Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Some Novels of Barrington J. Bayley

Barrington J. Bayley was born April 9, 1937, and he died in 2008. He was one of the weirdest of SF writers. In his memory, here's a set of capsule reviews of some of his novels. Unfortunately, I'm not covering his best novels -- as noted below, these are probably Collision Course, The Fall of Chronopolis, The Garments of Caean, and The Soul of the Robot. But these are still a pretty interesting set of books.

Let's begin with two Ace Double reviews already posted here:
Annihilation Factor
The Star Virus

Capsule review of The Great Hydration

Barrington J. Bayley is a British writer best known for a series of unusual novels in the 70s and 80s, mainly for DAW and Doubleday. His novels often featured unusual cosmological notions, and a dour and cynical viewpoint, often reflected in somewhat offbeat humour. Among the best, by most accounts, are Collision Course, The Fall of Chronopolis, The Garments of Caean and The Soul of the Robot. After the mid-80s he found it hard to sell further novels, and nothing has appeared since then but a media tie-in and a number of short stories, some quite good. But last year Cosmos Books (an imprint of Wildside Press) published two new Bayley novels, apparently written in the late 90s. These are The Sinners of Erspia and the novel to hand, The Great Hydration, a very short novel at just over 40,000 words.

The Great Hydration is set on a nearly completely dry planet. A number of humanoid species, adapted to require no water (indeed, water is a poison to them) live under the loose rule of the lobster-like Tlixix. Apparently the Tlixix were masters of the world when it was full of water, and they genetically engineered these new species to work for them in the dry world produced when a fault slipped allowing the oceans to drain into the spongy interior.

A couple of shady businessmen from human space show up and offer to release the trapped water with a series of nuclear explosions, which will restore the planet to a pleasant environment for the Tlixix, but will result in the death of the other species. A disaffected employee, one of their top nuclear engineers, somewhat accidentally becomes involved with a sort of resistance movement among the dry-adapted species. Disaster, pretty much, ensues, for everyone, magnified when the galactic police force shows up.

It's kind of weird, and casually worked out, and not very plausible. At the same time, it's pretty fun, if horribly cynical. The various aliens are interesting enough, and the basic concept, if unlikely, is brash enough to impress. Not bad, if not great.

Capsule review of Star Winds

Star Winds, by Barrington J. Bayley (DAW, 1978), is a rather delightfully goofy novel set in the very
far future.  The story opens on Earth, as a sailing ship lands in the local port. You see, ship travel uses special sails which interact with the "ether" to allow them to fly. It turns out that at one time ships could even go between planets.  But that trade has died out, and with it the hope of replacing the ether sails, which cannot be made on Earth.  Rachad Curban, a dilettantish young man,wishes desperately to be a sky sailor, but there are no openings, and the whole business is decaying.  At the same time, he is rather vaguely studying with an old alchemist. When the old man tells him that the only hope of making the Philosopher's Stone is to find a book somewhere on Mars, an idea is born.  Rachad convinces a down-and-out sky captain to refit his ship to make a desperate attempt to fly through space to Mars.  Once on Mars, the sky captain will be able to obtain new ether sails, and revitalize the whole sailing business.  From here the story begins to open out, as it were, section by section.  Bayley keeps changing the stakes.  The flight to Mars is a rather exciting adventure which ends in disaster: capture by a nobleman from another star system, who by coincidence was looking for the same book Rachad's alchemist was seeking.  It turns out that the nobleman needed the book to find a way into the keep of another corrupt nobleman, whose lands the King has promised him if he can root him out.  The corrupt nobleman is host to ... another alchemist.  And so the story goes, changing direction again and again.  It's dotty, and oddly lighthearted despite a series of failures by our heroes, and despite a rather sad view of the future fate of the galaxy.  It's also based on a nonsensical but fun premise: that the atomic theory of matter is wholly wrong, and that the alchemists were right: the Philosopher's Stone is a real possibility, all matter is made of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Ether, etc. etc.  This is quite a fun book.

Capsule Review of The Grand Wheel

I hadn't read a Barrington Bayley book for a while, and I saw The Grand Wheel (1977), one of his least-known books, used and picked it up.  It's typically weird, about a far future where the Earth's portion of Galactic space is ruled by a strictish government called the Legitimacy, and opposed by an organization called The Grand Wheel, which runs gambling houses and pushes the idea that all life is contingent, random, based on luck.  Human space is under siege from inimical aliens.  The Legitimacy wants to find the rumoured "Luck Equations" of the Grand Wheel, to use against the aliens, and they blackmail a gambler named Cheyne Scarne to infiltrate the Grand Wheel.  But he finds that the megalomaniac head of the Wheel has something else in mind: a gambling game with another group of aliens: the prize, perhaps the entire human race.  But wait, there's more ... This isn't really Bayley at his best -- he doesn't quite convince the reader of the significance of all his blather about randomness and chaos and so on, and the story is a bit slack and slow.  It's an OK read, though.

Capsule Review of The Pillars of Eternity

Barrington J. Bayley is one of SF's true wild men.  His novels are fascinating, just stuffed with serious philosophical and scientific speculation, but with that speculation stretched to and beyond its limits.  One of his obsessions seems to be the nature of Time.  He's played with different concepts of Time and Time Travel in novels like The Fall of Chronopolis and Collision Course.  He plays with it again in The Pillars of Eternity.  This features Joachim Boaz, a shipkeeper (that is, shipowner/captain) who is kept alive by his intelligent bones, and who cannot forget the terrible accident that occurred after his bones were first installed, when his bone-enhanced senses exaggerated his pain after an alchemical experiment gone awry, while his bone-enhanced preservation function wouldn't let him die, prolonging the pain.  Boaz' real fear is rooted in his philosophical belief in "eternal recurrence": thus, he is sure that when the Universe collapses and reforms, he will again have to undergo the pain.  Unless he can change the past.  Hence, he joins the treasure hunt to the wandering world Meirjain, where the mysterious "time gems" might be found.  But that's not all ...

It's wild, wild, stuff.  Very entertaining, and but honestly thoughtful beneath it all.  The writer he reminds me most directly of is Charles Harness.  Some might think of van Vogt, but I will confess to being allergic to van Vogt, so I can't really comment.  In a quite different way, R. A. Lafferty has some of the same wildness.

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