The OFFICIAL sequel (there is another unsanctioned version out there, I find) to Womanspace.

After losing their wives, Ed and Russell discovered Manspace. An infinity of shops, packed with all the gadgets, tools, and electronic toys in the multiverse. However, they soon died of malnutrition.

The End.

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Dr Isis gets outed. I get hits. Life goes on.


And so it came to pass that one Henry Gee, a Senior Editor of Nature, distinguished biologist and author of science fact AND fiction, recently outed one Dr Isis via Twitter.  He actually also apologised for this in print, while mentioning that:

“Since 2010, Dr Isis has, in my opinion, waged a campaign of cyberbullying against me. I do not feel it appropriate to rake over the history of this situation, but throughout it I have been subject to unfair personal criticism including the repeated unjust assertion that I am sexist. This is untrue and is an allegation I find deeply distressing. I do not think that anyone deserves to be personally and publicly attacked in this way. As an editor and member of the online community I am absolutely up for a robust debate, but this went far beyond what I feel is acceptable.”

Now I was alerted to the whole thing by the steep rise in accesses of my modest blog, shown above – due largely to a blog by one Sarah Hillenbrand discussing the issue, and Dr Isis’s response to it, which linked out to my account of the Womanspace saga.  And Dr Isis’s response to Womanspace, which was one of my first introductions to cyberbullying of the kind Henry describes.

Fascinating stuff, by Sarah, and sad: for me, largely because Sarah was so disheartened, yet still wanted to go out and inspire little girls to be scientists.  Even if what she took from Womanspace was:

“Men sitting around talking about science while the women clean house and fix supper and keep the children in line”

Ah, well.  We read into things what we want to.

And of course, the redoubtable Michael Eisen got involved – via this blog post – and yet again weighed into Henry and me:

“Gee and Dr. Isis have apparently had issues in the past. I don’t know the full history, but I was witness to some of it after Gee published a misogynistic short story in Nature several years back. Gee behaved like an asshole back then, and apparently he has not stopped.

Think about what happened here. A senior figure at arguably the most important journal in science took it upon himself to reveal the name of a young, female, Latina scientist with whom he has fought and whom he clearly does not like.”

Three things that are essentially irrelevant to this issue here: young, female, and Latina. I am sorry:  NONE of those things give ANYONE the right to cyberbully anyone – none!  My daughter’s high school knew that, and had a written policy that Dr Isis and like-minded folk would have fallen foul of long ago IF they could have been regulated by such a thing.

But it’s in the comments to the blog that the vitriol comes out: comments like

“Gee is an asshole, and he would be an asshole even if he worked for PLOS”

by Eisen himself.  Although this is partially counterbalanced by:

“Regardless of Gee’s history of frankly “being” an asshole he doesn’t deserve what essentially is genuine abuse”

But yet, from someone known as “Ginger”:

“If a person is bigoted, his behavior will give him away far more quickly than his name in an online forum. That’s why Ed Rybicky and Henry Gee have run into opposition: they’re demonstrating their inner attributes very publicly, and being called on it, which is new to them. That is the power of the internet.”

Takes. My. Breath. Away.  Our inner attributes (bugger that; MINE!) as imagined by a small, vicious, self-satisfied, smug, self-congratulatory cabal, who gleefully and childishly trash us on the basis of those misperceptions in any forum they please, damaging reputations and possibly even mental well-being – being evidence of “the power of the internet”??

Oh, there’s a lot more, there and all over the blogosphere – and so much of it is so uninformed, and so vicious, as to be the playground gang response to slights real or imagined, where the response is so disproportionate as to constitute a mugging.

Henry, you should have taken the advice you gave to me a couple of years ago, and simply ignored the nasty rabble.  So childish.  So wilful.  And seemingly ignorant of any customs of civility, or privacy, or decency, or even possibly of the laws of libel.

So here’s a song for y’all, courtesy of the British Army.  Feel free to replace the word “bless” with anything you like.

Bless ‘em all,
Bless ‘em all.
The mean and the snide and the small,

Bless all those tweets from anonymous ones,
Bless all those bloggers and their bleedin’ sons,
Cos’ we’re saying goodbye to ‘em all.
As back to their slimepits they crawl,
You’ll get no reaction this side of the ocean,
So cheer up my lads, bless ‘em all!

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Baby Steps in a Spacesuit 3: In Praise of the Short Form

I think the best possible way to inculcate someone into the deep and profound mysteries that are science fiction, is to shower them with short story anthologies.

I am deeply biased, of course, because I have both had it done to me, and done it to myself.  The first time was when I was eleven or twelve years old, and needed weaning off the juvenile play-play SF (Tom Swift, etc) I was reading at the time.  The second time was when I was a little at a loss as to what new material to read in the noughties: I had been reading exclusively store-bought novels for years, meaning I was no longer frequenting second-hand bookshops or the public library, and it is difficult to pick someone new up in full-length novel format.

