Friday 30 December 2011

Abarat by Clive Barker

I recall Clive Barker first hitting the headlines in the late 1980s with his dark fantasy novel Weaveworld, which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1988. I also read some other books by him over the next few years, although Weaveworld is the only one I've kept to read again sometime. Since then I've not kept up with his writing career (something which happens all too often, I find) but when I spotted Abarat (first published 2002) while browsing through one of those cheap multiple-buy bookshops, I added it to the pile after a cursory glance at the back cover. Which goes to show the hazards of such a casual approach as I found a couple of surprises when I came to read the book.

The heroine of Abarat is Candy Quakenbush, a girl from the depressingly boring Minnesota town of Chickentown. She runs away to escape her life there and finds herself in a strange alternative universe, the Islands of the Abarat, set in the Sea of Izabella. There is one island for every hour of the day and night; the island at Noon basks in continuous midday sun, while the one at Midnight, on the opposite side of the circular archipelago, never sees daylight. There is also a mysterious island at the Twenty-Fifth Hour, set in the centre. The islands vary greatly in their form (one consisting of a giant sculpture of a head) and in their inhabitants, many of whom are far from human. Magic works there but so does technology, and there is a growing tension between the two as a struggle develops for domination of the Islands.

As a rare visitor from the fabled Hereafter (the name given to our world), Candy is immediately of great interest to the competing powers and finds herself in a series of hazardous adventures as she tries to escape capture and find her own way in this strange world. On the way, she makes friends with an assorted collection of peculiar individuals and has to grow up in a hurry, aided by surreptitious assistance from some of the inhabitants.

I mentioned at the start that I had a couple of surprises when I read the book. The first you may already have guessed from the plot summary - Abarat is aimed at young adults. This makes it the third time recently that I have unexpectedly discovered this on reading a novel set in a parallel universe, the others being China Miéville's Un Lun Dun, and Polikarpus & King's Down Town (see my review index). Perhaps this kind of plot sells particularly well to young adults? The other surprise is that this novel is only the first of a series, with two sequels to date and another one reportedly planned.

Abarat was nominated for the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers, won second place in the 2003 Locus Poll for the Best Young Adult Novel and was picked as one of its Best Books for Young Adults by The American Library Association. My own feelings towards the story were rather more lukewarm. It was sufficiently entertaining and well-written to keep me reading to the end (something which can't be taken for granted these days) but it didn't strike me as especially notable. Perhaps I've just read too many good stories of this kind recently. If you enjoy this sort of story it's worth looking up, but I'm in no hurry to seek out the sequels. I should add that one of the major appeals of the original hardback was apparently a large number of colour illustrations by the author (who is also an artist) which maybe helped to account for its warm reception, but these were omitted from my paperback edition.

Friday 23 December 2011

Film: Thor (2011)

Yet another US superhero film, this time giving a contemporary science-fictional twist to the myths of the Norse gods and acquiring an upmarket gloss by being directed by Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean actor/director.

The plot is set on three of the nine Norse "realms" (effectively, planets): Asgard, the abode of the gods; Jotunheim, the home of their traditional enemies the Frost Giants; and Midgard, our very own Earth. Thor (played by Brad Pitt look-alike, the muscular Chris Hemsworth) is the heir to the throne of Asgard, currently occupied by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). However, his scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plots to get Thor into trouble by goading him to attack Jotunheim, for which act of disobedience Odin strips Thor of his magical powers and of his mighty hammer Mjolnir, casting both separately to Midgard.

On present-day Earth, the newly arrived Thor is promptly run over by the vehicle of a scientific research team led by astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), leading to some amusing scenes as he tries to work out what is going on and they try to understand who he is. Hearing that Mjolnir has landed not far away and is being researched by a secretive government organisation, Thor sets off to reclaim his hammer, only to find that it isn't quite as simple as that. Further adventures and battles follow (along with a predictable romantic entanglement) before Thor is able to return to Asgard to challenge his brother, who has been getting up to further mischief in his absence.

Thor is an entertaining film, briskly-paced, well-acted and with a good mix of adventure, supernatural battles, humour and romance. Unlike some reviewers, I much preferred the literally down-to-Earth part, when Thor was an ordinary human, over the stylised and over-dramatised scenes on Asgard and Jotunheim which always looked like, well, fantasy film sets. Despite that reservation I wouldn't have minded watching it all again soon afterwards, which is high praise as I rarely feel that way about a film. A couple of sequels are already planned and I can only hope (albeit without much optimism) that they maintain the standard of the first.

Thursday 15 December 2011

The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer

This week, a pause for some real rather than fictional science. Chris Stringer has been researching human evolution throughout his professional life and currently works at the Department of Palaeontology at the National History Museum, London. He is regarded as the UK's foremost authority on the subject and his latest book, The Origin of Our Species, sets out to explain to interested observers the current state of knowledge in a field which has seen some rapid developments in recent years.

Not only have two additional hominims who lived at the same time as Homo sapiens been discovered - the Denisovans and Homo floresiensis (the "Hobbit"), both in Asia - but gene sequencing has hit the news with the revelation that the genome of modern humans contains some elements from both Neanderthals and Denisovans, indicating that they all interbred at some point. Genetic analysis and advanced dating methods have also provided far more information about the way in which the various species of the genus Homo are related to each other, plus how they spread and interacted.

I read with great interest what Stringer has to say about all this. His approach is thematic and discursive rather than chronological; it focuses on how we know what we do about human origins rather than on simply telling the evolutionary story. This makes for an interesting read but an awkward reference source since material on Neanderthals, for example, is scattered throughout the book, requiring much flipping between text and index to track down.

I liked the fact that Stringer is not didactic. He acknowledges where the data is shaky and where it is firm, and points to alternative interpretations in order to highlight the areas where there is disagreement between the researchers in this field. However, it is also clear from his narrative that most such disagreements tend to be temporary, caused by lack of adequate data, and that they usually go away as the data builds up sufficiently to make one interpretation clearly a better fit with the data than the others (although scientists are human too, so can be reluctant to give up a theory that they've adopted).

In the initial chapter the author outlines the history of the study of human evolution starting with Darwin's The Descent of Man. This is followed up by chapters on: the development of dating techniques (the long-established radiocarbon dating having been joined by several others with different strengths and weaknesses); new high-tech ways of analysing skulls and other bones; recent finds and their implications; the examination of the evidence for the development of thought and behaviour (tools, art, crafts, burials); genes and DNA; and finally two chapters on "The Making of a Modern Human" and "The Past and Future Evolution of Our Species". There is a huge amount of fascinating material in this book and in a review like this I can only pick out a few points which caught my attention.

An early problem, which still exists today, is how to categorise the various fossils which have been discovered to date. One view (particularly associated with the Multiregional theory described below) is that the genus "Homo" and species "sapiens" covers a wide range of hominims, leading to the use of sub-species terms such as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens (i.e., us). At the opposite extreme, another view has a different species name attached to almost every fossil. Stringer sits somewhere in the middle; he doesn't use sub-species terms but just the main species ones.

One of the hottest debates over the past few decades has been between the "Multiregional" and "Out of Africa" models of evolution. The former postulates an early spread of hominims from Africa across Eurasia, after which each group evolved in parallel into the variety of modern humans. The latter (which Stringer prefers to call RAO, for "Recent African Origin", since there is no dispute that all of humanity originated in Africa, as Darwin speculated) argues that there were several stages of dispersion from Africa, with modern humans primarily originating from the most recent one approximately 70,000 years ago (with the addition of a soupçon from older species by interbreeding before they died out). At one time the Multiregional theory was dominant but modern genetic analysis has swung the argument strongly in favour of RAO after the usual academic debate (polite term for a vicious cat-fight!), with some still refusing to be convinced.

The course and timeline of human evolution within Africa is another issue explored in the first chapter. Trying to sort out how the various fragmentary fossils relate to each other - specifically, which were in the ancestral chain leading directly to modern humans and which were dead-ends - is still very much a source of debate. Here, the development of more sophisticated technical dating systems has proved helpful. What has become clear is that the evolutionary history is very far from the tidy progression from an ape-like hominim to modern man as shown in the now notorious "ascent of man" illustration. Different types of hominim coexisted for a very long time in Africa - and probably interbred. The earliest skull fragment of modern human form has been dated to 250,000 years ago (although the first fully modern humans seem to be only half as old), but a primitive skull found in west Africa is only 20,000 years old.

In the light of all of this, any human family tree is tentative and subject to revision as more data are discovered. Keeping that caveat in mind, the author indicates a probable structure as follows: Homo erectus, for which there is fossil evidence in both Africa and Asia, emerged about 1.5 million years ago and survived in Africa into the Homo sapiens era. At some point, perhaps 1.2 million years ago, an offshoot of erectus appeared, designated Homo heidelbergensis. This hominim family subdivided around 400,000 years ago; one branch produced both the Neanderthals and Denisovans, the other became Homo sapiens; modern humans.

