Charles Sheffield

Proteus in the Underworld, Charles Sheffield

Baen, 1995, 304 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87659-7

During the last few years of his life, the late Charles Sheffield produced an astonishing number of novels (up to three or four a year!), some of them quite good and some of them quite dull. Fortunately, Proteus in the Underworld is one of the better ones, an irresistibly readable work of old-school science-fiction.

In some ways, it’s not overly surprising given that it is the third volume in the “Proteus” trilogy, a decent follow-up to two novels (Sight of Proteus and Proteus Unbound, combined in the Proteus Manifest omnibus) that exemplified how old-style SF should be written; take a few neat ideas, wrap them in an engaging action-adventure plot seasoned with an upbeat attitude and let the reader have tons of fun.

Proteus in the Underworld is a dignified heir to the series. Once again, super-scientist Behrooz Wolf (Bey Wolf to just about everyone) is called upon to serve the future; in a universe where extreme body modifications have become the norm, where the entire solar system is colonized and where social norms are somewhat weirder than today, well, Bey is a man of singular talents. One of the leading scientists of the form-change revolution, he’s still at the top of the game in more ways than one; even though he’s officially retired, every woman he meets seems intent on seducing him, for business purposes or simple pleasure. Whatta guy!

One of those women is Sondra Dearborn, a novice agent at the Office of Form Control. A hot case has been dropped on her lap, and she doesn’t quite know what to do with it; a strange matter of feral forms passing human-detection tests, throwing a Really Big Wrench in hitherto-unchallenged assumptions. (Including, one will note, those of the Proteus series itself) Out of ideas and maybe even out of time, she calls upon Bey Wolf to help.

But he’s retired, ga’dang it. Plus he’s got another offer on his plate; Multi-billionaire owner of one of the solar system’s biggest corporation Trudy Melford also wants to pay him for intellectual services. The only catch is that he’s have to go to Mars in order to do so, but why hesitate when interplanetary transport can be instantaneous?

In short order, Sonya is forced to fend for herself on one of the cold outer colonies, Bey’s Mars contract proves eventful, conspiracies start to accumulate and we’re thick in a futuristic mystery novel. It’s all quite enjoyable; Sheffield’s style is here crystal-clear, with nary a dull moment in sight.

Oh, it’s not perfect, mind you: much as the two previous volumes had a few rough spots (the first novel depended on “biofeedback” as a science, and the second featured a man whose crazy dances drove others to insanity!), Proteus in the Underworld is sometimes too simple; this type of one-corporation-rules, one-test-is-infallible, one-man-knows-all fiction isn’t particularly realistic. The real world doesn’t work that way. But such shortcuts can be fun, and that’s all we’re asking for when it comes to old-school SF.

While the science can be wonky at times (this is adventure, not hard-SF), the mystery is satisfying, the prose is dynamic, the characters are terrific in their own way and the imagined future feels utterly comfortable. Combine that will a killer cover illustration by Gary Ruddell (Rwowrrr, Sondra!) and the result is one of Sheffield’s most enjoyable work, and a great third volume in a cool trilogy from an author that deserves to be fondly remembered.

The Spheres of Heaven, Charles Sheffield

Baen, 2001, 440 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-31969-8

Recently, as I was discussing the current state of Science-fiction with a far more more learned acquaintance, I found myself admitting that I’ve run out of patience with “ordinary” SF. The genre has limitless possibilities and the universe as a canvas: Why is it that writers are content in recycling stock premises, tired conventions and material we’ve already read countless times? Let’s forget the past fifty years and move forward, people! Our future has changed since 1980!

Alas, Charles Sheffield’s The Spheres of Heaven isn’t new SF. At all. Not only is it a sequel (it can be read independently from The Mind Pool, but it’s still a sequel), but its imagined universe smells suspiciously familiar. Interstellar travel is handled by “Link” gates, but they are not accessible to us: Humanity is locked out of the galaxy by alien races fearful of our potential for violence. The Solar System is colonized from Mercury to the Oort Cloud, but after twenty years of isolation, there’s a strong sense of stagnation. But here come the aliens, and they need good-old human audacity to solve a prickly problem involving a new Link and disappearing ships.

That’s the setup. Alas, it takes nearly two hundred pages to do anything with it. And what’s explored isn’t the tension between violence and stagnation, but yet another dull story of first contact with conquest-thirsty aliens from another dimension.

Excuse me as I yawn.

It could have been interesting had the writing been up to the task. But Sheffield’s never been a character-driven author nor a master stylist. If you strip away his ideas, you usually end up with a dull novel indeed, and this is the fate that awaits The Spheres of Heaven. It’s lifeless and just takes forever to rev up. From the exploration of the alien environment to the formation of protagonist Chan Dalton’s team, The Spheres of Heaven seems padded and then dull: To put it simply, too many words are used for the density of action described.

