Friday 29 January 2010

Winter Song by Colin Harvey

This one plopped through my letterbox a few weeks ago, as an unexpected freebie from the British Science Fiction Association. I must admit that I hadn't heard of this author before, but he has had several other books published with some favourable review extracts, so I decided to give it a look.

The setting is the distant future with humanity spread across many star systems by means of faster-than-light ships, but divided into two warring factions: those who believe in terraforming marginal planets to make them suitable for standard humans, and those who believe in genetically adapting humanity to survive on unmodified planets. Karl Allman is an enhanced human who crash-lands on a remote and forgotten planet, and discovers that it was settled by standard humans who were Icelandic traditionalists, attracted by its cold and bleak environment. A start had been made on terraforming the atmosphere to stabilise it at an endurable level but this had been abandoned centuries before, leaving the settlers only just able to survive in the equatorial lowlands, scattered in small farming groups. Ever since, they had been cut off from civilisation and were slipping back into a medieval way of life as their technology gradually failed and their environment deteriorated.

Allman has a difficult time understanding and coexisting with the settlers, who have a strongly feudal culture centred around the head man of each settlement. He isn't helped by having to share his brain with a knowledgeable but uncooperative artificial intelligence dubbed Loki, downloaded by his ship as a parting gift. On hearing a legend of an artificial beacon in a remote and uninhabited part of the planet, he sets out on a journey to reach it in the hope that it might enable him to place an interstellar call for help.

The first three-quarters of the story is unremittingly grim as Allman first struggles to resolve his inner conflict while working with the settlers and then tracks across a bleak wilderness, at risk from wild animals and trolls and pursued by a posse led by an angry head man. Although the SF background is always there, this part of the story has more of the flavour of a fantasy. The pace and mood change when he arrives at the beacon and discovers what it is, and the tale then becomes a tense SF drama with a spectacular, if open-ended, conclusion.

The story is well-enough written, and the complex relationships between Allman, Loki and the settlers sufficiently intriguing, to carry me through a grimness which could otherwise have become tiresome. Worth the read.

Friday 22 January 2010

British Fantasy Society publications

Three BFS publications full of short stories dropped through my letter box the other week: New Horizons #4, Dark Horizons #55 and the 2009 Yearbook. These will take some time to get through, so I’ll only deal with the first two in this post.

New Horizons is published twice a year and focuses on new authors. Issue #4 contains eight stories plus an interview with publisher Steve Upham, enthusiastic founder of Screaming Dreams:

Into the Bright by J.M.Harris: a bizarre world in which the Mollop live in a sea of oil while their mature flying form, the Slickbacks, fight off the attempts of the Beacons to siphon their sea away.

The Un-Explorers by Matt Finucane: spaced-out men sharing a house find a new reality when looking through the eyes of a golem they have made.

Frankenrabbits by John Tait: genetic manipulation produces a human/rabbit cross. Matters get out of hand when they are awarded human rights. Well, you know what rabbits do best…

Two Nights in New Orleans by Philip Harris: a girl find herself switching between alternate worlds at the behest of a man - or is he a vampire?

Life After Death by Mark Butler: the minutiae of the humdrum life of a middle-aged woman destroyed by grief for her dead son, which - maybe - turns into a ghost story.

In the Moment by Elana Gomel (runner-up in the 2009 BFS Short Story competition): a girl lives in a huge, torus-shaped building which comprises the entire world for its human inhabitants; above is too bright, below (where the suicides jump) is too dark to know. The girl explores both extremes before finding the key to the way out.

The Birthday Gift by Eva Eliav: a strange auction in which chunks of time are sold; how would you like to spend ten years with the mindset of a famous movie star, or a child?

The Last Chapter by Tom Knights: a man finishes the last chapter of an epic fantasy novel in which the mighty-muscled hero slays the demon monster and rescues the beautiful princess. The rest of the story consists of alternating sections in which the man's married life, from which passion and romance have leached, parallels that of the fictional princess as she discovers the reality of life married to a brawny hero.

A varied selection, all of which have their good points. I can see why Elana Gomel's story was so highly rated, but the one which I liked the most was the final one, by Tom Knights. A rather touching look at the contrast between fantasy and reality.

