Friday 26 December 2008

Professor A. M. Low and the 'Bunst' stories

I started reading SFF in the mid-1950s and, although I recollect very little of what – or who – I was reading at that time, one name has somehow stuck in my memory over all of those years through some quirk of memory; that of Professor A. M. Low. Recently I decided to track down this memory and was pleasantly surprised to find that he has a Wikipedia entry. Reading through it, it became clear that he was a lot more than a writer of children's SF stories; an engineer, inventor and research physicist, he was involved in experiments with radio-controlled aircraft and rockets during World War 1. He belonged to many different organisations in several fields and was a founder member and President of the British Interplanetary Society. He also wrote some forty books, many of them intended to explain scientific matters to the layman. This sounded like a man after my own heart, and another search pulled up a couple of his books for sale second-hand; Modern Armaments, published in 1939, and one of his four novels, Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937).

I read Modern Armaments with particular interest, especially because of its date of publication. It is an easy read, intended for the layman, and explains the principles of modern weaponry very clearly, although with little in the way of examples of actual equipment or hard data. Low took a broad view of his subject, with chapters on explosives, optics, parachutes, armour and the military uses of concrete, as well as the expected topics of army, navy and air force weapons. Some of his opinions reflected the mistaken and rather complacent views of the British military at the time: that submarines would pose little threat in a future war because of the advances made in detection systems; that contemporary anti-aircraft fire control systems would serve very well to protect warships against air attack; and that light tanks would predominate in any future conflict with little role for heavier vehicles other than in a direct assault.

He goes into some detail about locating aircraft by sound, although he doesn't mention the giant acoustic mirrors on the south-east coast for locating incoming bombers. He does not, of course, discuss radar, although there is a rather coy reference to experiments with devices which detect "the reflection of ether vibrations". He holds some interesting views on chemical warfare, pointing out that laws to restrict warfare would inevitably be broken in any major conflict and that the use of poison gas was far more humane than bullets or shell fragments, with casualties suffering a much lower death rate. On looking ahead, he discusses and dismisses the prospect of "death rays". Despite some flaws, this is a good book displaying a lot of sense as well as a clear understanding of armaments. However, I could have done without the long moral peroration on the nature of warfare which constitutes the entire first chapter.

Having absorbed that, I turned to Adrift in the Stratosphere with anticipation. I didn't expect it to be great literature, and I was aware that it was only intended for children, but given the author's interests I expected a tale which would be based on the scientific knowledge of the time. Sadly it was a major disappointment, being a barely readable fantasy in which hardly any of the "science" is correct or even remotely feasible. Three young men stumble across a stratospheric research vehicle being built in an inventor's barn (as one does) and accidentally launch it onto space, having various death-defying adventures before (inevitably) returning safely home to a hero's welcome. I didn't object to the hostile Martians who tried to kill them with various death rays (typical of SF of the period), but for the rest…There is no point in going through it in detail but it includes such matters as huge space-living dragons whose fiery breath almost overcomes the lads in their (sealed?) spaceship; Mars being approached in only a few hours while travelling at the ferocious speed of almost a thousand miles per hour (!); and "islands in the stratosphere" on which live humans with a perfect command of English. I'll leave it at that. It does make me appreciate the quality of modern fiction for young adults!

By another quirk of memory, I had remembered really enjoying a series of stories about a lad called Bunst which I was sure were by Professor Low but which turned out to be by someone else: John Newton Chance, who also published as John Lymington and under various other names. He has a Wiki entry, too. He wrote six children's books in the "Bunst" series, and I managed to find a copy of the penultimate one: Bunst and the Secret Six, published in 1951. On reading it I recalled one detail of the plot so and must have previously read it, some time in the late 1950s. The books feature a boy of unstated age but probably early to mid teens, whose nickname is a shortened version of "bunstuffer" from his habit of constantly eating. He is intelligent, resourceful, phlegmatic and mechanically minded, and works as an assistant to a scatterbrained and excitable inventor, an elderly ex-military type called Audacious Cotterell. This particular novel involves radio-controlled model aircraft, a secret new high explosive, a gang of six spies who try to steal it, and much chasing and hiding. It rather reminded me of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, only on a smaller scale, written for children and with a constant undercurrent of humour. The style is very much of its innocent time, but I still found it an enjoyable read. Good to know that my reading tastes as a young lad weren't all bad!

