Friday 30 November 2012

City, by Clifford D Simak

Clifford D Simak was one of the most popular and successful American SF writers. His career lasted half a century, from the 1930s to the 1980s. During that time he published nearly thirty novels plus many short stories and collections, won a Nebula and three Hugo awards and was awarded a Grand Master title by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

City was an early novel, being first published in 1952. Like many novels of this period it was a "fix up", consisting of eight previously-published short stories, but is none the worse for that. A ninth story (Epilog) first appeared in 1973 and has been incorporated in most editions of the book published since 1980. However, I haven't read it and this review is based on my 1965 edition, which I read a few times in the 1960s and 70s but not since - until now.

The chapters in City span thousands of years into the future, making the book decidedly episodic, but despite this the story holds together well. This is partly achieved by consistent plot-lines, partly by the continuity of one character (Jenkins the robot) being there from beginning to end, but mostly by the structure of the novel. This is presented as a book of fables published in the far future, looking back on events of a past so distant that it has become mythical. Each chapter is a different fable and is preceded by an introduction by the editor who comments on each story, explaining the differing views on what it means and what relationship it might have to reality. This affords some amusement in that the editor assumes that much of the content of the stories is fantasy when, to us, it clearly is not. For instance, a lot of our present-day knowledge has been lost in this non-technological far future, so stories of living on other planets are dismissed by the editor as impossible.

The major twist in the novel (this isn't a spoiler - it becomes obvious from the start) is that this far-future civilisation is populated not by humans, but by dogs. Humanity had disappeared long before and is regarded by the editor as probably mythical, or at least greatly misrepresented. What we, the present-day readers, can understand is that the stories are literal accounts of the bizarre fate of humanity, as seen through the eyes of one family, the Websters, and their robot servant Jenkins. The Websters have played a pivotal role in events, including giving dogs the power of speech and mentoring their infant civilisation. I will say no more about the plot, as I would hate to spoil the enjoyment of new readers in the succession of surprising and boldly radical twists in the story.

Even today, City is an outstanding achievement - a landmark in SF, totally original in its plot and structure, making most modern SF seem very derivative and unimaginative. This story alone is enough to ensure the author's place in SF history. With the passing of the years it is possible to poke holes in certain plot elements, most notably the intelligent alien life on Mars, and that surgical modifications to enable dogs to speak would breed true in subsequent generations (if written today, the author would of course resort to genetic engineering to achieve this). On the other hand, the story has realistic depictions of the internet and of virtual reality communications, and a lot of thoughtful observation on how society might change as a result of such technological developments.

When I first drew up my "top 20" list of favourite SFF books City was an automatic qualifier. Re-reading it after such a length of time has merely reinforced my admiration for the breathtaking imagination which conceived this strange tale, which is in my opinion in a different league from anything else that Simak wrote, his other novels being much more conventional. I have always been rather ambivalent about his writing style because it is imbued with a folksy sentimentality which I suspect goes down much better with American readers than it does with British ones. City has this as much as any other (enhanced by a strong element of nostalgia), but it is more forgivable in this book because of the nature of the story.

To sum up: everyone interested in SF should read this book!

Friday 23 November 2012

Films: The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and Red Lights (2012)

The Adjustment Bureau is yet another movie based on a story (Adjustment Team) by Philip K Dick, who must surely not just hold the record for the number of his stories to have inspired films; his score is probably greater than that of all other SF writers put together.

This starts as an apparently routine story about US Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), running for office in the Senate, who briefly meets Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) a dancer to whom he is instantly attracted. By chance, he meets her again some months later and discovers that his feelings have strengthened and are reciprocated by Elise.

At this point, the story becomes anything but routine: for Norris clashes with a mysterious otherworldy organisation called The Adjustment Bureau, which has immense and inexplicable power. The Bureau is set on keeping Norris and Elise apart, for reasons of its own, and what follows is an extended tussle as Norris battles against the will of the Bureau to find and keep Elise, gradually discovering more about his supernatural adversaries as the plot progresses.

