Friday 14 December 2018

The Fifth Force, by Libby McGugan


This is the (long delayed) sequel to the author's first novel, The Eidolon, which impressed me so much when I reviewed it over four years ago. This is my review from then:

The plot is set in the present day and concerns Robert Strong, a young theoretical physicist who is contacted by the Observation Research Board, a shadowy but powerful organisation. ORB presents convincing research evidence that the experiments with the CERN Large Hadron Collider may result in the creation of "strangelets", sub-atomic particles which, by interacting with ordinary matter, could destroy our present reality. However, CERN had dismissed the risk, so ORB wants Strong to sabotage their research before it is too late.

So far the plot seems like a techno-thriller with a rather more fundamental plot than most, and (as far as I am competent to judge) the author has done her research into theoretical physics while displaying her knowledge with a light touch that doesn't distract from the story. What struck me first about the novel is how beautifully and intelligently written it is, how full of perceptive observations. It's difficult to write a lot more without spoilers, so all I will say is that the plot develops in very unexpected and increasingly strange directions that compel Strong to question his understanding of the nature of reality.

The Eidolon is that rare thing, a novel with a unique and intriguing plot that has no respect for traditional genre boundaries. The only other book I have read in recent years of which I could say the same is China Miéville's The City and the City. While The Eidolon is complete in itself, the world the author has created clearly has far more scope for exploration, so I was delighted to read in the interview that she is working on the sequel. That one will go straight to the top of my reading pile.

Given the length of time that has passed, I decided to re-read The Eidolon before starting The Fifth Force (prompted also by its choice as as a book of the month for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group (https://groups.io/g/ClassicScienceFiction/topics ) . I read it in two sessions and was just as gripped by the story the second time around, especially since I had forgotten most of the plot! The quality of the writing shines throughout; to give an example chosen at random:

A lazy winter sun struggles to dispel the bleak mist that lingers over the land like  banished cloud. The glen has an earthy scent; the scent of wood and plants and rain and life: not the sterile life of the city, but the life that grows and struggles and prevails unnoticed all around. The engine room of the planet. As I walk up along the well-trodden path I listen to the sound of my boots on the rocks and soil. It makes me feel a part of the land, that noise. But I'm uneasy. I feel like a guitar that's out of tune, too subtly to say which string is off, but enough to know that the whole thing doesn't sound right.

The Fifth Force follows on directly from The Eidolon, and there are some discreet prompts to refresh the memory (nothing so crude as an infodump). WARNING – it is really impossible to write about The Fifth Force without including some fairly massive spoilers for The Eidolon – so if you haven't yet read the first novel but intend to, it's better to stop reading NOW!

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One thing I like about the first book is the gradual shift from a straightforward espionage story through science fiction and on to fantasy. Inevitably, that intriguing journey is missing from the sequel, which while still being set in the present-day world is definitely fantasy – with elements of horror, but not the traditional vampire zombie gore.

Robert Strong is struggling to get used to his new identity as one of the Eidolon – one of the few beings who do not "pass on" at death but remain rooted in the real world, albeit with various super-human abilities (which prove to be decidedly difficult to master). After thwarting the plans of that embodiment of evil, Viktor Amos, Robert is on the run, trying to protect himself and his loved ones from the long reach of Amos's ORB. There are several elements to the story involving different individuals, and concentration is needed to keep track of them all. Apart from Robert and his friends from the first book (who have no idea what Robert has become), there are staff of the ORB and CERN, a few of the Eidolon who are dedicated to helping him, academics who are investigating a strange upsurge in telepathy among the general population, a mother whose young son appears to remember a past life, an investigative journalist who is commissioned to track Robert down, and some Tibetan monks. And running through this is the fate of an ancient Mandala and stone which Amos is very keen to obtain.


