Friday 25 June 2010

A Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison

In the late 1960s when, as a somewhat lazy student, I read more fiction (nearly all SF) than ever before or since, Harry Harrison was one of my favourite authors. He wrote short, fast-paced and often hilarious page-turners, and I still have a few of his classic novels on my shelf: Bill the Galactic Hero (a spoof of Heinlein's Starship Troopers) and the Deathworld trilogy. Probably his best-known comic character was Slippery Jim DiGriz of The Stainless Steel Rat series, but he also wrote more serious fiction, most famously Make Room! Make Room! about overpopulation. Although he was still publishing novels in the 1990s (and has a new Stainless Steel Rat one due out this year) I last read his work in the early 1970s, with A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (also published as A Tunnel Through the Deeps), a very tongue-in-cheek take on an alternative Victorian world which would nowadays automatically be classified as "steampunk". I'm not quite sure why I bought A Rebel in Time (published 1983) but it's been sitting on my shelf for a while and I felt like some light reading (Iain M. Banks tends to do that to me) so I picked it up. It was not quite what I expected.

A Rebel in Time deals with two familiar SF themes; time travel and alternate histories. A present-day soldier, Troy Harmon, is recruited into an obscure government organisation whose job is to "watch the watchers"; to keep an eye on people with high security clearance. He starts to look into the puzzle of Colonel McCulloch, head of security at a top-secret research establishment, who has been behaving strangely - in particular, he's been converting most of his assets into gold. Almost half of the novel is concerned with Harmon's investigation, always one step behind McCulloch, while he tries to understand what's happening - until McCulloch suddenly disappears, leaving a trail of crimes behind him. Harmon gradually pieces together what has happened, and realises that McCulloch has used the time-travel experiments of the research establishment to send himself into the past, just before the American Civil War, together with a fortune in gold and with plans for making the very simple Sten sub-machine gun. Harmon realises that McCulloch, a pathological racist, is going to try to help the Confederacy win the war. He decides that he must follow him on a one-way trip into the past to try to prevent this from happening, since he has a powerful motive: Harmon is black.

This is a serious novel a lot longer and more deliberately-paced than his typical 1960s work (although at just over 300 pages, still not long by current standards), but the Harrison story-telling skills are as strong as ever and it is a gripping page-turner. Harmon's experiences in the slave culture of the southern USA in the late 1850s ring true, and the ending, while certainly not of the "happily ever after, all tied up" type is exactly right.

I did have one technical issue over the Sten gun. I have no doubt that the gun itself - possibly the simplest and crudest 20th century firearm to have seen general service - could have been manufactured in the 1850s, but I have serious doubts about the ammunition. Possibly the drawn brass cases might have been, although I'm not sure (coiled brass sheets were used when cartridges were first developed) but the propellant is another matter. The Sten's 9x19 Parabellum ammunition was designed for smokeless powder, much cleaner burning and more efficient (requiring less volume) than the gunpowder in use in the 1850s; the advances in chemistry which made this possible didn't happen until the 1880s. Loaded with gunpowder, the ammunition would have been much less powerful, and even if it could be made to work it is likely that the gun would have become quickly fouled by gunpowder residues, causing it to jam.

Despite this nerdish niggle A Rebel in Time is a very impressive and enjoyable story.

If this plot sounds vaguely familiar you might be thinking of Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South, which also features people from the present day taking modern automatic guns back to the American Civil War to help the Confederacy win. This was published nine years after A Rebel in Time and has also been sitting unread on my shelf for a very long time, so I'll tackle that soon to compare and contrast.

Saturday 19 June 2010

Film: 2012

I suppose it had to happen. There's been a huge amount of nonsense posted on the internet, by those whose grasp of reality is somewhat tenuous, concerning the claim that the Mayans predicted the end of the world on 21 December 2012. As it happens the Mayans did no such thing, although the degree of nonsense involved would be no less if they had; I discussed this on this blog on 6 March 2009. Anyway, someone in Hollywood got to hear of this and spotted a money-making opportunity, so we now have a dramatic film about it. Naturally, I just had to watch it…

I'll pass quickly over the the gibberish which the film-makers used to provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for the mechanism which would bring about global disaster. I'll give them one credit for the fact that the Mayan believer in the film was portrayed as a raving nutcase, but since it all came to pass as the Mayans "predicted" that isn't worth much.

