Saturday, 23 May 2020

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey

I came to this book in a rather backwards sort of way, in that I first heard of The Expanse TV series which sounded interesting (but I don't subscribe to SyFy or Amazon) then learned that it was based on a book series – so I found that instead. Also called The Expanse, the book series (eight novels and counting) is written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. The first book in the series is Leviathan Wakes (published 2011), so this is where I began.

The setting is remarkably like that of Charles Sheffield's Proteus trilogy, reviewed here last time. In both, it is a few centuries into the future and mankind has spread throughout the Solar System (but no further) with sizeable colonies on Mars (which is undergoing terraforming) and on various asteroids and moons. There is permanent political tension between the Earth, Mars and the OPA (the rest). Those born and brought up in the low gravity of the Outer Planets are taller and thinner, but (unlike Proteus) that's through natural causes rather than deliberate body-forming.

The story structure features two principal characters: Miller, a cynical over-the-hill detective on – or rather in – Ceres; and Holden, an idealistic officer serving on board a transport spacecraft. There are several plot threads: Miller is trying to locate Julie, the estranged daughter of a powerful Martian family with whom he is becoming obssessed; Holden sees his ship destroyed by unknown assailants and is determined to find out why; and Julie stumbles across something truly horrific in an abandoned spacecraft. These threads spiral around each other, gradually revealing a system-wide conspiracy as they all connect up in the latter part of the story. The ending is intriguing and sets up the next volume, so this one should be read first.

The writing is of a high standard. The environments in which the story takes place are well thought through and the writing conveys the atmosphere of the various places strongly. The main characters seem very real and both have significant flaws, which makes identifying with either of them a bit more difficult than usual. In parallel with this, the plot contains some real dilemmas, with strong issues of law and morality prompting intense arguments. This is very much SF for adults, and the review extract on the cover ("As close as you'll get to a Hollywood blockbuster in book form") does the story no favours in my view, since I generally regard "blockbuster" as implying "appeals to the lowest common denominator" and this story is much better than that.

One aspect you should be aware of is an element of horror which becomes stronger as the story develops. I don't much like stories about zombies and suchlike, although I find them rather more tolerable in fantasies like Mark Lawrence's, perhaps because these are less real. The setting of Leviathan Wakes is realistic enough, and sufficiently close in time to the present day, to be believable, and that makes the horror seem all the more intense.

This book was nominated for a Hugo award and deservedly so – it is one of the best SF stories I've read in a while, if not quite as enjoyable as I would prefer.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

The Proteus trilogy, by Charles Sheffield

 Charles Sheffield (1935-2002) was not your average SF writer, in that he left Cambridge University with a Double First in Mathematics and Physics. Born and brought up in the UK, he emigrated to the USA and became Chief Scientist of Earth Satellite Corporation, plus a consultant to various organisations including NASA. He started writing SF in 1977, being most active in the 1980s and 1990s. He won Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards and became President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and of the American Astronautical Society.

I recently unearthed several of his books on my shelves, of which I recalled nothing, so decided to refresh my memory. Three of them form a trilogy which is generally called the Behrooz Wolf series after the principal character, although I think of them as the Proteus trilogy because that name features in the titles of all three volumes. In fact the history of the first volume, Sight of Proteus, is complicated in that it was originally published as three linked stories; Sight of Proteus, Legacy and The Grooves of Change. Furthermore, the book was first published in 1978 but was revised in 1989 (my copy is the revised version). Of the two sequels (Proteus Unbound and Proteus in the Underworld), the first was also serialised before appearing in book form in 1989; the last volume appeared in 1995.

The Proteus stories are set in a future world in which mankind has spread throughout the Solar System (in the form of an independent United Space Federation with a population of around 3 million) but no further. Earth is suffering under a population of 14 billion and is close to social breakdown. The most significant scientific and social innovation has been that of "form change", which takes a bit of explaining. Developed by the Biological Equipment Corporation (BEC), it is a process which combines biological feedback and real-time computer control to enable people to change themselves physically; a process which requires many hours spent in a nutrient tank. At first used for medical purposes – it enabled the regrowth of a lost arm, for instance – it is later extended to cosmetic developments, with people changing their forms in accordance with fashion. Particular "forms" (computer programmes) have to be exhaustively tested before approval, and that is monitored by the Office of Form Control of which Behrooz Wolf is the head.