I praise the wisdom of my first SF mentor, back there in 1966: Judy Drew, it was; primary school teacher at my school, friend of my mother – and only in her mid-twenties, possibly.  Meaning she was only a few years ahead of me – but WHAT a difference those couple of years made!

She lent me a series of anthologies when I was around 11, starting out with the slim volumes – just 8-10 stories each – of John Carnell’s very excellent New Writings in SF series.  He edited at least the first 20 or so, which appeared from 1964 to 1972, and you could find everyone from John Rackham to Colin Kapp to Poul Anderson and Brian Aldiss – which is why I picked on their novels later on.  The covers were also consistently good and very well done.  Sadly, I have just given my last few issues away – so Rethea, if you read this, know that I have given you history!


Judy then graduated me onto meatier collections such as the legendary Spectrum III – which I will remember as long as I live, because it was so very good.  It is still available, I see – and looking at the goodreads entry, I see that it was edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest; that its contents were

“…culled from the Sci Fi Pulps of the late 1940s and 1950s and includes works by Theodore Sturgeon (“Killdozer!,” 1945), J.G. Ballard (“The Voices of Time,” 1960), Poul Anderson (“Call Me Joe,” 1957), Murray Leinster (“Exploration Team,” 1956), Alfred Bester (“Fondly Fahrenheit,” 1954) and Arthur C. Clarke (“The Sentinel,” 1951), among others”.

How could you possibly go wrong with a set of authors like that to cut your teeth on?  I think Killdozer is among the best stories I have ever read; so too Fondly Fahrenheit – and I am pretty fond of Call Me Joe, too.  Just those three stories introduce one to an ancient plasma-like being possessing a bulldozer, a temperature-triggered serial killer android who projects his madness onto its owner in the course of its spree, and a disabled man remote-operating an artificial body on Jupiter (Avatar, anyone??).

It’s not surprising, then, that I went on to collect (usually tatty second-hand) novel and collected short story offerings from the likes of Sturgeon, Asimov, Anderson, Bester, Aldiss, Heinlein, Leinster and Clarke.

short stories

However, I also avidly kept reading New Writings in SF – and Analog, Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and any other collection I could lay my hands on, because I found short-form SF to be SO exciting.


I also met many other authors that impressed me – like Philip K Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Cordwainer Smith, Michael Moorcock, Fred Saberhagen, Larry Niven, Keith Laumer, and Robert Sheckley and their ilk.  Smith and Saberhagen were especially exciting, because they obviously had entire universes that they explored in stand-alone stories: Smith The Instrumentality of Mankind, and Saberhagen the Berserker universe.  While these were very different, and the styles of their authors similarly different, the sustained creativity within a literary construct was something I really enjoyed.  I have continued to enjoy such things in full-length form, such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld, set in his Known Space universe first met via short story, and his related and now franchised Man-Kzin War series, and Farmer’s World of Tiers series.

However, part of what drew me so strongly to SF was the fact that many of the stories I read in my early days were little masterpieces in their own right – and affected me so powerfully, that I remember them vividly to this day.

Stories like It’s a Good Life, by Jerome Bixby from 1953.  I read this when still a young teenager, and it lives with me still – the fascination of a baby who can make the world go away, and the boy who keeps his town going.  His way….

And Mimsy Were the Borogroves, by “Lewis Padgett” – aka Henry Kuttner and CL Moore – from 1943.  I loved this story: the combination of future technologies and bright children has always drawn me, and this was especially good.  It made for a not-very-good film – The Last Mimzy – in 2007, but it was still good enough for my then 12-year-old daughter to thoroughly enjoy.  And how do you make toves slithy?  Vaseline, obviously!

The Cold Equations, published by Tom Godwin in 1954, was a completely different animal: its basis is how the cold certainties of physics doom to death a stowaway on an Emergency Dispatch Ship carrying emergency serum for a deadly disease down to a colony planet.  While that is all pretty straightforward, it was the way Godwin described the teenaged girl who stowed away that stuck with me. I defy you not to be moved by passages like this:

The stowaway was not a man — she was a girl in her teens, standing before him in little white gypsy sandals, with the top of her brown, curly head hardly higher than his shoulder, with a faint, sweet scent of perfume coming from her, and her smiling face tilted up so her eyes could look unknowing and unafraid into his as she waited for his answer.
…he saw that she was not wearing Vegan gypsy sandals, but only cheap imitations; the expensive Vegan leather was some kind of grained plastic, the silver buckle was gilded iron, the jewels were colored glass.

I think I cried at the time.  It still moves me now.

And given that we have just had Xmas, consider how Arthur C Clarke’s The Star from 1954 might have affected a Catholic kid raised on Nativity stories: the ending paragraph alone has to be one of the best things he ever wrote.

“There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”

The interesting thing was that, apart from Clarke, I read very little else from any of these writers: their offerings were pretty much confined to short form SF, and they were masters of the craft.

I moved gradually in the 1970s, as I began to be able to afford new paperbacks while at University, to buying, reading and keeping full-length novels.  I stuck with people I had met via short stories in the main, and built up a collection of Dick, Anderson, Niven, Moorcock, Farmer, Heinlein – and then Frank Herbert’s Dune series, because I kept reading about this wondrous book, and then it got republished – and it had sequels!!

Oh, I kept buying, short story collections and novels, and occasionally I’d chance some money on a new author – the Cape Town Public Library proved useful as a proving ground for a while, as it had a reasonable collection – but I found myself mainly recycling the same folk over and over.  Interesting new discoveries in this time, however, were Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, and Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile series and related Galactic Milieu collection, and Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai cycle.

However, the rut grew a little boring – until I discovered, as part of my second childhood, (OK, I had children) the truly excellent and very meaty (as in, thick: 650+ pages per collection) Mammoth Book annual series of Best New SF, edited by  über-fan Gardner Dozois – although, sadly, only from issue 12 in 1998.

new sf shorts

This series is the new best way to introduce someone to SF: the spread of authors is breathtaking; the scope of the stories, stunning – and if you haven’t found at least one very promising new author after reading just one issue, then you’re not really a fan.

I went on to explore Alastair Reynolds and Neal Asher in enough detail, after discovering them in Best New SFs, that I think I now own just about everything in novel form that either of them has written.  I reviewed Reynolds’ Revelation Space on the WWEnd site:

I got introduced to the Newest Wave of SF the same way I met the last one: by reading short story collections.  And in those collections, I read several stories by the likes of Charles Stross, Neal Asher – and Alastair Reynolds.  I was immediately taken with his stories about Clavaine; it was logical to move on to longer-form offerings in the same universe – and then into others.

Reynolds is truly impressive: his Revelation Space is a self-contained masterwork, with impeccable physics, and really good characterisations.  Oh, and a stunning storyline.  Read this book: you will then go out and buy all of his others.  I certainly have….

I had this to say about Neal Asher in my own blog:

I’m off to finish Neal Asher’s latest offering, “Line War“.  Wherein the awesome power of a black hole is harnessed via a mega-matter transmitter as a weapon against a nanotech-enabled enemy.  And sassy and cantankerous androids do battle with rogue artificial intelligences.  Serious stuff…B-)

And which I had to repurchase, after losing it somewhere in a plane, a week or so ago, nine-tenths finished.

hate it when that happens [and it really did: happened to Niven’s The Draco Tavern AND KS Robinson’s Green Mars, AND Dan Simmons’ Endymion as well…].

I discovered Ian McDonald – whose Cyberabad Days and Brasyl are the best recent single-author short story collection, and best novel that I have read in years.  I reviewed Brasyl as follows, on the WWEnd site:

I cannot praise this book enough: I so thoroughly enjoyed it, I put off finishing it until I absolutely HAD to.

It ticked all the boxes: incredible writing; parallel universes; historical accuracy (and recreation) – and a MOST satisfying and complicated ending.

Oh, and it is anything but Amero- or Britain-centric, which pleases me even more, as a denizen of the gobal South.

I’m not sure if I found Charles Stross in the same collections, but if not, then I found him in the bookshop that I bought all my Best New SFs in, because I was browsing after having found one – and I am so glad I did, because Accelerando is the next best book I have read in recent years.  Again, from WWEnd:

While I liked Charles Stross already – I think he is one of my best discoveries of recent years – I was not prepared for Accelerando.  The effortless way that he sweeps us from just-a-little-in-the-future, with the technology singularity lurking, to a far and very digital future, with galactic routers and digitised humans travelling as information packets via light sails….

This is an absolutely incredible read.  I found I had two analogue versions, before I bought an electronic one as well.  I am more than happy to have contributed to Cde Stross in this way.

So, as a result of twice having introduced myself to new short-form SF via short story collections, I now have a collection of SF mainly in novel form, which spans some 70 years.  It is literally in two sections, each of 4 metres around: the top deck is the older ones, going back to some of the first books I ever got; the lower is everything new – like from the mid-1990s.  I am very happy with the “new” SF, I must admit: so much so that I wrote this, in a vaguely work-connected blog, a couple of years ago.

I was most impressed, when I first came to UCT [University of Cape Town] – lo, these 33 years ago and counting [now 39] – that the English Department had a recommended reading list that included a significant amount of science fiction.

I have no idea whether or not they still recommend Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” or “The Sirens of Titan” – but if they don’t, they should.  And they should add to that list some of the truly impressive New Young(ish) British Wave of authors: people like Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod (OK, so they’re nationalistically Scottish),  Peter F Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds; newer Americans like Dan Simmons, Greg Bear and Gregory Benford.  Not to mention OF*s like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K Dick, who seems to have become Hollywood-respectable, Samuel R Delany and especially Roger Zelazny….

