Posted in Books, musings, Publishing, Review, Writing

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

Posted in Books, entertainment, music, Review, Writing

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (book)

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Elodie got this for Christmas, but she also got Johnny Marr’s book, so I nabbed this to read quickly. I confess, I’d been looking forward to Elodie receiving it.

Springsteen writes very well – you can hear his voice behind the long sentences, full of detail, full of lists and parataxis. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, full of honesty about his early life, his career, and his battles with depression, which seem to have got harder as he’s got older. He doesn’t mention the incident, but what you read herein puts the 30th birthday cake-into-the-crowd hurling into a new perspective.

The best section is probably the one covering his early life, his extended family which had fallen on hard times, and lived in a crumbling house with just one heater. Springsteen’s often described as ‘blue collar’, but that doesn’t really do justice to the crushing poverty and hardship he experienced. He’s very articulate about his father – the figure who lurks in the background of so many of his songs – whose own mental health battles are so much a part of Springsteen’s formation.

He considers himself lucky to have been born when he was, able to experience rock’s first and second waves directly (Elvis and the Beatles, in shorthand), and then to be part of a vibrant local music scene that was driven and inspired by those waves. And when he finds himself, years later, on stage between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, he reflects on how extraordinary it is that he, just one of thousands of young kids to be inspired to pick up a guitar by the Stones and the Beatles, should end up on that stage.

The early life, the early musical experiences, these are the more interesting parts of this book. He spares us, however, the details of his life on the road, or even too much about the months spent in the studio. He mentions key events, key dates, the well-known difficulties he’s had with capturing the right sound (“stiiiiiiick!”), but he doesn’t dwell too much. He does mention that the hardships of his early life with a road band (cruddy motels etc.) were nothing compared to the cruddy environment he grew up in – it was a step up.

I was looking forward to reading about the times he abandoned (and then re-formed) the E Street Band, though he only hints at the reasons why. It seems clear he grew tired of the ‘Daddy’ role that being The Boss entailed, and it’s even clearer that it was the two members of the band who died young that were the source of greatest pain. The chaotic lives of Danny Federici and ‘C’ (Clarence Clemons) seem to have been ongoing issues. Of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, the ones that preceded his first non-E-Street tour, he says nothing.

I lost interest a little towards the end. Maybe because I was reading too fast, but I suspect because of the way this book was written. The chapters are short, full of pleasurable passages, but also saltatorial, jumping from point to point, and sometimes repetitive. He says at the end that he originally wrote it out in longhand, over seven years, and it bears the hallmarks of something that has been written as a series of chunks. From about halfway through, there’s less of a narrative, and it becomes more like a memoir than an autobiography. Here’s the time I met Frank Sinatra. Here’s the time I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the time there was an earthquake. And so on.

But that’s a quibble for someone who likes to read for the plot, and should not detract from the many interesting chapters and sections that the book contains. It’s a great read for the Bruce fan, or for someone interested in the music business, and maybe even for those with an interest in mental health. In his introduction, he hints that the idea of the book is to explain not just how he can get up on stage and play 3+ hour shows every night, but why. And, of course, the why is the more interesting question.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Publishing, Review, Writing

Giving up on a book

Radiance-616x991I’ve walked out of a couple of films in my life, but I’ve almost never given up on a book. Especially a book I’ve bought. Especially especially a book I’ve bought in hardback.

But here it is. Radiance by Catherine M. Valente was on the honour list for the 2015 Tiptree Award and I ordered it and one of the others on the list out of interest. I often do this for the Nebula and Hugo award nominees, too. It’s a good way of discovering new authors.

It’s a hard book to describe. Some would say it was batshit crazy, which I have no objection to at all. It’s set in an alternate universe, where the planets of the solar system are like countries, relatively easy to get to, and inhabitable. And there’s a film industry which is apparently frozen in the silent era (and offworld) and, the novel is built up from documentary-like fragments, piecing together the story of a female director who went missing on Venus…

All of which sound all right. You know? But I just couldn’t get into it. It has that epistolary character, like a bad 19th century novel (like Dracula, say), and the pace drags and there’s no real narrative drive, and, well, it’s all very postmodern (or it might be modern, I didn’t get to the end), but I couldn’t suspend disbelief or get into it. I kept putting it down and picking it up, and it’s been next to my bed since the beginning of April, and I kept finding other things to read, and then trying it again. In the end, I was about halfway through and still not enjoying it – not even a little bit – and so, with regret, I give up. Fuck it.

I just couldn’t get behind this Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burrows, retro fantasy romance vision of interplanetary life, or care very much about the space whales and their milk, or the mystery of the missing director or the various other characters who have something to do with this film industry. I just didn’t see what difference it made that this was all taking place in space in an alternate universe instead of being about, say, early Hollywood and a director that went missing in Argentina or wherever.

Mixed emotions. I feel guilty and sorry for giving up, but at the same time relieved to be picking up the (2014 Nebula nominated) Golem and the Djinni instead.

 

Posted in bastards, Books, musings, Writing

Pill One

DrugItem_10899I went back to the doctor for a third time about my insomnia. I’ve had two scrips for sleepers, and I’ve been frugal with them, taking a maximum of three per week, in the knowledge that they are addictive and that the low dose I was on wouldn’t remain effective for long.

It was a new doctor, possibly a replacement for the one that just threw up his hands at the damage being done to the NHS by this kleptocracy and retired.

She questioned me closely about my symptoms, asking a wider range of questions, making me uncomfortable with some of the answers. I can’t say I was 100% honest, but I also don’t really know what some of the answers are. Are you happy? Fuck, no. But…

It’s not that I have much trouble getting to sleep at night (not since I went back to reading paper books and cut down on coffee). It’s that I tend to wake stupidly early (around 4 a.m.) and can’t get any more sleep. She asked about my eating habits and about the job.

It’s only when you come to describe the job to a non-teacher that you realise how preposterous it sounds. Not just impossible to do, but impossible to believe. When you get to the bit where the management burst into your room like Special Branch and start questioning your students and checking their books while you’re in the middle of a lesson, it starts to seem like you’re making this shit up. Or the bit about how – even though you already don’t have enough time to do all the things you’re supposed to do – you’ll be given even less planning/marking time with no additional pay next year – just because the head teacher has it in his power to make that happen and claims to have no budget to do otherwise.

So she gave me a sleeping pill refill but also some anti-depressants. This is a bad idea, I know. But I’m looking to get through to the end of the academic year: short term thinking. I know the side effects can make you feel worse, but I also know that people respond in a wide range of different ways, so I’ll give it a go and eliminate the possibility.

Now. I was warned that these pills would take a couple of weeks to start working as they should, and that in the meantime I might feel a bit weird. I kind of imagined that as being in about a week’s time, after a few doses, I would start to feel odd, maybe. One little pill, one little 50mg pill, couldn’t have much impact.

Welp, maybe it’s the power of suggestion, but I started to feel weird almost immediately. I didn’t take a sleeping pill as well. Read a bit (The Magus is my current bedside read) and fell asleep as normal. Woke up at 4 a.m. (as normal) and then couldn’t get to sleep (normal). But it was the way my mind was working that felt strange. I couldn’t seem to grasp at a thought. I still couldn’t get back to sleep, but neither could I think about anything. Thoughts were under water, but deeper than they appeared; I’d reach for them and my hands would close around nothing.

I went through the day feeling spaced out and headachy (all expected, according to the leaflet). Felt a bit more normal after about 11 a.m., but even now (nearly 5 p.m.) I’m feeling floaty and distant from my own thoughts.

Anyway, folks, the bit about work being shit and causing stress and anxiety? Probably the best therapy was to write a book about it. So I did. If a few hundred thousand people buy it, maybe I could give up teaching.

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

An interview with the author

class war coverFrequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.

First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?

It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.

Is life as a teacher really that bad?

It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.

Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?

The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.

Is that why the drugs?

I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.

Do you work those kind of hours?

I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.

Why include the romantic sub-plot?

I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.

Is it doomed?

Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.

And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?

I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.

But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?

People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.

The final image is ambiguous

It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.

A book: Class War

class war coverUpdate: fellow blogger Rashbre has put up a review of Class War, which has some interesting insights. 

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I need to write a better blurb for it, but: it’s about Dave Coote, a teacher who’s struggling along in an academy school and facing up to the fact that the job is becoming impossible because of creeping privatisation, corruption, and management bullshit.

There’s other stuff happening, too: a former student who drops in to ask a favour and turns his life upside down. And then there’s the evidence of financial mismanagement Coote comes across and what he decides to do about it.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and published under a pseudonym because: reasons.

It’s a quick read: 68,000 words. Available for Kindle and Kindle Apps:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon Canadia

Amazon Oz

Amazon India

 

Posted in Books, entertainment, Publishing, Review, Writing

Updraft by Fran Wilde

updraftI bought this book because it’s shortlisted for the Nebula award, and I thought it looked intriguing. My copy is a US hardback edition, so I don’t know if it’s available in any other printed form in the UK (you can get a Kindle version). It’s listed as ‘Fantasy’ but I could easily make a case for it being science fiction – set in a world with a very different ecosystem, to be sure. There’s nothing here that requires the presence of the supernatural. People fly, but their wings are man-made and without them, gravity kicks in and they fall.

This novel is written using the iceberg method – so much so that you think you might be picking up the second or third in a series, but you’re not. The author merely knows a lot more than she’s telling you, and you have to do the usual (science fiction) detective work to understand what is happening. Of course, it helps that this is a society with social strata and secrets, which our heroine and reader proxy Kirit Densira seeks to learn and to expose.

Daughter of a successful trader, Kirit wants to pass her wingtest and join her mother in the family business. But she makes a mistake, breaks Tower Law, and finds herself fighting for both her wings and her identity, as she is pulled into the secretive and deadly world of the Singers, the priest-like enforcers of the Laws.

In this world, people live in organic towers which soar above the clouds and keep growing, gradually filling the lower levels with thickened bones. The higher you are in a tower, the higher your status; but if you can’t fly, you’re nowhere. And even if you can fly, you have to watch out for dangerous predators and keep your wits about you.

Updraft features the kind of imaginative world-building that you’d expect from the very best of the fantasy genre, but unlike a lot of fantasy (I’m looking at you, A Song of Ice and Fire), this is also incredibly pacy, with a story that fair rockets along, leaving you breathless in its wake. If you enjoyed last year’s success, The Goblin Empero, you will certainly love this as much as I did. And even if The Goblin Emperor was too fantasy-like for you, Updraft, as I said above, feels a lot like a certain type of science fiction (Katherine Kerr’s Snare is a good comparison), so should appeal to those wary of the usual fantasy fare. There are no dragons or elves herein.

Entertaining and intriguing as this was, I do hope there are more to come.

Posted in Books, movies, Publishing, Review, Writing

Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers – Review

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Valentino and Rambova

My favourite author* Tim Powers has released a new novel just four years after the last one (has it been so long, Tim?), which is very exciting. A new Powers is an event to savour, and you want to force yourself to read slowly so as not to use it all up.

My copy is a hard back with deckle edges (uncut pages), which is a design choice you come to understand when you reach about halfway through the novel.

Like the Fault Lines series (1992-1996) and Three Days to Never (2006), Medusa’s Web is largely set in contemporary Los Angeles, and like Three Days to Never it features spooky links to Old Hollywood.

Three Days to Never featured the handprints of Charlie Chaplin, whereas Medusa’s Web visits silent heartthrob Rudolph Valentino; set- and costume-designer Natacha Rambova (aka Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy from Utah); and star of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé Alla Nazimova (which was co-written by Rambova, who was also married to Valentino and rumoured to have had an affair with Nazimova).

