Friday, 21 August 2015

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks


Surface Detail, Banks's penultimate Culture novel, was reviewed here only a few weeks ago, so when the Classic SF discussion group chose for a monthly read the very first one, Consider Phlebas, published in 1987, I thought it would be good to refresh my memory of this work. I say "refresh my memory" because I was certain that I had read this book, but on reading it again after a gap of over 25 years I found that nothing in it sparked any recollections whatsoever, so perhaps I hadn't.

The story is set during the Idiran-Culture War, a far-future galactic conflict which lasted for almost half a century. As summarised in one of several brief appendices (usefully including the perspective of both sides in the war), this was an existential conflict between two opposed sets of principles: the cultural unanimity and religious certainty of the Idirans, who were engaged in a relentless and limitless programme of conflict and expansion, and the relaxed and tolerant Culture, concerned to bring the benefits of civilisation to as much of the galaxy as possible. Some readers might note certain parallels with present-day attitudes in different parts of this world. As the Idirans were on a permanent war footing, the conflict had first gone their way, but the technologically more advanced and less tradition-bound Culture gradually got itself organised and began to fight back.

Despite the grand scope of the war, Consider Phlebas is not about vast space fleets engaged in system-wide battles. The focus is on the small scale, and particularly on a few individuals and their relationships – a microcosm of the greater conflict. The chief representative of the humanoid Culture is Special Circumstances Agent Perosteck Balveda, an appealing young woman as well as a capable operator. The main Indiran characters – massive tripedal beings who are formidable in battle – are Xoralundra, a naval captain, and Xoxarle, a warrior. In between the warring sides come some neutral freelancers, piratical humanoids who try to profit from the war; in particular Kraiklyn, the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence and his crew, most importantly Yalson, a young woman. However, the principal character, through whose eyes we see most of the action, is Bora Horza Gobuchul – a Changer, a rare type of humanoid able to gradually change their appearance to match anyone else. The Changers' home is in Idiran space and Horza supports their cause against the Culture, which he despises.

So given that the Culture represents a marvellous future, the kind which most westerners would gladly grab with both hands and every other part of their anatomy if offered it, it is strange that the principal character in the book is on the "wrong" side. Despite this, we gradually develop some sympathy with Horza as he struggles to survive and carry out the Indirans' commands.

One significant difference from the later books is that we hear virtually nothing from the Minds; the great AIs who run the Culture and mainly inhabit their giant spacecraft. They exist – in fact the main plot driver and the climax of the story is the race to find and secure a lost Mind on a hostile planet – but they don't contribute much. We are not entirely bereft of AIs, though, as one of the main characters and the source of most of the humour is Unaha-Closp, a small robot.

If you like happily-ever-after endings then don't read this book – or any of Banks's other novels, come to that. One of the appendices describes what happened next to the survivors, in a rather poignant finale.

Consider Phlebas received rave reviews, and it is easy to see why. It isn't quite as polished and well-constructed as Banks's late novels; for example, there are occasional scenes – such as a lengthy and decidedly gruesome one set on an island on an Orbital which is about to be destroyed – which add little or nothing to the plot and just seem to be slotted in to fill up the space. However, this is still a good introduction to the Culture stories, one of the finest collections of novels in modern science fiction.

N.B I am taking a break next week, so my next blog post will be in September.


Saturday, 15 August 2015

Film: Insurgent (2015)


The sequel to Divergent, reviewed here in February, this continues the series of films based on the trilogy by Veronica Roth. To quote from that review:

The setting is a post-apocalyptic world in which civilisation is maintained in Chicago, kept separate from the mysterious dangers of the rest of the world by an enormous fence. Within the city, the population is divided into five factions depending on their personal attributes: Erudite (the intellectuals); Dauntless (fighters and peacekeepers); Abnegation (who help others and run the government); Candor (who always tell the truth) and Amity (the peaceful; farmworkers etc). Which faction they belong to is determined when they reach adulthood by a psychological test. Those unable to belong to any of these are known as the Factionless, and live on the fringe of society, surviving by begging. The purpose of dividing society in this way was to achieve stability but, at the beginning of the story, Erudite is stirring up discontent with Abnegation's rule.

By the end of that film (spoiler warning, in case you haven't seen it) the heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley), who tested as a hated Divergent personality type with characteristics of all of the others, has been caught up in the coup staged by Jeanine, the leader of Erudite (Kate Winslet), but has escaped to a farming community at the outskirts of the city.