The thing about the new guys, and OFs above, is that they write well: they blend hard science (never a bad thing for non-practitioners), sociology and politics in a way that Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke never could.  I remember being totally bemused by a postgrad with literary pretensions in our Dept about 20 years ago, who said she never read “…that stuff, because it was simply fantastical by definition, and had no literary merit”.   I remember making the point that she couldn’t say that if she’d never read any, but like most people who put down  “The Satanic Verses”, she obviously didn’t need to, in order to know it was bad.  She didn’t seem to have the same opinion of “1984″, or “That Hideous Strength” or “Brave New World”, so obviously SF by mainstream literary authors was OK?

Ah, well.  Invincible ignorance is not punished by hellfire in the old Catholic canon, merely by eternal stagnation (aka Limbo).

But back to the New New Age: this is an exciting time, much like the mid-1970s, when it seemed that every few months brought a new chapter in the “Dune” saga (40 years old this year!), or from Larry Niven’s “Known Space” or “Ringworld” universes.  Alastair Reynolds is cranking them out, it seems, as is Charles Stross – who is very funny, as well as being seriously good at his social / scientific predictions.  Anyone who wants to blow their mind(s) need only read Stross’s “Accelerando”, available online: this has to be the single best (well, OK, SF) novel of the last 10 years and possibly even further.  Apart from Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which mixes a history of the Age of Enlightenment with some serious mysticism – and cryptography.   And U-boats.  And gold…

* = Old Fart

I also know of no better way to get into it than by reading short stories.

So, get on with it – wonders await!

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SF stories in 200 characters or fewer

My favourite source of very-short SF stories – the back page of Nature magazine (aka “Futures”) - is holding a competition.  This involves writing

“…a sci-fi tale that is just 200 characters long (including spaces and punctuation). The microFutures story must be your own work and not previously published, and should be science fiction rather than, say, outright fantasy, slipstream or horror.”

I already screwed up by entering more than one – and more than 200 characters long, because I neglected to take spaces into account – so I am just going to put all of mine here.  Enjoy!

Borg morning
Seen on the inside of your eyes, upon waking: “Resistance was futile. You were assimilated by the Borg. Reality simulation terminates in 1000 seconds.  Welcome to glorious servitude!”

 Henry’s cunning plan
…so Henry’ll just tag them all together into an avant-garde stream-of-someone-else’s-consciousness SF novel, and win a prize?

Wow! signal
The Wow! Signal is finally decoded.  It says: “Is your xvvvdrt4hator running?  Well, you’d better run after it then”. Other interpretations are still being explored.

The Overlords’ plan
The Futures competition turned out to be an exercise by the Planetary Overlords in gauging the depth of knowledge of their existence, with the minimum of text. All winners were duly executed.

After losing their wives, Ed and Russell discovered Manspace. An infinity of shops, packed with all the gadgets, tools, and electronic toys in the multiverse. However, they soon died of malnutrition.

The problem with inventing time travel
The problem with time travel is that no budding inventor of it ever gets past saying “Now that’s a brilliant idea!” before suddenly and mysteriously dying. Except for the first one, of course.

Marking the Universe project
Novel in concept, but dark energy was a bad miscalculation. Incorporating your initials into the hologram was also cheeky. Creating everything from one element was novel. Overall mark: 60%

The multiverse’s revenge
The multiverse considered the problem of the Futures competition at some length. It decided it didn’t like it. Henry Gee suddenly ceased to exist in every universe simultaneously.

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To the Father Who Thinks My Daughter is a Bad Influence

…on his son, and doesn’t want him associating with her.

Really?? My daughter is a bad influence on the boy I first met when he was so spaced at a trance festival, that his pants were round his knees, and he fell flat on his face in the dust every ten steps he took? When she delayed us going home, so she could try to look after him?

The boy about whom I had serious misgivings concerning letting him into my house, but allowed him in – many times – anyway??

The boy who, in my home, has never managed to speak more than ten words to my wife and I – despite spending many nights here, and even eating with us?

The boy who I have seen passed-out drunk at my house more than once, on booze he brought with him – while his peers were having civilised gatherings?

Sorry, friend: I think he has far bigger problems than associating with my daughter.
At least now he won’t have THAT one any more.

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Baby Steps in a Spacesuit 2: SF on TV

So, SF on TV: what was it that we had, back in the 60s, out there on the edge of civilization, that stirred a young person’s blood?

And to get this into perspective, please realise that I’m speaking of Zambia, a butterfly-shaped, landlocked country in the middle of southern Africa, that had a total population of around 4 million at the time – and where television only came in in the capital city (Lusaka) in around 1966.

Seriously: in 1966.  In black-and-white, and with only one channel. Television Zambia, it was called then, and it broadcast for around 5 hours a day.

We were a very British-influenced country, being a former British protectorate and all, so we got a majority of our programming from the UK.  Thus, both inevitably AND fortunately, we got Dr Who.  Oh, and Steptoe & Son, and On the Buses, and various other comedies – but these paled into insignificance for my 8-year-old brother and I, who discovered The Doctor.  We started with Series 1, Episode 1 – and the theme music and intro sequence remain so firmly embedded in my memory, that I thought I was hallucinating when it came on at the beginning of the 50th Anniversary show recently (to which I was alerted by @WWEnd, incidentally).  It was always credited to the “The BBC Radiophonic Workshop” – which I discover recently was in fact largely one woman, Delia Derbyshire – who pretty much invented what would later become techno.