Dark Horizons is the BFS journal, also published twice a year, and has a wider range of contents, including this time three articles and three poetry contributions as well as a dozen amazingly varied stories. The articles are on two early writers of fantasy, C. Hall Thompson and Clifford Ball (by Mike Barrett); the prolific Charles L. Grant (by Paul Campbell); and an appreciation of the Dumarest novels of E. C. Tubb (by Craig Herbertson).

I won’t comment in detail on all of the stories, but they included such elements as an intelligent sunflower (The Sunflower at Dusk by Naoko Awa); cow-like burrowing animals which swallow humans whole and keep them alive in a special stomach (In the Tunnels of the Agogs by Ralph Robert Moore); a couple of contrasting ghost stories, both seen from the ghost’s viewpoint (Despoina’s Sorrow by Alex Davies, and Sarkless Kitty by Alison J. Littlewood); a romance with a beautiful angel ejected from Heaven (The Beating Heart by Jim Steel); a scheming vampire (The Circle by Ian Hunter); helpful skeletons from a graveyard (The Skeleton in the Cupboard by Astrid Klemz); viruses which are large enough to be visible and are protected by law (Bugs by Shaun Jeffrey); battles with evil beings in the land of faerie (Escape from the Shadow Moon by Mike Phillips); and a bizarre tale of greenery running riot in the garden of a disturbed woman (Vivienne’s Garden by Douglas Thompson, whose novel Ultrameta was recently reviewed on this blog).

A special mention for Dead Gods by Richard Ford, a richly described medieval battle with (or perhaps without) supernatural elements, and my favourite from this collection, Sailors of the Skies, by Mike Chinn. In this retro fantasy adventure, two pilots in 1930s USA investigate the mysterious disappearance of several aircraft and encounter something from another world.

Sunday 17 January 2010

The global human population - what's happening to it and how can we cope?

I have referred to this subject on this blog before, in posts about climate change and immortality, but the sources keep popping up so I think it's time for a round-up of current thinking. One I made a note of was a BBC news report in March 2009 here: Global Crisis to Strike by 2030 . You can read it for yourselves, but this gives the flavour:

Growing world population will cause a "perfect storm" of food, energy and water shortages by 2030, the UK government chief scientist has warned... Demand for food and energy will jump 50% by 2030 and for fresh water by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion, he told a conference in London.

Much more detail was included in How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth, a BBC TV Horizon programme in December 2009 fronted by none other than the famous naturalist Sir David Attenborough, which examined the impact of the population growth on the planet's environment. To summarise the key points:

Growth is inevitable

The world's population is currently increasing by 80 million a year, and is projected to increase from 6.8 to 9 billion by the middle of this century. This is pretty well guaranteed to happen (barring a colossal disaster wiping out a substantial portion of the world's population) even if average family size drops sharply, because of the way in which the population structure is skewed towards the young: it is generated by a decrease in the death rate rather than an increase in the birth rate. There are already more than 1 billion teenagers in the world (an appalling thought, think of all that collective angst…pity it can't be harnessed as a power source) and most of them will inevitably produce their own children. So any attempts to control population will have to start from that 9 billion baseline - a 25% increase over the next four decades. Forecasts from that point make different assumptions about future family size and vary from the optimistic (eventually stabilising at around 8 billion by the mid-22nd century) to the pessimistic (10+ billion). Even the most optimistic projections therefore envisage a long-term total some 1.2 billion more than at present. That’s about as much as the entire population of China or India.

The USA is likely to increase in population from 300 to 400 million by 2050, the UK from 60 to 70 million. These figures are bad enough, but the growth rate in the developing world is slated to be much higher, with sub-Saharan Africa (already the world's biggest disaster area and also facing the worst effects of climate change) doubling in population.

The three key resources which will be put under most pressure by this increase in population are fresh water, food and oil.

The Water Problem

It's important to note that the total quantity of water on this planet is constant - there's no way of getting any more. Just 2.5% of the world's water is fresh, of which only 1% is available for use (the rest being in ice caps). Half of the available fresh water is already used and over 1 billion people are currently living in areas affected by water stress (i.e. water is being used up at a faster rate than the sources are being replenished). This number is projected to increase to more than 50% of the global population within 20 years. Some areas are already running out: to give one example, Mexico City has a population of 20 million of which more than 1 million are affected by daily water shortages. This number is growing all of the time as the reservoirs are running dry.

