Here follow some notes on the SF I read over the late summer, in reverse chronological order of publication.
THE GONE WORLD by Tom Sweterlitsch
In this cosmic horror mystery with time travel, Navy SEALs can go as far forward in time in space-faring submarines as they like, and return to their launch points. But they can’t go backward from the present. Meanwhile, an insane apocalyptic event—like END OF EVANGELION meets EVENT HORIZON, particles of alien cancer infesting everyone on earth—is moving backwards through time. Every time they peak into the future, it happens sooner. We follow Moss, a crimes investigator for the Navy as well as a time travelling astronaut. She gets called into a homicide scene. A whole family was massacred. The suspect is the father, a veteran of the time travel program, and a man who should be MIA. It’s a pulp horror-thriller as screened through a Christopher Nolan greywater filter.
Cosmic horror and crime have already been successfully married in TRUE DETECTIVE; fusing that result with time travel rules would inevitably be a lot. Through some quantum mechanics technobabble, the submarines can travel to a possible world, that is, the future timeline they visit is only a possibility from the state of the present time. But once these travellers return to the present, this furnished future world instantly vanishes. This leads to some astronauts being held captive in the future, never to return, by people who would prefer not to wink out of existence. This idea seems like a reconciliation of the two interpretations of quantum physics, uncertainty vs. many worlds. But it is certainly the most literal way to present philosophical solipsism: should I be destroyed (or removed to another point in time) the world disappears with me.
All in all, pretty forgettable, but I did read up till the end!
RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke’s dry technical reporting works for me in a way that Asimov’s doesn’t. The prelude with meteorites is enjoyable in itself. Clarke’s pro South African apartheid politics don’t mar this story the way they are in the 2001 sequels. And only one cosmic boys’ club passage about the distractions of women’s tits in zero g went into grating territory. The highlight concept is the use of enhanced primates on spaceships to do menial tasks, super chimpanzees, or simps. Sex onboard is somewhat discouraged to avoid favoritism among the crew, “but apart from this, the only rule regulating shipboard sx was ‘So long as you don’t do it in the corridors and frighten the simps.’” Did the Ramans really have no plastic arts or culture, or did it simply go unnoticed? Or had Raman society evolved beyond the need for such services to society? As ideological reflections, art works already have an aspect of class utilitarianism; is the movement beyond art one toward a “pure” utilitarian society?
THE DREAMING JEWELS by Theodore Sturgeon
It’s Sturgeon, so you know the prose is going to be beautiful and lively while still delivering an action-packed pulpy story. “They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high-school stadium and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street.” After a scene of hysteria and abuse that will only seem over the top to people who weren’t raised by narcissists, young Horty runs away and joins up with some carnies (and becomes a girl named Hortense). Here’s the antagonist of the story. Their “boss,” is Pierre Monetre the “Maneater.”
Pierre Monetre worked for a while with subversive groups. It was of no importance to him which group, or what it stood for, as long as its aim was to tear down the current structure of the majority. He did not confine this to politics, but also did what he could to introduce modern non-objective art into traditional galleries, agitated for atonal music in string quartets, poured beef-extract on the serving tables of a vegetarian restaurant, and made a score of other stupid, petty rebellion—rebellions for their own sake always, having nothing to do with the worth of any art or music or food-taboos.
WAR WITH THE NEWTS by Karel Čapek
Karel Čapek is simply the best, and I honestly don’t have much to say about this pitch-black comedy (in which the newts organize and burrow under New Orleans with explosives and sink the city), except that it’s funny from the beginning all the way to the end when the narrator basically starts arguing with himself over the meaning of the whole thing, of the nature of speculative fiction. This 1930s novel is in part a send-up of the whole genre of imperialist adventure writing. The reflections of the businessmen who organize the exploitation of the humanoid newts reflect a certain transformation in their work: “I could even say it is a sign from fate (says industrial magnate G.H. Bondy) that our excellent friend and captain, J. van Toch, left us just at this time. Our romantic, beautiful—I could even say absurd—trading in pearls was always closely connected with him. I consider this to be the closing chapter in our business; it had its, so to speak, exotic charm, but it was never suitable for modern times.” And later: “I am sorry to be closing this chapter, the chapter we might call the van Toch era; an era in which we made use of the child-like and adventurous side that we all have.” The transition from the “van Toch era” to the present is, in other words, that from the liberal competitive epoch of capitalism to modern imperialism, from when industrial capitalists were heroes in the struggle against feudalist monarchism, to when they are bad from top to bottom. “We’ll no longer be doing it in the style of captain van Toch with his adventurous tales of pearls and treasure but by the tried and tested means of honest toil.”