Friday, 28 December 2012

Film: X-Men - First Class (2011)

This is the fourth film in the X-Men series I have reviewed, and I wasn't expecting much since such series generally run out of steam and I had read some critical comments about this one. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that it is at least as good as the other films in the series - which is to say, very good indeed by comparison with most superhero movies.

For those unfamiliar with the way this film fits in, it is a prequel to the others and describes the beginning of the mutants' story when they were still young (and are therefore played by different actors). The story begins in 1944 with a young Jewish boy in Germany who subsequently becomes Magneto, while at the same time in the USA Charles Xavier is meeting the girl who becomes Mystique. The remainder of the story is set in the early 1960s when the existence of the X-Men first becomes public, concluding with the Cuban missile crisis which nearly led to World War III (with archive clips from TV of that period included).

The film takes its time in developing the main characters and showing their back-stories, plus their uneasy relationship with the CIA before their existence becomes public. This adds far more depth to the story than you find in most such films and makes the dilemmas which the mutants face towards the end of the film much more credible. I found it engaging throughout, with the "human" story of the mutants never being drowned out by the inevitable spectacular CGI depictions of super-powers and battle sequences.

Incidentally, further to my discussion in my earlier blog post on Inglourious Basterds about the definition of alternative history, this film is right on the borderline: while the X-Men get involved in the missile crisis the broad outcome is not changed, which is the main criterion for identifying alternative histories.

Friday, 21 December 2012

7th Sigma, by Steven Gould

Steven Gould has managed the rare achievement among current writers of having one of his books on my all-time top 20 list of favourite SFF novels (since expanded to 27 - see the list in the left column of this blog). This is his best-known work, Jumper, which I reviewed on this blog in February 2010 along with its sequel, Reflex, and the disappointing film version of Jumper. I have also reviewed another of his novels, Wildside. The author is one of the best storytellers I know. He has a plain and simple writing style which puts the reader right into the tale, identifying strongly with the protagonist, and once I pick up one of his books I find it very difficult to put down again.

This remains true of his latest novel, 7th Sigma. As with most of his other stories, the protagonist is a teenage boy of unusual maturity. Much SF of the action-adventure type has featured a "competent man" as the hero, someone who succeeds through being smarter, braver and usually tougher than his opposition (in a different genre, James Bond is a classic example). Gould specialises in the "competent adolescent" or, in 7th Sigma, "super-competent" in the form of Kim Creighton, who later adopts the name Kimball Monroe.

At the start of the story, set some time in the near future, Kim is a thirteen year old street kid living alone in "the territory", a large area of south-west USA which has become mysteriously infested with self-replicating robotic "bugs"; mechanical flying insects with a passion for consuming metal which is so great that they will fly through anything to reach it, including people. Carrying any metal means almost certain death so those who still live in the territory have had to adopt a drastically modified metal-free lifestyle. Equally mysteriously, and fortunately for civilisation, something keeps the bugs within this clearly-defined area.

Kim falls in with Ruth Monroe, an aikido instructor who has entered the territory in order to set up a new dojo, and he becomes her student. Subsequently, he is recruited as a spy for the authorities, helping to track down criminals. The story concerns Kim's varied adventures as he grows into a young man, developing both his aikido, espionage and meditation abilities while learning how to live in his strange world. If this sounds vaguely familiar, that is because it is in effect based on Rudyard Kipling's famous early-20th century novel Kim.

7th Sigma is unlike Gould's other novels in that it does not reach a conclusion and is clearly intended to be just the start of a series. The pace is relatively slow by his standards, although the plot becomes episodic in the latter part of the book as some three years pass. The focus is very much on the character of Kim and the events which befall him, the SF element in the form of the bugs remaining in the background with few developments or revelations concerning it. I found the character of Kim to be rather unbelievable because he is so good - he never seems to suffer from teenage angst and is always rational, polite, forward-thinking, very mature, courageous, smarter than anyone else and a superb fighter. For all these reasons I found it less satisfying than Gould's other novels; however, it is just as un-put-downable and I read it in only two sessions. I am looking forward to the next volume.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Films: Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief (2010), and The Secret of Moonacre (2009)

Something of a change from my usual fare, but perhaps appropriate for the holiday season: a couple of films aimed at younger viewers.

Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief (aso known as Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief) is loosely based on the first of a series of novels by Rick Riordan. It concerns a 17-year old boy (played by Logan Lerman) in present-day USA who suddenly finds himself under supernatural attack, and discovers not only that his previously unknown father was Poseidon, the God of the Sea, but that he is suspected of stealing Zeus' greatest weapon, the lightning bolt. If the bolt is not returned, there will be war among the gods which would lead to devastation on Earth.

Percy reaches safety at a special camp in rural USA established to train demigods like him; the offspring of relationships between gods and humans. There he discovers some of his magical abilities and, with two companions, sets off on a quest to find the bolt and rescue his mother, who is being held hostage by Hades, the God of the Underworld. Many spectacular adventures ensue before the quest is over.

There is a strong cast, including Uma Thurman, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan and Catherine Keener. The story rolls along well enough, mixing mystery, excitement and humour with some dramatic CGI, and will probably appeal to teenage fans of the Harry Potter films.


The Secret of Moonacre is based on a children's fantasy novel, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, first published in 1946. It is set in the 1840s and concerns a teenage girl, Maria Merryweather (Dakota Blue Richards, who played the lead character in The Golden Compass) who is orphaned and sent to live with her taciturn uncle Sir Benjamin Merryweather (Ioan Gruffud) in his remote country estate, Moonacre Manor. There she discovers that the Merryweathers have had a generations-long vendetta against their nearest neighbours, the De Noir family, in which magic was involved. She gradually learns that she has a pivotal role to play in ending both the vendetta and also an ancient curse which threatens to destroy everything in the valley.

The cast of this film is strong too (it also includes Juliet Stevenson in a comic turn, Tim Curry and Natascha McElhone) and the production excellent - it’s a visual pleasure. The story is rather bland with a schmaltzy ending and it didn't grip me, which is perhaps no surprise since I would assume that its target audience is young girls (who I guess will probably love it), but it was painless to watch.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Interzone 243

The November/December issue of the SFF magazine includes an interview with Adam Roberts and a review of his new novel Jack Glass, a crime story set in an SF context (or rather three separate stories concerning the eponymous hero), which sounds rather interesting. There are several other book reviews, including the following by well-known authors: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks; Empty Space by M John Harrison; The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson; and The Sphinx of the Ice Realm by none other than Jules Verne. This last one, written in 1896, is a rewriting of Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Must put that one on the purchase list…

Film and DVD reviews include Looper and Prometheus (not yet seen but on my list) plus Avengers Assemble and the remake of Total Recall (both reviewed on this blog). It's always intriguing to read someone else's review of a film I've seen, particularly since they often see entirely different things in it (both good and bad) than I have.

Five stories this time:

Moon Drome by John Wallace, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A series of brutal races between one-man spacecraft around a moon in a far system is further enlivened by unpredictable interventions from a deadly alien race known as the Fear. Scorpus is the most successful of the slave-status race pilots facing his final contest before winning his freedom; but half the pilots die in each race. Will the Fear get him this time, and what is their purpose in being involved?

The Flower of Shazui by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu and illustrated by Richard Wagner. A man in a future China is fascinated by a beautiful prostitute called Snow Lotus, but she has a brutal husband. More of a social drama than an SF one.

The Philosophy of Ships by Caroline M Yoachim, also illustrated by Richard Wagner. In the far future, people can choose to have more than one consciousness inhabiting their bodies, or can even opt to merge with the bodiless network.

Lady Dragon and the Netsuke Carver by Priya Sharma, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A powerful female Samurai in an alternative Japan negotiates the deadly pitfalls of her existence.

Mirrorblink by Jason Sanford, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. A strange, far-future Earth with no visible Sun, Moon or stars, and populated by people who stay in their home towns in fear of both the mysterious inhuman Observers and the burn - catastrophic fires which fall unpredictably from the sky, destroying whole areas. Ein is a young woman who has become a Scope, one of the few people who travel from town to town trading information. What had happened to the world, and why is an Observer so interested in her?

The stories by Wallace and Sanford are the two which appealed to me this time. Wallace's story is classic hard SF. In contrast, Jason Sanford is establishing quite a reputation as a writer of highly imaginative, often surreal, and very varied tales, and always provides good value.

Friday, 30 November 2012

City, by Clifford D Simak

Clifford D Simak was one of the most popular and successful American SF writers. His career lasted half a century, from the 1930s to the 1980s. During that time he published nearly thirty novels plus many short stories and collections, won a Nebula and three Hugo awards and was awarded a Grand Master title by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

City was an early novel, being first published in 1952. Like many novels of this period it was a "fix up", consisting of eight previously-published short stories, but is none the worse for that. A ninth story (Epilog) first appeared in 1973 and has been incorporated in most editions of the book published since 1980. However, I haven't read it and this review is based on my 1965 edition, which I read a few times in the 1960s and 70s but not since - until now.

The chapters in City span thousands of years into the future, making the book decidedly episodic, but despite this the story holds together well. This is partly achieved by consistent plot-lines, partly by the continuity of one character (Jenkins the robot) being there from beginning to end, but mostly by the structure of the novel. This is presented as a book of fables published in the far future, looking back on events of a past so distant that it has become mythical. Each chapter is a different fable and is preceded by an introduction by the editor who comments on each story, explaining the differing views on what it means and what relationship it might have to reality. This affords some amusement in that the editor assumes that much of the content of the stories is fantasy when, to us, it clearly is not. For instance, a lot of our present-day knowledge has been lost in this non-technological far future, so stories of living on other planets are dismissed by the editor as impossible.

