Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
“Farewell, Blackadder! The foremost cartographers of the land have prepared this for you! It’s a… map of the area you’ll be traversing. They’d be very grateful if you could just fill it in as you go along. Goodbye!”
This column’s theme: Alien Architecture: places aliens built and left lying around that were visited by some very clever monkeys, but are these monkeys very clever enough to understand what they’ve found? And that really is the question once characters start exploring that staple of science fiction. Usually, it starts with something very much not of human creation being found, and the story revolves around figuring out what it is, where it came from, and maybe what it does. So, with that in mind, let’s visit some prime alien real estate.
So if you like:
Playing Halo on a much bigger map
Wide, wide open spaces
Classic 70’s science fiction with depth
Survival and exploration stories
You might like
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
Where the artifact is:
A spinning ring the size of Earth’s orbit, with a star in the center, and a surface area of three million Earths.
Two hundred year old human Louis Wu gets recruited by an alien to join an unusual team of explorers to investigate this newly discovered artifact, and things do not go well at all.
“Come off it,” said Louis Wu. “You can’t breed for luck the way you breed for shaggy eyebrows!”
“Yet you breed for telepathy.”
“That’s not the same. Telepathy isn’t a psychic power. The mechanisms in the right parietal lobe are well mapped. They just don’t work for most people.”
“Telepathy was once thought to be a form of psi. Now you claim that luck is not.”
“Luck is luck.” The situation would have been funny, as funny as Teela thought it was; but Louis realized what she did not. The puppeteer was serious. “The law of averages swings back and forth. The odds shift wrong and you’re out of the game, like the dinosaurs. The dice fall your way and —”
“It is thought that some humans can direct the fall of a die.”
“So I picked a bad metaphor. The point is —”
“Yes,” the kzin rumbled. He had a voice to shake walls when he chose to use it. “The point is that we will accept whom Nessus chooses. You own the ship, Nessus. Where, then, is our fourth crewman?”
“Here in this room!”
“Now just a tanj minute!” Teela stood up. The silver netting flashed like real metal across her blue skin; her hair floated flaming in the draft from the air conditioner. “This whole thing is ridiculous. I’m not going anywhere. Why should I?”
“Pick someone else, Nessus. There must be millions of qualified candidates. Where’s the hang-up?”
“Not millions, Louis. We have a few thousand names, and phone numbers or private transfer booth numbers for most of them. Each can claim five generations of ancestors born by virtue of winning lottery tickets.”
Nessus began to pace the floor. “Many disqualify themselves by obvious bad luck. Of the rest, none seem to be available. When we call, they are out. When we call back, the phone computer gives us a bad connection. When we ask for any member of the Brandt family, every phone in South America rings. There have been complaints. It is very frustrating.”
Ringworld won the 1971 Hugo and Nebula awards, and the concept of a ringworld has influenced Science Fiction and popular culture ever since. Sure, given the age of the book, the characters may read as being a bit dated, but apart from that, there’s a lot to enjoy here. There’s the Puppeteers – aliens who are incredible cowards and consider the Puppeteer leader of the expedition to be totally insane. A human member of the expedition who is unnaturally lucky, and the question of what happened to the inhabitants of the ringworld. Plus, the novel picks up a lot of depth by being set in Niven’s Known Space universe, with a few hundred years of history to create a few back references and give it that ‘lived in’ feel. That said, you don’t have to be familiar with other Known Space books to enjoy Ringworld, but if you like the book, there’s more where that came from as there are now five books set around it.
Or if you like:
Alien bus stations
Classic science fiction
Strange new worlds
You might like
Gateway, by Frederik Pohl
Where the artifact is
An abandoned asteroid named Gateway that is filled with alien ships that definitely go somewhere, and usually come back.
Miner and lottery winner Rob Broadhead bought the chance to ride discovered alien spaceships to their pre-programmed destination, where he might find untold riches in alien technology or, ya know, die.
I don’t know if I can make you feel it, how the universe looked to me from Gateway: like being young with Full Medical. Like a menu in the best restaurant in the world, when somebody else is going to pick up the check. Like a girl you’ve just met who likes you. Like an unopened gift.
