Tuesday 19 December 2006

Justina Robson: Mappa Mundi (2001)

Published: Pan (2002)

After an odd, disjointed start before the plot proper gets going - fifty pages describing formative events in the lives of those to become major characters - Mappa Mundi settles down into familiar near future techno-thriller territory, rather like (say) Neal Stephenson's Zodiac. The NervePath projec is a psychological equivalent to the Human Genome Project: mapping out how the mind and brain structure relate to one another. Natalie Armstrong is interested in the obvious spinoff: software that can alter brain state, something she sees as a major tool in psychiatric treatment (she works in a clinic in York). But she is strangely unable to get funding for her Mappa Mundi project, and a series of bizarre crimes in the US suggests that someone else with a more sinister agenda may already be ahead of her.

The plot proceeds predictably enough - are the people who used the software to attack the village in the Native American reservation really good guys desperate to make it politically impossible for the work on the software as a weapon to continue? who can be trusted? Then, just before the halfway point, there is a huge surprise, the rug being pulled out from under the feet of the complacent reader who thinks that they have read it all before. The western rationalist approach to the mind expected in a hard(ish) science fiction novel is suddenly interrupted by ideas from Eastern religions: the patient who is a test subject for Armstrong's work is accidentally enlightened, and leaves the physical plane, or at least, this is what appears to happen. Such an event would be humorous if Robson had not spent so long persuading the reader that Mappa Mundi is a serious novel. From this point onwards, the novel picks up a gear, and it becomes much less predictable.

Mind altering viruses, akin to the scourges of today's computers, are increasingly common in science fiction. I have written about Amusica, from Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, only recently. It's a frightening idea, that we might be as malleable as a zombie PC is in the hands of today's virus writers.

The difficulties with producing this kind of virus are many: it is quite some way beyond today's knowledge (unless one starts to entertain paranoid notions that of course "they" would want us to think that). It is possible to obtain access to parts of the mind from outside, for hypnotism clearly does just that. But hypnotism, psychoactive drugs and brainwashing do not provide the delicacy of control and the permanent re-conditioning that is required by science fiction writers. They eyes, closely connected to the human brain (indeed, I have read that some scientists consider them and the optical nerve essentially part of the brain) and a principal means by which we, as a species, obtain information about the world, are the obvious means to use to infiltrate commands and programs into the mind (rather in the way that psychedelic patterns were used in sixties TV such as The Avengers). The defences, the biological equivalents to firewalls and virus checkers, seem to be quite weak, as we already have these methods of influencing the mind through the optical system. Breaching the defences, though, is only the first stage.

In order to make it possible to carry out the sort of reprogramming described in Mappa Mundi, the way that the human mind handles abstract concepts needs to be understood in detail. It is not even clear that concepts such as patriotism are implemented in the same way in the brains of different people - after all, patriotism is closely connected to whatever it is you are patriotic about, and even testing individuals to see how such a concept is structured would be hard (how would you stimulate the brains of people from different cultures so that you could scan brain activity for patriotism?). Abstract concepts are quite vague, and hard to pin down; there is a good reason why we don't program computers to be loyal, or jealous even though we know precisely how a computer should work. (Simulating loyalty or jealousy is a slightly different idea.) On the other hand, this feeling that the theory that would underlie the software described in this novel is infeasible doesn't meant that it will never be correctly formulated: after all, a medieval theologian would have considered a single law of gravity describing the motions of the planets to be unlikely, given the belief that an individual angel was responsible for the movement of each one.

Whether or not the vision of the mind control software painted by science fiction is likely, it is a disturbing one. Scenarios like warring factions of zombies (John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century), the musical deprivation of Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, or Robson's government sponsored suppression of discontent are in no way comforting, pleasant pictures of the future. And yet some people think that science fiction is all about escapism!

Mappa Mundi would be thought provoking as a technological thriller even without the wonderful twists. Not a cheerful read, however, by any stretch of the imagination.

