Friday 24 April 2009

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune was first published in 1965 to immediate acclaim, and it remains one of the most popular SF novels ever written. I read it several times in the late 1960s and early 1970s but not since, so when it was chosen as "book of the month" for the Classic SF discussion group, I returned to it with great interest to see how it stands up today.

At around 500 pages it is a massive tome by the standards of the time (when less than 200 pages was a typical SF novel length), space which Herbert put to good use in making his world rich and complex. Unlike so many long novels, there is no padding here. The story is set in the distant future when humanity has colonised thousands of star systems, ruled by hereditary nobles with an Emperor reigning over all. The civilisation is held together by a spaceship service monopolised by the Guild of Navigators whose pilots rely on a drug called spice or melange, which enables them to see the future and thereby guide their ships safely. Melange is highly addictive, cannot be synthesised and is only found on the desert world of Arrakis. As a result of political machinations, the House of Atreides, led by Duke Leto, is awarded custody of Arrakis and its fabulous wealth. But the previous owners, the Harkonnens, have no intention of surrendering quietly and a bitter conflict results.

This would appear to provide all of the elements of a classic space opera but, unusually, almost all of the action takes place on the surface of one planet – Arrakis. The author thoroughly worked out the details of this world. The ecology is explained, backed up by an appendix devoted to it, with the interrelationships between giant desert sandworms and melange being a key issue. So also is the long-term attempt by the independent and ferocious desert-living natives, the Fremen, to alter the climate. The psychological, cultural and technical implications of living in such a harsh environment are a major theme, including details such as the design of the "stillsuits" which enable people to survive in the desert.

The rest of the story is also filled with fascinating and original ideas. The human reliance on computers had been destroyed in a revolt thousands of years before, prompting the developed of advanced mental powers through intensive training. The most direct computer replacements are the Mentats, who are able to analyse vast reams of data and compute probable outcomes of any course of action. Most advanced of all are the Bene Gesserit, a manipulative guild of women highly trained in both physical and mental skills to achieve astonishing feats; perhaps above all the ability to analyse personalities through their speech patterns and to influence their actions via the use of "Voice", a tailored manner of speaking.

The story is full of quasi-religious issues. Although not themselves religious, the Bene Gesserit encourage the development of religions which feature their own members as revered – and feared – leaders. They are also trying to create by selective breeding over millennia the "Kwisatz Haderach"; a man who will have all of their abilities plus be capable of far more. The Fremen are religious (influenced long ago by the Bene Gesserit) and are waiting for their own "redeemer" figure; Lisan al-Gaib. These concepts combine to form a key plot element.

More conventional space-opera elements are present, particularly the existence of shields which block any high-velocity projectiles, leading to the re-establishment of knife fighting as a key battle tactic. There is much exotic communication, with battle languages, code words, hand signals and even a private humming language used by two of the characters.

Despite this richness of invention, the writing is not loaded with infodumps, the author slips in just enough information in passing (with a glossary of the terms used at the back as an aide memoire). The first two-thirds of the book consists of one almost continuous sequence, but there is then a break with the remainder of the book being more episodic as the various plot threads develop towards a climax over several years. Some unconventional approaches are taken; for instance, one person is identified as a future traitor before even making an appearance, the author deliberately sacrificing conventional surprise to achieve a sense of impending doom. There is something of the flavour of an epic classical tragedy, emphasised by a "chorus" in the form of extracts from historical accounts at the start of each chapter, looking back on the events being recounted. This deliberate myth-making reminds me somewhat of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality series.

Very unusually for SF of the time, the characterisation is good. Space is allowed for exploring personalities, for instance a formal dinner which takes up some twenty pages of fascinating multi-level exchanges, and six pages on the slow death of one character in the desert, giving us his final hopes and fears. Such is the skill of the author that such scenes as these are just as gripping as the action sequences. The hero of the tale fights against his destiny, regretting the way in which former friends have come to regard him but knowing he has to use their devotion in the right way. The conclusion is unexpected and satisfying.

Reading the book now with an author's as well as an SF fan's eye, I am more deeply impressed than ever. Dune is a superb achievement, one of the finest SF stories ever written, not just in plot originality but in the style of its writing. As so often happens, its success prompted a production line of ever-declining sequels. I read a few but kept only the first one, Dune Messiah, for a re-read someday. I won't comment on the 1984 movie, except to say that's what you get if you try to compress a densely-plotted book, which takes me around seven hours to read, into just over two hours.

