Book Review: Lambda I and Other Stories edited by John Carnell
New Worlds was a British science fiction magazine that started professional publication in 1946. Despite some financial hiccups, it was a reasonably good seller, and was still going in the early 1960s when the stories chosen for this anthology were published. The editor picked stories that had gotten a good reception in Great Britain, but never before published in America. According to his introduction, this was the first paperback anthology of “foreign” science fiction stories published in the U.S.
“Lambda I” by Colin Kapp leads off with a transportation engineer being visited by an old friend. It turns out the friend is a psychologist, here to try to reconcile the engineer and that man’s estranged wife. The science fiction part comes in with the Tau transportation system, which uses a dimensional shift to send ships directly through the Earth so that one can travel in straight lines from one point to another.
It turns out that the Tau system has an inherent stability problem, and if a ship ever became locked into the never-actually-seen-before Omega frequency, disaster would ensue. The engineer’s futile attempts to forestall this problem led to the stress that caused his marriage to collapse.
Oh, guess what! Yes, a ship has gone into Omega frequency. Yes, if it isn’t fixed, the entire Eastern Seaboard will be destroyed. Yes, the engineer’s wife is aboard and she’s carrying his child! Yes, there are only a few hours before the dimensional rift, and the one thing that might have a chance of getting the two protagonists there in time is an experimental prototype without proper shielding.
There’s some hallucinatory sequences that would have blown the budget in any 1960s movie as our heroes explore the weird dimensional shift that the lost ship in stranded in. It turns out that psychic vibrations affect the Tau system, so the psychologist is the one who saves the day.
“Basis for Negotiation” by Brian W. Aldiss takes place in the then-near future of 1971. America and Red China are at war, with the possibility of escalation into nuclear attacks imminent. In a startlingly tone-deaf moment, the British Prime Minister has declared Great Britain strictly neutral. He’s ordered all American military forces out of the British Isles, and is planning to Brexit from NATO.
Sir Simon, Chair of Moral History at the University College of East Lincoln, is livid. True, he might not currently be in the government, but he feels a deep interest in public affairs. He must get to London and see what can be done to fix this! The remainder of the story is his journey to Whitehall and what he finds there.
This story was turned down by all the American magazines Mr. Aldiss submitted it to, possibly because it’s a bit too “insider cricket” (there’s a very House of Cards moment at the end), but it might also have been the relatively sympathetic portrayal of gay Communist David.
Yes, David was in favor of disarmament, but as part of a global reduction of arms, not a unilateral surrender. And yes, he’s a Communist, but he is by George a British Communist. One can’t fault his courage or moral fiber, but his combat judgement is poor. Also, his obsession with classism makes him a very irritating companion for long car trips.
The science part of the science fiction comes in at the last moment and puts a very different cast on what the actions of various characters leads up to.
“Quest” by Lee Harding takes us to a future where robots are everywhere and everywhere looks exactly the same. One man senses that this is wrong, and goes in search of something, anything, real. He may be too late. A grim story.
“All Laced Up” by George Whitley is a comedic tale about interior design. You may have noticed that iron lace isn’t around much any more. Especially the really intricate handcrafted stuff. It turns out there’s a reason for that. Unusual for having a female…villain? whose motive is pretty much entirely financial.
“Routine Exercise” by Philip E. High involves a time traveling nuclear submarine. Has a mandatory twist at the end, but some very evocative scenes as the submariners try to figure out what’s going on while being hunted by aliens.
“Flux” by Michael Moorcock is set in a unified Europe of the future. Max File, prototype superbrain, is called in because the ruling council has discovered that society is going to crash in the next few years. They don’t know how, and fear that any action by the government to stall the crash will cause it instead. However, they have a time machine.
File turns out to be the sole living subject of an experiment in creating artificial supergeniuses through vaguely-described education of children. All the others went mad, and File might have joined them, but the scientists purged much of the excess knowledge from his brain. He is still, however, the most flexible mind on Earth, and the only one who can be trusted with a time machine to go into the near future to gather information.
File arrives in the ruined future, and learns of the disastrous effects of several different social experiments that collapsed civilization in various ways. He attempts to return to his present, only to discover that time machines don’t work that way.
Things get progressively weirder as File continues his quest, and finally learns the true nature of time itself. This allows him to accomplish his goal…sort of.
Mr. Moorcock would soon take the helm of New Worlds and turn it into a haven for the experimental “New Wave” style of science fiction. This is definitely a forerunner of the movement.
And we finish with “The Last Salamander” by John Rackham. A coal-burning power plant awakens something from prehistory. A living thing that is at a temperature that no human could withstand. One of the workers (actually a company spy) must figure out a way to destroy the creature before it destroys all the workers and surrounding area. It’s a bit of a sad story, and would have made a good episode of The Outer Limits.
I like “All Laced Up” and “The Last Salamander” best, but “Basis for Negotiation” and “Flux” are pretty good too. “Quest” is perhaps too predictable.
Recommended to fans of British science fiction, and especially to those who favor Michael Moorcock and Brian W. Aldiss.