Thursday 28 November 2013

Interzone 249

The author interview this time is with John Shirley, who also has a short story included in this edition. The R.I.P. section notes the death of Tom Clancy, who qualifies for a mention because of his near-future doomsday scenarios in such stories as The Sum of All Fears and Debt of Honor. As I've noted before, there is no clear dividing line between the technothriller and SF.

The reviews section does its usual useful job of pointing me towards some interesting-sounding books I'd not heard of, in this case Paul McAuley's Quiet War sequence – one to add to the shopping list. Screen reviews include Thor: the Dark World (favourable), Ender's Game (critical), About Time (critical), Pacific Rim (bad SF but a fun fantasy), and the TV series Under the Dome (reviewed here last week), which generates a detailed and largely positive cultural analysis of its place in modern mythology.

The six short stories included this time are:

Unknown Cities of America by Tim Lees, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A man searches for a young woman who had been forced to leave him to return to Nagosha – a city he'd never heard of – and discovers that there are many more places in America than those shown on maps.

Paprika by Jason Sanford, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. The far future, when the last remaining people are gradually dying out despite being almost immortal, their essences being captured and stored by time angels - aetherial beings created for that purpose. But one of the angels forms an attachment to one of the last men.

Filaments by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Wayne Haag. Another of this author's Central Station series set in a huge spaceship station located in Israel. This one concerns an ancient robot priest and its relationship to the people it lives amongst.

Haunts by Claire Humphrey, illustrated by Martin Hanford. In a land of professional duellers, one ex-fighter tries to preserve her old training school, where the ghosts of dead duellists linger.

The Kindest Man in Stormland by John Shirley, illustrated by Wayne Haag. A private detective goes hunting for a serial killer in a hazardous Charleston wrecked by the constant violent hurricanes caused by global warming.

Trans-Siberia: an Account of a Journey by Sarah Brooks, illustrated by Richard Wagner. In an alternative past, the dangers of travelling by rail between China and Russia are far more than merely physical, as a young musician discovers.

A rather downbeat collection this time, full of images of dying and loss. My favourite is the most conventional SF tale – Shirley's – although I found that Brooks' story also had an offbeat appeal.

Friday 22 November 2013

TV – Under the Dome, Orphan Black and Person of Interest

I have commented on Under the Dome before, which I criticised after seeing the first three episodes because I felt that the events depicted bore little relationship to the likely course of events if a town was indeed abruptly separated from the rest of the world. In particular, the shortage of water and food would begin to hit home far more quickly than was shown, especially with the lack of power ruining all of the food in freezers and refrigerators within hours. However, the various personal dramas and conflicts that have dominated the story held my attention sufficiently to keep watching, and the shortage problem did eventually take centre stage – in episode 6! It took even longer for any progress to be been made in discovering what might have caused the dome to appear, but that proved to be very mysterious and mystical. Only in the final episode of the first season did the SF element start to take centre stage, and the episode finished on as contrived a peak of suspense as could be imagined. It isn't great SF but has been just about worth watching so far for the performance of the major characters. I gather that a second season is on the way, but I just hope that it isn't going to be stretched out until it dies of futility, as so often happens.

A rather different story that I've also been following is Orphan Black, which is based on a novel premise: Sarah Manning (played by Tatiana Maslany) is a young woman who is down on her luck when she meets her double, who turns out to be genetically identical. When her double dies, Sarah takes over her life. Then she meets another double, and another…. This is a constantly intriguing and frequently amusing drama as the doubles try to figure out their history while being faced with an acute danger – someone is trying to kill them. By the end of the first season, it becomes clear that being hunted is only one of their problems; they are also under covert observation and their future hangs by a thread. Maslany has great fun playing the various, and very varied, doubles and the constantly evolving plot gripped my attention from the start, with one unexpected twist after another. A second season is on the way – soon, I hope.

Orphan Black is a Canadian production, which reminded me of another from that country (which seems to be carving out an impressive niche in TV SF) whose second season I am impatiently awaiting: Continuum. Why it is taking so long for this to be available on DVD in the UK I don't know, but it is frustrating, because the first series was excellent and, as with Orphan Black, left the story dangling with much to be resolved.

