Friday 28 March 2008

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

I kept reading about how good the two Hyperion books were so I eventually bought an omnibus edition including both Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. It is the size of a substantial doorstop so it sat on my shelf for a few months while I found excuses to read shorter books. However, I eventually stiffened my sinews, gritted my teeth and got stuck in.

It isn't quite what I expected, which was a conventional, if superior, space opera. In fact, it's an unusual book with an unconventional structure and an inconclusive ending (just as well I have its sequel available, or I'd be feeling frustrated). The setting is a 29th century human commonwealth known as the Hegemony, which spreads over a couple of hundred worlds in one sector of the galaxy. Two other groups with a major influence on events are the Ousters, a renegade human group who had departed long before to live in space away from the rest of humanity and are now in conflict with the Hegemony, and the TechnoCore, consisting of human-created artificial intelligences which had thrown off human control and now had a parallel existence, mostly virtual but occasionally via human avatars. One of the avatars with a significant role is a recreation of the poet John Keats; the author is clearly a fan.

The plot concerns seven very diverse people called by The Church of the Shrike to undertake a hazardous pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on the remote world of Hyperion. These mysterious, empty objects predate humanity and are surrounded by strange time eddies. They are also haunted by the deadly Shrike, a legendary being of only partly-glimpsed form consisting mainly of red multi-faceted eyes and steel blades, with the ability to appear and disappear at will. When the seven arrive on Hyperion, they are greeted by chaos; the Shrike has broken away from the constraints which had kept it close to the Time Tombs and is roaming the country, killing at will. The spaceport is besieged by the entire human population who are desperate to leave. Despite this, the seven proceed with their pilgrimage across an empty land, believing that they stand a chance of unravelling the mystery of the Tombs and the Shrike.

The seven were previously strangers to one another so they spend their travelling time telling their stories in turn to the group in order to explain their interest in the Tombs, and the novel principally consists of these stories. This structure is reminiscent of (and presumably inspired by) Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The stories are an astonishingly varied and inventive collection, ranging from a poet whose muse was the Shrike, through a legendary military commander who appeared to have been manipulated by it, to the elderly father of a daughter who, as a young archaeologist, had been caught in a time anomaly while exploring the tombs and from then on had lost rather than gained age, and was now a baby in his arms.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have a general preference for shorter and faster-paced novels. The deliberate pacing of Hyperion coupled with the story-telling format (which, contrary to the general advice for novel writing, largely consists of "telling" not "showing") sacrifices some of the buzz of excitement of a good thriller. However, Hyperion is very well written, highly original and intriguing. I am thoroughly hooked and looking forward to reading the sequel.

Friday 21 March 2008

Interzone 215 and Vertigo

April's edition of the bimonthly SFF magazine contains the usual news column plus book, film and TV reviews (although in this case the book reviews are various reviewers' books of the year: a useful checklist to make sure that I haven't missed anything). There's a long interview of Mike Carey, author of the Felix Castor series and a comic book storyteller, exploring the way he works and the thinking behind his books. Then there are the usual half-dozen short stories illustrated by Darren Winter (who also did the cover), Warwick Fraser-Coombe and Chris Nurse.

The Endling by Jamie Barras: There is a fashion for writing stories which plunge into a strange environment with no explanation, leaving it to the reader to try to figure out what is going on as the tale progresses. This can work very well, but it requires careful judgment by the writer, who needs to provide enough clues along the way to keep the reader on board. I have to say that this story lost me from beginning to end; even after I had finished I wasn't really sure what it was all about. Too many strange settings and characters, some obviously non-human, too many unfamiliar terms and concepts thrown in with too little context to work out what they might be. I did consider reading it again to see if I could make better sense of it the second time around, but the story's quite long and life's too short.

Dragonfly Summer by Patrick Samphire: Another oddball, although for a different reason. This features two men and two women returning for the first time to a place they had visited together as students – a windmill by the sea – and concerns their relationships and the events which happened then. Except that they find there is no windmill there, and never had been. Not a bad story, but not obviously SFF.

