The material in ttba is copyright © 1993 the contributors (Jan Chrimes, Josie Leah Collins, Richard Kettlewell, Andrew Osmond, Gareth Rees, Timothy Roddis, R D Shader, Helen Steele, Huw Walters). The material in this file may be freely copied for private enjoyment or research but may not be republished (e.g., in printed or CDROM versions), distributed in modified form, incorporated into other works, or quoted out of context without the express written permission of the copyright holder(s).
More on the NSSFA saga. It is now nearly six months since Sparks (whose address is 1/L 37 Roslea Drive, Dennistoun, Glasgow G31 2QR; the address I gave in the last ttba is out of date) became secretary of the NSSFA, and CUSFS has paid its five pounds, and what have we heard from him? Nothing. Before we know it, it'll be time for another AGM (at Lunicon at Leeds University this summer) and elections for a new Secretary.
I probably shouldn't be saying this sort of thing, as I got a lot of flak over my last Chairbeing's address. Here's Andrew Adams, exsecretary of the NSSFA, in vituperative mood after seeing my Address:
So Gareth, I really don't know what your grievance is against the NSSFA or against me, possibly as someone suggested you dislike the idea of something you had no hand in setting up actually working. I don't think I've ever had anything but negative thoughts from you on the NSSFA but then you're a very negative person when it comes to making things work aren't you. If you think the NSSFA is a failure before it begins and persuade enough people of this then you just create a selffulfilling prophecy. Finally, this is the second time you have ascribed to me the meanest of motives - the last time being the totally untrue rumour that the only reason I volunteered to set up the NSSFA was to fund my trip to Scone. Stop spreading rumours prat, and try and get your facts right before telling people.
I have to admit I was impressed. Large portions did not mean a great deal to me, being a non science fictiony sort of a person but I enjoyed the fiction and thought the cuddly aliens were rather sweet really. The general impression was one of professionalism, especially given the fact that NatScis do not have vast amounts of time to spend finely tuning the presentation.
Finally, keep up the good work and by the way if this letter gets printed please don't send me a copy of ttba as I'll read one of yours instead.
Josie Collins replies In the nicest possible way, I'd like to say that you're a creep. And, yes, I'll do all the washing up for a month and attempt to be a bit more tidy, honest, grovel, grovel (wanders away tugging forelock).
The rainbow spanned the fiery sky
But could not hide the pyre
Where thousands watched each other die
Behind their leaderliar
It glittered, but it could not mask
The smokeclouds rising higher
I thought: "Once water did its task
This is the turn of fire."
Directly underneath, the child listens intently to Grandfather, the old man tells a tale of bravery and reward, good triumphing over evil. The death of the villain is reached. Mother looks up suddenly, warningly, and grandfather promises to finish the story another time. In war, death is talked of quietly or not at all, a taboo subject. A vague flicker of concern skirts across the old man's face, then he talks of better days and the atmosphere lightens.
Big Brother sits in the corner and watches, carefully.
Sounds pierce into the bunker; directly above, a small battle takes place, whilst the war machine prepares its token bomb drop.
A street away, in another bunker a young girl asks, "Why do we have to have war?"
Her father is surprised by the maturity of the question. "She is growing up," he thinks, "in this".
"We don't have to have war..."
The red light on the Big Brother lights, the room falls silent quickly. Father shows no worry, outwardly, "This is in a good cause." he asserts, and almost believes it.
Thick silence clouds the room, broken seconds later by the explosion, the bunker walls crack under the force. "Next street down." a shiver runs through his body.
A dawn raid, a family shot dead. The machines have cleared away the evidence almost before the people of the street arise. A delivery woman sees the body bags dragged out. It's nothing unusual, she's seen it so many times before. She marks down, `no delivery' in her book and moves on.
In a bunker, somewhere, three people sit and formulate the battle plan.
"The people are on our side," asserts the largest man in. He wears the unmistakable green of the military, and has the face to match,"If the other side win the people's freedom will be lost."
Even the prime minister does not believe they have any freedom now, she sits at the end of the table; weeks of stress have drained his cheeks of their natural colour.
