Sunday 26 August 2007

Review: Wasp by Eric Frank Russell

This story, first published in 1958, is by one of the old masters of SF. It is set in the far future during an extended war between the human and Sirian space empires. The humans have the edge in technology but the Sirians have far greater numbers, so a novel way must be found to reduce the numbers the Sirians can deploy.

The answer is to send in a "wasp"; the analogy being with a multiple-fatality auto accident caused when a wasp got into the car and started buzzing around the driver. Men with pre-war experience of living on Sirian planets are recruited to be disguised as Sirians (not difficult: they are basically purple-skinned humans) and dropped on Sirian planets to cause as much trouble as possible.

The story follows one wasp – James Mowry – who is deposited with a cache of sabotage/subversion material on one of the target planets. He starts out by creating an imaginary Sirian resistance movement and liberally distributing posters, allegedly from this movement, around towns and cities. He then engineers a number of incidents, which he publicises as the work of his resistance movement, in his efforts to get the Sirian authorities worried enough to divert considerable resources to deal with this threat.

Naturally all does not go to plan, and what follows is a gripping thriller. By modern standards it is very short (140 pages) and the relentless pace meant that I finished it at one sitting.

It is probably thirty years or more since I last read it, and I was curious to see how it stood up. I enjoyed the read but I have to admit that, surprisingly for the author and period, the SF elements are weak. The Sirian planet is virtually the same as Earth; the Sirians are the same as humans in their culture and personalities, and their towns and infrastructure are basically mid-twentieth century Earth, except for electric vehicles running on broadcast power. With a few changes the story could easily have been set on Earth, for instance in Japan in the Second World War; a notion reinforced by a suspicious resemblance between the name of the Sirian secret police – the Kaitempi – and that of the Japanese military police, the Kempetai.

Still, it's an entertaining read and worth the brief time required, should you come across it.

Sunday 19 August 2007

Just a note to let you know that, due to other commitments, I will be dropping to a weekly post here, probably on Sundays (but don't hold me to that!) .

Review: The Seedling Stars by James Blish

This compilation of three novellas and a short story was first published in 1957. They are set in the same universe, starting with the colonisation of the Solar System and concluding thousands of years later with humanity widely spread across the galaxy. However, the theme of the stories is very different from the space opera which this might suggest.

The first novella, 'Seeding Program', features the battle over the best method of colonising the Solar System, using three competing methods: building airtight domes around settlements, terraforming the worlds, or modifying human beings so that they could live in very hostile environments, by means of drastic genetic work before conception. Big business strongly favoured terraforming, as it was the most expensive solution and promised big profits over a long period. They were accordingly strongly opposed to the genetic modifications producing 'Adapted' people as these would bring them no such benefits, and closed down the work – but not before a colony of the Adapteds was set up on the surface of Ganymede. The story features one man who was later modified in a similar way and sent to Ganymede as a spy, with the aim of closing down the settlement. Naturally, all does not go to plan.

'The Thing in the Attic' moves far into the future, during the programme of 'seeding the stars' with Adapted humans. In this story, the humans become small, monkey-like, tree-dwelling beings living in a world dominated by a huge forest. It follows the adventures of a small group of rebels who are sentenced to live on the very dangerous forest floor. The theme here is the need to move from their comfortable environment and overcome the dangers of the surface if they are to conquer their world.

The third novella is a well-known classic: 'Surface Tension'. In this case another seeding starship crashes on a wet and almost barren planet, and the only form of humanity they can devise is at the microscopic level, living in ponds. They are left a 'history' in tiny engraved plates, but find it difficult to understand. The epic journey some of them make in a two-inch 'spaceship' crawling from one pond to the next is wonderful.

The final short story, 'Watershed', completes the circle after thousands of years with another seeding ship returning to a ruined and abandoned Earth, ready to seed it with humans modified to live in its changed environment. The key focus here is on the racial discrimination that unmodified humans feel for the Adapted ones – and the fact that the Adapteds are now in a majority, in a huge variety of forms across the Galaxy.

It is easy to dismiss the stories as dated, particularly since we now know that Ganymede doesn't even have the tenuous atmosphere Blish described, and certainly couldn't grow any plants. Even ignoring this, it is hard to imagine that humans could have their biochemistry so drastically modified as to tolerate the conditions in the story. And while Blish's training as a microbiologist shows in 'Surface Tension', the mind boggles at the concept of microscopic humans being as intelligent as full-size ones – and conversing with intelligent microbial life!

