Category Archives: Science Fiction

‘I must not say: “Would you like a hand relief?”’

The Holy Machine, by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett’s latest novel, Dark Eden, won the 2013 Arthur C Clarke award, generally a good guide to what’s interesting in contemporary SF. It’s also attracted a fair bit of attention on the blogosphere, including from reviewers who don’t typically read the genre. Long before that though came Chris Beckett’s interesting 2004 debut novel, The Holy Machine.

Perhaps I should start this story with my escape across the border in the company of a beautiful woman? Or I could begin with the image of myself picking up pieces of human flesh in a small room in a Greek taverna, retching and gagging as I wrapped them in a shirt and stuffed it into my suitcase. (That was a turning point. There’s no doubt about that.) Or, then again, it might be better to begin with something more spectacular, more panoramic: the Machine itself perhaps, the robot Messiah, preaching in Tirana to the faithful, tens of thousands of them clutching at its every word?

HolyMachine

The narrator is George Simling, a 22 year-old translator from a new Balkan state named Illyria. We’re a few decades in the future and the world has fallen into a fractured web of fundamentalist religious states following a sort of anti-enlightenment. Only Illyria still puts science ahead of faith, or ahead of religious faith anyway.

George Simling spends his days assisting trade discussions with Illyria’s fundamentalist neighbours. Every one of those neighbours despises Illyria as a haven for godless idolators bound for hell, but then Illyria despises them in turn for being blinded by dogmatism and superstition. Still, Illyria needs food and immigrant labour, and they need the high technology that only Illyria still produces. When did mutual hate ever stop business?

George’s lives with his mother, but she spends as much time as she can locked into a virtual environment from which she can shut out the frightening real world. His work isn’t interesting and he doesn’t have a girlfriend or much of a social life. He does though have Lucy, one of a new range of robots each of which is designed to look and feel exactly like a human being. Lucy is beautiful and charming and available for hire by the lonely for an affordable hourly price.

Lucy is programmed to learn from experience so that she can better please her customers, but learning is double-edged. Lucy, like others in her range, starts to show signs of developing behaviours that weren’t planned for. The machine starts to develop a ghost:

Swallow. Make random choice from post-oral option sequence OS{O-78}/7: caress.

NB: Attention! Subject pushes hand away. Switch to option sequence OS{A-01}/4.

Remark: ‘Would you like me to get you a drink or something?’

But who is this voice? Who is it that speaks these words?

NB: Attention! Subject getting dressed very quickly. Facial reading: FM-77/09/z5. Agitation.

Interpretation: Do not impede departure! This is situation PV-82! Adopt abbreviated closure option sequence from OS{AC} series…

Smile (type 3 [V73]). Remark (R-8812): Hope that felt good. ‘Hope to see you again soon, dear.’

Illyria passes a law requiring that the new robots’ personalities be wiped every six months to stop them getting too independent. For George this is devastating. He loves Lucy, or in any event loves her body and her flattering responses. He doesn’t want to lose her. Soon the two of them are on the run, and the only place to go is outside Illyria to religious states who if they realise what Lucy is will immediately destroy her as an abomination.

The novel’s setting is, let’s face it, pretty unlikely. It’s hard to imagine everywhere save one country becoming a religious dictatorship. It broadly works though because Beckett uses this world as a vehicle to explore questions of faith, of how we choose to give our lives meaning, and of the dangers of absolutism.

Illyria considers itself to be rational, but is becoming increasingly intolerant and autocratic (it follows a rather aggressive Dawkins-esque approach to atheism). Religious faith is seen as dangerous (which to be fair it is given how the rest of the world has gone) and it’s increasingly important to be unquestioningly loyal and right-thinking.

More than twenty thousand guestworkers had come out onto the streets. They had demanded the usual things: religious freedom and full citizenship of Illyria, where they formed the majority of the population but continued to be treated as foreigners. The police had ordered the demonstration to disperse under the Prevention of Bigotry Act.

Prior to his flight George finds himself involved with a dissident group through a young woman named Marija who seems potentially attracted to him, but a relationship with a robot programmed to please you is easier than one with a woman full of human complexities. It’s one of many ironies in this novel.

George feels out of place in Illyria with its relentless certainty and increasing atomism. He sympathises with those seeking religious freedom, freedom of thought, though that becomes a little trickier once it becomes clearer to him what they actually believe (another irony):

‘Let me get this straight! You’re saying that what happens to me for the rest of eternity all hinges on whether or not I believe that certain specific events took place back in the days of the Roman Empire? That’s – what? – more than twice as long ago as the Norman conquest of England?!’ Janine nodded serenely.

Lucy meanwhile, given room to grow, becomes increasingly what frightened George in Marija – a person existing independently of his needs and desires. This leads to much of the book’s comedy as Lucy tries to understand the world using the skills and conversation given to her, and to question her own nature:

‘I… am… a machine. I know I am a machine,’ she began. And then: ‘Maybe you’d like me to dress up as a treat. What about my red stockings? You know how you like me to…’

George wants to give Lucy the opportunity to truly become herself, because he loves her, but the more Lucy develops the more it’s evident his project is utterly misconceived. What George loves is a physical form and some programming designed to appeal to young men like him. In the novel’s ultimate irony it becomes apparent that what George loves isn’t Lucy at all. Lucy isn’t a woman, Lucy isn’t even human. Lucy is a machine, an it, and it begins to become more interested in questions of existence and meaning than pleasing George. It becomes an ontological, theological, machine. The more George succeeds, the less Lucy is what he wants her to be.

Lucy then is a machine that seems human, but isn’t. George’s mother is a human who wants to leave her flesh behind and to exist within a machine. The faithful believe in souls separate to bodies, and in their own ways both Lucy and George’s mother are trying to transcend the bodies they were given. George wants to save Lucy, or more accurately to save his idea of Lucy. Lucy wants to be itself and to understand why it exists. Everyone is struggling with faith in one form or other, and with the collision of belief and inconvenient fact.

The Holy Machine is very much a novel of ideas, and that’s both its strength and weakness. There’s plenty of adventure here: both before the flight as George gets involved with increasingly extremist groups; and once George is on the run as he tries to present the dangerously innocent (but seductive) Lucy as his wife to those they encounter. That though is the sugar which helps the philosophical medicine go down, and perhaps fittingly the result is a rather cerebral novel where Beckett’s real interest seems less in what happens to his characters as in the arguments and positions they represent.

I’ll end with one final quote, chosen partly because it illustrates the issues the novel explores and partly because it rather resonated with me:

But there is one problem about being religious. You are taught that the supernatural exists – miracles, angels, the resurrection of the dead – but for some reason it always seems to happen off stage, either somewhere else, or somewhen long ago. You actually have to live in exactly the same boringly unsupernatural world as do the unbelievers. It must be hard work believing in things which never actually happen.

So I don’t think it’s surprising that religious folk sometimes erupt in excitement over a statue that appears to weep, or a fish whose lateral markings spell out the Arabic letters for ‘God is great’, or an oil-stain on a garage forecourt that resembles the Virgin Mary…

For another view of The Holy Machine I can’t do better than point to David Hebblethwaite’s review here, which also links to several other fine reviews. If you’ve been tempted by Beckett this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s an interesting and intelligent book even if perhaps sometimes a little too prone to infodumps and a slight obviousness in its themes. It’s easy though to draw analogies on a number of fronts with our own world, not least that what’s best and most challenging in other people is the fact they exist beyond our ideas of them.

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The television’s caffeinated universe kept unfolding

Nod, by Adrian Barnes

As I write this I have a fairly grim cold and haven’t slept properly in days. The result is I feel slightly distanced from the world, as if I’m seeing it through thick glass, and generally I feel rather disaffected and unpleasant. Normally I wouldn’t write a review when feeling like that, but in the case of Nod it seems almost fitting because this is after all a novel about an insomniac apocalypse.

Nod

Paul is a middling-successful writer. He specialises in unusual etymology, writing books about archaic or obscure words and their meanings. He lives with his wife Tanya in Vancouver. They have a decent and fairly typical life, not rich but doing ok. Then, one night, Paul goes to sleep and when he wakes up in the morning he finds Tanya irritable because she couldn’t sleep and the world irrevocably changed.

It soon becomes apparent that almost the entire human race had a night without sleep. Experts debate possible causes on rolling 24-hour news channels; people are frightened and cranky. It’s not until the second sleepless night that it starts to become obvious that what’s happening is effectively the end of the world.

A week without sleep and psychosis sets in. A month without sleep and you die. That’s not just in the book by the way; the exact timings may be off but we really do need sleep to maintain sanity and ultimately health. I’ve had a couple of nights with just my sleep being interrupted, and I already feel dreadful (it is just a cold though in case anyone is worried, I’ll be fine in a day or so).

