Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Still here

So, to the surprise of very few people, the rapture didn't occur this weekend. The world hasn't ended for most of us, although for many thousands it will have done, as it does every single day. In that respect Saturday 21st May was nothing special. Some of those deaths may be the direct cause of the rapture – or, rather, of the prediction of the End by one individual. I expect that around the world there were several emotionally vulnerable people who took their own lives in disappointment that the messiah did not show up.

Interestingly, as I write Mr Camping, the man whose predictions gained him international publicity, has not been sighted since the time allotted for the coming of the final days. I await with bated breath the announcement that he did indeed ascend bodily to heaven.

Yes, it is easy to mock someone who appears to be at best on the fringes of the Christian faith, or possibly just a crazy old man getting too much publicity. However, just because mocking him and his beliefs is easy, and indeed fun, doesn't make it wrong. The fact is that although very few people believed the world was going to end last Saturday, a significant number of people do seem to believe that it will indeed end, and probably soon, and this group of people are not a fringe but wield a disproportionate amount of power for what is easily, and I think rightly, characterised as a damaging belief system. Damaging because they believe that the coming end is total and inevitable,. Damaging because they invariably believe that they are amongst the chosen group that are going to be saved. Damaging because they believe that this ending is a good thing. Damaging because why should people who live by these beliefs do anything to make the world a better place? Obviously if heaven is coming for all (all, anyway, who accept god – or their version of the divine and the particular rules laid down in a much-bastardised bronze-age text) then why bother with caring for the environment or society around you? At the very worst this affects global political policy – the US Secretary of the Interior (responsible for environmental policy) under the first George Bush who said “When the last tree is felled that will be great day, as it means the coming of the Lord is at hand.” And there can be little doubt that George W. Bush's Middle East policy was at the very least influenced by the belief that the messiah would return to Israel in the very near future.

Most people don't act like this, you may say, even if they claim to believe that the rapture is just around the corner. They continue to put their wages into savings accounts and have children, book holidays and invest in pensions. If asked, many would claim they are doing this because that is how they are instructed to live, or perhaps that “no-one knows when the time will come”, but could it be that they don't really believe what they profess to believe? I'm not knocking them; it is a good thing that they don't. The man who spent his $140, 000 savings on billboards advertising 21st May as the end of the world must be having a few pangs of doubt right now, and I'm sure he wasn't alone. The world goes on, and it is surely our responsibility to not only make the most of every moment that we are in it – because for us it is true that we know not when the end will indeed come – but to extend that privilege to those with whom we share the planet and those who will continue to live on it for the years, decade, centuries and millennia to come.

It has been said before that we become adults when we are able to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, and no longer rely on our parents to bail us out. Isn't it time that we took the same step into adulthood as a species? Once upon a time we may have needed our hand holding to make us feel better about the big scary world around us. Now we have stepped out from the confines of our garden and see that the world is far bigger, and perhaps scarier, than we could ever have imagined. But it is also more wonderful and inspiring and filled with awe. We can retreat from the universe into superstition, or we can act as responsible adults and recognise that we are part of it.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

On Being Human; review of 'Diaspora' by Greg Egan

My memories of when I used to subscribe to the science fiction magazine Interzone in the 80s and 90s are largely of two types of stories. The magazine had a penchant for a brand of rather gloomy anti-cyberpunk futurism (especially in the 80s, with Britain under Thatcher's iron heel when everything looked bleak, and era which also gave rise to such wonderfully dark comics as V for Vendetta and Crisis) of a sort that made Jeff Noon's books look positively utopian (I'm sure Noon must have had stories in IZ, come to think of it, but I can't remember any). The second sort were dazzlingly high-concept explorations of the interface between technology and society, and where ever hastening scientific and technological progress might be taking us as a species.

This is where I first came into contact with Australian author Greg Egan, an Interzone regular and prime purveyor of this latter type of story. Egan's 1997 novel Diaspora is a superb example of his work. It starts toward the end of the 30th century when humanity has split into different strains – as software entities living rapid yet immortal lives in virtual reality, or interacting with the physical world inhabiting robotic bodies, or a few 'fleshers', humans who doggedly remain attached to their biological reality. An unforeseen astrophysical disaster causes some of the digital personalities to send out copies of themselves to explore the universe in search of somewhere safe from potential annihilation from cosmic accidents.

