Friday 25 July 2008

Wildside by Steven Gould

Steven Gould is currently best known as the author of Jumper, the SF novel about teleportation which was recently made into a film. It's a very good book (and I hope to re-read and review it here someday) but everything I've read about the film convinces me not to bother watching it, as Hollywood seems to have surpassed even its remarkable record of achievement in turning good books into poor films.

Anyway, to Wildside: Charlie Newell is a young American who has recently inherited a farm from his long-lost uncle. Close to the farmhouse is a large barn which backs into a small hill. Charlie finds a concealed doorway leading to a wide tunnel through the hill, and on the other side is another world: an alternative version of Earth, in which humans have never lived. Huge herds of bison roam, pursued by sabretooth cats, while vast flocks of passenger pigeons darken the sky.

Charlie is an unusual 18 year old; thoughtful, resourceful and rather obsessive about careful planning. With the aid of some friends he sets out to make his fortune from his discovery. With no roads this requires air transport, so Charlie's team qualify as pilots and drag disassembled planes through the tunnel to use on the Wildside. There is a lot of detail about light-plane flying and parachuting, which the author has evidently researched thoroughly. Needless to say, all does not go smoothly, especially when the authorities begin to suspect that there's something odd going on. All Charlie's wits and determination are required to keep ahead of his opposition.

The story is told in the first person by Charlie, and as he is a modest and unassuming guy the style is very matter-of-fact. Indeed, it is a plain, conventional and rather old-fashioned kind of tale, but is none the worse for that. The adventures which befall him and his friends are more than dramatic and exciting enough to grip any reader's attention and make the book difficult to put down until the unexpected, sobering but very topical conclusion.

The story is also about growing up, and learning to cope with relationship problems and the adult world. It succeeds admirably on all counts, and can be warmly recommended to readers of all ages.

Friday 18 July 2008

Interzone 216 – the Mundane issue

First, apologies for the late posting of this review, but I didn't notice that my subscription had run out… This is a special issue of the British SFF magazine, which as well as including the usual news and reviews, focuses on "Mundane SF". For the benefit of those who haven't been keeping up, this is the new term for SF which remains within (or close to) the boundaries of known science. So, no FTL starships, matter transmitters, time travel, alternate worlds, aliens or psionic powers. That's most of SF disposed of, then.

Of course, stories using such a restricted palette have always formed a strand of SF, including classics such as Wells' The War in the Air, Orwell's 1984 or Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. What has drawn recent attention is the claim of its proponents (notably Geoff Ryman, who features in this issue) that Mundane is intended to make SF "the best it can be". Sorry, but I don't buy that. Any viewpoint which regards as second-rate the themes of the vast majority of SF, including most of the works esteemed as among the best in the genre, is somewhat skewed, to put it mildly. An analogy has popped into my mind, prompted by the fact that the Olympics are almost upon us. Mundane is rather like the walking races; the athletes are effectively hobbled, and although they can produce some impressive performances within their artificial rules, they will all be blown away by those free to run. It also might help if they chose a better name: one of the definitions of "mundane" in my dictionary is "ordinary: dull: banal".

And so to the stories, which are all supposed to comply with the Mundane rules.

How to Make Paper Aeroplanes by Lavie Tidhar: A collection of brief items of information, narrative sections and conversation, all building up a picture of some westerners working in a remote group of tropical islands, apparently in the present day. Quite cleverly done in establishing an atmosphere, but not a lot happens and I can't see why this is categorised as SF at all.

Endra – from Memory by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: A more traditional tale, concerning the relationship between a harbourmaster and an exotic female sea captain who occasionally visits. The milieu features a general background of cities lost to rising sea levels, sailing craft with wind-powered generators for auxiliary power, and with most people's horizons being very limited. It is not clear whether this is set in our future or on an alternate world or even another planet altogether, as none of the place names or languages mentioned is familiar. Again, quite strong on atmosphere, but it has more of the feel of fantasy.

The Hour is Getting Late by Billie Aul: Definitely in our future now, with a re-enactment of the Woodstock pop festival run both live and as a virtual-reality experience, with presenters mixing the two with film of the original event for transmission to a world-wide audience. The plot concerns the will-they-won't-they interaction between a formerly married couple, one of them performing, the other editing and mixing the VR transmission. A look at some possible social consequences of our developing technology.

Remote Control by R R Angell: An intriguing and uncomfortably believable premise: the southern border of the USA is guarded by a string of unmanned watchtowers, each carrying sensors and remotely-controlled guns. For a fee, any US citizen can spend time controlling a turret over the internet, watching out for illegal immigrants and shooting any they see. As well as saving the staff needed for monitoring, this is so popular that it funds the whole exercise. I can almost see that happening…Almost my favourite, but pipped at the post by the next one.

The Invisibles by Elisabeth Vonarburg: definitely into familiar SF territory here, in a future in which humanity lives in cities within sealed, protected bubbles. There are various zones for different purposes, linked by public transport running through tunnels. Two separate individuals make routine journeys only to discover that they end up in entirely different and unknown places, and they subsequently find that their world is not quite what it seemed. My pick of the collection, and the only one I might feel prompted to re-read.

Into the Night by Anil Menon: an elderly, recently-widowed Indian travels across a future world to spend his remaining time with his daughter. The story is about cultural displacement, in the clash between the father's traditional beliefs and the social effects of the advanced communications technology that his daughter and friends constantly deploy.

Talk is Cheap by Geoff Ryman: yet another rather elderly recently-widowed (it appears) man, whose job is monitoring the environment of a fragile future ecosystem, and who tries to establish a relationship with a woman from a very different background. Advanced communications also feature, but there is a more optimistic ending than in the previous sad tale.

It should be clear by now that if there is a linking factor, is that these tales are mostly concerned with relationships and atmosphere rather than plot. They are not bad by any means and I enjoyed reading them, but I wouldn't want my SFnal diet restricted to this fare for more than a minority of the time.

Saturday 12 July 2008

'The Warrior's Apprentice' and 'The Vor Game' by Lois McMaster Bujold

These are the third and fourth books (in terms of the chronological story line) in the author's Vorkosigan series, and the first to feature the principal character of the series, Miles Vorkosigan (he appeared as a young child at the end of Barrayar, the second book). The first two books were reviewed here on 1 August and 9 September 2007.

In The Warrior's Apprentice Miles is now 17 and, as a result of damage inflicted while in the womb, has a stunted and misshapen body with very brittle bones. At the start of the book, these handicaps prevent his acceptance into the Barrayan Imperial Military Service Academy, despite his brilliant mind. So he goes on what was meant to be a peaceful visit to his grandmother on the planet Beta, but which turns into an adventure involving gun running in a war zone and space battles with mercenaries, in which Miles plays a leading role and has to grow up far more quickly than he finds comfortable.

The Vor Game is set three years later, immediately after Miles has graduated from the Military Academy. He is posted to a remote base on Barrayar where he inevitably gets involved in a controversial incident, leading to his 'secondment' to Imperial Security to get him out of the way. He is despatched into space to locate the mercenary force he took control of in the previous story, with instructions to stop them from becoming involved in a tense diplomatic situation involving several widely-dispersed civilisations. Needless to say, the situation turns out to be more complex than imagined and Miles has to think on his feet and react quickly to a variety of unexpected developments.

My reactions to these stories were much the same as I expressed in my reviews of the two earlier Vorkosigan books (posted here on 1 August and 9 September 2007). Bujold focuses very much on the human angle and has the ability to get inside her character's minds in a totally convincing way. She also writes a fast-paced, exciting and ingenious adventure, with a mix of wit, tragedy and (not always happy) romance. Once I get into her books I find them very hard to put down, and they are always a very enjoyable read.

On the debit side, she lacks the "sense of wonder" which has always been a part of the appeal of SF. She does not attempt to introduce any new science-fictional ideas, alien environments, or even any aliens (so far, anyway), which makes a marked contrast with Niven's Ringworld, for instance (reviewed on this blog on 10 November 2007). Her plots could easily be transplanted to, say, Napoleonic War naval fiction with only superficial changes. Perhaps a closer comparison than Niven is with Catherine Asaro, whose Skolian Empire series (reviewed here on 19 July 2007) is also very good modern space opera. Bujold has the edge in writing style, but Asaro is more inventive, her world and its inhabitants far more of a departure from our present experience.

I remain slightly puzzled as to why Bujold has chosen to focus on science fiction, since her skills would be transferable to any other genre she chose. Looking at it from a writer's perspective, I suppose that SF does have the benefit of providing more freedom to devise scenarios without having to worry about the accuracy of a factual background. Whatever the reason, she is for me an excellent writer who happens to set her stories in an SF context, which is not quite the same thing as an excellent SF writer.

Saturday 5 July 2008

The Separation by Christopher Priest

'The Separation' technically falls within the increasingly popular sub-genre (or would that be sub-sub-genre?) of alternate histories of World War 2. Since I have written one of those myself (The Foresight War) I read this book with more than usual interest.

The overriding impression I formed is of the vast difference which can exist in the way in which nominally similar themes are handled. At one extreme comes my own effort, which is a nuts and bolts analysis of how foreknowledge of events by those in power in Britain and Germany (thanks to time-travellers) might have affected strategies, tactics and equipment, and how the war might have turned out differently as a result. Christopher Priest's novel is at the other end of the spectrum.

'The Separation' is a fascinating intellectual exercise portraying different versions of reality. The tale starts in an alternate 1999, in which an historian is collecting material for a book about an RAF officer, J L Sawyer, who appeared to have played a mysterious part in the events which led up to the ending of the Anglo-German War in May 1941. The rest of the book consists of the material which he found: accounts from various viewpoints, correspondence and official notes of meetings.

It soon becomes clear that much confusion had been caused by the fact that there were two J L Sawyers: identical twins named Jack and Joe. Their contrasting personal accounts make up much of the book. We first meet them at the 1936 Olympics where they are rowing together, but they fall out and their paths diverge shortly thereafter. As war looms, one becomes a bomber pilot in the RAF, the other a conscientious objector working for the Red Cross.

As the viewpoint shifts from one person to another, so does the path of history. In one account, one of the brothers is killed; in another, the other one dies; and in a possible third they both survive. In one timeline one brother marries and has a daughter; in another, the other brother marries the same woman and has a son. In the wider context, one thread sees the war lasting until 1945 while another describes its ending in 1941. Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess apparently flies to Britain (but is he a fake?) in one account, and plays an important role in negotiating the peace in another. The confusion is not helped by the fact that one of the brothers suffers from powerful, extended and entirely realistic hallucinations following a head injury: are the experiences he recounts imaginary or real? He doesn't know, and neither do we. There is a final twist in the tail of the tale, concerning the identity of the historian researching the story.

With such internal contradictions the story is difficult to follow, or even to make sense of afterwards: do not hope for a tidy ending in which all is explained! This all may sound like an exercise in frustration, but the high quality of Priest's writing draws the reader into the novel. Don't look for dramatic action or much in the way of the technicalities of war; there is much well-researched detail on the bombing campaign, from the viewpoints of those delivering it and of those on the receiving end, but that's about it. The pleasures of this surreal story are more subtle. It is like a kaleidoscope; keep turning and the same elements keep falling into different patterns.

Some aspects are not entirely convincing. There is brief mention of events outside NW Europe following the 1941 end of the war, in which the USA becomes involved in extended conflict in Asia and, for no clearly explained reason, becomes a failed, gangster-run state which it remains even half a century later. There is much about Churchill, but the way in which he suddenly changed his mind over an important issue did not strike me as realistic.

Despite these reservations, the novel can be strongly recommended to readers who appreciate high-quality story-telling and enjoy having their perceptions repeatedly overturned.