You get Gateway a little bit at a time. There’s no way of seeing it all in one glance; it is nothing but a maze of tunnels in the rock. I’m not even sure they’ve all been explored yet.
That’s the way the Heechees were. They grabbed the asteroid, plated it over with wall metal, drove tunnels into it, filled them with whatever sort of possessions they had — most were empty by the time we got there, just as everything that ever belonged to the Heechees is, all over the universe. And then they left it, for whatever reason they left.
A couple thousand people had breathed the air I was breathing, one time or another, voided the water I drank and exuded their smells into the atmosphere.
I didn’t care about the smell. I didn’t care about any of it. Gateway was my big, fat lottery ticket to Full Medical, a nine-room house, a couple of kids, and a lot of joy. I had won one lottery already. It made me cocky about my chances of winning another.
It was all exciting, although at the same time it was dingy enough, too. There wasn’t much luxury around. For your $238,575 what you get is transportation to Gateway, ten days’ worth of food, lodging, and air, a cram course in ship handling, and an invitation to sign up on the next ship out. Or any ship you like. They don’t make you take any particular ship, or for that matter any ship at all.
Gateway won the 1977 Nebula, 1978 Hugo and, again, like a lot of books from that era, the characters may not have aged well. That said, it plays well with the theme of curiosity or desperation driving humans to explore no matter what the cost. The narrative flips between the present with Rob talking with an AI therapist about what happened to him on the station and those events unfolding in the past. That, plus the underlying mystery of the space station and the aliens that built it makes for pretty compelling reading. While Gateway has a pretty clear ending, not all questions are answered, but are left for further books in Pohl’s Hechee Saga to address.
Or if you like:
A maze of twisty passages, all alike
Getting your steps in
A bit of horror with your science fiction
You might like
Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Where the artifact is
A multi-dimensional labyrinth that connects solar systems.
Astronaut Gary Rendell is stuck living a stone age existence wandering the lightless corridors of an alien labyrinth on the edge of the solar system after his expedition goes…poorly.
TODAY I FOUND something I could eat and something I could burn to keep back the darkness. That makes today a good day.
I don’t know what it was or where it came from. Like me, it had been wandering the passageways of this crypt for who knows how long – and how long has it been, anyone? No day and no night and I’ve nothing left with power to tell the time, and so my life becomes one long greyness, punctuated by increasingly erratic periods of sleep. I don’t need to sleep like I used to. Or I need to sleep in some other way, maybe some way that I can’t achieve. Every waking is building up a sleep-debt inside me that my poor human physiology can’t satisfy. Maybe when I change my mind completely I’ll be back in balance. For now: anxiety, tremors, mania, paranoia, hyperventilation. Or sometimes no ventilation. That’s probably worse, but then the air in here is so variable. Seriously, you wouldn’t want it in your lungs if you had any option.
But the thing, the thing I found that brightened my day and filled a hole: it was twice as long as me, but it had been dead a long time and that must have shrunk it a bit. The air in this part of the Crypts is very dry. Its outer layers had gone brittle and crispy and I thought there mightn’t be anything of substance to it, but when I flaked them off, there was meat underneath, dry and chewy but meat nonetheless. It had a dozen many-jointed legs, and I snapped them off and piled them up, a camp fire just like my old scoutmaster taught me, and I used one of my shonky little jury-rigged pieces of nonsense to spark it into flames. The air here is dry, but it’s short on oxygen too, I can feel it from the way I slow down: breathing, moving, thinking. Hard to get a fire lit. And it’s so cold here, cold pretty much anywhere you go in the Crypts. I managed it, though. I got everything heated up enough that a guttering little flame caught, and then I huddled over it, trapping the fire between my body and the stone walls until a meagre ration of warmth had no choice but to leach into me.
The first-person narrative flips between the astronaut’s current dilemma of wandering endless passages with different atmospheres that connect solar systems while occasionally encountering aliens with the same problem, and the circumstances that got him there in the first place. Tchaikovsky’s writing is excellent and the pacing is quick, with a few well set up twists that would make the story a good Outer Limits episode…for reasons I can’t really get in to. If you’re looking for a book that leaves you thinking about it after you’ve closed the cover, Walking to Aldebaran should fit the bill nicely.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.