Saturday, 29 March 2014

Ken MacLeod: Intrusion (2012)

Edition: Orbit, 2012
Review number:1484

Ken MacLeod is an author whose work I sometimes really like (the Star Faction books) but who at other times doesn't really connect with me (the Engines of Light trilogy). Intrusion falls into the second category.

It is one of several recent novels by MacLeod which are stand-alone near future dystopias, rather like the series of similar works produced by John Brunner in the 1970s. There are two main elements to Intrusion: an encroaching "nanny state", particularly concerned to make people live more and more healthy lifestyles; and the moral and social consequences of advances in genetic engineering.

These are given a human aspect through the central character, a pregnant woman who refuses to take "the fix", a pill which sorts out an embryo's genetic abnormalities. Although this refusal is not a crime, Hope is unwilling even to discuss the reasons behind her decision, and this makes her a person of interest to the police - rather in the way that attending a mosque seems to do in the West today. The issues soon become muddled, as the plot development is based on the possibility that Hope's husband might have the second sight, and this begins to take prominence over the elements which were important at the beginning.

My problem with this is that the second sight, by its nature more fantastical than the otherwise realistic seeming near future setting of the novel, just doesn't fit in to Intrusion. It feels like a device used to push the plot forward, without being integrated into the action in a meaningful way. It is given a pseudo-scientific explanation, but one with some pretty obvious holes in it to my mind.

In other areas, too, it feels that there is a certain laziness to the construction of Intrusion, as evidenced by the name of the protagonist. This may be intended to be an ironic gesture, but is neither so outrageously obvious to be fun (as Hiro Protagonist is in Snow Crash), nor sufficiently understated to be interesting.

The subject touches on issues at the very basis of how humans live in social groups. To do so necessitates giving up some individual freedom for the good of the group; the question is, where does the line between individual and state lie? Since the answer to this question differs radically from person to person, culture to culture, and subject to subject, it is not one which can be discussed in depth in a single book - indeed, I think it could be argued that the whole of political theory, and much of sociology and anthropology, deals with ways in which this question can be answered. So it is not surprising that even the relatively limited scope of the discussion in Intrusion merely scratches the surface of what might be said about health care and the government, but I did feel that more could be said - Intrusion seems to be more a statement of a fixed position (essentially, that Hope should have the right to refuse if she so wishes), than an analysis or a treatment in which the plot involves a developing portrayal of the issues. Brunner's dystopias were mainly about attempts to change society (or, more specifically, attempts to reform society to ameliorate problems caused by undirected sociological development), and this makes them much more satisfying if more depressing than this novel.

All in all, an unsatisfying novel which never really gripped my attention - 4/10.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Saladin Ahmed: Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012)

Edition: Gollancz, 2013
Review number:1483

Even in 2013, it is quite unusual to see a fantasy genre novel which draws on a Middle Eastern background, and when you do, it tends to have a background based on the Arabian Nights. Here, though, is an original fantasy which treats ideas from Arab culture in the same way that many British or American writers draw on the western European medieval history, culture, myth, and legend.

The central character of Throne of the Crescent Moon, Dr Adoulla, is a man with a calling. He is, as far as he knows, the last of the fighters opposing the zombie-like magical constructed beings, the ghul. And he is starting to feel his age. With his apprentice, the fervently religious young dervish Raseed, he tracks the ghuls involved in an attack which left a young boy orphaned, The hunt leads them towards a dark secret which threatens the whole realm, though the Kalif is not interested in anything but his own rather unpleasant agenda.

The elements of the plot are not really terribly original, but it is the background which makes Throne of the Crescent Moon a fantastic novel for genre fans - which is why it made the Hugo shortlist this year. The background is not Islamic, though the religious part of the setting is clearly related, and of course it is immediately reminiscent to a Western reader of the Arabian Nights, though again it is sufficiently different not to feel like a straightforward leap into the world of those stories. Most fantasy still follows Tolkien's lead, and has a background derived from western Europe, often in the medieval period, and includes magic related to traditional European legends, such as those surrounding Merlin, or folktales of the faery. Much of the plot may be traditional swords and sorcery, but in this new background, it seems fresh again.

