Saturday 27 November 2010

Interzone 231

The November/December issue of the British SFF magazine is a Jason Sandford special, focusing on the work of this US writer. He has already had several highly-regarded short stories published in Interzone which I have reviewed in previous posts, and this issue features three new ones. There is also a long interview (with Andy Hedgecock) in which he explains his view that a new form of genre writing is developing, which he dubs SciFi Strange. He says this "sets high literary standards, experiments with style, is infused with a sense of wonder, takes the idea of diverse sexuality for granted, focuses on human values and needs, and explores the boundaries of reality and experience through philosophical speculation." Which all sounds very impressive, but for me bottom line is simply "is it a good read?"

Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Peep (illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe) is the first of his stories. The population of the USA is gradually fragmenting into a patchwork of lynch mobs trilling "Peace!" as they slaughter not just criminals but anyone using violence - including police officers and soldiers. A policewoman escapes with the aid of a serial killer and discovers the chilling truth behind the frenzy.

Memoria (illustrated by Richard Wagner) is next up. Spacecraft travel between parallel worlds, but there is a price to be paid by some of the crew; possession by ghosts of the dead. Criminals escape jail by volunteering to be the "shields" to experience this, gradually losing their memories and minds from the impact of the series of imposed personalities. But it all goes wrong when a new sort of possession afflicts one crew, and they learn why civilisations on parallel Earths have destroyed themselves.

Millisent Ka Plays in Realtime (illustrated by David Senecal) completes the trio of Jason Sandford stories. A future in which the economy runs on time - people's life time. Whenever a citizen wants something - to be educated or to be healed, or just to shop - the price is paid in the form of a specified period of time, ranging from seconds to years, for which they are committed to serve the Lord who provides such services. Their accumulated debt is burned into their genes so it can never be lost. But what might happen if someone discovers that the system isn't infallible? A young musician finds out.

So, do Sandford's stories live up to the billing? The plots are complex and the reader only gradually discovers what is going on; they need careful reading - some passages more than once - which might absorb some readers and irritate others. His writing is to a high standard, the ideas are original, there is a strong "sense of strange" infusing each one (particularly Memoria), and, yes, they are good reads.

There are two other stories in this issue:

The Shoe Factory by Matthew Cook, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A man keeps being distracted from his solitary mission on a doomed spacecaft by spells of reliving a past life with a former girlfriend. Can he escape by recreating his former existence? A strange story with a complex structure; I wasn't sure what was going on until the end (and I wasn't entirely certain even then).

The Shipmaker by Aliette de Bodard, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A story set in this author's "Xuya continuity", an alternative Earth in which the Chinese discovered America before Columbus. A Grand Master of Design Harmony, responsible for integrating all of the aspects of a spaceship project ready for the new Mind which will be uniquely capable of transforming the ship into a viable entity, is thrown into a crisis when the Mind is born too soon. There is an appealingly lyrical flavour to this author's writing.

In addition, the usual book, film and DVD reviews are present and correct, and I notice that a favourite TV series from my young adulthood, The Avengers Series Five (the first series in colour) is now available on DVD, featuring the wonderful Diana Rigg as the action woman Emma Peel. That should brighten up a lot of lives.

Friday 19 November 2010

Lost SF Classics in the New Scientist

The New Scientist magazine is a serious journal aimed at keeping the scientific community (plus interested bystanders like me) up to date with current developments across the whole field of science. However, the editor obviously has a soft spot for science fiction, as occasional pieces about it appear. The most recent example was in the 23 October issue, in which ten prominent scientists and writers were asked to nominate a lost SF classic. Their choices, with their comments, were as follows:

Dark Universe by Daniel F Galouye, nominated by the biologist (and atheist flag-bearer for Darwin's theory of evolution) Richard Dawkins. "…hauntingly imaginative, and uses the medium of science fiction to let the reader reconstruct how myths can start."

Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley, nominated by James Lovelock (who invented the Gaia concept). "...a mid 20th century version of Voltaire's Candide. I like it because I am often asked to predict the future state of the world and authors like Voltaire, Wells, Orwell and others of their kind appeal more than purely technical prophets."

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem, nominated by cosmologist Sean Carroll. "...a wide-ranging exploration of robotics, technology, computation and social structures."

Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack, nominated by cyberpunk novelist William Gibson. "It's a book you really have to read to see why."

New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis, nominated by Robert May (former UK Chief Scientific Adviser). "…a scholarly review which takes science fiction seriously."

We by Eugene Zamiatin, nominated by novelist Margaret Atwood (winner of the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for the novel The Handmaid's Tale). "…contains the rootstock of two later themes - the creepy, too-smiley utopia, as in Brave New World, and the Big Brother dystopia, as in 1984."

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, nominated by SF author Stephen Baxter. "…a kind of god's-eye-view survey of the human far future, as bracing and original today as it was when first published…"

Floating Worlds by Celia Holland, nominated by SF author Kim Stanley Robinson. "…Holland's immense power as a novelist, and her new take on old science fiction themes, turn everything to gold."

The Listeners by James Gunn, nominated by SETI astronomer Seth Shostak. "I read this book two decades ago when I was first becoming involved with the search for cosmic company…"

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, nominated by physicist Freeman Dyson. "It's a sensitive human drama, with California providing the enduring natural environment as background."