However, this definition of "modern human" concerns only a skeleton and skull like ours. Were the earliest sapiens like us in every other way? To determine this, we have to look beyond biological evidence and try to assess their behaviour from clues they left behind. It seems reasonably clear that up to about 100,000 years ago, sapiens stone tools were much like those of the Neanderthals. However, at some point human behaviour began to change: tools became more varied, specialised and sophisticated; cave art and stones engraved with geometric designs began to appear along with necklaces and musical instruments; there is evidence for more permanent occupation of caves; and also for a wider range of food sources including marine fish as well as shellfish (which implies special tools to catch them). These changes didn't all happen at the same time - the earliest burial evidence dates from around 100,000 years ago with the changes becoming comprehensive by about 40,000 years ago - but the evidence leads some scientists to believe that genetic changes rewired the human brain during this period. Certainly the Cro-Magnons of 35,000 years ago, the first modern humans in Europe, exhibited the full range of such behaviours.

For me, some of the most fascinating questions concern the Neanderthals; how different were they from contemporary Cro-Magnons and why did they die out less than 30,000 years ago, after living in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years? Physically, they were stockier and more massively built than humans; their children developed more rapidly and the adults only lived to about 35-40 at best, with the middle-aged and old comprising a much smaller proportion of the population than with humans. There is evidence that they lived hard and injury-prone lives - the women as much as the men. Their tool technology was simple but they showed some indications of culture in their burials and in decorative items such as beads. Whether or not they wore clothes is unknown, but there is no evidence for the sewing and weaving which the Cro-Magnons possessed. However, it seems likely that they did use fur wraps and ponchos in the cold conditions in Europe (they were physically better adapted to cold than humans, but not that much better). Their foot bones do not indicate that they wore shoes - unlike those of Cro-Magnons. Their diet seems to have been more restricted - they were far more carnivorous than the ominvore humans.

Could Neanderthals speak? The shape of the throat indicates that speech would have been physically possible, albeit at about the same level as a human two-year old. They also have the same variant of the FOX2P gene as humans - for whom it is necessary for speech. So while we can never be certain, there seems to be no reason why they could not have had some kind of speech, albeit without the range and sophistication of humans.

So why did Neanderthals die out? Were they killed off by the more advanced newcomers, the Cro-Magnons? As the author points out, there was probably no single reason for their extinction. They died out at a time of great climate stress, with rapid fluctuations in temperatures. Their more restricted diet would have counted against them. The high death rate - possibly the result of having to close with their animal prey rather than using throwing weapons like the humans - would have taken its toll. Poorer communications due to more restricted language skills could have handicapped them. More subtly, the relative lack of older people would have made it more difficult to pass on acquired knowledge or to help with child care while the younger adults were out hunting. The evidence of long-term decline indicates that the Neanderthals may have been on the way out anyway, although competition for resources from the Cro-Magnons might well have played a part in finishing them off.

This raises another interesting question discussed in the book - the importance of population density. Evidence suggests that at various times during human development in Africa, relatively advanced technologies were employed, only to be lost. They kept having to reinvent the wheel (metaphorically speaking). The reason for this was probably that the small groups who developed the new technologies may have died out without passing on their knowledge, or been put under such survival stress that they stopped having the time to use them - resulting in their being forgotten. Only with a sufficiently high population density, plus frequent communication between groups, could new ideas be disseminated, preserved and built upon. The Neanderthals never enjoyed such advantages.

Perhaps the most striking detail in the book concerns "the Hobbit"; the tiny hominim from the Indonesian island of Flores, providing the name Homo floresiensis. Although the heat and humidity has effectively destroyed the DNA, the morphology of the remains indicates that the Hobbit was unrelated not only to modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans, but even to their precursor, Homo erectus. While there is still disagreement over its origins, Stringer suggests that it could be a dwarfed descendent of Homo habilis or even the australopithecines which dispersed from Africa over two million years ago (stone tools found on Flores are at least 800,000 years old). Yet the most recent remains of the Hobbit have been dated to about 18,000 years ago, only a few thousand years before modern humans colonised the island. In evolutionary terms, that's a blink of an eye. It sends a chill down my spine to think that we came that close to coexisting with such an early hominim.

Finally (in case you were wondering) yes, there is evidence that humanity is continuing to evolve - and at an accelerating rate. One surprise is that average human brain size has shrunk by about 10% over the last 20,000 years; whether this will continue is interesting to speculate, but brains are very energy-intensive to maintain and will shrink if they are used less. Perhaps our modern information and other technologies, which require us to do less memorising and even thinking, will accelerate this reduction? The profound changes in lifestyle over the last 10,000 years, with the spread of agriculture and urban population centres, have led to other changes, particularly the development of disease resistance and of adult lactose tolerance (among Africans and Europeans). Analysis of the human genome, and in particular the rate of mutations in DNA, have indicated that some 20% of our genes have come under selection pressure over this period. And this of course is without considering the potential of genetic engineering to alter humanity in the future.

As you may have gathered, I am highly impressed with this book and warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. It does require a degree of concentration - although aiming for a popular audience the author thankfully hasn't dumbed down to the lowest common denominator - but it's well written and easy enough to follow.

Saturday 10 December 2011

The Steel of Raithskar by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron

The Gandalara Cycle is a set of seven novels published during 1981-86 which essentially contain one episodic story over 1,200 pages long. The series was conceived by Randall Garrett, famous for his 1960s Lord Darcy fantasy series, but he was taken ill so the work was completed by his wife, Vicki Ann Heydron. The Gandalara Cycle is commonly found in three paperback volumes: the first two containing three novels each (Gandalara Cycle I and II) the third just the final novel, The River Wall. If you manage to acquire these and are looking forward to immersing yourself in the tale, be warned that in the second volume, novels five and six are in the wrong order. I first read these books in the late 1980s and enjoyed them enough to keep on my shelves so I decided that it was time for another look. So far I have read only the first novel, The Steel of Raithskar.

Ricardo Carillo, former US Marine and now an elderly and terminally ill professor of languages, is on a farewell cruise around the Mediterranean when he sees a ball of fire heading straight for his ship at enormous speed. He recovers in the middle of a desert, parched and injured and with a dead man next to him, and begins a slow and painful journey to look for help before collapsing into unconsciousness. Recovering at an oasis, he discovers several things: he is not on our present-day Earth but in the land of Gandalara, which has a culture and technology similar to the Bronze-Age Mediterranean; he is not in his own body but is occupying the body of a young man called Markasset, of whose memories he retains only fragments apart from his understanding of the language which is like nothing he has heard before; the people are hominims but not quite Homo Sapiens; and he is a sha'um rider. The sha'um are giant fighting cats, the biggest animals in Gandalara, who form telepathic bonds with their riders, and he has only survived because Markasset's sha'um, Keeshah, carried him to safety.

Still very unsure of what is going on and how he should behave, Ricardo/Markasset and Keeshah travel to their home city of Raithskar where he discovers some uncomfortable facts: he owes a large sum of money in a gambling debt; he is engaged to be married; his estranged father, Thanasset, is suspected of complicity in the theft of a giant jewel, the Ra'ira, which is the symbol of the city; and Markasset is also suspected of having fled the city with the jewel. The rest of the novel is concerned with Ricardo's attempts to clear the names of Thanasset and himself while trying to recover more of Markasset's memories and determine his place in this strange, but increasingly appealing, land.

This is a fast, light and entertaining read which sets up the Ganadalara Cycle very well. There's more than an echo of Burroughs' Carter on Mars here, and references to other works including the giant telepathic cats in Schmitz's Novice, reviewed recently. It's an escapist adventure in the classic mould, made more immediate and involving by being told in the first person, and I'm looking forward to reading the the rest of the Cycle.

Friday 2 December 2011

Interzone 237

The November/December issue of the British SFF magazine emerged just too soon to cover the death of Ann McCaffrey, the prolific SFF writer who will always be remembered for her creation of the world of Pern and its huge, telepathic dragons. I still remember the delight with which I first read Dragonflight in 1970 and it remains one of my favourite SFF novels. It stood up very well to a recent reading, following which I reviewed it on this blog (see the review list on the left).

The cover art is by Richard Wagner, who is also the subject of the editorial and of an interview on the magazine's website. David Langford's Ansible Link includes mention of a Heinlein award to Connie Willis for "SF or technical non-fiction that inspires human exploration of space", which puzzled me because all of her work that I know about is very much set on Earth. There are the usual book, DVD and film reviews which I will, as usual, study carefully to see if there is anything I should be adding to my "to read" and "to watch" lists.

Just four stories this time:

The Last Osama by Lavie Tidha, illustrated by Steve Hambidge. Purportedly told by one of the soldiers who killed Osama bin Laden, it is set in a surreal future in which people become Osama as if it were an infectious disease. Decidedly bizarre.

Erasing the Concept of Sex from a Photobooth by Douglas Lain, illustrated by David Gentry. This one defeats my powers of summary description. Suffice to say that it features sex and a weird photobooth. Even more bizarre.

Insect Joy by Caspian Gray. A young woman is sensitive to all creatures, including insects, and has a very strange form of control over them. Yep, you guessed it, this one's bizarre.

Digital Rites by Jim Hawkins, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Famous actors begin to die in a competitive future in which they don't actually do any acting - they just pose for the news media - but are linked by quantum entanglement to their characters in virtual film productions in order to animate them more effectively. The chase to discover what's going on, to overcome the studio's crisis and to complete the film they're working on makes an intriguing story which seems remarkably mundane in this company.

I was getting worried by the time I reached the final story because the first three were not much to my taste, but Hawkins' tale (by far the longest of the four) I read with some relief as I found it much more engaging and enjoyable, even if I didn't entirely follow all of the plot threads and the ending seemed a bit too neat.

Friday 25 November 2011

Films: The Ninth Gate (1999) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

This time we have two Johnny Depp films for the price of one.