It's important that the background is well done, and placed in the service of the plot, and Ahmed does both admirably. One device which is quite common in fantasy novels, because it affords a means to expose the hard work which went into world building (as well as because Tolkien did it) is to have a group of central characters who between them represent different ethnic groups. Ahmed manages to do this here without it seeming to be a contrived, clunky, cliché - a considerable achievement in 2013.

All in all, an excellent debut, a promising indication that this is a series worth watching. My rating: 8/10.

Monday, 18 November 2013

John Scalzi: Redshirts (2012)

Edition: Gollancz (2013)
Review number: 1482

Redshirts is based on a fairly simple but effective idea. In bad science fiction television shows - and the original series of Star Trek was especially notorious for this - there are frequent missions in which the dramatic tension is racked up by killing off one of the characters, almost always an ephemeral one with no back story played by an unknown actor. In Star Trek, these individuals usually wore red shirts. Scalzi's idea is to look at these events from the point of view of the low ranking, inexperienced officers who would be likely candidates for death by the writers' pens.

What makes Redshirts more than a fan-fiction style parody is Scalzi's use of multiple levels of irony, as his characters gradually become aware that they are living in a fictional universe, when, in fact, they and the writer of the TV show are fictional products themselves. Not only that, he manipulates the plot to use this in a variety of ways, some more subtle than others. For instance, he invents an episode of The Adventures of the Intrepid, part of the novel's back story, in which an encounter with a black hole sends the characters back to 2010 (the date at which the episode is supposed to have been broadcast), which is, as the characters point out, a science fiction cliché which makes it possible to comment on contemporary society as well as (in a low budget TV show) saving on production costs. The ironic twist is that when Ensign Dahl and his companions use the same trick in order to complain to the show's writers about their treatment, they travel back in time to 2012, when Redshirts was published.

There is a widely circulated stereotypical view that Americans don't understand irony. This is something which Scalzi disproves with ease. When, therefore, we notice that, in his effort to highlight the absurdities in the cliché of the expendable extra, Scalzi has fallen into another common recourse of the lazy genre writer, the apparent weak character who turns out to be the hero of the story, we might well suspect that something else is going on. That this is common (good examples include stories by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert A. Heinlein and Lois McMaster Bujold) is almost an understatement - it is something which is part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy to the teenager and especially the stereotypical type of fan, the geeky social outcast. To some extent the use of this trope is n inevitable consequence of the premise of Redshirts: by concentrating on the minor characters, he is promoting them to central status. I am sure that Scalzi is aware that he has done this, and that it is therefore another ironic twist in the novel's construction.

John Scalzi's work is frequently compared to that of Robert A. Heinlein, partly because the military science fiction of his debut Old Man's War reminded people of of Starship Troopers. In a recent blog post, he asked people to suggest writers that his work might be compared to, and he specifically said that there was no point in answering, "Heinlein". Here, though, two other writers came to my mind. James Blish is an obvious point of comparison, as the writer of many Star Trek novelisations, though it is far too long since I read any of them for me to pick out specific similarities (and I think that TV science fiction, including Star Trek itself, is a far more important influence anyway). A more obscure writer, though, has touched on a similar theme, with the same kind of humour but without the irony: James Alan Gardner's League of Peoples series is about the role of ECMs (expendable crew members) in space exploration.