An interestingly varied selection. Of the ten, I have only one on my shelves (New Maps of Hell) although I recall reading (and being impressed by) Floating Worlds, and assume (simply because they are so well known - not exactly "lost" classics) that I probably read Last and First Men plus Earth Abides a long time ago when I absorbed large quantities of SF every week, although I don't remember them. I have certainly read books by Galouye, Sheckley, Lem and Gunn, although I don't recall the specific titles mentioned. I fear that when it comes to SFF, I have forgotten rather more than I remember!

Saturday 13 November 2010

The First Men in the Moon (BBC TV)

This is a new adaptation of the famous 1901 novel by H.G.Wells, made for British television in 2010. It is remarkably faithful to the original (judging by the book's Wiki plot summary - I read it too long ago to recall anything about it), with few changes. One of them is evident from the start, which is set in 1968 at a fête to celebrate the imminent Moon landing. A boy wanders into a tent in which a very old man is showing an early film, purporting to be of the Wellsian story; for the old man is Bedford, who really was the first man in the Moon.

The scene then switches to Edwardian England and follows the plot of the novel very closely. We see Bedford, then a young, failed businessman, meet the brilliant and eccentric Professor Cavour and learn of his invention of cavorite - a liquid which, when it cools and dries, shields the force of gravity. They construct a space capsule which can be steered by rolling and unrolling blinds coated with cavorite, and arrive at the Moon. There they find that a local atmosphere, frozen in the long nights, forms in the heat of the lunar day, and they leave the capsule only to be captured by Selenites, large intelligent insects. One change from the book, necessary for even minimal acceptability, is that the fast-growing surface plants described by Wells are missing: the Selenites live entirely underground in a huge system of deep caverns with a permanent breathable atmosphere. In their attempt to escape, Bedford and Cavor split up. Bedford manages to reach the capsule and return to Earth but Cavour remains behind, working with the Selenites who learn his language and are very curious about the Earth - and cavorite. The ending differs from the original, in that the film neatly explains why the Moon is lifeless and airless today (although the very last scene rather spoils that).

There are some technically shaky aspects - BBC4 doesn't exactly have a Hollywood budget to work with, after all. While the initial action on the Moon's surface features the obligatory low-gravity slow-motion antics we are familiar with (plus an amusing Edwardian version of Armstrong's first words), this gets forgotten underground, with some vague hand-waving about gravity being stronger there. Despite this, it's an entertaining production, rich in period flavour, and well worth seeing.

Saturday 6 November 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 3)

Into the third batch of eight stories (one more batch to go):

Sanjeev and Robotwallah by Ian McDonald. A youth in a future India is entranced by the remotely-controlled battle robots he sees in action and becomes determined to get involved. But reality proves less glamorous than he expected.

The Skysailor's Tale by Michael Swanwick. Another dissatisfied youth, this time in an alternative America in the Revolutionary War period. A vast British flying craft with a crew of a thousand, held up by a huge number of hydrogen-filled balloons, appears in the sky over his home town and of course proves irresistable to the youth. A story strong in atmosphere and convincing detail, as I have come to expect from this writer.

Of Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh. Yet another youth, in India again, who has the ability to weave minds together. He slowly finds out more about his origins as he constantly tries to escape the attentions of a man like himself - only far more powerful. An original and intriguing tale.

Steve Fever by Greg Egan. Dissatisfied youth number four (am I detecting a theme here?) in a future USA feels powerfully drawn to escape his farm and head for the city. But his impulse is not self-generated, and he is being called to the city for a bizarre purpose. A strange tale of nanobots out of control.

Hellfire at Twilight by Kage Baker. A time-travelling cyborg tasked with retrieving historical documents is sent back to the notorious Hellfire Club, a group of British aristocrats devoted to excess in depravity. He is after a Greek scroll describing the ceremony of the Eleusinian Mysteries , but find himself involved more closely than he expected. This one reminds me of Connie Willis's novel To Say Nothing of the Dog.

The Immortals of Atlantis by Brian Stableford. The destruction of fabled Atlantis, a biotechnologically advanced civilisation when the rest of humanity was still in the Stone Age, led the inhabitants to ensure their survival via latent mitochondrial DNA, which could be awakened in the unsuspecting carriers by the application of a sequence of drugs. An interesting notion given an unexpected twist in this short story, in which a woman in a present-day housing estate receives a peculiar visitor. I particularly enjoyed the wry description of the crime-ridden slum estate: "The Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses had stopped coming to the estate years ago, because there were far easier places in the world to do missionary work - Somalia, for instance, or Iraq".

Nothing Personal by Pat Cadigan. A present-day US police detective is assailed by a growing feeling of dread, which seems to be associated with the natural deaths of two identical young girls. But much more than this is going on. Not time-travelling in this tale, but shifting between alternate realities.

Tideline by Elizabeth Bear. An crippled battle robot tries to use its last energy to create a suitable memorial for its dead human comrades on the beach of a distant shore, and strikes up an unlikely relationship with a young boy.

A varied mix of stories this time (except for the dissatisfied youths) with some original ideas and unpredictable plots, although the Bear story struck me as rather familiar. My favourites from this group are the ones by Swanwick and Baker.