Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Inner Landscape, by Peake, Ballard and Aldiss

This rather odd little 1970 Corgi anthology (previously published by Allison & Busby in 1969) consists of three novellas by famous authors, without any editorial foreward to explain them, just a few portenteous phrases on the cover about eerie worlds and strange landscapes in which man himself becomes strange.

The first story is Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake, with a double copyright attribution: 1956 to the author, but 1969 to Maeve Peake, the author's widow who was herself a writer (Mervyn died in 1968). This was disappointing simply because I realised that I had already read and reviewed this story eight years ago, so I'll just repeat what I said then:

This novella (112 pages, c. 25,000 words) is set in the world of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, although they are not named, being referred to only as the Boy and the Castle. It is the Boy's 14th birthday and he wearies of the endless rounds of official celebrations to mark the event, so he takes an opportunity to escape into the wider world beyond. He encounters three strange beings known as the Goat, the Hyena and the Lamb, and faces a terrible danger. That's about as much as I can say about the plot without spoiling it for potential readers. My edition of the book (Hodder Signature, 1996) is illustrated by P. J. Lynch.

It is a very strange story, even by the standards of Gormenghast; the three beings are entirely fantastical and the plot very bizarre, being more in the nature of a fairy tale (of the original Grimm sort). What comes through most strongly is the poetic beauty of Peake's writing. Take this passage describing a peal of bells to celebrate the Boy's birthday; for me, this brought back memories of the strange, rich flavour of the Gormenghast books:

"A bell began to chime, and then another and then a swarm of bells. Harsh bells and mellow ones: bells of many metals and many ages: bells of fear and bells of anger: gay bells and mournful; thick bells and clear bells….the flat and the resonant, the exultant and the sad. For a few moments they filled the air together, a murmuration, with a clamour of tongues that spread their echoes over the great shell of the Castle like a shawl of metal. Then one by one the tumult weakened and scores of bells fell away until there was nothing but an uneasy silence, until, infinitely far away, a slow and husky voice stumbled its way over the roof-tops and the Boy at the window heard the last of the thick notes die into silence."

Peake is not for everyone, but if you are a fan of the Gormenghast series (as I am) then this one should be added to your collection.

Next up is The Voices of Time, a 1969 story by J.G. Ballard. A strange and atmospheric story, typical of this author, with a plot which is difficult to describe. It involves a post-World War 3 future in which life in general seems to be winding down: a disease is gradually spreading through humanity, sufferers losing their memories while sleeping for an ever-increasing percentage of the day until they never wake up. Meanwhile, crops are becoming steadily less productive and fewer children are being born.

In an academic community set in a bleak, desert landscape, scientists keep working on their projects, including artificially accelerating evolution via radiation. But the word from the stars seems to be the relentless onward progression of entropy.

Finally comes Danger: Religion! by Brian W Aldiss. Yet another post-nuclear-war setting, in which Edinburgh has survived to become the capital of Europe. A historian meets a stranger who uses a portable device to transport them into an alternative world, dominated by religion and with a slave culture. He finds that people from many different worlds have been collected together to help them solve a problem faced by this world, but he rebels instead. His major ally comes from a world in which Imperial Rome is still dominant, but as their fight continues he discovers a problem…

A rather messy story in which various elements and plot ideas seem to have been thrown together to make something of a dog's breakfast. I actually remembered the punch-line so must have read a version of this story at some time, but most of it was unfamiliar. The explanation probably lies in the copyright note, which says that "this version" was copyrighted in 1969; I suspect that I had read an earlier, shorter story.

A curious collection of very contrasting stories which have little to connect them; I suspect that the publishers found themselves stuck with three stories by well-known authors which were too short for individual publication, so decided to shove them together!

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Interzone 261

Two authors are featured in this issue: Cixin Liu, with reviews of his novels The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest; and David Mitchell, also concerning two books: The Bone Clocks and Slade House. Cixin Liu's stories certainly sound different, but I wasn't prompted to rush out and buy them. I haven't read anything by Mitchell (or even seen the film of Cloud Atlas) but these stories sound appealing, especially The Bone Clocks. Film reviews include The Martian (I wasn't that attracted to the story initially, but the reviews are so good that I'll have to see it); and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (not such a good review, but after the unexpectedly good first film I'll give it a spin)

On to the short stories:

Five Conversations with my Daughter (Who Travels in Time) by Malcolm Devlin, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A father is surprised to find his six-year-old daughter talking to him as if she were an adult. She tells him that a method of time-travelling is to be invented decades into the future which enables some people, in some circumstances, to temporarily send their minds back to occupy the bodies of their younger selves.  In several subsequent visits his daughter's older self tries to guide her father. An intriguing and moving story.

We Might Be Sims by Rich Larson. Three criminals choose a reduced sentence – crewing a spaceship on a trial run to Europa – and find themselves doubting the reality of the situation, or even of themselves.

Heartsick by Greg Kurzawa, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. Suppose you could have your heart removed in order to avoid all emotional problems, would it be worth it?

Florida Miracles by Julie C Day, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A difficult relationship played out in a strange present-day fantasy; what if those childhood "imaginary friends" turned out to be real?

