Saturday 25 January 2003

John Brunner: The Long Result (1965)

Edition: Penguin, 1968
Review number: 1141

Much early American pulp science fiction is extremely chauvinistic, having an attitude to alien races closely related to the worst racist propaganda; aliens are menacing, evil creatures seeking to take over the universe. (It is easy to get carried away by an exciting story, only to realise afterwards that it has an unpleasant hidden meaning of this sort.) Superhuman heroes battle inhuman hordes and win the love of beautiful women; women are kidnapped and rescued in the nick of time from tentacular fates worse than death.

John Brunner has always written novels which were for their time slightly apart from the science fiction mainstream, and in The Long Result he produced one in opposition to the clich├ęs of the genre (even if they were already outmoded by 1965). The main menace in the novel comes from the crackpot Stars Are For Man League, dedicated to putting human beings in a superior position over the various alien races in this part of the galaxy, on the grounds that humanity invented the star drive which enabled them to discover the aliens rather than the other way round. (This is - not coincidentally - similar to nineteenth century arguments to justify colonialism.)

The narrator, Roald Vincent, is a senior official of the Bureau of Cultural Relations, which handles contacts not just with the aliens but also with human colony worlds. He has to handle a rapidly escalating crisis when a ship from Starhome, the first interstellar ship not to be built on Earth, announces when about to land that it carries a diplomatic mission from a newly discovered alien species. This makes them the focus of attacks by the League, and the crisis is also being used in political manoeuvring between Earth and Starhome, a colony beginning to press for independence.

The political ideas are unusually sophisticated for the science fiction of the time, and yet The Long Result is still primarily an adventure story which has a style owing a lot to John Wyndham. It is clearly a milestone on the path of development which led Brunner to Stand on Zanzibar and the dystopias which followed it; well worth reading.

Thursday 16 January 2003

Dorothy K. Haynes: Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1949)

Edition: B & W Publishing, 1996
Review number: 1140

Dorothy K. Haynes was not a name I had come across before, my eye being drawn to this short story collection because it was illustrated by Mervyn Peake. It is easy to see why the stories captivated an initially reluctant Peake (to the extent that he produced an extra "illustration to an unwritten story by Dorothy Hayes" for which a tale was duly produced). The stories are about atmosphere, for the most part exploring the edges of the supernatural. The title story is typical: a Crucible-like tale of a young girl frightened into making accusations of witchcraft. Many of them take the point of view of a lonely small child, an echo of Haynes' own orphanage upbringing.

In this edition, the original collection is expanded about half again with some of Haynes' later stories. The standard is high, but the tales are very uniform; it is a collection to read in small doses. The apparent lack of development is quite surprising, given the inclusion of the later work. Though probably found in the horror section of a bookshop or library, Haynes' stories are not really frightening despite the occasional gruesome touch. This is partly because none of them have a formal plot, being more like a passage setting the scene for a novel than a conventional short story; and yet, they are complete enough in their creation of a dourly Scots world tinged with the supernatural that they are extremely satisfying.

Richard Morgan: Altered Carbon (2002)

Edition: Gollancz, 2002
Review number: 1139

For many years, there has been science fiction about how death might be defeated (going back at least as far as Robert Heinlein's Howard Families stories). The closest match to the ideas explored here is probably found in the Gateway series by Frederik Pohl, in which the rich can make copies of their personalities to live in a virtual world. This idea is not the main one in Pohl's novel, and Morgan is able to develop a similar scenario more thorougly because he makes it central to Altered Carbon. This is a future in which people can not only copy themselves into computers, but where the copies can be downloaded into other bodies, which have in consequence become known as "sleeves". Morgan has created an entire culture based around this, where (for example) criminals spend sentences having their minds stored on stacks, where people keep backup copies, and where organic damage is a more serious crime than mere murder. An important part of Altered Carbon is the reaction of established religions to the idea; not surprisingly, Christian groups tend to view resleeving as a denial of the possibility of a final resurrection.