In Sight of Proteus, a problem arrives on Wolf's desk: three bodies have been found in the ocean, and they do not look at all human – they appear to be aliens. It becomes clear that illegal experimentation with new forms is going on and Wolf requires all of his considerable intellect to unravel what is happening. His search takes him to the outer reaches of the Solar System and revolves around a shattered planet which used to have an orbit in between Mars and Jupiter, and was apparently the home of intelligent life.

In this first volume it is already evident that Sheffield's writing is unusual. His hero is notable for his intelligence, not any kind of macho abilities (in fact, I don't recall any violence at all – not even the threat of it). There are effectively no women characters (Wolf anyway being too absorbed in his work to be interested in relationships), and what action there is, is relatively slow. The science is convincing, hardly a surprise given the author's background. There is a flavour of the strange about the story: I was reminded of Charles Harness (The Paradox Men etc), while the climax was very reminiscent of Simak's City.

Proteus Unbound begins several years later, during which rather a lot has happened to Wolf: he found the love of his life, lost her to a rebel leader living somewhere in the "Kernal Ring" (a zone of the outer Solar System, containing a vast number of small black holes which were harnessed to generate power), and lost the will to live, ending up wired to a dream machine and dismissed by the Office of Form Control which he had formerly led. He is rescued from this fate by a representative of the Outer System who wants some problems with their BEC form change machines resolved. The trail leads to the notorious Black Ransome, the rebel leader, who appears to have access to some amazing technology far beyond the norm – from an astonishing source. This story does at least contain some women among the principal characters, including the most powerful individual in the Outer System.

There is another gap of several years before the events of the final volume: Proteus in the Underworld. Wolf has now retired and gone to live on a remote private island. The principal viewpoint character is not Wolf, however, but a distant relative – a young woman called Sondra Dearborn. She is a junior member of the Office of Form Control and has been given the job of resolving a different set of problems which appear to be occuring with form change equipment in the Outer System. She tries to involve a reluctant Wolf who isn't interested in her problem – or in a rival bid for his expertise by Trudy Melford, who owns BEC and is thereby the richest individual in the Solar System. She lives on (or rather, inside) Mars where there is conflict between those who want to terraform the planet for ordinary humans to live on, and those who prefer to use form control to change humanity to live on the surface as it is. The Underworld refers to a complex of vast Martian caverns and tunnels which have been occupied by humanity and provide an Earth-normal environment. The outcome again contains an unexpected twist.

The stories are notable for the emphasis on science and the ever-increasing importance of the female characters in this trilogy (although Sheffield would never have been able to earn his living as a writer of romance). There is also a strong mystery element; in effect, they are detective stories, with the characters having to collect the evidence and look for clues to aid in solving the problems. All in all, I found the Proteus series to be high quality SF in its concepts and ideas, as well as very enjoyable.

Friday, 10 April 2020

The Broken Empire trilogy, by Mark Lawrence

Last year I reviewed the first two volumes of Impossible Times, a contemporary urban fantasy series by Mark Lawrence: One Word Kill (24 August) and Limited Wish (7 December). These impressed me considerably, so I decided to explore some of his other work, starting with Prince of Thorns, the first of The Broken Empire trilogy published 2012-2014.  This is a more conventional fantasy set in the usual medieval-like world plus some magic (it gradually becomes clear that the world is our own in a far, post-apocalyptic, future). The plot features Prince Jorg Ancrath, the heir to the throne of one of the states which make up this land. At the start of the story he is just 13 years old but leading a group of bandits on a trail of death and destruction, part of his long-term plan to take revenge on the ruler of a neighbouring state who was responsible for the deaths of his mother and younger brother. Jorg is a phenomenal fighter and leader of men, and over the next two years achieves his ambition in dramatic style.  The story is well-written enough for me to finish it, but it did not fully engage me as much as Lawrence's other work as it is relentlessly dark and brutal, and despite being narrated in the first person by Jorg, he is too murderous a character for me to empathise with.

