Appearance of Life • short story by Brian W. Aldiss ♥♥♥♥
Starthinker 9 • short story by Michael G. Coney ♥
Waltz of the Bodysnatchers • novelette by Bob Shaw ♥♥♥
Travellers • novelette by Robert Holdstock ♥♥
Valley of the Bushes • short story by Naomi Mitchison ♥♥
An Infinite Summer • novelette by Christopher Priest ♥♥
Doll • short story by Terry Greenhough ♥
A Beast for Norn • novelette by George R. R. Martin ♥♥♥+
The Giant Killers • novelette by Andrew M. Stephenson ♥♥♥♥
Seeing • novelette by Harlan Ellison ♥♥
Andromeda One Introduction • editorial by Peter Weston
This was one of the original anthologies I read when I first started with SF magazines, probably after Science Fiction Monthly and Vortex had both folded (mid-1977), and about a year into reading Analog and F&SF.1 I remember thinking it was quite a good volume at the time and wondered how it would hold up.
As it turns out my thoughts about this are pretty much what they were at the time. Two stand-out stories, the Aldiss and the Stephenson, with the Martin not far behind and a couple of others that are solid pieces.
The fiction opens with Brian W. Aldiss’s story but as I bang on about that at great length I’ve left it to last. It is followed by the rather slight Starthinker 9 by Michael G. Coney, probably the weakest entry here.
The narrator is a ‘Worldthinker’ that has travelled seventy light years to meet a young woman who is a ‘Starthinker.’ They each have the ability to send messages telepathically across corresponding distances. Despite their different talents the two of them have managed to communicate and are in love. When Worldthinker gets to Starthinker’s hillside house the guards won’t let them meet. As Worldthinker is driven away it is revealed (spoiler) that they are both women. This was a pretty lame ending even in the mid-seventies.
Waltz of the Bodysnatchers by Bob Shaw—for all its contrivance and unnecessary off-world setting—is an entertaining enough story about an adulterer arranging for the murder of his mistress’s husband with the help of a wannabe suicide. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Church on this planet forbids adultery and divorce, and as a penalty for murder mandates a personality transfer from the victim to the murderer. If you can get past the obvious contrivance of the plot there is some enjoyment to be had here.
I was also reminded of Shaw’s ability with striking throwaway lines:
Next morning the double suns were close together above the eastern horizon, merging into an elongated patch of brilliance which imprinted peanut-shaped after-images on the retina. p.39
Travellers by Robert Holdstock , like the Shaw, is more over-engineered than it needs to be. Two men, Jaim and Herok, enter a ‘time node’ in the third millennium. Inside the node, which we find out later is generated by the black form of the ‘Traveller,’ Jaim looks for his forbidden love from the fourth millennium, Margaretta. He eventually meets and makes love with her, or someone he thinks is her, after several weeks of searching the different periods the time node encompasses. After their meeting (spoiler) he finds he as actually slept with his daughter, and that she has been smuggled into the node to travel to the earliest of the its time periods. She is doing this as it is believed she has the ability to travel independently in time, and will be able to test this after the node collapses.
I’m not really sure that this all makes much sense to be honest, but it is entertaining enough.
The next story is by Naomi Mitchison, author of the classic Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Mitchison contributed a handful of short stories to various anthologies in the seventies and later which I recall as well-written if slight pieces.2 Valley of the Bushes falls into that category with its story of a primitive tribe that lives beside local bushes which have the ability to concentrate what would appear to be heavy metals. The tribe burn the bushes and collect the residual metal to trade. One day a helicopter, botanist and translators turn up looking to get a sample of the bush. It does not end well.
An Infinite Summer by Christopher Priest is set partly in Victorian times, so this is probably a non-associational spin-off from his novel The Space Machine. A man wanders around 1940s London and is aware of ‘freezers’—people from the future who use humans to create frozen tableaux. The freezers and their tableaux are not visible to the people of the time but they are to Thomas, although why this is so is never explained. He and Sarah, a woman he was in the process of proposing to, were frozen in 1903 but his part of the tableaux decayed in 1935. Since then he has been waiting for the Sarah to be released, and he visits her every day. His vigil ends with a nice final image.
