Friday, 31 May 2002

Brian Aldiss: Helliconia Spring (1982)

Edition: Triad/Granada, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1094

The Helliconia trilogy has an immense theme. In the eighties, one of Aldiss' interests was the rise and fall of civilization; his previous novel to Helliconia Spring, Life in the West, is about the decline of our own. As his introductory note here says, Aldiss was not completely happy with the way that it turned out, and so he produced the Helliconia trilogy, taking the theme and exploring it within a science fictional context, in the genre in which he had originally made his name.

Because of the way in which the background of the story can be tailored to whatever specification is desired, science fiction provides an ideal way to emphasise the things an author has to say about such a theme. In fact, there is of course already a considerable subgenre devoted to the fall and rise of civilisation, the post-apocalyptic story. (This body of precedent may have been a reason for Aldiss' original attempt to explore the theme outside the genre.)

The background he sets up is a planetary system which induces a regular cycle of barbarism and sophistication; part of a double star system, a massive long "year" of millennia is superimposed on the usual seasons, bringing regular and bitter ice ages. (The resulting scenario is very similar to Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, though that is the result of different astronomy.) In this first novel, then, humans begin to rise from savagery as the barely survivable ice age begins to thaw; Aldiss follows the history of the descendants of a particular individual, a man who challenges the ancient gods.

Aldiss gives extra force to events by introducing a second intelligent species to Helliconia, the phagors. They play surprisingly little part in Helliconia Spring, which concentrates on the emergence of a particular group of people from a shamanistic hunter-gatherer culture over several generations.

Something that Helliconia Spring has going for it is Aldiss' reversal of the ideas of spiritualism. It is possible for Helliconians to communicate with their dead ancestors, but this is unrewarding as they have been reduced to pure expressions of negative violent emotion: anger, spite and hatred. This is a real - and much more believable - contrast to the cosy optimism of real world spiritualists that the dead become more benevolent.

As far as it goes, Helliconia is an imaginative setting, but some of the details Aldiss adds detract from the effectiveness of the trilogy, at least as far as I am concerned. Unknown to the inhabitants of Helliconia, a satellite orbits the planet. From there, a colony of earth humans beams back the story of events on Helliconia to their original home, a huge piece of "reality TV" style entertainment. This is a plot strand which becomes important later on in the trilogy, but it diminishes the impact of the first hand narrative of Yuli and his descendants, trivialising it, even if it is on a scale undreamt of by the producers of "docusoaps" and the like. (It also, of course, pre-dates the concepts of these programmes by some years.) It makes Helliconia seem to be some kind of giant experiment, a feeling heightened by having human beings at the centre of the story - this would have probably passed without analysis as a commonplace of the genre if they had been placed on Helliconia by themselves and if they were not the subject of this surveillance, particularly if the only reason the reader is given for thinking of them as human is in identifying with their concerns.

More immediately of concern to a reader, Helliconia Spring is not Aldiss' most immediately successful piece of characterisation. To portray a theme which spans generations does of course make this difficult anyway, and the world portrayed in this novel is more alien than its successors (unless you live in Siberia). Concentrating on the outsider, on those who bring about change, means that this flaw is highlighted at the expense of the interest provided by the immediate backgrounds, the strange troglodyte culture surrounding Yuli, or the village on the verge of the Neolithic revolution inhabited by his great-grandchildren. The enormous scale of the undertaking fires the imagination, and this reader at least wants more than Aldiss provides. On the other hand, it is this scale which makes the Helliconia trilogy one of the most memorable pieces of science fiction of the eighties; still great despite its flaws.

Wednesday, 22 May 2002

Philip Kerr: Dead Meat (1992)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1993
Review number: 1093

The aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the hardships faced in Russia since seem to have fallen out of the news in recent years. This is probably both because the situation has been gradually improving and because it lacks the novelty value that makes it news in Western Europe. The time following the coup attempt in 1992 was one of great hardship throughout the former USSR, and saw the development of violent organised crime, known generically as the Russian Mafia. (In fact, of course, and as reflected in this novel, there is a lot of rivalry between different gangs, many of which have a racially based organisation, so that the Chechens and Georgians are constantly fighting, for example.) Even if everyday living is easier now, the organised crime syndicates have not gone away. In the realms of fiction, the Russian Mafia seem to be a popular subject for thrillers already. (Proof of this is that it's been used as a scenario for a James Bond film, as well as related events providing the basis for Frederick Forsyth's Icon.)