My brother was far too young for Dr Who, in retrospect: he was so terrified of Daleks that he used to hide behind the couch and cry when they were on screen.  It got so that all I had to do to completely incapacitate him was scream “Exterminate!” in a Dalekey sort of accent – but he got his own back a few years later, because his next favourite show was British wrestling, and he picked up moves I didn’t know existed from some worthy named Mick McManus, and used them on me.

Be that as it may: Dr Who was a revelation in many ways.  It introduced us to a new SF concept every week; it explored deep themes of death and loss; it hinted at almost unknowable technologies – and it scared the pants off us on a regular basis.  Daleks aside, I can still remember as if were yesterday The Doctor and his companions alighting from what were in effect glass submarines – having just negotiated their way across a mystery lake – and discovering that a crack in a submarine resulted in the occupants dissolving.  Because the lake turned out to be a strong acid, as proved by TD with Ian Chesterton’s tie – something I thought was a very apt use for a tie, incidentally.

I refused to watch after the Second Doctor appeared – I thought he was a trivial clown – and therefore pretty much missed everything from the 1970s through to the end of the series in 1989.  Part of the reason for this was that I was in South Africa more or less full-time since 1974, and while SA did get TV in 1975 (really: only in 1975), there was next to no British programming, thanks to a cultural boycott.

Then something wonderful happened: the reboot of the series in 2005, just in time for my children to enjoy it.  Since then, watching the Doctors has been a semi-religious family event (well, for three of us, anyway – my good wife seems immune to the addiction), right up to the Christmas special this year which introduced the Twelfth Doctor.  With my children now 21 and 18, sadly, this may be one of the last times we all do it together. The special effects are SO much better; the Doctors are almost as good – and it seems we (or I) can depend on seeing Doctors into the foreseeable future, given the reboot of his regeneration cycle.

Incidentally, I and the young ones enjoyed the very excellent Torchwood spinoff series too, despite it supposedly being “adult” themed, and them only being 14 and 11 at the time it kicked off (2006).

Because there’s another thing that changed: we now get BBC-E on satellite TV here in South Africa, so we see things when the UK does – and there’s no boycott anymore….

A British SF TV offering which made an impact on me in the 1960s was the two BBC miniseries of Fred Hoyle and John Elliot’s’s A for Andromeda, and The Andromeda Breakthrough, made in 1961 and 1962 respectively.  These were adult-themed – they assembled a woman from the interstellar message that was the reason for the first series, and I seem to remember her not wearing much – so we competed with our parents to watch.  I remember them as being good TV, the second not so much as the first, but they were stand-alones in terms of never being followed up.  They were also pretty good in terms of realistic physics, if not for the slightly optimistic biology.

Another series that really caught my attention was Out of the Unknown: this ran stand-alone episodes, each based on an SF short story by authors like Isaac Asimov, JG Ballard, Frederick Pohl, John Wyndham and others – and by then I was reading New Writings in SF and other collections, so I even recognized a couple of them.  Very, very good – and very much along the same lines as the later offerings of The Outer Limits, which I only saw in the late 1990s, but which impressed me equally.

We did also get some other non-British programming in my childhood in Zambia: prominent in my memory is Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, from Australia, and Flipper, from the US.  They made enough of an impression that I can still sing both theme tunes (Skippy, and Flipper), but they were always fluff.  So too was the SF series Lost in Space, which we tolerated at the time, but which couldn’t hold a candle to Dr Who.  The times I wanted to blow that stupid robot to pieces, when it started shaking its arms around….  The way every episode had to end with the family enjoying a laugh together – cloying beyond belief, even for an 11-year-old.  Bewitched was more of the same: cutesy-poo beyond belief, and often seriously gagworthy.

What the US gave us that was of lasting value, back there in 1966, was Star Trek.

Here was something you could suspend disbelief for; here were muscular heroes (and heroines: you would not BELIEVE how popular Lt Uhura was in Zambia) for a new age; here were actual starships, and aliens, and advanced technology.  And Captain Kirk, and Spock, and Scotty and Bones; Chekhov and Sulu.  Oh, and redshirts: those ever-dependable, disposable redshirts.  Though I saw a red boiler suit die the other day, and a blueshirt for that matter: a rerun on the Fox network on satellite TV here in South Africa, series 3, episode 17.

Mind you, any discussion of red- or blueshirts back in the Zambian viewing days would have been academic: we only ever saw them in monochrome then; the first time I saw Star Trek in colour was in the US, while on academic sabbatical at Cornell U in Ithaca, NY, in 1990-1991.  My lab colleagues in the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research did look at me rather strangely early in our stay, when I explained why it was we left in a rush every weekday.

It was because they were screening the original Star Trek every day at 5 pm, followed on one of the days by then then-new ST: The New Generation.  It is hard for a non-fanatic to understand the thrill: revisiting the old Star Trek, 24 years on, in colour – and then a regular dose of the new!

