Friday, 2 December 2022

The Jupiter Theft by Donald Moffitt

 

Yet another book I had forgotten (along with its author, whose name rang no bells), this being published in 1977. Moffitt (1931-2014), wrote only a handful of SF novels, but a larger body of shorter fiction as well as adult spy thrillers. 


To start with the blurb: 


Within hours after the Lunar Observatory picked up a strange new X-ray source in Cygnus, the disastrous picture was clear. An immense object was hurtling towards the Solar System at nearly the speed of light. And its intense radiation would surely wipe out all life on Earth within six months. There was nothing anyone could do. Then, incredibly, the rogue presence that had appeared out of nowhere suddenly changed its trajectory - and stopped in the region of Jupiter. But that was flatly impossible...


The story is set in a future in which humanity is recovering from devastating wars which had left American and China as the two major powers in uneasy co-existence. The inner planets had been explored and, in the case of Mars, settled, and a major expedition with a mixed Chinese/American crew of 100 had been organised to visit Jupiter and potentially establish a base on one of the moons.  However, the arrival of the Cygnus Object results in a rapid change of plan, with the mission repurposed to focus on examining the Object.


During the journey to Jupiter, the author provides lots of background information and introduces several key staff members who remain prominent for most of the story, in a variety of shifting relationships. The central character is Commander Tod Jameson and the events which unroll are largely seen from his viewpoint. 


The human crew are astonished when they arrive at Jupiter, since the Cygnus Object is not one but five spacecraft, each thirty miles long and with three folding arms in a configuration which can be adjusted to suit the different requirements of acceleration up to near-lightspeed, cruising at that speed for years, and then decelerating when approach the target system. The alien spacecraft are powered by gas stripped from giant gas planets, and are already stripping Jupiter's atmosphere to fuel their next journey. 


The Cygnans soon become aware of the arrival of the human Jupiter ship and swarm over it, capturing most of the crew. Many of them end up in a super zoo, where the tensions between the Americans and Chinese are intensified, and also between the democratic and dictatorial elements of the crews. To make matters even more unstable, the humans have nuclear weapons on board.


In contrast with their enormous ships, the Cygnans' standard method of inter-ship transport is by something like a rocket broomstick which the Cygnans sit astride and manoeuvre by shifting their body-weight around and judging direction by eye. Even more remarkably, they use spray-on space-suits which are almost invisible. This allows the humans to observe the truly weird Cygnans who (among other oddities) communicate by musical sounds;  a characteristic which gives Jameson (who has perfect pitch) a major advantage.


The Cygnans rely on a network of transparent tubes to move around at high speed within each ship. To avoid collisions, the tubes are directional and wrap around each other, forming a double spiral. To digress for a moment, this reminds me of a Victorian fort at Dover, Kent, in which the designers wanted to achieve rapid transport of large numbers of troops between the accommodation at the top of a cliff and the defended shore at the bottom. They built an ingenious 140-foot staircase with a triple spiral, known as the Grand Shaft - it still exists. The Grand Shaft was never used in anger, but the story goes that in order to maintain social differences in peacetime, the use of the three staircases was separated into "Officers and their Ladies", "Sergeants and their Wives", and "Soldiers and their Women".


Anyway, to cut a fairly long story short, most of the humans try to break out of the zoo and return to their ship, with some of them being aided by another zoo species who are highly intelligent and possess a unique inherent weapon system. 


The blurb credits the author with having the "world-juggling sweep of Larry Niven" and the  "scientific expertise of Arthur C. Clarke", and for once I would not disagree with this praise. I might add that Moffitt's handling of his characters is superior to both.




Friday, 4 November 2022

TV - First Contact: an Alien Encounter (2022)

 


This is an unusual 'dramatised documentary' with a rather misleading title (spoiler - no aliens encountered!), exploring what could happen if a very large object travelled through the Solar System. It was presumably inspired by the 2017 incident in which such an object, dubbed ʻOumuamua', made just such a fly-by. The one envisaged by BBC2 TV for their 90 minute prime-time programme has a similarly elongated shape but is very much larger and travelling at huge velocity. More to the point, it is first observed as a result of an apparently artificial signal received by the Voyager spacecraft in the 1420 megaherz channel for hydrogen, considered the most likely wavelength for interstellar communications. As a result of this and other characteristics it is determined that the object, dubbed 'Artefact' is artificial, but its trajectory poses no threat to Earth - nor is there any speculation concerning aliens (they are a serious and sober lot in BBC2!). 


