Tag Archives: space travel

Short Stories: Weep for Day – Indrapramit Das

Perpetual Sunset

This very brief tale is set on a planet that’s gravitationally locked so that the same side faces the light all the time. This is an intriguing thought since it means that the sun is stationary in the sky as long as you don’t travel and some portion of the planet is bathed in perpetual darkness and hasn’t seen the light of day in millions of years. All the really prime real estate, of course, is on the edges where it’s neither too hot nor too cold and the sun is perpetually in the act of setting (or rising, depending on how you chose to look at it).

The author makes delightful use of this when assigning names to geographical locales. The City-of-Long-Shadows, unsurprisingly, rests on the edge of night and day while the dark, mysterious and eponymous Weep-For-Day resides in an area so devoid of sunlight that no amount of lachrymosity will bring back the sun. These murky depths are the home of the shadowy, ebony creatures known simply as: Nightmares.

Risking spoilers, I’d say the real point of the author’s story is an old one in science fiction. The Nightmare creatures represent a fearful unknown. They reside, risking a cliche, in The Undiscovered Country and as humanity is wont to do, we fill in the mysterious with the most dreadful reality that we can imagine. As the story’s 13 pages wear on, we find that the Nightmare beasts aren’t nearly so unknown and therefore aren’t nearly so scary. In fact from some viewpoints it might just be those who sun themselves in the unending light of day that are more to be feared than the murksome denizens of the black pit of night.

You can read the teaser for this on the Asimov website or do as I did and just go buy the 30th Anniversary collection of the year’s best SciFi.

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Movie Reviews: Gravity

Not bad if you can ignore the science inaccuracies.  Click the link to view the review and if you find it helpful, vote it so!

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October 12, 2013 · 5:30 pm

So what time is it anyway?

Tonight’s reading of Dava Sobel’s book ‘Longitude’ reminded me of one of my favorite great “difficulties” from history. Specifically, just how hard it has been throughout mankind’s existence to tell what exactly the time is. It is one of the most bedeviling of problems, since we live on a sphere and the motion of the sun and moon define the very concept of time for us. Unfortunately, twelve noon in New York looks exactly like twelve noon in New Delhi. The book’s topic is primarily that of determining longitude (obviously) but since this is so closely married to the more interesting problem of time-keeping, I felt it incumbent to tease out a few of the more interesting tidbits from tonight’s reading. It should be noted that I’ll only breeze over these points at the highest level. Anyone wanting to actually learn something should go read the book for themselves.

The book opens, and frames the problem of navigation with an ironic and grand story of misplaced wrath from 1707. A British naval officer is making his way home after a successful battle with a fleet of five ships on a very foggy evening. He is approached by a worried sailor who says his reckoning tells him that they are dangerously close to shore. The captain, offended by the affront, has the sailor hanged for mutiny. Minutes later, the entire fleet runs aground and the crews are almost entirely lost. With so few navigational aids, it was nearly impossible to be certain just how far east or west any ship might be. It all really boiled down to guesswork and even seasoned sailors were sometimes failures.

Galileo’s Celatone

One early attempt at solving this problem comes from Galileo. He noted rightly that the moons of Jupiter eclipsed and reappeared with amazing regularity. He constructed a device called a Celatone, combining a helmet and telescope, to aid sailors in observing the various movements of the moons. This, combined with a detailed table of expected movements would provide the time assuming that it was dark… and a clear night… and Jupiter also happened to be on the right side of the planet to be seen. Needless to say, this didn’t quite catch on. Somewhat relatedly, many years later a Danish astronomer, Ole Roemer, observed that the schedule of Jovian eclipses was inaccurate by several minutes depending on the relative positions of Jupiter and Earth in the solar system. He was able to use these deviations to make an exceptionally good calculation of the speed of light, which was thought at the time to be transmitted instantaneously.

Lastly for tonight, and most abundantly oddball, we have the story of “Sympathy Powder” from 1687. Sir Kenelm Digby is said to have discovered a “miraculous” powder that had the power of healing people at a distance. The only down side was that it was a rather unpleasant sensation when put in use. Using this miraculous concoction, the idea was advanced that a dog should be put aboard ship with a festering wound. Each day at 12:00 local time, the powder would be applied to some personal effect belonging to the dog, thus causing it to yelp and alerting the ship’s crew to the real time back home. Issues with this approach abound, of course, but it is a little known fact that this exact method of timekeeping is widely in use today. It is precisely this form of chronology that Doctor’s use to know when appointments are to be kept, at least if my own personal experiences with their promptness are any indication.

