The Amphora Projectby William Kotzwinkle
“Science fiction with a humorous bent . . . Frothy, sassy entertainment.” –Kirkus Reviews
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The first adult novel in over a decade by the author of The Fan Man and the best-selling Walter the Farting Dog series–a fantastic, intergalactic adventure.
Over the course of thirty years, William Kotzwinkle has solidified his reputation as a versatile and enormously imaginative storyteller. After a best-selling foray into children’s books with the beloved Walter the Farting Dog series, he now offers a rip-roaring ride through the future of the universe, his first adult novel since The Bear Went Over the Mountain.
Deep in the bowels of Junk Moon, the finest scientists of Planet Immortal are nearing completion of a project that will unlock the secret of immortality, left by the Ancient Aliens before they departed the known world. Project Amphora is run by the Consortium, twelve of the planet’s most influential movers and shakers. They aren’t the only ones after immortality: Commander Jockey Oldcastle, a wise-cracking space pirate, has heard about the Amphora Project from a banished scientist who is convinced it will lead to the end of the world. Oldcastle sets off to find the project with Adrian Link, a timid botanist who wants only to tend to his plants on the Agricultural Plain, yet Oldcastle finds himself trying to unravel a strange mystery: It seems the Amphora Project is turning the citizens of Planet Immortal into crystal. As time runs out, it is up to Oldcastle and Link–and Link’s exotic, unlikely love interest–to stop their mysterious extra- dimensional enemy before their world is lost forever. Hilarious, wildly inventive, and featuring a fantastical cast of mutants, quasi-human robots, intergalactic mercenaries, and two-thousand-year-old immortals, The Amphora Project is a novel that combines elements of science fiction and fantasy and transcends the boundaries of both.
“A rollicking old-school space opera complete with sensitive robots, wily space aliens and secretive societies in turmoil. . . . The story twists along at breakneck pace through a future of absurd decadence and immense possibility. Along the way Kotzwinkle fans will find sharply resonant moments as well as pointed humor and insight into human nature at its worst and best.” –Publishers Weekly
“In this delightful piece of froth . . . Kotzwinkle resurrects the classic space opera of E.E. Smith’s “Lensman” seies and tempers it with the whimsy of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. . . . For a diverting tale and some good-hearted fun, this may be just the book.” –Library Journal
“Science fiction with a humorous bent . . . Frothy, sassy entertainment.” –Kirkus Reviews
“An entertaining trip through an exotic future full of weird technology and plenty of heroics and adventure in the company of bizarre creatures.” –Regina Schroeder, Booklist
“The desire to live forever seems to be pretty common, especially among the rich and powerful of any sentient species. There are lots of sentient species in this wildly cinematic comic space opera, along with the usual assortment of lovable rogues, evil villains, aliens, heroes, sirens, robots, and bugs. Kotzwinkle’s understanding of the universality of human foibles powers his very successful and very funny novel.” –Russ Harvey, Cody’s Books, Berkeley, CA, Book Sense quote
Praise for William Kotzwinkle:
“William Kotzwinkle is one of the few American writers in complete control of his materials, and his materials seem to come from somewhere deep down.” –Kurt Vonnegut
“Kotzwinkle is the gifted bard, the natural storyteller.” –The New York Times
“A depth of emotion and an intensity of feeling seldom seen in American writers today.” –San Francisco Review of Books
“A major American writer.” –Playboy
“Kotzwinkle is the conjurer . . . a heckuva writer.” –Boston Globe
“A fine craftsman.” –The New Yorker
“Well above the ordinary practioners, the specialists in modern terror . . . Kotzwinkle is a sorcerer.” –Saturday Review
“You ought to read Kotzwinkle, people kept telling me. “He is funny, imaginative, irreverent, and tuned to today.” I tired of humoring them and decided to let him humor me. He did . . . he’s imaginative, irreverent, and tuned to today.” –Los Angeles Times
A Book Sense Selection
“Sky mines,” hissed Lizardo, his throat inflating nervously as he gazed out the flight deck window at the ornaments of doom flickering in the darkness. His armored scales made a scraping sound as he wrapped his tail around the pedestal of his seat. “No one mentioned minefields.”
“You worry too much,” said Commander Jockey Oldcastle, his formidable paunch pressed against the controls of their descending ship.
