In Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth series of science fiction novels, a unique union between humans and the insectoid Thranx race becomes a major power in the galaxy. Two species that are so different in appearance and mentality seem destined to mistrust and fear one another - so how could they overcome these differences?
Originally published in 1982, Nor Crystal Tears is the third standalone entry in Foster’s series, and begins to answer exactly that question. Set earlier in his fictional chronology than any other story, the novel focuses on the very first contact between humans and Thranx. Unusually for a story of this type, it explores not the human perspective, but instead the alien one. The protagonist is Ryozenzuzex, a Thranx agricultural expert living on the peripheral world of Willow-Wane. While he initially seems an unlikely hero, Nor Crystal Tears explores how Ryo’s actions change the course of history.
“Science Fiction Classics” is a series of anthologies and books of republished fiction produced by the British Library and edited by Mike Ashley. Each of the anthologies focuses on a specific recurrent topic in science fiction and includes a mix of well-known and rediscovered stories.
Published in 2021, Spaceworlds collects fiction dealing with life inside space habitats of various kinds: starships, stations, generation ships, and even a “space shield”. The nine stories cover a relatively short period of science fiction history, from 1940 to 1967. Note that I have omitted one of the stories, “The Ship Who Sang” by Anne McCaffrey, because I have read it previously and did not re-read it.
This short collaborative novel, originally serialised in Analog magazine in 1975, focuses on humans and aliens trapped together in a cramped interstellar escape module. Despite a promising start, Harrison and Dickson struggle to wring much interest out of this concept.
Prolific British science fiction author John Brunner (1934-1995) was known for the predictive power of his work. Although set in the 1980s, his 1973 novel The Stone That Never Came Down anticipates the declining, crisis-stricken UK of 2022.
Legendary British author Michael Moorcock has a dizzyingly massive bibliography. He has written so many fantasy, science fiction and literary novels that surely only a handful of people can possibly have read them all. In the sphere of short fiction, though, Moorcock has been a bit less prolific. Reading his collected short fiction is the kind of undertaking that could even be completed in a normal human lifespan.
Normal human lives are in short supply, though, in The Time Dweller. Originally published in 1969, this collection is one of the earliest efforts to gather together some of Moorcock’s shorter stories. Of the nine entries in this volume, seven were originally published in New Worlds, one of the leading British SF magazines. It might not have been too difficult to get them published, because at the time the editor was one Michael Moorcock.
The nine stories fit the New Wave style which the magazine was known for during Moorcock’s first tenure as editor (1964 - 1971). They are experimental, somewhat literary, and tend to involve surreal journeys or transformations of one kind or another. As with much of the author’s work, they often straddle the line between SF and fantasy. They’re also quite gloomy in tone, dealing with desperate characters striving in dying worlds. While unlike the slightly more easygoing antiheroic fantasy of Moorcock’s Elric saga, these stories are worth seeking out for fans of the author - if not so much for more casual readers.
Frederik Pohl (1919 - 2013) had an incredibly long career in science fiction. He wrote, edited and worked as an agent for over 70 years, from the early 1940s right through to the end of his long life. Gateway is a key work in the second wave of his writing career, which began in 1969 after a long spell helping others to get their stories published. Originally serialised in Galaxy magazine, Gateway was a major success which won both the Locus and Nebula Awards for best novel, and the John W. Campbell award.
Robinette Broadhead lives on a bleak, desperately overpopulated future Earth. Working in the grim “food mines” of Wyoming, he longs for a break and finally gets one - a lottery win. With his prize, Broadhead buys himself a trip to “Gateway”, a hollowed-out asteroid found concealed within our solar system. Once used by the mysterious, vanished alien Heechee, this rocky enigma contains a thousand of their highly advanced starships. Gateway is the centre of a “star rush”, humanity’s chance to explore and exploit the galaxy. Broadhead hopes to strike it lucky, to crew a Heechee ship that might discover alien relics. Success could mean fame, fortune, and a life of luxury.
The starships, though, are as inscrutable as they are powerful. Broadhead learns that the vessels are easy to pilot, but impossible to control. Any trip out is not only long, cramped and squalid but could see its crew come back empty handed - if they make it back at all.
Arthur C. Clarke was very much interested in the moon. In his most famous book and its film version, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the moon is the setting for a brief but crucial sequence - the discovery of the first monolith. The moon is also a setting in Clarke’s early novels Prelude to Space (1951), Earthlight (1955) and today’s subject, A Fall of Moondust (1961). This particular book is a good example of Clarke’s approach to so-called “hard science fiction”, which strongly emphasises scientific accuracy and plausibility. Clarke crafts a story, set entirely on the moon, which uses the contemporary scientific knowledge of the time.
As it turned out, the central premise of A Fall of Moondust was invalidated just a few years after the book was published. The plot is predicated on the idea that there are areas of the moon where dust is so fine, that it flows like a liquid. This concept is used as the springboard for a tense rescue story - but when the crew of the Apollo 11 mission walked on the moon in July 1969, the theory was disproved. As Clarke points out in his introduction to the 1987 edition of his book, “the Apollo astronauts found it difficult and exhausting work to drive their core-sampler tubes into [the moon] for more than a few centimetres.” Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were certainly in no danger of sinking into the dust of the moon.
The premise of A Fall of Moondust may not have survived the tide of scientific discovery, but the book has stood the test of time.
In a previous article and podcast episode, we looked at Midworld (1975), the first standalone novel in Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth fictional setting. His next books within that setting were two entries in his Pip and Flinx series, but Foster went on to spend much of his time working on novelisations. In particular, he wrote book versions of three hugely important SF films - Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It was a full five years before Foster wrote another standalone Humanx Commonwealth novel, but Cachalot eventually saw release in April 1980.
As with Midworld before it, Cachalot is set within Commonwealth space. Of all the standalone novels in the series, it is also the one set latest in the chronology. It’s an intriguing SF mystery, set on a planet covered almost entirely by a vast and barely-explored ocean. This novel is another showcase for Foster’s love of travel and knowledge of biology and ecology. Another key theme is the relationship between humans and other intelligent life. In this case, that means a thriving population of cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - which have been transplanted from distant Earth.
Vast stretches of radioactive desert; rampaging biker gangs; vehicles and towns built out of scavenged parts; crumbling ruins populated by cannibals or mutants. The post-nuclear wasteland is one of the standard settings for genre fiction today, popularised by films like Mad Max (1979), video games like Fallout (1997), and their various sequels and derivatives. Written by major science fiction and fantasy author Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley is a classic novel which not only helped to define that setting, but also features a perfect example of the modern antihero.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.