So there's a lot going on and a lesser author would have me scratching my head trying to recall who was who and doing what to whom and why, but McGugan does a competent job of keeping even a forgetful reader like myself up to speed. The Fifth Force is a wild ride and ends on something of a cliff-hanger. I notice on the cover of the book that this is Book 2 of the Quantum Ghosts trilogy, so I only hope that we don't have to wait another four years for the final part!

Sunday 25 November 2018

Four-Sided Triangle, and Shoot at the Moon, by William F. Temple


The British Library is continuing to republish long-forgotten books in its Science Fiction Classics series. They have kindly sent me two of these for review: Four-Sided Triangle, and Shoot at the Moon, both by British author William F. Temple. The first was originally published in 1949, the second in 1966 – at the beginning and the end of his writing career.

I had certainly never read Four-Sided Triangle before, and found it intriguing for a number of reasons. In the introduction by Mike Ashley, we learn that the original idea appeared as a short story before World War 2. Temple decided it was worth expanding to novel length, but had to overcome a number of difficulties. First was being called up to the army during the war; he decided to write it anyway whenever he could find the time, and wrote about half of it, before the manuscript was lost during a battle in North Africa. So he started again and once more had reached about half-way when another battle, in Italy, saw it disappearing again. This time he waited until after the war before making a third, successful, attempt (no doubt with gritted teeth!).

The end result is quite long for an SF novel of the 1940s, at 300 pages. This gives plenty of space for developing the plot and the characters, and Temple makes full use of that. What would conventionally be the three principal characters – Bill, an erratic scientific genius; Rob, his friend and a steadier, more methodical type of experimenter; and Lena, a young woman who appears later – are not in fact the narrators. That task falls to a rather elderly family doctor who lives in the same town and knows the characters well; he gives his first person account of what happened.

There are some surprises in this story – elements I would not expect to see in an SF novel of this period. For example, the doctor describes Bill's dreadful early life in poverty, living with a drunken father who beat him for any reason or none; then adds: "There was, too, a certain Uncle Joe, a pervert, whose occasional appearance brought a grotesque strain into this symphony of existence." After the death of Bill's father the doctor becomes Bill's guardian, as "His odious Uncle Joe was at that time in the second week of a the first year of a long sojourn in Parkhurst Prison." Lena first comes to the doctor's attention as a result of a suicide attempt; and late one evening when the doctor first takes Bill to meet her, she causes some consternation as she appears "wearing that lovely cherry smile and not a thing else". All of this, combined with philosophical as well as scientific debates, makes it clear that this is
"grown up" fiction in contrast with the rather juvenile reputation of SF at that time.

Bill and Rob, with the aid of Rob's wealthy father, have set up a laboratory near the town to follow up some revolutionary ideas of Bill's. This is the stage when the SF element appears for the first time; over 80 pages into the novel! What Bill has invented is a Reproducer – a machine which scans any object and produces an exact copy, down to the atomic level. The two young experimenters go into mass production of unique artworks, but soon run into unexpected problems and find themselves in a downward spiral leading to disaster – albeit with a partially satisfactory ending eventually salvaged. I can't say more without major spoilers, so if you want to read the book, stop reading this review NOW!

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The problems begin when both Rob and Bill fall in love with the captivating Lena. She chooses Rob, so Bill devises a plan to replicate her in order to have his own version of her. The plan succeeds and "Dorothy" duly emerges, but there is an obvious flaw in Bill's reasoning (which the reader is liable to forecast long before the author reveals it) – since Lena is madly in love with Rob, so also is Dorothy, as she is exactly the same, including emotions. This causes all manner of problems made even worse when Bill departs the scene, as Rob is a very traditional, religious, English gentleman, and refuses the women's reasonable suggestion that they should share him. Eventually, events provide a solution of a sort (with the help of some underhand tactics by the Doctor).