Friday 17 April 2009

The Uplift War by David Brin

This story was first published over twenty years ago, but it's taken me this long to catch up with it. It is set something like half a millennium into the future, in Brin's 'Uplift' universe (the setting for a total of six novels so far). The Five Galaxies of civilisation are swarming with intelligent life, almost all of which was developed and genetically engineered ("uplifted") towards intelligence and a technological society by older star-faring "patron" races. This pattern was established three billion years before by the legendary and long-lost Progenitors, who laid down the law that all intelligent species had a moral duty to encourage the development of life in order to maximise the diversity of intelligence. Races earn their galactic status by the number of "client" races they are able to develop towards uplift.

The basic background to this universe is therefore quite utopian, but all is not perfect. The one exception to the pattern is humanity, who appear to have reached intelligence without external aid (although there are suspicions). Having avoided the 100,000 year period of client status (during which the uplifted species is supposed to serve their patrons) humans are regarded as uncivilised "wolflings". Even more galling to the old-established races is that by the time they were discovered by the Galactics, humanity has already uplifted two client races by themselves – dolphins and chimpanzees – and have therefore acquired status as patrons. Despite the noble sentiments which drive the Galactic civilisation the races are by no means all benign, and some become humanity's implacable enemies.

The Uplift War takes place on the planet of Garth, assigned to humanity by the Galactics in order to restore an ecosystem devastated by a failed uplifted race some fifty millennia before. The population of humans and their uplifted neo-chimpanzees is small and mainly involved in scientific work. Political disturbances among the Galactics lead to war, during which Garth is invaded by the avian Gubru. The plot is built around the resistance to this occupation, mostly by neo-chimps led by a few humans and helped by the ambassador of one of the few races allied to humanity, the Tymbrimi, and his daughter. The Tymbrimi are an interesting humanoid race with remarkable physical adaptability, unusual psychic sensitivity and a reputation as the Galactic jokers.

The theme of brave and clever resistance to an overpowering military occupation is an old one in SF, although more commonly set on Earth. The prime role of the neo-chimpanzees and the existence of alien allies also mark this one out as different. What really distinguishes The Uplift War, however, is the quality of the story-telling. This is a hugely enjoyable book from start to finish, hard to put down despite its daunting 630-page length. The neo-chimps are marvellously brought to life in a convincing mix of human and chimpanzee characteristics, and also with some pathos. Their uplift is far from over, and a selective breeding programme ensures that only the most advanced neo-chimps are able to pass their genes on to the next generation. In one scene, a "probationer" – a neo-chimp considered a failure and banned from breeding – bitterly points out that he would have been considered a great success only a few generations ago, and that in time the successful neo-chimps would themselves be looked down on by their more advanced successors. The Gubru and the likeable Tymbrimi are also convincingly brought to life and their alien thought-patterns well described.

A characteristic of Brin is his sense of humour and this is very evident throughout the book, with many laugh-out-loud moments. The mischievousness of the Tymbrimi provides plenty of jokes, but even more are focused on the hero of the story, the neo-chimp Fiben Bolger, whose wry and self-deprecating personality is a joy. Another characteristic is Brin's use of language; he introduces many colourful words which were new to me. Just about the only unconvincing moment for me was the unexpected climax of the book (which I can't explain without giving too much of the story away) which did come rather out of the blue. Overall, though, this is a wonderful story which can be unreservedly recommended.

Friday 10 April 2009

Houses on the Borderland

This is an anthology of new "tales of the macabre" by six British writers, provided free to members of the British Fantasy Society. As the title indicates, the theme of this collection is inspired by William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. There are seven novellas, all very different in their settings and plots, but linked by the central place of a building which is (in all except one tale) rather more than it seems.

Today We Are Astronauts by Allen Ashley. This story is the exception, in that there are no supernatural elements to the building; a remote lighthouse in a future in which humanity is being wiped out by a strange disease. A family is sent to the lighthouse together with the Mind Blocks, a virtual recreation of the minds of the great and the good, in the hope of preserving them for use once the crisis is over. However, the circumstances do strange things to the minds of the inhabitants.

The Listeners by Samantha Lee. The one traditional fairy story (of the Grimm sort) in the collection: a mercenary, travelling on horseback through a sparsely populated land, spends a night at an inn where an old man warns him about a strange house he will encounter on his journey, a house which locals in the inn say does not exist. Late the next evening, looking for shelter for the night, the horseman does indeed come across the house, and it is not what it seems. The tension is rather dissipated by the fact that the conclusion is clearly signalled part-way through the story.

The School House by Simon Bestwick. A present-day horror story about a malevolent old school and what it does to the minds of the pupils, both at the time and in their adult lives. Unsettling.

The House on the Western Border by Gary Fry. A divorcee escapes with her daughter to a remote house on the coast of Anglesey. A house which has stood empty for years and, she discovers (too late), is rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of the original inhabitant. A traditional ghost story combined with a modern concern about the exploitation of the Third World.

