Saturday, 25 June 2016

This Alien Shore, by C. S. Friedman


I have to confess that I had never heard of C S Friedman until this book was selected as one of the monthly reads of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group (https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ClassicScienceFiction/conversations/messages) . On checking her website I see that she has published a dozen novels so far, starting in 1986, most of them being grouped in series. This Alien Shore, published in 1998, is one of her stand-alone stories.

The story is set in a complex far future in which humanity's first attempt to reach the stars caused massive, permanent and inheritable genetic damage to the crews, resulting in a wide range of different human Variants being created. In panic, Earth closed down instellar travel, abandoning numerous Variant colonies to their fates and earning their hatred in consequence. Much later one Variant culture, the Guera, develops a specialised sub-type able to cope with the sanity-wrecking and highly dangerous method of hyperspace travel called the ainniq – a space populated by hostile monsters known as the sana. Spacecraft can only access the ainniq via nodes in space, so cultures grow up in vast artificial habitats close to the nodes, made by stripping planets of their resources. The Outspace pilots form a Guild which maintains a monopoly on space travel, and the Earth humans are reluctantly tolerated in the new interstellar culture which develops.

Jamisia Shido is a young woman living in a habitat in orbit around the Earth. She is looked after by the habitat government following an accident which killed her parents and left her psychologically damaged, hearing voices inside her head. She escapes when the habitat is attacked, and is horrified to discover that the attack had been aimed at seizing her. Something had been done to her – something to do with the bioware inside her head – which powerful forces believed gave her the potential to navigate the ainniq, breaking the Guild monopoly.

In a separate plot thread, the Guild is seen to be facing other problems; a highly sophisticated computer virus has been released which attacks the bioware of the Outspace pilots, killing them and threatening interstellar travel. A legendary Gueran programming expert, Masada, is recruited to hunt for the source of the virus and find a way of destroying it. His search takes him to Paradise, a vast artificial habitat, where expert freelance hackers have also been studying the virus.

Meanwhile the frightened and confused Jamisia has also turned up in Paradise after various adventures, still pursued by unidentified enemies. The voices in her head have developed into a dozen very different personalities who occasionally fight for control of her body; notably Raven, a tech expert and pilot; and Katlyn, a seductress able to spin her way into any man's affections (the descriptions of the subtle ways in which she achieves this being amusing and all too convincing!).

Ultimately the two main plot threads combine as the tale accelerates towards a rather rushed  finale, my main criticism being that the guilty virus designer is flagged up a little too obviously before the revelation, although that doesn't spoil the enjoyment.

This is a long story which contains many intriguing elements, particularly the nature of the Gueran society and their strange face-painting symbolism indicating status and personality types. It has something of the flavour of Dune in its depiction of a far-future civilisation, albeit without Herbert's staggering and baroque inventiveness. Hard SF combined with good characterisation and an engaging heroine, This Alien Shore is well worth reading and I have added the author's name to my approved purchase list.


Saturday, 18 June 2016

Interzone 264


In this May-June issue of the SFF magazine there is the usual varied crop of reviews of both print and screen. The former includes Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, a setting already familiar due to the inclusion in previous issues of Interzone of five short stories set in this universe. I did remark in one of my reviews that we seemed to be getting an entire novel in instalments, so this is presumably it! A reprint of an much older novel is also reviewed: Dreamsnake by Vonda N McIntyre, wiunner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1979. I remember reading this one, although I don't now have a copy. I do have a couple of others by the same author; The Exile Waiting (1975) and Superluminal (1983). I don't recall anything about them, but the back-cover blurbs sound interesting so I may well blow the dust off them soon. Also of interest is a best-of-short-fiction collection of stories by James Morrow, Reality by Other Means. I can only recall having read one book by Morrow - City of Truth - which is a satirical classic I greatly enjoyed, so I might well get hold of this one.

Of the screen reviews, the most notable is High Rise, simply because it gets two bites of the cherry – a slot in the usual reviews section by Nick Lowe, plus a longer analysis by columnist Nina Allan. This is based on J G Ballard's 1975 novel (makes a change from all the adaptations of Philip K Dick stories) and is warmly received by both reviewers, so it goes on the "must watch" list.

Now to the short stories:

Starlings by Tyler Keevil, illustrated by Richard Wagner. At 22 pages this one is classified as a novelette. It is set in a future in which an advanced power system proves to have terminal unintended consequences for life on Earth, kicking the atmosphere into a runaway process which will eventually turn it into another Venus. The story focuses on a mother who has given birth to a genetically-modified perfect baby who will become one of the passengers of a starship being sent to another planet to begin again. It is a well-written story but is mostly about her grief at having to give up her baby, with the SF plot mostly providing background.

