Saturday 24 October 2015

Roads Not Taken, edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt

Another long-standing member of my reading pile! This anthology, published in 1998, consists of alternate history stories which appeared in the magazines Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact, whose editors have made the selection. The book commences with a brief introduction to alternate history by Shelly Shapiro, Executive Editor of Del Rey Books. There are ten stories, as follows:

Must and Shall by Harry Turtledove (1995). Set in the American Civil War, in which one new event dramatically changes history – but not, unusually, the victor – with dire long-term consequences.

An Outpost of the Empire by Robert Silverberg (1991). One of the author's Roma series, in which the Roman Empire survived to the present day. A new Roman proconsul arrives to take responsibility for Venice, but a high-born lady of the city is determined to be in charge.

We Could Do Worse by Gregory Benford (1989). A dystopian USA in which the changed outcome of a 1950s presidential election has disastrous results.

Over There by Mike Resnick (1991). Theodore Roosevelt successfully campaigns to reform his Rough Riders to take a decisive role in World War 1. For once, this story is not concerned with significant changes in history, but only the consquences of the change for individuals.

Ink from the New Moon by A.A. Attanasio (1992). A world in which the great Chinese naval explorations of the fifteenth century were continued instead of abandoned, resulting in the Chinese occupation of the "Americas". The story concerns what happened when Christopher Columbus arrives and meets the Chinese inhabitants.

Southpaw by Bruce McAllister (1993). Apparently Fidel Castro was once such a promising young baseball player that he was offered a contract by a major US team. He spent some time considering it before turning it down. But what if he had accepted?

The West is Red by Greg Costikyan (1994). Suppose that communism had lived up to its promise and provided a more efficient system of running a country than capitalism? A very different post-1945 world emerges…

The Forest of Time by Michael F. Flynn (1987). A time-traveller, desperate to get home but lost in the ever-branching possible worlds his own journeys are creating, arrives in an alternate world in which the USA has never been formed. Unusually, this story is seen from the perspective of a native of that world, as he tries to judge whether the man is insane, a liar, or telling the truth.

Aristotle and the Gun by L. Sprague de Camp (1958). A disillusioned scientist working on a time-travel machine decides to use it to escape from his unsatisfactory life. He chooses to go back to meet Aristotle in the hope of guiding his scientific development, with unexpected consequences. "Be careful what you wish for" might be the sub-title!

How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion by Gene Wolfe (1973). An amusing story concerning a late-1930s world in which Hitler had decided to go for economic rather than military domination. Meanwhile, the narrator and his friend were working on a board game involving a war in Europe.

I hadn't come across any of these stories before, so this was an interesting read. They are all good, which should come as no surprise given the editors, but the stand-out one for me was Flynn's tale. It is the longest, at 70 pages, which gave the author the space to develop his characters and their situation. The distress of the time traveller, separated from his lover by the every-growing forest of alternate worlds, strikes a chord. It was nominated for a Hugo award, entirely justified given that it is written so well and to such haunting effect. Like most of the other stories here, it gives a convincing portrayal of how minor changes can have major consequences.

Saturday 17 October 2015

TV – Orphan Black, season 3 (2015)

I discovered quite by chance that BBC has been showing the third season of the Canadian SF thriller Orphan Black.  Curiously, they launched it by putting all ten episodes up on the BBC iPlayer - the internet-based service normally used for storing, for one month, programmes already broadcast, for the benefit of those who missed them. They followed this up by showing the episodes on BBC3 in the middle of the night, without any publicity. Fortunately, our internet connection has at last improved to the point at which we can watch video without constant buffering, so we've been catching up with the series.

To refresh the memory – from my previous blog comments:

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.

The second season has the story of the assorted group of clones continuing as they struggle to discover how to respond to the various threats facing them, not least a lethal genetic illness. What makes this so entertaining is that, while it certainly isn't a comedy, there is enough humour in it to balance the drama.

The third season continues directly from the previous one, with the emergence of a second line of clones – this time men (all played by Ari Millen) – providing more complications for the band of "sisters" as they try to find a way out of their multiple problems, with competing organisations taking an uncomfortably close interest in them. The drama is as good as ever, as is Maslany whose performance has rightly won awards. Her pony-tailed Alison still makes me smile every time she appears – a wonderful portrayal of an obsessively conventional suburban "soccer mom" who develops criminal tendencies. As the tension increases in the first few episodes of this season, the dark humour which previously added to the entertainment is scaled down, although the seventh episode switches mood and returns to the original form, with a lot of laugh-out-loud scenes (mostly involving Alison, naturally).

The finale sees the core of the mystery of the sisters' origins revealed and some problems solved – but others still lie ahead. Fortunately, another ten-episode season is on the way. Overall, the result is a multi-layered, constantly developing and gripping plot which puts Orphan Black among the very best SF series.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Blackout, & All Clear, by Connie Willis

I have had these books in my reading pile for some years, but until now have been put off from tackling them by their massive size. Don’t be fooled by the different titles; they are not separate novels, but constitute one continuous story some 1,500 pages long. The prospect of a couple of weeks away from home involving several long flights encouraged me to pick them up (risking excess baggage charges!) and in fact they lasted me for the whole holiday and a week afterwards.