This is an unusually low-key film by SF standards - no car chases or explosions, and the Bureau super-agents appear as ordinary businessmen with a peculiar agenda and a neat trick with doorways. Damon plays his usual competent-but-troubled man part (as in the Bourne trilogy) while Blunt, who seems to be appearing in a lot of films I watch, is excellent. This is a rather strange blend of fantasy, romance, and political thriller which I suspect won't be to everyone's taste, but it worked for me.
Red Lights focuses on university academics Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) as they work together to debunk claims of paranormal phenomena, including hauntings and performances by professional "psychics". They are put to the test when one of the most famous psychics of all, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), returns from a 30-year retirement and performs to packed theatres, apparently achieving the impossible. Furthermore, he has agreed to undergo independent testing of his claimed abilities in a university laboratory. But he and Matheson had crossed swords in the past - was she up to facing him again?

This is an unusual film, a powerful psychological thriller featuring intense emotions as the protagonists clash over what is paranormal and what is mere trickery. The academics feel increasingly paranoid as mysterious events keep hindering their work. There are a couple of unexpected twists, one part-way through and another right at the end which puts events into a very different light, plus one very violent fist-fight. Gripping and rather nerve-racking.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Bill, the Galactic Hero, by Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison, who died this year, was one of the most popular SF writers of his generation with more than 50 novels published between 1960 and 2010. He specialised in light, fast-moving and entertaining adventure thrillers, generally flavoured with his satirical sense of humour. Bill, the Galactic Hero (published in 1965), one of his best-known stories, standards out as one of his most strongly satirical works. His targets were the military (especially as portrayed in Heinlein's Starship Troopers, to which this was presumably a riposte), aristocracy, space opera featuring giant space ships, and imperial planets entirely covered with buildings (a side-swipe at Asimov's Foundation trilogy), plus various other random SF cliches along the way.

At the start of the story, Bill is a young farm-hand on an agricultural planet, working towards his qualification as a Technical Fertilizer Operator, when a military recruiting fair marches into town. He is soon tricked into signing up and, much against his wishes, transported to a military boot camp for a period of training conspicuous for its stupidity and sadism, personified by the memorable figure of the recruits' nemesis, Petty Chief Officer Deathwish Drang. Despite various vicissitudes in which Bill, the perpetually hopeful innocent, is usually on the wrong end of, well, just about everything, he is hailed as a hero for accidentally saving his ship Fanny Hill during a space battle, and travels to the imperial capital Helior to be awarded his medal by the Emperor. As usual, he soon finds himself in trouble again and has some more colourful adventures before the story concludes by turning full circle.

Throughout, the military is portrayed as nasty and incompetent, the aristocracy as inbred and gormless, and life generally as grossly unfair, with everything turning out to be much worse than it first appears - especially for Bill. However, what might otherwise have been a grim tale is all recounted with a wicked sense of humour which has the reader grinning with acknowledgement at the points scored against multiple SF targets. A quick, fun read which is well worth the time.

Friday 9 November 2012

Film: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

I had heard that Inglourious Basterds was a WW2 film which had received mixed reviews, but until I saw it I had no idea that it had an alternative history plot, and even then it doesn't become apparent until right at the end. Well, that's enough to justify putting my thoughts about it on my SFF blog, anyway.

As might be expected from Tarantino, the film is stylised, intense, brutally violent, and memorable. It is also very long. There are two parallel story lines which don't connect until the end: the fate of a young French Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis, and the activities of a group of American Jews (led by Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine) parachuted behind enemy lines into France before D-day in order to strike terror into the German occupiers. The plots converge on a cinema in Paris where a propaganda film is to be aired in the presence of the Nazi hierarchy.

There are some particularly high-tension scenes which gripped this viewer: the initial one, in which the Nazi Jew-hunter Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in a disconcertingly brilliant performance which rightly won awards) visits the home of a farmer who is concealing a Jewish family; another set in a Paris bar where a German officer is suspicious of the group of supposedly German officers who are actually imposters; and one near the end where Hans Landa confronts the famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, in a fine performance) whom he suspects of being a traitor. To sum up: this isn't the easiest film to watch and I can understand many people not enjoying it, but I thought it was worth seeing. Oh, I should mention that the actors speak in the languages they would have used, so there is much use of sub-titles; this doesn't bother me, but some might not like it.

To return to the observation I made at the start, it did make me wonder about categorising this kind of fiction. There are debates about whether alternative histories are SFF at all. As somebody who has written both alternative history and SF stories, I have some views on this. I prefer to use the term "speculative fiction" to group together all those stories which are concerned with the world as it isn't. Sub-sections of this are science fiction, fantasy, horror and alternative history (with vampire, zombie and ghost stories being sub-sub-sections); there are no clear dividing lines between these, though, as stories often contain elements of more than one. I will not get into the perennial debate about the difference between SF and fantasy here!

Focusing just on alternative histories, there are two basic types. One aims to be relatively realistic by examining what might have happened if one mundane event had occurred differently (for example, if that British soldier who at the end of WW1 allegedly had Adolf Hitler in his sights but decided not to shoot, had actually pulled the trigger). Even academic historians get involved in this sort of speculation, although they prefer to call it "counter-factual history". However, the further you get from the "point of departure" or POD (the moment when the fictional history diverges from the real one), the more speculative and fantasy-like the stories become, so you get stories now known as "steampunk" (another sub-sub-section) in which Victorian technology and culture extend to the present day. The second basic type of alternative history is triggered by some fantastical event, such as time-travelling. The outcome can be a serious look at what might have happened given that initial premise (my own novel The Foresight War falls into this category), or it can be far more of a fantasy.

I have excluded from this categorisation stories set in a particular period, like WW2, which include fictional characters and events, as I regard these as war stories rather than alternative histories - provided that the broad thrust of the history in which they are set remains the same. For most of the film I thought that Inglourious Basterds was one of these; but unusually, the POD occurs at the end of the story rather than the beginning, leaving the viewer to speculate about what might have happened next.

Friday 2 November 2012

Entanglement, by Douglas Thompson

I have previously reviewed two other novels by Douglas Thompson: Ultrameta (October 2009) and Sylvow (February 2011). A few extracts from these reviews give a flavour of this author's work:

It might best be designated "slipstream"; that catch-all title for unreal fiction which doesn't easily fit into anything else… Both are written in the form of discrete chapters, some of which have appeared as short stories in various publications… Like all of Thompson's writing, this has a surreal, dreamlike quality, like a fairytale of the original Grimm sort, dark and mysterious and sometimes horrific.

Entanglement, his latest novel, shares these characteristics, but the plot is closer to the mainstream of SF. The time is more than a century in the future, when scientists have developed the principle of quantum entanglement currently being demonstrated at the sub-atomic level (i.e., two particles linked so that any change in one instantly causes a similar change in the other, over any distance) to apply to large and complex physical objects - including people. A device dubbed an Ansible in honour of Ursula Le Guin has been developed. Two paired Ansibles, each of which contains a chamber of quantum-entangled sub-atomic matter, remain permanently linked in such a way that anything introduced into one chamber instantly appears in the other. A large number of sub-light speed probes have been dispatched to nearby star systems, containing such Ansibles paired with similar ones remaining on Earth. When they arrive they send back their initial findings and, if deemed worthwhile, explorers on Earth then enter the equivalent chambers to enable their duplicates to appear on the planet. When humans are "dupliported" in this way, only one can remain conscious so the other sleeps, the two alternating every few hours. In this way, humans can explore other planets and report back in person without the necessity of making a physical journey. The catch is that if anything happens to a dupliported person, it instantly affects the original - and vice versa. If one dies, the other dies.

The novel consists of the experiences of explorers on sixteen different planets with a wide variety of physical environments and life forms. In that respect, there's an echo of the classic 1950 SF novel by A E Van Vogt, The Voyage of the Space Beagle. In between are linking sections concerning the key people who run the operation on Earth; their histories, personal lives and relationships, plus the shadow of the first failed human entanglement experiment which still lies over them.

As can be expected from this author, this is far more than a routine humans-meet-aliens story. The experiences of the explorers are often intensely bizarre, sometimes causing them to lose their objectivity and even their sanity, and bringing into question the whole project. The concluding chapter introduces yet more plot twists which change the reader's understanding of what has been happening, with the final twist returning to the theme of the foreward. Like all of Thompson's writing, strong and sometimes disturbing images are created in the mind. A memorable book with much packed into it, tempting the reader to turn back to the beginning and start reading it over again.