Scienceville by Gary Gibson, illustrated by Vince Haig. Scienceville – a fictional utopian city invented by a young man who spends his spare time drawing elaborately detailed maps of the place. Until letters start arriving from people who share his dreams about the place – or even claim that Scienceville is real, somewhere – and tell him that it is important that he finishes the map in order to bring the city into their world. Reminiscent of Tomorrowland in the film I reviewed recently.

Laika by Ken Altabef. Laika was the first dog into space, before Gargarin's historic flight. She died on the mission – or did she?  This is the kicking off point for a strange little story about alien contact.

The stories by Devlin (in particular) and Gibson are the stand-out ones for me, good enough to merit places in book anthologies.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Omega, by Jack McDevitt

This is the fourth book in this author's Academy series, the earlier ones reviewed here being The Engines of God (TEoG), Deepsix and Chindi. A linking element between all of them is starship captain Priscilla Hutchins (Hutch), although in this story – set years after Chindi – she is now desk-bound on Earth as the Academy's Director of Operations and has a relatively minor role.

The plot of this story returns to the vast interstellar clouds which were the main plot device of TeoG, and the author's most memorable invention. The Omega clouds travel at speed and can change their direction of travel. Most notably, they appear to be drawn to any straight lines or angular structures, and cause civilisation-ending destruction when they arrive. In Omega, one of these clouds is heading for a planet dubbed Lookout which, almost uniquely, has a thriving civilisation of humanoid aliens at the technological level of ancient Greece, and the Academy doesn't know what to do about it. They have tried various means of destroying the clouds without success; can they be decoyed away from the planet? Or failing that, can the citizens be warned to leave the cities and travel to high ground, without breaking the important principle that alien cultures must be allowed to develop by themselves without outside interference?

The story focuses on the various attempts to solve this problem being made by teams working surreptitiously on Lookout and in the vicinity of the approaching cloud, with occasional switches to Hutch's headaches as she tries to aid her staff at long distance while deciding what to do.  There is much detail about the amusing aliens and their engaging lifestyle, which of course just makes the problem of what to do more acute, especially when public opinion back on Earth becomes involved. The author puts forward an interesting explanation for the lack of expansion of the natives' population or of any aggression between the different, independent, cities – natural population control – as well as taking a few digs at current social issues:

"Somewhere we taught ourselves that our opinions are more significant than the facts. And somehow we get our egos and our opinions and Truth all mixed up in a single package, so that when someone does challenge one of the notions to which we subscribe, we react as if it challenges us."

Compared with the early books, the author's writing style has improved and the characterisation is now less clunky. The story rattles along at a good pace, and is easy to follow. One issue of writing style of which I have become increasingly aware is that with modern, very long stories (Omega runs to 580 pages) including lots of characters and switching between multiple viewpoints, there is quite an art to keeping the reader up to speed with who's who – and authors vary considerably in how well they do this. It is necessary first to spend enough time with each character to establish them firmly in the reader's mind, then subtly prompt the memory on each appearance to enable the reader to recall who they are and what they are like. Some authors do this apparently effortlessly (but I am sure that is deceptive), others do it badly, some give up and just put a list of characters in an appendix. In Chindi, McDevitt manages this pretty well; not quite up there with the best, but not far off them.

Finally, the traditional nit-picking section! As I have mentioned before, with SF books it is sometimes not the most mind-stretching ideas which test the credibility of a story. Faster-than-light travel? Routine. Alien races? Yawn. Vast, apparently intelligent and highly destructive clouds moving through the galaxy? OK. But it can be something quite mundane that trips up the author. In this case, it's a humble helicopter. An antique one of these is brought along to Lookout, for the sole purpose of being stationed underneath vast lightweight atmospheric chimneys and running the rotor to blow air up them, thereby starting an air circulation pattern. In the story, the helicopter is manoeuvred into place underneath each chimney and then its rotor is run as fast as it can without the helicopter actually taking off. One minor quibble is that the degree of lift generated by a rotor is not adjusted by varying rotor speed, but by altering the blade angle through changing the collective pitch. However, the really big problem is this: as a rotor develops lift, it pushes air downwards, not upwards. To blow air upwards would require the rotor's collective pitch to be negative, effectively pushing the aircraft down onto the ground and therefore in no danger of taking off. Some naval helicopters can do this to keep them on a ship's deck in rough weather, but it is clear from the text that the author misunderstood this rather basic fact concerning how a rotor works.

Fortunately, this minor point doesn't spoil the enjoyment. Chindi is well worth reading; an exciting space adventure on the grand scale.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Films: Tomorrowland (2015), and Kingsman (2015)

An odd couple of films here, linked by nothing except that I saw them in quick succession.

Tomorrowland (subtitled A World Beyond) is frankly a sprawling mess of a film which takes a long time to get going and then doesn't seem to know where it wants to end up, staggering from one plot hole to the next.  Despite that, it was worth watching.