This one is best appreciated on an subconscious level and it is probably best not to subject it to too much analysis: judging by the number of tableaux Thomas notices on his short journey so see Sarah, you would think the police would notice the missing persons’ epidemic.
Next up is Doll by Terry Greenhough. What can I say about this one? Well, if you are up for an extended description of an alien birthing ceremony involving ‘dolls’ that Cyric the moulder shapes to symbiotically link with new-born children, then this will be right up your street. There are bonus black slugs in there as well. Yes, this is one of those stories that painstakingly and pointlessly describes an alien situation or setting to no particular end.
A Beast for Norn by George R. R. Martin, was the one that I think I originally liked best of all (although the Aldiss ran it a close second). Third time around (I read it again in the fix-up collection Tuf Voyaging) I still enjoyed it, but knowing the plot takes away some of its impact. This version also has a ‘first draft’ feel (which is perhaps borne out by the fact that the book one is longer).3
The story concerns Haviland Tuf, the last of the ecological engineers, and solitary master (unless you count his telepathic cat, Dax) of a giant seedship. Tuf is approached on the planet Tamber by Herold Norn, a beast-master from a planet called Lyronica. He belongs to one of the planet’s twelve houses, each of which send their animals to fight in the beast pits of their arena:
Impatient with the lull, the watchers in the Bronze Arena began a rhythmic chant, a low wordless noise that swelled louder and louder as new voices heard and joined. Tuf saw at once that the sound affected the animals below. Now they began to snarl and hiss, calling battlecries in savage voices, and the strangling-ape moved from one leg to the other, back and forth, in a macabre dance, while slaver ran in dripping rivers from the gaping jaws of the ironfang. The chant grew and grew—Herold Norn joined in, his thin body swaying slightly as he moaned—and Tuf recognised the bloody killing-chant for what it was. The beasts below went into frenzy. Suddenly the ironfang was charging again, and the ape’s long arms reached to meet it in its wild lunge. The impact of the leap threw the strangler backwards, but Tuf saw that the ironfang’s teeth had closed on air while the ape wrapped its hands around the blue-black throat. The ironfang thrashed wildly, but briefly, as they rolled in the sand. Then came a sharp, horribly loud snap, and the wolf-creature was nothing but a rag of fur, its head lolling grotesquely to one side. The watchers ceased their moaning chant, and began to applaud and whistle. Afterwards, the gold and crimson door slid open once again and the strangling-ape returned to where it had come. Four men in Norn House black and grey came out to carry off the corpse.
Herold Norn was sullen. ‘Another loss. I will speak to Kers. His beast did not find the throat.’
Haviland Tuf stood up. ‘I have seen your Bronze Arena.’ p.136-137
In an effort to stem a run of losses Norn wants to buy an animal from the vast collection Tuf has on his seedship, an ancient vessel of the now defunct Ecological Corps—an organisation that originally waged ecological warfare. Tuf obliges, for a price, and provides him with half a dozen cobaltcats.
In due course the House of Norn starts to win all of its heats, and then the other houses start to get in touch with Tuf….
This was the first of a number of stories featuring Tuf that would be collected in the Tuf Voyaging collection/fix-up mentioned above. They are perhaps best described as modern updates of the ‘good old stuff.’ If Astounding was being published in the mid-seventies then this is the kind of story it would have been publishing.4
The Giant Killers by Andrew M. Stephenson is a long story about three military men on a war-torn future Earth being sent out to download the intelligence from an enemy ‘Voyo,’ a robot fighting vehicle similar to the ones found in Keith Laumer’s ‘Bolo’ stories. Their pursuit takes them through an African landscape that is now inimical to man, seeded as it is with a variety of terrible futuristic weapons such as the tackymat:
He was leading, running by leaps and bounds, dodging clumps of undergrowth and similar hazards, when he stumbled. Regaining his balance quickly he paused to inspect his right foot. Tolbein saw him stiffen and heard his frightened exclamation. However, it was not immediately apparent why Granton should begin to wipe his boot frantically upon the grass.