Philip Kerr's thriller is more realistic than either of these. It is about anti-Mafia units in the police force, the main character being a Moscow policeman ostensibly on a fact finding mission to study the methods used by the St Petersburg equivalent. He is actually meant to be checking that the leader of this unit, named Grushko, is as clean of corruption as he seems, as this is very unlikely in Russia in the early nineties (when inflation and shortages meant that the legitimate income of a policeman didn't go far at all). While the narrator, the Moscow cop, is in St Petersburg, a prominent anti-Mafia journalist (who likes to describe himself as Russia's first investigative journalist) is murdered, and so any consideration about bribery is taken over by the investigation into this crime.

Kerr's novel is based on considerable research, including the co-operative help of the real equivalents of Grushko. He also brings in many of the images associated with Russia in the last decade, such as an unsafe nuclear power industry, crumbling infrastructure, corruption and food queues. The setting is really well done, and makes the novel a bit different, both from the unrealistic stories I've already mentioned and from more conventional crime thrillers which have a similar style (such as Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels). Dead Meat is an engrossing thriller, if bleak, well worth reading and encouraging me to find more Philip Kerr.

Monday, 20 May 2002

Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)

Edition: Roc, 1993
Review number: 1092

It takes a particular kind of writer to name their central character Hiro Protagonist, even if it is made clear that this is a nickname chosen by him. It amounts to a rather cocky subversion of the idea of a central character, and implies a certain level of confidence.

To a certain extent, this confidence is justified. Snow Crash is a cyberpunk story about a new computer virus which also affects people; this may make the novel sound typical of this subgenre, but Stephenson makes it stand out from the crowd. He brings in a wide range of references (including relating magic incantations to computer viruses, and an information theoretic interpretation of the story of the tower of Babel) which make the novel more interesting than the average Gibson-derived fare (though some of the explanatory sections are rather dully presented). In addition, he has created, in his central characters Protagonist and fifteen year old courier YT, more rounded characters than is usual in a tech obsessed novel, and presented them against a background which is almost a parody of the dark dystopian America common to much cyberpunk.

At the moment, the precise nature of the brain's information processing mechanism is not known, so that we do not yet have the capability to imagine what a computer virus that might affect it would look like, let alone to write one; in fact, we don't even know whether such viruses can exist. One thing which seems very likely is that any such virus will not be passed by showing a hacker a series of zeros and ones, even in virtual reality. Stephenson justifies this with the idea that binary code is something which becomes part of the Chomskian deep structure of the brain of a computer hacker, but I find this very hard to believe (especially as deep structure is a controversial idea itself).

It is the background which is the most interesting thing about Snow Crash. The idea that the US suffers a collapse into libertarian anarchy is fairly commonplace, but Stephenson takes it to an extreme, with little independent nations springing up everywhere in franchises (including ones run by the Mafia and Columbian drugs barons), and massive inflation (billion dollar bills as small change - with Ed Meese pictured on them). All this is to provide a contrast to the virtual world of the Metaverse, far stabler than reality, but threatened by the new style virus.

Perhaps Snow Crash's biggest flaw is that Stephenson is never quite sure how serious he is being, and so wavers between parody and thriller modes. Whichever it is, it is an entertaining early novel, harbinger of even better things to come.

Wednesday, 15 May 2002

Roger MacBride Allen: Isaac Asimov's Caliban (1992)

Edition: Orion, 1993 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1091

In recent years, this kind of "collaboration", billed on the cover of Caliban as "unique", has become quite common. Basically, someone who is a relative newcomer as a writer (and almost anyone would have fallen into this category when compared to Asimov in the early nineties; Allen was a reasonably well established author) takes a classic piece of science fiction and writes a new novel or series based on it and under the supervision of the original author. The results are frequently surprisingly good; writers other than Asimov who have allowed their work to be used in this fashion include Anne McCaffrey. The benefit of course is that these novels have a ready-made appeal to fans of the original, and many authors of successful novels have a problem fulfilling the demands of their fans and publishers for more of the same. (They frequently want to move on to something related to current interests - and develop as writers.) Also, the younger writer may well have ideas which put a science fiction classic in a new light.

