Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them. 

With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.

The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.

Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.

Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.

32802595Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.

There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.

And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.

 

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Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.

Bosch Season 4

t_1515436575751_name_la_me_angels_flight_reopens_20170831

Angels Flight, Los Angeles

People learn. Huh.

One of the absolute worst aspects of (especially long-running) genre shows is that nobody ever seems to learn anything or develop as a character. One notable exception to this was NYPD Blue, one of the all-time-great network cop shows, which had an 11-season story arc for Any Sipowicz which transcended the limitations of the format.

So to Bosch in its 4th season, and a welcome return for Titus Welliver in the title role, Lance Reddick as the now Chief of Police Irvin Irving, Jamie Hector as Bosch’s ex-partner Jerry Edgar, Madison Lintz as Bosch’s daughter Maddie (given more to do this time around), and Amy Aquino as acting Captain of Hollywood Homicide division.

As before, the season combines the plotlines from several of the Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, in this case the principle storylines come from Angels Flight and 9 Dragons. There is a lot less to do with ongoing cases in court this time around, and much more investigating, with a background of political manoeuvring and protests against police brutality. As such, it feels quite zeitgeisty, though there is a bit less of the stunning cinematography of Los Angeles that characterised Season 1.

This time the principle LA location is the titular Angels Flight funicular railway, which was originally located in Bunker Hill, but has since reopened as a kind of simulacrum that operates as a kind of intermittent and often neglected tourist attraction.

The fallout from previous seasons continues, but while Bosch remains a focus of contempt from many of his colleagues (mainly because he refuses to treat being a cop like being a member of a corrupt club), the people who work with him (including Captain  Billets and Chief Irving) no longer even pretend that he’s anything other than the best investigator they have. In other words, they’ve learned from working with Bosch that he is not corrupt, unwavering in his pursuit of the bad guys, and usually arrests the guilty party. So as much as other cops and politicians complain about him, this time they let him do his job. So there’s a lot less of the you’re off the case nonsense that sometimes besets this genre.

While investigating the murder of a lawyer who was about to embarrass the police department in a lawsuit, Bosch also pursues the man he believes responsible for his mother’s death, and deals with the unexpected death of a close family member. He’s forced to work with a couple of Internal Affairs detectives as well as the antagonistic Jimmy Robertson (Paul Calderon) and his former partner Edgar, returning to the job after injury.

It’s another solid outing for Bosch, and I remain puzzled at the critical disdain/indifference this show receives. Sure, it’s a police procedural, but it is better than anything else in this genre right now.

I previously reviewed Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3.

A couple of book reviews

30312456Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

I picked this one up from the library, confident that, as it was the first in a series, I wouldn’t be lost. I’ve not read any Elizabeth Moon before, and should have twigged that a series called “Vatta’s Peace” comes after a series called “Vatta’s War”. Doh.

So there are characters and situations here, back story etc., that is only filled in sketchily. I scurried off to Wikipedia to fill in some blanks, but on the whole it wasn’t a problem, except in the sense that a lot of the characters are merely sketched here, on the assumption that you know them from before.

Anyway, this is a military science fiction adventure set in a space trading/war universe that reminded me of nothing so much as the old Ambrosia software game Escape Velocity and sequels. Ky Vatta is an admiral in some space fleet on a visit to her home world. Her shuttle is sabotaged, possibly by a rival company, and she ditches in a hostile polar region with some other survivors, not sure who she can trust. My problem, however, is that I don’t really care about these warring companies. There’s an academic point to be made about capitalism and wastefulness, and what happens when corporations become quasi-governmental, sure. But I’m not going to root for one corporation over another, or really care about the people who work in their employ. Perhaps if I’d read the previous six books or whatever.

Overall, this just made me feel tired. Nobody can trust anybody, people are constantly being attacked, or abducted, and for what? Power and profit? Ugh. So you get this atmosphere of heightened paranoia, a constant game of Prisoner’s Dilemma (always betray etc.) which I’m thinking might be a fairly accurate representation of how it feels to be among the super-rich. You want to keep all your stuff, other people are trying to get your stuff, you want their stuff etc. Exhausting.