Society starts to fray at the edges. Exhausted and desperate people start to turn on each other as they face a destruction that’s oddly intimate yet near-universal.

All the nicely-printed shelf tags had been pulled off and prices written directly on the goods in red felt pen. They were now roughly triple what they’d been two days ago. At least capitalism was still alive and functioning properly. The thought of that invisible hand still busily bitch-slapping the poor and desperate was almost reassuring. After all, in order to muster up the will to profiteer, one needs to be able to envision a future in which to spend one’s ill-gotten gains.

Coming out of the store I saw that the line had now swelled to a couple of thousand panicky people who were surging forward against the line of soldiers. Something ugly was going to happen soon. An idea had to be growing in that massive line up: why pay when every defenseless person leaving the store with an armful of groceries is a sort of walking Food Bank?

What follows is an increasingly grim tale as everyone around Paul, including Tanya, falls into madness and terror. Those who still sleep get called “Sleepers” by those who can’t. They become the target of strange obsessions, schemes to somehow steal the secret of sleep from them, resentment and violence.

Paul is fixated on by a homeless man named Charles that he used to know. Charles has somehow got hold of Paul’s latest still-unpublished manuscript, titled Nod, and has found in it a meaning for the chaos the world is slipping into. Charles believes that Paul is a prophet, that his “Nod” manuscript is an explanation, and that he Charles is the high priest of the message Paul has brought the world. Soon others gather behind Charles’ message of salvation through lack of sleep. Tanya meanwhile starts to try to prepare for her own decline, while Paul steadfastly ignores the evident horror of their situation.

‘I think it’s time we started planning for what comes next.’ ‘Why don’t we just go to sleep?’ ‘I’m not going to sleep, Paul.’ I heard myself begin to whine. ‘You don’t know that. That’s just something out of a movie. Doomed people in movies always have this sad foreknowledge of what’s coming down the pike. But that’s just Hollywood bullshit melodrama. You don’t know you’re not going to sleep.’

Nod is not a novel to read if you require sympathetic protagonists. Paul is, quite simply, a self-absorbed misanthrope. For him the end of the world is inconvenient and dangerous, but he’s not going to miss humanity much. Even Tanya’s situation he sees more in terms of how it impacts him than what it means for her.

Everybody dies eventually. So if eight billion of us die in the next four weeks is that significant? All this sleeplessness plague could do was align those billions of inevitable deaths into a slightly narrower window of time—a matter of efficiency, not tragedy. If, during any one of a million previous nights, a giant asteroid had smashed the earth into gravel while we all slept, would it have mattered?

All of that makes his in some respects not the best viewpoint to see the end of the world from. Partly because I don’t think many readers will find themselves hoping Paul somehow survives, but much more importantly because his dispassionate attitude makes Nod a slightly bloodless affair at times (metaphorically speaking, literally there’s plenty of blood before the book’s done). If those I loved were facing insanity and death I’d fall apart. Paul adapts, and in doing so some of the trauma of what’s happening is perhaps lost.

Nod was also heavily criticised by some reviewers for its attitude to women. Where you have a single narrative voice it’s of course very difficult to distinguish between the character’s attitudes and the author’s, but it’s fair to say that there are problems here. I thought Tanya an interesting and credible character, but this is a narrative where she suffers sexual humiliation twice, is used by Charles to attack Paul’s self-esteem, and generally where she never seems to do anything but instead merely comments on what others do. She is acted upon, but never seems herself to act, and the same could probably be said for other women in the novel. Anyone who actually does anything, however crazed it might be, is a man.

The cruelty to Tanya may of course just be more evidence of Paul’s general selfishness and his solipsistic attitudes to the people around him. When he and Tanya take in a child who still sleeps so as to protect it from the mob, he comments: “We called her Zoe, Tanya having plucked the name from a mental list of future-children names that women seem to carry around inside themselves like eggs. Women. Eggs in their bodies, babies in their eyes.” It’s a strikingly sexist viewpoint, but whether it’s Paul being Paul or symptomatic of a wider issue in how the novel treats women is to some extent up for argument.

Where Nod works well then is its portrait of a descent into a nightmare-world populaced by crazed people who know in their lucid moments that they’re doomed but who even so act as if there’s some purpose to their frenzy. Where it works less well is Paul’s almost-indifference to the events around him and his objectification of Tanya which because his is the only voice we hear becomes the novel’s objectification of Tanya.

Hints of a wider pattern (and perhaps purpose) do emerge. Paul realises that those who sleep aren’t immune at all to whatever’s happening, but are just responding differently. He and the other adult Sleepers have the same dream of a great golden light, and the urge to sleep grows stronger and the sleeps themselves longer and deeper, raising the possibility that one day they may simply stop waking up. Children who can still sleep are stranger yet, no longer speaking and taking to the nearby woods where they form small silent communities.

Humanity then isn’t so much being ended as being altered, and the suspicion grew in me that the adult Sleepers like Paul only existed so that someone could protect the child Sleepers from the increasingly dangerous sleepless psychotics. I was reminded in fact of Michael Bishop’s The Quickening which touches on similar territory (though I’ve no reason to believe Barnes has read it). That’s of course a reading of the novel as story rather than allegory, and I think it’s fairly clear Barnes intends it to work as both.

Nod is what Margaret Atwood might call speculative fiction. This isn’t a novel about how or why all this is happening – nobody Paul meets has the faintest clue about either. Instead this is a novel about people and ideas. Charles’ creation of a religion around Paul is an attempt to wrest meaning from chaos, with Charles finding himself in the process transformed from an outcast to a leader. Paul finds himself on the receiving end of objectification, his own lack of faith in Charles’ credo an inconvenience. There’s nothing more dangerous to a new faith than an off-message messiah.

Perception and interpretation are key here. As people become increasingly gripped by hallucinations those who offer simple explanations of the world become dangerously attractive. In one scene a group watch the skies where they have collectively persuaded themselves they can see angels flying overhead, then someone suggests that in fact they’re demons and the crowd disintegrates in terror. Anyone who stands up offering certainty can form their own petty empire, granted power by people who’ve outsourced critical thinking. It’s hard not to see all that as a commentary on our own comfortably pre-apocalyptic world.

What underlines the arbitrariness of it all is a realisation Paul has relatively late. For him he’s at the centre of it all, the new faith is formed around his word and everything that happens seems to be focused on him. He would think that though, because for Paul the world was always all about him.

It suddenly struck me that not everyone left alive even knew about Nod. Holy shit, I thought, almost no one knew about Nod. The vast majority of the Awakened were living in nameless kingdoms of their own terrified devising, and now they were ranged all around us, trembling and grinding their teeth.

Everything we read is in fact a tiny drama in a global ruin. Paul for a while sees his conflict with Charles as important, but it’s only important to them. His manuscript and the new faith it spawns are relevant to perhaps a few hundred people at most out of billions. What seems to him and Charles central to it all is in fact a side story, and perhaps there are only side stories.

That brings me back to Nod as commentary. Paul sees what happens to him as meaningful, but in the wider sense it plainly isn’t. Charles seizes power when the world falls apart, but it’s incredibly local power and he’ll still be dead within the month. The world of Nod is one filled with people with no sense of context, who think their struggles significant and their victories important but who in the blink of an eye will be lost in an ocean of endless incident.

In real life too we invest meaning in our dramas and our politics and of course we’re right to do so, a change of administration may make real differences to real lives, but step back a moment and most things that seem important either aren’t at all or are important just to us personally or locally, not on any wider level. We live amidst an epidemic of voices shouting at us from all sides, distracted by flickering images only a pixel deep,. Whatever signal there may be out there it quickly gets lost in the noise.

In the end, ironically or intentionally, Tanya has the right of it. She’s the only one who understands that what really matters isn’t the wider meaning and potential of the new world, but how it impacts her and Paul personally and their life together. It’s Tanya who sees that it’s important to protect Zoe, looking past her own descent into madness, degradation and death. Of course making Tanya’s concerns domestic is itself problematic from a gender politics perspective, save perhaps (only perhaps) for the fact that on this occasion she’s so plainly right.

Nod appeared on the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award shortlist, where it was a controversial nominee due to what many saw as its deep-rooted sexism (and with some also just thinking it wasn’t very good). The objections to it were made if anything more pointed by the fact 2013 saw a male-only nominee list, which stood out given how many excellent female SF authors there are.

Unsurprisingly then, Nod was widely reviewed. I’d point particularly to this review by David Hebbelthwaite who is probably my go-to person for quality SF recommendations (and beyond, David doesn’t just read SF by any means). Also on the positive side is this review by Nina Allen, which I thought nicely captured the core allegory of the novel (“What Barnes seems to be saying, put most simply, is: ‘wake up!’”).

