Thursday, 30 June 2005

Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth (1964)

Edition: Voyager, 1998
Review number: 1300

There are several Philip K. Dick novels which revolve around conspiracies, about a small minority deceiving the vast majority for some sinister purpose. Of these novels, The Penultimate Truth is the darkest, because of the nature of the deception: the majority live hard lives in underground caverns or "tanks", enduring their situation for the sake of the war that's been raging on Earth's surface for years. Except that it hasn't: the few who remain on the surface live in luxury, spending their time creating fictional evidence of the conflict to keep those below in subjugation.

The idea of a fake war and control of people through control of the media was not of course entirely new even in the mid sixties - the manufactured belligerence between the nations of the world is a major theme of 1984. But there it is news reports of distant conflict that are fakes. Here it is those who think they are almost in the thick of the fighting who are being conned. Of course, such a huge lie cannot continue to be elaborated indefinitely, and the novel takes the natural subject of how the truth begins to come out.

One of the main points Dick wants to make is that deception is a part of any political system (with the arguable exception of anarchy). One of his characters, Lantano (who heads the opposition to corrupt world leader Brose), says: "As a component in his make up every world leader has had some fictional aspect." And this is backed up not only by the Roman examples quoted by Lantano but by the way that the reader becomes aware that Lantano himself is not entirely what he seems. This point about the facades inherent in politics is even more relevant now, in these times when spin and image seem more important than content. As another character says, "The biggest lie is yet to come."

Although Dick was obviously not the first to suspect the honesty of politicians (there are plenty of literary examples as far back as Aristophanes' satirical pillorying of Athenian leader Cleon), The Penultimate Truth was written at a time when people tended to accept what they were told by authority figures more willingly than we do today. After all, the worst of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal were still in the future in 1964. More importantly, the scale of the lie in this novel was unprecedented, and so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, its suggestion that the picture painted by the West's leaders of the Cold War contained lies must have been an inflammatory one. Of course, it didn't make a massive impact, probably because of Dick's position as a science fiction author, the genre being far more of a ghetto than it is today. (It would be quite reasonable to claim that Dick was, and to an extent remains, the most underrated author of the twentieth century.) The Penultimate Truth is not his best or subtlest novel, but it is his most directly and obviously satirical.

Thursday, 23 June 2005

Charles Stross: Iron Sunrise (2005)

Edition: Orbit, 2005
Review number: 1299

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Stross' debut, Singularity Sky, even if it did suggest the kernel of some ideas about a mathematical theory of causality that I have been working on, on and off, since I read it. It had enough interest for me to pick up his next novel the Hugo-nominated Iron Sunrise, and I am glad I did. From the very first page it is clear that this is written to a far higher and more individual standard: Charles Stross has found his own voice.

The story has elements which resonate with the history of the science fiction genre and with current events. Pulp fiction space opera is full of "planet busters" and ultimate weapons; in the Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith, perhaps the best known example, these include pairs of planets placed so that they crash into the enemy home world, and worlds of antimatter which reduce a world to a handful of gravel. The human element is so played down that it is barely present; the destruction of evil is much more important than the human suffering of the innocent (something which is a literary parallel to the behaviour of the British and American governments in Iraq, where civilian deaths were not even counted). A similar event, the "iron sunrise" of the title, is the centrepiece of Stross' novel: a supernova induced by a "weapon of mass destruction" that destroys the planet of Moscow. Stross makes the human cost of such a war crime apparent - the short suffering and death of the inhabitants of Moscow, and the more lengthy problems faced on one of Moscow's colonies - taking a much more adult stance than the glib heroics of Smith.

The setting is the imaginary future that Stross invented for Singularity Sky, and the same agent is the central character of Iron Sunrise. Indeed, the weakest aspect of Iron Sunrise is the repetition of the exposition of the background from the earlier novel - by memory, it seems to be made up from paragraphs pasted across almost verbatim, which is not just astoundingly lazy but which fills the early chapters of Iron Sunrise with the kind of clumsy "infodump" rightly derided by detractors of the science fiction genre. There are enough good things about Stross' writing that he really could (and should) have found a more subtle way to do this (particularly since any readers of the earlier novel would know this); even an introduction describing Singularity Sky would have been better.