The major twist in the novel (this isn't a spoiler - it becomes obvious from the start) is that this far-future civilisation is populated not by humans, but by dogs. Humanity had disappeared long before and is regarded by the editor as probably mythical, or at least greatly misrepresented. What we, the present-day readers, can understand is that the stories are literal accounts of the bizarre fate of humanity, as seen through the eyes of one family, the Websters, and their robot servant Jenkins. The Websters have played a pivotal role in events, including giving dogs the power of speech and mentoring their infant civilisation. I will say no more about the plot, as I would hate to spoil the enjoyment of new readers in the succession of surprising and boldly radical twists in the story.

Even today, City is an outstanding achievement - a landmark in SF, totally original in its plot and structure, making most modern SF seem very derivative and unimaginative. This story alone is enough to ensure the author's place in SF history. With the passing of the years it is possible to poke holes in certain plot elements, most notably the intelligent alien life on Mars, and that surgical modifications to enable dogs to speak would breed true in subsequent generations (if written today, the author would of course resort to genetic engineering to achieve this). On the other hand, the story has realistic depictions of the internet and of virtual reality communications, and a lot of thoughtful observation on how society might change as a result of such technological developments.

When I first drew up my "top 20" list of favourite SFF books City was an automatic qualifier. Re-reading it after such a length of time has merely reinforced my admiration for the breathtaking imagination which conceived this strange tale, which is in my opinion in a different league from anything else that Simak wrote, his other novels being much more conventional. I have always been rather ambivalent about his writing style because it is imbued with a folksy sentimentality which I suspect goes down much better with American readers than it does with British ones. City has this as much as any other (enhanced by a strong element of nostalgia), but it is more forgivable in this book because of the nature of the story.

To sum up: everyone interested in SF should read this book!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Films: The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and Red Lights (2012)

The Adjustment Bureau is yet another movie based on a story (Adjustment Team) by Philip K Dick, who must surely not just hold the record for the number of his stories to have inspired films; his score is probably greater than that of all other SF writers put together.

This starts as an apparently routine story about US Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), running for office in the Senate, who briefly meets Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) a dancer to whom he is instantly attracted. By chance, he meets her again some months later and discovers that his feelings have strengthened and are reciprocated by Elise.

At this point, the story becomes anything but routine: for Norris clashes with a mysterious otherworldy organisation called The Adjustment Bureau, which has immense and inexplicable power. The Bureau is set on keeping Norris and Elise apart, for reasons of its own, and what follows is an extended tussle as Norris battles against the will of the Bureau to find and keep Elise, gradually discovering more about his supernatural adversaries as the plot progresses.

This is an unusually low-key film by SF standards - no car chases or explosions, and the Bureau super-agents appear as ordinary businessmen with a peculiar agenda and a neat trick with doorways. Damon plays his usual competent-but-troubled man part (as in the Bourne trilogy) while Blunt, who seems to be appearing in a lot of films I watch, is excellent. This is a rather strange blend of fantasy, romance, and political thriller which I suspect won't be to everyone's taste, but it worked for me.
Red Lights focuses on university academics Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) as they work together to debunk claims of paranormal phenomena, including hauntings and performances by professional "psychics". They are put to the test when one of the most famous psychics of all, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), returns from a 30-year retirement and performs to packed theatres, apparently achieving the impossible. Furthermore, he has agreed to undergo independent testing of his claimed abilities in a university laboratory. But he and Matheson had crossed swords in the past - was she up to facing him again?

This is an unusual film, a powerful psychological thriller featuring intense emotions as the protagonists clash over what is paranormal and what is mere trickery. The academics feel increasingly paranoid as mysterious events keep hindering their work. There are a couple of unexpected twists, one part-way through and another right at the end which puts events into a very different light, plus one very violent fist-fight. Gripping and rather nerve-racking.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Bill, the Galactic Hero, by Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison, who died this year, was one of the most popular SF writers of his generation with more than 50 novels published between 1960 and 2010. He specialised in light, fast-moving and entertaining adventure thrillers, generally flavoured with his satirical sense of humour. Bill, the Galactic Hero (published in 1965), one of his best-known stories, standards out as one of his most strongly satirical works. His targets were the military (especially as portrayed in Heinlein's Starship Troopers, to which this was presumably a riposte), aristocracy, space opera featuring giant space ships, and imperial planets entirely covered with buildings (a side-swipe at Asimov's Foundation trilogy), plus various other random SF cliches along the way.

At the start of the story, Bill is a young farm-hand on an agricultural planet, working towards his qualification as a Technical Fertilizer Operator, when a military recruiting fair marches into town. He is soon tricked into signing up and, much against his wishes, transported to a military boot camp for a period of training conspicuous for its stupidity and sadism, personified by the memorable figure of the recruits' nemesis, Petty Chief Officer Deathwish Drang. Despite various vicissitudes in which Bill, the perpetually hopeful innocent, is usually on the wrong end of, well, just about everything, he is hailed as a hero for accidentally saving his ship Fanny Hill during a space battle, and travels to the imperial capital Helior to be awarded his medal by the Emperor. As usual, he soon finds himself in trouble again and has some more colourful adventures before the story concludes by turning full circle.

Throughout, the military is portrayed as nasty and incompetent, the aristocracy as inbred and gormless, and life generally as grossly unfair, with everything turning out to be much worse than it first appears - especially for Bill. However, what might otherwise have been a grim tale is all recounted with a wicked sense of humour which has the reader grinning with acknowledgement at the points scored against multiple SF targets. A quick, fun read which is well worth the time.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Film: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

I had heard that Inglourious Basterds was a WW2 film which had received mixed reviews, but until I saw it I had no idea that it had an alternative history plot, and even then it doesn't become apparent until right at the end. Well, that's enough to justify putting my thoughts about it on my SFF blog, anyway.

As might be expected from Tarantino, the film is stylised, intense, brutally violent, and memorable. It is also very long. There are two parallel story lines which don't connect until the end: the fate of a young French Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis, and the activities of a group of American Jews (led by Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine) parachuted behind enemy lines into France before D-day in order to strike terror into the German occupiers. The plots converge on a cinema in Paris where a propaganda film is to be aired in the presence of the Nazi hierarchy.

There are some particularly high-tension scenes which gripped this viewer: the initial one, in which the Nazi Jew-hunter Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in a disconcertingly brilliant performance which rightly won awards) visits the home of a farmer who is concealing a Jewish family; another set in a Paris bar where a German officer is suspicious of the group of supposedly German officers who are actually imposters; and one near the end where Hans Landa confronts the famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, in a fine performance) whom he suspects of being a traitor. To sum up: this isn't the easiest film to watch and I can understand many people not enjoying it, but I thought it was worth seeing. Oh, I should mention that the actors speak in the languages they would have used, so there is much use of sub-titles; this doesn't bother me, but some might not like it.

To return to the observation I made at the start, it did make me wonder about categorising this kind of fiction. There are debates about whether alternative histories are SFF at all. As somebody who has written both alternative history and SF stories, I have some views on this. I prefer to use the term "speculative fiction" to group together all those stories which are concerned with the world as it isn't. Sub-sections of this are science fiction, fantasy, horror and alternative history (with vampire, zombie and ghost stories being sub-sub-sections); there are no clear dividing lines between these, though, as stories often contain elements of more than one. I will not get into the perennial debate about the difference between SF and fantasy here!

Focusing just on alternative histories, there are two basic types. One aims to be relatively realistic by examining what might have happened if one mundane event had occurred differently (for example, if that British soldier who at the end of WW1 allegedly had Adolf Hitler in his sights but decided not to shoot, had actually pulled the trigger). Even academic historians get involved in this sort of speculation, although they prefer to call it "counter-factual history". However, the further you get from the "point of departure" or POD (the moment when the fictional history diverges from the real one), the more speculative and fantasy-like the stories become, so you get stories now known as "steampunk" (another sub-sub-section) in which Victorian technology and culture extend to the present day. The second basic type of alternative history is triggered by some fantastical event, such as time-travelling. The outcome can be a serious look at what might have happened given that initial premise (my own novel The Foresight War falls into this category), or it can be far more of a fantasy.

I have excluded from this categorisation stories set in a particular period, like WW2, which include fictional characters and events, as I regard these as war stories rather than alternative histories - provided that the broad thrust of the history in which they are set remains the same. For most of the film I thought that Inglourious Basterds was one of these; but unusually, the POD occurs at the end of the story rather than the beginning, leaving the viewer to speculate about what might have happened next.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Entanglement, by Douglas Thompson

I have previously reviewed two other novels by Douglas Thompson: Ultrameta (October 2009) and Sylvow (February 2011). A few extracts from these reviews give a flavour of this author's work:

It might best be designated "slipstream"; that catch-all title for unreal fiction which doesn't easily fit into anything else… Both are written in the form of discrete chapters, some of which have appeared as short stories in various publications… Like all of Thompson's writing, this has a surreal, dreamlike quality, like a fairytale of the original Grimm sort, dark and mysterious and sometimes horrific.

