishkurians get a shallow, bigoted (by analogy) portrayal, the character of Ishbi is a bright light in a genre dominated by men.  Three stars.

Sea Siege

This novel was originally published five years ago, and it feels older.  The exotic locale for Monster was an Africa analog; for Sea Siege, it is the tiny sun-baked West Indies isle of Santa Isadore.  Our hero this time is a young man improbably named “Griff Gunston,” son of a famed icthyologist.  As a frequent diver, he notices an increasing number of queer events: patches of “Red Plague,” a radioactive and toxic algae, are spreading across the sea; octopi are displaying greater intelligence and menacing behaviors; ships are disappearing, rumored to have been sunk by sea serpents!

Amidst all this, Cold War tensions are ratcheting up.  A detachment of American “Seabees” arrives to construct an atomic-powered supply base.  The island’s natives, disconcerted by recent events and resentful of the disturbances they blame on the outsiders, become restive.  Just as the frequency of lost divers and vessels reaches a fevered pace, nuclear war breaks out between the superpowers.  Continents are torn asunder, new volcanoes are spawned, and Santa Isadore is wracked with geological spasms.

End Part One.

The second half of the novel is a tale of survival in a world gone mad.  The weather is freakish as caustic winds lash the island, culminating in a ravaging storm.  Worse, whether spurred by radiation-induced mutation or the atomic rupture of the deeps, the ocean has turned against the land-dwellers: octopi-sapiens and their sea serpent thralls make the waters uninhabitable, capsizing ships and snatching people from the beaches.  But the ingenuity of humanity, enabled by both the advanced atomic-fueled science of the navy personnel and the native lore of the islanders, wins the day.  At least temporarily.

Part Two ends with a number of untied threads: Will the increasingly hostile Santa Isadoreans continue to abide the American soldiers?  Can there be a meeting of the minds between people and the cephalopod terrors?  Are there any centers of population left in the rest of the world? 

Sadly, there is no Part Three.  If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to make it up.

This is part of what makes Sea Siege a strange book.  It takes rather long to get started, a good deal of time spent on Griff’s undersea adventures.  Things don’t really move until the mid-point; Part 2 is briskly paced.  Because of the plodding set-up and all the unresolved questions, one can’t help but think that Norton meant to write a third part, but just never got around to it.

Norton’s novel is also unusual when viewed side-by-side with the other post-apocalyptic books of the time, e.g. On the Beach and Alas, Babylon.  One starts Sea Siege with the impression that, like those books, it is going to be a gritty, realistic story.  The departure into scientific fantasy, while not inexpertedly handled, feels odd. 

Par for the course with Norton, there is an interesting and diverse cast of characters.  The islanders are depicted with dignity; in fact, there is a strong suggestion that their unique technologies and reactionary mindset are a necessary yin to the yang of the headstrong and arrogant foreigners, whose hubris ultimately led to the Earth’s near destruction.  And it is clear that Norton has done her homework: her depiction of the Caribbean is evocative, highly sensual, and at times reads like a lightly fictionalized transcription of LIFE’s recent picture-book, The Sea.

All in all, it is a pleasant if slightly unsatisfying read, particularly if you enjoy it as I did — accompanied by Harry Belafonte’s hit record, Calypso.  Three stars.




[July 24, 1962] Comrade Future (More Soviet Science Fiction)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

We hear a lot about the Soviet Union these days, but usually in the form of an unflattering cartoon of Premier Khruschev or photos of people trying to defect from Communism.  Occasionally a hopeful reprinting last year’s meeting between Jack and Niki in Vienna or a scornful reprinting of Khruschev banging his shoe on the United Nations podium.

If we think about the Soviet people, head-scarfed Babushkas, gray-suited apparatchiks, uniformed goose-stepping soldiers, and accordion-playing dancers come to mind.  We just don’t get many glimpses from behind the Iron Curtain.  So when we do get a peek, it’s an exciting opportunity.  For instance, Time-Life just released a new picture-book on Russia, which sheds a little light on a hidden section of the world.

Another surprise is a new collection of Soviet science fiction called (appropriately enough) More Soviet Science Fiction

This book, along with the anthology’s predecessor and the occasional Josef Svebada reprint in Fantasy and Science Fiction, comprises all of the Eastern Bloc sf literature available in English.  As such, it’s difficult to determine if these stories are representative of Soviet sf as a whole, or rather cherry-picked for their intended audience.  There are some commonalities that are suggestive either of a Soviet style, or at least what the editor thinks would appeal to foreigners.  Certainly, there is a kind of mild clunkyness one comes to expect from a less than expert translation, though it never detracts seriously from the reading.  Rather, it just accentuates the foreign nature of the material.