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May 26, 2013 – Of Star Trek, Family, Hangover III and the Indy 500

I just started this ‘post about things from the day’ business yesterday but already it’s clear to me that this takes a LOT of time.  Encapsulating an entire day isn’t a trivial undertaking.  Clearly I need to have less interesting days to save myself the trouble of documenting anything about them.

Of Star Trek

One of yesterday’s random outings  was to wander off to a couple of movies.  The first was the new Star Trek movie and it’s worth saying as introduction that I’m not exactly a Trekkie but I do know enough to wonder at night why original series Klingons look nothing like the Klingons from every other series and movie.  The fact that I wonder this at all puts me in the category of annoying nit-pickers when it comes to movies and to sci-fi movies especially.

One of my lesser complaints about every Trek movie ever has been the rather forced nods to several decades of Trek history.  For example, given all the trouble they caused before, it seems rather contrived that there just happens to be a dead tribble laying about for Bones to experiment on.  It’s also sad that after so many centuries of progress we still have to resort to animal testing.  Progress my eye.  In general, the whole Trek series is just one big continuity failure.  It is, at times, as bad as Doctor Who in this regard but without the ability to infinitely weasel out of absolutely anything with a nearly all-powerful time machine.

Taking out my random and numerous quibbles, on the whole it was a well-executed enough movie by the standards of today’s cinema.  The effects, as always, were brilliant and I was happy to see that for once, at least some portion of the movie at least wanted to obey the laws of physics.  As the Enterprise is plummeting towards the Earth with artificial gravity failing, the contents of the ship react in a way that reminded me of old naval films.  It was refreshing to see us get back, ever so briefly, to that old standard. Sadly, the interlude of physical credibility is brief.  I still contend loudly that no spacecraft built in that configuration could withstand reentry.  There’s no material in the universe strong enough to hold a warp nacelle up against the force of gravity with that little structural support.  The Enterprise is built for space, not in-air planet-bound flight no matter how much we may think it an amusing plot-line vehicle.

Lastly, and most disturbingly, the Star Trek franchise has lost its soul.  The original series, and to an extent later ones, had a message that wasn’t just about space cowboys riding around and shooting their six-guns at one another.  While the newer movies entertain, they just don’t have any real societal content left.  Science Fiction, in its grandest tradition, was always a mirror of society.  Whether it was reflected in the half-black/half-white inhabitants of Cheron or some other fictional vehicle, there was always some kernel upon which to chew after the show was over.  It made us better by showing us just how silly we were being.  Star Trek has just become Star Wars with different characters.

On Family

I learned on this day that someone in my estranged family was diagnosed with cancer.  Of course this is sad news for anyone, but it made me ponder for quite a while why it is that I don’t go out of my way to talk to them.  It’s worth noting that I have no hard feelings about anyone involved but there’s not exactly an aura of good and happy memories surrounding anyone in my family.  My mother, of course, is a non-issue.  She asked me to stop calling her years ago and I’ve held true to that request and long gotten over the fact that my own mother told me to go the hell away and never come back.  My father’s side of the family, while more receptive to me, doesn’t really seem interested.  I’ve visited them a handful of times over the years and they’re very kind and polite it just seems like we don’t have anything to really talk about.  I come from a long line of people who aren’t exactly conversationalists and when we get together it’s just a lot of awkward silence.  This is as much my fault as anyone’s because, let’s face it, I spout more words in this blog in a day than I do aloud in a month, but the fact remains that we’re just not a well-connected family.

Then, of course, there’s the argument that “they won’t be around forever” and this is true.  Sadly though, I feel like in most meaningful ways I’ve already lost them.  My childhood was far from pleasant and whatever connectedness and sense of family I should have had just never came to flower.  I could call every day and visit twice a day on Wednesdays but the fact would remain that my connections were severed (or never created) decades ago.  On some level, I think it goes both ways.  I left my hometown 22 years ago and in that time I don’t think anyone from my family has ever seen any home I ever lived in or even asked to.  It’s unlikely they know where I work or have much inkling about what it is that I do except to the extent that Facebook or this blog tells them.  I don’t think they’ve even met my youngest daughter who teeters on the brink of being ten years old; my eldest they’ve seen once or twice.  I say none of this in spite, but merely to point out that it’s not that I’m pushing anyone away.  The disinterest seems fairly mutual.