‘What is it, Mult?’ Tolbein asked, catching up with him. Then he saw what the man was trying to scrape off.
In the deceptive infrared light it might have been a fresh cow-pat Granton had stood in. Certainly it was as easy to remove. But the similarities ended there. No matter how carefully Granton scraped it off he never quite managed to remove it all; somehow there were traces left, and within seconds these traces had become smears, then blobs, then lumps, always spreading, always gaining ground, growing up along his boot, covering the instep, the fore-seal, the ankle…. p.169-170
Their mission is both difficult and dangerous, and they barely escape a night attack. Eventually they catch up with the Voyo in what is a striking final scene.
As well as the military verisimilitude and the general darkness of the narrative, there are a few other scenes that give it more complexity than your normal combat SF story: one of the soldiers relates an account of a cat involved in a peacetime car accident; another section is a mythological scene that involves Ares the Wilful Destroyer, etc. This all makes for quite an impressive piece.5
Seeing by Harlan Ellison is a story about Lorna, a prostitute in the urban squalor that surrounds a future Polar Interstellar Exchange spaceport in the Artic. Her clients include the many alien species that frequent the area. More significantly she has mutant eyes that provide a different type of sight:
She told the old woman of seeing. Seeing directions, as blind fish in subterranean caverns see the change in flow of water, as bees see the wind currents, as wolves see the heat auras surrounding humans, as bats see the walls of caves in the dark. Seeing memories, everything that ever happened to her, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the grotesque, the memorable and the utterly unforgettable, early memories and those of a moment before, all on instant recall, with absolute clarity and depth of field and detail, the whole of one’s past, at command. Seeing colours, the sensuousness of airborne bacteria, the infinitely subtle shadings of rock and metal and natural wood, the tricksy shifts along a spectrum invisible to ordinary eyes of a candle flame, the colours of frost and rain and the moon and arteries pulsing just under the skin; the intimate overlapping colours of fingerprints left on a credit, so reminiscent of paintings by the old master, Jackson Pollock. Seeing colours that no human eyes have ever seen. Seeing shapes and relationships, the intricate calligraphy of all parts of the body moving in unison, the day melding into the night, the spaces and spaces between spaces that form a street, the invisible lines linking people. She spoke of seeing, of all the kinds of seeing except. The stroboscopic view of everyone. The shadows within shadows behind shadows that formed terrible, tortuous portraits she could not bear. p.200-201
The old, powerful and rich 26-Krystabel Parsons has had a number of transplants in the past and desires a pair of eyes like Lorna’s for her next surgery. She commissions a ‘Knoxdoctor’ called Bream to find her a set, and he in turn sends two ‘prongers’ called Berne and Grebbie to search.
This isn’t an entirely successful work and there are various reasons for this. One is that Ellison can’t seem to get out of his own way. There is one early passage that introduces extraneous camera directions (‘From extreme long shot, establishing, etc.’) which only distanced me from the story just I was getting into it. Another thing that had a similar effect was some of his word choices, which had me stop reading on more than one occasion and reach for a dictionary.6 I also wasn’t that impressed with the scene where an angry customer, in the form of a giant slug, comes looking for Lorna: this read like some sleazy update of a Planet Stories tale.
It improves somewhat towards the end but is definitely a mixed bag and illustrative of the fact that I can’t think of anything this writer produced post Jeffty is Five (F&SF, July 1977) that I much cared for. (Yes, an exaggeration, but not as much of one as you might think.) It’s a pity that he didn’t write the story that the quoted passage above suggests.