Entanglement, his latest novel, shares these characteristics, but the plot is closer to the mainstream of SF. The time is more than a century in the future, when scientists have developed the principle of quantum entanglement currently being demonstrated at the sub-atomic level (i.e., two particles linked so that any change in one instantly causes a similar change in the other, over any distance) to apply to large and complex physical objects - including people. A device dubbed an Ansible in honour of Ursula Le Guin has been developed. Two paired Ansibles, each of which contains a chamber of quantum-entangled sub-atomic matter, remain permanently linked in such a way that anything introduced into one chamber instantly appears in the other. A large number of sub-light speed probes have been dispatched to nearby star systems, containing such Ansibles paired with similar ones remaining on Earth. When they arrive they send back their initial findings and, if deemed worthwhile, explorers on Earth then enter the equivalent chambers to enable their duplicates to appear on the planet. When humans are "dupliported" in this way, only one can remain conscious so the other sleeps, the two alternating every few hours. In this way, humans can explore other planets and report back in person without the necessity of making a physical journey. The catch is that if anything happens to a dupliported person, it instantly affects the original - and vice versa. If one dies, the other dies.

The novel consists of the experiences of explorers on sixteen different planets with a wide variety of physical environments and life forms. In that respect, there's an echo of the classic 1950 SF novel by A E Van Vogt, The Voyage of the Space Beagle. In between are linking sections concerning the key people who run the operation on Earth; their histories, personal lives and relationships, plus the shadow of the first failed human entanglement experiment which still lies over them.

As can be expected from this author, this is far more than a routine humans-meet-aliens story. The experiences of the explorers are often intensely bizarre, sometimes causing them to lose their objectivity and even their sanity, and bringing into question the whole project. The concluding chapter introduces yet more plot twists which change the reader's understanding of what has been happening, with the final twist returning to the theme of the foreward. Like all of Thompson's writing, strong and sometimes disturbing images are created in the mind. A memorable book with much packed into it, tempting the reader to turn back to the beginning and start reading it over again.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Film: Surrogates (2009)

The time is the near future, when the availability of surrogates has transformed the world. These are lifelike androids which are directly controlled by their owners via radio links which have complete sensory feedback, so that the owners can experience life as if they were there in person while remaining safely "plugged in" in their homes. This has led to the mass use of surrogates in everyday life. They can be made to look younger and more attractive than their owners (or indeed, completely different from them), and allow their owners to vicariously experience all sorts of dangerous activities which they would never attempt in person. The small percentage of humans who refuse to use surrogates (derisively known as "meatbags" by the others) live in "Dread Reservations" scattered about the country.

Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is an FBI agent who via his surrogate (Trevor Donovan, made up to look like a younger and hairier version of Willis) investigates the destruction of two surrogates and discovers that whatever weapon did the damage also killed their owners - something which was supposed to be impossible. Aided by his partner Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell) he tracks the killer and the weapon to a Dread Reservation, but complications ensue as the FBI has no jurisdiction there and the Reservation leader, known as The Prophet (Ving Rhames), is preaching revolution. The plot goes through a whole series of twists and turns before the dramatic finale, as Agent Greer becomes uncertain who is on which side, whether the surrogates are always being controlled by their owners (and if not, by whom?) and what the murders are really all about.

Surrogates is an intriguing and exciting film, a good blend of reasonably realistic science-fictional extrapolation with a high-tension mystery, seasoned with a well-judged quantity of the obligatory chases and crashes. There are some thoughful insights into the effect of surrogacy on everyday life; in the relationship between Greer and his wife (Rosamund Pike) who refuses to meet him except in her surrogate form, and in the uneasiness and vulnerability Greer feels in "meatbag" form when he tries to move among the physically perfect, fast-moving surrogates. It held my attention throughout, and is one of the better SF films I've seen recently. Recommended.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Interzone 242

A different format for the September/October issue of the British SFF magazine, smaller but thicker. The contents remain the same, though, with six short stories, news, and reviews of books, cinema films and DVDs. This time there's also an interview with David Brin alongside a review of his latest novel, Existence, which sounds like one I ought to read. To the stories:

Wonder by Debbie Urbanski, illustrated by Richard Wagner. The consequences of the arrival of a large number of blue humanoid aliens intending to settle on Earth are observed by a child living in a rural home. More like an extract than a complete story.

The Message by Ken Liu, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A far-future archaeologist who specialises in the ruins of alien civilisations visits a world with a strange empty city which apparently has no function - but is it as harmless as it seems?

Needlepoint by Priya Sharma, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A medieval fantasy with a ghostly twist.

Beyond the Light Cone by C.W. Johnson, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Spaceships permanently stuck in an above-light-speed existence and manned by exiled criminals are used as relays for high-speed interstellar communications. Some are plotting a return to the slow universe, but what might be the consequences?

The Remembered by Karl Bunker, illustrated by Richard Wagner. An alien love story echoes a fable of the past.

Strigoi by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. A data vampire visits the Earth in search of the lover she had abandoned. Set in the same universe as The Indignity of Rain (see Interzone 240).

None of these made a strong impact on me but I suspect that Strigoi and The Message will prove to be the most memorable.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond

A non-fiction book examining the history of human civilisation might seem an odd work to review in an SFF blog but bear with me, there is some relevance to it. Guns, Germs and Steel sets out to answer some fundamental questions about civilisation, which is defined as the introduction of farming, thereby producing enough food to support large, settled communities with social structures, rulers, priests and armies. In particular, why did civilisation develop in some parts of the world but not others?

The author covers a lot of ground while trying to answer that question, in the process conveying an excellent summary of what is known (and not known) about the early history of civilisation. Simplistic theories I recall from my youth to explain why people of European origin have dominated the history of the past few centuries, concerning such matters as an invigorating climate or the tenets of Protestant Christianity, are ruthlessly dismissed with evidence-based logical reasoning. Instead, Diamond argues that a range of environmental factors made the varied history of different parts of our planet almost inevitable.

The most fundamental factors concern how easy it was to begin farming, and this largely depended on three factors: the suitability for domestication and improvement of the wild crops available in each area; the suitability for taming and domestication of the large wild herbivores (or in a few cases omnivores) in each area; and the combination of climate and terrain. For all three factors, the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East (centred on what is now Iraq) had substantial advantages. The ancestors of most of what became crops of world importance lived wild in the area. So did the ancestors of nearly all of the large animals which have proved suitable for domestication (the "big five" being sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and horses; others, such as camels, are of only regional importance). The climate was good for cultivation, with a long growing season, and the varied terrain meant that not all crops ripened at once; those higher up in the hills and mountains would ripen after those in the valleys and plains, ensuring a steady availability of food rather than a sudden glut. These advantages enabled the Fertile Crescent to become the cradle of the civilisation which developed in the surrounding areas, including all of Europe.

Although centres of agriculture developed independently in several other parts of the world, most of them were much less well endowed with plants suitable for cultivation, so it was difficult for them to gain the same food value out of a given amount of land or physical effort. Most also lacked large animals suitable for domestication, which not only denied them a source of convenient protein but also meant that they had no power source to do the heavy work of ploughing and transport or to act as war mounts. That was a massive disadvantage, and accounts for the rapid adoption of such animals wherever they were introduced (e.g. the use of horses by the natives of North America).

Another advantage of the Fertile Crescent is that lands with similar climates and growing seasons (including Europe and North Africa) extended to the east and west, making it easy for the new farming practices to spread. In the Americas, with a north-south rather than east-west axis, it was much harder for such practices to spread from temperate lands in North America to those in the South (and vice versa), because the tropical Mesoamerica blocked the way - and crops and animals adapted to temperate climes rarely succeeding in making that journey until long-distance transport became feasible.

Once the process got underway, other factors came into play to ensure that the early civilisations were able to spread and dominate their neighbours. The higher population densities and more intensive food production of these civilisations allowed them to develop ruling classes and armies against which more primitive, dispersed and decentralised cultures had no resistance. Furthermore, the high densities, combined with the close proximity of humans and animals, provided fertile ground for the development of new diseases. People in such civilisations gradually built up immunity to such diseases, but when they arrived in new lands (most especially in the sixteenth century when Europeans began to arrive in the Americas in some numbers) the native peoples had no such resistance and the death rate from the resulting epidemics could be as high as ninety percent.

With such huge advantages giving it a flying start, one might wonder why the Fertile Crescent is relatively poor today. The answer, the author points out, is that they used their land too intensively. With what used to be extensive woodland cleared for farming, and goats eating almost anything that grew there, the soil became impoverished. Long-term changes in rainfall patterns also had a part to play in worsening the conditions for agriculture in various parts of the world.

Once civilisations had made a start, other factors determined which were able to develop technology and which were not. Once again, the location was all important; the ready availability of metal ores suitable for easy processing for copper, tin and later iron, was vital to developing modern industries.

The evidence amassed by the author indicates that in almost (although not entirely) every respect, it was the relative advantages in natural resources - climate, terrain, cultivable plants, domesticable large animals, and minerals - which determined which cultures have flourished and which have not. Some mysteries remain, however; such as why an early civilisation as advanced and extensive as the Incas of South America never developed writing or invented the wheel.

One other interesting point is raised, and that is the importance of a high population density over a large area in sustaining early technological advances. Many early innovations were probably introduced many times over, only to be lost as the small isolated bands of hunter-gatherers which developed them died out. It was important for innovations to be spread widely over a large population for them to become well established. Furthermore, cultures could lose their technologies if they became isolated in sufficiently small groups. A poignant example is given of the natives of Tasmania, a large island which used to be joined to mainland Australia. At that time, the Australian aborigines - including those in Tasmania - were using sophisticated stone tools, large-scale fish traps, boomerangs and other technologies. It is estimated that about 4,000 people were living in Tasmania at the time of the separation some 10,000 years ago, but by the time the first Europeans arrived they had lost all of their advanced technologies and were surviving only at the most primitive level of existence. Even worse, on some smaller islands similarly separated from mainland Australia, estimated populations of 200-400 died out completely. It seems that there are certain minimum levels of population to sustain any kind of existence, and the more advanced is the civilisation, the larger the population needs to be.

Some technologies have been lost even by advanced civilisations just a few centuries ago. Early in the fifteenth century China possessed large fleets of huge, advanced sailing ships and several major expeditions (involving up to 28,000 men) were launched, reaching as far as Africa. China looked set to dominate the world in the way that Europe began to at the end of that century - but then, as a result of political infighting, the ruling group which was closely associated with the expeditions lost power and their successors promptly scrapped the fleets together with the capability to build and use them. I could add more recent examples, admittedly of much less significance: in the last few decades the West has developed and abandoned both the capacity to land men on the Moon and the ability for passenger planes to speed across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound. Nuclear power is also being abandoned by several countries. Technological capabilities do not always advance, even for us.

So what is the relevance of all this to SFF? I think that there are some clear lessons here for authors who are engaged in world-building, especially of primitive civilisations, and who want to make their worlds as realistic as possible. Also for those concerned with writing stories of survival after disasters, either on this planet or others, in which a rapid slide down to basic subsistence level of existence seems likely. There is far more in the book than I can go into here, but I recommend it to anyone interested in why and how civilisations develop - and manage to survive.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Film: Avengers Assemble (2012)

I have rather enjoyed some of the recent superhero movies, particularly the first Iron Man and also Thor, both reviewed on this blog. They both took the time to develop their principal characters plus their relationships with other people, and contained a lot of both dramatic and amusing situations and repartee to balance the action scenes. I haven't seen any of the films about the other superheroes so can't comment on those, but a movie which brought several of them together to defend the Earth against an attack from an alien dimension sounded entertaining and the reviews looked good, so I began watching Avengers Assemble with interest.

Sadly, I was greatly disappointed. Only a few token gestures were made towards the elements which made the other films so enjoyable: there was hardly any character development or humour. Most of the movie consisted of fight scenes which just went on and on interminably. As Scarlett Johansson said of her part in the film: "I've spent so many months training with our stunt team, and fighting all the other actors, it's crazy. I do nothing but fight—all the time." After it was over, the person I saw it with commented "That was for eight year olds. I thought it would never end". I think that was maybe a little harsh and that the age of the target market was possibly as high as twelve, but I took the point. While the CGI was of the spectacularly high standard we expect nowadays, the story was about as subtle as being hit over the head with a rock, over and over. I was recently rather critical of the remake of Total Recall, but that was positively Shakespearean in the quality of the plot, dialogue and acting compared with Avengers Assemble.

There seems to be an increasing tendency for SFF films to split into two groups; the big blockbusters which are aimed at the lowest common denominator and focus almost entirely on spectacle and violence, and the more subtle and complex movies intended to appeal to adults. Some films have managed to combine elements of both quite successfully, as I mentioned at the start, but I have the impression that they are in a dwindling minority. The second Iron Man film, for instance, impressed me a lot less than the first. I note that a sequel to AA is intended, but I have no great hopes for that. Since the original was such a huge box-office success, the sequel will almost certainly just be more of the same. Oh well, I'll just have to pick and choose my films a little more carefully in the future.

Friday, 28 September 2012

ARIA: Left Luggage, by Geoff Nelder

A technician at a US air-base is excited to be one of the first to handle an alien artifact – but he soon finds that his memory is beginning to fail him. And not just him, but everyone he comes into contact with – and then everyone they come into contact with. That’s the starting point for Geoff Nelder’s new SF novel ARIA: Left Luggage.

This is a global disaster story with a unique twist – a highly infectious amnesia virus which gradually destroys people’s memories, starting with the most recent and working backwards. People first forget what they were doing the week before, then as their memories are wound back to their earlier selves, wiping out about a year’s worth every week, they forget how to do their jobs, where they live and who they are married to. To make matters worse, they are unable to form new memories and start each day unaware of what has happened to them. Inevitably, society rapidly collapses except for a few who manage to avoid infection and do their best to survive while they try to work out what is happening and what to do about it: scientists at isolated bases and astronauts orbiting the Earth. Meanwhile, some who have the virus are struggling to find ways to continue with their lives.

Inevitably, the story is reminiscent of The Day of the Triffids which I reviewed on this blog not long ago. If Geoff Nelder’s writing style is plainer, with less of a literary gloss than Wyndham’s, the plot is more complex and there is a series of unexpected twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention gripped. It is an exciting page-turner of a story, tautly written at less than 300 pages, and I read it from start to finish in one sitting. The price of this is a degree of unevenness in the characterisation; some of the cast are strongly drawn but others could have done with more development. Left Luggage is the first book of the ARIA series and concludes with yet another major surprise to set up the next volume, Returning Left Luggage, which I am already looking forward to reading.


In contrast, I have been struggling to read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and finally gave up after getting more than a third of the way through. It is set in an alternative world in which the Jews were thrown out of Palestine in 1948 and were granted a self-governing lease on some islands off the coast of Alaska; a lease which at the time of the story was due to expire, leaving the inhabitants to become ordinary citizens of the USA. The principal character is a police detective trying to solve the mysterious death of a chess genius. I found the writing to be of high quality but, although developed in great depth, the setting and the plot were only moderately interesting and the pace very slow. In the end it simply failed to hold my attention or persuade me to continue reading it, a fate which befalls an increasing number of the books I start, due to the large pile of unread books awaiting my attention.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Films: Total Recall (1990 and 2012)

I had first seen the original Total Recall so long ago that I had forgotten most of the plot, but in view of the fact that a remake has only just been released I thought it would be useful to refresh my memory of the original. Both films are described as being loosely based on Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, but since I read that one (if indeed I did) so long ago that I have completely forgotten it, that hasn't affected my view of the film.

First, a brief and general plot summary of the 1990 version, avoiding major spoilers. The year is 2084 when Mars has been colonised and travel throughout the solar system is commonplace. On Earth, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a bored construction worker forever dreaming of life on Mars. He decides to visit Rekall, a company selling "virtual holidays" through memory implants, and elects to play the part of a secret agent on a trip to Mars. However, in the process he discovers that something is badly wrong with his memories and he gradually comes to realise that his current identity is false and has been implanted in his mind. He comes under attack but receives aid from his earlier self, in the form of a recorded message explaining what is happening and encouraging him to go to Mars. Once on Mars he becomes involved in the battle between planetary governor Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) and a resistance group opposing his dictatorial rule, with many twists and turns in the plot before the finale.

This is a fast-paced and exciting film, with the plot twists coming so thick and fast that it becomes difficult to keep up and to be sure what is reality and what are implanted memories. I did have the suspicion that there may be some logical flaws in the plot, but there are so many layers of deceit that I frankly became rather lost in trying to work out who was supposed to know what at which point. On the downside it is filled with cartoonish, slapstick violence of the "hero fires a brief unaimed burst from his machine pistol and a whole row of bad guys falls over" variety: keeping track of the body count would be quite an exercise. The special effects team also had some fun with gross-out elements including the bulging faces of those dying in the near-vacuum of Mars and a head appearing from somebody's chest. On a point of detail, I note that it was apparently considered OK to have a mutant woman exposing her three breasts, even though they looked completely real, and even have a man fondling them - but to show real breasts, oh no! The contortions of our bizarre approach to morality never fail to amaze and amuse. No doubt any alien observers of human mores could produce endless doctoral theses on our weird and hypocritical attitudes to such issues.

To sum up, it's not a bad film but it could have been much better with a more adult approach and the omission of much of the juvenile violence. The plot is certainly clever enough to justify more serious treatment, and I would have liked to see it made by the team who produced the excellent Gattaca.


Since I happened to be staying in a city recently I took the opportunity to see the 2012 version of Total Recall in a cinema rather than waiting for the DVD to be available. This enabled me to enjoy to the full one of the strengths of this film; the dramatic, multi-level, futuristic CGI city-scapes, which are among the best I can recall seeing. Sadly, Mars has disappeared from the plot, being replaced by a rather bizarre Earth which has almost entirely been rendered uninhabitable by chemical or biological warfare, with only (for some unexplained reason) parts of the UK and Australia still supporting human life. The relationship between them is reflected in their names: the United Federation of Britain, and the Colony (bet that goes down well in Australia!).

Strangest of all, the two settlements, on opposite sides of the planet, are joined by “the Fall”, a gravity-powered transport system consisting of shaft bored straight through the centre of the Earth, down which a huge container, able to hold large numbers of people plus freight, drops before re-emerging on the other side of the globe – a system so fast and routine that workers commute daily from Australia to the UK. I have to say that this caused me some credibility problems. For a start there are the vast technical difficulties concerning boring and maintaining such a hole through the colossal heat and pressure existing at the Earth’s core. This is not just impossible now, we could not even see any way in which such a project might be tackled at any time in the future – it makes the task of achieving sub-light-speed interstellar travel look very simple (yet there is no mention in the film of any kind of space travel). Then there is the question of how the container could possibly reach the speeds required to make daily commuting feasible, unless the air in the tube was evacuated ahead of it – but in that case, people wouldn’t be able to survive on the outside of the container, as they do in the film. Oh well, lets move on to the story.

Once more we have Douglas Quaid (this time played by Colin Farrell) in much the same situation as in the original, with the plot following generally similar lines. There are even some direct references to the original film (yep, including the triple-breasted prostitute). Kate Beckinsale makes a suitably mean and nasty opponent, Jessica Biel an appealing good girl. Overall, the acting as well as the special effects is much better. But, but…some of the freshness and appeal of the original have been lost along the way. The overall feel of the new version is darker, more adult, less like a comic strip. Despite this, the plot seems more straightforward than the 1990 version, without so many layers of deception. It comes across as one relentless chase, with lots of the fights, crashes and explosions which contemporary fashion requires, and after a while becomes rather repetitive and tiring.

I strongly suspect that the original version is going to retain its place in viewers’ affections for much longer than the new pretender.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Film: John Carter (2012)

Well, I finally got around to seeing Disney's notorious "flop", based on the first of the century-old Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Just in case there is anyone who is unaware of the basic plot, it concerns an American soldier who had fought in the Civil War of 1861-65 who finds himself suddenly transported to Mars - but a Mars unlike the one that we now know. It has a breathable atmosphere and populations of both humans (or humanoids - they have some non-human characteristics in Burroughs' stories) and Tharks; giant green six-limbed beings, intelligent but primitive. Their name for their planet is Barsoom. To be fair to Burroughs, little was known about surface conditions on Mars 100 years ago and the existence of a canal-building civilisation on the planet was widely believed even by serious astronomers (ironically, their opinion shifted against this idea around the time the Barsoom stories were first published).

I read the books as a youngster, far too long ago to recall anything much about them other than the intriguing nugget that the apparently "human" women laid eggs rather than giving birth to babies. I do recall being struck by the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness of the tales, plenty by themselves to carry along young and uncritical readers, even though I knew at the time that these stories were now firmly in the "fantasy" category as Mars was really a dead planet. They made for great escapist fiction: what lad wouldn't want to be reborn as a super-warrior on an alien planet, fighting for a beautiful princess? I needn't say anything else about the plot, as that sums it up well enough for this review.

The film received a very mixed critical reception when released and its financial failure led to the resignation of the head of Walt Disney Studios. So I was curious to see whether I agreed with the critics or the supporters and watched it with an open mind. I was prepared to like it, but I have to say that on balance I agreed with the critics. The structure of the film is messy and sometimes difficult to follow and the pace is frantic, skipping rapidly through a series of improbable events without much explanation. In the battle scenes I was usually unsure of who were the "good" and "bad" humans as they looked and dressed much alike; I could never distinguish between the "good" and "bad" flying machines they used either. The character-building is weak to put it mildly, with Taylor Kitsch as the hero making little impression (someone with more screen presence, like Chris Hemsworth who made such an impressive Thor, might have made a difference) although Lynn Collins is fine as Deja Thoris - unlike most actresses, she has enough muscle to make the sword-wielding seem feasible. The strength of the film is, as one might expect, in the visual spectacle: the Tharks, the strange flying machines, the dramatic-looking cities (including a moving one), and the fighting. Lots of fighting. The overall impression I was left with was of much jumping and dashing around and whirling of swords.

To be fair, the film-makers had the usual problem in adapting a decidedly outdated novel: do they try to make sense of it for modern viewers, or do they stay faithful to the novel and produce something which is frankly rather ludicrous? On this occasion I think they tended towards the latter end of the spectrum. It was just about watchable for the spectacle, but left me unengaged and unimpressed. This was intended to be the first of a trilogy, but that now seems highly unlikely to materialise.

Incidentally, those who like the basic plot idea might enjoy reading a more modern and realistic (if such a term can be appropriate for this kind of fantasy) approach to the same theme, not set on Mars but on an initially undefined world: this is the seven-book Gandalara Cycle by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron, published in the 1980s. I have reviewed the first three novels on this blog in December 2011 and July 2012, and they are great fun - undemanding escapist entertainment.

Friday, 7 September 2012

TV - Once Upon a Time, Season 1

I've finally reached the end of the 22-episode first season of Once Upon a Time, which I have briefly discussed early in the series (in April and May). To recap: the story begins in the present-day USA when Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a young woman with a talent for finding people, is herself found by her son Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) whom she had given up for adoption ten years previously. She takes him back to his home town, Storybrooke, and immediately find herself in conflict with Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla), the town's mayor and the woman who had adopted Henry.

Henry has a firm belief that Storybrooke is no ordinary town but is populated by people from another time: characters from fairy tales who have been transported to the USA by a spell from an evil queen - who happens to be Regina Mills. Unsurprisingly Emma Swan refuses to believe him but the viewers of the series know better, since running in parallel with the scenes in Storybrooke are those from the land of fairy tales, in which we see the same characters as they used to be. So we know that teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin) is really Snow White - and Emma Swan's mother - and that her husband Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) has become David Nolan, a local handyman who is inconveniently married to someone else.

The core of the plot in Storybrooke is the tussle between Regina and Emma, with Mr Gold, formerly the evil magician Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) playing a mysterious game between the two of them. Meanwhile Henry is desperately trying to convince Emma that all is not as it seems, and that only she has the power to break the curse which preserves everyone in Storybrooke, frozen in time, and allows none of them to leave. As I mentioned in my previous comment on this series, there's a faint echo of The Truman Show here, except that in this case it seems that hardly anyone in the town except the mayor is in on the secret - although that is not quite true, as we slowly become to realise.

The programme makers have a wonderful time drawing on a wide range of fairy tales for the scenes set in fairyland, where we are shown a whole series of interlocking events (not always in chronological order) which gradually build up a picture of exactly what led up to the mass transfer to Storybrooke. The contrast between the scenes in Storybrooke and the interleaved ones set in an exotic world of queens and princes, magicians and spells, keeps the series interesting. The downside is that there are many characters (some of which play a major part in just one episode before disappearing) and many story lines, which leads to a certain lack of focus and drift from the main story. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed the series which finished on a cliff-hanger of an ending to set it up nicely for the forthcoming second season.

Friday, 31 August 2012

TV - Game of Thrones, Season 1

This is my second look at Game of Thrones, as I commented on it in May after seeing the first two episodes. Now I've seen all ten episodes of the first season so it's time for a round-up (the second season is not yet available on DVD hire in the UK).

To recap, the plot is set in an alternative medieval world with its technology, social development and politics very similar to that of the Europe of six or seven centuries ago. At the beginning, the principal difference seems to be that the seasons last for years at a time, with winter being a long period of bitter cold. Initially, there is very little in the way of fantastical elements, just hints and rumours, although these start to become real in dramatic form at the end of the first season. The main plot thread concerns the struggles among the noble families of the land of Westeros for control of the Iron Throne. Two other plot threads run in parallel. One is set overseas in the land of Essos where the last members of the Targaryen family which formerly ruled Westeros have taken refuge. The third plot thread is set on the northern border of Westeros, where an immense Wall, guarded by the Night Watch, protects the land from the frozen territory beyond, where nothing but the Wildings and the dreaded but mysterious White Walkers live.

In Westeros, Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell (Sean Bean), the northern part of the land, is called to the capital city King's Landing to take up the post of the Hand of the King. Here he finds himself in opposition to the rich and powerful Lannister family, which includes Queen Cersei (Lena Headey). Meanwhile in Essos, the young girl Daenerys Targaryn marries the warlord of the barbaric Dothraki and she and her brother plot their return to the Iron Throne. On the northern Wall, the dreaded winter is on the way and the legendary White Walkers are rumoured to be on the move.

The most significant aspect of GoT is that it takes the best part of ten hours to cover the events of only the first of the novels in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. This gives the programme producers huge scope to do full justice to the story, compared with the usual frantic compression which goes on to convert a novel into a two-hour movie. The pacing is therefore deliberate, with time taken to develop the plot and, most importantly, the characters. Even the wicked ones are given well-rounded personalities which allow viewers to feel some sympathy for their positions (especially Queen Cersei); conversely, even the most honourable of the characters faces difficult moral dilemmas. This pacing also gives viewers the time to appreciate the superb production, script and acting.

On the subject of the actors, it is interesting that most of them are little known, with the notable exception of Sean Bean. Although the actors seem to be mostly British, I can only recall having seen a couple of the others before. Most surprisingly, I had never heard of Lena Headey, despite her acting ability and considerable beauty, and the fact that she has been appearing in films for twenty years. Evidently she has resisted the usual self-publicising efforts which sees film stars constantly appearing on the front covers of magazines and in the gossip columns. A special mention is also due to Peter Dinklage who plays the dwarf Tyrion to such effect that he dominates every scene he's in; he's rightly won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. He's my favourite character in the series, if only because he's the only one to demonstrate a sense of humour.

I find it impossible to fault this series on any objective grounds. It is simply magnificent in every respect, and isn't just the best ever effort in the field of screening adult fantasy, it is leagues ahead of anything else. It makes even the best of the current crop of superhero movies look ridiculously juvenile and trivial. Subjectively, some might be uncomfortable with the frequent nudity and sex (this is very definitely an adult fantasy in every respect), while I found the relentless and often grim realism, plus the overall sense of impending doom, rather daunting. As I observed before, this would not be a pleasant world in which to live even as one of the ruling class, and there is a certain predictability that events are going to keep on getting a lot worse before there is any chance of them getting better. Accordingly, I found I had to brace myself before watching, girding up the loins and stiffening the sinews so to speak, but once each episode started I became engrossed again in the tale and am now completely hooked. Even the music and the fascinating animation in the title credits are real treats.

