RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: August 2020

My reviews of three new novels in the Penguin Science Fiction series

Penguin have been  publishing science  fiction  since the company’s  birth  in 1935.  When I  started reading science fiction as a child  in the 1960s  I borrowed my father’s  copies of John Wyndham’s novels from the 1950s,   which were in the classic  plain orange covers. ( I have to confess taht  it was quite a lengthy borrow,  I still have some of them.)

In 1963  Penguin  launched a dedicated science fiction  series,  edited by Brian Aldiss, whose covers  were eye-catching and surreal, easily picked out in a bookshop.   The authors included  Alfred Bester,  Ray Bradbury,  Frederick Pohl, Harry Harrison , J G Ballard,  Theodore Sturgeon  and Philip K Dick. Women  writers were scarce you will have noticed.  In 1978 Penguin published Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sergeant.

You  can find a  display of  these classic  Penguin covers here.

On 10th August  2020  Penguin published 10 science  fiction  titles in their  Penguin  Classics series  with more to follow  in 2021. You can find full details here.

These are  my reviews of three of the  novels in the series.

The Hair Carpet Weavers by  Andreas Eschbach, translated by  Doryl Jensen (2020) £8.99

This is an extraordinary  novel by a writer I had never read, which,  I suppose, is the whole point of this series.

It  opens on a small nondescript planet , Planet G-101/2, a planet  so insignificant  that it does not  even seem to have  even bothered with a name.  The main industry  (if you can call it that, it is more like a religion) is the weaving of carpets out of human hair. The weavers  spend their entire lives creating  a single  carpet  (yes, just one) made from the  hair of their  wives. (for this is a polygamous society).

Knot after knot, day in, day out, for an entire lifetime. Always the same hand movements, always looping the same knots in the fine hair, and so tiny, that with time, the fingers trembled and the eyes became weak from strain – and still the progress was hardly noticeable

The carpets are sold to the  caravans of the Imperial Traders  who  pass through  each town in turn  every few  years, and  then shipped off in  vast spaceships to the Emperor‘s Palace , an Emperor who has ruled  over a vast galactic Empire from time immemorial, and is regarded as a god by the planet dwellers.   At least that is where the weavers believe they are going…

This is a rigidly hierarchical society, endlessly repeating the traditions  down the generations:   Only men  weave.  A son inherits the craft from his father.  Only one son is permitted to each family, other male infants are killed at birth.

In the first chapter we meet Abro, who chafes at the life already rigidly laid out for him:  he cherishes books, the possibility of another kind of life. But  his father, Ostvan,  angrily rounds on him.

I want to hear nothing of it. For you there is only  one way to live. You have learned from me   everything a hair carpet makes must know: that is enough. You can tie all the knots, you have been instructed in soaking and dyeing techniques, and you know the traditional patterns. When  you have designed your carpet, you will  take a wife  and have many daughters  with different colored hair.  And for your wedding,, I will cut my carpet  from the frame, bind it, and present it to you, and you will sell it in the city to the Imperial Trader. That’s what I  did with the carpet of my father, and he did the same before me with the carpet of his father, and he did the same with the carpet of his father, my great grand-father: that is the way it has been for generation to generation for thousands of years. And just as iI pay off my debt to you,  you will pay off your debt to your son, and he to his son, and so on.It was always this way, and it will always be so.?

But will it be so? There are rumours that the Emperor may have been  overthrown in a rebellion, rumours dismissed as heresy. Can this possibly so?

Like one of the  hair carpets the novel weaves together numerous plot threads  and   an intricate pattern of characters: Dirilja, the imperial trader’s daughter, ready for love;  Pargan, the sceptical teacher;  Brakart, the itinerant preacher; Borlon, the weaver, whose life changes in a moment; Ubhika, the pedler woman;  Nillian, the off-worlder; Kremman, the Imperial Tax Collector; Opur, the flutemaster;  Piwano, his pupil;  Emparak, the Imperial archivist;  Jubad, the rebel leader;   Lamita, the rebel archivist;  Cheun, the tribesman and finally, and  most enigmatically of all, the Emperor Aleksander the Tenth  himself.

For there is a awful secret at the heart of the Empire and, loop by loop,   thread by thread,  we are drawn to its dreadful  revealing .

Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer, transalted by Amalia Gladhart (2020) £8.99

You must know Trafalgar  Medrano.  No?  Well, when he’s not  trading  between  the planets  you may find  him  in  one of his favourite haunts:  the Burgundy in Rosario. You don’t know it?  That’s understandable,  it’s one of the those bars of which there are few left.