Crystal Nights by Greg Egan: One of the world's richest men is paying the best programmers to evolve artificial intelligence by developing initially simple virtual beings then applying a carefully controlled process of natural selection. With the aid of a new generation of superfast computers, the evolutionary process is extremely quick and soon the AIs are beginning to outstrip their human creators, with unexpected results.

Holding Pattern by Joy Marchand: An airliner in a holding pattern, a harassed stewardess, and a cast of passengers including an alien in human disguise. The alien and the stewardess are the only two who realise that they've been in this situation before; over and over again.

Street Hero by Will McIntosh: A self-educated street tough tries to find a reason for existence in a dystopian near-future America; a popular setting for recent Interzone stories, in this case one in which the genetic modification genie is well and truly out of the bottle (or, rather, the secure laboratory). Lethal designer viruses strike without warning, and modified bamboo springs up with terrifying speed to clog fields and cities. However, there is a purpose behind it.

The Imitation Game by Rudy Rucker: The homosexual computer genius Alan Turing tries to arrange an illegal tryst in 1954 Manchester. But did he really die of cyanide poisoning as the history books say?

A mixed bag this time, with not so many hits for me – or, to look at it another way, a selection for various tastes.


The other week I read Vertigo by W G Sebald. This is not science fiction or fantasy, but kind of mixture of history, autobiography and travelogue, with what seems to be a large dose of fiction thrown in. I bought it because it had received glowing reviews, being touted by The Literati as one of the books Which Must Be Read. Well, it was sufficiently well-written and interesting for me to read to the end, but I can't say that it was a life-changing experience. The narrative was very disjointed, the characterisation slight, and there was no focus.

Oh well, I suppose I'd better get back inside my genre ghetto. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised to be disappointed by Great Modern Literature. After all, look at modern art (but only if you feel like a laugh). I felt like cheering when several years ago Ivan Massow, then chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, criticised much modern art as "pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat". I can't find the exact quote now, but if I recall correctly he added something like: "Great art is a combination of imagination and technical skill. Skill without imagination is craftsmanship. Imagination without skill is modern conceptual art". He was forced to resign, of course: the Emperor which is the modern art establishment doesn't like anyone pointing out that its wonderful new clothes don't amount to anything.

Friday 14 March 2008

Mammoth by John Varley

John Varley was one of my favourite authors in the 1980s, and his Gaean trilogy (Titan, Wizard and Demon) is still among my twenty favourite SFF works. Somehow I've managed to miss reading anything by him since then, so I opened Mammoth with anticipation.

The time is the near future, and an intact mammoth is found frozen solid in Canada. Lying alongside the body are the equally frozen corpses of a man and a woman - the man wearing a wristwatch and carrying a metal briefcase. Not an original idea, but a good start for a time-travel mystery. We are soon introduced to the main characters: Howard Christian, one of the richest men on the planet and obsessed with the idea of using frozen mammoth sperm to breed a mammoth/elephant cross; Matt Wright, the brilliant mathematician he recruits to solve the puzzle of the strange device in the briefcase which he believes to be a time machine; Susan Morgan, the vet and circus trainer recruited to oversee the pregnant elephants; and Warburton, Christian's formidable fixer.

In the early chapters, the plot is interrupted by extracts from a briefing about mammoths aimed at young people; a device to fill in some of the background. Despite these interruptions, the story rattles along at a good pace, with Wright and Morgan transported back into the past and returning accompanied by some live mammoths. So far, an entertaining and gripping adventure. Then, about half-way through, the story grinds to a halt. It picks up after a five year gap with a twenty-page infodump with scarcely a word of dialogue, followed by an even longer section largely concerned with the characters bringing each other up to date with what had happened in the intervening years. It seems that Varley is fascinated by circuses, as he devotes a whole chapter to an account of a performance featuring mammoths, and also describes a second performance in some detail. With all of this, it's only in the final third of the book that the action gets moving again, with Morgan, Wright and a mammoth being hunted across North America.

