Saturday 27 September 2008

Necropath by Eric Brown

This new book is listed as "a Bengal Station novel", presumably set in the same location as the author's 2004 novel of that name, which I haven't read.

Bengal Station is a vast spaceport built in a far-future Bay of Bengal, receiving traffic from the many human-occupied worlds and occasional visits from members of various intelligent alien races. Rather more than a spaceport, in fact; it has many levels and is home to a crowded city of 25 million people. The city is zoned, with the best areas close to the top and/or enjoying direct sea views; the lower levels become increasingly down-market. This concept of a vertically stratified city is remarkably common in SF, presumably because it emphasises the associated social stratification.

Jeff Vaughan is a telepath, his natural potential having been substantially boosted artificially. He is employed by the spaceport to vet incoming ships for illegal immigrants, but is tired of his job and his life, and takes drugs to dull his mind to the constant mental pressure from the packed hordes living in the city. Chandra is a one of the few people he can tolerate; a detective with the Bengal Station police. Sukara is a "working girl" from Cambodia, searching for her lost younger sister who was last heard of in Bengal Station. These three lives and several others become intertwined as Vaughan begins to investigate some anomalous shipments from the human colony on Verkerk's World, which his boss (himself protected from telepathic intrusion) will not allow him to scan.

This is a traditional hard-SF thriller featuring interstellar travel, exotic drugs, mysterious aliens and a powerful new religion taking hold on Earth. Vaughan struggles to find out what is going on, only to find that the greatest threat comes from his own past. An entertaining read, well worth the time.

Saturday 20 September 2008

The City at the End of Time by Greg Bear

The City at the End of Time, Greg Bear's latest novel, has a highly ambitious plot. Several different plot threads are kicked off at the start, mostly taking place in today's Earth (or alternate versions of it) but a couple in the unimaginably far future. The contemporary characters are human, but have some odd abilities, while those in the future are vaguely related to humanity, a long way down the track. The author firmly belongs to the "show don't tell" school and the lack of explanation makes the events initially baffling, especially those in the future. Now an element of "mystery to be revealed" is good for a story in my opinion, but this one is taken to extremes. It was only the quality of the writing and some intriguing premises which kept me reading through the early chapters, but it was hard work. I found it difficult to get absorbed in the parallel stories, and for the first few chapters was constantly flicking back to remind myself of who was who. It didn't help me that none of the characters is easy to identify with.

Despite this unpromising start the story slowly emerges like a vast beast rising from the sea, with the connections between the different parts gradually being revealed. The present-day threads follow four individuals: Jack and Ginny, young adults who possess mysterious stones called "sum-runners", have the ability to shift fate to suit themselves, and who dream of a city at the end of time; Daniel, who has similar abilities in a more drastic form; and Glaucous, a man employed by the Chalk Princess (a mysterious, god-like being) to hunt down dreamers like Jack and Ginny. The threads gradually combine in a vast library owned by Mr Bidewell, a man of apparently great age who is connected in some way to the peculiar abilities of the other characters.

The plot threads in the far future, and indeed the universe in which they are set, are much harder to comprehend. This is literally at the end of time: trillions of years hence, after humanity has expanded and contracted in various forms (physical and virtual) many times, gaining ascendancy over the entire Universe even to the point of creating new galaxies to stave off the ultimate decline. But then Typhon, an agent of Chaos, emerges and begins to destroy what remains of the Universe until civilisation retreats, first to the Earth and then to this one last remaining city, Kalpa, protected from the encroaching Chaos by a defensive shield of reality generators.

Kalpa bears no relationship to our concept of a city, being just as strange as its inhabitants. These are divided into different groups: the Breeds, who are a reconstruction of what the city rulers think original humanity was like (records having long been lost); the Tall Ones such as Ghentun, who are much more distantly related to humanity and are much more knowledgeable and powerful than the Breeds; and the Eidolons even higher up the scale. Right at the top is the Librarian, whose nature can be guessed by the fact that a request for a meeting with him is granted – for a thousand years hence.

