Friday 27 February 2009

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

I first read this book when the UK paperback came out in 1970 and was blown away by it. I read it at least a couple more times over the next few years, but not since. Having recently reviewed Naomi Novik's Temeraire, which borrows heavily from Dragonflight in its concept of dragons, I thought it was time to give the original work a re-read.

I'm not sure who first invented the idea of intelligent dragons. There was of course Smaug, the wonderfully evil beast in Tolkien's The Hobbit, but he was hardly friendly. As far as I know (although I'll be happy to be corrected), McCaffrey was the first to come up with the idea of a life-long bond (in this case, telepathic) being formed between a newly hatched dragon and one particular human. It's a compelling idea which has been copied since, by others before Novik.

Dragonflight is ostensibly a science-fiction story which has far more of the feel of a fantasy. It is set on another planet, Pern, a long time in the future, where human settlers have for some reason been abandoned to their fate. A very long time later, they have reverted to a medieval level of existence with one difference – dragons. Smaller flying reptiles were native to the planet, but were genetically engineered into different and much larger forms when the original settlers discovered a major problem. A neighbouring planet had an irregular orbit which from time to time brought it very close to Pern. When that happened, masses of strings of spores, called threads, were ejected from it and fell onto Pern. Where they fell, they killed all living things. The best way of destroying them was by fire, preferably in mid-air before they reached the ground. The newly created dragons could breathe fire and were big enough to carry a human rider, so the dragonriders formed an aerial cavalry, flying to the rescue of places threatened by threadfall. They were helped in this by the dragons' ability to teleport instantly to anywhere on the planet. However, at the time of the story there had been no threadfall for centuries and the population was becoming tired of supporting the dragons and their riders, who lived apart in remote weyrs.

The tale follows the fortunes of Lessa, a girl who we first meet living a drudge's life, and F'lar, a male dragonrider. It would be unfair to reveal any of the plot and thereby deprive new readers of the pleasure of discovering this book, but suffice to say it is a beautifully-crafted gem of a story which, not surprisingly, won both Hugo and Nebula awards. It's packed with so many themes and incidents that it seems incredible that it's only 250 pages long; it would almost certainly be far longer if written today. Despite the brevity, the reader is far from short-changed. The characters (human and dragon) are clearly drawn and the reader comes to care about them. There is political intrigue, adventure, mystery, dramatic developments, romance, believable domestic details, terrible dangers to be faced, and lots and lots about dragons. The twist in the tail of the tale is well-conceived and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.

By current fashions the structure and writing would probably be criticised by an editor. There is an introduction to set the scene (nowadays writers are supposed to plunge straight into the action) and there's lots of description – the short first chapter contains not a word of dialogue – whereas the modern mantra is "show don't tell". As far as this reviewer is concerned, that reflects badly on the current fashions rather than on this book. Dragonflight is one of those rare stories which is like a comforting duvet that you wrap around yourself and just love being inside – it's a wrench to leave. For this reason I am reluctant to nit-pick the few story details which prompted question marks in my mind.

Dragonflight is a stand-alone story, complete in itself (unlike Temeraire, which is obviously the first part of a longer tale). However, the world McCaffrey created became so popular that many other novels set in it eventually appeared. I read a few of them but I've kept only the first two for a possible re-read sometime (Dragonquest and The White Dragon). None of them has the freshness, originality and charm of the original and the quality declined steadily. This should not detract from Dragonflight, which is a true classic and one of the most enjoyable SFF novels ever written.

Friday 20 February 2009

New Horizons and 2010

A new issue of this British Fantasy Society publication (included in the subscription). New Horizons is a biannual magazine "dedicated to promoting and showcasing the newer names in fantasy, horror and sci-fi". It includes seven short stories:

The Cloth of Heaven by Louise Morgan: a brief and rather strange account of the making of a magical dress, which reads as if it were an extract from a longer story.

The Silk Road by Allyson Bird: a visit to China to research a book on the Cherchen mummies leads to a nightmarish involvement with a local family. Travelogue meets horror story.

Gossamer by Ian Whates: the lure of a magical country cottage which inspires its residents to write fiction. An atmosphere of mystery, of things not quite seen.

The Siege by Nick Jackson: the claustrophobic atmosphere and terrors of a medieval siege. Not for the faint-hearted.

The Lost Tribe of Prague 6 by Cyril Simsa: old folk tales come alive in a wood in present-day Prague. It reminded me of Robert Holdstock's work.

A Town Called Exit by Paul Campbell: getting off the train at the wrong stop leads to a series of alternative worlds. Disorientating.

