Saturday 25 September 2010

The Pride of Chanur by C J Cherryh

I have earlier reviewed a couple of Cherryh's books and during the discussion of one of them was advised to read her Chanur series, so I have made a start with the first of them, The Pride of Chanur. One of her earlier works (it was first published in 1981), it is short and fast-paced. This review contains some spoilers.

The story is told entirely from the point of view of Pyanfar Chanur, a member of a humanoid if rather feline race (the hani) which still retains a tribal and hereditary social structure despite being space-faring traders. They trade with a few other alien species, both oxygen and methane breathing, one of which originally provided the hani with the technology to get into space.

Pyanfar is a spaceship captain and a senior member of the Chanur tribe; her small crew are all female relatives as is customary (male hani being considered too violent and uncontrollable to be allowed off-planet - an wry feminist dig). The trouble begins when a strange, ugly, almost hairless alien seeks refuge on Pyanfar's ship while it is berthed at a space station. At first it is thought to be non-sentient until it demonstrates otherwise, and the reader comes to realise that it is, in fact, a human man called Tully. He was escaping from a particularly nasty alien race, the kif, who had captured his spaceship and were using torture to try to get him to reveal the location of Earth, since the discovery of a new civilisation was a rare and great prize. Pyanfar refuses to hand Tully back to the kif and the rest of the story is essentially a running battle as the hani try to make it back to their home planet with their unexpected passenger.

The most unusual aspect of the story is that while humanity is represented by Tully, we only see him through alien eyes. In Pyanfar's judgment he is inadequate in various ways, apart from being fundamentally untrustworthy as a male, but he redeems himself by the end of the tale. The depiction of the alien races, especially the hani, is as well done as I have come to expect from this author, since this is one of Cherryh's strong points. The principal alien characters, Pyanfar and her enthusiastic young niece Hilfy, are convincingly drawn and likeable. It's a good read, and I can understand why it is regarded as something of a modern classic; I must seek out the sequels.

Saturday 18 September 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 1)

I don't normally buy anthologies but read a very good review of this one so I added it to my "to read" pile. It took a couple of years before I pulled it out, though; the occasion being a travelling-light holiday abroad for which I needed one book which would keep me entertained for the entire period. At over 700 pages of small print this proved to be more than adequate, and I only managed to get part way through it. So this is just the first instalment, covering eight of the thirty-two stories in the book; the rest will follow in due course.

I'm new to this series, so I was pleasantly surprised by the Summation which occupies the first fifty pages of the book. In this, the editor gives a detailed analysis of the SFF fiction market of the previous year (2007), discussing among other things the varying fortunes of short-story outlets, both paper and electronic. A fascinating insight into contemporary trends. Now for the stories:

Finisterra by David Moles. A far future in which humanity shares the galaxy with other intelligent races. A woman trained secretly as an engineer in a male-dominated society accepts an illegal but high-paying task on a strange world. It is a gas giant with a narrow zone within its atmosphere capable of supporting human life. In this float vast living islands up to 100 kilometres long, on which remanents of humanity have settled. But the islands have a greater value to some off-planet species. An original and memorable setting, complex and interesting characters and a gripping plot: what more could one ask for?

Lighting Out by Ken MacLeod. Another optimistic future in which humanity has spread to the stars, primarily threatened by artificial intelligences getting out of hand. A young woman is haunted by her mother who constantly sends virtual versions of herself to inveigle her into worthwhile activities. A grand plan for marketing some of the huge variety of new developments flooding back from the stars produces unexpected results.

An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away by John Barnes. Two rival documentary makers combine to produce a story on a Mars whose terraforming is about to be completed by breaking up a huge comet in such a way that the ice falls to the surface and creates oceans. But they have different priorities and not everything goes to plan.

Saving Tiamaat by Gwynth Jones. Human diplomats try to intervene in a devastating civil war between the humanoid masters and slaves of a distant planet. But the situation is more complex than had been imagined, and some unorthodox methods are required.

Of Late I Dreamt of Venus by James Van Pelt. The world's richest woman decides to sponsor the terraforming of Venus, but this will take so long that she decides to sleep for a thousand years, waking only occasionally to review progress. Society does not, however, stay unchanged.

Verthandi's Ring by Ian McDonald. A galactic war to the finish between humanity and an impenetrable alien race. Three warriors, used to being constantly switched between different virtual and actual bodies, win a significant victory but discover an alarming threat to humanity's survival.

Sea Change by Una McCormack. A near-future story on a smaller scale concerning two upper-class girls whose perfection was assured by genetic modifications, and how they relate to each other and to the rest of society.

The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small by Chris Roberson. Another change of pace and scene in an alternative history story which barely qualifies as SFF. A young functionary in a Chinese Empire is given the task of researching the distant land of Mexica in preparation for a planned invasion. He discovers that the best source of information is a political prisoner who has for decades resisted every attempt to make him cooperate; but his future is on the line.

In summary, a promising start. I was pleasantly surprised at the traditional and optimistic setting of so many of the stories, featuring a galaxy-spanning (or at least system-spanning) humanity. It will be interesting to see how many of the rest have similar themes.

