Saturday 28 September 2013

Windhaven, by George R.R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle

This stand-alone 1981 novel consists of three novellas (the first two originally published separately in 1975 and 1980) and an epilogue. The stories are set on the planet of Windhaven which is almost entirely covered by ocean except for a few widely-scattered groups of islands. These islands were populated by the survivors of a spaceship crash-landing generations before the events in the novel. Due to resource shortages the civilisation has regressed to the medieval level with one exception: they still possess quantities of almost indestructible but extremely thin and light fabric, ideal for making glider wings. The Windhaven weather is almost always windy and frequently stormy and, although not specified in the book, the combination of surface gravity and air density is sufficient to support long gliding flights by highly-skilled hereditary "flyers", with the aid of folding wings with a twenty-foot span. The high-status flyers form the main communication links between the islands, as shipping is hazardous due to the storms and sea monsters.

Although nominally SF, there are no mind-stretching concepts other than the initial premise described above. The story is really about people; their alliances and antagonisms, struggles to succeed, failures and successes.

The novellas focus on the story of three stages in the life of Maris, a girl of humble origins who is adopted by a flyer and thereby given the chance to learn to fly – the only thing she has ever wanted to do. She is faced by many obstacles and problems throughout her life, and this is far from a "happily ever after" story. It is something of an emotional roller-coaster ride, being very moving in places. There are some impressive set-pieces such as the intense and brilliantly argued debate at the end of the first part in which the flyers decide who should and should not have the right to be trained to join them.

The character of Maris is superbly developed throughout the book and the richness of the descriptions of the society, the personalities and the emotional intensity of their complex and ever-evolving relationships irresistably drew me in. I found myself really caring about what happened, sometimes even reluctant to carry on reading because of the dangers Maris courted and the pain and disappointments she suffered.

Windhaven is not a long book by modern standards but nonetheless tells an epic story, the stuff of legend. It is beautifully told and deserves to be far better known, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Film: Knowing (2009)

This one had passed me by until now, and I knew nothing about it before watching. Be warned – there are some spoilers in this review since it's difficult to write about the film without them, but I'll try to keep them to a minimum.

The plot concerns the opening of a "time vault" buried at a school fifty years before, which had been filled with examples of the children's work. One of the envelopes turns out to contain a page of numbers in apparently random order. Professor John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), the scientist father of one of the present-day children, first becomes intrigued by what the numbers might mean then increasingly horrified as he realises that they seem to foretell major disasters – decades before they happened.

He tries to discover the origin of the paper and tracks down Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne), the daughter of the girl who wrote the paper and now, like Koestler, the single parent of a young child. Meanwhile his son begins to hear strange voices in his head, inhuman-looking men begin to watch their house, and Koestler becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to discover what is going on. I am not a fan of Nicholas Cage, but in this film he is well suited to the permanent state of agonised bewilderment his face seems to have been designed for.

The first part of most stories tends to set expectations in terms of how the plot is going to develop. I assumed that the two leads would get together, resolve what is going on, and all live happily ever after. What actually happens is far more surprising and intriguing than that. The story veers off in an unexpected direction in the final scenes, shifting from fantasy to science fiction. 

These days the description "adult movie" is taken to mean explicit sex and and nudity, but there is none of those in this film. Instead, it is adult in a different way, in that it follows the plot through with a ruthless logic that is decidedly untypical of Hollywood. On the way, it includes some of the most frighteningly realistic crash sequences I have ever seen. The story reminded me of a novel I reviewed here in March 2010, Library of the Dead by Glenn Cooper, and it has an equally dramatic and unexpected ending. The only problem with the SF ending is that in retrospect it sits rather uncomfortably with the fantasy beginning. Despite this, Knowing is a film that is worth watching.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Matter, by Iain M Banks

Iain M. Banks died earlier this year at a sadly young age, after establishing a reputation as one of the most literary SF writers of his generation. He wrote non-genre fiction (as Iain Banks) as well as SF. Most of his SF novels are set in the Culture, a galactic humanoid utopia in which almost inconceivably advanced technology provides everything that is needed, immensely capable Artificial Intelligences sort out the mundane business of running civilisation (the most powerful, known as Minds, usually being established in vast spacecraft or space habitats with quirky names), and citizens are mostly free to do whatever they like – live forever, change gender or even species, travel the galaxy. There are various alien civilisations in close contact with the Culture and a lot of others that are not, plus human planetary settlements that don't enjoy the same benefits. Relationships with such peripheral groups are handled by an organisation called Contact, and they apply less diplomatic means when required by means of Special Circumstances, whose agents are kind of blend of James Bond and Jason Bourne with comprehensive bio-electronic enhancements.