The bunker is different, better equipped than most, yes, but more, there is no Big Brother here. No red lights forbidding speech, no mechanical groans, it is almost freedom. Almost, even the prime minister is held captive by the little freedom she holds now: the wrong move would lose it for ever.
"How are we doing?" the Prime Minister asks.
A man in white gets up, his manner betrays the speech he is about to give. "They technologically outflank us, ma'am, we're beaten."
"Perhaps," he continues, "perhaps if we had managed to join battle elsewhere. But they are here, almost over our heads, how long can we hold out. If they get bored they could cease to use conventional weapons. We've lost, we must surrender."
The man in the green uniform rises again, "If we surrender, we lose everything, we can not do that."
"We can't surrender.", the prime minister speaks assuringly.
The man in white stands. "We are going to lose, you do know that? How many people have to die first?" he leaves quickly.
The man in the green uniform looks across to the prime minister for some signal of confirmation. A quick nod ensures the fate of the man in white.
In a city centre, another explosion, another building razed. People go to help, quickly they attack the pile of rubble, removing blocks at a time of concrete. Then a machine approaches. Suspiciously the people watch it. It removes first one, then another block. Others come, the people, shocked, make way. Then voices are heard, astonishment clear in each - the machines are helping. Their duties, surely, lie elsewhere.
The man in green uniform, the prime minister and a new scientific consultant convene in the bunker. In the dark shadows a red lamp lights, then two more. The box they carry speaks, the voice of the man in the white coat is clear. "It's the only option."
A large craft lands. Out of it steps the new leader, the leader of the `other side'. So many defeated people, overcome by their domestic lives as much as the war, cheer, idly wishing for better days. The new regime, however, is at least as tough as the old.
Further down the parade, thousands of machines stand in salute. Big Brother is apparently redundant in the new regime, which has it's own way of dealing with dissidents.
The leader enters the tunnel of impressively arrayed machines.
On a day trip, the young girl asks her father, "Daddy, what's the crater?"
"That," says the father, "was where two thousand machines exploded, and `New Leader' was killed. Big Brother looked after us, eventually. End of the war."
"Why do we have to have war?" she asks.
"We don't..." he begins to explain.
He look round, hesitantly, the only machine to be seen is directing traffic. Then he remembers.
"I'm free", he thinks. A tear rolls down his cheek and he turns his head to hide it from his family, but the emotion shows through in his voice and there is no longer a need to hide it.
So we'd gone for a drink, me paying no attention to what I was supping, instead watching him playing with his alcohol, surreptitiously observing me. `Blond Adonis' is all I can think of, descriptionwise. Or `wow'. Body got eleven out of ten, all strapping muscles with this wicked grin across his face. Personality score equalled pretty damn high, as well. Good humour went with his job - VR channel owner, and none of this cheap virtual reality where you can see half through it an' feel plus recall where you are. Nope, this channel was class, like its owner.
Adonis said later as how he could tell I was a recently rich person. That's what he liked about me. But not a total Nouveau, nah; he enjoyed the kinda innocence in the way I took in all those sycophants, how my meteoric rise to cashdom hadn't dulled my senses. I told him about the writings paying off, being published, how's I was spending some of my huge royalties (had the book been a hit or a hit?) researching the next megamissive. Travelling in my cruiser, seeing the sights and checking on the factual basis backdrop for the next blockbuster, was what my research was. Believed's how I could hack that.
Anyways, teamed up, we did, us going the same way, seemed like a smart idea. Was, too. Things progressed swiftly, dinner dates `n' him taking me about. Seemed to know the best places to visit. The new resort near Greece was the greatest - underwater in the Med. We stopped there a few days, watchin' fishes `n' stuff reccin' us up. Other circumstances, their `hospitality VR suite' I may have tried out, but real life proved better this time, and the guys on offer weren't even as good looking as Adonis.
