Saturday, 9 March 2019

Noumenon, and Noumenon Infinity, by Marina J Lostetter


Noumenon is the first novel from established short-story writer Marina Lostetter. It takes as its starting point some well-worn SF themes: the invention of a method of avoiding the lightspeed limitation, making starships practical (the subdimensional or SD drive); and since the journey to other stars would still take several generations (ship time – many centuries on Earth), the construction of massive starships with populations of thousands, with the generations being reproduced by cloning to retain specialised skills.

The story begins with the discovery of an anomaly, an unusual and possibly alien feature around a distant star, at a time when humanity had developed the ability to build huge starships. Of the several Planetary United Missions (PUMs - exploration fleets) sent out to different destinations, one – Noumenon – is Convoy 7; the mission to the anomaly.

Because of the timespan of centuries, the book has an episodic nature, each chapter jumping ahead by (on average) dozens of years; which must have made the transition to novel-writing easier for the author, as the book is essentially a linked series of short stories. This structure does have the disadvantage that even though genetically the same individuals may be turning up in one episode after another, they are not the same people, so the development of a relationship between the reader and the principal characters is almost missing: almost, because the Artificial Intelligence which runs the mission forms a constant element.

Noumenon makes a slow start and I wasn't too impressed at first. There is something of a credibility issue concerning the starships; they are enormous, and nine of them are sent together in the fleet, carrying a total of around 100,000 people. Why such a huge number of people and ships is needed for a scientific exploration is never convincingly justified – the argument that this size of community is necessary to maintain social stability over the generations is questionable (and anyway, stability is not maintained). Also, making each ship specialise in one activity – e.g. just one produces all the food – leaves the fleet very vulnerable if any ship is lost. This creates something of a credibility problem at the start.

The writing style can be a bit breathless, as when one of the characters on the fleet exchanges messages with Earth and faces up to the reality of a left-behind friend ageing much faster due to time dilation: "I couldn't believe it. Seventy. So much of his life, gone. He'd been my constant these past few years, my Earthly touchstone, and now it was over. Over too soon." There is also some heavy moralising in places, such as when a small boy is being corrected over his sexist reaction towards a new baby sister. However, as the fleet aproaches the anomaly the tension increases steadily – the arrival, the first climax of the story, is less than halfway through the book.

As they return to Earth, the crew faces other problems and there are major cultural shifts among the population. All of this is leading up to the second climax – what they discover when they arrive "home" after several centuries. I do not wish to post any spoilers, so I will just say that this is not the end of Noumenon's story.

Despite the familiary of the basic plot elements, the author does well to weave them into a story which is original enough, and sufficiently dramatic, to hold this reader's attention. There is a sequel, Noumenon Infinity, reviewed below.

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Noumenon Infinity is the sequel to Noumenon. It takes an unusual form, in that it returns to the start of the original novel, with the Planetary United Missions (PUMs) being sent out to explore the galaxy; only this time, the story begins by focusing on Convoy 12 rather than Convoy 7.  This was originally due to be sent to a system which appeared promising as a home for life, but its mission was changed to one of testing new discoveries in subdimensional space travel, with the prospect of much reduced journey times.  This work was undertaken not far from Earth, close enough for the crews to be changed regularly, so the self-sufficient culture  of the other convoys was not needed and only three ships were sent out. The lead character in this mission is Vanhi Kapoor, and readers do get a decent opportunity to get to know her and her immediate colleagues as the first chapter lasts for no less than 84 pages; once again, a rather slow start to the story.

Chapter 2 is entirely different as the scene switches to Convoy 7, which we last saw in Noumenon, heading outwards from Earth for a second time and intent on completing the Web, the huge structure almost enclosing a star, in the hope that it will supply vast quantities of energy which could be transported to Earth in a specially-equipped spaceship (an oddly vulnerable and impractical source for an energy supply, I would have thought). The key individual now is Caznal, who specialises in the history of the people now dubbed the Nataré, who had explored the Web long before Earth and left behind an enigmatic structure, the Nest, now aboard one of the Convoy 7 ships. A schism in the convoy occurs, with part of the PUM being diverted to explore the Nataré sites identified on a map they had managed to interpret, while the main body continues on its mission. Again, this is a long chapter, enabling the characters to be well-developed.

