Friday 25 January 2008

Interzone 214 and Contact (1997 film)

An interesting preview of Iain M Banks' new Culture novel Matter (due out in hardback in February), within an entertaining interview with the author, is the first feature in the latest issue of the SFF mag. One to look out for when it arrives in paperback (not that I'm a skinflint, I'm just short of bookshelf space…).

There are fewer stories this time, because they include a novella; Far Horizon by Jason Stoddard, illustrated by Paul Drummond (an engagingly retro wheel-shaped space station features, repeated on the cover). One of the richest men on a rather dystopian, corporation-ruled near-future Earth, has plans for terraforming Venus which won't bear fruit for millennia. He decides that the immediate future is too uninteresting to hang around for, so he cheats time by going into cold sleep until his new planet is ready, only to discover a vast surprise.

In Pseudo Tokyo by Jennifer Linnaea, a future tourist, eagerly anticipating teleporting into Japan, finds himself not quite where he expected.

The Trace of Him by Christopher Priest is a brief glimpse of a few hours in the life of a woman returning for the funeral of a lover she had left twenty years before.

The Faces of my Friends by Jennifer Harwood-Smith is the winner of the James White Award. The last remnant of a outcast group is persecuted towards extinction in an intolerant future world; but what they are being persecuted for is an uncomfortable surprise.

Finally, The Scent of their Arrival by Mercurio D. Riviera explores the world of planet-bound but intelligent beings who communicate by scent, struggling to understand the message sent by the vast spaceship which had arrived in orbit around their world. All is not what it seems…

A good crop, as usual; original, inventive and absorbing. I've noticed that it's some time since I read a story in Interzone which I didn't enjoy. Either the standard is rising or I'm becoming acclimatised. Or perhaps I've become more tolerant of a fiction form which, even if it doesn't always work, at least doesn't involve a large investment in time to find that out. Or maybe it's all of those things.

The final section in the mag is, as usual, the pages of detailed and sometimes hard-hitting reviews of films, TV programmes and books. Top of my "might buy" list from this batch is Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson, which sounds like a story I might enjoy getting my teeth into.


I've recently seen Contact, the 1997 film of Carl Sagan's 1985 novel about the first contact from an intelligent alien species. Somehow I've managed to miss both the book and the film until now, so I came to it entirely fresh, knowing nothing except the basic premise. I must admit that I was highly impressed. The film takes an intelligent, adult approach to the issues which would be raised by such an event and gripped my attention throughout. I would have awarded it an Oscar, and given another to Jodie Foster for a brilliant central performance as the obsessed astronomer. If only all SF films were this good!

Saturday 19 January 2008

Dante's Equation by Jane Jensen

Aharon Handalman is a rabbi in modern Jerusalem who is fascinated by "Torah codes"; hunting for significant words in the patterns of letters in the book. One name which keeps recurring is that of Kobinski, a rabbi, philosopher and physicist who disappeared in Auschwitz. Denton Wyle is a vain and wealthy young American who amuses himself by researching mysterious disappearances for a magazine on popular mysteries. He too becomes intrigued by Kobinski, who apparently vanished without trace. Calder Farris is a USMC officer assigned to the Department of Defense in order to monitor scientific research for weapons potential. And Dr Jill Talcott, aided by her graduate student Nate Andros, is at a US university researching wave mechanics while pursuing an "energy pool" hypothesis, that all matter exists as energy waves in a higher dimension. The lives of these characters gradually converge as they realise that Kobinski may indeed have discovered something of great potential and that he left records which had become scattered across the world.

So far this seems to be just another modern mystery – if not mystic – thriller, but the perspective changes as the characters find out the hard way that the consequences of Kobinski's and Tallcott's work are very real. They find themselves in a series of worlds which differ radically from each other as a result of variations in the frequency of their energy waves, and their experiences fundamentally change them.

This is a very ambitious and original work by a writer best known for creating computer games. It is not only broad in scope, it is massive in length too, at nearly 700 pages. Regular readers of this blog will recall that I usually take a jaundiced view of very long SF novels, finding most of them to be either so padded as to be slow and tedious, or so packed with characters and incident that I lose track of who is doing what to whom and why. Jensen falls into neither trap: this is a well-paced and well-told story, using its length to develop the characters into distinctive and convincing individuals struggling to cope with the bizarre situations in which they find themselves - and with each other. The book engaged my attention from the start and built up into an impressive and satisfying climax. Well worth the time to read.

Saturday 12 January 2008

The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson is one of the "greats" of SF so I looked forward to re-reading this novel. Somewhat to my surprise, I was unable to recall anything about it as I read it, but at least that meant I could enjoy it without knowing the outcome! First published in 1958, The Enemy Stars was slightly tidied-up by the author in the 1980s. I have the later version published by Baen in 1987, which comes with a short-story sequel The Ways of Love, first published in 1979.