On The Hangover III

I often tell Laura that “we need to go see more movies in the theatre.”  Sometimes when I say this we get into a brief spate of going to see lots of movies until we come upon one that makes us rather nauseated.  While Hangover III isn’t quite noxious, it’s not far off.  I anticipated a comedy, something to lighten the mood of the day.  Unfortunately, The Hangover was anything but light-hearted.  Perhaps I failed to remember the first two (or wisely ignored them) but this movie was more about death and destruction than anything else.  There were mildly amusing points but they were more than overshadowed by the crazed violence.  Not at all what my attitude needed yesterday.

On the Indy 500

The day closed with the Indy 500, watched on tape delay because it’s blacked out here in Central Indiana lest we all decide not to go.  This seems a fallacy, frankly, because I’m not sure most people go for the race, but that’s a discussion for another time.

For years now I’ve rather poo-pooed the 500.  Having been a couple of times it seems just like a lot of cars going in circles and doing so VERY loudly.  As the years have gone by, however, I’ve come to appreciate the history.  Sure the cars are just going around and around but they’ve been doing so for 100 years.  No matter how silly you may think something is, the fact that they’ve done it for that long does tend to lend validity to it.

In addition to history, I think the real joy of the race comes about from familiarity and sympathy with the drivers.  I recall with great vividness Sato’s last-lap attempt to win the 500 only to spin out.  Because of this, I root for the guy every time.  He’s got my sympathy, I remember him, and therefore he gets my vote.  For those who have watched this race for their entire lives, they’ve got decades of near misses and spectacular finishes.  Anyone who heard the words “Mario is slowing down” will always root for an Andretti forever after.

I know a lot of techy people who love the race and it’s not hard to see why.  All the technology that goes into propelling a car at over 200 miles an hour is mind-boggling and the strategy of a race is like a chess match from drafting positions to gas mileage calculations to rolling the dice to try to pit under yellow as the very last drop of gas leaks from the tank.

So after years of being non-appreciative, I get it.  I may well forget that I get it by the time next year rolls around, but today, the day after the race, I get it.  Every year before the race I make a blind know-nothing prediction about who will win.  It is, literally, just a name chosen from the air at random.  Last year my pick was Emerson Fittipaldi.  I was sad to learn that the random name I had picked hadn’t raced at Indy for over 30 years.  Needless to say, he didn’t win.  This year my random know-nothing pick was Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Clearly I’m making progress.  (He came in third)

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Pit Stop in the Paris of Africa by Julie R. Dargis

Pit Stop in the Paris of AfricaPit Stop in the Paris of Africa by Julie R. Dargis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book for nothing as part of a GoodReads drawing. Despite that kind consideration, my candid thoughts follow.

Our author has traveled far and wide and spent time in some amazing and complex parts of the world. In this book she shares some of her memories, observations and experiences from those far-flung climes.

So, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m having a bit of trouble writing about this one. Clearly the author has spent a large portion of her life helping out some very deserving people and contributing positively to the world at large. She’s put herself in harms way all for the benefit of those who are less fortunate and denied herself many of the things we all take for granted. Ms. Dargis is a stand-up person, let there be no doubt.

However, I’m forced to say that this book is just doesn’t work. First of all, it’s incredibly choppy and meandering. One minute she’s off in some third world country and the next she’s back home dating guys off the internet that just aren’t up to her standards. Then she’s back in yet another country and her multi-year stay boils down to a 4-page chapter that’s really only two randomly selected anecdotes. There may be 2-3 wonderful books to be written around this material. Heck, there may be 10 books to be written but you can’t just take bits and pieces from all of them and mash them together and expect to get a good book. Pick a topic and stay on it.

Secondly, the author comes across as very self-promoting as she goes on about how uncomfortable she was at times, how much pain she was in, how hard she worked or how much she’s given up to do this work. I’m absolutely certain that all of those things are true. I have no doubt whatsoever about her sacrifice but it does come across as rather anti-heroic to talk about it. And, when she’s not suffering from others, she’s making a ton of money in the stock market. During one passage she goes on at length about how successful her stock portfolio was and that even professional stock brokers were were astonished and asking her how she did it. I had to stare in mystified disbelief at this passage and fathom what on earth it could have to do with what I presumed to be the premise of the book.

