Tolkien & Me

The spark for this short memoir comes from the recent speculation that Amazon’s new Tolkien-based show will be set during the Second Age of Middle Earth; a sort of “Young Sauron” if commentators who know far more than me are to be believed.  The speculation seems based on the inclusion of certain locations on the teaser map that Amazon has released; places that were gone by the time of the Third Age (in which The Lord of the Rings was set).  I find this announcement both exciting (who wouldn’t) and scary (as I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do).

I’ve managed to get through life up until now, knowing virtually nothing of the vast history and mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien created for Middle Earth over the course of his career.  I read The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve years old, in the summer holiday between primary and secondary school.  It took me a month, reading for many hours each day.  I enjoyed it hugely – certainly it made a lasting impression on me and helped shape the person I am today.  But I never developed the urge to get into Tolkien any deeper.  I never even read The Hobbit – having come to Rings first, I filched enough of the backstory from there, for me not to want to.

There are two reasons that the rest of Tolkien passed me by – the first is that almost none of the Middle Earth background was available at the time (and my budget copy of LotR came without all-but-one of the appendices that had seen print).  The Silmarillion, the first post-Tolkien standalone door wedge, didn’t come out until four years later.

The second, and probably more compelling reason is that a bare six months after reading LotR, come that Xmas, I’d started playing Dungeons & Dragons, when one of my school friends obtained, hot off the presses, the Original D&D rule books from the US (indeed it’s only recently that the penny has dropped that I was without doubt, one of the very first D&D players in Europe).  As an adolescent, what attraction is there reading the dry history of balrogs, when you can fight your own?!  And for many years after, balrog was slang for ‘toilet paper’ in the circles I moved in, the word being almost but not quite ‘bog roll’ Spoonerised.  Adolescent indeed.

So for me Tolkien has stayed largely at arm’s length.  Shortly after LoTR, I did read some of his smaller pieces; Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of HamTree and Leaf, et al.  The very attraction of these was that they were more Langland than Lothlórien.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the Bored of the Rings parody (the tolls payable at the ford and the hairy-toe-besotted elf maiden still make me chuckle today), been impressed by the Ralph Bakshi animated movie of the first half of the story and loved Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the whole.  Almost mirroring my choice of decades earlier, I steered well clear of Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy that followed it.

Relatively recently, I have become somewhat more familiar with other aspects of Tolkien’s life and works.  When I was researching for my biographical sketch of Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes, for example, I delved into the world of the Inklings, and from there received my first, gobsmacking revelation of Middle Earth’s initial raison d’être, as a kind of vast philological laboratory.

As an aside at this point, I might add that like most critical thinking fantasy aficionados, I dismiss as ludicrous the oft-quoted assertion that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien.  I don’t care how much time Martin has spent on world building (and less than we think is the probable answer, given how much the Westeros fan base seems to have to keep him on track) it can surely be only a drop in the ocean, in terms of both scale and intellectual rigour, as compared with what Tolkien engineered for Middle Earth.  Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a huge fan of Martin’s series, I just think this particular comparison is unjustified.  As I’ve written elsewhere before, if the Seven Kingdoms has an antecedent, it rather inhabits the low magic, high political intrigue world of E.R. Eddison’s Three Kingdoms, the setting for his Zimiamvian trilogy.

Tolkien’s Weltanschauung was profoundly shaped by two world wars and he was a vocal opponent of Nazism.  So it makes me sad, these days, when the authoritarian bigots who increasingly plague our hobby, seek to denounce Tolkien as fascist or racist: presenting his great tale as an alliance of northern white Aryans, doing battle with all of the peoples of colour, united under Sauron.  And don’t get me started on what some assert the appearance of the eye of Sauron says about Tolkien’s attitude to women.

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Ten of the Best. #5: A Cave Full of Blind, Trigger-happy Pirates.

Beatrice Grimshaw (born 1871, Co. Antrim – died 1953, New South Wales, Australia) had one of the most extraordinary lives of any Irish writer of speculative fiction.  On reaching the age of twenty-one, she ran away from home to the South Seas, supporting herself through travel journalism and fiction writing.

