Friday 28 November 2008

Interzone 219

The welcome arrival of the December issue of the British news, reviews and short-story SFF mag. To cut to the chase – the short stories:

Everything That Matters by Jeff Spock (illustrated by Kenn Brown, who also did the cover): a traditional SF thriller about hunting for alien treasure in the oceans of another planet, humans adapted by surgery to breathe underwater, murderous 25 metre long sharks, and revenge. Great stuff!

When Thorns are the Tips of Trees by Jason Sanford (illustrated by Vincent Chong): a much stranger tale about a highly contagious virus which causes people to turn into trees which are still capable of communication. This one, like his earlier surreal story The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain (Interzone 217) is likely to stick in the memory.

The Shenu by Alexander Marsh Freed: people surviving in a world full of superstition – or is it magic?

The Fifth Zhi by Mercurio D. Rivera (illustrated by Paul Drummond): disposable clones sent to rid the world of a vast alien growth which penetrates the planet.

The Country of the Young by Gord Sellar (illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey): explores some of the problems of eternal life – and of not having it when you are surrounded by the forever young.

Butterfly, Falling at Dawn by Aliette De Bodard (illustrated by Paul Drummond): another story in the author's alternative world in which North America is shared with Chinese and Mexica (Aztec) nations, following The Lost Xuyan Bride in Interzone 213. Detective work amid clashes between strange cultures. I'm looking forward to future stories in this world, and eventually an anthology, please!

One of the films reviewed in the magazine is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The first of the series, Raiders of the Lost Ark (which has become fixed in my mind as Riders of the Last Auk – I really should stop playing with words!) is one of my all-time favourite films. The series has inevitably become repetitive, since the plots are all about the resourceful archaeologist's trips to strange places to make exotic discoveries (with equally exotic dangers involving deadly creatures, lots of chases and fighting thrown in), and the sequels are not as good as the original. I recently got around to watching Crystal Skull, in which the plot is stretched to include the Area 51/Roswell/alien fantasy world, which does it no favours as it adds a further level of disbelief. However, it is still an entertaining couple of hours with some laugh-out-loud moments.

It seems that I liked the new Indiana Jones movie more than Interzone's reviewer did, but we changed places in our opinions of Lost in Austen, the ITV serial about a modern girl – a Jane Austen fan – who finds herself transported to the world of Austen's 'Pride & Prejudice'. I gave up part way through the second episode, for two reasons: first, the humour – in fact, the plot in general – was based around a series of embarrassing situations, the kind which make me cringe rather than laugh. Secondly, I simply didn't like the heroine. I do need to be able to empathise to at least some degree with the principal character if I am to enjoy any story (on screen or in print) and I just couldn't do it. Maybe it's a generational thing.

Saturday 22 November 2008

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

I first (and last) read this some 35 years ago, and recently dug out my dusty old paperback to refresh my memory in order to participate in the discussion of it held in the Classic SF forum. Zelazny was one of my favourite authors then, and I was curious to see how this unusual tale stood up to the test of time.

Lord of Light is set in the far future on another planet, with Earth an almost forgotten memory. The planet has been settled by the crew and passengers of a colony ship from Earth, but society has developed in a strange way. The crew have commandeered all of the technical resources and keep the descendents of the passengers at a medieval level of existence. To reinforce this, the crew have adopted the identities of Hindu gods, and live in "Heaven"; a perfect city situated at one of the poles, with a vast transparent dome protecting the area.

There are two other unusual features. The more powerful of the "gods" have developed mutant powers, reinforced by technology, which match the attributes of the mythical gods. And technology has made the transmigration of souls from one body to another a routine matter. Some of the original crew members have survived in this way, transferring as they age to new bodies specially grown for the purpose. This is also on offer to the general population, but they have to earn it, or risk being reborn as an animal – a powerful coercive tool.

Not all of the original crew are happy about this situation, and the story is all about the rebellion led by one of them, the 'Lord of Light' of the title, who wishes to destroy Heaven and bring the benefits of advanced technology to all. As a part of his campaign, he reintroduces Buddhism, and becomes regarded as a great religious teacher.

The structure of the story is rather disconcerting, as only the first and last chapters are set in the "present day", the majority of the book reverting to an account of the Lord of Light's previous, failed, attempt at rebellion. As the characters are gradually fleshed out in later chapters, I found myself flipping back to the first chapter to remind myself of who was who.

The writing style is quite leisurely, the author being happy to let his characters enjoy long conversations and intellectual debates, resulting in a certain lack of tension. He also plays with words, setting up some good jokes (one of the few things I remembered from my first reading of the book was the way in which he managed to work up to the punch-line: "then the fit hit the Shan"!). While the hero is a likeable character, there are few insights into his background or the motivation for his determined resistance. Despite these reservations, the intelligence and quality of the writing held my attention to the end. Unusual indeed, but well worth the time to re-read.
A recent special edition of the New Scientist magazine focusing on science fiction is online, HERE

Saturday 15 November 2008

The Folly of Growth

OK, not fiction again, but surely relevant to anyone interesting in reading or writing near-future SF. This concerns the 18th October issue of New Scientist magazine, which has several linked articles under the general heading "The Folly of Growth". These explore the contention that the world's economic system, based on endless growth, is fundamentally unsustainable. Authors of the articles include a Professor of Sustainable Development, the founder of the David Suzuki Foundation which investigates how society can live in balance with the natural world, a former senior economist at the World Bank (now a Professor of Ecological Economics), the Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation, the author of 'The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability', and the chair of the board of the Transnational Institute which addresses global problems.

