Thursday, 25 June 2009

Agent of Change, by Lee and Miller, plus Ashes to Ashes

Agent of Change, first published in 1988, kicked off the authors' extensive Liaden Universe series. I had heard good things of the stories but had never read them before, so I tackled this one with interest.

It is classic space opera, set in a distant future in which humanity has spread through the galaxy and interacts (sometimes in a friendly way, sometimes not) with various other equally advanced races. Most of the other races bear no resemblance to humans, the exception being the Liadens who are close enough related to be able to interbreed – although how this came to be is not explained in this story.

The two heroes of this story are Val Con, a male Liaden spy, and Miri, a female human ex-mercenary bodyguard, both more than capable of looking after themselves in dangerous situations. At the start of the story they accidentally meet on the world of Lufkit when both are being hunted; Val Con by the planetary authorities, Miri by a criminal organisation called the Juntavas. Their pair up out of necessity, and the rest of the story is largely concerned with their efforts to survive. A key role is played by a magnificently realised alien race known as the Clutch, who resemble giant turtles and have previously befriended Val Con. I hardly need add that the action is flavoured by a developing romance between the two heroes.

A fast-paced and entertaining read, if rather lightweight and not particularly memorable. I might chase up the sequels in due course, but I have a tall stack of books to read and a long list of others to buy, so it's likely to take a while.
Ashes to Ashes

The TV detective series Life on Mars, about a present-day policeman who inexplicably finds himself a part of a 1970s detective squad, was deservedly a huge hit. Not surprisingly it was followed by a new series, Ashes to Ashes, following the same detective team into the 1980s with a new "throwback", Keeley Hawes replacing John Simm. The first series was rather disappointing by contrast with LoM, but the second series (which finished a couple of weeks ago) was a great improvement. The characters were much better developed, and the twin plot threads of Hawes' character desperately trying to get back to the present day and her growing relationship with Philip Glenister's crusty, misogynistic detective became increasingly intriguing. As well as the drama and mystery this was one of the funniest series on TV, with more laugh-out-loud moments than most comedies (and – blessed relief – no canned laughter). From being an "OK to watch" for the first series this became a "must watch", and the highlight of the week's viewing. I realised just how much I had come to like the characters when felt quite sad on discovering that one of them had betrayed the team (for all-too-human reasons). The finale was the best episode of the lot, with a commendably ambiguous and open ending.

There's no doubt that Glenister was the star of the show; he was given a string of often outrageously funny non-PC one-liners which he delivered in his characteristically gruff, deadpan, rapid-fire style. One which sticks in my mind; on seeing Hawes looking unusually happy: "What's up with you then? You look as if you've been sitting on the washing machine again!" And the gag in the last episode concerning the detective at a chip-shop crime scene who was happily munching on a battered and deep-fried sausage until he discovered that it was from a literally dis-membered murder victim brought tears to my eyes. I'm eagerly awaiting the third series, due next year.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Starship Troopers, by Robert A Heinlein – book and film

I read a lot of Heinlein in the 1960s, when I absorbed all of the SFF I could get my hands on, but was never a great fan and didn't read any of his books more than once. I remember enjoying Starship Troopers, though, so looked forward to a re-read with the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. Coincidentally, the film of the book was on the TV just before I read it, so I recorded it to watch immediately after the read.

I remembered nothing about the plot except for what is obviously implied by the title, and those cool combat suits; part exoskeleton, part armour, part space-suit, part weapon carrier (probably what appealed to my teenage self!). I was at first impressed by the way in which the blunt, matter-of-fact style is well-suited to the subject of a personal memoir by a no-nonsense soldier, and followed his account of life on a future Earth and training in the "boot camp" with interest. I was not immediately put off by the right-wing moralising, since that seemed to go with the territory, but about half-way through this becomes the dominant theme.

