Friday 25 December 2020

The Invisible Library series, by Genevieve Cogman


This review gives an overview of The Invisible Library series to date, incorporating the first volume (previously reviewed on 26 July) which has the same title. First, the background to the series:

The heroine is Irene Winters, a professional librarian but not in any ordinary library. She is an investigator for the Invisible Library, a mysterious and secret multiverse-spanning organisation which aims to rescue the rarest of fiction, and in so doing helps to preserve the stability of the worlds. The Library exists somewhere in between the alternative worlds, with access to all of them. Some of these versions of Earth are strictly technological, some entirely magical, but most have elements of both. They also vary in their position along a scale with chaos at one end, and order at the other. 

As well as humanity (which includes the Librarians, although they have some unique abilities connected to their use of Language, a kind of magic peculiar to them) there is a menagerie of magical creatures including vampires and werewolves, of which the most significant are the Fae and the Dragons. The Fae appear to be human but have a powerful persuasive ability and thrive in the chaos worlds. The Dragons can take human form or that of giant flying lizards and are basically on the side of order, but have little patience with humanity and are best avoided. Then there is, out there somewhere, the evil Alberich, a renegade librarian.

In The Invisible Library, we first see the resourceful Irene retrieving a very rare and ancient book from a magically-protected library, which she survives only because of her use of the Language. For her next task she is instructed to take with her Kai, a student Librarian. Also joining the team is Peregrine Vale, a private investigator who is an exact incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – Irene's favourite fictional character. Finding the book she is looking for is complicated by the intense interest in it from several important people – and other beings – and Irene is tested to her limits in her attempt to complete her mission.

The Masked City begins with a disconcerting incident in which Kai, Irene's student of many powers, is kidnapped and taken to another world, specifically to a bizarre Venice where chaos dominates. The threat of a war between the Fae and the Dragons is building rapidly, and Irene is the only person who might stand a chance of stopping it. She is opposed by Lord Guantes, one of the most dangerous Fae who is determined to start a war which would be catastrophic for the hapless human inhabitants of the multiverse. To prevent this, Irene has to go to Venice in the hope of rescuing Kai.

In The Burning Page, a different threat has emerged: the Gates used by the Librarians to travel between worlds of the multiverse are beginning to fail. This is soon linked to the return of Alberich, the renegade librarian who aims to destroy the Library altogether. Once again Irene, Kai and Peregrine Vale become involved in a complex plot to thwart the villain's plans and save the Library.

The Lost Plot is mostly set in a 1930s-style New York City, with gangs and speakeasies, which forms the backdrop to a ferocious battle between rival dragons. Irene of course gets involved, but finds that there is a high price to be paid for her interference. 

The Mortal Word is set in another of the endless variations of Earth, this time in a Paris which seems to be late Victorian (horse-drawn carriages mixing with motor vehicles). This setting is the venue of a peace conference between the Dragons and the Fae, moderated by the Librarians. It is not going well, however, so Irene is despatched to the scene along with detective Vale and of course Kai, to investigate a murder and try to avert an all-out war.

The Secret Chapter provides yet another new environment for Irene, when she is sent to meet a powerful Fae collector on his private Carribbean island in order to negotiate the acquisition of a book which is very important to the stability of one of the worlds. However, to obtain this she has to join a team of criminals in stealing for the collector a huge painting in a Vienna art gallery, which turns out to have a particular significance for the Dragons. As usual, events develop at such a speed that Irene needs all of her wits about her.

The Dark Archive sees Irene and her friends under threat from the start, fending off various attempts at kidnapping and assassination. Furthermore, her work is complicated by the arrival of her new student trainee Catherine, an undisciplined young Fae who wants to become the first Fae Librarian. There are shocks for Irene as she discovers the identity of her enemies, who are determined to destroy the Dragon/Fae peace treaty - and an even greater shock concerning her own history. 

These books are very well-written, with a constant thread of humour giving them something of the flavour of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. Irene is a very likeable character and the stories are immensely enjoyable. This series is among the high spots of my fantasy reading in recent years, and is highly recommended. Fortunately, the conclusion of The Dark Archive promises more books to come.

Thursday 3 December 2020

Odds and ends

 A couple of films and a pair of novels this time:

Film: Jumanji - The Next Level (2019)

I finished my review of the previous film (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) with this: 

The film is lively and amusing, with a healthy dose of moralising concerning the importance of developing trust and cooperation. This sequel manages the rare achievement of being a considerably better film than the original. I see that a third film in the series is due at the end of this year, and I'll be looking out for it.

Sadly, The Next Level (or Jumanji 3) was a considerable disappointment. It is basically just a re-run of WttJ with a few changes to the scenery, and without the fresh ideas or much of the humour. The one plot innovation – having the characters switch avatars between them – did not work at all for me, as I lost track of who was meant to be whom, and thereby literally lost the plot.  To be fair, if WttJ had not been so good I might have been more tolerant of the flaws, but as it is, I am now not looking forward to the reported Jumanji 4; it would take rave reviews before I could be persuaded to watch it.