This is not just an updating of Stapledon's Last and First Men or Wells' The Time Machine to the information age, where biological evolution continues seamlessly into electronic, but an exploration of what it means to be human, to be conscious, to be intelligent. Is the only way to be human to remain in direct contact with the physical world and live a life measured in decades, or can a piece of software that is at least as complex and possessed of its own drives and personality and autonomy, that wants to survive and learn and has morals and ethics be also considered human? As the environments in which humans live are artificial anyway, is living in an entirely virtual world any less valid?

Along with a story that presents these issues, Egan takes us into areas of multi-dimensional maths and wormhole physics that stretch the readers' minds just as much, all told with a clarity and skill that makes Egan one of the finest and most important writers working in SF today.

Read this if you like Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross. Other books on a similar theme include Stross' Saturn's Children and the wonderful Natural History by Justina Robson (both of whom are from Leeds, which is an interesting coincidence).

Friday, 6 May 2011

Welsh Noir; Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce

The first of Malcolm Pryce's Louie Knight Mysteries introduces us to a world where the language and mores of a Raymond Chandler novel are transported to the small Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth. The local bars are replaced by an ice cream vendor and a 24 hour whelk stall, the girls at the strip club dress in flirtatious versions of Welsh national costume. As this suggests, the version of Wales Pryce presents is slightly surreal, with witchcraft and runes and a town council run by a mob of corrupt Druids. Wales is a former colonial power, a disastrous attempt to conquer Patagonia staining the national conscience (“the Welsh Vietnam”).

Louie Knight, the town's only private eye, is asked to look into the disappearance of a stripper's cousin, and becomes enmeshed in the murder of several schoolboys and, of course, a plot that threatens the town. He narrates the proceedings like Philip Marlowe, which nicely counterpoints the small town setting and the Welsh accents that come across in the dialogue.

Aberystwyth Mon Amour is an interesting, light read, but suffers from an unevenness of tone. While there are many witty, comic moments, Pryce doesn't quite seem to know how to tread the line between this and the darkness in the story – both the inherent darkness in the murders and the themes of loss and displacement that permeate the book. This uncertainty also seems to affect how distant from our reality this Aberystwyth is; for me he could have embraced the surreal aspects more, and indeed seems to do so toward the end of the book. It was somewhat reminiscent of the world of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next, a reality skewed from our own at a rakish angle, but I felt that Pryce's reality needs to be slightly better defined. I'm intrigued to see how his style develops; if the tone and setting can solidify then it may well a thoroughly enjoyable series.

The next book is Last Tango in Aberystwyth and the third The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, which I think may just be the best book title of all time.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Thor thunders! Well, he would, wouldn't he?

I saw Thor yesterday, and I have to say that it has immediately become one of my favourite superhero movies, right up there with  Nolan's two Batman movies and the first Iron Man.

The first half especially was terrific, visually stunning and superbly paced, with a script that threw in a nice amount of tension and some good laughs. The CGI - Asgard and Jotunheim must be entirely computer generated - was spectacular but never intrusive or jarring. As in the Lord of the Rings movies, I think this is down to a an eye for detail and a carefulness of design; the backdrop is never just a backdrop, but seems a complete world you could step out into. The armour worn by Thor and the other Aesir (my one gripe was that they were always called "Asgardians, as though another strange word to anyone unfamiliar with the myths would break the spell) is an excellent example of the design; on Asgard it matches the magnificent Norse/Art Nouveau aesthetic (Aesir aesthetic..?), while on Earth it seems hyper-real, without being cartoonish.

More than anything, though, the film is made by the acting and the director. There are some fine performances that you'd expect - Anthony Hopkins full of Welsh gravitas, wisdom and understated power as Odin, Natalie Portman doing a nice turn as the obsessed physicist and some excellent support from Stellan Skarsgard and Idris Elba - but all the actors carry their roles well, including huge, handsome bemuscled Aussie Chris Hemsworth in the title role. Yes, those three attributes don't actually count against being able to act (not Idris Elba above), but it's nice not be confronted by 80s action hero wooden acting.

I think a lot of the credit for the performances probably goes to the director. I admit i had some reservations about Kenneth Branagh (yes he can obviously direct, but his one previous bib budget, big scale attempt in Frankenstein was such an utter train wreck and a complete waste of talent) but he shows he can do it. He directs the actors and helps brings the script to life, controlling the pacing superbly and creating the world(s) in which the action takes place. Which is a director's job, of course.