Chapter 3 reverts to Convoy 12, which is exploring some intriguing sub-dimensional features when an accident hurls the mission a long way from Earth – and into the company of several alien starships. A fascinating combination of diplomatic mission and detective mystery follows as the Convoy members do their best to discover as much information as they can about the decidedly uncommunicative aliens.

As the pace of the stories increases, so the chapters gradually shorten while retaining the alternation between Convoys 7 and 12. Various intriguing plot developments maintain the reader's interest, while Convoy 7 at last achieve their goal (850 years after events in their previous chapter!) and commence a mad chase across the galaxy to discover what the Web was really made for, while Convoy 12 make a breakthrough in their relationship with the aliens.

The novel ends with  a clear set-up for Volume 3 – which I hope will appear before too long!


Sunday, 17 February 2019

The War in the Air, by H G Wells


H.G. Wells was one of the founders of modern SF who shot to fame as a result of a series of novels which have remained popular since they were first published: The Time Machine (1895); The Invisible Man (1897); The War of the Worlds (1898; and The First Men in the Moon (1901). What is less well known is that Wells thereafter became more of a general futurist (or futurologist, to use a more recent term) and social commentator. He was very interested in how technological developments affected the way people lived, and many of his works (he wrote dozens of novels and even more non-fiction books) concern social issues, as indicated by a non-fiction title from 1901: Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought.

However, judging by the title, I thought that The War in the Air (published 1908), would be what is known today as a "techno-thriller", forecasting how the development of aircraft would affect warfare. And so, in a way, it is – but it is also far more than that. This novel is very different in approach from the author's The War of the Worlds published a decade earlier, and (probably as a result) much less famous. While TWotW has one of the most dramatic beginnings to any SF story, TWitA has a very slow, meandering start. To be fair, this is in part because Wells decided to set his story in what appears to be an alternative history in which monorails, consisting of gyroscopically stabilised cabins running along a comprehensive network of single wire overhead tracks, are the principal form of transport (and even run across the Channel). For shorter journeys, bicycles are still the main mode of everyday travel. Balloons and airships are in the skies, but no-one has been able to design a reliable heavier-than-air flying machine. The rest of the background appears to be more or less what one would expect from England in 1908, filled (as it historically was) with rumours of war from the growing power, technological sophistication and aggressiveness of Germany.

So Wells had some world-building to do in order to set the scene. He might have sketched in this background in a prologue so that he could get straight on with the story, but instead he chooses to achieve this by focusing on some ordinary characters in a small village not far from London and showing their lives and their reactions to the world they live in. The principal actor is Bert Smallways, something of an anti-hero, a young man of questionable moral standing, chiefly interested in making money while putting in the minimum effort to acquire it. Almost the entire story is told from Bert's viewpoint, but he is not the narrator – that person is a detached, god-like presence from some time in the future, prone to express great dissatisfaction with human activities. One amusing touch is that the narrator doesn't really approve of Bert, as shown when the young man comes across some love-letters "…of a devouring sort in a large, feminine hand. These are no business of ours, and one remarks with regret that Bert read them." However, the narrator observes later on: "Bert Smallways was by no means a stupid person, and up to a certain limit he had not been badly educated. His board school had taught him to draw up to certain limits, taught him to calculate and understand a specification. If at that point his country had tired of its efforts, and handed him over unfinished to scramble for a living in at atmosphere of advertisements and individual enterprise, that was really not his fault. He was as his State had made him…."

To do justice to the novel it isn't really possible to avoid spoilers – you have been warned!

The first significant event on the national scene is the appearance of a heavier than air flying machine made and piloted by the larger-than-life and moderately deranged inventor, Butteridge. This bears no resemblance to any flying machine we would recognise, as it takes a form similar to a giant wasp, propelled by fast-beating wings and with the pilot sitting on its back. Butteridge demonstrates its capabilities by travelling around Britain in one day's flight, then invites bids for the secret. (We have to remember that although this novel was published five years after the Wright brothers' first powered flight, hardly any further progress was made in aeroplane design until 1908, when Blériot first flew across the Channel.)

