Sunday 2 September 2018

Science Fiction catch-up

A few of the SF stories I've read recently:

Boundary, and Threshold, by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

I have had Eric Flint's work recommended to me for many years so finally decided to try one. He mostly writes alternative histories, his best known work being the 1632 series, in which a present-day US town is transported back to 17th century Germany, but that kind of sub-sub genre of SFF doesn't much appeal to me. In contrast, the plot summary of Boundary (published 2006) caught my eye: palaeontology, alien remains from the time of the dinosaurs, a voyage to Mars, ancient alien archaeology – that pushes enough of my buttons to be intriguing, so I bought a copy.

I have to say that I was soon feeling some regret, as I was initially not at all impressed by the writing style. The first chapter is liberally stuffed with infodumps, with space devoted to biographies of the main characters. Even emotions are described rather than displayed. The authors did not seem to be fans of the "show, don't tell" philosophy. My personal preference is to see an initial brief snapshot of the character, which is gradually built up over the course of the story with reminders about their main characteristics slipped in from time to time (especially if one reappears after an absence of several chapters). Another feature of this story which I am more than tired of is that almost all of the female characters are described as amazingly attractive. Taking it all together, I was reminded of what I had disliked about Jack McDevitt's early work.

However (as with McDevitt's books), the plot was interesting enough to keep me reading, and the writing got much better (or at least, I stopped noticing it). There is quite a lot of science involved, but it is not too technical and all sounds convincing. The plot develops in all sorts of intriguing directions and finally had me reading for several hours in order to find out what happened. The conclusion is appropriate and satisfying, but I see that there are several sequels so I might well try one or two more in this series. Recommended: just ignore the writing style in the first chapter!

I was pleased enough with Boundary to order the sequel, Threshold. When this eventually arrived (it took two attempts, the first disappeared somewhere en route) I was faced with an unusual problem. Although it was only a few months since I had read it, I had completely forgotten what Boundary was about. I had to spend an hour flipping through the book to refresh my memory, and read the last 40 or so pages again. Once I was up to speed, however, I got straight into Threshold. It is just as well that I did this, as the authors get straight to the action without any initial infodumps this time, although they helpfully include a list of characters.

The internal chronology includes a gap of some months between the two books, during which Earth governments have been absorbing the dramatic discoveries at the end of the first volume. The sequel starts with quite a lot of politics as responsibilities for the activities on Mars are divided and alliances made, but then there's a dramatic development – evidence found on Mars that there may be another ancient alien base on the asteriod Ceres.

Unfortunately, despite their initial restraint the authors were unable to resist working infodumps into the text, in the form of conversations between characters consisting of long explanations for whatever is going on. These are so wildly different from any real-world human discussions that it stretched my tolerance to the limit, and when plot developments flagged up a major international crisis on the way, I lost interest. It was the intriguing aliens I was interested in, not the usual human skulduggery!


Colony, by Ben Bova

Ben Bova is another of those authors whose name is familiar but whose books I can't recall having read. It's certainly taken me a while to catch up with Colony as it was first published in 1978. This is relatively hard SF, being set in a not-so-distant dystopian future in which Earth's environment gradually goes down the pan as the population continues to increase, while the World Government (that is one highly unlikely bit of utopianism!) fights political battles with giant international corporations which are secretly supporting revolutionary groups in the hope of weakening government authority.

The major corporations have already combined to create Island One – a huge, hollow, artificial world in the form of a 20 km-long cylinder which rotates on its axis to provide artificial gravity on the inner surface. This is located in one of the Lagrange points between the Earth and the Moon, is outside government control, and is populated by a select few. One inhabitant, born and raised there, is David Adams; the son of a woman who died in an accident while he was still in the womb, he had received the full attention of the colony's geneticists who had tinkered with his genome to give him every advantage. So he is highly intelligent, physically gifted, and immune to all known diseases. He is also bored with being trapped in space, and determined to travel to Earth to alert the government to the inevitability of the catastrophe facing the planet if drastic action is not taken. Once there, he finds himself unwillingly caught up in the revolutionary movement and most of the book is concerned with his adventures and relationships as he develops his thoughts about the future direction of civilisation's development.

This is a well-written and dramatic tale, with the time taken to develop believable characters and relationships. I am not fond of dystopias, having been depressed by quite enough of them, but I admired and enjoyed this story.


 Acadie, by Dave Hutchinson

This novella is by the author of the Fractured Europe trilogy, reviewed here in February 2017. It is set in the far future, written from the first-person viewpoint of a member of a breakaway group which, centuries before, had left the Earth in search of the freedom to develop their banned genetic modification programme. But Earth had not accepted this, and kept pursuing them. The story starts with the realisation that the hunters had found the group again, so they would have to leave once more. So far, so straightforward, but there is a profound and unexpected twist in the ending.


D H.M. said...

Try as I may I cannot get into Flint. That being said, Boundary did have excellent ideas, just couldn't get into it. I'll second the infodump comments. Look forward to Future posts!

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes, I loved the ideas in Boundary, but wrapping them in a rather clunky writing style spoiled the opportunity.