It doesn’t help that the novel constantly focuses on the wrong things. At the beginning of the novel, the accretion of Dalton’s team is fascinating, yet Sheffield insists on cutting away at every other chapter. Then Sheffield does the unforgivable: why assemble such a crack team of fascinating specialists if you’re not going to do anything with them? Later, Friday Indigo’s trip becomes another central focus, leading to another loss of tension in the narrative.

Another problem with The Spheres of Heaven is how it often reads like a novel for teenagers, retrofitted to appeal to adults. (Sheffield has written teen novels for Tor, so that may not be a completely ridiculous theory). Sure, the characters have sex lives and are often ex-addicts, but the overall plotting and execution seems to appeal to unsophisticated SF readers. Details such as the composition of the strange watery environment in which environment our characters are stuck takes forever to explain when even the most casual reader thinks “Heavy water!”

Idea-wise, there’s not much to digest in The Spheres of Heaven. We’ve seen most of it elsewhere, and usually better-used. Dimension-hopping’s been done before. So have expansionist aliens, human quarantine, first contact and/or exploration of strange environments. (And I say this without having read the previous book!)

It’s a shame, really, because Sheffield has been capable of far better things. But The Spheres of Heaven has all the hallmarks of a slap-dash hack job, the type of book written for quick bucks and paid by the word. Even Sheffield enthusiasts may have a hard time finishing this one. It’s not appallingly bad (certainly, we’ve seen worse, even from this author), but it has no compelling features either. Sense my lack of patience, will you?

Starfire, Charles Sheffield

Bantam Spectra, 1999, 401 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37894-5

Is it possible for a sequel to be… better… than the original?

Depends on what you mean by sequel. It’s certainly more reasonable to assume that books planned from the onset to be a sequel to a first volume (say, as part of the series) has chances to be more ambitious than the first volume than a book cooked a few years later as a sequel to an initially stand-alone novel. Compare cinema with literature on this point, and after you’ve compared HIGHLANDER 2 with, say, SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, I’ll rest my case. (Though XENOCIDE could be compared with SUPERMAN III and set off a whole new debate.)

I was not a big fan of Charles Sheffield’s Aftermath. Partly because it felt more like a disaster novel than science-fiction, partly because it was filled with unsympathetic characters that spent their time discussing various sexual dysfunctions, partly because, frankly, it just wasn’t very interesting. Aftermath, however, was obviously the first volume in a series; the ending, with its last-minute curveball, seemed explicitly designed to whet readers’ expectations.

I happened, a year later, to grab Starfire off my local library’s shelves. No sense in spending money to read a sequel to a book I didn’t really like.

Surprisingly, even though I can’t really say that Starfire is all that good, it’s certainly more interesting and more enjoyable than its prequel.

For one thing, it certainly feels closer to science-fiction than the previous volume. At the end of Aftermath, scientists discovered that they had twenty-five years to prepare a shield to protect them from a serious particle storm headed for Earth. In Starfire, the twenty-five years are up and the final elements of the shield race to completion before the storm hits. But, ah-ha, things suddenly look much worse than previously; the particle storm arrives earlier than expected, packs more punch, and faces a shield that’s dogged by budgetary constraints and sabotage. Seems like, as usual in hard-SF, wacky religious groups just keep wanting the end of Earth.

As if that wasn’t enough, most of the essential robots of the shield project are controlled by a maniacal dwarf (is there any other kind of dwarf, I ask?), who sends a traitorous woman (is there…?) to seduce a straight-laced engineer (is there…?) Even better; to solve a series of murders on a space station, a shadowy operative contacts a genius ex-serial murderer. (Now, you know that all serial murderers are geniuses.)

A lot of stuff, mostly already seen elsewhere, but it keeps things moving at a decent pace. The constant sexual obsession of the first volume is considerably toned down and even though some characters approach cliché, it does seem as if they’re a rather more pleasant bunch than in the previous book.

The details are a mixed bunch. As could be expected from a scientist/hard-SF writer like Sheffield, the science is adequate even though the “one single smart scientist figures it all out” cliché is once again taken for a walk. The political details, however, sound naive and far too convenient, a flaw shared by many similar novels. Political unlikeliness isn’t the only type of doubtful developments in Starfire, however; the whole ending (along with the dinosaur stuff) struck me as essentially preposterous.

But, even though Starfire isn’t too good, it lends itself to a quick reading, and represents a step up from its predecessor. Unfortunately, it still represents another sub-par novel from Sheffield, who’s shown himself capable of both the best and the worst, often in successive books. Certainly, seeing him turn out two or three novels a year doesn’t do much to inspire confidence; is he spreading himself too thin?