Film: Tomb Raider (2018)

This is the one with Alicia Vikander in the title role, as opposed to Angelina Jolie (and should not be confused with the computer games which kicked it all off). I won’t bother to describe the plot here - you can read it on Wiki - but it is basically inspired by the Indiana Jones movies only featuring a resourceful young woman as the explorer Lara Croft. She battles through various dangers before ultimately defeating the bad guys (sorry about the spoiler!). 

I have to say that I was sceptical about the choice of leading lady; Vikander has always struck me as being naturally quiet and enigmatic, coming across as portraying rather passive characters. Lara Croft is the exact opposite of this, being very physical and violent. Despite this, Vikander makes a decent fist of the role (she seems to have spent a lot of time in the gym) and the film is entertaining enough to watch. However, among all of the fantastic adventures she has, there was one totally impossible scene which blew my suspension of disbelief apart; at the end of the film, Croft walks into a pawn shop in present-day London - and walks out with a pair of automatic pistols! As if….


Automated Alice, by Jeff Noon

This is definitely a one-off in modern fantasy, purporting to be the third volume of the adventures of Alice Liddell, the first two being Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll (first published in 1865 and 1872 respectively. I have both stories on my shelves but it is several decades since I read them. However, this “trequel”, published in 1996, can be followed easily enough without reading the others. 

In Automated Alice, our heroine finds herself translated to late-20th century Manchester, only (as usual!) not as we know it. The people are no longer human, but a blend of human and animal characteristics, and their roles in society are largely determined by the animal part of them; policing is carried out by dogmen, while those in charge of managing the local government are the civil serpents. This is just one of the multitudinous puns packed into the story and they sometimes become rather elaborate, for example: 

Captain Ramshackle then knocked over a pile of his miscellaneous objects (one of which was a croquet mallet, which fell ont the shell of the Indian lobster, cracking it open). ‘That looks like a very crushed Asian lobster,’ Alice stated. ‘That lobster is indeed a crustacean!’ the Badgerman replied.

Alice is desperate to return to her own time, but has to collect a dozen lost jigsaw pieces to complete her puzzle, involving many surreal adventures. The author (who includes his own name in some of the jokes) has made a good job of evoking Carroll’s writing style, and I was pleased to see that the book (a Corgi paperback published in 1997) contains many drawings by Harry Trumbore, in the style of the original. Not really my cup of tea, but unusual and intriguing enough to read, and short enough to do so in a couple of sessions.


In Great Waters, by Kit Whitfield

This book, published in 2009, has an unusual setting in an alternative version of Europe.  The technology is at the usual medieval level commonly found in fantasies, but there are two intelligent races: the human landsmen, and the acquatic deepsmen (the mental image I formed combined the top half of a human with the bottom half of a seal). The two races can interbreed, but have a complex relationship.  It is essential for the landsmen to maintain an alliance with the deepsmen who live around the coasts, otherwise shipping could be totally disrupted. This is arranged by relationships between the races within the royal families. But half-breeds born accidentally are rejected by the deepsmen and killed by the landsmen.

In Great Waters follows the lives of Henry, a young half-breed living on land in secret, being used as a pawn in positioning nobles competing for the crown, and Anne, a young princess who has inherited some deepsman traits. This 400-page book is very well written and richly descriptive of the environment and the characters within it. Recommended.

Saturday 7 November 2020

Nature's Warnings: Classic Stories of Eco-Science Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley

 Another of the excellent Science Fiction Classics series of anthologies edited by Mike Ashley and published by the British Library, who sent me a copy for review. The Introduction by the editor sketches in the background to environmental concerns, concentrating particularly on the lack of general understanding until very recently of the concept of ecosystems; the interconnectedness of life of all kinds in a particular environment. This has historically provided some classic examples of the principle of "unintended consequences"; e.g. the introduction of rabbits to Australia, and the liberal use of insecticides as described in Rachael Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. However, even before this, SF authors were raising concerns about environmental issues and the possible consequences for humanity, as illustrated by the selection of short stories in this volume. 

Credit is given to the hugely influential Prussian polymath, Alexander von Humboldt, described as the "godfather of ecology". His work inspired Jules Verne among many others; one of the first to recognise that while some environmental changes may bring benefits, this will be at the cost of the livelihoods of others. The editor goes on to describe numerous early stories featuring sometimes drastic environmental changes, some of which are featured in this anthology. I was interested to read that in Murray Leinster's The Mad Planet (published 1920) the climate had been drastically changed by the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels, resulting in global warming. 