The programme contains a mixture of interviews with actual scientists, 'repurposed' news feeds and fictional podcasts 'to explore the scientific, social and philosophical implications of this occurence, as well as pondering the responses that such a meeting could evoke in communities across the globe'.


As the Artefact departs, attention focuses on where it came from. The trajectory reveals that it probably originated in 21 Sagittarius, at a location some 400 light years away, an area which is nearly twice as old as our system at 8 billion years. Given its velocity, the Artefact is probably about a billion years old, and may be just a fragment of a larger object.


Kudos to BBC2 for making such a worthy effort to explain serious issues to a popular audience. It is definitely worth watching, if you get the chance.


One detail - I was intrigued to discover that the United Nations has an "Office for Outer Space Affairs". Is there something that they are not telling us?


Sunday, 9 October 2022

Science Museum SF exhibition and book


Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination Edited by Glyn Morgan


The Science Museum in Kensington, London is currently hosting an exhibition likely to intrigue any SF fan. Titled Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination, it "uncovers fascinating connections between significant scientific innovations and celebrated science fiction works through over 70 objects, brought together in the UK for the first time. On display in the exhibition is classic literature that has imagined and inspired new understandings of the world around us, set-pieces and props from iconic films and TV that envisioned new forms of life and other worlds – from a screen-used Lieutenant Uhura costume from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, to the Dalek from Doctor Who and a Darth Vader helmet created for Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back – and contemporary artworks from across the globe that explore alternative futures for humanity."


The exhibition includes "an immersive experience on board an alien spaceship" (I always wanted to know what one of those was like!) plus a series of live events including the Arthur C. Clarke Award (on 26 October). It sounds like a lot of fun, and priority has clearly been given to appealing to fans of all ages.


I have not (yet) visited the exhibition but I was sent a copy of the book, the back cover of which lays out the contents: 


"The exhibition does not attempt to contain this vast field, but rather to explore avenues through its terrain. Across five parts, contributors consider cyborgs and humans, space travel, alien communication, distant galaxies and earthbound futures shaped by nuclear warfare and climate crisis. The science of science fiction is traced through developments both scientific and speculative, from the influence of scientific advisers on mid-century classics to the new ways of living posited by contemporary climate fiction. These chapters are accompanied by interviews with five of the genre's most excting writers: Charlie Jane Anders, Chen Qiufan, Vandana Singh, Tade Thompson and Kim Stanley Robinson."


The book is lavishly illustrated, its 280 pages consisting more of images than text, and is worth having whether or not you are visiting the exhibition. It is available from amazon and other bookselling sites.

 

The exhibition opened on 6th October and is scheduled to close on 4th May 2023. Tickets are available from sciencemuseum.org.uk/science-fiction A trailer can be seen at: 

youtu.be/b5YpW2fAV-4 and images at: https://we.tl/t-l129ZmGsyj .


 

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Odds & Sods

 

An assortment of offerings this time, varying in age and theme. 

The Deep Range by Arthur C. Clarke

This was first published in 1957, so was  relatively early novel by this prolific author. It is set in a future in which mankind was established throughout the solar system, but no further. The principal character is Walter Franklin, a spaceman who has had to give up his career as a result of the psychological effects of an accident in space. He joins the Bureau of Whales, an organisation which looks after great herds of whales in much the same way as ranchers used to manage cattle. The book follows Franklin’s story as he works his way up through the organisation, eventually becoming its head. 


Two points struck me about the story. The first is that the SF element is very restrained: the advanced technology included is either in existence now or entirely feasible. Even the sea monsters are believable. The second is that the attitudes towards animal welfare which develop later in the story are very modern. Taken together, this makes The Deep Range a serious and thoughtful read.


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Brisingamen by Diana Paxson


Published in 1984 and set in contemporary San Francisco, this features Karen Ingold, a young woman who discovers an ancient necklace which seems to change her when she wears it. She eventually discovers that this is Brisingamen, the legendary necklace of Freyja, the Norse goddess of love - and war - who effectively takes over Karen's body when needed. The emergence of Freyja also triggers the manifestation of other former Norse gods, including Odin, Thor - and the evil Loki. This results in a ferocious battle over Ragnarok, the end of the world.


This is more serious than most such epic fantasies. The author clearly knows her subject, and the book is punctuated by snippets of Norse poetry. It is definitely aimed at adults, with frank descriptions of the activities Freyja is best known for. One of the better efforts in this genre. 