I hadn't previously seen The Ninth Gate. Depp plays Dean Corso, a mercenary book dealer who is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to verify the authenticity of a rare book he owns, The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, of which only three copies are known. The book contains nine engravings which legend says were drawn by the Devil and will summon him if used in the correct way.

Corso searches for information about the book and visits the owners of the other two copies to make direct comparisons. Along the way he meets the previous owner of Balkan's copy (Lena Olin) who is desperate to recover it, and keeps seeing a mysterious unnamed girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) who has a knack of turning up at the right moment to save him from danger. Corso discovers that only three engravings in each copy are genuine - it is necessary to bring them all together to achieve the desired effect. The bodies begin to pile up as rivals compete to obtain the nine genuine engravings, culminating in occult ceremonies.

This is described as a horror film, which surprises me as there is nothing particularly horrific - or even occult - about it. It is quite low-key and slow-paced, and is best regarded as a mystery. The only supernatural elements are a couple of gravity-defying tricks by the unnamed girl, and the very last scene which frankly left me baffled as to what it all meant. However, the film is stylish, looks good and is moderately entertaining; and, if nothing else appeals, male viewers can enjoy the sight of Olin and Seigner!

The fourth of the Pirates of the Caribbean films has Depp once again reprising his role as the iconic Captain Sparrow, although the two secondary stars of the earlier films (Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom) disappear and Penélope Cruz joins the crew as Sparrow's love interest. The only other memorable characters are Ian McShane as Blackbeard and the young mermaid Syrena, played rather fetchingly by Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey.

I don't have a lot to say about this one. It's just more of the same, but not a lot more. I expected Cruz to pair very well with Depp but her performance never takes off and there is zero chemistry between them. In fact, the entire cast seems subdued, as if they're not having much fun. Even Depp's performance (as usual, the main reason to watch the film) is toned down, and the film lacks the joie de vivre which made the earlier ones (especially the first) so enjoyable. I note that this film had a different director from the first three, Rob Marshall replacing Gore Verbinski, and apparently the budget didn't allow for as many special effects, both of which presumably contributed to the malaise.

The film finished with lots of dangling loose ends and two more sequels are reportedly planned, which just goes to prove (once more) that Hollywood can't see a dead horse without giving it a thorough flogging.

Friday 18 November 2011

Short Stories: Novice by James H Schmitz; The Eyes Have It by Randall Garrett

The Classic Science Fiction discussion group selects one short story a week (from those available free online) to read and discuss, as well as the monthly pair of novels. I don't usually read them because I spend so much time on a computer anyway that I don't like to read fiction on it as well, and I don't have an e-reader because I have so many paper books stacked up awaiting my attention. However, I happened to have the two stories above in paper anthologies, so I re-read them. Both stories were written in the 1960s and both are the first of series: the Telzey Amberdon and Lord Darcy stories respectively.

In Novice, Schmitz's far-future Telzey Amberdon is a teenage girl with very high-status parents who happens to have a genius level intelligence, remarkable maturity and competence, and nascent psi powers. Oh, and she's good-looking too. If this all sounds like someone you would hate, prepare to be surprised - Schmitz makes us like her and you'd need a heart of stone not to be cheering her on by the end of the story. Sent away on holiday with her sweetly poisonous aunt to a strange planet with only her pet giant cat of unknown species, Tick-Tock, as a friendly face, Telzey soon discovers that her aunt has hatched a plot to deprive her of her pet. For Tick-Tock is a native of the planet - a species now believed to be almost extinct - and is therefore subject to confiscation. But Telzey also discovers that the giant cats are far from extinct, and she becomes involved in a dangerous scheme to outwit her aunt and survive the close attention of the ferocious felines.

In complete contrast, the Lord Darcy tales are set on an alternate Earth of vaguely Victorian technology and even earlier social development in which France and the UK are one country, North America is still a colony and the nobility are very much in charge. Oh, and magic works and is openly practiced - provided that it is sanctioned by the church. Lord Darcy is a criminal investigator who puzzles out seemingly impossible crimes with the aid of his assistant, a magician who has all kinds of useful abilities. So these stories are in effect a mixture of Sherlock Holmes, magical fantasy and steampunk. The most famous of them is the full-length novel, Too Many Magicians, but there are also nine short stories, of which The Eyes Have It was the introductory tale, concerning the mysterious murder of a lecherous nobleman. Those interested in these stories should look for the 2002 publication, Lord Darcy, which includes all of the stories as well as the novel.

These two stories may appear to have nothing in common, but that's not the case - they are both huge fun to read, light and entertaining, and were very popular in their day, resulting in several sequels. They date from an altogether more innocent age of SFF, which is an important aspect of their charm.

Friday 11 November 2011

Climate Change News

Those who urge taking action to avert climate change have had a bad couple of years. First, there was "Climategate" - the hacking of damaging emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, then the row over the use of a wildly inaccurate claim concerning the melting of Himalayan glaciers in a publication by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - the body tasked with reviewing and assessing research - and finally the failure of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to reach a meaningful international agreement on addressing global warming.

This triple blow seriously damaged the public perception of the seriousness of the threat from climate change. Even worse, the global financial crisis and resulting economic fallout have convinced many people that there are far more important and urgent problems to throw resources at. This has all combined to undermine political support, as most clearly demonstrated by the increasingly sceptical public statements of the Republican candidates for next year's US Presidential election.

However, there has been more encouraging news recently. Most notably, the conclusions of the Berkeley Earth Project, which was set up in the wake of Climategate to take a fresh look at the evidence. As reported by the BBC, the project was established by a noted climate change sceptic, University of California physics professor Richard Muller, with the help of funding from sources which included charitable foundations maintained by the Koch brothers, the billionaire US industrialists who have donated large sums to organisations lobbying against acceptance of man-made global warming.

Despite these unpromising circumstances, Professor Muller's team conducted an exhaustive analysis of all of the available data from the three major centres for climate research, whose work had been decried as unreliable and shoddy in climate sceptic circles: the collaboration between the UK Met Office and UEA's Climatic Research Unit; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Berkeley Earth Project finally concluded that the research and analyses carried out by these three groups was fundamentally correct.

"Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK," said Prof Muller.

"This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change sceptics did not seriously affect their conclusions."

This is worth emphasising: a thorough scientific study, funded with the help of climate sceptics and headed by a scientist who was himself a climate change sceptic, has concluded that those scientists warning about climate change were right all along. This deserves all the publicity it can get.

Next came calls for tougher action on climate change from big business in the form of The Corporate Leaders Group, a network of nearly 200 major companies spread over 30 countries, as described here.

This stance was supported by the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, representing more than $20 trillion in assets including banking giants HSBC and BNP Paribas, who argued that the governments which were acting quickly to implement tough climate policies would reap the biggest investments and the biggest rewards.

What Do We Know?

So what is the current state of scientific research into climate change? What is known and, of equal importance, not known? The New Scientist magazine has helpfully put together a simple guide to exactly that, here. To summarise very briefly:

We know that greenhouse gases are warming the planet, but we don't know how far the levels of these gases will rise.

We know that other pollutants are cooling the planet, but we don't know by how much.

We know that the planet is going to get a lot hotter, but we don't know how much hotter, nor how the climate will change in specific regions.

We know that the sea level is going to rise by many metres, but we don't know how quickly this will happen.

We know that there will be more floods and droughts, but we don't know whether there will be more hurricanes and the like.

Finally, we don't know how serious a threat global warming is to life, nor if and when "tipping points" (causing sudden accelerations in warming) will be reached.

It is of course frustrating that scientists cannot be more specific about what is going to happen where and when, but the massive complexity of the processes involved preclude this. Probably as a result, the public acceptance of the need for action - more specifically, the need for action which is costly now in order to stave off disaster later - is still not strong enough for most political leaders to take the action required. At the moment, the warming trends are steadily upwards, with the very limited reductions in carbon emissions achieved by the developed world swamped by the increasing industrialisation of the developing world - especially China and India - and the ever-growing global population which has now (more or less) reached seven billion and is projected to reach 9 or 10 billion by the middle of the century.

It is becoming ever more certain that we will not act effectively enough, quickly enough, to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to the extent needed to prevent global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels by the end of this century. Can anything else be done? The obvious answer is geoengineering - technical fixes to counteract the rise in greenhouse gases - and it may be significant that public acceptance of such an approach seems to be growing as described here. However, as I have already discussed in this article, there are serious problems with this approach.

The path our generation takes now will decide what sort of future the next few generations will experience. At the moment, there appear to be few grounds for optimism. When faced with difficult and painful decisions, people are very prone to go through several stages (as governments have been doing over the current international financial crisis):
1. Denying there's a problem.
2. Hoping that it will go away if it's ignored for long enough.
3. Hoping that something will come up which will make hard decisions unnecessary.
4. Finally, reluctantly, taking the minimum action after waiting for as long as possible.

The problem with this tried-and-tested approach to muddling through is that the climate has enormous inertia. By the time the need for action has become obvious to all, the climate changes will have gathered such momentum that they will quite possibly be unstoppable. Humanity needs to fasten its metaphorical seat belt - we're in for a very rough ride.

Friday 4 November 2011

Film: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010)

Something different in the way of cinematic pleasure this time. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is a French film (subtitled) based on a Franco-Belgian comic strip relating the varied fantastical adventures of Adèle (Louise Bourgoin) a resourceful young reporter and author.