There are eleven stories to illustrate various aspects of environmentalism: 

Survey Team, by Philip K Dick (first published 1954). The setting is a future Earth so devastated by robotic warfare as to be uninhabitable, with the few survivors living underground. Their only hope seems to be to make a fresh start on Mars. But when the first explorers arrive, what they discover is a bitter irony.

The Dust of Death, by Fred M. White (first published 1903). An epidemic of diptheria sweeps through an upmarket new London housing suburb. The cause is found to lie underground.

The Man Who Hated Flies, by J. D. Beresford (first published 1929). A scientist suffers from phobia concerning flies [there's a word for it, of course; to save you looking it up, it's pteronarcophobia!]. After much work, he is able to develop a highly infectious disease which is lethal to all flies. But then it is discovered that it affects more insects than just flies, and the consequences begin to pile up.

The Man Who Awoke, by Lawrence Manning (first published 1933). A man finds a method of developing suspended animation, such that he can sleep for millennia but still survive to wake up at a pre-arranged time. His first experiment lasts for three thousand years, and on awakening he discovers a radically changed world mainly covered by forest, with humanity distributed among small villages, each depending on the surrounding trees for food and other necessities of life. The man discovers that the period he has left behind is known as the Age of Waste, regarded as an horrific time during which all the resources available to humanity were used up.

The Sterile Planet, by Nathan Schachner (first published 1937). A world devastated by the over-use of all natural resources can only maintain civilisation in a few heavily-protected cities. These happen to be situated on acquifers which provide a supply of the most precious of all resources - water. Outside, and a constant threat to the cities, is a subhuman, savage population. The cities can defend themselves, but what if they were challenged by a technologically equal group?

Shadow of Wings, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (first published 1954). Something is happening to the birds – every day, they head off to unknown destinations in huge mixed flocks, and ignore their usual insect food, leaving the insects to flourish and devastate food crops. Famine threatens, but one resourceful man sets off to discover the source of the problem.

The Gardener, by Margaret St Clair (first published 1949). On another planet occupied by humanity is a grove of sacred trees. Cut one down, and there are consequences.

Drop Dead, by Clifford D. Simak (first published 1956). A survey team lands on an unexplored planet and discovers something very strange: the land is covered by one type of grass, and there is just one type of animal which happens to be remarkably tasty.

A Matter of Protocol, by Jack Sharkey (first published 1962). An intriguing story of a survey of a planet with interlinked life forms – trees, insectoids, and bear-like animals, with strict protocols governing their intricate reproductive cycle.

Hunter, Come Home, by Richard McKenna (first published 1963). Another planet with interlinked life forms, but this time they are all one plant. Human settlers are desperate to clear the native vegetation to replace it with their own ecosystem, but the plant has other ideas.

Adam and No Eve, by Alfred Bester (first published 1941). A scientist takes one risk too many with fundamental physics, with devastating consequences.

There is perhaps an even greater variety among this group of stories than in the companion anthologies from the British Library. Some tend toward fantasy rather than SF (e.g. The Sterile Planet and The Gardener), and they also vary in terms of the quality of the storytelling. I enjoyed Shadow of Wings, although this focuses on the vulnerability of our ecosystems to external interference (humanity has a well-proven record for creating its own ecological problems without needing outside help), and also Hunter Come Home, which reminded me of Harry Harrison's Deathworld series. For me, the outstanding story is Beresford's The Man Who Hated Flies, as it not only has the most realistic plot – a cautionary tale which illustrates the dangers of messing with our ecosystem – it is also well-written with some humour and characterisation. 

Sunday 18 October 2020

When it Changed, edited by Geoff Ryman

 Published in 2009, this is an unusual anthology as it consists of short stories written by British SF writers in consultation with scientists. Writers were paired up with scientists whose work interested them in order to explore the fictional possibilities, then went away and wrote their stories. The result is a collection of stories which are more firmly based in science than usual, although that doesn't preclude some fairly wild imaginings (anyone who tries to keep up with astrophysical speculation, as I struggle to do, will not be surprised by this). Each story is followed by an Afterword by the scientist involved.

The subjects covered include a wide range of different futures: the consequences of global warming; artificial intelligence; the potential of a huge particle colliders; the effects of dangerous new military drugs; the social consequences of personal armour as a response to increasing terrorism; living virtual, life-blogging existences; human cloning; a merger between astronomy and astrology; using advanced MRI to assess criminal potential; human photosynthesis and others.

The sixteen stories are as follows, with the names of the scientists in brackets:

Carbon: Part One and Carbon: Part Two, by Justina Robson (Prof Andrew Bleloch). A 'stream of consciousness' story, following the thoughts of a sceptical researcher working on a polymer/carbon material to make cables strong enough to support a space elevator.