The infodump and super-weapons are not the only science fiction clich├ęs to appear in Iron Sunrise. There is the independent adolescent of above average intelligence, a staple of the genre since the early days of Robert Heinlein (and one of the main reasons why science fiction fandom is associated with geeky teenagers). In this case, she is named Wednesday, in what is presumably a slightly quirky nod to Charles Addams, and she is one of the refugees from the Moscovite colony already mentioned. Then there are the apparent villains, those who are suggested to be the destroyers of Moscow: the ReMastered, who bear a strong resemblance to the T'leilaxu in Frank Herbert's Dune novels, or to any other science fictional elite who control the proletariat via conditioning: puppetmasters in a lineage going back to the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley. All of these, including the planetary destruction, are far better handled than the infodump, which is sufficiently poor and comes early enough in the novel to seriously impair the chances Iron Sunrise has of winning the Hugo. The nomination is in my opinion deserved - it is, after all, good enough to make me consider re-reading Singularity Sky.

Saturday, 18 June 2005

Lawrence Durrell: Balthazar (1961)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1963 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1298

The introduction to this novel, the second in the Alexandria Quartet, briefly explains one of the structural ideas behind the novels. I'm not sure of the extent to which this is meant to be tongue in cheek, because it is the sort of idea often found in satires of intellectual writers who don't understand much science. The explanation given for a quartet of novels the first three of which cover the same events from different perspectives is that they were inspired by the idea of spacetime most famously used in Einstein's theory of relativity - the first three novels corresponding to space dimensions, and the fourth to time.

I particularly like the way that Balthazar is set up, the reason that the narrator is persuaded to revisit the story of his affair with Justine. Having published his novel about the affair (the novel Justine, in other words), he received a packet of papers from his friend Balthazar. These basically tore the novel apart, explaining that although things appeared in one form to the writer, his view was not always terribly accurate, his passion for Justine making it impossible to read between the lines. This naturally prompts a re-examination of his memories - from which comes the novel Balthazar. The narrator is driven to find out to what extent Justine really loved him. What did their friends - and particularly her husband - really think about their relationship?

Since one of the interesting aspects of Justine is the way in which the woman is a symbol for the city of Alexandria, to reassess her and the affair is for Durrell to reassess his view of the Egyptian port. At least, that is apparently the case, because of course Durrell is perfectly aware of the ironies involved and is quite deliberately manipulating them. There are quite a few levels to the narrative, though it reads perfectly straightforwardly - particularly because the main interest in Balthazar is in the change derived from the narrator's altered feelings brought about by the letters which arose because of his fictional counterpart to the real novel Justine (and not forgetting that the real novel may not necessarily be identical to its fictional version) which he also narrated. But it is not all meant to be taken seriously; Balthazar is also meant to entertain the reader. As an endpiece to this novel like the notes that form Justine's afterword, Durrell includes some supposed quotations from novelist character Pursewarden in Wildean vein; among them is a little barb at those who take literature too seriously. This returns full circle to the suggestion that there is something tongue in cheek about the theory of relativity being the inspiration for the structure of the four novels - just one detail from a thought provoking novel.

Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Philip K. Dick: The Divine Invasion (1981)

Edition: Voyager, 1996 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1297

Religious experience of one form or another makes its way into most of Dick's novels. In The Man in the High Castle, for instance, there is the use of the I Ching, both in the story and by Dick as he constructed it, and even in the generally secular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the need to care for a pet is described in a way that recalls the religious impulse. In later novels, religious ideas become more central, particularly in VALIS and The Divine Invasion. While Deus Irae (his collaboration with Roger Zelazny) is a fairly straightforward story of a quest to find the divine, these novels are still hard to categorise in any way other than weird.

The story of The Divine Invasion is one that some people might consider blasphemous to incorporate into the standard clich├ęs of science fiction so important to Dick's style: it is blatantly and openly a retelling of the central story of Christianity, the Incarnation, within the genre. A zone of evil has forced the god Yah to leave Earth, to travel to the distant human colony of Fomalhaut. There, he impregnates a virgin, whose illness with MS provides an excuse for her and her husband to travel back to Earth - something not normally permitted for colonists - for treatment.