Overall, the main point to make is that although the SF element is essential in providing the conditions for the plot, it doesn't really play any other part. This is a novel of human relationships and the way in which people respond to an unprecedented situation, and it is full of thoughtful philosophical analysis and debate. This might seem to be rather dull, but I found it interesting. What I did not like was the author's fondness for rather depressing hints of future tragedy, as in "I am writing with memories of events yet to come in this narrative and with a sense of loss yet gnawing at my heart".

There is one respect in which the story is of its time – it adopts the SF trope of the genius scientist working alone and being left to exploit his invention as he thinks fit. In reality, of course, fundamental technological advances require considerable communal effort and if anyone did come up with anything like the Reproducer, it would promptly be acquired by the government and put under military guard, with the inventors being made an offer that they couldn't refuse! A film was made of this story in 1953 and while I have not seen it, the plot summary I have read reveals that, among other changes, there is considerably more emphasis on secrecy and security.

All in all, an unusual story which was highly regarded when it first appeared and is still well worth reading today.

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Shoot at the Moon is a more conventional kind of SF story in its plot, although not in its satirical approach to it. The story is told in the first person by Franz Brunel, an embittered and cantankerous spacecraft pilot who had been given the chance to pilot an experimental and largely automated nuclear-powered spacecraft to the moon. There were four other crew members: Colonel Marley, a brutal bully in command of the expedition; his genius daughter Lou; Thomson, a doctor who enjoyed practical jokes; and Pettigue, a withdrawn and uncommunicative scientist. Altogether a very badly matched crew, as Brunel observes, complicated by the fact that the wayward Lou had decided that Brunel would be her next husband, regardless of his attempts to hold her at bay and despite the strong disapproval of her father.

One of the elements of the plot is the effect of increasing automation on employment; Brunel's own job is at risk. Like most writers of the time, Temple assumed that automation would mean that those with jobs would not have to work very hard so would have lots of spare time. The hard commercial reality that those in work would have to work a lot harder for no more money has undermined those utopian dreams.

As with his first book, thoughtful philosophy features as well as analyses of the personalities and mental states of the crew, especially the schizophrenic but irresistible Lou. There is more action in this story, however: as one person after another is killed in suspicious circumstances, Brunel has to try to pin down the cause before anyone else dies. The resolution of that mystery is a classic piece of SF imagination leading to a triumphant conclusion. I read the 240-page book in two sessions, reading late into the night, which is always a good recommendation.  I particularly liked the darkly sardonic humour threaded through the tale. An enjoyable read!

William F. Temple was one of the most popular British SF writers in the 1950s but, unlike his contemporary John Wyndham, is largely forgotten today. In some ways he was unlucky: his tribulations in getting The Four-Sided Triangle written are described above, but the fate of Shoot at the Moon was worse. It was initially very well received and both a major publicity effort and film rights were being negotiated in the USA, when (as described by Mike Ashley in his usual interesting introduction) one newspaper critic wrote a sarcastic review. This caused the publisher to cancel the publicity, and the proposed film was never made. Temple did write one other story, but he basically gave up writing after that. A sad way to finish a productive career.


Sunday 4 November 2018

Windhaven: The Graphic Novel, by George R.R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle


A graphic novel is a new experience for me. I have never considered buying one, probably because I associate them with the comic books of my youth (mostly featuring derring-do in World War 2). However, I understand they are popular with a wider audience these days, and since Windhaven is a novel I like and have reviewed here, I accepted the offer from Titan Comics to review the graphic version of it.

I will start by replicating my review of the print version:

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.

The first point to note about the graphic version is that the adaptation was done by Lisa Tuttle, co-author of the original novel, which is a big plus point. The artwork is by Elsa Charretier. The book is a smart hardback, the full-colour graphics printed on high-quality paper; it is an attractive book to handle and look through. Unlike the comics of my childhood, the illustrations of the characters are, well, somewhat stylised and cartoonish rather than realistic, but I understand that is the popular fashion these days. Most of the text consists of dialogue, supplemented by a few short information boxes per page. Effectively the text forms a precis of the print book, and a good one too – all of the key moments are there.

