Saturday 30 August 2008

Interzone 217

In a complete contrast with Interzone 216, the special "Mundane SF" issue, the six stories in the latest issue of the British SFF magazine are emphatically "non-Mundane"; they all feature elements of the fantastic, aliens or deep space travel.

Africa by Karen Fishler (illustrated by Paul Drummond: also featuring on the cover): It is the very far future. Humanity has been banished from Earth by all-powerful aliens (apparently for making a complete mess of it) and now survives only in vast spaceships travelling the Galaxy. And in the form of the Guardians orbiting the Earth, whose task it is to prevent humanity from returning to the planet which has been completely cleansed of their works and allowed to revert to a wild state. There are only two Guardians left, when a spaceship materialises nearby.

The Two-Headed Girl by Paul G Tremblay: A strange fantasy about a girl and her constantly-changing second head. I first assumed that it was a figment of her imagination, but it seems not…

The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by their Rain by Jason Sanford (illustrated by Vincent Chong): Another story in which it is difficult to grasp entirely what's going on, even at the end. A settlement on a strange world constantly battered by violent storms brought by "spaceships" which at first seem to be clouds. But it is strictly forbidden to dig downwards, because of what people might find there…

Concession Girl by Suzanne Palmer (illustrated by Darren Winter): A more conventional tale concerning a human space station being visited by aliens trying to resolve their differences, and the unexpected diplomatic role played by a girl selling hot dogs.

Little Lost Robot by Paul McAuley (illustrated by Paul Drummond): A different take on Saberhagen's Berserker series, this time seen from the viewpoint of an ancient but still all-powerful robotic killer spaceship. Problems arise when the ship detects signs of life in a system which seems strangely familiar.

Comus of Central Park (illustrated by Paul Drummond): An amusing parable about a woman living in New York who finds a faun (half man, half goat) in Central Park, and the mayhem which follows when she introduces him to society.

A very varied and interesting collection, all of them worth the read. Somewhat to my surprise, the one which intrigued me most was Jason Sandford's tale. Even though it was difficult to figure out precisely what was going on, there was enough to stop me from getting lost and it was strongest in that "sense of strange" which features in the best SFF.

There are the usual news and extensive review sections, the latter focusing more on film and TV than books, with no less than nine pages on the visual media, covering not just major studio releases such as the X-Files, Indiana Jones, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk, plus TV series Torchwood and Sliders, but lesser-known genre films from Japan and Korea.

Saturday 23 August 2008

'Exit, Pursued by a Bee' by Geoff Nelder

A newly published novel by a British author, 'Exit, Pursued by a Bee' is set in the near future (a manned mission to Mars is ready to go) against a background of a bizarre series of events. Giant silvery spheres nearly 80 metres in diameter slowly emerge from the ground at Glastonbury Tor and several other widely-spaced locations around the world. They prove oblivious to all attempts to communicate with them and immune to efforts to attack them, and gradually float away from the surface. As they do, a series of timeslips begins to occur: people find themselves suddenly back in history, or caught up in catastrophes as structures partially disappear from the present. Sometimes time is locally "rewound", and a series of events is replayed with a different result.

Caught up in the middle of this and trying to make sense of it is Kallandra, a NASA astronaut, variously aided and obstructed by her fiancé Derek, a rocket engineer, and the dangerously tempting fellow astronaut Claude. Further problems come from a sensation-seeking journalist and a US General whose preferred solution to any problem is to nuke it. Chaotic events accumulate and conclude in a long-distance chase using the Mars spaceship to try to undo the damage being done.

This is a generally light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek romp which races along engagingly, although a couple of tragedies slightly darken the mood later on. Not for those who look for portentous dramas, explorations of advanced physics or serious consideration of the problems of society. The emphasis is on escapist entertainment, and at that it succeeds very well.

Friday 15 August 2008

New Horizons magazine

This is the first edition of an occasional new publication of the British Fantasy Society (which includes SF within its remit), which already produces Dark Horizons from time to time. Both are principally collections of short stories mixed with author interviews, but New Horizons is specifically fantasy, and endeavours to present the work of new authors.

There are interviews with David Rix, founder of the new Eibonvale Press, and author Tony Richards. The rest of the A5 booklet is taken up with ten short stories.

Among The Mollies by Harvey Raines. A teenager learns the trick of living in whatever cities he wishes just by imagining them. But in every city he makes, there is a forbidding, fenced off tower block of flats, populated by partly-glimpsed people dubbed the Mollies. Eventually, he has to enter to find out why.

Silk and Pearls
Domestic Interior
Two Dreams
all by K J Bishop. Three surreal short shorts, or snippets of stories. Essentially examples of creating atmospheres.

Canoe Boy by Allen Ashley. A man in a grim, near-waterless future city tries to recover his lost love and understand what is happening.

Unlikely by Will McIntosh. A statistician who specialises in correlating vast quantities of data about his city discovers that the accident rate drops when two strangers are accidentally in close proximity, so engineers their meeting.