“That’s why we haven’t been killed until now,” hissed Lizardo. He was a navigator from Planet Serpentia. The pupils of his eyes were shaped like keyholes in an ancient lock, glowing with menace. In the rooms of his brain were recipes for poisons in all dilutions, from mild to murderous. Two fangs lay backward against the roof of his mouth.
When they swung forward, they filled with venom and the recipient of it was going to go to sleep, for hours, days, or forever, depending on the mixture.
Jockey looked beyond the sky mines to the little moon below.
“Made for pleasure.”
“Only fools seek pleasure on such places. We don’t need this job.”
“We need any job we can get.” Jockey touched the controls lightly, taking the ship closer to the minefield.
Lizardo’s scaly claws clicked on the control face of his navigational equipment. He was preparing a flight plan for escape, back out through the minefield. Serpentians receive vibratory patterns from the metabolic processes of other brains, and metabolic tremors were now reaching him from the moon below. Amid the usual garbage of human and alien emotion he discerned the emanation of a hunting party–highly focused individuals on the prowl. As there was no game on the little moon, what were they hunting?
A voice came from the flight deck radio. “Welcome to the Paper Lantern. Please don’t mind our little maze. It’s to discourage unwanted visitors. You’ve been cleared for landing.” The sky mines parted, allowing them to pass.
The moon was marked with ridges that resembled the ribs of a lantern, but, as descent continued, the ribs spaced themselves farther apart until the illusion of a lantern was dispelled. A carpet of lights rolled up from the night horizon, gained definition, and became the protective dome of a controlled environment–a pink translucent shell glowing from within.
“Let’s try not to dent anything too badly,” said Jockey. The burly pirate turned the ship nose up, and the Temperance, like an inverted candle whose flame was dying, settled onto a landing pad. When the engines quieted down, he walked back to the salon to join his passenger. “Your higher education continues, dear boy,” he said to Adrian Link. Link was Chief of Soil, Plant, and Insect Control of the Agricultural Department of Planet Immortal, a weighty position for one so young. Link’s utility robot, Upquark, sat beside him, concern in his artificial eyes. His robotic analysis of the situation was that journeys with Jockey were likely to put Adrian at risk; the pirate always
had some ulterior motive when he invited Adrian on a trip. I have much to contend with, thought the little robot.
Lizardo stepped past them and opened the hatch. He stretched his neck, gazing suspiciously left and right. A ring of white scales around his neck gave him the look of a priest, but any confessions he heard came with his claws wrapped around someone’s throat.
The others followed him out through the hatch, and a pneumatic bus shot them to the dome. As they entered the nightclub, Link stared up into the rosy dome and caught his breath. What at first looked like a moving tapestry proved to be the fluttering of wings. Rare butterflies were circling there.
‘”Did I lie?” asked Jockey.
For an instant Link couldn’t speak. Then he said, “For once, no.”
The pirate flung an arm around his young friend. “You’d see marvels every night if you joined all my expeditions.”
“My calculations indicate it is more likely you’d see the inside of a jail,” interjected Upquark. “The incarceration probability for Commander Oldcastle is rated as extremely high.”
Jockey twitched his nose in the direction of a roasted magdabeest floating by him on a tray. “Is that wakmaz sauce I smell?”
“We came on business,” hissed Lizardo impatiently.
“What have you got for appetizers?” Jockey asked the waitress, as she led them to a table. “Never mind, bring them all.”
Link’s gaze remained on the butterflies and moths animating the ceiling. None of them could be seen in the wild anymore; the artificial world of the Paper Lantern was one of their few remaining habitats. An enormous moth flew down and hung in the air in front of him, beating its velvet wings.
“Found a confidante?” asked Jockey. “What does she know?”
“Everything,” said Link in a low voice
“Then induce her to talk.”
“She already has.” Link’s eyes followed the Giant Death’s Head moth as it turned around to show the skull-like pattern of scales on its thorax. It fluttered toward the vase of scarlet flowers on the table, and the exquisite spring of its maxillae unwound into the center blossom. Link relaxed back in his chair. Letting Jockey drag him from the Agricultural Plain had been worth it for this single moment.
But Lizardo stared at the moth without appreciation. “To have a little flying skull visit our table is not a good omen.”
Upquark said, “An omen is a resonant subset in the total energy of a larger continuum. The odds that a moth could predict trouble are one in four million. I don’t think we have any cause for concern.”
