A Weird Concordance

April 30, 2014

My two-year-old was flipping through a Presbyterian hymnal over the weekend (at my children’s great-grandmother’s memorial service), and saw a hymn called “Star Child,” that started out

Star-child, earth-child, go-between of God

I immediately though of the Starchild Trilogy of novels by Frederic Pohl and Jack Williamson. In the second book (which I liked the least, but some critics felt was the best), The Starchild, the protagonist becomes part man, part computer, part star, to serve as a go-between for humankind, the evil Planning Computer, and the sentient stars. Seeing that line from the hymn, I immediately thought that the novel’s title must have been a reference to the lyrics—an obscure allusion (or maybe not so obscure; I bet I miss a lot of cultural references to Christian religious practices) that I had never before recognized.

However, when I looked into the matter, my initial conclusion turned out to be wrong. The novel was published in 1965 (at a time when Fred Hoyle’s steady state cosmology was effectively debunked, yet it was still possible to use it as the basis for a series of novels); however, the lyricist for the hymn didn’t start writing until the 1970s, and it appears that particularly song was not composed until 1994.

So it appears to have been a coincidence. If there was any influence, it went the other direction. However, that seems unlikely; a little-known science fiction series probably did not affect the work of a hymn writer in New Zealand. If there was an influence from some American science fiction, it probably came from 2001, with its famed giant space baby, who is also an intermediary between humanity and advanced beings. There is a common theme here, which probably just shows that “starchild” is suggestive of something that crosses over between the realms of humans and celestials.

I might write about the first novel in the Starchild Trilogy at some point—The Reefs of Space. I think it is a very well done book, at least through most of the story. However, the reefs of the title never get the attention they quite deserve, and the climax whips by too quickly; the authors do not take the time to finish off some of the threads they have created all that effectively. Alternatively, if I want to write about Pohl, maybe I’ll post about Wolfbane, which is probably the most successful of Pohl’s collaborations with the more whimsical C. M. Cornbluth and features a hilarious conversation with a dead alien.

He spent nearly a whole calendar day cooped up around that room.  It was boring and dreary, but Yarec felt content to wait.  He ventured out a couple of times, to drink some water and to relieve himself in the cramped little privy on the opposite side of the landing.  As he waited and paced, he glimpsed a few more of the fort’s inhabitants.  He brushed by a couple of workers at the foot of the staircase, and another fellow brought him three different kinds of porridge over the course of the day.  The supper course was again supplemented with some gray cheese, of a sort that had never been milk.  The cheese was produced directly now, in tanks of bacterial protoplasm, and Yarec mused that the bioengineers who developed the process had probably made themselves very rich.

Yarec marked the passage of time by the tiny clock chip embedded in this inside of his left eyelid.  It lit up very faintly whenever he winked, displaying the date and time, in a visual format that he could adjust with an appropriate sequence of rapid flutters.  The scanner at the front gate had noticed it when he arrived and had correctly calculated it to be harmless.  Such timepieces were quite popular at present, especially among individuals who travelled a lot—like armament couriers.

It must have already been dark up on the surface when Yarec was reunited with his black case, in the small shooting range that Maldanko had installed near the very bottom of the fortress.  The case was resting on a battered metal table, closed and bolted, although Yarec had already surrendered the key.   Maldanko and his two bodyguards were waiting there as well.  The colonel gestured toward the armored case.  “Show us the xaser,” he grunted, pronouncing the word with a z sound.  He sounded tired and ill-tempered, and the garrulous warmth was gone from his voice.  Good, Yarec thought.  That will make it easier for me.

Yarec glided over to the table and scooped up the metal-semiconductor keying device.  He slid it into the automatic lock and casually flipped back the lid.  The case fell open, revealing an emerald green interior lined with synthetic velvet fibers.  In a molded depression rested the device Maldanko had contracted to purchase.  It was a squat black cylinder nearly a foot across and not much longer, with a tiny acrylic lens on the front.  To hold it, there was a padded grip on the bottom and a folding shoulder stock.  The cylinder was unadorned and unmarked except for a string of minuscule characters that wrapped halfway around one circumference.  Yarec hefted the weapon by its stock, trying to make the movement look effortless.  He was strong enough, but the exertion sent pangs through his unnaturally cramped arm muscles.

“This is Lehbram’s rho aleph sixty-six x-ray laser—or ‘xaser.’”  Yarec’s slick salesman persona had taken over, but he could not resist choosing a different pronunciation from Maldanko’s, so the name sounded like “ksaser.”  He raised the weighty mass to his shoulder and pointed it at the block of high carbon steel positioned down the range.  “The rho aleph sixty-six produces a pulsed beam of coherent x-rays, which can cut through just about anything.”

He offered the weapon to Maldanko.  “Here, colonel.  Give it a try.”  The colonel reached for it, then nearly dropped the barrel before awkwardly recovering it.  Yarec grinned apologetically and said, “Sorry, I should have warned you.  It’s heavier than it looks.”  The colonel lifted the piece back to shoulder height, and Yarec continued:  “There needs to be a lot of heavy radiation shielding inside the casing.  The actual xaser mechanism is pretty small, but only a small fraction of the x-rays produced can be focused and collimated into the beam.  X-rays are hard to work with, you know.  They’re so energetic, they can cut through just about anything, but that also means that they will melt ordinary lens materials while they’re passing through.”

“Yes, and that’s why I’m interested in this kind of gun.”  Maldanko was squinting down the sight—a second, much smaller, black cylinder fused to the top of the weapon’s main body.  “What’s the range on this thing?”

“The beam isn’t very tight, but it will cut metal easily out to one hundred yards.  Here, let’s give it a try.”  Yarec sidled up beside the colonel and pointed out the key controls.  “This is the trigger, obviously, and this controls the length of the burst.”  He tapped a small knob, labeled in ten microsecond increments.  “The maximum length of a single pulse is ten to the minus four seconds.”

“Is that all?”  Maldanko sounded disappointed.

“Trust me,” said Yarec.  “It’s enough.  You really can’t do any better with a handheld weapon like the sixty-six.  All those stray x-rays that are stopped by the shielding would heat it up too much if you let the beam keep running.  The sixty-six has an automatic cooldown after each shot, and the cooldown time depends on the length of the burst.  If you select a longer burst, you’ll need to wait longer between shots.”

Maldanko looked like he was getting impatient, so Yarec cut the sales spiel short.  “Here,” he said, “why don’t you give it a try now?”  Maldanko adjusted the dial for the shortest burst and switched it into single shot mode.  He aimed the stubby barrel at the oblong steel target and fidgeted as he tried to get the stock comfortable against his shoulder.  “Can’t you feel that power?” Yarec asked in a mock whisper, and the colonel did not reply.  He simply gritted his teeth and pressed firmly on the trigger stud.

The xaser itself fired silently, but there was an immediate hiss from the target as the radiation bored a pencil-sized hole, boiling away the metal inside.  Maldanko set the weapon back on the table and walked down to inspect the damage, flexing his stiff arms as he went.  Yarec and the guards followed.  At the other end of the range, they found a hole about ten centimeters deep.  There was a smooth lip around the entrance to the hole, where the steel had been molten just a few moments before.