The film isn't perfect. The second half isn't quite as good as the first, purely because it has to comply with some of the conventions of a superhero movie - the set-piece fights and so on - but it's going to take quite a bit to knock this of the podium as my blockbuster of the summer.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz; a second visit to Koontzville

Here we have a definite argument for giving an author a second chance. My previous experience of Dean Koontz had been The Taking, which I loathed utterly. I found it annoyingly written, badly conceived and preachy. However, I had heard it wasn't typical of his work (my girlfriend is a fan, although she hasn't read The Taking), and when I was given the audio of Odd Thomas I thought I'd give it a go.

Odd (who has heard various reasons for this given name, none of which are quite convincing), is a short order cook in the quiet mid-Califoria town of Pico Mundo. He is very good at this, is polite, respectful, simple though far from stupid, and liked by just about everybody. And he sees the unquiet dead. They do not talk to him, but he often understands that he can help them and he states that he has often helped the local police force apprehend killers – although only the police chief and a few other select friends know of his gift. Odd has also been having a recurring dream of bloodshed on a large scale, and this book unfolds the psychotic plot behind that vision.

I have often been perturbed to see reviews where the reviewer's sole reason for disliking a book seems to be a dislike of the main character; many great and good stories revolve around characters that are unsympathetic, flawed or even downright unpleasant. This, however, is one of those books that relies on the attractiveness of the protagonist. You can't help feel that you would get on well with Odd Thomas, and value him as a friend or acquaintance. Perhaps a little too nice, although Koontz manages to avoid even this failing from detracting. (When we learn about Odd's background it's possible to wonder just how he turned out so well, but that's another issues).

Koontz gives us what is basically a thriller with a supernatural slant. Odd's premonitions and his Psychic Magnetism Sense (PMS as his girlfriend has christened it, in one of the many nice touches of humour) leads him to uncover a murderous event in the near future (I was put in mind slightly of Stephen King's The Dead Zone, although the TV show more than the book, but I loved that TV show!) and setting about to prevent it. As Odd says early on, “I see dead people and, by god, I do something about it.” Because of the premonition lead story, and the feeling that the hand of fate is ever present, there is quite a heavy deus ex machina element to the plot – there were a couple of points when I thought “why doesn't he do that?”, where his action or inaction proves crucial later on – but in the reality of the book that seems to fit. Odd says that he doesn't believe in coincidences, a statement that is guaranteed to set my teeth on edge in the mouth of a cop or private eye, but Odd sees the unexplainable on a daily basis and not only believes in god but believes that he will go to a better place after death – although not with quite enough conviction to make him sound smug about it. This is fair enough in the context of the book; after all, ghosts and the supernatural are an integral part of the plot.

As well as the deus ex machina there are other problems. Sometimes Koontz's authorial voice jarred me a bit as it seemed at odds (sorry) with Odd's voice. One of the things I hated about The Taking were the right-wing rants, and occasionally in Odd Thomas these creep in – sometimes in a fairly minor way that many people might think (on using his laminated drivers licence to jimmy a lock Odd states that at last he's got something back for his state taxes), to a random rant about the arrogance of scientists, to a truly bizarre statement that the golden era of Elvis was the last time popular music was pure because since then all pop music consists of nothing but pro-Fascist anthems! These do, to me, seem to jar, but I guess I didn't create the character so the author should know him better than I do, although it does sometimes feel as though the author is rather more judgemental and less likable than his protagonist. On the other hand, Odd has a thorough dislike of guns which is, I understand, rather unusual for a Koontz book – The Taking, certainly, was bit of a Evangelical survivalist wet dream – but the attitude to firearms here is much more ambivalent.

There is a certain amount of moralising, but I didn't find it overdone – as I had, frankly, expected to. Good and evil are clearly defined, and there is no real reason given for the evildoers actions [even their supposed satanism seemed more like a self justification than a driving force]. It is interesting to compare Dean Koontz to Stephen King. In King's small towns the presence from outside reveals evil already present, or builds on petty human failings to create evil, but Koontz makes Pico Mundo something of a bastion of tranquility that is invaded by an evil from without – although not entirely so, as the characters' back stories reveal, which stops it being too perfect.

