Friday 31 May 2013

Relic, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Relic was published in 1995 but I have only just got around to reading it. Oh well, better late than never. I must admit that although the joint authorial names sounded vaguely familiar I hadn’t actually read anything by them before (individually or collectively). They have collaborated on a dozen novels now, but this was their first.

The basic plot sounds very familiar. Archaeologists steal items from a legendary lost Amazonian tribe despite dire warnings of a curse and terrible vengeance falling upon them. Said archaeologists are duly killed or disappear in short order, but their loot is delivered to the New York Museum of Natural History, within which the story unfolds. People start being savagely killed, allegedly by some strange and powerful beast lurking in the Museum’s ancient sub-basements, and a link with the Amazonian loot begins to be suspected. Naturally, the heroes of the story – Margo Green, a postgrad researcher, FBI agent Pendergast, and Sergeant D’Agosta of the NYPD – take the threat seriously and try to warn those in charge but they are, of course, ignored, with gruesome consequences.  So far so routine, although to be fair the plot might not have been quite so well-worn when this story was written. Anyway, there are one or two unexpected twists before the end: the death of a character who had seemed to be in line for a romantic involvement with Ms Green, and a major development in the final chapter.

The style of the book is rather breathless, packed with chapters averaging only seven pages long, with some a lot shorter. The characters tend to be good or bad, with little subtlety in their development; at times it feels more like reading a film script than a novel. Dan Brown has since brought this practice to a fine art, but Lincoln and Child write noticeably better.  There is something of a mismatch between the fast-paced writing and the occasional and rather indigestible chunks of scientific explanation, but these do at least keep the story (just about) in the SF rather than fantasy camp.

Relic is more of a pot-boiler than a ground-breaker, but it passed the time agreeably enough on a long trans-Atlantic flight.

Friday 24 May 2013

Films: Star Trek Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3 (2013)

I’m not usually current with my film reviews but I’ve spent the last few days in the USA and my hotel was five minutes walk from a cinema, so I took the opportunity to see two new movies in 3D.

Star Trek Into Darkness has a surprisingly complex plot – there’s a lot going on there, and I didn’t completely sort it out in my mind until after it was over. In contrast, most of the characters are sketched in, with the stock cast of Scotty, Doc et al being more like one-dimensional caricatures. The acting is generally unimpressive with the marked exception of Benedict Cumberbatch, who acted the others off the screen while portraying the only interesting character in the film: the villain Harrison.

The basic plot has some credibility problems which bothered me. Now this might seem strange in a film in which it is necessary to accept faster-than light star ships, alien beings, 300-year old super warriors etc, but it can be the simple human things which prompt scepticism. In this case, I thought the principal character James T Kirk to be far too arrogant, over-confident, stubborn and inexperienced for any rational organisation to allow him anywhere near the controls of a starship. I also found nothing much about him to like, leaving me not caring what happened to him.

On the upside, the action sequences look great - just as well as there are lots and lots of them, with only an occasional breather in between. In particular, the final mid-air fight between Spock and Harrison is memorable and had me on the edge of my seat. 3D is a positive benefit here, emphasising the drama without generally being obtrusive.

Overall, the visual spectacle makes this an exciting film to watch, but the collection of Star Trek characters now seems rather tired and hackneyed. Their simplistic portrayal belongs to a past era of film-making which looks rather juvenile today, and falls far short of the impressive Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and associated films. So in a nutshell, it’s a 3D spectacular with mostly 1D characters.


I was very impressed by the original Iron Man film which was an effective blend of an interesting plot, quirky humour, some good action scenes and a stand-out performance from Robert Downey Jnr. The sequel did not match that standard, as it put more emphasis on the violent action, scaling back the other elements. Sadly, Iron Man 3 is no improvement. The plot is so sketchy that it’s incomprehensible, consisting of a villain who has given himself and others some superpowers which are never explained, waging war on the USA for some reason which is never explained. The film seems to consist mostly of violent action scenes, following on in a rapid and wearying sequence. Even Downey seems to be mostly going through the motions. The one example of quirky humour concerned Trevor – I will say no more for fear of spoiling the one moment of fun in the film, and the only thing which made me smile. I came out of the cinema with a headache and a strong feeling that I’d just wasted two hours. Suffice to say that it made the new Star Trek film look really rather good, which takes some doing.