Not to the surprise of our fellow revellers in paradise, ended up a serious item, we did. He made everythin' worth it. Solophobic, me? Nah, jus' was good to have someone to share it with, someone who wasn't on the take. Confidant, lover (and how!), companion, something rather tasty to hang on my arm an' accompany me to events, I had it all. And he was happy - more than happy - with me. It put shame to all the others who gave up on the natural way of things. I never trusted this arrangedmarriagebycomputer ("leaves you time to get on with your life") lark. Business marriage ain't my scene, see?
The liason lasted the whole summer while we travelled about all the places I'd wanted to rec up. Grist for the next book, like. Plus serious excuse. Good material for the love interest also came in the form of kissing under the Sphinx, next day flying over the Grand Canyon, me feeling kinda secure in Adonis' arms. Then to see those Inca ruins, the ones that didn't get bombed in the war. But they still looked dead impressive. And Adonis gazed into my eyes at Cuzco and told me I was the only one for him, and how I always would be. I said nothing; actions being the louder type and nobody's about so I went for it. Don't think like even the Incas did that under their most most important monument. Yeah, good studying it was. The love'd last for ever, we was sure, right on after summer's end and...
... and my money ran out at a rather inopportune moment, like. Pity as how I could only afford a onemonth lease on the VR. Bummer, eh? I thought as yours truly was wheeled out through metal white corridors to Rehab. Of course, coulda afforded two months in Virtual Reality paradise if I's willing not to have the special treatment afterwards. Risk disorientation being too great and ending up vegetabletype; but not much to go back to anyways, right? An' can only afford this once in every five years, though. No wasted summer, though. Not when you're not believing in Business Marriages Plc which's now a way of life for all. I prefer this way, reallys. A week later, as I was stepping out of Rehab en route for my job, I's planning what the next Adonis (never bother to think of a name, see, why waste time?) is gonna be looking like.
Starlight shone on the stream of trucks
Which like centaurs or politicians of a time long gone
Swayed softly down to the sea one last time.
This was the time of the Mending, the Turning Back
Which technological world changed
Like a cockroach while dreaming
Halted the engines one afternoon
Steel wings and plastic in the hyacinth skies
We looked from a league at the last of the big cities
Burning with a blue flame in the green
(There didn't seem to be a lot of hope back then
So we bent our backs under the land's strain
And tried not to think of tractors)
Ignotas animum dimittit in artres; true wings
Which don't melt in the stratosphere like Challenger.
Rainbowed with oil all water one day ran clear
Next generation, low against the corpses of thousands in the fields
In metamorphosis, will one day know Life
As it had been before it was cased in steel
Sealed, served on plastic trays
(Taught as the Anthropic Principle)
Dryads in pinstriped suits dreamed of forests on the M25
Fish in the blue expanse - rust on old ways
We had lived through the mushroom growth of Computer Earth
(And I was afraid, in the smiling City where all the walls
"Maria!" he cried. "Don't climb the cypress, Maria!")
But that was just a linkage time;
A modern medieval state
Now the sun rises unhampered over the London skyline.
Please forgive the means of communication; it was the best I could do, given the circumstances. I can only hope I haven't hurt anyone. Firstly, you must believe me: everything I tell you is true, no matter how bizarre it seems.
I suppose I should explain. It started when I recited the words in the book. I won't repeat them here, in case you're tempted to follow suit; and believe me, you don't want to do that. No, I have to go back further. It all began when I was a kid, and my Mum gave me this book of fairy tales. It was one of those books you only read about. You know: heavy binding, plain cover, handdrawn illustrations. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a tracing of dust in the creases, like it had been lying in someone's attic for years. I've no idea where she got it, but I was hooked from day one. The trouble is, I've been hooked ever since.
So the other day, I was browsing through this secondhand bookshop in town, and I found this book. It wasn't as big as the first one, but I just had to buy it, no question. Only when I got home, I found an inscription on the flyleaf, done by hand, really impressive. Instructions. You can guess what I did. God, what a pillock.
Okay, so nothing happened for a few days. Then the witch turned up at my door. Only she didn't say she was a witch, oh no. She said she was from the Council. She even had an identity card to prove it. She wanted to go over a few details, she said. Even then, I could have shut the door in her face; even then, I could have stopped it.