Jebrassy and Tiadba are Breeds who also dream – of the world of Jack and Ginny, their present-day counterparts. They are recruited to join one of the occasional expeditions sent out into the Chaos to try to find the fabled city of Nataraja, which it is believed is also resisting destruction. The various plot threads gradually combine in a race to prevent Chaos from absorbing the last remnant of reality and bringing an end to time.

The story is packed with strange events, imperfectly understood, and beings whose nature is hard to determine. There is certainly no shortage of the "sense of strange" which pervades some of the most powerful SF. Does Bear manage to pull it off? Not quite; his reach exceeds his grasp, in my opinion, and I was left rather unsatisfied and still somewhat baffled. Still, the breadth of the imagination and the quality of the writing kept me reading to the end, and I wouldn't be surprised if this were proposed for some awards later in the year.

Friday 12 September 2008

The Hammer of God by Arthur C Clarke

The Hammer of God makes an interesting contrast with Rendezvous with Rama by the same author, reviewed on this blog on 27 June this year. Both stories are set about a century in the future and concern Spaceguard, an organisation set up to monitor the paths of any large asteroids or comets which look as if they might pose a danger to Earth. In both cases, a large object is observed heading inwards from the outer reaches of the Solar System, and action is taken to send a manned spacecraft to intercept. However, there the stories diverge: the object in Rama is going to miss the Earth by a wide margin, but it turns out to be a vast alien space habitat. In Hammer, the object is more prosaic – a large asteroid – but it is heading directly for our planet. So with this story we are in familiar territory, as various books and films have covered the drama of what might happen if the Earth were threatened by a meteorite big enough to destroy our civilisation.

Hammer was first published in 1993, twenty years after Rama, and the structure is very different. Rama is a straightforward tale which progresses in chronological order throughout and focuses almost entirely on the expedition to the artefact (mainly seen through the eyes of the expedition's commander), with only an occasional diversion to the deliberations of a political committee on Earth. Most of Hammer is also seen from the point of view of the ship's captain, but that's where the similarity ends, since the chronological order is jumbled and the chapters are interspersed with various factual and fictional asides. There are brief chapters on historical incidents like Tunguska and the "dinosaur killer", plus other lesser-known meteorites. There are also chapters on the social and religious background to the world of Hammer, and many flashbacks to the earlier life of the captain. In fact, after an early mention of the threat from Kali (as the asteroid is dubbed) the first 158 pages of the 246 page story are taken up with this background material: one section consists of 23 pages of infodump with no dialogue at all. Only on page 159 does the focus turn to the expedition to Kali and the story really get going. From then on the tension starts to build along with the struggle to cope with the danger.

The book finishes with 22 pages of acknowledgements and explanation.

It has to be said that Clarke's story, while technically competent as one would expect from this author, adds little that is new to this theme. No doubt the proponents of the 'Mundane' school of SF would prefer it (see my review of Interzone 216 on 18 July) but the truth is that this story isn't a patch on Rama. Partly this is because Rama is much more tightly focused – it builds up the tension from the start and carries the reader along with the story – partly because of the novelty of its plot and the "sense of wonder" inspired by the mystery of the vast alien artefact.

That isn't to say that Hammer is a bad story. In fact, this is the one I would recommend to anyone who wanted to read something interesting about the threat from asteroid or comet strikes, because (as far as I can judge) it is so well researched and realistic. Clarke can be relied upon to get the science right. However, the focus of the story is really split three ways: between Clarke's vision of a future society in which humanity has spread through the Solar System; a non-fictional account of the threat from asteroids and what to do about them; and finally, a story about an attempt to deflect such a threat. These three elements are not well integrated but almost seem to be three separate texts which have been stitched together. It's worth reading, but not one of his classic works.

Friday 5 September 2008

On book reviewing and films

I think I must be getting cranky in my old age. Either that or, bizarrely, more pushed for time despite being retired. In years gone by I always finished every book I started, and would expect to re-read a decent one within a year or so. These days I stop reading, long before the end, one in every three or four new books I pick up. Partly this is because they tend to be so long (an issue I've previously explored in this web article) and at my typical rate of 70 pages per hour that means that a 700 page book requires ten hours of investment. As I only read novels for an hour or two each evening that hogs my reading time for anywhere between a week and a fortnight. So that fat book had better be really good and grab my attention quickly or I'm likely to bin it. I'm much more tolerant of short novels and even more of short stories. The other reason for rejection is the modern tendency to pack in lots of extraneous plot lines, which sometimes add so much "human interest" and character development that these becomes the main focus of the story, with the SF bits as a background. While the principal characters have to be well-enough drawn to be believable and to evoke some empathy, that isn't primarily what I read SFF for.