Matter is mainly set in one of the peripheral human civilisations outside the Culture, which has occupied part of the Shellworld called Sursamen. Shellworlds are artificial constructs made by an earlier and long-gone civilisation aeons ago. They are habitats the size of large planets and are made up of fourteen concentric hollow spheres, each one providing a land surface comparable with a conventional planet, held apart by a million vast columns through which travel between the spheres is possible, and lit and warmed by thermonuclear "suns" tracking across the 1,400 kilometre-high ceilings. The Shellworld is one of the stars of the novel just as the Ringworld is of Niven's eponymous novel, its curiosities being described in detail including a huge waterfall which is cutting rapidly back through the soft earth, revealing the remains of a forgotten city of great age and sophistication.

Different species occupy different spheres of the Shellworld, but the humanoid civilisation on the eighth and ninth layers is at a kind of feudal steampunk level, still engaged in fighting wars of conquest.  The main focus is on the nation called the Sarl that occupies the eighth layer and is engaged in battle with the Deldeyn of the ninth. The Sarl are mentored by an alien species, the Oct, which have developed an inexplicable interest in the forgotten city, especially in the latest excavations which have uncovered something rather strange. There is treachery and tragedy afoot among the Sarl, which draws home a princess of the ruling family, Djan Seriy Anaplian, recruited as a child by Contact and now a Special Circumstances agent. The story switches between Anaplian and two of her brothers until they are finally drawn together.

As is typical of this author, Matter is a long and complex novel in which the creation of atmosphere and background takes precedence over the action for most of its length. It is full of rich descriptions of places, people and situations, flavoured with Banks' usual wry humour. This slow start means that dramatic tension suffers, although in the latter part of the novel the pace rapidly accelerates towards the explosive conclusion. Until then, this story is not a gripping page-turner but if you like Banks' style, you won't want to miss it. In particular, the Shellworld is an invention that is likely to stay in the mind for a long time.

Saturday 7 September 2013

TV - Under the Dome (2013) and other series

Based on a Stephen King novel (which I haven't read), Under the Dome is set in the present day and concerns events inside a small American town that is suddenly and mysteriously sealed off from the world by an invisible dome-shaped force field several miles across. Cue some dramatic crashes and slicings-in-half as the dome arrives.

The focus in the early episodes (I've seen the first three so far) is entirely on the impact of this event on the townspeople and visitors who are caught there, with all sorts of personal stories and devious schemes being gradually revealed and people showing their true colours under the stress of the situation. We are not shown anything about what's going on outside the dome (except for the sight of biohazard-suited people performing tests on it) nor is there any hint as to how or why it might have appeared. Bizarrely, there is no attempt by those outside the dome to establish communications with those within, which if anything like this happened in reality would be a first priority. While radio waves don't reliably penetrate the dome, it would be simple and obvious to erect message boards on both sides.

Also, apart from one brief mention, no-one has so far expressed any concern about what would rapidly become the priorities as a result of the shut-down of mains electric power. First there is the piped water supply. If the source were outside the dome, it would be cut off immediately. If inside, the towers providing water pressure would soon run dry as they need electric pumps to keep them filled. Then there's the availability of food. Shops normally keep only a few days supply of food (rather less for perishables) and much of that will be frozen or refrigerated, as will be the food in people's homes. With no power, except for a few places with their own generators, that will quickly spoil, so only dried and tinned food will be available, plus whatever happens to be growing – and ripe – in fields and gardens. While there seems to be plenty of farmland and a lot of cows within the dome, it takes months to raise crops, and people might get tired of nothing but beef to eat. And incidentally, when the generators run out of fuel, how will they be refuelled? Without power, the gas stations won't be able to operate. You could probably get around that issue by moving one of the generators to a gas station, but nothing like this has even been mentioned. In fact, the main problem with the loss of power identified so far is that teenagers can't recharge their phones and media players (without which, of course, their world comes to an end), and the only response to potential shortages has been someone bulk-buying cigarettes.

As a result of this peculiar omission of such obvious practical issues, so far it's just a routine "disparate group of people trapped in isolation" story, with the mysterious dome being merely an excuse for this. There's no evidence in the first few episodes of anything that we haven't seen before, but it's just about interesting enough for me to persevere with for the time being, in the hope that it improves.

Fringe continues to impress (I'm now in Season 3) with Anna Torv playing Agent Olivia Dunham (actually two of them, in parallel worlds) still very much the highlight of the series. The way she shifts body language and expressions depending on which Liv she's playing is fascinating; the uncertainty and vulnerability of the "original" Liv, the result of experiments she was subjected to as a child, being replaced by the bold swagger of the confident "alternate Liv" who did not experience that. The progress of the plot threads is somewhat erratic, with some episodes focusing on carrying forwards the intriguing parallel worlds mystery while others take a time-out for more or less unrelated X-Files type weird events. I am becoming a bit irritated with the increasingly overt product placement, though. I don't mind the characters driving around in cars provided by a sponsor, but it's too much when they start commenting on them too.

I am impatientily awaiting the arrival on DVD in the UK of the third season of Game of Thrones (due February) and the second season of Continuum (due who knows when?).