Friday, 20 March 2020

The Exile Waiting, and Superluminal, by Vonda N. McIntyre

I browsed through my bookshelves recently and found a couple of volumes by Vonda N. McIntyre, an author whose name was familiar to me although I could not recall anything about her books. As usual before writing a review, I checked the Wiki page and discovered that she died last year at the age of 70, leaving behind six stand-alone SF novels, four in the Starfarers series, various novelisations of Star Trek movies and episodes, and a large number of short stories. Of her stand-alone novels Dreamsnake is the best known, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 1979. That one I read a couple of times, but no longer possess.

The Exile Waiting was the author's first published novel, appearing in 1975. The setting is the last city on Earth – known as Center – following devastating atomic wars. Humanity has also become established in other star systems, a section of the Galaxy known as the Circle, although we learn hardly anything about this. Center is built underground in a huge cavern which provides protection from the devastating storms which cut off the Earth from the Circle for part of each year. It is governed by the Families, each responsible for some aspect of life: air purification, water supply, food, power etc. The most powerful family, which controls the starship landing field, lives in the Stone Palace.

Most of the focus of the story is on Mischa, a young teenage thief who has some telepathic sensitivity. She has a burning desire to leave the Center and travel to the Circle, but this is almost impossible for all but the upper echelons of society. She is also trapped by the need to look after her dependent brother and sister.

The usual isolation caused by the storm season is breached by the arrival of a starship manned by raiders and led by a pair of experimentally enhanced humans, known as Subone and Subtwo. This provides Mischa with an opportunity to escape, but her attempt goes wrong and she flees into the natural cave systems beneath Center, meeting people exiled for being born with mutations.  She is hunted by the enhanced humans but is eventually able to turn the situation to her own advantage.

This was an impressive debut, very well written. It is a rather dark and grim story, redeemed by an upbeat ending. The story is complete in itself, but could easily have led to sequels, following Mischa's further adventures; perhaps that was less of an issue 45 years ago! I did not directly recall the story when reading it, but the setting seemed very familiar. I wonder how many other stories are set in underground cities, possibly inspired by this one?


Superluminal is another stand-alone novel, published in 1983. This is set in a more optimistic future in which humanity is still thriving on Earth as well as in other star systems. Starships have been developed which transit through multiple dimensions to reach their destinations, but ordinary humans cannot tolerate the experience and usually die if exposed to it, so can only travel in a drugged sleep. This has led to the development of elite pilots, who have their hearts replaced by artificial pumps and are highly trained in the control of all bodily systems, enabling them to survive transit while remaining conscious. Other humans have been genetically modified to suit them to an aquatic life; these divers can stay underwater for long periods and have become closely associated with whales, with whom they have learned to communicate.

This story has three principal characters: Laenea Trevelyan, who has just undergone the heart replacement surgery and is finishing her training to become a pilot; Orca, a young diver who unusually spends much of her time on land keeping up with developments; and Radu Dracul, a survivor of a plague which wiped out most of the colonists on his home world of Twilight. The story follows these three, sometimes individually, sometimes together. In plot terms, nothing much happens in the first half of the book, which is mainly concerned with developing the characters and painting a rich picture of the author's imagined future. Events then accelerate as disaster strikes Laenea's first training flight, and Radu proves to have a unique ability which threatens the status quo.  As with The Exile Waiting, the conclusion could easily have been the starting point of a sequel, as the characters are all beginning new chapters in their lives.

Some of the author's comments could have been written today instead of nearly 40 years ago, for instance concerning the internet: "A note from a friend pleased her; junk announcements broadcast to everyone on the port irritated her. She killed each one as soon as she had read far enough to identify it. The people who wrote them got cleverer and cleverer. Orca's message bank contained a strong filter that was meant to discard most advertising and other solicitations. Some of the circulars had confused the program enough to make it let them through. Orca would have to rewrite it and strengthen its criteria. The escalation never ended." I also enjoyed the little observations, such as: "A rank of electric cars waited at the corner, tethered like horses in an old movie." That image of them recharging has now, of course, come to pass. These examples demonstrate just how carefully McIntyre thought through her imagined world, not just in broad terms but in specifics. Her descriptive passages are also powerfully evocative and convincing, especially concerning interactions with the whales.