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A Catalogue of Catastrophe by Jodi Taylor


This is volume 13 of the author's Chronicles of St Mary's, and continues to follow the life of Max the heroine of the epic, now separated from St Mary's and working as a kind of freelance bounty-hunter, tracking down those who break the laws of time travel and handing them over to the Time Police. 


The main problem in this adventure turns out to be a ruthless and well-organised gang from the future on a mission to change British history by intervening at critical moments - for instance, in the Gunpowder Plot. Much confusion is caused by people time-hopping in different directions, and to add to this, Max is beginning to suffer the serious effects of too much time-travel so needs to minimise her use of it.


There seems to be no end to Ms Taylor's ability to wring yet more mileage from her basic setting and this book will clearly not be the last, as it has a cliffhanger ending. I for one am not complaining! 


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Fatal Islands by Maria Adolfsson


I have come across a rather curious novel: Fatal Isles, by Swedish author Maria Adolfsson. It is  set in the present day on Doggerland, an imaginary group of large islands in the middle of the North Sea, half-way between Britain and Denmark. The islands, three of which are inhabited, appear to be politically fairly independent, perhaps the closest real-life parallel being the Faroe Islands. The culture is a mixture of British and Scandinavian. The book is otherwise a fairly conventional - if very good - detective story, the heroine being a senior detective with the now customary hang-ups and mysterious past. 


Quite how this novel is categorised I'm not sure; it seems to have created a rather mixed sub-genre all of its own. This prompted me to consider the pros and cons of this approach. An invented country gives the author's imagination freedom to roam unconstrained by any need to adhere to the hard facts of real-life geography, history, politics and policing. On the other hand, Adolfsson doesn't do anything very different with this freedom.


I should add that in recent years there has been an increase in interest in the real Doggerland, which used to exist before being drowned by rising sea levels as the last Ice Age ended a few thousand years ago. The North Sea is still relatively shallow in this area (known as the Dogger Bank) and diving archaeologists have discovered the remains of human settlements. There is even talk of creating a new island in that location, funded by a forest of wind turbines. 


More stories in the Doggerland series are on the way from the translator, and they are apparently best sellers in Sweden. Worth a look at if you enjoy Scandi Noir with a fantasy twist.


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TV - Missions Season 3 (2022)


The French SF series continues, mainly back on Earth, or rather Earths: two alternative timelines have become intermixed, leading to two different versions of the principal characters existing in the same place and time. If this sounds confusing, it is… There is the usual ambiguous conclusion to this season - is it the end of the world, or not?







Friday, 12 August 2022

Yesterday's Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley

 

This is another publication in the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series (for which thanks are due for sending the review copy). Unlike most of the others in the series, this is not an anthology of short stories on a particular topic, nor a reprint of selected, largely forgotten, novels. Instead, the author identifies themes in British SF published between 1895 and 1966 and provides two-page summaries of the plots of 100 selected stories (plus mention given to many more). The fourteen themes are arranged more or less in chronological order, with some overlaps. I have limited myself to mentioning just a couple of stories in each theme with emphasis on authors who are better known (althought not necessarily for SF).


1. Wells, Wells and Wells Again No doubting the father of British SF! The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898) would have to feature on anyone's list of classics.

2. Wars to End All Wars  I have discussed some of these on this blog before, a whole sub-genre prompted by anxiety concerning the threat posed by the growing power of the German Empire, and in particular the usually predicted disaster should an invasion take place. Two of the best-known examples mentioned here are The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux (1906) and When William Came by Saki (1913).


3. Doom and Disaster  This time the disasters are from causes other than warfare; plagues, floods, drought, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other catastrophes. Two of the examples listed here are the prescient The Machine Stops by the famous non-SF novelist E.M. Forster (1909), previously reviewed here, and The Violet Flame by Fred T. Jane (1899). The latter is of particular interest to me as it is the only novel written by this author, who is far better known as the originator of Jane’s Fighting Ships, the annual survey of the world’s navies and warships. This is still published today, along with parallel volumes concerned with aircraft and various categories of military and transport equipment, including Jane’s Infantry Weapons: Ammunition, which was edited by yours truly for about a dozen years.


4. Futures Near and Far  Famous non-genre authors imagining the future: The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904), and With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling (1909).


