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 .