The place is Paris, the time a hundred years ago. The plot concerns Adèle's attempts to find a way of curing her twin sister, who has been in a coma for five years following a freak accident. Her search involves an Indiana Jones-style escapade in Egypt to find and recover the mummy of a noted doctor to a pharaoh (whom she believes is the only person who might succeed in reviving her sister). She hopes that a scientist, Professeur Espérandieu, will be able to bring the mummy back to life - as the Professeur has developed a telepathic method for rousing the dead. Unfortunately, in Adèle's absence he has been practicing his skills and has managed to cause a pterodactyl to hatch from its egg in a museum and terrorise Paris, resulting in his arrest. So first Adèle has to spring him from prison, then get him to revive the mummy so it can treat her sister, but (needless to say) all does not go to plan. To make matters worse, a big-game hunter has been recruited to shoot the pterodactyl, but its fate is closely tied to that of the Professeur.

This film certainly dispels any notion that the French can't take a joke against themselves. Many of the characters are broad caricatures of French stereotypes, with only Adèle being played straight - if you can believe in a young woman who confidently overcomes all obstacles, including imminent execution, with remarkable style and sang-froid. This is a zany comedy (some might say bonkers) with a laugh in every scene, and is quite unlike anything else; The Mummy might be the closest I've seen, although in comparison that seems like a serious horror drama.

The film might best be summed up as "magnificently silly". It is intended to be the first of a trilogy, which I hope comes to pass: I'll be waiting in the queue to see the others.

Friday 28 October 2011

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson was one of the most productive SFF writers of the second half of the last century, publishing about a hundred books and winning seven Hugo and three Nebula awards. His first book was published in 1953 and his last fifty years later, two years after his death. Tau Zero was published in 1970 and was nominated for a Hugo. When it was selected for the reading list of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group I was surprised to discover that I had never read it, so I obtained a new copy (published by Gollancz under the SF Masterworks label).

The plot is simple: a colonisation ship with fifty people on board leaves Earth for another solar system where a probe had reported a habitable planet. En route, the ship runs into trouble and cannot decelerate. The only chance of survival is to keep accelerating closer and closer to light speed in order to maximise the time dilation effect and travel as far as possible; initially to find space empty enough to shut off the drive and protective screen in order to carry out repairs, and secondly to find a zone where the conditions are right for them to stop and find a place to live.

There are two threads running through this story: the first is a very technical, hard-science description of the functioning of the Bussard ramjet, the implications of the ship's velocity getting ever closer to the speed of light, and the structure and evolution of the universe. The second is the human story of the effect of their situation on the crew and scientists on board the ship, as time outside passes at an ever-increasing rate compared with time inside.

Like nearly all SF of the period, this story is about ideas more than people. If the title had not already been pre-empted by the famous short story, the novel might accurately have been called The Cold Equations. Having said that, the main characters are drawn well enough to carry the plot, while time has not been kind to the science. The effectiveness of the Bussard ramjet concept (very popular in the 1960s and 70s) has since been questioned and the future of the universe is now believed to be somewhat different from that shown in the book.

This story makes an interesting contrast with Niven's A World Out of Time published a few years after Tau Zero and reviewed on this blog recently. This also features a Bussard ramjet making an enormous journey to gain the benefit of time dilation, but Niven's story concerns itself much more with the social, genetic and technical changes which take place on Earth over the aeons and, to me at least, is all the more interesting and enjoyable as a result.

Tau Zero may not be the most enjoyable of tales, but it is deservedly a classic for its exploration of the science of relativity and its potential consequences.

Friday 21 October 2011

Replay by Ken Grimwood

This book, first published in 1986, won the World Fantasy Award two years later. I read it over twenty years ago and was most impressed, but found myself strangely reluctant to read it again; I only did so because it was one of the books of the month in the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

The plot concerns Jeff Winston, an American in his early forties, unsuccessful in his career and with a failing marriage, who dies apparently of a massive heart attack - and then regains consciousness twenty-five years in the past, in his own eighteen-year-old body, with all his memories intact.

This is the start of a fascinating "what would you do if…?" premise which is explored in detail throughout the story. What Jeff initially does is to use his memories to make a fortune and enjoy the good life, but does he really become happier as a result, and can he use his knowledge to forestall some of the disasters which have afflicted the world?

There are many twists and turns in the story but it is difficult to say more without spoilers. So I will just say that it is a great, thought-provoking read which I am happy to recommend to anyone, SFF fan or not. If you want to read the book and would rather discover its surprises for yourself (which I strongly recommend) then stop reading NOW!

******************SPOILER WARNING***********************

The first twist in the story comes when Jeff once again reaches the age at which he previously "died" - and the same thing happens again. Once more he is eighteen, back in the early 1960s, with all his memories from both previous lives intact. This time he takes a different tack, marries his childhood sweetheart and lives a moderate and happy life. Until he reaches his "death age" when, despite having checked himself into hospital and been pronounced in excellent health, it happens again. Now he swings to the opposite extreme in angry defiance about what is happening to him until, disgusted with the emptiness of his life, he withdraws into isolation.

The next twist then occurs - Jeff discovers he is not the only "replayer" and meets up with Pamela Phillips, whose experiences match his own, except that she is out of sequence; they die at about the same time, but she is younger and is "replayed" at a later date. They become lovers, but discover that each time they are revived, it is at a later age - and getting later at a rapidly increasing rate. The gap between their revivals also increases rapidly, causing havoc with their relationship. They finally decide to "go public" in an attempt to discover what is happening to them, with devastating consequences. Eventually Jaff and Pamela manage to find a kind of peace, if not happiness, which seems the best they can hope for.

I think I know why I was reluctant to read the book again - a reluctance which disappeared as soon as I became caught up in it. As it develops, the story becomes an emotional roller-coaster and is very moving by the end. The message initially seems somewhat depressing - no matter how hard you try, you can't make things better for any more than a handful of people - but there is a kind of redemption as well. In the end, it is concerned with the philosophy of living, and the characters are all too human in their hopes and failings. The final lesson is an old but true one: we only have one life, so we need to make the best of it that we can.

Replay is an original and well-written tale, which draws the reader into it ever more deeply as the plot develops: it deserves to be a classic.

Friday 14 October 2011

Flatland by Edwin A Abbott

Flatland, subtitled A Romance of Many Dimensions, was first published in 1884. It is difficult to describe or draw parallels with this book, since as far as I'm aware it is unique, and it has maintained an almost hidden cult status ever since.

The nameless narrator lives on a world of two dimensions - a flat surface - in which all the inhabitants are geometrical shapes. The simplest are the women, who are straight Lines, next come Isosceles Triangles (the wider the angle, the higher the status). Equilateral Triangles are next up the social scale, followed by Squares (like the narrator) then Pentagons and Hexagons and so on, until the highest status of all - the Circle. It is every inhabitant's wish to improve the prospects of his male offspring by carefully choosing his Wife to ensure that their shapes become more regular or many-sided with each generation. Our Square narrator, for instance, has a Pentagon son and a Hexagon grandson. This element of the story is a satirical reference to the rigid social structures of the contemporary Victorian society, in which a high priority was given to trying to climb that social ladder from one generation to the next.

Our narrator has an unusually imaginative mind and has visions of other worlds, including a one-dimensional Lineland and even a zero-dimensional Pointland, and has fun with satirising the rigid assumptions held by the inhabitants of these lands, each believing that there is no world with more dimensions than their own. That also applies to his Flatland homeland, where it is heretical to suggest that there could ever be more than two dimensions. So he is greatly disturbed to be visited by a being who appears to be a Circle but keeps changing in size, something which cannot happen in Flatland. He gradually realises that the visitor is a Sphere from a three-dimensional world (of whom he can only see a two-dimensional "slice") and is led to an understanding of what such a world would be like. Inevitably, his discoveries get him into trouble with the Flatland authorities.

Flatland can't really be assessed in any conventional way, in terms of plot, characterisation or drama. It is more of a thought experiment than anything else - an intriguing and rather appealing one. Since it is only a novella of some 80 pages, it is easy enough to read and worth the effort for a unique experience.

Friday 7 October 2011

Interzone 236

A slightly confusing start to the Sep-Oct issue of the Brit SFF magazine, with an editorial concerning the forthcoming arrival of a new film about The Avengers. I was intrigued but sceptical, since I couldn't imagine any actress matching up to my youthfully enthusiastic memories of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, until it gradually dawned on me that this was a different kind of Avengers, based on yet another US superhero comic strip. I am rather puzzled by the apparently inexhaustible demand for such movies; no doubt PhD theses are being written linking this to a fall in national confidence or something.

I note that Connie Willis won the Hugo for her pair of novels Blackout/All Clear, but although I enjoy her writing (despite a tendency to repetition in her novels), the total page count of these two doorstops is enough to deter me from starting. At my normal rate of progress it would take me several weeks, at least, to read them.

The cover art is Beacon by Richard Wagner, a classic SF/mystery vision showing strange spaceships being drawn to a beacon rising from a bleak moorland landscape, with a robed figure in the foreground.

Now to the stories:

A Time for Raven by Stephen Kotowych, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A short, atmospheric fantasy combining native American mythology with present day concerns garnished with a helping of supernatural mystery.