Let's move on to the film - how did it work as a drama? The start was not at all promising, with the same tired old Hollywood cliches trotted out; the hero coping with a broken marriage, his wife's new partner, and sharing custody of their young kids (who are frequently in danger, of course, but survive, of course). This reminded me of the recent War of the Worlds film which focused on such family relationship issues to such an extent that I gave up watching out of sheer boredom. 2012 isn't quite that bad, so I stuck with it and we soon get into the strength (actually, the only point) of the film, which is the CGI vision of the end of the world. And I have to admit it's pretty dramatic, with huge earthquakes and tsunamis, canyons suddenly opening up and cities disappearing into them, followed by floods across the world.

The problem is that the film-makers seemed to be so bewitched by all this that they didn't bother overmuch with a plot, providing instead one relentless chase scene as the hero and his family struggle to get to China where several arks (vast armoured ships, each housing tens of thousands) designed to ride out the disaster are waiting (they get there, of course). The last part of the film is an anti-climax, with the hero struggling to solve a technical problem with their ark (work which he delays, despite its urgency, in order to have a passionate heart-to-heart with his ex), which seems very minor-league stuff after the colossal disasters we've witnessed.

It doesn't help that the hero (played by John Cusack) and his family are not particularly engaging or likeable. There's a much more interesting and appealing combination of Chiwetel Ejiofor as a scientific adviser and Thandie Newton as the US President's daughter, but they have only secondary roles. Ejiofor gets to make the big moral speech about how they should open up their ark to let in thousands of people left stranded, an action which very nearly results in the destruction of the ark. All very noble, but no-one mentions the surely important issue of how much food they have on board to last whatever time it will take before the land stabilises again and they can start growing crops; did they all have to go on a starvation diet to cope with the extra numbers?

As an aside, this moral dilemma reminded me of one of those table-top disaster management exercises which took place in the UK some years ago. The scenario was that an outbreak of a highly infections and highly lethal disease had occurred in a hospital, and the task was to decide what to do to stop it spreading. The winners (in terms of minimising casualties) were the team who opted for stationing snipers all round the building and shooting dead anyone who tried to leave. This was regarded as abhorrent by the more moralistic participants, but their "humane" approaches resulted in predicted death-tolls in the tens of thousands. Me, I'm with the snipers…

A couple of unnecessary details jarred with me. One was a news flash that the 2012 London Olympics had had to be abandoned because of the rapid onset of world-wide geological disaster. Anyone with the vaguest interest would know that they are to take place in the summer, not December. The other was the sight of an elderly lady with some corgis entering one of the arks - obviously intended to suggest the Queen. This is the duty-driven daughter of the King who, in the darkest days of World War 2 when London was being bombed daily and a German invasion believed to be imminent, refused to leave Buckingham Palace and was observed in the grounds practising with his revolver, preparing to make a last stand against the invaders. I can imagine the Queen ordering Prince William to flee the country and take refuge in order to continue the line, but herself? Never.

So is 2012 worth watching? If you like disaster movies with spectacular CGI, then yes it is. But you'd better set aside whatever critical faculties you possess if you hope to enjoy it as a drama: I suspect that the internal application of a moderate quantity of alcohol might help!

Friday 11 June 2010

Interzone 228

There's an interview with Gene Wolfe along with a review of The Sorcerer's House among other books, plus the usual round-up of films, DVDs and TV programmes - or to be precise, a TV programme, the focus being on the remake of The Prisoner. I'm still not sure what to make of it myself, but it was an interesting experience. I'm inclined to sympathise with the reviewer, who found it a bit of a mess, but it was an intriguing mess so I'd probably watch a second series.

Just five stories this time:

Untied States of America by Mario Milosevic, illustrated by David Senecal. The United States have become physically separated from each other and now drift individually around the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, occasionally spotting each other in passing. A watcher on the coast of Washington keeps a daily look-out, and is surprised to see a small boat approaching the shore, rowed by a man escaping from another state.