In my view, Redshirts is Scalzi's best fiction so far. I enjoyed Old Man's War and Agent to the Stars, but found The God Engines unreadable. I've generally found his blogging more interesting: I would urge everyone to read the fabulous collection of his blog posts in book form, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded (almost worth reading from the title alone). Enjoyable, funny, approachable, yet with clever irony, I rate Redshirts at 9/10.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Gareth Roberts: Shada - The Lost Adventure of Douglas Adams (2012)

Edition: BBC Books (2012)
Review number: 1481

Despite not being a huge fan of the series, this is the second Doctor Who book I have read this year. Like The Coming of the Terraphiles, I picked up Shada because it is connected to one of my favourite authors.  Unlike Michael Moorcock's novel, though, Shada is excellent.

One of the most famous Doctor Who stories is one which has never been shown. It was one of the three written by Douglas Adams while he was working as script editor on the series in the early eighties. Ffilming was interrupted by a studio technicians' strike, and was never resumed, for a variety of reasons. Now, Gareth Roberts has completed the story, re-working parts of it and extending it to a full novel length. Douglas Adams was, he later said, relieved by the interruption; he was almost as famous for his inability to keep to deadlines as he was for his humour, and Shada was still incomplete even as filming was under way. Roberts took various versions - a video of the incomplete series released by the BBC in the 1990s and script drafts mainly, and put together this novel, clearly a labour of love for one of the scriptwriters who has worked on the more recent revived Doctor Who.

The story shares a character with Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which was written by Adams later in the eighties, in the person of Urban Chronotis, Regius Professor of Chronology. Shada, though, is the story for which he was originally conceived, and he naturally fits very well into the Doctor Who mythos. In Shada, Professor Chronotis turns out to have one of the ancient talismanic artifacts of the Time Lords hidden among the books in his Cambridge college rooms, and this becomes the target for megalomaniac alien Skagra who wants to take over the whole universe and "tidy it up". This brings the Doctor calling, along with Romana and K9, as they try to retrieve the artifact and thwart Skagre - and find out who, or what, the mysterious Shada is.

This is a genuinely good novel - easily the best Doctor Who novelisation I have ever read. Moreover, I have read two other books which appeared after Douglas Adams' death and which were intended to supplement the novels published in his lifetime, Salmon of Doubt and And Another Thing. Neither were very good, but Shada is truly a worthy addition to the Adams canon - well written, funny where necessary, full of interesting ideas. Hats off to Gareth Roberts for his efforts here. Now, if only the Adams estate had asked him to write the continuation of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy...

My rating: 9/10.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

John Varley: Red Thunder (2003)

Edition: Ace, 2004
Review number:1480

Heinlein's science fiction novels were the introduction which many fans had to the genre for a long time, and his stories for young teens in particular have been hugely influential, whether loved or hated. When writing for younger readers, many science fiction authors have struggled to throw off the need to copy his self-reliant, competent, science-obsessed teenage boys who succeed where adult professionals could not. They are clearly very appealing to the sort of bright, but not socially successful teens who are stereotypically genre fans.

In Red Thunder, John Varley seems to me to have been unable to make the final decision whether he wanted to produce a homage or a parody. Often funny, it warps Heinlein's stock plot elements with a great deal of affection.

The main characters are a group of Florida teens - high school leavers failed by the local education system, but who are obsessed with space travel  - and a disgraced former astronaut they almost kill when driving along the beach at night while he is lying on it in a drunken stupor. When it becomes clear that the United States will be beaten to land humans on Mars by China, they put together a space ship of their own, pretty much out of junk, and set of to arrive before the Chinese.

This pretty ludicrous plot is clearly a parody of Heinlein, and by bringing in girls and making his characters flawed, Varley makes pretty obvious points about the some of the more obvious limitations of the earlier man's work. The unlikelihood that teens and a broken man can succeed in an enterprise which stretches the richest nations on Earth is made even more obvious because it is founded on an impossibility, the discovery of a new kind of propulsion, described as "free energy" - a perpetual motion machine.

And yet, the reader is drawn in, and much about Red Thunder is charming and enjoyable in much the same way as Heinlein can be. The parody is partly to tell us that Varley is aware of Heinlein's faults; everything else about his novel really seems to tell us that Varley likes his books anyway.