Despite these issues, I found the stories intriguing and worth the read. 'Surface Tension', in particular, is one of the standard canon of stories which all SF enthusiasts should read. The meticulous attention to the physical constraints of an alien world recalls Clement's 'Mission of Gravity'.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Science Fiction, Fantasy, or…?

Some questions which are often debated: what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy, how do they relate to mainstream fiction, and is this changing?

The flip answer to the first question is that anything with spaceships is SF, anything with magic is fantasy. This is generally true, but James Schmitz's wonderful 'The Witches of Karres' includes both. A more considered view is that at least some attempt is made in SF to convince the reader that the story just possibly might happen, but in fantasy anything goes (although internal consistency is still required). The distinction is very clear at the extremes: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is obviously SF, Tolkien is obviously fantasy. However, as is often the case, there is a big grey area in between.

Some stories seem to be pure fantasy, such as Ann McCaffrey's 'Dragonflight', but she slips in a reference to the colonisation of the planet which gives it some kind of SF justification. It is not uncommon to find stories like which are a mixture of SF and fantasy elements (as instanced by Orson Scott Card's 'A Planet Called Treason', reviewed below).

The distinctions are further confused by the fact that both genres are subdivided. Some of the subdivisions are concerned with the type of plot, such as 'space opera', which tells you to expect galactic empires and battling fleets of spaceships, and 'epic fantasy', usually concerned with quests vital to the future of the world, for the mythological all-powerful grail/ring/sword (delete as appropriate). However, some sub-genres are more subtle and less clear-cut.

SF is often divided into 'hard' and 'soft', but different opinions can be found as to the precise distinction between them. Some apply the academic test: 'hard' is to do with the natural sciences (focusing on physics, chemistry, biology and technology in general), 'soft' to do with the social sciences (psychology, sociology, the impact of the future on humanity). Obviously, it's a question of balance; most SF will include something of both. A different view regards 'hard SF' as excluding technology which current science regards as impossible: sub-light-speed interstellar travel using generation ships or frozen sleep is acceptable, faster-than-light starships or artificial/anti-gravity machines are not. Time travel and psionic abilities such as telepathy and teleportation (all traditional SF themes), are also excluded from this definition of 'hard SF'. A further complication is the recent promotion of 'mundane SF', which is harder than hard: it excludes interstellar travel and aliens, and is restricted to known science within our solar system. At this point it may be difficult to distinguish SF from some mainstream fiction such as those thrillers which are set slightly in the future and include yet-to-be-built technology.

Fantasy also has its subgenres. Epic fantasy has already been mentioned, but there is also contemporary (or urban) fantasy, set on Earth in the present day, while vampire and horror fiction are also subgenres. In fact, some fantasy supporters claim that SF itself is just a subgenre of fantasy, although a more acceptable overarching term for SFF is 'speculative fiction' which also includes the genre of alternate worlds (which examine what might have happened in history if critical events had turned out differently).

Mainstream fiction is often described by its supporters as 'literary' or 'serious' fiction: terms clearly intended to be dismissive of all genre fiction (not just SFF). This literary snobbery would be amusing if it weren't so sad. It harks back to an earlier age, when the stereotypical SF fan was a geeky adolescent and his reading matter was a comic with a cover featuring rocket ships and/or scantily-clothed busty women being threatened by alien monsters. This view of SFF as being 'not serious' and 'intended for adolescents' has probably only been reinforced by the success of the Star Wars and Harry Potter films.

Not that there is anything wrong with having fun. There can be joyousness in a good space opera or fantasy which is usually missing from mainstream fiction, as well as the famous 'sense of wonder' evoked by a compelling far-future vision (although that is harder to generate than it used to be in the golden age of SF, when lots of ideas first emerged). While early works might have been somewhat lacking in writing quality, much modern SFF is beautifully written, fully comparable with the 'literary' works. Furthermore, modern SF often deals with themes which are far bigger than the interpersonal relationships which so dominate the mainstream. Themes such as how humanity will be affected by the rapid growth of cyberspace, against the background of a world in which we are using up the resources and changing our environment at an accelerating rate. Arguably, such fiction is a lot more serious and important than the relatively trivial concerns of most of the mainstream.

While fantasy and space operas will always be essentially escapist (and long may they continue – we need some respite from reality from time to time), it seems possible that the gap between mainstream fiction and the more serious end of SF will narrow even further in the future, as the predicted developments in cyberspace and changes to our planet's environment become part of the backdrop to our lives. Established mainstream authors have already written novels with SF themes, for example P.D. James' 'Children of Men', recently turned into a feature film, although they are usually careful to avoid the results being categorised as genre fiction. At the moment such crossovers are uncommon, although I suspect that they might increase. Perhaps we will see a return to works comparable with Orwell's '1984' or Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' – a merger between SF themes and the literary mainstream. In which case, 'mundane SF' could have a big future.

