Saturday 26 December 2015

The Line of Polity, by Neal Asher

The Line of Polity (TLoP) is the second novel in the author's Agent Cormac series, the first (Gridlinked) being reviewed here in February 2012. A couple of extracts from that review in the way of introduction:

The novel starts in the twenty-fifth century when humanity has spread to many worlds using FTL ships, but has since installed interstellar matter-transmitters known as runcibles for routine travel. This empire (known as the Polity) is managed not by people but by Artificial Intelligences which vastly exceed human capabilities. They are linked via the AI Grid, to which some humans also have direct mind links surgically implanted in their brains. The Polity's interests are defended by the ECS (Earth Central Security) which sends agents wherever trouble arises. Their top agent is Ian Cormac, who has been gridlinked for thirty years - ten years longer than the recommended maximum.

The story has many familiar SF elements: modified human types (including outlinkers who are specialised for life in zero-gravity space stations); artificial humans (golems) who are much faster and stronger than any human; physically boosted soldiers (sparkind); anti-gravity machines, anti-matter bombs and proton beam weapons. This is all combined into a page-turning thriller which maintains a brisk pace despite being over 500 pages long. It is quite a traditional story, filled with the basic optimism of a galaxy-wide humanity, but is none the worse for that.

It is not essential to have read Gridlinked first but it is helpful as TLoP features several of the same characters as well as the same background (which is explained more thoroughly in Gridlinked), and there are various references to the characters' shared history.

TLoP begins in the currently fashionable way by starting several separate plot threads running, in various locations and with different characters, that initially have no obvious connection but which gradually merge, mostly towards the end of the story (one of them isn't explained until right at the end). The main focus is the planet Masada, run by a ruthless, absolutist theocracy living in luxurious orbiting satellites while human slaves are used as farm labourers on the planet's surface, whose atmosphere holds insufficient oxygen to support human life (symbiotic creatures are attached to the labourers to provide them with sufficient oxygen in their blood). Masada is just outside the boundary-line of the Polity, but there are plans afoot to support a rebellion to overthrow the theocracy.

The beginning is set on Masada as we follow a young female slave, Eldene, in her dangerous task of harvesting the valuable squerms, fierce creatures whose flesh is a delicacy throughout human space. We next meet Apis, a young Outlinker whose space station is being attacked by a type of fungus; and all this is still in the Prologue. In the main body of the novel we soon meet Skellor, a rogue genius inventor who has acquired some technology from the long-dead Jain alien civilisation; Aberil and Loman Dorth, rulers of the theocracy; Lellan Stanton, leader of the (literally) Underground resistance on Masada; plus some characters familiar from Gridlinked: the mercenary Ian Stanton (Lellan's brother) and his partner Jarvellis; Mika the scientist; the ECS agents Thorn and Cormac; and last but not least, the vast alien being called the Dragon and its creations, the dracomen.

What follows is a complex series of increasingly interrelated plots as Eldene makes her bid for freedom with the aid of the enigmatic fellow-slave Fethan, the theocracy perfects its devastating orbital weapon designed to penetrate to the deep caves of the Underground, Skellor tests the transformative power of the Jain device, Ian Stanton and his sister work to free Masada while the theocracy is tightening its grip, and Cormac is in the middle of the whirlwind, attempting to deal with the Dragon which (as usual) has its own agenda.

This book is even longer than its predecessor at 650 pages but the story rattles along at a good pace. Despite the number of characters and the constantly switching viewpoints it is not too difficult to keep up with who's who and doing what to whom. There is the odd eyebrow-raising element which (as is so often the case) is not concerned with the big story elements but some of the incidental details. The one which struck me most here was the presence of theatrically extreme predators on Masada, orders of magnitude bigger than their prey. A cursory glance at the history of life on Earth indicates that the top land predators (lions, wolves, even T. Rex) are generally smaller than their prey – really big predators have been rare and tend to die out as soon as conditions for them become less than optimal, because they have to eat so much just to stay alive – and no explanation is provided about why Masada should be so different.

Despite this niggle I enjoyed TLoP and will acquire the three remaining novels featuring Ian Cormac: Brass Man, Polity Agent and Line War.

Saturday 19 December 2015

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

I don't normally read traditional fantasies (as opposed to contemporary ones set in our present-day world, for which I have a particular fondness) but this one received such enthusiastic endorsements from members of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group that I sent off for it to see what the fuss was about.