The Ever-Dreaming Verdict of Plagues by Jason Sandford, illustrated by Jim Burns. A sequel to Plague Birds (see issue #228), set far into a future in which technological civilisation has collapsed, leaving behind Artificial Intelligences which assist scattered villages. AIs also inhabit the blood of the Plague Birds - peripatetic female judge/executioners who have the ability to determine right from wrong. This time, a village AI proves to be rather more than expected.

The Metaphor by Fiona Moore. A rather haunting short story from the viewpoint of a nameless narrator (whether male or female is never clear) living alone in a deserted world. From time to time, s/he feels compelled to visit a series of empty taverns in a ritual designed to keep some dread happening at bay. The story is interspersed with extracts from a report written in a different reality, which gradually build up a picture of what is really happening.

The Fall of the City of Silver by Jon Ingold, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A morality fantasy of the destruction of the semi-mythical city of Tartessos in southern Spain, told by a girl who did not survive the fall.

Tethered by Mercurio D. Rivera, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. Yet another of this author's stories concerning the relationship between humanity and the advanced alien Wergen race, who find humans irresistably attractive.

Not such an appealing bunch for my taste this time, but I admired Moore's cleverly-constructed story and Sandford is always worth reading.

Friday 30 September 2011

Film: King Arthur (2004)

This one falls loosely into the "fantasy" category. It is a very different take on the Arthurian legend, and is claimed to be far more realistic than the usual medieval mythology. The hero, Artorius Castus (Clive Owen), is depicted as a commander of the Sarmatian cavalry, an auxiliary force to the Roman Army, based in Britain by Hadrian’s Wall at the time of the Roman departure in the fifth century AD. He and his men have to cope with a Saxon invasion as well as incursions by the savage "Woads" (Picts, who allegedly adorned themselves with woad – blue dye – when preparing for battle).

Artorius's "knights" are a rough and shaggy lot of pagans (light years from the usual virginal Christian knights in shining armour) who have earned their impressive reputation the hard way, in savage hand-to-hand fighting. There's quite a lot of that in the film. They have come to the end of their fifteen-year contracts of service with Rome and are looking forward to returning home to the Middle East when they are ordered on one last, seemingly suicidal mission, over the wall and into Woad territory, right in the path of the invading Saxons. The end result is the climactic battle of Mount Badon.

About the only relationship to the traditional Arthurian characters is the names: not just Artorious/Arthur but Lancelot, Galahad, Bors, Tristan and Gawain all feature. Merlin is the leader of the Woads (with no suggestion of magical powers) and there's also Guinevere (Keira Knightley), a feisty Woad warrior whom the Sarmatians pick up on the way. A round table is slipped in (in a different context) but there's no mention of Camelot or the Holy Grail.

Is it realistic? Well, the setting is historically not far out; the first and only credible mention of Arthur (written centuries after he is believed to have lived) places him in approximately that time and place, although the timing is compressed somewhat - the Romans were long gone by the the late fifth/early sixth century, when he is historically supposed to have lived. The Battle of Mount Badon is believed to have some basis in fact, although no-one knows where it actually happened. And in the first tales he was no king, but a noted warrior who fought alongside the British kings. All of the medieval twaddle which has since accrued around the Arthurian myth was entirely invented from the twelfth century onwards.

Clive Owen makes a good fist of the Arthur role, and on the whole I enjoyed the film. For me, the least realistic element was Guinevere - or rather, Keira Knightley. She is a photogenic and popular young actress who is often cast for that reason - and quite frequently miscast, as in this film. My suspension of disbelief slipped badly the moment I heard her cut-glass voice emerged from a supposedly savage Woad. While she does a reasonably good bloodthirsty impression, I couldn't see the skinny arms of her size zero body pulling a war bow or wielding a sword in battle. And where did she get lipstick from? Oh well, I suppose that some cinematic conventions must be determinedly protected against the onset of too much reality.

Sunday 25 September 2011

The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Barsoom Project, published in 1989, is the sequel to Dream Park, which I reviewed a couple of years ago so I won't repeat the basic background - please read the Dream Park review for that (see the list of reviews in the left column). The Barsoom Project features the same principal character, Alex Griffin, the Head of Dream Park Security, and the plot follows a similar pattern in having two parallel threads. One thread features Griffin's attempts to unravel a murder within a game which happened eight years before, while simultaneously trying to uncover a plot against Dream Park itself. While ostensibly what the plot is all about, in practice this is only an minor distraction from the main thread, which follows the progress of several characters participating as players or actors in a new game: a version of the Fimbulwinter game which was the venue for the old murder, but this time recast as a "Fat Ripper Special", aimed at helping obese people lose weight.

An additional plot element is kept in the background until close to the end - the attempt by the Dream Park organisation to promote the real-life colonisation of Mars by means of a skyhook, or space elevator. This Barsoom Project provides the title to the book, although it's hard to see why since most of the story is concerned with the progress of the Fimbulwinter game, set in the Arctic and featuring Inuit (Eskimo to us oldies) mythology.

I had some issues with aspects of the story. I was not entirely convinced by the economics of the Dream Park games, nor by the logic of the "fat rippers"; even if their experiences encouraged the game-players to change their diets (although it wasn't obvious why it should), why would it have the same effect on overweight computer gamers? However, the biggest problem with this story for me is that it lacked much in the way of dramatic tension, simply because the reader knows from the start that the constant stream of bizarre dangers faced by the participants in the game is not real - if they are "killed" in the game, they simply retire uninjured. Now it could be argued that, by definition, fiction is "not real" anyway, but in a conventional story the author and reader conspire to pretend that what is going on is genuine so that tension can be built up to high levels - that simply doesn't happen here (in fact participants in the game have to be reminded that they need to lie still and be quiet when they're "dead"). As in Dream Park, the criminal in the story is unmasked at the end without any prior clues to allow readers to work out who it might be.

Despite this, the many who loved Dream Park will I expect enjoy The Barsoom Project. As I'm not interested in role playing games it took me some time to get into the story, although the pace picked up after the half-way point. I found it moderately entertaining, but it doesn't really add anything to Dream Park. On checking my previous review I was reminded that there is a third book in this series, The (California) Voodoo Game (which I have read, although I recall nothing about it) and I see a fourth has just been published, The Moon Maze. I think I might pass on that one - initial reviews are not encouraging.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Film: Source Code (2011)

I have been looking forward to watching Source Code ever since I saw director Duncan Jones' highly impressive debut film Moon. I was not disappointed.

US Army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), on active service in Afghanistan, abruptly finds himself travelling on a train to Chicago, sitting opposite an attractive young woman who clearly knows him. To add to his confusion, when he sees himself in a mirror the face which looks back at him is not his, and he discovers that he is known as Sean Fentress. He is still trying to understand what is happening when a bomb explodes on board the train, killing him and everyone else on board.

He wakes up again in a strange cockpit-like capsule, in CCTV communication with Air Force Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She explains to him that he has been in the "Source Code", an experimental environment which enables him to experience the lives of people in an alternate reality for eight minutes after their deaths. The people in the train are already dead - he can't save them but he has been sent to identify the bomber since it is believed that a second and much larger "dirty" bomb is due to be detonated in Chicago by the same man. The film follows Stevens' efforts to find the bomber as he is repeatedly sent back to experience the same eight minutes before the explosion. Along the way, he learns more about his own circumstances and becomes convinced that the alternate world in the Source Code is not what it seems.

Like Moon this has an intelligent and intriguing script (by Ben Ripley), is crisply directed by Jones and very well acted, by Gyllenhall and the excellent Farmiga (who impresses me more every time I see her). By modern standards it is relatively low-key with no hype and few special effects; the concentration is on the characters and the story. There is no padding and its 93 minute running time is short, but perfectly judged. It has immediately jumped onto my shortlist of favourite SF films, and I eagerly await Jones' next film.
A few domestic notices:

When I started this blog I expected to focus on reviewing novels but films have been increasingly featuring (with the occasional TV programme thrown in), so I decided to create an index to these reviews. You can find it in the left-hand column immediately below the book review list. Just click on any title that interests you and you'll be taken straight to it.

I have been pondering offering my novels in Kindle versions. I don't have an e-reader myself, simply because I have about a hundred unread paperbacks stacked on my floor and hundreds more on my shelves that I want to read again, which are likely to keep me going until Kindle has become obsolete. However, I gather that it is proving a successful medium for self-publishers like me, so I might try offering Scales on it, just to test the water. If that works it might motivate me to finish my third novel, which has been sitting untouched for a couple of years now.

Some gratifying reviews lately on for my alternative World War 2 novel, The Foresight War. Nice to see that it's still gathering fans and sales more than seven years after publication. Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to post your thoughts about it.

Friday 9 September 2011

Down Town by Viido Polikarpus and Tappan King

Cary Newman, a boy brought up in the country, is appalled to find himself living in New York following the collapse of his parents' marriage. Swept away from his mother by flowing crowds in the subway, he loses consciousness and wakes to find himself in a different version of the subway in a different version of New York: Down Town.

Down Town is the place in which everything and everybody no longer wanted in Up Town New York ends up. It has many levels, with the most recent at the top and the most ancient at the bottom. The inhabitants are the dispossessed and rejected, and they vary in size, becoming steadily smaller the longer they are there. Cary falls in with a gang of street children led by the pugnacious Allie, a girl his own age. Allie takes pity on him and agrees to try to find a way to return Cary to Up Town, since he doesn't seem to belong in Down Town. Their journey through varied scenes is hindered by the attempts of the black-clad Badmashers, led by the sinister Commander Brand, to apprehend him, but aided by an network of colourful friends. It gradually becomes apparent that Cary has a special purpose for being there, to preserve Down Town - and even Up Town - from being taken over and ruined by a rapacious organisation.

This is the first time I have re-read this book since the late 1980s (it was first published in 1986) and I had forgotten that it was aimed at younger readers. Still, I have a fondness for such stories about parallel realities into which people can fall, and this one is rather good. It has some clear messages about balancing technological advances with concern for the environment, as well as developing loyalty and determination in its young protagonists.

Down Town reminded me of several other more recent stories on my shelves, two of which I have reviewed here (see the reviews list in the left column): particularly Un Lun Dun by China Miéville and to a lesser extent The Ragchild by Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis (the first review I ever posted on this blog). Another one which comes to mind is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and of course the prototype and inspiration for all such stories, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which I haven't read since I was a child and really must renew my acquaintance with!

Friday 2 September 2011

Films: The Jacket (2005), and Alien Resurrection (1997)

The Jacket is a time-travelling film with an unusual twist or two. WARNING: some spoilers.

Soldier Jack Starks (Adrien Brody), seriously wounded in the 1991 Gulf War, returns to the USA and begins to hitch his way across country. After helping a mother and her young daughter with a car breakdown, he becomes inadvertently caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between a police officer and a criminal in which the officer dies. Starks is found guilty of his murder and sent to a mental institution where he receives experimental treatment involving drugs, a straitjacket, and sensory deprivation. During these sessions, he travels in time to 2007 where he meets and begins a relationship with the girl, now a young woman (Keira Knightley). He discovers that not only is the girl's mother due to die in the early 1990s, but so is he. His efforts to discover what will happen to him and to change the future make up the rest of the film.

This is an engaging low-key drama with Brody (whom I can't recall seeing before) putting in a convincing and affecting performance. I do have a small logical niggle: I can accept for the purposes of fiction the concept of someone time-travelling in a mental, non-physical way, or even travelling physically from one time to another, but Starks travels physically to the future while still leaving a physical body in the past, which I found a bit confusing. I understand that the film wasn't a commercial success, but I liked it and think it's well worth seeing.


I recently saw Alien Resurrection for the first time; I saw its three predecessors soon after they were released (Alien in 1979, Aliens in 1986 and Alien 3 in 1992). An 18 year spread from first to last with the same principal character in all of them (Sigourney Weaver as Lt Ellen Ripley) is quite an achievement.

Since Ripley died at the end of Alien 3, for Alien Resurrection she is reconstructed as a clone, 200 years later, from a blood sample she left shortly before her death. At that time she was a host to an alien queen and, in the cloning process, the two sets of DNA became mixed, resulting in Ripley having enhanced strength and speed plus corrosive blood, as well as a mental link to the aliens. The military scientists who clone her aboard a spaceship are primarily interested in extracting the alien queen from her in order to breed the species, but once the queen has grown it predictably escapes. The film then becomes the usual battle for survival aboard the spaceship with Ripley and a dwindling band of survivors trying not just to escape but also to prevent the aliens reaching Earth.

The original film rightly became one of the classics of SF, but this one adds little to it. There are no real surprises this time around, although Weaver dominates the film in a compelling performance as the part-alien Ripley. Worth watching if you enjoyed the others.

Friday 26 August 2011

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold is best known for her excellent Vorkosigan SF series (five of which I have already reviewed on this blog, with several more waiting to be read) but The Curse of Chalion is a classic medieval-with-magic fantasy.

The story is set on an unspecified planet with vague geography (no maps) which seems to be a kind of alternative Earth, judging by the plants and animals described. There are the usual small kingdoms in uneasy juxtaposition, fighting occasional wars in various combinations. Military technology consists of swords and crossbows. The religion has five gods with different roles (although one bunch of heretics only worships four), but while there is occasional evidence that the gods exist, they rarely get involved in human affairs. There isn't even any magic in the usual sense of practitioners casting spells, with one exception: Death Magic. Anyone can learn how to do this, with enough research and determination; it involves calling on one of the gods to send a demon to kill a hated enemy. The only catch is that the person working the magic invariably dies too.

The hero of the story, Cazaril, is a minor lord and former courtier and soldier who has fallen on hard times due to betrayal and subsequent slavery. Penniless, exhausted, and still half-crippled by injury, he makes his way to Valenda, a city in the land of Chalion in whose court he had worked as a young page some twenty years before, in search of some menial job and a place to live. There he meets Iselle, a royesse (princess) of Chalion, and finds himself reluctantly roped in to act as her secretary/tutor. He tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the headstrong young royesse but when the action moves to the royal court in Cardegoss, Cazaril is tested to the limit in his determination to protect Iselle from the political and magical dangers surrounding her.

The setting sounds somewhat unoriginal as similar territory has been marched over countless times by other authors, but Bujold adds her own distinctive style. She is a natural and intelligent story-teller, injecting occasional flashes of wry humour (an element which tends to be sadly lacking in fantasy, in which authors often take their creations much too seriously). Her characterisation is as good as usual and the reader soon comes to care about her characters and what happens to them. There is something of the flavour of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing, but Bujold is less dark and elegiac. After a slowish start the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half of this substantial (500 page) tome in one sitting, late into the night: something which I rarely do.

The Curse of Chalion may appear somewhat formulaic but if you enjoy this kind of story this is about as good as it ever gets.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Films: Unbreakable (2000) , and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

A contrasting pair of superhero movies this week.

This was my first viewing of Unbreakable, which I knew nothing about except that it was a superhero movie. Indeed, this was my first complete viewing of any film by M. Night Shyamalan, so I wasn't sure what to expect. What I saw surprised me: it is indeed a superhero movie, but of a most unusual kind.

Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a security guard, who survives uninjured a train wreck which kills everyone else on board. He is approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who has a genetic brittle bone disorder, and whose passion for superhero comics leads him to believe that Dunn is his opposite - someone who cannot be injured. Dunn refuses to believe this but as he thinks back through his life he realises that he cannot recall ever being injured or even sick. Furthermore, Price forces him to confront the fact that he appears to have an instinct in his work for spotting people who are carrying weapons or otherwise likely to make trouble.

Dunn's life is complicated by his crumbling relationship with his wife (Robin Wright Penn) and the passionate belief of his young son, who is aware of Price's theory. Eventually, he puts the theory to the test, leading to a climax with a dramatic and unexpected twist.

The film is slow-paced, reflective, and notably lacking in the usual chases, explosions, violence (except for one brief scene) and CGI spectaculars. The director's focus is on how an ordinary man copes with the notion of being a superhero, making it a far more adult and thoughtful production than the other superhero movies I've reviewed. The acting throughout is good; even the seemingly obligatory family-problems-with-appealing-kid fit in well and are not objectionable. The ending seemed tailor-made for a sequel, but none has emerged. Recommended.


X-Men: The Last Stand is the third of the franchise. I reviewed its two predecessors here and here .

The new plot element this time is the discovery of a treatment for mutants which permanently suppresses their powers, and the conflicts this re-starts both within the mutant community (which seems to have multiplied dramatically) and between the mutants and humanity. Sadly, this one isn't up to the same standard as the others (I gather that the director changed) with the focus very much on the action rather than the more thoughtful aspects of the earlier films. The whole film basically leads up to the final climactic battle which seems to settle everything, but there was a teaser at the end to suggest that maybe, it might not…

Friday 12 August 2011

Nemesis by Bill Napier

Having read and enthusiastically reviewed Bill Napier's The Lure, I promptly ordered all of his earlier books, of which the first to be published was Nemesis.

The setting is the near future, and the basic plot element a familiar one: a giant asteroid is believed to be on a collision course with Earth. There is a twist here, though - there is intelligence that its course is not accidental but has been modified by a resurgent and strongly nationalist Russian leadership to strike the continental USA, "accidentally" destroying the country without incurring the immediate response of a nuclear counter-strike. The problem is that no-one in the USA knows which asteroid has been selected, where it is, or when it might strike.

Oliver Webb, a British astronomer and astrophysicist, is one of a small international team assembled by the US government to work in secrecy to identify and locate the asteroid and devise a plan for diverting it from its course. The secrecy is necessary because of a fear that if the Russians found out that their plan had been discovered, they might launch a nuclear first strike for fear that the USA would do the same. Strong voices on the US side, alarmed by the possibility that the asteroid could arrive with little or no warning, are indeed urging a first strike by the USA while it is still possible.

Against this tense background, Webb and the rest of the team are in a race against time, which involves locating a rare and ancient book by an early Italian astronomer which is believed to hold information vital to identifying the asteroid. Scenes of their struggle against increasing odds are interwoven with those of political infighting in the US government and also with some from the past, in which the Italian astronomer faces trial for his heretical beliefs about the nature of the Solar System. As in The Lure, the arguments debated in these scenes are well thought through and convincing.