Consider these snippets from an  autobiographical sketch that she wrote:-

  • I had so many adventures that they cease to seem adventures. In the New Hebrides, I was caught in a forest fire, and barely escaped into a valley where bones of a recent cannibal feast lay blackening in the smoke;
  • On the Sepik, I had my narrowest escape when a body of headhunters urged me to come and see their village, all by myself, because their women wanted to look at me. It came rather closer than was pleasant to my seeing nothing any more; because the headhunters, when they had brought out two or three old and terrified women as a bait, began to bar me into the house… …I got away by backing down the track and making signals to invisible (and non-existent) friends. Headhunters are nervy folk, jumpy and undecided until the moment when they strike. Before they had made up their minds, I was round the corner; going slowly, afterwards I ran; 
  • I had a house built on three huge war-canoes, moored in the sea; I loved that house until it became a meeting-ground for crocodiles who lived in the surrounding shallows and bellowed like bulls at night.

Most of her fiction falls into the adventure genre.  Two novels cross the boundary into the realm of the fantastical – The Sorcerer’s Stone (1914) and The Terrible Island (1919).  The latter is a favourite of mine.  First of all, I love its sense of place: where else can one read contemporary accounts of the expat life in New Guinea, a hundred years ago?

Secondly, I love the set up, with probably the most useless MacGuffin in all fiction – a horde of supposed treasure that is effectively worthless (on account of the tiny geographical area and the very limited market in which it might be spent), located on ‘Ku-Ku’s Island,’ somewhere out beyond the Lusancays, and guarded by ‘pigeon devils’ that will blind any intruder. [Spoilers Ahead!]  In Scooby-Doo-like fashion, the supernatural element turns out to be grounded in reality, the blindness being caused not by infernal birds, but through consumption of the tasty looking fruits of the finger cherry (Rhodomyrtus sp.) that grow all over the island.

But best of all is the terrifying set piece that Grimshaw is able to establish, on foot of this scenario.  Shortly after her protagonists first set foot on the island, they blunder into a cave full of blinded and very jumpy pirates, who are also looking for the treasure and who are armed to the teeth with guns 😀  Satisfying chaos ensues.

Ten of the Best. #4: Pointillist School vs Police School

When Charles L. Harness burst onto the SF scene in 1953 with his novel Flight Into Yesterday (aka The Paradox Men), it was arguably the only thing that could stand comparison with Alfred Bester’s masterpiece of the same year, the winner of the first ever Hugo award – The Demolished Man.  Yet Harness stuck to the day job as a patent lawyer and did not deliver another novel until The Ring of Ritornel (1969), which together with Firebird (1981) comprised his three great odes to galactic cycles, underpinned by the theories contained in historian and philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee’s twelve volume A Study of History (1934-61).

Any number of Harness’s conceits could make it into my top ten.  I almost went for the forensic spider in Ritornel, that when fed the poison, constructs a web of its chemical structure. But topping that even, is the iconic scene in Harness’s novella The Rose (1966), in which the enigmatic artist Ruy Jacques helps fugitive psychiatrist Anna van Tuyl evade the authorities in the Park of the White Roses.

The impending crisis:

Out in the Via an ominous silence seemed to be gathering.  The Security men were probably roping off the area, certain of their quarry.

The set up:

He began to untie the bundled purple dress… …He tossed the gaudy garment at Anna, who accepted it in rebellious wonder.

The proposition:

The pointillists knew how to stimulate white with alternating dots of primary colours… …[They] could even make white from just two colours: a primary and its complementary colour.  Your green dress is our primary; Violet’s purple dress is our complementary… …daub them on the canvas side by side, stand back the right distance and they blend into white.  All you have to do is hold Vi’s dress at arm’s length… 

Ah yes but…

She demurred: ‘But the angle of visual interruption won’t be small enough to blend the colours into white, even if the police don’t come any nearer than the archway.  The eye sees two objects as one only when the visual angle between the two is less than sixty seconds of arc.’

Fortunately the artist relies more on the suggestibility of the mind than the mechanics of the retina, so that’s all right then.

…if our lean-jawed friends stared in your direction… …they’d see you as a woman in green holding out a mass of something purple.  But… …I’m going to stand over there, and the instant someone sticks his head through the archway I’m going to start walking… …normal people in western cultures absorb pictures left to right.  So our agent’s first glance will be towards you and then… …[He’ll] be distracted by the fountain in the centre. And before he can get back to you, I’ll start walking, and his eyes will have to come onto me...