“That really cuts,” Maldanko said, in a tone tinged with sadistic appreciation.  Yarec should have responded with something enthusiastic but banal; however, he decided to hold his tongue.  “How many more of these does your firm have in stock?” Maldanko asked, as he returned to the firing line to take another shot.

“We have at least three more on hand right now,” Yarec replied, “assuming they haven’t been sold already.  If you want more, that could take several weeks, since the rho aleph sixty-six is in very high demand.”  He watched as Maldanko struck another hole in the thick plate with the focused radiation beam.  The colonel increased the burst time and fired again, making a shaft that was slightly wider than the first two and nearly twice as deep.

“We also deal with a number of other quality weapons,” Yarec added casually.  “I brought a few along with me, in case you’re interested.”  Yarec pointed toward the open case, which contained three other weapons besides the x-ray laser Maldanko wanted.  The first was a small pistol with a built-in silencing device.  At the moment, it was loaded with special hollow ammunition, made from molecular fibers which would tear open when they bit into flesh, releasing the neurotoxin inside.  The other two weapons were a matched pair of knives, designed for use in close-quarters combat.  Along one edge, their blades were smooth and sharp enough to slit through composite armor.  On the other side, they were serrated, with large triangular teeth and a barb near the tip.

“Sorry, not interested.”  Maldanko cut off this portion of the sales spiel, and Yarec accepted the demurral gracefully.  Maldanko beckoned to the female bodyguard. “Here, you give it a try.  Let me have your opinion.”

“Yes, sir,” the woman chirped.  She lifted the awkward cylinder and sighted along it.  There was an effortlessness to her movements, as if she would be at home with any death-dealing instrument she ever came across.

“Like this, miss,” Yarec murmured, stepping up and helping her align the xaser in the direction he wanted it to fire.  “Aim for that undamaged corner.”  For the first time, he noticed a name tag on her uniform that identified her as “Yanaka.”  It’s convenient that she’s a woman,  Yarec thought.  It made it easy to disguise his interference as bustling sexism.

“Let’s dial the pulse strength back to the minimum,” he said, easing her hand away from the controls.  She made a curt noise with her tongue while Yarec twiddled the dial briskly.  He maintained a pat smile, but behind it he was grinding his teeth.

Having completed the adjustments, he guided Yanaka’s fingers back to the trigger stud.  “A little higher, miss.  Okay… okay… go!”  Yanaka pressed down, and the steel block hissed vapors.  Yarec blinked and checked the time.  He kept his eyes pressed closed a little longer than he should have, but when he reopened them, he was rewarded with the welcome sight of the overhead bulbs flickering.

“What the hell?” hissed Maldanko under his breath, as the regular power failed.  He repeated the query into a high priority communicator hidden inside his right shirt cuff.  “What the hell is going on?” he asked the underside of his wrist.  The bodyguards turned instinctively toward the chamber door.  Yanaka discarded the valuable xaser with a metallic clunk and found a tight grip on her own projectile weapon.  The pair’s movements were practiced and professional.  In a fringe outpost like Station Westerly, there were bound to be episodes—electrical and mechanical problems like this, quarrels turned violent, perhaps even military assaults by enemy factions.  The bodyguards reacted with assurance, confident that this alarm would probably be quickly resolved, yet wary in case matters proved to be more serious.

However, they had made a miscalculation.  Maldanko and his guards had not forgotten Yarec, but their attentioned had strayed away from him.  After all, he was unarmed and, while a stranger, not suspicious.  The warm xaser lay beside Yanaka on the table, where she had laid it out of Yarec’s reach.  The room light flicked out completely, and there was blackness for a fraction of a second, before two yellow-white beams slit through the gloom.

“Sir!” came a frantic, crackling voice over the colonel’s communicator.  “One of the main control units just went out completely.

“Well, get it working again, and find out—” Maldanko’s voice degenerated into a strangled groan as the bullet fragmented and the toxins dispersed through his body.  Yarec had snapped up the extra weapons and immediately put them to work.  The gun’s silenced report was like the hiss of a serpent spraying venom.  Then the specialized slug bored into the colonel’s abdomen, spinning and cutting and spurting gore.

The bodyguards rounded on him in a moment.  Their bold white beams traced out Yarec’s  chest and arms as he dropped toward the floor.  The blond man fired first, and Yarec threw up his arm in a callow-looking warding gesture.  Bullets rattled off the metal tabletop, and their staccato rebounded from the concrete walls—perhaps to be carried out over the colonel’s open communicator link.  Two slugs bit into the assassin’s raised forearm, and Yarec hit the floor, screeching in pain.  This was not the first time he’d been shot, but it felt different this time.

Yanaka stepped around the table, while her taller partner stood back.  The nose of her rifle was pointed down, ready to finish Yarec off if he still looked dangerous.  She glared down at him, aware that she had already failed to protect the colonel.  Maldanko’s erstwhile bodyguards would be easy casualties if there was an ensuing purge, and her uncertain future was already troubling Yanaka’s mind.

Her flashlight beam picked out Yarec’s crouching body, where she had expected to see him sprawled out on the tile floor.  There were two red punctures on his left forearm, where the bullets had bit in and then ricocheted off.  Yarec was in intense pain, but he was still essentially whole, since this body had been provided with hard resin plates under just a thin layer of skin and fat.  They protected his arms, thighs, and torso—well enough to deflect any bullet that came in at oblique angle.  However, the armor also made his muscles ache whenever he flexed them, and he hated the way they made him feel.  His limbs had been partially hollowed out and filled with hard organic polymer; he was carrying around dead stuffing, like another bioengineered mutant.

Yet despite the pain, Yarec had trained with this body.  He was used to his new limbs now, lithe and nimble.  So when Yanaka stepped around the end of the table, his own pistol was jutting upward toward her torso.  He let his overdone scream trail off as he pressed the trigger, and she buckled to the floor beside her employer.

The taller blond man, whose name Yarec had never cared to learn, backed quickly toward the exit.  Yarec could not afford to let him escape.  The fighting had to be confined to this room.  While the darkness lasted, Yarec had a chance to escape, buf if the whole fortress was alerted, his situation would be hopeless.

Yanaka’s single xaser shot had been the key to taking out the power system.  Minor modifications to the device’s control dial and safety interlock had allowed Yarec to crank up the burst duration to more than a full millisecond.  Chattering briskly, he had made sure she aimed in the direction of something vital, then he spun the duration up to its new maximum value.  The focused x-ray pulse that poured out had bored straight through the steel block, then though the concrete wall beyond and everything else in its path, until it had finally petered out somewhere outside in the bedrock.

Contriving to hit a piece of important machinery had been the most challenging part of the mission so far.  Yarec had not known where precisely he would  be conducting his weaponry demonstration, and it was actually fortunate that Maldanko had chosen to set up a range so far underground, nestled in between several key electromechanical systems.  Yarec had done his best to guide Yanaka’s test shot in the direction of the main power distribution apparatus, and evidently he had succeeded.  The stream of photons had cut through a control unit like a diamond-tipped rotary saw through plastic, and the whole complex had been swallowed up in darkness.  How long that darkness would last was a key question, but for now he needed to keep the second bodyguard from raising a general alarm.

