Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 26, 2008

To Outlive Eternity, part 2

“No Truce With Kings” is a war story set in a future post-atomic war America which is subdivided into several feuding states. On the west coast a conservative government which wishes to keep the balkanized status quo is overthrown in a semi-legal maneuver by a radical group which wishes to wage war on bordering states and reunite the entire country. What results is a civil war as the conservatives fight back. A third group in the war are Espers, a monkish-like sect which has supposedly developed psionic powers and which traditionally remain neutral politically, but they have offered help to the radicals since they consider a reunited future more to their liking. A wild card in all this is a hidden group of aliens who seem to be pulling all the strings in the war.

This is a good novella, but basically a war story which pales somewhat after the powerful “To Outlive Eternity.” It won a Hugo Award as Best Short Fiction 40+ years ago, beating out Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose For Ecclesiastes,” which I consider one of the finest short stories every written. No war story, no matter how well-written, can possibly be better than that story.

I reviewed the novella “The Big Rain” previously here on 12/22/07, but briefly it is an adventure about the colonization of Venus. Neither the characters nor the milieu are as well-developed as in “To Outlive Eternity” or the book’s concluding novella “After Doomsday,” with the story’s emphasis on the plot rather than on the world and its people, but overall it was interesting reading.

The book’s concluding story “After Doomsday” is second only to “To Outlive Eternity” in quality, with the novella’s strength being its stunning variety of alien races and their environments. The story is set in a galaxy teeming with life forms, one of whom, the Monwaingi, has previously contacted Earth and begun providing scientific and commercial support to it. Several Earth groups have built spaceships which have begun exploring and doing commerce with other races. All of this is background to the return to Earth of one such ship which finds that massive explosions have destroyed all signs of human civilization on the planet and an array of assault weapons attempt to destroy any remaining Earth ships which return to the planet.

The main storyline is the attempts by two such Earth ships, one crewed by American males, the other by European females, to locate the perpetrators of Earth’s destruction, while also finding other survivors in an attempt to restart human civilization. There are three main alien races in the local galactic spiral, and the ships visit all of them, giving Anderson a chance to do his usual fine job of alien civilization-building. All of this is embedded in the mystery of which race destroyed Earth and which races can actually be considered allies of the few remaining humans.

One of the main characters Donnan becomes the de facto leader of the male humans after the ship’s captain first cracks under the emotional trauma of the destruction of all human life on Earth, then eventually dies. He serves much the same role as Reymond, the ship’s constable in charge of maintaining order in “To Outlive Eternity,” but there is much less emphasis on the trauma and emotional state of the survivors in “After Doomsday” than there was in the other novella. I feel the novella should have been expanded to novel-length to explore the characters more, making them as much the story’s emphasis as the mystery itself was. Still, Anderson’s galaxy and its alien inhabitants are very intriguing, worth reading the story for them alone. And the novella’s ending, the unraveling of the mystery of who destroyed Earth, while it is fairly apparent from early in the story, still manages to be both unexpected and startling when it actually takes place, leaving “After Doomsday” with one of the most chilling final lines of an sf story I have read in a long time.

“After Doomsday” is an underrated Anderson classic. I wish he had set more stories in this particular galaxy so he could have explored it further. Overall, To Outlive Eternity is an excellent collection of long fiction which is highly recommended, especially to anybody who has not read either “To Outlive Eternity” or “After Doomsday.”

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Underrated rock musicians

Second only to my love of books (primarily science fiction, although history/ historical fiction also) is my love or rock and roll. I have been listening to rock music for most of 5 decades now and, like many listeners, I enjoy most of the “giants” of the genre: Beatles, Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Simon & Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Creedence, Van Morrison, Moody Blues; there are also several giants whom I do not particularly enjoy: Stones, Clapton, Skynyrd.

But the bulk of my listening consists of a handful of artists who are not considered as important as those listed above, but who, in my opinion, are every bit as good, if not better in some instances. So here is my list of the most underrated rock artists whom I highly recommend to all fans of rock and roll music. In each case I have listed two albums which represents them at their very best:

Richard Thompson: forget Clapton; RT is as good a guitarists and a much superior singer-songwriter / Shoot Out the Lights, The Old Kit Bag

The Strawbs: David Cousins’ band runs the gamut from folk-rock to progressive rock, doing all of it well / Hero and Heroine, Bursting at the Seams

Dion DiMucci: forget the early “boy band” music, Dion is one of the finest folk rockers ever / Yo, Frankie!, Deja Nu

Chris de Burgh: my choice for the most underrated singer-songwriter; think Moody Blues style music / Man on the Line, This Way Up

Jethro Tull: similar to the Strawbs, although a bit more folk, mandatory listening for any rock fans / Aqualung, War Child

John Hiatt: covers of his songs have been hits for several artists, but nobody does them as well as Hiatt in his Dylanesque voice / Bring the Family, Slow Turning

Steve Forbert: outstanding folk rocker / Streets of this Town, Jackrabbit Slim

Frank Zappa: ignore the craziness, nobody blends progressive rock with jazz-fusion better / Lather, Have I Offended Someone?