In summary, I’m sure the author is a wonderful person but this sure is not a wonderful book. She’s had some wonderful experiences in her life and I would hate to be seen as discouraging but this book needs some structure and some guidance and most of all some focus.

PS: I’ve written negative reviews in the past so I’m prepared for the likely onslaught of nit-picking and bile that is sure to ensue. Don’t bother. If everyone just wrote positive reviews then what possible point would there be to reviewing anything? One man’s opinion. Just chill out.

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Deep Space: Star Carrier: Book Four by Ian Douglas

Deep Space: Star Carrier: Book FourDeep Space: Star Carrier: Book Four by Ian Douglas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book via a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration my candid opinions follow.

In a nutshell, it’s 2424 and the human race is under threat and what ever can possibly save the day? Yeah, that about sums up the plot. ’nuff said.

The first thing that strikes me about Douglas’ work is that he’s not afraid to weave a complex and satisfying world with a long history and many varied inhabitants. He rightly expects his readers to concentrate and pay attention if they have any hope of keeping up with him. Somewhat relately, this is not your pablum science fiction of yesteryear. The author has reworked entirely the social and cultural norms for humankind and unabashedly parades his characters around in the nude no matter what the backwards 21st century types might think of it. Lastly, our good author has no fear of new technology and while his stories read contextually like the space-cowboy novels of the 50s, these marauders of the icy vacuum are equipped with latest gadgets and gizmos that have barely been dreamed up yet even in the average writer’s most inspired dreams.

The only real down-sides to Douglas’ novel, and I apologize a bit since I feel a perpetual compunction to be at least somewhat constructive in all reviews, is that the naming of some of his technology can at times be distracting and unrefined. In a similar vein, if I had a nickel for every time the two syllables ‘nano’ appear together in this novel then I would be an abundantly wealthy man.

In summary though, Deep Space is a articulately and minutely constructed novel written in an old style and tradition but thoroughly and wonderfully modernized. While I have not read any of the others in the series (my free giveaway only blessed me with the 4th) I recognize well an established and reliable style and milieu.

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New books since last I wrote – Aug 22nd and Forward

PreparePrepare by Geoffrey Germann

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many readers I received this book directly from the author after I failed to win a drawing for a free copy. Mr. Germann was nice enough to contact me directly and send me a copy at his own expense. Despite his generosity, I set out to read his book with a candid and critical eye.

Overall the book seems reasonably professional despite a few foibles of typography. The author’s style though seems split between the preparatory phases of his novel and the more climactic ones. For the first half of the book the style is solid though undistinguished. He paints a cohesive, though at times overly brief picture of his characters that leaves the reader with a good conceptual and sympathetic image. It is during this phase too that we see the author’s tendency towards paired similes; no sooner is one found then it can be guaranteed that another will soon follow. In many cases the comparisons seem forced and inappropriate but a few border on brilliance.

When the climax of the novel begins Germann’s tone shifts substantially and he provides a much more skillful and less tentative product. The author’s portrayal of action sequences is immaculate and at times breathtaking. While the first pages stumble a bit the last half of the text veritably flies past.

The story itself is cut from the cloth of the “man become superman” motif via innovation in technology. Generally speaking such ideas are nothing new but Germann does provide us with a fresh take on the idea and does present us with a deeper question of just what the word justice means and how that differs from society’s enforcement of it. ‘Prepare’ is entertaining, at least mildly-thought provoking and well worth the few hours it takes to read it. I look forward to Germann’s future contributions to the genre.

Going beyond the inner contents I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the book’s packaging. Germann’s novel is a dozen times better than its external appearance and since the cover is such a decided driver of sales I think it would be a shame if his work suffered in popularity for such a trite reason. The title too completely fails to inspire and puts one more in the mindset of a Christian rapture novel than hard-boiled crime noir. It is my hope that readers will be able to look past these two significant shortcomings and give the book a chance.

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Fallen MastersFallen Masters by John Edward

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Firstly, it should be noted that I received this book as part of the ‘First Reads’ program so it was delivered speedily to my door for free last week. Because of this I felt rather obligated to not only review it but also read this monolithic tome all the way through. At 500 pages this was a sense of obligation that I honestly could have lived very happily without.