Friday 19 December 2008

The Inheritance by George Timmons

John More, a man from the mid-21st century, recovers from a spacecraft crash to find himself two thousand years in the future. The world has been through a terrible time in the interim, with wars and Dark Times as bad as anything in human history. However, it has for centuries enjoyed a settled and civilised existence, based on small communities which are self-sufficient in food and which trade for their other needs. Despite this, technology is advanced, with a comprehensive information network and high-speed trains running in vacuum tunnels.

More has difficulty settling in to his new environment and in particular understanding how the utopian society works. Everything seems too good to be true; everyone does their share of all kinds of jobs to help the community and appears to have everything they need to live in comfort without any excessive consumption. Crime and immorality seem to be virtually non-existent and, most unbelievable of all, children are quiet, polite and well-behaved! He gradually discovers that the key to this is the strong Christian faith which forms the basis of the society. The story then focuses, for much of its length, on the religious and philosophical debates in which More engages as he gradually becomes converted to their faith while being increasingly attracted to a young widow and her son. Only at the end does the drama get moving again as More is faced with the opportunity to return to his own time. His decision, and the repercussions which follow, form the conclusion.

It soon becomes obvious to the reader that The Inheritance isn't really an SFF novel; it's an argument for religious faith within a fictional shell. As such, its principal appeal is to those who are, or are interested in becoming, Christians. And it promotes not just any Christianity, but an idealistic vision of a kind of religious communism (which is, I suspect, unlikely to gain it much support among US Christians). Since I am not religious, I did not find the tale particularly appealing and skimmed over much of the long tracts of debate.

From the SFF credibility viewpoint, I have some problems with the technical base of his ideal society. How such advanced technology was developed and maintained in such a fundamentally rural society was unexplained. Mass transport systems such as trains also don't make much sense with a low and dispersed population. And while I can believe that pencils would still exist in the fifth millennium, I find it harder to believe that word processors familiar to More would still be around.

It also has weaknesses as a work of fiction. The author is fond of the omniscient viewpoint and sometimes informs the reader what different people are thinking within the same conversation. I don't care for this, as it tends to remove dramatic tension. I also found More a rather unsympathetic character, which doesn't help in getting engaged with the story. Finally, the ending was something of a disappointment; I thought that the author was building up to a classic SF twist finale, but in fact there was a strange and (to me) rather unsatisfying conclusion.

It may seem unfair for me to review this, given my own position on religion, but the publishers did send the review copy to the British Fantasy Society (who passed it to me) so I have assessed it on its merits as an SFF novel rather than a religious work.

And now for some welcome relief in these hard economic times. I have a seasonal gift for one and all: a complete e-book version of my SF novel Scales FREE!

You can find details of the book, plus reviews and zip files of two versions of the e-book (Acrobat and MS Reader) on my site HERE

I hope you enjoy it: if you do, spread the word, if you don't, please tell me what you didn't like about it!

Saturday 13 December 2008

Some publications from the British Science Fiction Association

A bit of catching up needed, plus an apology. The last time I mentioned the first publication described below, I attributed it to the British Fantasy Society: I'll try to keep my organisations in order in future! Anyway, I've finally got around to reading it, along with some more recent publications from the BSFA.

The earlier one is Fantasy & SF: The Roots of Genre, which consists of two long articles taken from two books on SFF criticism: Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid. Both articles are concerned with analysing their respective genres. Mendelsohn identifies four different types of fantasy: Portal-Quest (e.g. 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'), Immersive (the Gormenghast trilogy), Intrusion (when the supernatural affects our own world), and Liminal (which regards fantastic intrusions as normal). Kincaid devotes his article to trying to define science fiction, concluding that the term includes such a broad range of works that one neat definition isn't possible.

I have to confess that I am rather sceptical about intense academic analyses of this type. My reaction tends to be along the lines of "well, that's mildly interesting, but it adds nothing to my appreciation of a story." However, coming up with definitions and arguing about them can be fun, so naturally I can't resist putting up a conceptual coconut for others to shy at. I should say that I've not read much about this, so my thoughts are no doubt treading a well-worn path.

Rather than start by trying to define SF or fantasy, I'll take a step back and consider both, plus other related genres, which can all be encompassed by a term like "fantastical fiction" (I have seen "fantasy" used to cover all of this, but I think that's confusing). The definition of fantastical fiction, or FF, could be something like this: "Fiction in which a principal plot element is not of this world." I think that's fairly comprehensive if somewhat loose, although it's obviously open to debate; I suspect that any definition would be disputed by the majority of SFF readers!