As the action proceeds, the key question begins to trouble the characters: the identity of the frozen bodies found at the beginning of the tale. This is finally resolved in an unexpected and satisfying way.

Varley's approach to time travel is idiosyncratic and somewhat unfashionable. The mechanics of the process turn out to have as much to do with philosophy as technology. He also sticks with one time-line rather than the nowadays more common parallel worlds, and blithely accepts the paradoxes which result, one of which (clearly signalled early on) is a real whopper.

All in all, an enjoyable light read despite the uneven pacing, but this one won't be making it into my top twenty.

Friday 7 March 2008

BSFA Vector: Nov/Dec 2007

The most recent issue of the British Science Fiction Association's "critical journal" Vector (a mixture of reviews and articles) focuses on "reimagining history", with several items considering the field of alternate (or alternative) history. These are stories in which the world is different from the one which we know because of a significant event which happened - or didn't happen - at some point in the past. This key element of all alternate histories is known as the POD (Point Of Departure) or, by some fans, as the Jonbar point, named after John Barr in Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time (1938). An example might be the historical claim by a British infantryman that he had Hitler in his rifle sights at the end of the Great War, but decided not to fire as Hitler was wounded and posed no threat. If he had squeezed that trigger, how might history have changed?

Alternate histories may concern themselves with just the one Earth which results from the change, or may adopt the idea of branching universes in which each POD creates a new world which runs in parallel with the others (with the possibility of communication or travel between these parallel worlds). In either case, the actual POD might not even be specified, leaving the reader to consider what it might have been.

The first of the items in Vector is, literally, exemplary: an account of the development of a form of fiction called "plausible-fabulism", written by Daud al-Musafir al-Khilafahi bin Ammar ibn al-Afrangi, a critic living in a world in which the Muslim Caliphate includes Britain and America.

The editorial by Niall Harrison comments on the recent popularity of alternate histories, pointing out that they tend to be categorised as either science fiction (e.g. McAuley's Cowboy Angels) or fantasy (Stross' Merchant Princes series), depending on the author's treatment of the story or the publisher's whim, and that there is even a sub-category of "fantastic alternate histories", such as Novik's Temeraire books. Jo Walton and Guy Gavriel Kay are interviewed for this piece, giving their own perspectives. Kay argues the benefits of the "universalising" effect of setting a story in a world detached from our reality, which thereby bypasses the preconceptions and prejudices of readers, although Walton points out that any imagined world which is close to reality has an obligation to actual history. One controversial issue with such close worlds is whether to include, and if so how to treat, historical people. Does "anything go", or should they be left alone, or included but treated as accurately as our understanding of them permits? Harrison concludes by quoting from The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction: "At its best, the alternate history reminds us that we all change the world".

This is followed by Edward James' very well-referenced and thoughtful article, The Limits of Alternate History. He also draws distinctions between different kinds of alternate history, but is more concerned with the rules of the genre. He argues that the most elegant form is the most realistic type, with a credible POD (such as Hitler being shot) and a well-informed attempt to extrapolate what could plausibly have happened next. He observes that such an approach is not restricted to novelists, having attracted serious historians as well. This goes back to the 1st century BC when Livy speculated about what might have happened if Alexander the Great had not died young, through to the present fad for "counterfactual histories" led by Niall Ferguson, with an interesting example en route being Winston S. Churchill's If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg, which appeared in If; Or, History Rewritten in 1931. James presents an interesting summary of the arguments concerning why historians should, or should not, get involved in such speculations.

Various sub-types of alternate history are discussed by James, as well as the interesting issue of how much the author should assume the reader will know. If a story includes, without comment, lots of consequential changes to the detail of history, readers unfamiliar with the period will miss a lot of the pleasure: but if the author spells out what the changes are, those who do know the period are likely to be irritated.