Three of my favourite science fiction books have very heavy debts owing to Heinlein: Ender's Game; Orbital Resonance; and Saturn's Children. Red Thunder is not quite as good as any of these, but is less serious in tone, so it is a lighter read (not that any of the others are particularly heavy). I enjoyed it a lot, which is not something I always feel about Varley's fiction; it could well be the most fun of any of his novels. My rating: 8/10.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Craig Stone: Life Knocks (2012)

Edition: Kindle ebook, 2012
Review number: 1479

I wasn't sure whether I would like Life Knocks or not before starting to read it, and I am still not sure.

The narrator, named Colossus, is at a low point in his life. He is living in a low quality bedsit, unable to connect with anyone he meets, with the exception of his unpleasant landlord (who is a Muslim version of Riggsby from seventies sitcom Rising Damp, with even less charm and fewer redeeming qualities.

This life forms one of two interwoven narrative streams, being labelled Present whenever it occurs. The other, labelled Past, describes an idyllic affair with a woman named Lily, and how Colossus basically this part of his life away. Lily is the only truly sympathetic character in the novel. The separate narratives work very well, and make Life Knocks read rather like an Iain Banks novel, Dead Air being the one which sprang to mind,, though without some of his quirkiness.

It is clear, even only from the quotations on the cover image, that Life Knocks is a novel which many of its readers find extremely funny. The humour here did not really appeal to me (which is one reason why I am not sure I liked the novel as a whole). Basically, it consists of watching Colussus finding more and more ways to mess things up - something which I found more excruciating than funny. But tastes differ...

Perhaps I invested more in the character than other readers have done, and so found his mistakes unbearable, but the fact that I did so was a tribute to the quality of Stone's writing. It is really easy to enter into the world in which Colossus lives, in both phases of his life. That is part of the problem - I didn't want bad things to happen.

In the end, I would say that I admired Life Knocks a lot more than I enjoyed reading it. If this kind of humour is your kind of thing, you will love it; if not, you will probably react much as I did. My rating - 6/10.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Jack Finney: The Body Snatchers (1955)

Edition: Gollancz, 2010
Review number: 1478

Jack Finney's most famous novel, filmed four times (and also known, like two of the films, as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers), is a masterclass in how to manage tension in a thriller.

The story is set in the small town of Santa Mira (oddly, wrongly named on the back cover of this edition) in northern California, a place where seemingly nothing ever changes. The narrator is the town's doctor, Miles Bennell, and begins when a patient comes to see him with a bizarre story: her uncle is no longer her uncle. Things escalate, and it soon appears that only a few humans are left in a town where everyone else has been replaced by aliens who look identical to the originals and even share their memories.

The way that the tension is built up is fairly obvious. Each chapter ends with a statement of increasing loneliness, as more and more possibilities are blocked off (the phone exchange is taken over, a friend in the army is unable to help, and so on).  It's a simple trick, but very effective.

There has been a fair amount of criticism of The Body Snatchers over the years. Its science is clearly suspect, though that is true of a lot of science fiction. Here, though, there is some self-contradiction (the pods from which the aliens come are said to be moved by light pressure, but then rise from the surface of the earth, for example). It has a straightforward plot, and the characters other than Miles are basically ciphers.

In the earliest film version, the alien interlopers are clearly signposted as a metaphor for Communist infiltration into the US of the fifties. As Graham Sleight points out in his introduction to this edition, this interpretation is not anything like as obvious in the novel: it is consistent with it, but not required. I would agree with him that what comes across more as the point of Finney's writing is related to the end of the innocent small town community portrayed in Santa Mira at the beginning of the story. Even in that now lost (and possibly never really existing) culture, did anyone really know their neighbours through and through?

But these issues do not prevent The Body Snatchers from  being a much loved genre classic, and the way that Finney constructs the story and carries the reader along into an increasingly paranoid and tense situation is the reason why. My rating: 9/10.