Friday 29 April 2011

Golden Sunlands by Christopher Rowley

I first read Golden Sunlands soon after it was first published in 1987 and enjoyed it enough to keep on my shelves, so I recently decided it was time to enjoy it again.

The time is the distant future, with humanity spread across many star systems. On the remote and rather primitive world of Calabel, the human inhabitants are going about their affairs when they are suddenly scooped up by robots emerging from a fleet of spaceships. These return to a huge mother ship which spirits the entire population of the planet to an artificial universe in which a vast number of red dwarf stars are arranged in a symmetrical pattern, each providing light and warmth to its own flat discworld with a surface area millions of times larger than a planet. These are the golden sunlands of the title.

The humans gradually discover that the humanoid Golden Iulliin, the ruling race who created the universe aeons ago, while still very much present have lost their knowledge of the technology and in some cases reverted to a medieval level of existence, with ancient ruins scattered about the sunlands. So far the setting is reminiscent of Niven's Ringworld but on a much larger scale, and indeed anyone who likes Ringworld would probably enjoy this. Events soon take a different course, however. The iulliin are still obeyed by their slave races; the ferocious yashi, reptilian dagbabi and the siffile - their name for humans. For the inhabitants of Calabel were not the first to be captured; another human world had been similarly emptied millennia before and their descendents were still around.

Almost all of the humans find themselves rapidly processed and brainwashed to become soldiers in an endless war between two of the sunlands. A handful manage to escape in one of the smaller spacecraft and land on a different sunland, where they are captured by primitive iulliin and threatened with ritual sacrifice. The two groups face a wide variety of adventures and problems in dealing with their equally threatening situations while trying to understand the nature of the universe they have arrived in.

Although I have to admit that I wasn't quite so impressed on this reading, it is still an enjoyable ride through a fascinating invented universe with some very varied and credible characters (human and iulliin). However, there is one major drawback which I had forgotten - it ends mid-flow, with most of the issues unresolved. As far as I can tell in a web search, no sequel was ever published. This is a pity, since I would love to see where the author was planning to take this story and would certainly buy a sequel. He is still writing, but appears to have switched to fantasy rather than SF.

Friday 22 April 2011

Three Chapbooks from Nightjar Press

I have to admit that before receiving these three publications I had only a vague idea of what a "chapbook" might be (and that was rather inaccurate). For those as much in the dark as I was, the summary from Wikipedia might be useful:

"The term chap-book was formalized by bibliophiles of the 19th century, as a variety of ephemera (disposable printed material), popular or folk literature. It includes many kinds of printed material such as pamphlets, political and religious tracts, nursery rhymes, poetry, folk tales, children's literature and almanacs. Where there were illustrations, they would be popular prints. The term is derived from chapmen, a variety of peddler, who circulated such literature as part of their stock. The term is also in use for present-day publications, usually poetry, of up to about 40 pages, ranging from low-cost productions to expensive, finely produced editions."

Nightjar Press specialises in the publication of limited-edition modern chapbooks, each containing one short story from the fantasy or related genres. All three of the ones I received are very short (the text of the actual stories occupying between 7 and 15 pages) but are well produced on high quality paper with card covers adorned by purpose-designed colour images. They can be obtained direct from the publishers (details on their website).

A Revelation of Cormorants by Mark Valentine: a writer engaged in producing a book about the folklore associated with birds rents a cottage on a remote coast and becomes dangerously fascinated by the cormorants.

Field by Tom Fletcher: a Forestry Commission warden sets out to evict some illegal campers but finds that the situation is not what it seemed and is becoming steadily stranger.

Lexicon by Christopher Burns: related from the viewpoint of an enigmatic man who invites women to his remote house for a purpose with origins in Greek mythology.

All three are well-written, high-quality stories. I am not quite sure where they would fit into most people's book-buying patterns, though, since anthologies or magazines provide a wider choice at less cost. I suspect that given their limited publication run these are aimed at collectors as much as readers.

Friday 15 April 2011

Film: I, Robot (2004)

It's more than four decades since I read Asimov's robot stories and I have forgotten everything about them (except for the three laws of robotics, of course). So I approached this film with an open mind and no expectations; probably just as well, since I noted the comment afterwards that I, Robot was "inspired by" Asimov's stories, rather than directly based on them.

The film is set in Chicago in 2035, with large numbers of humanoid robots being used throughout society. They are all produced by U.S. Robotics (USR) which also maintains a supercomputer (VIKI: Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) which is able to communicate with, and change the programming of, the latest and most sophisticated generation of robots, designated NS-5. There is no public concern over the robots as their behaviour is governed by the three laws of robotics: that robots must not harm a human being; that robots must obey humans unless this conflicts with the first law; and that robots must preserve themselves unless this conflicts with the first two laws.

Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a detective with a deep mistrust of robots due to an accident which almost cost him his life. He is called to the apparent suicide of Alfred Lanning, the chief scientist of USR and the man who had restored Spooner using prosthetics. Lanning had left behind a trail of clues concerning his death in the form of appearances via a holographic projector. Spooner investigates his death with the reluctant assistance of Dr Susan Calvin, a "robopsychologist" working for USR (Bridget Moynahan), and he soon suspects one of the new NS-5 robots found at the scene. This robot, which calls itself Sonny, exhibits unexpectedly human characteristics, including emotions, and Calvin discovers that it has an additional brain making it possible for the robot to override the three laws.

Meanwhile, Spooner finds himself under threat from various types of USR robots, being attacked several times. His suspicions focus on the CEO of USR, who tries to thwart his investigations for fear that they would interfere with the planned major roll-out of NS-5 robots. The pace ramps up as Spooner and Calvin try to stop impending disaster.