And so we return to Brian W. Aldiss’s Appearance of Life. This is an impressive, dense and contemplative story that has so much in it to unpack that I barely know where to start (spoilers abound). The basic premise is that, in the far future, a human Seeker arrives on the planet Norma to visit a museum that is located in a huge structure constructed by the alien Korlevalulaw:
The museum demarcates Norma’s equator. The construction takes the form of a colossal belt girdling the planet, some sixteen thousand kilometres in length. The belt varies curiously in thickness, from twelve kilometres to over twenty-two.
The chief riddle about Norma is this: is its topographical conformation what it always was, or are its peculiarities due to the meddling of the Korlevalulaw? For the construction neatly divides the planet into a northern land hemisphere and a southern oceanic hemisphere. On one side lies an endless territory of cratered plain, scoured by winds and bluish snow. On the other side writhes a formidable ocean of ammonia, unbroken by islands, inhabited by firefish and other mysterious denizens. p.10-11
The Korlevalulaw themselves are long vanished and the subject of much speculation; their absence hangs over the narrative.
The Seeker is there to complete a number of assignments for various individuals, institutions, etc. Although the exhibits can be viewed by remote holography, his ability to take a gestalt view of the contents and make significant insights is valued.
The first matter of note in his exploration of the museum is his cool, almost brusque, tone with the androids who staff the facility:
‘Do you always work in this section?’
‘No. But this is one of my favourite sections. As you have probably observed, here we classify extinct diseases—or diseases which would be extinct if they were not preserved in the museum. I find the micro-organism beautiful.’
‘You are kept busy?’
‘Certainly. New exhibits arrive every month. From the largest to the smallest, everything can be stored here. May I show you anything?’
‘Not at present. How long before the entire museum is filled?’
‘In fifteen and a half millennia, at current rate of intake.’
‘Have you entered the empty part of the museum?’
‘I have stood on the fringes of emptiness. It is an alarming sensation. I prefer to occupy myself with the works of man.’
‘That is only proper.’
I drove away, meditating on the limitations of android thinking. Those limitations had been carefully imposed by mankind; the androids were not aware of them. To an android, the android umwelt or conceptual universe is apparently limitless. It makes for their happiness, just as our umwelt makes for our happiness. p.13-14
During the rest of the first day he finds a wedding ring and a photograph and thinks the physical appearance of those early humans may have a connection with one of his tasks. This leads him to recall a fellow Seeker’s comment about the ‘secret of the universe’ being locked away in the museum, and their exchange about this idea being a construct of the human mind, or ‘the mind that built the human mind.’
The next day he makes another discovery:
Among the muddle, a featureless cube caught my eye. Its sides were smooth and silvered. I picked it up and turned it over. On one side was a small depression. I touched the depression with my finger.
Slowly, the sides of the cube clarified and a young woman’s head appeared three-dimensionally inside them. The head was upside down. The eyes regarded me.
‘You are not Chris Mailer,’ she said. ‘I talk only to my husband. Switch off and set me right way up.’
‘Your “husband” died sixty-five thousand years ago,’ I said.
But I set her cube down on the shelf, not unmoved by being addressed by an image from the remote past. That it possessed environmental reflexion made it all the more impressive.
I asked the museum catalogue about the item.
‘In the jargon of the time, it is a “holocap”,’ said the catalogue. ‘It is a hologrammed image of a real woman, with a facsimile of her brain implanted on a collapsed germanium-alloy core. It generates an appearance of life. Do you require the technical specifics?’