Along with some nice characterisation, good pacing and occasionally lovely, often understated, writing I was happy to share Odd Thomas' little world with him for 400 or so pages.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Hyperion, an ode on an epic scale

Dan Simmons is an author I had not read before, although I've been aware of his thick SF novels. I had expected space opera – possibly due, in part, to the shiny black covers similar to Alastair Reynolds, on whom it turns out Simmons is obviously a big influence. There is much of the space opera about the writing in Hyperion; the universe in which it is set is one of the human Hegemony which, having fled Earth when our home planet is fatally damaged in what is referred to with sublime understatement as The Big Mistake, and spread out over the following seven centuries by use of faster-than-light space flight and thence a network of 'farcasters', instantaneous transmission wormholes, that are based on all core planets and form the WorldWeb.

Most of the action in this book, however, is told in the form of six tales by a diverse group of travellers on pilgrimage to a mysterious alien artefact known as the Time Tombs. This deliberate mirror of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is not the only literary reference; the planet Hyperion on which the Time Tombs stand is named for the poem by Keats, and the Romantic poet's work and presence form threads that bind all the stories together.

The travellers' tales achieve several things simultaneously. The different perspectives of Simmons' universe allow us to build a thorough view of the background, the history and societies that form it. It also becomes apparent that these are no random selection of individuals, but each of them has an intimate connection to the planet Hyperion, the mysterious and deadly being known as the Shrike, and is intertwined with the others in a ways that are central to the plot without ever being heavy handed.

The tales also, of course, allow for a nice variety in tone and for Simmons to be playful in his writing. The Soldier's Tale allows for some full-scale space opera warfare. In the Detective's Tale the author uses a properly noir-ish tone to tell a cyberpunk tale with a tough female lead. The Poet's Tale is quite Heinleinian – the foul-mouthed, drunken Martin Silenius, son of a wealthy family from Old Earth who had always striven for poetry but never achieved it until a brain injury left him only capable of uttering half a dozen obscenities. The Priest's Tale, about cultural superiority and arrogance as much as about religion (with shades of Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles as well as Sheri S. Tepper and Orson Scott Card because of the themes). The Scholar's Tale is perhaps the most intense and personal, about the ties of family and god and memory. While it is the penultimate Detective's Tale which provides the 'big reveals' for the plot, it is left to the Consul's Tale at the end to do the same for the themes. The final fifth of the book pulls together threads that had only been noticed peripherally, the threads of plot and theme converging as the pilgrims finally approach their goal.

At which point I realised the pages of the thick volume were dwindling fast. Surely this build up, this complex, inventive, fascinating, profound epic wouldn't be tied up in less than forty pages? Of course not. As the travellers approach their destination a final reference is thrown in, along with the Keats and the Chaucer, the Bradbury and the Heinlein, the Gibson and the Chandler. Another book awaited, beckoned, and I can't wait to see where it leads.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Review: The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross: Squamous Horros and paper clips

The third novel in Stross' Laundry series, The Fuller Memorandum continues the adventures of computer geek Bob Howard working for the eponymous Laundry, a shadowy department of the British secret service tasked with protecting the UK from threats occult and other-dimensional – in practice, HP Lovecraft's Old Gods, which turn out to be all too real. Of course, as the Horrors from Beyond Space and Time rarely recognise national boundaries, this usually comes down to saving the world as a side effect of protecting Her Britannic Majesty's domains. As other countries also possess ultra-top secret agencies with a similar remit but differing national objectives – The Black Chamber in the US, for example – Bob and his colleagues as often find themselves fighting against fellow humans as slimy, squamous terrors.

Each of the novels has been modelled after a different example of the spy genre. The Atrocity Archives was in the mould of Len Deighton (described by Stross in the afterword as the best horror writer of the twentieth century, who just happened to write spy stories) full of paranoia and with the overhanging threat of nuclear annihilation replaced by the menace of unstoppable monsters from another dimension. The Jennifer Morgue was a Bond pastiche, a rich mogul trying to advance his own ends and in the process threatening world security – in this case threatening to wake the things that lurk in the deeps. In The Fuller Memorandum, we move into classier territory with a le Carre inspired post-Cold War tale. Bob is now married to another Laundry operative, is enjoying his work (there has been far more of the fixing computer networks in the office and less of the facing unspeakable horrors, which makes him happy). Inevitably, things begin to go wrong and when Bob's boss goes missing, it might just be the end of the world.

