Book Review: Lambda I and Other Stories

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 and Other Stories

“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.

 

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

Book Review: Scammunition

Book Review: Scammunition by Colleen J. Pallamary

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or received.

Scammunition

Colleen Pallamary has been working as a volunteer to protect senior citizens and others from scams and swindles for over a decade in Florida.  This book is designed to inform people about the most common tricks she has encountered and how to combat them.  It’s arranged in short chapters covering such topics as phony contractors, fraudulent travel agencies (and employment scams promising to make you a travel agent) and malware.

To be honest, most of this is pretty basic material that would seem like common sense–but scammers still catch people with these tricks every day.  It’s certainly worth reading through just to refresh your memory.  About a third of the book is a listing of Better Business Bureau offices and government agency contact information for the United States and its territories, which will be especially helpful if you are dealing with a multi-state scam operation.  Although this book was published in 2012, these sorts of addresses tend not to change so the vast majority of them should still be good.

However, the chapters on cybercrime have already become a little dated–check the latest government warnings for new angles con artists have found.

This book was self-published, and it’s very obvious with the heavy use of public domain clip art, pithy mottoes and reproduction of government forms.  I did not spot any obvious typos, which is a huge plus at this end of the market.  Those with e-readers may want to go with the cheaper electronic version as there’s no real loss of quality.

Recommended for seniors, soon-to-be seniors, and close relatives of seniors, but usable by any adult who wants to be careful with their money and credit.

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