This is indeed what Allen has done with Asimov's robot stories, even though you might be forgiven for thinking that all the possible variations on stories based on the famous three laws of robotics have already been written. In fact, the scenario for this novel and its successors (it is the first of a trilogy) seems to tacitly agree with this, being concerned as it is with the development of a new set of laws to replace those which have been the basis of robot design for centuries. As in Robots of Dawn, the plot of Caliban is a mystery where a murder attempt has proved possible in a situation where the presence of robots should have made it impossible. The victim in this case survives the attack, but has no memory of it as she recovers. Her position as a developer of New Law robots, as one involved with a controversial terraforming project and the freeing of an experimental robot with no law constraints at all (enabling him to harm people and disobey orders) complicate matters. Allen's investigator, sheriff Alvar Kresh of the city of Hades on the Spacer planet of Inferno (marginally terraformed, as its name suggests), is made sufficiently an outsider by his job and his intelligence (the average citizen of Hades coming across as pretty obtuse) that he is in a similar position to Asimov's central character Elijah Baley. Baley works better as a character, because in his person he is a focus for the tension between Spacer and Earth human, and Allen has to import this to Inferno. (He does this by making the terraforming project run by Settlers, descendants of Earth people who began colonising space again after the Spacer embargo on this was lifted after Robots of Dawn.)

The major flaw in Caliban for me is the way that the research into replacing the Three Laws is described. It is said that the laws are impressed into the design of positronic brains at a fundamental level, with the result that new laws require the development of new hardware, the gravitronic brain. This is stressed throughout, but seems extremely unlikely to me, being based on identifying hardware and software in a way which has never been a big part of the design of the electronic computer. (It may come from ideas in some of Asimov's early stories, where computer Multivac is described in mechanical terms.) Even if the laws were partly encoded in hardware, it surely wouldn't be difficult to redesign the positronic brain either to move this encoding to software (as the most difficult part of getting a computer to follow the laws would be to provide sufficiently usable definitions of concepts such as "human", "harm" and so on) or to redesign the hardware to cope (working to redefine things in a familiar environment being far easier than at the same time having to work in a completely new background). Even the way that conflicts between the laws cause the robots to freeze up makes the whole setup seem more like software than hardware.

Since this part of the background is quite fundamental to the plot, it does have an effect on my willingness to accept Caliban (those who do not work as computer programmers may be happier with it). Ignoring the problem leaves a neat little detective story with an well realised if naturally not particularly original background. Best suited to its target audience of the fans of Asimov's robot stories (of which there are many), Caliban would nevertheless have something to offer a more casual reader.

Wednesday, 8 May 2002

Richard Adams: Watership Down (1972)

Edition: Puffin, 1974 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1088

There are very few animal stories which have become classics. The examples I can think of are all books originally aimed at children: Beatrix Potter, Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, and Watership Down. These are a much loved part of many childhoods, and are frequently still treasured by adults. Even within this small collection, though, Watership Down is unique.

The novel is the story of a small group of rabbits, who leave an established South Downs warren because of a prophecy that it will be destroyed. They set out to create a new warren, for which they need a suitable location and some does to supplement their all male group, but while they travel they face constant danger. These dangers do not all come from human beings or the many predators which think of a rabbit as a good meal. There is the strange warren which has a culture alien to that of most of the species, where a kind of art is developing in response to unusual pressures on the rabbits, kept safe from most dangers and well fed but culled by the local farmer. Then there is the military dictatorship of Efrafa, antagonistic to the idea of the emigration of some of its does despite overcrowding.

Compared to the other stories I've mentioned, Watership Down is aimed at older readers and is now published as a novel for adults rather than children. There is a lot more depth to it than the others; their animals are generally furry human beings, with little attention paid to their actual lifestyles. (Black Beauty is perhaps the next most realistic in these terms, though its picture of the life of the carriage horse is rather romanticised.) Clearly, this kind of novel would be impossible without some kind of anthropomorphism, but Adams weaves this in brilliantly with a lapine culture derived from careful research and enriched by the stories about El-ahrairah, the rabbit folk hero he invented. More blatant anthropomorphisms - the art of Cowslip's warren, the fascist dictatorship of Efrafa - are condemned by the central characters as unnatural.

A common link between these classic animal stories is their celebration of the English countryside. The downs are a beautiful part of southern England, and Adams shows a different side to them as they are depicted on a rabbit sized scale and with occasional reminders that the senses of the animals are of differing sensitivities to our own.

The background is less important than the characterisation, and in this respect Adams is more like Kenneth Grahame than the authors of the other books. He makes the rabbits individuals, particularly Hazel, Bigwig and Fiver. As an adventure story it would be a classic, but adding the resonances of the rabbits' adventures to human culture - making the reader think about the origins of art, or the reasons why totalitarian regimes are accepted - is is one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

Saturday, 4 May 2002

George R.R. Martin: A Storm of Swords (2000)

Edition: Voyager, 2000
Review number: 1087

By book three of A Song of Ice and Fire, the civil war across Martin's fantasy realm is not just well under way, but entering its second wind. It is very much like the second, A Clash of Kings, continuing the threads of plot begun in the first, A Game of Thrones. Its theme is once again the brutality of medieval style politics, acting as a corrective to decades of banality in the fantasy genre. There is no politics, for example, in Tolkien, as can be seen by the implausibility of Aragorn's acceptance as king. The romanticising of the pre-industrial world is less common than it used to be, having given birth to the genre, and Martin has moved further away from it than most fantasy authors.