In any case, those readers who slogged through Aftermath deserve something to lessen the bad taste of it; Starfire might fit the bill. And if you haven’t read the first volume, well, it’s not essential for enjoying this one.

Borderlands of Science, Charles Sheffield

Baen, 1999, 367 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-57836-7

We live in interesting times. Everywhere you look, things are changing, and they’re changing at an accelerated rate. It used to be that a decade could pass without perceptible difference. Not anymore. Going back a decade from 1999 brings us to a world still locked in a cold war, without Internet, without decent personal computers, without quasi-classic cultural references like JURASSIC PARK and TITANIC. Anecdotal evidence aside, we are now collectively running along in a race called Progress.

Most of this progress is fuelled, directly or not, by science and technology. In Borderlands of Science, noted scientist and SF author Charles Sheffield tries to establish what is the extent of today’s knowledge. “This book” writes Sheffield in his introduction, “defines the frontiers of today’s science.” This isn’t an easy task, and even though Sheffield makes valiant efforts, the results still fails short of his ambitions.

Part of the problem, as Sheffield himself acknowledges, is that science is so mind-bogglingly all-inclusive and specialized to the point of rarefaction, that no sane individual can aspire to know all about it. Sheffield is, by formation, a physicist/mathematician with a body of experience in astronautics. This makes him an ideal writer to talk about physics and space exploration, but that doesn’t make him an authority in chemistry, biology or computer science. Indeed Borderlands of Science falters when it tries to dissect these subjects, an impression strengthened by the pell-mell organization of the book.

The second problem of this book is that it’s targeted, not to a general audience, but to aspiring science-fiction writers. You would think that publisher Jim Baen, in his marketing genius, would aim for a layman’s audience numbering in the… oh… few millions. But instead, Sheffield passes his time pointing out potential “story ideas” where simply stating the state of current research would do just as well. Granted, this is an artifact of the book’s origin (it derives partly from a series of lectures given by Sheffield to a bunch of wanabee SF writers), but it’s still annoying to the (far numerous) readers without any interest in mining “story ideas” from this book.

Another marketing misfire is more readily obvious, at least on the hardcover edition: As it is now common with Baen large editions, their art geniuses have slapped a coat of metallic paint on the cover, making it garishly unpleasant to look at. Of course, given the already-ugly nature of the illustration itself, this might have been done intentionally. Still, Borderlands of Science deserved a more restrained cover along the lines of most popular-science books.

Even despite these various flaws, Borderlands of Science manages to be a pretty decent scientific vulgarization book. Sheffield writes with a certain amount of wit, and the result is a book that goes deeply into scientific jargon, but which always return before it’s too late. Even though the structure is a bit hesitant at times, there is a very complete table of content, index and many documented references.

In short, a decent popular-science read for hard-SF fans.

[January 2000: Bad news for Sheffield: The ideal limits-of-science book already exists, and is called Visions, by Michio Kaku. It actually begins with a question raised by Sheffield at the end of his book: “Is this the end of science?” and proceeds from there by saying that the basic discoveries have been nailed down, but that the science of mastery awaits… Read the review, or the book, for more details.]

Aftermath, Charles Sheffield

Bantam, 1998, 452 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37893-7

The great thing about modern civilization is that every few days, we find new ways to bring it down. Take an electromagnetic pulse, for instance. In theory, it’s an energy reaction that simply produces an massive influx of electrons. The consequences, however, are devastating on modern machinery: They overload electronic circuits -frying them permanently- and wipe out magnetic storage formats. This well-known phenomenon -which can be caused by nuclear explosions, among other things- is slowly becoming the sword of Damocles that’s hanging over our modern electromagnetic civilization.

EMP wouldn’t have been a problem a hundred years ago. Even as late at 1975, the consequences wouldn’t have been as dramatic. But nowadays, a large part of our financial, communication and media networks increasingly rely on complex electronic devices easily damaged by electromagnetic pulses. It’s going to get worse. Aftermath is a novel that takes place after a freak astronomic event has created a massive electromagnetic pulse that completely devastates Earth’s electronics…

Three cancer victims begin a hunt for a scientist who can continue their longevity treatments. The president of the USA is besieged by personal and national issues. Astronauts from the first Mars mission arrive near Earth to find that nobody can come and get them. Yet another fanatic religious group arises..

If you suspect a disaster novel, then you’re right: Though Aftermath is definitely SF, it takes place is a future far closer to ours than Sheffield’s other novels. The time is 2026, and in spite of a few fancy new gadgets, there really isn’t much there to tantalize the SF fan. It actually looks closer to 2010 than anything else. Like many disaster novels, Aftermath also sacrifices ideas for lengthy plotting, which is where Sheffield begins to lose control over his book.

