Reading through a backlist during the Covid-19 outbreak, I had mixed reactions to these three stories from 1978, 1989 and 1991…

First up was a re-read of “Sigmet Active” by Thomas Page (1978). I had read this around 1982 and it stayed lodged in my imagination ever since — but would it be as good now? The answer was “yes and no”.

‘Sigmet’ is a pilot’s notification of significant meteorological activity. Sigmet conditions make flying very risky and inadvisable. Page blends a fictional US Cold War secret weapons project with the McGuffin of a living plasma in the ionosphere to create a so-so sci-fi thriller. His idea for ‘Project Windowpane’ is plausible enough. The Navy fire an experimental high-power laser at the ozone layer which ‘burns’ a 2-mile wide hole above a test ship called the Knoxville. Windowpane seems to be a success when heat and radiation from the ‘window’ that the laser has opened kills test animals on the Knoxville.

Windowpane unbalances electrical charges in the ionosphere. The ‘plasma creature’ usually maintains the charge balance with lightning. It somehow becomes imprinted with the electrical signatures of every living creature on the surface below the window. A science crew were watching the test from a hardened bunker on an island called Itrek. The plasma creature first kills the easy lower organisms on the island with lightning before attacking the bunker. They survive but their ship, the missile destroyer Adair, is also destroyed by lightning attacks. The main protagonist, Itrek survivor Jeffrey Holden, is then chased around the world by storms created by the plasma creature. Other minor characters are killed off and there is an almost unnecessary love-child side-story.

“Sigmet Active” does still echo with some of the Cold War sentiments that I remembered. Yet, it is also diminished by the prominent homophobic sentiments of ‘Chief Petty Officer Mason’. It is a quick read (218 pages) and yet somehow Page seems to miss the mark. This time around it was neither deep enough on the science elements nor thrilling enough in the chase sequences to keep a strong hold on my interest.

Next up is “Grass” by Sheri S. Tepper (1989). This a rock-solid, classy and engaging story that I have not hesitation in recommending. A plague is sweeping across the inhabited galaxy and only the people on the planet Grass seem to be immune. In a diplomatic mission, the Westridings are sent from Earth to learn their secret.

Decadent aristocratic families known as ‘bons’ (like the bon Damfels or bon Haunsers) call themselves the rulers of Grass. They lack education and the ability to support or maintain themselves. As the story progresses it becomes clear that the people in the Commoner Town are experts in technical fields and the real powers on Grass. 

The Westridings spend a lot of time interacting with the bons, who hold themselves aloof. Eventually, Lady Westriding builds more productive relationships with the commoners.

Tall, multi-coloured grass prairies cover almost the entire surface of the planet. Ferocious ‘foxen’ and nightmare horse-like ‘hippae’ live on the prairies are the dominant macro-animals. There is a very dark secret to discover about the circle of life between bats, hippae, foxen and humans, and the ultimate cure for the plague.

The bons behave very strangely during “hunts” when they ride hippae to chase down foxen, which opens a way to reveal the immunity secret. The book never feels slow and Tepper uses several sub-plots to keep us interested as the story unfurls.  Grass has a soft mysticism a bit like Dune with such a strong sense of place that you feel like you’ve been there. Recommended.

Last up is “Synners” by Pat Cadigan (1991), riding the cyberpunk wave from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” (1984). I found Cadigan’s tale interesting, but also slow and at times held back with poorly positioned street slang. Her future society is a grimy blend of computer hacking, virtual realities, implanted technology, drugs, streetwise punks, sex and amoral corporations.

The global internet is full of viruses, some helpful, some fun, others dangerous. It now hosts a dataline that beams more information into households and businesses than they could ever consume. This internet controls everything and society would struggle if it was damaged. Many of the main characters create films for the entertainment dataline. They have a strong sub-culture that feels like “sex, drugs and rock & roll”, and the best videos get elevated to a kind of celebrity status. One such creator is a genius known as ‘Visual Mark’, whose atrophied brain has become hyper-focussed on producing images.

Cadigan invents a technology called “sockets” which enables people to connect their brains to the internet for entertainment. The ‘Diversifications’ corporation gets control of that technology and fits sockets to Visual Mark. They don’t know that sockets don’t have anti-virus protections and he is about to have a stroke (‘the big one’). Visual Mark achieves a transference of his consciousness onto the internet via his sockets, barely regretting leaving behind ‘the meat’ that he has outgrown. Unfortunately when he does have the ‘big one’ it also unleashed as the most destructive virus possible on the internet. Other protagonists must then work together to stop this virtual manifestation of the ‘big one’.

There are other sub-plots within the book, but that is part of the problem with ‘Synners’. The ideas are huge but the story crawled through a combination of too many main characters, abrupt scene shifts, confusing slang and an overdone music industry culture that I wasn’t excited about. 

Published by Lee J. Russell

Often having a Cold War influence, my stories explore desperate situations that take people to their physical and emotional limits. Find me on Twitter as @LeeJ_Russell.

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