5. The Old and the New  One of my favourite childhood novels was The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912), a story which needs no introduction as it has inspired the Jurassic Park series of feature films. 


6. Escape or Reality?  When the World Shook by H. Rider Haggard (1919), and  A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920).


7. Brave New Worlds  Ten examples here, but I wasn't familiar with any of the authors except for Marie Corelli, one of the few women to have made an impact in the genre in this period. She is included here for The Secret Power (1921).


8. Super, Sub or Non-Human?  Even more to choose from, with thirteen authors listed.  One who may be surprising is George Bernard Shaw, for Back to Methuselah (1921), but Aldous Huxley's inclusion, for Brave New World, is much more predictable.


9. Philosophical Speculations Only a couple of stories included here: The World, The Flesh and the Devil by J. D. Bernal (1929) and If it Had Happened Otherwise by J. C. Squire (1931).


10. Into the Cosmic. Now we are beginning to move into more recognisable territory with Olaf Stapledon, (Star Maker - 1937), C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet - 1938) and Eric Frank Russell (Sinister Barrier - 1939). I was rather surprised to see A. M. Low's Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937) which I had summed up as folllows when I reviewed it some years ago: 

Sadly it was a major disappointment, being a barely readable fantasy in which hardly any of the "science" is correct or even remotely feasible.  

Fortunately the editor includes an explanation: 

The book is dreadful...I have included it because it is representative of the boys' adventure fiction of the day and unfortunately of how appalling much of that was.


11. Preparing for War.  Seven stories listed, imbued with the uneasiness of the increasingly inevitable second major war of the first half of the century. Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933) and The Peacemaker by C. S. Forester (1934) date from the early years of this period, but Murray Constantine's Swastika Night (1937) is obviously later, and looks centuries ahead to the nature of the world resulting from a Nazi victory (short version - not pretty!).


12. Our Darkest Hours. Into World War 2, and a relatively quiet period for publishing fiction in the UK due to strict paper rationing. That didn't stop people writing, of course, and Arthur C. Clarke was one who was developing his skills at this time. 


13. Post-Atomic Doom. This is where things really become grim, with the threat of nuclear devastation generally considered to be a matter of when, not if. As a teenager in the 1960s I can well recall deciding that if war did come, I would much prefer the first bomb to explode directly overhead so I would know nothing about it. People in the UK, at least, had no illusions about surviving such a war for any longer than it would take to die horribly of radiation poisoning and/or starvation as the food supply chain was destroyed. Famous books listed include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951). 


14. Science Fiction Boom.  Despite the spectre of nuclear war haunting the 1960s, this was also a period of cheerful optimism in SF, perhaps in reaction to the threat. This was also a time of expansion in SF readership, assisted by the success of some magazines (it should be noted that British SF mags tended to be aimed at an older audience than the popular US comics). Another factor was the development of broadcast SF series, at first on the radio; my family would sit in front of the wireless to listen to each episode of Charles Chilton's Journey into Space. This was quickly followed by TV series  such as The Quatermass Experiment  (Nigel Kneale, 1953) and A for Andromeda (Fred Hoyle and John Elliot, 1961). Anyone with an interest in classic SF will be familiar with most of the names of the authors mentioned in this section: Arthur C. Clarke, E. C. Tubb, Kenneth Bulmer, Brian W. Aldiss, Edmund Cooper, James White, and Charles Eric Maine. 


15. Old Worlds for New. An interesting development towards the end of this period concerned the appearance of links between SFF and "literature", by which is meant "serious" non-genre mainstream fiction. The mainstream authors dabbling in SF themes have sometimes denied they are writing "SF", whose reputation suffered from the comic-strip era of rocket-ships and scantily-clad young women whose virtue was under threat by hideous monsters. Literary SF tales featured in this book are by Naomi Mitchison and L. P. Hartley. Simultaneously, many established SF writers became more "literary" in their approach, e.g. Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard, and John Brunner: the result was known as "New Wave" SF.


That really marks the end of this period of development of British SF. The result has been a spectrum of approaches to SF writing rather than a series of ghettoes. One further development since that time has been the growth of fantasy at the expense of SF, kick-started by the huge success of Tolkien. But that is a whole 'nother story!


Tuesday, 19 July 2022

War Stories

 

Three very different SF novels concerning warfare in the past, present and future.