I introduced my children to Star Trek as well, of course, as soon as it became available on satellite TV in SA: sadly, they thought the original was far too dated, but we followed ST:TNG semi-religiously.  Which led into Deep Space 9, which finally got good, there towards the end as they got more into galactic politics; Voyager, which I simply lost interest in because it just went on and on, without resolution, and Enterprise, which we quite liked.

Then, of course, came Babylon 5…and the world was never the same again.  Sublime – again, especially towards the end, where large-scale and multi-episode political and military themes dominated, as they had in Deep Space 9.  And it DID end, properly – after some very serious politics, and war and genocide.

I suppose no discussion of SF on TV would be complete without Battlestar Galactica – and I, of course, am old enough to have seen the original series just after it came out in 1978, here in South Africa.  This really wasn’t very good: it suffered, sadly, from what one can only term typical US-type serialization of what started out as a good idea, with what were effectively stand-alone episodes neatly being wrapped up, every week, without an ending in sight.

The reboot in 2004, on the other hand, was a different beast altogether: this was a much more complex, much better staged series, with multiple overlapping story arcs meshing with each other in very complicated ways.  Casting Starbuck as a woman was also a bold, and very successful move.  I still have to watch the whole thing; however, the final episode was one of the most satisfying conclusions to a TV series that I have ever seen.

I think it is a measure of the value of something that it can be successfully revived or rebooted, and another generation can experience the wonder all over again.  It certainly happened just in our family, with both Dr Who and with Star Trek.  It will probably happen yet again with Star Trek on TV; I can even see another Babylon 5 kicking off as well.  And if they could do Firefly, which we discovered all together as a family (well, three of us, anyway), then life would be good.

Until then…B-)

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Baby steps in a spacesuit: my introduction to SF


Part of my “old” SF: a 8 metre+ bookshelf around the top of my entrance hallway

This is going to be a bit like a disjointed trip through my SF reading history – which started, lo, these many decades ago.  Like in about 1964, with the Tom Swift series and Capt. WE Johns, from the Lusaka Municipal mobile library.  Then SF borrowed from a primary school teacher friend of my mother – thanks forever, Judy Drew!  Then, from a second-hand bookshop in the Central Arcade in Lusaka – which my wife-to-be also frequented, but we never noticed each other.  Then…other bookshops, other libraries, friends – and now via Kindle.

It’s nearly fifty years, then: time to mark the occasion!  I recently discovered a web site calling itself “Worlds Without End” – via a retweet – and have since obsessively been ticking off books I’ve read (over 710 on their site), and writing reviews for some of them.  And seeing as those reviews were turning into an episodic revisiting of mainly my very early reading, I thought I’d collect them in one place.

For my amusement, if not for yours.

Enjoy! Or not – I did, and that’s what counts.  Happy Xmas / Saturnalia / Solstice Festival, all!  Except for nicoleandmaggie, of course..ah, screw it, even for them.

Bill, the Galactic Hero – Harry Harrison

A teacher at my primary school – who introduced me to New Writings in SF, and Theodore Sturgeon – told me this was the best book she had ever read, and pressed it on me.  I thought so too, very quickly: what’s not to like?  Humour, military adventure, a colour-mismatched replacement arm put on the wrong way round (so he knocks himself out while saluting)…exactly what an 11-yr-old needs!

This 58-yr-old is a little more jaundiced, but still – this is a REALLY funny, satirical, well-structured book that is still eminently readable.  As an adult, you pick up on the satire better – but I’d still recommend it for nerdy 11-yr-olds!

And still a good kid’s introduction to SF.

The City and the Stars – Arthur C Clarke

THIS is where it started, for me: this is the first serious mainstream SF novel I ever read, after being (extensively) inducted into short-form SF via the New Writings in SF series, edited by John Carnell.  This is the book that whisked me off into the far future and across the galaxy, and lost me in wonder.

I think this is the finest thing Clarke ever wrote: nothing else I’ve read of his comes close to inspiring the kind of far future, galaxy-spanning awe this did.  Which is sad, and maybe reflective of the fact that I was young when I read it (13 or so) – but just about everything else has been a little disappointing in comparison.

And this comes from someone who has read damn near everything Clarke ever wrote.


I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

This is some of the first adult SF I ever read, back in the 1960s – and while it impressed me with its cleverness then, it is sadly dated now.  I would strongly recommend other books for kids starting out these days.  Oh, sure, the stories are fiendishly well worked out, the logic is impeccable – but as ever with Asimov, sentences go no longer than eight words, there are never more than three syllables – and his male characterisations, let alone his females, are so two-dimensional as to be merely props for the storyline.

Expedition to Earth – Arthur C Clarke (short story collection)

I obviously read and was imprinted by a LOT of SF as an adolescent / young adult – because I haven’t seen this collection since the late 1970s (lost in a suitcase somewhere on a farm in Zambia), but I remember every story.

