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The Entropy Exhibition by Colin Greenland

Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983, 256 p, including Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index.

As its sub-title implies this is an account of the project Michael Moorcock started when he took over the British Science Fiction magazine New Worlds in 1964. This was to try to inject more literary qualities into SF which up to that point had been largely shunned by the ‘mainstream’ because of its pulp sensibilities as he did not see why SF should be separate from literature in general.

To that end Greenland gives us a history of New Worlds up to that point, considers the introduction of sex to SF stories (hitherto all but absent despite the prominence of the three Bs – Boobs, Babes and Bug-eyed Monsters – on cover illustrations,) the withdrawal from space fiction in favour of ‘inner’ space, questions of style, the salience of the concept of entropy to this mid-sixties endeavour, and offers us critiques of the contributions of the three most prominent figures of the British new wave, Brian W Aldiss, J G Ballard and Moorcock himself. (Though it receives a few mentions considerations of how the new wave played out in the US are beyond the remit of this book.)

Greenland is of the opinion that Aldiss’s books Report on Probability A and Barefoot in the Head are the quintessential new wave novels with Moorcock’s Karl Glogauer novels as exemplars of the new wave sensibility dealing as they do with “Time and identity: Moorcock’s two great themes, perhaps the great themes of all New Wave sf.”

Aldiss never really considered himself as part of a wave of any sort; he had in any case been prominent as a writer of SF before the 1960s.

Ballard was always something of an enigma. Whether he can be considered to “belong” to any movement other than his sui generis self is moot but he did contribute a guest editorial to New Worlds in May 1962 asking “Which Way to Inner Space?” an implicit call for a different approach to writing SF. Personally I have always seen in his writing – possibly due to his upbringing as an expatriate – an expression of English reserve taken to the extreme, elevated to an art form even. (His incarceration by the Japanese during World War 2 no doubt also contributed to his take on the world.) Greenland sees Ballard’s principal tool for the disorientating effect of his prose as “unyielding irony.”

The SF New Wave changed everything and nothing. After the 1960s experiment SF by and large returned to its ghetto and continued to be ignored by mainstream fiction. The attitude “if it’s SF it’s not good, if it’s good it’s not SF” still hung around.

Yes, literary qualities did become more common in the genre (and treatment of sex ceased to be shunned) and it is now possible for “proper” writers to dabble in its waters without expressions of horror – from either side – accompanying their efforts.

The Entropy Exhibition is by its nature (and origin as a dissertation for a D Phil) a critical endeavour and now stands as a historical document, and probably one only for those interested in the history of SF.


Pedant’s corner:- extra-terrestial (extra-terrestrial,) sf (I prefer SF,) Euripides’ (Euripides’s,) Capadocia (Cappadocia,) fridgw (fridge,) “the relationship between my characters don’t interest me much” (either ‘relationships’ or ‘doesn’t’,) “a compete new political and social history” (a complete new,) enormity (seems to be in the sense of ‘hugeness’ rather than ‘monstrousness’.) In the Notes; Hilary Baily (Bailey,) benefitted (benefited?)

Cybele, with Bluebonnets by Charles L Harness

The NESFA Press, 2002, 155 p.

How could I resist a novel with an illustration of the Periodic Table on its front cover? Still less “a book for chemists who might appreciate magical realism” as the publisher’s prefatory lines have it. It could have been designed for me.

Don’t let that put you off though; it’s also a very powerful and intricate novel exploring those eternal themes of love, sex and death – with a very unusual ghost.

Charles L Harness is one of my favourite SF writers of the last century but due to the fact that it’s quite rare I only bought this book recently. It was, then, a little disconcerting that in the first page we find narrator, Joe Barnes, mentally undressing his female Chemistry teacher Miss Wilson (Miss Cybele Wilson) down to nothing but stockings, garters and low-heeled shoes as she enters class. Adolescent male fantasy no doubt but a bit much for page one.