There’s no proper resolution to the story, which has some interesting elements (a strange and secret installation with a mystery as to who built it), and there’s already one sequel, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering. And here’s the central problem of these multi-volume series: give up at any point, and you’ve wasted your time.

512TBFMt7aL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This novel is a winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, and like Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War, is an excellent exploration of creatures that have been “uplifted” by biotechnology to the level of intelligence, co-operation and technology. It’s also a novel in the sub-genre(s) of space colonisation, generation ships, and Deep Time.

So humanity is at the peak of its technological development, busily terraforming planets and planting the seeds of life so that arriving colonists might find habitable worlds prepared for them — in one specific case by uplifted smart monkeys. But on the cusp of success, the whole thing falls apart. The monkeys don’t make it and nanovirus designed for them uplifts something else instead.

Centuries later, the dregs of humanity, who have long forgotten the advanced tech of their forebears, arrive in a ship looking for somewhere, anywhere to land.

Such is the set up of this novel, which uses twin narrative threads (with subtle parallels) to tell the stories of what’s happening on the ship, and what’s developing on the planet. And there’s more Prisoner’s Dilemma, so that’s a thing, only this time you care more.

portia-labiata-jumping-spider

Portia Labiata, jumping spider

As with his Dogs of War, it’s a surprisingly easy read, with well-drawn characters and a fascinating portrayal of alien thought, which must result from extensive research. Tchaikovsky is a worthy winner of the Clarke award, and writes accessible science fiction based on the kind of grand concepts that most people just don’t think about, but perhaps should. I mean, the media call this kind of thing a “breakthrough” but rarely pose the moral question: just because you can, does that mean you should?

 

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

51AQy9+uVPL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve never had any time for io9.com, or any of the former Gawker media websites, even under their new ownership, so I’d never heard of Charlie Jane Anders, author of the 2017 Nebula Award winning novel All the Birds in the Sky, before I picked it up to read.

This paperback edition had a cover that communicated nothing to me, apart, perhaps, the publisher’s desire to conceal its genre. Substitute “girls” for “birds” and it looks like a typical front-table-at-Waterstones title. Still, Milton Keynes Library had undermined that game by placing a silly “Sci-Fi/Fantasy” sticker, featuring a dragon, on its spine.

For once, the melding of those two genres is apposite, because this novel is a bold attempt to have it both ways: to write about technology and a fucked climate in a recognisably realistic version of the near future; and to write about magic and witchcraft at the same time. I suppose this is what you might expect from a generation raised on Star Wars and Harry Potter. But I wasn’t, and while I can see the appeal of this, I didn’t really enjoy it. It was an easy read, but at the same time I didn’t find myself lost in it and responding to it in the same way I did for the novels of Becky Winters or Anne Leckie.

Anders’ style is something like Douglas Coupland meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this had the tone of a YA novel, but with some age-inappropriate content. Depending on your mood and taste, you might find this an engaging read. But parts of it felt to me like Harry Potter fan fiction, and there was an overall glibness that struck me as smug.

The plot* concerns a pair of misfits (one a witch, one a scientist) who are both trying to save the world from an anthropocentric apocalypse. Both witchcraft and science are left without detail, in a hand-wavy way, so I never really felt that this world was built with depth.

*In fact, the plot is so barely-there that I’d say that this was yet another example of Menippean Satire rather than novel. As a Menippean Satire, I can forgive its lack of narrative drive, but its lack of interesting ideas is more of a problem.

Which leaves me puzzling as to why this won the Nebula award. A cursory check reveals that this has had mixed reviews at best, though a lot of support from within the SF community. My conclusion is that this was seen as an “accessible” genre novel, one that wears its genre clothes lightly and might achieve some cross-over success, like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I’m trying to imagine a person who doesn’t really like Fantasy and Science Fiction but who might like this: I guess? As part of a larger picture, there’s a whole generation of adults who were raised on Harry Potter, and I suppose the publishers are trying to draw them in. I’m not one of them.

