Friday, 27 March 2009

Interzone 221

The April issue of this bimonthly British SFF magazine arrived recently, so immediately claimed a priority place on my reading list. The cover illustration, by Adam Tredowski, shows a section of what appears to be a vast and rusting Victorian machine (complete with small, top-hatted smoking figure), with a planet's surface far below – I like this kind of surreal juxtaposition!

As usual, there are six short stories:

A Clown Escapes from Circus Town by Will McIntosh, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe: a bizarre tale of a world in which clowns and other circus characters are the sole occupants of a town. One escapes to find similar towns scattered around the countryside, each inhabited by a different occupation. What's the explanation, and why do the inhabitants keep disappearing? A story which is amusing but also rather sad; just like circus clowns.

Fishermen by Al Robertson, illustrated by Geoffrey Grisso: a talented artist is captured by medieval pirates who have a specific task for him. Beautifully written in an elegiac style which reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay, but not obviously SFF.

Saving Diego by Matthew Kressel, illustrated by David Gentry: a man travels across the galaxy to rescue an old friend, only to find himself in a dangerous situation, both from the planet-destroying numens and from old temptations.

Far & Deep by Alaya Dawn Johnson, illustrated by Lisa Konrad: a young rebel follows in the footsteps of her murdered mother on a tropical island. Another tale which is intriguing and well-told but, apart from one detail, not obviously SFF.

Home Again by Paul M Berger: the pilot of a star-travelling thought-ship returns home in an apparently domestic tale – until the chilling ending.

Black Swan by Bruce Sterling, illustrated by Paul Drummond: the friend of a science journalist appears to be an industrial spy who feeds him secrets concerning advanced technology. But the source of the material turns out to be far more bizarre than the journalist could have imagined.

A varied mix of tales, as is usual for this magazine, from SF to those with only a trace of fantasy. My vote for the most original and entertaining story goes to Will McIntosh, but I would expect that other readers' preferences would be scattered across all of them.

Bruce Sterling also features in a review of his latest novel, The Caryatids, and in an interview, both by Ian Sales. The novel is set in a near future in which many of the worst-case global scenarios have come to pass. I intend to return to this theme in a later post; can any near-future SF now ignore the increasingly dire warnings of what's happening to the planet?

The rest of the magazine consists of the usual detailed and thoughtful book reviews, criticisms of recent DVDs and films, and a news and obituary page.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Passage by Connie Willis

I expect that most people will be familiar with the accounts from people who have temporarily "died" before recovering; impressions of travelling down a dark tunnel towards a bright light, of feeling that there are people at the other end. The theme of Passage is the exploration of such near death experiences – NDEs – to determine what causes them and what they mean. Two researchers in a hospital join forces. Joanna is interviewing everyone who experiences an NDE to find out exactly what they think they saw, while Richard is trying to induce artificial NDEs via drugs. Both are up against the influential Mandrake, an author who believes that NDEs are spiritual and indicate the entry to an afterlife from which messages can be sent back to the living. The story concerns the struggle of the researchers to collect and interpret their data.

This may sound rather mundane and not very science-fictional, and for much of the book there is some truth in that. In fact, it initially reads more like a medical drama (being heavy on medical processes and terminology), combined with incipient romance, until well into the second half when the plot takes an unexpected and dramatic turn. The remainder of the story is edge-of-the-seat stuff, in entirely new territory.

Connie Willis is a good writer who held my attention. However, this story is not without flaws. Chief among them is its inordinate length, at nearly 800 pages, which includes a lot of repetition. How many times do we need to read about Joanna and Richard's efforts to avoid Mandrake? How many stories from the ex-sailor Wojakowski must we hear? How many meetings with the young patient Maisie do we need? There were times when I was reminded of the film Groundhog Day. The plot proceeds with infinitesimal slowness for much of the book, and I did become rather frustrated with it. I think that it could have been drastically reduced in length without losing any of the plot or involvement with the characters, and it would have been better for it.

Furthermore, considering its length the characterisation is rather patchy. Joanna and Richard are rather sketchily drawn and Joanna in particular never really came alive for me. We are told very little about their private lives or why they are motivated to carry out this research. Conversely, some of the secondary characters are more clearly drawn, particularly Maisie, Wojakovsky and even the insufferable Mandrake.

Despite these complaints, Passage is a remarkable achievement. It is an original, daring, intensely atmospheric and powerfully imaginative work which is likely to remain with me for a long time.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny

Roadmarks was published in 1979, but I hadn't previously read it and in fact wasn't even aware of its existence until it was selected as the book of the month by the Classic Science Fiction forum. It is an intriguing read and makes quite a contrast with the more conventional and commercial Amber fantasy series for which Zelazny is now best known.