The waitress returned accompanied by a floating tray on which were spread an assortment of plump, tiny creatures served in cups of their own archaic armor. “Glyptodonts from Planet Almagest,” said Jockey with reverence. He speared one, placed it between his teeth, and let out a sigh of pleasure.
“Who’s that pig of a mercenary?” inquired a young lieutenant of the Consortium Guard, seated at a nearby table.
“Jockey Oldcastle,” replied his fellow officer, a captain not much older than the lieutenant.
“Wasn’t Oldcastle once in the Guard himself?” asked the woman seated with them.
“I couldn’t say.”
“Oh, come on,” said the woman, “you don’t have to cover for him just because he was a fellow officer.”
“I’m not covering for him. I find his actions contemptible, and not worth speaking of.”
“Well, now you must tell me,” said the woman, but paused in her inquisition. A black-skulled robot had brought a bottle to their table. “Wine from Planet Yesterday. Very rare, for the grapes of Yesterday are no more.” The robot uncorked the wine and poured it to precisely an inch from the top of the woman’s glass, while internally scanning her biofi: Katherine Livtov, known to her military customers as Kitty Liftoff. The owner of the Junk Moon, an artificial planet devoted to space debris.
“Please enjoy the light of the Paper Lantern.” The robot withdrew, and Kitty Liftoff pressed the young officers again for information about Jockey Oldcastle.
“Oldcastle used the Consortium Guard for private gain,” said the captain. “He was lucky he wasn’t executed.”
“What were his private gains?”
“Permit me,” said the lieutenant. His cuff communicator brought up the Oldcastle service record. ‘selling military fruitcakes on the black market. Apparently he sold several million fruitcakes before he was caught. Let’s see what else we have–”
While the lieutenant ticked off Jockey’s offenses, Kitty turned toward the mercenary’s table. She dealt with pirates regularly, buying and selling their shipments of so-called salvage. She made a memo on her communicator to talk to this Oldcastle. The captain noted the entry sourly. ‘swine like Oldcastle deserve the disintegration chamber.”
The swine was licking his thick fingers. “Ah, my friends, here we are at midnight, fighting the saut”ed glyptodont. How one misses food like this on Planet Immortal.” He pierced another tiny creature from its armored cup, and closed his eyes to savor it.
Lizardo ignored his companions. The tremors he had sensed were growing more intense, which meant the hunting party was drawing close. He felt their cerebellar activity spiking; their plan for this evening was to capture a prize, and it wasn’t a butterfly. Was it a lizard?
At the other table, an alien mercenary was approaching Kitty Liftoff. He was humanoid of feature, but as if a jellyfish had once been in his ancestral tree. His arms were bare, and his skin faintlytransparent. Visibly coiled in the skin were barbed black threads which he could eject, their points containing a paralyzing toxin. He removed a battered hat, whose alien plumage was ragged. “You have my Ghazi Night Runner?”
Kitty had continuous elf lights going off around her as incoming data arrived on her Auranet. She shrank the elves, and brought up a holofile of the Night Runner: A miniature of the ship appeared in front of the mercenary’s eyes. Kitty pointed a long polished fingernail. “Laser drive, laser power cells, wingtip laser cannons, and nine torpedoes in the bay. You’ll be secure in it.”
“I’m secure at all times,” said the mercenary, the barbs in his flesh uncoiling slightly, like a nest of disturbed snakes. Kitty wrapped her slender fingers around a glass, and this simple movement seemed perfect to the barbarian. She was certainly no younger than a hundred, but was still one of the great beauties. Her skin had been immaculately rejuvenated, and her black hair, parted slightly to one side and hanging straight down across her cheekbones to her jawline, was lustrous and thick. He forced himself back to the business at hand. “Immediate possession?”
“As soon as you’ve paid me, darling.”
“One year on all parts. Exterior damage isn’t covered.”
“I shall not drive it into a wall.”
“Someone may drive into you,” said the lieutenant.
“Why would anyone wish to do that?” replied the Man o’ War, for such was the designation by which his species went in Consortium Guard identification schemes.
“Give me your interplanetary banking number,” said Kitty, “and we’ll deliver your ship to orbit.”
“I prefer to pay in my own way.” Gregori Man o’ War placed a mesh bag of jewels on the table.
