Friday 31 July 2009

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, and Coyote by Alan Steele

Two books for the price of one this week, simply because I didn't finish either of them. This has happened several times recently, which I find rather exasperating. It seems to affect recently-written books rather than the old classics. The main problem is their length: the more of my precious time they take to read, the better they have to be before I slog on to the end. The two this week both showed initial promise which didn't last.
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco concerns an actual device of that name made to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth (the track of the pendulum gradually changes over time). In the 1988 novel, it has a symbolic significance (although not one which is at all obvious for much of the book).

The plot is a satire on ancient international occult conspiracy theories. The Knights Templar are in there, of course, as are the Rosicrucians, secret codes and the Holy Grail. The story focuses on three men who work for an Italian publishing house, which among other things churns out self-published books on such conspiracy theories. They decide they can do better and invent their own theory which links into the others, only to find that some people are taking that very seriously…

I was looking forward to reading this book and expected to enjoy it but I have to say that I found it very hard going. It is exceedingly long-winded and rambles about all over the place, packing in a vast number of references, most of which I failed to recognise. I struggled with it intermittently for a couple of weeks but kept finding that I'd lost the thread and was becoming increasingly reluctant to pick it up, so I eventually admitted defeat when about half-way through its 700 pages.

If you're interested to know more about this book you can read the Wiki entry
but be warned, it contains a comprehensive description of the plot with many spoilers.
There are two problems with Coyote by Allen Steele (the book chosen for August's Modern Science Fiction discussion group), both of which are similar to those which afflicted another long book I failed to finish recently, Silverberg's The Alien Years. One is that the plot is over-familiar; in this case a colonisation attempt by a human starship on an apparently suitable world free of intelligent life, which turns out to have hidden dangers which pose problems for the colonists. The other is that the focus is very much on the people and their sometimes antagonistic relationships, in exhaustive detail. I am also reminded of another long book which I never finished because of this second characteristic, S.M.Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time.

Despite this, Coyote is acceptably well-written, often excitingly so. The early chapters in particular, dealing with the gradually-revealed plot by dissidents within a future fragmented America to hijack the starship, are full of page-turning tension. The familiarity sets in as the colonists arrive at their destination and begin to establish themselves, with all the usual problems and hardships. With only a few plot changes, this could be about the survivors of a vessel shipwrecked on a deserted island in the days of sail, or indeed any pioneers trying to establish a community in virgin territory. I felt that the SF element was very much in the background rather than central to the story.

It makes an instructive contrast with Cherryh's Foreigner, reviewed earlier in this blog. This also concerns human colonists trying to establish themselves on a new world after a one-way trip, but this planet turns out to be already occupied by an intelligent humanoid race. The focus of that story is on the relationship between the humans and the aliens and that held my attention throughout, despite the book's length and Cherryh's slow-paced writing.

I did manage to get more than halfway through Coyote, but then gave up due to steadily declining interest. However, if you like this kind of plot and approach to story-telling, you may well enjoy this book. There are also a couple of sequels.

The Carrington Event

If global warming plus the possibility of a major asteroid strike aren't enough to worry about, there's another threat to our civilisation reported in the New Scientist magazine of 23rd March 2009. No doubt some SF writers and film-makers are beavering away at disaster stories based on this already – or maybe this one is a bit too grim.

It concerns storms on the surface of the sun which throw out plasma balls, a process known as coronal mass ejection (CME). These fly through space at high velocity and occasionally connect with the Earth. They vary a lot in size and small ones are common, but if a giant one hits the Earth, we are in trouble deep. This is no idle threat; the outcome of such a major geomagnetic storm is described in a report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January 2009. Furthermore, such an event has already happened, in 1859, as reported by the British astronomer Richard Carrington. This caused stunning auroras even at equatorial latitudes and severely disrupted telegraph networks. The consequences of an event on a similar scale today would be far worse.

Our problem is that in the 150 years since the Carrington event we have become much more vulnerable to its effects. Satellite communication and navigation systems in the CME's path would be fried. Much worse, the long cable lines of our electricity grids would act as aerials, capturing the plasma and focusing it on the transformers which convert the high-voltage grid supply to lower voltage domestic supplies. The massive flow of DC current would overheat and melt the transformers' copper wiring, effectively destroying them. Power supplies in the area hit by the plasma ball would fail. A small-scale version of this happened in Quebec province in March 1989, and six million people were without electricity for nine hours. A strike the size of the Carrington event would be orders of magnitude worse.