I approached this book with some reservations (which would also apply to any other graphic novel) because of the way in which I normally experience a novel. While I don't do this consciously, I realise that when I read a text, the words generate pictures in my mind; effectively, I create my own movie as I read. This quite strongly affects my experience of the story. For example, if the text describes a building on one side of a river, I form an image of the view with the building located on what I think is the correct side. If, later on, it turns out that the author means the building to be on the other side of the river, I find this very disorientating. I generally find that it is very difficult to rewind and "reshoot" the view in my mind to match the change;  it is easier to ignore the author's words and continue to picture it on the "wrong" side, unless that really messes up the plot. With a graphic novel of course this situation cannot arise: in effect, the reader is seeing the illustrator's movie of the story (or stills from it, at any rate). This reduces my involvement in the story as I become a spectator rather than a participant.

However, I need not have worried. Somewhat to my surprise, I was immediately drawn into the story once more and read it without a break (it took about an hour, a quarter of the time it takes me to read the print version). Of course, it is a different kind of experience to reading the print novel but I found that I had no problems with getting into and appreciating the story, and the conclusion was still moving. I was aware that my familiarity with the tale may have enabled me to understand the context rather more easily than a newcomer to the story could manage, but it's impossible for me to assess that.

What is the value of the graphic version of this (or any) novel? It certainly saves time and some mental effort, so is an easier way to enjoy the story. It is more accessible, potentially stimulating an interest in the story which could be a lead-in to the print version. It is unlikely that I will ever prefer the graphic format, as I gain so much pleasure from exercising my imagination as I read, but I found the graphic Windhaven surprisingly enjoyable.



Saturday 13 October 2018

Six Moon Dance, by Sheri Tepper; and Armor, by John Steakley


Six Moon Dance was chosen by the classic SF discussion group https://groups.io/g/ClassicScienceFiction/ as one of its monthly reads, and being a long-term fan of Sheri Tepper I made a point of acquiring a copy. It is a stand-alone book, rather than being one of the short series which comprise much of her output.

The story is set on the planet Newholme, which had been settled by humanity not many generations before, and exists with a low level of technology. The matriarchal culture is curious, driven by the fact that a considerable imbalance in the population has developed, with far more males than females. This means that females are highly valued as well as dominating the powerful planetary religion, with prospective husbands (or their families) having to pay a massive dowry to obtain a wife. The males are principally concerned with becoming "family men", with their own business or farm, a wife and children; the oldest son inherits, so younger sons have little to look forward to. One of the options open to the more attractive ones is to become a Consort or "Hunk"; highly trained to please women in every way and purchased by wives for their pleasure once they have completed their compulsory duties of child bearing, a state of affairs which is accepted as normal.

There is a mystery about Newholme that no-one likes to talk about: when the planet was first settled, an exhaustive search failed to find any trace of sentient natives, freeing humanity to settle the planet. However, not long after the settlement, humanoid natives were everywhere. The settlers do not like to admit that they exist, since their settlement would then become illegal, so they pretend not to see them, despite the fact that the natives voluntarily act as servants and manual workers. However, word that something odd was happening on the planet led to the arrival of the Questioner: the representative of the Council of Worlds, and a cyborg of ultimate power and authority. The Questioner arrives at a time of crisis, with the six large moons of Newholme moving towards a rare configuration which would create massive seismic effects on the planet.

The story mainly follows four humans: a young man who enters training as a Hunk; a girl who pretends to be a boy in order to avoid her childbearing fate; and two young dancers dragooned by the Questioner to assist her work. What is really happening on the planet turns out to be something far greater and more fundamental than anyone suspected. The author drops hints about the mystery throughout the book, particularly when describing the activities of the natives, who know far more about the situation than anyone else, and the meaning of some terms they employ only becomes evident towards the climax.