Even so, domestic use is not the major problem. Agriculture is one of the major users of water, and the numbers involved are astonishing. For instance, growing enough coffee beans to produce one cup of coffee uses up 120 litres of fresh water; growing enough cotton to make one shirt uses 3,000 litres.

Desalination of sea water is one way of obtaining more fresh water, but carries its own problems. It is very energy-intensive (and therefore expensive) and even in sunny regions where solar power can be used, it still results in the production of huge quantities of salts which have to be disposed of somehow without damaging the environment (which rules out pumping it back into the sea).

Probably the most promising measures are small-scale local ones intended to trap and store more water rather than let it run off to the sea, but these will only work in certain areas and will only postpone the problem unless something can be done to contain and preferably reverse population growth.


Next, agriculture. Needless to say, the quantity of land is pretty much constant too, except round the margins (where it may be reducing in the future as sea level rises). Virtually all productive land - amounting to 35-40% of the planet's land surface - is already being used. Furthermore, most of it is already being used intensively. During the 20th century, industrial countries tripled their food production by using better crops and industrial farming methods, with extensive use of machinery, fertiliser and pesticides. From the 1960s the developing world began to follow suit in the "Green Revolution", resulting in increases in yield of up to five times. However, yields are now levelling off globally.

Higher-yielding genetically-engineered crops are available, but they tend to use even more water - which takes us back to the previous section. Given the likely effects of climate change (one of which is drier continental interiors) the focus of genetic modifications may have to shift towards drought-resistant varieties, but they are unlikely to be as productive. Some of the richer nations (e.g. China) are trying to protect their future food supplies by buying farmland from poorer countries, particularly in Africa - even in countries like Ethiopia which already has a food shortage - and reserving its production for themselves. This is clearly likely to lead to tensions - to put it mildly - as existing food supplies come under increasing pressure from the growing population. The increasing taste for meat as countries develop exacerbates the problems, as growing crops for human rather than animal consumption is several times as productive in food value per hectare.

Peak Oil?

The third resource problem is oil. The demand for this is projected to increase by 40% over the next 20 years due to a combination of increasing population and increasing industrialisation in the developing world. Oil is not just used for transport and industry, it is also vital in maintaining levels of food production because of its use in fertiliser and in the mechanisation of farming, which takes us back to the previous section.

There is much debate among petroleum geologists about the issue of "peak oil"; the point at which production starts to decline as the more productive fields are worked out. Some say we are more or less there already, others that there are still lots more oil reserves than official figures suggest. Whichever group is correct, it seems inevitable that oil will become more costly as a result of the projected increase in demand combined with the newer fields being more difficult to exploit.

Add them together…

These three key resources - fresh water, agricultural production and oil - are clearly interrelated. This leads to the concept of "carrying capacity"; the maximum population which a given environment can support. This does of course depend on the standard of living which is assumed. The standard method of measuring the productive biocapacity of the Earth is in "global hectares"; on average, each person uses about 2 of these hectares. There are big regional variations, however: in Africa the average use is 1.37, in India 0.89, China is right on the average at 2.0, each UK citizen uses 5.3 and each US citizen 9.42. The Earth's carrying capacity could therefore range from 15 billion if everyone lived at Indian levels of consumption, down to 1.5 billion if everyone enjoyed US standards.

If anything, these figures are optimistic because the current rates of consumption are already unsustainable in the long term; we need 1.5x the Earth's resources to sustain our current way of life. Which according to these calculations means that the maximum sustainable global population ranges from 1 billion at a high average standard of living to 10 billion at little more than subsistence level.

What can be done?

Attenborough listed three ways in which we could reduce the pressure on our resources:

1. Reduce our consumption
2. Change our technology
3. Reduce our population growth

The first is probably inevitable anyway as the increasing demands on resources have the effect of pushing up their cost. The second is already underway in many fields but is unlikely to achieve enough by itself. The third has been forcibly tried by China and India.

China instituted a "one child" policy in 1979. It has been highly unpopular but it has been estimated that without it their population would have been 400 million higher than at present. India attempted a vigorous sterilisation programme (including all criminals) but this was abandoned as a result of public resistance. It has long been noted that birth rates tend to fall naturally as the standard of living increases and death rates fall (but there is always a gap between the fall in death rates and in birth rates, during which the population soars to a higher base level).