Waterboys: more folk-rock with a big-band ambiance / Fisherman’s Blues, This is the Sea

Saturday, January 12, 2008

To Outlive Eternity, part 1

The collection To Outlive Eternity contains a handful of novellas and novelettes by one of science fiction’s finest storytellers, Poul Anderson. I started reading the book with the title novella “To Outlive Eternity,” which was a two-part serial in Galaxy in the late 1960s. I have not read the story since then, but I recall it as being my favorite Poul Anderson story. Its novel expansion Tau Zero was my favorite Anderson novel as well, so I was anxious to reread the original novella after a gap of 40 years.

The story is a scientific puzzle combined with a psychological thriller, the story of a colonizing spaceship which unavoidably passes through an area of galactic dust which damages it in such a way that it cannot decelerate. Ultimately, instead of reaching its destination world in two subjective years (which are hundreds of objective years since the ship is traveling at close to the speed of light so that its onboard time frame stretches relative to the outside universe) it must seek a location outside the local family of galaxies where the ship’s acceleration could be turned off and repairs made. This leads to the ship traveling so close to the speed of light that millennia pass in the length of an eyeblink.

The ship contains 50 crewmembers and scientists and deals primarily with the psychological trauma of first not knowing if they will ever be able to leave the ship, and secondly watching the entire history of the universe speeding by them. The story is told from the point of view of Reymond, the ship’s constable in charge of maintaining order. As others around him suffer the strains of the stress and possibly futile future, he undertakes the task of not only keeping order onboard, but also keeping everybody else as sane as possible.

Some of the scientific theory in the story eluded my non-scientific grasp, but that was my only complaint with this gripping character study. The story was fairly compressed, as several years pass onboard in 80 pages, which almost cries out for novel expansion. Perhaps I’ll go back and reread Tau Zero as well. This novella was that good.

I’ll discuss the rest of To Outlive Eternity as soon as I finish reading it.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

City of the Chasch

City of the Chasch is the first of four novels by Jack Vance collected in book form under the unassuming title Planet of Adventure. It is a typical Vancean planetary adventure involving an Earthman named Adam Reith who is the sole survivor of a spaceship arriving on the planet Tschai which is populated by three alien races, the Chasch, Dirdir and Wankh, plus the native Pnume and numerous sub-species of each, as well as several types of humans. Each have differing cultures, and all are at various stages of warfare with each other.

Reith’s shuttle is captured by the Blue Chasch and taken to their stronghold, although Reith escapes and sets out to recapture his ship. He joins a caravan for protection and meets a girl who calls herself Flower of Cath and who is a prisoner of a group of nuns taking her to a bizarre anti-male ceremony at which she will evidently be maimed or killed. Reith spends the first half of the novel rescuing her then, when the caravan is destroyed in an attack by the Green Chasch, Reith, the girl and two other accomplices, one human and the other a Dirdirman, travel toward the city of the Chasch.

Of course, they encounters other troubles along the way, most importantly for the storyline when a dictator of the city Pera kidnaps the Flower of Cath for his own use. The humans who live in Pera almost huddle in the city as fugitives, surviving by engaging in commerce with the nearby city of the Blue Chasch. After a series of adventures both in Pera and in the city of the Blue Chasch, Reith becomes ruler of Pera and initiates improvements in the city which incur the wrath of the Chasch who launch an invasion.

City of the Chasch is vintage Vance, featuring a well-developed exotic world populated with diverse and fantastic aliens. Tschai is the true protagonist of the novel, and the adventure plot is mostly a device used by Vance to explore the world, its population, and the relationship between the alien overloads and the underling humans. On Tschai the humans are considered submen by the Chasch and Dirdir, and live such primitive lives that there is little reason for the alien races to consider them otherwise. Reith, in accepting the leadership of Pera, determines to change that perception by helping the humans to regain their pride and improve their standards of living. We also learn more about the Chasch, particularly the sub-races Blue Chasch and Green Chasch. Presumably, in latter books we will learn more about the other various races and sub-races.

Where the Alastor and Demon Prince series feature similar color, they are primarily mysteries whose worlds are not nearly as well-developed. So while City of the Chasch has less plotting, it is more satisfying since beneath its surface plot lies an anthropological delight. I look forward to exploring more of Tschai’s wonders in subsequent novels in the series.