The Retreat by Paul Finch. A late-World War 2 setting here as a small group of German soldiers, survivors of Stalingrad, try to make it home through a bleak Russian winter. Frozen, exhausted and starving they are lost in a huge wood when they stumble across a wooden hut. One which is suspiciously warm and welcoming, and is much bigger on the inside than the outside suggests. A grim and gritty tale.

The Worst of All Possible Places by David A Riley. Back to present-day Britain and the horrors of a condemned tower block of council flats in which a reluctant resident is forced to accept a place. Only to find that it is even worse than he could have imagined. Far worse…

I'm not a fan of horror fiction – I recall reading some classic tales in my teenage years some four decades ago (names such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dennis Wheatley and the anthologist August Derleth come to mind), but none since – and I can't honestly say that this collection prompts me to seek out more. Not that there is anything wrong with the stories, they just don’t reflect my taste in reading material. Still, it made in interesting change from my usual fare, with each tale being short enough to read in less than an hour, the longest being just over 60 pages. I'm due for another exposure to more classic horror soon: for reasons of nostalgia as much as anything, I couldn't resist buying the recently-published Necronomicon: the Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft. I've quite a few other books to get through first, so don't hold your breath.

Friday 3 April 2009

Global Warming and SF

Global warming is an issue which is not going to go away, and that has implications for anyone writing fiction set in the foreseeable future. Any SF novel set within the next century or few which ignores this issue and its probable consequences will be likely to have a very short shelf-life before being seen as increasingly irrelevant. That doesn't mean that every such story should be about global warming, but that it should be set against a background which includes it – or the measures which were used to overcome it.

I don't, in this brief blog, want to rehearse the well-known basic arguments around global warming. Anyone who isn't yet convinced that this is happening as a result of human activities can read a wide variety of authoritative material on the web, such as the report of the US National Academies: Understanding and Responding to Climate Change; the Royal Society's Facts & Fictions about Climate Change; or, if you want the official 2007 report of the International Panel on Climate Change (the largest and most authoritative body studying this subject) go to the IPCC website. A more user-friendly summary can be found on Wikipedia, while I particularly recommend the New Scientist magazine's Climate Change: a guide for the Perplexed, since that also discusses the usual objections raised.

Instead, I want to focus on what might happen, and (in a later post) what might be done about it – subjects which provide very wide scope for science-fictional speculation. A recent conference of climate scientists in Copenhagen attracted some 2,500 delegates and heard 600 presentations over the three days. In the words of the New Scientist, "the majority [of these] showed the impacts of climate change would happen faster and be worse than previously thought". In other words, the predictions of the 2007 IPCC report are already being overtaken by events. This has been dramatically illustrated by the rapid shrinkage in summer Arctic ice cover.

This should be no great surprise. The rapid industrialisation of China (with a new coal-fired power station reportedly being built every week over the past few years) combined with the fact that very few countries have slowed down the increase in their CO2 output, was until recently boosting the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 levels over that predicted by the IPCC. For all of its other unhappy consequences, the current economic recession should at least slow down the rate of change and provide a bit of a breathing space to get our environmental act together.

Despite this general view that conditions are changing quickly and that this will result in serious consequences for the global environment and for humanity, there is still much uncertainty over what precisely is going to happen. This is partly because no-one is certain of the exact link between the rate of increase in CO2 production and the rate and ultimate level of the global temperature increase; and similarly no-one knows the exact implications, for climate patterns across the world, of any specific increase in average temperature. This leaves scope for some imagination on the part of SF writers.

Perhaps the greatest uncertainty – and cause for worry – is over the issues of feedback and tipping points. Feedback concerns the threat that some consequences of increased temperature will themselves increase the rate of increase. One obvious example concerns the accelerating shrinkage in polar sea ice. The ice reflects 90 percent of the sun's rays and thus keeps temperatures down. As this disappears, more of the sea is exposed and this absorbs over 90 percent of the solar heat, which helps to explain why the Arctic is warming up faster than the rest of the world. Another example is the existence of large quantities of frozen methane in the ground within arctic regions. As the ground warms up large quantities are already being released into the atmosphere – and methane is itself a greenhouse gas. This could all result in a tipping point, when the self-reinforcing changes gather such momentum that they rapidly accelerate beyond recovery. Nothing like as rapidly as shown in the ludicrous film The Day After Tomorrow, in which temperatures plummet drastically in a matter of minutes, but significant change could happen over a period of decades rather than centuries.

The expected consequences of climate change can be grouped under several broad headings: weather fluctuations; temperature and rainfall patterns; sea level changes; and ocean acidification.