A tale of three books

34701258The problem with holidays, for me, is always the packing of enough books. I always seem to underestimate my requirements, even with strong memories of the last time I did so. I bought a few library books with me this time, and Provenance by Ann Leckie, which I’d been saving up for this special occasion, but I left behind the SF anthology I’ve been working slowly through since the summer, thinking I wouldn’t need it. The reading I do when I’m at work (between 20 minutes and an hour before I go to sleep at night) is both qualitatively and quantitively different than that I do on holiday, when I can fill long hours with sustained and concentrated reading.

Anyway, with a week of the holiday to go, I’ve run out, and will now turn to the books my daughter bought with her.

It has been a mixed bag. I read, for example, the sixth novel in The Expanse series of books, Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey. I find that my enjoyment of this series has been affected by my disappointment in the TV adaptation, which features wooden acting and clunky dialogue. It also suffers from being a collaboration: I really feel as if the narrative style is adapted to the convenience of the two authors. The chapters have a variety of viewpoints, and some of them, quite frankly, are unnecessary. I spent the last third of the book skipping huge, uninteresting chunks. It’s a shame: having ploughed through six novels, I now feel I’ve been wasting my time, because I probably won’t bother with the seventh.

My second disappointment of the holiday was The Silent Death, by Volker Kutscher which is the second of the Babylon Berlin books. Having watched the first season of the German TV series, I thought I was ready to plunge in, but it was a crushing disappointment. Two major problems: turns out, that notwithstanding the fascinating setting (Berlin, 1930), this is just a standard maverick cop procedural, complete with “You’re off the case!” clichés and a protagonist so infuriating that you sympathise with the colleagues who find him impossible to work with. I mean, Michael Connelly wrote the book(s) on this kind of thing with Bosch, but here’s the thing. Harry Bosch may be a stubborn maverick, but still has respect for some of his colleagues and gets along with enough of them to sustain his career. Gereon Rath, on the other hand, is just a pain in the arse. The second problem I found with this book is that the most engaging character in the TV series, Charly, the main female role, is more or less entirely absent from the book for most of its length. Furthermore, while the focus case in this is supposed to be a serial killer, the second body doesn’t turn up until over 250 pages in, which made the pacing seem off. As with Babylon’s Ashes, too, there were chapters with a different narrative point of view, which added nothing to the novel. I quickly worked out who the perp was, and the chapters from his p.o.v provided no new information, just pages you could skip.

Most unforgivable of all, the novel keeps repeating the phrase “serial killer”, which is used both by the cops and the media in the novel, and – as any connoisseur of thrillers knows – the term wasn’t coined until the 1970s. I’m hoping this is simply a translation error.

I saved the best for last. Ann Leckie’s Provenance is set in the same universe as her Ancillary series, but features a new protagonist in a different cultural milieu. As before, Leckie has fun with pronouns and gender, and manages to balance a human-scale story against a vast backdrop of interstellar empire politics which includes both different human cultures and truly alien aliens.

Ingray Aughskold is a young woman, fostered into a political family, who is trying to prove her worth by recovering some stolen antiquities. The unintended consequences of her naïve actions lead to a political crisis and unexpected legal and diplomatic outcomes.

I’m loving this new and recent trend in science fiction, led by Ms Leckie and Becky Chambers, which manages this wonderful balance between human interest, fluid gender identities, and old fashioned space opera. It feels both modern in outlook and comfortingly familiar. If you’ve been staying away from science fiction because you think it’s all faster than light travel and time dilation effects, you could do worse than read these authors. There are now four to read in the Leckie universe, and a third Chambers novel forthcoming in 2018, which will definitely be in my (much larger) summer pile of reading.

 

Blade Runner 2049

Blade-Runner-2049-trailer-breakdown-37

I’m very familiar with the original Blade Runner, because I used to teach it as an exam text to my students. And, along with two or three other films (including The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Conformist), it’s a film I grew to love more every time I went through it. So I’d probably rank it among the top ten films ever made. It took Vertigo forty years (or four polls) to crawl its way to the top of the BFI 100 list, and though I can’t see Blade Runner getting there as soon as 2022, it’s a better film, for me, than 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was at number 69 in 2012, while 2001 was at number 6.