Stross has a deft hand with the horror, which is perhaps starker in this book than previously. There is some excellent characterisation, although in this case the author concentrates on Bob and his wife leaving the supporting characters more in the periphery than previously, which allows him to realistic reactions to the unreal situations; not heroically setting the jaw to face things, or shlock-horror movie running around screaming. This is also leavened by a low key dry humour, often geek-culture references (the main character is a computer nerd who fights Cthuloid monstrosities, for crissakes) and some Dilbert-esque office jokes. Pointedly, while the horrors from other dimonsions are always in the background as the great threat, the evil acts in the books are always perpetrated by human beings of their own free will. By the nature of the background, secret societies proliferate and conspiracy theories abound, but the reality is close enough to ours that things are far too complex for any over-arching hand to be in control and cock-up rules more than conspiracy, individual passions vices and morality make fate redundant.

In The Laundry books, Charles Stross has used some well established tropes to create fun reads that are also thought-provoking and, at times, horrific. The next is due for publication late this year or early next, and I can't wait to see what terrors Bob Howard will be protecting the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and associated Dominions (and the rest of the world) from next.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Triplanetary by EE 'Doc' Smith - a review through the haze of nostalgia

I have to give the Lensman books at least four stars for their nostalgia value, and that they began me on a life of love for science fiction. I'll have read them first in my very early teens, probably around the time of the original Star Wars trilogy, on which they are no doubt a huge influence. I think these are probably the finest of 'Doc' Smith's ripping space adventures - powered by derring do and the fight for justice, with square jawed heroes and their beautiful women, a World's Fair-type optimism of technology and a complete lack of regard for the laws of physics.

The good guys practically wear white hats, perfect physical and mental specimens that could adorn a recruitment poster for the US Army or the Wehrmacht. The women are strong and intelligent, too - strong enough to tell the men off for being overly macho (with a glint in their eyes that says how much they love it really) and smart enough to know that they should let the menfolk go off to do their duty while they stay behind to make sure the home is looked after.

Smith told the stories with a vibrancy that left the reader breathless at the adventure and heroism, with enough scientific gobbledygook to instill a sense of wonder - silvery teardrop shaped spacecraft powered by and 'intertia-less' drive that could fling them out of the solar system in a matter of seconds, ray guns that dealt death to the bad guys (but only after refusing the chance to change their ways, of course) and the mighty Lenses - weapon, communication device and symbol of the Galactic Patrol's righteous power, handed to humanity by the ancient peace-loving alien civilisation the Arisians to fight the evil Eddorians.

I've been meaning to re-read them all for some time, but perhaps they should be left in the past, infused with the fond glow of childhood discovery, remnant of a mythical time without cynicism and postmodernism, when we could ignore the complexities of the real world and pretend that all problems could be solved if people would just accept that granite jawed white men were always right. So I'll just remember watching a couple of episodes of Flash Gordon on Saturday morning TV (with Larry 'Buster' Crabbe, of course), maybe see Errol Flynn best the Sheriff of Nottingham, then ride my bike to the top of the hill and sit reading about the noble Lensmen.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Book review: Air, of Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman

Air takes place in the near future, in a poor village high in the remote mountains of a fictional central Asian republic. Just as the village gets its first joint TV and internet connection, a global test takes place for a new technology that allows every human being on the planet to access the web directly without the interface of a computer or machinery or any kind. Publicity for the test – only heard in the village at second hand from the nearest town – says that this technology, Air, will change the way everybody lives. In the few minutes that the test is active life is changed forever for Mae, fashion guru to the women of the village.

This allows Ryman to examine the impact of technologies that are often talked about as having the potential to level the playing field, to more easily bring information to those that have not had it in a world where information is the basis of power and wealth. One one level he uses this to do the classic science fiction job of using the future as a mirror for the present – the Air technology representing the effect of the World Wide Web – and how claims of empowerment are often made false by the forces of established commerce and unthinking cultural imperialism.

Ryman, however, goes much further than this. He uses the events to create a conversation between past, present and future, and explore the complex relationship they have in all of us, ultimately suggesting that if in our headlong rush into the future the we lose sight of our past it will leave us as impoverished as as if we dig in our heels and refuse to accept progress at all.

For me, this book reinforced just how good a writer Geoff Ryman is. The sense of place and culture he evokes is superb, quite alien no doubt to most readers and yet rendered utterly real and personal by the well drawn characters and their social interactions. He makes huge themes approachable by exploring them on a personal level, as they affect small, everyday lives. This is also excellent science fiction, although it does not necessarily fit with Ryman's recently stated aim of making a science fiction that was meticulously realistic “hard SF”; there is something archetypal about it, something mythic. In this collision of past, present and future, of East and West, of Have and Have-nots, Ryman has given us a fable for the cyber age.