Friday 27 May 2011

Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro

This is the first novel set in Asaro's award-winning and continuing Skolian Empire series. I posted a general review of the series on this blog in July 2007 and a review of another of the novels, The Ruby Dice, in May 2010. I went into some detail concerning the background to the series in my 2007 review, so I recommend that this be read now before continuing with this review (scroll down to a linked index to all of my novel reviews in the left hand column).

I have just re-read Primary Inversion for the first time since it was published in 1995 as it is one of the monthly reads for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. It features a few critical months in the life of Sauscony (Soz) Valdoria, a formidable heroine who is one of the rare Rhon psions on which the Skol-Net (the Skolian Empire's unique instantaneous communications network) depends and is also a Jagernaut Primary - a surgically enhanced warrior with a rank equivalent to a fleet admiral. She is also the half-sister of the Skolian Imperator, Kurj, and his potential heir.

The author includes a lot of infodumps in the first few chapters to bring readers up to speed with the background setting, in the form of explanations by the main characters to others. This could be tedious but is handled well, being broken down into manageable chunks and interspersed with a lot of action, including a ferocious space battle.

The story begins with Soz on leave with her Jagernaut team on a neutral planet where they meet a group from the Eubian Concorde, the deadly enemies of the Skolian Empire. The man they are guarding (Jaibriol) is a Highton, the highest caste of the sadistic Eubian Aristos, and Soz discovers two things about him; he is the previously unknown heir to the Eubian Emporer, and his appearance is a sham - he has been selectively bred and genetically engineered to be a Rhon psion with the aim of defeating Skolia by taking over the Skol-Net. He has lived a protected life and is unaware of his intended role or of the true nature of the Aristos, and the mutual attraction between Jaibriol and Soz is immediate and powerful.

Soz has her own psychological problems dating back ten years to when she was briefly captured by the Eubians and used as a "provider"; someone who was tortured for an Aristo's pleasure. Her struggles to maintain her sanity, outwit the cold and calculating Kurj and resolve her relationship with Jaibriol - who by rights should be her deadliest enemy - take up most of the book.

Primary Inversion is an exciting thriller on its own and also acts as a scene-setter for the rest of the series. Many of the characters we meet here - including Kurj and Soz's parents - plus some who are only mentioned, feature much more strongly in subsequent novels. I will conclude my review with the same words I used at the end of my 2007 series review:

"This is a very good modern version of the traditional space-opera, and recommended to anyone who enjoys this sub-genre."

Friday 20 May 2011

Restoree by Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey is of course most famous for writing the award-winning Dragonflight (first published as a novel in 1968) and the long series of sequels which followed it, although she has also written or co-authored several other series. I reviewed Dragonflight on this blog in February 2009 and enjoyed it just as much then as I first had when reading it in 1970 - it is one of the great classics of SFF.

Restoree is that rare thing for this author, a stand-alone novel with no sequels. It appeared in 1967 and was her first complete novel to be published. I still have my 1970 copy on my shelf and recalled enjoying it so I proposed it as one of the monthly reads for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

The story focuses on Sara, a capable but physically unattractive young woman who is suddenly snatched from Central Park in New York after glimpsing a vast aircraft looming overhead. What follows is so traumatic that it causes her to go into deep shock, from which she slowly recovers with only a general memory of unimaginable agony and horror. She finds herself in an isolated medical clinic, acting as a sort of robotic nurse to a man who is being kept drugged. She gradually realises that she is on an alien planet called Lothar, inhabited by humans. She has been taught enough of the language to follow simple instructions but, like the rest of the nurses, is regarded as a moron. What shocks her more than anything is that her appearance has been transformed - she is now beautiful.

She conceals her recovery and discovers that the man she is looking after, Harlan, is the Regent of the planet. She becomes convinced that those running the clinic are evil, so she surreptitiously sabotages the administration of Harlan's drugs and helps him to escape. The rest of the novel is concerned with countering a political plot to seize control of the government and also with facing up to the deadly threat of the Mil - a spacefaring alien race with a taste for flesh who had hunted the people of Lothar for millennia and who were also responsible for abducting Sara from Earth. During the course of all this, Harlan and Sara fall in love but there are complications, since the Lotharians have a visceral loathing for any captive of the Mil who has been physically restored to health - and Sara is a restoree.

This is a generally straightforward, fast-paced adventure story but it has its darker aspects, especially the ambigious figure of Monsorlit, the surgeon who knows Sara's secret and keeps reappearing to threaten her. Some US readers may be put off by the fact that the novel seems to have been marketed in that country as a romance (with an appropriately embarrassing cover), but although the developing relationship between Sara and Harlan runs through the story, it is generally dealt with in an amusing way with few slushy moments. Sara is a resourceful and likeable heroine who proves well able to look after herself: in fact, the story was apparently motivated by the author's irritation about the subservient way in which women were usually portrayed in SF.