From an editorial and stylistic standpoint this book is a travesty. The dialog is woefully in need of revision and tends to be distractingly inane. Characters are drawn out in some descriptive detail but when they speak all that was built is quickly eroded. Veteran cops, singers, psychics, doctors, all speak with sadly generic voices while teenagers address those around like they’re seven years old. Where the dialog does not fail reality does as the author makes obvious blunders in simple fact checking. Since this is a pre-release copy perhaps some fact-checking will resolve some of the more obvious issues.

As story lines go, this is a fairly generic good versus evil scenario. The plot is simple but the people involved are all very complexly intertwined. I give the author good credit for keeping all this straight but ultimately it ends up feeling rather like bubble gum that has been chewed for too long. Half way through one almost cares about the characters and what is transpiring but by the end the gum has lost its flavor and one just wishes desperately to be finished with it. Edward’s offering, sadly, for all the effort that obviously went into it has all the crescendo and drama of the phone book.

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The Dirty Parts of the BibleThe Dirty Parts of the Bible by Sam Torode

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books, like this one, you buy for exactly two reasons. Firstly, it bears an intriguing title. Secondly, it is free. In fact, even now it’s free to download on Amazon. So go forth and “purchase” it. I’ll wait here.

From a strictly stylistic viewpoint the book is exceedingly simple and readable. Many other reviewers lump it into the category of ‘quick reads’ and I concur with that assessment. There are a few times in which the author cobbles together a sentence that borders on the profound but that reminds one more acutely of the rather incomprehensible ramblings of Winnie-the-Pooh than anything else:

“Moreover, we must look upon what is to occur as having already occurred, and see nothing but the present in the future, for the future is but the present a little farther on.”

Such constructs are a rarity, however, and not in general cause for alarm.

The story itself is fairly formulaic. Boy leaves home, boy meets girl, standard things happen between boy and girl. The end. There’s no grand surprise here, no culminating fever pitch of drama. The setting is reasonably quaint and the characters real enough for the most part. Tobias especially rings of truth as he really does think like a young boy. Having been a young boy at some point in my life (and for increasingly brief periods even now) I can speak with some authority about this. Doubtless the author too has had encounters with boyhood in his own past.

For the most part the whole thing carries on logically enough but in the last few dozen pages the author appears to go into somewhat of a panic to finish. What were once vague allusions to imagined spirits suddenly become all too real and for a very brief period we’re thrust unwillingly into a fantasy novel. The preternatural drama is mercifully brief and we’re allowed to return to the disappointing deus ex machina which ties up the loose ends in the novel. One can’t help but think that the whole thing would have been much better summed up if it hadn’t been summed up quite so quickly and quite so neatly.

In summary, the novel is quaint but far from unique. It will entertain but little else and will be difficult to remember when a couple of weeks have gone by. But then again, what do you want for nothin’? Rubber biscuit?

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Science's Strangest Inventions: Extraordinary But True Stories from Over 200 Years of Inventive HistoryScience’s Strangest Inventions: Extraordinary But True Stories from Over 200 Years of Inventive History by Tom Quinn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From a structural and editorial standpoint, Quinn’s book leaves much to be desired. Each of the 200 ‘inventions’ is given less than two pages resulting in a very fragmented presentation that causes the reader to hop from one topic to the next with no hope whatsoever of a reasonable transition. Clearly this is someone’s blog born into book. The reader would have been much better served with an extended description of each, some cultural context and even maybe an illustration. As it stands, just as you’re starting to get interested in something it’s time to move on to something completely different.

Despite its technical faults, the author has chosen a fine and interesting topic. His description of the “make your own dimples” kit (complete with scalpel and sutures) and the mousetrap that results in shooting the mouse with a large caliber revolver will make it into my party conversation for quite a while. These, along with the anti-masturbation underwear and nuclear fallout tent, do prove his thesis that humans in their infinite inventiveness have really tried just about everything. Unfortunately, some of the editorial issues do make me wonder about the veracity of many of the claims made. At several points Mr Quinn mentions the same wacky ‘innovation’ under multiple headings and repeats the exact same story making me doubt the care with which any of these are constructed. This generally erodes confidence so that I may repeat his work in casual conversation but I will certainly not stake any bar bets on the correctness of anything he described.

To summarize, the book is an entertaining one but best suited perhaps as a bathroom reader. Sitting down to read it from cover to cover leaves one with a rather dubious taste in one’s mouth. A further point of entertainment should be noted in that the author is from the United Kingdom. As a result, his repeated references to Americans as “gigantically fat” and obsessed with their pets is highly amusing if not accurate.