Yarec led with a knife, tossed end over end at the fellow’s chest.  The target pulled aside and parried the hurtling blade with the side of his machine gun, knocking it out of the air with a thud.  The man retaliated with another burst of fire, but Yarec was already out of the way.  The bodyguard reached the door and knocked it open.  Desperate, Yarec feinted with his second blade, then fired his gun twice more in rapid succession.  The first shot missed, and the second grazed the fellow’s shoulder.  Even with the poison-laced bullets, it didn’t look like a dangerous wound, yet the man lost his balance and fell to his knees.  The guard unleashed another burst from his weapon, as he scrambled toward the exit.

Yarec caught up with his enemy in the doorway and was surprised to find him already dead.  The man had dropped his flashlight, and its beam ran along the hard tile floor.  It lit up half his face, where his mouth hung slack, eye halfway closed.  Yarec peeked out into the hall; it was utterly black, except for a distant-seeming spot of indistinct red.  He knocked the corpse back through the door and swung the panel noiselessly closed.

As I was reading The Last Legionary novels,* something occurred to me. I actually had an even more compelling version of the same experience when I reread the Tripods novels with my daughter a few years ago. As I read these books, I drew pictures in my mind of what the aliens looked like, but I was later exposed to illustrations that displaced my own creations in my memory. For years, when I thought of the masters from The City of Gold and Lead, I thought of the illustration from Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. That persisted in my mind for years. I had completely forgotten that I had my own idea of how the masters looked, until I was reading Christopher’s words again, and then my image came back, as clear as ever. It was an interesting how by immersing myself in the story once again, my imagination pulled itself back up to show off its work.

Many novels are published with important illustrations, especially if they are aimed at children (although I personally think there should be more illustrated books for adults). In some cases, the pictures can’t really be separated from the text. In Alice in Wonderland, for example, I view John Tenniel‘s illustrations as a key part of the story. Some of the most famous features of the character were the illustrator’s own innovations. Although the real Alice Pleasance Liddel had dark hair, she was drawn with blond hair and wearing a pinafore dress, so that has become unalterably part of the character’s identity. Tenniel also had important input on the content of the second volume (he preferred to draw a carpenter for Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s poem, rather than a baronet, or a butterfly, any of which would have fit the stress pattern); moreover, some of the jokes are only explained in the illustrations—such as the identities of the Anglo-Saxon messengers Hatta and Haigha.

However, most novels do not have illustrations that are as canonical as the drawings of Alice and her dreams. In most cases the illustrations are determined after the whole text is composed, based only on the artist’s impression, often without any consultation with the writer of the text. The pictures may change from edition to edition; cover pictures on an otherwise unillustrated novel are especially likely to change. Here for example, are four covers for Day of the Starwind:




(Here’s one more, but it contains a significant spoiler if you haven’t read the book, which seems like bad form for a cover illustration.) The all depict the Deathwing tower that is the center of the book’s action, but obviously in very different styles.

The villain in the book has his whole body, except for his hideous face, encased in golden metal:

At first glance the person looking down at him was beautiful, in an inhuman way. A tall, broad-shouldered, imposing figure that seemed to have been carved from gold—or from some smooth
and burnished metal that was the colour of gold. It might have been a sculpture of some mighty ancient god. Yet it moved—the flexible seams at the joints hair-thin and almost invisible. For an instant Keill thought the golden figure was a robot, but then he saw the face more clearly, and knew otherwise—sickeningly otherwise.

If the metallic body was that of a god, the face was that of a devil. A devil made of flesh, human flesh, and revoltingly ugly. The skin was a sickly grey, puffy and mottled. And the features were small, clustered in the centre of the grey face—close-set eyes that lacked brows or lashes, a nose not much more than two gaping slits, a small blubbery mouth held partly open to reveal tiny, blackened teeth.

I had my own idea of what this character looked like. The top of his head was peaked, and the metal surrounded him, looking almost like a robe. It’s hard to describe, but I can see him clearly in my mind, although again, I had forgotten what this Deathwing agent looked like until I started rereading. The reason was the cover illustrations, not for this book, but for the next one:




They’re all quite similar thematically, with the Altern the golden giant and the tentacles. (There are images of one more cover online that actually features something different, but I’ve never actually seen that edition.) They all depict the golden figure in a similar fashion as well; I suspect that the later illustrators were heavily influenced by the way he appeared on the original cover, at the bottom. That’s not how I saw him though. My giant, having come out of my mind, seems much scarier to me, but I had forgotten entirely about that imagery until I was reading the books again.

It’s not just forgotten images that resurface when I’m exposed to the story again. It was important that I had dreamed up the evil aliens I saw myself. The situation with the Tripods imagery is interesting because the books were not the first exposure I had to that world. The BBC made a two-season television series out of the first two books. (The second series was so bad, apparently, that the third never got made.) This was during the 1980s heyday of the original Doctor Who‘s popularity in America**, and Oregon Public Broadcasting started showing one episode of The Tripods every week, right after (or was it before?) Doctor Who. (Doctor Who itself was on every weekday.) There were no masters in the first book/season (and the ones in season two apparently bore no resemblance to the ones from the books), but there were plenty of the tripods. However, the way they looked on the show was so different from the way they were described in the books that as soon as I started reading, I developed my own mental image, which was based on the text and the novel covers. (I don’t think I had even noticed the serialized versions of the books in Boys Life magazine at this point.) As I was writing this, I didn’t even have a clear picture of what the television tripods had looked like, and I had to find the images online to refresh my memory.

Ultimately, what I guess what I found remarkable was the strength of the internal images I had created. Professional illustrations shoved them out when I wasn’t actually engaged with these books, but as I was actually reading, my own, original illustrations came back to me—a remarkable demonstration of priming in memory.

*For anyone interested in discussing the second volume, Deathwing over Veynaa, feel free to comment on it at the other post. I may write something specific about Day of the Starwind when I take a couple hours to finish it, but my memory of the second book—that it was not especially impressive—was confirmed on rereading. The plot is serviceable, but the villain just seems to be too far over the top. He’s an unnaturally tall and skinny albino, with telepathic abilities, who is also one of the galaxy’s preeminent physicists. (Did the telepathy help his scientific work?) I see the author’s reason for making the obvious Deathwing agent so outre; his weirdness ultimately serves a contrastive purpose, but it’s just too overdone.

**The global maximum of Doctor Who’s popularity in America must be right now, however. Just this week, one of my students showed me a TARDIS dress she was wearing, which she had been able to purchase not at ThinkGeek but Hot Topic.

A door opened behind him.  Having memorized the plans for the underground fort, he knew that the hallway behind it led right past the commander’s outer office.  So as he stood up and turned to observe the entrance, Yarec was confident he knew who would be coming through that door.  “Colonel Maldanko” he had styled himself, even though there was no record of his serving in any of the dozen or so military organizations active in this part of the world.  He was of middle height, positioned between and slightly ahead of a tall blond man on his right and a second, female bodyguard—short, with black hair and sallow skin, but bulging arm muscles—on the left.  The Colonel himself had rather dark complexion, with a weedy mustache and thinning black hair trailing back down to the nape of his neck.  His companions’ haircuts were also rather unruly, Yarec noticed; proper barbering was evidently not so readily available down here.