A new breed of special forces came into being - the UN Envoys, transmitted at supra-light speed (Morgan assumes technology to transmit information but not mass faster than light) to troublesome planets, downloaded into a strange sleeve, trained to overcome the disorientation which follows from waking in a new body. Kovacs, the central character, was one of these soldiers, now (in common with a fair proportion of his comrades) into a criminal, an assassin. Sentenced to a couple of centuries on the stack for his latest killing, Kovacs is unexpectedly revived on Earth by a rich man in need of a private investigator. The police have decide that a few days ago he committed suicide, blowing his own head off. This contradicts his own opinion of hinself, once he is revived - if he had wanted to commit suicide, he would have prevented a new sleeve (he keeps clones for the purpose) being ready to take his stored backup personality. The police, on the other hand, were convinced that his security arrangements would prevent an intruder gaining access - in other words, this is basically a locked room mystery.

In style, Altered Carbon is clearly strongly influenced by Raymond Chandler; Kovacs is one of the many Marlowe-like private detectives in crime fiction. Elements in the scenario also recall more specific Chandler moments - Kovacs' arrival at the mansion reminded me of the equivalent in The Big Sleep, for example.

There are also obvious science fictional influences, particularly from cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writers, though it would be safe to say that cyberpunk has become the dominant voice in the genre today. Altered Carbon is at the grittier end of the genre, with some grimly humorous details (I liked the idea of a crime of "excessively armed robbery".) The most immediate cross-reference which occurred to me is Jon Courtenay Grimwood's redRobe.

Altered Carbon is very enjoyable, so long as violence does not put you off too much (and it does not produce the sordid feeling that I get from some writers). Richard Morgan is certainly someone to look out for in future.

Saturday 4 January 2003

David Brin: Heaven's Reach (1998)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 1138

On a science fiction newsgroup recently, there was a post with the subject, "When did David Brin start to suck?" It rather crudely overstates the reality, but there can be no doubt that this novel (the only recent one of his that I have read) is less good than his early work. It comes at the end of the second Uplift trilogy, and not reading the first two (because of Cambridgeshire libraries' random acquisition policy) may mean I am being too harsh, but I don't really think so.

The main plot of the novel centres around the fugitive starship Streaker, which has found unsettling relics of the Progenitors, technological artefacts which have startled the various races of the Five Galaxies out of the protocols by which they co-exist, leading several to lay siege to the home planet of the dolphin crew. Strange convulsions are, at the same time, taking place in the structure of the universe (a coincidence important to the plot but never explained), and wherever Streaker flees, its crew find enmity and betrayal.

The novel's major problem is that is structured from the very beginning as a set of disjoint narratives following the major characters. For readers of the other parts of the trilogy, which I presume tell of how the Streaker reached this point, this structure may well make sense, but it ruins the novel as a stand-alone. This is particularly so as the different strands are not all of equal interest, encouraging the reader to hurry through some chapters looking for something better.

The best strand by far is one which seems to be the most likely to have no connection to the earlier Uplift books. In fact, it seems almost completely out of place here - it details the journeys of neochimp Harry through E-space, a kind of hyperspace shaped by memes (ideas) and inhabited by weird and dangerous creatures such as the idea of carnivorousness. Brin's portrayal of the totally alien (which owes something to ideas about virtual reality in cyberpunk, it must be said) is excellent, coming across as as some kind of hybrid of Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland and an acid trip. It reminded me just how strong many of Brin's ideas have been. The separation brought about by the multiple viewpoints does in fact enhance the effectiveness of these chapters, which I suspect would become rather wearing if strung together as a single narrative at any length much beyond that of a short story. Generally, though, the multiple viewpoints detract from the novel, diffusing tension and introducing unnecessary complexity.

The occasional flashes of brilliance make Heaven's Reach worth skimming, but it is a rather dull novel compared with Brin's work from the eighties.