Friday, 23 November 2007

Scales reviews

I have updated the reviews page for Scales on my website, HERE

Review: The Paradox Men by Charles L. Harness

Charles Harness is little remembered now, but he was a significant writer at the end of SF's "Golden Age". When I checked on Wikipedia I was surprised to find that the last of his dozen novels appeared in 2002 (he died in 2005, at the age of 89) and that most of them were published in the 1980s, since I had always associated him with the 1950s and 60s. 'The Paradox Men' was his first novel, published in 1953 under another title (Flight into Yesterday). My edition, a NEL Master SF Series paperback from 1976, benefits from a substantial introduction by Brian Aldiss.

The story is set a couple of centuries in the future, on an Earth divided into two huge power blocs, with space travel only within the Solar System. A man named Alar, who has some non-human characteristics, survives (with all memory lost) a crash-landing in an unidentified spaceship and becomes a "Thief"; the Society of Thieves being a guild which provides the only organisation to oppose the government of America Imperial. A unique attribute of the Thieves is a mentally-powered armour which reacts to block fast-moving objects such as bullets, but lets through slower weapons like knives: an idea later borrowed and adapted by authors such as Frank Herbert (Dune) since it allows the romantic combination of swords and spaceships!

As well as Alar there are some memorable characters: Haze-Gaunt, the scheming and arrogant Chancellor of America Imperial; Count Shey, the sado-masochistic Imperial Psychologist; Thurmond, the ruthless Police Minister and a superb swordsman; the Microfilm Mind, a badly scarred man with the ability to synthesise vast quantities of data and jump to conclusions based on non-Aristotelian logic; the beautiful Keiris, trapped in a forced relationship with Haze-Gaunt; and her husband Kennicot Muir, a brilliant scientist and explorer believed to have died years ago but still casting a shadow over events.

Alar is hunted by Haze-Gaunt, Thurmond and Shey after being identified by the Microfilm Mind as a major threat to their regime. The pressure which this puts him under forces him to develop his unusual abilities to escape from their traps. At the same time he is trying to solve the mystery of his arrival on Earth five years before, studying records of strange astronomical disturbances before his spaceship arrived. And America Imperial is completing a spaceship with a new kind of drive, designed by Muir, which is believed to be capable of exceeding the speed of light. The ship is called the T-Twenty-two; a reference to the historian Toynbee's classification of civilisations which (for the present) concludes with our own at Toynbee Twenty-one. T-22 is the theoretical next civilisation to follow after our own collapses, and it is hoped that the FTL spaceship will provide a way of surviving that collapse. The T-Twenty-two bears a remarkable resemblance to Alar's wreck, which becomes increasingly significant as Alar wrestles with the concepts of space and time to understand what is going on. There are two dramatic climaxes; one on board a huge platform hovering above the surface of the sun to collect precious elements, the other on an Earth on the verge of a nuclear Armageddon. The finale is as breathtakingly ambitious as one could hope for.

Typical of the SF novels of its era, 'The Paradox Men' is short, fast-paced, and concentrates on mind-stretching strangeness rather than extended character development. By modern standards there are some clunky contrivances, notably an early info-dump in the form of an unconvincing extended conversation between two of the principal characters, but it is still a real page-turner. Aldiss memorably describes this type of fiction as 'Widescreen Baroque', which gives a flavour of the style. It won't be to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed re-reading it and am looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with some of Harness's other novels.

Friday, 16 November 2007


I am a member of both the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) and the British Fantasy Society (BFS). Readers may be interested in my assessment of how worthwhile they are.

First, some background: the BSFA is the older of the two and is currently celebrating its 50th birthday. The BFS broke away from the BSFA in 1971, primarily to focus on horror and fantasy. However, the distinction between them is not clear-cut: the BSFA includes reviews of works of fantasy, while the BFS reviews science fiction. Both of them are essentially fan clubs, providing publications containing news, book and film reviews, interviews with authors, and so on. More on that later. In addition, the BFS organises a national convention each autumn (the last one was held in central England, in Nottingham), plus occasional "open nights" elsewhere, while the BSFA holds monthly meetings in London, which is fine if you live in London… Both organisations provide annual awards for various categories of publications, with members involved in the selection process.

