Friday 27 June 2008

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke

'Rendezvous with Rama' is due to be discussed later this year in the Classic Science Fiction discussion group ( ) and as it is one of the novels on my top-20 all-time SFF favourites list, this was a good enough reason for me to return to it after a long absence.

The plot is deceptively simple. It is set in the 22nd century, in what would now be regarded as a somewhat utopian future: our civilisation has survived and spread to establish permanent colonies on the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and some of the major moons of the outer planets. There is no faster-than-light drive, so humanity is confined to the Solar System. Little is said about the Earth, but it has one representative on the United Planets committees, which implies at least a co-ordination of world government. A few decades before, a major asteroid strike on Earth had caused massive damage, so Spaceguard had been set up to keep a careful watch on any bodies of significant size which looked as if they might pose a danger.

A large body is observed to be heading into the Solar System from outer space, so a probe is sent to investigate. The few images it sends from a high-speed fly-by show the object to be a perfect cylinder of enormous size, 50 km long and 20 km in diameter; clearly an alien artefact. Its huge speed means that it is almost impossible for a manned spacecraft to match velocities with it; there is only one vessel in the right position to achieve this, a survey ship called the Endeavour, captained by Commander Norton. Furthermore, the trajectory of the object, dubbed Rama, means that it will be heading very close to the sun, giving the Endeavour's crew just three weeks to explore the object before they would have to withdraw. The ship makes the rendezvous and the rest of the story is concerned with what they find there, interspersed with the debates and political manoeuvrings going on at United Planets HQ on the Moon.

Without wishing to give too much of the plot away to new readers, Rama is found to be hollow, with a breathable atmosphere and a rapid radial spin providing artificial gravity. Humans can walk around normally on the inner surface, requiring no more protection than warm clothes against the cold. At first it appears to be an entirely dead environment, but as it warms up with the approach to the Sun, it begins to show signs of life.

This is a deliberately restrained story. Clarke's writing style is spare and economical; no purple passages here, just matter-of-fact descriptions of the events. The human science described is basically that of the present day: there is not only no FTL travel, but nothing else that might cause physicists to raise their eyebrows. Rama is full of mysteries, but some of these are gradually revealed as the explorers observe the changes taking place and slowly try to piece together the purpose of the huge artefact. The science of whoever built Rama is far beyond humanity's, but the structure is mostly (if only just) understandable. This may sound dull, but it isn't; this is a great adventure story as well as being educational in using logical analysis to explain the mysteries. It is the kind of book which can be strongly recommended to anyone thinking of trying SF for the first time, so that they can get some understanding of the famous "sense of wonder" which has been at the core of SF's appeal for generations. In fact, it could be a good basis for getting young people interested in science.

By modern standards the structure of the novel can be criticised: the present fashion is to plunge straight into the action rather than provide explanatory prologues, to "show not tell" (i.e. let information come out as a result of the actions and conversations of the characters), to concentrate on developing the characters, and (of course) to write any new book as the first of a series. 'Rendezvous with Rama' fails quite comprehensively on all of these counts: while there is no formal prologue, the first few of the very short chapters are entirely devoted to setting the scene and explaining the background, with the first words of dialogue being spoken in Chapter 4. The narrator is present throughout, describing what is happening. The characterisation is slight; the Endeavour's crew are all dedicated professionals, working together in harmony (how refreshing!). Sequels to the book were not initially planned and did not begin to appear until the co-authored 'Rama II', some seventeen years after 'Rendezvous' was published in 1972. I haven't read any of them, but by all accounts the sequels are entirely different in style from the original, focusing much more on characterisation; they have been nowhere near as successful. I strongly suspect that if 'Rendezvous' were submitted by a new author for publication today an editor would call for drastic changes, if indeed the manuscript managed to get off the slush pile at all. Yet it is one of the most enduringly popular SF novels ever written, being frequently reprinted. Make of that what you will.


Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of this weekly blog. Over the year the number of visitors has steadily increased. Thanks for reading, particularly to those who have contributed by commenting on my posts.

Saturday 21 June 2008

Other Voices by Andrew Humphrey

The output of some writers defies conventional classification. Andrew Humphrey is clearly one of them judging by the thirteen stories in 'Other Voices', his second collection to be published. Elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery and mainstream drama can be found in various combinations; if one word had to be chosen to categorise them it is slipstream: "the fiction of strangeness".

A common factor is that each story focuses on a relationship – usually but not always between a man and a woman – which is under stress of some kind. His invariably male protagonists tend to be emotionally detached, unable to respond adequately to the demands of their situations. There is little in the way of upbeat themes or happy endings.

'Grief Inc' is set in a future or alternate Norwich (his stories are generally set in Norfolk and have a strong sense of place), in a country slowly disintegrating into social and organisational chaos. The protagonist, Carter, has a unique ability; just by hugging people, he can permanently remove the deep grief of bereavement, and in a world of frequent random death he is much in demand. He has a complicated relationship with Josie, his kept mistress, and is faced with the need to decide what to do as their world collapses around them. Unusually, this has a cautiously optimistic ending.

'Mimic' focuses on a small group of men who have been closeted for years in an underground bunker in a country threatened by war and an unexplained alien invasion. They are occasionally sent captured aliens to examine and dispose of, but their latest delivery has a disturbing tendency to mimic the appearance of Carter, the protagonist. The ending is rather predictable.

'Dogfight' concerns a man who is trying to establish a better relationship with his teenage son by spending a weekend away with him in a seaside caravan. He recalls his own difficult relationship with his violent grandfather, who told him gruesome tales of his exploits as a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. When out walking, they twice see a Spitfire roaring overhead – the second time being chased by a Messerschmitt. These phantoms of a bygone age gradually take on a strange and threatening reality.

Those are just the stories which stuck most in my mind, perhaps because they are the closest to conventional SFF. It might seem an unpromising collection, and I must admit that it is not my preferred type of fiction, but there is one other common factor in Humphrey's stories: they are all very well written and held my attention throughout.

(This is an extended version of a review for the British Fantasy Society)

Friday 13 June 2008

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester

TSMD was first published in parts in 1956/7 and may also be found under the title 'Tiger! Tiger!'. I first read it in the 1960s and it blew me away, becoming established after a couple of re-reads as my favourite SF novel. I hadn't read it for decades, and picked up my much-worn 1965 Panther paperback with some apprehension that it wouldn't live up to my memories. I needn't have worried. This is a dazzling firework display of a story, packed full of original ideas and maintaining a ferocious pace to an unexpected, dramatic and entirely satisfying conclusion.

The author starts with a five-page prologue to set the scene: a 24th Century in which humanity has spread throughout the Solar System, and in which the Outer Satellites are in conflict with the Inner Planets. At the start of the century, a man named Jaunte accidentally discovered teleportation – the ability to transport himself from one place to another by an effort of will – and soon almost everyone was "jaunting". There turned out to be a 1,000-mile limit, though, and no-one could jaunte through space.

Prologues are out of fashion these days, the current orthodoxy being to plunge the reader straight into the action, but I am frankly rather tired of having to read the first few chapters of a story before I can work out what's going on. Bester uses his prologue to outline the kind of society, much altered by jaunting, in which his story takes place, and his book is all the better for it.

We are introduced to the principal character, Gulliver Foyle, as he struggles for survival on board a wrecked spaceship near the Asteroid Belt. An uneducated man of limited ability but great potential, he is only spurred to take the action needed to save himself by the casual spurning of his plight by a passing spaceship. The rest of the story concerns his ferocious battle for revenge against those who abandoned him, a battle which sees him ruthlessly using and abusing all those around him in order to claw his way to the wealth and fame he needs to achieve his aims. In the process, he educates himself, learns to control his rage, acquires a conscience and finally realises his undreamed-of potential.

It has rightly been said that any modern author would spread the ideas scattered liberally through TSMD over a fat trilogy, but Bester packs them all into 195 pages. Jaunting, one-way telepathy, a woman who can only see in the infrared, the interrogation techniques of the Nightmare Theatre and the Megal Mood, a rewired nervous system to provide blinding speed and an automatic "Commando killer" programme, exotic drugs, sympathetic blocks which automatically kill people if they try to reveal secrets, an explosive of almost unimaginable power which can be detonated only by thought, and a vivid account of the confused senses of synaesthesia. The settings include a lost asteroid colony made up of descendents of scientists who regard scientific formulae as religious texts, a prison deep within the Gouffre Berger cave system, an Earth dominated by vast corporations whose hereditary leaders form the nobility, and the Martian base of a Sklotsky sect whose members voluntarily have their nervous systems severed. It's all here, wrapped up in an exhilarating ride of a story. For me, the only jarring note which showed the age of the novel was the inclusion of a character so poisoned by radiation that no-one else could survive near him, while he remained healthy.

Critics may argue that modern novels use their greater length and slower pace to include much better characterisation, but in doing so they lose the relentless, unputdownable drama of TSMD. Science fiction is essentially about new ideas and concepts, about stretching the imagination, and TSMD delivers this better than any other novel I know.

Bester (1913-1987) had previously won a Hugo award for 'The Demolished Man' (1953), a novel about telepathy which, although good by most standards, doesn't really compare with TSMD. However, he didn't write another novel after TSMD for nearly twenty years, and nothing he subsequently wrote achieved the same dramatic impact. This is disappointing, but it can't detract from his achievement in writing what is still, in my opinion (and that of many well-known SF authors), the greatest of the classics of the genre. Anyone with an interest in science fiction should read this book, at least once!

Saturday 7 June 2008

'The Anansi Boys' and 'Coraline' by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is establishing a niche as a specialist in the bizarre, and 'Anansi Boys' is no exception. Set in the present, it features Charlie Nancy, an ordinary and rather hapless young man who travels from England to Florida for the funeral of his long-estranged father. He is told that his father may have been the spider god Anansi – a deity of the trickster kind. Furthermore, he discovers that he has a previously unsuspected brother, Spider, who seems to have inherited their father's abilities. When Spider arrives at his London home and begins to play havoc with Charlie's work and love life, Charlie returns to Florida to find an occult way of ridding himself of this troublesome sibling, and that's when events begin to slide out of control.

Well-written, original, intriguing, often amusing, occasionally dark and a tad horrific but basically warm-hearted and likeable, this is an entertaining read which deserves the praise it has received.
'Coraline' is a different kind of story altogether. Only a novella of around 40,000 words, this is a fairy tale intended for children. Not some twee, sugar-coated tale to send them quietly off the sleep, more like a Grimm one which will have them looking nervously under their beds.

Coraline is a contemporary young girl who has just moved with her parents into a newly-converted flat within a large old house. She is intelligent and self-confident and loves exploring. Her personality has some amusingly realistic touches, for instance she turns her nose up at her father's "recipes" (which sound very tasty), preferring to eat microwave chips and pizza instead. She finds an old door which leads nowhere, opening onto a brick wall created during the conversion work. She can't help being fascinated by it, however, and one day opens it to find an empty corridor. At the end of that is a replica of her flat, and even a close replica of her parents, but something is terribly wrong. To survive and to save her parents, Coraline has to call on all of her wits and courage.

Despite the dark and horrifying elements, this is an optimistic story of bravery and determination triumphing over evil. Neil Gaiman is a versatile as well as talented author.