No Retreat by John Bowen (published 1994) is a story of the aftermath of an alternative World War 2. The exact point of departure is never quite spelled out, but something goes wrong in 1942 leaving Britain defeated. The story begins in a very different 1990, with Britain thoroughly integrated into a German Empire which spreads across Europe. A community of die-hard “Free British”, preserving their traditions in exile in the USA, decide it is time to stir up a rebellion prior to liberating their homeland. 


The problem is that entry to Britain is forbidden, so the exiles don’t know quite what to expect. A small group of agents is landed by submarine and does manage to locate a local resistance group to work with, but are disconcerted to discover that the great majority of the British people are quite content with the status quo and regard their “liberators” as an embarrassing nuisance. It transpires that the initial horrors of strict Nazi rule have long ago been replaced by a tolerant regime of self-governance. The result has been well described as a wry narrative treading a fine line between thriller and black farce.


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Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole


I've re-read Ghost Fleet, published in 2015. It is set a few years into the future, and commences with a brief, devastating (but non-nuclear) assault on the USA by China and Russia, focusing on massive cyber attacks as well as physical destruction of US communication and monitoring satellites. Advanced technology proves to be a weakness for the US, with equipment like the F-35 fighter planes dependant on vast numbers of complex electronic chips - many of which turn out to have been made in China. The US loses, with China seizing the Western Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands. A few years later, the US is planning its revenge…


The viewpoints include USN, Chinese and Russian officers, plus the leader of an accidentally left-behind US resistance group on Hawaii, and many other individuals. 


The authors are professionally involved in defence planning, and it shows. This story is very tech-heavy and realistic. A rather unusual touch is a 24-page Endnotes section which provides references for many of the ideas and proposed weapon systems. However, there are hazards in being too specific about such matters: much is made of the Metal Storm close-in defence gun, but in fact that proved unsuccessful and was dropped some years ago.


Novels with a plot like this are rare, and this one is a very good effort. 


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The Misfit Soldier by Michael Mammay


Mammay provided a lot of fun (and obviously enjoyed himself) with his trilogy Planetside, Spaceside, and Colonyside. His new stand-alone novel is written in a similar laconic military style but instead of being a pensionable veteran,  the principal character - Sergeant Gastovsky - is an unwilling young space soldier with criminal tendencies whose main aim in life is to acquire enough money to buy himself out of his service contract. This requires far more money than he could possibly accumulate legally, but he regards this as a manageable problem and starts planning. 


Those who enjoyed Planetside are likely to enjoy this one as well, but perhaps not quite as much. The hero is not as sympathetic, the plot is more straightforward (with no aliens to add another dimension) and is rather more forgettable. Let’s hope that future stories return to displaying more inventiveness.


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Wednesday, 22 June 2022

The Sky Lords trilogy by John Brosnan

 

On browsing through the dustier corners of my book stacks recently I came across an unfamiliar book by an unfamiliar author: The Sky Lords, by John Brosnan, which was published in 1988. I initially assumed that I had read it, but I could not recall anything about it. However, the cover displays some impressive endorsements from Robert Holdstock, Terry Pratchett and Brian Aldiss, so I thought it was worth a try. When I got to the end I discovered that it is only the first volume of a trilogy, but as I enjoyed it I obtained the other two: War of the Sky Lords (pub. 1989) and The Fall of the Sky Lords (1991).  This review covers all three volumes.


The plot starts out being fairly routine in SFF terms, in a distant future in which the Earth's civilisation has collapsed as a result of the Gene Wars - an advanced form of biowarfare. The only organised powers remaining are the Sky Lords of the title - a handful of heavily-armed mile-long airships whose aristocratic rulers demand food and other tribute from the scattered and impoverished settlements on the ground. However, there is a lot going on including pre-collapse genetic modifications of humanity which had led to the wars of destruction. To make matters worse, the blight - mutant fungus - is spreading over the land, destroying its agricultural worth. And the airships are gradually failing as as their inhabitants no longer possess the skills necessary to repair them.


Jan Dovin is a Minervan, a female member of a ground-dwelling culture which had solved the  problem of male violence against women by genetic modifications. These made the women bigger and stronger than the placid males which were kept only for breeding. An attempt to resist the tribute demanded of the Minervans led to Jan's transfer to the Sky Lord where she meets Milo Haze, whose genetic modifications are more radical - although not at first evident. After various adventures, Jan discovers how to communicate directly with the AIs which control the Sky Lords.  


