Last night I began reading The Canopy of Time, a collection of 11 stories from 1959 (previously known as Galaxies Like Grains of Sand). This NEL edition from the '70s has a rather nice Bruce Pennington cover.
To quote Aldiss "they are all slices off the enormous carcass of the future, arranged chronologically from a date a century or two ahead, right up to the end of the galaxy"
The stories tentatively chronicle the future of mankind, short pieces between each story forming a tenuous connection.
The first one, Three's A Cloud, didnt really impress me-I think it just went over my head. It seemed to be set in present time and was about a quiet,semi reclusive guy who uncharacteristically befriends a couple he sees in a pub, and it seems he and they are a gestalt entity-very strange!
The next one, All The World's Tears was much more satisfying, being about a far future time in which mankind has turned against Nature and now everything from the bee's pollination to the weather is minutely controlled, and people have become afraid of one another. Unable to breed normally they use a Mating Centre. One man rebels...
Who Can Replace a Man? portays a future of sentient serving machines in which man is dying out. It poses a question, if a machine fails it can be replaced, but if a man dies, well, who can replace a man?
The next story, Blighted Profile concerns Chun Hwa, an old man living in a post apocalyptic era longing for better,greener times. There are time machines but they can only take you to the past. Hwa is determined to visit the future at any cost…
Judas Danced was an odd one! I was scratching my head thru it until I neared the end and I had an 'Oh I see!' moment! Basically its about Alexander Abel Yo,a guy accused of murdering Parowen Scryban over and over, each time the victim is restored to life by using the time machines. Abel Yo's depiction is quite bizarre and I kept thinking, is he mad or was Aldiss on drugs or what? Very confusing until the very end.
The eponymous character in O Ishrail! tells of how he is witness to an alien race and how a war is being waged in a neighbouring galaxy. No-one believes his story and, considered insane he is taken aboard a Mental Hospital ship. Only one man, Davi Dael believes Ishrail, but how to prove the man's story?
Incentive follows on from where O Ishrail left off, albeit with different characters (and lemmings!)
Ferro Westerby is part of the Isolationists, a group fihting to keep Earth independant of the Multi-Planet Federation. An almost unpronounceable Jandanagger Laterobinson is the enigmatic leader of the Federation and he sets out to convince Westerby that it is in Earth's best interest to become a part of the Galactic group. Laterobinson's race speak a language called Galingula which is also a method of travelling thru the galaxy. Parts of this story are reminiscent of Asimov's Foundation unfortunately, with political rangling which goes over my head! And one scene reminded me of a scene from the Lawnmower Man or the Matrix-Laterobinson has a device that the user wears like a helmet and it allows the wearer to enter a different world-it is like an early description of Virtual Reality! Sounds great but this being an Aldiss story its all vague ideas with little substance. Nothing concrete.
Gene Hive is much better. A man is injured and a woman doctor comes to his aid. In doing so they meld into one another,and then begin absorbing other people (and animals) into a large amoeba-like entity. But only those humans who believe themselves to be part of nature can be absorbed;only those who know the language of Galingua. A very odd story that somewhat reminded me of Greg Bear's excellent novel Blood Music
Secret of a Mighty City was one of those neither here or there stories, rather like water-tasteless- only unlike water its not essential to life!
Basically it was about a 3D film-a Solid- being made about the city Nunion (in previous stories the city was called Union, then New Union) but nothing really happens and I was left feeling, What was the point of that?? Great title, pointless story!
The penultimate story, They Shall Inherit was one of the better ones! It concerns an age in which genetic modification is commonplace and presents two different characters. Tedden,on Earth is experimenting on enhancing humans, and Djjket, part of another faction off world experimenting on animals. Each finds the others work repulsive and morally wrong-Tedden shows the other a creche in which new born babies are able to stand upright, while Djjket has a 'portcase' which is like an automaton derived from camel genes. Each is shocked by what they see. The story builds until a very dramatic and disturbing conclusion, which reminded me of something from Tales of the Unexpected, or a story you might find in a horror compilation,perhaps by Ramsey Campbell or Ray Bradbury. The amazing part is that this story was writteen in the 50s and yet clearly Aldiss shows us the inner workings of genetic material with a hint of the DNA structure! All new and exciting back in the day! Very good that one!
The final Visiting Amoeba,is by far the longest and in fact is better described as a novella-it is divided up into 8 chapters! Basically a man comes across a strange planet between galaxies where space should be empty,and then dies. The new man then goes on a mission to warn the humans of an impending event-the only way to do this is to rally opposing forces to unite against a 'common enemy',which is really a trick to get both sides united in a common front to resolve this event. Its a hard story to review without giving too much away and is rather quite good- I felt that this one would have made a good novel.
The collection over all is quite uneven,some stories rather bland,some quite good,and insightful for 1959.