I found Superluminal completely absorbing throughout, and was very reluctant to put it down until I had finished it.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Beyond Time: Classic Tales of Time Unwound, edited by Mike Ashley

This is one of a number of anthologies in the Science Fiction Classics series published by the British Library, this one (as you may have guessed) dealing with time travel. As usual in this series, there is a long introduction by the editor, supplemented by biographical notes on the authors at the start of each story.

The 24 page introduction covers the history of time travel in fiction. It explores the classic paradox in many time travel stories – the question of what happens if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before your parents are born – and the alternative approach of constantly branching time lines as different decisions are taken, which ties in neatly with the scientific multiple universe hypothesis. The single universe approach, in which there is only one history which is vulnerable to change by time travellers, leads to many stories focusing on battles between those who would like to change history and those whose interest is in preventing this – a "time police". There is also the notion that even the smallest change in pre-history might have unforeseen consequences  millennia afterwards. This brings in the concept of the Jonbar hinge – a crucial moment in history in which the future can be drastically altered by one minor change.

The earliest ideas of the nature of time can be found in some ancient religions which include a belief that time in heaven passes at a different rate than time on Earth. This idea survives in folk tales of visits to fairyland in which the visitors, on returning to our world, discover that time has sped by and everyone they knew is much older. Also ancient is the notion that some people (usually national heroes) do not die but are merely sleeping somewhere until their country needs them; conversely, some legends (e.g. the Flying Dutchman) concern people who are cursed to live and travel forever.

A further and very popular category involves a "timeslip" in which people – accidentally or deliberately – step through some kind of portal or fracture in time and find themselves in a different period – usually in the past. Ashley points out the advantages of this approach to authors, as scientific explanations are not needed. One rather surprising example is given – Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which includes visions of the past and future, plus the notion that people can alter their futures by changing their behaviour.

Various devices can be involved, often clocks or watches with the power to alter time, backwards or forwards. This leads on to the concept of a time machine, most famously in the classic novel of that name by H. G. Wells which introduced the concepts of time as the fourth dimension and the continuing evolution of humanity.

Obviously, this review can only provide a brief summary of Ashley's introduction which explores many more approaches to time travel, plus mention of a large number of stories to illustrate the points being made, and is by itself worth the price of the book.

The short stories included in the anthology are as follows:

The Clock That Went Backward, by Edward Page Mitchell (1881). The title indicates the nature of the plot, with an old timepiece involved in the sending back in time of the protagonists to the Siege of Leyden (Leiden) in 1574 when the Dutch city was attacked by the Spaniards. A thoughtful and well-written story.

The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper, by H. G. Wells (1932). A newspaper is delivered as usual, but it turns out to be an edition from 1971 – decades too soon. Wells spins an entertaining tale around this anomaly in time.

Omega, by Amelia Reynolds Long (1932). This includes a theory of "mental time": a method of hypnotising subjects and sending their minds through time to experience other lives. At first, this is limited to events in the past, but the professor who has developed the technique is now trying to extend this to the future in order to discover the fate of the Earth. He succeeds – at a price.

The Book of Worlds, by Miles J. Breuer (1929). A professor involved in researching the fourth dimension has gone insane, and the narrator (his assistant) tries to explain why. The professor has invented a device which enables him to see scenes from the past – but it is the views of the future which cause him to lose his sanity.

The Branches of Time, by David R. Daniels (1935). The narrator bumps into an old friend who tells him that he has been working on an atomic-powered time machine and has used this to visit the remote past and the far future. He tells of a 21st century world war of unimaginable destructiveness, leading to the extinction of mankind. This had caused him to intervene to prevent the worst effects, eventually resulting in an advanced civilisation. He learns that any change to historical events would result in a different "world-line" which would exist in parallel with the original: basically, the multiverse idea. An intriguing tale with some advanced concepts.

The Reign of the Reptiles, by Alan Connell (1935). A story about evolution; a man is hijacked by experimental scientists who have developed a time machine, and is sent millions of years into the past in order to observe the age of reptiles. He discovers that intelligent, telepathic reptiles have built a civilisation and are experimenting with the controlled evolution of early humans.

