Saturday 28 July 2012

Interzone 241

The July/August issue of the British SFF magazine includes an interview with fantasy author Juliet E. McKenna plus a review of her novel Darkening Skies, sequel to Dangerous Waters. The other eight books reviewed include A Dance With Dragons, part of George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire sequence, which I avoided reading as I'm watching the Game of Thrones TV series; and something quite different, Three Science Fiction Novellas by J H Rosny aïné, the pseudonym of a Belgian writer who is described as belonging "somewhere between Jules Verne and H G Wells". The three stories, published between 1888 and 1910, are set in the distant past, the present day and the far future. I think I'll get this one - it sounds intriguingly different.

The usual extensive film and DVD reviews, one of the consistent highlights of the magazine, include Prometheus (not too complimentary), Iron Sky and John Carter (both quite positive and on my to-watch list).

Five short stories, rather more varied than usual.

Steamgothic by Sean McMullen, illustrated by Jim Burns. The wreck of an unknown Victorian steam-powered flying machine is discovered in an old barn. Had it actually flown, and could it be restored to flying condition? What seems like an interesting but mainstream tale changes into something rather different at the end. An entertaining read.

Ship's Brother by Aliette de Bodard, illustrated by Joe Burns. Another of this author's "Xuya continuity" in which the Chinese discover America before Columbus. A mother's difficult relationship with her son following the birth of a daughter designed to function as a ship's navigator. Strong on atmosphere but doesn't really make much sense on its own.

One Day in Time City, by David Ira Cleary, illustrated by Richard Wagner. An intriguing notion - a linear city in which people's ages change minute by minute, from very young to elderly, as they travel through the age zones from one end to the other (or back again). This is the background to a story of constant infighting between the two-wheel and four-wheel transport factions.

Railroad Angel by Gareth L. Powell. An old hippy, dying of drugs and exposure, has a revelation at the end of his life.

Invocation of the Lurker by C.J.Paget, illustrated by Dave Senecal. A future world in which a woman from the most privileged stratum of society is cast down to the lower orders after committing a terrible crime. What will she - or won't she - do to get back? This is a winner of the James White Award for non-professional writers. I found it a bit confusing as the nature of the society, and of the crime, were none too clear.

For me, McMullen's story was the stand-out one in this issue. Well-written, interesting and enjoyable even before the surprise ending. The kind of story which makes you hope that the author will carry on and write a lot more about the situation the protagonists are left in.

Friday 20 July 2012

The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance

I remembered this one from decades ago (it was first published in 1957, and my copy is dated 1974), and picked it up again because it focuses on a subject which is still fascinating today: the relationship between language and behaviour.

In The Languages of Pao, humanity has spread beyond the Solar System and settled on many planets, including Pao. There is no mention of aliens, or indeed of any kind of alien life: that is not what this story is about. Each planet has its own, very different, culture and there appears to be little interaction between them except for some trading. Pao has a large and mainly rural population which is culturally, linguistically and politically homogenous and ruled by an hereditary Panarch. The Paonese language is remarkably passive and dispassionate, as described on the second page of the novel:

"The Paonese sentence did not so much describe an act as it presented a picture of a situation. There were no verbs, no adjectives; no formal word word comparison such as good, better, best."

The people of Pao are also very passive and intensely conformist, hating change and resisting any progress.

A palace coup results in Beran, son and heir to the Panarch, fleeing Pao to take refuge on the planet Breakness with Lord Palafox, a Breakness dominie. Breakness is a harsh world devoted to intellectual pursuits, with the Breakness Institute (a university) effectively forming what passes for a government: the dominies are simultaneously professors of the Institute and lords of the planet. They back up their intellectual prowess with biomechanical modifications which have given them the reputation of being wizards. Beran, a spoilt and idle youth, is forced to work, initially to learn the difficult Breakness language, very different from Paonese.

In the meantime, Pao has suffered an invasion from another planet, which its passive people are incapable of resisting, and is forced to pay a heavy annual tribute. Palafox has a suggestion: a major project to change the mindset of a part of the population by introducing new languages, starting with a militaristic one called Valiant. As Palafox explained:

"The syllabary will be rich in effort-producing gutterals and hard vowels. A number of key ideas will be synonymous; such as pleasure and overcoming a resistance - relaxation and shame - outworlder and rival."

This would be taught to a large group of young men, brought up in a separate military enclave on Pao and trained in competitive and violent activities to make them dedicated soldiers.

Two other languages would also be inculcated in the same way: Cogitant and Technicant. The first to develop intellectual and inventive abilities to encourage industrial development ("The grammar will be extravagantly complicated but altogether consistent and logical") and the second to facilitate trading with other cultures ("…elaborate honorifics to teach hypocrisy, a vocabulary rich in homophones to facilitate ambiguity…").