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Books: The 1977 Annual World’s Best Science Fiction

1977 World's Best SF

1977 World’s Best SF. Click to buy your own copy

Rather intermittently I’ve written about sci-fi and I find that if I don’t take the time to slow down and write something out then I promptly forget whatever it is that I just read.  This post is not only an attempt to share but also one of self-preservation for my own recollection.

Appearance of Life – Brian W. Aldiss

The introductory paragraph for this story says, and I quote, that Brian has been writing stories that “baffle the comprehension.”  I don’t find personally that this story is completely beyond my comprehension but I will say that such a statement does little to recommend such a narrative.  The bits that stand out for me, many days after reading this story, center around a planet-wide museum constructed by an ancient and extinct race.  Our narrator visits the locale and spends many months seeking out some greater truth about our history as a species.  Eventually, he comes to a conclusion which his mind cannot accept, that drives him mad, that causes him to extract himself from humanity entirely lest he loose this knowledge upon the universe and create havoc.

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank – John Varley

If this book were a pop song, this story would be “the hook.”  Our narrator, in a far distant time is visiting the equivalent of Disney World.  He’s having his consciousness implanted into an African lion for a few weeks to relax and disconnect from the world around him.  Unfortunately, when he returns from his excursion he finds that his real body has been misplaced.  In the months and months which follow while Uncle Walt looks for his body, he discovers a few key truths about himself and about mankind in general.

Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel – Michael G. Coney

The Wonder Years meets Trainspotting.  ’nuff said.

The Hertford Manuscript – Richard Cowper

In this short tale Cowper does a fairly reasonable job of filling in some of the narrative holes left in H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”.  Cowper’s protagonist doesn’t come to anything approaching a happy ending but it is good nonetheless to have an answer, even if it isn’t the most uplifting one.

Natural Advantage – Lester Del Rey

Aliens are nice enough to visit Earth, but sadly, it’s with nothing but bad news.  A solar flare is coming to wipe us off the face of the planet within the decade.  This particular race has trinocular vision and that allows them to not only perceive depth of field but depth of time and thus they can see that our puny race is about to snuff it.  At least they’re nice enough to tell us though, right?  After delivering their news they agree to an exchange of technology with our sadly doomed race and go on their way.  When they return to their homeworld years later they find that humanity had a little more ingenuity than they bargained for.

The Bicentennial Man – Isaac Asimov

In this old and familiar story we find a robot with an ambition.  Before the story of this robot there was a wooden marionette with the same ambition.  So many are the articles of furniture which yearn to be human.  Why do we write of such things?  Is it possibly because we want to make our finite and human frailties seem somehow valuable?  The Bicentennial Man yearns to be human, to expire, to pass on from a mortal existence.  How many of us would give everything to NOT be human?

The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor – Barrington Bayley

Mankind’s technology has outpaced his morality.  He can travel not only faster than light but exponentially faster.  He can cruise about the cosmos and watch every possible sitcom produced mechanically by a simple box.  (Not that there are all that many possible combinations mind you).  So what WOULD happen if the entirety of the omniverse became the equivalent of the wild west?

My Boat – Joanna Russ

A young black girl close on the heels of the civil rights movement proves to be more than she might seem.  In fact she might be downright alien…

Houston, Houston, Do You Read? – James Tiptree Jr.

Our protagonists were on a mission.  All they had to do was loop around the sun and come back to Earth.  Unfortunately for them, the Earth has changed since they left, especially since 300 years passed when they approached perihelion.  Pesky temporal distortions.  Plague has ravaged the planet they’re returning to and they’re the last three human males in the universe.  What greater paradise could there be?  Or perhaps it’s really hell in disguise….

I See You – Damon Knight

Television has come a long way.  Now you can dial in the time and location of whatever you want to view, even your next door neighbor.  What exactly WOULD happen if all of history both distant and recent was wide open to scrutiny from a hoard of people with a $7 gadget from Radio Shack?


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Test Piece – Eric Frank Russell [1951]

Other Worlds Science Stories – March 1951

Other Worlds Science Stories – March 1951

(Below you will find a summary and my general interpretation of the short story ‘Test Piece’ written by Eric Frank Russell in 1951.  It is one of a multi-part series of posts devoted to the short stories appearing in the 1952 Omnibus of Science Fiction.)