Up to this point, the narrative is reasonably coherent. The few unusual features are explained by the set up: the narrator is reliving the experience in a dream while in suspended animation - interrupted by the life support machinery malfunctioning, picking up a radio broadcast of Fiddler on the Roof (a typical Dick touch). But the, from the birth of the child, the narrative dissolves into a series of alternate realities, orchestrated by divine (or quasi-divine: some disclaim actual deity) beings with an interest in the outcome of the divine invasion.

Parts of this half of the novel cannot be described as vintage Philip K. Dick. Indeed, some chapters could be skipped, improving the reading experience. (Unfortunately, it's hard to know which chapters to leave out without reading them.) This is partly because the series of alternate realities makes the background feel inconsistent, and partle because Dick doesn't integrate his ideas as well as he usually manages to. Even so, just like with everything he wrote, there are lots of interesting ideas here, allied to a quirky take on religion which may amuse or may offend. It should be noted that it is clearly not Dick's intention to offend, at least not just for the sake of causing a sensation. While irony plays an important part in all Dick's writing and tends to blur his intentions, he seems to have seriously wanted to write about two aspects of religious experience: the way that science fictional ideas can feed into religious ones, as seen in the way some people think about corn circles or UFOs; and in the tension between organised religious institutions and personal religious experience.

As it stands, The Divine Invasion is not a great novel, but for those interested in Philip K. Dick, a fascinating guide to the stranger areas in the author's mind. Like VALIS, it reads as though it were written during an extended LSD flashback. Like VALIS, it pushes at the boundaries of the science fiction genre. Any fan of Dick should read both novels. Anyone new to the author should not start with them (though they are likely to begin with the best known writing, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Man in the High Castle rather than The Divine Invasion), particularly if they haver any strong religious convictions.

Wednesday, 8 June 2005

Katharine Kerr: Snare (2003)

Edition: Voyager, 2004
Review number: 1296

Katharine Kerr has long been an author I have enjoyed reading. She is best known for her long running Deverry series, which is basically standard fantasy, albeit well written and with some nice individual touches. I think that her other books, closer to science fiction, are more interesting, but now Snare brings that inventiveness back to a new fantasy world. (A slight caveat about what I've just said - this is fantasy with a fairly remote science fiction background, like Anne McCaffrey's Pern or Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover.)

The world of Snare is divided between four main groups, three human and one native to the planet. To begin with, we seem to be in fairly standard genre territory - the groupings appear to be loosely based on Earth history, with a Persian-like civilization opposed to barbarian steppe nomads. The Great Khan has become corrupt, ruthlessly destroying any threat to his power; at the start of the novel, a small group of cavalry offices set off across the steppe to find the only remaining survivor from the ruling family, who escaped the Khan's murderers. Then invent an excuse (investigating a business opportunity), but fail to allay the Khan's suspicions: he sends one of the Chosen (his secret police force) after them. So far, so similar to innumerable other novels. But soon things become, by almost imperceptible steps, different.

This is achieved through good writing. Most fantasy is pretty melodramatic, featuring a cast of heroes ranged against an unspeakable but one-dimensional evil (this of course follows Tolkien's example: orcs are not characterised beyond being vulgar and unpleasant members of a horde). By building the characters properly, by giving them realistic motivations, Kerr makes the reader simpathise equally with the Chosen and with those he hunts. Very little fantasy makes a credible attempt to humanise both opposing sides, and to do so necessitates something else unusual about Snare, which is that the situation is made more complex than a straightforward black and white division between good and evil. She does this by introducing interactions with the other groups already mentioned, who naturally have their own agendas. Her acheivement is not just unusual within the fantasy genre; very little fiction tries to make the reader sympathise with those who work for evil masters, no matter what the justifications they make for their actions.

Though as long in itself as many fantasy trilogies of earlier years, Snare is truly a standalone novel, as it amounts to a journey of discovery - both generally, as much of the hidden past of the planet is revealed, and for the individual characters. This is Katherine Kerr's trademark construction, and gives her novels a depth which is unusual in writing that seems to be typical of the fantasy genre, because her characters develop as they make discoveries, and the nature of their quest itself changes as a result. This complex novel is a top class piece of fantasy.