The BSFA produces six mailings per year of two magazines; Matrix (to become free online in 2008) and Vector. Matrix is the "media magazine", with news, short articles, and reviews of films and TV programmes. Vector is the "critical journal", with articles about books, interviews with authors, and lots of book reviews: in the current issue, more than twenty long reviews and almost as many short ones. In addition, two copies per year of Focus are sent out; this is a magazine for writers, including articles by writers on various aspects of the craft. In the present issue, there is (among other things) guidance on the value of agents plus a list of British ones receptive to SFF works (and those who aren't), a long "Masterclass" by Christopher Priest (on inspiration and observation) and an authoritative article on "Tomorrow's Soldier: The Future of War" although modesty forbids my naming the author…The BSFA also provides support for new writers via a series of Orbiters: "online work-shopping groups where prospective writers can regularly submit their work to gain constructive critiquing from their contemporaries and also contribute their thoughts on the work of others".

The BFS publishes Prism, a quarterly newsletter (in A5 format rather than the A4 of the BSFA mags) which contains news of the society's doings, plus (a nice touch) items from members concerning their latest publications. It contains some general articles, but most of it is filled with reviews; about a dozen of SFF books (including some from small press publishers) and similar numbers of both graphic novels and roleplaying games plus associated fiction. They also occasionally publish (free to members) Dark Horizons, which consists of about a dozen short stories with some author interviews and other articles mixed in, plus other anthologies from time to time.

Both organisations have websites offering news and information, plus an opportunity for feedback and discussion via a blog or forum. The BSFA website is HERE, the BFS site is HERE. The BSFA launched a new site a few weeks ago, which is still a work in progress. At the moment, it is difficult to find much information, for instance about their publications or the annual SF convention, Eastercon. The BFS site was also revamped recently, but is complete and quite informative.

The annual membership fee for each organisation is in the region of £25-30

There is clearly some overlap between the two organisations, but each has its own strengths. In the case of the BSFA it's the support for new writers, plus the greater volume of reviews and articles in a rather more professional style of publication. The BFS offers opportunities for writers to have their short stories or poems published (albeit without payment) and seems to work harder to bring members together, both at the annual convention and also at Open Nights in various locations – not just London.

I joined both organisations about a year ago and, although I haven't attended any of their events, consider them both worth belonging to for the modest cost involved.

Saturday, 10 November 2007


Part 1 (the first four chapters) of my SF novel, Scales, may now be read online, HERE. This follows what happens to a present-day Englishman who recovers from massive burns to find that he has acquired some decidedly non-human characteristics. At first he tries to find a way of life which makes the best use his new-found abilities. But later, when he discovers exactly what happened to him and why, he becomes involved with parallel worlds, alien civilisations, and mortal threats to humanity.

Review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Larry Niven was my favourite SF author in the 1970s. I must have read everything he wrote at that time, and still have many of his novels and collections. I particularly enjoyed his stories set in Known Space, covering the history of humanity – and various alien species – through a long period of future history. The first of these novels was The World of Ptavvs, published in 1966, but he hit the jackpot in 1970 with Ringworld, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards as well as fulsome praise from some of the SF world's giants. It was a sensation at the time.

I can well recall being enthralled by Ringworld, and read it three times over a period of a few years (I have read very few books that often). Now I've just finished reading it for a fourth time, after a gap of decades, and I am pleased and relieved to say that I still find it as good as ever.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story is set many centuries in the future and concerns an expedition to explore a strange artefact in the form of an enormous ring surrounding a distant sun; an artificial world made from incredibly strong material, with an inner surface area equivalent to three million Earths.

Why do I like the story so much? For no one reason, but a combination of them. The writing style strikes the balance that I like: there's enough description to draw a clear picture, but not an ounce of padding. There's no purple prose, but enough mystery, adventure, tension, surprise and wonder - plus more than a dash of humour - to keep the pages turning effortlessly. There are three clearly defined and very well-drawn characters: a human girl bred for good luck; a huge, ferocious, intelligent, cat-like Kzin (formerly humanity's deadly enemy); and a Puppeteer - perhaps the most memorable and enjoyable of alien creations. Plus, in the central role, Louis Wu, the 200 year old human who provides the point of view; the archetypal 'rational man' with whom I find it natural to identify and empathise. And above all, a plethora of wonderful, mind-boggling, science-fictional ideas, which any present-day writer would spread over a fat trilogy (not that many writers could come up with any ideas half so good). There is only one slight reservation I have; the credibility of the "luck" factor, which is fundamental to the story but never explained.

An important part of the attraction of 'Ringworld' is, I think, nostalgia. Not just because I first read the book as a young man, but because of the whole tone of the book. It has an underlying light-hearted optimism which seems to be generally absent from today's fiction of the future. This is a universe in which humanity has survived to become a space-faring race dealing (mostly) peaceably with alien races as a matter of course, one in which disease and death have been almost conquered. Life is good, and there appear to be no serious worries (other than escaping from the explosion of the Galactic Core, which wouldn't affect Earth for another 20,000 years…). The kind of future which most of us would grab with both hands, given half a chance.

My one regret; I wish I could write stories like that!

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Review: War in 2080 by David Langford

This book, which was published in 1979, was an attempt to look forwards to the likely technological changes in warfare over the next century. The author (now a well-known SF author, critic and commentator) makes two working assumptions from the start: that the predicted exhaustion of energy reserves would not take place until after an alternative – possibly fusion power – was in place; and that a nuclear Armageddon would be avoided.

The book provides a good summary of the development of weapons up to that point. As a specialist in weapons technology myself I didn't see much to quibble over, except that the author repeatedly confuses warhead or bomb weight with the high explosive content. The RAF's Grand Slam bomb did not contain ten tons of the bangstuff: that was the total bomb weight including the steel casing, fuzing system and the aerodynamic surfaces, and the actual weight of HE was about half of that.

Of closer interest to SF fans is the analysis of how different types of conventional weapons would work in space. Again, a good summary, with some useful tips for SF writers to note (you do not want to turn off readers by making some simple error in the basic physics of this).

Next comes consideration of nuclear weapons; again, a very good and useful summary of the different types, how they work and their effects. And again, a small quibble: MIRV is said to mean "Multiple Independently Retargetable Vehicles", which implies that the targets could be changed en route. In fact it stands for "Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles" which has a slightly different meaning.

The potential of more recent weapon systems is considered next, such as fuel-air explosives and lasers (the options for the latter being examined in some detail). Even less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal are described, although a couple of the technologies now being tested (an extremely loud sonic system, and a millimetre-wave skin-heating weapon) are not included. Chemical and biological warfare are covered also, as are some more exotic possibilities such as artificially triggering tsunamis, earthquakes, or other "natural" disasters.

The author then moves off-planet to examine warfare in near space, before turning to the issues around interstellar warfare (in fact, he goes way beyond what could conceivably be achieved in his 100-year timescale). As well as the use of nuclear and beam weapons in space and possible countermeasures to them, he examines the potential for anti-matter weapons and considers the theoretical techniques and energy levels involved in various means of destroying a planet, or life on it. In passing, some advanced physics is explained (in this section there is some overlap with Michio Kaku's "Parallel Worlds" reviewed on this blog on 13 October).

Considering the age of this book, it stands up very well. The science has changed hardly at all, and for non-scientific readers I can't think of any better discussion of advanced weaponry. I can happily recommended it as a good read and a useful reference. However, there are omissions. Although conscious of the future energy supply problem, he does not extend this to include the impact of the shortage of other essentials (even though at least one SF novel of the period I can recall dealt with conflicts around a future shortage of fresh water). There is also no reference to the potential consequences of climate change, beyond pondering how this might be artificially induced (but, to be fair, no-one else was worrying about that at the time).

On the technical side, the notable deficiencies are a lack of any reference to stealth technologies (again, a subsequent development), and an assumption that warfare will become increasingly high-tech. The author stated, "high technology limits you to fighting large-scale technological war: it's very difficult to go back". Current events in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate otherwise. Compared with their counterparts in the Second World War, our infantry now benefit from some advanced technologies – much improved radio communications, night-sights for their guns, and support from precision-guided weapons – but they are still kicking down doors and shooting people at close range with chemically-propelled projectile weapons. Not at all the kind of warfare which the author envisaged, yet there is no indication that this won't still be going on into the foreseeable future.