‘No. I want its provenance.’ p.16-17
He investigates the latter and it plunges him into meditation about the museum:
Or was the museum itself […] a wish to possess, not merely objects, but the entire past of mankind and, indeed, what my friend had jokingly referred to as ‘the secret of the universe’ ? I told myself then that cause and effect operated only arbitrarily on the level of the psyche; that lust to possess could itself create a secret to be found, as a hunt provides its own quarry. And if once found? Then the whole complex of human affairs might be unravelled beneath the spell of one gigantic simplification, until motivation was so lowered that life would lose its purport; whereupon our species would wither and die, all tasks fulfilled. Such indeed could have happened to the unassailable Korlevalulaw. p.18
Later he finds himself serendipitously taking an item from an android. He finds it is a more sophisticated example of the one he found earlier—and the hologrammed image is that of the husband of the woman. He takes it and sets it up opposite the other and they start to converse. This is the most striking scene in the story. The two heads talk to each other, or at least they appear to, but it becomes obvious that they are limited facsimiles of their owners:
The images could converse, triggered by pauses in each other’s monologues. But what they had to say had been programmed before they met. Each had a role to play and was unable to transcend it by a hairsbreadth. p.23
The Seeker goes on to draw an obvious conclusion before discarding it and arriving at a more nuanced one. I must confess that if there was one part of the story that somewhat puzzled me it was this last page. I think I understood the final point that Aldiss was making but I am not entirely sure. Whatever, it is well worth your time.
One final point: I think that it was an error of judgement putting this story at the start of the anthology. It is a weighty piece and something I went back and read again and thought about for some time afterwards. If I’d been editing this anthology I’d have put it at the end and opened with a crowd pleaser like the Martin.
There isn’t any non-fiction in this apart from a short editorial by Peter Weston7 where, amongst other things, he mentions reading three hundred manuscripts for this single volume. There are also story introductions that are about half a page or so long.
This forgotten (or to US readers, unknown) anthology is definitely worth a look.
- This anthology was one of a couple of books I think I picked up when I had a part-time supermarket job as a teenager. Fine Fare was a stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap outfit that I worked for on Thursday and Friday nights and all day Saturday. During lunchtime on the latter I would spend part of my lunchbreak perusing the bookshelves. I’m not a 100% I got this one there but I definitely had the pleasure of discovering Joe Haldeman’s impressive The Forever War all by myself.
- This run of later stories from Mitchison seems to have been triggered by Harry Harrison, who bought a handful for various anthologies. Her ISFDB page.
- The version that appeared Andromeda #1, and was later reprinted in Galaxy, September-October 1979, is around 10,150 words long. The book version is 12,150 words.
- Yes, I know Astounding became Analog and that’s where most of the Tuf stories appeared, but the latter has always felt like a different magazine to me.
- Stephenson had an interesting if regrettably brief career. As well as two novels and a handful of stories, he contributed artwork, including covers, to a number of fan and pro magazines. His ISFDB page is here.
- I’m not suggesting that writers use an 800 word vocabulary, but: ‘As though they had been wind-thrown anemophilously,’ p.187. ‘Anemophilous’ not only needs to be looked up (by me anyway) but means, ‘(of a plant) wind-pollinated,’ which would seem to make the quoted phrase a tautology. ‘…clearly identifiable as but’n’ben prongers…’ p.188. I’m Scottish so I thought that I knew a ‘but’n’ben’ was a small holiday cottage in the country. Apparently (thanks internet) it is a two bedroomed house with the ‘but’ being the living room/kitchen and the ‘ben’ being the bedroom. What chance would anyone in 1977 have of figuring that one out? There is also a drink called a chigger. That is either an insect or a cocktail of melon liqueur with orange juice. It didn’t appear to be a cocktail bar she was drinking in….
- Peter Weston was quite the BNF (Big Name Fan) in the mid-seventies. His fanzine Speculation was a multiple Hugo nominee and I’d also seen his reviews and essays in Science Fiction Monthly. In one of the two SF conventions I ever went to (Eastercon at Heathrow, 1977?) I remember seeing him on one of the panels and listening to him holding forth about Andromeda being the only SF short fiction market in the UK at the time. I also remember reading (possibly in a copy of Speculation I bought) that he had been approached by the publisher to take over the failing magazine Vortex but that they never followed through.
I couldn’t find any copies of Speculation on efanzines.com, but one of his later publications, Relapse (formerly Prolapse), can be found there.