Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Chaos Weapon by Colin Kapp

I was intrigued by The Patterns of Chaos (reviewed here in June this year) and having discovered that there was another novel set in the same universe I located a copy. The Chaos Weapon, first published in 1977, is set at some indeterminate later time than Patterns, and features an entirely different cast of characters; the only link between the two novels is the concept of studying Chaos Patterns. To copy from my previous review:

This works by analysing the consequences of significant events and how they interact with each other. The analogy given is with the ripples that spread out from any disturbance in a pond. In principle, the pattern of ripples can be analysed and tracked back to identify the precise location, size and time of every event that created them – and projected forwards to determine how they will look in the future. So far so good, but the Patterns of Chaos also spread across time in that they are affected by events which have not yet happened. This enables Chaos analysts to predict future events, although the exact nature of such events may not be clear.

It is the far future and humanity has been successfully defending its section of the galaxy against hostile alien cultures when it becomes apparent that it is under a new form of attack. Its most important and influential people are being systematically killed off by what appear to be natural catastrophes. Investigation reveals that the circumstances that lead to the catastrophes are being altered through manipulated of the Chaos Patterns, causing (for example) an event to be delayed until it could hit the target individual. Someone had devised a Chaos Weapon.

In search of a response to this, Space Marshal Jym Wildheit – a galactic troubleshooter – travels to the distant planet Mayo. This had been colonised long before by human Sensitives, people with a variety of paranormal abilities, who had closed off their world from the rest of humanity. It had been reported that the Sensitives included a Chaos Seer; someone with the ability to see the Patterns of Chaos directly rather than waiting days for the results of a computer analysis. Wildheit believes that this ability would give humanity the necessary edge to track down and destroy the weapon, so tries to persuade the Sensitives to agree to their Seer joining the search.

What follows comes under the category of what has been described as "Widescreen Baroque" SF: it includes parallel universes, one of which is collapsing and dying, vast alien starship fleets, multi-dimensional gods symbiotically paired with humans, a novel explanation for the origin of humanity, and much devious double-dealing, with one unexpected twist after another. Kapp was not a literary stylist but was certainly a story-teller and, like his earlier novel, The Chaos Weapon is a real page-turner which I finished in two sessions. Recommended.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

I reviewed Star Trek: Insurrection here a couple of months ago, and was surprised that I hadn't seen it before. Well, on watching Star Trek: First Contact I thought that the same thing had happened again, since I remembered almost nothing about it.

First Contact has two key plot elements: time travel and the Borg. In the New Generation TV series, the Borg were the greatest threat, not just an implacable foe but one which put Captain Picard through the most stressful experience of his life. There is a peculiar horror about their ability to assimilate rather than kill their victims, turning the most loyal comrades into robotic enemies.

This time, the Borg use time travel to return to the Earth just before that critical first contact with the Vulcans which led to the opening up to humanity of the galactic civilisation. Their aim: to prevent that contact and reserve the whole planet for assimilation. However, the Enterprise, in hot pursuit, is dragged into the past as well, triggering a 21st Century battle for the future of humanity.

The story alternates between scenes on Earth, where first officer Riker is leading a team to try to ensure the success of the historic first warp flight which catches the Vulcans' attention, and the Enterprise, which the Borg are trying to take over. The contrast in setting and mood between the two scenarios adds enjoyment to the film; particularly the humour provided by the character of Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell), the inventor and pilot of that first warp-capable craft. He is a decidedly reluctant hero and is horrified to learn that he is due to become one of the most famous people in history. Meanwhile, Picard and Data come face to face with the leader of the Borg, played by Alice Krige, who delivers a bizarrely seductive performance despite her repulsive make-up. It was, in fact, Krige's performance which was the only element of this film that I recalled.

All of the usual suspects appear in the cast but most of the Star Trek regulars have relatively little to do: Picard very much takes centre stage in one of Patrick Stewart's strongest appearances in the role, aided by Data who is tempted by the Borg leader.

The mixture of darkness and humour makes this one of the best films of the franchise, in my view, and in a different league from the weak Insurrection that followed it. I have yet to see Nemesis, the last of the NG films (at least, I think so!) and, though the comments I've read are not encouraging, I might as well complete the set.