None of that formica or any fluorescent  lights  or  Coca-Cola.  Gray  carpet – a little  worn – real wood tables and real wood, a few mirrors against  the old panelling, small windows, a single  door and a facade that says nothing…It’s downtown, between a shop and a galeria  and you’ll surely pass it every  day when you go to the bank and you won’t even see it.  The  barman is Marcos.

Sit with Trafalgar  and  he’ll sip his black coffee (a double, always), smoke his unfiltered cigarettes  and, like a Latin Baron Munchausen,    tell you his   fantastical  tales of intergalactic  travel;  his close encounter  with  the aristomatriarchy  of Verobora;   the horrible world of  Ananadah-A where the inhabitants  live on worms and dance;  his visit  to the Court of the Catholic Monarchs in Spain in 1492;  his trip  to Uunu where each  day everything – time, society, city, people – changes  because of a “chrono-synclastic  indundibulum”; Edessbuss,    where they party every night;  Aleiçarga,  where it’s  boring and orderly,  apart from one man whom  he calls “Mr Chaos” ; and so on.

Of course you might get a little bored with his stories.   Even his Boswell  in this book  complains:

your stories are always the same, a  bunch of strange things happen to you, you throw yourself, generally successfully, at the prettiest one around there, you earn piles of dough, and what do you spend it on?  On bitter coffee and black cigarettes and Pugliese records.

Still, his stories do make the time fly… and the coffee at the Burgundy is very good…

10,000 Light -Years From Home by James Tiptree Jr (2020)  £8.99

Peter Christmas  was having a busy day at the office.  The Xemosan’s  entry in the Non- Flying Avian   was  in fact  flying while at the same time  they were trying to sneak in several hundred  female of the species for free  as auxiliary animals.  He saves  a  eight foot tall naked sacred virgin warrior from Myria  from killing herself  after losing her race.  An unauthorised alien  spaceship landing   sends mini-rodents scurrying off without their riders.  The giant ice-slugs  are due to finish their race after covering 50 feet in the extraordinary fast  time of  six months. The Magellans – “with dead-white triangular  heads like bleached horse skulls” – insist on observing his work close up. The Ankru team appear  to have been assigned too light a gravity handicap.

Christmas runs Raceworld:

His nose wrinkled  in the spicy breeze from a thousand  racetracks  on which ran, hopped,  flopped, swam, slithered, humped, darted and thundered the racing beasts of a million planets. Raceworld the prefect planet, turning stately, through equal hours of flawless day and balmy floodlit nights.

Directly in front of his office  lies the track for the most spectacular race of all:  “the giant armoured reptiles – general galaxy favourites. “

Christmas  is the main character  in “Faithful to Thee Terra , In Our Fashion,” one of the short stories in this excellent collection  by  Alice Bradley Sheldon  (1915 –1987) who wrote under a pseudonym because of the prejudice against women science fiction writers when she first put pen to paper.

Her work often takes a twist on familiar science fiction memes. “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (she has great titles)  deals with  humans who find aliens sexually alluring, irresistible in fact , even when actual sex is either dangerous or impossible.

In “Mama Come Home”  “three magnificent   earth-type females in space-opera uniforms ” land on earth as though they are in  a 1950s  UFO movie. They claim to be Capellans  from a tramp freighter: the world loves them and flocks  to meet them. But Max from the CIA is suspicious. What do they really  want? Where are the men? And are they re-enacting  the first encounters between Europe and Polynesia. (note, it didn’t go well for  the Polynesians)?

Alice brings Max  back for another encounter with aliens in “Help.”  Firstly an alien ship zooms in to orbit,  leaves some satellites,  and then zooms back out. This is followed  by another alien ship which  lands near Quebec:

Everyone remembers what marched  out into that empty plain – a band of little figures  about four feet high and the color  of the More Expensive Spread. They seemed to be wearing jointed yellow armour with funny little half-opened helmets on their  head. They were carrying what looked like cereal-box death-ray guns. Each one held his up and then gravely trooped over and dropped his weapon on a pile. Then they joined hands and began to sing.

The aliens are from Cygnus 61 and seem to be harmless. That is,  until they  start blowing up religious buildings around the world. It turns out the Cygnians are missionaries, intent on imposing the worship of their martyred god – the Great Pupa – on the  whole world.   Then a rival sect – this time dressed in red  – lands, and all hell breaks loose, so to speak, as a religious war  ignites.  Can Max come up with a solution before the earth becomes collateral damage ?

Alice’s short stories are never less than entertaining, sometimes amusing,  and sometimes   disturbing,   as in “The Man Who Walked Home, ” in which a man time travels but in terrible way. Recommended.

Escape to Danger

A journey through Target's classic Doctor Who novels, book by book, in publication order