The NAS report outlines the consequences if a Carrington event hit the USA. Within 90 seconds, 300 key transformers would be knocked out, cutting off power to 130 million people. All kinds of electronic communications would fail. Within a few hours, water taps would run dry as there would be no power to pump the supply. All electrically-powered transport would grind to a halt. So would petrol and diesel vehicles as their tanks ran dry, because there would be no power to pump fuel at the filling stations. With no transport, supplies of food in urban areas would rapidly run out; typically, cities only have about three days' supply of food (and much of that is in freezers or refrigerators, so would soon spoil). Even establishments with backup generators, such as hospitals, could only keep going for as long as their fuel lasted – probably three days. Medicines would soon begin to run out, as the factories would have no power to make them and the vehicles no fuel to transport them.

Worst of all, it would take a very long time to put matters right. The wrecked transformers would have to be replaced, a job which takes a skilled crew at least a week for each one – assuming they have a spare one handy. There are very few spare ones lying around; they are usually made to order, a process which can take a year. And the factories which can make them will probably have no power – or, if they are outside the affected zone, problems in transporting them to where they're needed. Even with the transformers repaired, there would be a kind of Catch-22 because almost all the natural gas and fuel pipelines which supply power stations require electricity to operate. No electricity = no fuel = no electricity. Coal fired power stations may have 30 days of fuel, but nuclear ones would automatically shut down when the grid fails.

Given the difficulties and delays in responding to and recovering from Hurricane Katrina, an event which affected only a very small percentage of the USA, it is easy to see that rescue and recovery services would be completely overwhelmed by a national disaster on such a scale. The net result of all this, according to the NAS report, is that the recovery time would be four to ten years – and the USA may never be the same again. The New Scientist article quotes an estimate of the death toll of "tens of millions of lives". The rest of the developed world is just as vulnerable to a major geomagnetic storm as the USA. Ironically, it is the poorest and most rural societies which would be least affected.

Can anything be done to guard against this? Precautions to protect the grid could be taken given enough warning, such as adjusting voltages and loads and restricting energy transfers. However, this process takes at least 15 minutes – which is about as long as it can take for a CME to reach Earth from the nearest existing solar satellite. Fortunately, a follow-up report in the 11th April issue of the New Scientist describes a new technique for predicting CMEs using NASA's STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) pair of spacecraft which follow the same orbit as the Earth. A check following a small CME event of 16 December 2008 discovered that STEREO spotted changes to the sun which presaged the event. Given some improvements to the software to speed up data analysis, up to 24 hours warning could be provided of a CME about to head our way.

Let's hope that someone is working on that software and setting up a system for automatic warnings to be sent to power grid organisations worldwide, and that those organisations are compelled to put in place and rehearse the precautionary procedures. This can be done quite easily and cheaply, and the consequences of failing to do so could be catastrophic.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Interzone 223

A special issue this time, focusing on Dominic Green and featuring three of his stories as well as an interview. In addition, there are two other stories and the usual news and reviews of books and films, plus another interview – with Joe Abercrombie. The balance of the reviews seems to have shifted more towards films this time, with many DVDs covered as well as current cinema offerings such as the new Star Trek, Terminator and X-Men movies. A thought-provoking read, as usual. The surreal fantasy cover is by Adam Tredowski.

The Transmigration of Aishwarya Desai, by Eric Gregory, illustrated by Arthur Wang: an academic visits a planet for a debate with a rival over the reality of her claimed psychic contact with an uncommunicative alien race, only to have this resolved in an unexpectedly dramatic fashion.

Silence and Roses, by Suzanne Palmer, illustrated by LeMat: robot caretakers look after their human masters in a secluded retirement home, waiting patiently for their charges to self-repair as they fall silent, one by one. It takes an intruder to point out that they aren't going to speak, ever again. This was the most memorable of the stories in this issue, but partly for the wrong reason; surely once the first master died, the others would have explained to the robots what had happened, and what to do with the body?

Next to the three stories by Dominic Green, all of them illustrated by Daniel Bristowe-Bailey.

Butterfly Bomb: an old man lives in solitary splendour on a planet, except for a companion who is picked up by a passing slave ship. The old man follows in a rescue attempt – but who exactly is being rescued?

Coat of Many Colours: a genetic experiment produces a large reptilian animal with scales which shift in colour even after death. A potential goldmine, provided that the creature is not deemed to be intelligent – but how to determine this?

Glister: prospectors trapped on a strange and hazardous planet go looking for valuable minerals, but the source is mobile and success comes from an unexpected direction.