It is slightly different from my expectations, in that it is primarily about people rather than the grand mind-stretching concepts more typical of the 1950s. The story is set in the twenty-third century. A long time before, a matter transmitter had been developed which enabled virtually instantaneous transmission between worlds. The catch was that a transceiver was needed at both ends, so one had to be carried out to each star system on board a conventional, sub-light-speed space ship. Since the voyages took decades if not centuries, the ships were crewed on a rotation basis using the on-board matter transceiver to change crews every month.

A disparate crew of four strangers, two from Earth, two from different colony planets (and all men), arrive on board the Southern Cross, a ship which had been travelling longer than any other. There are tensions from the start: the two Earthmen are from very different levels of a highly stratified and paternalistic society, ruled by a dictatorial world government. The colonials had their own agendas, as relationships between Earth and its colonies were fraught, with frequent rebellions.

The Southern Cross was diverted from its target to investigate a strange, dark sun. Disaster struck, leaving the ship without a functioning transceiver and with limited food supplies. The bulk of the story is concerned with how the crew cope with their situation as they struggle to re-establish communication in increasingly desperate circumstances. There is a sub-plot running in parallel back on Earth, concerning the difficult relationship between the wife of one of the crewmen and his father, and their very different views of space travel and settlement.

I won't say anything more about the plot, or anything at all about the short-story sequel, as that would mean revealing the surprising climax of the novel. In fact, try not to look at the cover of the Baen edition in advance, because the illustration is one of the biggest spoilers I've seen!

Compared with other novels from the classic era of SF, I found this one a tad claustrophobic. The focus is on tense human relationships in a situation which is very confined, both physically and plot-wise. Despite this, the characters never really came alive for me, possibly because all four are treated fairly equally (the viewpoint switches between them) and we never get to know, or empathise with, any of them very well. Not really my favourite kind of story, but all credit to the author for an early attempt at writing science fiction with a human face.

Saturday 5 January 2008

Dark Horizons from the British Fantasy Society

December brought a batch of publications from the British Fantasy Society: Prism (their quarterly newsletter), Dark Horizons (the biannual short story plus articles mag) and a one-off special, H P Lovecraft in Britain by Stephen Jones.

This last was written by the anthologist involved with the production of Necronomicon: the Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft, due for January 2008 publication by Gollancz, and covers the patchy history of publication in the UK of the works of one of the original masters of horror. Now I am not a fan of that genre, but I have memories of reading some anthologies as a teenager and will probably pick up a copy of this one, if only through nostalgia.

Prism contained the usual crop of reviews, one of which (Attica by Garry Kilworth) sounded interesting enough to add to my "to buy" list. I have a fondness for tales involving strange worlds connected to our own; in this case via an attic which, like Dr Who's Tardis, turns out to be very much bigger on the inside than the outside suggests. There are the usual columns by the slightly less usual columnists plus an interview with Vincent Chong, the winner of the Best Artist category in the 2007 British Fantasy Awards, who also produced the dreamlike cover.

On to Dark Horizons, which this time contains six short stories and two articles, interspersed with a couple of poems and some line drawings. The cover is by Don Barker. There is also a brief dream-like vignette, What the Moon Brings, by H P Lovecraft. The articles are Roots of an Editor, an interview by Jan Edwards of Ellen Datlow, multiple award-winning editor of many fantasy and horror anthologies and magazines; and The Invisible Prince by David Sutton, a brief bio-bibliography of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the 19th century writer of fantastic horror. Combined with the information about H P Lovecraft, this December BFS batch proved quite educational!

And so to the stories:

By Right of the Stars by Anne Gay. A desert-dweller with magical powers crosses a medieval world to right the wrongs inflicted on his people.

In His Charge by Nicki Robson (a runner-up in 2006 BFS short-story competition). A preacher who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck which killed all of his followers maintains an empty church nearby. For his followers haven't entirely left.

The Perils of Pentavir by Allen Ashley. A compilation of apparently random jottings on the significance of the number five, centred on the fate of the cradle of human civilisation, Pentavir: the former fifth planet located between Mars and Jupiter.

The Dullich Assassins by David Lee Stone. In which apprentice assassins have to qualify by killing one of their teachers in single combat. Written with more humour than drama.

Father's Day by David Turnball (another runner-up in 2006 BFS short-story competition). A latter-day Frankenstein struggles to rebuild and reanimate people from the wreckage of their civilisation.

The Children of Monte Rosa by Reggie Oliver. A man recalls a childhood holiday in Portugal during which his family meets a strange couple with a macabre hobby.

An interesting variety of themes and styles, all worth reading. I enjoyed the first one the most, although I suspect that the last will stick in the mind the longest.