Maia is a crossbreed between the two races that occupy his world, known as goblins and elves. Such crossbreeds are not so unusual, despite the fact that the elves consider themselves to be superior and look down on any with goblin blood. What is unusual is that Maia's father is the Emperor of the Elvish Imperial Court, Maia himself being the outcome of a brief and unsuccessful political marriage. The end of that marriage saw him banished to a remote rural settlement at a young age, under the control of a cruel, out-of-favour courtier who was banished with him.

The story begins with a shocking development: an Imperial Courier arrives with news that the Emperor plus all of his other sons have died in an airship crash, so at the age of eighteen Maia is transported to the magnificent Imperial Court – a world completely alien to him – to take on a role no-one (least of all Maia) expected to fall to him. He is faced with a minefield of procedures and protocol and the sneering dismissal of much of the court, so he sets about finding allies who will advise and assist him. The book covers his bumpy progress in the first few months of his reign, as the shy, gauche and ill-educated youth gradually develops the confidence and determination to overcome his disadvantages and become a true Emperor.

So far this seems like the plot of any number of fantasies set in a world which is a kind of cross between medieval and steampunk themes, with an elaborate court, a guild system and huge differences between rich and poor. On the technological side there are large-scale clockwork mechanisms and hydrogen-filled airships used for high-value travel.  But what sets The Goblin Emperor apart is the quality of the story-telling. The author draws in the reader to empathise with and cheer on Maia to such a degree that this particular reader finished this heart-warming tale – all 500 pages of it – in just two days; it is one of the most unputdownable books I have read in a very long time. I was most reminded of the Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz, a long-time favourite.

About the only criticism I have is of the names of the many characters. The author has worked out a complex naming system that is explained in an appendix, along with a list of the characters (very necessary, and I found myself constantly referring to it to try to keep tabs on who's who). However, even with this aid it is not at all easy to keep up, as the names are listed alphabetically by family name followed by individual names, but the characters are often referred to by their individual names only. This appendix could do with a lot more structure.

A few other observations: considering the baggage carried by the names "goblins" and "elves", it is surprising that the author appropriated them to describe her two races of people who are clearly human in all essential respects, with just enough physical differences to make it obvious that we are not talking about Homo sapiens. The author also dangles some fantasy tropes, such as a rare and precious sword given to the Emperor and a flash of magic from one of the characters, without explaining them or taking them any further. All set up for the next volume of the usual long series, then? Apparently not; despite the fact that her hero has only just overcome the worst of his initial problems, no direct sequel is planned. For once I find that very regrettable, as there are plenty of questions left dangling and lots of scope for exploring other aspects of an interesting world.

Katherine Addison is a pen-name of the established fantasy author Sarah Monette. The Goblin Emperor was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards and won the 2015 Locus Award for best fantasy novel. If you want a hugely enjoyable feel-good story to lose yourself in, you can't do much better than this.

Saturday 12 December 2015

Film: Continuum (2013)

First of all, this Continuum is absolutely nothing to do with any other recent productions of the same name: not the Canadian TV series concerning a time-travelling police officer; nor the different TV series about a woman who wakes up in a drifting spaceship; nor the new film about gangs in the Twin Cities. To further confuse matters, this film is also known in the USA as I'll Follow You Down.

This Continuum is a Canadian film about Gabe (Rufus Sewell), a physics professor who mysteriously disappears in 2000, leaving behind Marika (Gillian Anderson), a devastated and completely baffled wife, and young son Erol. A dozen years later Erol (now Haley Joel Osment) has grown up to be a physics genius who sets out to discover what really happened to his dad – which proves to be something science-fictiony. I can't say more without spoilers, so if you like surprises and have avoided information about the film so far, you'd better stop reading now, and just note that it is serious, adult film concerning the consequences of choices that people make.


Gabe's father Sal (Victor Garber), yet another physicist, reveals to Erol that he has found evidence among the material Gabe left behind that he had invented a time machine which he had used to go back to a date in 1946 to meet Albert Einstein (this is the suspension-of-disbelief bit; swallow that and what follows is relatively sensible). Erol researches the date in old newspaper files and discovers that a body of an unidentified man had been found, killed by muggers. Could this have been his father?

Erol is able to recreate the time machine from his father's notes and plans to set off for 1946 to try to ensure that his father returns home to 2000, thereby preventing a series of tragedies. But he is torn because of the relationship he is in with the love of his life – if he changes history back to what it "should" be, will he lose her?

This is an interesting film with a simple plot and only one – in retrospect, logical – plot twist right at the end. In fact, the ending came as a surprise simply because it was so abrupt. I was not entirely convinced by the internal logic of the argument concerning different time lines, but if you are interested in exploring some of the more difficult issues which time travel could bring, then you will probably enjoy this thoughtful story.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Interzone 258-260

I haven't posted anything about the last three issues of this magazine so far, because I did not like any of the stories in Issue 258 so thought it better to skip that. This experience rather put me off reading the two subsequent issues, other than the usual comprehensive book and film reviews, but I've finally caught up with the stories. I won't list all of them but just mention a couple I enjoyed enough to feel that I might want to read more about the worlds created in them.

My favourite, by some distance, was in Issue 260: Murder on the Laplacian Express by C A Hawksmoor, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. A Jupiter covered with jungle (however did that happen?); a terraformed Mars with breathable atmosphere; spacecraft in the form of long trains of linked compartments, capable of planetary landings; a strange non-religious sect enhanced by “pneuma” machines integrated with their nervous systems; prison space stations in rebellion; and a likeable heroine, all packed into an exciting short story. Much more about this universe, please!

Also worth noting in the same issue is No Rez, the first story by Jeff Noon to appear in Interzone. Surreal, intriguing and fast moving, it conjours up a future world so grim that people only observe it through optical implants, but the more money they have, the higher the resolution they can afford. Like most Interzone stories it is dystopian, but there is a hopeful ending.

Other topics covered in the stories are school shootings, a flooded Beirut, a world populated by clones, another in which unproductive members of society are “weeded”, and an apparently immortal intelligent manatee…

One interesting item in Issue 259 concerns a take on superhero movies by Simon Pegg, the actor/writer/director who has been involved in many SFF films including Shaun of the Dead and Paul:

"Obviously I'm very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we've been infantilised by our own taste. We're essentially all consuming childish things - comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

It's a kind of dumbing down because it's taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys. Now we're not really thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot."

I have a lot of sympathy with this concern and have previously complained on my blog that superhero movies are becoming increasingly bereft of any plot or characterisation. Even when a series starts out relatively well - for instance the first Iron Man film and Thor - the sequels ditch the more thoughtful elements in favour of more fights, chases and explosions. Are we allowing the dramatic capabilities of CGI to distract us from the lack of any worthwhile content? Is it really satisfying to spend time watching productions aimed at the comprehension level and attention span of a pre-teen boy?

Fortunately there are other SFF films aimed at audiences who are a bit older (e.g. The Hunger Games) or a lot older (e.g. Ex Machina). The puzzle is why the superhero movies appeal to so many adults; let’s face it, the whole concept of superheroes is fundamentally juvenile.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Film: The Core (2003)

This is one disaster movie that I missed when it first came around. It begins with various mysterious events connected with electromagnetic disturbances. It is eventually realised that these events are all connected to one occurrence: the Earth's core has stopped rotating, so the electromagnetic shield which protects our planet from most of the solar radiation is dissipating. Before long, this will lead to the end of life on Earth.

Not to worry, we just visit the core and kick-start the thing. Cue a solitary scientist and inventor who just happens to have devised a machine with a laser cutting device which can drill its own tunnel through rock at high speed, and who also happens to have developed an almost indestructible material capable of resisting the enormous pressure and heat close to the core. He dubs the substance "unobtainium", although "impossibilium" would have been closer. So five intrepid explorers set off in his machine on a trip to the core, armed with a handful of 200 megaton fusion bombs to persuade the planet to behave.

It is fair to say that accepting this scenario involves a truly heroic suspension of disbelief, and most of us won't make it. It is almost as bad as swallowing the Mayan "end-of-the-world predictions" in 2012. However, having said that, in other respects the film isn't as bad as it might have been. The rest of this review contains some spoilers.


So what's good about the film? Thankfully, there are no broken marriages to be repaired, or cute, screaming children who need to be rescued (we see a photo of one of the characters' family, which is bearable); the characters basically get on with the job rather than wasting time emoting; the obligatory attractive female on the crew (Hilary Swank) is the very tough and capable pilot; the hero (Aaron Eckhart) is a charismatic college science teacher (imagine that!); there are some grim tragedies as the team members are killed one by one but, despite this, the mood is lightened by frequent flashes of humour in the reasonably adult dialogue; and at the end of the film the male and female survivors do not form a romantic liaison but plan to return to their previous jobs. Which all makes a pleasant change from Hollywood routine.

I gather that The Core had mixed reviews and turned out to be a commercial flop, which is no great surprise. However, it is not bad entertainment as long as you can swallow the initial impossibilities; the acting is fine, with Swank and Eckhart in particular carrying off their roles well enough. Not an entirely wasted couple of hours.