Some good news - Person of Interest is back on UK TV for a second season! I really enjoyed the first season, in which the geeky inventor of an all-embacing computer surveillance and analysis system (Michael Emerson) recruits an action man (Jim Caviezel) to save people identified by the system as being at extreme risk of being involved in a violent crime - whether as the victim or perpetrator is not always clear. The contrast between the odd couple plus the two NYPD detectives who reluctantly become involved with them is the source of much entertainment, providing light relief from the action scenes. I didn't review it at the time as it seemed to me to be more of a technothriller than SF, but the second season starts with a new and more science-fictional development: the computer system has developed its own form of intelligence, and can be bargained with. I'm looking forward to the next twenty-two episodes.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Trouble Tide, and The Demon Breed, by James H Schmitz

James H. Schmitz has long been a favourite of mine and I have previously reviewed Witches of Karres and the short story Novice in this blog.  I summarised his writing as follows: "His fiction is characteristically light-hearted, fast-paced, amusing and entertaining. It straddles the SF/fantasy genres, can be equally enjoyed by adults and younger readers, and (unusually for the time and genres) features female characters who are at least as strong and interesting as the men. There is an innocent optimism about his stories which signifies an earlier age, one in which you know that the good guys will win out in the end and the bad guys get their just desserts. It is unthinkable that Schmitz would ever kill off one of his heroes or heroines; tragedy has no place in his writing. All of this makes his fiction perfect escapism, a kind of literary comfort food, a guilty pleasure. Yes, we know life will never be like that really, but it's fun to pretend for a while."

The Demon Breed is an old favourite which I had read two or three times before, but I was pleased for an excuse to read it again when it was chosen as a monthly read for the Classic Science Fiction
discussion group. My copy of this short novel is included in one of the series of anthologies of the author's work, edited by Eric Flint and published by Baen in 2001, in which it is listed as part of the Nile Etland saga, the other story in this group being the novella, Trouble Tide. Although I've had this book on my shelf for a while, I discovered that I'd never read the novella, so I decided to tackle that first.

Trouble Tide is set on the remote colony world of Nandy-Cline, whose economy largely depends on products from "sea beef"; huge, genetically modified hippos that live in the sea and are farmed by rival biochemical companies. Dr Nile Etland is a scientist in charge of the laboratory for one of the companies, highly intelligent and competent. She also happens to be an attractive young woman. In this story, she works closely with the equally capable Danrich Parrol, the general manager of the operation, with the aid of a pair of giant mutated sea-otters who are intelligent and able to use simple language. They investigate some troubling developments concerning the farmers who work for their company; an entire pack of a native sea-animals had been killed, and shortly afterwards the number of sea beef also showed a dramatic decline. Etland and Parrol race against time in a scientific detective hunt to discover what is happening, a chase resulting in various twists, turns and unexpected developments, during which they uncover evidence of skulduggery and experience some dramatic developments themselves. Typically for Schmitz, there is no hint of any romantic attachment between Etland and Parrol (or anyone else, for that matter), they are just colleagues who can depend on each other.

The Demon Breed is set on the same planet and also stars Nile Etland, although Danrich Parrol has only a small part to play in the conclusion of this story. This time, the other principal character is Ticos Cay, an elderly scientist who has marooned himself on one of the huge, floating islands of vegetation that dot the oceans of Nandy-Cline, in order to focus on life-extension research. The story begins with his capture by alien Parahuans who had secretly occupied some of the islands as a preliminary to invading the planet, the start of their revenge for losing an earlier war with the human Federation of the Hub. He discovers that the Parahuans had developed a theory that the humans had won only because they were secretly led by a small number of supermen called Tuvelas, and he tries to encourage this belief to discourage them from invading. He convinces them that one of the Tuvelas is present on Nandy-Cline in the form of Nile Etland, who as it happens is on her way to check on Ticos Cay's progress. What follows is a fast-paced, high-tension and hugely enjoyable thriller as Etland uses all of her mental and physical agility (plus some otters) to wage psychological warfare on the Parahuans.

This is more than just a fun story, though. Towards the end, in quite a long wrap-up sequence, Schmitz unusually makes explicit what has previously been only in the background: that the humans were successful because the Federation Overgovernment deliberately took a minimalist role, leaving it to individuals and communities to manage themselves including fighting crime. As he admits, the results were often unfair and cruel to individuals, but the outcome was a strong sense of self-reliance and individual responsibility, generating a flexibility of response and an all-round competence that gave humans an important advantage over more centrally-managed cultures like the Parahuans. A traditional American attitude, I suspect not likely to be shared by most Europeans!

