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.