Another universal aspect is the emphasis on explaining the science.  Fully a page or two of each story gets extremely technical; the Soviets eschew more integrated scientific exposition.  It’s almost as if laying out their case in full is a requirement of publication. 

Finally, all of the stories have an edifying component.  They are all parables – whatever entertainment value they may provide, you are supposed to learn from them.  The lessons they teach tell you a lot about the teacher culture.

There are five stories, the first comprising more than half of the book:

The Heart of the Serpent, by Ivan Yefremov

Seven hundred years in the future, humanity’s first faster-than-light ship embarks on a mission to explore Cor Serpentis, a giant orange star 74 light years from Earth.  The time dilation consequences of the ship’s hyperdrive mean that hundreds of years will pass back home before the crew returns.  Yet, the demographically balanced team of enlightened Communists are stoically resigned to doing their duty in service to their species’ destiny.

On the way to their destination, they chance upon an alien vessel.  As extraterrestrials had been theoretical until that point, this promises to be the most significant discovery in the history of space travel.  The crew discuss at length what they expect to find.  One camp believes that two different planets couldn’t possibly produce similar beings.  Another feels that the human form is the natural end-point of evolution, much as Communism is the inevitable destination for all societies.

I’ll let you guess which guess is right…

I do appreciate the overwhelming positivity of the encounter, in contrast to other stories (Yefremov specifically calls out Murray Leinster’s classic, First Contact).  And there is a stately beauty to the piece.  The spaceship and its mission are depicted with a spare elegance that feels futuristic.

Siema, by Anatoly Dnieprov

The most old-fashioned of the pieces is a bit of Pygmalion gone wrong.  An engineer constructs a brilliant robot whose computing power is such that she (it takes on the female gender) becomes a sentient being.  A rather obsessed creature with an unquenchable desire for knowledge untempered by any tinge of morality.  But if this electric Pinocchio can just get a conscience, all will be well.

It is a cute tale that will make you smile, but the lesson is heavy-handed and the plot is out of the 1940s.

The Trial of Tantalus, by Victor Saparin

By the 21st Century, a world led by Soviet science has eradicated every disease.  The few remaining pathogens are kept in a highly secured vault for study.  In Tantalus, one escapes back into the wild, causing a myriad of positive and negative effects that must be gauged to determine their net value.  The moral of this story is that all life has purpose, even the nasty bits.  And Communism will be the key to evaluating that purpose.

Despite the adventure-story trappings of Tantalus, I found this piece the least engaging.  Sort of a creaky Astounding tale from the early 1950s.

Stone from the Stars, by Valentina Zhuravleva

Here is the one woman-penned piece in the book.  I don’t know if Valya’s 20% contribution is representative of gender demographics in Soviet science fiction, but I’m glad the Reds didn’t neglect half of their “equal partners” in Communism.  It is worth noting, however, that even worlds dominated by egalitarian Communism, virtually none of the characters in these stories are women…

Stone is another first-contact tale.  This time, the envoy is a two-meter cylinder encased in a meteorite.  Once again, there is the debate over the potential form of the creature, but the revelation is not nearly as clear-cut as in The Heart of the Serpent.  An interesting, bittersweet piece.

Six Matches, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The last piece involves neutrino-induced psionics.  Yes, the premise is so much handwavium, but that’s not the point.  Rather, it is that its inventor put himself at great personal risk to advance science.  This foolhardy courage of Soviet science is lambasted with words, but praised in subtext.  Perhaps they’ll trot this story out when the first cosmonaut dies.

I did not rate the stories individually because they really hang together as a gestalt.  I can’t say that More Soviet Science Fiction is a great book, but it is an interesting one, and one I dispatched in short order.  And if you’re a fan of Isaac Asimov, also a product of the Soviet Union, you’ll appreciate his introduction.  Call it three stars – more if you’ve got a case (as I do) of xenophilia.

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  A chance to discuss Soviet and American science fiction…and maybe win a prize!)




[July 4, 1962] Happy submersion (The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard)


by Rosemary Benton

At last, the levity that I so desperately needed has been provided. Prior to reading The Drowned World I was only aware of J. G. Ballard as a name. He was well published, I knew, but ultimately a background figure to my science fiction library. That all changed on June 30th, however, when I went to the town bookstore and purchased The Drowned World. The bookseller said that it would take me no time at all to read. I found this to be true, although the time it took me to process the book was far longer than than I had expected.

J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is a post-apocalyptic ballad performed by a select cast, and encased in a small slice of Ballard’s much larger story of the evolution of Earth. The location of the story takes place in an entirely fictional future vision of Earth. Due to a sun which has become unstable, the Earth is rapidly heating. The remaining 5 million humans have fled to the Antarctic circle where the temperature is a tolerable 85 degrees. The Earth’s equator, by comparison, is close to 200 degrees on any given day. Bombarded by solar radiation and spurred on by the intolerable heat, flora and fauna have begun to mutate to prehistoric shapes and sizes. Enormous iguanas, crocodiles and snakes are now a common site in Berlin and London, whose streets and buildings are now submerged by upwards of 50 feet of water. Large bat-sized mosquitoes bash themselves relentlessly against the wire meshes and cages encircling the last human bastions in London, while dog-sized bats feast upon the oversized insects. The evolution of disease has kept pace with the changing environment; malaria becomes the most common affliction hitting the human population.

Much of Europe has been reduced to lagoons nestled between vast expanses of jungle and silt dunes. In one such lagoon, floating over the decaying architecture of London, sits the stage and players of the story. Central to the book are the biologists Dr. Robert Kerans and Dr. Bodkin, the emotionally distant heiress Beatrice Dahl and the villainous looter, Strangman. Surrounding them are the rest of the research team sent to monitor the changing landscape, and Strangman’s crew of tribalistic-minded followers.

On a small scale Ballard includes the traditional elements of science fiction and action-adventure. There is a hero, a villain, a love interest who is desired by both the villain and the hero, a climax to the tension between the battle of the hero and the goals of the villain, tied off nicely with a sacrificial confidant and companion to the hero. On a much larger scale The Drowned World offers a character study of a villain and a hero, both of whom are morally ambiguous, as they navigate a truly alien environment with totally different sets of rules for survival.

To best dissect The Drowned World I think it is necessary to take a look at the three major players to Ballard’s drama: Ms. Dahl, Strangman and finally Dr. Kerans. Ms. Dahl is perhaps one of the more developed characters of the story, and yet her journey is largely symbolic. A key element of Ballard’s world is that not only is the physical world around humanity devolving, but so is the unconscious mind of humanity. Plagued by memories of survival urges now unlocked after centuries of culture and socialization, humans by and large are subjected to nighttime visions of hot, fiery landscapes and looming reptilian danger. Ms. Dahl is one of the first characters who we see suffering from these apparitions.

We read about her trying to deal with them through alcohol and cool detachment. Her acceptance of the end of the human world is made all the more evident by her refusal early on in the book to leave the lagoon for the more tolerable temperature of the northern settlements. Despite the coming rains, the rise of the water, and the abandonment of the post by the well equipped scientific team, she shows little interest in leaving behind her home. Yet in the shifting pools of green, warm water with its surface disturbed by the movement of reptiles swimming in and out of the lower levels of the ruined buildings, she has managed to find an equilibrium in which she can live out her days, even as the prophetic nightmares of flooding rain and dense jungle encroachment press ever closer. She has given up fighting against nature and the universe’s larger plans for the planet, and instead finds her small pleasures in dining on the dwindling reserves of fine food, sunbathing, and keeping up a cultured outward physique.

Ms. Dahl’s personal journey is taking her along the same path as Dr. Kerans’. She is dreaming of an ancestral life and living it as best she can in the present. When confronted with a challenge to this backwards slide she recoils and withdraws within herself. She longs for the return to the encroachment of the water and reviles in the exposure of the land.  She is unable to deal with change that could draw her on a different path from the envelopment of Earth by the sea, and ultimately it destroys her relationship with her companions Dr. Kerans and Dr. Bodkin.

Enter Strangman on his ridiculous riverboat piled high with looted objet d’art, liquor and jewelry. Like Ms. Dahl, Strangman enters the story as someone who has given in to the changing world, although he has done so in a drastically different fashion. In keeping with salvage laws and the overall objective of land reclamation, Strangman drains the lagoon in order to gain favor with the loosely upheld government. At the same time he is able to continue with his passion of surrounding himself with items of beauty from the old world. Unlike our protagonists, Strangman is not regressing backwards to a state of piteous apathy, nor is he embracing the larger time scale that Ms. Dahl and Dr. Kerans have via their million year old primitive dreams. Even though he is aware of them via conversation with Dr. Kerans, and presumably experiences them himself, he is written as an opportunist. He takes risks in sending his crew, which he provides for and never once abuses, down into the sunken city. He takes chances by draining the lagoon in order to reclaim the land and thereby more easily take its sunken riches. He is progress in a backwards way because ultimately nothing he does will have any lasting impact, but he at least fights against the insignificance of his actions and his existence.

Along this line he is also upholding the pre-drowned world, and while he revels in the finer luxuries it provided, he doesn’t do so in the same way as Dr. Kerans or Ms. Dahl. While they are content with living out the lifespan of their delicious foods and luxury accommodations before the sea reclaims them, Strangman wants to make them last as long as possible. Even unnaturally so. He rejects the inevitable in favor of the possible when he drains the lagoon and likely plans to drain others in the area. He is even commended for his actions by Dr. Kerans’ team when they return to the area at the end of the book and see what he has accomplished.

At last we must examine Dr. Kerans. This man, who we meet standing on his balcony of the Ritz complete with air conditioning, fine clothes and even finer furnishings, is not shaken by the thought of nearly anything involving his future. Absorbed in the visceral feel of his present environment, Dr. Kerans is a man who lives entirely in the now with little thought to the future or concern for the past. Only later does he even begin to experience the dreams that have led most of the cast to a delayed madness. At the end of the book he even embraces a futile journey south and consequently a slow, painful suicide. Put concisely he is against everything that we, as modern humans and Americans, are taught to embrace as progress – the continuous struggle against nature, the need to suffer for progress, and the need to forge your own fate. In any other story he would be the villain trying to prevent the human race from fighting back against its aggressor. Interestingly, in this story he is the hero. But why is he the hero? Ultimately I believe this can be answered by Ballard’s writing style.

J. G. Ballard’s writing is like a good red wine. It has body, heft, and layered flavors that reveal themselves based on how you indulge in them. I read The Drowned World over the course of several days, taking my time to sink into the atmospheric environment that Ballard creates. In short sips the book takes the reader a long way. So many descriptive analogies, metaphors and adjectives are crammed into each page that one would think Ballard had gone overboard. Yet despite his verbose world building, nothing felt repetitive and frankly, I couldn’t get enough.

I lived for days on how Ballard would express his characters’ wonder at the world surrounding them, and how each as an individual would contribute to the progress of the story. It is this individual experience that I believe made Dr. Kerans the hero, Strangman the villain, and Ms. Dahl the figurative totem. When one reads Ballard’s dialogue it is abundantly secondary to the individual brazen actions taken by each character. This isolation, when a character acts of their own volition outside of what their companions would want or desire, is what Ballard revels in. The individual, whether walking forward or backwards in human evolution, is a lynchpin. What they see, how the environment congeals around them, and how their actions later influence others is paramount to Ballard’s The Drowned World.

Thus, Dr. Kerans was the hero because he was willing to press forward into that isolation of standing behind his scientific team, and in the end, the isolation of the journey south toward the epicenter of the heat. Strangman, on the other hand, was nothing without his crew, his treasures or his need to change the world for the benefit of the many. As such he was the villain. It is an interesting reversal, and one which I believe took a cunning mind to pen. I look forward to exploring more of Ballard’s works and retroactively swimming through his vast sea of published works. This book deserves a well-earned five out of five stars. 

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  If you can’t make it to Worldcon/Chicon III, this is YOUR chance to Vote for the 1962 Hugos!)

[June 20, 1962] Half a loaf… (Ace Double F-153 – a Marion Zimmer Bradley twosome)


by Gideon Marcus

Marion Zimmer Bradley is an odd duck.

As a writer for a niche genre (science fiction), as a woman in a male-dominated field, as an occultist mystic in a stolidly Judeo-Christian world (she founded the Aquarian Order of the Restoration), and as someone who pines for the days when the genre was more fantastic, Bradley is many times over a breed apart.

That dislocation from the mainstream of society, even the mainstreams of rarefied slivers of society, has acted as a sort of crucible on her imagination.  At the risk of engaging in unlicensed psychoanalysis, it seems that all this pent up desire to escape the real world has turned into a torrent she’s focused at her writing.  In the past several years, I’ve marked a focus of her work toward the psychic and the pulpy.  It’s hardly hidden – she said as much in the introduction to her first book:

While I was still collecting rejection slips for my early efforts, the fashion changed. Adventures on faraway worlds and strange dimensions went out of fashion, and the new look in science-fiction — emphasis on the science — came in…I think, there is a place, a wish, a need and hunger for the wonder and color of the world way out. The world beyond the stars. The world we won’t live to see.

Except her far futures don’t have many futuristic trappings.  Her settings are invariably medieval in flavor, with swashbuckling sword-wielders, hot-blooded heroes and beautiful damsels.  It’s pretty clear that this is the world she wants to live in, one of duels and kin-loyalty, where women, while they may be strong, also yield to a man’s will. 

We saw it in A Door Through Space, and we see it in the new Ace Double, #F-153.  It’s two Bradleys for the price of one (40 cents), and it, beginning to end, has Bradley’s stamp upon it.

The Planet Savers

Really a long novella, The Planet Savers fleshes out the planet of Darkover, briefly mentioned in Bradley’s first novel.  In an effeminate, decadent Terran Empire, red-sunned Darkover is the one hold-out of rugged virtue.  The Earthers have just one on-world trade enclave; the rest of the planet is ruled by a series of clans, descendants of colonists from a long-distant past.  They possess the secret of psychic technology using the mysterious Matrices, devices whose use is only briefly described. 

The Darkovans share their world with the Trailmen, aboriginal humanoids who live in the shadowed arboreal span of giant trees.  Their branches form a network that spans a good portion of the planet.  Whether they are a divergent group of humans or the result of convergent evolution is an open question.  Their society is an interesting mix of savage and refined, and I found them more interesting than the mundanely feudal Darkovans (who actually do not feature prominently in this book).

In fact, the star of the book is Jason Allison, a Terran who was raised by Trailmen after a boyhood crash that left him lost and parentless.  As such, he is the only one on the planet who can negotiate with the natives to obtain pints of their blood to make serum to fight the “Trailmen’s Plague,” a sort of Darkovan chickenpox that is deadly to non-Trailmen. 

There’s only one problem, and this is the genuinely interesting crux of the short book: Jason doesn’t exist. 

When Allison fell into the hands of the Trailmen, he was adopted and raised as one of the aboriginals until his maturity, at which point, they felt they needed to let the young man be with his own kind.  Allison could not reconcile the alien ways of the Trailmen with the codes of the Terrans; he thus repressed most of his childhood and a great deal of his personality, becoming the priggish Dr. Jay Allison.  This resulting persona, while respected for his competence, is a brittle and unlikable soul.  He also doesn’t speak the Trailmen language.

This is why the Terrans resort to psychic techniques to tease out the younger Jason persona, carving out a new being, essentially.  During the mission, the two personas exchange positions at the fore, in a Hyde and Jekyll fashion.  This is represented to great effect by having the Jason portions in first person but the Jay portions in third.

I was surprised to discover that The Planet Savers is a story I glided over in my damning review of the November 1958 Amazing.  I suspect I never made it to the novella (which is unchanged from its original publication) after getting turned off by the earlier stories in that issue. 

In any event, I enjoyed The Planet Savers, though the relationship between Jason and the fiercely independent yet pliable Darkovan woman sherpa felt tacked on and downright Burroughsian.  Three and a half stars.

The Sword of Aldones

Sadly, I cannot say as much for the flip-side novel, a much longer piece.  Also set on Darkover, presumably around the same era, it is told from the viewpoint of Lew Aldon, a half-Terran scion of the Aldon clan – a powerful psionic family.  He is returning home after years off-planet after an exile caused by political turmoil.  He returns to face the Comyn (the council of Darkovan families…I think) to deal with the disposition of a powerful matrix called the Sharra, which he’s smuggled back to Darkover in a decorative sword.

I could not finish The Sword of Aldones, throwing in the towel around page 70.  Part of it was the inexpert storytelling, with Lew consistently referring to his fraught past and then explicitly refusing to discuss it.  Part of it was the general tone of violence always simmering just under the surface (Bradley must have anger issues – it is a problem I see with all of her work).  But mostly, it was its hackneyed, humorless style.  The Sword of Aldones might appeal to the sword and spaceship crowd, but it didn’t work at all for me.  One star.

And because of that, I’d recommend picking up an old copy of Amazing for the one piece in this double worth reading – it’ll be cheaper.

[May 28, 1962] The Invisible Women (Raiders from the Rings, by Alan E. Nourse)


by Rosemary Benton

After a short hiatus following the death of a dear family member I was in desperate need of some levity. Avoiding the non-fiction section, and especially the news stand, I made my way to the science fiction shelves of my favorite book store and picked up a novel that had originally caught my attention back in April. Raiders from the Rings is latest story from experienced science fiction writer and physician Alan E. Nourse.

Following a near cataclysmic world war, Earth has separated genetically and culturally from those who live out an exiled existence in space. This space-bound society, appropriately called the Spacers, squeak out a living by occasionally raiding food stores and supply depots on the technologically-lagging Earth. But when a newly built secret Earth armada confronts a raiding party of Spacers, all out war is declared once again. Like the conflict that nearly wiped out humanity before, both Earthmen and Spacers seem to be on a trajectory of mutual destruction. It will be up to Ben of the Martian house of Trefon and his two Earthling hostages, Joyce and Tom Barron, to keep their people from pyrrhic victories.

Raiders from the Rings isn’t a badly written book, but lacks something that would have made it a truly good read: humanity. Through an overuse of narration and a lack of actors Alan E. Nourse creates a science fiction future that lacks essential human elements. As the reader makes their way through the book the characters start to feel flat as the society of the Spacers loses its sense of realness.

A key example: roughly a third of the way through the book, I realized that, aside from Joyce Baron, there is not a single named female character even marginally involved in the story. For a narrative that relies so heavily on the history-keeping tradition of the Spacer women, it feels odd that individual women are not featured.

But what about Joyce Baron? Surely an Earth woman kidnapped by the main character for the purpose of being assimilated into the Spacer culture should have a prominent place in the story. She is first introduced as a spirited person with strong viewpoints, so naturally her position as a captured bride-to-be would help to drive the plot, correct? True, Joyce does drive the plot, but merely to provide exposition for why Earthmen and Spacers dislike one another.

Upon being captured along with her brother, Tom Barron, Joyce begins to fight with Ben about the evils of the Spacers. She tells him about how Spacers, according to Earth’s understanding, are irradiated inhuman monsters who capture women in order to force them to breed with the ranks of their subhuman army. It’s obviously untrue, as the reader knows having followed the exploits of the Spacers up to this point, but in that lies the role that Joyce’s character fulfills – she’s there to be wrong about everything. Everything that she has been taught about the Spacers is wrong, from their genetic makeup to the way they treat the women they kidnap. And once this role is essentially fulfilled when Ben rebukes all of the claims against his people, Joyce becomes merely a passenger, cook and apparent ally in the main character’s journey.

But why are women as individual actors marginalized in this story? Because it is the idea of the Spacer women, rather than the women themselves, that fascinated the author. Alan E. Nourse writes a space bound society that the main character and narrator both insist treasures its captured brides. He even makes the distinction in chapter five that, “No girl has ever been forced to become a mauki, and there are always a few who refuse to marry, but not very many. For most of them our life has become their life, and they are as loyal to us as any Spacer man.” Nourse is clear and adamant about the fact that it’s the choice of the captured women to marry and become storytellers, mothers, talented singers, and history-keepers. Truthfully it’s a far more noble take on the role of women in a science fiction society than some of the other books and films I have seen, but Nourse sells himself short by not showing us how the Spacer or Earth societies have their women and men interact on a normal, everyday basis. We are told rather than shown how this fantastical future is run, and because of this the story leaves the reader feeling a lack of depth.

“Telling” rather than “showing” becomes a consistent problem in Raiders from the Rings, and not just when it comes to broadening the realism of the Spacer culture. After Nourse has introduced his cast, the narration carries the plot more and more. By the time the Searchers, an alien elder-race that has been watching human society evolve for thousands of years, are introduced the narration takes over almost entirely. Nourse spends an annoying amount of time telling and retelling the message of the Searchers, which also happens to be the moral of the book – that childishness and immaturity are the root causes of humanity’s war with itself. Maturity and survival go hand in hand, otherwise mutually assured destruction is imminent. This is not something that is left for the reader to parse out, it is literally stated as such in chapter eight.