So there was no pressure on Denis Villeneuve in making this sequel.

My four five-year social media blackout meant that I didn’t even know Villeneuve was directing. I managed to avoid knowing anything about this film, including its title, until about two weeks ago. I have no idea why Ridley Scott chose not to direct.

I know I’m not alone in adopting this blackout policy. It’s a reaction to the oversaturated media landscape, and a content industry that prioritises clicks above everything else. If you genuinely care about something, it’s painful to hear even the most uninformed speculation about it. Back in the 90s, a “spoiler” was somebody telling you plot details; now, it’s just a feeling of being overexposed to something, so that you feel as if it has been watched for you. You’re overtaken by a feeling of enervation and simply can’t be arsed. I was looking at the iTunes movie store for something to rent last night, and there was nothing I felt like watching. I haven’t seen the most recent Star Trek film, for example, but the thought of sitting through it just made me feel tired. Anyway, here’s what I think all good internet citizens should do: don’t “review” or “preview” or speculate about anything until it’s out.

You can have the Deckard-is-a-replicant or Deckard-is-Gaff discussion as much as you like: but after everybody’s had a chance to see something. Looking at the production history section of the Wikipedia article now, I’m struck by how fucking repetitive and boring all of the reports are. The frenzy of question-and-answer simply revolved around whether Harrison Ford would be in it, and you just wonder why people obsess on such details.

I got something of that feeling sitting through the trailers “specially selected” to play before BR 2049. What a load of old shit. The intelligent and thought-provoking big ideas of Blade Runner wadded up like snotty tissue with the loud nonsense of barrel scraping superhero franchises. Urgh.

The relatively new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium is a decent enough venue. It never seems to be horribly crowded, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat, which is a bonus. BR 2049 was playing on multiple screens: you could see it in IMAX (no thanks), or 3D (no ta), or 2D. Sitting in the 2D theatre before the showing, the loud rumbling from the IMAX theatre next door was unpleasantly gut-twisting, that almost below hearing threshold bass making me feel a bit sick.

And because the showings were out of synch, you could still hear the theatre next door during the quieter sections of my showing, which was a bit of a bummer. Some sound leakage might be inevitable, but it’s a complete certainty given the sheer volume at which the film was being played.

I’ve never understood the volume people. I suppose they must be extroverts who are afraid of quiet. The audio volume in the theatre I was in was so extreme that the sound was obviously being distorted. This was a real shame, as one of the key marvels of the Blade Runner film(s) is the soundscape. But here it was being rammed so violently into my ears that its subtleties were being lost. I’m not counting that a black mark against the film, but against the exhibitor, in this case the Odeon.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure the BR 2049 soundtrack is a marvel, but can’t really be sure. The production design, lighting, and cinematography was brilliant, and I appreciated the world-building, which did not patronise or “as you know” the audience. Needless to say, shit had gone down between 2019 and 2049.

The narrative plot was a little bit thin, I thought, but then the plot of the original was also quite slight. What I did find interesting this time was the way in which the atmosphere and ambiguity of the original book was baked-in. The fucked climate and environment of the future was foregrounded, and the rarity and luxury of natural substances like wood, like real animals, was crucially important. So there are moments in this film that go unexplained, just like in the original, which I really appreciate. Ultimately, a film is only great if it rewards further viewings. There’s also a strong similarity between Ryan Gosling’s “K” and the original cop of the novel: his desire to fulfil his “wife’s” every desire, for example. And then there’s that feeling, far more foregrounded than in the original, that literally anybody could be a replicant. A nice reference to the unicorn sequence, too.

So, this was great, I think. It’s almost a shame that there was no shitty voice-over that can be subsequently removed, but at least we can hope that there might be missing sequences that can be put back in. My favourite scene was the bit in the waves, which reminded me a lot of the ending of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora: the feeling that, no matter how much humanity tries to destroy this planet, nature has the power to overwhelm and wash over us.

This was a film that made me not want to reach a verdict or a conclusion, which means I want to watch it a few more times: which is as it should be.