Wednesday 13 December 2006

Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Published: Penguin, 1993
Translated: Clarence Brown, 1993

Before 1984, before Brave New World, the first great science fiction dystopia was Zamyatin's We. Written soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, before Soviet censorship became really brutal under Stalin, it was nevertheless impossible to publish in Russia, and first appeared in English translation in the States. This meant it became well known in the West, unusually for genre fiction in translation, and though not now as famous to the English-speaking reader as Huxley and Orwell, it was known to both writers and a strong influence on the latter in particular.

The narrator of We, D-503, is running the project to build a spaceship to carry the philosophy of OneState (previously translated as United State, a version rejected by Brown because of the obvious confusion it causes). He becomes obsessed with rebellious beauty I-330, even though love has been outlawed by OneState hundreds of years ago, and this leads him to doubt the certainties that once underpinned his life, until his erratic behaviour culminates in failing to take part in the last step in the scientific perfection of humanity: the surgical removal of the faculty of imagination.

The parallels with 1984 are obvious; the plots are even quite similar (substitute Winston and Julia for D-503 and I-330). However, Winston becomes a stronger dissident than D-503, who, even at the climactic moment believes that the secret police are a force for good, and that the torture they carry out is different from the work of the Inquisition of history because the OneState torturers are good, while the Inquisition was evil. This inability to ditch early condition seems to me to be entirely believable. However much conditioning is undermined, it will leave a trace, some parts of behaviour and belief will still be influenced or even determined by early training.

Additionally, class was important to Orwell in a way that was irrelevant to Zamyatin: Orwell makes Julia and Winston obsessed by the Proles (as opposed to party members, which is what they are) to make points of his own, while in OneState there appears to be no divide between citizens. This influences the way that they use something common to both writers, and to Huxley as well: the role of the outsider in their dystopia. Huxley's Savage is brought up in a Reservation. Beyond the Green Wall that forms OneState's border is a world populated by (it is believed) savages. It is possible to imagine dystopias where there are no outsiders, where rebellion is spontaneous in some way, but the only example that immediately comes to mind is the much less literary Earth of Blake's Seven, where injustice spurs Roj Blake into action. In 1984 and Brave New World the question of why such outsiders are permitted to exist is a little problematic, though it is less so in We; even here, it is a little odd that a culture that is building a space ship is unable to expand through the Green Wall.

The two topics, conditioning and outsiders, are closely related, as, generally, the seed that produces the idea in the hero which leads to rebellion comes from these people (who more easily prompt thoughts along the lines of "Things would be better if..."), a device which allows the author to concentrate on matters more directly relevant to the themes they wish to develop. The growth of this seed is of course the reason why the perfect citizen of OneState has hadtheir imagination surgically removed. What none of them foresaw, not even Orwell whose dystopia gave a major role to media manipulation, was a world like the West today, where imagination is not stifled but channelled, more interested in the minute details of today's top reality show than the politics driving a war in Iraq described as disastrous by one of its key supporters.

What is particularly powerful about We is the way that the poverty of D-503's life is depicted as the narrator himself moves towards knowledge of this state, and the way that he becomes confused when the basis of his deeply held (if artificially produced) inner convictions begins to crumble. He becomes separate from those around him - the "we" of the title is, as Brown points out in his introduction, not the people as a community, for they have no real community, but the "royal we" of the Benefactor, the ruler of OneState.

We is a fascinating novel, particularly to a Western reader more familiar with Huxley and Orwell.

NOTE: Edited 24/12/2006 to remove a small factual error.

Friday 8 December 2006

Alastair Reynolds: Century Rain (2004)

Published: Gollancz, 2005

The last time I read (and reviewed) a novel by Alastair Reynolds, I felt that it would be good for him to be refreshed by moving to a new setting, separate from the future history he had used up to that point. In Century Rain, he has done just this, renewing his creativity by doing so. (I can't claim any credit: apart from anything else, I didn't discuss this issue in my review.) This novel is a science fiction noir thriller, where time travellers become involved in a murder mystery in an alternate fifties Paris.

