Friday, 30 July 2010

More on immortality, and The Dark Knight film

I posted on the subject of the potential problems with the enthusiasm for immortality some months ago, and have stored this as an article on my website HERE. I was reminded of this when reading reviews in the New Scientist (10 July) of a couple of US-published books on this subject: Long For This World: The strange science of immortality by Jonathan Weiner, and The Youth Pill: Scientists at the brink of an anti-aging revolution by David Stipp.

The reviewer of both books, S. Jay Olshansky, says of Weiner's book that it is "a brilliant exposé of the fascinating science that has emerged in the search for everlasting life, and the quacks, drunks and geniuses participating in one of the greatest shows on Earth". Weiner focuses on the more extreme wing of the anti-aging enthusiasts, the ones who wish to extend the lives of individual humans indefinitely. I had quite a lot to say about this in my article, and it is telling that Olshansky says of one of its most prominent proponents that "having no children himself, he sees no need for future immortals to have them either". As if…

Stipp's book concentrates on the less ambitious goal of producing a longevity pill which will extend the human lifespan by a limited but measurable amount. This is the realm of serious scientists conducting careful, evidence-based research. Success would still not be without problems, though, as I have mentioned; the impact on employment and retirement being among the obvious ones.

Other recent articles in the New Scientist (one in the same 10 July issue) have discussed progress with identifying genetic differences between those who live to be 100 and those who don't. Scientists at Boston University have identified 150 elements in the genome which are far more common in centenarians than in those who die earlier, but their work only looked at people of white European descent and needs corroborating anyway. Even if this results in a useful outcome, such genetic indicators would clearly be only part of the story, since lifespan is also affected by environmental factors such as accident, disease, poverty and the abuse of drugs, alcohol and food.

All considered, it seems likely that science will begin to come up with some answers to life extension in the foreseeable future. All the more reason for society to start debating the kind of issues which I raise in my article, rather than be taken by surprise by them.
I recently saw The Dark Knight, the second of Christopher Nolan's reinventions of Batman, once more featuring Christian Bale as the millionaire crime-fighter. This time his enemy is The Joker; an unnervingly convincing depiction of insanity by the late Heath Ledger. The plotting is dense and it's necessary to concentrate to keep up with all of the developments - this is one film which merits a second watching.

I am more and more impressed by this director's output, he really is good. He has taken Batman from a simplistic comic-strip to a grim adult morality tale which is gripping from start to finish. These two Batman films highlight just how weak and pointless Superman Returns (reviewed a few weeks ago) is in comparison. I have read good reviews of Nolan's latest film, Inception, which has an SF plot which sounds fascinating. That's one I must see.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Four weeks ago I reviewed A Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison, concerning an attempt by a racist American to travel back in time to give the plans for the Sten sub-machine gun to the Confederate side of the American Civil War in the hope of changing the outcome. The Guns of the South has the same basic idea but the way it is handled is entirely different.

The first half of Harrison's book is a mystery story set in the present day, with almost all of the rest in the 1850s before the war starts; only the final wrapping-up chapter is set late in the war. In contrast, Turtledove starts his story in 1864 when the war is going badly for the Confederates and the timeline continues from that point. There are other important differences, the most obvious being that Turtledove's time-travellers are an organised group of Afrikaner racial supremacists, and that they do not bother with 1860s production of modern guns and ammunition (with the attendant difficulties I pointed out in my review of Harrison's book) but simply transport large quantities of both back in time.

The action commences with the arrival in the weary Confederate camp of a mysterious soldier carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, which he proceeds to demonstrate to the considerable astonishment of the soldiers. He promises delivery of a hundred thousand such weapons and ammunition to match, and begins to supply them. The effect on the next few battles is predictably dramatic, and the Confederates storm Washington and capture Abraham Lincoln, winning the war. This happens well before the half-way point of the novel; the rest of the story is concerned with the aftermath, particularly the political debates over the nature of the Confederacy and the influence of the Afrikaners.

Throughout the story, the viewpoint alternates between two principal characters; a sergeant in the Confederate Army, Nate Caudell, and the Confederate General Robert E Lee. This works well, as it enables the author to portray the grand strategy and political infighting plus the effects of this on the lives of ordinary people. However, the Afrikaners are little more than caricatures and we are told nothing about the circumstances which led to their intervention, other than that they stole a time machine in 2014.

The depth of the research into the Civil War period is impressive, with a lot of detail not just about the war but about the way people lived. The institution of slavery and its effects are thoroughly portrayed. I understand that many Civil War enthusiasts love this book, and I can see why. However, I sometimes had the impression that the author was more concerned with displaying his knowledge than with getting on with the story. There are frequent long conversations which do nothing to advance the plot, but just round out the characters and fill in more and more details about life in that period. With the exception of the battle scenes this is a slow read, although it does speed up towards the end.