The Sentinel is brilliant – and a standalone precursor to 2001: ASO.  The title story was superb.  The rest – well, I plan to get another copy and read it again, through the revisionist lens of thinking Clarke’s characterisations were pretty poor, BUT I liked the stories well enough that I want to reexperience them.

Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke

This is close to where it started for me: when I stepped up from kid’s SF, to mainstream SF.  From Dr Who to “A for Andromeda”.  And from Isaac Asimov to AC Clarke.

This was an amazing book, for a 13-14 yr old to discover: the concept of remembering things that happen in the future; of engineering an entire planet to vegetarianism and peace, and – graduating all the children.  Awe-inspiring, epic, and sad.

Trader to the Stars – Poul Anderson

Oh, I remember this so well…van Rijn, the hard-drinking and womanising merchant; all the schemes and plotting and exotic locales a 14-yr-old could wish for – and excellent if slightly florid writing.  One of my first introductions to big-person SF short stories, back in the late 1960s – and still fondly recalled.  Very few did it better than Poul Anderson!

Though I imagine Nick van Rijn may not go down too well in this modern and PC age….

Flowers For Algernon – Daniel Keyes

I read this as a short story, then as a book, and then saw the film (Charly).  They were all brilliant: I think this has to be one of the all-time best SF novels, and I was hugely impressed that it was a set work in the South African matric syllabus recently – meaning even the SA educational authorities recognise its worth.

I think it is a heartbreakingly sad, uplifting, and compassionate account of how a man became a superman – and then fell all the way back down.  I am going to re-read it soon, because my daughter reminded me how much I liked it.

A Plague of Demons – Keith Laumer

In the many years since I first read this – I can still picture where it was in my bookshelf in Lusaka, so pre-1977 – I think I have bought three versions of it, and now a Kindle one as well.  This is an excellent book: a little dated in places, but superbly and tautly written, with an excellent storyline and characterisation.  Aliens among us, a semi-cyborg hero, grimy futurism.

And, of course, the near-invincible Bolos.  Love Bolos…B-)  I have followed them obsessively ever since.

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth – Roger Zelazny

These stories introduced me in the early 1970s to the dazzling talent that is (or was) Roger Zelazny – who later partly frittered away his time with inconsequential and TOO SHORT! novels, but is here seen in all his awesome potential.  Truly brilliant, timeless, and very well worth reading.

The title story alone is worth the collection: he wrote the other-planet fishing story so well, and made his characters so human, that it has stayed with me vividly since I read it in the early 1970s.  The visualisation of the monster coming up on the deck of the barge…better than Lovecraft.

A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M Miller

I have to say up front that this is at or near the top of my all-time Best Books Ever Read list – and seeing as I am a quick reader, and have been reading largely SF for over 40 years, there are a LOT I could choose from.

I read “Canticle” sometime back in the late 1970s, and it had an immediate and profound impact on me – not least because I had in fact been schooled by monks and friars AND priests, and could identify with much of the desert abbey material. I was also in awe of how well Miller managed to take the reader along through future history with him, and how complete was his imagining of what it might look like.

I have re-read it a number of times in the decades since, and it still holds its appeal – unlike, for example, much of Asimov and Heinlein.  I sincerely and whole-heartedly recommend this book: it is a gentle, intelligent, funny and sad post- and pre-apocalyptic novel that will grab hold early, and not let go.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle – AE van Vogt

I read this as a teenager – back in the early 70s – and was immediately and deeply impressed.  Van Vogt managed to create one of the best-realised aliens I had ever met until then, and also inculcated in me a desire to do as the hero had: that is, think outside the box, and come up with unorthodox solutions to immediate and practical problems.

Still a book I would recommend to anyone.

Berserker – Fred Saberhagen (collection)

I first met the Berserker stories in one of the SF magazines – Analog or Astounding, I forget which – as a teenager.

When I read EVERYTHING SF-related I could get my hands on.

These stood out: they were highly technological, clever, well written – and they had big, nasty machines that just wanted to kill people.

I went on to find them in collections, and then – finally! – in book form, such as the one reviewed.  However, what I say for this goes for them all: this is a SUPERB series of stories, whether in novel, novella or short story format, and something every SF fan worth their salt should read.

I defy you to not be moved by “Masque of the Red Shift”; not to be caught up in the story arc of “Stone Place”; not to have shivers up your spine generally at the sheer and implacable enmity of berserkers.

They are Daleks for the adults – with a great story around every one.  And you may even come to feel a sneaking admiration for them.  I know I did.

Deathworld – Harry Harrison

I used to get a UK kid’s comic called “The Ranger” when I was around 12 or so – and one of the first illustrated SF stories they ran was derived from Deathworld 1. And I loved it: I can still remember the illustration of din Alt’s bicep ripping through his shirt as he demonstrated how well he had trained for the higher gravity; the foamy dressings used for repairing ravages of some of the beasts. They also ran “Dan Dare”, featuring the ORIGINAL Mekon… none of these parvenue punk bands, young Cann!

As with other experiences I have had with comic vs short story vs book length treatments of the same thing, this only enhanced my later enjoyment (as a young adult) of the book. It is a VERY well realised world, the plotline is great, and the characterisation excellent.

Still recommended!!

Casey Agonistes – Richard McKenna

Realising that this was the man who wrote “The Sand Pebbles” – I expected something different.  And I got it: this is a brilliant, sad, funny collection of stories by a master writer.  I read it in my twenties; I have dipped into it a number of times since (last 30 years), and have enjoyed every time.

The title story is a masterpiece: set in a hospital ward full of military vets, it is about what amounts to their shared hallucination – and it is heartbreakingly good.  As for the story which rivals “Deathworld” – well, you’ll just have to get the book.

2001: A Space Odyssey

This is another of those “read the short story, read the book, saw the movie” scenarios (like Flowers for Algernon) that I was fortunate enough to live through.  They’re ALL good – and for once, AC Clarke’s characterisations were good enough not to be two-dimensional (probably thanks to Kubrick), and the storyline is profound enough that it carries you with it effortlessly.  Still worth a read!

And if you haven’t seen the film yet, you haven’t lived.  I fondly remember seeing the film in the old 20th Century Cinema in Lusaka, with one Stefano Capriulo in about 1973 – who hadn’t read the book, so I got to explain everything to him in exquisite detail.  I THINK we both enjoyed it…B-)


Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A Heinlein

I read this as an almost-adult, as a second-hand copy got from my swap shop in Lusaka, Zambia. For someone from that environment, and in the early 1970s, this book was as mind-blowing as it must have been for the hippies who adopted it (probably to the mild consternation of RAH) in the mid 1960s.

It represented such a departure for Heinlein – from the hard science, straight-up-and-down character-filled SF he had written – that I am sure some thought he had lost his mind.

I didn’t care; I thought the contrast to “Starship Troopers” was extreme and welcome; I grokked everything for at least six months, and probably drove friends crazy with recommending the book to them. It certainly opened my eyes to the new SF around at the time, and allowed me to make a seamless transition from the “Boy’s Wonder Magazine”-type SF I had been reading, into the New Age.

And now, 40+ years on: my copy finally disintegrated completely, AND got eaten by a dog. And I don’t think I will replace it: it was a great read at the time; it helped change and expand my world view – and I think re-reading it would just let me see all of the unsavoury aspects of Heinlein’s world view that I did not notice at the time. So, in summary – a must-read for folk interested in the history of SF, or for those who want to know what “grok” means, but just a signpost along the way otherwise.

Stormbringer – Michael Moorcock

This was the one of the first Moorcocks I ever read – and I was captivated. It was deep, dark, sad – and the imagery of a sould-eating sentient sword has stayed with me over 40 years and more. I think this is easily the best of the Elric of Melnibone books: strongly recommended, still.

Dune – Frank Herbert

I still have the copy I bought, back there in 1974, and which I read in a single sitting one rainy weekend in Cape Town, in my residence room.

I have lent it to numerous people, and it has always come back – and everyone I ever lent it to, or recommended it to, has had much the same reaction: Simply Awesome.

This was so good on so many levels, it is hard to know where to start. Herbert created a large and complex universe, with a complicated history – and then pitchforks you into it, right in amidst the intrigues of the Great Houses in the Imperium, and the machinations of the Bene Gesserit. The necessity of the spice from Arrakis for the functioning of FTL travel was interesting; so too the dependence on sentient Navigators for negotiating the strange galactic byways – and the use of human computers (mentats) in the place of AI was weirdly Luddite, but understandable in terms of the anti-technological Butlerian Jihad. With the use of that term predating any al-Qaeda references, note!

I was captivated by this book. I liked the sequel, too, which came out shortly after I bought Dune. The third, not so much. The rest of them? Stop with Dune Messiah: you’ll be glad you did. And under NO circumstances read the reboot by his son; it’s simply dreadful.

Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkein

In fact, I own several versions of this…they wear out, they got read and dipped into so often.  I read the original in one night-long, suspect green chocolate-fuelled orgy of fantasy (a week before Dune, in fact), with my little Sanyo cassette deck keeping me company (with Bad Company and The Doors) through the Marsh of the Dead and into Mordor.  I didn’t know what to do with myself for about three days afterwards, and I still associate certain songs, 40 years on, with specific sections of the book.

Quite simply, the best book I have ever read.

Ringworld – Larry Niven

This book hit me like a hammer: I had read some Niven previously (Known Space series), and liked it, but this was a step up and away and onward.  I actually borrowed the book from a friend’s father (thanks, Mr Hoal…B-) in about 1975, and was VERY loath to give it back – until I saw it in my then-favourite Cape Town bookshop, and bought my own.

Puppeteers.  Kzinti – up close, personal, and LIKEABLE.  The Ringworld itself.  Rishathra.  Niven created a universe for us, and I just wanted it to go on and on.

And then, much later, it DID.  An incredible read, and the wonderful thing is, there are a number of sequels.  And I love them ALL.

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