Friday 28 August 2009

The Palace of Eternity by Bob Shaw

I have previously reviewed another of Bob Shaw's books, Night Walk (September 2007). In that review, I said the following: "Shaw is one of my favourite SF authors: from the 1960s until his death in the mid-1990s he wrote 26 novels plus a large number of short stories. Most of his novels were stand-alones, set in a wide variety of environments and with equally varied plots and themes. All were quite short by modern standards, fast-paced and intelligently written, and he was a great story-teller; his books are hard to put down."

The Palace of Eternity is another highly original work, with Shaw's trademark tight plotting and concise story-telling (it's only 170 pages). The hook is in the first sentence; who could resist reading on after this? "In spite of all of his efforts, Tavernor was unable to remain indoors when it was time for the sky to catch fire".

This is a difficult story to review without revealing the plot, as there is a dramatic development just over half-way through which changes the nature and direction of the story. So I'll divide this into two; the first part contains no spoilers, the second should be avoided by anyone who wants to read the book for themselves.

The story is set in the distant future, when humanity has spread over many star systems in FTL ships boosted up to tachyon drive speed by Bussard ramjets, called "butterfly ships" after the shape of the intense magnetic fields which spread for hundreds of miles around them. Only one other technological intelligent species has been discovered, the Syccans, who attacked on sight, ignored all attempts at communication, and for decades had been devoting all of their efforts to exterminating humanity, with growing success despite their failure to use butterfly ships. They are a vaguely humanoid but unpleasant-looking species.

In passing, the story makes an interesting point which echoes the conclusions of my review of Where is Everybody? (8 May 09): that while there have been countless advanced civilisations throughout the galaxy's history, each has a relatively short life-span of a few thousand years and, given the vast age of the galaxy, it is very rare for two to exist at the same time.

The story is set on the human-settled world of Mnemosyne, noted for its artistic invention and also for its own asteroid belt which prevents the butterfly ships from coming too close. This sleepy world is abruptly transformed when, for some inexplicable reason, humanity's war HQ is moved there. The hero of the story is Mack Tavernor, orphaned by a Syccan raid at the age of eight and carrying a massive burden of guilt which drove him to join the military and become a highly-decorated war hero before retiring to Mnemosyne. He is the traditional "competent man" of SF, and a loner who keeps others at a distance.

So far this seems like a traditional, not to say hackneyed, humanity v. the evil aliens action adventure tale, but the plot develops to be much wider than that, concerning the true nature of life in the universe and the future of humanity.

That's about as much as I can say without spoilers. If you want to read the book for yourself, stop reading NOW!


Mack Tavernor unwillingly becomes involved with some Mnemosyne residents who are resisting the military occupation, and is killed.

He regains consciousness as an egon, a self-sustaining energy pattern, in company with countless billions of others drifting in space around the planet. He discovers that egons are immortal beings who can reproduce, but in order to develop properly need to spend time as an integral part of a complex biological mind – a human or other intelligent being. New egons therefore link up with new human life and stay with it until death, when they are released to rejoin the other egons in space. They are the origin of human notions of the soul and spirit worlds, and the subconscious link between egons and humanity is also the source of human inspiration. He also discovers that humanity is unwittingly causing devastation because the egons can be destroyed – if they come within reach of the powerful electromagnetic fields of the butterfly ships. The space immediately around Mnemosyne is protected by its asteroid belt, so all of humanity's space-travelling egons have concentrated there, accounting for the artistic invention rife on the planet. The havoc wrought by the butterfly ships also accounts for the Syccan attacks, because they are in conscious contact with their egons.

Tavernor is selected by the "mother mass", the combined mind of the egons, to help resolve the problem of the butterfly ships by returning to the planet's surface to occupy a human body again; initially, with no knowledge of his egon origins. What follows brings more revelations as the new Tavernor becomes caught up in a Syccan invasion, and there is a final twist in the tale concerning the future evolution of humanity.

As with most SF of this era, the brevity of the book precludes much in the way of characterisation, but the story is well worth reading for the compelling action and, above all, the great ideas.

