It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading Challenge #7 – Jack of Eagles, James Blish

This month’s book was somewhat delayed as I’ve been focusing on reading and writing about books related to Apollo 11 for my celebration of the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing. You can find those reviews on my Space Books blog here.

But on with the reading challenge…. My edition of James Blish’s Jack of Eagles is a 1977 Arrow paperback with cover art by Chris Foss. I suspect it was bought for me some time around then. So I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first read it. I actually have a number of Blish novels from that period – all with Foss cover art – as he was one of my favourite sf authors at the time. Which made rereading Jack of Eagles an interesting exercise.

The novel is about Danny Caiden, a young man who develops psychic powers – precognition, telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, etc. – and subsequently becomes embroiled in a secret war between two groups of powerful psychics, one of which is bent on taking over the world. With the help of a parapsychology professor at a local university, Caiden learns how to control his new-found powers… but it is only when he comes into conflict with the Brotherhood In Psi that he discovers he is the most powerful psi ever.

There’s a definite sense of time and place to Jack of Eagles. It was expanded from a 1949 novelette, ‘Let the Finder Beware’, and with its mention of the GI Bill and other details, it’s clearly set a few years after the end of World War 2. The book is also, like much of Blish’s fiction, well written. But. And this is a problem I had with his The Quincunx of Time when I read it at the end of last year. That too had originally been a short story – which I’d read – but Blish had not chosen to expand the plot, or provide more details of the setting. Instead, he’d used the greater wordcount to waffle on about the bogus science and philosophy which underpinned the book’s central idea – a faster-than-light communication device which allowed people to pick up signals from the future.

And I suspect the same thing happened in Jack of Eagles. The first half of the novel is a relatively straightforward action story – Caiden loses his job, and seeks to learn more about his burgeoning powers by visiting various “experts”. But there’s a long section in which the parapsychologist, Dr Todd, tries to explain the scientific basis of Caiden’s powers, referencing some mangled form of quantum mechanics and the Many Worlds Hypothesis. It’s pointless, implausible guff, and it slows down the story to a crawl.

Later, during Caiden’s battle with the Brotherhood, he escapes by travelling into alternative futures – explained once again by the bogus science of earlier. Each of the futures he visits is interesting, but Blish spends far too long trying to explaining the how of it and his explanations ring false and spoil the atmosphere.

I can’t remember what it is about Blish’s stories and novels that appealed to me when I was in my early teens. Rereading them now, thirty years later, it’s plain that Blish was a good writer. But he seems to have this bad tendency to pad out his novels with implausibly bogus science and philosophy. He should have just finessed it. The explanations interrupt the pace of the narrative and add little or nothing to the story. They probably seemed impressive to a naive thirteen-year-old. Perhaps that was the attraction of Blish’s novels. That and the Chris Foss cover art, of course.

I’m tempted to try reading or rereading a Blish novel that wasn’t expanded from a shorter piece, just to see if it’s the expansion process which led to him padding out the story with scientific bollocks. Perhaps he didn’t do that for stories which were originally planned to be novel-length. The only difficulty is finding such a novel in his oeuvre.

Jack of Eagles was certainly better than the other books I’ve read for this challenge. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the book which originally appealed to me all those years ago, but I doubt I’d have become a fan if I’d read it at my current age. All the same, I still think Blish is a pretty good sf writer, and I won’t be purging my shelves of his books…


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Relaxestcon

I spent last weekend at Satellite 2, a small sf con in Glasgow. Actually, it wasn’t just about science fiction; it was also about spaceflight, falling as it did just after the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. The guest of honour was Iain Banks.

It was a very quiet convention – at least it was inside the Crowne Plaza hotel. Outside was the Glasgow River Festival, so there were many thousands of Glaswegians wandering up and down either side of the Clyde by the SECC. Satellite 2 was chiefly confined to the rear entrance / bar area of the hotel (the one that looks onto the Armadillo’s rear, for those who know the SECC).

Highlights of the weekend included…

… meeting up with the usual suspects; an interesting presentation on the Apollo Guidance Computer by Frank O’Brien – he has a book out on the subject early next year, so that’s gone on the wants list (unfortunately I missed the other panel items about Apollo); six-year-old Emma Steel saying in the dealers room, “I like books but I can’t read”; the discussion about the Puffer Fish Chain Gun on the Saturday evening; discussing NewSpace with Charlie Stross; being present when Mike Cobley was asked to sign a copy of his Seeds of Earth by a fan of, he admitted, Banks, MacLeod and Stross; starting up a discussion on the Roberts vs Scalzi Hugo novel shortlist debate after forgetting that Charlie Stross was sitting at the table…. And no doubt other conversations and incidents that I’ve forgotten.