Maldanko wore a flat gray imitation of a traditional military uniform.  The fabric was well tailored to his frame, which was that of a man who, having finally reached success in early middle age after decades of rigorous conditioning, had begun to let himself go.  The shirt bore no insignia.  The alliance of gangsters and lordlings that Maldanko represented had no formal banner or heraldry; their leaders’ reputations were usually sufficient pressages to their coming.  The colonel’s shirt was plain, with his name stitched across the left breast and polished steel buttons that glinted even in the soft artificial light.  His matching pants hung smartly, but the disciplined effect was spoiled by his footwear.  Rather than hard military boots, he wore low, comfortable jogging shoes, an even tan in color.

Maldanko’s two bodyguards spread out on either side of him, like pincer tips waiting to close on their prey’s neck.  Although the colonel carried only a small sidearm in a black plastic holster, his agents had hefty automatic weapons slung across their backs.  They adopted casual postures of readiness.  The tall man looked Yarec over and then gave the commander a curt nod.

Maldanko stepped forward and sized Yarec up for himself.  The two men were about the same height, and Yarec found himself watching the other’s deep brown eyes.  What thoughts were concealed behind them Yarec could not discern.  Maldanko’s inspection lasted only a few tense moments, then he shot out his hand.  With a tight smile, the commander said, “Welcome to Station Westerly, Mister…?”

Yarec took the proffered hard and filled in the gap, “Racker, Tris Racker, sir.  This is a slick facility.  You clearly know your work, colonel.”  Yarec’s accent could change from operation to operation, and his alias was even more fluid.  Both of them had currently been chosen to give the impression of a vague, rootless urbanity—appropriate for a merchant of death-dealing devices.

Despite the reference to work, Colonel Maldanko was in no hurry to get down to business.  He seemed puffed up by the compliment and gestured Yarec back to his seat, with a murmured, “Mister Racker.”  Maldanko seated himself on the opposing bench, and rested his scarred hands against the tabletop.  “It’s been a big job, getting this place back into fighting trim.  There were so many things to do, and so many of them, I had to do myself.”  He gestured up at the cetaceans dangling from the ceiling.  “I put so much of myself into rebuilding this place, I had to add a few purely personal touches.”

“They are very impressive,” Yarec put in.  “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Maldanko’s smile broadened and looked quite a bit more genuine.  “I caught them myself, about five years ago.  I was running a group of speed boats then.”  Smuggling or piracy? Yarec wondered.  “A pod came up alongside us.  They looked weird.”

“Do you know what they are?” Yarec asked, out of genuine curiosity.

“Well, no,” Maldanko sighed.  Yarec sensed that he had interrupted the flow of the commander’s favorite yarn, so he held his tongue after that.  There was no sense in antagonizing this foe before the time of final reckoning.

“We had a couple of harpoon guns for ship-to-ship grappling,” Maldanko explained, returning to his story.  “I had my men try those first, but they were too hard to aim at a moving target under the water.  It was too bad, really.  With just the harpoons, we might have dragged a few of them back alive.  But the shots kept missing, so we had to use guns.”

“We hauled around and fired off the bow-mounted R fourteens.  The sound of all those bullets hitting the water was amazing; it was like the sound of the hardest rainstorm you ever heard, all compressed into one little patch of water between two boats’ hulls.  The whales jerked when they were hit.  I wouldn’t have thought something that big could jerk and shake the way they did, but they really got going.  They churned up the water until it got all frothy at the surface, but we didn’t see any blood.  Some of them dove to get away, but we killed these three beauties before they could run.  There was a fourth one that we should have got too, but it sank for some reason.  It’s a shame, really, since it looked even longer than the big one up there.”

Maldanko gestured toward the longest of the three mutated shapes.  Yarec’s eyes followed the colonel’s hand, down the oddly bulged sides that had once been packed with blubber but which now contained only hard resin and emptiness.  It was impressive, however, that the leviathan showed no signs of damage from the torrent of machine gun rounds that had ended its life.  The taxidermy was really an impressive technological achievement, although hardly a match for whatever combination of nature and artifice had produces the blueish whales in the first place.

Maldanko went on.  “We got harpoon cables wrapped around those three, and then we towed them slowly back to shore.  I didn’t really know what to do with the whales, frankly.  I didn’t know anything about whaling back then.  Of course, since then, I’ve became a lot more interested in the subject.  Did you know that in the old days, when there was a real industry in whaling, they would butcher the whole carcasses at sea?”  Yarec adopted an expression of appropriately appreciative surprise.  His ignorance of whaling was genuine, although his continuing interest in the topic was purely feigned.

“They would boil all the fat to make oil,” Maldanko explained, “and cut off whatever meat they wanted to keep.  Most of that protein just went to waste.”  There was a tinge of disgust in his voice now.  Whatever other vicious traits he might possess, Maldanko was never profligate with a resource like meat.

“We towed these three to shore, and at the same time, I was calling around to find somebody who knew what to do with them.  Now,  I had a lot of contacts in shipping and fishing, but it seemed like nobody knew what to do with a whale carcass.  Eventually, I found a factory ship berthed nearby, and I persuaded them to help out.  They normally dealt with smaller things—a lot of kelp, and fin fish when they were available.  We managed to get the smallest whale hauled up out of the water onto a makeshift boom using a crane.  They cut it open and managed to carve out some of the flesh, but it was dirty work.”

“I hadn’t seen any blood when I was operating the R fourteen machine gun,” Maldanko explained, “but now it seemed to come in buckets.  Sometimes it would just spurt out when they cut in with the vibration saw.  And not just blood—there were other fluids too, from around the head and the innards.  The blood was red or purple, but the oils and spermaceti were white and gray and greenish.  The flesh, when they got it cleaned of ichor and sea scum, was surprisingly pale—just pink.”

“Did you get to taste it?” Yarec asked, unsure whether he really wanted to know the answer.

“Oh, yes!” Maldanko beamed.  “As I say, it was dirty work, and we only managed to get edible meat off one of the animals.  It just went bad too quickly, out there in the water.  But we did manage to harvest some great hunks of animal protein.  The flavor was good, but it turned out to be very tough.  We had to chop it down into little nuggets and boil them.”  Maldanko displayed the size of the whale meat chunks with his fingers, and Yarec nodded understandingly.

“The protein lasted us a good while, but the real prize—as you can see—was those hides.  After I let the factory vessel leave port, we towed the bodies further down the coast and had them preserved at Sankirk.”  Sankirk was a real city, built across the mouth of one of the old man-made rivers.  In places like that, one could still find artisans trained in even some of the most unusual pursuits.  A cosmopolitan character like Tris Racker ought to be familiar with a city like Sankirk, so Yarec allowed a sly, knowing smile to flicker across his lips when the colonel spoke the place’s name.  Maldanko himself chuckled silently for a moment.  Then he continued, “It was amazing work.  Of course, you can see that.  It was really amazing work, and to fit the trophies in here, once they had been preserved and hardened with poly-whatever, they had to be cut into slices.  Yet they fit together without any visible seam.  It’s remarkable.”  Maldanko chuckled again, this time aloud.  “If you ever need a whale stuffed yourself, I’d be happy to give the name of the company that did mine.  It was amazing work they did.”  Yarec looked sly again, but he figured he could get away with not laughing aloud at his host’s joke if it was as feeble.as this one.

