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Monthly Archives: July 2017

Fight the power (drain): The Watcher by Jane Palmer

The Watcher was Jane Palmer’s second original novel for the Women’s  Press science fiction series. In a previous post I looked at her first novel, The Planet Dweller.

Opu looked down at the chattering  bundle of  uncoordinated wings, arms and legs, tumbling  about the floor beneath everyon’e feet, and wondered what pitch of evolution she was likely to represent. Her child has just managed to escape  for the fifth time from the play-pen that was supposed to be child-proof, and was about to bite the leg of another of the  control room staff  in in discovery of the different things a beak could be used for.

Opu is a working mother, juggling her important  job in energy with childcare, fretting about her growing  offspring Opuna, whose behaviour she discusses with her partner, Anapa.   Opu is a member of the Ojalie, a hermaphrodite winged race who depend upon capturing  the energy  from their second sun for power and sustenenance, and she  is a controller,  regulating the power around their planet through numerous stations.

The Ojalie’s orderly life is disprupted by the appearance of a Sun  Dancer which sucks the power from their stations, threatening the survival  of their planet. They trace the Sun Dancer back to an obscure planet, Perimeter 84926,  and dispatch an android called the Kybion to track it down.

Fast forward (or possibly fast backwards, I am not too clear about this)  to  the English coast in the C19th when a group of shipwrecked  passengers encounter the Kybion in  a cave. At first  it wants  to kill them,  but then oddly  is persuaded to let them live, in fact to go one better, to extend their life by slowing down the ageing process.

Then we go forward (I am sure about this  at least ) to the 1980s when a young Asian woman, Gabrielle,  goes to stay on her  own in her aunt’s  remote cottage on the coast. She encounters a stranger, Wendle, who reveals  that he is 127, and she becomes involved  in an  increasingly complex series of events involving Wendle  (young and old),   a  young black policeman called Weatherby  masquerading as a butler. somebody nasty called Gunn, telepathic communication, spirits,   a watery planet called  Taigal Rex, and much else. In time we discover who the Star Dancer is, and who  is the Watcher  of the novel’s title.

Overall I  found this an unsatisactaotory novel:   there are flashes of charm and invention,  but much that seems clunky and maladroit and too many  McGuffins to solve knots in the plot. I do love the cover, though.

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When a planet falls in love…The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer (1985)

This  was Jane Palmer’s first novel,  published  in  the  pioneering  Women’s  Press  science fiction series.  It   begins, probably uniquely in the realm of science fiction writing, with a woman discussing her menopause with a male doctor. Diana is asking about Hormone Replacement   Therapy, but he  advises her  against this.  “I’ve heard of of women  losing their fingernails and others being stuck with headaches for weeks – and do you really want to go on having periods until you are past seventy?’

Diana riposts tartly:

‘I’ve already  worn my finger-nails away by climbing up the wall and give my daughter regular headaches by screaming at every animate and  inanimate a thing that gets in my way… And will not live to be seventy if I carry on at this rate.’

Diana is a single mother, has a seven (and a half) year old daughter,  and works in an open air museum of architecture where she take parties of  bored school  children on tours of their iron-age huts.  At night she hears (or thinks she hears) a voice which says, “Moosevan”… “Moosevan”….

She has  an  elderly Russian neighbour, Yuri,  who  spends his time drinking gin  to excess, observing the asteroids,  and making arcane  calculations about their orbits.  Then there is Diana’s  friend Eva, a scientist who work at a huge radio telescope right  next door to the open-air museum,  (I love this juxtapostion  of ancient  and modern). Eva calls Diana  “Mog” , by the way.We never find out why.

Yuri becomes convinced that someone is moving some asteroids to different positions,  which if completed,  will  turn into a new planet and destroy the Earth. Nobody is  paying  him any attention, but he’s right,  of course. It’s part of a plan by  a planet dweller, Moosevan,  to create a new home for herself, unaware that the Earth is inhabited.  Moosevan is being threatened by a thoroughly nasty alien The Mott (we know he is nasty because he has big ears and big teeth),  who wants to evict Moosevan  and colonise her planet. Mott is being aided by renegage Olmuke genius Kulp and his two hapless sidekicks,  Jannu and Tolt.

It had been difficult  for the Mott to accept that the rest of of the galaxy did not love their empirebuilding species, especially as they hasd bestowed  such benefits as advice and bombs in exchange  for their freedom…

Opposing the Mott are two ancient beings who have taken  temporary forms  as Torrans (complete with tails) and temporary names,  Dax and Reniola.

Back on earth  Yuri enters a dazzling portal which  has popped up in the middle of a fairy ring,   and finds himself on Moosevan’s planet.  She tells him:

‘I am old…’ Moosevan tried to rationalise. ‘I am. ..Your touch pleases me…’ she added as that was the most dominant thought in her mind.

  ‘How old?’

‘I must be half as old as this galaxy’.

Yuri looked up again at the sky scattered with the debris of so many stars. Normally he would not have have sniffed  at a show of affection coming from a mature woman, but one ninety thousand million years was in his opinion taking things to far.

I won’t go any further into the details of the plot,  except to say that by the end of the book everything is resolved satisfactorily.

The shadow  of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe surely  looms large over this attempt by Jane  to write a comic science  fiction novel.  Adams succeeded brilliantly,  so much so that Hitchhikers,  like the Goon Show,  is now part of  the mental furniture of anyone interested in surreal comedy. Adams was a genius  and made his writing  look easy, but it’s not, of course.   For me this  novel only partly works, but I still enjoyed it.

The wonderful front cover illustration of the novel  is by Jane herself. She has written  a number  of other science fiction novels,  including The Watcher (1986)  and Moving Moosevan (1990), both also published by Women’s Press, Babel’s Basement (2010) and Duckbill’s Soup (2011), another in the Moosevan series.

“What dreams may come…”:The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

In a previous post I looked at  Ursula’s Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. In this post I  want to look at  her novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971).

Falling into “a dreamless sleep” is a cliche beloved of romantic novelists as they depict the travails of their heroine/hero as she/he slumps exhausted onto their four posted  feather bed. In fact,  we all dream every night,   as our unconscious churns over our day, our fears and desires,  and much else besides.  And when we awake our dreams usually vanish, like early  morning mist under the  rays of the  rising sun. Usually.

George Orr dreams. George is an ordinary man, who does an ordinary job, lives in an ordinary shabby flat in an ordinary city (Portland) in an America some decades ahead of  when the novel was published  (which  in a time paradox means it is now  in our past as readers). There is  just one extraordinary thing you need to know about George: when he dreams the dreams can  come true.

Doctor William  Haber dreams. He dreams of  a more prestigious job, of  a more impressive set of   offices, of a better world for humanity. Don’t we all?  George is sent to Haber, a sleep specialist, after the authorities discover  he  has been illegally obtaining drugs to suppress his dreams. George reluctantly reveals to Haber  that when he was 17 he dreamt that his aunt Ethel, who had been making unwanted sexual advances to him,  had been killed:

“I had this dream. A very vivid one. I could recall it completely when I woke up. I dreamed that Ethel had been killed in a car crash in Los Angeles, and the telegram hadcome. My mother was crying while she was trying to cook dinner, and I felt sorry for her, and kept wishing I could do something for her, but I didn’t know what to do. That was all. … Only when I got up, I went into the living room. No Ethel on the couch. There wasn’t anybody else in the apartment, just my parents and me. She wasn’t there. She never had been there. I didn’t have to ask. I remembered. I knew that Aunt Ethel had been killed in a crash on a Los Angeles freeway six weeks ago, coming home after seeing a lawyer about getting a divorce. We had got the news by telegram. The whole dream was just sort of reliving something like what had actually happened. Only it hadn’t happened. Until the dream. I mean, I also knew that she’d been living with us, sleeping on the couch in the living room, until last night.”

Of course Haber doesn’t  believe  George,  but is  eventually convinced when he witnesses the changes  for himself. Using hypnotism and  an electronic device called the Accelerator (a dream machine, if you like) he takes control of George’s dreaming, ordering  him what to dream. And the dreams come true. At first Haber makes   small changes in the world around them –  a new flat for George, a research institute for himself  – but then he he grows more ambitious, instructing  George to make  drastic  changes in the wider world . But the Law of Unintended Consequences makes itself known,   and the results are not what Haber envisaged.

Distressed, George  seeks help  from a lawyer, the steely Heather Lelache. She  accompanies him  to a dream session at which  Haber instructs George : “You’re going to have a dream in which you feel uncrowded, unsqueezed. You’ll dream about all the elbow room there is in the world, all the freedom you have to move around.”

Heather feels the change at the moment it happens:

“The woman felt it too. She looked frightened. Holding the heavy brass necklace up close to her throat like a talisman, she was staring in dismay, shock, terror, out the window at the view. He had not expected that. He had thought that only he could be aware of the
change. But she had heard him tell Orr what to dream; she had stood beside the dreamer; she was there at the center, like him. And like him had turned to look out the window at the vanishing towers fade like a dream, leave not a wrack behind, the
insubstantial miles of suburb dissolving like smoke on the wind, the city of Portland, which had had a population of a million people before the Plague Years but had only about a hundred thousand these days of the Recovery, a mess and jumble like all American cities, but unified by its hills and its misty, seven-bridged river, the old forty-story First National Bank building dominating the downtown
skyline, and far beyond, above it all, the serene and pale mountains.”

George  has dreamt of a Plague which has  killed billions of people.  He is appalled,  but unable to stop Haber from  misusing his dreams. Still, Haber is not a power-hungry monster, as George admits to himself:

…he’s not a mad scientist, Orr thought dully, he’s a pretty sane one, or he was. It’s the chance of power that my dreams give him that twists him around. He keeps acting a part, and this gives him such an awfully big part to play. So that now he’s using even his science as a means, not an end. . . . But his ends are good, aren’t they? He wants to improve life for humanity. Is that wrong?
Finally Haber himself enters the dream world,  and George,  faced with the loss  of Heather (now his wife) and his whole world , is forced to act.
The theme of novel  is that the best of intentions can lead to  the worst of outcomes. I am reminded of one of  those tales of Arabia in whch someone is granted three wishes by a djinn,  but things don’t go well.  I very much enjoyed this novel and  thoroughly recommend it.
The Lathe of Heaven was made into a television movie in 1980 by WNET. The film starred   Bruce Davison as  George Orr,   Kevin Conway as Dr Haber, and Margaret Avery  as Heather Lelache. You can watch the film here. The two photographs ab0ve are taken fron this production.
You can watch  an interview here  with Ursula in which she discusses the film and the novel.  and  you can read the novel online here.

Finally,   Ursula took the title of the novel  from from the writings of Chuang Tzu,

“To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the  lathe  of heaven.”

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