I enjoyed reading the story again after forty years but I have to admit that was in large part down to nostalgia as there are some issues with the background setting and general credibility by current standards; most obviously, how Lothar came to be populated by humans is blithely ignored. In mitigation, the story is told in the first person by Sara so we get her subjective viewpoint and, given the constant stress she was under, she had other things to think about. It is also worth recalling that this was written at much the same time as the original Star Trek TV series, in which many planets turned out to be inhabited by humans who thought and acted much as we do!

This is a lightweight tale not in the same league as Dragonflight, but it is still an enjoyable story if you can suspend disbelief sufficiently to overlook the flaws.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Film: Moon (2009)

I had heard good things about this award-winning low-budget British SF film and also about the director and co-author Duncan Jones, whose debut film this was, so I sat down to watch it with some anticipation.

Moon has a claustrophic little plot, focusing on one man (Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell) who is nearing the end of a solitary three-year stint as maintenance man at a mining base on the far side of the Moon. A faulty satellite means that direct communications with Earth are impossible, with recorded messages sent via Jupiter being the only contact with his wife and young child. His only companion is GERTY the computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey). The beginning of the film, with Sam exercising on a machine and talking to GERTY, is reminiscent of 2001. At first it seems strange that one man should be left in isolation for so long, but the reason becomes apparent as the plot is gradually revealed.

After an accident while out on the surface trying to service one of the mining machines, Sam wakes up back in the Moon base, very weak, and spends some time recovering. He decides to ignore GERTY's instruction that he must not leave the base and goes outside to try to correct the problem with the mining machine. What he discovers there gives him a devastating shock which causes him to completely re-evaluate the nature of his life and precipitates a series of events which lead him to plan to return to Earth in secret.

I can't reveal more of the plot without spoiling the surprise for new viewers, which I would not want to do. If you haven't seen it yet, then arrange to do so and be careful to avoid reading the Wiki plot summary or any other spoilers, because this film is a little gem, albeit a rather dark one.

What I like most about the film is the intelligence of the script and the pared-down low-key nature of the plot. There is no showiness here, no hyped-up action, no spelled-out explanations for lazy viewers; we are left to observe and work out what is going on at the same time as Sam does.

Duncan Jones' style has been likened to that of another acclaimed writer/director, Christopher Nolan (Prestige, Memento, Inception and recent Batman movies) and I can see why. Jones has directed another film, Source Code, released this year, which is now at the top of my "must see" list. With two intelligent writer/directors producing such thoughtful and thought-provoking movies, the SF film scene is looking healthier than it has for some time.

Friday 6 May 2011

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse came to fame in 2006 with the prize-winning international best-seller Labyrinth. I read that and enjoyed it; like so many doorstop novels of the time concerning complex historical mysteries involving religion and with a dash of added fantasy, it was compared with The Da Vinci Code, and as usual this did it no favours because Mosse's book was much better researched and written.

She has published a few other books but I hadn't read any of them until The Winter Ghosts, first published in 2009. She returns to the subject which she covered so intensively in Labyrinth: the persecution of the heretical Cathars in medieval Languedoc, in south-west France (where the author has a home). The structure is that of stories within stories. The first story begins in 1933 with an Englishman, Frederick Watson, visiting an antiques dealer in Toulouse in order to obtain a translation of an old document written in Occitan - the ancient language of that part of France. To explain his interest he tells the dealer how he came to possess the document, a story which occupies almost the entire novel.

Watson's story began five years earlier on his first visit to Languedoc, a time when he was travelling to try to recover from the long-term grief and depression resulting from the death of his beloved elder brother in the Great War. He crashed his car in a snowstorm in a remote rural area and walked to a small village, a grim and depressing place. He was invited to attend an annual fiesta in a large hall, and when he arrived was impressed by how authentically medieval it was, with the villagers all in costume. He strikes up a conversation with Fabrissa, an enchanting young woman who seems to understand and sympathise with all of his problems, and tells her the story of his childhood and the reasons for the deep grief he feels for his late brother, but she then disappears. The next morning, he tries to find her but no-one seems to have heard of her.

Fabrissa had recounted her own story of the persecution and destruction of her village, which Watson initially assumed had taken place during the Great War. However, by this time there are enough clues to allow the reader to understand that the situation was very different from the one he believed. Watson eventually discovered the truth for himself, in the process ending a centuries-old mystery and finding the document which he wants the dealer to translate.

This story is a quick read, the 240 pages being in well-spaced large font, and (in my 2010 Orion Books paperback edition) is accompanied by author's notes plus another short story in the same setting. The Winter Ghosts encompasses grief, romance, mystery and the supernatural, wrapped up in an engaging and memorable tale.