Bert's adventures start when, following a peculiar chain of circumstances, he finds himself alone in the basket of an uncontrollable balloon travelling across Europe, and in possession of the secret of Butteridge's aircraft. He lands (or to be more precise, is shot down) over Germany, right in the middle of a vast fleet of highly-advanced airships about to take off in order to launch an invasion – of the USA!  This is the beginning of what turns out to be a world-wide war, with every major nation launching vast fleets of airships against each other. The rest of the story recounts Bert's picaresque and darkly amusing adventures with the German Zeppelins, including slow and ponderous battles between fleets of airships and the tiny one-man aeroplanes which are carried and launched by them, alternating with the narrator's fulminations about the state of the world, some of which apply just as much today as they did then. Some extracts from these:

Everywhere, all over the world, the historian of the early twentieth century finds the same thing,…congested nations in inconvenient areas, slopping population and produce into each other, annoying each other with tariffs and every possible commercial vexation, and threatening each other with navies and armies that grew every year more portentous….

It is impossible now to estimate how much of the intellectual and physical energy of the world was wasted in military preparation and equipment, but it was an enormous proportion.

…mechanical invention had gone faster than intellectual and social organisation, and the world, with its silly old flags, its silly unmeaning tradition of nationality, its cheap newspapers and cheaper passions and imperialisms, its base commercial motives and habitual insincerities and vulgarities, its race lies and conflicts, was taken by surprise.

A peculiarity of aerial warfare was that it was at once enormously destructive and entirely indecisive. It had this unique feature, that both sides lay open to punitive attack. In all previous forms of war, both by land and sea, the losing side was speedily unable to to raid its antagonist's territory and the communications. One fought on a "front", and behind that front the winner's supplies and resources, his towns and factories and capital, the peace of his country, were secure.

[The airships] could inflict immense damage; they could reduce any organised government to a capitulation in the briefest space, but they could not disarm, much less could they occupy, the surrendered areas below.

…the fantastic fabric of credit and finance that had held the world together economically for a hundred years strained and snapped. A tornado of realisation swept through every stock exchange in the world; banks stopped payment, business shrank and ceased, factories ran on for a day or so by a sort of inertia, completing the orders of bankrupt and extinguished customers, then stopped.

Everywhere went the airships dropping bombs, destroying any hope of a rally, and everywhere below were economic catastrophe, starving workless people, rioting and social disorder.

…while the collapse of the previous great civilisation, that of Rome, had been a matter of centuries, a thing of phase and phase, like the ageing and dying of a man, this, like his killing by railway or motor car, was one swift, conclusive smashing and an end.

After many adventures Bert manages to get home and rescue his girlfriend from the traditional fate worse than death. There was to be no return to normality, however – with the end of the capitalist economy, life slipped back to a subsistence level not dissimilar to medieval times, with one important difference: medieval people knew how to live in such an environment and were able to manufacture what they needed on a small, domestic scale, but few of the survivors of the crash of civilisation had such knowledge or skills. The great majority of the population died, of disease or starvation. Bert and his woman survived for many years and were considered fortunate that only four of their eleven children died in infancy. On rare occasions, they saw an airship passing in the distance, but in the absence of newspapers or any form of communication, they had no idea what was happening beyond their own parish, let alone whether or not the war was still being waged.

Essentially, this novel is a passionate polemic on the futility and massive opportunity costs of war, warning of the dangers an oblivious world was sliding into. Only six years after its publication Europe was at war with itself with appalling results, but life in most of the rest of the world was not greatly affected. A world war now, of course, would be far more destructive than Wells envisaged, and our high-tech society, dependent on a vast global web of integrated trade and finance hugely greater in complexity than a century ago, would crash much harder than in Wells's time. And our pampered populations, who think that food comes from supermarkets and that everything they need can be ordered online, would be much less capable of coping with such a crash.