Your grasp of Old Hollywood may stretch to Valentino, but Rambova and Nazimova call for more rarified  knowledge – or, like me, you go scurrying to Wikipedia to find out how much of this is true. In Hollywood, of course, everybody was somebody else, and every building (as Raymond Chandler so often noted) was a simulacrum. Rambova was Shaughnessy (a surname that makes me think of The Maltese Falcon); Valentino was  Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla; Nazimova was actually Russian, but was born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon. The Garden of Allah was a mansion, was a hotel, was levelled and paved over along with all the rest of ‘the Hollywood village’ and the orange groves and Bunker Hill.

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The Garden of Allah site, then and now-ish

So it goes with Tim Powers. His stock-in-trade is history with a twist of mystery. He clearly buries himself in the lore until he finds something odd, and then weaves a novel around it. This has worked successfully for romantic poets, pirates, cold war spies and Vegas mobsters.

While this novel pales in comparison with my all-time-favourite Declare (his 2001 masterpiece), it’s still entertaining and fascinating, if not as disturbing and/or gripping as some of his best work. If you have an interest, Declare is essential, The Stress of Her Regard should probably next in line – and then you’ll want to read the sort-of sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves. By which time you’ll be hooked, or not.

Right now, after the first reading, Medusa’s Web ranks quite low for me, but then I’d have said that about Three Days To Never until I read it for the second time a while ago. There’s usually enough here to require more than one reading. Even sitting here, writing this review and perusing images of Old Hollywood, I’m starting to like it better.

Rambova, the exotic pseudonym of a woman from Salt Lake City, is intriguing. The Wikipedia article includes this nugget about her later life:

She published articles on healing and astrology, and helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions, which led her to edit a series titled Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations. She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism and comparative religion.

Nuggets like this are surely a magnet for an author like Powers. What if…?

In this case, we have some kind of multi-dimensional beings whose manifestation in this world takes a peculiar form, which becomes a fad among the Hollywood élite, and a dangerous addiction for some.

Returning home after the death of the aunt who raised them, Scott and his sister Madeleine reconnect with their estranged and odd cousins Claimayne and Ariel, who live together in a falling-apart Hollywood mansion and bear no little hostility towards them. Claimayne is nasty and Ariel is angry, and both of them have been addicted to the ‘spiders’ that allow them to travel in time – sort of. Scott and Madeleine are pulled back into the family psychodrama and find themselves caught up in events they barely understand.

Scott is your typical Powers hero, even down to the hand injury he sustains partway through (a trope Powers has used repeatedly since his first two novels); and his sister is also a familiar female character. There are no talking heads in boxes, another common Powers trope, but there is a clattering keyboard and a telephone that rings even though it’s not there.

My main criticism I think is that these characters do seem like shorthand by now: if you’ve read this author before you don’t need them fleshed out, but they are on the thin side and I can’t escape the feeling that this novel has had 150 pages or so edited out of it.

The greatest pleasures here are the glimpses of Old Hollywood, and the feeling that those black and white days of glamour and debauchery are almost tangible. Of course, almost none of it survives today, mainly because it was built of chipboard and stucco, like a movie set.

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*Give or take Robert Charles Wilson.

Posted in entertainment, Review, Writing

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu – Review

three-body-coverThe hyphen in the title is important, of course. Without it, you could be forgiven for thinking of this as some kind of thriller, in which a killer has the problem of disposing of three bodies. The hyphenated title refers to the problem of calculating the chaotic orbits and relative positions of three massive objects or bodies (stars, actually) in space.

Nominated for several awards, I picked this up at the same time as The Goblin Emperor. Whereas one is a fantasy with steampunk accessories, this is a hard science fiction novel* set against the background of Chinese society in the years since the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. There are helpful footnotes (from the translator), for those of you who didn’t study relatively recent Chinese history for ‘O’ level. I did, in 1979! Although this novel doesn’t make mention of The Gang of Four. The Cultural Revolution is important here, because if you ever wondered what might make someone completely lose faith in humanity…

It’s an alien invasion story, though you wouldn’t necessarily realise this in the opening half of the book, which jumps between the mid-1960s and (more or less) the present day, with odd interludes spent inside the virtual reality environment of a sophisticated computer game (more of a puzzle than a game). The science here is hard (as in hard SF), and the book does spend considerable time explaining it all to the reader in lengthy exposition dumps. It doesn’t let up, either. In the last few pages there’s a lot of discussion of folding protons into various numbers of dimensions. Just as they do in the movies, these info dumps do have the unfortunate effect of throwing you out of the plot and keeping you at a distance from the characters, who are hard to root for.