I am looking forward to the availability of the second season. I note that the book series currently includes five novels with two more on the way, so there could be many hours of high-quality viewing still to come.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Plague of Angels, by Sheri Tepper

Sheri Tepper has long been one of my favourite authors. I still recall the impact her first novel, The True Game, had on me in the 1980s - it was the first of a truly original fantasy series, and an indicator of what was to come. Since then, I have read many of her stories and re-read a couple of them which are reviewed on this blog; The Marianne Trilogy and Grass. These two illustrate her range, in that the first is a surreal present-day fantasy while the second is science fiction set in the far future. Most commonly what she writes has a mixture of SF and fantasy elements, often including some social commentary, and that is true of Plague of Angels, published in 1993, which I had not previously read.

This is an awkward book to review in that it starts out appearing to be a pure fantasy but as the plot develops and the reader gradually understands what is going on, it becomes more and more science fictional (although fantasy elements remain strong to the end). In consequence, it is difficult to give a comprehensive review without spoilers, but I will try to avoid this by only giving a brief and general summary of the plot.

Plague of Angels concerns two people, a young man and a girl, who grow up apart in what appears to be a largely rural medieval-type fantasy world except for some strange elements, some of them very modern. It is a quest story, a romance and a deadly mystery, all wrapped up in a journey which gives the author the opportunity to describe a variety of different settings and situations. Tepper is sometimes dismissed as a "feminist author" as she usually features strong female characters and her plots often contain elements which, implicitly or explicitly, criticise male-dominated societies. This is true of PoA, as it contains some painfully convincing descriptions of the adolescent attitudes of the male gangs which dominate life in the few cities, and her "ideal society", in a town described later in the book, is one of complete equality. However, there are strong and positive male as well as female roles and the great villain of the story is a woman, so I wouldn't say that the novel is unbalanced by this - it certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of the tale.

In a couple of places in the story there is an interesting reflection of the ideas in Vance's The Languages of Pao, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Namely, that the languages people speak affect their attitudes to life. In this case, it isn't different languages so much as the way they speak a common language. To quote one of the characters, concerning the limited and brutal vocabulary of the urban gangs:

"Like apes, Abasio. No oral tradition, rejecting literacy as unmanly. It's a decadent tongue, Abasio, an impoverished tongue. As vocabulary is reduced, so are the number of feelings you can express, the number of events you can describe, the number of things you can identify! Not only understanding is limited, but also experience. Man grows by language. Whenever he limits language, he retrogresses."

Conversely, later in the book Tepper describes what can only be regarded as social engineering through language similar to Pao, by changing names and deleting words which have harmful associations.

Having said all this, I don't want to give the impression that the novel is some sort of dull social tract. Above all, Tepper is a great storyteller and this tale effortlessly carries the reader along, with characters who are credible and sympathetic. She has a tendency to whimsical quirkiness which comes out in such ways as talking animals (for which there is a perfectly acceptable science-fictional justification, in a typical Tepper mix of the genres). There are revelations, twists and turns, right to the end of the book, to keep the reader engaged and entertained. While this isn't my favourite by this author, I enjoyed the ride. So although the story is complete in itself I may look up her other book with the same setting, The Waters Rising, which only appeared in 2010.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Film: The Awakening (2011)

This film is supposedly a a ghost/horror story set in England in 1921, in the aftermath of the devastating Great War. I don't usually watch such films, but was attracted to this one because it was filmed in Lyme Hall, a stately home I'm familiar with, and I was curious to see what they made of it. The Awakening stars Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, an author and exposer of mediums and other supernatural hoaxers. She is persuaded to visit a remote boarding school where a boy had died in mysterious circumstances and the remainder of the boys were terrified that a legendary ghost had been responsible.

Florence sets to work with the aid of two staff members: teacher Robert Malory (Dominic West) and housekeeper Maude (Imelda Staunton). It isn't long before she exposes a fraud and solves the mysterious death. However, matters then take a different turn and for the rest of the film it becomes increasingly unclear what is reality, what is supernatural and what is delusion. There are lots of twists, turns and plot surprises right up to the intriguingly ambiguous ending, which reminded me of Inception.

I wouldn't describe this as primarily a ghost or horror story, it's more of a psychological mystery thriller - and a very good one. I was impressed by the plot, the writing, the setting and the acting (Rebecca Hall being excellent). All in all, it proved a pleasant surprise and is well worth seeing even if you don't like ghost stories. And by the way, Lyme Hall looks magnificent - and very spooky!


Incidentally, I've recently updated my list of favourite SFF novels in the left-hand column and extended it from 20 to 25. There are still a few I'd like to include….also, don't forget that linked lists of the books, films and TV programmes reviewed here are further down in the same column.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Survival, by Julie E Czerneda

This is the second book I have read by Julie Czerneda, my review of Beholder's Eye appearing on this blog in January last year. That one (the first of the Web Shifters trilogy) I enjoyed, with some reservations. Survival is also the first of a series, called Species Imperative, and was published six years later in 2004. I decided to read it as it was chosen as a novel of the month by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

Survival is decidedly easier to get involved in than the earlier book because the heroine is an ordinary human woman rather than an energy being and the Earth she lives in, while set in the future, is recognisably much the same as ours. Dr Mackenzie Connor (Mac) is a biologist who has devoted her life to studying the salmon on the Pacific NW coast of the North America. Her work routine with students and colleagues, including her friend Emily Mamani, is disrupted by the arrival of an honoured visitor - a member of an alien species. Humanity had been invited to join a galactic community some time before and some alien races were well-known, but Brymn was the first of the Dhryn race ever to visit Earth; and he had come specifically to see Mac.

Brymn is an archaelogist researching what had caused the Chasm, an area of the Galaxy which had once thrived with life but has been completely dead for millennia. Biology is not studied by his race, so he arrives looking for assistance. He is chaperoned by Nikolai Trojanowski, a bureaucrat Mac initially finds very irritating, before realising that there is more to him than meets the eye. She soon learns that there is a deadly threat, possibly connected with the Chasm, spreading from planet to planet and destroying all life on them. And that Brymn is not the only alien with an interest in Mac. This is the start of adventures which take her to alien worlds, fighting to discover what is going on and exactly how her friend Emily is involved. There are many twists and turns in the plot before the final startling revelation.

This is a more involving story than Czerneda's earlier book, and well worth the read. The characterisation is very good, Mac being a credible and likeable heroine. I still have a few reservations, though. I'm not sure of the credibility of a life form which annihilates every living thing on a planet, leaving nothing for itself to feed on. Also, at one stage a budding romance between two of the principal characters acquires something of the flavour of a Mills and Boon plotline (formulaic and slushy multi-author romantic fiction aimed at women) and begins to dominate the tale, but fortunately that phase doesn't last too long. My final reservation is that the story is spread a little thinly over nearly 500 pages which for much of the book slows down the action, making this somewhat less than an unputdownable page-turner. There's no shortage of tension or surprises in the last part, though, and I remain sufficiently gripped to want to read the rest of the series.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Film: 300 (2007)

I don't usually watch historical epics (the last one I can recall being Troy, several years ago), but when I realised that I'd recorded 300 sometime around last Christmas and it was still sitting on my PVR memory, I decided to look through it and see if it was worth watching.

As I expect most readers will be aware, the film concerns the Greek legend of the three hundred Spartans who fought the massed hordes of the invading Persians to a standstill in the Battle of Thermopylae, over 2,500 years ago. The battle certainly happened in the location attributed to it although the situation was, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather more complicated than that portrayed in the comic series by Frank Miller on which the film was based. As recounted by Herodotus, the Greek historian and main source of information on the battle who was born shortly after it happened, there were many more Greeks involved, somewhere in the region of 4,000, from a variety of Greek city-states. When a secret path around the narrow pass the Greeks were successfully holding was revealed to the Persians by a traitor, Leonidas, the Spartan king, did order the majority of his army to retreat, but that still left nearly 1,500 Greeks (including the 300 Spartans) to form a rearguard to enable the others to get away. Almost all of the Greeks in the rearguard were killed, including Leonidas.

From the historical point of view, the film therefore simplifies the tale to emphasise the glory of the self-sacrificing Spartans. It also shifts elements of the story around, putting in incidents which occurred on other occasions. Some of the bizarre menagerie of creatures in the Persian army also owe more to fantasy than reality. Despite this, overall it is probably at least as true to the accepted historical account as any Hollywood historical movie ever is (the notorious U-571 of 2000, in which the warship which captured a U-boat mysteriously changes from British to American, springs to mind). Herodotus' story may itself have exaggerated the achievement of the Greeks, of course. Early historians were often more concerned with telling a good tale (especially one which boosted the grandeur of their own people) than being strictly accurate, and even if that didn't apply in this case, Herodotus was relying on tales which had been told for decades, and maybe grown in the telling.

Setting the historical debate aside and judging it purely as a movie, was 300 worth watching? Well, just about. It is a very violent film, with lots of fighting, hacking, thrusting and spraying of blood, repeated in slow-mo action replays just in case the viewer missed the finer points the first time around. The characters are two-dimensional caricatures declaiming portentously as if they want to sound as epic as possible, with the notable exception of Lena Headey (currently gracing the small screen as Queen Cersei in Game of Thrones - which may alone be enough to persuade some people to watch). She has a strong part as Leonidas' wife in the scenes in Sparta which are interleaved with the battles, providing some contrast, not so say relief from the constant slaughter. The film has a voice-over, describing and explaining what is going on, which seems rather odd until it turns out at the end to have been the account of the one of the survivors; a trick which works rather well. So, if you like lots of gory hand-to-hand fighting, lots of heroically muscled Spartans wearing not a lot, or Lena Headey wearing not a lot, then you might well enjoy this film.