These stories are so entertaining and gripping that I read both of them straight through in one evening without a break, 210 pages in total, and enjoyed every minute of it.

Saturday 9 November 2013

TV - Fringe (2008-13)

Well, I have finally reached the end of Fringe. It has unquestionably been one of the highlights of my TV watching over the last year, and will remain in my mind for a long time. I have been reflecting on why I found it so special.

In my first take on the series (posted in January 2013), which I wrote after watching only the first few episodes, I commented that Fringe frequently involved gruesome X-Files type biological/medical scenes which pushed it towards the horror field. On the other hand, it starred Australian actress Anna Torv as Agent Olivia Dunham, who "has immediately joined the select group of actors whose presence is an incentive for me to watch whatever she's in". I compared it with Warehouse 13, which I started at the same time but subsequently stopped watching after the first couple of series as it was too lightweight and repetitive to hold my attention, whereas I remained gripped by Fringe through all 100 episodes.

The second time I commented on Fringe was in September, when I wrote "Fringe continues to impress, 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."

This remained true for much of the series although as the climax of the final season approached, the parallel worlds plot was wound up (but not forgotten) and replaced by a new threat: the invasion of the bald, robotic Observers, supermen from the far future who set about ruining the Earth's atmosphere to suit what they were used to. I wondered beforehand how it might end – perhaps an all-action finale in which the Fringe team battle their way to their goal, getting killed off one by one until Olivia succeeds in thwarting the Observers' plan with her final dying effort? Not quite – in fact, not at all like that. The conclusion was satisfactory (with some reservations) but the pace surprisingly slow, with time-out being taken for various protracted emotional scenes - which I would have preferred rather less of.

It is probably not a good idea to think too deeply about the internal logic of the plotting in the final series. Having previously established the get-out-of-jail-free card of all time-travel series – the existence of parallel universes, thereby neatly sidestepping all of the usual paradoxes – the story line ultimately depends upon changing their existing time line rather than creating a new one. This throws up all of the usual "suppose you kill your own grandfather" type of questions. However, the story charges forward with such conviction and pizzazz that the plot holes rarely become obvious at the time of watching.

So, what was the basis of the appeal? An intriguing premise, much better than the X-Files because it was so much more than a collection of macabre stories; variety in the story lines with an overarching plot which kept developing in new and interesting ways; and above all, a really great ensemble cast backing up the deservedly multi-award-winning Anna Torv and making the most of the generous opportunities for character development. They really drew me into their world and made me care about what happened to them, which is the ultimate test of any fiction, written or on screen.

Saturday 2 November 2013

A Plague of Pythons, by Frederick Pohl

As promised a few weeks ago, I have re-read this 1965 book in memory of the late author. Since it is just under 170 pages long I did that in one session. This was my first reading of it since the 1970s and I had almost entirely forgotten the plot, so read the story with fresh eyes.

A Plague of Pythons is set in the late 20th century, in a radically changed world. Three years earlier, people had begun to suffer at random from what appeared to be temporary demonic possession, during which they frequently committed appalling acts including murder and suicide. This had caused the gradual breakdown of society, with people closing in on themselves and their local communities. Services we take for granted such as air travel and television had almost entirely vanished.

Chandler is on trial for the rape of a teenage girl, something which he did while possessed. However, his explanation is not believed because the crime took place in a pharmaceutical company, one of the few locations which had been spared such incidents. An unexpected reprieve leads to him living a nomadic existence until he is possessed again and made to travel to a location where he discovers what is really going on and finds himself fighting for his life – and to end the plague of demonic possessions.

As usual for the period, this is fast-paced with the emphasis on plot and action and little time for characterisation. However, it is an unusually dark and thought-provoking story. Initially it seems to be a clear-cut good vs evil plot, but as the climax approaches some moral ambiguity begins to creep in and in the end Chandler himself faces the ultimate dilemma. It is the kind of ending which forces readers to consider; "well, what would I do in those circumstances?"

The basic plot idea strongly reminded me of John D MacDonald's 1951 story Wine of the Dreamers. Another old favourite I must read again soon.