On to the sequel,  King of Thorns. I was impressed by the high quality of writing in the first volume but I found it difficult to relate to the ruthless brutality of the hero. Fewer reservations with the sequel, as Jorg has grown up and matured into a more reasonable person (relatively!). The action begins four years after the first volume, although a lot of the chapters jump back four years to the immediate aftermath of Jorg's elevation to kingship after a ferocious campaign. Fortunately the throwback chapters are signalled in the heading. However, understanding the sequence of events is made harder by the inclusion of many pages from the diary of one of the other characters (which is one way of working in a different viewpoint) plus some magical dreams which seem to concern events which might happen. At any rate, by the end of this volume Jorg has overcome colossal odds to further advance his ambition, by a mixture of forward planning, the recruitment of key allies, and his usual ruthless ferocity; a single-minded determination which compels a certain reluctant admiration.

The finale of The Broken Empire trilogy is (inevitably) Emperor of Thorns, which continues the author's practice of switching between different timelines; one thread picks up soon after the conclusion of the previous volume, the other looks back five years to the key events which have shaped Jorg's life. This volume also features a third thread running in parallel with the main one: Chella's story, giving the viewpoint of one of Jorg's enemies, a necromancer.  Jorg's violent adventures continue as he aims to achieve the height of his ambition and reunite the broken empire – under his leadership, of course.

All credit to the author for getting his hero into impossible situations from which his bloody-minded ingenuity extracts him – most of the time. At the cost of a minor spoiler, an illustration of how Jorg manages this is given in an altercation he has with a massively muscled blacksmith. He challenges the man to a competition, and gives him a free choice of contest. The blacksmith chooses lifting his massive anvil over his head, something which Jorg could never manage, and instantly agrees that there would be no rules. Jorg waits until the man has the anvil over his head, then picks up a hammer and brains him – no rules, right?

These books are packed full of appealing writing. To pick just one example:

The road led like a causeway through a sea of flooded pasture, the waters broken only by half-drowned hedgerows. Hours later, the rain failed and the sky cracked open along a bright fault line. The still waters all around became mirrors, every lone tree reflected, bare fingers reaching below as well as above. So much of the world is about surfaces, the eye deceived, with the truth in the unknown and unknowable depths beneath.

Lawrence's writing strongly reminds me of Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Chronicles. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy two such excellent fantasy writers at this time, both developing their imagined worlds over many volumes. The main point of difference between the authors (at least, as far as I can see) is that Sullivan writes in the third person - no choice, really, given that he has two heroes - so there is an impersonal narrator filling in the gaps between the speech. Lawrence writes in the first person, his hero (or occasionally other characters) providing the narration, which I think encourages greater involvement with the character. 

One word of warning: the trilogy runs to nearly 1,600 pages, requiring the commitment of a substantial chunk of time to read (I hate to think how long an audio version might take).

Friday, 20 March 2020

The Exile Waiting, and Superluminal, by Vonda N. McIntyre

I browsed through my bookshelves recently and found a couple of volumes by Vonda N. McIntyre, an author whose name was familiar to me although I could not recall anything about her books. As usual before writing a review, I checked the Wiki page and discovered that she died last year at the age of 70, leaving behind six stand-alone SF novels, four in the Starfarers series, various novelisations of Star Trek movies and episodes, and a large number of short stories. Of her stand-alone novels Dreamsnake is the best known, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 1979. That one I read a couple of times, but no longer possess.

The Exile Waiting was the author's first published novel, appearing in 1975. The setting is the last city on Earth – known as Center – following devastating atomic wars. Humanity has also become established in other star systems, a section of the Galaxy known as the Circle, although we learn hardly anything about this. Center is built underground in a huge cavern which provides protection from the devastating storms which cut off the Earth from the Circle for part of each year. It is governed by the Families, each responsible for some aspect of life: air purification, water supply, food, power etc. The most powerful family, which controls the starship landing field, lives in the Stone Palace.

Most of the focus of the story is on Mischa, a young teenage thief who has some telepathic sensitivity. She has a burning desire to leave the Center and travel to the Circle, but this is almost impossible for all but the upper echelons of society. She is also trapped by the need to look after her dependent brother and sister.

The usual isolation caused by the storm season is breached by the arrival of a starship manned by raiders and led by a pair of experimentally enhanced humans, known as Subone and Subtwo. This provides Mischa with an opportunity to escape, but her attempt goes wrong and she flees into the natural cave systems beneath Center, meeting people exiled for being born with mutations.  She is hunted by the enhanced humans but is eventually able to turn the situation to her own advantage.