“Well,” the colonel said after a pause, “I hope you enjoy the way they brighten up the view here.”

“Certainly, colonel.  Certainly.”  Yarec gazed up at the long stiff bodies, wondering again about their extended fins, which looked almost like long, nail-less fingers.  Staring at the immense corpses too long was disconcerting, but Yarec now wanted to wait for the colonel to make the next move.

The female bodyguard had disappeared, ducking out into one of the adjoining corridors while Yarec had feigned rapt interest in the colonel’s whaling story.  He had seen her depart out of the corner of his eye, but he did not want to betray too much interest in such mundane comings and goings, lest he offend his raconteur host.  Yarec’s greatest fear was that Maldanko’s security apparatus had already caught onto him, and that she would return with a troop of soldiers behind her, either to arrest him or to shoot him on the spot.  It was more likely that her commander had simply passed a silent signal that her presence was no longer necessary, meaning that Yarec had already worked himself into the colonel’s confidence.  That scenario was better, certainly, but it was also problematic in its own way.  It was too soon for Maldanko to trust Tris Racker.  It was irrational, and Yarec did not like irrational enemies, because their responses could be erratic and difficult to anticipate.

The bodyguard had not been gone long, before another woman arrived—although not, it seemed, to replace her.  She appeared out of the kitchen, although Yarec had not noticed anyone in there when he arrived, and she was carrying food.  She was taller and somewhat older than the wiry little bodyguard, with red-brown hair that bounced disorganizedly past her shoulders.  Her features were not conventionally beautiful, but they were striking somehow, and when Yarec caught a glimpse of her eyes, as steely gray as the belted smock she wore, he saw a furious intensity behind them that, in more relaxed circumstances, he would have found quite captivating.  She set two bowls of yellow gruel, dusted with cheese, in front of the colonel and his guest.  Hard black synthetic spoons had been thrust haphazardly into the mush, and the handle of Yarec’s clattered unhappily against the bowl as she slapped it down.

The woman did not speak.  She simply delivered the bowls and then receded a couple steps back.  There was a bulky pistol strapped to her right hip, but she showed no interest in it.  She was not another bodyguard, Yarec provisionally concluded.  In fact, her posture suggested something else—as if she was Maldanko’s lover but was striving to conceal that fact.  She observed the men’s conversation from a few steps to the side, with an apparent mixture of interest and impatience.  Now and then she seemed moved to begin a coquettish gesture, before she caught herself and stopped.  Yarec wondered briefly what sort of  petty court politics were prompting her behavior, and he sighed inwardly.  If everything went as planned, all such maneuverings would be rendered irrelevant by the day after tomorrow.

Maldanko stirred the vat-grown cheese into his gruel and then popped a large spoonful into his mouth.  He motioned for Yarec to do the same.  “Eat up.  It’s pretty good when it isn’t burnt,” the colonel muttered with toothy grin.  “I insist on decent cooking here, now that I can afford it.  You should have seen the stuff we survived on at sea.”

“Oh, I can imagine,” Yarec murmured between bites.  Maldanko did not elaborate further on what he’d subsisted on (apart from whale meat) during his days as a pirate, for which Yarec was rather grateful.  His nerves, exacerbated by some of the more gruesome details of the whaling story, were already making it difficult for him to eat.  The colonel grunted and scraped up his yellowish porridge with enthusiasm, while Yarec ate more cautiously, not wanting to upset his quivering innards with a huge infusion of unfamiliar fare.

The colonel finished quickly and rose to depart.  “I need to attend to other matters right now, Mister Racker, but I’ll be back to show you to your room later on.”  Yarec’s mouth was too full to give an immediate reply, and Maldanko did not wait for one.

“Alert me if there are any problems,” Maldanko told the blond bodyguard, who had been standing there like a piece of furniture throughout the entire conversation and meal.  The words were clipped and metallic; all the conversational warmth dropped out of Maldanko’s voice as he returned to issuing orders.  On his way toward the door, the colonel passed the woman who had brought in the food.  He whispered something to her, she responded, and they left the cafeteria together.

While Yarec had been eating, several of Maldanko’s mercenaries and laborers had arrived for their own suppers, and even more flowed in after the colonel had left.  Each of them retrieved a bowl of gruel from the kitchen and found a place alongside one of the long tables.  No one sat near enough to Yarec to make conversation convenient, but some of the men and women paused to say hello on the way to or from the kitchen.

Yarec finished his gruel, almost—leaving enough lying in the bottom of the bowl to it make clear that he was not interested in seconds.  Then he waited.  Around him, people ate and talked, although their conversations were either strictly work related or limited to the mildest possible forms of gossip.  They spoke loudly, to show they had no secrets; for secrets and whispers were the prerogative only of the master and his inner confidants.  The inhabitants of the complex, numbering perhaps three dozen in all, arrived, ate, and went away, moving in irregular waves.

There were really only two things Yarec could do to pass the time:  listening in on the other diners’ conversations, and staring up at the plastified whales.  The whales, he quickly decided, were much more interesting.  They had been sculpted with subtle waving undulations running down their bodies, like sea serpents slithering through the imaginary water.  Whether or not that was an accurate representation of how they swam, it was a mesmerizing effect.  As they ate, Maldanko had admitted that one of the whales actually did have a well-concealed hole its hide, made by a  close cluster of automatic weapon rounds, but Yarec did not bother looking for it.  They were things of beauty, and he did not wish to be reminded of the disfiguring violence that had brought them here.

Yarec wanted to hop onto the tabletop, so he could reach up and feel one of the smooth giants.  He had never touched whale skin and had no idea what feel like.  No, no, he thought, it will probably just feel like slick plastic.  If he touched one, he would only feel the embalmer’s coating.  If he rapped on its hide, it would echo hollow.  All the living parts inside, the brain and blood and even blubber, were gone.

Above ground, the sun had set, and eventually only two other stragglers remained in the cafeteria, nursing their cheese and porridge and arguing animatedly over the best way to repair part of the desalination system.  The tall guard had barely moved through all this, and he had certainly not eaten, but his weather-beaten face betrayed no hint of dissatisfaction.  He waited impassively for the colonel’s return, when he would either be dismissed or assigned some further duty.  Maldanko did not want for loyalty among his soldiers; they either respected or feared him too much to waver in their allegiance.

When the colonel did return, he was accompanied again by his female bodyguard.  Maldanko dismissed the blond man with a curt wave and then turned to Yarec, who had risen from his seat as Maldanko approached.  “Sorry that took so long, but I hope you ate well,” he said.

Yarec replied casually, “Oh yes.  Is that a common dish around here?” he added in his best ingratiatingly salesmanlike tone.

“It is,” Maldanko said, but he did not elaborate further.  At the moment, he clearly had more serious matters on his mind.  “If you’re done then, let me show you to where you’ll be staying while you’re here.”  He gestured towards one of the double doors, directing Yarec to precede him through it.