Arthur C. Clarke is quoted on the cover as having described Nemesis as "The most exciting book I have ever read". I wouldn't go quite that far, but it is certainly a page-turner and I can understand Clarke's enthusiasm since Napier, a professional astronomer, share's Clarke's interest in including a lot of accurate and realistic astronomical science. He also shares Clarke's rather weak development of his characters. The book is a very good read and while the writing has some rough edges, it is a remarkable achievement for a first novel. Not surprisingly, it is not quite as good as The Lure, mainly because the plot elements (not the asteroid but the human shenanigans) are rather more far-fetched, but it can still be confidently recommended to anyone who enjoys this kind of near-future science thriller.
I had heard good things about Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, published in 2009, so I bought a copy and settled down to enjoy the read. The story starts in a confusing future, when it is clear that something has gone drastically wrong with Earth; what is left of humanity survives in the Livable Zone. The first chapter concerns a team of people dealing with an unexpected emergency, but the reader is left dangling as to what this might be as the second chapter jumps back in time to the early childhood of two of the team members - the book's main protagonists - at a time when the world was much as it is now. Most of the rest of the book then works its way forwards to the events of the first chapter.

There’s some memorable writing but much of the book consists of digressive sub-plots rambling around all over the place. Some of them are amusing set-pieces but they turn the story into a patchwork quilt which only occasionally remembers that it's supposed to lead somewhere. I wanted to like this story and stuck with it for more than half the book, but finally admitted defeat and stopped reading when I realised that I was becoming more and more reluctant to pick it up and wasn't interested in discovering the ending.

I can see, in an objective sort of way, why the book attracted some enthusiastic reviews, but it simply failed to grip me. Which just demonstrates (if it needs demonstrating) that every book ever published has some readers who love it and some who don't.

Friday 5 August 2011

Films: Tron (1982) and Tron Legacy (2010)

I saw Tron once before, but so long ago that I had forgotten all but the basic premise of a man stuck in a computer game. So I decided that a second viewing was due before watching the long-delayed sequel.

It's hard to think back over the changes in the digital world since Tron was made. According to Wiki, 1982 was the year when "the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) was standardized and the concept of a world-wide network of fully interconnected TCP/IP networks called the Internet was introduced", although the impact of the internet on popular culture was still more than a decade away. This was the first film to be mostly based on computer-generated visuals, and it made quite an impact when it first appeared. It even predated Neuromancer, the innovative novel imagining what it might be like for a human mind in a computer network. So it has a secure place - indeed a cult status - in the history of SF films: but how does it stand up now?

The film focuses on four characters who are present in both the real and digital worlds: Jeff Bridges plays the computer games designer Kevin Flynn (and also his virtual equivalent, an independent programme called Clu), cheated out of his successful inventions by the head of software company ENCOM, (David Warner). The others are two ENCOM employees (Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan) who help Bridges to break into the company's mainframe to find evidence of Warner's guilt. However, the mainframe has literally developed a mind of its own, the MCP (Master Control Program) which is able to "capture" Bridges and trap him in a virtual game world. Most of the film consists of the three heroes battling their way through the game world to achieve their objective.

The plot is simplistic and the CGI is of course primitive, but I didn't mind that - it was appropriate for the purpose and impressive for the time. Ironically, what struck me more was that the initial part of the film, set in the real world, had a rather dated feel. Also, while the digital background music was fine, the inclusion of the more traditional orchestral elements jarred somewhat. Despite this, I enjoyed seeing it again - it is still entertaining and worth watching if you've never seen it.

Tron Legacy also features Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, reprising their roles. Bridges again has two parts, as an enhanced CLU (who has not aged, thanks to some CGI trickery), and as Kevin Flynn, who has spent the last twenty years trapped in "The Grid", the name for the virtual game world he created. The focus now is on Flynn's adult son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) who follows a trail in search of his long-lost father and also finds himself trapped in the Grid. Cue for many reprises of the virtual chases and combat scenes, as father and son try to escape. To reveal more of the plot would spoil a few surprises, so I'll restrict myself to generalities.

The CGI is of course vastly superior to the original film although the same general appearance of the virtual world is maintained, with some added touches reminiscent of the Matrix series. The artificially youthful Bridges is a clever idea but not entirely convincing - if you didn't know what had been done, you would think he was wearing really thick make-up. Some questions from the original film remain unanswered: what exactly is the nature of the humans trapped in the Grid? What happened to their physical bodies when they were "scanned" into the Grid, and how were they reconstituted when they came back out again? If they are virtual, why did Sam Flynn "bleed" when injured and why should Kevin Flynn age? These little niggles kept bothering me as I watched the film.

Overall, Tron Legacy doesn't really take the ideas of Tron much further, and it is of course nothing like as fresh and ground-breaking. It isn't in the same league as The Matrix. However, it's undemanding entertainment and anyone who liked the original and is able to park their critical faculties and enjoy the ride will probably like the sequel.

Friday 29 July 2011

Interzone 235

A blast from the past in David Langford's Ansible Link column in the July/August issue of this magazine: at the British Library's current Out of This World SF exhibition (note - it runs until 25 September) he met 93-year-old Charles Chilton. I well remember listening to his exciting Journey into Space radio drama series in the 1950s - probably my first introduction to SF - and I still have an ancient copy of his novel The World in Peril on my shelf. I see from Wiki (which has a very informative entry) that Journey into Space was the last radio programme in the UK to attract a bigger audience than television and was translated into seventeen languages. It is apparantly available on CD and internet download. It will have very little merit by modern SF standards but the sheer nostalgia value is huge!

There are the usual reviews of recent films, TV series and books, plus a classical SF cover by Richard Wagner, with flying saucers over a crop field, and shadowy figures in the foreground. Five stories this month, averaging longer than usual.

Insha'Allah by Matthew Cooke, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A female doctor-turned-body-washer on a fundamentalist Muslim world is faced with treating a crashed female spaceship pilot, fallen from a battle for the planet raging overhead. A most unusual story which sticks in the mind.

For Love's Delirium Haunts the Fractured Mind by Mercurio D. Rivera, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. Another story in the Wergen universe, in which aliens who are vastly more technologically advanced than humans find themselves irrestibly in love with humanity. A strange concept, and I'm not sure how far it's worth taking it.

The Walrus and the Icebreaker by Jon Wallace, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A desperate fight to discover oil in the Arctic while civilisation slowly collapses calls for desperate measures - including by a scientist with a walrus trained to carry a bomb.

Eleven Minutes by Gareth L. Powell. A brief, amusing tale of the surprise awaiting US scientists as the first pictures arrive from a rover newly landed on Mars.

Of Dawn by Al Robertson, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A young female violinist goes in search of what motivated her dead brother's bizarre poetry, following clues to a village abandoned since World War 2 when it was incorporated into an army training area. Strange visions and music feature in a story strongly reminiscent of Robert Holdstock.

Some high-quality stories this time, but my favourite has to be Al Robertson's. Although I am mainly an SF fan, there is something haunting about this story (and Holdstock's work) which appeals to me.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Bloody War by Terry Grimwood

Peter Allman recovers after an illness to discover that he has lost all memory of the previous eighteen months, and that Britain has changed dramatically in that period. The country is now at war with unspecified Enemies of Democracy, who are systematically bombing cities. Civil liberties including freedom of speech and travel have been drastically curtailed, the news media are tightly controlled, the internet has been switched off, and the police are supplemented by the sinister SSU. All teenagers are conscripted on their eighteenth birthdays - a date his son is due to reach shortly.

Allman is angered and baffled by all of this, but his attempts to find out exactly what is going on are met by a wall of silence, prompted by fear. Those who speak out of turn are liable to disappear, never to be heard of again. He contacts a former friend, a wounded Veteran of the fighting, and is given some hints that the situation is not as portrayed. His struggles against authority and efforts to escape from a walled-in London to a promised safe haven form the plot of the novel.

The plot summary on the book's cover draws comparisons with Orwell's 1984 and there are certainly some echoes of this, although Bloody War is much more action-focused and brutal. As a worst-case warning of how trends in society might develop it is less convincing because of the plot structure. The author has set the story in the present day, which is a good way to enable the reader to relate easily to what is happening, but the changes in society he portrays are so sudden and extreme as to stretch the credulity of this reviewer much too far. Orwell avoided this problem by setting his novel thirty-six years into his future. On a point of detail, the closing scene didn't work for me as I found it incompatible with the first-person viewpoint.

Despite these criticisms the book makes compelling, if very grim, reading - I read the last three-quarters in one session.

Bloody War was published in 2011 by the Eibonvale Press

Saturday 16 July 2011

Kéthani by Eric Brown

The time is the present day. Thousands of mysterious glass-like skyscrapers suddenly appear in rural locations all over the world, and a message is sent to world leaders by the aliens who planted them: an offer to fit implants to humans which permit them to be restored after death. Their bodies are delivered to the skyscrapers - Onward Stations - and transmitted in beams of light to an orbiting starship. This takes them to the aliens' home planet - Kéthan - from which, months later, they return in good health, without any previous disabilities; and quite a lot younger if they had been elderly when they died. They can then choose to stay on Earth as "returnees" or accept the aliens' invitation to travel to other worlds to help them with their great civilising mission.

Not surprisingly, this initially results in great suspicion and condemnation from some quarters, especially the world's religions. However, the first returnees prove to be not just as good as new but better; their restoration includes a form of education which turns them into more thoughtful and considerate people, with the usual human personality imperfections smoothed away. As a result, implant wearing becomes the norm, and those who reject it are increasingly regarded as strange.