Iron Monk by Melissa Yuan-Innes, illustrated by Jim Burns. The near future: an assorted group of strangers is despatched on a mission to meet aliens who have arrived in the outer Solar System. Damage to their ship's radiation shield threatens their survival.

A Passion for Art by David D. Levine, illustrated by Mark Pexton. Artworks in a museum are being damaged, with figures in them disappearing. A security consultant sets out to trap the vandal, but finds a lot more than he bargained for.

Plague Birds by Jason Sandford, illustrated by Darren Winter. A remote-future population is scattered thinly over a rural landscape, living in self-contained villages. Their main threat is the arrival of a Plague Bird; a woman with strange and lethal powers to punish any wrong-doers who have not been properly dealt with by their communities.

Over Water by John Ingold, illustrated by Richard Wagner. The inhabitants of an island in a scattered archipelago are pestered by occasional raids from their savage neighbours, until they decide to resist.

An interesting and varied batch of stories with some original ideas. Two of them (Plague Birds and Over Water) have deceptive fantasy elements but turn out to be more like science fiction. Plague Birds is perhaps the story with the most potential for development, and indeed the author plans more tales about the principal character. However, my prize for the most bizarre and memorable concept goes to Untied States of America.


To return to the subject of TV programmes, I was a bit disappointed that there was no coverage of the final series of Ashes to Ashes, which ended a few weeks ago. It turned out that everyone was dead, and had been existing in a kind of waiting area while their characters developed sufficiently to pass on to the afterlife, joyously represented by a really good, convivial pub (well, can you think of anything better?). I found the final episode rather touching, even elegaic, and it (more or less) wrapped up the disparate threads more effectively than anything else I could imagine.

Saturday 5 June 2010

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks has established himself as one of the most highly regarded SF authors of the current generation. Unusually, he switches between genre and mainstream fiction (the latter under the name Iain Banks - without the M) and is equally successful at both. His SF books focus on a far distant future when mankind has spread across the galaxy. Most of them are set in the "Culture", a time of enormous wealth for all, managed by immensely powerful artificial intelligences.

The Algebraist is not a part of the Culture series, but it is still set in a galaxy-spanning future. Humanity and various alien races co-exist, using huge artificial wormholes to connect star systems. There has been a long history of inter-human conflict in which AIs have been banned. The action is set in one distant system which has been cut off from the rest of civilisation by the destruction of its wormhole in such a conflict, and can only be reconnected after a sub-light-speed fleet has spent centuries travelling from the nearest high-technology system. To add to their problems, the system is vulnerable to attack by dissident human cultures who are planning an invasion. A Jovian-type gas giant within the system is a home to the Dwellers, a galaxy-wide race which have been around for some ten billion years and who can individually live for up to two billion. They have no great interest in other races but permit occasional visits by human scholars.

One of these scholars is Fassin Taak, the hero of the novel. He is summarily recruited into the military/religious order which rules the system and sent to the gas giant to investigate an ancient rumour that the Dwellers know of other wormholes which could end their isolation. The action focuses mainly on Taak's adventures among the Dwellers, switching occasionally to other characters in the system, in the rescue fleet and in a dissident invasion fleet which are both racing towards the system.

Like all of Banks' books, The Algebraist is not really a page-turner. The pace is slow and deliberate and at over 500 pages of a rather small font, the book requires some dedication to read. I must confess that it took me quite a while to get into, but I stuck with it and eventually became so engrossed that I read the last third in one sitting.

The main point of interest in the story is the Dweller race, which lives in the atmosphere of gas giants. They are famously disorganised, appear to have no government, and normally use a relatively low level of technology. Banks makes them intriguing but perhaps too human-like in their attitudes and conversation; despite their vast age, strange habitat and decidedly non-human physical form I didn't find them as alien as I would have expected.

I found this book to be well worth reading, but while I admire Banks' works (with the exception of Feersum Endjinn, which I abandoned in irritation at the extensive use of an invented dialect) they never quite hit the bullseye with me. I'll still keep reading them, though.