Saturday, 13 December 2014

Deepsix by Jack McDevitt

Set in the same universe as The Engines of God (reviewed here last January ) but twenty years later, Deepsix has only one character from the earlier story; spacecraft pilot Priscilla Hutchins (Hutch). Despite this the focus is not particularly on her, with various people acting as viewpoint characters as the book progresses. The plots of the two novels are unconnected but similar in that both feature apocalyptic events with system-wide effects; in this case, a wandering gas giant on a collision course with an Earth-type planet dubbed Deepsix. The planet, in the middle of an ice age, had scarcely been explored following a disastrous first visit a couple of decades earlier when the exploration team suffered heavy casualties from hostile wildlife. Spaceships with both scientists and tourists gather in the system to observe the gigantic collision, only for closer inspection of the planet to reveal previously unsuspected evidence of a former civilisation, prompting visits to the surface in a last-ditch attempt to collect information.

This is, of course, where things start to go wrong, with people becoming trapped on the planet and time running out. The discovery of a startling alien artifact in the system, far more advanced than the remains on the planet, adds yet more complexity and the tension ratchets up steadily as the inescapable deadline looms ever-closer.

As I observed in my previous review, McDevitt isn't the most stylish of writers and has each new character being accompanied by his or her own biographical infodump. Even so I found myself getting confused between which ships' captains were in charge of which ships and what role they had to play; a little reinforcement from time to time would have been helpful. McDevitt also seems rather obsessed with the nastiness of coordinated attacks by lots of small, vicious animals. Such an attack took place in TEoG in an unnecessary scene that did not advance the plot, and Deepsix begins with a similar event.

Despite these gripes, this is an intriguing read from the start and becomes unputdownable as the tension mounts; the author has a wide-screen imagination and can certainly tell a story. This one didn't appeal to me quite as much as the earlier book which had a galactic-scale mystery to be solved, but it is still an entertaining if undemanding read.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Interzone 255

The author interview in this issue of the SFF magazine is with Hannu Rajaniemi, author of the Jean de Flambeur trilogy: The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel. I'd not heard of this author before but the stories, set in a post-singularity universe, sound like an intriguing mixture of space opera, people with god-like powers, and virtual reality. I am hesitant about buying too many books from new (to me) authors these days since I already have such a vast reading pile that I wonder if I'll ever have time to get through it, let alone re-read my many old favourites, but this series might be worth trying.

There's another interesting review of The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce, another author new to me despite being a multi-award winner, probably because he specialised in fantasy and horror. Sadly he recently died at the age of only 60, his obituary featuring elsewhere in the magazine. The Peripheral, a new book by William Gibson, is also favourably reviewed.

The screen reviews include a couple of adaptations of stories by famous authors: Predestination (Robert Heinlein) and Radio Free Albemuth (P. K. Dick – again!) to which the film-makers have apparently been unusually faithful, at least in spirit.

The atmospheric SF scene on the cover is Sky Burial ♯3 by Wayne Haag.

Must Supply Own Work Boots by Malcolm Devlin, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A future in which construction work is carried out by mechanically-enhanced workmen with their physiology and nervous systems altered accordingly. But as each new technical generation of enhancement makes the previous workers obsolete, what happens to them?

Bullman and the Wiredling Mutha by R M Graves. A post-apocalyptic London in which gang warfare involves some strangely altered individuals. A brief story told by one of them, the Bullman, as he prepares to fight a battle against a mysterious, deadly Wiredling, but much more is going on than he is aware of.

The Calling of Night's Ocean by Thana Niveau, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A human researcher and a dolphin attempt to communicate with each other, a story told from alternating viewpoints. Success brings unforeseen consequences.

Finding Waltzer-Three by Tim Major, illustrated by Wayne Haag. An expedition finds a long-lost spacecraft, but the fate of the crew causes consternation.

Oubliette by E. Catherine Tobler, illustrated by Wayne Haag. Aphelion - a vast, partially ruined but still inhabited space station; Imogen, a visitor on an undefined mission; Zo, a long-dead religious hermit but still somehow a presence; Louis, a streetwise boy. These all interact in an atmosphere of mystery which obscures what is happening.