Kitty looked at them only briefly before accepting the bag, for the barbarian had given her the value of the Ghazi Night Runner and then some. Men o’ War never stinted when it came to money.
“They look like you pried them out of someone’s crown,” observed the captain. “Anyway, have a drink with us,” he quickly added, for Men o’ War were fearless in battle. They also had uncanny mechanical abilities; unfortunately, their emergency repair solutions, though brilliant, were unrepeatable, as they quickly forgot what they’d done. Consortium Guard generals always liked a few Men o’ War on their rosters.
“One must have a fine carriage to fly around in,” declared the barbarian, whose uniform was ill-fitting, its lace collar filthy, as were the rosettes in his shoes, but he’d drenched himself in cologne. “A pity I can’t fly it to your planet, but there you are, there’s a misunderstanding between myself and your police. It’s why I must conduct business here, on the little moon.”
“We could probably work out an amnesty for you,” suggested the captain, “if you care to join us.”
“Ah, gentlemen, look at this face. It is the mask of crime.” The barbarian tilted his head at an angle to better illustrate the point. “Vicious, venal, and vile. That’s how it’s described in the files of your Autonomous Observer. No, I’m afraid I can’t join the Consortium Guard. But here, oblige me, for I’m touched by your offer.” He opened the pouch on his azure sash and threw more jewels on the table. “Please, help yourself. You insult me if there is not one for each of you.”
The officers obliged. They were young, a command was expensive to maintain, and a moment like this was why one came to the Paper Lantern–moon of the unexpected.
Gregori Man o’ War eyed them tolerantly. Their youth had not yet been ripped away from them in galactical battle; they’d not seen great ships explode and the heads of their comrades go into orbit forever. To himself, in his native tongue, he softly sang a tune about a pilot stoically flamb”ed in a plane. Like many of his native songs, it seemed to have no point other than the depiction of a painful death met with contempt.
“I’m sure we could get you a full pardon and put you straight onto the flight deck of a Predator,” said the lieutenant, believing himself to be the tolerant one, of the barbarian’s slovenly appearance and his ridiculous scent. One had to take the alien as one found him, and exploit his genius.
“Sir,” said Gregori Man o’ War, “I am tempted, because I see you are an experienced man.”
The lieutenant modestly shrugged this off.
“But my business tonight,” continued the barbarian, “is with this lady. I have bought a ship from her. You know its make and one day you may encounter it somewhere. Perhaps the circumstances will not be favorable to me. I beg that you renew your offer then.”
“But then we’ll be obliged to take you prisoner.”
“A thing I could not permit. So for tonight, while we’re still friends, let us have a few more drinks.”
The young officers smiled, feeling that this was as it should be, that they were brothers of the firmament, man and alien.
Kitty listened to it all, while anticipating that some day a wrecked ship would arrive at the Junk Moon with their blood on the control panel. Ships might be salvaged, men rarely. This presentiment gave Kitty a melancholy air. If you deal in arms long enough, if your office window opens out onto an endless vista of broken war machinery, you develop a philosophical side. The dented canopies of her junk fleet had held the latest bright young men; at night, when she was alone in her office, she imagined she heard ghost radios, from which commands crackled, mixed with laughter, sometimes music, and ending always in deathly silence.
©2005 by William Kotzwinkle. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved
1. Like myths, the best science fiction employs fantastical elements to tell stories about modern-day conditions. Does The Amphora Project achieve this? If so, how is the story reflective of the current day?
2. When the android Upquark bumps into a Cantusian woman named Ren Ixen at the Paper Lantern in chapter two, he is so impressed by her that he seeks to fix her up with his boss, Adrian Link. What is his motive in doing this? What are Ren Ixen’s most notable charms? What is her most precious gift and how does she use it to her advantage? How do you characterize the budding romance between Link and her throughout the novel? Are they suitable mates?
3. Stuart Landsmann, onetime director of the Amphora Project, made the mistake of confessing his doubts about the project to members of the Consortium and, in response, his memory file was erased. Why did Landsmann think Amphora would destroy the planet, and why were his actions so threatening as to warrant mind erasure? Though he is largely absent throughout the novel, what does Landsmann’s character represent to the story? Discuss Landsmann’s appearance in the second half of the novel. Were you satisfied with how he comes out in the end?