The characters, plot and message of Raiders from the Rings all unfortunately fall prey to a lack of three dimensionality essential for a story to be relatable. This culminates in a quickly resolved finale which left more questions than it answered. Despite its ambition and potential for expansiveness, Raiders from the Rings feels underwhelming and claustrophobic. Nourse certainly has potential, but in Raiders from the Rings, his efforts just don’t pay off. Sadly I have to give the book only two and a half stars. 

[May 11, 1962] Unfixed in the Heavens (The Seed of Earth, by Robert Silverberg)


by Gideon Marcus

A hundred and fifty years from now, the stars are finally attainable.  With the invention of a reliable and quick interstellar drive, the galaxy is now ripe for colonization.  But humanity is too fat and happy to leave the nest; the world government is forced to conscript candidates to become unwilling pioneers.  Six thousand men and women are sent on sixty starships every day toward some farflung world.  The goal: to ensure that the human race can be spread as widely as possible.

This is the premise of Robert Silverberg’s newest piece, a short novel published in the :June 1962 Galaxy called The Seed of Earth.  It’s really two novellas in one, the first half dealing with the lives of four conscriptees as they are selected and prepared for departure, and the second half about what happens to them once they reach their destination. 

Seed has an interesting, complicated history.  The second part originally appeared in the May 1957 issue of Venture as The Winds of Siros.  In this story, two newlywed colonist couples are abducted from their settlement by voyeuristic aliens who lock them in a cave and watch the emotional drama ensue.  After the four escape, the women determine that they were with the wrong men and change partners.  It’s all supposed to be rather daring and progressive.

Venture was a short-lived companion to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, designed to be a “more adult” alternative to F&SF.  What this really meant was more stories about sex, and since the stories were almost exclusively written by men (and modern society being what it is), there were a lot of demeaning, disturbing pieces in Venture

The example that turned me off of the magazine was, in fact, also by Robert Silverberg.  Called Eve and the Twenty-three Adams (March 1958), it featured an all-stag starship crew and the lone woman included on the roster to “service” them.  When she expressed reluctance at her role, she was drugged into submission for the duration of the flight.  It was all very light-hearted, just a rollicking tale.  Like Garrett’s Queen Bee.

Silverberg’s difficulty with the concept of feminine agency was also evident in Siros (and thus, in Seed).  The male colonists get to choose whom they want to marry from among the female colonists, and while the women have the right of refusal for the first few rounds, all of them must end up with someone, ultimately.  Now, as Siros plays out, we see that the system is not particularly rigid and, in the end, the woman colonists do have some choice in the matter.  But it’s informal, and it’s at the sufferance of the men.  Hardly an equal situation.

In fact, there is a strong streak of puritanical prudishness in Seed.  At one point, a woman’s pregnancy is described as “a lapse in virtue.”  I recognize that Silverberg’s intent was to show that our current (late 50’s/early 60’s) morality is antiquated and needs to be shaken up.  Hence, the laudable plot elements of wife-swapping and polyamory that form the core of Siros/Seed Part 2.  But it just doesn’t seem plausible that Earth of 2117 would be exactly as, if not more, conservative as modern day, and that only by unleashing humans on a raw world can they undo the straitjacket. 

Seed’s first part was added to Siros to make the piece long enough for publication as a stand-alone novel.  Ballantine and Doubleday, the “respectable” s-f publishers, rejected it.  H.L. Gold, Galaxy’s editor, accepted Seed for its paperback series (I reviewed one of them: the excellent The City in the Sea), but the series was discontinued before Seed saw print.  Ultimately, it ended up in the magazine proper.

Part One of Seed isn’t bad: a quartet of reasonably interesting character portraits with a bonus view through the eyes of the fellow tasked with finalizing the crew selections.  The characterization is better in this half, which makes sense – the Silverberg writing Part One was older than the one who wrote Part Two.  The problem here isn’t so much the writing or the flow.  It’s the flaws in the fundamental premise.  In Seed, forced emigration has gone on for a generation.  Are there really hundreds of thousands of habitable planets within 30 light years of Earth ripe for colonization without any need for protective technology or planetary engineering?  Are there even that many planets?  Does it make sense to invest just one hundred strangers in a colony rather than shipping more than one load to a promising destination? 

And how is it plausible that a draft for colonization is even required?  To all accounts, Silverberg’s world is no utopia – in fact, it seems hardly different from our current one, societally and technologically.  Surely there would be 2,190,000 immigrant candidates out of billions every year.  Contrast Seed with Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky – there, one was lucky if one could leave Earth. 