Breadcrumbs by Malcolm Devlin, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A strange fantasy about a city which reverts to nature, changing its inhabitants as it does so.

Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart by James Van Pelt. A philosophical tale about the connectedness of things, featuring sand grains on Mars, a ladybird, an unhappy wife attending a séance, and a private detective gathering evidence to satisfy a husband's suspicions.

Lifeboat by Rich Larson, illustrated by Martin Hanford. Colonists on a distant planet prepare to leave as a robotic alien fleet – the synthetics – approaches to destroy the world, as they have done to many others. One spacecraft waits until the last minute, thereby collecting high fees from desperate refugees. The future for humanity seems grim, but there may be a strange way out.

The Tower Princesses by Gwendolyn Kiste. A bizarre tale concerning girls who wake up one morning and find that they are enclosed within their own individual tower from which they can't be removed, and how their peers relate to them.

Rich Larson's story appealed to me the most (no surprise, it's the closest to conventional SF!) but I was also intrigued by Van Pelt's tale.


Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Autocracy of Mr Parham, by H G Wells


H.G.Wells should need no introduction, being one of the originators of science fiction in its current form (following-on from the pioneering Jules Verne). His most famous SF works include The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The First Men in the Moon. He also wrote a range of other fiction, including future predictions (The War in the Air – in 1908) and, particularly later in life,  social commentaries; The History of Mr Polly being probably the best-known example. Some of his works combined elements of both: The Shape of Things to Come and Men Like Gods, for example.

Wells was a prolific writer and on checking his bibliography I didn't recognise most of the titles. This used to apply to The Autocracy of Mr Parham, one of his later works as it was first published in 1930, but something or someone must have prompted me to buy it since it appeared in my reading pile not that long ago. This is a strange book which it is difficult to categorise. It appears to be a relatively straightforward social commentary before veering off in an entirely different and fantastical direction less than half-way through the book, with the finale involving a further twist.

Mr Parham is a university academic of the traditional, classical sort, very much a snob and unhappy with many of the social trends of the time. Sir Bussy Woodcock is a self-made millionaire of sharp intelligence and great energy but lowly beginnings and no cultural education. This unlikely pair meet by chance and form an intermittent relationship, the businessman keen to learn something of culture and to understand the academic viewpoint, Mr Parham hoping to obtain funding to set up his favourite dream; a periodical of high quality (edited by himself, naturally) which would focus on influencing the great affairs of the state and society in general. There is much drily humorous observation in this part of the book, as these contrasting and fundamentally incompatible characters struggle to cope with each other.

Their relationship reaches a turning point when Sir Bussy becomes interested in the supernatural in general and séances in particular. Mr Parham doesn't believe in such nonsense but goes along with it and attends several such events. Then something happens – I can't say more without a major spoiler, so if you want to find out for yourself, stop reading here.

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Their final séance is spectacularly successful as a Master Spirit is summoned, apparently from Mars, and takes over Mr Parham's body with the intention of showing humanity the errors of their ways and creating a new world order. The priorities of the Master Spirit, who subsequently styles himself the Lord Paramount, are remarkably similar to the views of Mr Parham, but in place of the academic's diffidence is a master demagogue, capable of swaying any crowd with his eloquence and persuading them to follow him. Except for Sir Bussy, who appears singularly unimpressed and reluctant to get involved. The Lord Paramount soon seizes power in England with a bloodless coup, and cultivates like-minded leaders of other countries, including Mussolini and a Dictator of Germany (not called Hitler – Wells wasn't that prescient!) before running into problems with the USA. Other difficulties occur and the Lord Paramount – increasingly reverting to Mr Parham – finds events gradually sliding out of his control towards catastrophe.

This is an intriguing tale which Wells uses to explore opposing social and political views of the period, with the fantasy element a vehicle for so doing. On the way, he creates a couple of memorable characters.


Saturday, 4 June 2016

Films: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015); and The Signal (2014)


I am not really a Star Wars fan. I enjoyed the original film enough to see it a couple of times. I also saw the next five films (although only once each) and was deeply underwhelmed by the final three in particular. However, the seventh film in the series was much better received so I decided to give it a look.