Insurgent starts a few days later, with Tris plotting with her boyfriend Four (Theo James) to overthrow and kill Jeanine in revenge for her parents who died in the coup. What follows is a series of running battles as Tris, Four and friends try to recruit support from Dauntless and the Factionless while Jeanine is trying to capture Tris for her own nefarious purposes.

As is usual with mid-trilogy films (although the movie version is following the now established practice, after Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, of splitting the final book into two films), Insurgent suffers from having no beginning. It does at least reach a provisional conclusion, while setting up the next instalment. I was not as impressed with this film as I was with the last one, with the one visual highlight being a virtual scene in which Tris fights to rescue her mother from a burning building which is flying over the city; I was reminded of the mid-air fight scene in Star Trek into Darkness, but if anything this one is better. However, there isn't much else to point to here which is new from the first film.

I note that while Divergent was critically well received, Insurgent has not been, despite a strong performance from Woodley. I didn't think it was as bad as most of the critics say and don't doubt that most viewers who enjoyed the first film will like this one, but I hope that the next instalment has more in the way of new content.


Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce


I was first attracted to this novel by a review which described the setting; a British seaside holiday camp in the early 1970s. I have no personal experience of staying in one of these but they were very much part of the popular culture when I was growing up, with Butlins and Pontins the two leading organisations, managing resorts dotted around the British coastline. For the uninitiated, they consisted (and still consist) of closed camps where holidaymakers (typically families) stayed in basic chalets and enjoyed the free use of various facilities such as restaurants and swimming pools plus a constant round of entertainment for all ages organised by the camp staff, who usually wore distinctive clothing (the Butlins "Redcoats" being famous). Such summer holidays were popular with people who just wanted to relax in a secure environment and have their children taken off their hands. They were a bit like modern, family-orientated cruise ships except that there was more space and the scenery didn't move.

Holiday camps, like the economies of the traditional seaside resort towns they were normally situated close to, were badly hit by the advent of cheap flights to cheap hotels in warmer and sunnier climes for no more money than a domestic holiday. The ever-helpful internet tells me that in their peak in 1962 camps provided 30% of the domestic holiday accommodation, but by 1980 this had declined to 7.5%. In the 1980s, when "Hi-de-Hi", a popular TV series, lampooned such holiday camps and the relentless, cheerful optimism of their staff, they had declined so much that there was an element of nostalgia in the comedy. I was somewhat surprised to discover that Butlins and Pontins still survive, albeit on a much reduced scale, joined by more upmarket companies such as Centre Parcs.

However, that's enough social history for one week. The point of it is to explain the nostalgic appeal of the setting to readers of my generation. In Graham Joyce's story David, a college student, has taken a summer holiday job as an organiser in an unnamed camp by the well-known resort town of Skegness. He has an ulterior motive for his choice: his natural father disappeared in Skegness when David was a very young child, and his mother refused to discuss what had happened. At the camp he discovers a motley collection of staff particularly including the ferocious Colin and his terrified wife Terri, and Nikki, one of the dancers in the evening entertainment programme. As he tries to fit in to the camp life, David begins to be haunted by visions of a small boy with a man in a blue suit, who seem to be watching him from a distance but suddenly disappear every time he tries to approach them. Other visions begin to affect his mental stability as he struggles to discover what is going on.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is a refreshingly different story, a mystery laced with gentle humour contrasting with some tense relationships among the staff, and a journey of apparently supernatural discovery for the principal character. It reminds me of the "slipstream" stories which were very much in vogue a few years ago; not conventional fantasies but not quite of this world either.  This won't be for everyone, but I enjoyed the trip.


Saturday, 1 August 2015

TV – Continuum Season 3


At long last the third season of the Canadian time-travel serial has become available on DVD in the UK. To refresh your memories, this follows the efforts of Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) a 2077 "Protector" (paramilitary law officer), thrown back to the present day in an incident which also sends back members of Liber8, a terrorist organisation. Liber8 is fighting to stop major corporations from taking over the country and turning it into a police state, and in fleeing to the past hope to change history by preventing this from happening. Cameron, who despite being the heroine is working for that police state, is desperately trying to stop them since, if they were to succeed, the future she had left behind would vanish, destroying any hope that she might some day return to her husband and child.

