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Archive for April 15th, 2010

The Ascent Of Links

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So, with ‘Beep’ we reach the end of Part One of The Ascent Of Wonder. Even this is not without controversy though, because what does Part One mean and why does it exist? The book has an appendix by Kathryn Cramer which says:

In one phase of this book’s gestation, it was to be divided into sections according to the manner in which science was used in the story. This appendix gives an alternate order from the table of contents in which to enjoy the stories.

Crucially and bafflingly, the question of the actual order is left unmentioned. The stories aren’t in chronological order or even alphabetical order, they don’t appear to be grouped by theme or, indeed, anything else. What makes Part One different from Part Two? Perhaps all will become clear but at the moment I have no clue which is surely a major failing on the part of the editors. Answers on the back of a postcard please.

Cramer has also helpfully put together An Interactive Introduction to The Ascent Of Wonder which include all the introductions, except Gregory Benford’s. The chief benefit of this is that I can cut and paste the weird remarks from their (his?) story introductions rather than type them out. The anthology also has its own wikipedia page which I started to tidy up a bit but then couldn’t be bothered to continue.

Returning to that earlier post, having read a third of the stories and a third of the story introductions I am no clearer on what Hartwell and Cramer mean by hard SF. Their inclusions are every bit as eclectic as the initial introductions promised. Speaking of which, Paul Kincaid’s review is also available online, although sadly Gary Wolfe’s is not.

One final link: in the course of searching for additional supporting information I was reminded of the fact Cramer wrote the chapter on hard SF for The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction so – once I’ve slogged through the remaining two thirds of this anthology – I might give my thoughts on that as well.

Written by Martin

15 April 2010 at 11:02

‘Beep’ by James Blish

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Turns out I was right to skip ‘Beep’ the first time round because it is a bizarrely dreadful story.

Unusually, H&C include some criticism in their introduction when they say that “it is worth noting Blish expanded this story later in his career into the novel, The Quincunx of Time (1973), and that the longer version is disappointingly discursive.” It is not the first time this happened either; ‘A Case Of Conscience’ was similarly unfortunately over-extended. Apparently this is all Larry Shaw’s fault. We can’t give Shaw all the blame though, Blish just doesn’t know when to stop. Cities In Flight was tedious for one volume, let alone four. Even here he manages to give us two stupid stories for the price of one.

I really don’t know where to start on this. ‘Beep’ is driven by two idea: firstly, the universe is remorselessly deterministic; secondly, FTL communication is possible and, in fact, all such communication occurs simultaneously. These are intriguing ideas but need to be treated with care. Instead, they are expressed through a frankly mad story which I will try to summarise here.

A journalist goes to the government and tells them they’ve got a leak. As proof she tells them she knows about their top secret ansible device. The government track the leak to an old man who runs a consultancy. They spy on him but can’t discover any evidence. Time passes. It turns out the old man is the journalist in disguise (?). She has a copy of the ansible too because a distant relative left it to her in their will (??). Her price for revealing all her secrets is to join the security agency and marry the boss (?!?). Every one lives happily ever after in a thousand year reich. It is just fucking ridiculous but of course Blish gets to whip out his trump card: “don’t blame me if it is nonsensical, blame the deterministic universe!”

Is it meant to be humourous? Blish has a reputation for wit but it isn’t present in this finickety, unfunny prose and a screwball comedy is more than just a mismatched man and woman not having sex. He is not particularly good with social mores either; as with the second half of A Case Of Conscience, the story gives the impression that Blish has got his nose pressed up against the glass, looking in on something he doesn’t really understand.

This is all framed by an entirely unnecessary secondary story which introduces us to an agent in the all encompassing security apparatus the revelations of the main story has engendered. It adds nothing but it does manage to undermine the main story whilst simultaneously hammering home the fact Blish doesn’t care for niceties like plausibility.

As for ‘Beep’s supposed hardness: ansible, FTL, galactic empire, time travel? Not very hard really, is it?

Quality: *
Hardness: *

By the way, although I’ve refered to H&C throughout, this introduction refers to “me” and others have mentioned that, in fact, they are all written by Hartwell so it seems like a polite fiction that The Ascent Of Wonder is co-edited.

Written by Martin

15 April 2010 at 08:23