The key element in the fall of birth rates is women: in countries where women have the same educational opportunities as men, have access to contraception and are fully emancipated with the same legal rights as men, the birth rate falls dramatically. A remarkable example is the Indian state of Kerala where education for girls as well as boys is compulsory. As a result, women choose to delay marriage until an average of 28 years old and have on average only 1.5 children, less than half the Indian average.

Finally a New Scientist article, Feeding the Nine Billion (21 November 2009), focused on the specific issue of the expected food shortage and examined four different ways to boost food production in the third world:

1. Holding on to water, by such measures as storage tanks (particularly useful in areas which suffer from seasonal floods and droughts) or agricultural practices such as mulching or building terraces.

2. Stop ploughing, as this damages soil and releases greenhouse gases. Instead, just scratch furrows in which to plant seeds, and keep pests at bay by crop rotation, herbicides or genetically-modified plants.

3. Go back to basics by ensuring that the agricultural system works more efficiently; there are crop varieties available which would bring substantial benefits but they are not distributed to where they are needed, also a significant percentage of crops grown are wasted because of inefficient transport or market arrangements.

4. Boost yields by genetically engineering crops, which could lead to a 25% increase in production.

In conclusion, we are now (a few isolated hermits possibly excepted) all too familiar with the problem of the effect of human activities in changing the world's climate. Just to add to this gloomy picture, a growing population will exacerbate a further, long-range problem which will hit the world even if CO2 production were successfully controlled and entirely sustainable power sources used. People's activities and their equipment produce heat. As society becomes more technologically developed, the quantity of heat produced per person rises. Eventually, this will begin to have a significant impact on global temperatures even if the current drivers of climate change are removed. The estimated effect is an increase in temperature of three degrees Celsius in 300 years. The only way to prevent it is to get all of our power from renewable energy sources, since these absorb solar energy (directly or indirectly) and therefore do not add to the heating of our environment.

In the past, each new generation in the developed world owed a debt to the previous ones for their successful efforts in gradually increasing living standards. Just consider how these changed from 1800 through 1900 to 2000; a particularly commendable achievement in the 20th century given it was racked by two devastating world wars and came close to a civilisation-annihilating third. Sadly, new generations reaching maturity from the middle of this century (if not earlier) are likely to be far less grateful for the legacy of their forebears (that’s us…). Human ingenuity will be stretched as never before in meeting the challenges they will be facing. Plenty of scope for good, fact-based SF stories here - or will readers prefer to shrink from painful reality into yet more fantasy?

Friday 8 January 2010

Film: Avatar

I finally managed to see this one, although it was a close-run thing. I was determined to get the maximum benefit from the much-praised 3D CGI by seeing it on the huge IMAX screen, and duly booked to go to the nearest one, a train journey away. On the morning I was due to go, a heavy overnight snowfall had added to the chaos of almost three weeks of freezing weather and snow, causing major transport disruption with doom-laden warnings for those foolish enough to poke their noses outside their homes. I nearly didn’t bother to make the attempt, but in the end I slogged the half-mile through the snow to the station, to find that not only did my train turn up (and arrive at its destination) on time, but the one home did as well. Just occasionally, everything goes right!

So, to the film. This review will contain some spoilers but I don’t think this matters because the story has been written up so widely; also because the plot is straightforward and predictable with no unexpected twists, so knowing what happens is unlikely to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of this highly visual entertainment.

The plot has been much criticised, with reason. It is very simplistic, divided into good and bad guys with no grey areas; the characters are little more than caricatures. The good guys are the humanoid natives (purely CGI) of the planet Pandora, who live in harmony with their environment at a stone-age level of technology, aided by a handful of the humans who have arrived on the planet. The bad guys are all the rest of the heavily-armed humans, who are systematically strip-mining the planet for a valuable ore without regard for the natives or their environment, and are motivated by a combination of ruthless corporate greed and gung-ho militarism.

The few good humans are mostly scientists who have developed avatars to deal with the natives. These avatars are vat-grown bodies which look like the natives but have a mixture of genes from them and from specific humans. These humans can mind-link with their avatars and effectively inhabit their bodies as if they were their own for hours at a time. One of the avatars belongs to Jake, a crippled former US marine, who accidentally becomes accepted by one of the native tribes and literally goes native himself. He eventually leads them in their fight against the human invaders, an opportunity for some dramatic – and rather overlong – battle scenes.