There is a plot strand relating to a cup said to be the Holy Grail (the “real” one was lost in the Atlantic in its evacuation from Europe during the Great War.) Joe takes a job modelling for artists and recognises, though the face is turned away, one of the pictures the tutor rotates on the studio’s walls as being a nude Cybele holding the cup. A mystery about the cup’s disappearance from the religious institution where it is held is resolved by Joe’s knowledge of the refractive index of borosilicate glass.

Cybele becomes the love of his life and a major influence on it, her characteristic scent of bluebonnets (the State Flower of Texas apparently) coming to him at significant turning points. She inspires him with a love of Chemistry and encourages his thirst for knowledge.  She is a strong character but her prognostications about the future invite suspicion from the school authorities. It is not until well after he has left school, however, that they get together and that not for long as she has cancer. Here Harness inserts Joe’s thoughts on his loss. “And life goes on. It goes, but it doesn’t go anywhere. We begin, and end, in the middle.” At this point there is still half the book to go with many more opportunities for Cybele to affect Joe’s progress through life.

Joe was growing up in the 1930s and there is a lot of incidental detail about life in small town US in those times. Cybele’s background was unconventional, her mother was a madam in a local house of ill repute whose activities are policed by arrangement of times to raid the premises. A fair amount of Chemistry adorns the pages but I’m sure the details will not faze the average reader.

All of this is interspersed with incidents of what can only be termed magical realism. Young Joe’s discovery of a millions of years old skimming stone which skips from the river into a cave where something spooks him as he goes to retrieve it, the panther which saves his brother from a snake, the voice which he hears warning him to run from a lab accident, the unusual circumstances surrounding his daughter’s birth.

Almost innocent at times, Cybele, with Bluebonnets is a wonderful book; insightful, humane, knowledgeable, rueful. Here is a human life in all its glory and pain.


Pedant’s corner:- “into the gaping white maw of the snake” (maws do not gape, they are stomachs,) clear is used as a synonym for colourless (it isn’t, clear means ‘see-through,’ which many coloured things are,) barring one, all chemical formulae in the text are rendered correctly – even the subscripts are correct – however bicarbonate is given as having the formula -HCO (bicarbonate – now known as hydrogencarbonate – is actually HCO3,) focussed (focused,) “Munch’s The Shriek” (usually known, at least nowadays, as The Scream,) miniscule (several times, minuscule,) “a unisex washroom” (in the 1930s I wondered? Apparently separate toilets only came into being in the US in the 1920s as a response to more women entering the workplace,) “a few less bullets” (a few fewer bullets,) spit (USianism for ‘spat’,) cartilege (cartilage.)

ParSec Update

I have finished Gary Gibson’s Europa Deep and sent the review off to ParSec.

In the meantime two further review books have arrived for me to peruse.

These are Mindbreaker by Kate Dylan, an author new to me, and Creation Node by Stephen Baxter of whom that can not be said.

Those two should keep me busy.

Beyond the Burn Line by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2022, 459 p. Reviewed for ParSec 6.

The burn line is a geological stratum of scorched remains marking where a catastrophe – partly of their own making – befell what the inhabitants of a far future Earth remember as ogres. After the ogres’ demise a civilisation of intelligent bears developed, bears who enslaved Pilgrim Saltmire’s people before the bears in turn lost sway and regressed to feral habits. But the people’s memories of enslavement are long and bitter. The society in which Pilgrim lives is at a more or less agrarian level, transport is typically by four-legged animal known as a mara, though a slow growth is occurring of techne inspired by artefacts dug up from archaeological sites, for example messages are being sent by tapcode. The prevailing religion’s deity is referred to as Mother, a mother who could at first be interpreted as Mother Earth but turns out not to be.