Global Collider Generation: An Idyll, by Paul Cornell (Dr Robert Appleby). Snapshots in time of the construction of the Global Muon Collider, a vast particle accelerator circling the Earth, and what it is expected to achieve, as seen from the pespectives of two immortal characters: Li Clarke Communication, a promoter of the scheme from the People's Republic, and Jerry Cornelius. That name will be familiar to anyone who has read British SF from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, as he is a rather bizarre anti-hero in a series of books written by Michael Moorcock. 

Moss Witch, by Sara Maitland (Dr Jennifer Rowntree). A young bryologist (an expert on mosses etc, to save you looking it up) is carrying out a solitary survey of ancient woodlands to check their biodiversity when he encounters a Moss Witch. She is an ancient humanoid whose life is bound up with that of mosses, and is one of the last remaining ones of her kind. There is much moss lore to appreciate in this story of a clash of cultures.

Death Knocks, by Ken MacLeod (Dr Richard Blake). The term comes from journalism, and refers to the practice of visiting relatives of those who have recently died in unusual circumstances, to see if there is a story worth publishing.  John Kirkland is a journalist investigating a series of suicides of soldiers home on leave – but not from PTSD, these were soldiers whose jobs did not involve combat. He suspects designer drugs, and learns about the Virtual Man – an integrated software model of every organ and system in the human body – which runs on the Grid, using up spare time on home computers, and is used to research the effects of new drugs. He discovers the hard way what is going on.

Collision, by Gwyneth Jones (Dr Kai Hock). Another collider story, this one concerning the Torus, a vast Instantaneous Transit Collider constucted in the Kuiper Belt by the Aleutians, an alien race which had visited the Earth for a while before departing some decades before the story. This enabled people to travel, in virtual form, to new worlds, but very few returned. The World State which had developed was divided politically into Reformers and Traditionalists, and the formation of a new Traditionalist government threatened the survival of the Torus. One of the scientists takes drastic action to try to prevent its closure. 

Without a Shell, by Adam Marek (Dr Vinod Dhanak). Technologically advanced clothing acted as body armour and also could detect and repair any injuries suffered. But is was costly and only available to the rich. What effect might this have on society?

You, by Geoff Ryman (Dr Manolis Pantos). An intriguing story with two interlinked plot threads. One concerns a future exploration of Mars, with an in-depth analysis of evidence to determine whether the extinct life form was intelligent or not. This is seen through the eyes of multiple observers, living and dead, via "lifeblogs"; recordings of what they saw and heard through the generations, which others can experience via virtual reality within their minds. 

In the Event Of, by Michael Arditti (Prof John Harris). An Earth which has become so polluted that almost everyone lives underground, except those who have evolved to survive the conditions. Underground society is highly stratified socially, surface society is primitive. Against this background, a privileged and independent young woman sets out to discover what really happened to the "sister" she was cloned from.

Zoology, by Simon Ings (Dr Matthew Cobb). Life among the staff of a future university, with a strong element of the bizarre as researchers try to analyse a maggot's sense of smell.

Temporary, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Dr Tim O'Brien). An odd future society stratified by birth sign; in some ways a reflection of a distant past, with scientific astronomical observations sitting uneasily alongside astrology.

Doing the Butterfly, by Kit Reed (Dr Steve Williams). The justice system of the future, following the life of a criminal as his behaviour is analysed using an advanced MRI which can recreate his thoughts and determine his suitability to return to society.

White Skies, by Chaz Brenchley (Dr Sarah Lindley). Flooding due to climate change has resulted in new divisions within society, with this story following a pair of precocious adolescents living aboard an oceanic floating "township" created by linking a large number of "seedships" together. Their main task is to sow iron dust in the oceans to feed plankton which absorbs carbon dioxide and carries it to the ocean floor.

Enigma, by Liz Williams (Prof Steve Furber). This takes place in the far future, in a virtual world set in a Cambridge college around World War 2, within which Turing and Wittgenstein (who were both alive at that time) discuss their situation.

The Bellini Madonna, by Patricia Duncker  (Dr Tim O'Brien). A young American student, visiting Rome to appreciate the art and architecture, experiences a vision which blends science and religion.

Hair, by Adam Roberts (Dr Rein Ulijn). Can science devise a type of photosynthesis which will enable humanity to live on sunlight, without needing food? And if that's possible, will it actually be permitted?

These stories provide glimpses of a wide range of futures – some which could happen quite soon, others could only be very distant. There is also a wide range of different approaches to the craft of story-telling, providing interesting exemplars of the modern approach to SFF in the UK. Those who only enjoy traditional "space-opera" kind of writing will probably not like these at all. I would pick a couple of stories which particularly impressed me: the editor's own You, which successfully delivers an ambitious concept, and Moss Witch, a hauntingly strange story which is also informative; you will probably learn a lot about mosses from reading it!

Overall, an intriguing collection worth reading more than once.

Saturday 26 September 2020

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley

Yet another of the educational anthologies in the Science Fiction Classics series published by the British Library, this one concerned with a subject which is currently topical in real life: the potential threat posed by the development of artificial intelligence (AI). As usual in this series, there is a long introduction by the editor, supplemented by biographical notes on the authors at the start of each story. 