Friday 21 August 2009

Leviathan Rising by Jonathan Green

An alternative Earth in which Queen Victoria still reigns after 160 years and Magna Britannia rules the waves. This is the setting for the Pax Britannia series, of which this is one of the most recent. I haven't read any of the other stories in the series, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of this one. The hero, dandy and British agent Ulysses Quicksilver, accompanied by his trusty and resourceful valet Nimrod, refers to various previous and picaresque-sounding adventures but none have any bearing on the story of Leviathan Rising.

The plot concerns the maiden voyage of a huge and luxurious new submersible cruise-liner, the Neptune, able to visit exotic underground cities as well as more conventional resorts. An assortment of VIP guests, including Quicksilver, has been invited along, but their pleasure is soon spoiled as one of them is murdered. Not long afterwards, the Neptune sinks out of control to the sea bed, and Quicksilver has to use all of his resourcefulness and courage to save the steadily dwindling band of survivors from various fantastical perils of the deep while solving the mystery of who is guilty of murder and sabotage.

A novella, Vanishing Point, is included in the same volume (from Abbadon Books). This features the same hero, this time involved in a country house séance mystery which turns out to involve international espionage.

I gather that this sub-genre is known nowadays as "steampunk", although the term which coined itself in my mind when I read it was "retrofantasy". If you enjoy Jules Verne, H G Wells or the adventure thrillers of Arthur Conan Doyle, you'll love these tales. The first retrofantasy I can recall reading was Harry Harrison's 1972 novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! written very much in the style of the period, as the title suggests. Another comparator from the 1960s and 1970s (also set in an alternate Victorian-style but contemporary world) would be the Lord Darcy tales by Randall Garrett, which differed in including magic. More recently, I can recall reading the 1990 novel The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling, about an earlier development of computing in an alternate Victorian England.

I'm not a particular fan of this sub-genre, which seems to have an appeal (presumably greater for British than for other audiences) for a time of confidence and certainty, when technology marched relentlessly forward, nothing seemed impossible, and (of course) Britannia ruled the waves. However, I enjoyed Green's stories; good, old-fashioned entertainment with a nostalgic air.

Friday 14 August 2009

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick (1928-82) was not one of the widely famous, best-selling SF authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Frank Herbert. Despite this, he earned a high reputation as an innovative and thoughtful writer, with a probably unmatched record for the genre in having nine of his stories being used as the basis for Hollywood films, most notably for Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report.

I have to admit that although I read many of his stories in the 1960s (along with all the other SF I could get my hands on), I was not a particular Dick fan, and the only one I still have is The Man in the High Castle, which won the Hugo award for best SF novel in 1963. I read it so long ago that I could not recall what it was about, so I was pleased when it was selected as the monthly read for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

The setting is a contemporary 1960s America – but one in which the Axis powers won World War 2. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany subsequently divided up the world between them, including the USA of which the western zone fell into the Japanese sphere and the eastern to Germany. There isn't much explanation of how this came about, just a few odd comments such as the defeat of the RAF by the Luftwaffe which took the UK out of the war, thereby denying the USA any possibility of involvement in the European theatre. This isn't a military alternative WW2 (like my own novel The Foresight War, for instance), the focus is instead on the lives of a disparate group of loosely connected people (Americans, Japanese and Germans) living in both zones of America. There are some nice details about the implications of such a change in history: long-distance travel is by rocket-powered exo-atmospheric planes and manned trips are launched to Mars, but TV is still in its infancy and only available in Germany.

Dick is particularly good at portraying what it would be like for Americans living in the Japanese sphere, especially the anxiety to understand and conform to the Japanese mentality and thereby avoid giving offence, on the part of those who wish to be successful in business. Even the thoughts of the Americans doing business with the Japanese are represented in a clipped Japanese fashion. The author's treatment of the Japanese overlords is surprisingly sympathetic, even rather admiring, in stark contrast to his portrayal of the Nazis.

Two central motifs of the story are the extensive use of divination using the I Ching (I remember that one from my student days in the 1960s!) and the controversial popularity of an alternative history novel ('The Grasshopper Lies Heavy') which portrays a world in which the Axis powers were defeated. Interestingly, this is not the world we know; Churchill remains in power for twenty years, for instance, and the UK retains a dominant world position. There is no real explanation for these differences. The meaning of this novel within a novel gradually comes to dominate the story until the enigmatic climax.

All in all, this is an unusual, intelligent, thoughtful and well-written tale which is worth reading even if you are not a fan of alternative histories.