Friday, 28 October 2011

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson was one of the most productive SFF writers of the second half of the last century, publishing about a hundred books and winning seven Hugo and three Nebula awards. His first book was published in 1953 and his last fifty years later, two years after his death. Tau Zero was published in 1970 and was nominated for a Hugo. When it was selected for the reading list of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group I was surprised to discover that I had never read it, so I obtained a new copy (published by Gollancz under the SF Masterworks label).

The plot is simple: a colonisation ship with fifty people on board leaves Earth for another solar system where a probe had reported a habitable planet. En route, the ship runs into trouble and cannot decelerate. The only chance of survival is to keep accelerating closer and closer to light speed in order to maximise the time dilation effect and travel as far as possible; initially to find space empty enough to shut off the drive and protective screen in order to carry out repairs, and secondly to find a zone where the conditions are right for them to stop and find a place to live.

There are two threads running through this story: the first is a very technical, hard-science description of the functioning of the Bussard ramjet, the implications of the ship's velocity getting ever closer to the speed of light, and the structure and evolution of the universe. The second is the human story of the effect of their situation on the crew and scientists on board the ship, as time outside passes at an ever-increasing rate compared with time inside.

Like nearly all SF of the period, this story is about ideas more than people. If the title had not already been pre-empted by the famous short story, the novel might accurately have been called The Cold Equations. Having said that, the main characters are drawn well enough to carry the plot, while time has not been kind to the science. The effectiveness of the Bussard ramjet concept (very popular in the 1960s and 70s) has since been questioned and the future of the universe is now believed to be somewhat different from that shown in the book.

This story makes an interesting contrast with Niven's A World Out of Time published a few years after Tau Zero and reviewed on this blog recently. This also features a Bussard ramjet making an enormous journey to gain the benefit of time dilation, but Niven's story concerns itself much more with the social, genetic and technical changes which take place on Earth over the aeons and, to me at least, is all the more interesting and enjoyable as a result.

Tau Zero may not be the most enjoyable of tales, but it is deservedly a classic for its exploration of the science of relativity and its potential consequences.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Replay by Ken Grimwood

This book, first published in 1986, won the World Fantasy Award two years later. I read it over twenty years ago and was most impressed, but found myself strangely reluctant to read it again; I only did so because it was one of the books of the month in the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

The plot concerns Jeff Winston, an American in his early forties, unsuccessful in his career and with a failing marriage, who dies apparently of a massive heart attack - and then regains consciousness twenty-five years in the past, in his own eighteen-year-old body, with all his memories intact.

This is the start of a fascinating "what would you do if…?" premise which is explored in detail throughout the story. What Jeff initially does is to use his memories to make a fortune and enjoy the good life, but does he really become happier as a result, and can he use his knowledge to forestall some of the disasters which have afflicted the world?

There are many twists and turns in the story but it is difficult to say more without spoilers. So I will just say that it is a great, thought-provoking read which I am happy to recommend to anyone, SFF fan or not. If you want to read the book and would rather discover its surprises for yourself (which I strongly recommend) then stop reading NOW!

******************SPOILER WARNING***********************

The first twist in the story comes when Jeff once again reaches the age at which he previously "died" - and the same thing happens again. Once more he is eighteen, back in the early 1960s, with all his memories from both previous lives intact. This time he takes a different tack, marries his childhood sweetheart and lives a moderate and happy life. Until he reaches his "death age" when, despite having checked himself into hospital and been pronounced in excellent health, it happens again. Now he swings to the opposite extreme in angry defiance about what is happening to him until, disgusted with the emptiness of his life, he withdraws into isolation.

The next twist then occurs - Jeff discovers he is not the only "replayer" and meets up with Pamela Phillips, whose experiences match his own, except that she is out of sequence; they die at about the same time, but she is younger and is "replayed" at a later date. They become lovers, but discover that each time they are revived, it is at a later age - and getting later at a rapidly increasing rate. The gap between their revivals also increases rapidly, causing havoc with their relationship. They finally decide to "go public" in an attempt to discover what is happening to them, with devastating consequences. Eventually Jaff and Pamela manage to find a kind of peace, if not happiness, which seems the best they can hope for.

I think I know why I was reluctant to read the book again - a reluctance which disappeared as soon as I became caught up in it. As it develops, the story becomes an emotional roller-coaster and is very moving by the end. The message initially seems somewhat depressing - no matter how hard you try, you can't make things better for any more than a handful of people - but there is a kind of redemption as well. In the end, it is concerned with the philosophy of living, and the characters are all too human in their hopes and failings. The final lesson is an old but true one: we only have one life, so we need to make the best of it that we can.