Reynolds' future has Earth rendered uninhabitable by nanotech weapons, and the destruction wrought by them makes any artefacts obtainable from the planet's archaeology massively valuable. But when a trip to the Earth's surface organised and lead by archaeologist Verity Auger goes badly wrong, she faces the tribunal which will end her career - if she's lucky. At this point she is offered a choice: take on a mysterious task or be left to face the music. It turns out that the task is to travel through a secret tunnel in space-time (something more exotic than a wormhole, she is assured), the other end of which is in a Metro tunnel just outside a station in an alternate Paris in 1959. A colleague of Verity's was studying this version of Paris, and was killed soon after discovering something important. Verity's task is to obtain papers that this woman had left with her landlord; however, unknown to her, the landlord felt that there was something odd about the death and has hired a private detective to investigate it.

As briefly indicated, this isn't the real Paris: the German invasion in 1940 was beaten back, so the Second World War barely happened, with the result that the fifties seem almost more like the thirties, politically and technologically. The travellers from the future are not sure how this happened. There are several possibilities, ranging from someone taking advantage of the chaos surrounding the destruction of life on Earth to revise the history books and insert the Second World War, to the idea that this alternate Earth is a sophisticated simulation, to the possibility that it really is part of another timeline. For much of the Century Rain it doesn't matter what the truth is, and anyway, it is more enjoyable to soak up the Simenonesque atmosphere. Indeed, the Paris sections work better than the future sections - an observation which seems a bit odd considering in which genre Reynolds made his name! The novel is basically a clash between the X-Files and Casablanca. The reader is clearly intended to make the second comparison, as many of the famous lines are quoted from the film (which of course doesn't exist in the alternate universe). A little ironic touch is that "We'll always have Paris" is missing.

Century Rain also includes a nanotech weapon which is somehow more frightening than the murderous, spectacular and unsubtle ones commonly seen in science fiction. The Amusica virus removes the ability to process music: it becomes just background noise. It is a little unlikely to be possible, particularly if the hypothesis that the role of musical awareness in human evolution was as a precursor of linguistic processing turns out to be true. (This is a hypothesis argued for, convincingly and in detail, in Steven Mithen's recent book, The Singing Neanderthals.) The virus leaves a culture essentially without music, where those few immune to the virus for some reason are envied and hated.

Tuesday 5 December 2006

Kelley Armstrong: Broken (2006)

Published: Orbit, 2006

The sixth of Armstrong's supernatural thrillers in the Otherworld series, Broken again centres on werewolf Elena (the novels alternate main characters). Though pregnant, she agrees to undertake the theft of the famous "From Hell" letter associated with Jack the Ripper from the grandson of the magician who stole it from the Metropolitan Police Ripper files. However, an accident leads to the establishment of a dimensional portal in Toronto by a spell set up to protect the letter, through which come Victorian zombies and various nasty nineteenth century diseases. The bulk of the novel describes the efforts made by Elena and the werewolf pack to close the portal.

This is apparently the last of Armstrong's supernatural novels for a while; judging by the preview of her next one which appears at the end. (This seems to be an obligatory part of American genre novels nowadays.) Armstrong's official site lists another Otherworld novel, but that is also a bit different, as it has a different central character from any of the earlier ones.

It is probably a good thing to make changes like this. The author with whom Armstrong is most likely to be compared, Laurell K. Hamilton, wrote about eight of the Anita Blake novels without such a change, all concentrating on and narrated by Anita, and after about six the quality starts to drop, descending into self parody. The novels now consist almost entirely of Anita finding some amazing new power, and having some violent sex - and it is a fairly good rule that any novel where there are sex scenes over a hundred pages long has something wrong with it. However, it has always been true for me that Hamilton is a guilty addiction, while Armstrong is more of a pleasure to read: better written, but not as intense an experience.

The Ripper connections are interesting, if not really deep - and Armstrong doesn't trawl through the more macabre details in the way that some writers about the killer do. Most readers are going to know something about history's most infamous serial killer, so reminders of the specific details needed in the plot are all that are needed, and are all that we get. This is still a novel drawing strongly on the horror genre, though perhaps "supernatural thriller" would be a better category for it: there are more scary episodes of Buffy. In fact, this whole seriesou would probably be enjoyed by any fan of that show; it is definitely better written than any of the Buffy tie-in novels (not that that would be hard).