Those who have read this author’s other work will find themselves in familiar territory: Oxford in 2060, with the university using a time machine to explore the past. The regular crew of Mr Dunworthy in charge aided by Badri the technical time-travel expert are present and correct, with other familiar names also popping up. Those who have not read other stories set in this world have a steep learning curve to climb, as no concessions are made in the way of introductions or explanations – readers have to make sense of it as the plot develops.

The focus of this story is on World War 2 in general and the London Blitz of 1940-41 in particular (hence the titles), with the action following several time-travelling historians in this period.  Scenes are set in the Dunkirk evacuation, the preparations for D day, the celebrations for VE day in 1945, with a final visit in 1995. The structure is for each chapter to follow a particular character at a particular time, with chapters hopping about between both characters and time periods (some of the characters appear in more than one period, sometimes under different assumed names, just to keep readers on their toes). To make matters even more confusing, some of the characters visit different time periods out of sequence – for example, they spend some in time in 1944 before subsequently travelling to 1940 – whereas others stay in sequence, confusing their relationships somewhat. The author must have worked out a complicated time chart of who was appearing when under which identity and what happened to them at each stage to keep on top of all this. The reader just has to stay alert, concentrate hard and try to read the story over a short period of time to avoid losing the plot. Making notes might be helpful, not just of the cast of characters but also of the terminology of time travel: for example drops and retrievals, flash time and real time, and temporal slippage.

The main plot thread is a technical hitch with the time-travel system, which prevents it from working for several months during the Blitz. This causes all sorts of problems for the trapped historians, who are desperate to return (in some cases, being faced with death if they do not). Characteristically of Willis, the overall mood is one of perpetual frustration as one plan after another keeps going wrong. While the historians try to solve their problems, at first individually and then together, we learn a great deal about them and about the period in which they are trapped.

This is the real strength of the novel; Connie Willis has exhaustively researched the period in terms of both historical events and the social background, and the result is a very richly detailed world which readers share with the cast of characters as they develop. Much of the story is rather downbeat, concerning the increasing desperation of the characters as they face one problem after another, but as usual, there is a lot of humour spread through the writing to lighten the mood. Mostly this is integral to the writing but there are some comic set-pieces, most memorably a confrontation between a bull and an inflatable battle tank. The ending is satisfying; bitter-sweet and elegiac, and with a new take on the eternal question of free will versus fate.

In one sense Blackout and All Clear are typical of this author as they are written in her distinctive style, but they differ in being on such an epic scale. While admiring her story-telling ability, I have complained in the past about the excessive wordage and repetition in the author’s writing, but I have no objections this time. The length and detail are necessary to create the richness and authenticity that make this story so memorable and left this reader rather emotionally drained. It is a magnificent achievement, and rightly won the Hugo award.

Saturday 3 October 2015

Films: Shaun the Sheep (2015), and Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

And now for something completely different…

Aardman Animations is a spectacularly successful British film studio specialising in the "old fashioned" stop-motion clay animation technique. Ostensibly their films and TV series are aimed at children but their humour has universal appeal and they are very popular with adults. Characteristically, many of the jokes are so quick-fire that it takes more than one viewing to spot them all. Their most famous feature-length film is probably the multiple-award-winning Chicken Run (2000), but they were already very popular for their shorter films; Creature Comforts (1989) and, above all, the Wallace and Gromit series starting with A Grand Day Out (1989), then The Wrong Trousers (1993 – Academy Award winner), A Close Shave (1995 – Academy Award winner), and A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008), plus a feature film: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005 – Academy Award winner). Wallace and Gromit have now acquired the status of national treasures, with each new outing eagerly anticipated.

One of the characters in A Close Shave is a small, mischievous sheep who loses most of his wool after being shorn by one of Wallace's fantastic machines so was promptly dubbed Shaun. This character proved so popular that in 2007 he was given his own, long-running TV series Shaun the Sheep (130 seven-minute episodes and counting) and this year has appeared in a feature film with the same title. The setting for each TV episode is the same: a small, bucolic farm in which Shaun and the rest of the flock are always up to some mischief, despite the efforts of Bitzer the sheepdog and the (nameless) Farmer to keep them in line. One unusual feature is that there is no speech – neither dialogue nor voice-over – so the humour is entirely visual, but there is usually at least one laugh-out-loud moment for adults in every episode.

In the feature film, the Farmer is accidentally transported to the big city where he loses his memory. Shaun, Bitzer and the flock chase after him in order to rescue him but have to contend with Trumper, an evil catcher of stray animals. Needless to say, after many bizarre and hilarious adventures all ends happily with the recovered Farmer back on the farm and Trumper receiving his just desserts (that really isn't a spoiler – all of the Shaun series end in the same way!).

I was a bit concerned that stretching the adventure to a feature-length 85 minutes wouldn't work as well as the brilliant shorts, but I needn't have worried; the film maintains a high standard and has already received the universal critical acclaim which has become almost routine for Aardman's output. There is talk of a sequel, but the stop-motion technique is so painfully slow to produce that it will be a long time coming.


Race to Witch Mountain is nominally aimed at somewhat older youngsters. The plot is basically the same as Paul (reviewed here in May last year): alien(s) loose on Earth are being hunted by evil-minded authorities and recruit the help of ordinary people to escape and reach the location from which they can be returned to their native planet. The difference is that while Paul is an hilarious spoof of the genre, RTWM takes itself more seriously. Thankfully it does have some amusing moments, but the plot and production struck me as very routine and by-the-numbers, and the film was not really worth the time taken to watch it. Maybe I should have watched this before watching Paul