The weather fluctuations we can already see happening are the result of increased atmospheric instability as the temperature rises. That means we are likely to see more, and more violent, storms. It also means that we are likely to see annual temperature and rainfall records continuing to be broken (in both directions). This is, however, by far the least serious of the likely consequences.

Changes in regional temperature and rainfall patterns, and their consequences for agriculture, will be far more significant. These are extremely complex and cannot be predicted with any great confidence, but some general trends are becoming evident. One is that some currently fertile areas, mainly in continental interiors, will become a lot drier. We are already seeing a pattern of increased droughts, in Africa, Australia, China and the USA, where water sources are being used up faster than they are being replenished. This is likely to have a significant effect on agricultural production, since this is one of the major users of fresh water. In part compensation, certain other regions of the world which are now too cold for agriculture will become available. However, it takes a very long time to develop fertile soils suitable for agriculture, and the total area of agricultural land is likely to diminish significantly. Meanwhile, it is virtually certain (for demographic structural reasons – lots of young people in many parts of the world) that barring devastating epidemics, warfare or famine, the world's population will continue to rise until the middle of this century, up from the current 6.4 billion to around 9 billion, with obvious implications for the demand for food and living space – and CO2 production.

It has been suggested that some areas may paradoxically become cooler, at least for a while before the general increase in temperatures pulls them back up again. The best-known possible cause is the stopping of the Gulf Stream (also known as the North Atlantic Drift or the North Atlantic Current, which is part of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation - AMOC) as a result of a surge of fresh water from melting polar ice. This currently keeps North-West Europe (including the UK) several degrees warmer than it would otherwise be, so the short-term impact of stopping it could be considerable. This was the trigger used for the sudden cooling so exaggerated in The Day after Tomorrow. Some studies have shown that the volume of flow of the Gulf Stream has already reduced by about 30% between 1957 and 2004, but the current view appears to be that a complete stoppage of the Gulf Stream is a less serious risk than previously thought.

The melting of ice brings me on to the third major concern, which is the changes in sea level. These are already happening, partly because the oceanic water expands as it warms up, but that effect is relatively small. It is also worth pointing out that the melting of ice already floating on the ocean (such as the Arctic Ocean ice cap centred on the North Pole, or floating ice sheets around Antarctica) has no direct effect on sea levels because the ice is already displacing water. The threat comes from the melting of ice which is currently on land. Some 90% of such ice covers Antarctica, another 9% is on Greenland, and the remaining 1% is in the form of glaciers and smaller ice caps scattered around the world.

To give an idea of the potential scale of the problem: if the West Antarctic Ice Shelf – WAIS – were to melt or slide into the ocean, global sea levels would rise by an average of about 5 metres. The disappearance of the Greenland ice would add 7 metres. If all ice went, the total rise in sea level would be around 70 metres (220-240 feet) but we don't need to worry about that – according to our current understanding, it would take many millennia, and in such extreme circumstances it is unlikely that humanity would be around to see it. For a more realistic threat, it is worth bearing in mind that sea levels were 3-6 metres higher during the last interglacial period although the global mean temperature was then only 1-2 degrees warmer than now. Current expectations are for an increase in temperature of at least 2 degrees by the end of this century, and it could be a couple of degrees more.

The conventional models of ice melting show that even the WAIS and Greenland ice would take millennia to melt. However, that assumes the ice would melt while still on land; a very slow process. It is now recognised that this isn't necessary, all it has to do is transfer to the ocean to provide the rise in sea level. There are signs that this is already happening, with the rate of movement of many glaciers showing a marked increase as they are lubricated by meltwater flowing underneath them. This could result in a much faster rate of increase of sea level, with an average rise of more than one metre by 2100 now being projected (about double that forecast in the IPCC report). Such a rise would have all sorts of unwelcome consequences for port cities and low-lying areas in which large numbers of people live and farm. There is, of course, a considerable lag between an increase in atmospheric temperatures and the melting of massively thick ice caps. What that means is that even if the average rise in temperature is held to just 2 degrees, the ice will continue to melt, and the sea level to rise, for centuries.

The most recent concern is ocean acidification, which is already happening. As temperatures increase, and the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise, more CO2 is absorbed by the ocean. This causes an increase in the acidity of the water, which potentially will have a serious effect on oceanic ecology as some creatures at the bottom of the food chain may find it impossible to cope. Coupled with world-wide over-fishing, this could result in fish disappearing from the human diet.

In conclusion: as the science firms up, the news concerning climate change keeps on getting worse in almost every respect. However, all is not (necessarily) lost. I will consider what might be done about this, which includes lots of SFnal ideas, in a future post.