I’m not quite sure exactly what the director, James Cameron, had in mind (it’s never wise to assume that you can tell – I’ve had reviewers be quite wrong about the source of inspiration for my books). The film seems to me to be a condensed allegory of the 19th century clash between native North American Indians and the European-origin settlers. This is rubbed home by the fact that the culture of the natives is reminiscent of the Indians while the bad humans are American; a source of unhappiness to some in the USA, although they should take comfort in the fact that the good humans are American as well (in contrast, I am told by film buffs that Hollywood usually employs English actors only to play the bad guys…). Just to make audience support for the natives even more certain, they are preternaturally appealing - especially the females, who have huge wide eyes, sexy voices and supple bodies which move with fluid grace.

So there is nothing special or original about the plot, a standard tale of brave natives helped by a hero who has changed sides to battle against the evil members of his own kind, plus a dollop of cross-cultural (in this case interspecies) romance. It has been rightly observed that the plot closely resembles Dancing With Wolves, with a dash of Dragonflight thrown in. The only time I was taken by surprise was right at the end, when Jake’s voice-over commented on the “aliens returning home” – a nice touch which inverted normal assumptions.

However, it wasn’t the plot which made me (and I suspect most other viewers) want to watch Avatar but the spectacle, and on that score the film does indeed deliver spectacularly. The exotic landscape, flora and fauna of Pandora are richly portrayed; the quality of the CGI would have seemed miraculous only a few years ago. The 3D greatly adds to the effect without being obtrusive, and so does the big IMAX screen which allows viewers to become immersed in the film. Whatever you may think of the plot, this is a wonderful visual treat and is well worth seeing for that reason alone. It really does raise standards to a new level, and any future SFF films with fictional CGI environments will be judged technically against Avatar. Do try to see it at an IMAX if at all possible, or at the very least in 3D at a cinema. This is one film that I don’t expect I will ever bother to watch on TV since it would lose the great majority of its impact. To sum up: the story is easy to poke holes in, but the film must be seen.

Friday 1 January 2010

The Big God Network by J C McGowan, and Starship Fall by Eric Brown

A USA split into the right-wing Christian fundamentalist New America and several smaller states such as Pacifica and New England. This is the setting for The Big God Network, a near-future story by a first-time novelist. The main focus of the plot is a new artificial intelligence programme, the Resident, which has been developed by Offworld, an organisation devoted to analysing SETI recordings for evidence of extra-terrestrial civilisations. However, such a powerful AI has other possible applications which attract the attentions of New America politicians, businessmen and gangsters (who are all closely related).

It isn't that easy to sum up or categorise this novel. It packs into its 300 pages an SF story about the search for extra-terrestrial life garnished with some esoteric belief systems and with a side-order of espionage thriller, but it is mainly a satire about the values and behaviour of the Christian fundamentalists.

The contrast between the naïve sincerity of the fundamentalist followers and the cynical corruption of their leaders is an easy target and the satire is often heavy-handed. The structure is a bit of a mess with so much going on and so many different characters that I often got lost and had to flick back to remind myself who was doing what to whom. There is also an unevenness between a lack of explanation for much of the book and occasional heavy infodumps.

Despite these criticisms I stuck with it and quite enjoyed the ride, which is more than I can say for many modern SF novels. The author shows promise but could do with a more ruthless editor.
Eric Brown is by contrast a very experienced SF writer, although I seem to have read little of his work with the exception of Necropath (reviewed on this blog on 27 September 2008). Starship Fall is a 100+ page novella, the sequel to Starship Summer (which I haven't read) although it stands on its own well enough.

David Conway lives an untroubled life of ease on the planet Chalcedony, dividing his time between reading, walking and drinking with friends, among them Kee, an alien woman from the native near-human race. His life is disturbed by two events; the arrival of former holo star, the glamorous Carlotta Chakravorti-Luna, and the disappearance of Kee to participate in a dangerous clairvoyant ritual. The tension is ramped up as old histories are uncovered and different possible futures emerge.

Eric Brown is an old-fashioned writer - and I mean that in a complimentary way. His stories are full of traditional SF elements within dramatic adventures but the focus is very much on the characters. His story-telling skills remind me of the late Bob Shaw, one of my favourite SF authors. I must read more by him, starting with Starship Summer.
I have been updating the SFF element of my website, including additional reviews and information about my novels Scales and The Foresight War, which can be accessed HERE.