The start clearly signals the intention of the film to tick all of those nostalgia boxes so beloved of fans. The text scrolling into a star-filled sky introduces the film, filling in the background so that viewers understand the setting of the story. This is by no means a bad thing, much better than leaving the audience wondering what is going on for the first part of the film until enough clues have been provided by the dialogue.

What follows, as far as my hazy memories are concerned, is more or less a repeat of the first Star Wars film with the changes being mostly in some details of the plot. The old-fashioned feel is reinforced by the background music which continually and obtrusively saws away. I was reminded of that spoof western in which, at a highly dramatic moment, the camera pans away from the action to focus on an orchestra furiously playing. The old favourite characters are all there too, plus a cute new robot and couple of new young leads; Daisy Ridley's performance is particularly good and the best reason for non-fans to watch the film. So if you are a fan of the original film, you will probably love this one. If not – well, it's a passable way to spend a couple of hours or so if you have nothing better to do and a large box of popcorn to work through.

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The Signal is a very different kind of film. Three students are on a road trip across the USA. Two of them have recently got into trouble due to a hacking incident at MIT for which they were not responsible, but are finding that the hacker, calling himself Nomad, is still sending them obscure messages. They manage to locate the source of these messages, not far off their course, so decide to pay the hacker a visit. They arrive at night and find a remote and apparently abandoned shack out in the countryside, but then are overcome by a dazzling white light and lose consciousness.

One of the students, Nic (Brenton Thwaites), recovers in a strange medical facility and we see the rest of the film through his eyes. He is constantly interviewed and tested by Dr Damon (creepily played by Laurence Fishburne) who refuses to answer his questions other than to explain that the staff constantly wear isolation suits as the students are thought to have come into contact with "an extraterrestrial biological entity". Nic constantly tries to escape, especially when he discovers that he has been physically changed, but when he succeeds and rejoins his fellow students they finds themselves in an almost empty semi-desert landscape with only a few mostly-abandoned buildings populated by some strange people. They are constantly on the run from Dr Damon and his staff, and at the climax there are a couple of dramatic revelations which completely change the viewer's understanding about what has been happening.

This has the feel of a low-budget film (which it is), not necessarily a bad thing as it means the focus is on the characters and the dialogue rather than any glossy special effects (in complete contrast to most SFF films). It has an interesting and unusual plot, but while the final scene has a real twist it raises as many questions as it answers.


If I had to sit through one of these films again, I would choose The Signal.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Burned, by Benedict Jacka; and The Stone Book Quartet, by Alan Garner


Burned is the seventh of the Alex Verus novels, featuring a "diviner" (able to see the future) in a magical dimension of modern London, hidden from mundane citizens. I won't go through the background again as I've already reviewed the first six books on this blog. I did comment in my review of the last book, Veiled, that the series seemed to be running out of steam, but Jacka has ramped up the drama this time.

It is normal for someone to want Verus dead, but this time it's the Light Council, the governing body for all of the Light mages; and not just Verus is under sentence of death but his dependents as well; Luna, Anne and Variam.

Verus has just one week to try to prevent the sentence being carried out, but finds little help as he discovers that everyone seems to think he is rejoining his hated old master, the Dark mage Drakh. All of his determination and considerable deviousness seem to be in vain, but the conclusion has a dramatic twist which puts the series onto a new track and has me eagerly awaiting the next episode.

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I am slowly working my way through Alan Garner's work, this time focusing on a set of four separate but linked stories (total page count 170). These are closely observed snapshots of episodes in time, set (like so much of his writing) in the real Cheshire countryside in which the author has always lived.

The first of the stories, The Stone Book, concerns a few days in the lives of a stone mason and his daughter in Victorian times. The second, Granny Reardun, is set a generation later, featuring the grandson of the stone mason at a critical point of his young life when he decides on his future. The Aimer Gate comes next and is set a further generation later, during the First World War, with the great-grandson of the mason. The last is Tom Fobble's Day, set in the Second World War, with the fourth generation of young people making their own toboggans to slide down snow-covered hills and collecting fragments of munitions dropped by the Luftwaffe bombers or from the shells of the AA guns which fired on them.

The Stone Book Quartet contains no magical elements, unlike most of Garner's work, but it is nonetheless an example of magical prose. His writing is lyrical and powerfully evocative, full of local customs and folklore and the rhythms of dialect speech, and I was reminded of Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, the famous memoir of a Cotswold childhood which is high on any British list of favourite books. The stories may feature children, but they probably appeal more to adults. Simply marvellous, and one to be read again and again.