Monday 13 August 2007

Review: A Planet Called Treason by Orson Scott Card

I first read this over twenty years ago and it made quite an impact on me at the time (more so than the author's far better known Ender series), so I decided to read it again to see if it was still as good as I remembered.

The story is set in the distant future, on a planet on which mutineers from a generation ship had been abandoned three thousand years before (hence the name given to it). Each of the leaders of the mutiny had settled in a different location with their families, and their descendents had divided up the planet into states, each of which developed a very different culture based on the special knowledge of the founder. They had not forgotten where they came from and were desperate to redevelop the technology to build space ships so they could get off the planet, but there was no accessible source of iron. The only way of obtaining it was to trade with the unseen Watchers in space – descendents of those who had marooned them there – and the only way of communicating with them was to leave objects on the Ambassadors (two-way matter transmitters). If the Watchers liked what they were offered, they sent some iron in return.

The story is told in the first person by Lanik Mueller, who at the start of the tale is the accomplished 16 year old male heir to the land of Mueller. This was the most powerful state because they had found something which the Watchers would give them iron for, so had been able to make enough swords and lances to dominate their neighbours. The original Mueller had been a geneticist, and his descendents had developed this science to a high degree. They were extremely difficult to kill because their bodies were capable of rapid self-repair and would quickly regenerate almost any loss of limbs or other body parts. In some cases, this ability ran out of control and resulted in the "radical regenerators", or rads, who kept growing extra body parts which could be harvested and traded with the Watchers (echoes of Cordwainer Smith here).

At the start of the story Lanik is identified as a rad (the initial sign of this being a shapely pair of breasts), which means he is automatically disinherited. His father sends him on a journey to the land of the Nkumai, who had suddenly started to expand their territory thanks to a huge supply of iron weapons, in order to find out what they are exchanging for the iron. So begins an odyssey which takes Lanik through various states, in which he is captured, grows an unprecedented number of body parts, escapes and is healed. He discovers that the isolation of each Family has led some of them to develop their specialisms to a staggering degree, and from them he learns several advanced abilities which give him formidable power. Despite this, he does not have everything his own way and faces many trials before discovering what is happening, eventually concluding his adventure in a dramatic way.

This is a terrific read, every bit as good as I remembered, and deserves to be regarded as a classic. It is packed with novel concepts in the best traditions of SF, although the fairly 'hard SF' beginning gradually shades into epic fantasy as the god-like powers of the Families are revealed.
My copy is the original version of this story, first published in 1979. This was revised in 1988 and re-issued under the title Treason; I haven't read this version but I understand that the changes are mainly stylistic and do not affect the plot.

I realised on re-reading this that it must have subconsciously influenced me when writing Scales; the plot is very different, but each is focused on the story of one person who acquires non-human abilities of increasing power and uses these – with considerable vicissitudes – to effect a dramatic change to his world.

Friday 10 August 2007

Review: The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner

This is the sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, reviewed on 16 July. It carries on directly from the earlier story, concerning two children in Cheshire and their inadvertent adventures in a magical underworld with wizards, elves, gnomes and other more ominous beings.

It is very much a direct sequel – Garner assumes that readers would have read the earlier book, as the story plunges straight into the action without any of the introductory scene-setting which occurred in Weirdstone. It might be therefore regarded as a 'part 2' of that story. The pace is rather frantic, with one crisis following rapidly after the last, and as well as the familiar characters from Weirdstone, quite a few new ones are added. As he explains in an end note, he has researched the obscurer aspects of Celtic mythology and populated the book with creatures from there. The problem is that new creatures keep appearing in the book with little in the way of introduction or explanation.

On the whole, I felt that Gomrath lacks the charm which made Weirdstone such a success. It has a rushed feel to it, with little build-up of the characters or the plot. Those who loved Weirdstone will enjoy the book, but I found it a dispensable addendum to the earlier work.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

BBC TV series: Empathy

I don't usually watch much SFF on TV or at the cinema, but I recently saw the start of a promising new series on BBC TV, called 'Empathy'. It is set in present-day England and concerns a man, recently released from prison, who has intense visions whenever he comes into contact with people or belongings associated with them. He discovers that these visions are real, that they actually show him what the people experienced at a moment of strong emotion – such as when killing someone. As a result, he stumbles across evidence concerning a murder. He tries to alert the police, but they arrest him for the murder instead, because he knows too much about it. Eventually he is able to prove his innocence and to convince the police that his ability is real, and he joins with them to track down the killer.