Kéthani is all about the impact which these developments have on individuals and their attitude to life and death. The focus is on a small group of friends (who gradually change as some drop out and others are added) who regularly meet in a pub in a small Yorkshire village close to one of the Onward Stations. The narrator of the story, one of the group, explains at the start that, many years after the events, he has asked each of his friends to write down their recollections of how they perceived them at the time. The novel is made up of a series of interlinked accounts, with occasional explanatory sections by the narrator, stretching from the time of the aliens' arrival to many years later. They are therefore nearly all written in the first person, only with the viewpoint changing with each chapter (which occasionally requires a small degree of concentration to keep in mind whose viewpoint it is this time).

On the face of it this doesn't sound too promising; there is inevitably some loss of the kind of pace and tension which a good straight-line thriller can provide. However, this is more than compensated for by the way in which we get to know the characters, seeing them from different viewpoints as their lives gradually change over the years. We also see the a wide range of issues and events taking place within the group; couples parting and joining, some dying and some returning. It all adds up to an intriguing picture of the multifarious consequences of the alien intervention.

Much of the book previously appeared in short stories, and this does lead to some discontinuities. For instance, in one episode there is an intervention by a different alien race who are opposed to the Kéthani - but that is the last we hear of them. One obvious consequence of the resurrection process is also left unexplored: what happens to a relationship when one of an elderly couple dies, and returns much younger? A recurring theme later in the book is the gradual depopulation of the Earth as an increasing number of returnees opt to spend their lives on other worlds, but it isn't clear why this should be so. After all, in our pre-Kéthani world they would all have died anyway, yet the world's population continues to rise today since births outnumber deaths; logically, within the twenty-year span of the story, the resurrection process should actually lead to a further increase in population by whatever percentage of the returnees elects to stay on Earth, unless something drastic happens to the birth and/or death rates; but there is no indication of this (at least, not until the end of the book).

Despite these quibbles, this unusual story is an interestingly different take on the well-worn "the aliens have landed" plot.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Films: Mission to Mars (2000), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Mission to Mars had somehow avoided appearing on my radar until I spotted it on the TV schedules recently, so I thought it might be worth a look. The plot is straightforward (spoiler warning!): a manned mission to Mars goes wrong when some mysterious power kills three of the four astronauts on the surface, and evidence of alien intelligence appears. A rescue mission is duly launched in order to recover the survivor and discover what happened, leading to a suitably dramatic and revelatory conclusion.

The start, at a party for those leaving on the first mission, is not too promising; it features the usual emotional scenes complete with cute kid (a standard Hollywood cliche) before skipping several months to when the mission is securely based on Mars. The interest level then begins to rise with the disaster to the first mission and the launch of the second, from which point it becomes sufficiently involving to hold the attention to the end. Having said that, there are no great surprises and it's generally possible to predict what's going to happen next. Worst of all is the really corny dialogue: on several occasions I was able to predict precisely what the next speaker was going to say, word for word.

It isn't a bad film and is just about worth watching, but Mission to Mars has a very old-fashioned air and (CGI apart) feels as if it could have been made several decades earlier.


As regular readers of this blog may recall, I am not a particular fan of the Harry Potter series; I have only read the first of the books. However, I have seen all of the films so I naturally had to see the penultimate one.

I obviously don't know if this also applies to the books, but the nature of the films has evolved quite strikingly. The first ones were fun if rather silly. They improved in the middle of the series and became rather good, before becoming increasingly dark and grim. This trajectory is continued in this offering, which is very dark indeed in all respects; the picture on the TV screen was so dim that I had to draw the curtains to darken the room in order to see what was happening.

If you haven't seen any of the earlier films this is most definitely not the place to begin. As with the previous episode, the screenplay assumes that viewers know everything that has happened beforehand and plunges straight into the action without even the vaguest attempt at an explanatory backstory. That had me scratching my head to try to recall what had happened in the last film, which I saw well over a year ago. Also like the previous episode, there is no attempt at a conclusion; the film stops abruptly in mid-story. In between, what happens is basically a horror film; a series of grim setbacks and disasters affecting the usual trio of heroes, ameliorated only a little by an occasional success.

I concluded my review of the previous Potter film with these words: "Despite these criticisms this is a reasonably entertaining film, but it is perhaps the least successful of the series in dramatic terms." The Deathly Hallows Part 1 does not merit even such lukewarm praise in my judgment; it is not enjoyable, and is definitely the least successful to date. As far as I'm concerned, the final episode is going to have to up its game considerably to recover the reputation of the series. As it has just been released, no doubt I will discover that in due course.

Friday 1 July 2011

A World Out Of Time by Larry Niven

A treat for Niven fans - two helpings in consecutive weeks! It's a long time since I read this 1976 book and I had forgotten what it was about, so when several members of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group said they were reading it I decided to join in.

Set in a different and grimmer future from his famous Known Space milieu, A World Out Of Time starts with the reawakening after 200 years of a "corpsicle" - a terminally ill man who had voluntarily been frozen in 1970 in the hope that a cure for his cancer would be found later. Only he hasn't awakened in his own body - ironically, while his cancer was now curable, the cell damage caused by the freezing process was not - but has had his personality and memories reconstituted in the body of a young criminal whose own personality had been wiped from his brain as a punishment.

The man (called Jerome Branch Corbell - a reference to the cult fantasy writer James Branch Cabell?) soon discovers that his survival hangs by a thread. If he does not demonstrate his usefulness, he will also be wiped from his host body and replaced by another corpsicle: the planet-wide State is ruthlessly utilitarian. He tests favourably for the post of a rammer - a Bussard ramjet pilot - and is duly dispatched on a solo mission to seed promising planets with the elements of Earth-like life. He has his own agenda, however, and decides to visit the galactic core.

I can't say much more about the plot without spoilers, so at this stage I'll just say that the novel is vintage Niven and I really enjoyed reading it again. If you want to find out about it for yourself then stop reading NOW!


Corbell's journey is plagued by a downloaded version of Peersa, his new "mentor", in his computer, constantly nagging him to do what the State wants. Corbell remains in control, however, and decides to circle the huge Black Hole in the galactic core before returning to earth. Due to a time-dilation effect three million years have passed for the Earth, but only a small fraction of that for Corbell. Nonetheless, even spending most of the time in cold-sleep, Corbell is an old man before his journey is over.

What he then discovers is a Solar System drastically changed. The Sun is bloated and very hot, and the Earth has been moved into orbit around Jupiter. On landing, Corbell discovers the remnants of a strange civilisation ruled by immortal Boys, whose immortality is achieved by freezing their physical development before puberty. There are also some adult humans kept as breeding stock, and one other traveller who captures Corbell - an old woman who is desperate to find the secret of an earlier form of immortality. The race is on to evade the Boys and find the ancient immortality secret.

This is a fast-paced thriller packed with interesting ideas, typical of the author in this period. Also typical is that the characterisation is not strong, but it's good enough to carry the story. I like the casual way in which Niven introduces unusual elements in the background, for example the way in which people paid little attention to hygiene in the crowded future world, washing and deodorants apparently having gone out of fashion. I remain dubious, however, that anything resembling humanity will still be around in three million years: I suspect that we will either have become extinct or evolved ourselves into something entirely different by then.

To sum up, a novel which all Niven fans will enjoy, and it can also be recommended to readers new to SF who want a fast, entertaining read, as it will painlessly stretch their imaginations .

Friday 24 June 2011

Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

I loved Larry Niven's Known Space series when I first encountered the stories in the late 1960s, and the jewel in that crown - Ringworld - remains one of my favourite SF novels. I thoroughly enjoyed a re-read a few years ago. It's been a long time since I read a new one, though, and I approached Fleet of Worlds with some trepidation. Not only because of the length of time since the concept was fresh but also because this one (first published 2007) was written in partnership with another author. In my experience, sequels of much-loved books written in these circumstances are generally not worth bothering with. Fortunately, this one proved to be better than I feared. However, prospective readers should read Ringworld and preferably some of the earlier Known Space stories first, otherwise they will miss a lot of the references.

The story is set 200 years before Ringworld but the prologue takes place 500 years earlier still, on a human sub-light speed starship with a cargo of thousands of embryos on its way to colonise a planet of a distant sun - a voyage which is abruptly interrupted. The setting then jumps forward 500 years to the Puppeteers' cluster of Home Worlds in their long flight from the supernova explosion in the galactic core (as described in Ringworld). But the Puppeteers are not the only inhabitants of their worlds - one of them contains a large colony of humans who work for them. It becomes apparent that the humans are the descendents of the colonists in the starship. The Puppeteers had taught them English but, anxious to keep the location of their Home Worlds a secret from any potential threat, had preventing them from discovering anything about their origins or the location of Earth.

The plot concerns the efforts of some of the humans to outwit the Puppeteers and discover their origins, mixed with internal politics of the Puppeteers (in which the character of Nessus, familiar from Ringworld, has a starring role). There is also some Puppeteer meddling with affairs on Earth, where they are already known for selling the invulnerable General Products spaceship hulls. The paranoid Puppeteers are desperate to prevent their tame humans and the Earth humans from finding out about each other, for fear of the reactions on both sides. They are prepared to go to any lengths to preserve their security, revealing a darker side to their engaging personalities.

Inevitably, the story lacks the freshness and originality - and the sheer sense of fun - of Ringworld and the other original Known Space books and it took me a while to get into it, but I became increasingly engaged as I read on. Not a ground-breaker, but worth the read. I note that there have been three sequels: Juggler of Worlds published in 2008, Destroyer of Worlds in 2009, and Betrayer of Worlds in 2010. I'm not going to be buying all of these in one go, but I think I'll try the next one to see how the series develops.