Collectively, these make the point that our economic system needs constant growth to be successful, but there are finite limits on fertile agricultural land, cheap fresh water and other natural resources. With the world's population constantly growing, and everyone trying to improve their standard of living, this can't go on forever (or even for much longer). Let's look at the problems in more detail.

Underlying everything is the continuing increase in the world's population. Yes, I know that this is likely to level off and may even begin to decline when (if?) the poorer countries become richer. But by the time that happens, it will be a lot higher than it is now, and it is already far too high to enable everyone to enjoy a comfortable standard of living. One of the authors points out that if everyone on the planet enjoyed the same level of per-capita resource use as the EU, the resources of five Earths would be needed to supply that. If the global resource use were raised to the level of US citizens, fifteen Earths would be needed.

This links to the second problem, which is the entirely legitimate aspiration of the poorer parts of the world to achieve the same standard of living as the richer part. As they work towards achieving that, there will inevitably be a massive impact on resource demands.

The third problem, also linked to the others, is that increasing industrialisation is having a significant impact on our atmosphere, which is in turn beginning to affect our climate. No-one knows what this will lead to and where it will end, but given that our current pattern of agriculture, settlement and infrastructure is based on existing patterns of climate and sea levels, any change from these will be likely to cause serious problems.

Coincidentally, many related points were made in the recent "Living Planet Report" by the WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, which argues that the planet is headed for an ecological "credit crunch", with our current demands on natural resources overreaching what the Earth can sustain by almost a third.

Economists may argue that there is no necessary link between growth and resource use, and point to the experience of Western European countries to prove this. But the use of resources in these countries has been kept down by exporting much of the production of consumer goods to cheap-labour economies elsewhere in the world, so those resources are still being used up somewhere to satisfy western demands.

Also, the EU situation of a relatively static use of resources does not apply in those less-developed countries which are now aiming for a dramatic improvement in their standard of living. This means motorbikes instead of bicycles, cars instead of motorbikes, flying off on foreign holidays, eating a lot more meat, buying lots of fridges, freezers, washing machines, TVs, DVDs and other nice-to-haves, plus the associated huge increase in the demand for power. The classic case is China (with a population three times that of the EU 15) whose use of all kinds of resources has been accelerating rapidly; partly, of course, to satisfy western demand for consumer goods.

The ultimate consequences of current economic trends will be ever-increasing prices for natural resources (and everything using them) as a result of the combination of growing demand and increasing scarcity. We see this in miniature with the rise in the price of oil over the past few years. This has recently dipped due to nervousness over the international recession, but no-one can reasonably doubt that this is anything other than a short-term respite. The underlying trend is for a continuing increase in demand, but the quantity of oil in the ground is finite and it becomes ever more expensive to extract.

The articles suggest ways in which we can ameliorate the problems and achieve long-term sustainability, but they involve major changes to our current economic system. Of course, no politician wants to hear that, because we (the short-sighted public) don't want any restrictions on our ability to burn up resources as we please, and politicians only look as far ahead as the next election. Business doesn't want to know either, as it would hit their profits. So in dealing with the present economic crisis, we charge on towards the iceberg while arguing about rearranging the deckchairs.

The New Scientist articles make the point that some growth is still sustainable, as long as it is based on genuine improvements in the efficiency with which resources are used. Advanced technologies can help here, but they are most likely to be used in the richer countries which can afford them. What should we be doing? Trying to convert to a steady-state economy, basically by using two measures: a cap-and-trade system under which companies can buy and sell emissions permits, and a change in the basis of taxation, to tax heavily resources at the point at which they are removed from the biosphere: for example oil as it is pumped from the ground, or fish as they are removed from the sea. This will stimulate the development of renewable energy sources and the search for sustainable alternatives to current practices. The tax effect will be regressive (hitting poorer people the hardest) so some of the income will need to be used to fund benefits programmes for them: the rest could be used to cut direct taxation. Other economic measures will aim to reduce interest rates to a very low level and force banks to keep large reserves, limiting their scope for risky lending.

Like it or not, we will eventually be forced to do things in a different way, and that will mean a significant reduction in the use of resources by the wealthy countries. Our choice is between gradually altering our economic system to introduce these changes in a planned way, or to do our very best to ignore the issue for as long as possible. No prizes for guessing which is more likely.

Nothing could better illustrate the schizophrenic attitude of our politicians than the coincidence in mid-October this year of the UK's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change committing the country to meet much tougher CO2 reduction targets (an 80% cut by 2050), on the same day that the Prime Minister was putting pressure on oil companies to reduce the price of fuel so we can all afford to burn more of the stuff. It reminds me of the old prayer of the sinner, which went something like: "Lord, let me be virtuous – but not yet!"

Saturday 8 November 2008

Orion by Ben Bova, plus some films

I haven't read much by this author, but have previously thought of him as concentrating on hard SF. I was therefore surprised by the fact that Orion (in my opinion, at any rate, despite later plot twists) falls into the fantasy camp.

The story begins in the present day and is told in the first person, by a man called Orion. He has some unusual abilities (for reasons which he doesn't understand) and finds himself involved in a titanic struggle between two apparently all-powerful men, Ormazd and Ahriman (the names of two gods in Zoroastrianism who represent good and evil respectively). He is also strongly drawn to Anya, a woman who is connected in some way with Ormazd. Orion is told that Ahriman intends to destroy humanity and that his role is to prevent this. In the attempt to carry out his task, Orion seems to die – only to find himself transported back in time, facing the same enemy yet again. This pattern is repeated, Orion going steadily further back in time towards the prehistoric war which caused Ahriman's hatred of humanity. There he discovers that all was not what it seemed and he has a difficult choice to make.

The cover of my edition has glowing references from Isaac Asimov and Spider Robinson, but I have to say I was rather less impressed. The writing style reminded me far more of a typical 1950s or even pre-WW2 SF novel, rather than a product of the 1980s. It doesn't get off to a good start, the first page being an infodump in which Orion baldly spells out his unusual abilities (clearly Bova doesn't have much time for the "show don't tell" orthodoxy). It does get better as the story develops, and the plot was intriguing enough for me to read through to the end, but I found it difficult to empathise with Orion. His character remains underdeveloped, and it's hard to care much about what happens to people who keep dying and being reborn (all of the "how will they survive this?" tension gets dissipated) unless they are much more strongly written than this.
I had heard that Hellboy (the original, not the recent sequel) was a cut above the average comic-based superhero movie so I gave it a spin. Well, it was watchable, like an episode of Die Hard featuring supernatural beings, and it did have some wry humour, so it gets an "OK".
I've also seen Galaxy Quest, about the jaded cast of a long-running TV space opera who are whisked off by aliens who think that their broadcasts are genuine and need help in fighting a war. The film takes an entertaining swipe at the cliches of space opera and the devotion of its fans. It is an amusing, light-hearted contrast from most movies these days, and is a lot more enjoyable than most "serious" SFF films. A must for all Star Trek fans – or at least, the ones who can take a joke!

Sunday 2 November 2008

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth and especially Pohl were formidable "golden age" SF authors in their own right (Pohl, who is now 90, carrying on into recent times; Kornbluth died young in 1958), but are still remembered for their collaborations. One of these, Wolfbane, was reviewed on this blog on 21 October 2007, but the best known is probably The Space Merchants, first published in 1953.

The title is rather misleading because space travel doesn't feature at all until right at the end of the book. The story is set a century in the future, at a time when humanity, still confined to the Earth, has expanded to many times its present population. The teeming billions are crowded into cramped apartments, fed on artificially-created food and sold addictive coffee to drink, use pedal-powered machines rather than cars, wash in salt water because fresh water is too precious, and are ruthlessly manipulated by all-powerful marketing organisations, with the lowest levels of society trapped in commercial slavery. Governments have become almost powerless in the face of the might of the big marketing corporations, whose only goal is to increase sales, and the US President is a figurehead.

Living in this dystopia is a successful marketing executive, Mitchell Courtney, who is given the task of securing control for his organisation of the forthcoming colonisation and terraforming of Venus (little was known about conditions on Venus when the book was written and they are portrayed as being less hostile than they are now known to be, but still with an unbreathable atmosphere, high temperatures and no water).

Events begin to slide out of control for Courtney as he becomes embroiled in the savage in-fighting of office politics and the open warfare of inter-corporate battles, is kidnapped, dumped at the lowest level of society and approached by the Consies; an underground conservationist organisation arguing against the ruthless exploitation of Earth's resources. His experiences shape his actions as he tries to battle his way back to his star-grade executive position.

At one level The Space Merchants is an amusing satire on increasing commercialisation, but there are clear echoes of the political times in which it was written. Pohl had been a member of the Young Communist League until he resigned as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, and much of his idealism showed through in this and other works. The period when this book was written coincided with Senator McCarthy's notorious anti-communist witch-hunt, and there is an obvious parallel between the contemporary public attitude to the "Commies" and the hated and despised Consies in the story.

I have to admit that I generally dislike dystopian SF but this is an easy read, especially since it is only 170 pages long. This is a landmark novel in raising issues about the uncontrolled population expansion and the associated exhaustion of resources, coupled with the ever-increasing power of commercial organisations in general and marketing in particular. Many novels on similar themes subsequently emerged, but this is one of the key works which every SF fan should read.