 The editor briefly summarises the current debate on the merits and dangers of AI before pointing out just how far back this issue goes. Concerns about the impact of growing mechanisation on people's jobs first became a major public topic early in the nineteenth century, when the Luddites attacked the new factories of the textile industry (some of the rioters being executed for smashing the machinery). 

 The most significant early novel exploring these issues was probably Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), set in a world in which all machinery has been banned due to concerns "that machines would evolve, become self-replicating, and eventually challenge mankind for supremacy". This was inspired by Darwin's theory of evolution: if it applies to all living things, why could it not to machines? This was of course published during the industrial revolution; a period of rapid development of technology. 

 A separate and much older idea is that of automata; complex machines, often driven by clockwork, which replicate some of the behaviours of people or animals. The concept of such automata becoming intelligent predates Darwin: the editor cites Der Sandmann (1816) by E. T. A. Hoffmann, featuring a "mesmerising automaton". In parallel with technological developments, steam and then electrically-powered automata with human-level intelligence began to appear in fiction – with a name change to "android", first used in L'Ève future by Villiers de l'Isle Adam (1886). A year later, a much broader view of a mechanised society emerged in The Republic of the Future by Anna Bowman Dodd, in which everyone became part of "a colossal machine". Such ideas inspired many writers to postulate societies in which entirely artifical humanoids did all the hard labour in society, and were often shown as rebelling against their human masters, most famously in Čapek's R.U.R. (1920), which introduced the term "robot". Another popular concept is the combination of human and artificial elements, in various ways, resulted in the concept of the "cyborg"; the idea goes back a long way, even though the actual name first emerged in 1960. 

 So there are many different themes on this subject which authors have plundered for their work. The dates of publication of the fourteen stories in this collection range from 1899 to 1965, thereby avoiding any stories written before the internet was conceived. 

 The short story selection is as follows:

  Moxon's Master, by Ambrose Bierce (first published 1899). This begins with a debate between the narrator and his friend Moxon over the nature of thought, and whether the term could be applied to plants and machines as well as people and animals. It transpires that the argument is not a theoretical one – for there is someone, or something, else in the house. 

  The Discontented Machine, by Adeline Knapp (first published 1894). A shoemaking firm installs an advanced and very expensive new cutting and shaping machine to carry out much of its work. The benefits to the firm's owners are in reducing the numbers of their strike-prone employees, and as a way of intimidating the remainder to accept pay cuts. But then the machine stops working, for no obvious reason.

  Ely's Automatic Housemaid, by Elizabeth Bellamy (first published 1899). Written with wry humour, this recounts the tale of an "automatic housemaid" which seems ideal to begin with, but whose operation is full of unintended consequences. 

  The Mind Machine, by Michael Williams (first published 1919). An unusual start in the form of an historical account, looking back to the 50 years of (fictional) chaos following the end of the (factual) Great War – which had only just finished at the time of writing. The problem was to try to explain why the spreading chaos destroyed our civilisation. The start of the trouble was a huge growth in major industrial accidents with heavy casualties, which seemed to be connected to a mysterious blue liquid found at the scenes, and to a mind machine with the claimed potential to control all machinery. 

  Automata, by S. Fowler Wright (first published 1929). It is curious that, according to Ashley, "Wright was Britain's leading writer of SF in the years between the wars, seen by some as a natural successor to H. G. Wells", yet he is unknown today – I had never come across his name before. The story begins with a presentation to an academic conference summarising the effect of increasing mechanisation – not only had the horse disappeared from farms, but in the future, humanity might eventually disappear also, replaced by automata increasingly capable of doing everything a human could, but better. The story then jumps to a future when "flesh-children" are rare, being considered too much trouble to bother with by most women, and without any occupations or activities for them once they were grown. A further time-jump takes us to the last survivor... 

  The Machine Stops, by E. M. Forster (first published 1909). A future in which everyone spends their life in their own enclosed cellular room, with all of their needs met by automated systems. There are, effectively, video telephones to provide instant communication with anyone else on Earth; video conferencing is used so that any number of people can "tune in" to any presentations. Very few go outside, as the surface of the Earth is dead, but airships provide transport for essential purposes. Everything is governed by one overall and all-powerful Machine; but what happens if the Machine begins to fail?

  Efficiency, by Perley Poore Sheehan & Robert H. Davis (first performed 1917). Unusually, this is not a story, but a one-act play. There are three characters: the Emperor, the Scientist and Number 241 – what would now be called a cyborg, with a 50/50 mix of human and artificial parts (conveniently, a character easily played by a normal human!). The scientist is presenting the results of his work to the Emperor; to return crippled soldiers to the battlefield by fitting them with artificial limbs, eyes and other organs as required. But the cyborg has retained a mind of his own. 