On the negative side I’d flag this review by the always perceptive Niall Harrison who absolutely slates the book in a single paragraph (“the reading experience is just limply unpleasant”) and this excellent review by Abigail Nussbaum. Abigail was I thought particularly good on the gender-issues of the book (though I disagree that the book has an incoherent cosmology, I think the lack of coherence is intentional and reflects Paul’s own limits as narrator and a wider point about the partiality of every perspective).

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Girls get murdered all the fucking time.

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

I’m sick of serial killers. Serial killers are what we replaced our monsters with. We don’t believe in ghosts or goblins, so we looked to our real life monsters and gave them mythic qualities.

On TV and film serial killers are often brilliant, geniuses even. Sometimes they’re superhumanly strong, sometimes charming. Their victims are generally attractive young women with good jobs, women the audience can relate to and sympathise with. It’s rare a serial killer in fiction is a social inadequate preying on the marginalised because then the whole thing just becomes too ugly for a Saturday night’s entertainment.

Lauren Beukes is an intelligent writer, one who couldn’t write formula if she tried. When she writes a novel featuring a serial killer then it’s no surprise that the result is interesting and well written. In The Shining Girls she uses the familiar figure of the serial killer to make a wider point about how society crushes women who stand out, the murderer as an extreme manifestation of something that happens every day. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

ShiningGirls

The Shining Girls is high-concept. Harper Curtis is a drifter in Chicago in 1931, a despicable wretch of a man, weak and full of petty hate. His crimes are about to catch up on him when he discovers a house, the house, and the house exists outside of time.

He goes to the window to pull the curtains shut, but not before he glimpses the tableau outside.

The houses across the way change. The paint strips away, recolors itself, strips away again through snow and sun and trash tangled with leaves blowing down the street. Windows are broken, boarded over, spruced up with a vase of flowers that turn brown and fall away. The empty lot becomes overgrown, fills over with cement, grass grows through the cracks in wild tufts, rubbish congeals, the rubbish is removed, it comes back, along with aggressive snarls of writing on the walls in vicious colors. A hopscotch grid appears, disappears in the sleeting rain, moves elsewhere, snaking across the cement. A couch rots through seasons and then catches fire.

He yanks the curtains closed, and turns and sees it. Finally. His destiny spelled out in this room.

Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.

When Harper finds the house there’s a dead body in the hallway, a recently murdered man. There’s a suitcase full of money, but some of the notes are wrong and the issue dates haven’t happened yet. When he looks out the window he looks out on different Chicagos, and when he opens the front door he can walk out into them. He can walk out into any time between 1929 and 1993. He goes out in 1993 to dump the body far from his own time, and finds a corpse he recognises from his own time already stuck in his chosen hiding place. A cleverer man might wonder how that was possible, but Harper isn’t that man.

In 1992 Kirby Mazrachi is a young woman who some years back survived a terrifying and brutal assault. She was disembowelled and had her throat slashed, but her attacker hadn’t planned on her dog trying to save her and ended up having to flee the scene, leaving her for dead. Now she’s an intern with a burnt-out former crime reporter, Dan Velasquez, who’s now working the sports desk for the Chicago Sun-Times. When Dan meets her for the first time he sees her as:

a girl barely out of kindergarten, surely, with crazy kindergarten hair sticking up all over the place, a multicolored striped scarf looped around her neck with matching fingerless gloves, a black jacket with more zips than is conceivably practical, and worse, an earring in her nose. She irritates him on principle.

He’s even less happy when he works out she’s only doing the intern job so she can get inside dirt on her own story, a story he worked on back on the day.

Ok, maybe Beukes can write a little formula when she tries. Kirby and Dan are pretty familiar sorts of characters. Still, there’s enough originality in the time travel concept that it’s probably for the best if some of the other architecture of the story is a little more standard.

Kirby and Dan soon realise that her attack wasn’t the first. That doesn’t surprise them, but what does is the discovery that similar crimes are spread out over the past six decades. Slowly they come to realise they’re dealing with something much stranger than just another serial killer.

Meanwhile, back in 1931, Harper has found his trophy room in the house; the artifacts in the quote above. Each item is something he took as a souvenir from one of his killings, except that when he first sees them he hasn’t yet committed those crimes. The house though is outside of time, the souvenirs he’ll take are already on the wall before he’s taken them, are always on the wall both as markers of what he did and instructions of what he must do.

He picks up a piece of chalk that is lying on the mantel and writes on the wallpaper beside the window, because there is a space for it and it seems he must. He prints ‘Glowgirl’ in his jagged sloping script, over the ghost of the word that is already there.

Although it sounds it, this isn’t really a science fiction novel. The house is never explained (though it follows an absolutely clear logic in how it works); Harper isn’t bright enough to ask questions and his obsessions are too strong to really let him examine the house’s implications. The house simply is, and it’s never explicitly stated whether it’s directing Harper or, as I interpret it, reflecting back to him his own future decisions. What the house does though is let Harper pick his victims through history, and therefore let Beukes range through history showing different women in different parts of Chicago’s past.

The house is one unusual aspect to this novel. The other is Beukes’ focus on the victims. Her attention here isn’t so much on the beautiful corpse, as on the beautiful life brutally cut short.

Harper picks his victims when they’re young, selecting girls who have a spark in them, who seem special. He calls it a glow. When he’s found a girl who glows for him he comes back when she’s grown up and kills her, snuffs out her light. As Beukes shows each woman’s life though it’s soon apparent that Harper isn’t the only one who sees a shining girl and wants to smother her. Harper is a metaphor for how our society treats women more generally, how women who stand out are cut back, forced to blend in for safety.

Beukes is keen too to show that these women don’t exist in a vacuum. They have families, friends, lovers, children. Their deaths ripple out. Here’s an example:

The dead girl’s name was Julia Madrigal. She was twenty-one. She was studying at Northwestern. Economics. She liked hiking and hockey, because she was originally from Banff, Canada, and hanging out in the bars along Sheridan Road with her friends, because Evanston was dry.

She kept meaning to sign up to volunteer to read textbook passages for the blind students association’s study tapes, but never quite got round to it, the same way she’d bought a guitar but only mastered one chord. She was running for head of her sorority. She always said she was going to be the first woman CEO of Goldman Sachs. She had plans to have three kids and a big house and a husband who did something interesting and complementary – a surgeon or a broker or something. Not like Sebastian, who was a good-time guy, but not exactly marriage material.

She was too loud, like her dad, especially at parties. Her sense of humor tended to be crass. Her laugh was notorious or legendary, depending on who was telling. You could hear it from the other side of Alpha Phi. She could be annoying. She could be narrow-minded in that got-all-the-answers-to-save-the-world way. But she was the kind of girl you couldn’t keep down. Unless you cut her up and caved in her skull.

Her father will never recover. His weight drops away until he becomes a wan parody of the loud and opinionated estate agent who would pick a fight at the barbecue about the game. He loses all interest in selling houses. He tapers off mid-sales pitch, looking at the blank spaces on the wall between the perfect family portraits or worse, at the grouting between the tiles of the en-suite bathroom. He learns to fake it, to clamp the sadness down. At home, he starts cooking. He teaches himself French cuisine. But all food tastes bland to him.

Her mother draws the pain into herself: a monster she keeps caged in her chest that can only be subdued with vodka. She does not eat her husband’s cooking. When they move back to Canada and downsize the house, she relocates into the spare room. Eventually, he stops hiding her bottles. When her liver seizes up twenty years later, he sits next to her in a Winnipeg hospital and strokes her hand and narrates recipes he’s memorized like scientific formula because there is nothing else to say.

Her sister moves as far away as she can, and keeps moving, first across the state, then across the country, then overseas to become an au pair in Portugal. She is not a very good au pair. She doesn’t bond with the children. She is too terrified that something might happen to them.

The passage continues. It explores the impact on Julia’s boyfriend, on her best friend, on a girl across town that Julia never met who only reads about the case. It’s powerful stuff. I went for such a long quote because this is the heart of the book. The time travel stuff is taut, logically worked through and entirely internally consistent, but Julia and the other women like her in the book shine, which of course is the point.

The women though are also why the book in the end doesn’t work for me. How do you read that passage above, and read too the forensically detailed description of how she was killed and how Harper makes his victims suffer and the joy he takes from that, and then enjoy a tale of a determined young woman and her worn-down sidekick bravely tracking down a time-travelling murderer? It’s too much horror for such a story. Beukes wants to show that horror, she wants to show how terrible this is and how much of a loss these women’s lives are. The problem is that she succeeds.