Under Her Skin by Eliza Chan: a selkie – a creature of the sea – is trapped on land in a marriage to a human man, in a story recounted by her daughter.

Of all of these my favourite was Cyril Simsa's, in part because the author (who lives in the Czech Republic) includes some intriguingly different mythology.

In addition, the magazine has illustrations by Anna Bird, Vanessa Walk and Dean Harkness, and two interviews. One is with Ekaterina Sedia, the Russian-born American author of The Secret History of Moscow, which places traditional Russian folklore figures in a modern setting. The other is with Adam Nevill, who is in charge of Virgin Books' new line in horror novels.
I recently viewed 2010, the film made in 1984. I thought I hadn't seen it before, but I kept half-remembering scenes as they happened, so I must have done. Good, solid SF with credible human drama thrown in; Roy Scheider's performance was particularly strong. A worthy sequel to 2001.

Friday 13 February 2009

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This Hugo and Nebula award-winning story of interstellar warfare was first published in book form in 1974, but in a different version from the one the author intended. It originally appeared in serialised form in Analog magazine but one of the sections was felt by the book publishers to be too downbeat, so was changed. Not until 1991 was the book published with the excised section reinstated, and this is the version being reviewed here.

The Forever War is set in an alternate world, apparently similar to our own up to the Vietnam War (experience of which prompted Haldeman to write this book) then diverging rather radically to include interstellar space travel by the 1990s. However, the early explorers found themselves fighting the Taurans, an alien race very loosely humanoid in form. William Mandella is a college graduate drafted to fight in the war, and this first-person story follows his perilous and brutal combat career from one star system to another.

Haldeman emphasises the relativistic effects, which mean that a journey lasting only a few months in subjective time can result in a return to Earth decades or even centuries later. This not only means that the soldiers become increasingly cut off from Earth, where conditions change radically on each visit, but that weapons and other technology evolve considerably while they are travelling. It also means that if two lovers are posted to different star systems, they will never meet again.

I first read this about a decade ago, and recall admiring it more than I liked it. That's still the case, simply because the hero's situation is so grim and gloomy throughout. The combat casualty rate is frighteningly high, and society on Earth changes to become as dystopian as you are likely to find. Almost all of this book is very good indeed, the author's war experience providing a gritty ring of truth, emphasised by the laconic and cynical writing style, but for me it was spoilt a little by a rather bizarre ending which drifts more towards fantasy. The author suggests that clones would not only have perfect communication but would effectively have only one shared mind; a moment's thought would have revealed that identical twins (who are effectively clones), while often very close, are separate individuals. Despite this, The Forever War merits its awards and its place on the SFF Shelf of Fame; it is a true classic. But I felt a strong need to read something light and upbeat after finishing it.

Friday 6 February 2009

Kil'n People by David Brin

Back in the 1980s, before other priorities distracted me from reading much SFF for a decade or two, I read and enjoyed a few books by David Brin, The Practice Effect being a particular favourite. So when Kil'n People cropped up in the Modern SF reading list, I acquired a copy with some anticipation.

The novel is set about a century into the future, and is focused on the implications of some revolutionary scientific developments: that animated creatures – known as 'dittos' – can be made out of clay, and that the personality and memories of any individual can be copied into a ditto. The downside is that a ditto lasts for only one day before disintegrating, but in compensation the ditto's memories can be uploaded back into the human original. This enables each person to send out several dittos every day, greatly multiplying their workrate and also making dangerous or unpleasant tasks more acceptable. Not all dittos are the same – they vary in capabilities, indicated by different colourings – and they don't have to look like the original person; even animal forms can be used.

Al Morris is a private investigator engaged in tracking down the various new forms of crime which the existence of dittos permits, and the story follows him, and several of his dittos, as they try to unravel a huge conspiracy. There are many twists and turns until the unexpected and ambitious conclusion.

This book follows the current doorstop fashion, being over 600 pages long, which caused this reviewer to have to refresh his memory at the start of each reading session, in order to recall previous events. This task was considerably complicated by the fact that the plot keeps switching between the viewpoints of Morris and his various dittos, all of which are recounted in the first person. Trying to remember what each one had been doing, and in particular what each one had found out about what was going on, was something of a struggle.

Despite that, the book held my attention. It is well written, and I'm pleased to see that Brin hasn't lost the sense of humour which keeps bubbling up, for instance in puns based on clay and ditto (e.g. Morris' copies having the title of "ditective"). He also has a lot of fun in exploring some of the more bizarre implications of dittos and the effect their existence has on society. A solid chunk of quality, original, SF, well worth the somewhat protracted reading time.