It is not so surprising that this book seems to have been far less popular than the author's SF escapism: it contains some very uncomfortable messages.


Friday, 25 January 2019

Machineries of Empire trilogy, by Yoon Ha Lee


Ninefox Gambit is the first volume of Yoon Ha Lee's SF trilogy, Machineries of Empire. It comes well recommended, winning the 2017 Locus Award for best first novel, and nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards. One reviewer summed it up as "Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now", which sounded intriguing. The story is set in a far distant (in time and/or space) universe, in a culture called the hexarchate which has some strange political/religious structures and military tactics. There's a lot that's new to absorb, and the author doesn't coddle the reader with any of the established ways of explaining what all of the new terms and concepts mean – he plunges straight into the story and lets the readers try to figure out what's going on. This can actually take quite a long time; I certainly wouldn't want to be asked to explain some of the more challenging aspects of the background, even just after finishing the book.

Despite being more or less confused most of the time, I was sufficiently intrigued to persevere. The heroine, Captain Kel Cheris, is a likeable soldier with a talent for mathematical analysis that makes her a tactical genius in the science of space warfare, and she is given the job of master-minding a counterattack against heretics who have seized an important base. To help her, she is saddled with a passenger in her head: the personality of Shuos Jedao, a famous general who won every battle he fought until he apparently went homicidally insane, killing his troops as well as the enemy's. His mind had been put in storage for four centuries (becoming a "revenant"), only being let out and transferred to an "anchor" (host) when really needed.

By the end of the story it is clear that there is a lot more going on than the reader (or the heroine) has previously realised, and I obtained the two sequels (Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun) and read them as soon as possible before I entirely lost my shaky grasp of Lee's universe.

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Raven Stratagem begins where Ninefox Gambit leaves off, but with an important difference: while the original volume has the focus very much on Kel Cheris as the main viewpoint character, in the sequel the viewpoint switches between various characters and we only see Cheris – who now appears to be totally dominated by Jedao – through the eyes of others. There is a reason for this, as is revealed towards the end of the book.

The pace of the action is slower, but we learn rather more about the curious structure of the society in which these stories are set. There are six factions within the hexarchate society: Rahal, who set the law; Vidona, who provide education and enforce the law with ritual tortures; Kel, the military wing who suppress the frequent rebellions and deal with attacks from cultures outside the hexarchate; Nirai, the engineers and technicians; Andan, who provide financiers, diplomats and artisans; and Shuos, who specialise in information operations and also provide the overall political leadership of the hexarchate. Each faction is led by a hexarch, and the whole social structure is underpinned by a philosophical/religious belief system linked to clocks and calendars (don't ask – I still don't know). Apart from the humans, there are also servitors: robots of various forms with a high level of artificial intelligence, who ironically form some of the more sympathetic characters later in the story.

The three main viewpoint characters are General Kel Khiruev, in command of a Kel swarm (fleet) which is peremptorily commandeered by Cheris/Jedao; Colonel Kel Brezan, who resists this take-over and is promptly evicted from the swarm and sent back to Kel Command; and Mikodez, hexarch of the Shuos faction and effectively the emperor of the hexarchate. On the face of it, the commandeered swarm is focused on defeating a Hafn swarm which has invaded the hexarchate, but (as usual) there is more than this going on, and by the end of this volume we learn the full implications of Jedao's long-term strategy.

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Revenant Gun is the final part of the Machineries of Empire trilogy.  Some spoilers are necessary to say anything much about this.

The structure of this volume is rather confusing, as it hops between events immediately after the end of those in the previous volume, and the situation nine years later. To make matters worse, we have two different versions of Jedao; one of them still associated with Kel Cheris, the other having been re-created by the villain of the piece who has emerged as Hexarch Nirai Kujen, who is also a revenant and achieves immortality by hopping from one "anchor" to another as they age. The author doesn't help by referring to both versions as "Jedao" for much of the time.