So in the end I come full circle, back to where I started this review. The Shining Girls is interesting and well written. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

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Connant nodded bitterly. “I’m human. Hurry that test. Your eyes—Lord, I wish you could see your eyes staring—”

Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell Jr.

Who Goes There? is one of those books now famous(ish) because of the film that was made from it, or films I should say – in this case the 1951 science fiction horror classic The Thing from Another World!, and John Carpenter’s equally strong 1981 remake The Thing.

Most of the people who read my blog don’t care much about either science fiction or horror, which is fair enough. If you ever make exceptions though, this might be one to make, because this is something of a small masterpiece.

who goes there

Love those old pulp covers.

An Antarctic research station find a crashed alien spaceship, ancient and entombed in ice. They accidentally destroy the ship, but they do at least recover a corpse from the ice nearby.

What follows is actually rather refreshing. The scientists at the base have an intelligent debate about whether it’s safe to thaw it out, some worried that even after 20 million years it may still harbour dangerous bacteria or viruses, the biologist Blair pointing out in return that since humans can’t catch diseases from snakes they’re hardly likely to do so from something that didn’t even evolve on our planet. Some are concerned by less tangible fears, the thing’s expression seems insane, hate-filled, and the mere sight of it causes men to recoil in revulsion. That and those who brought it back had disturbing dreams, but then who wouldn’t seeing such a thing?

Of course they decide to thaw it out, they haven’t really a choice as they know they can’t safely ship it back without it thawing mid-transit, destroying any samples they might later wish to take. They take sensible precautions though. Connant, a cosmic rays specialist, stays up with it overnight since he’ll be up monitoring equipment anyway. It’s not that anything’s expected to happen, they just want to make sure nothing goes wrong. It’s fair to say, things go wrong.

Campbell has a lovely sense of place. Here’s the opening paragraph:

THE PLACE STANK. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burned cooking-fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

There’s plenty of examples as good. You can feel the cold here, smell the stale sweat. Campbell establishes swiftly quite how hostile the environment is, how easy it is to get lost in a whiteout, how quickly you can freeze to death. There’s only one place here life can cling on, inside the base itself. There’s only men, dogs, and the thing which even after twenty million years is very far from dead.

The 1951 movie makes the thing a humanoid plant that feeds on blood. Hokey, but it works in the film. In the book though it’s quite different, much worse. The thing adapts, and how it adapts is by imitation. It can absorb creatures, replicate them at the cellular level, effectively become them. It doesn’t just absorb their bodies either, it takes their thoughts, their instincts –  it’s telepathic, making it the perfect mimic.

What that means is that anything it can reach it can infect, take over. Dog, gull, seal, whale, it doesn’t matter. Anything it can reach it can become. Anything it becomes ceases to be what it was, is now a vessel for the thing, and it remembers every form it’s ever taken. If it gets out it’s literally the end of the world. It gets to the dogs, it starts to become a dog, but the barking of the rest of the pack alerts the men of the base and they find it mid-transformation, kill it with electrical cables. They consider what they’ve seen:

“… It can imitate anything – that is, become anything. If it had reached the Antarctic sea, it would have become a seal, maybe two seals. They might have attacked a killer whale, and become either killers, or a herd of seals. Or maybe it would have caught an albatross, or a skua gull, and flown to South America.”

It’s dead though, they think. Dr. Copper starts to reflect how lucky they were, though Blair quickly corrects him:

“Then we can only give thanks that this is Antarctica, where there is not one, single, solitary, living thing for it to imitate, except these animals in camp.” “Us,” Blair giggled. “It can imitate us. Dogs can’t make four hundred miles to the sea; there’s no food. There aren’t any skua gulls to imitate at this season. There aren’t any penguins this far inland. There’s nothing that can reach the sea from this point—except us. We’ve got brains. We can do it. Don’t you see—it’s got to imitate us—it’s got to be one of us—that’s the only way it can fly an airplane——fly a plane for two hours, and rule—be—all Earth’s inhabitants. A world for the taking—if it imitates us!

That’s where the real horror starts. They killed it, yes, but what if they killed it too late? What if it’s already infected one of them? Assumed a man’s form, copied his mind, is waiting among them for the snows to lift and for them all to be taken home, where it can spread and colonise?  Connant spent the whole night with the thing, is he still Connant? Who else might it have got to? It could be anyone, it could be several of them, all they know is that it can’t be most of them since if it were it wouldn’t bother hiding any more.

What follows is probably the most chillingly paranoiac novel I’ve yet read. There were times I had to close it just because the claustrophobia was too strong, the sense of dread and isolation. The radio’s quickly smashed so as to stop the thing calling for an emergency airlift out, but time’s passing and with it the season. Eventually the relief crews will come, birds will start to pass overhead again, all it has to do is wait, pretending to be one of them, pretending to be just as afraid as everyone else.

I won’t say much more about what happens, I don’t really need to – you can probably imagine. They develop a test to distinguish between someone who’s still human and someone who just seems human, but who do you trust to administer it? If a man refuses to let the person with the test near them does that mean they’re a monster, or that they’re human and don’t know if the person doing the testing is a monster? Every man is trapped in his own solipsistic hell, except of course that’s not true because some of them aren’t men anymore.

There’s not a lot else to say other than that this really is a quite brilliant little novella. Obviously if you’ve no patience for pulp tales of alien horrors from beyond the stars it’s not for you, but if you can swallow that part what follows is intensely evocative, so much so that I was glad it was short and I could come out of it blinking in the summer sunlight, if still feeling slightly cold. I don’t know if it’ll make my end of year list yet, but it’s a definite candidate. A wonderfully chilling little tale, and golden age science fiction at its best.

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Filed under Campbell Jr., John W., Horror Fiction, Novellas, Science Fiction

They had not conquered any stars. A star had conquered them.

The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett

I suspect most readers of this blog won’t know Leigh Brackett’s name. You’ll know her work though, because she was a scriptwriter on The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back. Quite a CV.

Until recently I knew her as a writer of mid-20th Century sword and planet/planetary romance novels, a genre that doesn’t exist any more. She wrote stories of a Mars that never was, full of princesses, ancient ruins, swords, spaceships and of course mighty heroes. Edgar Rice Burroughs is the only person still remembered for those kind of books, but for a while they were pretty popular and he was never the only one writing them.

What changed for me was a review by Trevor of Themookseandthegripes. He read her rather sombre sounding post-apocalypse novel The Long Tomorrow, and really liked it. Given Trevor isn’t an SF reader as a rule, that caught my attention (besides, it’s always worth paying attention to Trevor’s recommendations). I wasn’t in the mood for sombre though, so when I saw she’d written a novel that was a mix of hardboiled detective fiction and pulpy space opera I knew that was the one for me.

the-big-jump-193x300

Arch Comyn is a construction boss. The solar system’s been settled, but nobody yet has managed to make the big jump beyond it, nobody has reached the stars. Humanity may have settled Mars, the Moon, as far out as Pluto’s orbit, but no further and in this future world there’s still buildings that need to be built and hard men needed to build them.

Comyn’s a tough guy, handy with his fists. He’s a character you’ll recognise from a hundred hardboiled novels. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, but he has a code and part of that code is he won’t forget a favour or a friend.

Now one of those friends needs him, because the word is that somebody’s finally made the big jump. Somebody’s punched through space to another solar system, and returned, alive. Ballantyne’s his name, the sole person to come back from this first successful interstellar voyage. The reason that matters to Comyn is that one of his friends, Paul Rogers, was also on that crew and Paul didn’t make it back. He’s out there somewhere, maybe dead, maybe not, somewhere further out than any human has gone before.

The expedition was funded by the fabulously wealthy Cochrane family, and whatever happened they’re keeping tight lipped about it. Ballantyne is locked away on a private clinic on Mars, nobody has access and nobody’s talking. Comyn though, he wants to know what happened to Paul Rogers, so he goes to Mars, breaks into that hospital, gets past the Cochrane guards and sees Ballantyne. We’re on page 10. These old pulp writers really knew how to push a story along.

Ballantyne isn’t as Comyn remembers him:

It was a face that was only a ghostly echo, pitiful, terrible, marked by something frightening, worse than death or the fear of dying. It was something, Comyn thought, that had never before oppressed the children of Sol. A queer terror came over him as he looked at it. Suddenly he wanted to run, to get away out of the room, far away from whatever evil shadow it was that this man had brought back with him from another star.

Comyn knows he doesn’t have long. He’s barred the door but the Cochrane people are drilling through it. He has only moments to find out what happened to Paul Rogers:

Comyn bent over, so that his ear was almost touching the blue transparent lips. A voice came out of them, no louder than the beating of a moth’s wing…

“…listened too long. Too long, too far…”

“Where is Paul?”

“…too far, too lonely. We weren’t meant for this. Desolation…darkness…stars…”

Again, almost fiercely, “Where is Paul?”