In an effort to identify the cause of his visions he has various medical checks, including a scan which reveals a brain tumour which he believes is causing his visions. In SF terms, there are some problems with this basic premise: to have him picking up images and emotions from people on contact with them is one thing, to have the same visions when handling their clothes is entirely another…and there's a suggestion at the end that he might be able to see visions of the future. So there's a greater than usual suspension of disbelief needed.

The mood of the production is adult and serious, like one of the better crime series. Some interesting tensions are building up between the protagonist, his ex-wife (now remarried) and the female police officer who works with him.

Despite the dubious plot issues, I found it a quite gripping and entertaining 90 minutes and will be watching at least the next one, to see how it develops.

Sunday 5 August 2007

The length of SF novels – quantity vs quality?

Books are getting fatter – and have been doing so for decades. When I first started reading SF in the late 1950s, the typical full-length novel was no more than 200 pages long (about 80,000 words). This remained generally true throughout the 1960s but then books began to expand, resulting in today's doorstops. Clearly, the genre has something to do with it; Tolkien set a standard in the length of fantasy novels (as in so many other respects) and it seems today that no fantasy can be regarded as serious unless the story fills up at least a trilogy. However, SF has followed the trend, albeit more slowly. The question is – does quantity equal quality? Are today's novels better for being so much longer?

First some definitions, as "story length" can be a slippery concept. The stand-alone single-volume works are obvious, but the multi-volume ones less so. Some of them are simply one continuous story divided into several volumes for production or marketing convenience (e.g. 'The Lord of the Rings'). Others follow the same characters and occur in a chronological sequence, but each story is self-contained with its own ending (crime series featuring the same detective are the best example; in SFF the 'Harry Potter' books also qualify). Finally, there are the self-contained stories set within a universe created by the author, but they may feature different characters and don't occur in any particular sequence (e.g. Iain Banks' 'Culture' series). As always with such classifications, there are grey areas; for example, Catherine Asaro's 'Skolian Empire' series, in which the stories feature different principal characters and are not in chronological order, but the characters are all members of the same family and all appear in most of the books.

Anyway, for the purpose of this exercise I count each self-contained, continuous story as one work, regardless of whether it is published in one volume or several.

I will not spend much time on fantasy, as it is clear that its appeal is rather different to that of SF (acknowledging yet again that there are grey areas!). There is a strong market for escapist fantasies (usually with medieval and magical elements) in which readers can lose themselves, and the longer they go on, the better they like it. The painstaking creation of an elaborate world, usually with its own maps, genealogies, laws and customs, is an important part of the appeal. In some cases this can be obsessive; I have read of many Harry Potter fans who have no interest in reading any other fantasies, all they care about is the world which Rowling has created. It is significant that while the first in that series was short by modern standards (just over 220 pages), this rose in successive volumes to 256, then 320, then jumped to over 600 and finally to more than 700 pages. Clearly, her fans just can't get enough.

I want instead to focus on SF. Let's look at some of the longer works. Frank Herbert's 'Dune' was one of the first really successful long novels, running to around 500 pages (including appendices). Most books remained of more modest size for a long time (for example, Larry Niven's 'Ringworld' is less than 300 pages), but in recent years the length has been growing. Iain M Banks' books vary but the longest are around 500 pages, Stephen Baxter's Manifold trilogy runs to around 450 pages each, Vernor Vinge's 'A Fire Upon the Deep' is 600 pages while the prequel, 'A Deepness in the Sky' clocks up 750. Alastair Reynolds' works are in the 500-600+ range, while John Meaney's Nulapeiron trilogy (one continuous story) runs at 500-600 pages each.

Compare these with some of the classics: Alfred Bester's 'The Stars My Destination' is just 195 pages in my edition, Asimov's epic 'Foundation Trilogy' runs to 170-190 pages per volume, Arthur C Clarke's 'Childhood's End' is 190, Hal Clement's 'Mission of Gravity' is just over 200, Zelazny's 'This Immortal' is 186, Pohl & Kornbluth's 'The Space Merchants' is 170, Erik Frank Russell's 'The Great Explosion' is under 150, A E Van Vogt's 'The Weapon Shops of Isher' is less than 130 and Jack Vance's 'The Dragon Masters' is just 122 pages long. These were typical lengths for SF novels of the period.