The early part of the book is confusing. Various apparently unconnected plot threads are set running, characters are introduced without explanation, and it is not at all obvious what is going on. It gradually becomes clear that the threads fall into two basic story lines, both concerned with travellers along the Road. This is no ordinary road, but a road through time; travelling along it moves you forwards or backwards in time, and there are occasional exits to enable the users of the Road to join or leave from particular points in history.

The main story line follows a man called Red, or Reyd, Dorakeen. He is a long-term traveller on the Road, on a permanent search for something even he is uncertain of. The other follows Randy Dorakeen, whose relationship to Red is at first unclear. The story keeps chopping between the two and the true situation gradually emerges, reaching a climax when the threads all come together at the end. I have to say that the instant I finished the book I immediately returned to the start and read the first fifty pages again so I could understand what they had been about!

Generally speaking I dislike books which leave the reader groping for understanding for much of their length, and was initially in some doubt as to whether I would even finish the story. However, Zelazny's writing was good enough to keep me engaged and there was plenty of entertainment en route, with exotic assassins, a planet-destroying robot, intelligent talking books, and even intelligent dragons (again!). Not one of Zelazny's best efforts, but it's interesting for its construction as well as its story, and at fewer than 200 pages is worth the brief reading time.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Fact vs Fantasy

This week I'm looking at a couple of items on the irrational beliefs front, concerning first creationism (again) and then the Mayan 2012 confection.

The good news is that the Texas State Board of Education has voted to get rid of wording which invites teachers and students to debate the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. This wording had allowed evolution to be attacked in Texan science lessons for the last twenty years. The bad news is that a recent British poll (reported HERE appears to show that half of the British population doesn't believe in evolution. Only around 25% believe that evolution is "definitely true" and another 25% believe it's "probably true", with 22% preferring creationism or "intelligent design" and rest confused. I say "appears" because the exact wording of the question asked isn't given, and that is of course critical in affecting the responses. By comparison, it's only three or four years since a poll putting the question "human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false?" resulted in 75% of Britons saying, "true", with 18% "false" and 7% "not sure". It will be interesting to see the results of any polls taken later this year, after the deluge of publicity and TV programmes about the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

While on this subject, there was an amusing item by Amanda Gefter in New Scientist magazine (28/2/09) concerning how to spot attempts to disguise religiously-inspired (or other unscientific) work as science. Samples of some key phrases to look for:
"Darwinism": scientists rarely use the term – they use "evolution" instead
"irreducibly complex": implying that it couldn't have evolved from something simpler
"academic freedom": when appealed to, usually means the freedom to teach creationism
"common sense": when appealed to; science works on theories based on evidence and may reach conclusions entirely opposed to common sense.
"scientific materialism": implying that the immaterial exists
"quantum physics" in an article which is clearly not about physics ("quantum" being the latest mystical buzz-word to give apparent respectability to bonkers notions)
There's more, but this gives the general idea!
I have only recently stumbled across the Mayan 2012 cataclysm belief, which I gather is very popular in some quarters. For those as yet unexposed to this wonder, it concerns the fact that the Mayan "long count" calendar (they were fond of grouping years into various different cycles) comes to an end on 21 December 2012, when some terrible event is predicted to happen. It is also claimed by one Terence McKenna, who invented something called "Timewave Zero" which "purports to calculate the ebb and flow of novelty in the universe as an inherent quality of time", that "the novelty [is] progressing towards the infinity on 21st December 2012". (see THIS item). Wow! With modern mathematical theory backing up ancient Mayan beliefs, there must really be something in this, right?

Just a couple of problems with this: the Mayans did not predict catastrophe at the end of the long count – in fact, they had celebrations at the end of their year cycles to welcome in the next cycle, just as we did at the end of the Millennium. The predictions of doom were the recent invention of a New Age theorist, José Argüelles, whose ideas have been dismissed by all professional Mayan scholars. As for McKenna, it turns out that no serious mathematician has accepted his ideas: they are just numerology (which is in the same category of scientific validity as astrology). Even more damning, McKenna (an advocate of "magic mushrooms" as the key to understanding), deliberately changed his initial calculations to match up his critical date with the end of the Mayan long count, so it is hardly surprising that they are the same.

I must once more recommend, to anyone who might be tempted to believe such nonsense, Gilovich's book 'How We Know What Isn't So', which I reviewed earlier on this blog (see the review list on the left). It really should be essential reading. You might also pay a visit to the UK-Skeptics forum where all manner of irrational beliefs are viewed with a critical eye. As one contributor pointed out in a discussion on 2012, we needn't worry about it even if you believe such catastrophe theories because we're not going to last that long. The end of the world is supposed to happen in 2010 according to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, or 31st December 2011 (if we fail to rid ourselves of all evil) according to Solara Antara Amaa-ra, leader of the "11:11 Doorway Movement". The fact that countless "end of the world" predictions have come and gone doesn't seem to discourage such fantasists. I suppose it could be regarded as the triumph of pessimism over experience!