Friday the Nineteenth, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1950). A tale of a failing marriage, in which the husband is drawn to the wife of his friend, but some mysterious force keeps interfering in their attempts to get together.  Effectively, Friday the Nineteenth is Groundhog Day…

Look after the Strange Girl, by J. B. Priestley (1953). As you would expect from this author, this is a literary tale, teasing the reader with a mystery which is only gradually revealed. A man from the 1950s finds himself at a social event taking place in the early years of the century. In observing their careless gaity, he is acutely aware of the shadow of the Great War that would dramatically affect the lives of the people.

Manna, by Peter Phillips (1949). Synthetic food is developed – Miracle Meal – so delicious that no-one wants to eat anything else. A UK factory is established in an old priory, to the concern of a pair of ghosts who haunt it. Then the factory's output starts vanishing overnight, so a psychic investigator is called in. An unusual and amusing story (there's not much humour in most of these tales).

Tenth Time Around, by J. T. McIntosh (1959). Second Chance is an organisation which offers people a second chance at their lives; their consciousness is sent back in time to occupy their younger bodies, complete with their memories so they can change their actions to suit themselves. Gene Player had only one aim – to persuade the woman he loves to choose him instead of his best friend.

The Shadow People, by Arthur Sellings (1958). An odd couple take lodgings in the house of a young man and his wife. There is something very strange about the lodgers, and the young man becomes increasingly curious about their background – but comes to regret his inquisitiveness.

Thirty-Seven Times, by E. C. Tubb (1957). A famous professor dies in a laboratory accident – or does he? His successor struggles to identify the nature of his secret research and his apparent reappearances. Time travel seems to be involved – but what about the paradoxes?

Dial "O" for Operator, by Robert Presslie (1958). A telephone box is the central feature of this story, together with the night-time staff responsible for maintaining it and a young woman trapped inside. She calls for help after taking refuge inside the box from a terrifying monster, but when the staff arrive, there is no-one inside – despite the fact that she is still on the line.

An interesting and varied collection, none of which I had read before. Manna and Look After the Strange Girl appealed to me the most, with The Clock That Went Backward also intriguing me enough for a second read.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Some recent screen productions

TV - The War of the Worlds (2019)

This BBC production of Wells's classic novel takes considerable liberties with the plot (if you really don't know it, I reviewed the book – and its recent sequel – in February 2018). First of all, the main character is a scientifically-educated woman (Eleanor Tomlinson in an impressive performance) who doesn't even exist in the book: in this world she is the girlfriend of the main character in the book who scandalously has abandoned his wife.  Secondly, the progress of the Martian invasion is spread out over a longer period and although it ends in a similar way, the after-effects last for years as the noxious red weed keeps spreading and killing off other crops, leaving a devastated landscape with few survivors.

The whole mood of the TV version is much more dark and downbeat than the book, with a high casualty rate among the main characters and the final setting deeply dystopian until a glimmer of hope is visible at the very end. The pace is quite slow, lingering over the people's (mostly negative) emotions, and it becomes something of a psychodrama. There is also an explicit reference to colonialism; that the Brits maybe deserved what they were getting, because it was more or less what they had been dealing out to the natives in their empire.

Having said that, it is a high-quality, atmospheric production with a top-level cast and is worth watching – once. Too gloomy for a repeat view in the foreseeable future.


TV - His Dark Materials (2019)

This 8-part TV version of Pullman's His Dark Materials covers the first book of the trilogy, with the second series already commissioned. I have read the trilogy and seen the previous movie version of Vol.1 (The Golden Compass, 2007), but so long ago that I only had a vague recollection of events so can't draw direct comparisons.

One thing that did strike me straight away was that the introductory sequence is strongly reminiscent of the Game of Thrones TV series, in term of the music and the style of graphics. Perhaps an indication of what the producers are aiming for? Certainly the "eight hours per volume" (so presumably 24 hours for the trilogy) should provide ample time to explore the story and develop the characters, compared with the two hours of the movie version.

The other aspect I noticed was the choice of actors playing some of the main characters. The one clear memory of the film version I took away was that Nicole Kidman was perfectly cast as the beautiful but evil Mrs Coulter. This part is now played by Ruth Wilson, who is a highly-regarded actress but lacks the icy perfection of Kidman. The other is that the main character, Lyra Belacqua, initially came across as the kind of tiresome brat who I would avoid in real life. Fortunately, her character developed during the series, which was interesting enough for me to pursue. It kept on getting better so it was no problem to stick with it to the end, by which time I was eager to see the adaptation of the next volume.  What made me like it? The production values are excellent; this is a very high quality product in all respects; the acting is of a high standard; and the generous time allowance provided lots of scope for plot as well as character development.