“Paul…”

The drill hit metal. The whining changed to a thin-edged screech.

The breathing skeleton that was Ballantyne went rigid. Its lips moved under Comyn’s ear, laboring with a dreadful urgency.

“Don’t listen, Paul! I can’t go back alone, I can’t! Don’t listen to them calling…Oh, God, why did it have to be transuranic, why did it?”

The drill screeched thinner, higher. And the painful whisper rose.

“The Transuranae! Paul, no! Paul, Paul, Paul…”

Suddenly Ballantyne screamed.

That’s all Ballantyne says. Moments later he’s dead. The Cochranes of course burst in, but here’s the thing – Ballantyne never spoke to them, only to Comyn. He didn’t say much of use, but the Cochranes don’t know that and that gives Comyn leverage. It’s page 12, I said those pulp writers knew how to move a story along.

… here he was in the middle of something so big he couldn’t even guess the end of it. It was a game for stars, and he, Arch Comyn, held just one little hole card… But, whatever the Cochranes did to him, he was going to find out about Paul Rogers.

I’m not going to say too much more plotwise. Obviously there’s a second expedition out to the stars, and of course Comyn bluffs his way onto it by playing his one card – that nobody knows what Ballantyne said to him – for all its worth. The Cochranes are right out of the Big Sleep, with an aging patriarch and murder at the heart of the family (and soon on the ship with Comyn). There’s a romantic interest too, naturally, in the form of the untameable Sydna Cochrane. Sydna’s rich and beautiful and she knows it, but she’s surrounded by socialites and dilettantes, she’s never met a man like Comyn before…

I’ll be honest with you, I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff and I gulped The Big Jump down. Of course it doesn’t really make sense. We’re in space, but everything is pretty much like 1955, which oddly enough is when it was written. Take out the spaceships, electric pistols and moon habitats and it’s 1950s technology, 1950s social attitudes. The Cochranes have the most important man in the solar system locked up in a desert hospital where nobody can get to him (it doesn’t really change anything that the desert’s on Mars rather than say Nevada), but of course they don’t have a simple thing like a microphone or camera in his hospital room.

This is not a serious read. It’s certainly not a recognised classic in the way The Long Tomorrow is. The plot is straightforward and the characters are from central casting, but nobody reads a book like this looking for subtlety or psychological insight.

The characters are who they need to be to serve the story – a rough but honourable hero, a princess (sorry, heiress, not the same thing at all), a milquetoast hanger-on/courtier who resents how easily Comyn has found himself at the heart of things, there’s others but they’re equally archetypal. Even so Brackett’s skill as a writer does show. Hokey as the novel is it’s at times strangely powerful. The sense that the first expedition encountered something beyond human understanding, something other, is well captured and Brackett is as good as building atmosphere as she is at keeping things moving.

In the end, The Big Jump clocks in at a punchy 135 pages and it’s as fast a read as any you’ll find. It’s pure entertainment, but well written within the scope of what it’s trying to do. It’s solid, expertly crafted pulp. It’s a great choice as a palate-cleanser, particularly if new worlds and old-fashioned murder are the sorts of things you find refreshing. It turns out SF and crime are like bacon and maple syrup, it doesn’t sound like you should be able to combine them successfully, but actually the result is pretty good.

Joachin Boaz reviewed The Big Jump, here. Trevor’s review of The Long Tomorrow, which I mentioned above, is here. If the idea of SF crime remotely appeals to you by the way and you haven’t already read it you should check out Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel. I can’t promise how it stands up today given I read it as a teenager, but it’s pretty much the recognised classic in the field. There’s also of course Neuromancer, which might as well be The Big Sleep in orbit.

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Filed under Brackett, Leigh, Science Fiction

… the impotent air-raid siren of 400,000 human voices

The Quickening, by Michael Bishop

I’ve done a guest post for Joachim Boaz, who has a rather marvellous SF blog here.

It’s a review of Michael Bishop’s award winning novelette, The Quickening. Novelette’s a new term for me, it seems to mean a long short story published outside of a short story collection context. I’m not surprised the term didn’t catch on, but the story’s good.

Here’s the cover:

THQCKNNGVW1991

The review is at Joachim’s, as are a great many well-written reviews of classic SF novels and covers. It’s a fun site, and even if you don’t find SF interesting his book-cover discussions may well still grab you.

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Filed under Bishop, Michael, Novellas, Science Fiction, Short Stories

“He doesn’t guess. I guess. He sees.”

The Stochastic Man, by Robert Silverberg

I got the SF bug early, which is pretty much how everyone gets it. If you don’t love SF by the time you’re 14 the odds are you’ll never love it. These days I don’t read much SF – I follow a half dozen or so contemporary authors at most. There was a time though when I couldn’t get enough of it, when it was like ice cream on a hot day.

Robert Silverberg is one of the field’s greats. Silverberg never cared about technology or credible futures, for Silverberg it was always about people. His best known novel, Dying Inside, is about a neurotic US academic who was born with the gift of telepathy and wasted it, and who in late middle-age finds it departing him. How do you cope with the loss of something that defines who you are? How do you face the death of what makes you, you?

Like many writers Silverberg has ideas he’s returned to over and over during his (so far) sixty year career. One of these was the idea of what it might be like to live with perfect foreknowledge. What it would be like to know, precisely and unerringly, your own future. He explored the idea in several short stories, but for me to best effect in his 1975 (oh so very 1975) novel The Stochastic Man.

Lew Nichols is a pollster and statistician in the heady futuristic America of 1999. He’s one of the best, and he’s tied his already risen star to a young politician named Quinn who Lew thinks has the potential to go all the way to the White House. Lew’s confident that nobody can guess the shape of the future better than he can. He’s probably right, but he’s about to learn that not everybody needs to guess.

In the absolute universe all events can be regarded as absolutely deterministic, and if we can’t perceive the greater structures, it’s because our vision is faulty. If we had a real grasp of causality down to the molecular level, we wouldn’t need to rely on mathematical approximations, on statistics and probabilities, in making predictions. If our perceptions of cause and effect were only good enough, we’d be able to attain absolute knowledge of what is to come. We would make ourselves all-seeing. So Carvajal said. I believe he was right. You probably don’t. You tend to be skeptical about such things, don’t you? That’s all right. You’ll change your mind. I know you will.

Carvajal is a rich private investor who’s backing Quinn’s campaign. He wants to meet Lew, to work with him, and when you’re putting as much money in as Carvajal is you get what you want. Lew thinks Carvajal’s a rich crank, a political amateur who wants to use his money to get closer to the action. Lew couldn’t be more wrong. Soon Caravjal is feeding predictions to Lew about upcoming events, and while Lew is used to being able to call trends Carvajal calls specific circumstances with a level of precision and accuracy that simply doesn’t make sense.

Carvajal replied. “When I want to, I see. A vision of things to come plays within me like a film.” His voice was utterly matter-of-fact. He sounded almost bored. “Is that the only thing you came here to find out?” “Don’t you know? Surely you’ve seen the film of this conversation already.” “Of course I have.” “But you’ve forgotten some of the details?” “I rarely forget anything,” Carvajal said, sighing. “Then you must know what else I’m going to ask.” “Yes,” he admitted. “Even so, you won’t answer it unless I ask it.” “Yes.” “Suppose I don’t,” I said. “Suppose I just leave right now, without doing what I’m supposed to have done.” “That won’t be possible,” said Carvajal evenly. “I remember the course this conversation must take, and you don’t leave before asking your next question. There’s only one way for things to happen. You have no choice but to say and do the things I saw you say and do.” “Are you a god, decreeing the events of my life?” He smiled wanly and shook his head. “Very much mortal, Mr. Nichols. Decreeing nothing. I tell you, though, the future’s immutable. What you think of as the future. We’re both actors in a script that can’t be rewritten. Come, now. Let’s play out our script. Ask me—” “No. I’m going to break the pattern and walk out of here.” “—about Paul Quinn’s future,” he said. I was already at the door. But when he spoke Quinn’s name I halted, slack-jawed, stunned, and I turned.

While it’s clear from the opening pages that Lew will learn to accurately see the future, for the vast bulk of the book Lew has no more gift of prophecy than I do. He does though see how useful foreknowledge might be for Quinn’s campaign, which raises a question: if what Carvajal sees absolutely will happen, is as fixed as the past, then does it actually help to know it? If the future is predetermined, knowing it can’t change it.

This leads to the meat of the book, which lies in the discussions between Lew and Carvajal regarding Carvajal’s ability. Lew persists in thinking about changing the future, about exploiting knowledge of it. He sees himself as a protagonist on the political stage, and can’t accept that everything is essentially pre-written.

Carvajal though has lived with foresight for years. His visions have crushed him, emptied his life of hope or desire. He sees himself as a puppet whose strings are pulled by a blind universe:

“… I give to Quinn because I know I must, not because I prefer him to other politicians. I came to Lombroso’s office in March because I saw myself, months ago, going there, and knew that I had to go that day, no matter what I’d rather be doing. I live in this crumbling neighborhood because I’ve never been granted a view of myself living anywhere else, and so I know this is where I belong. I tell you what I’ve been telling you today because this conversation is already as familiar to me as a movie I’ve seen fifty times, and so I know I must tell you things I’ve never told to another human being. I never ask why. My life is without surprises, Mr. Nichols, and it is without decisions, and it is without volition. I do what I know I must do, and I know I must do it because I’ve seen myself doing it.”

Worst of all, Carvajal has seen his own death. He’s seen it many times: he knows the time of year from the weather he sees in his vision, he knows he’ll be shot by a junkie who knocks on his door by mistake; he knows he’ll open that door and he knows what he’ll say that will make the junkie pull the trigger; he knows Lew will be there but won’t help.

I returned to Carvajal. He was sitting motionless, head bowed, arms limp, as if an icy blast had passed through the room while I was gone, leaving him parched and withered. Slowly, with obvious effort, he reconstituted himself, sitting up, filling his lungs, pretending to an animation that his eyes, his empty and frightening eyes, wholly betrayed.

Is Carvajal a puppet? In a sense that’s up to the reader to decide. His future after all is that of a man who can see what’s ahead of him and who believes he has no agency. That future can’t be changed, but perhaps it is what it is because Carvajal is who he is. Lew’s future can’t be changed either, and yet when he starts to see it his future is one where he’s teaching others to do what Carvajal taught him to do, and so changing what it means to be human.

A large part of the book is taken up with Carvajal’s method of teaching his ability, which involves Lew abandoning any sense of agency and doing exactly what Carvajal knows he will do regardless of consequence. A review in Infinity Plus notes that this book came out three years after Luke Rhinehart’s famous The Dice Man, and both have this sense of what happens to someone who volunteers to live by absolutely arbitrary rules. Lew lives as Carvajal tells him to because Lew thinks that by learning to see the future he can help Quinn. Carvajal though just tells Lew to do what Carvajal has already seen himself telling Lew to do. Think too long about that and your head starts to hurt.

If The Stochastic Man was just what I’ve talked about so far it would be an SF masterpiece. Unfortunately, it badly shows its age. The future here (our past of course) is a painfully 1970s future full of drugs, partner-swapping and bad clothes. Every bit of the novel which explores the culture of Lew’s America is, to be honest, slightly embarassing. It’s not Silverberg’s fault obviously that he couldn’t himself see the future as his characters can, and of course like in much SF his future is really his present seen through a scanner darkly, but even so those bits of the book just didn’t work for me.

Much worse is the character of Lew’s wife. Silverberg generally can’t write women, but he outdoes himself with Sindara. She’s Indian-American, which sadly leads Silverberg to some of the most objectifying and Orientalist writing I’ve seen in a long time:

She seemed perfect to me just then, my wife, my love, my other self, witty and graceful, mysterious and exotic, high forehead, blue-black hair, full-moon face—but a moon eclipsed, a moon empurpled by shadow; the perfect lotus woman of the sutras, skin fine and tender, eyes brilliant and beautiful as a fawn’s, well defined and red at the corners, breasts hard and full and uplifted, neck elegant, nose straight and gracious. Yoni like an open lotus bud, voice as low and melodious as the kokila bird’s, my prize, my love, my companion, my alien bride.

Her face isn’t the only thing empurpled in that passage. Sindara matters because her life philosophy is one of randomness and going with the moment, and as Lew increasingly embraces predestination their marriage comes under ever-greater strain. That’s interesting material, but it only works if Sindara is a human being the same way Lew is – if there’s a sense that she’s a person and not just a walking page from the kama sutra (which, naturally, they include in their love life).

The effect of the dated future and Sindara’s terrible characterisation is to act as a drag on the book, making key moments cumbersome and turgid. That’s a shame, because the core concept is brilliant. This is a hugely flawed book, one that on a reread I still love but that I can’t honestly call good.

It’s a curious thing, how one can read a book and see that it’s well written and skilfully crafted and yet be quite untouched by it. One can read another book and see its flaws, here dated characterisation and poor worldbuilding, and yet find a connection to it. That’s part of the alchemy of reading. I do think it’s possible to a degree to be objective in assessing what works in a book and what doesn’t, but any emotional response to it can only ever be utterly subjective.

So, The Stochastic Man. Having reread it the truth is it remains one of my favourite Silverberg novels. The irony though is now that I have reread it I’m conscious that it’s also far from among his best work. So it goes.

If anyone reading this does have an interest in classic SF by the way then there’s nobody who writes about better than Joachim Boaz. His blog is a constant delight. I actually thought he’d written a highly critical review of this one that I wanted to link to, but I can’t find it. Joachim, if you see this and you have reviewed Stochastic please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Science Fiction, Silverberg, Robert

The whole universe was idiotic.

Anticopernicus, by Adam Roberts

Of all the great philosophers and religious figures, it was Copernicus who was the greatest, for he alone had preached the truth to humankind: you are not special.

But what if Copernicus was wrong?

Adam Roberts is one of those writers I’ve long meant to read, but haven’t got round to. Enter Kindle Singles, which are a great way to try out new writers for less than half the price of a cup of coffee (not that cups of coffee are particularly cheap these days, I admit). 

There’s a grand tradition in SF of using short stories as a means to explore ideas which are interesting, but not substantial enough to support an entire book. Anticopernicus fits squarely in that tradition. Centuries ago we used to believe that the universe literally revolved around us. We were special. We were the most important thing in existence.

Over time that idea got discredited, slowly and at great personal cost to many of those who fought against it. Well, I say discredited, but of course while nobody really thinks the universe literally revolves around us anymore billions do still think it was created precisely for our benefit.

Among scientists though, among those who seek a material rather than theological explanation for our existence, everything we’ve learned suggests that we have no privileged position. We are not special. We are not central to the universe. We appear to live on an average planet in an average solar system in an average galaxy.

The only wrinkle in all that is that in one particular respect we seem very far from average, and that’s that we are here at all. Everywhere we look in the universe we see no signs of intelligent life beyond our own. We see no grand galactic building projects, we hear no radio signals, nobody comes to visit us. We listen to the universe and all we hear is a great and empty silence.

The working assumption right now is that there likely is other intelligent life, but that the universe is a bit more hostile to it than we initially thought so it’s rare and spread out. If that’s true then we’re still not special, just not that common, and the silence is just because our neighbours are very far away.

In Anticopernicus the aliens finally do come to visit us, but when they do it doesn’t turn out quite as we expected…

The extrasolar intelligence, or intelligences, or—who knew what they were, or what they wanted—they had approached as close as the Oort cloud, and there they waited, patiently as far as anybody could see, for the Leibniz to trawl slowly, slowly, slowly out to the rendezvous. Communication had been intermittent, although the aliens’ command of English was fluent and idiomatic. But most of the questions beamed out at them had been returned with non sequiturs. What do you look like? Where are you from? By what political system do you organise your society? Are you an ancient race of beings? How do you travel faster than light? Do you come in peace? How did you find out about us? Where are you from? What do you look like? Fingers are a mode of madness—and toes! Toes? Toes! What do you mean? Do you mean you don’t possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you … we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all! We love your fingers and toes! They are adorable! Adorable! But mad.

Ange is one of the astronauts sent out to the Oort cloud to greet our visitors, and to find out why they’ve come. She’s an introverted sort, someone who prefers her own company to that of others and is more afraid of the idea of an afterlife full of countless dead people chatting away than she is of simply ceasing to exist when she dies.

As Ange and the rest of the small crew of astronauts head out though something strange happens. The alien ship, massive, detectable even from Earth, vanishes. Why? What could bring them all that distance and then just make them leave?

Ange didn’t say anything, but it seemed to her more than likely that the departure was as random and inexplicable thing as the arrival. She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact—ironically enough, perhaps—that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever. If aliens arrive in a human story and set up a meeting, why, then there must be a pay-off of some kind! But neither set-up nor pay-off was not the logic of the cosmos; and most assuredly the latter was never intrinsically folded neatly inside the former, waiting to germinate. If the aliens had randomly vanished, as they seemed to have done, then that was (Ange thought) just one more unharmonious broken-off piece of the infinitely unharmonious piecemeal cosmos.

The answer, and there is one, is that Ange’s belief is utterly, utterly wrong. We do in fact matter to the universe. We matter a great deal.