This story is typical of Tepper, combining SF and fantasy elements with a large measure of social – and especially feminist – commentary. Some readers are deterred by the strong feminism in the plots of many of her books, but it does not bother me. Her fantasy elements and characters tend to have a whimsical side to them, and (SPOILER WARNING) I have to admit to being amused by the concept of a vast space creature becoming obsessed with gender rights issues and heading off into the galaxy to preach the gospel!

On looking through Tepper's novels and noting the ones I have reviewed, the others I read before I started reviewing, those which I possess but have not yet read, and the ones I have not so far obtained, I discover that I have quite a lot of reading to do in order to catch up with this prolific author's impressive back catalogue.

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John Steakley had an unusual publishing record. Between 1981 and 1990 he published a handful of short stories and two novels: one a military SF (Armor, 1984), the other a horror (Vampire$, 1990). He died at the age of 59 in 2010. Both of his novels were well received, with Vampires (different spelling) being turned into a 1998 film. I first read Armor shortly after it was published, and thought well enough of it to keep it for a re-read – which has now occurred.

Part 1, the first 80 pages of Armor, consists of an intense focus on a few days in the life of Felix, a soldier in an interstellar war being fought against giant insectoids dubbed "ants". The human soldiers are heavily protected by massive powered armour which gives them colossal strength and speed; the ants are less technological but are bred as killers. The soldiers are "dropped" onto planetary surfaces from massive orbiting spacecraft (via some kind of teleportation), and at the start of the story Felix is awaiting his first drop onto an ant world the humans call Banshee.

Felix survives several days of ferocious fighting, very much against the odds. Terrified of the prospect of fighting, he gains aid from a part of his mind he thinks of as "the Engine"; which turns him into a relentless killing machine. There is some mystery in his past, a suggestion of hereditary high rank, but no answers as to why a civilian like him has become a soldier.

One key question occurred to me at the end of this part of the story: Banshee was not just an ant world, it was uninhabitable by humans due to highly poisonous oceans and atmosphere, plus extreme temperatures; in other words, of no value to humanity at all.  So why were soldiers being sent down to the surface to fight ants hand-to-hand? The obvious response to such a situation should be for the spaceships to stay in orbit and rain thermonuclear-tipped missiles down on any observed concentrations of ants. (This evidently bothered the author too, as much later in the book he states that the atmosphere was too poisonous and with two many random electromagnetic fields for guidance systems to work. But the teleportation system does? Hmmm…) Anyway, to continue with the story…

Part 2 is headed Jack Crow, and provides a complete change of plot and characters. The focus this time is on the notorious pirate of the heading, and is told by him in the first person, in contrast with the third-person structure of the first part. We first meet him in prison, from which he is saved by another pirate, the giant Borglyn, and is compelled by him to undertake a mission on a planet called Sanction. This is inhabitable by humans, but currently occupied only by a large research base plus a motley collection of settlers inhabitating a nearby slum city, including the enigmatic Lewis, an alcoholic who reputedly owns the planet. This part is not that comfortable to read, as Crow befriends the researchers with the aim of betraying them to Borglyn. Meanwhile Hollis, the innocent genius who heads the research base, has become fascinated with a suit of combat armour which Crow had discovered in a spacecraft abandoned in orbit, and is trying to unlock the memory files embedded within it. When he succeeds, both himself and Crow experience Felix's life in combat via virtual reality as they try to discover what happened to him. Part 3 continues with Felix's story as experienced by Crow and Holly, and the psychological tensions build up steadily as relationships with the settlers reach crisis point.  The fourth part switches back to Banshee and resolves the identity of Felix, a man running from his past. Part 5 is the finale, as Borglyn arrives to claim Sanction, triggering a climactic conflict.

This is far more than just another military SF tale, and almost half of the story is set on Sanction. The plotting and characterisation are very good, although it struck me as slightly odd to have two different heroes with nothing to connect them until right at the end. Strongly recommended, and such a pity that Steakley wrote no more SF novels.