They emerged into a passageway no wider than the doors themselves, and Maldanko directed Yarec along a few more short tunnels and down another flight of cold cement steps.  Yarec’s sense of direction did not desert him, and he was confident that he understood exactly where he was located in relation to the most important parts of the facility.

“Here,” Maldanko announced abruptly, tapping his finger on a narrow numbered door, set right beside the foot of the steps.  The bodyguard produced an electronic key, which Maldanko passed to the visitor.  Yarec fumbled with it in the lock, not wanting to appear too familiar with the precise technology in use around the fortress.  However, he did not intend to look inept either, and so after a few seconds, he activated the latch and pushed the panel open.

“Looks pretty fair,” Yarec said, as he peered into the spartan chamber.

“Sleep well then,” replied the colonel, offering Yarec his hand again.  “If there are any problems, call security on the intercom.”  Then an odd look flashed across the commander’s face.  He seemed conflicted, as if between his good sense as a paramilitary man and his duties as a host.  For an extended moment, there was silence, except for the pale whirr of the air circulators.

Then Maldanko asked suddenly, “Would you like that woman, from dinner, to come by your room tonight?” Yarec did not answer immediately, pretending to consider the offer long enough so his host would not be insulted.  “She’s very willing to, almost eager,” Maldanko added, as if trying to convince both of them that this was a good idea.

But Yarec did not like the lordling’s tone, and he shook his head.  “No thank you,” he murmured.

“Sleep well then,” Maldanko repeated, and the tone told Yarec that this time it was a dismissal.  So he stepped into the room and dropped his soft packet of personal belongings on the floor.  The door swung closed behind him, and he heard the snick of the electronic lock sealing him in overnight.

As he lay on the broad but rather uncomfortable palette, Yarec wondered whether he should have accepted the offer of a bedmate.  He was very tense, and sex would probably have helped him sleep.  No, he told himself, I don’t perform well when I’m stressed like this.  Yarec gritted his teeth, and then he wondered why he cared about his capacity to please this woman.  He had been skillful enough in the past, when it mattered, even without technological assistance.  Yet it seemed like every time he underwent a procedure, the doctors offered to give him a bigger dick, and they were continually surprised when he said no.  All the other men involved in the project must have jumped at the opportunity.  But mine is normal sized, and it works.  With each iteration, his appearance changed, but there were some things that he kept the same—his—every time through.  His penis was one of them.

Yarec glared up angrily at the ceiling.  The chamber was so dark—lit only by a pale gray-green diode on the communicator panel—that the ceiling was completely lost in blackness.  Yet he knew it was there, sagging low above his bed.  The place seemed to be closing in around him, cement walls inhaling and constricting the narrow space.  How many tons are weighing against that pocked white ceiling? Yarec wondered.  How many tons are weighing down my soul, whether I recognize them or not?  Yarec knew that he was being over-dramatic.  He had slept in much worse places than this, out among the rocks with mercenaries hunting his heat signature; yet he preferred the open outdoors to a claustrophobic oubliette like this underground fortress, with unknown dangers pressing in from every side.

Yarec balled his hands into fists—clenching the fingers together until they started to hurt, then releasing them for a few seconds before squeezing again.  He had a nervy disposition, which was not the best trait for a man in his profession.  The last sleep before a big op was always difficult.  Yet somehow, he thought tonight felt different.  Is some bit of my brain trying to warn me?  Yarec did not believe in extra-sensory abilities or anything paranormal, and if there was a coded message from his subconscious, it was not based on telepathic intuition.  He gritted his teeth.  There was nothing to be gained by worrying now, so Yarec set his unease aside and forced himself to sleep.

Galactic Warlord

April 18, 2014

My daughter and I recently read Douglas Hill’s novel Galactic Warlord, the first installment of his Last Legionary series. When I was a youth, these books and the Tripods novels were probably my two favorite series of science fiction books for children. I had forgotten enough of the plot details that I could enjoy some surprises when I reread Galactic Warlord, and I enjoyed it quite a bit this time through.

The full text of the first book is available here. I suggest you read it. It won’t take long; I finished the whole thing in a couple hours, and my ten-year-old took only slightly longer. (The OCR in this online version is reasonable but not perfect; the one consistent problem is a failure to italicize most of the psychic dialogue from the alien sidekick/female lead Glr.) I would buy copies of all four* volumes if they could be had in reasonable condition from Powell’s. However, since the books don’t appear to be in print any more, reading an online PDF at least doesn’t take any money from the author’s heirs.

The story is quite violent, but it’s not military science fiction, because for most of the book, there is just a single hero. Kiell Randor is a military man, incredibly tough both physically and mentally, and much of the story concerns him fighting his way through various obstacles. There is a certain amount of hand-to-hand combat, but most of the people who die are taken out with advanced technological weapons. The climactic battle between Kiell and Lord Thr’un of Irruq-hoa is completed without weapons, but this is thematically important, because Kiell only gets the chance to face Thr’un in melee because the latter is so arrogant that he thinks he cannot lose.

The violence in the novel includes a genocide committed against the entire planet of Moros, leaving the protagonist as the only survivor. However, from the very start of the story, it’s made clear that Kiell Randor is dying. I remember, when I first read the book in elementary school, that the thought of Kiell slowly dying from within really affected me. The descriptions of the constant pain in his bones were eerie and frightening.

It’s interesting that the author, Douglas Hill, was a committed Canadian-British leftist. Kiell Randor is the most famous character he created, and he came from a completely militarized society; it is explicitly mentioned in Galactic Warlord that the military forces of the planet Moros include, in principle, every adult inhabitant of the planet. However, they also have a dedicatedly communalist society. Moros seems almost like a planet-wide kibbutz, except without the farming. The planet’s original subsistence agriculture was replaced with an essentially all-military economy, based around sending Legionaries to work as interstellar mercenaries. While Moros was at one point completely self-sufficient (and self-sufficiency was an important part of the Legionary ethos), by Kiell’s time they were importing food. And it was in a shipment of food that the sources of radiation that annihilated the planet were hidden. The story does not dwell on this point, but I thought it was interesting—although I don’t think I ever noticed the irony when I read and reread the book as a child.

I did notice that Hill’s books are rather unorthodox children’s stories, in terms of the way that they treat revenge. I am used to books (and other media) aimed at kids emphasizing the danger of focusing one’s entire life on vengeance, and there is often quite a bit of moralizing about forgiveness. Galactic Warlord has none of that. At the outset, as Kiell is dying, he strives on only to complete his best friend’s charge from beyond the grave: “Avenge us Kiell. Avenge the murder of Moros.” The ultimate villain of the series is totally, unredeemably evil, as are most or all of his Deathwing minions. This means there is no moral ambiguity about Kiell and Glr destroying these foes, but it is still interesting to see the goal of revenge extolled this way in a story for kids.

The one thing I never really thought worked in the story was Kiell’s incredulity when he learns from the Overseers about the Warlord’s existence. The problem was not that Kiell’s disbelief was illogical or out of character. The problem was that it was too obvious to me, as a reader, that the outline of the story Talis was telling had to be true. Too much narrative time was spent on the exposition about the Warlord; a short book like this one would not have space for such a massive red herring. Moreover, the book is actually named after the putative Warlord, which would be awfully strange if the Warlord turned out to be a figment of Talis’s paranoid imagination.