The next day, I found this black feather under the carpet. God knows how she got it there; it took the man from Carpet Warehouse half an hour to roll the damn thing up. Magic, I suppose.
I didn't realise what the feather was for, until this old guy rang the bell. He was wearing this really shabby sackcloth robe, so I thought he was from some religious sect, where they don't let you have any proper clothes. So I started out by saying I was Catholic, only that didn't seem to put him off. All he wanted to talk about was herbal tea, and wild animals: sheep, mainly. I thought, God, I've got an escaped weirdo on my hands. Can I distract him, and phone the police? I finally managed to get rid of him by offering him a cup of instant tea.
Well, one thing led to another, and now I'm besieged in my own home. There's a gang of dwarves camped out inside the front door, looking as much like a miners' picket as anything else. I've tried to get through, but they just stand there, singing dirty songs. I mean, if you thought dwarves were all rosycheeked and jolly, you've seen too much Disney. You should hear the alternative words they've got for the "Hi, ho" song.
I can't use the phone, either; something's chewed through the cable. It's happened to all the power leads too, so I've got no electricity; I think it's the elves. If I ever catch one of them at it, I swear I'll go at it with the batterypowered blender. Little bastards. Anyway, what would I do? Ring 999 and ask for pest control?
Actually, I could stand it if it weren't for the fairies. I mean, you're probably thinking Tinkerbell, right? Nope. I've tried everything: insect spray, fly swat, rolledup newspaper (at least my papers are still delivered; they're paid up in advance). I take the Independent, so the dwarves aren't interested; I'm absolutely certain they'd order the Sport if they could go down to the newsagents. They've already drained my drinks cabinet. Have you ever seen what happens to advocaat when you mix it with lager? No, probably not. Don't try it.
I'm starting to get worried; I can't get out to the shops, and my supplies won't last forever. There's a limited amount you can do with canned food, when you haven't got an oven or a hob. Why, oh why didn't I get a gas oven when I had the chance? I've got a few cans of ravioli left, and some asparagus and leek soup that I found at the back of the cupboard, so I'm trying to ration them; though cold ravioli isn't my idea of haute cuisine. Thank God my guests don't know how to use a tin opener, or it'd be gone in no time. I'm not sure what they eat, actually; I don't think I want to know.
The water got cut off today; my current account has run out, and the bills aren't being paid. I got a series of letters from the bank, the water board, the gas board, you name it. At least, I got some bits of paper with officiallooking type; it was a real nightmare trying to reassemble the pieces, especially since the dwarves had eaten some of them. I know they're only doing it to annoy me.
I'm going to make a break for it through the back garden. Things are getting desperate, and I think I've got a reasonably good chance of getting through alive. I don't like the look of that swamp very much, and to tell you the truth, the castle on the skyline scares me shitless.
I have to try, though. I'm sending this message in case I don't make it. The elves don't seem to know about skylights; they've managed to jam every other window in the house, or I'd have tried to escape. I only hope the arrow doesn't hit someone...
I'm asking you to give me two weeks. I think the ridge of mountains I can see in the distance is my garden fence, and I'm reasonably fit. I'm taking the last of the tins in the cupboard, and a bottle I filled from the toilet cistern. It's a bit stale and it smells of disinfectant, but by this time I'm past caring.
If I'm not out by then, send in the army. You've got to persuade them. Tell them the IRA are using the house for a weapons dump, or something. I mean, imagine these guys loose on the streets... I know what they're like, and believe me, it's no fairy tale.
