Saturday 27 October 2007

Review: Jog Rummage, by Grahame Wright

This little book has been sitting on my shelf for almost three decades. I recollected having enjoyed it the first time (I wouldn't have kept it otherwise), but had almost completely forgotten the plot, so it was obviously time for a re-read.

And what a strange story this is. The first part concerns a mysterious world inhabited by Jogs and Rats. It gradually becomes clear (although it is never spelled out) that the Jogs are hedgehogs. These are no ordinary animals; they are intelligent and converse with each other (the two species share a language), and seem very human. The Jogs and the Rats live on opposite sides of a large body of water and their relationships are sometimes cooperative, sometimes antagonistic. This part of the story is told entirely from their perspective (and especially that of the young but wise Jog, Rummage) so many aspects of their environment are taken for granted and not explained, leaving the reader to puzzle out what they might be; particularly the fixed Moon and the Great Star. The climax of this part of the tale is an expedition to the Great Star, which can be reached only by climbing a huge mountain.

The second part takes up the story from the perspective of Elizabeth, a young and lonely disabled girl. She has a strange and vivid imagination, and lives in her own world as much as the real one; it is difficult for the reader to sort fact from fantasy in her thoughts. The context is contemporary, in an unnamed town or city somewhere in England. She lives with her father who scrapes out a living as a street newspaper-seller, and who has a mysterious past which he won't explain to her. Elizabeth imagines a golden age in the past, when her mother was still alive, and is convinced that if she can only discover what happened to her father and put it right, all will be well. By chance, she stumbles on the world of the Jogs and the Rats as she searches for the answer to her father's plight.

The third part of the story switches back to the perspective of the Jogs and the Rats, and reveals what Elizabeth's arrival means to their world.

This novel is difficult to characterise. Possibly as a result of this, it does not seem to have been republished since the 1970s and the author isn't listed as having published anything else. The world of the Jogs and the Rats is nothing like as light-hearted as in "The Wind in the Willows", it tends more towards the grimmer tone of "Watership Down". The depiction of the human world is also realistic and at times brutal. The narrative is adult and often philosophical, especially in the human world (the viewpoint switches between various adults as well as Elizabeth). The cover text compares the work to Tolkien, but I find it difficult to see any similarities. Despite first appearances, this is not a book for young children. It is, however, a very unusual and rather haunting story, and has been returned to its place of honour on my shelf.

Sunday 21 October 2007

Review: Wolfbane by Frederick Pohl and C M Kornbluth

It is the 23rd century. Two hundred years before, a small planet had entered the Solar System, captured the Earth and the Moon, and pulled them out of their orbit into interstellar space. The controlling intelligences of the wanderer were enigmatic mobile Pyramids measuring 35 yards on each edge and possessing incomprehensible powers. One of them planed off the top of Mount Everest and had sat there ever since. Every attempt by humanity to attack the Pyramids and their planet ended in failure, and the Sun had become just another star in the night sky. The Earth remained habitable because the Pyramids turned the Moon into a mini-Sun. This faded over time and had to be relit every five years, causing a cycle of heat and cold which played havoc with the Earth's climates, sea levels and agriculture.

Humanity had suffered badly from these changes and the population had dropped to just 100 million, most of whom had to survive on 1,000-1,500 calories a day. The perpetual hunger had led to a low-energy lifestyle in which people lived their lives slowly within an elaborate structure of approved social behaviour, with every word and gesture being carefully stylised (the authors have some fun with this). Displays of emotion were solecisms, as was any attempt to take more than one was entitled to. Meditation was the most popular pastime, with the aim being to achieve "Translation": when someone reached the state of having a perfectly blank mind, a swirl (known as an "Eye") formed in the air above them and they disappeared in an instant.

Not all of humanity fitted into this pattern. A small minority, called "Wolves" by the rest, lived selfish, competitive, aggressive lives. When discovered they were seized and ritually killed (in a particularly unpleasant way) by the majority.

Glenn Tropile was a young misfit who, despite his traditional upbringing, had discovered and deliberately encouraged Wolfish tendencies in himself. He was caught and sentenced to death, but managed to escape with the aid of the members of a settlement composed entirely of Wolves, which had been able to establish itself and remain hidden from the rest. The Wolves ate well, being efficient scavengers, and they did not meditate. But Tropile could not give up this one aspect of his former life, and was duly Translated.

More of the plot cannot be revealed without spoiling it for new readers, but suffice to say that the Pyramids had a particular use for humanity which eventually proved to be their own weakness. The Wolves lead the resistance against them, taking the battle to the Pyramids' planet.

Pohl and Kornbluth were among the leading SF writers in the 1940s and 1950s. They wrote separately but are probably best remembered for their collaborations, of which "The Space Merchants" is the most famous. "Wolfbane" was first published in 1959. The plot was a departure from traditional genre themes: to start a novel with the Earth being wrenched out of the Solar System, leading to the death of 99% of humanity, was unusual to say the least. Because the human culture described is quite alien to us (although not unlike that of parts of ancient China) the story has not dated in the same way as most SF of this period. It could have been written today, although a modern author would certainly make the story stretch over far more than its 160 pages and would spend a lot more time in developing the characters. I'm not at all sure that this would be an improvement: "Wolfbane", like so many of the products of the "Golden Age" of SF, is a novel of ideas and concepts to stretch the imagination. In that respect it still works today, benefiting also from being so fast-paced that it's difficult to put down. It's well worth the brief time needed to read this little classic.

Saturday 13 October 2007

Scales review

An uncommon sight: a review of my novel Scales has been spotted on my discussion forum, here!

Those able to summon up a vague interest can check out other reviews and read the first couple of chapters of the novel online, via links from my home page here.

Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku

Not fiction this time, but a book which seeks to explain to the non-scientist the development of current ideas in advanced physics. Tailor-made for me then, as although I subscribe to the 'New Scientist' magazine to try to keep up with developments, I have found current cosmological concepts to be more or less incomprehensible.

The author of 'Parallel Worlds' explains the revolution in thinking from Newton through Einstein to quantum physics, string theory and beyond. He explains that the existence of an infinite number of parallel, branching worlds is not a fanciful SF notion but may well be an inevitable consequence of the quantum universe. He concludes with speculation about the way in which our universe may develop in the far future, and what an advanced civilisation might be able to do to escape from its fate as the universe dies.

Michio Kaku has an accessible writing style, easy to follow, with no equations (except, of course, E=mc2) and with any necessary jargon clearly explained. There is a glossary at the end in case you forget the meaning of any of the terms he uses. Absorption is also helped by the way in which he divides each chapter into manageable chunks, each with its own sub-heading. This is not a kiddies' primer though, and concentration is required to understand the strange concepts which he describes.

What will be of particular interest to SF readers is that Kaku is clearly an SF fan himself. The book is littered with references to SF books, films and TV series, as he uses them to illustrate the concepts he describes. The Matrix films, Star Trek and Sliders are all mentioned as are many novels; for instance, a couple of pages are devoted to an analysis of Greg Bear's 'Eon'. I was surprised by some of the early SF novels he discussed which I was unaware of, for example Edwin Abbot's 1884 novel 'Flatland', concerning a race of beings who inhabit a two-dimensional world and are completely unaware of the existence of the third dimension.

So did the author succeed in his aim in making modern physics understandable? Well, I won't pretend to have completely grasped all of the weird, counter-intuitive concepts he discusses (I suspect that a doctorate in physics would be needed for that) but I do feel much more comfortable about tackling those articles on cosmology in 'New Scientist'. It is also, of course, an excellent reference work for hard SF authors looking for a scientific basis for their plots. Highly recommended.

Saturday 6 October 2007

Interzone 212

This magazine shows strange variations in the binding method, paper quality and the use of colour. This issue (Sept-Oct 07) is on matt paper and monochrome only, except for the cover. The format remains the same however, with SFF news and comment, several short stories, and book, film and other media reviews (including podcasts this time), plus the odd author interview (Charles Stross in this issue – not that he's particularly odd…).

The stories (all of which tend towards the bizarre in the Interzone tradition) are as follows:

Feelings of the Flesh, by Douglas Elliott Cohen. A fantasy set on what seems to be a post-apocalyptic Earth in which humanoid Aberrates live alongside (and in a state of lethal conflict with) normal humans. These Aberrates are of various types, but all have the ability to remove a particular sense from humans for their own pleasure, and are called Tasters, Sighters, Feelers, Listeners or Smellers accordingly. The story concerns a bounty hunter's long search for the Feeler who killed his love. A grim tale, but it finishes on a hopeful note.

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth Lyn Powell. A near-future tale concerning a cartoon character, transferred to virtual reality, who takes on a life of his own through an online learning programme, with catastrophic results for human technology. What you might call a "pre-apocalyptic" tale.

A Handful of Pearls by Beth Bernobich. A disturbing fantasy about a sexually disturbed man and a tortured young girl.

Dada Jihad by Will McIntosh. Another story in what could be described as a near-future apocalyptic world, in this case as a result of a gradual deterioration in civilisation as a result of present trends, rather than any dramatic single event. A young scientist struggles to earn her PhD, very much against the odds.

The Algorithm by Tim Ackers. A fantasy in a medieval-level world concerning a Church based on machinery found in strange vessels which occasionally float downriver and are believed to come from God. One of these is found to contain a young girl, who has a message…This is really about the arbitrary way in which humanity builds belief structures, and the intensity with which they will be defended.

All of the stories are worth a read, if collectively rather depressing (it would be nice to have a few upbeat tales scattered through future editions), but The Algorithm seems most likely to stick in the memory. However, I had to laugh at the editorial note at the end of that one: "Tim wrote this story in a lined moleskin notebook with a brushed aluminium Lamy Studio fountain pen and antique brown ink." Surely a blatant bid for inclusion in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner!