Sunday 28 April 2013

Interzone 245

The interview in this issue of the magazine is with Paul Cornell, previously noted for writing Doctor Who novels. This is accompanied by a review of his new novel, London Falling, concerning detectives operating in an alternative London in which the supernatural exists. I love alternative London stories and have a range of them already: Christopher Fowler's Roofworld, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, China Miéville's Un Lun Dun, and also Miéville's Kraken which is on my reading pile. So I have ordered Cornell's book and also Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, which was mentioned in the review. Lots to look forward to.

The film and DVD reviews feature Cloud Atlas which I am still in two minds about adding to my rental list (general conclusion: strange and difficult, but worth it), and also include generally favourable reviews of Skyfall, Neverland and Looper among others.

Five stories this time, but no fewer than three of them are novelettes:

The Animator by Chris Butler, novelette illustrated by Ben Baldwin. This is the second story set in his strange alternative Earth to be published in Interzone (the first being in issue 233). It is a world in which everyone constantly emits clouds of spores which can be detected by other people nearby and allows them to assess each other's status and mood; effectively not unlike telepathy.  In this story, a young man is trying to make his fortune by developing a light projector for entertainment - but there are risks in introducing a new technology in a restrictive society with a vaguely steampunk feel.

Hypermnemonic by Melanie Tem, illustrated by David Gentry. A strange tale about a woman whose brain has been modified to give her an intense recall of events, sent to confront a man she once had an affair with. Atmospheric, but confusing and with a rather gothic conclusion.

The International Studbook of the Giant Panda by Carlos Hernandez, novelette illustrated by Richard Wagner. We all know that giant pandas have problems with mating, so in this story there's a hi-tech but controversial solution; remotely-controlled animatronic pandas to help things along. Put like that it sounds bizarre, but I found it intriguing and entertaining.

Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion) by Damien Walters Grintalis, illustrated by Dave Senecal. The last magician in Lithuania is under constant threat after the invasion by the Soviet Union, but needs to help his sick daughter. A sad, bittersweet tale.

The Face Tree by Anthony Mann, novelette illustrated by Martin Hanford. What appear to be carved wooden faces are found protruding from tree-trunks around present day Oxford. A man who lives a pointless, drifting existence meets a mysterious woman who seems to have some connection with them.

A good selection this time, all of them worth reading. My favourite is Hernandez' story about the giant pandas.

Finally, I was sad to read in the R.I.P. section that Charles Chilton has died. I wrote about him in my review of Interzone 235 in July 2011, as follows:

"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 Out of This World SF exhibition 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 apparently available on CD and internet download. It will have very little merit by modern SF standards but the sheer nostalgia value is huge!"

Friday 19 April 2013

Hull Zero Three, by Greg Bear

I read several books by Bear in the 1980s and 90s, but the only ones I kept on my shelf were the Songs of Earth and Power duology:  The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage. This is rather curious as these are fantasies, rather than the SF which I normally read and which Bear normally writes, but I do have a soft spot for original contemporary fantasies like these and really must read them again before long.

Hull Zero Three, an SF book published in 2010, was chosen as a read of the month by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group ( ), so I decided to give it a try. The time is the distant future, the setting a huge sub-light speed colony ship on its way to find a new home for humanity; a journey of many centuries. This is not a conventional story, however.

The protagonist, simply known as Teacher, wakes from a pleasant dream of colonising a new planet into a nightmare. He is in an almost empty, freezing cold ship, populated mainly by strange and often deadly creatures, with his only ally a young girl who constantly urges him on to some unknown destination. This is a dark, downbeat and gloomy start, the bewildered and helpless Teacher having lost much of his memory and only recalling snatches of information from time to time. The air of confusion was exacerbated in my mind by the fact that Bear's descriptions of the places his characters pass through are frequently too unclear to form a mental picture of them.  Teacher meets up with other companions of the girl, strange humanoids with whom it is difficult to communicate, but they are all constantly trying to keep warm, to find food and drink, and to avoid danger. I found this a tough part of the story to get through and it goes on for almost half the book. I can't say any more about the plot without posting spoilers, so if you don't want to know what happens next, read no further - but I can reassure you that in the second half of the book both the pace and the interest pick up, and there is an intriguing conclusion.

WARNING - some spoilers follow

The first glimmers of optimism come just before the half-way point of the story, when Teacher meets up with an even more disparate group of beings who are in a more secure position and who between them (and with the aid of Teacher's returning memories) manage to piece together a picture of their circumstances. The vessel actually consists of three separate, kilometres-long ships linked to a vast central snowball which provides their reaction mass; Teacher's group are in Hull Zero One. It is clear that something has gone badly wrong with the journey and that the ship is seriously damaged.

They realise that the colonists and other creatures are not carried in corporeal form but as genetic potential, able to be artificially conceived and grown in various different physical forms to suit whatever environment is provided by the planet they arrive at, and given artificial memories. For some reason, the ship has started producing a wide range of different humans and animals even though they have not arrived at a planet. Teacher's group realise that there has been a major and still on-going conflict between Ship Control and the mysterious Destination Guidance which is based on the snowball. They travel to Hull Zero Three, the only one still in good condition, to try to discover more about what is happening and why. What they find there divides loyalties and leads to a final showdown between Ship Control and Destination Guidance, with all being revealed and resolved only at the very end of the story.

The key question: was it worth reading? That's a tough one to answer; it certainly isn't an easy read and I nearly gave up at one point, but I was just sufficiently intrigued to keep going and enjoyed the final part of the story which I read in one sitting. This is not a novel which will have universal appeal, but if you don't mind being kept in the dark for much of the story and have the patience to stick with it, you may find it worthwhile.

Friday 12 April 2013

Film: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I don't normally watch horror films, but this one seems to have been well regarded so I thought I'd give it a try. The year is 1799 and scientifically-minded law officer Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is sent from New York to investigate a series of killings in which the victims are decapitated. He is told of the local legend of a headless horseman, a mercenary killed in the Revolutionary War, who is blamed for the murders. As the disbelieving Crane systematically investigates possible motives for the killings he is disconcerted to meet the headless horseman in person, and his search then becomes a race against time to find a way of stopping the murders as the bodies mount up.

The film was directed by Tim Burton and is a visual pleasure, rich in atmosphere, with the impressive cast effectively conveying the superstition of the times.  However, it is decidedly "over the top" in cranking up the drama to levels which sometimes become rather laughable. I prefer more subtlety and ambivalence in dealing with this kind of theme; more uncertainty as to what is real, what is a product of the characters' imaginations and what might just be supernatural. The 2011 film The Awakening, which I reviewed here last August, is an excellent example of what I mean and is far more to my taste, with a much more adult and thoughtful script. In contrast, Sleepy Hollow is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. I can imagine horror fans liking it, but it left me unengaged.


I'm now into the second season of three SFF TV series I'm working through on DVD: Game of Thrones, Fringe, and Warehouse 13. What's more, the second season of Once Upon a Time has just started on UK TV. All very different from each other, but all delivering addictive entertainment. Next I aim to try Continuum, a Canadian series about a detective from the future hunting criminals who have escaped back in time – to the present day. Sounds promising.

Friday 5 April 2013

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, by Jared Diamond

This book, published in 2005, follows on from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which I reviewed on this blog in October 2012. GGS focused on the factors which had allowed civilisations to develop successfully in some parts of the world but not others. Collapse looks at the other end of the process, and considers why a variety of different societies which had become established subsequently failed.

 The author starts by proposing a five-point framework of factors which could influence the collapse of a society: environmental damage; climate change; hostile neighbours; friendly trade partners; and (of greatest significance) the society's response to such problems. He then goes on to examine in detail several societies. Somewhat surprisingly, he spends the first part of the book focusing on a single valley in Montana which he knows well, looking at the range of factors which have affected its development over the past few decades. He then goes on to more conventional case studies, first looking at historical societies: Easter, Pitcairn and Henderson Islands in the Pacific; the Anasazi, the Maya, the Viking settlements (especially Iceland and Greenland), and mention of a few other societies which have succeeded despite difficulties, notably Japan.

 A lot of the problems experienced by colonists trying to become established in new territory have been down to wrong assumptions; for instance, the scenery and vegetation may look very similar to that which the colonists were used to, but may prove to be much slower to recover from farming use, leading to rapid soil erosion.

 Next come some modern societies which are still experiencing significant problems: Rwanda (principally down to uncontrolled population growth to a very high density); Haiti and the Dominican Republic (an interesting contrast, with history and cultural factors predominant); China (severe pollution) and Australia (environmental deterioration). In the final part Diamond looks at some practical lessons, drawing a road map of factors contributing to failures of group decision-making. His "road map" includes the failure to anticipate problems (e.g. introducing rabbits and foxes to Australia); failure to perceive a problem once it has arrived, usually because it occurs so gradually (e.g. climate change); failure to act even after a problem has been perceived, particularly when the ruling elite isn't affected, only the powerless poor (e.g. subsidising fisherman when stocks collapse instead of taking steps to allow stocks to recover - the "tragedy of the commons" particularly applies here). Some reasons for failure to act may be religious or cultural (e.g. the Greenland Vikings died out when they could have survived by copying the lifestyle of the Inuit living successfully in the same area) or could simply be down to psychological denial (e.g. continuing to live close to a potential disaster - such as a potentially active volcano or earthquake-prone fault).

 One section near the end addresses some common objections to his thesis: "The environment has to be balanced against the economy" (it is always much more costly in the long run to ignore environmental problems then try to deal with the consequences than it is to take prompt action to remove the causes). "Technology will solve our problems" (technology creates at least as many problems as it solves; furthermore, the cost of technological solutions to problems is always far greater than that of preventing the problems from happening). "If we exhaust one resource, we can always switch to another" (even where that is feasible, experience shows that it takes an extremely long time for any new technology to replace a well-established one). "There isn't a global food problem, we just need to arrange efficient transportation to get it where it's needed" (that assumes that First World countries with food surpluses will be willing to transport huge quantities of food to the Third World, free of charge, indefinitely - for which there is no evidence). "Predictions of environmental disaster have always been proved wrong" (sometimes they have, but sometimes that may be because action has been taken: e.g. pollution from car exhausts in Los Angeles; furthermore, some anti-environmentalist predictions have also proved wrong, such as predictions that the Green Revolution would have banished global hunger by now). "There is no population crisis: it will level off by itself, and anyway continued growth is good for the economy" (the main problem is not actually the number of people, but the resources they use up and the waste they generate; by most criteria we are already using resources at an unsustainable rate, and economic growth in the Third World is rapidly multiplying consumption).

 I have to say that I didn't find this book as gripping as GGS. I felt that the author was being self-indulgent rather than focusing on presenting his case as crisply as possible, and believe that with judicious editing the book could have been reduced in length by around 50% without losing any of the key evidence and arguments. I therefore struggled with it to some extent, and ended up skim-reading most of the final section to get to the end. Despite this, there is a lot of solid, thought-provoking material in this book which should make it as valuable as GGS to world-building writers.