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.