Turtledove is much more of a military history and technology buff than Harrison and it shows. He goes into great detail about the handling and maintenance of the AK rifle and also discusses in depth the problem of manufacturing ammunition for it in the 1860s, specifically the formation of the cartridge cases and the chemistry of the propellant. I do have one small quibble in that he refers to the "proper name" of the time-travelling gun being the AK-47. It should actually be AK or AKM, depending on the model, but for some reason the West commonly refers to both by the designation which the Russians only used for the prototypes.

I have previously read only one Turtledove work, the Worldwar tetrology, about WW2 being interrupted by invading aliens. I thought this was OK but not good enough for me to keep the books for a re-read, probably because the story became bogged down in detail and was too repetitive; it dragged on for far too long. I can see some of the same characteristics in The Guns of the South, although to a lesser extent.

The contrast with Harrison's A Rebel in Time could hardly be more striking considering how similar are the basic premises. Harrison's story is a fast-moving adventure mystery, focused primarily on one present-day individual, with only a brief account of the beginning of the war and virtually nothing about the rest. It's a much faster read, in both senses (it's only about half the length), and much more likely to appeal to the average, non-specialist reader.

To sum up, The Guns of the South is an interestingly different book, very thoroughly researched and worth reading, but probably not worth re-reading unless you're a student of the period.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Interzone 229, and Colleen Morse

Featured author in the July-August issue of this British SFF magazine is Jeff VanderMeer, with both an interview and a review of his book Finch. I've only read one of his books - Veniss Underground, reviewed on this blog in December 2007 - and was quite impressed by it, but I did skip over the more gruesome bits. I probably won't read Finch, since it seems to be a similar blend of horror set in a dystopian future and therefore not really to my taste, but VanderMeer's story-telling skills are such that I suspect I would enjoy it if I read it. However, I have too many books to read already, and not enough time.

The usual book, film, TV and DVD reviews included the final series of BBC TV's Ashes to Ashes. I was pleased to see that the reviewer liked it too. There are five short stories this time:

Mannikin by Paul Evanby, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. During an alternative American War of Independence, a scientist on the Dutch West Indian island of Saint Eustatius works to replace slaves by developing artificial humanoids. A bizarre plot and a story strong on atmosphere.

Candy Moments by Antony Mann, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Some time in the future, a mysterious organisation begins offering a unique service to unhappy people; a process which removes the pain of such memories. The after-care treatment consists of a particularly enticing brand of chocolate. One man is tempted to participate because of the guilt and grief he feels over his wife's death, but is there more to this than meets the eye?

The Melancholy by Toby Litt, illustrated by Paul Drummond. Even an intelligent computer programme, switched from machine to machine as different tasks require, feels a need for a home.

Alternate Girl's Expatriate Life by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, illustrated by David Senecal. An artificially constructed girl from a land of robots tries to settle in a human area. A surreal take on identity and belonging.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter by Jim Hawkins, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A more conventional SF tale of an orchestra of expert killers which tours rebellious worlds, wooing them with music; but if that doesn't work….

Being something of a traditionalist I enjoyed Hawkins' story the most, although Mannikin was also memorable.
Sad news this week, of the death of Colleen Morse at the age of 60. Often using the name Ms TigerHawk, she was the founder of both the Classic Science Fiction and Modern Science Fiction Yahoo discussion groups, plus several others. Despite her poor health in recent years, she seemed to have boundless energy, reading a phenomenal number of books, writing a couple of novels of which one has been published to date (using the name April Knight) and also taking part in a variety of social and political activities. She will be missed.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Proxies of Fate by Matthew Moses

A warlord of a predatory race, the reptilian Krush, leads his fleet towards his next juicy, undefended target: the Earth of the 1930s. In his way stands a representative of an ancient race of legendary powers, the Theria. To resolve the stalemate, they agree that they should each select one member of the human race to act as a proxy to decide the fate of the planet in single combat. The two proxies would each receive the essence of their alien sponsors, giving them different ranges of special abilities.

The proxies are selected and transformed on opposite sides of the world. The Krush select Li Chen, a Chinese teenager in a Manchuria under the iron grip of Japanese occupation. The Therian chooses Chris Donner, a penniless farmer in the dustbowl of the central USA during the Great Depression. Both develop their strange abilities; Li Chen becomes a huge being with almost invulnerable skin, great speed and appalling strength, who can defeat entire armies single-handedly. Donner becomes a slight, ghostly figure with a range of paranormal powers, including healing, telekinesis and levitation. Both focus on their tragic local circumstances, trying to help their fellow men, with mixed results. Only at the end of the book do they discover each other's existence and come together in a climactic battle.