I do hope that the producers don't fall into the trap of extending the story with indefinite sequels. A total of 24 episodes for all three volumes sounds just about manageable.


Blade Runner 2049 (2018)

I decided to watch Blade Runner 2049, which I've had on Blu-Ray for some time. It lasted for over 2.5 hours and is relatively slow-paced for an action movie but despite this it held my attention to the end, which tells you something about its quality. While it lacks the raw originality of Bladerunner, it is a truly beautiful production, a work of art and an instant classic. Definitely one to keep - even at that length!


Saturday, 18 January 2020

Three Recent SF Novels

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This novel won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and was nominated for the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. That's a somewhat intimidating list of endorsements to face a reviewer!

The story begins in a different 1952, in which the east cost of the USA is devastated by a giant meteorite strike. The first-person narrator is Elma York, a young pilot and brilliant mathematician who works as a "computer". She realises that the long-term impact of the strike will be runaway global warming, culminating in the Earth becoming uninhabitable. The only solution is to start colonies off Earth, starting with the Moon and going on to Mars, and nations combine in a maximum effort to achieve this.

The main plot driver is Elma's determination to become an astronaut, to achieve which she battles constantly with a misogynistic and obstructive bureaucracy. A secondary theme is the endemic racism of the time. The writing is very good, the characterisation oustanding for an SF novel (at a cost – see below), the details of the mission control centre and its operations highly convincing. I read the first 200 pages of this 500-page story in one sitting.

However, after putting it down, I found myself slightly reluctant to pick it up again, for reasons which took me a while to sort out. It is a rather old-fashioned story, reminding me in its style of nuclear-war novels I read in my youth, but that is not the main problem. One issue I had is that it is too detailed, in particular it dwells far too often on Elma's struggles and her problems with anxiety; I found myself becoming increasingly impatient with the focus on minutiae and the resulting slow pace of events.

Perhaps the main problem (which probably sounds rather odd, given the basic plot) is that it isn't particularly science-fictional. Once the meteorite impact and its consequences have been described (and then somewhat neglected thereafter), the rest of the book could almost be a mainstream novel mostly concerned with arguing how much better things could have been if women had been treated equally. I have no argument with that thesis, but it is hammered home relentlessly to the detriment of the balance of the story.

What I have always liked most about SF is the way it stretches my imagination, and this just didn't happen with this book. At any rate, my attention gradually slipped away and at page 400 I found myself asking the deadly question: do I want to finish it, or would I prefer to read something else? So I stopped. I can, however, fully understand why this book gained those awards: it's just not for me.


Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I acquired this one following enthusiastic endorsements from other readers, but I regret to say that the story failed to engage me. Alternate chapters are told from the viewpoint of a very-much-modified giant dog designed as a formidable war-fighting machine, but the animal's mental abilities and linguistic skills are those of a rather dim child. After five chapters I decided that I had read as much of such writing as I could take, so I stopped. Again, not for me.


The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

This is a story with a rather strange beginning which becomes even stranger as it progresses. The story is unlike anything else I've read, and it is difficult to say much about it without spoilers. On the face of it, it appears to be a historical country house murder mystery (the author was a childhood fan of Agatha Christie) but has a couple of major twists which push it into SFF territory. The plot is fiendishly complex and if you are the kind of reader who has to have a clear understanding of exactly how the mechanics of the story are working out, you will need a large sheet of paper on which to record what each member of the fairly large cast is doing to whom; exactly when, and why. Furthermore, you'll need to read it at least twice to get a grip of events (after one reading, I haven't been able to answer all of my remaining questions). Fortunately, as well as a map of the scene (not particularly important) there is also a list of the main characters at the start (absolutely essential – I constantly referred to it).

I'll quote the back cover blurb on the grounds that the spoilers it contains are official!

At a party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed – again. She's been murdered hundreds of time, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. The only way to break this cycle is to identify Evelyn's killer. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is desperate to stop him ever escaping Blackheath.

The book (a first novel) has collected many rave reviews as well as winning a Costa book award. Interestingly, these are all from mainstream reviewers, not the SFF crowd. Does it deserve such praise? Yes, it does, but it's not a quick and easy read; be prepared to settle down to some intensive study!