In the interview with Dominic Green, he explains his philosophy in writing SF and what motivates his varied stories. The revelation which most intrigued me is that the author has had no fewer than twenty stories published in Interzone over the last eleven years, one of which was nominated for a Hugo award, but none of his novels has been picked up by a publisher; he has a substantial collection of rejection slips. Judging by these stories, he is clearly a talented, original and entertaining author, but that is not proving to be enough. I have written before about the difficulties in getting published, but what it seems to boil down is that there are too many writers and not enough readers – or, at least, purchasers. Green has accordingly put four of his novels on his website for free.

It does make me wonder exactly where fiction publishing is heading. There seems to be an ever-narrowing range of opportunities for conventional publication, yet major problems with the alternatives. Regular followers of this blog will know that I self-published my two novels; The Foresight War and Scales. The first was an immediate commercial success and has recouped my investment more than twice over. The second was not, so I have offered it as a free download on my website rather than let all the effort in writing it go to waste. I have recently updated my web article on publishing SFF fiction here, and I advise all who have ambitions to be a novelist to read it carefully, along with the related article on marketing .

Saturday 18 July 2009

Voyager in Night by C. J. Cherryh, plus a film catch-up

This 1984 book by Cherryh is uncharacteristic of most of her other work (at least, that with which I am familiar – I have by no means consumed all of her oeuvre). Three young prospectors are travelling in their makeshift spacecraft through a distant solar system when the fall into the path of a vast alien starship, which collects their craft before moving on. It transpires that the ship is ruled by a being normally referred to as "<>", but there is a motley collection of individuals on board who are far from in agreement with their leader, or each other. None of them appears in person, <> communicating via a virtual image of one of the prospectors. <> can also manufacture virtual copies of the prospectors, including their personalities and memories. The story follows the prospectors' struggle to understand what is going on and to resolve their own identities, against the background of a mutiny on board.

If the beings who inhabit the starship are bizarre creations so is the ship itself, appearing to be more organic than metallic. This is a relatively brief tale (only 220 pages in my paperback) without the long introspective passages which normally fill her work. Rather dark and grim, it is a work which is more intriguing than enjoyable.
I felt like some mindless entertainment (my brain cells go on strike with increasing frequency) so I watched My Super Ex-Girlfriend, the 2006 Uma Thurman film. It's about a guy who discovers that his new girlfriend is a super-heroine - and subsequently finds that there can be hazards in dumping such a being. A good popcorn movie, pleasantly entertaining and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly enjoyed the scene with the shark...
Sadly, I was less impressed by the DVD of Hogfather, based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld comic fantasy novels. It was just about watchable but dragged very slowly, and when it ended after 1½ hours and I discovered that that was only Part 1 – there was a Part 2 on the disk – I gave up.
Back on course again with the latest Star Trek movie, the prequel to the original series. Entertaining and with some good CGI, it even got a round of applause from the cinema audience! I do wonder why Hollywood finds it so hard to make such a movie without inconsistencies in the plot, though….and I found the film rather forgettable (I'm already struggling to recall the story).
The Spiderwick Chronicles is a neat piece of storytelling. A mother and her children move into a house left to them by a distant relative, only to discover that they're not alone. Their relative had been investigating the world of magical creatures and had accumulated a precious store of knowledge in a book, which a particularly nasty denizen of that world was determined to get hold of as soon as he could break the magic circle protecting the house. An intriguing adventure, with the children a lot less annoying than they usually are in Hollywood films.
Wanted puts us back into superhero territory. This 2008 film is apparently based on a comic book figure, although as I don't read comics I wasn't aware of that when I saw it. With a cast including Morgan Freeman, James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie it obviously had a big budget. It concerns the existence of an old-established group of assassins with superhuman powers, including the ability to speed themselves up and to bend the path of their bullets. A young man (McAvoy) is hauled out of a humdrum life by this group, as he is the son of one of their members who died in a series of attacks by a renegade assassin. McAvoy is trained up and despatched on the trail of the renegade. All is not as it seems and there are various twists and turns before the usual cataclysmic conclusion. Not a bad effort, with some exciting scenes. Jolie fans will love it…

Friday 10 July 2009

The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg

This book was first published in 1998 but I started to read it only recently, because it was chosen for the Modern Science Fiction discussion group. Silverberg is one of a number of authors whose works I absorbed in quantity in the 1960s and 70s, but I was not a particular fan and haven't kept any of them for re-reading.

The first impression I had on reading The Alien Years was a strong sense of déjà vu, since it starts in more or less the present day with the sudden arrival of aliens in major cities across the world. I don't know how many alien invasion stories I've read over the decades, but it must be dozens at least, so yet another one has to be really special to grab my attention. At first, the aliens seem to be mainly curious and take no offensive action, but this changes once they are attacked; their initial response is to black out all electrical apparatus (including battery powered) across the globe for a fortnight, with longer blackouts following later. They then use their telepathic powers to begin to exploit humanity as their work force.

