Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Science fiction blasts from the past

As a break from reading popular science books for review I try at least once a month to dip into some fiction. My latest venture was to revisit two science fiction classics from my youth. At first glance they couldn't be further apart. Fritz Leiber's 1943 Gather Darkness! tells of a future where high technology is used to create a fake religion to quell the masses, while Brian N. Ball's 1965 Sundog is a rollicking space adventure - yet the similarities between the two books would prove remarkable.

I ought to put in a brief proviso in case anyone had the idea of reading one these books - please do, but bear in mind they are of a different age. Even the greatest Dickens fan would admit that to the modern eye he can sometimes be dull and ludicrously wordy. Similarly, these books use much more exposition of the main character's thoughts than would happen now. The technology also, inevitably lets them down. Interestingly the biggest failing in both is IT. They are set hundreds of years in our future, yet Gather Darkness! uses tapes to store information, and Sundog has computers as massive mainframes where information is punched in and output is on printed tapes. But this doesn't make either of them unreadable.

This one cost 95p new
Gather Darkness! has the wonderful premise that, taking religion as the opium of the masses literally, a future world government creates an artificial religion based on science that the masses don't understand, which is used to rule and control society. Our hero, a minor priest by the name of Jarles, is an idealist who wants to tell the people the truth - but faces being destroyed. Meanwhile a rebellion, armed with some technology slightly in advance of the religious hierarchy (how they manage this is explained) sets up as a pseudo-witchcraft to oppose the religion and destroy its hold on the populous.

Along the way our hero is mentally programmed by the bad guys to change his behaviour, but manages to escape his conditioning. As well as the rather fun pseudo-magic, there's a bit of biology thrown in: the witches have 'familiars' that are creatures made from their cells but relying on them to provide blood.

This isn't the only science fiction book to cover pseudo-religion as a cover for superior science. Robert Heinlein, for instance, had a cracking little number where the (US) locals fought off an (Asian) invasion using advanced technology posing as religious/magical power. I can't remember the title off-hand, but it suffered from rather advanced racism, I think. But Leiber's book is the daddy of them all and does it very well.

Set me back 3/6d (17.5p) new
Brian Ball's book is less well known, but I think it is great. The main character, Dod, is a space pilot on a grunt run from Pluto to the Moon. (The weakest aspect of the book is the assumption that anyone would want to have a regular route to Pluto.) A few hundred years before, the solar system was locked in by some unknown alien force. After a military coup, the Company runs the whole solar system with an iron grip based on a mixture of brute force and psychology.

In one sense this book is a classic 'rebellion against the empire' book, the sort of thing Asimov was doing years before - but there's more to it, and here's where the similarities with Gather Darkness! come through. Our hero turns out to be mentally programmed by the bad guys to change his behaviour - previously a brilliant scientist he is now a thick pilot. But the conditioning starts to crack when suddenly he is endowed with a halo. (This proves to be a result of contact from the aliens, but that comes much later.) Bizarrely, halos also feature in the other book as part of the priests' uniform.

So imposed on top of the rebellion against empire story is our hero's gradual discovery of who he is (decidedly Bourne Identity), plus some mental frippery that eventually enables him to contact the aliens. It is actually a much more layered book than it first appears. There is also a slight link to Heinlein here too. Heinlein's later books almost all featured a character that seemed to be a thinly veiled version of himself. This guy would be old, incredibly wise and rather cynical. The Gompertz character in Sundog is just such a person - all he lacks from the Heinlein clones like Jubal Harshaw (the only name I can remember offhand) is he's not obsessed with sex.

I enjoyed both books, but Sundog was the more gripping. Gather Darkness! isn't a bit too wordy to really pull you in, and flits around in focus rather than staying with the main character. Sundog, which would make a great movie now we've got the technology to do the space battle scenes justice, has a better balance of action and thought. I'd recommend either, though, if you fancy taking a peek into the history of science fiction. Be gentle, though. You will be treading on my childhood.

(I ought to emphasize I wasn't around to read Gather Darkness! when it was new. I just encountered it as a youth. But Sundog was pretty well new out when I got it.)

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