*In fact, I’d go as far as to claim that the multiple exposition dumps make this more of a Menippean Satire than a novel. I noticed a similar effect with Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids and his earlier Islands in the Net (neither of which I enjoyed) and (of course) with Don DeLillo’s unreadable Ratner’s Star (and his more readable The Names, arguably). In Menippean Satire, a central character meets a variety of other people, who take turns explaining or attacking a point of view or philosophy. There’s no plot to speak of. It’s surprising how often you read something marketed as a novel that turns out not to be.

There’s sort of a plot in The Three-Body Problem, but it is really more of a set-up than a full-blown narrative. Inevitably, when it comes to this genre, there are two sequels, forthcoming, and reading to the end of this merely puts you into a position to experience the next volume. Huh. The problem with Three-Body Problem is that I didn’t really enjoy it enough to consider picking up the next in the series. In fact, I’m more inclined to pick up the second of The Hunger Games series, having just read the first book in order to prepare for teaching it next year.

It’s kind of interesting to experience science fiction from China, but it also left me a bit cold. All in all, perhaps, I would rather The Three-Body Problem had omitted its hyphen and had been some kind of SF-Thriller in which an anti-hero was forced to dispose of three corpses.

Posted in Review, Writing

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

AURORA_KIM_STANLEY_ROBINSONI swore off KSR after reading his novel 2312, which I found turgid and tedious, and so I skipped his recent novel Shaman and wouldn’t have considered Aurora, but for the fact that I stumbled across a Guardian review which praised it as the best ever SF novel about a generational starship. After a KSR hiatus, I was ready to dip in again. I needed lots of reading for the summer, and I knew that a KSR novel would be dense and substantial.

Is it the best ever book about a generational starship? No: that would be Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo — but Aurora is pretty good all the same. It’s thought-provoking and stuffed with ideas and arguments.

The more or less omniscient narrator is the Ship itself, which has an artificial intelligence which has been trained or augmented or improved by a member of the crew who took a particular interest, and then tasked the ship with writing a narrative history of the voyage, which as we join it is already around 160 years into a 12 light-year voyage to Tau Ceti, and starting to decelerate. This conceit allows the author to meditate on the nature of narrative, diegesis, and language. The AI rejects metaphor in favour of analogy, and observes that language itself is almost wholly metaphorical, taking us into Lacanian territory, Name of the Rose territory. The real is unattainable, signs can only be interpreted with other signs, and so on. This is what you might call literary science fiction, then.

I love a good generational starship story, but most of the ones I’ve read have taken a pessimistic view of this method of space exploration for humans. In Ship of Fools, the crew have forgotten their original purpose. In Aurora, the problems of a closed (‘island’) ecosystem, even in a ship whose dimensions are measured in kilometres, are manifold. Biomes! Biomes! Humans don’t understand ecosystems well enough to control them effectively, and yet that is what we are continually trying to do. The analogy here, of course, is that crew is to ship as humanity is to earth.

Our anchor character is Freya, daughter of Devi, one of the ship’s main engineers (fifth or sixth generation), who takes personally the many faults built into the ship’s design, and passes some of her personality on to her daughter. The ship was built too small, the systems not efficient enough, the pioneers essentially mad, volunteering their descendants to face developmental problems, a violent end, or simply, possibly, starvation. Devi is permanently angry about the ship and the fate they’ve been left to; she rails against the people who put them in this situation, the designers of the ship, who were too stupid or careless to see the inherent flaws.