There is much more about "calendrical warfare" and the importance of religious observances (including brutal blood sacrifice) in preserving a particular structure of time which supports the functioning of certain weapons and hinders others. No, I can't explain it any better because I still don't understand what the author had in mind.

I have to say that it took me some time to finish this book in my evening reading sessions, because I kept falling asleep. This is not a good sign; if a book really grips me I can carry on reading for half the night without feeling sleepy.  Eventually I managed to finish it (with some relief) and I'm pleased to say that the eventual fates of the principal characters proved satisfying.

Overall, I would say that the Machineries of Empire trilogy is very ambitious but its reach exceeds its grasp, in that important aspects of it remain unintelligible – to me, at any rate. As a result I am unable to join the enthusiastic chorus which has welcomed the arrival of this trilogy.


Friday, 4 January 2019

The German invasion of England - pre-World War 1 speculative fiction


I have recently become intrigued by a rather specialised sub-branch of fiction concerned with stories written in the years before World War 1 forecasting a German invasion of England. Not too suprisingly, this is known as "invasion literature" and a vast number of tales were written, of which only a handful survive in print. These fears were stimulated by dramatic changes in European politics; first by the astonishing defeat of France, regarded as the greatest land power in Europe, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, immediately followed by the formation of a new German Empire with Prussia at its core. These changes were a considerable shock to the British and led to a switch in viewpoint; the country's traditional enemy, France, being replaced in that bogey-man role by an increasingly powerful and assertive Germany.

Many military writers expressed their concern that the British government had become complacent in its imperial superiority and that the Army was wholly unprepared for the possibility of invasion, reliance being placed on the Royal Navy to deter or prevent any such hostile action. Some of those writers expressed their concern in the form of fictional accounts of how an invasion might happen, and what the results could be. So these stories are a form of speculative fiction, interesting in what they reveal about the national mindset of that era.

I have already written about one of these stories, in comparing it with Wells's The War of the Worlds: this is G. T. Chesney's novella The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, which was published in Blackwood's magazine in 1871. Unlike the majority of writers on this subject (who tended to be very jingoistic) Chesney was a professional; a colonel in the Royal Engineers. His account of the successful German invasion of England from the viewpoint of a British volunteer soldier is gripping and realistic; the courage and enthusiasm of the volunteers is shown to be useless against the professionalism of the Prussians (Chesney doesn't actually name the country the invaders came from, but they do speak German…). The panic, lack of information, confusion and errors described in Chesney's well-written account are all too credible, and it is no surprise that it was a best-seller.

British concerns about German intentions only increased with time, as Kaiser Wilhelm II, urged on by Alfred von Tirpitz, Grand Admiral of the German Imperial Navy, decided that being the foremost land power was not enough: he wished to challenge the Royal Navy as well. The next landmark story in this genre appeared in 1903: The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers' great spy/sailing adventure. The two British heroes of this account take a sailing holiday in the German East Frisian islands, following-up a theory one of them has that the shallow, sheltered waters between these islands and the coast would make an ideal gathering place for an invasion force aimed at landing in Eastern England. I won't say any more about this story, except that it is my favourite novel. Those who also enjoy it might like to know that a sequel appeared in 1998 (yep, 95 years later!); The Shadow in the Sands, by Sam Llewellyn, is also a great read, the author having done an excellent job of capturing the flavour of the original.

This takes me on to the next best-seller, If England Were Invaded, by William Le Queux, originally published in 1906 as The Invasion. This is similar to The Battle of Dorking as it starts with an initially successful invasion of England by Germany, and gives a nod to The Riddle as the invasion does indeed set off from the Frisian islands, with huge numbers of barges being towed by tugs just as Childers prophesied.  This is not mentioned until later, however; the story begins with the invasion force having already landed at several points along the east coast of England and, with the aid of agents already established there, severing all communications with the rest of the country. The invasion force, including cavalry and artillery, is greatly superior to the available British forces in numbers, equipment, organisation and training, and the result is a crushing defeat for England. However, that is not the end of the story, the author illustrating the (still valid) principle that while a well-trained military will easily defeat a less well-prepared force on the field of battle, that advantage can be much reduced in the messy business of close-quarter fighting in densely built-up areas.