The Seed of Earth is ultimately a rather unsuccessful “fix-up” story.  The beginning doesn’t flow well into the end, and neither portion rings very true.  I’d charitably give three stars to the first part and two to the second, for an aggregate of 2.5 stars.  That’s probably overgenerous, but I can give Silverberg credit for the effort, at least.

[Apr. 25, 1962] And Justice for All… (J.F. Bone’s The Lani People)


by Gideon Marcus

There’s a change a comin’.  I’m sure you’ve seen heralds of its passage.  Last summer, hundreds of Whites and Blacks took to the buses and rode into the South, flouting the segregated busing laws.  Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are rallying their brethren to fight centuries of oppression.  For the first time, the Democrats look to be out-Civil Rightsing the Republicans (who would have predicted that in 1948?) Yes, the country is heading toward a long overdue shift, a final resolution of the crisis born in the original Constitution and only half-fought in the bloodiest war of American history. 

It’s no surprise, then, that we’re seeing this war play out in science fiction as well as reality.  Speculative literature constitutes our thought experiments, letting us see worlds like ours, but with allegorical players or, perhaps, a great time shift.  Some authors approach the topic tangentially, for instance depicting Blacks as fully integrated in a future setting.  Others, approach the subject head-on.

SF author J.F. Bone is a bit of a cipher.  I have almost no biographical information about him.  I do know that he started writing a few years ago, and his works have a certain thoughtfulness that elevates it above the run of the mill.  His recent Founding Father was a fascinating look into the mindset of a slavemaster, made particularly chilling by its light tone.

Bone’s latest work is a novel called The Lani People.  It is a more straightforward investigation of prejudice and discrimination, set 5000 years in the future.  It is the tale of Kennon, a veterinarian contracted to provide medical services for the herds of planet Kardon.  To the animal doctor’s surprise, one of the herded species is the Lani, a breed of biped virtually indistinguishable from human beings save for their tails.  Yet, despite their obvious intelligence and clear resemblance to people, they are legally animals thanks to a centuries-old judgment on their status.

The result is as horrible as you would expect, with the Lani subjugated, regulated, and degraded creatures, the cruelty of their plight accentuated by the indifference with which it is perpetrated.  It is obvious to the reader that no sapient should be treated this way, and certainly no human.  And yet, the blinkered Galactic society cannot tolerate as equals even the slightly different.

The situation is made even more complicated for the conflicted Kennon – he falls in love with the brilliant Lani named Copper (and she with him).  Yet he cannot even think to express his feelings.  It is only when he begins to substantiate his hunch that the Lani really are human that he can open his heart to her.  But then, of course, that just opens the bigger can of worms: how do you right such a horrible injustice?

What I find interesting about Kennon is that he can’t initially make the jump to appreciate all sentient life as equals.  He can’t love Copper for who she is, regardless of race.  Rather, he must instead prove that Copper is a human being before he allows himself to love her.  Nevertheless, by the end of the book, he recognizes the small-mindedness of that specist view:

“Our minds are still the minds of barbarians—blood brothers against the enemy, and everything not of us is enemy. Savages—hiding under a thin veneer of superficial culture. Savages with spaceships and the atom.”

One can’t help draw parallels with our current race relations environment.  This nation still has a long way to go toward realizing “the proposition that all men are created equal.”  There is still a sizable portion of our population that maintains that dark skin is somehow a mark of inferiority, even though it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that human blood is human blood regardless of the color of its package.  That deeply ingrained bias won’t disappear immediately just because it isn’t supported by evidence.  In this regard, The Lani People is ultimately over-optimistic, even naive, in its resolution. 

Laudable subject matter aside, you probably want to know how the book reads.  Well, it’s good.  Bone’s never turned out anything poorly done, to my knowledge.  I think I would have enjoyed more of the veterinary aspects of the story in the first half (Bone is a Dr. of Veterinary science up in Oregon); it’s a kind of science one doesn’t often see portrayed.  There are some bits of the romance when both Copper and Kennon wrestle with their inability to express affection that feel almost Burroughsian (read the end of any Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and you’ll understand).  The characterization is somewhat expository.  The theme of the story is subtly conveyed in the first half, more heavy-handedly delivered in the latter.

Nevertheless, it’s a solid work, and it may make people think.  Kennon’s journey is one we all should and must take if we ever want there to be harmony on Earth.  And harmony on Earth surely must be a prerequisite for harmony with whomever we find amongst the stars.

3.5 stars.