4. In Kotzwinkle’s futuristic world, humans and their robotic technology are often intertwined. Consider the Observer’s information implants and the android Upquark, who experiences the emotions of his master, Adrian Link. What other human–robot alliances occur in the novel? In this book, is robotic technology beneficial to mankind? In today’s world of evolving technology, do you see the designs for a similar future where man and machine merge?
5. What is the Corridor? Who built it? What does the Corridor represent to the galaxy as well as the movement toward achieving immortality?
6. How would you characterize Alien City? What occurs there and how has it become a meeting place for all the alien races of the galaxy? Do you recognize a corresponding city in our world? How are they similar?
7. From the description offered by the Immortal Metron in chapter eight, discuss the science of the Amphora project. How is immortality to be achieved, at least in theory? Explaining his physical composition, Metron says, ‘my life is informational, and that information is contained in the Pavilion (of the Absolute). . . . What you see here . . . is an exteriorization of information running in the Pavilion of the Absolute. I am, shall we say, but a shadow of myself” (p. 77). Artificial intelligence scientists like Ray Kurzweil have suggested that, like the Immortals, humans might one day be able to scan and upload their mindfile into a cosmic database from which they would be able to transmit themselves in any form. Does this seem to you like a distant possibility or far-fetched science fiction?
8. Consider the Immortals as a character in this novel, embodied by Metron. How does he earn the Consortium’s trust? Is his spell of enchantment genuine, or are the Immortals hiding the truth about immortality? What is the public perception of the Immortals? What is their “fatal blunder” (p. 227) that inspires angry demonstration against them? Finally, why does the Observer vow to protect the Immortals with her life in chapter twenty-five? And yet several chapters later she realizes, “They were only conduits for the Ancients, and even as conduits they’d failed. Beautiful as they were, and perfected in philosophy, they were useless’ (pp. 229–230). What does this suggest about her loyalty?
9. Discuss the Anonymous Observer. What are the most interesting facets of her character? Is she a good leader in a time of crisis? Who is her greatest ally? What is her biggest mistake? At first cold and robotically efficient, how does she eventually get in touch with her deeper human side?
10. In chapter nineteen, the Observer and the Consortium members debate whether or not to dismantle the Amphora Project. Does this type of debate accompany any great leap in achievement? Consider the current debates on stem-cell research and cloning. How does the Amphora Project compare? Do you agree with the Immortal Metron’s argument in support of immortality, as revealed in chapter eight? If technology were truly invented to prolong life indefinitely, how would the ethical debate be framed? Would you choose immortality? How would life change if it were unnecessary for humans to consider death?
11. Jockey Oldcastle calls Adrian Link an “interchanneler,” explaining that “occasionally a perfect idiot like himself might find a pathway that better men never dreamed of. “You did it with bugs, old man, which is a new one on me” ” (p. 234). Discuss Link’s obsession with insects and how it affects his relationship with other characters, particularly Ren Ixen. Are genius and romance mutually exclusive? Do you know anyone with a similar, all-consuming passion for their work? What part of themselves does a person surrender when they devote their life to the most studied pursuit of their passion? How does Link’s obsessive knowledge of insect behavior save everyone from the doomed Amphora Project?
12. Lizardo’s Uncle Ophidian, in his book the Serpentian Chronogrammatic, wrote “In the abyss, I, Ophidian, exercised control over the principium essendi. My demonstrations showed that every effect is consequent of knowledge” (p. 166). In essence, he demonstrated that focused mental energy could effect change at the subatomic level. How does this theory bear out in the end? Can you explain how Uncle Ophidian rid the world of the Ancient Aliens? Do you believe that humans possess more power in their minds than has previously been discovered?
13. Discuss the array of aliens represented in The Amphora Project. How does physical appearance reflect their functions? Which are the most unique species? How are interspecies relationships portrayed? What happens in times of trouble and paranoia? Is there a real-world implication in Kotzwinkle’s depiction of this human–alien relationship?
14. Explain whether or not you consider The Amphora Project a comic novel. If so, what sort of humor is used? What effect does it have on the novel?
15. From this large cast of characters, who were your favorites and why? What is their role in the story? Who would you cite as the novel’s main character? What is your impression of the novel as a whole? How does it compare to other space adventures in the genre?
Foundation by Isaac Asimov; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick; Dune by Frank Herbert; Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein; Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card; 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke; Sewer, Gas & Electric by Matt Ruff; The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett; The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil