Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Greenberg and Turtledove (Part 1)


This book was published in 2001 and I have to confess that it has been sitting at the bottom of one of my reading piles for a long time (well it's a large-format book, therefore its natural position is at the bottom for obvious stability reasons!). Following one of my sporadic attempts to tidy-up my room it came to my attention again so I thought it was about time I read it.

Its 400+ pages contain fourteen stories, plus an interesting introduction by Harry Turtledove which summarises the history of alternate fiction, going back to Livy some two thousand years ago. The stories are a very mixed bunch, as follows:

The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson. I have to admit that I am not a KSR fan, but this powerful story is brilliant. It assumes that the first nuclear bombing raid on Hiroshima was carried out by a different crew, and focuses on the moral dilemma of the bomb-aimer.

The Winterberry by Nicholas A. DiChario. This was rather mysterious on first reading, written from the viewpoint of a man who has the mind of a child with learning difficulties, who for some unexplained reason is permanently kept inside a huge mansion. It wasn't until after I had finished the story that light dawned as to who the man was, but Americans may get there faster than a Brit.

Islands in the Sea by Harry Turtledove. Set in an eighth century in which Muslim forces were even more successful, conquering Constantinople and ending the Byzantine Empire. Now the Muslims and Christians are competing to convert the pagan Bulgars, and delegations from each faith argue their cases before the khan of the Bulgars, with the main viewpoint being the Muslim representative. Interesting and amusing, as the practically-minded khan tries to balance the pros and cons of having to give up alcohol and pork in return for being allowed more wives plus a hedonistic afterlife.

Suppose They Gave a Peace by Susan Shwartz. Another one where it's initially difficult to work out what's going on. A war veteran reflects on the past and the uncomfortable present in the early 1970s, when McGovern rather than Nixon wins the Presidential election and the accelerated withdrawal from Vietnam has personal consequences.

All The Myriad Ways by Larry Niven. A brief but fascinating exploration of the possible psychological consequences of knowing that there are indeed countless parallel worlds containing slightly different versions of yourself.

Through Road No Whither by Greg Bear. Two Germans, a courier and an SS officer, get lost when travelling through occupied France and ask the way from a strange old woman who claims to have maps of time.

To be continued


Saturday, 27 June 2015

TV – Battlestar Galactica (Miniseries, 2003)


This series passed me by when it emerged in the 2000s but I'd heard good things about it so I saw the first two 90 minute programmes which constituted a "miniseries". The first, that is, since the 1970s version which I had also missed. For those unfamiliar with the setting, a brief summary follows.

The time is the far future when faster-than-light technology has permitted interstellar travel. Humanity is settled on a dozen colony worlds, and to assist with further exploration of inhospitable environments has developed Cylons – tough, intelligent robots of humanoid shape. The Cylons had eventually rebelled against humanity and after a stalemated war had withdrawn from human space forty years before the story begins. But now they are back, on a war of annihilation – with the aid of a new form of Cylons who are almost indistinguishable from humans. Their initial attack is successful, leaving the only hope for humanity the last surviving Battlestar – a giant space warship named Galactica.

After the initial scenes most of the action in set on board the Galactica or its one-person "Viper" combat craft. There is a varied cast of generally well-drawn characters with many personality clashes driving the plot. Despite this, I found the whole feel of the series to be rather old-fashioned and unoriginal – a kind of blend of Star Trek and Star Wars, with just a few of its own twists thrown in. As a matter of personal preference, I have also never liked the "enemy within" kind of story, in which the viewer/reader knows which of the "good guys" is really a "bad guy" – but the good guys do not.

Overall I enjoyed the miniseries, but faced with a further 70 or so episodes I decided that Battlestar Galactica wasn't quite intriguing or likeable enough for me to want to devote that much time to it. I probably would have followed it to the end had I watched it week by week when it first came out, but as I get older so I become increasingly picky about what I'm prepared to watch or read, especially if that involves a major time commitment – too much to do, not enough time!


Saturday, 20 June 2015

Chindi by Jack McDevitt, and The Lost Fleet: Courageous by Jack Campbell


Chindi is the third in McDevitt's Academy series featuring Hutch (Priscilla Hutchins) a spacecraft pilot with a tendency to get involved with alien archaeology; I have already reviewed The Engines of God and Deepsix on this blog.

The mix is much as before; mystery and drama set in a future in which humanity, having recently discovered faster-than-light travel, is rapidly spreading through the galaxy. Many ruins of dead alien civilisations have been discovered but the only live one has a primitive level of technology.

The key plot element this time is what appears to be an alien message accidentally intercepted by a spacecraft exploring in a remote part of the galaxy.  This prompts the Contact Society, a group of wealthy alien enthusiasts (that is, humans who are interested in aliens!), to fund an expedition to track down the source of the message, and Hutch is recruited to pilot them. What follows is an escalating series of discoveries as the explorers follow the track of the message from system to system, surviving catastrophic threats not without loss, but drawn ever onwards by the lure of encountering another spacefaring race. One dramatic twist follows another as the pace gradually accelerates towards the climax.

The plot is not as intriguing and awe-inspiring as The Engines of God, but it is better than Deepsix which has a relatively mundane mystery. The characterisation is improving, although the author still has a tendency to provide each new character with a sizeable biographical infodump which is not the best way to learn what kind of people they are. All in all, this is a good, exciting adventure story in the best traditions of space opera.

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Courageous is the third of Campbell's Lost Fleet series, which is simply one long, continuous story of a running fight between opposing starship fleets as seen through the eyes of John Geary, commander of one of the fleets (see my reviews of the first two volumes, and repeat). Nothing very new happens in this one and the repetition ought to be boring, but every time I pick up one of Campbell's books I am gripped by his storytelling skills and find it hard to put down again. This one finishes on a cliffhanger, but I will try to resist buying any more for a while – too many other books in my reading pile!

Incidentally, in an interview at the end of the book, the author lists his favourite TV series. The one in first place is no great surprise (the original Star Trek), but in second place comes The Prisoner (1960s British mystery) and in third The Avengers (not the comic strip characters, but another 1960s British series). I can't disagree with any of those, and I enthusiastically endorse his comment on The Avengers: "Emma Peel. Best. SF. Female. Character. Ever."


Saturday, 13 June 2015

Films: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, and The Maze Runner (2014)


The third of four films based on Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay Part 1 continues the story of a future dystopia in which Katniss Everdeen has unwillingly become the figurehead in a rebellion against the established order represented by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

This film suffers from the same problem as the last: it has neither a beginning nor an ending, being merely a continuation of the story, so is lacking in dramatic structure. It does get away from the Hunger Games format for the first time, to focus on the rebellion now being led by District 13, a militarised society separate from Panem (the rest of the country). Katniss has a largely passive role, acting as the focus for inspirational propaganda films while suffering from watching her love interest from the previous films being used as a mouthpiece for President Snow. Frankly not a lot happens, but the film was just interesting enough to hold my attention so I expect I'll see the final episode in due course.

Incidentally, there is as usual no help for viewers whose memories of the previous film have faded over the past year – the movie plunges straight into the action and I was baffled and confused by it at first. I find it very odd that film sequels normally provide no recap of previous events to refresh the memory, while TV series with only one week between episodes frequently do (although some don't bother even at the start of a new season), and I've seen non-fiction TV programmes which give a recap after each advert break! Could there please be some common sense applied here? The value of recaps is directly linked to the length of time since the previous episode: after one week you really shouldn't need one – after one year you certainly do.

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The Maze Runner is another "young adult" film although probably appealing to a different, more male, demographic. It is based on the eponymous 2009 novel by James Dashner.

A young man, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) regains consciousness with no memory of who or where he is. He finds himself in a group of other male adolescents, all of whom have arrived in the same way. They are living in the Glade; a large enclosure, big enough to support buildings, crops and trees, but surrounded by massive, impenetrable and unclimbable concrete walls. During each day a section of wall opens to allow exploration of the enormous maze of similar walls which lies beyond it; but the walls keep reconfiguring themselves making it impossible to learn a way out. And no-one caught in the maze when the opening closes at nightfall is ever seen again, but the sounds of monsters – Greivers – can be heard roaming the maze.

Thomas is not satisfied to accept the status quo and joins the Maze Runners, the fastest and fittest among the group, who venture into the maze each day to try to find a way through it. Meanwhile, the situation of the adolescents becomes increasingly perilous as the rules which have governed their lives begin to change, leading to conflict within the group.

This is a better film than I had expected: more original, darker in tone and more gripping than most YA fare, with the gradual unravelling of the mystery at the heart of it intriguing adults as much as the target audience. While this particular episode ends with the film, there is clearly much more to be resolved with the conclusion blatantly teeing up a sequel.  So it's just as well that the film was a commercial success, with the next episode due to hit the cinema screens in the autumn. I will be looking forward to it with rather more interest than I am to the final part of The Hunger Games.


Friday, 5 June 2015

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds


I read the first three Revelation Space books by Alastair Reynolds over a decade ago, before I began this blog: Revelation Space (published in 2000), Chasm City (2001) and Redemption Ark (2002). I stopped reading the series after that, possibly because I needed a break from the not insignificant effort involved in grappling with his complex plots, dense writing and very lengthy stories. I therefore missed the next one in the series – Absolution Gap (2003) – although I did read a stand-alone novel, Pushing Ice (2005), a couple of years ago and reviewed it in this blog.

On looking through my reading pile (which goes back decades) I noticed Absolution Gap sitting there so decided to give it a spin. I remember virtually nothing of the earlier books – reading the Wiki plot summaries rang only the faintest of bells – and I wasn't about to devote weeks to reading them all again, so I started "cold" and can only assess it as a stand-alone novel.

Typically of Reynolds, the structure is complex with several threads running in parallel, set in different places and at different times (to be precise; 2615, 2675 and 2727, with the prologue and epilogue set four centuries later). Fortunately the location and date of each chapter are signalled at the start, so it's not too confusing as long as you pay attention. However, while two of the threads are new, one (2675) is a continuation of events and characters in Redemption Ark and no concessions are made to those unfamiliar with the earlier novels, with the first summary of previous events occurring around page 200. Since your reviewer recalled nothing of these, he was left somewhat groping in the dark (not an unusual occurence…).

Anyway, the 2615 thread is fairly brief, dealing with the discovery of Haldora, a gas giant with the disconcerting habit of occasionally vanishing for a fraction of a second. The 2727 thread is set in the same location on the airless but settled world of Hela, Haldora's moon, where a precocious teenage girl is searching for her long-lost brother in a strange environment of vast baroque self-propelled cathedrals which move along a fixed track around the moon to keep Haldora overhead, so that the inhabitants can observe the vanishings which are the key element of their religion. In between, the 2675 thread is set on the watery world of Ararat, a refuge from a war between humanity – especially the Conjoiners, who have neural implants to enhance their capabilities – and the Inhibitors, an ancient alien force designed to destroy advanced civilisations. But they are not left alone for long, and the two threads eventually combine.

Absolution Gap is packed full of concepts and races, some of which are left dangling. For example the Pattern Jugglers of Ararat, a oceanic "world mind" with the capacity to absorb the minds (and sometimes bodies) of humans who swim in it; and the Shadows, the Nestbuilders and the Greenfly, mysterious alien races of which the last two are only described in the epilogue. In fact, the epilogue reads a little like an outline of a sequel which the author had lost interest in writing. At 660 pages of small font text, this is not a quick read. Nonetheless I was absorbed from the start and spent most of one transatlantic flight reading it.

Two points are worth mentioning about Reynolds' writing: first, it is very good indeed, comparable with Iain M Banks (although without the dry humour); second, his Revelation Space universe, while optimistic as far as the continued survival of humanity is concerned, is no utopia, and don't expect "happily ever after" endings. Nonetheless, readers new to the Revelation Space series are in for a treat in terms of top-quality hard SF provided that you are prepared to set aside a lot of time to read them carefully, preferably at fairly short intervals so that you can remember previous events. There is one other novel set in the Revelation Space universe, The Prefect (2007), which is a prequel to the other four, plus some short stories.