Just in case you hadn't noticed, I have made some minor changes to this blog. I have added a section in the column on the left with links to longer SFF articles, mostly derived from earlier blog posts. The photos of my book covers are now live links to web pages about the books, including reviews plus (in the case of The Foresight War) the first couple of chapters, and (in the case of Scales) the ability to download the entire book. I am working on revised versions of both novels, but don't hold your breath… Finally, thanks to Hermione on the Blogger Help Forum I've at last managed to correct the glitch that was messing up the alphabetical ordering of the links to my book and TV/film reviews - keep scrolling down the column on the left to find them.        

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Devil's Nebula by Eric Brown, and Gunner Cade by Cyril Judd

Ed Carew is the owner of a spaceship in a distant future in which the huge human Expansion has collided painfully with the empire of the ruthless and alien Vetch. With the aid of his two crew members, Carew has been living on the fringes of the law, making a living by means of occasional smuggling and other activities frowned upon by those in control of the Expansion. So he is more than a little surprised to find himself and his crew forcibly recruited and sent on a dangerous voyage through Vetch space to discover what happened to a long-ago human expedition to a remote part of space known as the Devil's Nebula. What they discover poses an even greater threat to humanity than the Vetch.

I have read and reviewed on this blog three other books by Eric Brown and have formed a high opinion of his story-telling ability. I therefore regret to say that, although the story keeps the pages turning effortlessly, in my view this one fell short of the standard set by the others. The reason is that it seems to have been written with an adolescent audience in mind; it is too simplistic in its content and style, too superficial in its characterisation, too focused on introducing extravagantly weird aliens that make little or no sense.

While it is complete in itself, the ending of the story suggests that The Devil's Nebula is intended to be the beginning of a series, but I won't be looking out for any sequels.


Cyril Judd is a pseudonym for Cyril M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril who collaborated over two novels, both published in book form in 1952: Outpost Mars and Gunner Cade. I have owned a copy of the second of these since the late 1960s so thought it might be worth seeing if the story still stood up today.

On a far-future Earth, Gunner Cade is an Armsman; a cadre of professional soldiers highly trained from childhood, living ascetic and celibate lives completely detached from those of the Commoners. They are in the service of the aristocratic Starborn, who are constantly fighting each other, but swear allegiance to the Emperor who rules the planet – and Mars, colonised long before. This situation has lasted for 10,000 years, which was officially the date that the world and everything in it was created. There is no concept of evolution or change – everything must always stay exactly as it is and has always been.

Cade's rock-solid belief in the rightness of all of this begins to be shaken when he falls among Commoners who are planning rebellion, and he is unwillingly forced on a journey of discovery that steadily erodes his faith. Almost everyone he meets seems to want either to use him or kill him, but it should surprise no readers that he works out a satisfactory solution in the end.

While people can draw various lessons from this tale, it is more than a didactic thriller. The observations are laced with humour, and I especially enjoyed the official "Klin philosophy", based on an ancient book whose text is solemnly interpreted by Klin teachers to support the status quo – but we can understand that Klin was a cynic who usually meant something very different.

At almost 200 pages Gunner Cade is fairly long for the period in which it is written, but it's still a quick page-turner. It benefits from a relatively strong characterisation, at least as far as Cade is concerned – the viewpoint character throughout, whom the reader comes to understand and empathise with as he is gradually changed by his experiences. The only jarring note to modern sensibilities was the statement that the atmosphere of Mars, although thin, was breathable. Well worth reading again.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Interzone 253

The July/August issue of the British SFF magazine arrived on my doorstep recently. The R.I.P. section noted the loss of Daniel Keyes, author of Flowers for Algernon, arguably the most carefully constructed and most moving short SF story ever written (later expanded into an award-winning novel), also Jay Lake, author of Green (reviewed here in August 2013), and H. R. Giger, the artist and designer most famously responsible for the terrifying monster in the Alien films. Another name from the distant past of my reading history was Mary Stewart, author of the Arthurian Merlin trilogy, who has died at the age of 97.

The interview this month is with John Joseph Adams, better known for his editing than writing, having jointly edited: Robot Uprisings (also reviewed in the magazine); The Apocalypse Triptych; Seeds of Change; and various others. I have to say that apart from Interzone's own offerings I read very little short fiction, preferring to get stuck into a novel. Talking of which, there are the usual book reviews (three of the ten of which are collections). The only one which sparked my interest (I become ever harder to impress – too many books to read, too little time) was Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica, which sounds like a fun read involving an alternative world and a girl from our time who finds herself somewhere very different, with a lot of questions she wants answering.

In the screen reviews, there's warm approval for Under the Skin (the plot summary of which doesn't much appeal to me), also reasonably favourable takes on: Edge of Tomorrow; X-Men: Days of Future Past; and Transcendence, all three of which will no doubt end up on my viewing list.

Six short stories this time:

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James Van Pelt, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A nostalgic story of a childhood with an imaginative dad who believed in UFOs, seen in flashbacks by a now adult son looking after his elderly father. Not science-fictional until the ambiguous ending – might he have been right after all?

Flytrap by Andrew Hook, illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey. Three parallel plot threads following people who feel that they don't belong in the world; which may be true, given the fascination that The Body Snatchers has for one of them. Mysterious.

The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson, illustrated by Martin Hanford. An olfactory specialist – a "nose" – finds himself becoming redundant as scientific scent analysis takes over, until he acquires the legendary golden Habsburg Nose, which transforms his fortunes. But there is a powerful downside….

Beside the Dammed River by D. J. Cockburn (James White Award Winner). In a future Thailand, in a region suffering permament drought from the Chinese damming of the Mekong river, a former professor provides help to a foreign woman whose vehicle has broken down. A gently humorous tale of clashes between cultures and age groups, with an environmentalist point.

Chasmata by E. Catherine Tobler. A hallucinatory story of a couple living alone on Mars whose grasp of reality is steadily slipping away. Confusing.

The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussoff, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A man and his daughter find themselves on our Earth after their parallel version has vanished. He finds our version of his late wife married to someone else but forms a connection with the psychiatrist who is helping him to adjust to his new life.

Cockburn's story deserved its award, but I also enjoyed Gussoff's. Both of these are worth second readings.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This new novel has received rave reviews and awards (Arthur C Clarke and Nebula Awards so far), so was selected as one of the monthly reads by the Classic Science Fiction
discussion group. This is a story in which the circumstances are only gradually revealed, some of the major revelations occurring late in the book. So if you prefer to discover everything as the author drip-feeds it, it's best to avoid reviews like this one. Suffice it to say that after a slow first half, the story gathers pace and turns out to be an original and intriguing tale.

To explain the context some spoilers are necessary but I'll avoid any major ones.

Ancillary Justice is set in a far future in which humanity has spread over a large volume of the galaxy, living uneasily alongside a powerful alien empire, the Presger. The human zone is ruled by the Radchaai in general and the immortal Anaander Mianaai in particular, relying on a fleet of powerful starships inextricably linked to their Artificial Intelligences and given names accordingly (in this respect, reminiscent of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels). Each ship carries a force of soldiers, mainly ancillaries: captives who have been given various enhancements to turn them into super-soldiers but have had their personalities wiped, being replaced with advanced fighting skills and an absolute obedience to the Radchaai. They are mentally linked to each other and to their ship, and are considered to be no longer human.

The story is told in the first person by Breq, whom we soon learn is an ancillary from the One Esk fighting unit of the starship Justice of Toren. Uniquely, she has been separated from her ship for nineteen years. Now on a remote, frozen planet, she rescues from death a drug addict called Seivarden, a Radchaai former starship captain who had escaped the destruction of his ship in a survival pod and had been recently found – a thousand years later (echoes of Campbell's Lost Fleet here, but Seivarden is no hero). Breq is on a mission, but exactly what and why we only discover later in the story.

Reading this book requires some concentration since there are two aspects liable to cause confusion. One is that the story frequently hops between events in the present and the past. The other is the question of gender. The Radchaai language does not distinguish between male and female, and Breq refers to everyone as "she" regardless, including Seivarden (although we know from the start that he is male). In fact, we only know that Breq is female from a remark made by a non-Radchaai at the start of the book. Working out the gender of other characters requires a degree of guesswork, since Breq frequently can't tell herself.

I am not sure whether this gender-blindness is just a gimmick, or if the author has a serious point to make. It does deflect attention away from all of the usual gender prejudices and male/female interaction issues that fill most novels, but on the other hand Jack Campbell – to give one example – achieves that quite effectively in his Lost Fleet series (the first one, anyway; all I've read so far) without concealing the gender of the characters.

The ending is satisfying in that it brings Breq's mission to a conclusion while still leaving plenty of scope for sequels, and in fact we learn in an interview attached to the end of the novel that the author is planning a trilogy. I wasn't at first sure that I was going to like this story, as the pace is slower than I prefer and the gender ambiguity is confusing and somewhat irritating. However, the writing quality is very good – I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin – and I was intrigued from the start, so I persevered. My involvement in the story and the characters gradually increased to the point at which I didn't want to put the book down, so I will certainly be looking out for the next volume.