I too wondered a lot about the Warlord after first reading this book. When I first encountered the Last Legionary novels, there was a gap of several years between when I read book 3, Day of the Starwind, and book 4, Planet of the Warlord. During that time, I had to wonder whether Hill would be able to provide a truly convincing climax to the series. I was afraid that when the true identity of the Warlord was revealed, it would be a letdown. It’s not so difficult to build up a shadowy villain, incredibly powerful but working in secret, but it’s harder when you actually have to show the villain—present in the flesh. There needs to be a concrete reason why this Warlord is truly a compelling threat to the whole galaxy. I thought that maybe, the actual identity of the Warlord might never be shown—that Kiell might destroy his enemy without them ever interacting directly. That might have been preferable to a little tyrant in a chair. However, I can report that, while the climax of the series is not perfect, the revelation of the Warlord itself lives up to the hype.

In some ways, the books are pretty conventional space opera. Although intended for a “teen” audience (whatever age range that is actually supposed to indicate), the prose is probably not much easier than the writing of classic pulp SF authors. The hero is incomparably tough. His natural abilities made him the best young officer in the galaxy’s greatest military force; these are augmented by the Overseers, who give him unbreakable bones and a psychic alien sidekick. Glr is quite a wonderful character, I think. She (and Kiell takes pains to remind himself—and hence the reader—to think of her as “she”) is frequently amused by human foibles, yet she is also extremely effective partner for Kiell. And as the series progresses, she definitely becomes more of a partner than a subordinate, to the point that, by the end of the series, the pair seem to acknowledge that they have reached a sort of platonic marriage. Glr is a strong and distinctly female character, who, because of her alien nature, is never sexualized or reduced to being a damsel in distress.

*There are, in principle, five books in the series, but the last one published, Young Legionary, is a much weaker prequel. It has no connection to the main plot of the series and includes some annoying retcons. It’s almost like self-fan-fiction. The existence of a lower-quality prequel written after all the others is something else the Tripods and Last Legionary series have in common.

Chapter 1: Blockhouse by the Sea

As he headed down towards the enemy’s fastness, Yarec wondered what strange history of pain and vengeance had brought him to this barren seashore. The rocks underfoot were smooth. They had begun as jagged boulders, sharp and pitted wherever they had been snapped away from the bedrock. But they had been swallowed up by the continual movement of the cold ocean, until they were disgorged here along the beach, worn free of all individuality.

The smells of salt and moss were strong in Yarec’s nostrils. In the distance, he heard the sound of helicopter blades slapping the air. The aircraft might have belonged to Yarec’s allies, having been dispatched here to monitor his arrival. If the backers were keeping an eye on Yarec, he had not been informed, but they never did tell him everything.

There was no road leading out to the fortress. There had been, once–a broad cement avenue laid down across the shingle. The blockhouse had been part of a long string of coastal fortifications, built back in a peaceful era when strong nation-states could afford such things–and precisely when they were not needed. In those days, the road had been busy with supply trucks and crawlers full of fresh troops. But in today’s times, when the nearest neighbor might be an enemy, the road had become a hazard, a way for hostile forces to drive right up to the main blockhouse door. So the road had not been maintained, and it had rotted away, undercut by the salty slapping of the sea.

Yarec looked down at the heavy black case he was carrying. Although this part of the world had descended into a neo-feudal system of lords and fealty, the medieval rules of hospitality had not been renewed. No one would get into this castle without an invitation to do business, and the case was Yarec’s invitation. He was here posing as a weapons courier and dealer, delivering something that the keeper of the fortress had ordered. Yarec did not know whether the arms deal had been arranged from the start by his own allies, as a ruse to get an agent like himself inside; or whether the real courier had been intercepted and Yarec inserted into his place. The details were irrelevant to the job Yarec needed to complete, and he preferred not to be burdened with such unnecessary information.

Coming around the end of a rocky cape, he came in sight of his goal. A poet might have said the structure was nestled between the arms of the coastal mountains, but to Yarec, it just looked like the dull rectangular box had been crammed into the crook between two promontories. There were guards moving on the roof, pacing and fingering their weapons. Behind them, a cliff face rose up toward the eastern sky, which was pure blue, like an inverted azure pond.

Angling his way across the stony beach, Yarec waved a small brown flag back and forth over his head–once, twice, three times, according to the agreed-upon signal. The two guards, waiting for him on the blockhouse roof, appeared to confer briefly. Then they must have sent word below, that an expected visitor was about to arrive. The above-ground fortifications were small, but there was a much larger structure underground–excavated out of the earth and hardened with military concrete. Yarec’s mission would be carried out down there, deep among the basaltic roots of the coastal range.

There was a huge pair of double doors opening on the seaward side of the structure. Yarec walked solemnly up to the heavy steel portals, keeping his gaze locked on the small glass disc located just above the entrance, so that his face would be clearly visible to the camera situated behind it. He adhered strictly to protocol in situations like this. It was only prudent; and the stubby machine gun that one of the guards on the roof had trained on him was an effective reminder to remain on his best behavior–for now.

A high-pitched voice spoke to him through a speaker mounted next to the metal doors. It was pitched like a soprano, but something about the timbre told Yarec that the voice actually belonged to a man. It had been ramped up in frequency to make it carry better outdoors. At the moment, when there were few sounds other than the lethargic lapping of waves and the scrape of the shingle stones under Yarec’s booted feet, the retuning seemed unnecessary. However, it would have been useful during squalls, when wind and water became a din.

“State your business here, plainsman,“ the voice said. It used a rather antiquated term of address for a traveller, and it seemed doubly odd when uttered in such squeaky, unnatural tones

“I represent The Vanbaw Company,” Yarec answered. “I have an appointment to arrive here today, to deliver a merchandise sample.”

“Wait, please. I need to confirm that.” The voice paused, although Yarec could hear from the slight hiss of background noise, distorted like the voice itself, that the intercom link was still open. After about a minute, there was the sound of a shuffle, and the speaker plate announced: “Set down your belongings, and you will be escorted inside.”

Yarec complied, and the moment that he had rested both his sample case and his pack of personal effects on the ground, the twin doors began to swing open. These modern castle gates seemed to grunt in discomfort as the vast gearworks behind them started turning, before the noise settled down to a more reassuring hum. The doors’ outer surfaces were softly polished, so they glinted in the light of the westering sun. However, Yarec could see bits of brown rust crusted along the sides, where salt had worked its way around the edges of the sealed portals and slowly begun to corrode them.

The doors opened about halfway, then shuddered to a halt with a steely whine. Four guards emerged and surrounded the visitor. Two kept their weapons trained on Yarec’s chest, while the others picked up the articles that Yarec had set down on the shingle. Then the squeaking voice told him, “Step inside please, plainsman.” Yarec passed through the squared entrance gate, moving at the center of a human quadrangle. Beyond the entrance lay a low-roofed room, where Yarec expected to be imaged and prodded before being allowed deeper into the enemy fortress.