Incidentally I recently tried to watch another 2007 epic with rather less association with reality, Beowulf. This uses "motion capture", effectively taking real actors and sort of "cartoonising" them (if there is such a word). Now I like watching real actors and can happily watch cartoons and computer-generated alien characters such as those in Avatar. But something about the appearance of the motion capture characters put me off completely - I found it very creepy and the film thereby unwatchable. So I only saw the first few minutes.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Interzone 241

The July/August issue of the British SFF magazine includes an interview with fantasy author Juliet E. McKenna plus a review of her novel Darkening Skies, sequel to Dangerous Waters. The other eight books reviewed include A Dance With Dragons, part of George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire sequence, which I avoided reading as I'm watching the Game of Thrones TV series; and something quite different, Three Science Fiction Novellas by J H Rosny aïné, the pseudonym of a Belgian writer who is described as belonging "somewhere between Jules Verne and H G Wells". The three stories, published between 1888 and 1910, are set in the distant past, the present day and the far future. I think I'll get this one - it sounds intriguingly different.

The usual extensive film and DVD reviews, one of the consistent highlights of the magazine, include Prometheus (not too complimentary), Iron Sky and John Carter (both quite positive and on my to-watch list).

Five short stories, rather more varied than usual.

Steamgothic by Sean McMullen, illustrated by Jim Burns. The wreck of an unknown Victorian steam-powered flying machine is discovered in an old barn. Had it actually flown, and could it be restored to flying condition? What seems like an interesting but mainstream tale changes into something rather different at the end. An entertaining read.

Ship's Brother by Aliette de Bodard, illustrated by Joe Burns. Another of this author's "Xuya continuity" in which the Chinese discover America before Columbus. A mother's difficult relationship with her son following the birth of a daughter designed to function as a ship's navigator. Strong on atmosphere but doesn't really make much sense on its own.

One Day in Time City, by David Ira Cleary, illustrated by Richard Wagner. An intriguing notion - a linear city in which people's ages change minute by minute, from very young to elderly, as they travel through the age zones from one end to the other (or back again). This is the background to a story of constant infighting between the two-wheel and four-wheel transport factions.

Railroad Angel by Gareth L. Powell. An old hippy, dying of drugs and exposure, has a revelation at the end of his life.

Invocation of the Lurker by C.J.Paget, illustrated by Dave Senecal. A future world in which a woman from the most privileged stratum of society is cast down to the lower orders after committing a terrible crime. What will she - or won't she - do to get back? This is a winner of the James White Award for non-professional writers. I found it a bit confusing as the nature of the society, and of the crime, were none too clear.

For me, McMullen's story was the stand-out one in this issue. Well-written, interesting and enjoyable even before the surprise ending. The kind of story which makes you hope that the author will carry on and write a lot more about the situation the protagonists are left in.

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance

I remembered this one from decades ago (it was first published in 1957, and my copy is dated 1974), and picked it up again because it focuses on a subject which is still fascinating today: the relationship between language and behaviour.

In The Languages of Pao, humanity has spread beyond the Solar System and settled on many planets, including Pao. There is no mention of aliens, or indeed of any kind of alien life: that is not what this story is about. Each planet has its own, very different, culture and there appears to be little interaction between them except for some trading. Pao has a large and mainly rural population which is culturally, linguistically and politically homogenous and ruled by an hereditary Panarch. The Paonese language is remarkably passive and dispassionate, as described on the second page of the novel:

"The Paonese sentence did not so much describe an act as it presented a picture of a situation. There were no verbs, no adjectives; no formal word word comparison such as good, better, best."

The people of Pao are also very passive and intensely conformist, hating change and resisting any progress.

A palace coup results in Beran, son and heir to the Panarch, fleeing Pao to take refuge on the planet Breakness with Lord Palafox, a Breakness dominie. Breakness is a harsh world devoted to intellectual pursuits, with the Breakness Institute (a university) effectively forming what passes for a government: the dominies are simultaneously professors of the Institute and lords of the planet. They back up their intellectual prowess with biomechanical modifications which have given them the reputation of being wizards. Beran, a spoilt and idle youth, is forced to work, initially to learn the difficult Breakness language, very different from Paonese.

In the meantime, Pao has suffered an invasion from another planet, which its passive people are incapable of resisting, and is forced to pay a heavy annual tribute. Palafox has a suggestion: a major project to change the mindset of a part of the population by introducing new languages, starting with a militaristic one called Valiant. As Palafox explained:

"The syllabary will be rich in effort-producing gutterals and hard vowels. A number of key ideas will be synonymous; such as pleasure and overcoming a resistance - relaxation and shame - outworlder and rival."

This would be taught to a large group of young men, brought up in a separate military enclave on Pao and trained in competitive and violent activities to make them dedicated soldiers.

Two other languages would also be inculcated in the same way: Cogitant and Technicant. The first to develop intellectual and inventive abilities to encourage industrial development ("The grammar will be extravagantly complicated but altogether consistent and logical") and the second to facilitate trading with other cultures ("…elaborate honorifics to teach hypocrisy, a vocabulary rich in homophones to facilitate ambiguity…").

The novel follows what happens as these plans are carried forward, in particular as seen through the eyes of Beran as he tries to reclaim his birthright.

No doubt a modern linguist would object that these notions of dramatically changing a culture by changing the language are simplistic, but the idea has a compelling appeal. Incidentally, I recently discovered an interesting fact: the German word for debt - schuld - also means guilt, fault, blame or sin. I wonder if that is connected in any way with the fact that the Germans are noted for being such a hard-working, thrifty nation?

Despite the passage of the decades, this book is well worth reading on three counts: it's an exciting story; the ideas are intriguing and thought-provoking; and the book is refreshingly short at less than 160 pages.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Films: Chain Reaction (1996), and The Astronaut's Wife (1999)

The synopsis of Chain Reaction sounded promising: the development of a source of virtually free and clean energy (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen in a self-sustaining reaction) sparks all manner of consequences. It isn't hard to imagine what these might be: a big shift in geopolitics, with the oil states losing much of their importance and wealth (although not all, by any means - oil is still used for other purposes, e.g. making plastics); the big oil companies fighting a rearguard action and trying to kill or at least delay the idea while diversifying frantically; the green energy movement having the wind taken out of their sails. So I looked forward to an interesting couple of hours.

Sadly, it was not to be. There was a brief mention of the problems which free energy might cause to the oil companies and the economy, before the film slid into the familiar comfort zone of a conspiracy theory (for control of the invention) and a protracted chase across the winter countryside as a pair of young scientists (Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz) try to escape capture. It isn't a bad film, just a disappointing missed opportunity, and barely SF at all.

The Astronaut's Wife is in a different league. Two NASA astronauts on a routine space-walk are unexpectedly cut-off from communications for two minutes. When they return to Earth they seem to be normal, but one of them subsequently dies in mysterious circumstances. The other (Johnny Depp) is healthy but his wife (Charlize Theron) becomes increasingly concerned about his behaviour, especially when a former NASA employee (Joe Morton) contacts her with evidence which makes her question what happened to the astronauts - and what is happening to her.

The basic idea of this film reminded me somewhat of John Wyndham's 1950s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (which will be a give-away to those familiar with it!), although the plot takes a different direction. The story is well-constructed and filmed, the initial feeling of moodiness and mild spookiness gradually developing into horror as the tension climbs sky-high, and the acting (from Theron in particular) is excellent.

I was very impressed, and encouraged by this evidence that Hollywood studios could make a really good adult SFF movie if they tried. Then I looked up The Astronaut's Wife on Wiki and found that it had been a critical and (more importantly) commercial flop, the box office takings being little more than a quarter of the budget. Which maybe helps to explain why Hollywood usually doesn't produce such films, preferring to dumb down for the predictable teenage market, with lots of recycled ideas involving spectacular chases and explosions. Plus at least one superhero. Or vampires. Or zombies. Or some combination of all of those. Sad.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Glass of Dyskornis, and The Bronze of Eddarta by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron

These are the second and third of the novels in The Gandalara Cycle, the first of which (The Steel of Raithskar) I reviewed last December. I gave the background to the series in that review, so I won't repeat it here.

In The Glass of Dyskornis, Ricardo/Markasset (now renamed Rikardon) and his sha'um Keeshah continue their adventures on the strange world of Gandalara. Having saved his father and himself from an accusation of complicity in the theft of the symbolic jewel, the Ra'ira, he decides to travel to the home of the sha'um in order to learn more about the giant fighting cats and their riders. While there, he meets Tarani, a disconcertingly beautiful young illusionist, who appears to be involved in a plot to kill him. Having survived that, Rikardon goes on the hunt to discover who was responsible for the plot and discovers it was a caravan leader called Gharlas, the same man believed to be guilty of stealing the Ra'ira. His pursuit of the man across the deserts and through the mountain passes of Gandalara takes up most of the book. On the way, he learns more about Gandalara and its people as well as himself, and begins to have an inkling of why he has ended up on this world.

The chase continues in The Bronze of Eddarta, in which knowledge of the true nature of the Ra'ira and the plans of Gharlas add more urgency. The pursuit ends in Eddarta, the largest and most powerful of the cities of Gandalara, where there are more revelations for Rikardon and more plot twists and dangers to overcome.

Like the first novel, these are fast and easy reads - they only add up to 315 pages between them. This whole series is a kind of literary comfort food, undemanding escapism to sink into and enjoy without trying to interpret deeper meanings. It is entirely suitable for young adults as well as somewhat older folk like your reviewer. More to follow!