Satellite 2 was an unusual con for me on two counts. I spent more money getting there than I did at the con. And my bag was lighter coming home than it had been going to the con. Well, it was a small con, and the dealers’ room reflected that. In other words, I didn’t buy anything.

In all, a good weekend. Many thanks to the redoubtable Steels for putting me up. The con programming was an interesting mix, and I wish I’d managed to attend more items. That may usually be the case after a con, but there were more I’m sorry I missed at Satellite 2 than at an eastercon. If there’s a Satellite 3, then I’d seriously consider going.


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Favourite SF Stories

SF Signal today posted a couple of Mind Melds on “Memorable Short Stories to Add to Your Reading List” parts one and two. An excuse, in other words, to ask a bunch of people to name their favourite genre stories.

So I thought I’d do the same – list my favourite stories, that is. And here they are in chronological order of publication (where copies exist online, I’ve linked to them):

‘Aye, And Gomorrah’, Samuel R Delany – first appeared in Dangerous Visions (1967), edited by Harlan Ellison, and while much of the contents of that anthology weren’t exactly memorable, Delany’s story has stuck with me through the years. It’s very 1960s, very lyrical, and notably thin on plot. But I think it’s the evocativeness of the prose which appeals most.

‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill Side’, James Tiptree, Jr – was originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction‘s March 1972 issue, although I read it in Tiptree’s collection 10,000 Light-Years From Home. This story is a classic, a simple idea approached using an entirely original angle of attack. It’s bleak and a perfect antidote to most space opera. Everyone who likes space opera should read it.

‘The Lake of Tuonela’, Keith Roberts – was a more recent discovery for me (see here). It first appeared in New Writings in SF 23 (1973), edited by Kenneth Bulmer, but I read it in Roberts’ collection The Grain Kings. Roberts’ prose is impressive, and in this story he manages to evoke the titular lake, and the long tunnel to it, with some beautiful writing. If the story had actually done more, and had managed to really evoke its alien setting, then it would have been very nearly perfect.

‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, Philip K Dick – I first read in the anthology in which it was first published, Final Stage (1974), edited by Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg; and which was, I think, one of the first sf books my parents bought for me. It also contains one of the few Harlan Ellison stories I remember liking, ‘Catman’. Like the Delany above, this is another story which is very much of its time – it feels very early 1970s to me, all Apollo and Grateful Dead and the like. But that works very much in its favour.

‘Air Raid’, John Varley – was originally published under the name Herb Boehm in Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine Spring 1977 issue, because Varley already had a novelette, ‘Goodbye, Robinson Crusoe’, in the issue. ‘Air Raid’ was adapted as film, Millennium, and Varley later expanded his own screenplay into a novel, also titled Millennium. The story’s premise is certainly original – people from the future snatch passengers from planes just before they crash in order to repopulate their own time – and the pace never lets up from start to finish. The later novel rounds out the background and characters, and adds an interesting twist in that the different narratives follow the events of the plot in a different order, but the original story’s brevity gives the central idea greater impact.

‘The Gernsback Continuum’, William Gibson – was first published in Universe 11 (1981), edited by Terry Carr, but also appears in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling. Elegiac is not a word I’d normally associate with Gibson’s prose, but it’s certainly one that fits this story. For all its insistence of looking forward, sf has a curious tendency to gaze fondly at its past, and at the futures of its past. ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ is an excellent description of that tendency.

‘A Gift From The Culture’, Iain M Banks – is the first of three Interzone stories on this list. Interzone is probably my chief source of short sf, and has been since I first subscribed to the magazine back in the late 1980s. ‘A Gift from the Culture’ appeared in #20, Summer 1987, but can also be found in Banks’s only collection to date, The State of the Art. Banks’s Culture is one of the great sf invented universes, and ‘A Gift from the Culture’ is one of the few pieces of short fiction set in that universe. It’s also quite a sad story and, like ‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, there’s an inexorable quality to its resolution – although it’s driven by character and emotion, rather than the laws of physics.

‘Forward Echoes’, Gwyneth Jones – is another Interzone story, this time from #42, December 1990. A slightly reworked version was also published three years later as ‘Identifying the Object’ in a chapbook collection of the same name from Swan Press. ‘Forward Echoes’ introduced the two main characters of Jones’s novel White Queen, and the Aleutians, the alien race of that novel and its sequels North Wind and Phoenix Café (and, of course, the recent and excellent Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant – see my review here). I think what first appealed to me about this story was its strangeness. It’s one of the most sfnally-evocative (to coin a phrase) stories I’ve ever read.

‘FOAM’, Brian Aldiss – was later expanded into a section of Aldiss’s 1994 novel, Somewhere East of Life. In 1991, Gollancz relaunched the magazine New Worlds as a paperback anthology edited by David S Garnett (in those days, Garnett was almost ubiquitous), and the story first appeared in that. Aldiss manages to layer strangeness upon strangeness in a somewhat picaresque plot set in the central Asian republics in the near-future (as was). This is another story, like the Jones, which makes something peculiar and sfnal of our world.

‘The Road To Jerusalem’, Mary Gentle – is the third and final Interzone story, from #52 in October 1991. It’s also the only alternate (alternative) history story in the list. In it, the knights templar have continued to exist to the present, and the world is a very different place. But it’s only as the story progresses does it become clear exactly how different.

The most recent story of the ten above is nearly eighteen years old. Which means it’s probably about time I brought the list up-to-date. I’ve certainly read some excellent stories published since Mary Gentle’s ‘The Road to Jerusalem’, but none seem to have stuck with me as much as the above ones have done. Perhaps I need to read stories a couple of times before they grow on me enough to be tagged as “favourites”. Perhaps that’s an exercise for another day – looking back over the short fiction I have access to which was published after 1991, and seeing if any of them have the same impact on me the above ten did.


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Thoughts on Space and Fiction

There is a story, no doubt apocryphal, about a European company which signed a contract with a Japanese manufacturer of televisions. The contract allowed for 1% wastage, or 1 in 100 defective televisions sets. Come the day the first batch was delivered, and the CEOs of the two companies stood and watched as ninety-nine brand-new televisions were transported into the warehouse. The Japanese then presented the European CEO with a box containing a smashed up TV. When asked what it was, the Japanese CEO explained that it was the one defective television set from the hundred, as stipulated in the contract.

With CNC robots and CAD/CAM, manufacturing in the 21st Century is a sophisticated, precise and cost-efficient process. Back in the early 1960s, the Apollo command modules were built by hand by North American Aviation. The first one, CM 012, contained so many faults, Apollo 1 commander Gus Grissom intended to hang a lemon from the control panel. No more than a few days later, Grissom was dead, along with his crew, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, killed by a fire inside the command module during a plugs-out test.

In order to navigate to the Moon, much of the course calculations for Apollo were performed by rooms full of computers at Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Aboard the spacecraft, there was only the Apollo Guidance Computer, a device considerably less sophisticated than an average mobile phone of today. The AGC required the astronauts to enter “verbs” and “nouns” using a DSKY (display/keyboard) in order to start programs. It had a vocabulary of around 38,000 words. In Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins’ autobiography, he describes having to make 850 key-strokes in order to enter the necessary data and program calls for Columbia and Eagle to rendezvous on the Lunar Module‘s return from the lunar surface.

Even cruder was Gemini’s radio-control “encoder” for the Agena target vehicles, which used a “little box topped by two concentric wheels and a lever”. All instructions “ended in either a one or a zero, and were formed by setting up the first digit on the outer wheel and the second digit on the inner wheel, and transmitting all three by turning the lever from center to either the left (for zero) or the right (for one)” (also from Carrying the Fire).

The technology to return to the Moon not only exists, but is a great deal more sophisticated and effective than it was in 1969. True, the same laws of physics still apply, and the solutions to the problems those laws present have not changed. But in the tools and instruments used to implement those solutions, there is really no reason why Project Constellation should not be able to put one or more astronauts back on the lunar surface in relatively short order. In the 21st century, the hardware can be built to better engineering tolerances, with less faults, for less cost and in shorter time. The entire trip can be managed by computers onboard the spacecraft, using software which does not require data to be read out over the radio to the crew and then laboriously inputted by them.

But it’s not the hardware and software which have prevented return trips to the Moon. Some might say it’s the lack of public will – and yet, there were still those criticising and demonstrating against Apollo when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Sea of Tranquility. There are many since who have complained that the money spent on Apollo could have been better spent on other things. Perhaps it’s the lack of political will. When President Kennedy gave his famous speech, “we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”, he may have been motivated by a desire to win the Cold War in at least one area, but he made it happen. I see no reason why a later president could not have managed something similar – providing they had the will, their motivation is irrelevant.

Money is often cited as another stumbling block. The Apollo programme up to Apollo 12 cost $16.1 billion in 1969 dollars – about $112 billion in 2005 dollars (figures from Return to the Moon by Harrison Schmitt). By 1969, the US Administration had spent approximately $83 billion on the Vietnam War, and $214.4 billion in Iraq by 2005. So money is clearly not a problem.

What about expertise? The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes were designed, managed, built and staffed by young people, who frequently put in long hours to get the job done. It’s been said that no equivalent workforce exists today, and that people now are unwilling to work the necessary hours. Which is plainly rubbish. Look in any large corporation and you’ll find a workforce which often puts in ridiculous – and unpaid – hours to finish projects and meet deadlines. There is certainly enough expertise throughout the world in computing and information technology for a return to the Moon – after all, the bulk of the work in the 21st century version will lie there and not in hand-engineering hardware.

There is perhaps one element of the Apollo programme which no longer holds true, and might in part explain why it has never been repeated. NASA at that time was dominated by a large number of strong-willed and charismatic leaders – not just the astronauts, but also the administrators and chief engineers. Many of them were ex-military, or had fought in World War II. The entire organisation’s culture was very much based on personal leadership. People’s careers could be ruined by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person in a meeting. It could be argued this mindset had been forged during half a decade of global war; certainly no such comparable event happened in the second half of the 20th century. NASA is now a bureaucracy, with systems and procedures and checks and balances. Many critics have complained that it this which is holding back Project Constellation – take the recent decision by NASA to convert from Imperial to SI units… which they subsequently abandoned because it would have been too difficult and costly to implement. I don’t necessarily agree that the leadership/organisational model used by NASA during Apollo is necessary for a return to the Moon, but it’s certainly clear that the compromises foisted on the organisation in the decades since then have severely jeopardised its operations.

Yes, I think we should return to the Moon. And then travel onwards to Mars, and the planets, dwarf planets and moons beyond. It doesn’t matter if there is no immediately obvious benefit to doing so. Not all of the benefits of Apollo were plain at the time. I’m not much bothered whether the next set of astronauts on the Moon are American, Chinese, Indian, Russian or European. But it is a little embarrassing to see NASA floundering as it tries to implement a programme they have already implemented once before and which should be so much easier to do now. Even worse, they’re failing in other areas – the International Space Station will likely not last much longer than 2016.

It’s been said that landing on the Moon killed science fiction. I suspect the reverse is true. The Apollo programme demonstrated that space is not the benign environment advertised by science fiction short stories, novels and films. Far from it. As a result, one branch of sf turned inwards – the New Wave – while another slid further into fantasy – Star Wars and its ilk. Space has become a place of dreams and fancy, and so unreachable. There is a hardy few dipping their toes in the water, so to speak, in the International Space Station and aboard Shuttle missions. But, by and large, space is an environment, a setting, which exists chiefly in books and films.

Not so long ago we had the Mundane sf Manifesto, which insisted on “stories set on or near the Earth, with a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written”. It was, and remains, controversial. Perhaps now, on the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon, we should re-introduce the sub-genre of Space Fiction, stories set in space which treat the setting honestly and accurately. Perhaps the sub-genre could be used to re-introduce space as it actually is to the public, perhaps it might even rekindle interest in it as something achievable and conquerable – because only when you have identified the problems, can you start working on solutions…


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40th Anniversary of Apollo 11

Back in May, I decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing on my other blog, A Space About Books About Space. In keeping with the blog’s reason for being, I thought I’d do this by posting reviews of books specifically about Apollo 11 and its crew. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been busy reading the biographies and autobiographies of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. I don’t think I’ve ever read so much non-fiction in so short a period ever before.

Anyway, the first of my Apollo40 posts is now up, kicking off a series of relevant book reviews over the next five days. Feel free to check it out.

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