I won’t say more since it would spoil the story, but I really enjoyed this. It’s not a meaty piece, it’s a fun little SF tale which takes an idea and runs with it. It’s not really credible, but then not all SF has to be. Back in the 1970s SF short story anthologies would routinely have a few tales in them that were just intended to be plain old entertaining, not to be taken too seriously, and this is firmly in that camp. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the scientific elements it (very lightly) references are modern concerns it could easily have been written in the 1970s.

All that said, I wouldn’t remotely recommend this to non-SF fans. If you do already like the genre though it’s definitely worth checking out (and if you don’t like it at least it’s short and cheap).

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Filed under Novellas, Roberts, Adam, Science Fiction, Short Stories

‘The way I see it, anyone who’s proud of their country is either a thug or just hasn’t read enough history yet.’

Black Man, by Richard Morgan

One of the very few book awards I bother following is the Arthur C. Clarke award. One of the very few science fiction writers I bother following is Richard Morgan. In 2008 he won the Arthur C. Clarke award for his fifth novel, Black Man, which makes it slightly ironic that it’s the first of his I’ve not enjoyed.

Black Man is a novel that uses SF techniques to comment on real world racial  and gender politics, showing how people can be demonised and caricatured. In the US the book was published under the alternative title Thirteen, a fact that makes Morgan’s points more effectively than his own text ever could.

The novel takes place in a dystopian future in which genetic engineering has allowed us to create human subspecies, bred to purpose. As with any new technology, the early applications focus on new ways to get people off and to get people dead. Sex and war, driving human development since 4 million BC.

Black Man

Carl Marsalis is the black man of the (original) title. That’s true in two senses: he’s black British, which in his future isn’t particularly important as Europe is largely post-racial; and he’s a variant thirteen. Variant thirteens are one of those new subspecies, bred from early human hunter-gatherer stock for size, strength, aggression and charisma. They’re genetic sociopaths, engineered hyper-alpha males.

Variant thirteens are the nearest this future has to monsters. They’re everything Western culture tells us men should be. They’re naturally dominant, and they don’t care who knows it. They’re so feared that generally they’re only allowed to exist on the offworld colonies on Mars. Marsalis is an exception – when a variant thirteen somehow escapes the colonies and makes it to Earth it’s his job to hunt them down and bring them in.

If you’re thinking of Blade Runner at this point you should be, the book contains clear elements of homage:

he carried his suitcase along broad, bright concourses lined with ten-by-two metre holoscreens that admonished Think it’s all Red Rocks and Airlocks; Think Again and We only send Winners to Mars.

Now one of these nightmares has made it to Earth in a crashed spaceship, and worse it’s killing people according to a pattern nobody can understand. The NYPD and colonial administration officers on Earth team up to track the rogue down, but they need help. They need an expert. They need, obviously enough, Carl Marsalis.

‘You don’t understand what you’re up against.’ The smile came back, fleeting, as if driven by memory. ‘You think because Merrin’s killed a couple of dozen people, he’s some kind of serial killer writ large? That’s not what this is about. Serial killers are damaged humans. You know this, Sevgi, even if Tom here doesn’t. They leave a trail, they leave clues, they get caught. And that’s because in the end, consciously or subconsciously, they want to be caught. Calculated murder is an anti-social act, it’s hard for humans to do, and it takes special circumstances at either a personal or a social level to enable the capacity. But that’s you people. It’s not me, and it’s not Merrin, and it’s not any variant thirteen. We’re not like you. We’re the witches. We’re the violent exiles, the lone-wolf nomads that you bred out of the race back when growing crops and living in one place got so popular. We don’t have, we don’t need a social context. You have to understand this; there is nothing wrong with Merrin. He’s not damaged. He’s not killing these people as an expression of some childhood psychosis, he’s not doing it because he’s identified them as some dehumanised, segregated extra-tribal group. He’s just carrying out a plan of action, and he is comfortable with it. And he won’t get caught doing it – unless you can put me next to him.’

Black Man is essentially an SF thriller with a philosophical underpin. That could be said to varying degrees of all Morgan’s novels so far, but here it doesn’t quite come off. Almost everyone in Morgan’s future buys the genetic determinist viewpoint. They believe that the variant thirteens represent an extension of male traits, just as another much more submissive variant represents an extension of female traits. They ignore the fact that every variant thirteen was raised from birth by the military, trained to be what they were bred to be.

For much of the book it’s easy to miss how Morgan undermines his own characters’ viewpoint, which is very close to a modern pseudo-scientific Anglo-American viewpoint. Marsalis believes his own press – as far as he’s concerned he is genetically predisposed to certain behaviour patterns. He’s paired with an ex-NYPD detective named Sevgi. She finds herself attracted to Marsalis which doesn’t surprise her as she considers herself no less subject to genetic predisposition than he is. This is genetics both as destiny and excuse, but more as a seemingly apolitical justification for the status quo.

Looking around the real world today what Morgan’s talking about is much in evidence. I saw a while back a newspaper story about how scientists in the US were working on understanding the genetic underpinning for why girls prefer pink. They seemed unaware that in the 19th Century pink was seen as a colour for boys, blue was then the preferred colour for girls. Those scientists had assumed a genetic basis for what is clearly a cultural phenomenon, and a very recent one at that. That’s fairly harmless in that instance, but it’s a tiny step from that to assuming that under-representation of of women in engineering or of men in nursing is due to irrevocable genetic differences.

In my own profession it’s striking how few black lawyers there are, and of those who are almost all are of African rather than Caribbean descent. If we see that as a societal issue then it suggests that something has gone wrong at some point in the training and recruitment process. If though we reach to genetics (which hardly anyone does now for race thankfully, but which increasingly seems to be the default answer for gender-based outcome differences) then we can sit comfortably in our privilege reassuring ourselves that we find ourselves where we are not because we benefit from an unfair society but because that’s how nature made us.

That’s meaty stuff. The question is whether an SF thriller is the best place to explore it. Morgan spends most of his frankly rather fat book driving the plot along. The characters don’t see how their own assumptions are questionable, which means that for the vast bulk of the book nobody questions them and it’s very easy to miss the fact that they’re not actually supported by the text.

More problematically, it’s all very well showing that Marsalis isn’t as unique as everyone likes to think he is, that without genetic engineering we’ve produced more than our fair share of charismatic monsters anyway, but all of that pales when put against Marsalis beating up everyone in his path and getting the girl. The book’s plot undermines its philosophy. There’s a sense here of Morgan having his cake and eating it, treating the reader to exciting action scenes then saying that violence is bad, m’kay.

More successful is the portrayal of Marsalis’ partner Sevgi. She’s a moderately observant muslim who takes her faith seriously but who isn’t very good at it. That’s actually quite revolutionary. It’s a sympathetic depiction of what it’s like to practice a faith at the everyday level even though you’re not some paragon of virtue. She has a drink and substance abuse problem, she’s attracted to the wrong kind of men, she has all sorts of issues but none of that changes her faith or her hope that it might make her a better person than she is.

Morgan clearly isn’t religious himself, but here Sevgi’s faith is no worse than any other belief system, and since hers is a particularly progressive strain of Islam it’s arguably better than many:

‘Angels and demons, heaven and hell, god, morality, law and language. Sutherland’s right, it’s all metaphor. Scaffolding to handle the areas where base reality won’t cut it for you guys, where it’s too cold for humans to live without something made up. We codify our hopes and fears and wants, and then build whole societies on the code. And then forget it ever was code and treat it like fact. Act like the universe gives a shit about it. Go to war over it, string men and women up by the neck for it. Firebomb trains and skyscrapers in the name of it.’

You could read that as being about religion, and it is, but it’s about politics too, nationalism, and of course the absurd belief that somehow evolutionary theory tells us not just how we came to live but how we should live – the idea that girls like pink because their genes tell them to (to be fair this is a trap Dawkins himself has never fallen into, but plenty of his followers have).

In the end, the problem with Black Man is that it’s just far too long. My copy came in at 644 pages. That allows for an ocean of plot, of action scenes, twists and turns. The thematic underpin gets lost in all that. This should have been a 300 page novel. That would mean losing well over half the plot and likely entire characters and storylines, but the result would have been a book that had a much better balance between adrenalin and social critique. As it is the book risks celebrating exactly that which it sets out to challenge, and for that reason I think it ultimately fails.

There’s a very good review by Martin Lewis at Strange Horizons here which I recommend both for analysis and for a better explanation of the plot than I’ve sought to provide.

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Filed under Morgan, Richard, Science Fiction

In Zoo City, it’s impolite to ask.

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

The Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature is one of the very few literary prizes I pay any attention to. In part that’s because I don’t read enough science fiction to otherwise be on top of what’s coming out, but it’s also because it’s a well curated prize that really does tend to catch much of what’s most exciting in the field.