The different elements, or sub-genres, of FF can then be defined in terms of FF, for example: Science Fiction is FF in which an attempt is made to convince the reader that it might possibly happen. A further subset of SF is Mundane SF, which is limited to the science we know now. Alternative History is FF set in the past, in which a change at some point leads to a different history. Fantasy is, well, everything else within FF…but it includes its own subsets, in the form of fairy tales, horror, and vampire stories.

Obviously, not all stories fall neatly into one particular category. There are lots of grey areas, and also lots which contain elements of more than one type of FF – or from outside the FF genre altogether (e.g. crime fiction set in the future), as Kincaid observes. One genre which usually contains elements of SF is the techno-thriller, which involves technologies which are not yet available, although they might well be in the near future. I was thinking of this when watching the hair-raising (well, it would be if I had any) BBCTV spy thriller Spooks, which has just finished its latest series. Some of their technological tricks are not available, but most may be soon (although some look to be impossible for the foreseeable future). The James Bond movies have often included SF elements, with spacecraft and invisible cars, although the latest incarnation has been dragged firmly back into the mainstream thriller category. However, I would not describe Spooks or the earlier Bond movies as SF, because that is not their primary focus; the SF bits are peripheral, not "principal plot elements".

The issue of what is, or is not, SF is also raised in the latest issue of Vector, the BSFA's "Critical Journal". It includes an article by Adam Roberts on the works of Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, who has been writing FF for years without describing it as such, or being accepted by the SFF world as one of its own. Roberts' explanation for this is that her stories don't really fit comfortably into our concept of SFF, being more concerned with mysticism. There are several other articles. Jonathan McCalmont considers SF and the laws of physics, difficult to summarise as it provides a general tour of the environs, looking at how various authors have dealt with the laws of nature in their works. Frank Ludlow writes on the "art" of reviewing, discussing the responsibility of the reviewer to produce informative and constructive reviews but also, having done so, to ignore the occasional angry reactions. Saxon Bullock discusses the TV series Lost, while Andy Sawyer examines the contents of the very first edition of Vector from 1958 (and discovers some perennial topics, such as a guide to writing SF and a discussion on the importance of characterisation). Stephen Baxter considers our fear of apocalyptic doom and our constant tendency to assume that major threats are going to turn out to be worse than they actually prove (let's hope that continues to be the case, given some of the predictions about the consequences of climate change). Graham Sleight writes about the Interzone magazine film reviews by Nick Lowe, who has been beavering away at the task for 23 years. Finally, there are no fewer than 48 substantial book reviews, which I will be studying carefully with a view to drawing up a post-Christmas purchasing list.

The third publication is Elastic Press: a Sampler, a booklet about the work of a small press which focuses on publishing single-author mixed-genre short-story anthologies and favours new authors and writing. It starts with an interview by Ian Whates of Andrew Hook, originator and owner of the Elastic Press, and includes stories from three of their books: Love in the Time of Connectivity, from Binding Energy by Daniel Marcus (the strange nature of future relationships in virtual worlds); La Macchina from The Turing Test by Chris Beckett (a new take on the old trope of robots developing sentience); and A Necklace of Ivy from The Last Reef by Gareth L Powell (a rather surreal view of an alien invasion). The purpose of the Elastic Press is unusual and worthy of support and, judging by the quality of the stories included, the books are worth buying on their merits anyway.

Friday 5 December 2008

Creationists launch new attacks on evolution

More blurring of the boundaries between fantasy, science and fiction this week!

The fundamentalist Christians are at it again, in their constant search to find some crack in the edifice of scientific knowledge into which they can force a wedge. Their strategy is to try to find any aspect of the natural world which scientists can't yet explain, so that they can argue that its purposeful creation by God is a valid possible explanation. In this way, they hope to get their religious beliefs accepted as worthy of being taught in schools alongside science, as a major step towards their goal of embedding religion within education. The focus of this activity is in the USA, in which religion is kept out of public education by law, but there is an increasing spill-over into other countries which are on the receiving end of lots of pro-creationist publicity and teaching materials.

Many of the fundamentalists believe that the universe and everything in it was created by God exactly as described in the Bible, over a period of six days a few thousand years ago. There is the slight problem that Genesis 1 has the creation of plants, animals, man and woman in a different order to that listed in Genesis 2 – they can't both be right – but that doesn't seem to faze the creationists. The big problem they have in selling this idea to non-fundies is the vast and ever-growing body of evidence from many different fields of research (astrophysics, astronomy, geology, geomorphology, palaeontology and biology, to name the obvious ones) which clearly point to the enormous age and slow development of life, the Universe and all that. Clearly, the creationists' beliefs are pure religious dogma and stand no chance of being allowed into US state schools, as emphasised by various legal rulings.