Saltmire has a gammy leg, is an albino and a pure – a person who doesn’t feel the effect of the yearly Season, and is pitied for it. We follow his story after the death of his mentor, the scholar Master Able, who spent his time trying to elucidate whether accounts of strange visitors accompanied by lights in the sky had any truth to them. Saltmire’s wish is to carry on Able’s work but all his writings were returned to Able’s family on his death and Saltmire is forced to go back to his own tribe to try to obtain funding to carry on the work. It does not go well and he is exiled for a year for a violent, though in self-defence, attack. In exile, he is charged with setting to rights a neglected library. One day he discovers a map which appears to show a visitor beside a hitherto unknown bear city. Unfortunately, he falls foul of the local law enforcement officer and loses the map to him. Thereafter, the remainder of Part One of the book, Archaeologies of Memory, lies in his attempts, along with members of The Invisible College, a group of female activists, to regain the map via a prophet, Foeless Landwalker, who claims the coming of the visitors is imminent and has gathered a cohort of adherents to call them down. Like all such, Landwalker’s connection to the object of his obsessions is negligible. When the visitors reveal themselves, it is not to him.

There is then a sudden jump to Part Two, The Other Mother. Pilgrim Saltmire is fourteen years dead, the visitors, descendants of ogres – humans sent out in seedships in a failed attempt to colonise other planets but now returned – live openly with, but separate from, the people (who are much smaller in stature, being descended from racoons) with treaties regulating their interactions. The controlling intelligence of the returned seedship, an AI, is referred to as Mother and has an array of advanced technologies at her disposal.

Human Ysbel Moonsdaughter of the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs is sent to investigate the deaths of two of the people as a result of a speedboat race between two humans, Trina Mersdaughter and Joyous Hightower. The local bailiff she is dealing with, Goodwill Saltmire, is Pilgrim’s nephew and he realises that the map, the prize Mersdaughter and Hightower were racing for, is the same one his uncle had lost. Its hint of a possible connection between humans and bears long before the recent supposed First Contact combined with a possible re-emergence of intelligent bears has potentially threatening consequences for relations between humans and the people. Ysbel’s investigations delve into the map’s background, unfold the history and antagonisms of both Mothers – and the possible existence of a third. During them she meets numerous setbacks, betrayals and agents acting in bad faith. At one point her commlink to the Mother’s network is memorably described by one of the people as a “telephone in her head.”

It is not often that a work of Science Fiction has as its central focus, its plot driver, a historical artefact. (Of course, to us readers in 2022 it is in effect a contingent future one.) The blending of far future SF with a quest for a defiantly mundane document works well here and the notion of a reverse First Contact is a neat twist to that trope. The main characters are depicted acting in recognisable ways (sometimes all too recognisable) but nevertheless have individuality.

Some may complain this is all too narrowly drawn, that the First Contact is witnessed but its immediate ramifications are not. That the climactic battle between the two Mothers occurs off-stage. But the stories of individuals caught up in larger events are as, if not more, worthy of depiction as those events themselves. It is, after all, as individuals that we live our lives.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘where you’re planning to go, someone like you is you’re going to need someone like me’” (doesn’t need the ‘you’re’,)  “reached a brief crescendo” (brief climax,) “jutting at at different levels and angles” (either no first [or second] ‘at’, or, ‘jutting out at’.) “ ‘So far no one will tell me who am I supposed to be co-operating with’” (who I am supposed to be co-operating with,) “when it came of matters of trust” (when it came to matters of trust,) “the map had once been belonged to his tribe” (no need for that ‘been’,) “‘and return it my tribe’” (return it to my tribe,) make sure that that neither the humans nor native authorities” (no second ‘that’,) accidently “accidentally,) oughten’t (oughtn’t.)


Chanur’s Venture by C J Cherryh

173 p, in The Chanur Saga, Daw Books, 2000. Originally published 1985.

After her banning due to her actions in the first book of the Chanur Saga, Pyanfar Chanur and her ship The Pride of Chanur are once again at Meetpoint Station. As she steps off the ship an old acquaintance, the mahendo’sat, Goldtooth, offers her a present. This turns out to be Tully, the human Pyanfar rescued from the kif in the earlier book and he carries with him a valuable contract for trade with humans, a contract the kif would have for themselves thus necessitating a quick exit from the station. Before this can happen, though, Pyanfar’s crew has to extricate her husband, Khym, from a bar fight which turns out to have been set up by kif. That Hani males like Khym are widely known to be unstable off-planet provided the perfect excuse for the brawl.

Internal factions among the Hani force Pyanfar to allow Tully and his escort, Pyanfar’s niece Hilfy, to be taken to a supposedly safe holding space at the station’s administrative centre but on the way they are abducted by kif.

The ship also needs repair and new drive vanes of mahendo’sat design and manufacture are fitted as part of the deal with Goldtooth.

Cherryh knows how to spin a story, her plotting and intrigue are intricate and the characters, albeit with their alien habits, recognisable psychological types. She does however have a tendency to overdo Pyanfar’s Hani imprecations. “By the gods “ is very much overused.

Unfortunately, this instalment doesn’t so much finish as just stop mid-plot. At its end Hilfy and Tully are still in kif hands and the Pride is about to launch into space using the new, and to Pyanfar’s mind untested, drive vanes.

Since I bought this as part of a trilogy I wasn’t too miffed at this lack of resolution but had I thought it was a stand-alone I would have been seriously dischuffed.

Pedant’s corner:- Pynafar (Pyanfar,) “before the door closed between” (between them,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “as well as well as kif” (only one ‘as well’ needed.) “There was long, frozen silence” (there was a long, frozen silence,) a missing end quote mark after a piece of direct speech. “She went there the guard motioned” (She went where the guard motioned,) “it clambered up the t’ca wrinkled side” (the t’ca’s wrinkled side,) “to their unladed mass” (unladen mass.)

Rachel Pollack

I’ve only just discovered that SF/fantasy writer Rachel Pollack died in April. I have read only one of her books, Unquenchable Fire (which was published in 1988) though my records also show I also have four of her short stories (three from the early days of Interzone and one published in SF Digest.)

Rachel Grace Pollack: 17/8/1945 –  7/4/2023. So it goes.

Necessity by Jo Walton

Tor, 2016, 332 p, including ii p Thanks.

This is the last of Walton’s “Thessaly” trilogy in which the author examines the ramifications of implementing Plato’s philosophy in a restricted setting. This is also a scenario in which the ancient Greek Gods are real and can interfere in human affairs. I reviewed the first volume, The Just City, here and the second The Philosopher Kings here.

Necessity takes place in the 26th century on the planet Plato to where Zeus removed the people of the Just City at the end of The Philosopher Kings. As in that second book there are twelve cities in all to cater for people’s various preferences. The climate on Plato is colder than the Greece from which most of the humans now living there were derived. Nevertheless their habitual attire is the kiton. As well as humans, the planet is home to some aliens known as Saeli who have immigrated there and are accepted as full members of society. Contact has also occurred with another set of aliens known as Amarathi. Many tasks on Plato, as in the Just City, are carried out by Workers, sentient robots accorded human rights. One of these, Crocus, has narration duties, as do the humans Jason and Marsilia and the god Apollo. Jason is a fisherman whose crew includes the Saeli, Hilfa, and the present consul Marsilia. He has an unrequited yen for Marsilia’s sister Thetis.

The book starts on the day when Pytheas, the human incarnation of Apollo and grandfather of one of our narrators, Marsilia, dies and a spaceship containing humans (from the planet Marhaba) arrives in orbit round Plato. This last, the reader might have thought, would provide the main thrust of the intrigue/plot but in fact not much is made of it. Instead the thread that is followed is a search for Apollo’s sister Athene who has ventured outside time, to study Necessity, and what Chaos is, and how time began. Necessity is later referred to as a great force that binds all thinking beings. Zeus, the father of both Apollo and Athene, would apparently be displeased if he knew Athene had done this – at least once his attention had been drawn to it – but despite him knowing everything no consequences will ensue if she can be brought back before it comes to his attention.

The human interactions are something of a sub-plot. Marsilia has an eight-year-old child, Alkippe, whom she had conceived with someone calling himself Panodorus. He appears at a gathering but does not recognise her and everyone else sees he is Apollo’s brother Hermes. (Yet even this is another disguise as he is in fact the Saeli god, Jathery.) His failure to recognise Marsilia is because in his time he has not yet met her. This is a potentially disastrous situation since if he does not step outside time then Alkippe may not ever have existed. Again, not as much is made of this situation as might be expected.