Six generations in, and much has happened on the ship, some of it forgotten, but they arrive in the Tau Ceti system and begin to explore the Earth-like moon of one of the planets in the habitable zone. Here, KSR hits you between the eyes with the challenges of finding a suitable planet to colonise. Size and density affects gravity. Too much gravity would be too much! Imagine living on a Super Earth with gravity three times greater than the one we know! The habitable zone means liquid water, a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, but is the oxygen created by splitting water molecules with sunlight – or through biology? If there is biology, well, then would we even have the right? And if we did attempt to interact with this alien biology, to remove a helmet and breathe the air, it would almost certainly be poisonous to us. Spores, bacteria, viruses, prions! (See Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios for more on that topic.) If there is no life, it would appear to be safe for humans to begin to live there, and attempt to introduce biology. But is there soil for agriculture? Soil implies biology, so if there’s no soil there has to be something we can turn into soil, and how long does that take? Anywhere you go, you’re going to have to terraform, and terraforming takes time. How much time? Who knows? Could be thousands of years. Can we do it? Do we know how? Could we start to do it and somehow avoid killing ourselves with a fatal build-up of waste products or stubborn chemicals – or simply by starving to death?

So there’s the gravity problem, and the atmosphere problem, and the biology vs. a sterile environment problem. Which is before we get to the nature of the light and our Earth biology which has developed over billions of years under this sun and its light. What if it’s almost twice as bright? Or bluer? What about the length of the day? What if a ‘day’ is the equivalent of nine days? What if it never really ever gets dark? What about the weather? What if there is a permanent gale force wind? You’ve travelled for 180 years and when you get there you find that the wind almost never stops.

KSR’s attitude to this idea of a generational starship is critical, it’s clear. He’s clearly taken a leaf from the book of critiques of the closer-to-home Mars colony idea. The designs are flawed: people would be dead within 68 days of CO2 poisoning. In this case, how can you hope to send a viable set of ecosystems on a 180-year voyage and expect things to work properly? People and animals get smaller, appear to get dumber. Bacteria evolve more quickly than we do. They become resistant, super-bugs. We die in a thousand ways, like playing a computer game that’s designed so you can never win. The ship gets infested with bugs and corrosive substances. Critical systems fail and people don’t know why. And then people can’t agree on a course of action when they arrive and things continue to go wrong. Aurora offers a pessimistic view of the generational starship, and an equally pessimistic view of human nature. The question is asked about the original 20 million or so volunteers: from what were they trying to escape? We were all thinking this about the one-way-mission-to-Mars volunteers. Almost by definition, they were unstable, slightly or completely crazy. And in the case of the generational starship, they also don’t live to get where they are going and instead have volunteered their children and grandchildren for some unknown fate out there in the stars. These people are born into a situation they had no say in creating, and have to deal with the consequences of decisions made long before they were born.

You don’t have to dig very deeply to discover the analogy KSR is trying to draw. As we fuck this planet up for our descendants, we are bequeathing them a set of problems they didn’t volunteer to face. Our stewardship of the planet is shoddy, to say the least. The super-rich think they’ll survive the cataclysm, especially if they have all the money, but they don’t know, any more than the rest of us know how to grow fruit and vegetables without blights and diseases and bugs eating them. Nature tends to do better without us.

Earth itself is a pretty big starship. None of us asked to be born here, but we’re stuck with it. And the message is clear: this is all we have. There is nowhere else we can go, and even if by some miracle we could build such a ship and get there, we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers and create a new, safe, habitable, Earth. And for Robinson, the very notion that we might be able to find somewhere else is part of the problem with the way we treat this Earth, and each other. It’s a mass delusion, analogous to those dangerous religions which propose that this life doesn’t matter, because there’s another life to come. And think about it: even if they designed a generational starship and started sending people out to colonise the stars — if there was any chance of survival, who would get to go? Only the rich, only the children of the rich. Stop deluding yourself.

The novel ends tellingly: on a beach somewhere, with waves crashing in and the white noise of surf and sand, the endless pounding created by the extraordinary gravitational pull of a moon, the heat radiation from the nearest star. This wonder, this planet, these forces that are more powerful than us, that we can never hope to harness.

A great book, this, and an important one. People need to read this. Maybe there are answers to some of KSR’s criticisms, but I’d like to see them stated as rigorously.