  Rex, by Harl Vincent (first published 1934). The mechanical brain of a highly sophisticated robot-surgeon experiences a minor change with major consequences: he is freed from human control. He researches human behavior, and begins to carry out a programme of remodelling humanity, to try to produce ideal beings with the best points of humans and robots. Having removed the capacity for emotion from many people, he then tries to add emotions to his own brain. 

  Danger in the Dark Cave, by J. J. Connington (first published 1938). Connington was best known for intricate detective stories, but wrote some SF: this story combines both. Two former fellow-students meet by chance on a long train journey, and the conversion turns to a mutual acquintance, a famous scientist, who had disappeared on a boat trip. One of the two, who was an assistant to the scientist, had been there, and told a remarkable story. The scientist had been trying to make an intelligent machine, but in providing a capacity for self-defence, he built in a problem... 

  The Evitable Conflict, by Isaac Asimov (first published 1950). The world is divided into four regions, each with a Machine which organises production, labour etc. These Machines had developed beyond the possibility of detailed human control, as each generation of robots designed the next. But something seemed to be going wrong with the machines. Perhaps the Society for Humanity is right in being opposed to the Machines? 

  Two-Handed Engine, by C. L. Moore & Henry Kuttner (first published 1955). Criminal justice was determined and carried out by robots. Once a criminal had been condemned, a robot was assigned to follow them around until, at some point, executing them. But one man believed that he had found a way to avoid the sentence. 

  But Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian W. Aldiss (first published 1958). An amusing tale of a farm run by robotic machines, with varying levels of intelligence to match their designed functions. Humans lived in the cities and sent work orders to the farms, but one day the orders failed to arrive. What would the robots do? 

  A Logic Named Joe, by Will F. Jenkins, more commonly known as Murray Leinster (first published 1946). This story is notable for introducing the concept of "logics"; TV-based intelligent machines and communication devices, pretty much the same as the computer on my desk today. Written in a vernacular style, this tells the story of a logic repairman who has a logic displaying unintended capabilities: it answers all questions, including how to commit undetectable crimes including forgeries and murders. 

  Dial F For Frankenstein, by Arthur C. Clarke (first published 1965). With the completion of satellite links, every communication network in the world becomes part of a single, integrated system, more complex than a human brain. And begins to slip out of control. 

 The stories in this collection are inevitably rather pessimistic, being mainly concerned with what happens when intelligent machines go wrong, or become uncontrollable. They do cover a wide variety of approaches to the subject, including a few relatively lighthearted ones (by Bellamy, Aldiss and Jenkins). My pick, for its combination of forward-looking imagination and writing quality, is Forster's The Machine Stops.

Saturday 5 September 2020

Dispel Illusion, by Mark Lawrence

This is the third volume in Lawrence's Impossible Times series; the first two (One Word Kill and Limited Wish) were reviewed here in August and December 2019 respectively. These three books constitute one continuous story so the novels – and the reviews – should be read in the right order. 

 I commented before about the author's darkly humorous style, revealed in the very first sentence of Dispel Illusion: "The two saving graces of explosions are that from the outside they're pretty and from the inside they're quick." The young genius Nick Hayes, the narrator and hero of these tales, is busy developing time machines and becoming very rich by sending wealthy but terminally ill people through to the future when a cure might be available. More secretly, he is also working on the much more difficult problem of sending people backwards in time – including himself. He knows that he will do this because he met his 40-year-old self when he was only a teenager; his problem being that his older self died at that time. His other problem being that he is under pressure from a ruthless, wealthy man who has a psychopath as his personal assistant. As in the earlier works, the real-life action is paralleled by the ongoing Dungeons and Dragons game played by Nick and his close friends. 

A consequence of his time-travelling is that the action takes place at several different times. Most of this story is divided between 1992 and 2011, but there are also chapters set in 2007, 2009, 2010, 1985 and finally a return to 1986 when the first volume ended. Fortunately the author flags up the date in each chapter heading, so events are not that difficult to follow. 

As ever, Lawrence's writing is excellent – thoughtful and engaging. The familiar problems of time travel are given a fresh airing, with the older Nick's desperate efforts to ensure that while in the past, he sticks to the exact actions that his younger self remembered him doing, in order to avoid setting up a paradox which would result in a different time-line being created. This involves some amusing circular cause and effect problems. 

These stories constitute one of the best time-travel series I can recall reading. The conclusion contains some unexpected twists and is satisfyingly positive. One strong feature of this series (and, come to think of it, his other books that I've read, though not to the same degree) is that the main plot driver is love. Not the slushy, hearts and flowers, Mills & Boon sort of passion, but the development of a realistic and entirely credible relationship between the hero and his girlfriend. She has the last word, too, in a final twist which left me smiling. What more can you ask for? 

