Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#21: Misc. 5: Aldiss/Jeppson/Bass: Distant Futures

I'm again taking the liberty of grouping a number of authors from whose work I only intend to review one or two books, and of squeezing those books into a theme. Most of the books in this review are minor works of minor authors, but sometimes a nothing-special book catches one's fancy.

Brian Aldiss is *not* a minor author. I've used the term "one-book author" a number of times to refer to authors with only one book of interest, but I don't wish the fact that I'm only discussing one Aldiss novel to give that impression: He has numerous books to his credit, including such acclaimed works as "Frankenstein Unbound", "The Billion/Trillion Year Spree", "Report on Probability A" and the relatively recent "Helliconia" trilogy. The only one of his books of which I greatly enjoyed, however, was "Hothouse". (I will confess to using 'acclaimed' here as a euphemism for "I didn't much care for it, but I realize that lots of other people did.")

"Hothouse" (***+) is a fantasy disguised as a science fiction novel. The time is billions of years in the future: The sun is hotter than today's, and its death is not far off. Tidal forces have locked the Earth and the Moon face to face, and biological forces have had so much time to work that the two bodies are connected by...cobwebs. (The term 'cobwebs' is, if not utterly accurate, adequately descriptive.) The dominant life forms on Earth are vegetable, and some of those have evolved mobility and even a degree of intelligence. The only survivors of the animal kingdom in the world-sized forest of this future are a few species of insects -- and the primitive descendents of humanity. (Intelligence has allowed humanity to survive, barely, but this isn't a world in which intelligence is much of an edge.)

Most of the book follows Gren, a youth who is separated from his small family grouping and set adrift in this future world, which he understands no better than does the reader. It's a grim enough journey -- the world through which Gren travels is voracious and inhospitable -- but wonder-filled. Aldiss has painted a vivid picture of a world through which plants climb and fly and hunt, with vegetative intelligences below and with vegetative spiders shuttling through space. It is this backdrop, more than the story which plays out against it, which gives "Hothouse" its power.

("Hothouse" was originally published in the US in an abridged version titled "The Long Afternoon of Earth". Personally, I preferred the abridged version.)

J.O. Jeppson has had better marketing success since she started signing her work "Janet Asimov", but the best of her novels came out under her own name, and I enjoyed it far more than any fiction her husband wrote in the seventies or eighties.

"The Last Immortal" (***+) is a robot's story, albeit not a postronic robot. The story begins not long in our future, and goes to the collapse of the universe and beyond. It's a light-weight story in many ways, and an improbable one: Tek is the last surviving robot of the dragons who came to our universe when theirs collapsed, billions of years ago. For a time he lived with humanity (we learn in passing), but finally he asked to be allowed to end -- and for a long time his request was granted. By the time he is mysteriously revived, the universe is collapsing, and a small expedition has formed to return to the original dragon universe.

It's an enjoyable light read, with occasional unexpected depths. Tek himself is an odd mixture -- humble, self-effacing, but (as the final product of an immensely long robotic evolution) possessed of far greater abilities than he realizes. The main weakness of the book is the humanity of the far future, which is a bit *too* similar to that of the present, but not much harm is done, because that premise isn't asked to bear much weight.

"The Last Immortal" is a sequel to "The Second Experiment" (**) -- a competent but nothing-special novel which gives Tek's origin and recounts his earlier dealings with dragons and humans -- but it can be read on its own. Of her other work, the early 'Norby' novellas -- coauthored by "Janet and Isaac Asimov" may be worth reading, if you don't mind juveniles that talk down to their audience a bit. They're about a well-meaning robot (three parts Jeppson robot to one part Asimov robot in character) who was cobbled together from spare parts, some of them very alien. The first Norby book is "The Norby Chronicles" (**+) (actually an omnibus of the hardcovers "The Mixed-Up Robot" and "Norby's Other Secret"). They go steadily downhill after that, so "Norby: Robot for Hire" (**-) is adequate and further sequels are not.

T.J. Bass *is* a one-book author. Okay, make that a two-book author. The first, and weaker of the two books, is "Half Past Human" (**). It portrays a future Earth whose human population has risen to three *trillion*, squeezing out almost all other biota on the planet. It is not necessary to read "Half Past Human" in order to understand its superior sequel, "The Godwhale" (***+), and my advice to anyone thinking of reading these books is to read "The Godwhale" first, and the other one if it seems worth while.

The world of the Godwhale is a world coming back from the brink of death. The Godwhale herself is an ancient cyborg plankton gatherer, abandoned when the plankton was gone. Now, somehow, some life has returned to the seas. The land is devoted entirely to the needs of the Hive -- the human warren with a population density almost a thousand times greater than our own -- and with the discovery that the sea once again represents a potential food source, the Hive attempts to exploit it. The genetic modifications which make survival possible under such crowded conditions, however, limit the usefulness of Hive humans as an outside crew, so the Hive engineers itself some old-style humans. And gets itself some old-style troubles. (The reader should not anticipate the cliche of true humanity sweeping aside a failed pseudo-humanity. The Hive is still the two-hundred-billion ton gorilla on the planet.)

"The Godwhale" is an interesting book, rich in ideas, weaker on the story-telling side. Its characters include Larry Dever, who accidentally got himself bisected centuries earlier, ARNOLD, whose design was based upon Larry's, Rorqual Maru, a sentient cyborg based on a whale, a number of appealing cybernetic organisms -- and a support cast of trillions.

Dani Zweig