Mind the Gap by Jennifer Dornan-Fish. The development of an artificial intelligence as seen from the viewpoint of the AI trying to extend its understanding of humanity – but it already knows too much.

Monoculture by Tom Greene, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Another post-apocalyptic future in which the few survivors of natural humanity – ferals – coexist with a community of clones who make some curious demands, as seen from different viewpoints.

A varied collection this time, in setting, plot and style, with my favourites being the atmospheric Oubliette and the intriguing Monoculture. It would be nice from time to time to read something optimistic or amusing, but SFF writers seem to be a dour lot these days.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Film: Transcendence (2014)

Yet another film in which Christopher Nolan had a hand (albeit only as executive producer), so I was looking forward to this. To sum up; I found Transcendence had some good ideas but disappointing execution.

SPOILER WARNING: read no further if you want to watch the film, as this review contains spoilers, starting with a plot summary.

The focus is on Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a genius working on the development of AIs (artificial intelligences), who is fatally injured in an attack by modern-day luddites opposed to the development of such technology. Before he dies, his wife and fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, very good as usual) and his colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload his mind into a powerful computer. The rest of the film contains multiple plot threads, as the disembodied Will Caster (surely a case of nominative determinism!) gradually extends his reach and power across the internet from a massive underground HQ he creates in a desert town, dramatically pushing forward the boundaries of science. The FBI becomes concerned with his increasing power and joins forces with the luddites to attack the HQ, while Evelyn, who is having increasing doubts about whether the uploaded Will is still her husband or a different being with Will's memories, is being tempted to join them. The climactic decision of the plot is whether or not Will's enemies should upload a computer virus that will destroy him, but at the same time bring about the collapse of our technological civilisation.

First, all credit to the film makers for acknowledging that these developments would be spread over several years rather than within the few days that Hollywood usually assumes that anything important takes, and for exploring some of the existential issues around the nature of a human mind uploaded to a computer. However, these genuine concerns become rather obscured by some silly sub-plots when Will's advanced medical science is able not only to cure people's ailments and immediately repair their bodies, but at the same time make them super-strong, and at the same time give him the power to take over their minds and control them. He also acquires the power to instantly repair any damaged equipment (or to destroy his enemies' weapons) by some sketchily explained means. In one ludicrous later scene a rag-tag band of luddites and FBI agents launch an attack on the vast underground complex using one ancient howitzer and a mortar. Fortunately, the final scenes do redeem the film to some extent.

There are genuine issues about AIs in general and uploading human minds into computers (should that ever be possible) in particular. I briefly explore some of the latter in my article On Immortality on this blog (link in the column on the left). Transcendence has a stab at some of them and is worth watching, but a really adult drama focusing on these issues is yet to be made.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Hidden by Benedict Jacka, and Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Hidden is the fifth in Jacka's entertaining Alex Verus series concerning a magician in present-day London (the first four having been previously reviewed on this blog).  As usual, the story picks up where the last one left off with only a short time lapse; this is one series which must be read in the right order, anyone who plunges straight into Hidden without reading the earlier stories will frequently be baffled.

This time the focus of the plot is on Anne, the Life Mage who has appeared in earlier volumes, and we learn a great deal more about her history, personality and motivations as Alex battles to rescue her from the memorable shadow realm of Sagash, an equally memorable Dark Mage. Meanwhile, rumours are circulating about the reappearance of Richard Drakh, the formidable Dark Mage who used to be Alex's Master and still terrifies him.

The author continues to manage the difficult trick of maintaining what was so enjoyable about the first of the series (Fated, in case you're thinking of making a start) while introducing enough new elements to maintain the level of interest. A must-read for all of those who have enjoyed the series so far. Now I'm just waiting for the next one…


Moon Over Soho is the second of this author's Rivers of London series (the first, also called Rivers of London, having been reviewed here last December), and is also concerned with sorcery in present-day London. The hero and viewpoint character in this instance is Peter Grant, a police detective constable who turns out to have a potential talent for magic and finds himself assigned to a special unit, consisting of Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale and himself. Their purpose is to investigate crimes which appear to have a magical element, and Nightingale is both Peter's boss and his teacher in practicing magic.