Friday 10 September 2010

UFOs: The Secret Evidence

This is a two-hour UK TV programme by aerospace journalist Nick Cook, who decided to step outside his comfort zone and take a critical look at the case for unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and the possible explanations for the phenomenon.

The story begins in WW2 with the frequent reporting by RAF bomber crews on night raids over Germany of "foo fighters"; bright lights appearing to move around them. These have never been clearly explained, beyond the fact that very tired and frightened men in a state of permanent stress may be prone to hallucinations which may be "infectious"; if one says he saw something, others may too. Another possible explanation lies in secret Nazi projects such as those conducted in the Wenceslas Mine in the Sudeten Mountains, as reported after the war by a German officer who was based there. As well as vague reports of a "bell" reputedly connected with antigravity research, there is the massive above-ground structure of the "flytrap" which still exists today; a large reinforced-concrete circular framework, apparently with provision for a massive electric power input, for which there is still no explanation.

The focus then switches to Roswell in New Mexico in 1947, with perhaps the most famous UFO story of all; the wreckage of some artificial object of which there are various conflicting reports, ranging from a weather balloon to an alien spacecraft complete with aliens. However, this was only one of many UFO reports from this area, most of which can probably be attributed to the unusual atmospheric conditions which create illusions such as lenticular clouds. Cook interviews several witnesses with conflicting points of view and examines what was going on at the time at the nearby White Sands airbase. Here some 200 German scientists had been based in the years after WW2 as a result of Operation Paperclip, the effort to recruit as many scientists involved in advanced research as possible. At that time the USA was engaged in developing a wide variety of experimental aircraft (including the saucer-shaped Vought XF5U "Flying Flapjack") but the most likely explanation for the Roswell incident was the secret Skyhook project to send huge unmanned photographic reconnaissance balloons over the USSR, which regularly drifted over the Roswell area. Most significantly, Cook obtained evidence that the UFO stories were deliberately encouraged by the CIA as a disinformation scheme to distract Soviet attention from such recce projects (involving planes as well as balloons). This may account for the fact that the USAAF/USAF kept changing its story over the wreckage, and for the existence of one official report which stated that the UFOs may well be alien spacecraft.

One series of sightings for which there is still no adequate explanation, however, concerns the moving formations of lights in the sky widely observed over Washington in 1952. Such was the public concern that astronomer J Allen Hynek was tasked with looking into the question (I recall reading his book on Project Blue Book decades ago). He was able to dismiss the vast majority of sightings as misperceptions but acknowledged that there was no adequate explanation for a small percentage of them. Furthermore, he was only able to examine civilian reports: the potentially much more valuable ones from military pilots were excluded.

The 1960s saw a new development: the growth of "close encounters of the third kind", in which figures were reported walking next to a landed UFO. The most striking report came in 1964 from a police officer called Zamora, who was patrolling in the area of the White Sands base. After considering alternative ideas, Cook identifies the most likely explanation as a secret USAF project based on a development of the unsuccessful Canadian Avro Avrocar "flying saucer", to which the USAF had bought the rights.

There was a great increase in UFO sightings in the UK in the late 1960s, possibly related to a secret US deployment of the SR-71 strategic reconnaissance plane (which may also have been responsible for many UFO sightings around the Nellis USAF base; the notorious "Area 51"). Cook then looks at the series of cases of animal mutilation in the area of Los Alamos in 1976-86 which have been attributed to alien experiments, but he considers more likely to have been a covert US testing and monitoring programme.

The Soviet Union also carried out an investigation into military UFO reports from 1977 to 1990, attributing many of them to missile launches, but concluded that the evidence was inconclusive and that some were unexplained.

Finally comes the period of "alien abductions", which goes back to the 1950s but became an epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s with no fewer than two million Americans claiming to have been abducted. Cook attributes this to a "need to believe", with many of the characteristics of a religion.

In conclusion, UFO sightings can be grouped into various categories. As Hynek identified in the 1950s, the vast majority are a result of misperception of ordinary phenomena: clouds, astronomical objects or routine man-made ones such as aircraft, spacecraft and balloons (the recent craze for flying illuminated "Chinese lanterns" has caused another surge in UFO reports). For nearly all of those which cannot be accounted for in this way, the most likely explanation is that of military "black projects"; it is significant that the CIA encouraged the UFO hypothesis as a way of covering up such activities. The epidemic of alien abduction reports seems most likely to have been the result of a kind of mass hysteria, strongly emotional and quasi-religious.

This still leaves a very small percentage of reports which cannot be explained in any of these ways and remain genuine mysteries. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the U of UFO stands for "unidentified" - which simply means that at the moment we do not have enough information to identify the cause of the sightings. It is a pity that the "alien spacecraft hypothesis" enthusiasts have adopted UFOs since this makes scientists - and even serious journalists - reluctant to consider the issue for fear of losing professional credibility. All credit to Cook for analysing this intriguing subject objectively.