Saturday, 23 February 2008

Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith (real name Paul Anthony Myron Linebarger) was an unusual man; an expert on the Far East and on psychological warfare, who served in US Army Intelligence in both World War 2 and the Korean War, he also left behind a series of linked stories set some 15 millennia in the future. These envisage a strange universe in which man has developed in various forms on different planets and has in addition changed animals into "underpeople"; mainly human but retaining some characteristics of their animal origins. The whole is ruled by the Instrumentality of Mankind, a self-perpetuating and self-governing group of Lords and Ladies who have absolute power.

Norstrilia is the one full-length novel in the sequence. It follows the adventures of Rod McBan, born heir to a farm on the planet Old North Australia (Norstrilia for short) which maintains the way of life of the long-lost Earth original. Despite the simple life of the people, they are fabulously rich because the planet is the only source of stroon, a life-perpetuating drug extracted from diseased sheep. At the start of the book McBan is in serious trouble as he has a handicap – his telepathic ability is unreliable – and Norstrilia has a rigorous screening policy to keep the population in check by very pleasantly killing off anyone who doesn't measure up. With the aid of an old computer, programmed long ago in the science of economic warfare, he protects himself with a sustained assault on humanity's economic system, which leads to him buying Old Earth, to which he escapes. The rest of the story tells of his adventures there among the Lords of the Instrumentality and the underpeople.

If the plot sounds strange, the writing style is even stranger. Cordwainer Smith had a unique, unmistakeable style with which to express his truly bizarre genius. While just about qualifying as SF, it has more of the feel of fantasy. However, it isn't all smoke and mirrors created by an imagination careering away with itself; there is thinking and writing of real substance here, passages to make the reader stop, and think, and re-read them.

It is quite possible that some people will really dislike the result; I suspect that you either love or hate his work. Personally I love it, and believe that the author has earned a special niche in science fiction's wall of honour. Everyone with a real interest in the genre should read at least one of these stories, and will then most likely not rest until finishing the lot.

Friday, 15 February 2008

How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide by John Sutherland, and How Novels Work by John Mullan

These two books were written by men who coincidentally are or have been Professors of English Literature at University College London. I read them in quick succession, and they provide an interesting contrast.

How to Read a Novel seems to be a condensation of a lifetime's experience of reading, studying and teaching fiction. The author covers a wide field in many short and easily digestible chapters, including a brief history of fiction, a discussion of why such an ancient medium as a bound paper book should remain so popular in the electronic age, hardbacks vs paperbacks, knowing your taste, the value of browsing in a bookshop, titles, blurbs, covers, reviews and recommendations, prize novels, TV and film adaptations, and the impact of the internet. He discusses the way in which stories by different authors are interlinked, often referring to each other in oblique ways, and illustrates the points he makes with many short extracts from novels.

Unlike many literati, the author is refreshingly open-minded about his subject and not afraid to admit to reading the occasional airport blockbuster as well as the classics. He includes a chapter on genre fiction in which he spends some time discussing SF and fantasy. There isn't space for him to do more than pick out a few examples, but he covers the range from Mary Shelley and some other early practitioners (but not, curiously, Jules Verne) through to modern writers. He focuses in particular on describing Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' fantasy series, which he takes as an exemplar of current trends. Even graphic novels get a mention.

I originally bought this book thinking that it would provide some kind of analysis of what makes novels successful, from which I might usefully pick up some tips for my own writing. In fact, this work is not as directly useful as that. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read and worth the modest time spent on it.

In contrast, How Novels Work takes a much more systematic approach to analysing stories. The eleven chapters cover Beginning, Narrating, People, Genre, Voices, Structure, Detail, Style, Devices, Literariness, and Ending. Each is broken down into topics, for instance 'Narrating' includes First-Person Narration, Recollection, The Inadequate Narrator (not a criticism; an approach), A Man Writing as a Woman, Multiple Narrators, Skaz (colloquial writing, more closely resembling speech), The Self-Conscious Novel, Addressing the Reader, The Omniscient Narrator, Point of View, Tense, Tense Shift, and Free Indirect Style.

Throughout the book, the points being made are illustrated by extracts from novels, frequently contrasting the approach in older books with that of modern works. One downside is that Mullen takes a more highbrow approach than Sutherland, focusing only on the classics like Jane Austen and the kind of modern novel which gets on the list for the Booker Prize. Science Fiction and Fantasy scarcely get a mention, even in the Genre chapter, the closest being a brief section on 'Magical Realism' which concerns authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.