Ruy heads off while Anna at first watches, then closes her eyes…

He was past the fountain… …Now he must stop…only he didn’t.  His steps actually hastened.  That meant…

I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat as I write this.  What pure, priceless SF gold.

 

 

 

 

Ten of the Best. #3: Hunting Squamp

If I re-read The Fourteenth Voyage today, I’m invariably humming along to Planet Claire by The B-52’s as I go: it seems a carbon copy of Enteropia, the planet upon which Ijon Tichy goes for a vacation after getting his rocket repaired, a third of the way through Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries.

Planet Claire has pink air
All the trees are red
No one ever dies there
No one has a head

Sing The B-52’s in my head.

ENTEROPIA, 6th planet of a double (red and blue) star in the Calf constellation.

Reads Tichy from the Hitchhiker’s Guide-like Cosmic Encyclopaedia he has borrowed from his old mucker, Prof. Tarantoga.

8 continents, 2 oceans, 167 active volcanoes, 1 torg (see TORG).  A 20-hr. day, warm climate, conditions for life favourable except during the whackers (see WHACKER).

Having arrived, Tichy decides to go hunting for squamp, one of the local big game, for which he is kitted out with relish seasoned with pepper and chives, a time bomb and a plentiful supply of laxative.  The idea is to coat oneself in the first, lurk in a likely spot until swallowed whole by said squamp, at which point one sets the second and uses the third to escape out the back, before the second goes off.

There’s nothing terribly subtle here, of course, and there are many other more refined Lemian inventions I could have put in my list; the science of Eruntics – teaching English to bacteria, or the Matrix-like horrors of the world of Doctor Diagoras, to name but two but Tichy out squamp hunting left my seventeen-year-old self tickled pink and opened my eyes just that little bit wider as to just how far SF could go.  It was one of the many things that I thanked the man himself for, when I visited his grave in Krakow’s Salwator cemetery, back in 2010.

 

 

 

Ten of the Best. #2: Dr. Doug Jackson

UFO, the early 1970’s TV show that marked Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s first foray into live-action drama, is iconic for a whole slew of reasons: the once-heard-never-forgotten sound of the UFO itself, the Moonbase crews’ purple wigs (but why only the women?), and the perfectly realised design of the SHADO (= Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation) badge, to name but three.  For me though, the most stunning thing that the show pulled off was the casting of Polish actor Vladek Sheybal in the recurring role of Dr. Doug Jackson.

By the time UFO started filming, Sheybal had been a fixture in British living rooms for a number of years, with a regular gig in the Ken Russell productions of the time, and appearing as a villain in almost every spy franchise going (including The Saint, Danger Man, The Champions and Bond, where he played Kronsteen in From Russia With Love).

The character of Doug Jackson evolved from Sheybal’s turn as Dr. Beauville in the earlier Gerry & Sylvia Anderson movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun – aka Doppelgänger – (1969).  In UFO, the evidently versatile Jackson is first introduced adversarially as the International Astrophysical Commission’s chief prosecutor (!) during the Court Martial of SHADO’s Paul Foster, and only gradually is he subsumed into the ranks of SHADO itself.

Channelling the standard Sheybal villain – a thin-faced, goggle-eyed Slav, with a voice as insidious as snake venom, in that accent – Doug Jackson was seldom seen, or so it seemed, unless dressed for the operating theatre, one hand clutching a primed syringe with a drop of some mind-altering drug beading on the tip of its needle. He was the scariest good (?) guy ever.

Of course the payoff in spades was the character’s never-spoken-of backstory: just how did this creepy foreigner end up with the name Doug Jackson?  Perhaps if UFO had gone on for longer than two seasons more would have been revealed.  In a 1992 interview, given not long before his death, Sheybal comments as follows:-

Well, I got the (script of the) first episode, I learned my lines and I went to the studio where Sylvia Anderson – with the big eyelashes and a very beautiful hairdo – was there, and I met all these friends afterwards from UFO for the very time, including Gabrielle Drake. You remember Gabrielle Drake? She was my pupil at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – I once was teaching acting there and she was my pupil, and I was very surprised when she was there in the studio.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I didn’t know who this Dr Jackson was and Sylvia Anderson, after we had finished – or maybe it was while we were filming? – she said, “Would you be at all interested if we feed a script in with Dr Jackson, because we like very much the way that you are doing it.” And then I asked her, “Who is this Dr Jackson?”. “We don’t know,” she said. And that is what happened, so from time to time when they wanted to write in Dr Jackson they would ask my agent if I would be free for, let’s say, next week for ten days to come to the studio to play Dr Jackson.