This was an impressive debut, very well written. It is a rather dark and grim story, redeemed by an upbeat ending. The story is complete in itself, but could easily have led to sequels, following Mischa's further adventures; perhaps that was less of an issue 45 years ago! I did not directly recall the story when reading it, but the setting seemed very familiar. I wonder how many other stories are set in underground cities, possibly inspired by this one?


Superluminal is another stand-alone novel, published in 1983. This is set in a more optimistic future in which humanity is still thriving on Earth as well as in other star systems. Starships have been developed which transit through multiple dimensions to reach their destinations, but ordinary humans cannot tolerate the experience and usually die if exposed to it, so can only travel in a drugged sleep. This has led to the development of elite pilots, who have their hearts replaced by artificial pumps and are highly trained in the control of all bodily systems, enabling them to survive transit while remaining conscious. Other humans have been genetically modified to suit them to an aquatic life; these divers can stay underwater for long periods and have become closely associated with whales, with whom they have learned to communicate.

This story has three principal characters: Laenea Trevelyan, who has just undergone the heart replacement surgery and is finishing her training to become a pilot; Orca, a young diver who unusually spends much of her time on land keeping up with developments; and Radu Dracul, a survivor of a plague which wiped out most of the colonists on his home world of Twilight. The story follows these three, sometimes individually, sometimes together. In plot terms, nothing much happens in the first half of the book, which is mainly concerned with developing the characters and painting a rich picture of the author's imagined future. Events then accelerate as disaster strikes Laenea's first training flight, and Radu proves to have a unique ability which threatens the status quo.  As with The Exile Waiting, the conclusion could easily have been the starting point of a sequel, as the characters are all beginning new chapters in their lives.

Some of the author's comments could have been written today instead of nearly 40 years ago, for instance concerning the internet: "A note from a friend pleased her; junk announcements broadcast to everyone on the port irritated her. She killed each one as soon as she had read far enough to identify it. The people who wrote them got cleverer and cleverer. Orca's message bank contained a strong filter that was meant to discard most advertising and other solicitations. Some of the circulars had confused the program enough to make it let them through. Orca would have to rewrite it and strengthen its criteria. The escalation never ended." I also enjoyed the little observations, such as: "A rank of electric cars waited at the corner, tethered like horses in an old movie." That image of them recharging has now, of course, come to pass. These examples demonstrate just how carefully McIntyre thought through her imagined world, not just in broad terms but in specifics. Her descriptive passages are also powerfully evocative and convincing, especially concerning interactions with the whales.

I found Superluminal completely absorbing throughout, and was very reluctant to put it down until I had finished it.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Beyond Time: Classic Tales of Time Unwound, edited by Mike Ashley

This is one of a number of anthologies in the Science Fiction Classics series published by the British Library, this one (as you may have guessed) dealing with time travel. As usual in this series, there is a long introduction by the editor, supplemented by biographical notes on the authors at the start of each story.

The 24 page introduction covers the history of time travel in fiction. It explores the classic paradox in many time travel stories – the question of what happens if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before your parents are born – and the alternative approach of constantly branching time lines as different decisions are taken, which ties in neatly with the scientific multiple universe hypothesis. The single universe approach, in which there is only one history which is vulnerable to change by time travellers, leads to many stories focusing on battles between those who would like to change history and those whose interest is in preventing this – a "time police". There is also the notion that even the smallest change in pre-history might have unforeseen consequences  millennia afterwards. This brings in the concept of the Jonbar hinge – a crucial moment in history in which the future can be drastically altered by one minor change.

The earliest ideas of the nature of time can be found in some ancient religions which include a belief that time in heaven passes at a different rate than time on Earth. This idea survives in folk tales of visits to fairyland in which the visitors, on returning to our world, discover that time has sped by and everyone they knew is much older. Also ancient is the notion that some people (usually national heroes) do not die but are merely sleeping somewhere until their country needs them; conversely, some legends (e.g. the Flying Dutchman) concern people who are cursed to live and travel forever.

A further and very popular category involves a "timeslip" in which people – accidentally or deliberately – step through some kind of portal or fracture in time and find themselves in a different period – usually in the past. Ashley points out the advantages of this approach to authors, as scientific explanations are not needed. One rather surprising example is given – Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which includes visions of the past and future, plus the notion that people can alter their futures by changing their behaviour.