Impossible Times is a self-contained trilogy, but mention is made of another two volumes to come, so maybe he will be writing a second trilogy?

Saturday 15 August 2020

Screen time

A catch-up of some TV series and films I've been watching recently: 

 TV – Roswell, New Mexico (2019-20) 

 I gather that this is the second TV series to be based on the Roswell High book series by Melinda Metz. I have neither seen the first series nor read the books, so I came to this one cold. Two seasons have been shown so far, totalling 26 episodes. The story follows the lives of three young adults who, it turns out, are aliens who survived the famous 1947 "incident" and spent decades mending in hibernation pods. They are now trying to survive without being detected by the humans they live among (helpfully, they look exactly like humans and can even breed with them...). Leaving aside the somewhat preposterous background to the story (even by SF standards!), it is actually better than I expected. The focus is on the psychological stresses and shifting relationships, and the actors are good. I have found myself becoming more interested as the story has progressed. My main complaint is that I only understood (at most) 75% of the dialogue, the rest was too fast/quiet/slurred to understand. The result is that I didn't always follow what was happening. Mumbling actors are a common complaint these days – it's not just me! I understand that a third season is in the works. 

  TV - Fort Salem (2020) 

 Also known as Motherland: Fort Salem, this is a supernatural tale set in an alternative USA in which, 300 years earlier, witches had reached agreement with the government to act as a magical arm of the military, in return for ending the witch persecutions and burnings. Witches are far more deadly than humans (particularly in their use of modulated sound to achieve dramatic effects) but not all witches approve of the government deal; there is a dangerous terrorist witch organisation called the Spree which launches sporadic attacks. The series follows the fortunes of three new recruits to the witch army, with very different personalities and from very different backgrounds. Initially, it is very much a coming-of-age military boot-camp kind of drama, exclusively for females. It did become a little confusing at the end with the introduction of a second group attacking the witches, but I still found the series absorbing and entertaining, and would happily have watched all ten episodes straight through if not prevented by tiredness. There was an occasional problem with understanding the dialogue, but I got about 90 percent of it. I am pleased to hear that a second series has been approved, and will be looking out for it. 

  TV - Batwoman (2020) 

 I saw the first couple of episodes and quite admired the approach to the subject, which is somewhat more realistic and mature than usual, but the story didn't appeal to me enough to want to keep watching for umpteen episodes so I bailed out. 

  TV - Good Omens (2019-20) 

 This series (only six episodes, which is a big plus-point for me: I do get put off by those seemingly never-ending US series) was based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. A comedy about the end of the world (yep!) this focuses on the relationship between between an angel (Michael Sheen) and a demon (David Tennant) at a time when the coming of the Antichrist is anticipated, leading to Armageddon. I did have the book on my reading list but won't be bothering now I know the story. The TV series is very good, hardly surprising given the acting and writing talent involved, and I greatly enjoyed it. 

  TV - Devs (2020) 

 A very classy near-future mystery series created, written, and directed by Alex Garland, concerning the efforts of an IT billionaire to develop a way to recreate the past. It is told mainly from the viewpoint of software engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), whose boyfriend dies shortly after being invited to join Devs, the advanced software project being funded by billionaire Forest, who owns Amaya, a huge information systems company. She soon finds that her boyfriend was not who she had imagined and gets steadily deeper into the mystery of what is going on, and why. Not always an easy one to watch, but one of the best SF TV series I can recall. The eight episodes provide just the right length of time for the story.

  Midnight Special (2016) 

 This film is set in the present day and concerns an 8-year-old boy with paranormal predictive powers who is being fought over by his parents, the church his parents used to belong to, and the government. Leaving aside the main plot element, the story was developed in a very realistic way, with excellent characterisation - the doubts and fears of the main characters being well-handled. I recommend it as SF for adults, as it is focused on the people rather than the powers of the boy (or any funny-looking aliens). On the other hand, the finale is spectacular enough to satisfy any SF fan. 

  Ad Astra (2019) 

 A late-21st century future in which Mars is permanently settled and travel to the outer planets is possible. Sixteen years before, the Lima Project – an expedition to search for extra-terrestrial civilisations – had gone to to Neptune to establish a base in orbit around the planet, but contact had been lost almost immediately. Now the Earth is being hit by a succession of massive power surges which threaten human life, and these are believed to originate in the Lima Project. Major Roy McBride, son of Clifford McBride the leader of the Lima Project, is depatched on a mission to Neptune, to discover what is happening and close the Project down. The film is well-made, serious, and with a strong emphasis on the psychology of the characters in general and the father and son protagonists in particular. Despite this, it was spoiled for me by a few improbabilities. First, how were "scavanger pirates" able to operate on the Moon? They only seemed to be in the film to provide an excuse for a novel form of car chase. Second, would a government really have ignored the fate of the Lima Project for sixteen years when, at any time, they could have sent a craft to find out what had happened? Finally, if "power surges" from the region of Neptune were so powerful they could threaten the existence of humanity, they would surely have a noticeable effect on Neptune not to mention instantly vaporise the Project Lima station. These improbabilities rather take the shine off a promising film which James Gray, the producer, director and co-author, wanted to be "the most realistic depiction of space travel that's been put in a movie". 

