Thursday, 5 April 2018

A quick trek into the cosmos of the mind

It may be perverse of me, but in a week when I’m proofing my next thriller, have a glut of crime novels to read and a whole raft of new horror movies to watch, I’m going to be talking about science fiction.

Yes, this is one of those relaxing blogposts, which is more designed to occupy readers during mid-morning tea breaks than impart crucial information to them. 

To start with, I’m going to be reviewing and discussing – in what I hope is my usual forensic detail – Alfred Bester’s sci-fi masterwork, THE STARS MY DESTINATION (as always, you’ll find that review towards the bottom end of today’s column). 

On a not dissimilar subject, I’ll also be presenting a gallery of what I consider to be the 25 best ever science fiction book covers. It’ll be an entirely personal choice, of course; browsers and readers must feel free to disagree, or add suggestions of their own.

Reaching for the stars

That’s not something I’ve ever done, basically.

Well, in purely metaphorical terms, I’ve tried to reach for the stars … but when it comes to writing about journeys to the stars, in other words penning sci-fi, that’s not something I’ve done a whole lot of.

Okay, I’ve done it a little. Students of my career (assuming any such creature exists) will probably be familiar with my DR WHO output: LEVIATHAN and HEXAGORA, two full-cast audio dramas, and SENTINELS OF THE NEW DAWN, a Companion Chronicle, all courtesy of Big Finish Productions, which came out in 2010 and 2011; SPOILSPORT, a short story of 2008; HUNTER’S MOON and TALES OF TRENZALORE, published by BBC Books in 2012 and 2014; and THRESHOLD, the pilot episode of the Dr Who spin-off series, COUNTERMEASURES (Big Finish again) in 2012.

Before any of that, way back in 1996, there was also A GLITCH IN TIME, a short story I wrote for the non-Dr Who spoken-word (these days it would be called ‘audible’) anthology, OUT OF THIS WORLD; this one has a really special place in my heart as, despite it existing in our universe rather than the Whoniverse, my particular contribution to this excellent anthology was narrated by the late, great Jon Pertwee.

But the majority of this lot, as I’ve already said, is Dr Who-related, and therefore occupies a little world of its own, sitting slightly apart from the sci-fi mainstream. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not a big fan or eager reader of all those other wondrous tales. 

My father, Brian Finch (right), another late, great character, and an author in his own right, was a huge science fiction buff, and helped turn me onto it as a genre when I was very young.

Perhaps that is why I’m slightly biased to the older school, as you’ll see when I present my 25 Best Covers. I hasten to add that I read the modern stuff too. But to put a gallery together like this, you really have to look for those cover-images that made the biggest impact on you, and in my case certainly, such a task took me back to my earliest days.

As with previous galleries – I did horror and crime on Oct 22 and Sept 10 respectively – I’m sticking to English language editions, as it would be too complex and time-consuming to go beyond that. Anyway, without further ado, here are what I consider to be …


THE 25 BEST SCIENCE FICTION COVERS OF ALL TIME 

1. THE CHRYSALIDS
John Wyndham (Penguin, 1970)


Not the first vision in sci-fi of a hellish post-apocalyptic world, but certainly one of the most intelligent, John Wyndhams 1955 classic (originally published by Michael Joseph), takes us to a UK decades after the bombs have dropped, where a form of fundamentalist feudalism has reformed what remains of society, and as this marvellous cover amply illustrates, mutation is a source of open war.

2. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM!
Harry Harrison (Orb, 2008)


Probably best remembered for the 1973 movie version, Soylent Green (which considerably changed the plot), Harry Harrison’s 1966 masterpiece (first published by Penguin) envisions a world where overpopulation has collapsed all infrastructure, leading to societal chaos, and follows the fortunes of several hapless individuals. This Orb cover is clean, simple, and almost tells the story on its own.

3. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
Ursula K. LeGuin (Ace Books, 1985)

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The novel that made Ursula LeGuin’s name (and surely the best book title ever). First published in 1969 by Ace Books, the author’s career-long fascination with anthropology hits new heights of what if', when, in a different universe to ours, a male ambassador makes contact with an ambisexual race, and fails to understand it - to a near fatal degree. Described as the first foray into feminist sci-fi 

4. THE BLACK CORRIDOR
Michael Moorcock (Mayflower, 1973)


The embodiment of new wave science fiction, as tough businessman, Ryan, takes a select band of friends on a stolen spaceship to escape an impending nuclear war. The trouble is that, while they lie in stasis, he must remain awake to steer the ship on its seven-year journey. First published by Ace in 1969, this later cover perfectly encapsulates his terrifying descent into solitude-induced madness.

5. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?
Philip K. Dick (Doubleday, 1968)


One of the most famous sci-fi novels of all time, though mainly because of the movie, Blade Runner, which differs in many ways, this deeply moving piece of visionary writing - and this is the original wonderful cover, as produced by Doubleday back in 1968! - sees a conscience-stricken bounty hunter pursuing a rogue band of human-like androids through a world dying from radiation poisoning.

6. THE RINGS OF SATURN
Isaac Asimov (New English Library, 1974)


The final installment in the Lucky Starr series, a collection of sci-fi novels written for younger readers (despite this scary later cover). First published by Doubleday in 1958, it tells an adventurous spy story set in the Saturnian system, but, Asimov being Asimov, is nevertheless filled with advanced scientific thinking, and was viewed by many as a thought-provoking commentary on the Cold War.

7. FAHRENHEIT 451
Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 1953)


The ultimate Dystopia, as a young fireman becomes disillusioned with his job - which is not putting out fires, but starting them, using mountains of forbidden literature as fuel! What better cover could illustrate the anguish the author felt, not just about book-burning, but about book abolition in general? Written as a stinging response to McCarthyism, and viewed by many as Bradbury’s greatest work.

8. HELLSTROMS HIVE
Frank Herbert (Gollancz, 2011)


For once, not the original Doubleday cover, as first published in 1973, but an infinitely superior later one. Inspired by the speculative sci-fi/horror documentary of 1972, The Hellstrom Chronicle, this exceptional and chilling novel tells the tale of an undercover agent and his discovery of a secret society modelled along the lines of social insect communities, and the devastating events that follow.

9. THE DROWNED WORLD
J.G. Ballard (Penguin, 1965)


Another post-apocalyptic saga, though this time it isn’t Mans fault, solar flares having returned much of the Earth to a topical Triassic paradise, where even a hard-headed scientific research team find themselves regressing mentally into a dreamlike, tribal state. First published in 1962 by Berkley, this later, postmodern cover hints at the darker, grosser elements that lie beneath Edens genial facade.  

10. STAR MAKER
Olaf Stapledon (Gollancz, 1999)


First published by Methuen in 1937 - pretty incredibly, given how long that was before space exploration became a real thing! - this remarkable odyssey of a sci-fi novel charts an Englishmans journey through the universe in a disembodied state, at the same time telling us the story of all things and hitting us with a deluge of philosophy. How to illustrate such other than with a cover like this?

11. THE STARS MY DESTINATION
Alfred Bester (Gollancz, 2010)


In some ways, this 2010 cover to a novel written in 1956 (first published by Signet) almost softens the ferocious character of tiger-faced Gully Foyle, who ruthlessly pursues vengeance across a solar system wracked by interplanetary war, but it remains one of the most iconic in modern sci-fi, putting the man first and foremost above the futuristic setting, and perfectly capturing the authors intention.

12. I, ROBOT
Isaac Asimov (Gnome Press, 1950)


The wonderfully basic cover to the original publication, which, though it only partly provided the story for the recent Hollywood epic (that movie also owes quite a bit to Eander Binders same-titled short story of 1939), saw Asimov break phenomenal ground with a collection of interlinked stories and essays concerning the development and gradual humanisation of an imaginary android species.

13. ONE WAY
S.J. Morden (Gollancz, 2018)


The most recent entry in the gallery, and in some ways more a space-thriller than pure science fiction, but with a planetary geologist at the writing helm you know you’re in for an ultra-realistic assessment of just what it would mean for a party of condemned men sent to build a colony in the frozen wastes of Mars, who have no way back, and who, one by one, are then systematically murdered.

14. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS
H.G. Wells (New American Library, 1986)


An appropriately horrific cover for what in truth was a horror story. Everyone is familiar with Wellss masterly 1897 tale (first pub. by William Heinemann) of a late-Victorian era Earth at the mercy of an amoral and super-powered alien species prepared to wreak a total holocaust, but the transformation of our conquered world into a blood-soaked parody of Mars (as per this cover!) still has chilling impact.

15. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Robert Heinlein (Ace Books, 1987)


A human raised by Martians returns to Earth as a kind of pseudo-messiah, and promotes libertarian concepts like free love and communal living, as this provocative cover illustrates. First published by GP Putnam in 1961, it was ahead of its time, but not by much, and is often seen as a prelude to the counter-culture - the very last thing those who knew Robert Heinlein would have expected of him.

16. BRAVE NEW WORLD
Aldous Huxley (Chatto & Windus, 1932)


The original, unforgettable cover to what is probably the most famous sci-fi novel ever written, though its as much a philosophical text in its study of a future world where hard scientific theory rules, human beings are produced in test-tubes, and though society is harmonious and productive, this comes at the cost of a cruel caste-system, psychological manipulation and extreme social control.

17. SWARM
Guy Garcia (Morphic Books, 2017)


A sci-fi novel you genuinely believe could happen - and in the not-to-distant future. The horror-esque cover nicely imagines the central antagonist, Swarm, an expert hacker and cyber warrior, who comes into possession of illegal experimental software, the resulting transformative effect of which goads him into seeking to change society without considering the potential catastrophic consequences.

18. THE ROAD
Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A Knopf, 2006)


Surely the last word on the apocalypse, though the author maintains that he never considered it sci-fi, penning it as a simple study of a father and son, this chilling epic still tells the story of an odyssey through a North America ruined by some unspecified disaster, leaving no stone unturned in its quest for misery and pain, and yet remains a lyrical masterpiece. This bleak, spare image sells it perfectly.

19. GATEWAY
Frederik Pohl (Penguin, 2008)


A suitably mind-blowing cover for the multi award-winning novel that kicked off an entire series of award-winners. First published by St Martins in 1977, its another of these incredible imagine if sagas, in this case the human response to the discovery of a derelict alien space station, where all kinds of abandoned craft, with pre-set coordinates, promise immediate voyages to distant stars.

20. A TIME OF CHANGES
Robert Silverberg (HarperCollins, 1975)


First published by Doubleday in 1971, this timeless tale of repression and revolution comes to us in the form of an intense autobiography as a young telepath seeks to overthrow a culture so down on individuality that the use of words like I and me are classified as a cultural crimes, and show his people exactly what it means to be human. As the ghoulish cover above illustrates, that won’t be easy.

21. THE PALACE OF ETERNITY
Bob Shaw (Pan, 1972)


Originally published by Ace in 1969, this legendary sci-fi thriller never really needed an iconic cover to sell itself, but it got one eventually, as illustrated above. Master of his craft, Bob Shaw spins the action-packed but thought-provoking tale of an exhausted war veteran seeking redemption and refuge on the tranquil Poets World, only for the war to catch up with him again in the shape of his one-time comrades.

22. DUNE
Frank Herbert (New English Library, 1968)


Everyones favourite space epic, and the cover that most genre fans remember best, mainly because it comes so close to encapsulating James Herberts colossal, multi-sequel-spinning 1965 saga (Chilton) of two noble houses fighting each other to the death across an interstellar empire. Yes, that’s correct; Herbert re-set the War of the Roses in Outer Space and created the best-selling sci-fi novel in history.

23. DAY MILLION
Frederik Pohl (Ballantine, 1970)


The original cover to a seminal collection of short stories, in which the author gives full vent to his imagination, taking his readers through the many realms of science fiction, but at the same time addressing serious issues like trans-sexuality, racism, medical and technological advance - both the benefits and drawbacks of such, etc. Still regarded as a masterly work by a true genius of the genre.

24. THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
Ray Bradbury (Bantam Spectra, 2003)


First published by Doubleday in 1950, this episodic but poetic vision of Mans attempted colonisation of Mars and his inevitable clashes with its indigenous inhabitants commenced life as a series of short stories originally published in the 1940s. But this latter-day cover is still the best, perfectly imagining the barren red world, along with its mythical canals, as envisaged throughout the early days of astonomy.