The second novel continues the story from where it was left at the end of the first, and offers the same combination of expertise about London (always fun to recognise places mentioned and think "yep, been there"), what appears to be realistic police inside knowledge, and cynical deadpan humour. This time, one of the magical criminals is (loosely) a woman who has an extra set of teeth in a location which is a man's worse nightmare, while others suck the life out of jazz musicians to keep themselves young.

There are differences between the socerous scenarios developed by the two authors: Aaronovitch's London has very few magicians and these generally act as individuals, although there are river gods and other divine beings. In Jacka's version the city has many magicians, with a substantial heirarchical organisation. Both are enjoyable reads but Aaronovitch's stories are rather more gorily horrific.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Film: Interstellar (2014)

This one was the most anticipated film of the year for me, partly because Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) is one of my favourites, partly because I don't seem to have seen a traditional SF epic for a long time. These days movie SFF seems to consist mainly of superheroes (silly, if OK in small doses), with an occasional dose of horror (Prometheus) or space stories with rather unimaginative plots (Gravity). So I made a special effort and went to see Interstellar in an IMAX cinema.

I am pleased to report that it lived up to expectations, although it was rather more downbeat, desperate and gritty than I had imagined (I deliberately avoided reading any reviews beforehand). This review necessarily contains some spoilers, so if you like everything to be a surprise, stop reading and go and see it.

It is a very long film and the pace is quite slow, especially at the beginning (set several decades in the future) when the focus is on a rural part of the USA where farmers are desperately trying to cope with an environment which is sliding down the pan, with droughts, dust-storms and blights killing off the food crops one after another, and even the air gradually losing its oxygen. Humanity on Earth is slowly heading for an irretrievable disaster.

Enter Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), now a farmer but previously a NASA pilot. He is intrigued by what appears to be poltergeist activity in his young daughter Murphy's room, especially when she becomes convinced that some unknown being is trying to communicate with her. She manages to interpret a message – in the form of map coordinates. Cooper sets off to the location and discovers that while the steady decline of civilisation has left very few spare resources available, there are two parallel projects running which offer a last, desperate hope for humanity – to find a new world to live in by flying a spaceship to another galaxy through a large and stable wormhole which has conveniently appeared in orbit around Saturn, followed by developing anti-gravity to enable giant space-stations to carry people off the Earth. Manned missions had already been sent through the wormhole, and three of them had apparently landed safely on different worlds, but none had returned. There was just one ship left to send to find out what had happened to them. Cooper leads three other explorers plus an old military robot called TARS through the wormhole.

What they find on the other side brings them one problem after another and they are soon struggling to survive. In a last desperate measure they fly too close to a large black hole in order to try to find a way back, and catastrophe seems certain. But at this point the story shifts into a surreal adventure and the film ends on a vision of hope for the future.

The slow pace gives time to develop the characters who are all good, especially McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy as the young Murphy and the impressive Jessica Chastain as the older version. Michael Caine puts in an appearance, and Anne Hathaway is one of the astronauts. The visuals are brilliant as one might expect from this director (IMAX is definitely worthwhile), and the plot stretches the imagination in a way that used to be typical (in fact, the main appeal) of SF. There are echoes of 2001 here, and a little bit of Contact. The film is unusually emotional for an SF thriller, although that does involve some occasionally clunky and improbable dialogue (e.g. Anne Hathaway arguing the value of love in making important decisions). There is even an occasional moment of humour, mostly courtesy of TARS oddly enough. On the downside, there are some puzzling issues within the plot that prompted an "Eh, what?" reaction from this viewer. A more practical complaint is that the soundtrack volume was sometimes well above my comfort level. Despite this, Interstellar is a magnificent epic which promptly jumps into my top-ten list of best SF films, and every SF fan should see it.

Final major spoiler warning: I did have a problem with the conclusion concerning the nature of the force which seemed to be helping humanity, which if I understood it correctly involved a classic SF paradox; those who know Heinlein's 1941 short story "By His Bootstraps" will understand what I mean!