This novel is a rather puzzling mixture of comic-strip plot and action with what is clearly a great deal of background research into the two different environments. I don't claim to be knowledgeable about either historical setting, but what I do have some knowledge of (the weapons of the Japanese army) appears accurate and the settings are carefully drawn, detailed and convincing. This is the major strength of the book. The time taken over the stories of the two proxies also helps to develop their characters and enlist the sympathy of the reader for both of them. These two plus points were enough to keep me reading to the end, despite some flaws in the writing.

The first problem to become obvious is the florid and overwritten style of many descriptive passages, sometimes using words which had me reaching for a dictionary. For example (page 166):

"Crimson dawn colored the heavens over Hsinking. Across the horizon, purple clouds obscured the stirring sun while the stars of twilight sank into the empyrean sea. The cool breath of Pangu blew from the scarlet east, setting myriad wind chimes ringing throughout the capital, signalling approaching morn."

And (page 319 - describing a bombing raid);

"Like fatalistic einherjar returned from Valhalla on that final drive to Vigrior, umbral craft sailed through the ether, laden with weapons callously loosed upon the district."

The other issue I have with the writing is the author's weak grasp of sentence construction. A couple of examples, the first from page 318:

"Unable to contain the beast, permission was granted to firebomb the ward."

This makes no sense. Who was unable to contain the beast? Who asked for permission? What the author meant was "Unable to contain the beast, the Army commander obtained permission to firebomb the ward." Yet this key individual was never mentioned. Another example, on page 343:

"Corrupted by the laelap, twisted into the beast, Donner witnessed Li Chen take up the mantle of champion…"

This reads as if Donner had been corrupted and twisted, but the author actually meant Li Chen. This kind of error frequently occurs.

My final gripe is a lack of consistency in the characteristics of the two proxies, especially Donner. In their final battle he engages in fisticuffs with Li Chen, which seems absurd in the context of their respective abilities.

The author's writing shows some promise, but he would benefit from a much stricter editor.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Jack Vance was one of the giants of my early SFF reading and is still around today. His last novel (to date) was published in 2004, some 54 years after the first. In between came some forty SFF novels, plus novellas and some mystery stories. He won several major awards, one of them - the Hugo in 1963 - for The Dragon Masters. This was one of my recommendations for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group, as I felt that such an influential author needed an airing and I was looking forward to re-reading his work after a long absence.

The most obvious feature of the book is its length: at just over 120 pages it is barely a novella in modern terms. Even by the standards of the 1960s this is a bit short (something nearer 200 pages being more typical then) , but that doesn't mean it is lacking in ideas. In fact, novels from this period tended to be all about ideas, with characterisation and detailed world-building receiving sketchy treatment. That doesn't make them worse than modern doorstops, just different, with the added benefit that they can be polished off in a session or two so even if they're not much good, you haven't wasted a lot of time on them. In contrast, I need to wind myself up to grappling with a huge modern tome, and have to feel mentally fit and fresh before I start. Also, I frequently don't finish them; if they're going to monopolise so much of my time, they'd better be good. I wrote about book length in more detail in this web article.

No problems of this sort with The Dragon Masters. The reader is plunged straight into the action, in the form of a strange intruder breaking in to the private apartment of Joaz Banbeck, hereditary leader of the small community of Banbeck Vale on the sparsely populated planet of Aerlith. The intruder is a sacerdote, one of a secretive group of contemplative humans who live a separate existence in deep caverns in the mountains which border the Vale. Joaz investigates the sacerdotes to find out what is going on, and learns that they have developed a mysterious but powerful weapon. He is interested in this because not only is he facing a challenge from his territorially expansive neighbours in Happy Valley, he is worried that the gradual brightening of star Coralyne may indicate the possible return of the grephs (the "dragons" of the title); a lizard-like race with technology - including spaceships - far more advanced than the humans, and whose previous destructive visits have been to capture humans for slaves and breeding stock.

Vance then jumps back to the past with a chapter set in the time of the last greph attack. The grephs subjected their human stock to selective breeding, producing a variety of specialised types differing considerably in size and characteristics (much as we do with dogs). The humans of Aerlith were able to capture some of the grephs and over the intervening years also bred them - for internecine warfare, producing breeds with names such as Termagants, Fiends, Murderers, Juggers and Blue Horrors.

The plot follows the fortunes of Joaz as he juggles the problems of invasion from his neighbour, greph attack, and the enigmatic sacerdotes.

How does this award-winner stand up today? Not too well in terms of literary quality, but the fresh and imaginative plot, the selective breeding of humans and dragons, and the strange culture which results on Aerlith, all have their appeal. Definitely worth the couple of hours needed to read.