Friday 27 November 2009

Interzone 225

The December issue of the SFF magazine features another strangely evocative cover from Adam Tredowski; a vast and incomprehensible machine - is it a spaceship? Is it wrecked? - at the foot of a misty cliff dwarfs the trees and two small, tailcoated human observers. The usual news and book, film and TV reviews are accompanied by only five stories this time, as they are longer than usual.

Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows, by Jason Sandford, illustrated by Mark Pexton: Earth has been invaded by creatures of angular shadow, dubbed Rippers, who absorb their victims into a barely-glimpsed, incomprehensible world of savage horror. A fireman struggles to protect his family in a disintegrating world.

By Starlight, by Rebecca J Payne: A renegade couple, detached from their home fleet, sail their wooden ship across the world. It only slowly becomes clear that they are not sailing on the ocean but up in the sky, forever wary of the Grounders living below. A glimpse into a mysteriously alien world.

The Killing Streets, by Colin Harvey, illustrated by Mark Pexton: More invading creatures eating the population, this time enormous genetically-engineered supermoles tunnelling at high speed to catch their victims, drawn by the sound of regular footprints (shades of the sandworms of Dune). That isn't the only horror to have escaped the laboratory in a world which has become despotic and stratified.

Funny Pages, by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe: Strange superheroes battle through and over the streets of Tel Aviv. A very different take on comic (in both senses) figures.

Bone Island, by Shannon Page & Jay Lake, illustrated by Mark Pexton: a remote present-day island, where different kinds of magic still hold sway in parallel with our normal world, sees two fearsome women battling over possession of a young man with a gift - and a responsibility.

The first and the last were the most memorable and I particular liked the quality of the writing in Bone Island, which is my pick from this issue.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D Simak

Yet another tale from 1950, although based on a 1939 short story. Like the Van Vogt books reviewed last week, Cosmic Engineers is set several thousand years into the future and also features a time when mankind has spread through the Solar System but not beyond. Two reporters are heading out to Pluto where a new type of spaceship is being prepared for a voyage to the stars. On the way they find a drifting spaceship which contains a young woman in suspended animation, whom they revive. It transpires that she is a mathematical genius whose brain has been active for the entire thousand years of her time in the ship, leading to her developing highly advanced mathematical concepts. On arrival at Pluto they find that the base has been receiving telepathic messages from outer space and discover that our entire universe is facing a terrible threat from which only they can save it.

The astrophysical concepts included in the story are astonishingly advanced and could easily be included in a story written today: the multiverse, colliding universes, mysterious energy between the universes and so on. On a more mundane level there are also a number of ideas which crop up in later works by other writers (which may be coincidental, of course). Unfortunately, this is all wrapped up in a decidedly old-fashioned tale, even taking account of the publication date.

Simak also wrote City, which is in my top-20 list of favourite SF books. This was published only a couple of years after Cosmic Engineers but is in my opinion a vastly better - and better written - book; it really is time I read that one again! Most of Simak's other work is worth reading but not as striking and memorable.

Cosmic Engineers is a strange combination of amazingly advanced ideas with a rather ordinary story written in a dated style. I much prefer the contemporary Van Vogt stories reviewed below; their fantastic elements seem more in the spirit of their period.

Friday 13 November 2009

The Weapon Shops of Isher, and The Weapon Makers, by A E Van Vogt

These books were first published in around 1950 although their content had previously appeared in magazines. They are set some seven thousand years hence in a future in which the Earth is ruled by an Empress with almost absolute power, opposed only by an organisation called "The Weapon Shops". This maintains invulnerable stores around the planet at which citizens can buy vastly more sophisticated energy guns than any available to the Imperium. Among other things, they feature what is known today as "smart" technology; they can only be fired by their owners, and only in self-defence. The shops are also smart, and won't let in Imperium employees. Their slogan is "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free".

In The Weapon Shops of Isher, a man from the present enters one of these shops which is briefly transported into our time, and finds himself carried into the far future. Most stories with a start like this would then focus on the adventures of the present-day hero, but Van Vogt is not so obvious; the man has a peripheral role although, as it turns out at the end, a pivotal one. The time displacement has been caused by the huge energies brought to bear in an attack on the Weapon Shops by the Empress, who has become tired of their resistance to her control, and the story is about the war between these two powers. Two other key characters are Cayle Clark, a young man of great potential from a country village who tries to make his way in the big city, and Robert Hedrock, the immortal man who first established the Weapon Shops thousands of years before and who covertly returns to them under different identities every few generations.