One result of my impatience is that I don't usually post bad reviews: the books I don't like don't get finished, so don't get reviewed (other than perhaps a brief note to that effect). The other reason I don't rubbish novels in my reviews is that I am aware of how subjective the review process is. This has particularly been brought home to me by the reviews of my own books (all summarised on my website – good and bad), with amazon reader feedback for both books covering the full range from one to five stars. Now you may say that amazon reviews aren't worth much, but the verdicts of even experienced reviewers also differ widely. Considering that reviewing is supposed to be as objective as possible, with guidelines on how to achieve this, these results offer food for thought.

The inescapable conclusion is that reviewing is a lot more subjective than most reviewers like to admit. To borrow a metaphor, reviews of any book are like the descriptions of an elephant by blind people relying on touch: each individual account will contain some information, but won't give a clear picture of the beast. Furthermore, if a reviewer really likes a story, s/he is likely to be much more tolerant of any deficiencies, and the reverse is also true. It is possible to find things to praise, and things to criticise, in just about any novel ever written, and what the reviewer chooses to emphasise makes a huge difference to the impression given by the review. Even worse, I have noticed comments from reviewers to the effect that they feel obliged to finish a book even if they don't like it, but they punish the author for their wasted time by posting a vitriolic review. Not very ethical, in my opinion.

So if I do post a review of a book which was readable enough to finish but which I didn't enjoy all that much, I'll say it wasn't the kind of story to appeal to me; I won't say it's rubbish. In case you are thinking that this line of argument must have been prompted by a recent bad review of one of my own books, I plead not guilty! In fact, Scales has recently received a rather good review
by an experienced editor, and summarised along with all of the others here. So some reviews really are very objective, perceptive and of high quality!

If I'm less patient than I used to be where books are concerned, I've become even less tolerant of movies. In part that's because I have more sympathy for authors, who generally slave away by themselves in their spare time. In contrast, Hollywood employs vast numbers of people (many extremely well paid) to produce each film at phenomenal cost, yet as often as not the result isn't worth watching. Even when an author provides them with an excellent story, they still manage to mess it up with depressing frequency. So I finish only about half of the films I sit down to watch. Recently I've seen three SF films: 'District 13', 'Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith', and 'War of the Worlds', with contrasting results.

'District 13' is a French film set in a near-future Paris barrio which has been blocked off from the rest of the city by a high wall in order to contain the lawlessness within. A nuclear weapon has been stolen and smuggled into the barrio, and an undercover policeman teams up with a barrio resident to try to avert disaster. OK, the dialogue is corny and the acting barely adequate, but the film has huge energy with wonderfully gymnastic combat and "free-running" chases around the city (I love watching parkour – far more exciting than any of the traditional sports). I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I really liked the original 'Star Wars' film and thought I would catch up with 'Revenge of the Sith'. Oh dear – how the mighty have fallen. There was (only just) enough interest in the depiction of the turning of Anakin to the Dark Side (you don't usually see a hero turning into a baddie in this kind of film) plus the CGI (I'm a sucker for alien landscapes, cityscapes and machinery) to keep me watching to the end, but it was a close-run thing. Where have the humour and joie de vivre gone? When the only engaging character in the film is the speechless robot R2D2 you know there are problems…

'War of the Worlds' is a classic novel but this 2005 film version is one I didn't sit through. Since when was the story primarily about dysfunctional family relationships, with the alien invasion shoved into the background? This seems a common thread in Hollywood films these days: everything has to have its stock characters always in conflict with each other, with broken marriages, difficult father-son relationships, and a cute moppet who can be relied upon to scream at frequent intervals. Tedious, tedious, tedious – why can't they just tell the story?

Oh well, enough grumbling. Next week I'll be reviewing The Hammer of God, by that late lamented old master, Arthur C Clarke.