And then I started forming my opinion about the character, and I came to the conclusion that he’s got lots of colours and whatever, and I think that I developed it while I was playing it. 

For me, the Doug Jackson character is an absolute masterstroke and perhaps all the better for forever remaining an enigma.  From time to time a reboot of UFO is mooted.  If they ever do it, then Sheybal-lookalike Riz Ahmed would get my vote for the part.

Ten of the Best. #1: Temporal

I normally eschew making lists, but at a certain point, having read so many appallingly bad ones by other people/publications that just don’t contain the right things, one starts to get worn down.  The worst trend of all is encapsulated in those increasingly frequent ‘best’ or ‘all time’ lists that contain loads of stuff you’ve never heard of, written in the last five years and, if you’re lucky, a couple of token entries from the last century.

So, like anything really important in life, if you want it done properly, you have to do it yourself.  Here, in no particular order, over the next few weeks, I’ll post a personal list of ten of the most brilliantly bonkers things that SF has thrown at me over the years.

#1: Temporal

For a brief period in the late 1970’s it seemed as though Trevor Hoyle might be the British SF writer to smash the all-powerful transatlantic hegemony in English-speaking SF of the time.  This was on foot of his magnificent Q. Series (Seeking the Mythical Future (1977), The Gods Look Down (1977), Through the Eye of Time (1978)), the trilogy that bestowed ‘myth-technologist’ Queghan upon the SF world, and furnished Hoyle with his catch phrase The Cup Might Smash…  …And Then Fall.

For me though, Hoyle’s most memorable foray into quantum phenomena comes in Vail (1984) a near-future post-apocalyptic satire set in the UK.  Just get this:-

The boy or youth sighed wearily.  ‘Where have you been living? Never heard of Heisenberg?’

‘A new Bavarian lager?’

‘Cause can precede effect and effect can precede cause at one and the same time. What you do later affects what you do now – it’s all the same.’

‘Not in my world,’ I said, shifting feet.

‘Sure. Remember what Max Born said: “I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actual philosophy.”‘

Two in one day. First a terrorist loonie and now a mad quantum mechanic. Which of us was going off our rocker, the world or me? ‘Suppose I say I’m not going to do the favour, – will you still give me the Temporal?’

‘That all depends on whether you do the favour or not.’

‘But you won’t know till later.’

‘That’s when I’ll decide.’

‘How can you decide later whether or not to give me the Temporal now?’

‘Simple. I won’t have given it to you if you don’t do the favour and I will have given it to you if you have.’

‘You call that simple?’

‘It is to me, squire.’

‘All right.’ I’d made up my mind. ‘Give me the Temporal and I’ll do you the favour, how’s that? Happy?’

‘I thought you’d say that,’ he said, handing me the foil strip.

Temporal is one of SF’s finest conceits – time and space bending quantum mechanical effects in convenient pill form – that later enable our hero Vail to escape an untimely death at the hands of a Watford Gap motorcycle gang.

 

Remembering the ‘Eiffel Tower in Space.’

Recent weeks have seen renewed discussion in the technical press concerning the proposals of Russian  startup StartRocket to put billboards into Earth orbit.  This is hardly a new idea; none of the previous proposals have come close to fruition, and that the commentary has once again been overwhelmingly negative is no great surprise.

There must have been numerous examples of this sort of display in Science Fiction over the years, but the one that springs most immediately to my mind is that of Demon Prince Lens Larque getting the last laugh, when the moon of the planet Methlen is posthumously rearranged by a series of planned explosions into a sculpture of his leering physiognomy, as occurs at the denouément of Jack Vance’s The Face (1979).

The first serious real world proposals to put something permanently visible into orbit were made in the summer of 1986 by the Eiffel Tower company, with the launch of their ‘Eiffel Tower in Space’ competition – an initiative to celebrate the tower’s 100th anniversary in 1989.  I remember this quite vividly, as I was a member of the team that put together the entry submitted by the company I was working for at the time.  Our entry, La Tour Eiffel de L’Espace, a rather unimaginative copy of the original, but in orbit, was shortlisted, but didn’t win.  The best of the bunch (a proposal from Southampton University in the UK, which didn’t win either) was clearly the ‘space chronometer,’ a kind of orbiting set of hands, which, through ingenious design would enable anyone who could see it to tell the time at their location.

By this point however, the competition was in serious trouble from objectors.  Astronomers led the way, pointing out that the light pollution from such structures could restrict viewing of the night sky.  Earthbound objectors focussed on the unwanted intrusion, pointing out that like as not the first practical implementation, if such things were allowed to go ahead, would be an orbiting Coke bottle.

And this is where the debate remains today – nothing has really changed.  I note that StartRocket’s idea puts forward the use of a constellation of microsatellites, each one of which would function as a pixel in a display, thus enabling different messages or designs to be displayed over a period of time (or indeed for the whole array to be switched off).  As much as I would be amused to see a laughing Putin image in geostationary orbit over Washington DC, I don’t think StartRocket’s innovations do enough to change the arguments against orbital billboards.

The most positive present day application of this kind of technology is to have orbital mirrors that can be repositioned to divert sunlight to disaster areas (eg; when earthquakes or tsunamis have occurred) at night-time to make the jobs of rescue workers easier.  In the future, if the Earth suddenly became more vulnerable to strikes from wandering asteroids or meteors for some reason, they perhaps an orbital warning system for incoming objects might also be a good use for the technology.

Stark Enigmas

The best SF short story I read in 2018 was Chike Deluna’s Stark!!! 

Picture this: an implacable spider god, the Lady Genevieve Desdemona, lounges in the bowl of a communications dish, idly watching a cat-burglar go about his business on a neighbouring skyscraper. She sees the thief successfully break into an apartment before, once inside, triggering an impossibly fiendish booby trap, a melange of pendulums, pulleys and automatons called the “Stark Enigma,” that will surely kill him…

It’s a great set-up, and the means by which the thief thereafter cheats death is satisfyingly memorable.

The path by which I reached this point, lounging in front of the fire at home, reading an e-copy of Deluna’s Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, is almost as fascinating.

Many on the Irish SF scene know that from time to time,  I assist the Michaels Scott and Carroll in curating the Irish SF, Fantasy & Horror Writers Pinterest board.  The qualification for inclusion is simple: writers either Irish born or resident in Ireland.  Even so, George Chyke Udenkwo (b. 1967, Newry) is one of the more enigmatic entries, the author of one work, Golgotha Falls: Genesis (2008).

The first thing you notice about Golgotha Falls: Genesis, when you start googling around, is how consistently good the star ratings are.  They hit percentages uncommon even for the big boys and unheard of for most bargain basement self-published doorwedges.  My curiosity was officially piqued.  Coming to the book cold, my first instinct was to expect a little Hiberno-Nigerian Afrofuturism but Golgotha Falls (the titular city) is rather a classic science fantasy setting: an ultra far future megalopolis, ruled by gods, yet with the sort of near future noir vibe more associated with Blade Runner.  The overarching theme of the interlinked stories is the interactions between the human denizens of Golgotha Falls and the implacable spider god Lady Genevieve Desdemona…

As the Lady Genevieve D. does over Golgotha Falls, so Udenkwo leaves clues about himself at various locations over the Internet, in particular a nice little biography here.  From these traces one can glean both that he was dissatisfied with the production quality of the  initial release of Golgotha Falls: Genesis and that he was writing further volumes.

Fast forward to 2012 and another ephemeral website and horror and fantasy author Chike Deluna is offering, inter-alia, several volumes of the adventures of Lady Genevieve Desdemona, the first of which is Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, the content of which, including the short story Stark!!!, corresponds to approximately the first half of the material in Golgotha Falls: Genesis.   The other volumes comprise MotW: The White Book, MotW: The Red Book and MotW: The Blue Book.

Fast forward again to 2018 and Chike Deluna, now based in India, appears to have cracked this self-publishing lark and is offering six or seven excellent looking horror and fantasy novels (but not, so far as I could tell, the Mistress of the Web series) for sale from a shiny new website.  Fair play indeed.  I must add The Cosmic Foot Masseur to my reading list.

Now I can’t say for certain that George Udenkwo and Chike Deluna are the same person.  For all I know, the latter discovered the decomposing remains of the former in an alley somewhere, clutching a portmanteau stuffed with thousands of manuscript pages of the adventures of the aforementioned Lady Genevieve D.  But whatever the truth of it, I did have fun unravelling the thread.  And reader, do yourselves a big favour in 2019 and track down a copy of Golgotha Falls: Genesis or the Mistress of the Web ebooks and get stuck into some of the finest science fantasy out there.

 

A Eureka Moment

Today it occurred to me for the first time that I might actually live to see the collapse of civilisation and the ‘End of the World’ as we know it: a eureka moment indeed.

To explain how I’ve reached this conclusion, I can best begin by going back thirty years or so to when I was in Space Policy and Law class at MIT.  Among the policy exercises we used to do, there was one to find justifications for mankind to leave Earth and go out to colonise space and other planets.  Scientific curiosity, the innate human urge to explore, and so as to obtain new raw materials and resources to help maintain economic growth were all taken to be valid reasons, but there was once which was completely taboo, and that was the need to escape from a failing ecosystem.  Anyone in class who dared advance it was immediately subjected to an extreme moral backlash.  The rationale for this was very simple – should mankind not be able to avoid fouling its own nest, then it immediately abdicated the right to leave it and go out and similarly destroy other worlds.

Thirty years on, it seems incredible that this should have been the case.  Today, the Elon Musks amongst us cite escape as one of the most pressing reasons to get on with colonising the Moon or Mars and nobody demurs.  That’s because sadly, they are right.

Back in the day, I cannot emphasise how strongly the taboo against this was espoused, by all the Americans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese and Europeans in the class alike.  In order to understand this, we can of course point to such landmarks as the publication, not long before, of Frank White’s influential book The Overview Effect, but mostly it is because the political climate was very different then.  Thirty years or so ago we were tantalisingly close to getting global agreement on real action to address climate change (as the New York Times recently reminded us).  The prize slipped through our fingers like sand and now the world is going to Hell in a handbasket – there’s going to be no going back.

In 2002, George W. Bush coined the term ‘Axis of Evil’ to pigeonhole certain rogue states whose perceived militarisation, aggression and penchant for global terrorism was a danger to the civilised world.  In 2018, we might equally well identify an ‘Axis of Environmental Evil’ headed, it would seem by the United States and Brazil, for their current environmental policies are going to kill millions of people in peaceable nation-states around the world, just as surely as it was predicted Iraq and the Taliban would do.  And just as was put forward by Bush in 2002, it is equally clear in 2018 that only the collective military intervention, this time of the environmentally responsible nations, is likely to put a stop to it.  But this will never happen, for the military industrial complex of the US is too powerful and the resulting war would just trash the world another way.

One might equally despair of the vast energies of millions of activists frittered-away in recent decades on other issues, like equality and the rights of minorities.  Strangers may castigate me mightily for so daring to say; those who know me, know I would fight until my last breath for true equality between people of every gender, race and sex, but if mankind does ever achieve that, it would really be quite nice to have a world left to enjoy it all in.  I wonder where we might be today if all that colossal amount of effort had instead been directed towards saving the planet first.  Hindsight is a terrible thing.

There now seems to be no good reason not to take even the most catastrophic of the climate change models currently in play as anything other than ludicrously optimistic.  Why?  Well for a start, they don’t take into account things like the United States rolling back all its environmental laws of the past few decades, nor of Brazil razing the rest of the Amazonian rain forest within a few years, both of which are happening already or going to happen.  But the big thing, I think, is the effect of the huge methane releases that are going to come from melting permafrost.  This is a relatively recent geophysical phenomenon which it has not yet been possible to accurately add to the models, and it’s huge.  After that, all that is left is for the dreadful engines of positive feedback to administer the coup de grace.

Can anything save the world?  Frankly I doubt it, but possibly, just possibly there could be some sea change, twenty or so years from now when Miami and Shanghai and dozens of other cities are already under water.  One could not then completely rule out the technological ingenuity of the entire global military industrial complex being re-directed towards the construction of huge machines to purge the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, sequester and store carbon, re-freeze the permafrost and increase the Earth’s albedo, whilst the ordinary men and women of the planet labour to reverse desertification one plant at a time.  What the timeframe for that is, and whether it’s possible to pull it off while keeping everyone fed and with a roof over their heads, who knows?  One thing’s for sure, the elite of Elonville,  living in the shadow of Olympus Mons, will be laughing.

 

A New Jurisdiction

When a favourite author appends another book to a beloved series after a gap of ten years, I guess it’s OK to have doubts.  Thus I approached Blood Enemies (2017), Susan R. Matthews’ seventh novel in her stunning Jurisdiction cycle, with no little trepidation.  Of course I had a few minor misgivings as to whether the quality of her writing might have dipped after such a long break in output, but mostly, my apprehension stemmed from the fact that the first six books formed such a coherent whole that Andrej Kosciusko’s story was complete, and that any move to open a new chapter on him was doomed to seem forced and be anticlimactic.

Reading the author’s recap did little to sooth me.  What?  Were they? Did that happen? Was it like that?  Of course one’s recollection of stories read long ago (the sixth book, Warring States, came out in 2006) start to play tricks, but maybe Matthews also straightens out narratives that were more elliptical, and clarifies things that were rather more hinted at, back in the day.

It has always been a constant source of amazement to me that the Jurisdiction, indisputably one of the greatest galactic settings in all SF, is not better known.  Beginning with the perfectly titled An Exchange of Hostages (1997), the series chronicles the travails of tortured torturer Andrej Kosciusko, as he strives to beat the system and provide a better life for the people around him.

Civilised space is divided into a number of ‘Judiciaries’ sponsored by corporations of powerful families.  Kosciusko has the misfortune to be born into one of these (the Dolgorukij Combine) and thus, having graduated from medical school as an incredibly gifted physician, is forced by his martinet father to enrol in military torture school (Fleet Orientation Station Medical aka Fossum). From here, he will emerge as an ‘inquisitor,’ holding the writ to investigate transgressions against the state and enforce the rule of law.

This is the overall arc of the first book.  Naturally Kosciusko excels in his new studies, due to his medical knowledge.  Privately he oscillates between agonising over the position he finds himself in and drinking to forget that he is starting to enjoy the work.  It’s a remarkable debut novel, one of the best.  The whole thing is drenched in the politics of military rank, social caste and race within a milieu dripping with homoerotiscism, slavery and graphic torture.  The only misstep is a ludicrously coy (heterosexual) group sex scene that (unfortunately) is pivotal to the narrative.  Whilst one might charitably assign this to first-timer failure of nerve, what was her editor thinking?

An Exchange of Hostages is followed in rapid succession by Prisoner of Conscience (1998), Hour of Judgment (1999), Angel of Destruction (2001) and The Devil and Deep Space (2002).  There is also a self-published chapbook Jurisdiction, that deals with events between the first two books.  These volumes introduce many memorable supporting characters including Bench Specialist (= Jurisdiction special agent) Garol Vogel, a wonderfully loose cannon amidst all the rigidity, Jennet ap Rhiannon the straight-laced captain of the JSF Ragnarok and Andrej’s cousin Stanoczk, a Malcontent (= one of the order of gay monks that constitute the Dolgorukij intelligence service).  The chronological order of these tales is a little blurred, but sorted out by the two omnibus reissues (Fleet Inquisitor and Fleet Renegade) that preceded publication of Blood Enemies.

As I pen this piece, I’m two thirds of the way through that book.  Matthews deftly finds the one logical strand that could continue Andrej’s story – namely the dissolution of the Jurisdiction into a confederacy on foot of the failure to appoint a new judge (as detailed in Warring States) and the subsequent weakening of the rule of law.  This in turn creates threats against Gonebeyond space, where Andrej is in hiding.

Having given his benign but stifling guardians the slip, Andrej has inadvertently walked in on a covert Malcontent operation to smash the terrorist ring run by one of his younger brothers.  He’s forced to play for time by (slightly) faking the torture of captured cousin Stanoczk, working at his evil brother’s behest, while he tries to find a way to rescue the situation.  Meanwhile, a third brother is poised with five Dolgorukij warships on a separate mission at the edge of Gonebeyond, waiting for word to invade and drag Andrej back to his homeworld.  In other words, Matthews at her convoluted and conflicted best – I needn’t have worried at all.  And another book, Fleet Insurgent, is in the pipeline.  Joy!