In the second volume, we are introduced to a new element; a submerged habitat under the Antarctic, the home of the Eloi, drastically modified humans who live only for pleasure. There is also a new hero, Ryn, a young man who is a genetic throwback to earlier times. He and Jan become involved in battles between the rulers of the Sky Lords, not just in the air but also on the ground.


The third volume pulls the various plot strands together and sees the Eloi's habitat becoming involved in the struggle for supremacy. Its powerful AI retains much of the advanced capability now lost to the survivors of humanity. This enables it to develop a permanent solution to the constant warfare which is preventing the recovery of human civilisation, but this comes at a cost.


I found this trilogy rather puzzling: the basic setting of warfare between giant airships (emphasised by the cover illustrations of the paperback versions) has a very old-fashioned feel. It has more of the flavour of fiction from the 1950s or even earlier. The most obvious clue to its modernity is the frank treatment of sexual relations. However, the inventiveness shown  throughout the books is engaging, and makes them worth reading.



Sunday, 29 May 2022

The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens - and Ourselves, by Dr Arik Kershenbaum

 

I don't usually review non-fiction books, but this one is a very relevant exception. The author is a zoologist used to applying Darwin's theory of evolution to the development of life on Earth, and he applies the same analysis to explore how and why life might develop on other planets.  The Contents list gives a good idea of the author's approach:


Form vs Function: What is Common Across Worlds?

What are Animals and What are Aliens?

Movement: Scuttling and Gliding Across Space

Communication Channels

Intelligence (Whatever That Is) 

Sociality: Cooperation, Competition and Teatime

Information: A Very Ancient Commodity

Language: The Unique Skill

Artificial Intelligence: A Universe Full of Bots?

Humanity, As We Know It


Each of the characteristics of life are explored in detail, and the author's summary of how life logically has to have developed is worth quoting in full:


Early life was simple, gaining energy from non-living sources, perhaps mostly from the star around which the planet orbits, but also directly from the heat of of the planet and maybe from other sources, like radiation. 


The first innovation was that some life forms (I'll call them 'predators') began to get their energy from others ('prey'), exploiting the work of others in harnessing energy from nature. Freeloading is always an option, and game theory would seem to indicate that the evolution of this kind of 'cheating' is inevitable.


Both predators and prey are competing to achieve their goals of eating, and avoiding being eaten. Movement would then evolve.


Once organisms can move, social behaviour follows. Prey animals can reduce their chances of being eaten by aggregating, and this opens the possibility of more active defence strategies: sentinel behaviour, building structures etc. 


If any two organisms are to associate together, communication is necessary, at the very least so that they can find each other.


At this point (if not before) the complex interactions between organisms, both those that are helping each other and those that are competing (either with similar organisms or with predators/prey), lead to the evolution of intelligence: the ability to predict the world and to make decisions that are beneficial to you.


The combination of communication, social behaviour and intelligence leads to the evolution of communication system that can contain large amounts of information, leading to an ecosystem that would be very familiar to us. Alien creatures will be singing like birds, roaring like lions and whistling like dolphins, even if their precise forms, and even the chemical makeup of their bodies, will be entirely unexpected.


How long such an ecosystem continues like this, we don't know. Perhaps the next step is incredibly unlikely. We know that it occurred at least once in the universe, but it took at least 3 billion years from the first step in our story. Whatever the reasons and whatever the mechanism, at some point, complex communication evolves into language.


Finally, possibly inevitably, a social and intelligent organism, with the skill of language, develops complex technology. It is hard to see how any other outcome is possible. Soon, they will be building spaceships and exploring the universe - if they manage to avoid destroying themselves first.


Of course this summary doesn't do justice to the author's case; the book contains a mass of evidence to support his argument that Darwinian evolution seems inevitable, regardless of the setting, and that this is likely to result in intelligent life. Well worth reading.




Wednesday, 4 May 2022

A Tapestry of Magics, by Brian Daley

 

Having recently enjoyed and reviewed Brian Daley's Coramonde books, I decided to re-read the only other book by this author on my shelves, A Tapestry of Magics. Daley creates an intriguing world (or more accurately, universe) centred on the Singularity, also known as the Charmed Realm. To quote: 


A fixed sphere amid the fluxes and flows of of the infinite Realities, the Singularity was buffered from them by the indefinite zone of mutability and access, the Beyonds. In the Beyonds, people and other things passed into and out of the Realities. If the opening were of the right sort, whole regions along with their populations might come into existence in the Beyonds, or leave them. Sometimes those who travelled between Realities found their way home again; sometimes they perished, or became lost and strayed into a Reality not their own.  Sometimes they arrived at the Singularity or simply found themselves a place, for a long stay or a short one, in the Beyonds. 