This is a sequel to Brooke's 1991 novel Expatria in which prince Matt Hanrahan and selfmade `rational man' Kasimir Sukui battled the antiscience Conventists, established radio links with lost colonies in orbit and discovered of the approach of the Holy Corporation's spaceship. The sequel loses interest in Hanrahan, which is a pity as his idealism made a good foil for Sukui's lack of affect, but there are some new characters. Katya is an `active', a highlyplaced employee of GenGen. The corporation's computer, the `MetaPlex', has proclaimed itself God and inspires fanatical devotion in its followers not only by the ordinary mechanisms of religion but by giving periodic bursts of rapture via the `glory chip' implanted in their skulls. Katya begins the book as passionately committed as the other actives, but her brother, a subversive, is killed in a demonstration against GenGen on Earth, and when she gets to Expatria memories of that event, and her discovery of the covert death squads GenGen uses to undermine opposition while maintaining a friendly face, give her doubts.
Brooke's writing is known for its antiwar sentiment. Here, he turns his attention to organised and tyrannical religion, and I do not think it would be unfair to discern some personal commitment. Brooke is unsure whether we should be frightened of the Holy Corporation or laughing at it, though I felt that the latter is the sentiment that comes across the more strongly. GenGen's `religion' is just so ridiculously stupid (the corporate hymn: "When I find myself in times of trouble, Spiritual insolvency, Lead me through to wisdom, Shine on me, oh geegee") that it is hard to see it as a real threat, and indeed GenGen and its MetaPlex turn out to be a pushover for the supposedly technologically backward people of Expatria. And everyone live happily ever after.
I was very disappointed by Expatria Incorporated, for I had high hopes of Keith Brooke. But his characters are too widely separated to interact much (they seem to meet mostly by `trifacsimiles', holographic videophones) and although they develop a little, we are told about this rather than allowed to become involved. And the deus ex machina (no kidding) plot fails to confront any of the questions about organised religion that he looked as though he was going to ask. Expatria Incorporated is a competently written hard sf novel, but it left me cold.
Hence the bloated Majipoor and New Springtime trilogies; hence the glossy space operas like Star of Gypsies; hence the humiliation of playing ghostwriter to Asimov in Nightfall and Child of Time; hence, as we shall see, Kingdoms of the Wall. They are all slick, readable, fastmoving, exotic, and Silverberg cannot, of course, prevent the occasional spark of inspiration showing through, but they are undeniably trash.
But they're not exactly bestselling trash, are they? How galling it must be for Silverberg to have prostituted his not inconsiderable talent in such a public manner, and yet see his books trampled into the remaindered bookstalls by the likes of Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Pies Anthony and by the merest literary burps of Isaac Asimov. And this is because Silverberg, for all his skill, doesn't know how to write sf/fantasy trash properly. His characters are generally adult and often alien, not the familiar middleclass adolescents that the readership like to empathise with; his characters are flawed, not universally competent; he doesn't allow a bunch of familiar, wisecracking and loveable characters to accumulate across several books and doesn't concern himself with the soapopera exposition required to maintain the relationship of the characters; the sex in his books tends to be casual and matteroffact, not prudish and titillating; his characters often face more complex situations than the simple good versus evil polarisation that is all that the massmarket sf/fantasy readership seems able to cope with. So Silverberg falls somewhere in the middle: too trashy for the literati; too literate for the massmarket.
And so to Kingdoms of the Wall, which is a rehash of material we are familiar with from Lord Valentine's Castle and The Face of the Waters. Shapechanging aliens live at the foot of a gargantuan mountain they call the Wall. Every year, each city sends forty pilgrims up the Wall to visit the gods at the top. Most never return; the few that do return insane. Young Poilar Crookleg dreams that he will make it to the summit and return, and does. It is as if Silverberg's imagination had failed him completely. The subgenre in which a small party of heroes and heroines travel across a trackless alien wilderness populated by myriad of hostile and deadly creatures while searching for an epiphany of understanding about the nature of the planet is a familiar one, and Silverberg offers us nothing new here. The nasties are halfhearted pushovers for Poilar and his pilgrims. There is not even the satisfaction of a surprising revelation about what lies on top of the Wall. This ending, in which Poilar returns to his city to reveal to his people that there are no gods on top of the Wall and that if they want to progress in the world they are going to have to do it on their own, begs the question that the Silverberg of twenty years ago would not have hesitated to ask, and answer: how will his people react when Poilar tells them that the entire basis of their religion is false?