So they switched tactics to low cunning, and during the late 1980s and 1990s developed the concept of "Intelligent Design", or ID. Here we need to mention the Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, which is a major sponsor of the "wedge" strategy for getting religious beliefs accepted within mainstream education, and is closely associated with ID and other recent attempts to subvert the ban on teaching creationism. The tactic this time was a lot more subtle. Darwin once observed that it would only take one example of a feature of a living thing which could not have evolved from some earlier feature to disprove evolution. The aim of the creationists is to identify any such feature they can, and argue that this is evidence that this must have been the act of an "intelligent designer". They carefully avoid mentioning God as the likely designer, or using the forbidden words "creation" or "religion". However, this strategy suffered a major setback in 2005 when the proposal of a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, to teach ID was challenged in court. After a high-profile six-week trial, the verdict went against the creationists. “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID policy,” the judge wrote. “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would, time and again, lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy.” To make matters worse for the ID proponents, their prize exhibit – a complex flagellum which they claimed could not have evolved – has since been found in a simpler form, indicating an earlier stage of evolution.

So the fundies switched tactics again, to an even more subtle approach; the defence of academic freedom! They are promoting the argument that teachers have the right to hold "open discussions of scientific theories" – such as evolution – with their students, and can introduce books and other materials from outside the standard curriculum to help the students "critique" the science they are taught. This has been supported by a "teach the controversy" public campaign (ignoring the fact that as far as science is concerned, there is no controversy over the theory of evolution). This is a clever move, since who could be against academic freedom? But what it really does is open the door to an attack on evidence-based logical reasoning (the basis of the scientific method) by a belief system which rejects objective evidence and reason in favour of a dogmatic adherence to the exact words in an ancient book. Despite this, in mid-2008 Louisiana approved a state law which defends such academic freedom, and other states have been considering similar measures.

No doubt buoyed by this success, the fundamentalists have recently found what they perceive to be another point of weakness: our understanding of human consciousness (reported in the New Scientist on 25 October). In particular, they attempt to draw a distinction between the human mind and the material brain, with aim of arguing that a non-material mind is something entirely separate. It must therefore have had a separate origin, which leads into the existence of a "soul"; another angle to get a religious belief accepted as having a valid place in science. It is once again a clever move, because the nature of consciousness is an area of genuine debate among scientists working in the field, with different views being held. However, the New Scientist article points out that the arguments in favour of the mind being separate are flawed. Its proponents argue that brain scans reveal that when people use their minds to consciously change what they are thinking, this can be shown to affect brain functioning. Therefore, they say, the mind must be separate from the material brain. Their opponents point out that this is a logical non-sequitur; there is no reason why the brain cannot change itself. Furthermore, the fact that something is not yet understood by science does not mean that it will never be understood; in fact, the scientific method has a staggeringly consistent record of success in pushing back the boundaries of ignorance. If it weren't for evidence-based logical thinking we would still be living in caves and killing animals for food by throwing stones at them.

In case some readers feel that this blog is an attack on religion, I must point out that most Christians are not creationists, despite the attempt of the fundies to imply that true Christianity equals creationism; to put the debate (in the words of a car bumper sticker) in the form of "Jesus v Darwin". In most of the Christian world, creationists are in a small minority. Neither the Roman Catholic nor the Anglican churches oppose the theory of evolution. Even in the USA, which is at least 75% Christian, only 39% of the population rejects the proposition that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals (compared with 40% which accepts it, and 21% "don't knows").

Is any of this important? Does it really matter if children are taught religious beliefs as if they were on a par with science? Yes, I believe that it is and it does, very much so. What the fundamentalists are doing is attacking the basis of the knowledge which humanity has accumulated over many centuries. Knowledge acquired through patient observation of phenomena, the gathering of evidence, the development of hypotheses to account for the observations, the testing of these hypotheses (by experimentation wherever possible), and their validation by other scientists, leading to the establishment of theories which remain our best explanation for the phenomena – until contrary evidence or a theory which better fits the evidence comes along. The agenda of the fundamentalists is to sow doubt about this entire process, to encourage children to believe that rational and non-rational modes of thinking are entirely comparable and equally valid as a means of explaining the material world in which we live, rather than occupying separate aspects of human life. If they had their way, children would grow up in a world of medieval superstition, ignorant of the importance of evidence-based logical thinking, and thereby completely unequipped to deal with the increasingly complex and technical problems which we are facing, including resource depletion and climate change. From my perspective, that would be a crime against humanity.