The first two seasons are full of plot complexities as the Liber8 members subdivide while Cameron (aided by some high-tech hardware) tries to establish a new identity in the present day as a detective, despite being regarded with suspicion by her new colleagues. Another key figure is Alex Sadler, who in 2077 is an elderly industrialist of immense power and who seems to have something to do with the time-travelling incident. Cameron comes across him as a young computer geek in the present day (Erik Knudsen) and they work together to hunt down Liber8.

In the third season, even more complexity is added by a further leap back in time of only a week by Sadler and Cameron, which results in two of each of them sharing the same timeline. Also featuring are the Freelancers, a covert group with knowledge of the future who act to police time travel in order to prevent the kind of changes Liber8 want to make, and someone who appears to come from a very different alternative future. The original Sadler has inherited control of a large corporation and is trying to establish himself by introducing far-reaching technical innovations inspired by what he has learned from Cameron, while his double from the near future has a different agenda. The complexities pile up and both concentration and a good memory are required to keep track of everything that is going on, particularly since the scenes keep jumping between the present and the future – the latter to fill in more of Cameron's backstory. Meanwhile Cameron seems to be no closer to getting back to her home in the future – and the moral ambiguity which underlies the story becomes more marked, with indications that she is beginning to feel some sympathy with the aims of Liber8, as even more ruthless criminals emerge to fight for the corporations. In the final episode there is twist after twist in the plot, setting up what should be a dramatic final half-season of six episodes, due to show on Canadian TV this autumn.

The standard of the previous seasons is maintained, my only complaint being the lack of any of the flashes of humour that the serial started with. Continuum is still the best TV SF drama since Fringe, and provides top-class entertainment.


Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Owl Service by Alan Garner


Alan Garner has been a unique voice in British fantasy since his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, was published in 1960, followed by a direct sequel, The Moon of Gomrath in 1963, Elidor two years later and The Owl Service two years after that. Only one novel appeared in the 1970s (Red Shift, already reviewed on this blog along with the first two), then there was a pause of over twenty years before Strandloper, followed by Thursbitch and finally Boneland in 2012. He has also written short stories – I have an anthology in my reading pile.

There are two powerful elements which inform his stories. The first is his deep knowledge of British history and mythology; the second is a very strong sense of place which comes through, of both the visible geography and the magic that can lie beneath it. The author I am most reminded of is Robert Holdstock, and I think there may also be a flavour of Keith Roberts, whose novel Pavane made a strong impression on me long ago – I really must read it again.

Like most of Garner's stories, The Owl Service is set in the present day (well, the 1960s when it was written!) and focuses on a family on a long summer holiday in a remote house in central Wales, in a valley surrounded by mountains. We gradually realise (Garner doesn't go in for infodumps, readers have to work things out) that the family consists of a man and his new second wife, plus two adolescent children: his own son (Roger) and his wife's daughter (Alison). The other characters are a housekeeper and her adolescent son (Gwyn), plus a gardener who appears to be somewhat soft in the head (Huw). The storytelling viewpoint switches between the three children. One oddity is that while six of the seven characters are well drawn and very distinctive, constantly appearing on scene, Alison's mother hardly appears at all.

The discovery of an old crockery service decorated by stylised owls and flowers sparks a puzzlingly strong reaction in the housekeeper; the uncovering of a painting of a beautiful young woman also causes consternation. These both seem to be linked somehow to an ancient Welsh myth which appears to be coming to life once again and in which Huw plays a central role. As the tensions between the characters rise and their differences emerge, are the children in danger?

Garner has been characterised as a childen's or young adults' author, but judging by Red Shift he evolved away from that – it was more of an experimental novel in style; clipped, elliptical and with little description, focused mostly on dialogue. There is a flavour of that in The Owl Service: there are atmospheric descriptions of places, but the reader has to gain understanding of what is happening primarily through the conversations between the characters. This is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement that Garner makes his readers work a little harder than most authors.

The book is short (less than 200 pages) and I read it in two sessions. What was most significant to me – and sadly uncommon these days – was that I was really keen to pick up the book again and read the second half, I was so drawn into the world the author had created. My only complaint is that the ending seemed very abrupt and unexpected.


I already have all of Garner's other novels on my shelves or in the reading pile except Strandloper, which I am about to order. He is a distinctive author who is well worth reading.