Three hundred years ago, Fraser, a space-scout from Earth, hundreds of light years from his home, came upon a lonely planet named Shaksembender inhabited by a race of humanoids.  Having reached the end of his career he made his final report to Earth and chose to settle there for the rest of his life.  During his twilight years his hosts came to revere him as a God.  By the time of his death there was a shrine in his name and his teachings had become a legacy that remained woven into the culture of the planet.  When Harry Benton and his crew arrived to make official contact with the planet centuries later they had no idea what they were walking into.

Making first contact with a world is never easy but the inhabitants of Shaksembender are downright suspicious.  The delegation from the planet questions Benton and the crew closely but is nevertheless infinitely hospitable.  Before the end of the first day Benton and company have agreed, at the insistence of the Shaksembender delegation, to visit the shrine of Mr. Fraser on the following morning.  As the delegation departs, the crew begins the process of analyzing the meeting.  Their ship is equipped with a device that can read and record the thoughts of everyone on board.  Looking over the logs, they find that Fraser’s legacy is one of intense suspicion towards the people of Earth.  The Shaksembender people have laid a trap for them at the shrine to test just how far the human race has evolved since Fraser left it 300 years ago.  If they arrive at the shrine and are found unworthy, then it’s clear that they’ll never make it back to the ship alive.

The manner of the test is far from foolproof but does create much tension among the crew.  If the crew utters two specific words during their stay on the planet then they are to be branded as heathens and instantly destroyed.  Unfortunately, the thought recorder is unable to determine exactly what these two words are so the next morning a tense crew makes its way to the shrine thinking again and again what those words could possibly be that would spell their demise.  Once they arrive, the delegation from the planet reveals a portrait of Mr. Fraser, a black man with white hair, and many tense minute pass.  Finally, it’s clear that none of the crew has said the words that would spell their doom.  Relieved, the captain pulls the head of the delegation aside to tell him about the thought recorder and determine exactly what the words were that would have destroyed them all.

As it turns out, the two words could not actually be printed in a publication of the time and they will not be printed here.  The text refers to them simply as “two simple words of two syllables each” and I can only assume they refer to one grievous expletive and one derogatory word for a person of African descent.  The crew’s reaction is uplifting as they laugh at the silly “gabbledegook” while their tension wanes.  They all quickly realize that they could never possibly have been caught in the trap since it required the utterance of words they’ve never heard of in their lives.

For a story written in 1951, it really does give one hope that someday we may live in a world where words of such hatred are just gibberish from some by-gone age.  It’s been 60 years since this story was put to paper, but I like to think that every year we’re a bit closer to forgetting such epithets and learning to respect each other as human beings.

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Filed under 1950s, political, science fiction

Winner Lose All – Jack Vance [1951]

Galaxy Science Fiction 1951

Galaxy Science Fiction 1951

Thousands of light years from Earth three creatures arrive at the same spot with the same goal but very different ways of going about achieving it.

A human spacecraft has landed to mine a pitchblende outcropping.  Once they do so they can then prepare the planet for human colonization.  The Unigen, a creature composed of tiny energy ‘nodes’ loosely connected and spread throughout millions of light years of space, has discovered the deposit at the same time.  It can metabolize the uranium ore directly.  As the humans prepare to begin mining, they notice the Unigen’s nodes as mere pests and assume them to be indigenous insects.  Capturing one, they examine it microscopically but in doing so it explodes getting the attention not only of the humans but also of the suddenly wounded Unigen.

Meanwhile, a third creature, this one more plant-like, has arrived at the same deposit.  While the two sentient beings fight make plans to kill each other, the third quietly and patiently digs its roots deep into the rock face.  The humans and the Unigen fight themselves to stalemate until neither believes it’s useful to continue and eventually they both leave the planet.  Patience wins out for the third creature as its birthright is realized.  Refining the ore on which it feeds into volatile Uranium 253, the explosion which results is tremendous.  Tremendous enough, in fact, to eject the seeds of the creature into space to drift hopefully into the vastness of space until they find root on another suitable planet.

Personally, any story including panspermia is a winner in my book.  The thought that life could cross the frosty boundaries of space like a cosmic coconut to land on our planet is … well, intriguing as well as terrifying.  I hope it happens… but I also hope that when it does that it’s fairly friendly when it gets here and more importantly that it tastes good on pizza.


Filed under 1950s, science fiction