25. THE GREEN BRAIN
Frank Herbert (New English Library, 1973)


One of Herberts lesser-known works, but a classic of its time, originally published by Ace in 1966 (as Greenslaves), and dipping into the expanding eco-consciousness in its tale of a human race at war with Earth’s flora and fauna, and the retaliation from the insect world, as experienced by a scientific expedition to the Brazilian jungle. This later cover says all you need to know about the ensuing terror.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing. 

THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester (1956)

In the 25th century, humanity has developed the power to jaunt, most individuals now able to transport themselves up to 1,000 miles simply by the power of thought. However, life has not improved greatly. Earth society is going through constant social and economic flux as a result, and though the solar system is fully colonised, the Inner Planets (Earth, Mars, and Venus) are in ongoing conflict with the Outer Satellites (the moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune).

One casualty of this is the deep space cargo vessel, Nomad, which belongs to the influential Presteign corporation. Damaged by rocket fire, Nomad is now a drifting, incommunicado wreck with only one survivor on board, crewman Gulliver ‘Gully’ Foyle, an ignorant, uneducated man, who nevertheless stays alive against all the odds. He even manages to signal for help to passing sister-ship, Vorga, also a Presteign vessel, but is astonished when it deliberately ignores him, abandoning him to a terrible fate.

Infuriated beyond reason, Foyle manages to steer the floating scrapheap into the Asteroid Belt, where a little-known tribe called the Scientific People, a cargo cult who have long cut their ties with Earth, imprison him and tattoo his face with tiger stripes.

Still bent on revenge – and now looking the part as well – Foyle steals a ship to escape, and makes it back to Earth, where, in a barbaric state, he rapes a gentle, telepathic woman called Robin Wednesbury, and launches a one-man terrorist attack on Vorga, which fails and puts him in the grasp of the company’s all-powerful CEO, a man simply called ‘the Presteign’, someone who suddenly wants to know all about this errant crewman. It seems that Nomad was carrying a newly-discovered mineral, PyrE, which could change the course of the war – but Nomad is now lost, and only Foyle knows its coordinates.

Foyle is interrogated by a fearsome private security officer, the radioactive Saul Dagenham, but even Dagenham cannot break him, so he is condemned to life imprisonment in the hellish subterranean jail, Gouffre Martel. Here he befriends another convict, the resourceful Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen, who educates him, advises him that it isn’t Nomad he should seek to destroy, but whoever gave the order to ignore him, and finally helps him escape.

Through Jiz’s criminal contacts, Foyle manages to remove the tiger-stripes from his face – though in times of anger they show again – educates himself further and augments his body so that he becomes a lethal fighting-machine. He then treacherously cuts Jiz loose and reappears as the dapper dandy, Geoffrey Fourmyle, bullying the unwilling Robin into helping him penetrate Presteign high society.

Everything is going to plan, but there are still problems. Those Vorga officers he tracks down involuntarily self-destruct before they can tell him anything, while his determination to ruin Presteign is hampered by his growing affection for the CEO’s beautiful daughter, the blind but infrared-sensitive Olivia. Meanwhile, Robin hates and fears him, Jiz is plotting something, and Foyle is troubled by an apparition he sees increasingly often: himself wrapped in flames. At the same time, the Outer Satellites are planning a massive attack, which they hope will win the war for them in one overwhelming blow.

If things have been difficult for Foyle so far, vastly more terrible days lie ahead …  

On first reading The Stars My Destination, it would be quite simple to write it off as straightforward space opera. The incredible adventures of Gully Foyle and the personal changes he undergoes as, through endless stress and suffering, he transcends the status of brute underling, becoming first a wealthy, scheming sophisticate, and finally a godlike intellectual, is more than a little bit reminiscent of Alexander Dumas’ classic adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo. But if, after some protracted pondering, that remains your sole assessment of this visionary sci-fi novel, you need to read it again.

Comparisons between The Stars My Destination and The Count of Monte Cristo are not wrong, and there’s a specific reason for that, Alfred Bester, by his own admission, seeking to snare his audience with what initially seems like a simple, exciting plot-line over which he can lay some complex but wondrous notions.

Though initially an editor and script-writer for comics, by the mid-1950s Bester was regarded as one of the world’s leading science fiction writers (he ‘invented’ it, according to Harry Harrison), and if you need further proof of that, just consider when reading The Stars My Destination that he penned this astonishing story when the vast bulk of the public drew their knowledge of the genre from movies concerned with insects grown to giant size through atom bomb testing and threats posed to Earth by bulb-headed men who spoke in senatorial US voices. That any serious sci-fi prophesying was done by authors writing in that era is quite remarkable, but plenty of them did, and yet Alfred Bester was ahead of the game even by those standards.

