Friday, 26 December 2008

Professor A. M. Low and the 'Bunst' stories

I started reading SFF in the mid-1950s and, although I recollect very little of what – or who – I was reading at that time, one name has somehow stuck in my memory over all of those years through some quirk of memory; that of Professor A. M. Low. Recently I decided to track down this memory and was pleasantly surprised to find that he has a Wikipedia entry. Reading through it, it became clear that he was a lot more than a writer of children's SF stories; an engineer, inventor and research physicist, he was involved in experiments with radio-controlled aircraft and rockets during World War 1. He belonged to many different organisations in several fields and was a founder member and President of the British Interplanetary Society. He also wrote some forty books, many of them intended to explain scientific matters to the layman. This sounded like a man after my own heart, and another search pulled up a couple of his books for sale second-hand; Modern Armaments, published in 1939, and one of his four novels, Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937).

I read Modern Armaments with particular interest, especially because of its date of publication. It is an easy read, intended for the layman, and explains the principles of modern weaponry very clearly, although with little in the way of examples of actual equipment or hard data. Low took a broad view of his subject, with chapters on explosives, optics, parachutes, armour and the military uses of concrete, as well as the expected topics of army, navy and air force weapons. Some of his opinions reflected the mistaken and rather complacent views of the British military at the time: that submarines would pose little threat in a future war because of the advances made in detection systems; that contemporary anti-aircraft fire control systems would serve very well to protect warships against air attack; and that light tanks would predominate in any future conflict with little role for heavier vehicles other than in a direct assault.

He goes into some detail about locating aircraft by sound, although he doesn't mention the giant acoustic mirrors on the south-east coast for locating incoming bombers. He does not, of course, discuss radar, although there is a rather coy reference to experiments with devices which detect "the reflection of ether vibrations". He holds some interesting views on chemical warfare, pointing out that laws to restrict warfare would inevitably be broken in any major conflict and that the use of poison gas was far more humane than bullets or shell fragments, with casualties suffering a much lower death rate. On looking ahead, he discusses and dismisses the prospect of "death rays". Despite some flaws, this is a good book displaying a lot of sense as well as a clear understanding of armaments. However, I could have done without the long moral peroration on the nature of warfare which constitutes the entire first chapter.

Having absorbed that, I turned to Adrift in the Stratosphere with anticipation. I didn't expect it to be great literature, and I was aware that it was only intended for children, but given the author's interests I expected a tale which would be based on the scientific knowledge of the time. Sadly it was a major disappointment, being a barely readable fantasy in which hardly any of the "science" is correct or even remotely feasible. Three young men stumble across a stratospheric research vehicle being built in an inventor's barn (as one does) and accidentally launch it onto space, having various death-defying adventures before (inevitably) returning safely home to a hero's welcome. I didn't object to the hostile Martians who tried to kill them with various death rays (typical of SF of the period), but for the rest…There is no point in going through it in detail but it includes such matters as huge space-living dragons whose fiery breath almost overcomes the lads in their (sealed?) spaceship; Mars being approached in only a few hours while travelling at the ferocious speed of almost a thousand miles per hour (!); and "islands in the stratosphere" on which live humans with a perfect command of English. I'll leave it at that. It does make me appreciate the quality of modern fiction for young adults!

By another quirk of memory, I had remembered really enjoying a series of stories about a lad called Bunst which I was sure were by Professor Low but which turned out to be by someone else: John Newton Chance, who also published as John Lymington and under various other names. He has a Wiki entry, too. He wrote six children's books in the "Bunst" series, and I managed to find a copy of the penultimate one: Bunst and the Secret Six, published in 1951. On reading it I recalled one detail of the plot so and must have previously read it, some time in the late 1950s. The books feature a boy of unstated age but probably early to mid teens, whose nickname is a shortened version of "bunstuffer" from his habit of constantly eating. He is intelligent, resourceful, phlegmatic and mechanically minded, and works as an assistant to a scatterbrained and excitable inventor, an elderly ex-military type called Audacious Cotterell. This particular novel involves radio-controlled model aircraft, a secret new high explosive, a gang of six spies who try to steal it, and much chasing and hiding. It rather reminded me of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, only on a smaller scale, written for children and with a constant undercurrent of humour. The style is very much of its innocent time, but I still found it an enjoyable read. Good to know that my reading tastes as a young lad weren't all bad!

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Inheritance by George Timmons

John More, a man from the mid-21st century, recovers from a spacecraft crash to find himself two thousand years in the future. The world has been through a terrible time in the interim, with wars and Dark Times as bad as anything in human history. However, it has for centuries enjoyed a settled and civilised existence, based on small communities which are self-sufficient in food and which trade for their other needs. Despite this, technology is advanced, with a comprehensive information network and high-speed trains running in vacuum tunnels.

More has difficulty settling in to his new environment and in particular understanding how the utopian society works. Everything seems too good to be true; everyone does their share of all kinds of jobs to help the community and appears to have everything they need to live in comfort without any excessive consumption. Crime and immorality seem to be virtually non-existent and, most unbelievable of all, children are quiet, polite and well-behaved! He gradually discovers that the key to this is the strong Christian faith which forms the basis of the society. The story then focuses, for much of its length, on the religious and philosophical debates in which More engages as he gradually becomes converted to their faith while being increasingly attracted to a young widow and her son. Only at the end does the drama get moving again as More is faced with the opportunity to return to his own time. His decision, and the repercussions which follow, form the conclusion.

It soon becomes obvious to the reader that The Inheritance isn't really an SFF novel; it's an argument for religious faith within a fictional shell. As such, its principal appeal is to those who are, or are interested in becoming, Christians. And it promotes not just any Christianity, but an idealistic vision of a kind of religious communism (which is, I suspect, unlikely to gain it much support among US Christians). Since I am not religious, I did not find the tale particularly appealing and skimmed over much of the long tracts of debate.

From the SFF credibility viewpoint, I have some problems with the technical base of his ideal society. How such advanced technology was developed and maintained in such a fundamentally rural society was unexplained. Mass transport systems such as trains also don't make much sense with a low and dispersed population. And while I can believe that pencils would still exist in the fifth millennium, I find it harder to believe that word processors familiar to More would still be around.

It also has weaknesses as a work of fiction. The author is fond of the omniscient viewpoint and sometimes informs the reader what different people are thinking within the same conversation. I don't care for this, as it tends to remove dramatic tension. I also found More a rather unsympathetic character, which doesn't help in getting engaged with the story. Finally, the ending was something of a disappointment; I thought that the author was building up to a classic SF twist finale, but in fact there was a strange and (to me) rather unsatisfying conclusion.

It may seem unfair for me to review this, given my own position on religion, but the publishers did send the review copy to the British Fantasy Society (who passed it to me) so I have assessed it on its merits as an SFF novel rather than a religious work.

And now for some welcome relief in these hard economic times. I have a seasonal gift for one and all: a complete e-book version of my SF novel Scales FREE!

You can find details of the book, plus reviews and zip files of two versions of the e-book (Acrobat and MS Reader) on my site HERE

I hope you enjoy it: if you do, spread the word, if you don't, please tell me what you didn't like about it!

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Some publications from the British Science Fiction Association

A bit of catching up needed, plus an apology. The last time I mentioned the first publication described below, I attributed it to the British Fantasy Society: I'll try to keep my organisations in order in future! Anyway, I've finally got around to reading it, along with some more recent publications from the BSFA.

The earlier one is Fantasy & SF: The Roots of Genre, which consists of two long articles taken from two books on SFF criticism: Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid. Both articles are concerned with analysing their respective genres. Mendelsohn identifies four different types of fantasy: Portal-Quest (e.g. 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'), Immersive (the Gormenghast trilogy), Intrusion (when the supernatural affects our own world), and Liminal (which regards fantastic intrusions as normal). Kincaid devotes his article to trying to define science fiction, concluding that the term includes such a broad range of works that one neat definition isn't possible.

I have to confess that I am rather sceptical about intense academic analyses of this type. My reaction tends to be along the lines of "well, that's mildly interesting, but it adds nothing to my appreciation of a story." However, coming up with definitions and arguing about them can be fun, so naturally I can't resist putting up a conceptual coconut for others to shy at. I should say that I've not read much about this, so my thoughts are no doubt treading a well-worn path.

Rather than start by trying to define SF or fantasy, I'll take a step back and consider both, plus other related genres, which can all be encompassed by a term like "fantastical fiction" (I have seen "fantasy" used to cover all of this, but I think that's confusing). The definition of fantastical fiction, or FF, could be something like this: "Fiction in which a principal plot element is not of this world." I think that's fairly comprehensive if somewhat loose, although it's obviously open to debate; I suspect that any definition would be disputed by the majority of SFF readers!

The different elements, or sub-genres, of FF can then be defined in terms of FF, for example: Science Fiction is FF in which an attempt is made to convince the reader that it might possibly happen. A further subset of SF is Mundane SF, which is limited to the science we know now. Alternative History is FF set in the past, in which a change at some point leads to a different history. Fantasy is, well, everything else within FF…but it includes its own subsets, in the form of fairy tales, horror, and vampire stories.

Obviously, not all stories fall neatly into one particular category. There are lots of grey areas, and also lots which contain elements of more than one type of FF – or from outside the FF genre altogether (e.g. crime fiction set in the future), as Kincaid observes. One genre which usually contains elements of SF is the techno-thriller, which involves technologies which are not yet available, although they might well be in the near future. I was thinking of this when watching the hair-raising (well, it would be if I had any) BBCTV spy thriller Spooks, which has just finished its latest series. Some of their technological tricks are not available, but most may be soon (although some look to be impossible for the foreseeable future). The James Bond movies have often included SF elements, with spacecraft and invisible cars, although the latest incarnation has been dragged firmly back into the mainstream thriller category. However, I would not describe Spooks or the earlier Bond movies as SF, because that is not their primary focus; the SF bits are peripheral, not "principal plot elements".