Are the new doorstops that much better than the old masters of only a third of the length? Certainly the experience is different; the reader looks for a more detailed environment, more character development, and more complex plotting, and the best authors deliver this. 'Dune' is rightly praised and Herbert creates a compelling world, packed full of fascinating concepts and characters. However, I find that in many cases the extra detail just slows down the plot and dilutes the experience. I started Kim Stanley Robinson's award-winning 'Mars' trilogy by reading 'Red Mars' (400 pages) but found that the author's fascination with building up his description of the colonisation of the planet came at the cost of an engaging plot and characters I could care about, and didn't read the other volumes. I did manage the first two of Baxter's 'Manifold' trilogy, but found them a real effort to slog through and gave up before the third. Reynold's books are also hard work – I have had a couple on my shelf for many months, but have to work up to reading those, with long gaps in between. Meaney's 'Nulapeiron' trilogy did keep me engaged (a remarkable achievement considering the total of 600,000+ words), but I still finished each volume with a sense of relief, and will not be re-reading them for a very long time – if ever.

A good short novel delivers a faster pace, a punchier message and has all the more impact for the fact that it can be read in one or two sessions instead of being spread out over a week or more. The 'wow' factor so important in SF is also more concentrated; it has been rightly observed that 'The Stars My Destination' contains so many ideas that a modern author would spread them over at least three times as many pages. Would such an extended version be better? I doubt that very much – an important part of the story's appeal is its exhilarating pace.

I think that the 200 page novel is roughly equivalent to the 100 minute feature film, in that you can concentrate fully on the story without getting restless. 300 pages / 150 minutes is about the limit to absorb in one go. Much more than that and endurance begins to become a factor, and that eats away at enjoyment.

My time is precious and I don't like to waste it. If I'm going to take the time to read a 600 page novel, then I expect a great deal more of it than I would of a 200 page story. Sadly, I find that few of the long books really justify the extra time they take to read. Many of them leave me feeling dissatisfied, and I stop reading books before reaching the end far more often than I used to. The modern emphasis in SF seems to be on improving its literary respectability by emphasising character development over plot. Believable characters who the reader can relate to are certainly essential to the enjoyment of any story, but that doesn't take hundreds of pages to achieve.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but to me SF is just as much – if not more so – about ideas as about characterisation, and is particularly well-suited to the fast-paced, punchy thriller. I like to have my imagination stretched – it's why I read SF in the first place. Sadly, I am nowadays too often bored instead.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Review: Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold

For some reason I missed out on Bujold's Vorkosigan series - I think that I was going through a period of not reading much SF when they came out - but they kept being enthusiastically recommended to me by so many people that I thought I'd better rectify the omission. After pondering the reading order, I decided to follow the chronological story line rather than the order of publication, so kicked off with Shards of Honour.

The series is set in the distant future, in a space-opera setting of human-colonised planetary systems and warfleets of spaceships. This story concerns how the parents of Miles Vorkosigan (the hero of most of the series) met. The principal character is his mother, Cordelia Naismith, with his father Aral Vorkosigan in a secondary role. As far as I can recall, Naismith is in every scene and, although written in the third person, the story is told entirely from her point of view. The complicating factor is that they are officers in the armed forces of two hostile systems, and the plot is all about how their relationship develops despite the difficulties this causes.

The first and most important point to make is that Bujold is a great writer and storyteller. I really did not want to put this book down, and finished it in two sessions - helped by the fact that it is 250 pages long, short by modern standards but very much in my comfort zone (I'll be expanding on that in a later blog). The descriptive passages and the quality of the characterisation and plotting are superb, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I look forward with great anticipation to working my way through this series.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect book, any more than there is a perfect human being, so what can I find to criticise? For me, what makes a good book (apart from the basic essentials of good quality writing and the author's storytelling ability) is the right blend between characterisation, plot and setting (which may vary, depending on the story). What makes a good SF book is that the plot and setting contain elements which are very different from mainstream fiction and stretch the mind to achieve that "sense of wonder" which is unique to the genre. This is, however, the area in which Bujold is weakest (at least in this novel). The SF ideas are limited and unoriginal. The different planets visited are described rather sketchily and there's no attempt to tie these into coherent ecologies. A reasonable attempt is made to describe the Barrayan political system but that never came alive for me. What this story really is, is a romance in an SF setting - but perhaps that is inevitable given the basic plot.

In that respect, Bujold resembles Catherine Asaro (I posted a review of her Skolian Empire series on 18 July). Both write space operas which are great reads and strong on romance. On the basis of only reading one of Bujold's novels so far, I would give her higher marks for writing quality but lower ones for the SF elements. I'll have to see if that changes as I read through the series.