An entire chapter is spent recalling a school lesson in which he learned the importance of corporal and capital punishment, and how stupid societies had been to abandon them in the late 20th century. Reading now from an adult perspective, I'd certainly agree that too many children are brought up badly today and lack a structured disciplinary environment, but the notion that if we always hit them immediately they did anything wrong they would grow up to be model citizens is simplistic, to put it mildly. So is Heinlein's notion that children are not born with any moral sense, it has to be beaten into them. Plenty of studies have shown how people, like other social animals, are hard-wired to have an understanding of working cooperatively with others and adhering to the behavioural codes which make that possible – the basis of morality.

Elsewhere in the book is another polemic about the evils of universal franchise, and why governments should be controlled only by those who have volunteered for military service and passed the rigorous training designed to weed out those without the "right stuff". In fact, the entire book is a paean to the virtues of the military life, the harsher the better, and also to unthinking obedience untroubled by any concerns about right or wrong – that's the responsibility of those who give the orders. And this so soon after Nuremburg?

The last part of the book returns to action rather than polemic and is all the better for it. The book is not without its merits, mainly the laconic and gritty account of future combat which presumably influenced Haldeman's vastly superior The Forever War. However, the plot gets swamped by the repellent philosophy. This is best regarded as a curiosity, mainly of value in providing an insight into the mind of right-wing America in the mid-20th century.
Watching the film, made in 1997 some 38 years after the book was first published, is a rather strange experience. It's as if the characters and plot elements of the book have been chopped up and rearranged, with some additions and subtractions, and the attributes of one character sometimes assigned to another. The script stays broadly true to the spirit of the book, with Heinlein's jingoism parodied in a series of simplistic, gung-ho news broadcasts. There are some major differences, however. One is (almost inevitably) a much stronger romance element, achieved partly by making the Mobile Infantry mixed rather than male-only. The other (sadly) is the absence of those impressive combat suits and the tactics associated with them. Apart from the grenade-sized tactical nukes, the infantry fight with equipment and tactics not dissimilar to those of World War 2, which makes the military aspect of the film rather a sad joke. And as usual, the director is keen to maximise the use of the CGI "Bugs" with lots of associated nastiness and slaughter. He also doesn't remotely care about basic credibility; the Bug homeworld is shown as being on the other side of the galaxy (at least 50,000 light years away) but their favourite mode of attack is to launch asteroids from the belt around their planet to score direct hits on specific Earth cities, despite the lack of evidence for any technology. Given that a human spaceship was able to take action to avoid a collision with an incoming asteroid, they clearly travel at a small fraction of lightspeed, so would be likely to take at least a million years to make the journey. No wonder today's youngsters are so ignorant of science.
A brief heads-up for those who followed my series of posts on Global Warming and SF. I have combined and updated them and put the result on my website as a handy reference (to be amended in the light of any further developments) HERE .

Friday, 12 June 2009

Dream Park, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

This novel was first published in 1981 and I read it not long after. I thoroughly enjoyed it then, and was pleased to return to it when it was selected for the Modern Science Fiction discussion group, particularly since I remembered nothing about the plot.

The story is set on Earth some time in the future; there are ultra-high-speed trains running in evacuated tunnels and life-like holograms, but not much else in the way of advanced technology. The location is the Dream Park of the title, a huge leisure park which, in addition to more familiar attractions, hosts role-playing games on vast sets, their actual topography enhanced by computer-generated holograms so they seem to stretch for miles. Keen role-players participate in these games, in which the Lore Master, the leader of the players, pits his wits against the Game Master who devises the game and supervises its progress. Games last for several days during which the players remain on the set and maintain their chosen roles – warrior, thief, cleric or magic user – the magic users being able to summon holographic "supernatural aid" at need. A lot of money rides on these games because, if deemed successful, they are turned into computer games and other merchandise.

The plot concerns the running of a new game, seen as a "blood match" between the Game Master and Lore Master, who have clashed before. Most of the action happens on set, but there is a parallel plot concerning the murder of a security guard at Dream Park, which seems to be associated with the game. The Park's Head of Security, Alex Griffin, becomes convinced that one of the players must have been responsible so he anonymously joins the game as a player in order to try to identify the criminal. However, he finds the game a lot more absorbing than he ever imagined.