I’m of the opinion that sex is absent of most hard-SF writer’s work because they end up looking silly if they try it, (which isn’t to say that sex in non-hard-SF works isn’t pretty silly either!) and Aftermath pretty much proves my point. Nearly each characters discourses at length about his sexual (in) capacities, from homosexual congressmen to pedophiliac scientists to impotent heads of state. I believe I speak for a sizeable proportion of the North-American population when I say that the less said about the president’s sex life, the better.

All of this ties into a bigger complaint, which is that Aftermath hasn’t got a recognizably normal character in its dramatis personae. No one to identify with, no bird’s eye view of the action and disaster. I’m all for originality in characters, but when overdone it reads a lot like your average daytime soap opera.

Fortunately, Aftermath has a bit more meat than the usual melodrama, and it’s one of its virtues that it steadily becomes more interesting as it advances. Be prepared for a rather average start. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes obvious that the novel’s plot lines won’t be tied up by the end of the book, and so Aftermath ends on a note strongly suggestive of at least one sequel. It would have been decent for Bantam to at least acknowledge this on the dust jacket…

This lack of closure, coupled with the humdrum nature of most of the novel and the sometime-ridiculous sex-driven character dynamics make Aftermath a less-than-commendable choice. Sheffield has done much better in the past, and we can only hope that he’ll come back to form soon.

Proteus Manifest, Charles Sheffield

Guild American Books, 1989, 406 pages, C$15.00 hc, ISBN Unavailable

Ever since the “New Wave” pseudo-revolution of the sixties, a segment of Science-Fiction has been quite content to push the boundaries of literary achievement at the expense of the story. Sometimes is works (Neuromancer), but second-hand bookstores across the nation are packed with the failures of the experiment. Arguably, the final result is a stronger, more mature and better-written Science-Fiction. But ordinary readers can’t be blamed if they get the impression that a lot of the simple storytelling fun has gone out of today’s SF. Even worse; they tend to accept this as a matter of fact, and so the impression that Written SF Can’t Be Fun Any More If It Want To Be Serious subconsciously endures.

That’s why it’s such a breath of fresh air, from time to time, to re-discover solid works of SF that unashamedly bring back the simple joy of reading. It’s not fancy to be conventional, but most of the time it works.

Charles Sheffield will never be misidentified as one of the genre’s greatest stylists. A scientist by trade, Sheffield has turned to Science-Fiction late in life, producing works heavily inspired by the hard sciences, with only a perfunctory interest in characters.

His first novel was Sight of Proteus (1978), a short tale about a future Earth modified by the widespread use of nonsurgical techniques to modify the human body. These can be as innocuous as simple plastic modification or as fundamental as changing sex, etc… The hero of the tale is Behrooz Wulf (ie; Bey Wolf), a top investigator at the agency charged with protecting the Earth from illegal and dangerous modifications. It all begins as they suspect a famous scientist of forbidden experiments…

Sight of Proteus is, to be frank, a bit silly. Sheffield’s body-shaping technology is a mix between fancy machines and almost wishful biofeedback mechanisms. Given that the real-world has invented nanotechnology since Sheffield’s novel, let’s just say that his techno-babble isn’t as fresh or convincing as it was then even if the end results are more believable. The world-building is also slightly suspicious; one would expect more of scientific progress if, after all, they’re able to shape bodies literally at will.

But even despite these quibbles, Sight of Proteus is fun. The writing is marvelously limpid, up to a point where one wonders how come most novels aren’t as accessible, imaginative and entertaining as this one.

Things get less pleasant by the end, as our protagonists go an Nivenesque trip through the solar system and the story doesn’t conclude as much as is dropped almost in mid-flight.

Proteus Manifest is one of the Science-Fiction Book Club’s own omnibus editions, thus cleverly combining two book published at ten year’s interval under a same cover. Unfortunately, a universe based on the body-changing premise and a protagonist with the same name are about the only things the two novels have in common: There are few linkages with the events of the first novel, and Sheffield’s prose has evolved significantly in the decade dividing Sight of Proteus with Proteus Unbound (1989).

Even the plot is bigger, as Behrooz Wulf is asked to solve disquieting form-changing equipment failures in the Outer Solar System. At the same time, he’s plagued with maddening hallucinations and a lost love. Oh, and there’s also a rebel colony hidden inside the asteroid belt. Could all of these things possibly be linked?

The fun of the first volume carries through the second book, which is more satisfying than the first (though the conclusion is almost as abrupt). Good ideas, sharp writing, nice plotting and an effortless mastery of hard sciences; it’s good enough to compare with Niven and Clarke, as well as make one wonder why they don’t write that kind of SF any more.

Though Proteus Manifest is at time frustrating and not exactly completely successful, it is so wonderfully imaginative and clearly written that it’s well-worth picking up in used bookstores. Who said that the New Wave had killed old-fashioned Hard SF?