Silverberg's story gives us no insight into the alien' motivations (at least for the first 200 pages) but focuses primarily on an extended Californian family and their responses to the invasion, with a secondary plot thread concerning some residents of Salisbury in England. Tension develops between those who wish to use force in resisting the aliens, those who regard this as futile and want to bide their time until there seems to be some chance of success, and those who accept that the aliens are here to stay and collaborate with them.

I mentioned the first 200 pages because, after I had got that far, I stopped and asked myself three key questions: was I enjoying the story; did I want to see how it ended; and did I care what happened to the characters? My answers were "no", "not particularly" and "no" respectively. So I stopped reading, at not quite half-way through; I have too many other books in my to-read pile to spend more time on this one.

What didn't I like about it? First, I found the writing style rather turgid with long info-dumps often dressed up as the internal thoughts of the characters. Secondly, the story was very slow-moving and failed to engage me; it wasn't sufficiently original or exciting. Third, the plot was rather depressing – I don't like dystopian settings, and I've read too many with this kind of plot already. But most of all, my problem was with the characters; not due to lack of characterisation, but because I found it difficult to relate to any of them and simply didn't like them. The only one who seemed quite promising featured initially as the main character but was killed off early in the story.

One other observation: the disruption causing by shutting down all electrical equipment is considerably understated in the book; the most serious problem described was a breakdown in law and order. In reality, it would be a colossal catastrophe throughout the developed world (the third world would be much less affected). Piped water would quickly dry up (no pumps). All powered transport would shut down, apart from steam engines (and primitive diesels with manual starting handles – until immediately available fuel ran out). Our just-in-time society absolutely depends on a constant flow of transport, especially for food supply; cities typically hold stocks of food for only about three days, and frozen and chilled food would rapidly spoil. In reality, there would be a huge exodus of people from urban areas, searching for water and food in the countryside. Almost all forms of employment would collapse, and all except the most basic medical facilities would break down. I'll be dealing with these issues in more detail in a future post concerning the Carrington Event.

Saturday 4 July 2009

The Mercury Annual by Michael Wyndham Thomas

The Mercury Annual is one of the strangest stories I have read in a long while. It commences with a lengthy Prologue which describes the world of Razalia and its neighbouring planets, together with their peoples. To say that this system is bizarre would be an understatement; it is the purest fantasy of the most unrealistic kind, in that no account is taken of any laws of science. The system's sun wanders among its planets, the inhabitants of one planet likes to visit others by means of giant catapults, Razalia is covered with barriers of pure white, like cracks in reality, into which people vanish never to return, and its humanoid people have a rather flexible anatomy, immediately growing organs as and when they need them. Each town is ruled by a Tharle, who acquires other peculiar abilities.

This is not the easiest story to get into and I was beginning to feel dubious about continuing until I reached the first chapter, which is dramatically different. This and much of the rest of the novel are set on present-day Earth and focus on the entirely mundane lives of Keith, whose main passion in life is his massive collection of classic comics, his dominating and aggressive wife Donna, their daughter Imogen and Keith's strange friend George, who shares his enthusiasm for the odd collectables of life. Donna is determined to convert their attic into something useful and plots to clear the space by manipulating her husband into selling the comic collection which covers the floor (the book's title refers to one of these). There is much loving description of the stories in the comics as Keith sorts through them, trying to decide what to do. The characters are well-drawn, the scenario and relationships entirely convincing. Only at the end of this part of the book is there any hint of a connection between Earth and Razalia.

The final part of the story returns to Razalia and describes the efforts of the Tharles to discover why the white barriers have begun to expand. One of their number has invented a peculiar device which he claims enables him to see and hear the legendary Maker of Razalia, who lives in a world which sounds increasingly familiar.

This short novel (under 160 pages) is only Part 1 of Valiant Razalia, and the various story threads are all left hanging in the air at the end of it. I am still trying to make up my mind about this book. It isn't the stuff of best-sellers, and the series could either vanish without trace or attract a cult following. However, it managed to hook me to the extent that I will be looking to get hold of Part 2 when it comes out.
I've just noticed that BBC Radio has been broadcasting some work by Charles Chilton. See: This link for details.

I remember the original versions of these stories, when Journey into Space was broadcast in the 1950s - it helped to get me interested in SF. I've still got one of his books from 1960 - The World in Peril. I must re-read it sometime!