The Realities, better known to SF readers as the Multiverse, were apparently infinite in their possibilities (one of them being our very own Universe), although the story doesn't go there, all of the action being set in the Beyonds and the Singularity. The Beyonds were ungoverned and lawless lands in which almost anything might happen, and anyone turn up - including figures from our history and even those from fiction (Count Dracula making a cameo appearance at one point). 


The Singularity was, in effect, a small country in the usual medieval style expected of epic fantasy, with a feudal social structure and an apparently immortal King (no-one dared ask him about that, but since he was a highly competent ruler no-one was bothered). Magic sometimes worked, but what succeeded in one Reality might not work in the Singularity or the Beyonds.  Technology also sort of worked, but not reliably, so warriors generally preferred simple weapons. The story follows the activities of Crassmor, a young scion of a noble Singularity family and a reluctant knight who prefers the softer and prettier things in life, if only people would leave him alone. 


At the beginning of this three-part novel, the Beyonds are the stage for an epic contest between an invading barbarian horde, whose cavalry are mounted on giant lizards, and a seriously misplaced army from a technological Reality which sounds suspiciously like Nazi Germany.  These opponents pose a real threat to the Singularity, whose strategy is to get them fighting each other, which works well until the technologists run out of fuel and ammunition. 


Next we see Crassmor as a knight errant, patrolling the Beyonds and responding to appeals for help from various beleaguered citizens. In the final part, the Singularity faces an existential threat from within.


I wouldn't describe this book as a comedy, although it contains a lot of humour and is very much at the light entertainment end of the seriousness scale. Like the Coramonde stories, it is a lot of fun and well worth reading.


Friday, 8 April 2022

The Untold Story, by Genevieve Cogman; and Risen, by Benedict Jacka

 

The Untold Story, by Genevieve Cogman; and Risen, by Benedict Jacka


Two of the very best fantasy series of modern times have both come to an end with publication of the last of Cogman's eight-volume Invisible Library stories and Jacka's twelve-volume Alex Verus series.


The Untold Story sees Irene continuing her search for the evil Alberich while investigating the origin of the Library, aided by her dragon lover Prince Kai and the Sherlockian detective Vale plus the more recent addition of her young Fae assistant, Catherine. The finale is well up to the standard of the other books in the series and provides a satisfying solution to the mystery of the Library which also explains the entire structure of the strange multiverse.


Risen follows on immediately after the previous volume with Alex Verus trying to pin down his nemesis Richard Drakh while freeing his girlfriend Anne of her demonic possession and surviving his own possession by the Fateweaver. It is an all-action finale which I found difficult to put down.


I find it hard to determine which series I prefer. They have certain similarities: in both series the protagonists are relatively junior but highly capable; both of them are faced with powerful enemies with whom they clash throughout the series; they both have a few close, reliable friends and allies. One stylistic difference is that the Verus books are written in the first person, the Library in the third person, which gives the action in the Verus stories a higher-tension appeal. On the other hand, the Library series benefits from being set in an original and fascinating universe. Fortunately, we don't have to choose - read them both! 


**********************************


Incidentally, I've just finished Jodi Taylor's Doing Time, the first of her Time Police fantasies which are set in the same world as The Chronicles of St Mary's. It is basically a continuation of that terrific series, with most of the characters being familiar but with the focus on life in the Time Police which frequently butts heads with St Mary's. Unfortunately, the Police HQ is nowhere near as much fun as St Mary's, or as interesting as the episodes in history which the St Mary's historians get to visit. The laughs are much more scarce until the familiar characters from St Mary's appear on the scene about three-quarters of the way through the book. I enjoyed it in the end, although I'm not sure about continuing with this series.



Tuesday, 8 March 2022

The Fresco, by Sheri Tepper

 

This is set in the present day (well, 2000 when first published) and concerns the first contact by aliens, who choose an ordinary middle-aged American woman as their one and only official contact. The story is mainly about the impact this has on her life, but in parallel with that is a contest between two opposed groups. The "good aliens" who make the initial contact are dangling the prospect of membership of an interstellar civilisation provided the Earth tidies up a few odds and ends.... which needless to say involves putting right a lot of social and political problems which we are all too familiar with. Should humanity fail to qualify for membership, they will fall into the hands of the "bad aliens" who want the Earth to become a private hunting preserve - the prey being humans.


There's a lot of fun to be had in the relationship with the good aliens, who are logical and assume that humans mean what they say, leading to all manner of misunderstandings, especially concerning religions. They are also all-powerful - one of their first interventions is in the Middle East where they identify the old city of Jerusalem as the main focus of the problems, so they replace it with a large hole in the ground (dumping the residents unharmed into the surrounding countryside) promising to bring it back undamaged once the inhabitants sort out their differences. Other interventions follow, for example addicts suddenly being unable to tolerate alcohol and drugs. 


One feature of the good aliens is that they are  all the same until they reach adulthood, when they develop into specialised forms for different roles, as determined by tests carried out at the end of childhood. Some become males or females for breeding, another caste is concerned with bringing up children, some become politicians and so on. That way everyone ends up doing the work to which they are best suited so are (apparently) content with their lives. That might work for hypothetical aliens but I am not as comfortable with this idea for humanity as the author seems to be: it reminds me of Huxley's Brave New World.


Even the good aliens have issues, particularly over their own religion, whose story is told in a huge fresco in a building on their home planet. Over the centuries, the use of smoky candles to illuminate the fresco has completely obscured it, so they rely on descriptions from earlier times to interpret its meaning. When the fresco is cleaned, the aliens discover that the descriptions (inevitably) do not match reality, causing major problems for them. 


Tepper was a militant feminist and this becomes obvious as the story continues.  The heroine (one to cheer for) has a lot of trouble with her abusive husband and a son who's almost as bad, and the US "pro-life" lobby is savagely satirised. If Tepper were alive today I suspect she wouldn't have much time for the "woke" movement.


Overall, this book is worth reading - Tepper was a natural story-teller and carries the readers along - but she pushes her beliefs so stridently that the balance of the story is adversely affected. 




Wednesday, 9 February 2022

To Here and the Easel, by Theodore Sturgeon

 

The US author Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was a significant fantasy, SF and horror writer and critic, most active in the 1940s and 1950s. He wrote 11 novels (including the award-winning More than Human), 120+ short stories, around 400 reviews and several Star Trek scripts. 


To Here and the Easel is a collection of several longer stories and was first published in 1973, although the individual stories were published earlier (the dates are shown with the titles below). 


The Skills of Xanadu (1956). A scout from a militaristic world arrives on the planet Xanadu in order to make covert preparations for an invasion. He is increasingly puzzled by the apparent contrast between its sophisticated culture and apparently simple technology, but sees nothing that might cause his armed forces any problems. Until, that is, he encounters a certain item with deceptive capabilities. 


There is no Defence (1948). A military SF story set in a future in which the Terrans had recently defeated the Jovians, only to find that both planets face a new threat, apparently from outside the Solar System. The alien ships prove to be untouchable but the Terrans have a secret weapon, too terrible to use except as a last resort.


The Perfect Host (1948). Alien possession is the theme of this detective story, with the interesting twist that essentially the same events are reported from the very different perspectives of several different characters - ultimately including the alien.


The Graveyard Reader (1958). A widower grieving for his wife meets a stranger at the cemetery - a stranger who can "read" graves, learning all about the lives of the occupants. He offers to teach the widower how to do it, so he can understand the mystery of his wife's death, but the outcome is unexpected.


Shottle Bop (1941). A wryly amusing ghost story, told by a rather unpleasant man jilted by his girlfriend, who stumbles across a small and strange shop dealing in bottles containing liquids with some very bizarre properties. One bottle enables the man to see and converse with the ghosts of the recently dead, opening up a profitable career as a medium; but there is a penalty if his new ability is misused.


To Here and the Easel (1954). This longer story (a novella of over sixty pages) is actually the first in the book, but I left it to the end of this review because of its strange and challenging nature. It is told by the main character, Giles, who is a painter. Except when he is Rogero, a knight. Both aspects are controlled by Atlantes, a magician who has a deadly hippogriff at his beck and call. There is also a staggeringly beautiful woman who keeps appearing in his life. The writing is almost stream-of-consciousness in places, and I find it virtually impossible to provide a coherent summary of the plot. Suffice to say that I was fascinated, and certainly want to read it again.


What is apparent from these very varied stories is that Sturgeon was a highly versatile and accomplished writer who is well worth reading.