Replay is an original and well-written tale, which draws the reader into it ever more deeply as the plot develops: it deserves to be a classic.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Flatland by Edwin A Abbott

Flatland, subtitled A Romance of Many Dimensions, was first published in 1884. It is difficult to describe or draw parallels with this book, since as far as I'm aware it is unique, and it has maintained an almost hidden cult status ever since.

The nameless narrator lives on a world of two dimensions - a flat surface - in which all the inhabitants are geometrical shapes. The simplest are the women, who are straight Lines, next come Isosceles Triangles (the wider the angle, the higher the status). Equilateral Triangles are next up the social scale, followed by Squares (like the narrator) then Pentagons and Hexagons and so on, until the highest status of all - the Circle. It is every inhabitant's wish to improve the prospects of his male offspring by carefully choosing his Wife to ensure that their shapes become more regular or many-sided with each generation. Our Square narrator, for instance, has a Pentagon son and a Hexagon grandson. This element of the story is a satirical reference to the rigid social structures of the contemporary Victorian society, in which a high priority was given to trying to climb that social ladder from one generation to the next.

Our narrator has an unusually imaginative mind and has visions of other worlds, including a one-dimensional Lineland and even a zero-dimensional Pointland, and has fun with satirising the rigid assumptions held by the inhabitants of these lands, each believing that there is no world with more dimensions than their own. That also applies to his Flatland homeland, where it is heretical to suggest that there could ever be more than two dimensions. So he is greatly disturbed to be visited by a being who appears to be a Circle but keeps changing in size, something which cannot happen in Flatland. He gradually realises that the visitor is a Sphere from a three-dimensional world (of whom he can only see a two-dimensional "slice") and is led to an understanding of what such a world would be like. Inevitably, his discoveries get him into trouble with the Flatland authorities.

Flatland can't really be assessed in any conventional way, in terms of plot, characterisation or drama. It is more of a thought experiment than anything else - an intriguing and rather appealing one. Since it is only a novella of some 80 pages, it is easy enough to read and worth the effort for a unique experience.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Interzone 236

A slightly confusing start to the Sep-Oct issue of the Brit SFF magazine, with an editorial concerning the forthcoming arrival of a new film about The Avengers. I was intrigued but sceptical, since I couldn't imagine any actress matching up to my youthfully enthusiastic memories of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, until it gradually dawned on me that this was a different kind of Avengers, based on yet another US superhero comic strip. I am rather puzzled by the apparently inexhaustible demand for such movies; no doubt PhD theses are being written linking this to a fall in national confidence or something.

I note that Connie Willis won the Hugo for her pair of novels Blackout/All Clear, but although I enjoy her writing (despite a tendency to repetition in her novels), the total page count of these two doorstops is enough to deter me from starting. At my normal rate of progress it would take me several weeks, at least, to read them.

The cover art is Beacon by Richard Wagner, a classic SF/mystery vision showing strange spaceships being drawn to a beacon rising from a bleak moorland landscape, with a robed figure in the foreground.

Now to the stories:

A Time for Raven by Stephen Kotowych, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A short, atmospheric fantasy combining native American mythology with present day concerns garnished with a helping of supernatural mystery.

The Ever-Dreaming Verdict of Plagues by Jason Sandford, illustrated by Jim Burns. A sequel to Plague Birds (see issue #228), set far into a future in which technological civilisation has collapsed, leaving behind Artificial Intelligences which assist scattered villages. AIs also inhabit the blood of the Plague Birds - peripatetic female judge/executioners who have the ability to determine right from wrong. This time, a village AI proves to be rather more than expected.

The Metaphor by Fiona Moore. A rather haunting short story from the viewpoint of a nameless narrator (whether male or female is never clear) living alone in a deserted world. From time to time, s/he feels compelled to visit a series of empty taverns in a ritual designed to keep some dread happening at bay. The story is interspersed with extracts from a report written in a different reality, which gradually build up a picture of what is really happening.

The Fall of the City of Silver by Jon Ingold, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A morality fantasy of the destruction of the semi-mythical city of Tartessos in southern Spain, told by a girl who did not survive the fall.

Tethered by Mercurio D. Rivera, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. Yet another of this author's stories concerning the relationship between humanity and the advanced alien Wergen race, who find humans irresistably attractive.

Not such an appealing bunch for my taste this time, but I admired Moore's cleverly-constructed story and Sandford is always worth reading.