The novel follows what happens as these plans are carried forward, in particular as seen through the eyes of Beran as he tries to reclaim his birthright.

No doubt a modern linguist would object that these notions of dramatically changing a culture by changing the language are simplistic, but the idea has a compelling appeal. Incidentally, I recently discovered an interesting fact: the German word for debt - schuld - also means guilt, fault, blame or sin. I wonder if that is connected in any way with the fact that the Germans are noted for being such a hard-working, thrifty nation?

Despite the passage of the decades, this book is well worth reading on three counts: it's an exciting story; the ideas are intriguing and thought-provoking; and the book is refreshingly short at less than 160 pages.

Friday 13 July 2012

Films: Chain Reaction (1996), and The Astronaut's Wife (1999)

The synopsis of Chain Reaction sounded promising: the development of a source of virtually free and clean energy (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen in a self-sustaining reaction) sparks all manner of consequences. It isn't hard to imagine what these might be: a big shift in geopolitics, with the oil states losing much of their importance and wealth (although not all, by any means - oil is still used for other purposes, e.g. making plastics); the big oil companies fighting a rearguard action and trying to kill or at least delay the idea while diversifying frantically; the green energy movement having the wind taken out of their sails. So I looked forward to an interesting couple of hours.

Sadly, it was not to be. There was a brief mention of the problems which free energy might cause to the oil companies and the economy, before the film slid into the familiar comfort zone of a conspiracy theory (for control of the invention) and a protracted chase across the winter countryside as a pair of young scientists (Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz) try to escape capture. It isn't a bad film, just a disappointing missed opportunity, and barely SF at all.

The Astronaut's Wife is in a different league. Two NASA astronauts on a routine space-walk are unexpectedly cut-off from communications for two minutes. When they return to Earth they seem to be normal, but one of them subsequently dies in mysterious circumstances. The other (Johnny Depp) is healthy but his wife (Charlize Theron) becomes increasingly concerned about his behaviour, especially when a former NASA employee (Joe Morton) contacts her with evidence which makes her question what happened to the astronauts - and what is happening to her.

The basic idea of this film reminded me somewhat of John Wyndham's 1950s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (which will be a give-away to those familiar with it!), although the plot takes a different direction. The story is well-constructed and filmed, the initial feeling of moodiness and mild spookiness gradually developing into horror as the tension climbs sky-high, and the acting (from Theron in particular) is excellent.

I was very impressed, and encouraged by this evidence that Hollywood studios could make a really good adult SFF movie if they tried. Then I looked up The Astronaut's Wife on Wiki and found that it had been a critical and (more importantly) commercial flop, the box office takings being little more than a quarter of the budget. Which maybe helps to explain why Hollywood usually doesn't produce such films, preferring to dumb down for the predictable teenage market, with lots of recycled ideas involving spectacular chases and explosions. Plus at least one superhero. Or vampires. Or zombies. Or some combination of all of those. Sad.

Friday 6 July 2012

The Glass of Dyskornis, and The Bronze of Eddarta by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron

These are the second and third of the novels in The Gandalara Cycle, the first of which (The Steel of Raithskar) I reviewed last December. I gave the background to the series in that review, so I won't repeat it here.

In The Glass of Dyskornis, Ricardo/Markasset (now renamed Rikardon) and his sha'um Keeshah continue their adventures on the strange world of Gandalara. Having saved his father and himself from an accusation of complicity in the theft of the symbolic jewel, the Ra'ira, he decides to travel to the home of the sha'um in order to learn more about the giant fighting cats and their riders. While there, he meets Tarani, a disconcertingly beautiful young illusionist, who appears to be involved in a plot to kill him. Having survived that, Rikardon goes on the hunt to discover who was responsible for the plot and discovers it was a caravan leader called Gharlas, the same man believed to be guilty of stealing the Ra'ira. His pursuit of the man across the deserts and through the mountain passes of Gandalara takes up most of the book. On the way, he learns more about Gandalara and its people as well as himself, and begins to have an inkling of why he has ended up on this world.

The chase continues in The Bronze of Eddarta, in which knowledge of the true nature of the Ra'ira and the plans of Gharlas add more urgency. The pursuit ends in Eddarta, the largest and most powerful of the cities of Gandalara, where there are more revelations for Rikardon and more plot twists and dangers to overcome.

Like the first novel, these are fast and easy reads - they only add up to 315 pages between them. This whole series is a kind of literary comfort food, undemanding escapism to sink into and enjoy without trying to interpret deeper meanings. It is entirely suitable for young adults as well as somewhat older folk like your reviewer. More to follow!