The issue of what is, or is not, SF is also raised in the latest issue of Vector, the BSFA's "Critical Journal". It includes an article by Adam Roberts on the works of Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, who has been writing FF for years without describing it as such, or being accepted by the SFF world as one of its own. Roberts' explanation for this is that her stories don't really fit comfortably into our concept of SFF, being more concerned with mysticism. There are several other articles. Jonathan McCalmont considers SF and the laws of physics, difficult to summarise as it provides a general tour of the environs, looking at how various authors have dealt with the laws of nature in their works. Frank Ludlow writes on the "art" of reviewing, discussing the responsibility of the reviewer to produce informative and constructive reviews but also, having done so, to ignore the occasional angry reactions. Saxon Bullock discusses the TV series Lost, while Andy Sawyer examines the contents of the very first edition of Vector from 1958 (and discovers some perennial topics, such as a guide to writing SF and a discussion on the importance of characterisation). Stephen Baxter considers our fear of apocalyptic doom and our constant tendency to assume that major threats are going to turn out to be worse than they actually prove (let's hope that continues to be the case, given some of the predictions about the consequences of climate change). Graham Sleight writes about the Interzone magazine film reviews by Nick Lowe, who has been beavering away at the task for 23 years. Finally, there are no fewer than 48 substantial book reviews, which I will be studying carefully with a view to drawing up a post-Christmas purchasing list.

The third publication is Elastic Press: a Sampler, a booklet about the work of a small press which focuses on publishing single-author mixed-genre short-story anthologies and favours new authors and writing. It starts with an interview by Ian Whates of Andrew Hook, originator and owner of the Elastic Press, and includes stories from three of their books: Love in the Time of Connectivity, from Binding Energy by Daniel Marcus (the strange nature of future relationships in virtual worlds); La Macchina from The Turing Test by Chris Beckett (a new take on the old trope of robots developing sentience); and A Necklace of Ivy from The Last Reef by Gareth L Powell (a rather surreal view of an alien invasion). The purpose of the Elastic Press is unusual and worthy of support and, judging by the quality of the stories included, the books are worth buying on their merits anyway.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Creationists launch new attacks on evolution

More blurring of the boundaries between fantasy, science and fiction this week!

The fundamentalist Christians are at it again, in their constant search to find some crack in the edifice of scientific knowledge into which they can force a wedge. Their strategy is to try to find any aspect of the natural world which scientists can't yet explain, so that they can argue that its purposeful creation by God is a valid possible explanation. In this way, they hope to get their religious beliefs accepted as worthy of being taught in schools alongside science, as a major step towards their goal of embedding religion within education. The focus of this activity is in the USA, in which religion is kept out of public education by law, but there is an increasing spill-over into other countries which are on the receiving end of lots of pro-creationist publicity and teaching materials.

Many of the fundamentalists believe that the universe and everything in it was created by God exactly as described in the Bible, over a period of six days a few thousand years ago. There is the slight problem that Genesis 1 has the creation of plants, animals, man and woman in a different order to that listed in Genesis 2 – they can't both be right – but that doesn't seem to faze the creationists. The big problem they have in selling this idea to non-fundies is the vast and ever-growing body of evidence from many different fields of research (astrophysics, astronomy, geology, geomorphology, palaeontology and biology, to name the obvious ones) which clearly point to the enormous age and slow development of life, the Universe and all that. Clearly, the creationists' beliefs are pure religious dogma and stand no chance of being allowed into US state schools, as emphasised by various legal rulings.

So they switched tactics to low cunning, and during the late 1980s and 1990s developed the concept of "Intelligent Design", or ID. Here we need to mention the Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, which is a major sponsor of the "wedge" strategy for getting religious beliefs accepted within mainstream education, and is closely associated with ID and other recent attempts to subvert the ban on teaching creationism. The tactic this time was a lot more subtle. Darwin once observed that it would only take one example of a feature of a living thing which could not have evolved from some earlier feature to disprove evolution. The aim of the creationists is to identify any such feature they can, and argue that this is evidence that this must have been the act of an "intelligent designer". They carefully avoid mentioning God as the likely designer, or using the forbidden words "creation" or "religion". However, this strategy suffered a major setback in 2005 when the proposal of a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, to teach ID was challenged in court. After a high-profile six-week trial, the verdict went against the creationists. “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID policy,” the judge wrote. “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would, time and again, lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy.” To make matters worse for the ID proponents, their prize exhibit – a complex flagellum which they claimed could not have evolved – has since been found in a simpler form, indicating an earlier stage of evolution.

So the fundies switched tactics again, to an even more subtle approach; the defence of academic freedom! They are promoting the argument that teachers have the right to hold "open discussions of scientific theories" – such as evolution – with their students, and can introduce books and other materials from outside the standard curriculum to help the students "critique" the science they are taught. This has been supported by a "teach the controversy" public campaign (ignoring the fact that as far as science is concerned, there is no controversy over the theory of evolution). This is a clever move, since who could be against academic freedom? But what it really does is open the door to an attack on evidence-based logical reasoning (the basis of the scientific method) by a belief system which rejects objective evidence and reason in favour of a dogmatic adherence to the exact words in an ancient book. Despite this, in mid-2008 Louisiana approved a state law which defends such academic freedom, and other states have been considering similar measures.

No doubt buoyed by this success, the fundamentalists have recently found what they perceive to be another point of weakness: our understanding of human consciousness (reported in the New Scientist on 25 October). In particular, they attempt to draw a distinction between the human mind and the material brain, with aim of arguing that a non-material mind is something entirely separate. It must therefore have had a separate origin, which leads into the existence of a "soul"; another angle to get a religious belief accepted as having a valid place in science. It is once again a clever move, because the nature of consciousness is an area of genuine debate among scientists working in the field, with different views being held. However, the New Scientist article points out that the arguments in favour of the mind being separate are flawed. Its proponents argue that brain scans reveal that when people use their minds to consciously change what they are thinking, this can be shown to affect brain functioning. Therefore, they say, the mind must be separate from the material brain. Their opponents point out that this is a logical non-sequitur; there is no reason why the brain cannot change itself. Furthermore, the fact that something is not yet understood by science does not mean that it will never be understood; in fact, the scientific method has a staggeringly consistent record of success in pushing back the boundaries of ignorance. If it weren't for evidence-based logical thinking we would still be living in caves and killing animals for food by throwing stones at them.

In case some readers feel that this blog is an attack on religion, I must point out that most Christians are not creationists, despite the attempt of the fundies to imply that true Christianity equals creationism; to put the debate (in the words of a car bumper sticker) in the form of "Jesus v Darwin". In most of the Christian world, creationists are in a small minority. Neither the Roman Catholic nor the Anglican churches oppose the theory of evolution. Even in the USA, which is at least 75% Christian, only 39% of the population rejects the proposition that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals (compared with 40% which accepts it, and 21% "don't knows").

Is any of this important? Does it really matter if children are taught religious beliefs as if they were on a par with science? Yes, I believe that it is and it does, very much so. What the fundamentalists are doing is attacking the basis of the knowledge which humanity has accumulated over many centuries. Knowledge acquired through patient observation of phenomena, the gathering of evidence, the development of hypotheses to account for the observations, the testing of these hypotheses (by experimentation wherever possible), and their validation by other scientists, leading to the establishment of theories which remain our best explanation for the phenomena – until contrary evidence or a theory which better fits the evidence comes along. The agenda of the fundamentalists is to sow doubt about this entire process, to encourage children to believe that rational and non-rational modes of thinking are entirely comparable and equally valid as a means of explaining the material world in which we live, rather than occupying separate aspects of human life. If they had their way, children would grow up in a world of medieval superstition, ignorant of the importance of evidence-based logical thinking, and thereby completely unequipped to deal with the increasingly complex and technical problems which we are facing, including resource depletion and climate change. From my perspective, that would be a crime against humanity.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Interzone 219

The welcome arrival of the December issue of the British news, reviews and short-story SFF mag. To cut to the chase – the short stories:

Everything That Matters by Jeff Spock (illustrated by Kenn Brown, who also did the cover): a traditional SF thriller about hunting for alien treasure in the oceans of another planet, humans adapted by surgery to breathe underwater, murderous 25 metre long sharks, and revenge. Great stuff!

When Thorns are the Tips of Trees by Jason Sanford (illustrated by Vincent Chong): a much stranger tale about a highly contagious virus which causes people to turn into trees which are still capable of communication. This one, like his earlier surreal story The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain (Interzone 217) is likely to stick in the memory.

The Shenu by Alexander Marsh Freed: people surviving in a world full of superstition – or is it magic?

The Fifth Zhi by Mercurio D. Rivera (illustrated by Paul Drummond): disposable clones sent to rid the world of a vast alien growth which penetrates the planet.

The Country of the Young by Gord Sellar (illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey): explores some of the problems of eternal life – and of not having it when you are surrounded by the forever young.

Butterfly, Falling at Dawn by Aliette De Bodard (illustrated by Paul Drummond): another story in the author's alternative world in which North America is shared with Chinese and Mexica (Aztec) nations, following The Lost Xuyan Bride in Interzone 213. Detective work amid clashes between strange cultures. I'm looking forward to future stories in this world, and eventually an anthology, please!

One of the films reviewed in the magazine is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The first of the series, Raiders of the Lost Ark (which has become fixed in my mind as Riders of the Last Auk – I really should stop playing with words!) is one of my all-time favourite films. The series has inevitably become repetitive, since the plots are all about the resourceful archaeologist's trips to strange places to make exotic discoveries (with equally exotic dangers involving deadly creatures, lots of chases and fighting thrown in), and the sequels are not as good as the original. I recently got around to watching Crystal Skull, in which the plot is stretched to include the Area 51/Roswell/alien fantasy world, which does it no favours as it adds a further level of disbelief. However, it is still an entertaining couple of hours with some laugh-out-loud moments.

It seems that I liked the new Indiana Jones movie more than Interzone's reviewer did, but we changed places in our opinions of Lost in Austen, the ITV serial about a modern girl – a Jane Austen fan – who finds herself transported to the world of Austen's 'Pride & Prejudice'. I gave up part way through the second episode, for two reasons: first, the humour – in fact, the plot in general – was based around a series of embarrassing situations, the kind which make me cringe rather than laugh. Secondly, I simply didn't like the heroine. I do need to be able to empathise to at least some degree with the principal character if I am to enjoy any story (on screen or in print) and I just couldn't do it. Maybe it's a generational thing.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

I first (and last) read this some 35 years ago, and recently dug out my dusty old paperback to refresh my memory in order to participate in the discussion of it held in the Classic SF forum. Zelazny was one of my favourite authors then, and I was curious to see how this unusual tale stood up to the test of time.

Lord of Light is set in the far future on another planet, with Earth an almost forgotten memory. The planet has been settled by the crew and passengers of a colony ship from Earth, but society has developed in a strange way. The crew have commandeered all of the technical resources and keep the descendents of the passengers at a medieval level of existence. To reinforce this, the crew have adopted the identities of Hindu gods, and live in "Heaven"; a perfect city situated at one of the poles, with a vast transparent dome protecting the area.

There are two other unusual features. The more powerful of the "gods" have developed mutant powers, reinforced by technology, which match the attributes of the mythical gods. And technology has made the transmigration of souls from one body to another a routine matter. Some of the original crew members have survived in this way, transferring as they age to new bodies specially grown for the purpose. This is also on offer to the general population, but they have to earn it, or risk being reborn as an animal – a powerful coercive tool.

Not all of the original crew are happy about this situation, and the story is all about the rebellion led by one of them, the 'Lord of Light' of the title, who wishes to destroy Heaven and bring the benefits of advanced technology to all. As a part of his campaign, he reintroduces Buddhism, and becomes regarded as a great religious teacher.

The structure of the story is rather disconcerting, as only the first and last chapters are set in the "present day", the majority of the book reverting to an account of the Lord of Light's previous, failed, attempt at rebellion. As the characters are gradually fleshed out in later chapters, I found myself flipping back to the first chapter to remind myself of who was who.

The writing style is quite leisurely, the author being happy to let his characters enjoy long conversations and intellectual debates, resulting in a certain lack of tension. He also plays with words, setting up some good jokes (one of the few things I remembered from my first reading of the book was the way in which he managed to work up to the punch-line: "then the fit hit the Shan"!). While the hero is a likeable character, there are few insights into his background or the motivation for his determined resistance. Despite these reservations, the intelligence and quality of the writing held my attention to the end. Unusual indeed, but well worth the time to re-read.
A recent special edition of the New Scientist magazine focusing on science fiction is online, HERE

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Folly of Growth

OK, not fiction again, but surely relevant to anyone interesting in reading or writing near-future SF. This concerns the 18th October issue of New Scientist magazine, which has several linked articles under the general heading "The Folly of Growth". These explore the contention that the world's economic system, based on endless growth, is fundamentally unsustainable. Authors of the articles include a Professor of Sustainable Development, the founder of the David Suzuki Foundation which investigates how society can live in balance with the natural world, a former senior economist at the World Bank (now a Professor of Ecological Economics), the Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation, the author of 'The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability', and the chair of the board of the Transnational Institute which addresses global problems.

Collectively, these make the point that our economic system needs constant growth to be successful, but there are finite limits on fertile agricultural land, cheap fresh water and other natural resources. With the world's population constantly growing, and everyone trying to improve their standard of living, this can't go on forever (or even for much longer). Let's look at the problems in more detail.

Underlying everything is the continuing increase in the world's population. Yes, I know that this is likely to level off and may even begin to decline when (if?) the poorer countries become richer. But by the time that happens, it will be a lot higher than it is now, and it is already far too high to enable everyone to enjoy a comfortable standard of living. One of the authors points out that if everyone on the planet enjoyed the same level of per-capita resource use as the EU, the resources of five Earths would be needed to supply that. If the global resource use were raised to the level of US citizens, fifteen Earths would be needed.

This links to the second problem, which is the entirely legitimate aspiration of the poorer parts of the world to achieve the same standard of living as the richer part. As they work towards achieving that, there will inevitably be a massive impact on resource demands.

The third problem, also linked to the others, is that increasing industrialisation is having a significant impact on our atmosphere, which is in turn beginning to affect our climate. No-one knows what this will lead to and where it will end, but given that our current pattern of agriculture, settlement and infrastructure is based on existing patterns of climate and sea levels, any change from these will be likely to cause serious problems.

Coincidentally, many related points were made in the recent "Living Planet Report" by the WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, which argues that the planet is headed for an ecological "credit crunch", with our current demands on natural resources overreaching what the Earth can sustain by almost a third.

Economists may argue that there is no necessary link between growth and resource use, and point to the experience of Western European countries to prove this. But the use of resources in these countries has been kept down by exporting much of the production of consumer goods to cheap-labour economies elsewhere in the world, so those resources are still being used up somewhere to satisfy western demands.

Also, the EU situation of a relatively static use of resources does not apply in those less-developed countries which are now aiming for a dramatic improvement in their standard of living. This means motorbikes instead of bicycles, cars instead of motorbikes, flying off on foreign holidays, eating a lot more meat, buying lots of fridges, freezers, washing machines, TVs, DVDs and other nice-to-haves, plus the associated huge increase in the demand for power. The classic case is China (with a population three times that of the EU 15) whose use of all kinds of resources has been accelerating rapidly; partly, of course, to satisfy western demand for consumer goods.

The ultimate consequences of current economic trends will be ever-increasing prices for natural resources (and everything using them) as a result of the combination of growing demand and increasing scarcity. We see this in miniature with the rise in the price of oil over the past few years. This has recently dipped due to nervousness over the international recession, but no-one can reasonably doubt that this is anything other than a short-term respite. The underlying trend is for a continuing increase in demand, but the quantity of oil in the ground is finite and it becomes ever more expensive to extract.

The articles suggest ways in which we can ameliorate the problems and achieve long-term sustainability, but they involve major changes to our current economic system. Of course, no politician wants to hear that, because we (the short-sighted public) don't want any restrictions on our ability to burn up resources as we please, and politicians only look as far ahead as the next election. Business doesn't want to know either, as it would hit their profits. So in dealing with the present economic crisis, we charge on towards the iceberg while arguing about rearranging the deckchairs.

The New Scientist articles make the point that some growth is still sustainable, as long as it is based on genuine improvements in the efficiency with which resources are used. Advanced technologies can help here, but they are most likely to be used in the richer countries which can afford them. What should we be doing? Trying to convert to a steady-state economy, basically by using two measures: a cap-and-trade system under which companies can buy and sell emissions permits, and a change in the basis of taxation, to tax heavily resources at the point at which they are removed from the biosphere: for example oil as it is pumped from the ground, or fish as they are removed from the sea. This will stimulate the development of renewable energy sources and the search for sustainable alternatives to current practices. The tax effect will be regressive (hitting poorer people the hardest) so some of the income will need to be used to fund benefits programmes for them: the rest could be used to cut direct taxation. Other economic measures will aim to reduce interest rates to a very low level and force banks to keep large reserves, limiting their scope for risky lending.

Like it or not, we will eventually be forced to do things in a different way, and that will mean a significant reduction in the use of resources by the wealthy countries. Our choice is between gradually altering our economic system to introduce these changes in a planned way, or to do our very best to ignore the issue for as long as possible. No prizes for guessing which is more likely.

Nothing could better illustrate the schizophrenic attitude of our politicians than the coincidence in mid-October this year of the UK's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change committing the country to meet much tougher CO2 reduction targets (an 80% cut by 2050), on the same day that the Prime Minister was putting pressure on oil companies to reduce the price of fuel so we can all afford to burn more of the stuff. It reminds me of the old prayer of the sinner, which went something like: "Lord, let me be virtuous – but not yet!"

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Orion by Ben Bova, plus some films

I haven't read much by this author, but have previously thought of him as concentrating on hard SF. I was therefore surprised by the fact that Orion (in my opinion, at any rate, despite later plot twists) falls into the fantasy camp.

The story begins in the present day and is told in the first person, by a man called Orion. He has some unusual abilities (for reasons which he doesn't understand) and finds himself involved in a titanic struggle between two apparently all-powerful men, Ormazd and Ahriman (the names of two gods in Zoroastrianism who represent good and evil respectively). He is also strongly drawn to Anya, a woman who is connected in some way with Ormazd. Orion is told that Ahriman intends to destroy humanity and that his role is to prevent this. In the attempt to carry out his task, Orion seems to die – only to find himself transported back in time, facing the same enemy yet again. This pattern is repeated, Orion going steadily further back in time towards the prehistoric war which caused Ahriman's hatred of humanity. There he discovers that all was not what it seemed and he has a difficult choice to make.

The cover of my edition has glowing references from Isaac Asimov and Spider Robinson, but I have to say I was rather less impressed. The writing style reminded me far more of a typical 1950s or even pre-WW2 SF novel, rather than a product of the 1980s. It doesn't get off to a good start, the first page being an infodump in which Orion baldly spells out his unusual abilities (clearly Bova doesn't have much time for the "show don't tell" orthodoxy). It does get better as the story develops, and the plot was intriguing enough for me to read through to the end, but I found it difficult to empathise with Orion. His character remains underdeveloped, and it's hard to care much about what happens to people who keep dying and being reborn (all of the "how will they survive this?" tension gets dissipated) unless they are much more strongly written than this.
I had heard that Hellboy (the original, not the recent sequel) was a cut above the average comic-based superhero movie so I gave it a spin. Well, it was watchable, like an episode of Die Hard featuring supernatural beings, and it did have some wry humour, so it gets an "OK".
I've also seen Galaxy Quest, about the jaded cast of a long-running TV space opera who are whisked off by aliens who think that their broadcasts are genuine and need help in fighting a war. The film takes an entertaining swipe at the cliches of space opera and the devotion of its fans. It is an amusing, light-hearted contrast from most movies these days, and is a lot more enjoyable than most "serious" SFF films. A must for all Star Trek fans – or at least, the ones who can take a joke!

Sunday, 2 November 2008

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth and especially Pohl were formidable "golden age" SF authors in their own right (Pohl, who is now 90, carrying on into recent times; Kornbluth died young in 1958), but are still remembered for their collaborations. One of these, Wolfbane, was reviewed on this blog on 21 October 2007, but the best known is probably The Space Merchants, first published in 1953.

The title is rather misleading because space travel doesn't feature at all until right at the end of the book. The story is set a century in the future, at a time when humanity, still confined to the Earth, has expanded to many times its present population. The teeming billions are crowded into cramped apartments, fed on artificially-created food and sold addictive coffee to drink, use pedal-powered machines rather than cars, wash in salt water because fresh water is too precious, and are ruthlessly manipulated by all-powerful marketing organisations, with the lowest levels of society trapped in commercial slavery. Governments have become almost powerless in the face of the might of the big marketing corporations, whose only goal is to increase sales, and the US President is a figurehead.

Living in this dystopia is a successful marketing executive, Mitchell Courtney, who is given the task of securing control for his organisation of the forthcoming colonisation and terraforming of Venus (little was known about conditions on Venus when the book was written and they are portrayed as being less hostile than they are now known to be, but still with an unbreathable atmosphere, high temperatures and no water).

Events begin to slide out of control for Courtney as he becomes embroiled in the savage in-fighting of office politics and the open warfare of inter-corporate battles, is kidnapped, dumped at the lowest level of society and approached by the Consies; an underground conservationist organisation arguing against the ruthless exploitation of Earth's resources. His experiences shape his actions as he tries to battle his way back to his star-grade executive position.

At one level The Space Merchants is an amusing satire on increasing commercialisation, but there are clear echoes of the political times in which it was written. Pohl had been a member of the Young Communist League until he resigned as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, and much of his idealism showed through in this and other works. The period when this book was written coincided with Senator McCarthy's notorious anti-communist witch-hunt, and there is an obvious parallel between the contemporary public attitude to the "Commies" and the hated and despised Consies in the story.

I have to admit that I generally dislike dystopian SF but this is an easy read, especially since it is only 170 pages long. This is a landmark novel in raising issues about the uncontrolled population expansion and the associated exhaustion of resources, coupled with the ever-increasing power of commercial organisations in general and marketing in particular. Many novels on similar themes subsequently emerged, but this is one of the key works which every SF fan should read.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

A bit off-topic this week in that the book I want to talk about isn't, by most definitions, science fiction or fantasy. However, my excuse is that it includes elements of science, fiction and fantasy – even though it is a non-fiction book about health care!

The author of Bad Science is a doctor working in the National Health Service who also writes a column for a national newspaper (The Guardian) and maintains a website on the same subject. His topic is the way in which the public is misled by claims made about medications and medical treatments; not just by practitioners of alternative and complementary medicine (including nutritionists) but also by pharmaceutical companies and, most of all, the news media. His writing style is journalistic rather than academic and is often hilariously trenchant as he names and shames some very well-known individuals, companies and newspapers. He must have some hard-working lawyers!

Bad Science is not just an entertaining read, it is highly informative. Goldacre not only provides lots of evidence to back up his denunciations, he constantly drives home the essential message concerning medical trials: that many of them do not achieve the quality "gold standard", for which there must be a placebo-taking control group; there must be a completely randomised selection of those in the trial and control groups; and the trials must be conducted under double-blind conditions (that is, neither the participants, nor those doling out the pills to them, know who is getting the trial medicine and who is getting the placebo). Failure to follow these precepts has been shown to have a major distorting effect on the outcome, and the author gives many examples of this.

In the first part of the book, Goldacre's critical eye is turned onto alternative medicine in general and homeopathy in particular. He shows that there is a direct relationship between the results of the trials in this field and the rigorousness of the way in which the trials were conducted. Put simply, trials which are conducted in accordance with the "gold standard" precepts listed above show that homeopathic pills work no better than placebos. As he points out, the link between the mind and the body is powerful and complex, and still not entirely understood (sometimes patients report feeling better even when they have been told that they are being given sugar pills instead of medicine!). Any benefits from alternative medicine appear to be in the ritual associated with them, as with shamanistic magic, which convinces customers that this must be doing them some good.

Next in his firing line come the nutritionists and peddlers of vitamin pills. The author's message is this: to give yourself the best chance of enjoying good health, eat a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables; drink alcohol only in moderation; don't smoke; and take regular exercise. He says that's basically all there is to it; there is no valid evidence that "superfoods" work any better than other fruits and vegetables, or that you can further improve your health by taking vitamin pills or dietary supplements. Amazingly, despite the almost universal acceptance of the idea that taking fish-oil pills for omega-3 fatty acids is good for brain development, there is no trial evidence which supports this for the general population.

Goldacre also takes a swipe at the illogicality of the "detoxing" and "antioxidant" fads, for which he argues that there is no clear case (in fact, the most exhaustive trials of antioxidant vitamin pills show a slightly increased chance of death compared with control groups taking placebos). He points out the tendency of all purveyors of quackery to "cherry-pick" the results of trials, quoting only the few (usually less rigorous) ones which appear to support their claims while ignoring the vast quantity of much larger and more reliable trials which demonstrate no effect beyond placebo.

In the light of the above, one of the intriguing aspects of this subject is the very high profile in the news media (including quality newspapers and the BBC) of alternative medicines, superfoods and vitamin pills, when there is no valid evidence that they work, and plenty that they don't. Goldacre explores this issue too, pointing out the money spent on promotion, the relentless efforts of the practitioners in getting their message across, and their immediate and often aggressive responses to any criticism. What he finds more shameful is that some universities have fallen into the trap and are offering courses in these fields, possibly blinded to the lack of any valid scientific basis by the popularity of the subjects and the universities' need to put on courses which will attract students and earn money.

So why are these "remedies" so popular? Partly, it seems, because we like the idea of a pill which will make our problems go away. The author quotes a recent large-scale trial of whether better parenting techniques could improve the behaviour of problem children, which resulted in dramatic benefits. Yet this was ignored by the news media, which constantly focus on pills and diet instead. I suspect that this may be because parents don't like to consider that it may be their failings which have caused the problems, nor that correcting them will involve a considerable effort over a long period of time. How much easier it is to be able to blame something else, and to dish out a magic pill for it.

The major pharmaceutical companies ("big pharma") are next up for attack. First, the introduction of new medicines to solve real diseases is slowing considerably, so the companies are inventing new medical conditions which their existing medicines are claimed to treat. He quotes "social anxiety disorder", "female sexual dysfunction" and "night eating syndrome" as three examples of problems for which big pharma are peddling their wares, even though they are probably not best treated by taking a pill. Much of the effort in developing new drugs is on devising variations of existing drugs which are sufficiently different to establish a new ten-year period during which the companies have sole rights to make them. And of course, big pharma has no interest in developing cures for the killer diseases which only affect the Third World (no money in them) nor in promoting effective and cheap remedies which use common ingredients which can't be patented (no money in those, either). To be fair, I don't blame the companies for these last two issues – as Goldacre points out, they are profit-making businesses, not charities – but they do highlight the need for some method of funding the companies (or somebody) to carry out such unprofitable but important work.

The author describes in detail the way in which big pharma can distort the results of trials of their new products. For a start, such trials are funded by the companies themselves, and he quotes strong statistical evidence that the source of funding biases the results in favour of the funder. He then describes in considerable detail the different techniques which big pharma uses in order to present trial results in the best possible light (including burying negative outcomes) to get approval for their products and to persuade doctors to prescribe them. Even without such deliberate manipulation, negative outcomes of trials are less well-reported than positive ones anyway, an effect known as "publication bias". All of this results in medicines being presented as far more beneficial than they really are (in fact, it was recently reported in New Scientist that some well-known medicines don't work at all, or work far less well, when patients are not told what they are being given and what they are supposed to do).

Despite all of the above, Goldacre's major criticisms are focused on the news media for the way in which they report science in general and medical science in particular. He takes as examples two recent high-profile issues in the UK; the prevalence of MRSA in hospitals, and the alleged association between MMR vaccinations and autism. The first story was fuelled by positive MRSA readings from hospital swabs taken by undercover journalists, but it transpired that these were processed by a man unqualified to do such work, in an amateur lab in his garden shed. Those samples which were double-checked by proper labs produced different results. Yet the newspapers continued to use the amateur lab because they knew that this would provide positive results, which made for a better scare story (which is not to say that there isn't a problem with MRSA in British hospitals – but its scale was exaggerated).

The attitude of many newspapers to the MMR scare was even more shameful; they accepted the word of one doctor that there was a link with autism, on the basis of one very small-scale study which didn't even meet the minimum standards for a trial. They gave this at least equal weight to the assurances given by the medical profession that there was no link, and ignored huge and properly conducted large-scale studies which demonstrated this. In fact, one newspaper waged a vicious campaign against MMR for several years, until many people were left feeling that there must be something in the story, and that the government and the medical establishment were just trying to cover it up. As a result, take-up of the MMR jab has declined to the point that measles, mumps and rubella, which had been on the way out, are making a comeback.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the news media reporting is not that some lower-quality papers uncritically report bad science as if it were fact, but that even the best newspapers – and the BBC, heaven help us – are all guilty of bad science reporting. Most of them have science correspondents who know better, but once a major and exciting (i.e. controversial) science story breaks, the job of covering it is often given to higher-status mainstream reporters who are ignorant of science and proper trial protocols, dumb down the issues, and sometimes ignore the conclusions of scientific studies in order to dig into the data to find nuggets which they can take out of context to fuel the conspiracy fires. While it can be argued that the news media are not entirely to blame for all of this (after all, they only do it because lots of people want to read about such things – we get the news media that we deserve) it is highly irresponsible for them to whip up unfounded panic, resulting in serious medical consequences, in the interest of sales.

One result of all of this "bad science" is an appalling lack of understanding of science, including basic statistics, throughout society. The author quotes a couple of criminal trials which resulted in the defendants being imprisoned for murder on the basis of highly questionable statistical evidence (one of them was later released).

The only criticism I have of the book is that the characteristic which makes it such an entertaining read – the author's unbridled attacks on what he considers to be bad science – also mean that it is more of a polemical work than a balanced account. However, the evidence and analysis which Goldacre provides is compelling, and this is a book which everyone should read. It is similar in its theme (although most of the content is different) to Gilovich's equally important book How We Know What Isn't So, reviewed in this blog on 1 August this year.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney

Kuf is a world with a civilisation in the early iron age, mostly united in a great Empire with the exception of the remote land of the Macht, a people of legendary military prowess who live in independent city-states reminiscent of ancient Greece, and who fight using weapons and tactics similar to the Greek Phalanx. Now there is civil war in the Empire between Ashurnan the Great King and Arkamenes his brother, who has amassed an army to seize the throne. And the devastating spear-head of that army is a force of 10,000 mercenaries of the Macht, brought from overseas to fight in the Empire for the first time in millennia.

So far, this could just as well be historical fiction as fantasy, apart from details of geography and the presence of two moons. Particularly since there is nothing magical or mysterious in the world of Kuf, except for The Curse of God – five thousand sets of impenetrable armour so black that it reflects no light, presented to the Macht by a deity, according to their legends. However, while the Macht appear to be human as we know them, the people of the Empire come in a far wider variety of sizes, shapes and colours than we are used to.

The story initially focuses on two young Macht, Rictus and Gasca, who enlist in the mercenary army. Other principal characters are Jason and Phiron, Macht leaders, Tiryn, the mistress-slave of Arkamenes, and General Vorus, a renegade Macht who leads the Great King's army. The viewpoint shifts between characters from scene to scene.

In many ways this is a straightforward story; there are no mysteries to be revealed, no unexpected plot twists or other major surprises. The tale of the civil war follows its own relentless logic, step by step, as the invading army fights its way across much of the Empire. The strength of the book is in its battle scenes, of which there are many. The author belongs to the gritty realism school of writing, and the fear, panic, confusion and brutality of battle are powerfully evoked, as are the campaigning problems of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and body lice. The result is a gripping account which draws in the reader and had this reviewer shivering with the tension of the build-up to the final climactic battle.

There is much strong writing here, the only disappointment being the ending, which I found rather unsatisfying. Nevertheless The Ten Thousand is a must-read for enthusiasts of epic battle fantasies.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Some films plus the BFS

I'm slowly catching up with recent SFF films, and saw a couple of them last week. One is The Day After Tomorrow, about the sudden onset of a new ice age. An average-quality disaster movie requiring a high-than-average suspension of disbelief. This is due to the plot making no sense climatologically, especially because of the improbability (to put it mildly) of the suddenness and severity of the cooling effect (ambient temperature falling to minus 150 degrees in a few seconds?). Climate change is obviously a difficult subject for Hollywood. Unlike major earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, which are catastrophic short-term events, climate change takes – at least – years, and usually decades, to produce dramatic results. Rather too long a timeframe for an exciting film, so they decided to exaggerate everything by a few orders of magnitude. And, as is commonplace with Hollywood products, there is a strong focus on the family in the centre of the storm (although not to the same ridiculous extent as the remake of The War of the Worlds which I've written about previously). As is usual with modern disaster movies, the real star of the show is the CGI of the disaster itself, with a massive storm surge crashing into New York.

The other film I've seen is King Kong – the recent version. A good film, with well-played characters and a most impressive, and expressive, Kong. This one is about relationships too, but then it's meant to be. Naomi Watts provides a credibly appealing focus for the beast's affections, and their story is handled well. The only complaint I have is that the film is too long, partly because the director seems to have overindulged himself in playing for ages with an array of CGI monsters on Kong's island chasing and devouring sundry members of the cast. I kept wanting to cut these peripheral scenes short as I watched them.
Also time to catch up with some of the material from the British Fantasy Society
which has been disgorged by my letterbox over the past few months – they are an industrious lot! Regular offerings include Prism, which is mostly reviews with a few comment columns. As usual, the coverage is wide, including fantasy, horror, science fiction and graphical fiction (or comics, as I used to call them in my youth). I read (as well as write) a lot more reviews than novels these days, as I find this a useful way of discovering new authors to try.

Then there is Dark Horizons, a mix of short stories, poetry, interviews, news and chat, sprinkled with illustrations. The current issue (#53) offers a remarkably varied selection of tales, including dark fantasy, horror and comedy. My pick of the bunch is Paul Campbell's Timeless, about a middle-aged woman who is given the opportunity to review one of the key turning points of her life; a relationship which failed to work. This might sound unpromising but it is an original tale, beautifully told.

I'm still working through a couple of BFS booklets. One is A Dick and Jane Primer for Adults, a very strange and intriguing collection of stories all written on the theme (and mostly in the style) of the children's series but with an adult – and sometimes nightmarish – perspective. The other is Fantasy & SF: the Roots of Genre, which consists of extracts from two books of criticism: Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid, with an introduction by Niall Harrison [edit to add: ooops, this last one is from the British Science Fiction Association - with apologies to them!].

Finally, a book arrived in the mail the other day, Houses on the Borderland, a substantial 300-pager with six novellas; "unsettling tales of the macabre", according to the blurb. I was a bit puzzled because I hadn't ordered it, until it dawned on me that it was another publication of the BFS that was included in my subscription. As I said, they really are busy people. All I can add is "keep up the good work!"

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Interzone 218

October's issue of the SFF magazine might be regarded as the "Chris Beckett special", as it includes a long interview with the British author plus three of his short stories. I have to confess I hadn't been aware of him before, but was intrigued by his background (as a social worker and now a university lecturer) and his transgenre approach to fiction. Not an easy interview to summarise, but I share his liking for marginal territories and other, hidden, worlds.

Poppyfields (by Chris Beckett, illustrated by Vincent Chong) concerns the relationship between Angus Wendering, an unambitious office worker, and two women; his ambitious wife and a mysterious girl who appears out of nowhere in a patch of wasteland called Poppyfields. This wasteland is central to the story; a large development site, locked in a legal tangle, which has reverted to a natural haven which attracts birdwatcher Angus to spend time there. The girl comes from an alternate Earth and has her own particular agenda. The story has charm, especially in the descriptions of Poppyfields, the flavour of which brought to mind Grahame Wright's Jog Rummage (reviewed on this blog a year ago) despite that being very different in other respects. My only criticism is that I found the ending a little too pat to be satisfying.

The way in which the compliant Angus is ruthlessly manipulated by both of the women in his life is amusing, and there is an echo of that in Beckett's next story, Greenland. This is illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe, the illustration being repeated in colour on the cover. It is set in a grim future in which global warming has turned England into a semi-tropical land swamped by refugees from countries made uninhabitable by climate change. Juan Fernandez is one of these refugees, an educated man struggling to find any employment to enable him to support his demanding wife and their young child. The dream of everyone is to escape to Greenland, which is now a pleasantly habitable land. An opportunity arises to achieve this if Juan agrees to participate in an experiment using a matter replicator/transmitter to send a copy of himself to an orbiting space station, but there is an unforeseen consequence.

In Rat Island by the same author (illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey) a man looks back at the photos he took as a young boy in an England which is only slightly in our future. The man's circumstances are not explained other than comments which indicate that fundamental changes have taken place; he describes our time as a period of:
"Incredible folly, blind recklessness, it all now seems – blazing electric light for no purpose at all except advertising and decoration – but it was a golden age, one of the pinnacles of history. We lived in a great global empire of light and plenty, fuelled by the ancient energy of ancient suns stored up over millions of years and burned up by us in one great, glorious hundred-year binge."
The focus of the story is on the boy's experiences as he and his younger sister visit their father, a prominent civil servant in a London which is, all unknowing, on the verge of disaster. His life is changed forever when his drunken father reveals to him exactly what is happening.

These last two stories were as intriguing and well-written as the first, but I found their dark mood a bit depressing; I don't mind reading such stories occasionally, but I prefer them to be surrounded by less gloomy tales.

There are three other stories in this issue.

IF, by Daniel Akselrod and Lenny Royter, concerns a brain insert known as the IF Chip, which creates an imaginary speaking companion (usually in toy animal form) programmed to teach, guide, and be a friend to children; a great boon for busy parents. The problem is that when the chips are removed in adulthood, the companions refuse to go away. The plot concerns the attempts of Richard, a medical scientist, to cope with his intrusive toy camel while struggling to develop a serum which will banish such companions for good. An amusing tale, well told, with a rather old-fashioned feel (which is not a criticism).

His Master's Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi, illustrated by Paul Drummond, is a strange tale of an intelligent talking dog and his equally modified cat companion who are searching for the master who adapted them and who has been incarcerated for his crime of creating a clone of himself. I never did entirely figure out what was going on.

The Corner of the Circle by Tim Lees (illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe) is offbeat in a different way. A teenage boy occasionally visits a relative in a near-future New York, and forms a relationship with an intriguing woman who becomes an honorary aunt. The focus is entirely upon this relationship, and the visits by aliens using a nearby portal as a transport nexus for their spaceships seem peripheral to the plot.

The rest of the magazine contains the usual news and reviews, including an interview with Charles Stross. At least the stills from the films reviewed include only two pictures of characters holding guns this time; last issue there were four, which seems a little excessive (especially since one picture included two of them). I have nothing against guns – I shoot them when I get the chance – but I do find Hollywood's preoccupation with them somewhat tiresome.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Necropath by Eric Brown

This new book is listed as "a Bengal Station novel", presumably set in the same location as the author's 2004 novel of that name, which I haven't read.

Bengal Station is a vast spaceport built in a far-future Bay of Bengal, receiving traffic from the many human-occupied worlds and occasional visits from members of various intelligent alien races. Rather more than a spaceport, in fact; it has many levels and is home to a crowded city of 25 million people. The city is zoned, with the best areas close to the top and/or enjoying direct sea views; the lower levels become increasingly down-market. This concept of a vertically stratified city is remarkably common in SF, presumably because it emphasises the associated social stratification.

Jeff Vaughan is a telepath, his natural potential having been substantially boosted artificially. He is employed by the spaceport to vet incoming ships for illegal immigrants, but is tired of his job and his life, and takes drugs to dull his mind to the constant mental pressure from the packed hordes living in the city. Chandra is a one of the few people he can tolerate; a detective with the Bengal Station police. Sukara is a "working girl" from Cambodia, searching for her lost younger sister who was last heard of in Bengal Station. These three lives and several others become intertwined as Vaughan begins to investigate some anomalous shipments from the human colony on Verkerk's World, which his boss (himself protected from telepathic intrusion) will not allow him to scan.

This is a traditional hard-SF thriller featuring interstellar travel, exotic drugs, mysterious aliens and a powerful new religion taking hold on Earth. Vaughan struggles to find out what is going on, only to find that the greatest threat comes from his own past. An entertaining read, well worth the time.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

The City at the End of Time by Greg Bear

The City at the End of Time, Greg Bear's latest novel, has a highly ambitious plot. Several different plot threads are kicked off at the start, mostly taking place in today's Earth (or alternate versions of it) but a couple in the unimaginably far future. The contemporary characters are human, but have some odd abilities, while those in the future are vaguely related to humanity, a long way down the track. The author firmly belongs to the "show don't tell" school and the lack of explanation makes the events initially baffling, especially those in the future. Now an element of "mystery to be revealed" is good for a story in my opinion, but this one is taken to extremes. It was only the quality of the writing and some intriguing premises which kept me reading through the early chapters, but it was hard work. I found it difficult to get absorbed in the parallel stories, and for the first few chapters was constantly flicking back to remind myself of who was who. It didn't help me that none of the characters is easy to identify with.

Despite this unpromising start the story slowly emerges like a vast beast rising from the sea, with the connections between the different parts gradually being revealed. The present-day threads follow four individuals: Jack and Ginny, young adults who possess mysterious stones called "sum-runners", have the ability to shift fate to suit themselves, and who dream of a city at the end of time; Daniel, who has similar abilities in a more drastic form; and Glaucous, a man employed by the Chalk Princess (a mysterious, god-like being) to hunt down dreamers like Jack and Ginny. The threads gradually combine in a vast library owned by Mr Bidewell, a man of apparently great age who is connected in some way to the peculiar abilities of the other characters.

The plot threads in the far future, and indeed the universe in which they are set, are much harder to comprehend. This is literally at the end of time: trillions of years hence, after humanity has expanded and contracted in various forms (physical and virtual) many times, gaining ascendancy over the entire Universe even to the point of creating new galaxies to stave off the ultimate decline. But then Typhon, an agent of Chaos, emerges and begins to destroy what remains of the Universe until civilisation retreats, first to the Earth and then to this one last remaining city, Kalpa, protected from the encroaching Chaos by a defensive shield of reality generators.

Kalpa bears no relationship to our concept of a city, being just as strange as its inhabitants. These are divided into different groups: the Breeds, who are a reconstruction of what the city rulers think original humanity was like (records having long been lost); the Tall Ones such as Ghentun, who are much more distantly related to humanity and are much more knowledgeable and powerful than the Breeds; and the Eidolons even higher up the scale. Right at the top is the Librarian, whose nature can be guessed by the fact that a request for a meeting with him is granted – for a thousand years hence.

Jebrassy and Tiadba are Breeds who also dream – of the world of Jack and Ginny, their present-day counterparts. They are recruited to join one of the occasional expeditions sent out into the Chaos to try to find the fabled city of Nataraja, which it is believed is also resisting destruction. The various plot threads gradually combine in a race to prevent Chaos from absorbing the last remnant of reality and bringing an end to time.

The story is packed with strange events, imperfectly understood, and beings whose nature is hard to determine. There is certainly no shortage of the "sense of strange" which pervades some of the most powerful SF. Does Bear manage to pull it off? Not quite; his reach exceeds his grasp, in my opinion, and I was left rather unsatisfied and still somewhat baffled. Still, the breadth of the imagination and the quality of the writing kept me reading to the end, and I wouldn't be surprised if this were proposed for some awards later in the year.

Friday, 12 September 2008

The Hammer of God by Arthur C Clarke

The Hammer of God makes an interesting contrast with Rendezvous with Rama by the same author, reviewed on this blog on 27 June this year. Both stories are set about a century in the future and concern Spaceguard, an organisation set up to monitor the paths of any large asteroids or comets which look as if they might pose a danger to Earth. In both cases, a large object is observed heading inwards from the outer reaches of the Solar System, and action is taken to send a manned spacecraft to intercept. However, there the stories diverge: the object in Rama is going to miss the Earth by a wide margin, but it turns out to be a vast alien space habitat. In Hammer, the object is more prosaic – a large asteroid – but it is heading directly for our planet. So with this story we are in familiar territory, as various books and films have covered the drama of what might happen if the Earth were threatened by a meteorite big enough to destroy our civilisation.

Hammer was first published in 1993, twenty years after Rama, and the structure is very different. Rama is a straightforward tale which progresses in chronological order throughout and focuses almost entirely on the expedition to the artefact (mainly seen through the eyes of the expedition's commander), with only an occasional diversion to the deliberations of a political committee on Earth. Most of Hammer is also seen from the point of view of the ship's captain, but that's where the similarity ends, since the chronological order is jumbled and the chapters are interspersed with various factual and fictional asides. There are brief chapters on historical incidents like Tunguska and the "dinosaur killer", plus other lesser-known meteorites. There are also chapters on the social and religious background to the world of Hammer, and many flashbacks to the earlier life of the captain. In fact, after an early mention of the threat from Kali (as the asteroid is dubbed) the first 158 pages of the 246 page story are taken up with this background material: one section consists of 23 pages of infodump with no dialogue at all. Only on page 159 does the focus turn to the expedition to Kali and the story really get going. From then on the tension starts to build along with the struggle to cope with the danger.

The book finishes with 22 pages of acknowledgements and explanation.

It has to be said that Clarke's story, while technically competent as one would expect from this author, adds little that is new to this theme. No doubt the proponents of the 'Mundane' school of SF would prefer it (see my review of Interzone 216 on 18 July) but the truth is that this story isn't a patch on Rama. Partly this is because Rama is much more tightly focused – it builds up the tension from the start and carries the reader along with the story – partly because of the novelty of its plot and the "sense of wonder" inspired by the mystery of the vast alien artefact.

That isn't to say that Hammer is a bad story. In fact, this is the one I would recommend to anyone who wanted to read something interesting about the threat from asteroid or comet strikes, because (as far as I can judge) it is so well researched and realistic. Clarke can be relied upon to get the science right. However, the focus of the story is really split three ways: between Clarke's vision of a future society in which humanity has spread through the Solar System; a non-fictional account of the threat from asteroids and what to do about them; and finally, a story about an attempt to deflect such a threat. These three elements are not well integrated but almost seem to be three separate texts which have been stitched together. It's worth reading, but not one of his classic works.

Friday, 5 September 2008

On book reviewing and films

I think I must be getting cranky in my old age. Either that or, bizarrely, more pushed for time despite being retired. In years gone by I always finished every book I started, and would expect to re-read a decent one within a year or so. These days I stop reading, long before the end, one in every three or four new books I pick up. Partly this is because they tend to be so long (an issue I've previously explored in this web article) and at my typical rate of 70 pages per hour that means that a 700 page book requires ten hours of investment. As I only read novels for an hour or two each evening that hogs my reading time for anywhere between a week and a fortnight. So that fat book had better be really good and grab my attention quickly or I'm likely to bin it. I'm much more tolerant of short novels and even more of short stories. The other reason for rejection is the modern tendency to pack in lots of extraneous plot lines, which sometimes add so much "human interest" and character development that these becomes the main focus of the story, with the SF bits as a background. While the principal characters have to be well-enough drawn to be believable and to evoke some empathy, that isn't primarily what I read SFF for.

One result of my impatience is that I don't usually post bad reviews: the books I don't like don't get finished, so don't get reviewed (other than perhaps a brief note to that effect). The other reason I don't rubbish novels in my reviews is that I am aware of how subjective the review process is. This has particularly been brought home to me by the reviews of my own books (all summarised on my website – good and bad), with amazon reader feedback for both books covering the full range from one to five stars. Now you may say that amazon reviews aren't worth much, but the verdicts of even experienced reviewers also differ widely. Considering that reviewing is supposed to be as objective as possible, with guidelines on how to achieve this, these results offer food for thought.

The inescapable conclusion is that reviewing is a lot more subjective than most reviewers like to admit. To borrow a metaphor, reviews of any book are like the descriptions of an elephant by blind people relying on touch: each individual account will contain some information, but won't give a clear picture of the beast. Furthermore, if a reviewer really likes a story, s/he is likely to be much more tolerant of any deficiencies, and the reverse is also true. It is possible to find things to praise, and things to criticise, in just about any novel ever written, and what the reviewer chooses to emphasise makes a huge difference to the impression given by the review. Even worse, I have noticed comments from reviewers to the effect that they feel obliged to finish a book even if they don't like it, but they punish the author for their wasted time by posting a vitriolic review. Not very ethical, in my opinion.

So if I do post a review of a book which was readable enough to finish but which I didn't enjoy all that much, I'll say it wasn't the kind of story to appeal to me; I won't say it's rubbish. In case you are thinking that this line of argument must have been prompted by a recent bad review of one of my own books, I plead not guilty! In fact, Scales has recently received a rather good review
by an experienced editor, and summarised along with all of the others here. So some reviews really are very objective, perceptive and of high quality!

If I'm less patient than I used to be where books are concerned, I've become even less tolerant of movies. In part that's because I have more sympathy for authors, who generally slave away by themselves in their spare time. In contrast, Hollywood employs vast numbers of people (many extremely well paid) to produce each film at phenomenal cost, yet as often as not the result isn't worth watching. Even when an author provides them with an excellent story, they still manage to mess it up with depressing frequency. So I finish only about half of the films I sit down to watch. Recently I've seen three SF films: 'District 13', 'Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith', and 'War of the Worlds', with contrasting results.

'District 13' is a French film set in a near-future Paris barrio which has been blocked off from the rest of the city by a high wall in order to contain the lawlessness within. A nuclear weapon has been stolen and smuggled into the barrio, and an undercover policeman teams up with a barrio resident to try to avert disaster. OK, the dialogue is corny and the acting barely adequate, but the film has huge energy with wonderfully gymnastic combat and "free-running" chases around the city (I love watching parkour – far more exciting than any of the traditional sports). I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I really liked the original 'Star Wars' film and thought I would catch up with 'Revenge of the Sith'. Oh dear – how the mighty have fallen. There was (only just) enough interest in the depiction of the turning of Anakin to the Dark Side (you don't usually see a hero turning into a baddie in this kind of film) plus the CGI (I'm a sucker for alien landscapes, cityscapes and machinery) to keep me watching to the end, but it was a close-run thing. Where have the humour and joie de vivre gone? When the only engaging character in the film is the speechless robot R2D2 you know there are problems…

'War of the Worlds' is a classic novel but this 2005 film version is one I didn't sit through. Since when was the story primarily about dysfunctional family relationships, with the alien invasion shoved into the background? This seems a common thread in Hollywood films these days: everything has to have its stock characters always in conflict with each other, with broken marriages, difficult father-son relationships, and a cute moppet who can be relied upon to scream at frequent intervals. Tedious, tedious, tedious – why can't they just tell the story?

Oh well, enough grumbling. Next week I'll be reviewing The Hammer of God, by that late lamented old master, Arthur C Clarke.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Interzone 217

In a complete contrast with Interzone 216, the special "Mundane SF" issue, the six stories in the latest issue of the British SFF magazine are emphatically "non-Mundane"; they all feature elements of the fantastic, aliens or deep space travel.

Africa by Karen Fishler (illustrated by Paul Drummond: also featuring on the cover): It is the very far future. Humanity has been banished from Earth by all-powerful aliens (apparently for making a complete mess of it) and now survives only in vast spaceships travelling the Galaxy. And in the form of the Guardians orbiting the Earth, whose task it is to prevent humanity from returning to the planet which has been completely cleansed of their works and allowed to revert to a wild state. There are only two Guardians left, when a spaceship materialises nearby.

The Two-Headed Girl by Paul G Tremblay: A strange fantasy about a girl and her constantly-changing second head. I first assumed that it was a figment of her imagination, but it seems not…

The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by their Rain by Jason Sanford (illustrated by Vincent Chong): Another story in which it is difficult to grasp entirely what's going on, even at the end. A settlement on a strange world constantly battered by violent storms brought by "spaceships" which at first seem to be clouds. But it is strictly forbidden to dig downwards, because of what people might find there…

Concession Girl by Suzanne Palmer (illustrated by Darren Winter): A more conventional tale concerning a human space station being visited by aliens trying to resolve their differences, and the unexpected diplomatic role played by a girl selling hot dogs.

Little Lost Robot by Paul McAuley (illustrated by Paul Drummond): A different take on Saberhagen's Berserker series, this time seen from the viewpoint of an ancient but still all-powerful robotic killer spaceship. Problems arise when the ship detects signs of life in a system which seems strangely familiar.

Comus of Central Park (illustrated by Paul Drummond): An amusing parable about a woman living in New York who finds a faun (half man, half goat) in Central Park, and the mayhem which follows when she introduces him to society.

A very varied and interesting collection, all of them worth the read. Somewhat to my surprise, the one which intrigued me most was Jason Sandford's tale. Even though it was difficult to figure out precisely what was going on, there was enough to stop me from getting lost and it was strongest in that "sense of strange" which features in the best SFF.

There are the usual news and extensive review sections, the latter focusing more on film and TV than books, with no less than nine pages on the visual media, covering not just major studio releases such as the X-Files, Indiana Jones, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk, plus TV series Torchwood and Sliders, but lesser-known genre films from Japan and Korea.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

'Exit, Pursued by a Bee' by Geoff Nelder

A newly published novel by a British author, 'Exit, Pursued by a Bee' is set in the near future (a manned mission to Mars is ready to go) against a background of a bizarre series of events. Giant silvery spheres nearly 80 metres in diameter slowly emerge from the ground at Glastonbury Tor and several other widely-spaced locations around the world. They prove oblivious to all attempts to communicate with them and immune to efforts to attack them, and gradually float away from the surface. As they do, a series of timeslips begins to occur: people find themselves suddenly back in history, or caught up in catastrophes as structures partially disappear from the present. Sometimes time is locally "rewound", and a series of events is replayed with a different result.

Caught up in the middle of this and trying to make sense of it is Kallandra, a NASA astronaut, variously aided and obstructed by her fiancé Derek, a rocket engineer, and the dangerously tempting fellow astronaut Claude. Further problems come from a sensation-seeking journalist and a US General whose preferred solution to any problem is to nuke it. Chaotic events accumulate and conclude in a long-distance chase using the Mars spaceship to try to undo the damage being done.

This is a generally light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek romp which races along engagingly, although a couple of tragedies slightly darken the mood later on. Not for those who look for portentous dramas, explorations of advanced physics or serious consideration of the problems of society. The emphasis is on escapist entertainment, and at that it succeeds very well.

Friday, 15 August 2008

New Horizons magazine

This is the first edition of an occasional new publication of the British Fantasy Society (which includes SF within its remit), which already produces Dark Horizons from time to time. Both are principally collections of short stories mixed with author interviews, but New Horizons is specifically fantasy, and endeavours to present the work of new authors.

There are interviews with David Rix, founder of the new Eibonvale Press, and author Tony Richards. The rest of the A5 booklet is taken up with ten short stories.

Among The Mollies by Harvey Raines. A teenager learns the trick of living in whatever cities he wishes just by imagining them. But in every city he makes, there is a forbidding, fenced off tower block of flats, populated by partly-glimpsed people dubbed the Mollies. Eventually, he has to enter to find out why.

Silk and Pearls
Domestic Interior
Two Dreams
all by K J Bishop. Three surreal short shorts, or snippets of stories. Essentially examples of creating atmospheres.

Canoe Boy by Allen Ashley. A man in a grim, near-waterless future city tries to recover his lost love and understand what is happening.

Unlikely by Will McIntosh. A statistician who specialises in correlating vast quantities of data about his city discovers that the accident rate drops when two strangers are accidentally in close proximity, so engineers their meeting.

What You Came For by Jaine Fenn. A grim tale, told in the second person, about a being who enters an old house to experience the emotions of those who had been in it, including a young girl who was murdered.

At Midnight, All The Agents by David Barnett. An amusing romp about the investigations of the Department of Extra-Usual Affairs, who turn their attention to a outbreak of people dressing as, and apparently believing that they are, well-known fictional characters – with a difference.

The Absence Club by Daniel Bennett. A strange tale about a computer specialist left on his own to edit the files of a college which had just closed, and a man who has a task for him.

The Snow Fox by Stephen Deas. Another surreal short about a man talking to his lover in a grand house – or is he?

An interesting batch of mostly unconventional stories. Not my usual fare, but short enough to read quickly. My favourite was probably the most conventional one, Unlikely.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Psion by Joan D. Vinge

It is a strange quirk of memory that some books I read decades ago are still clear in my mind, while others read more recently I have forgotten entirely and ring no bells even on re-reading. This is not necessarily to do with the quality of the writing as the latter group include some good stories; it seems to be a matter of the strength or clarity of the images created in my mind. Psion is in that latter category but is none the worse for that, so I was able to enjoy re-reading it as if for the first time.

This is one of several popular SF novels written by Joan D. Vinge in the early 1980s, often with something of the feel of fantasy. 'Psion' is set in a distant future when humanity has spread to many star systems by means of FTL spaceships and has encountered another sentient race, the Hydrans, who are close enough to humanity to interbreed, thereby indicating a common origin. The Hydrans possess a formidable range of psionic powers, including telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation and precognition, but they are psychologically incapable of violence or deceit, so are soon dominated by humanity. Some humans have also developed psi powers, but usually only one and to a limited degree. They are regarded with fear and suspicion by the rest of humanity.

'Psion' is a first-person account of a teenage human-Hydran hybrid, called Cat because of his Hydran vertically-slitted eye pupils. He grows up an orphaned, illiterate and feral sneak-thief, living in the gutter and with no memory of his origins. Eventually caught, he tests positive for psionic potential and is taken to a research institute which aims to develop his latent telepathic ability. While there, he meets two other psions, Jule and Siebeling, and learns that they are part of a plot to trap an elusive human super-psion criminal dubbed Quicksilver. What follows is an exciting adventure thriller mainly set on the strange world of Cinder, still occupied by Hydrans, in a battle for control of the only source of the Telhassium crystals required for space flight.

This is more than just a simple thriller, as there is a strong focus on Cat's sufferings as he tries to develop his ability and understand where he came from, plus learn the dark secret buried so deep in his mind that not even the most powerful telepath can reach it. His relationships with Jule and Siebeling are complex and form the main sub-plot. The conclusion is unexpected but convincing.

First-person accounts are not so popular these days because of the restricted perspective they involve, but this worked for me. I enjoyed the story and found myself keen to get back to it again after each break. There is a sequel, Catspaw, which I hope to get around to re-reading soon.

Friday, 1 August 2008

How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich

A break from fiction this week, to consider Gilovich's important book, subtitled 'The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life'. As this suggests it is a study of why we tend to believe certain things (with lots of examples of popular misconceptions from everyday life), despite the lack of evidence for them or, in many cases, solid evidence that they are not true. A couple of points to clarify before anyone starts getting defensive: the book doesn't belittle people for what they believe, it just analyses the basis for such beliefs; and little is said about religion.

A common problem is the misunderstanding of statistics, especially probability theory, which can sometimes produce counter-intuitive results. A well-known example of this is the answer to the question "how many people do you need in a room in order to get a 50% chance that two of them will have the same birthday?" The answer is 23; and what's more, you only need 35 for the probability to rise to 85%. Most people find this amazing (I did too, despite some limited experience of probability theory). One reason for misunderstanding statistics is the clustering tendency of random events. If you toss a coin and it comes up heads five times in succession, you might think this is remarkable, but it is in fact inevitable if you keep tossing the coin long enough: the "50/50" rule only applies over a long series.

As a result of this lack of understanding, people experience coincidences which are well within normal probabilities and wrongly believe that something remarkable has happened, or even that they can't really be coincidences at all but must have some greater significance. This is exacerbated by the fact that humans have an inbuilt tendency to seek patterns in events, to the extent of seeing them where they don't exist.

A lack of contrary information can lead to unwarranted beliefs. For example, a selection board which interviews candidates for an academic or training scheme may believe that they are doing a good job, because the majority of their choices perform well. But they have no way of knowing how well the people they rejected would have performed, given the chance. In fact, research into the selection process has shown that "decisions based on objective criteria alone are at least as effective as those influenced by subjective impressions formed in an interview".

We are often misled by information we receive second hand, because of the tendency to "sharpen and level", as the author puts it. By this he means that in relaying a news item, for instance, we tend to emphasise the points which we consider to be important (or which we believe) and downplay or omit other aspects. So if a carefully-written report comes to a tentative conclusion which we agree with, but wraps this around with qualifications and caveats, we tend just to relay the conclusions, making the results appear far more definite than the report's authors intended. As people "sharpen" different aspects of information to suit their beliefs, so we get a rapid polarisation of opinions on controversial issues. Even worse, some organisations deliberately "sharpen and level" because they want to turn public opinion in their favour [popular news media and politicians are of course notorious for presenting such selectively slanted information, especially during election campaigns, but so do many organisations with agendas]. Most "urban legends" probably develop as a result of an extreme version of this, with the key points pulled out and exaggerated.

This sharpening effect is exacerbated by the fact that if we hold certain beliefs, we are likely to discuss them only with people who agree with us, and only to read supportive publications. Our beliefs are thereby rarely challenged but instead are constantly reinforced, so we tend to end up with the view that our beliefs are naturally and obviously right. Anyone who disagrees with them must therefore be entirely mistaken and possibly downright stupid if not malevolent. This polarisation is obvious today in politics and in debates about other controversial issues. In reality, of course, situations are rarely as polarised as this: we exaggerate differences.

A major reason for many misplaced beliefs is that notable events stick in our minds, whereas we are much less likely to remember when something did not happen. This can distort our understanding of the likelihood of particular events. For example, it is commonly believed that a previously infertile couple is much more likely to conceive after they have adopted a child. A careful analysis of a mass of birth and adoption statistics shows that there is no truth in this at all; there is no such effect. People believe that there is because if a couple does conceive after adoption it is a notable event likely to be commented on and remembered. Conversely, no-one remembers the couples who did not conceive after adoption, or those who eventually conceived without adoption (who may well not have publicised their fertility problems).

A related issue is that if we hold certain beliefs, we are much more likely to seize on and remember any events which appear to confirm those beliefs, while dismissing and quickly forgetting any contrary evidence. Even if we do spend time examining contrary evidence, it is usually only to attack it aggressively and try to find fault with it, while we accept at face value anything which appears to support our beliefs.

A major explanation for our beliefs is that we tend to believe what we would like to be true. An obvious example is life after death. It would be wonderful if our personalities and intelligence survived in some way after death, which accounts for some of the most powerfully-held human beliefs: most people really want to believe this. More generally, there is a yearning for order and purpose in life, a wish to believe that there is more to it than meets the eye. Many find the concept that we are here (individually and collectively) only by random chance in a vast and uncaring universe simply unacceptable. They feel that it makes them, and life itself, pointless and worthless, so they instinctively reject it, leading them to dismiss, for instance, the overwhelming evidence for evolution in favour of beliefs which have no evidential support at all.

A belief in extra-sensory perception is also widespread (and a very common theme of SFF) but, as the author points out, no evidence for it has ever survived any objective analysis. Some promoters of the idea claim that trying to measure it prevents it from working, which sceptics might regard as a self-serving way of avoiding the need to provide any proof. There are various reasons for a belief in ESP, including a long history of plausible fraudsters and a very biased coverage in relevant news media, books and magazines (the vast majority of which uncritically support the idea), but the basic reason is probably that it's something that we would love to be true – for us to have such impressive and useful powers. I suspect that a belief in an alien origin of UFOs falls into the same category.

A similar example concerns alternative medicine in general, and faith healing in particular. For people (especially if seriously ill) who have not been helped by conventional medicine, there is a powerful motivation to believe anyone who offers a potential cure. Examples of "cures" are seized upon as proof, ignoring the fact that the body has a potent self-repairing system and that many ailments clear up by themselves given time. Alternative medicine also often relies on plausible (but false) similarities. The classic case is the enthusiasm in some parts of the world for medicines incorporating ground-up rhino horn to use as a kind of alternative Viagra – simply because it's long and hard and stands up all the time. More controversially (because it concerns our culture's popular beliefs rather than another's) the author points out that homeopathy falls into the same category; there is no validated evidence that it works, and no logical reason why it should [it makes the rhino horn notion look relatively sensible].

We have a remarkable capacity for self-delusion when it suits us. A survey of one million US high school seniors showed that 70% believed that they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2% that they were below average [much the same results occur in surveys which invite people to rate their own driving ability].

A final point: the perception of human fallibility in understanding is not exactly new. The book includes a couple of quotes from Francis Bacon, the 16th/17th century philosopher:

"The human understanding supposes a greater degree of order and equality in things than it really finds; and although many things in nature be sui generis and most irregular, will yet invest parallels and conjugates and relatives where no such thing is." Which is to say in simpler modern language, that we tend to see patterns and relationships where none exist.


"…all superstition is much the same whether it be that of astrology, dreams, omens, retributive judgment, or the like…[in that] the deluded believers observe events which are fulfilled, but neglect or pass over their failure, though it be much more common."

In this review I have only had space to provide a very superficial summary of a few highlights, but Gilovich's book is packed full of examples and detailed explanations, so if this kind of thing intrigues you, go and find a copy!