I had better start by admitting that I have never participated in a role-playing game of any kind; I'm not sure if that's a benefit or a handicap in reviewing this story! The writing style is brisk and well suited to the teenage market. At first I was disappointed because I found the tale rather frustrating. Many characters are introduced in quick succession and I soon lost track of them. A list of characters is included at the front of the book but, while an essential reference, this only gives their names and roles. Not enough information is provided to round out the personalities or fix their descriptions in the reader's mind, so I kept flipping back though the text to find where they were first (albeit only briefly) described. This lasted until about half-way through the book, during which time I still felt that I didn't know the characters or much care what happened to them.

However, after that the story begins to take off. The surviving characters become more familiar and the story more gripping as the players battle their way through the obstacles and dangers set by the Game Master towards a still-unknown goal in the fantastical world of Melanesian mythology and the Cargo Cult. At the same time Griffin, who secretly keeps in daily contact with his security team, is trying to identify the criminal. The game is a lot more successful than the rather cursory solution of the crime; the eventual revelation of the killer was more of a "huh?" than an "of course!" moment, as not enough clues had been provided.

Despite these reservations, it's an unusual and exciting mix of adventure and crime story, worth the time to read if you can get past the initial problems with characterisation. I expect that RPG fans will enjoy it even more.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Interzone 222 and Dark Horizons

Yet more short stories, from the British SFF magazine Interzone and the British Fantasy Society's Dark Horizons. For someone who prefers novels, I've been reading a lot of the shorter works recently.

Interzone has the usual six stories as well as news and reviews. The cover illustration, by Adam Tredowski, shows a strange, rather abstract spaceship blasting off from a planet.

Johnny and Emmy-Lou Get Married by Kim Lakin-Smith (illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe): 1950s-style romance across the boundaries of futuristic US gangs, the Rocketeers and the Flies.

Unexpected Outcomes by Tim Pratt: is the Earth real – or just a simulation?

Lady of the White-Spired City by Sarah L Edwards (illustrated by Martin Bland): an imperial envoy revisits the backward planet from which she had fled centuries before.

Microcosmos by Nina Allen: a dystopian near-future Earth adapting to changed circumstances, and the personal costs of this.

Ys by Aliette De Bodard (illustrated by Mark Pexton): the magical drowned world of Ys emerges, figuratively and literally, into the life of a young woman.

Mother of Champions by Sean McMullen (illustrated by Anne Stone-Coyote): cheetahs are not at all what we think – they have evolved to perfection!

An entertaining and varied collection which I enjoyed. I'd have to award the medal to Sean McMullen for sheer originality, with a mention in dispatches for Tim Pratt's intriguing take on his theme.

Dark Horizons goes one better with seven stories, plus five poems and several articles including an interview with Robert Holdstock (ancient woodland magic) and summary reviews of the work of David Gemmell (I haven't yet read) plus the Elfin Fantasies of James P Blaylock (quirky tales which I recall enjoying).

Passing Through by Jim Steel: a brief episode set in a grim medieval world

For a Strong, Healthy Body by Andrew Knighton: the consequences of not properly disposing of factory waste.

Nanna Barrows by Jan Edwards: a sick boy is helped by the traditional healer who lives opposite – but there is more…

The Putrimaniac by Brendan Connell: a gruesome tale of tastes and sensibilities running out of control.

Telemura by Douglas Thompson: a horror-filled house and paint of a strange, magical colour.

Everything He Touched, Burned by Mathew F Riley: life in the tunnels under a city.

Beyond the Fifth Sky by Ross Gresham: navigating the underground seas of a strange planet.

Horror is not my favourite genre and I usually prefer SF to fantasy, so no surprise that Ross Gresham's tale appealed to me the most, although Matthew Riley's atmospheric story also sticks in the memory.

The poems are mostly short and elliptical but I have to mention the heroic Chronicle of a Conflagration by Skadi meic Beorh: a graphic three-page account of a battle between the followers of Odin and Lugh, written in triplets in an epic style.