The concepts he presents us with in The Stars My Destination were mind-boggling in their day, and in many ways still are, and yet the book is also threaded with mindfulness of what these developments for mankind would actually mean.

For example, in the 25th century (or the 24th, depending on which edition you are reading), Man’s reach might stretch across the solar system, but it isn’t as though Pluto is suddenly in our back yard. The vast distances remain, especially as jaunting between planets is impossible. And so, Earth has lost cultural contact with its colonies. They have become advanced societies in their own right, and barely understand Earthlings, let alone see them as friends, and when war breaks out, there is no empathy between the two sides. Earth and the inner planets aren’t even aware of the outer satellites’ military strength, while the cargo cult that abducts Foyle early in the book is a completely isolated tribe, whose whole world is now the wreckage of ours.

The jaunt itself (named after scientist Charles Fort Jaunte), was an amazing concept to 1950s audiences. Long before Star Trek ever thought of it, the inhabitants of The Stars My Destination jump from A to B via teleportation. But again, Bester ponders the upheavals that stem from this: for instance, valuable high-class women must be kept in jaunt-proof isolation to ‘protect their honour’, while convicts can only be held in jaunt-proof solitary confinement (resulting in hellhole prisons like Gouffre Martel).

More familiar concerns among sci-fi writers of Bester’s era are also on show. Chemically and mechanically enhanced human beings don’t remain human for long. Telepaths are in such demand that they must conceal their talents from almost everyone. The author was also worried about the rise of ultra-powerful corporations, and how in the future they might become empires in their own right. The Presteign, though maintaining an urbane exterior, is utterly ruthless, and has the full cooperation of the government’s own intelligence agency, as represented by Peter Yang-Yeovil.

And yet, despite all this fascination with psi-power and speculative science, the main driving force in the book is that most basic of all human instincts, a yearning for revenge.

It is perhaps a nihilistic concept that the route to godliness may lie with Man’s desire to get even with other men … but you certainly can’t argue with it in The Stars My Destination as it’s given to us so full-bloodedly. It’s illustrated visually in the form of Foyle’s tiger mask, which even after he’s had it superficially removed, blazes to life whenever he’s angry (surely one of the most impressive devices of its sort that I’ve ever encountered in fiction). This vengeful nature is the single thing that constantly drives Foyle, and lies at the heart of his thrilling escapes: from the floating wreckage of Nomad, from the clutches of the asteroid tribe, and even from the jaunt-proof subterranean prison. It is this same motivation which, in due course pushes him to better himself – mainly so that he can infiltrate high society, though unknowingly of course, it also pitches him towards the realm of perfection.

Foyle makes an intriguing anti-hero. Appalling in his behavior at some points – the attack on Robin Wednesbury, for example (which would need to be excised out if ever the book were to make it to film) – but also later on, when he plays the likeable but untrustworthy Fourmyle. But from the outset, he is never intended to be an ordinary person, much less a person of noble character. If anything, he is a metaphor for mankind’s own evolution (and the path that Alfred Bester clearly hoped we would at some point take).

I don’t want to say anything more about The Stars My Destination for fear of giving too much away, except to add that it’s well worth its classic status, and that if some of the concepts seem standard in sci-fi these days, that’s only because forward-gazing writers like Alfred Bester made them so.

Optioned for movie development many times, but never yet made and in fact described more than once as ‘unfilmable’, The Stars My Destination is nevertheless another of those novels I would dearly love to see on celluloid – either the big screen or TV – and so once again, I’m going to pitch in with my own thoughts on a possible cast. (One quick note; it’s currently in the hands of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who gave us Kong: Skull Island, so you never know – anything is possible). In the meantime, though, here are my picks for the leads:

Gulliver Foyle – Paul Bettany
Robin Wednesbury – Tessa Thompson
The Presteign – Ben Kingsley
Olivia Presteign – Lea Seydoux
Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen – Rhona Mitra
Saul Dagenham – Rufus Sewell
Captain Peter Yang-Yeovil – Mathieu Amalric

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