What You Came For by Jaine Fenn. A grim tale, told in the second person, about a being who enters an old house to experience the emotions of those who had been in it, including a young girl who was murdered.

At Midnight, All The Agents by David Barnett. An amusing romp about the investigations of the Department of Extra-Usual Affairs, who turn their attention to a outbreak of people dressing as, and apparently believing that they are, well-known fictional characters – with a difference.

The Absence Club by Daniel Bennett. A strange tale about a computer specialist left on his own to edit the files of a college which had just closed, and a man who has a task for him.

The Snow Fox by Stephen Deas. Another surreal short about a man talking to his lover in a grand house – or is he?

An interesting batch of mostly unconventional stories. Not my usual fare, but short enough to read quickly. My favourite was probably the most conventional one, Unlikely.

Friday 8 August 2008

Psion by Joan D. Vinge

It is a strange quirk of memory that some books I read decades ago are still clear in my mind, while others read more recently I have forgotten entirely and ring no bells even on re-reading. This is not necessarily to do with the quality of the writing as the latter group include some good stories; it seems to be a matter of the strength or clarity of the images created in my mind. Psion is in that latter category but is none the worse for that, so I was able to enjoy re-reading it as if for the first time.

This is one of several popular SF novels written by Joan D. Vinge in the early 1980s, often with something of the feel of fantasy. 'Psion' is set in a distant future when humanity has spread to many star systems by means of FTL spaceships and has encountered another sentient race, the Hydrans, who are close enough to humanity to interbreed, thereby indicating a common origin. The Hydrans possess a formidable range of psionic powers, including telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation and precognition, but they are psychologically incapable of violence or deceit, so are soon dominated by humanity. Some humans have also developed psi powers, but usually only one and to a limited degree. They are regarded with fear and suspicion by the rest of humanity.

'Psion' is a first-person account of a teenage human-Hydran hybrid, called Cat because of his Hydran vertically-slitted eye pupils. He grows up an orphaned, illiterate and feral sneak-thief, living in the gutter and with no memory of his origins. Eventually caught, he tests positive for psionic potential and is taken to a research institute which aims to develop his latent telepathic ability. While there, he meets two other psions, Jule and Siebeling, and learns that they are part of a plot to trap an elusive human super-psion criminal dubbed Quicksilver. What follows is an exciting adventure thriller mainly set on the strange world of Cinder, still occupied by Hydrans, in a battle for control of the only source of the Telhassium crystals required for space flight.

This is more than just a simple thriller, as there is a strong focus on Cat's sufferings as he tries to develop his ability and understand where he came from, plus learn the dark secret buried so deep in his mind that not even the most powerful telepath can reach it. His relationships with Jule and Siebeling are complex and form the main sub-plot. The conclusion is unexpected but convincing.

First-person accounts are not so popular these days because of the restricted perspective they involve, but this worked for me. I enjoyed the story and found myself keen to get back to it again after each break. There is a sequel, Catspaw, which I hope to get around to re-reading soon.

Friday 1 August 2008

How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich

A break from fiction this week, to consider Gilovich's important book, subtitled 'The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life'. As this suggests it is a study of why we tend to believe certain things (with lots of examples of popular misconceptions from everyday life), despite the lack of evidence for them or, in many cases, solid evidence that they are not true. A couple of points to clarify before anyone starts getting defensive: the book doesn't belittle people for what they believe, it just analyses the basis for such beliefs; and little is said about religion.

A common problem is the misunderstanding of statistics, especially probability theory, which can sometimes produce counter-intuitive results. A well-known example of this is the answer to the question "how many people do you need in a room in order to get a 50% chance that two of them will have the same birthday?" The answer is 23; and what's more, you only need 35 for the probability to rise to 85%. Most people find this amazing (I did too, despite some limited experience of probability theory). One reason for misunderstanding statistics is the clustering tendency of random events. If you toss a coin and it comes up heads five times in succession, you might think this is remarkable, but it is in fact inevitable if you keep tossing the coin long enough: the "50/50" rule only applies over a long series.

As a result of this lack of understanding, people experience coincidences which are well within normal probabilities and wrongly believe that something remarkable has happened, or even that they can't really be coincidences at all but must have some greater significance. This is exacerbated by the fact that humans have an inbuilt tendency to seek patterns in events, to the extent of seeing them where they don't exist.

A lack of contrary information can lead to unwarranted beliefs. For example, a selection board which interviews candidates for an academic or training scheme may believe that they are doing a good job, because the majority of their choices perform well. But they have no way of knowing how well the people they rejected would have performed, given the chance. In fact, research into the selection process has shown that "decisions based on objective criteria alone are at least as effective as those influenced by subjective impressions formed in an interview".

We are often misled by information we receive second hand, because of the tendency to "sharpen and level", as the author puts it. By this he means that in relaying a news item, for instance, we tend to emphasise the points which we consider to be important (or which we believe) and downplay or omit other aspects. So if a carefully-written report comes to a tentative conclusion which we agree with, but wraps this around with qualifications and caveats, we tend just to relay the conclusions, making the results appear far more definite than the report's authors intended. As people "sharpen" different aspects of information to suit their beliefs, so we get a rapid polarisation of opinions on controversial issues. Even worse, some organisations deliberately "sharpen and level" because they want to turn public opinion in their favour [popular news media and politicians are of course notorious for presenting such selectively slanted information, especially during election campaigns, but so do many organisations with agendas]. Most "urban legends" probably develop as a result of an extreme version of this, with the key points pulled out and exaggerated.

This sharpening effect is exacerbated by the fact that if we hold certain beliefs, we are likely to discuss them only with people who agree with us, and only to read supportive publications. Our beliefs are thereby rarely challenged but instead are constantly reinforced, so we tend to end up with the view that our beliefs are naturally and obviously right. Anyone who disagrees with them must therefore be entirely mistaken and possibly downright stupid if not malevolent. This polarisation is obvious today in politics and in debates about other controversial issues. In reality, of course, situations are rarely as polarised as this: we exaggerate differences.

A major reason for many misplaced beliefs is that notable events stick in our minds, whereas we are much less likely to remember when something did not happen. This can distort our understanding of the likelihood of particular events. For example, it is commonly believed that a previously infertile couple is much more likely to conceive after they have adopted a child. A careful analysis of a mass of birth and adoption statistics shows that there is no truth in this at all; there is no such effect. People believe that there is because if a couple does conceive after adoption it is a notable event likely to be commented on and remembered. Conversely, no-one remembers the couples who did not conceive after adoption, or those who eventually conceived without adoption (who may well not have publicised their fertility problems).

A related issue is that if we hold certain beliefs, we are much more likely to seize on and remember any events which appear to confirm those beliefs, while dismissing and quickly forgetting any contrary evidence. Even if we do spend time examining contrary evidence, it is usually only to attack it aggressively and try to find fault with it, while we accept at face value anything which appears to support our beliefs.

A major explanation for our beliefs is that we tend to believe what we would like to be true. An obvious example is life after death. It would be wonderful if our personalities and intelligence survived in some way after death, which accounts for some of the most powerfully-held human beliefs: most people really want to believe this. More generally, there is a yearning for order and purpose in life, a wish to believe that there is more to it than meets the eye. Many find the concept that we are here (individually and collectively) only by random chance in a vast and uncaring universe simply unacceptable. They feel that it makes them, and life itself, pointless and worthless, so they instinctively reject it, leading them to dismiss, for instance, the overwhelming evidence for evolution in favour of beliefs which have no evidential support at all.

A belief in extra-sensory perception is also widespread (and a very common theme of SFF) but, as the author points out, no evidence for it has ever survived any objective analysis. Some promoters of the idea claim that trying to measure it prevents it from working, which sceptics might regard as a self-serving way of avoiding the need to provide any proof. There are various reasons for a belief in ESP, including a long history of plausible fraudsters and a very biased coverage in relevant news media, books and magazines (the vast majority of which uncritically support the idea), but the basic reason is probably that it's something that we would love to be true – for us to have such impressive and useful powers. I suspect that a belief in an alien origin of UFOs falls into the same category.

A similar example concerns alternative medicine in general, and faith healing in particular. For people (especially if seriously ill) who have not been helped by conventional medicine, there is a powerful motivation to believe anyone who offers a potential cure. Examples of "cures" are seized upon as proof, ignoring the fact that the body has a potent self-repairing system and that many ailments clear up by themselves given time. Alternative medicine also often relies on plausible (but false) similarities. The classic case is the enthusiasm in some parts of the world for medicines incorporating ground-up rhino horn to use as a kind of alternative Viagra – simply because it's long and hard and stands up all the time. More controversially (because it concerns our culture's popular beliefs rather than another's) the author points out that homeopathy falls into the same category; there is no validated evidence that it works, and no logical reason why it should [it makes the rhino horn notion look relatively sensible].

We have a remarkable capacity for self-delusion when it suits us. A survey of one million US high school seniors showed that 70% believed that they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2% that they were below average [much the same results occur in surveys which invite people to rate their own driving ability].

A final point: the perception of human fallibility in understanding is not exactly new. The book includes a couple of quotes from Francis Bacon, the 16th/17th century philosopher:

"The human understanding supposes a greater degree of order and equality in things than it really finds; and although many things in nature be sui generis and most irregular, will yet invest parallels and conjugates and relatives where no such thing is." Which is to say in simpler modern language, that we tend to see patterns and relationships where none exist.


"…all superstition is much the same whether it be that of astrology, dreams, omens, retributive judgment, or the like…[in that] the deluded believers observe events which are fulfilled, but neglect or pass over their failure, though it be much more common."

In this review I have only had space to provide a very superficial summary of a few highlights, but Gilovich's book is packed full of examples and detailed explanations, so if this kind of thing intrigues you, go and find a copy!