Walton it seems is more interested in philosophical speculation than interpersonal (or god to human) conflict. Her writing is fine, though – she can pull you along – and she brings out her characters’ attributes well, but in the end Necessity is a touch disappointing.

Pedant’s corner:- kiton (the spelling chiton displays its Greek origin more clearly,) “we were back on in the peaceful glade” (no need for the ‘on’,) “on a women’s body” (a woman’s.)

Recent Arrivals

The Annual BSFA Awards booklet came yesterday.

A couple of days before that The Chinese Time Machine, a collection of short fiction by Ian Watson, had come through the letter box. This is for review in ParSec.

Lots of reading to do then.

Cyberstealth by S N Lewitt

Ace, 1989, 236 p.

The hero of this novel has taken the name Cargo. He is a veteran of the conflict between the Collegium and its breakaway republic Cardia, flying spacecraft called Kraits in the interstellar medium known as exo. Military personnel refer to such flying as “dancing vac.” Cargo wishes to change to the new batwings, silent stealthcraft made for slipping unnoticed from exo to sky.

As part of a ship’s personnel and because they are able to access different aspects of the maze – a kind of computer reality helping to direct a ship’s movements – aliens called Akhaid partner human pilots. Cargo’s Akhaid partner is named Ghoster.

A protégé of the well-known Bishop Mirabeau, Cargo is suspect, not least to his new batwing group’s CO, Commander Fourways. The fact that in one of his Krait sorties Cargo’s friend Two Bits was killed (went to the Wall) and that Cargo was investigated regarding the circumstances doesn’t help, nor does the fact of his birthplace in Cardia territory.

Secretly the Bishop wishes to broker peace between the Collegium and Cardia but there are obstacles to this. Not least the probable presence of a spy in Cargo’s group. An expedition into Cardia space makes it evident that Cardia has a craft similar to the batwing. Given Cargo’s background he is part of the company delegated to land on Marcander to steal it. The eventual success of this mission and that Cargo can fly the thing means that Cardia’s batwing has the same design as the Collegium’s. The identity of the actual spy (or spies!) I’ll leave to other readers.

One strange aspect of this book is that Lewitt has given Cargo Gypsy/Romany heritage. While she acknowledges the prejudice his people suffer from (even in this 1989 future) she still portrays them in general as thieves, which reads oddly these days.

Cyberstealth is a pretty standard piece of military SF but I have enjoyed previous books by Lewitt more than this one and I can’t quite put my finger on why unless it was that there was a fair bit of exposition and information dumping.

Pedant’s corner:- cheepo (cheapo,) “‘Didn’t like if at all’” (like it at all,) “‘We were pulling more gees than I want to remember’” (in space, can you pull gees?) Fourways’ (many times. Fourways is a person; Fourways’s,) “had made their presence know” (known,) “credited others as being s guileless as himself” (credited others with being as guileless,) Marcus Arelis’ (Marcus Aurelius, and the possessive should be s’s,) disection (dissection,) “the footpaths lead past” (led past,) “serious breech in security” (breach,) “there were no separation of any kind” (there was no separation,) “hung herself” (hanged,) anomolies (anomalies: and later, anomoly [anomaly],) “to work out the principals of “ (principles of,) “with it’s heavy carved furniture” (its,) hiccoughs (hiccups,) “took the annies for Cargo’s hand” (took the annies from Cargo’s hand,) maleable (malleable,) “he couldn’t spend anymore [time] being idle” (spend any more,) “the Cardia formation was going lose” (loose?) “where the images of Ste Maries-de-la-Mer was imprinted in his palm” (where the image,) “in the vague hopes” (hope.)

Greg Bear

I see US SF writer Greg Bear died in November.

The only novel of his I have read is Blood Music, though I have his Anvil of Stars on my tbr pile. I must confess its bulk puts me off a bit. That and the fact it’s a sequel (to The Forge of God which isn’t on my tbr pile.) I’ll need to look out for that.

Gregory Dale Bear: 20/8/1951 – 19/11/2022. So it goes.

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