Friday, 29 June 2012

Film: Innerspace (1987)

For some reason I hadn't seen this film before now. I suspect when I heard about the plot I confused it with the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, which I do recall watching several decades ago. Both films feature people in small submarines being miniaturised to such an extent that the submarines can be injected into a person and be navigated around the body. The main difference is that Innerspace is a comedy.

Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) is a gung-ho pilot who has volunteered to man the submarine on its first exploratory voyage, intended to be in an animal. However, a criminal organisation tries to seize the technology, as a result of which the submarine is randomly injected into a Jack Putter (Martin Short) a hypochondriac wimp. Pendleton is able to tap into Putter's vision and hearing, and to communicate with him. What follows is a protracted two-way chase, as Pendleton/Putter, aided by Pendleton's somewhat confused girlfriend Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan), try to recover the part of the technology stolen by the criminals in order to reverse Pendleton's miniaturisation, while the criminals are hunting Putter in order to obtain the submarine for themselves. Meanwhile, the air in the submarine is running out.

There is lots of humour, mostly resulting from Pendleton's efforts to stir the terrified Putter into bold action, and some rather mixed-up romance too. The "feel" of the film is somewhat old-fashioned, more like the 1960s than the 1980s and quite different from anything made today. All in all, it’s a couple of hours of pleasant if undemanding entertainment, and recommended if you've not seen it already.
I tried reading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson over the past week or two. This was first published in 1992 and was well regarded, being nominated for two British SF awards, but I hadn't come across it before. It was very cutting edge in its subject matter, featuring a dystopian future in which democratic control in the USA has mainly been replaced by a patchwork of territories controlled by organised gangs linked to big business franchises. People spend a lot of time in the Metaverse, a virtual world in which interaction is by user-chosen avatars, and the two settings run in parallel in the novel. The title comes from a new computer virus which is causing havoc in the Metaverse.

The story is very clever and packed with good ideas, but I found it heavy going and each time I picked up the book found I had to flip back some pages to refresh my memory as to what had happened or who characters were - always a bad sign. I eventually made it past halfway, but then asked myself the three crucial questions: Am I really keen to find out what happens next? Do I really care what happens to the characters? Do I want to spend another week or so on this book? The answer to all three was "No", so I stopped reading. What put me off the book? I think it was the lack of both a coherent, gripping story and sympathetic characters. The author seems to have been so busy developing his ideas of life in his future world that he forgot the essential point of a novel in any genre: it should tell a story, one which seizes the imagination of readers and keeps them turning the pages to discover what happens next, while really caring about what happens to the characters.

Friday, 22 June 2012

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

John Wyndham wasn’t just the best-known British SF author of the 1950s – he was one of the best known authors in fiction. It may be hard to recall, but in the UK SF used to be a lot more mainstream than it is now. In my childhood, Jules Verne was still very popular (I still have my ancient copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) as was H.G.Wells (The War of the Worlds, among others). In the 1930s, Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 raised the literary status of SF to the highest level. In the 1950s, Fred Hoyle, the most famous astronomer of his day, wrote The Black Cloud and Ossian's Ride, and in the 1960s went on to co-write the script for the Andromeda TV series. One of the most popular radio series in the 1950s was Journey into Space (I can still recall our family clustering around the radio to hear the weekly instalments) while Quatermass was a successful 1950s TV series.

Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids (published in 1951) therefore met a receptive audience and created something of a sensation at the time. Most people seemed to have read it and everyone knew what a triffid was, just as they know what a Dalek is today. As was pointed out by another reader on a discussion forum, some people even now (myself included, I realised) still jokingly refer to any large, strange and imposing plant as a "triffid". Nowadays Dr Who and the Harry Potter series are just as well known, but they differ in two important respects: they are primarily aimed at children, and they are fantasies rather than SF (I suspect that Tolkien was partly responsible for that). In the 1950s, SF in the UK was mainstream adult entertainment rather than the niche interest it has become.

Triffids was followed by several other best-sellers by Wyndham, especially The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed exceptionally well in the UK in 1960 as The Village of the Damned, with a poorly-regarded Hollywood remake in 1995) but Triffids has survived better than the others. I hadn’t read it since the 1960s, so I was interested to see how it stood up today. One warning: this review contains some spoilers in describing the plot, but most readers will probably be aware of them anyway.

The first point to strike me was the quality of the writing. This isn’t just fiction, this is literature, and the care with words and descriptions plus the perceptive observations spread throughout the book all stand out from the great majority of SF. No wonder it had a good critical reception. However, in this case "literary" does not imply "slow and unexciting", as it tends to today. The initial chapter, when the protagonist Bill Masen is in hospital having been temporarily blinded, is chilling in its evocation of the helplessness and dawning horror as he realises that something is terribly wrong with the world. This is emphasised by the story being told in the first person, making his emotions all the more intensely felt.

I had a more negative response to the next two chapters which told the story of the triffids. Frankly, this pushed my credulity well over my limit. The potential dangers of genetically modified plants are of course just as topical today, and I would have no problems believing in a commercially valuable crop which was also dangerous to be around due to poisonous thorns or some such. But plants which detect movement with sufficient precision to be able to strike accurately with a poisonous lash from several feet away? Which can pick up their roots and walk? Demonstrate collective intelligence and organisation? Communicate with each other via a drumming code (how did they devise and learn that)? Know that the eyes are the most vulnerable target in a human despite having no vision of their own? Sorry, but such an assembly of impossibilities, accidently emerging in one plant as a side-effect of developing edible-oil quality, would be met with derision if a modern author presented such a concept. Most modern SF might not be as well written, but its attempts at such developments tend to make more scientific sense.

In fact, I am rather baffled by the need to include the triffids at all. The conventional guidance to SF authors wanting to base their stories on some change taking place in the present day is that they should only introduce one “MacGuffin”; one key element, the consequences of which can then be explored. Wyndham has two right at the start: the triffids plus the intense atmospheric flashes which blind nearly all of humanity. I can’t help thinking that the concept of the triffids probably occurred to him first, and that he invented the global blinding in order to enable the triffids to become dangerous. If the global blinding had occurred to him first, the consequences of that would surely have provided quite enough drama to fill a novel without needing the impossible plants at all. In fact, I suspect that without the triffids, the story would have been even more chillingly realistic, and thereby even easier for the readers to relate to. On the other hand, the triffids are what the book is best remembered for, so perhaps he was being clever after all.

The triffids and their origin described, the tale then returns to Masen’s account of survival against the odds, which continues to grip the reader throughout the book. This is one of the classic “what would you do in his place?” novels, and the story doesn’t skate over the harrowing moral dilemmas about whether to try to help the blind survivors, knowing that it would only postpone the inevitable. Masen has great difficulty in casting aside his social conditioning to accept the new reality and change his attitudes and behaviour accordingly. In fact, the story isn’t really about SF at all, in the sense of focusing on bold futures full of gee-whiz technology and zooming rocket ships, as much SF was at the time. This is really about what it is to be human, and how people react so variously when placed in a situation which, while appalling, was not so strange that readers could not easily relate to it. This was, don’t forget, written in the early years of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was already rearing its head. Arguably, the disaster which befell the world in Wyndham’s story was even more disconcerting than atomic war would have been; the cities left untouched, apparently fully functioning, yet populated almost entirely by ordinary people whose lives were steadily unravelling and who were certain to be dead before long. The lethal disease which sweeps through the city, horrifying in other circumstances, comes as something of a relief since the alternative for most was a slow death by starvation.

One interesting aspect of the novel is that the female characters are far more than props for the men, as was so often the case at this time. They are drawn just as strongly, in both positive and negative roles; the characterisation of both genders is complex and rings true. One of the male characters rants furiously at the traditionally helpless attitude of a young woman when faced with vital technology - how to switch on a domestic generator to provide electric power - and the essential need in the changed situation for all of the sighted survivors to lose their ignorance and dependence. Even in this instance, the author has the woman responding with some spirit.

That also made me realise that we are even more vulnerable to a global disaster today than the world was in 1951 - we have become highly dependent on a sophisticated web of infrastructure, communications, trade and just-in-time deliveries, and have even less idea of how everything works and what to do if it stops. To give one detailed example of our vulnerability, much of the tinned and dried food which could be expected to last for months or years has been replaced by chilled or frozen products which will start spoiling only a few hours after the power has failed.

As ever with novels from an earlier age, there are some unintentional glimpses into aspects of the past. The universality of cigarette smoking is a common one, but what struck me this time was the wonderment of the survivors at the clearness of the air in London, unaffected by coal smoke and fumes. That reminded me that the first Clean Air Act, which enforced the use of smokeless fuel in some urban areas, was not passed until 1956, and followed London's "Great Smog" of the winter of 1952/3, during which the capital (known colloquially at the time as "The Smoke") was occasionally immobilised by zero visibility and some 20,000 people were estimated to have died from the resulting respiratory illnesses.

The reasons for the runaway success of this novel are clear, and they still make it a compelling read today: the writing quality, combined with the way in which the reader is drawn into and fully engaged in the developing disaster, empathising with realistic and sympathetic characters. I know someone who was so horrified by the story as a young woman that she has never wanted to read it since, nor see any of the screen versions. Yet she watches modern disaster films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow without any concerns at all, because they’re so unrealistic and superficial by comparison. In conclusion, The Day of the Triffids is an excellent, adult story which fully deserves its place in any list of classic science fiction. It’s just a pity about the triffids…!