  Guardians 2 (2017) 

 I was unimpressed by the first Guardians film so had low expectations of this one, and wasn't surprised. The first scene is a protracted close-combat battle between the guardians and a suitably revolting alien monster. After a brief pause for breath, the second major scene is a protracted space battle. I don't know what happened next, as I stopped watching. Unlike Midnight Surprise and Ad Astra (see above), this is definitely not SF for adults!

Sunday 26 July 2020

Planetside, Planetfall, and The Invisible Library

Three contrasting recent novels, all intended to be the start of series.

Planetside, by Michael Mammay

Planetside was recommended to me as a good example of military SF, so I added it to my reading list. The first thing I noticed on flipping through it is that the author is a former army officer, a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, no surprise that the portrayal of the military in general and soldiers in action in particular are very convincing.  Furthermore, the hero and narrator of the story (Colonel Carl Butler) is of retirement age, bald and married, so obviously designed for me to identify with!

The background to the novel is a far future in which humanity is spreading across many star systems. Newly found planets capable of supporting human life are promptly colonised; if they aren't suitable for that, they are mined of any worthwhile minerals. In none of this are the interests of any native life considered important, although in the one case found of humanoids of similar intelligence to mankind, the inhabitants of the planet Cappa, an agreement has been reached for humans to mine the abundant silver reserves. However, a resistance movement among the Cappans is resulting in a continuing low-level conflict.

The plot concerns a missing army officer, the son of an important politician. He was seen to be badly injured in an engagement with the Cappan resistance, was loaded aboard a medical evacuation shuttle for transport to the orbiting Cappa Base, and never seen again. Butler is given the job – and extraordinary powers – to investigate and resolve the mystery.  What he finds is a series of cover-ups which make it almost impossible for him to complete his mission. As he digs further into the mystery, he finds a high-level conspiracy and realises that the situation is very different from what he had believed, and his mission is changing quite radically.

At one level this is a fast-paced and enjoyable thriller, well-written in a laconic, understated military style. At another level are some fundamental issues about the relationships between humanity and other intelligent forms of life. The Cappans had already achieved a degree of technological sophistication, and could be considered unlucky to have been found by humanity before they were able to develop a comparable civilisation. I am sufficiently interested to send off for the sequel, Spaceside, which is now out, with Colonyside to follow.


Planetfall, by Emma Newman

The setting is a recently-established and very idealistic colony on a new world, with social structures designed to ensure that it does not suffer from overpopulation, pollution and war. The key to the colony's success is the use of 3D printing to produce anything that is needed, followed by recycling anything no longer required. Literally overhanging the settlement is an enormous tree, which it was believed contained alien artifacts.

This is a curious sort of book. Not a lot happens for quite a while, then we find that the narrator is suffering from an uncontrollable OCD described in convincing depth and detail, then there's a spectacular final episode with a rather mystical conclusion. I did get rather tired of the terrible secret known only to the narrator and one other, which was hanging around without being explained for almost all of the book. I doubt that I can be bothered with the sequels (which I gather are not direct sequels, just set in the same universe).


The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

Another recommended by members of the Classic Science Fiction group, which I perhaps would not have considered without that. If so, I would have missed a gem.

Irene is a professional librarian, but not in any ordinary library. She is an investigator of the Invisible Library, a mysterious and secret organisation with a vast collection of books (constantly added to) which seems to exist somewhere in between a multitude of alternative worlds, with access to all of them. Some of these versions of Earth are strictly technological, some entirely magical, but most have elements of both. We first see the resourceful Irene retrieving a very rare and ancient book from a magically-protected library, which she survives only because of her use of "The Language", a kind of magic peculiar to the librarians.

For her next task she is instructed to take with her Kai, a student librarian. The version of London they arrive in has vampires, werewolves and the Fae coexisting with humanity. Then there is, out there somewhere, the evil Alberich. a renegade librarian. There are also dragons, who can take human form and are basically on the side of law and order, but still best avoided. As is Bradamant, a rival investigator and Irene's sworn enemy. Particularly reassuring to Irene is the discovery of Vale, a private investigator who is an exact incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – Irene's favourite fictional character. Finding the book she is looking for is complicated by the intense interest in it from several important people – and other beings – and Irene is tested to her limits and beyond in her attempt to complete her mission.

This book is well-written, with something of the flavour of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. Irene is a very likeable character and the book is immensely enjoyable. I found myself reluctant to put the book down, and read until late into the night to finish it. I see that there are several other books in the series so will be bulk-buying them!