The narrative is largely written from the authorial viewpoint, the language slipping in moments of excitement from dispassionate third-person to a more emotional form, as in: "at present we are powerless". Much of the book consists of articles in newspapers, reports from correspondents, diary entries and official proclamations from both sides of the battle. There is great emphasis on military detail, with the army units involved from both sides being identified and their locations and movements described. I can imagine the contemporary military enthusiasts having maps spread all over a table, moving around tokens representing the different units as they follow the story. For the rest of us, though, this is a tedious amount of detail, far more than is needed to appreciate the tale.

A couple of other criticisms: the ability of the Germans to secretly put an army of 250,000 men ashore with apparent ease seems far-fetched, and very little is said about the Royal Navy, whose primary task it was to block any invasion. There is just a brief mention at the start that the RN had suffered a major defeat (plus a description of how warships were trapped at Chatham by German blockships) and, close to the finish of the story, that the navy had managed to regain control of the sea following a major victory. Conversely, and presumably reflecting the personal interests of the author, there is a great deal said about the impact of events on the stock market and banking services!

This is a much longer book than Dorking but, in providing both a wider canvas and more detail, Invaded lacks the immediacy and emotional impact of the earlier first-person account. This is despite the apparently endless catalogue of destruction and slaughter, with little of note in London left standing. Dorking also at least provides some explanation of the failure of the RN to stop the invasion, so all told it is the better story.

When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, is a very different story, a novella written in 1913 by one of the most perceptive satirists of the day: H. H. Munro, better known by his pen name of Saki. The starting point in this story is that Britain has been invaded and defeated by Germany, which is in the process of assimilating its conquest as part of the German Empire. Little is said about how this was achieved (other than reference to Germany's very powerful new air force), the focus being on the reactions of British (and specifically London) society to this state of affairs.

The two principal characters are a wealthy young couple with different attitudes to the invasion: he is violently antagonistic, she is more accepting of the situation, but views change over time. The joy in this story is the sharp observation of the author; this provides an often sardonic insight into the attitudes and thinking of the period, as well as presaging the dilemmas which lead some of the inhabitants of an occupied country to collaborate with the occupiers. His motive in writing this story was to argue for conscription into the military, in order to build up a large reserve of people with some knowledge of shooting and soldiering, ready and able to take up arms for the defence of the nation. He is a little more subtle than most of the authors here, however, driving the point home by having his Kaiser decide that British men would not be allowed to enlist in the armed forces of the German Empire, as they had shown no interest in or aptitude for soldiering, and they would therefore have to pay much heavier taxes instead!

Saki lived and died by his principles, enlisting as an ordinary soldier on the outbreak of WW1 despite the fact he was eligible for a commission and was over the enlistment age anyway. He was killed by a German sniper in 1916.

Danger by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (subtitled: Being the Log of Captain John Sirius), is a short story which takes yet another approach. This story is told by the captain of a submarine belonging to the navy of a fictitious small country in northern Europe, which finds itself at war with Britain. The use of a small force of submarines to blockade British ports and sink any vessels from any nation carrying goods to the UK rapidly results in food shortages since the UK relied (and still relies) on imported food to survive. With people starving, the UK is forced to sue for peace after only a few weeks.

Considering the story was written in 1913, it is remarkably prescient in presaging the unrestricted submarine warfare used by Germany against the UK in both World Wars, and which in both cases came close to success. Conan Doyle's purpose in writing the story was, for once, not concerned with pressing for more expenditure on armaments, but on measures which should be taken to reduce the country's vulnerability to blockade: more domestic food production, more strategic food stores and, interestingly, railway tunnels under the Channel to ensure blockade-proof supply routes (not that that would have helped in either World War, with the enemy at the other end of the tunnel).

To conclude, Wiki asserts that "the [invasion literature] genre was influential in Britain in shaping politics, national policies, and popular perceptions in the years leading up to the First World War" but it was criticised at the time as it "risked inciting war between England and Germany and France".