This is principally an action movie but it also raises what will become genuine issues concerning the relationships between humanity and artificial intelligences as computers increase in sophistication. As such, it is more realistic than most SF films as the basic premise that such sophisticated AIs might exist by 2035 seems not impossible, given current progress. It isn't one of the great SF films (the plot is too routine for that) but is better than most, despite a rather puzzling and apparently inconsistent ending. Overall, a good thriller with Smith and Moynahan putting in effective performances.

Friday 8 April 2011

Interzone 233

The March-April 2011 issue of the British SFF magazine hit my doormat recently. The review section is as informative as ever, this time featuring an interview by Jim Steel of Paolo Bacigalupi, whose first novel The Windup Girl has been steadily collecting awards. The review of the novel which accompanied this left me somewhat unconvinced as to whether I would read it, though - I have no enthusiasm for future dystopias, they seem all too likely to happen. Among the other book reviews, The Hammer by K.J. Parker caught my eye. I've not read any of her books, but the description of her writing in general and this work in particular is enough to put it on my (long) shopping list.

The film and DVD releases section also had me reaching for my notepad. Too soon for the failed but intriguing BBC TV serial Outcasts to feature here (the reviewers wait until the DVDs are on sale), but the film Skyline sounds promising, as does a DVD release of a 2002 British film, The Gathering. The film Never Let Me Go has generated a lot of publicity but the plot summary doesn't appeal to me.

There are only four instead of the usual six short stories this time, since the first one is a novella by Nina Allen, accompanied by a column describing her impressively varied work.

The Silver Wind, by Nina Allen (illustrated by Ben Baldwin). A future in which Britain has elected a right-wing government, resulting in the formation of a police state and the ejection of all non-whites from the country. This is the kind of depressing scenario which doesn't appeal to me and usually sets up a "brave defiance by principled hero" plot, but this author handles it in a more subtle and intriguing fashion. She focuses on a conformist property agent who doesn't question the status quo (it all happened long ago) but who becomes fascinated by the history of a clock made by a talented dwarf, Owen Andrews. He manages to locate and visit Andrews in a remote part of London, separated by a new and dangerously inhabited forest from the main city, and learns of experiments concerning time which are taking place in an old hospital nearby, and their sometimes horrific results. He is captured after becoming lost in the forest and is taken to the hospital, where he finds that there is an alternative to the existing paradigm. An engaging story.

Tell Me Everything by Chris Butler. An alternative Earth in which everyone constantly emits clouds of spores which can be detected by other people nearby and allows them to assess each other's status and mood; effectively not unlike telepathy. A police detective trying to solve a difficult case finds a use for a man suffering from a rare affliction: he emits no spores at all.

Tethered to the Cold and Dying by Ray Cluley (illustrated by Paul Drummond). Two survivors on an almost deserted station on a frozen world are surprised by the arrival of a stranger with a story to tell. This prompts one of them to go on a cross-country hike to find the space elevator which is said to be still functioning, in an attempt to escape their isolation.

Crosstown Traffic by Tim Lees (illustrated by Russell Morgan). Various different alien races live alongside humans on Earth. The story features a young human employed by an alien to to take a valuable package across town; one which attracts a great deal of attention on the way, with a surprising outcome.

Nina Allen's story is certainly the stand-out one from this group, I enjoyed her fantastical take on an unpromising scenario.

Friday 1 April 2011

The Lure by Bill Napier

The Lure was first published in 2002, and is Bill Napier's fourth novel. The time is the present and the action starts in a vast underground lake beneath Slovakia's Tatra mountains. This has been comprehensively instrumented for an Anglo-Soviet research project aimed at detecting traces of the elusive Dark Matter particles passing through it. After several years of zero results, the three scientists who are monitoring the project are astonished when the lake is suddenly swamped by an intense storm of particles, then even more amazed when they detect what appears to be a coherent pattern in the storm. To help analyze this phenomenon they recruit two more specialists who confirm that the pattern is real, can only be the product of an advanced intelligence and contains hugely valuable scientific information: it is a message from the stars, aimed at humanity.

The scientists are ready to announce their momentous discovery to the world, but their national leaders are becoming anxious. What if the message is a lure by some malign intelligence, designed to prompt a response which would lead to the annihilation of any species which might be able to threaten the message-senders? The scientists slowly realise that not only is their announcement being blocked but their lives are in danger.

The US government discovers what is happening, and some of the most intriguing passages are the intense debates at the highest level concerning how to react: whether to make a public announcement of the event and respond to the message; or to make use of the information without responding; or to kill the whole story and everyone involved with it in order to prevent anyone responding. Being the USA, religion gets involved but so do some interesting arguments concerning the probability of an advanced civilisation being hostile or friendly. Interleaved with these chapters are gripping scenes of a relentless manhunt across a winter landscape as the scientists desperately try to survive and get their message out.

The book's cover draws a comparison with The Da Vinci Code but this does it a great disservice. The author is a professional astronomer, and it shows: the technical aspects of the plot are authoritative and the debates thoroughly convincing. The conclusion concerning the nature and purpose of the message is fascinating. At first I thought the writing style a little clunky but before long was thoroughly engrossed in the story. The tension ramps up steadily and I read the second half in one sitting - I really couldn't put it down.

Interestingly, the book is not marketed as SF but simply as a "thriller". Possibly this is because the emphasis of the story is not on the aliens and their message but on the human response to receiving it. Frankly, I don't care what they call it; it is one of the most thoughtful, realistic and exciting first contact novels I've ever read. I can't recommend it too highly, and my next task is to track down copies of the author's other books.