The antechamber was crammed with scanning and surveillance equipment. The guards dropped Yarec’s belongings into a chute, which fed the baggage onto a belt that kicked into motion and conveyed them into a battered gray metal housing. Good scanners, with programming that was capable of identifying unusual threats, were expensive. This one looked like it had been salvaged from somewhere else, perhaps taken as spoils in conquest. The box reacted angrily to the heavy black case, with a loud beep and echoed unpleasantly off the hard walls. But the guards reacted professionally, and the case was whisked away. However, his rucksack was returned to him, as he and two of the guards exchanged banal pleasantries. The inhabitants of the fortress were used to armed couriers delivering weapons, and they were glad for a few words about recent regional news and views of the latest military technology.

Another scanning device, mounted on ceiling tracks, detached from its housing at the rear of the room and swept over Yarec’s head. It was a long black bar with a few dangling wires. It moved over him, probing with various frequencies of radiation. It rolled back and passed over again, and then again a third time. Eventually, its electronic brain satisfied that he was not manifestly dangerous, it recorded a report in the main operations database and silently withdrew.

“This way,” one of the guards muttered, gesturing toward the reinforced double doors on the opposite side of the chamber. Yarec followed the man around a rack of laser ranging guns, toward the inner portals. As they approached, the left-hand door swung back to admit them. Then it snapped shut with a clang as soon as they had passed. “This way,” the guard repeated, and motioned Yarec toward a broad staircase that descended into the cavernous excavation beneath coastal hills.

Eventually, he was ushered into a largish cafeteria–what would have been the great hall in a medieval castle. A couple of long plastic tables ploughed across the center of the floor. The tabletops had originally been decorated with colorful abstract patterns, but decades of cleaning and buffing had left them faded to patchwork shades of gray. Their folding under-frames also supported attached benches on either side, worn in places with visible ass prints. The guard gestured for Yarec to have a seat, which he did, near the end a bench. Yarec rested his left elbow on the corner of the table, and his right hand made a loose fist atop his knee, clenching and unclenching.

Yarec glanced around, casually observing the exits from the chamber. There were several nondescript double doors, as well as an open doorway leading into the kitchen area. Food could also be passed out of the kitchen across a scuffed and cratered counter that was fitted into an opening in the wall. At the moment, a single lonely ecru bowl sat perched on that speckled gray countertop, lingering behind after the last meal’s other dishes had all been swept away. Off to the side were a pair of wheeled metal carts, pushed haphazardly up against the wall to keep them out of the way.

Studying the functional features of the chamber was a professional necessity. If fighting broke out here, Yarec wanted to know where each of his exits was positioned and hopefully what lay beyond them. He glanced about jerkily, looking even more nervous than he felt, as he mentally connected each of the gray portals to a spot on the floor plan committed to his memory. Then, once he felt he had adequately ascertained the geography, Yarec let his gaze rise back toward the three long, lumpy shapes that hung from the whitewashed concrete ceiling. Their presence dominated the room, and Yarec had been struck by them from the moment he had entered. They were obviously intended to impress, although the low ceiling left them too close to floorbound viewers, somewhat undercutting their majestic appearance.

They were embalmed whales, of a species unlike anything Yarec had ever seen in video. Their hollow skins had been impregnated with a rigid preservative polymer, which had made the thick hides solid enough to hang from twisted metal ropes. They ranged from twenty to thirty feet in length, with blue-tinged grayish skin and weirdly elongated flukes and flippers. A mutant strain, Yarec concluded, or something bioengineered for some lost purpose. Their heads had almost bearlike snouts, and their bodies bulged in lateral lines, as if long tubules of blubber were running down from head to tail flukes. They were marvellous to see, and in friendlier company, Yarec would have produced a low, appreciative whistle. Here however, he had a particular image he wanted to project, so he simply stared up at the three elongated bodies, now and then shaking his head in wonder.

This* is something that has bothered me for a long time. In fact, I can remember the exact moment it started bothering me. I was watching Star Trek III, which I think holds up pretty well for an odd-numbered Star Trek film. I’d seen it three or four times before, first in the theaters, then a couple times on television. It was on TV again, and I was watching when my father walked through the room. He stopped in front of the screen and asked, “Why the heck does this movie end with a fistfight?” Now, that’s not just any fistfight; it’s a knuckle-bloodier between legendary science fiction over-actors William Shatner and Christopher Lloyd. However, it unfortunately is still a fistfight that determines the fates of everyone that’s still alive in the Mutara sector, even while the Genesis planet’s unstable proto-matter decays around the combatants.

Fistfights as a major form of dispute resolution went out a long time ago. Their usefulness is basically limited to children and others without access to effective weapons—and in particular, firearms. Whitey Bulger, during his rise to preeminence in Boston’s Irish mob, got in to a bar fight with his rival Tommy King in 1975. It’s unknown what business the two toughs were arguing over, but what’s important was that the fight did not actually settle anything. Things were settled between Bulger and King later, when Whitey sent a hit man to put a slug in King’s head.

As I see it, hand-to-hand combat—and especially unarmed hand-to-hand combat—should be even more obsolete in most science fiction settings than it is today. As weapons technology gets more advanced, fists are going to get less and less useful. Gilgamesh could plausibly take on the toughest enemies the gods had to offer with nothing but his arms. However, with Wolverine it doesn’t make so much sense. What good would his healing factor really be against enemies who could barrage his head with constant machine gun fire?

Sometimes, using fistfights can be a stylistic choice, and this may be good or bad. However, there are lots of examples, in virtually all media, where I think it doesn’t work. Even in The Prisoner, there seem to be distractingly many fistfights. Number Six’s use of his fists is highly symbolic: he refuses to fight with more deadly implements; he prefers to rely on his human attributes, rather than technology; and his fisticuffs are always ultimately futile, since he cannot compete directly with the advanced powers arrayed against him. However, even so, I think Number Six spends way too much time, especially early in the series, punching people.

In film and television, there seems to be a desire to base action sequences on human bodies (and other things) in fluid motion. For whatever reason, this has never really worked for me. I admit that there can be something thrilling about seeing stuff flying every which way, but I have always enjoyed action scenes that just feature one guy picking off his enemies with a skillfully aimed gun. There’s an old expression: “A Smith and Wesson beats four aces,” and when the bad guys with blasters are persistently inferior to heroes with bare knuckles (or melee weapons, at most), I can only tolerate it for so long.

I guess I like me protagonists to be badass, but not too badass. Maybe Vance’s Planet of Adventure hero Adam Reith is my ideal science fiction tough guy. He can kill you with his bare hands, but he’d rather ambush you with a laser rifle. Superman also works to a certain extent, because he’s so invulnerable that he can just shrug off blaster fire and pummel the bag guys with his fists even if it makes poor tactical sense. Unarmed combat is something familiar to everyone; everybody knows what it means to slug somebody in the face. Not everyone today is as familiar with guns, and nobody is familiar with pulsed x-ray lasers. Using high technology in a fight is not as visceral, nor as near to reality, as throwing punches, so the punches end up getting overused. Fistfights have a place in science fiction, but it seems to me that are way too many of them.

* With apologies to Eugene Wigner.