James has less enthusiasm for the "impure" variations of alternate history, including those popular ones which merge with other SF themes such as time travel (with the time-travellers changing history, or trying to prevent others from changing it), or "time-slip" stories in which an entire town, fleet or army might suddenly find themselves back in the past. Multiverse stories, in which characters can travel between parallel worlds, are also categorised as "impure". He concludes by arguing that alternate history is best kept separate from the themes and tropes of SF, and would thereby form a genre of its own.

Next come two authors writing about their approaches to writing; Juliet E. McKenna and Chris Roberson. McKenna is the author of the Aldabreshin Compass series and her article, History Around the Margins, explores the female viewpoint, both in fiction and in reality, and describes the wealth of historical resources now available to authors which enable them to enrich their historical fantasies with period detail. Not specifically about alternate histories, but the references she cites would be very useful to AH authors setting their stories in an alternate but realistic past. Roberson's History Repurposed - The Celestial Empire Stories describes his approach to creating his alternate world, which is the background to stories stretching from the past into the future. In all of these, Imperial China rules the world (with the exception of the Aztecs in some stories) as a result of an obscure POD concerning a 15th century murder investigation which leads to a different emperor taking the throne.

Graham Sleight's The New X concludes this issue (apart from no less than 27 SFF book reviews), by putting a case for why we should regard alternate history as SF. He argues that the common themes are the use of extrapolation, in which the author works forwards from a known point (whether in the past, the present or the future) to develop a world different from our own; and in the effect of the stories, in that the author has to develop a realistic invented world as well as presenting the characters.

Altogether an excellent issue dealing thoughtfully with an increasingly popular genre. For anyone interested in this, the articles (especially Edward James') are packed with references to novels (and "counterfactuals") which embody different aspects of alternate history.

I have only one complaint: the contributors incomprehensibly neglected to mention a couple of novels which incorporate alternate history themes, albeit in entirely different ways: The Foresight War and Scales! Perhaps it's just as well, though, as I fear that James would categorise both of them as "impure". TFW's POD is entirely implausible, concerning as it does present-day British and German historians waking up in 1934, although in my defence I did do my best to make the resulting developments as plausible as I could (and did a lot of research to that end). In contrast, Scales is set in the present day and mostly on our Earth, but includes some very different parallel Earths with PODs (not always specified) ranging from a few centuries to a hundred million years ago.

Sunday 2 March 2008

Red Shift by Alan Garner

Alan Garner is best known for writing children's fantasies like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, previously reviewed on this blog. However, he went on to write more challenging novels, still usually classified as for "young adults" but with plenty in them to keep adults absorbed. Red Shift is perhaps the most extreme example of this.

The plot follows three linked threads. The first and main one concerns the relationship of a girl and a brilliant but disturbed boy in their late teens in contemporary Cheshire. The other two feature the lives of their earlier counterparts in the same locations, during the English Civil War and in Roman Britain. Apart from the characters and the locations, a key linking element is a polished stone axe which appears in all three threads.

The style of writing is decidedly unconventional. There are no chapters, and the story chops between the threads without warning. Long time gaps can occur between consecutive sentences. There is little description or narrative to explain what is going on. The book consists almost entirely of dialogue between the characters; a clipped, elliptical form of speech which leaves the reader having to concentrate to fathom what is happening. It is not an easy read.

Neither is there much cheer in the three plots, which are downbeat and grim. Ursula Le Guin is quoted on the cover as describing this as "a bitter, complex, brilliant book", and I don't disagree. I found this short novel worth the effort to read despite my somewhat unenthusiastic description, and would particularly recommend it to those interested in the craft of writing.


My novel Scales has received another review, this time on Spiral Galaxy Reviews. There have now been nine reviews posted on the web (summarised and linked to on my website); one bad one, a couple of middling and the rest fairly good. Maybe I'll keep writing after all...