That doesn't mean that the book is a difficult or irrelevant read, though. The author is critical of the kind of arid textual analysis which has become popular in universities and which tends to ignore such matters as characterisation. He focuses very much on what makes a novel work for the reader, and in so doing passes on a huge number of useful ideas to the writer. Definitely a book I am likely to be returning to, as a guide and reference.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Film: Déjà Vu (2006)

The time is the present, the location New Orleans. A massive car bomb destroys a ferry packed with families, and ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is assigned to the team to investigate it. Be warned: I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but it really isn't possible with this one, so if you plan to watch the film and want the plot to be a surprise, stop reading NOW!


Carlin discovers that the FBI are using a "time machine" based on wormhole technology which allows them to look at any point within a radius of a few miles of the machine, but with a fixed timelag of four days and six hours. As the team look back into the past to discover clues to the identity of the bomber, they focus on a young woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton) from whom the bomber obtained the vehicle used in the attack – and whose body had been found in the water near the explosion. Over days of observation, Carlin falls in love with her and, after the bomber has been identified and arrested and the case is closed down, goes back into the past to try to rescue her and to prevent the bombing from happening.

So far so good: it seems to be a straightforward alternate time-line story, with the branch point being Carlin's attempts to alter the past, from which moment the "future" divides into the original time-line in the first part of the film (lets call it TL1) and the new one caused by Carlin's actions, which runs in parallel (TL2). This division into two time-lines is specifically acknowledged in the film, when one of the characters considers the implications of altering the past. Unfortunately, there are some massive plot holes which make a nonsense of the story, which is a shame because it is otherwise an intriguing and entertaining film with some neat touches. If you don't want to know what the problems are, stop reading NOW!


The problem is that the film-makers get terribly confused between the time-lines. This first becomes obvious during a dramatic and original car chase in TL1, in which Carlin is driving a vehicle while trying to follow, through a portable viewer linked to the time machine, the bomber who is driving the same route 4+ days in the past. He is so distracted that he causes a series of accidents, and when he has to double back he drives past some blazing wrecks – but these also appear in the view of the past. That's just carelessness, but a more fundamental problem is that a whole series of events is misplaced: starting with the murder of his partner (due to a message Carlin had sent into the past) and going through the destruction of the bomber's property as Carlin rescues the girl, and then his subsequent visit to her flat to clean up his injuries (leaving bloodstained dressings), during which the girl rings up the ATF office to check on his identity. These events only occur because of Carlin's efforts to alter the past, and therefore belong in TL2, but they are all observed in TL1, in which the girl died before most of the events which "involve" her. That makes no sense at all.

Yes, I know that the whole premise of the story is impossible anyway, but that isn't the point. I am willing to suspend disbelief and go along with all sorts of impossible plot lines provided that they are internally consistent (I wouldn't otherwise be able to read SFF at all). It's when they lack internal consistency that I lose patience. I am frankly amazed that an entire team of people spent months working on this film and didn't notice, or decided to ignore, these inconsistencies. Either they suffered from collective stupidity, or they assumed that their audience would be too stupid to notice. Not the way to give SF films a good name.

Friday, 1 February 2008

The Godmakers by Frank Herbert

It is the far future and a space-faring humanity is beginning to rediscover planets settled before the devastating Rim War. Their greatest fear is another war, so each time an occupied planet is found, any warlike tendencies lead to a corrective occupation. Particularly prized are the rare individuals with psi powers, which are better understood than now and whose development is largely linked to religion: properly channelled, psi powers can create a god.

Lewis Orne is a newly-trained member of the Rediscovery and Re-education Service, whose job is to assess the cultures of newly-found settled planets to determine their suitability for joining the Galactic Federation. While he is demonstrating remarkable ability in tackling one intractable problem after another, the Abbod of Amel, the planet which is the focus of human religion, is creating a god: exactly what and where, he has no way of telling.

Orne suffers a near-death experience which affects his outlook on life. On recovering, he discovers that he has psi powers, and is sent to Amel, where his process of self-discovery reaches a remarkable conclusion.

Herbert wrote The Godmakers after Dune. It is a much shorter work (175 pages in my 1974 NEL paperback) without the same epic sweep. Nevertheless, it reflects the same fascination with the techniques of myth-making and religion. I can recognise certain elements here which must have subconsciously influenced me when writing Scales, particularly the effect on an individual of the development of unusual abilities. However, Herbert focuses more on the process of getting there than on what happens next. It isn't a great book, but it's worth the time to read.


I've been updating the speculative fiction parts of my website. I have revised my article On Publishing Fiction, which focuses on the pros and cons of traditional vs self-publishing, and I have also amended and transferred to the website articles which previously appeared in this blog: On Marketing and Success and The Length of SF Novels: Quantity vs Quality? All of these should be of interest to those interested in the business of writing and publishing SF or fantasy.

Finally, I have posted the first two chapters of my alternative WW2 novel The Foresight War, to join Part 1 of my SF thriller Scales, to give prospective readers a good chance to try before they buy. Plots summaries and reviews can be read HERE.