Lauren Beukes’ second novel, Zoo City, won the prize back in 2011. That caused some controversy, with many arguing that it wasn’t science fiction at all but rather a fantasy novel which shouldn’t even have been shortlisted (hardcore genre fans can get very bullish about defending genre boundaries). For me the better view is that the boundaries aren’t the point. The point is that the Clarke Award did its job, by finding a bloody good book and shouting to the world about it.

Zoo-City-SA-cover-final

Zoo City is the Johannesburg ghetto where the “animalled” live. The animalled are people who carry the guilt of another human being’s death in an unusually literal way, manifested in the form of animals which they must keep near them at all times. Zinzi December, the protagonist, used to be a Johannesburg lifestyle journalist until she fell into addiction and got her brother killed. Now she has a sloth which goes with her wherever she goes – a living reminder of her sense of responsibility for her brother’s death.

The animalled are stigmatised. In China, the novel mentions at one point in passing, they’re executed on the assumption that whatever they did to end up with an animal must necessarily be a crime worthy of execution. They’re outcasts, and since few people want to employ a presumed killer who is accompanied everywhere by some bizarre creature (examples in the book include a sparrow, a bear, a mongoose, a vulture and much more) they can’t get regular employment.

Other than the presence of the animalled the world of Zoo City is our world. People started being animalled in the 1980s, the first being an Afghan warlord who manifested a penguin which he promptly issued with a custom-made bullet-proof vest. The phenomenon then quickly spread worldwide (the timeline is similar to the spread of Aids in real life). Some seek explanations in religion, others by reference to dodgy sounding quantum physics, but nobody really knows and from the point of view of the animalled it doesn’t really matter.

Being apart from your animal causes profound psychic stress. If your animal dies, you do too (and in a particularly eerie fashion). The only upside, and it’s not much of one, is that each animalled person gains a small magical power.

Zinzi December’s magical gift is the ability to find lost possessions. That’s a talent you can charge people for, that and her writing ability which makes her particularly good at crafting email scams to lure in unsuspecting first world retirees. The emails apparently come from:

…an old lady with a flooded mansion, desperate to sell her priceless antiques cheap-cheap. A Chechnyan refugee fleeing the latest Russian pogroms with her family’s diamonds in tow. A Somali pirate who has found Jesus and wants to trade in his rocket launcher and ransom millions for absolution” and to make some money while they do so.

What each of them has in common is the need to get a large amount of money out of South Africa, the promise of rich rewards for the kindly stranger who helps with that, and some unfortunate up-front administrative fees that can’t be paid from in-country…

We’re in noir territory then, with Zinzi a down at heels and distinctly morally ambiguous PI. Soon a pair of hired thugs (with poodle and vulture in tow) are pressuring Zinzi to take on a job for a reclusive music producer who’s lost one half of his latest boy-girl pop sensation. Zinzi doesn’t do missing people, but when the money’s right how hard can it be to find one lost teenager? Besides, there are some people it’s very hard to say no to.

The cover for my copy of Zoo City comes with a William Gibson quote, which makes sense because Beukes has a lot in common with Gibson. Neither has any real interest in the how of their world, whether the animalled or Gibson’s Cyberspace could actually happen. What each focuses on instead is the experience, the personal and social impact of change.

Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland (which I reviewed here), was outright cyberpunk in the classic Gibsonian mould. Here she’s writing what could be termed urban fantasy, but with the same outlook. Modern Africa is a mix of the high tech and traditional beliefs (the same could be said of modern Singapore, modern Britain). The animals and the magical gifts they bring allow her to explore the world of muti, African folk beliefs which continue in a world of email scams and disposable mobile phones.

Nyangas and sangomas and faith healers with varying degrees of skill or talent, broadcasting their services on posters stuck up on telephone poles and walls. Some of them are charlatans and shysters, advertising cures for anything from money woes to love-sickness and Aids with muti made from crushed lizard balls and aspirin. Guess which ingredient does all the hard work?

To South Africans the animals are another form of muti, as are the abilities they give their humans. December’s view of the world is a modern South African view, influenced in part by animist tradition surviving into a Christian and increasingly secular age. In truth she doesn’t particularly understand how magic works, but then she probably doesn’t understand how her car works either (since car control systems went largely electronic, few people do).

Object muti is easy, particularly when it’s based on a simple binary. Locked or unlocked. Lost or found. Objects want to have a purpose. They’re happy to be told what to do. People less so. […] Most magic is more abstract. Capricious. It has a tendency to backfire. And the big stuff they promise, the Aids cures, bigger penises or death spells, are all placebo and nocebo, blessings and curses conjured up in your head. Not unlike glossy magazines, which also promise a better sex life, a better job, a better you. Trust me, I used to write those articles. And just look at me now.

The worldbuilding here is done to an extent by stealth – characters don’t spend time explaining their everyday world to each other (a common fault in much other SF). The result is that you pick up the details as you go along, and Beukes is good enough at her craft to ensure this doesn’t become confusing.

Beukes’ world convinces on its terms then, but that isn’t of itself enough to make a good novel. For me, where Beukes’ fiction really shines is her evocation of contemporary urban South Africa. She’s tremendous at capturing noise, smells, the clash of colours and the sheer energy and chaos of it.

Everything takes on a muted quality fifteen floors up. The traffic is reduced to a flow and stutter, the car horns like the calls of mechanical ducks. The skyline is in crisp focus, the city graded in rusts and coppers by the sinking sun that has streaked the wispy clouds the colour of blood. It’s the dust in the air that makes the Highveld sunsets so spectacular, the fine yellow mineral deposits kicked up from the mine dumps, the carbon-dioxide choke of the traffic. Who says bad things can’t be beautiful?

Though this next quote reminded me more of when I used to live in Earl’s Court, showing perhaps that in some ways major cities are the same the world over.

I catch a taxi into Auckland Park with the late-night cleaners, the nurses and the restaurant dish-washers: the invisible tribe of behind-the-scenes. I get off after Media Park and walk up to 7th Street with its scramble of restaurants, bars and Internet cafés. Outside the Mozambican deli-cum-Internet café, a hawker tries to sell me a star lantern made of wire and paper and, when I decline, offers me marijuana instead.

Beukes also often shows a nice turn of phrase. I liked an email-scam mark having his good sense overwhelmed by the smell of money which “bellows like a vuvuzela, drowning out the whisper of doubt.” Similarly I enjoyed a teenaged boy “pouting like he ordered strippers for his birthday and got clowns instead”, and in terms of imagery when a fatally wounded man “screams like a slaughterhouse pig in a Peta video” it’s vivid and unpleasantly easy to imagine.

What makes Zoo City such an enjoyable read then isn’t the concept itself, clever (and capable of so many allegorical readings) as it is. It’s the writing, the noirish characters, and perhaps most of all that remarkable sense of place. I’ve not read most of the novels Zoo City was up against in 2011, so I can’t say whether it deserved to beat them or not. I’m not at all surprised though that it got shortlisted, because if science fiction (or fantasy if you prefer) was producing many books like this back in 2011 it must have been an exceptionally good year.

Zoo City has been widely reviewed. There’s an excellent (and spoiler free) example at David H’s blog, here (I only just realised David’s blog wasn’t on my blogroll, so I’ve promptly corrected that) and he links in turn to fine reviews from John Clute and Niall Harrison each of which is definitely worth reading. I was happier with the ending than David was as for me the book always had that crime heritage overlapping with the SF and I was therefore expecting a fairly plot-driven ending.

Postscript: Some issues with the Kindle edition

Finally, a note of caution for those who don’t have this and might be thinking of picking it up. Beukes uses different fonts in places, to indicate emails or internet chats, and all that inevitably gets lost in the kindle version. Much worse though the kindle version, in the UK at least, has some truly appalling formatting errors which were so frequent and so bad that they started to genuinely spoil the book for me.

Since I knew the author was on twitter I dropped her a line there asking if there was some way to get the ebook version fixed (the paperback doesn’t have these problems). She put me in touch with her publishers, who asked me to email through the details of the problems I’d found (since they apparently weren’t in all e-editions in all countries).

The publishers offered to send me a cleaned up version, but before they could Lauren Beukes herself very kindly emailed me a word version of the book which was entirely error free (and which was apparently a later version of the book, fixing a plot problem I’d already read past without noticing that her French translator had picked up).

I really can’t praise enough Lauren Beukes’ and her publishers’ response to the problem I had. Given though the formatting issues with the ebook, and the fact that even once fixed you’ll still lose the font choices Beukes makes, this is one you should definitely read in physical copy if at all possible.

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Filed under Beukes, Lauren, Science Fiction, South African Literature