The Weapon Makers returns to the same setting a few years later. There is an uneasy stand-off between the Empress and the Weapon Shops, but this stability is threatened by a radical new invention which prompts a struggle for the future of the Imperium. The principal characters remain the same with the exception of Cayle Clark, who receives not a mention despite his key role in the previous work. This time the focus is firmly on Robert Hedrock, who pretends to be a traitor to the Weapon Shops in order to gain a position of trust with the Empress. But as his unique status is gradually revealed he finds himself under attack from all sides, including some all-powerful arachnoid aliens.

It is possible to pick lots of logical holes in these stories. The people in the future speak exactly the same brand of English as our present-day man. It is incredible that after thousands of years all of the resources of the Imperium could not find a way of duplicating or defeating Weapon Shop technology. Why only one man should be immortal, and how that happened, is not even addressed in the first story and not explained in the second, except as some sort of accident. The characterisation is also very thin (as always with SF stories of this era) although adequate to carry the story. However, these tales are rich with the famous "sense of wonder" and the optimistic view that all things are possible, and they are intended to be absorbed rather than critically analysed. They are arguably closer to fantasy than to SF.

There are also some strong points in the stories. The way in which Cayle Clark falls foul of the traps of the big city and the endemic corruption which prevents even the Empress from getting her way are convincingly portrayed. In fact, the first book is rather more involving than the second because of this focus on his personality and the way in which he reacts to his situation. Hedrock is a far more fantastic, less credible super-hero and the reader never doubts his ability to survive.

Despite the flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading these books (for the first time in four decades). It is unfair to apply the standards of modern literature to them; they are of their time, and what a time it was for SF!

Friday 6 November 2009

Odds & Ends

A catch-up with various items this week.

New Horizons is the British Fantasy Society's magazine of new fiction. Issue 3 has been with me for a while, but that pile by my bedside has been stacking up….The following stories are included:

Pastoral Effect by Adam J Shardlow: in a future of increasingly bloodthirsty reality TV shows, the perfect set-up has an unexpected result.

Happiness = G + V + C by Philip Suggars: when the formula for happiness has been determined, happiness becomes mandatory - or else.

Hunt by Debbie Bennett: a young hoodlum accidentally summons the supernatural Hunt; he has to choose a victim, or fall to the Hounds himself.

Seems Only Right by Mathew F Riley: a bizarre setting in which society, including interpersonal communication, is gradually breaking down.

Veronika by Douglas Thompson: a psychiatrist is drawn into the tangled world of a young female Goth.

Spring by Sophie Essex: a brief glimpse of an intense relationship; not really SFF.

Mr Smith by Philip Palmer: a reluctant superman has to face up to his responsibilities. Wryly amusing, this one is my favourite.

Next, Attica by Gary Kilworth. This fantasy novel follows three children moving into an old house which proves to have an attic stretching off into infinite distance, populated by various odd and supernatural beings. This promised to be intriguing, especially since it comes with a glowing endorsement from Neil Gaiman, but I found it sadly uninvolving. There is a lack of drama and tension; first one thing happens, then another, without any apparent logic or purpose. The children (who are supposed to be bright) spend much time trying to rationalise what they are experiencing and then behave with remarkable stupidity. The plotting has holes, too: they find a glass bottle which is important because it allows them to carry some water with them, but first we are told that one of the children goes off exploring, taking the bottle with him, then shortly afterwards the remaining two are drinking from it. I find that kind of carelessness irritating as it breaks the credibility bond between author and reader. I stopped reading the book about a quarter of the way through.

Moving from the page to the screen: I started watching a new (to UK TV) US SF series Defying Gravity. This is set a few decades in the future and concerns a manned six-year tour around several planets of the Solar System. The emphasis in the first couple of episodes was on the human relationships, with the technology and exploration very much secondary. This was not very promising (for me, anyway) but there were hints of something mysterious going on, some guiding intelligence lurking on board. I would have followed it for a bit longer to see if it developed into anything worthwhile, but first I managed to lose my recording of episode 3 and then the channel it is shown on became badly disrupted by the digital changeover and won't be worth looking at for the next month anyway. Some things are not meant to be…

Looking on the bright side, a new series of Spooks has just begun on a channel which I can receive. OK, it's not strictly SF but it's way beyond anything MI5 actually does and is consistently the most gripping thriller on TV. I'm relieved that the weekly episodes don't run to more than an hour - that's as much as my nerves can stand!

Finally, to the movies with X-Men 2 (better late than never…). A good follow-up to the original classy thriller, which really needs to have been seen first to make any sense of the sequel. The battle between two groups of mutants over their relationship to humanity continues. High drama with twists and turns, good acting and some of the tastiest mutants you could wish for, with Kelly Hu joining Famke Janssen, Halle Berry and Rebecca Romijn (I am still intrigued by how a ferocious female with scaly blue skin and yellow eyes can be so outrageously sexy). Sit back and enjoy!