It starts very slowly at the end of the story, with Frank Walker (George Clooney) trying to explain what had happened while being constantly interrupted by Casey Newton (Britt Robertson – who I remembered from Under the Dome). So at least we start by knowing that the two lead characters survive whatever comes next! Apart from the final couple of minutes, the rest of the film consists of flashbacks, beginning at the 1964 World Fair in New York with Frank as a boy inventor who is given a token which gets him into Tomorrowland, a secret futuristic high-tech city on an alternate Earth, created by recruiting the brightest and the best and giving them free rein. Then it jumps forward to the present in which Casey, a technically brilliant teenager, is also given a token which allows her to experience – but not enter – Tomorrowland. She desperately tries to find a way to the city but as the pace accelerates, she finds herself chased by some cartoonish android thugs, then helped by Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who is obviously rather more (or less) than the young girl she appears to be. At this point, an elderly and grizzled Frank comes into the picture and the action soon switches to Tomorrowland, which is also not quite as portrayed, with a climactic tussle between Frank and Tomorrowland's ruler David Nix (Hugh Laurie) over the future of the Earth. 

I did wonder what the android thugs were about – they appeared and then disappeared without explanation. Nor was it ever made clear what Frank had done to be banished from Tomorrowland, apart from inventing a machine which was still being used. Nor were we told why Tomorrowland had not lived up to its early expectations. Nor could I understand how this Earth could be saved by recruiting the most talented people to move to Tomorrowland.

It isn't all bad news, though. It deserves credit for originality and remained watchable throughout, if only see where on Earth (or elsewhere) it was going next. There are some entertaining scenes, particularly the one concerning the Eiffel Tower's rocket ship (what do you mean, you didn't know it had one?). The highlight for me was an impressive performance by the 13-year-old Cassidy, who in 2013 was named in Screen International magazine's Stars of Tomorrow, the youngest to be featured on the annual list. She's got there already, in my view; in particular, her final scene was genuinely affecting.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is on the face of it, not really an SFF film, but it had enough fantasy elements to justify a mention here. Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), a young man trapped in the lower levels of society, is recruited into a secret, independent and decidedly snobbish organisation – the Kingsmen – where he is mentored by Harry Hart (Colin Firth). This organisation sends its highly trained agents to combat evil wherever they find it. The problem they are faced with in this film is a plan by billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) to solve the world's problems in a rather drastic fashion.

The film has a nostalgic appeal, being an updated and rather more graphic version of 1960s tongue-in-cheek TV series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers (though sadly without an Emma Peel). It mixes spectacular fight scenes with sardonic humour, revels in political incorrectness, and overall is great fun, provided you are not too easily offended. It has proved highly successful and a sequel is planned for 2017.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Black Man, by Richard Morgan

This is the third book by this author I have read, the first two being Altered Carbon and Broken Angels (only the second of which is reviewed here – I read the first one before starting this blog). Black Man, known as Thirteen in the USA, was published in 2007 and won the 2008 Arthur C Clarke award. Unlike Morgan's other books I have read, this is a stand-alone novel.

This story is set on Earth a couple of centuries into the future. A thin but breathable atmosphere  has been generated on Mars, which has been settled but is still very much a tough frontier world. The USA has split apart into the the Confederated Republic (a bigoted and backward state popularly known as Jesusland), the north-eastern Union (closely associated with the UN) and the Pacific Rim states, based on commerce. Genetic engineering had produced a warrior race known as Variant Thirteen to fight humanity's wars, a throwback to the ferocious, asocial individualism of primitive humans with characteristics which had historically been bred out of humanity in the interests of an urban civilisation. They had proved uncontrollable, and were soon demonised and referred to as "twists". The survivors had been given a choice: live in a secure reservation in a barren part of Earth, or be transported to Mars.

Carl Marsalis is a Thirteen, one who earns a living with the UN as a bounty hunter tracking down his few fellow warriors still at large. He is also black, and meets prejudice on both counts. He is the focus of the action, along with an assorted cast of detectives, COLIN operatives (Colony Initiative) and criminals. A ship from Mars has crashed into the Pacific and it is soon discovered that the crew, supposedly in cold sleep for the journey, had been killed and eaten. It doesn't take long to realise that the perpetrator of this atrocity was a Thirteen escaping from Mars; he is now in North America, carrying out what appear to be a random series of murders. Marsalis is hired to track him down, but finds himself involved in an increasingly complex situation with one plot twist after another.

There are obvious echoes of Bladerunner, but the plot of the book is a lot harder to follow and Black Man is frankly too cluttered with people, themes and events.  I had a particular problem with the author's tendency to introduce minor characters briefly near the beginning then not mention them again until much later, by which time I had forgotten who they were and spent an exasperating amount of time trawling back through the book trying to find out.

While the descriptive writing is good and a lot of space is devoted to developing the main characters and their relationships, the story seems strangely impersonal. It is told in the third person and there is little sense of association with any of the characters; the viewpoint keeps switching but is principally that of a dispassionate narrator. We are left to learn about the characters mainly through their words and actions, rather than getting much insight into their thoughts. Given that the personality of the Thirteens in general and Marsalis in particular is the key plot element in the book, it might have been better to let the reader to see the world more through his eyes.

I was sufficiently engaged to read to the end, but only just, and it is unlikely that I will want to read this one again.