Various devices can be involved, often clocks or watches with the power to alter time, backwards or forwards. This leads on to the concept of a time machine, most famously in the classic novel of that name by H. G. Wells which introduced the concepts of time as the fourth dimension and the continuing evolution of humanity.

Obviously, this review can only provide a brief summary of Ashley's introduction which explores many more approaches to time travel, plus mention of a large number of stories to illustrate the points being made, and is by itself worth the price of the book.

The short stories included in the anthology are as follows:

The Clock That Went Backward, by Edward Page Mitchell (1881). The title indicates the nature of the plot, with an old timepiece involved in the sending back in time of the protagonists to the Siege of Leyden (Leiden) in 1574 when the Dutch city was attacked by the Spaniards. A thoughtful and well-written story.

The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper, by H. G. Wells (1932). A newspaper is delivered as usual, but it turns out to be an edition from 1971 – decades too soon. Wells spins an entertaining tale around this anomaly in time.

Omega, by Amelia Reynolds Long (1932). This includes a theory of "mental time": a method of hypnotising subjects and sending their minds through time to experience other lives. At first, this is limited to events in the past, but the professor who has developed the technique is now trying to extend this to the future in order to discover the fate of the Earth. He succeeds – at a price.

The Book of Worlds, by Miles J. Breuer (1929). A professor involved in researching the fourth dimension has gone insane, and the narrator (his assistant) tries to explain why. The professor has invented a device which enables him to see scenes from the past – but it is the views of the future which cause him to lose his sanity.

The Branches of Time, by David R. Daniels (1935). The narrator bumps into an old friend who tells him that he has been working on an atomic-powered time machine and has used this to visit the remote past and the far future. He tells of a 21st century world war of unimaginable destructiveness, leading to the extinction of mankind. This had caused him to intervene to prevent the worst effects, eventually resulting in an advanced civilisation. He learns that any change to historical events would result in a different "world-line" which would exist in parallel with the original: basically, the multiverse idea. An intriguing tale with some advanced concepts.

The Reign of the Reptiles, by Alan Connell (1935). A story about evolution; a man is hijacked by experimental scientists who have developed a time machine, and is sent millions of years into the past in order to observe the age of reptiles. He discovers that intelligent, telepathic reptiles have built a civilisation and are experimenting with the controlled evolution of early humans.

Friday the Nineteenth, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1950). A tale of a failing marriage, in which the husband is drawn to the wife of his friend, but some mysterious force keeps interfering in their attempts to get together.  Effectively, Friday the Nineteenth is Groundhog Day…

Look after the Strange Girl, by J. B. Priestley (1953). As you would expect from this author, this is a literary tale, teasing the reader with a mystery which is only gradually revealed. A man from the 1950s finds himself at a social event taking place in the early years of the century. In observing their careless gaity, he is acutely aware of the shadow of the Great War that would dramatically affect the lives of the people.

Manna, by Peter Phillips (1949). Synthetic food is developed – Miracle Meal – so delicious that no-one wants to eat anything else. A UK factory is established in an old priory, to the concern of a pair of ghosts who haunt it. Then the factory's output starts vanishing overnight, so a psychic investigator is called in. An unusual and amusing story (there's not much humour in most of these tales).

Tenth Time Around, by J. T. McIntosh (1959). Second Chance is an organisation which offers people a second chance at their lives; their consciousness is sent back in time to occupy their younger bodies, complete with their memories so they can change their actions to suit themselves. Gene Player had only one aim – to persuade the woman he loves to choose him instead of his best friend.

The Shadow People, by Arthur Sellings (1958). An odd couple take lodgings in the house of a young man and his wife. There is something very strange about the lodgers, and the young man becomes increasingly curious about their background – but comes to regret his inquisitiveness.

Thirty-Seven Times, by E. C. Tubb (1957). A famous professor dies in a laboratory accident – or does he? His successor struggles to identify the nature of his secret research and his apparent reappearances. Time travel seems to be involved – but what about the paradoxes?

Dial "O" for Operator, by Robert Presslie (1958). A telephone box is the central feature of this story, together with the night-time staff responsible for maintaining it and a young woman trapped inside. She calls for help after taking refuge inside the box from a terrifying monster, but when the staff arrive, there is no-one inside – despite the fact that she is still on the line.

An interesting and varied collection, none of which I had read before. Manna and Look After the Strange Girl appealed to me the most, with The Clock That Went Backward also intriguing me enough for a second read.