Friday 17 May 2013

Macroscope, by Piers Anthony

Piers Anthony is nowadays best known for his Xanth series of comic fantasies, notable for the most terrible puns in the genre, but he started out writing science fiction with a very distinctive flavour. His first published novel, Chthon (1967) was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Macroscope, unusual for this author in being a stand-alone rather than part of a series, appeared in 1969 and was also nominated for a Hugo in 1970. I read it a couple of times in the 1970s but not since, so I was interested to see how it stood up to the passage of time.

This is far from a straightforward tale, with mysteries emerging on several levels. It is set in a near-future world; there are orbiting space stations but only the space around the Earth and Moon is routinely visited. Ivo Archer, an apparently ordinary young man, is given a mysterious message which prompts him to accept a ride to the Macroscope, an immensely powerful sensor orbiting a million miles away. This acts like a high-powered telescope using “macrons” rather than light waves, and can deliver clear images of life on distant planets.

Ivo has been summoned by his old friend Brad Carpenter, a genius-level scientist in charge of the Macroscope, to try to solve a major problem. The Macroscope had stumbled across an alien signal which appeared to be a teaching aid packed with advanced knowledge. The problem is that it is a lethal trap; people of sufficient intelligence to follow the programme to the end have their minds destroyed. Ivo himself is little more than averagely bright, but he somehow controls access to a super-genius known as Schön, whom Brad hopes can solve the problem.

Ivo himself gradually emerges as the major mystery in the story. He and Brad were both the result of a special project to try to use genetics and advanced educational methods to raise geniuses; Brad was the one major success, Ivo considered a failure. But why does he have childhood memories of pre-civil war America? And exactly how does he control access to Schön? The action moves to the outer reaches of the solar system and then far out into the galaxy as the story tackles some bold and ambitious SF themes before reaching an unexpected conclusion.

This is an intriguing story that takes the time to explore a range of issues on the way, with asides on topics such as space-time, the nature of intelligence, education and even astrology. It also takes the time to build the principal characters thoroughly, quirks and all. This means that the pacing is relatively slow, but it still had sufficient interest to hold my attention; I found it thought-provoking as well as entertaining. Its award nomination was well deserved and SF lost an innovative talent when the author switched to the presumably more profitable comic fantasy. This story still stands up, and I enjoyed reading it again.

Saturday 11 May 2013

The Vang: The Military Form, by Christopher Rowley

The Vang: The Military Form is the second book I have read by Rowley and I was pointed towards it after posting my review of Golden Sunlands in April 2011.  It was published in 1988, a year after Sunlands. The time is again the far future, with humanity spread over a large number of worlds, and aliens again make an unwelcome intervention. This time the tone is much darker, as indicated by the subtitle on the cover “A Close Encounter of the Fatal Kind”.

The Vang are a very alien race, not remotely like the funny-looking humanoids we have become used to from Star Trek and such. They are parasitic on advanced life forms like humanity, which they “convert” by taking over their bodies and making radical changes to their biology, turning them into ferocious, lightning-fast killers who are very hard to stop. They also have various life forms of their own, specialised for different purposes, which they create by laying eggs inside their “hosts”. Finally, they consume any spare hosts for food, preferring to consume them alive in a particularly disgusting way. The graphic descriptions of exactly what they do to their hosts make Ridley Scott’s Aliens seem relatively benign.

At the time of the story the Vang were an almost forgotten horror from the distant past, believed to have been eliminated in a war to the death with another alien race who managed to defeat them by the simple expedient of unleashing the most appalling weapons of mass destruction ever invented. So when some mineral prospectors poking around in a forbidden zone of space discover an obviously alien and very ancient ovoid drifting by itself, they think only of the vast profit to be made and have no inkling of what is to come.

The nearest human inhabited planet to the prospectors is Saskatch, a cold and rugged world with a small population, most notable for being the only source of TA45, a highly addictive and highly pleasurable drug. Its production and export are banned, which only ensures that most people in authority are complicit in its trade. This is the stage on which the drama of the human-Vang collision will be played out.

There is no one protagonist in this tale but multiple viewpoints from an ensemble cast of prospectors, drug smugglers and law officers, plus a wealthy naturalist and his team. And of course the Vang, whose viewpoint (in the shape of the Military Form) is also presented, from the first scene to the last. The story is almost relentlessly grim, with none of the quirky humour and offbeat charm of Sunlands, and might best be described as a blend of SF and horror. I mentioned Ridley Scott’s Aliens before, and the general flavour is not very different; this seems to have been Rowley’s take on the Alien series as opposed to Sunlands which read more like the author’s tribute to Niven’s Ringworld. Curiously, the one character with whom this reader began to sympathise by the end was the Military Form of the Vang, which faced all manner of problems in doing what it was supposed to, not all of them concerned with humans.

Saturday 4 May 2013

TV series: Continuum

I have watched the first few episodes of Continuum, a new Canadian TV series. This features Rachel Nicholas as Keira Cameron, a “protector” (police officer) living with her husband and child in Vancouver in 2077. She is on duty at the planned execution of the leaders of Liber8, a terrorist group responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, when a strange force is released which sends them – and her – back in time to 2012.

The world of 2077 is a very different place, one in which huge international corporations have taken over the duties of governments and run police states which tolerate no dissent. Liber8, led by Edouard Kagame (Tony Amendola), is dedicated to breaking their hold on power and restoring democracy, and see their group’s displacement into the past as a golden opportunity to stop the corporations before they can gain power. Keira Cameron is equally determined to stop them and, after they begin a violent crime spree to obtain weapons and money, works with the Vancouver police to track them down. She is aided by Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen), a geeky young computer genius who has devised a communications technology able to link up with her advanced systems.

This series is proving to have a nicely-judged blend of elements with several inbuilt tensions: between Cameron and the terrorists, whom she despises but also needs as they hold the key to her return to her family in 2077; between Cameron and the present-day police - particularly Detective Carlos Fonnegra (Victor Webster) - who are unaware of her background and are curious to find out as much about her as possible; within the terrorists, between the dedicated fanatics and those who welcome the opportunity to start afresh and use their knowledge to become very rich; and indeed in the conflict between Liber8 and the world of 2077. Who would not support the idea of a democracy battling against a police state? Yet it is the democrats who are the ruthless terrorists and the representative of the police state who is the heroine. There is also a developing mystery about the role of Alec Sadler, who we also see in 2077 (played by William B Davis) as the elderly head of a powerful corporation who has become acquainted with Cameron and is present when she is thrown back into the past.

As an occasional break from the 2012 action we see the protagonists in the years leading up to 2077, revealing their past histories. There are some nice SF touches particularly concerned with Cameron’s bulletproof protector suit, which is packed with advanced technology and can also make her invisible, and with the systems built into her body. There are some impressive scenes when she looks at views of Vancouver in 2012 and then superimposes her knowledge of the same view in 2077. There is even some humour, as Cameron comes to grips with the limitations of 2012 technology, and a touch of incipient romance in the growing attraction Detective Fonnegra feels for her. Rachel Nicholas (an actress I haven’t seen before) is very good as Keira Cameron, revealing an appealing blend of tough competence and vulnerability as she struggles to cope with the loss of her family.

All in all this is shaping up to be one of the best TV series I’ve seen in a long time. The plot is complex and intriguing, the story lines adult and convincing, and I enjoy the effective blend of SF and detective elements, my two favourite genres. Highly recommended.