In fact, at the great length of this series - each novel almost as long as the whole of The Lord of the Rings, the continuing chronicle of atrocities and betrayals becomes rather wearing. By this point, of course, the reader will have chosen their heroes and villains, almost certainly following Martin's clear signposts (even if the characterisation has subtler shades than plain black and white), and through this novel the heroes generally have seriously miserable times. What A Storm of Swords lacks is the impact of A Game of Thrones; as that novel had the advantage of novelty, this is hardly surprising, and is the common fault of series conceived as a whole. I'm also impatient to find out the end of A Song of Ice and Fire, especially as not all the characters on whose side Martin seems to be can win. From the plot point of view, the most important aspect of A Storm of Swords is that Martin does in fact begin to winnow down his cast, something which is sad for the reader who has begun to care about them. Attention to detail is as strong as ever, and is especially to be seen in the way that the growing anarchy makes communication difficult, so that characters are unaware of things the reader already knows.

George MacDonald: Lilith (1895)

Edition: ClassicReader (
Review number: 1086

George MacDonald may have written pure fantasy, both for adults (Phantastes) and for children (The Princess and the Goblin), but he has been most admired for the allegory of Lilith. This picture of Christian salvation is the reason for his influence on C.S. Lewis in particular; as well as being part of the inspiration for the Narnia stories and the Ransome trilogy, it is why Lewis makes MacDonald his guide to heaven in The Great Divorce.

Lewis, of course, was also steeped in medieval allegorical writing, the most characteristic literature of that period. Though there is much in common between them and later allegories such as The Pilgrim's Progress, there are also differences, at least in English. The great popularity of this work - second only to the Bible - seems to have quenched the desire to write acknowledged allegory for many years. The main way that it differes from the medieval genre is that it is Protestant in outlook; it is all about personal faith. (It is also the direct model for Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress.)

All these are different from Lilith. Most allegories are open, with the meaning of the characters and places revealed at least in part by their names (Christian and the Slough of Despond in Bunyan, for example). Lilith, on the other hand, is a closed allegory, and MacDonald explains very little of the inner meaning of his writing. In the end, this makes it more powerful, as the allegory doesn't distract from the story (it would be almost possible to ignore it entirely), while the interested reader can try to work it out like a riddle. Many writers since MacDonald have incorporated allegorical elements into their work in this way (prominent examples including Salman Rushdie and Iris Murdoch), and in the fantasy genre it has become the norm to analyse the more literary writers in these terms. (Tolkien is an obvious example, and he tired of facile interpretations of The Lord of the Rings to the extent of adding a preface denying that the trilogy was an allegory of the Second World War.) Allegory is frequently used today, both within and without the fantasy genre, to encode the ideas of Freud and Jung rather than to send a religious message.

Like The Pilgrim's Progress, Lilith is about the salvation of the individual, here presented as a first person narrative while Bunyan is a third person one. Bunyan writes mainly about the temptations which attack someone who is already a Christian, as seen from a Puritan point of view, while MacDonald's theme is a man's progress to conversion. His narrator's story begins in the library of an English country manor, where his studies are interrupted when he sees an elderly stranger dressed in black - a man who appears to be (the ghost of) his father's old librarian, Mr Raven. It may be the raven imagery, but this opening seemed to me to be reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe. He is eventually transported to another world, the allegorical domain, where he learns about what humanity means (in the company of a group of innocent children) and meets Lilith, the original bride of Adam according to rabbinical literature, a princess both desireable and wicked. MacDonald was fascinated by this character, to the extent that in the end the novel is as much about her relationship with the Christian faith as it is about the narrator's. She is, I think, the allegorical symbol for lust and impure decadence and is the world, to use the term in the sense of (say) St Paul. It is generally easier for a writer to make evil interesting as opposed to purity (even Milton's Paradise Lost is really a tragedy centred around Lucifer); this is because goodness is usually perceived as being about refraining from particular actions rather than about positive virtues.

MacDonald's weighting of his novel towards Lilith makes it more interesting to read, but it does muddy the waters of the allegory. The novel's major flaw is a certain sentimentality, particularly in the depiction of the children, but it will remain enjoyable to most readers and fascinating to anyone interested in the history of the fantasy genre and its relationship to earlier literary forms.