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

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The Affinities by Robert Charles WIlson – review

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There are some authors whose books I can’t wait to get. Tim Powers is one: I will always pre-order the hardback and re-read it many times. Robert Charles Wilson is another. So when the (US) hardback landed on my doormat, I set A Song of Ice and Fire book 4 aside and ploughed through this in a couple of days. I will doubtless read this again in a year and enjoy it as much, or more, as I did this first time.

Since the publication of his extraordinary literary SF novel Spin (2005), RCW’s reputation has been high. He’s prolific too, which is a blessing. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was reading his last novel, Burning Paradise (2013, in fact). Just as Tim Powers’ main protagonist is (often, not always) a hapless (sometimes wounded) innocent caught up in events beyond his kind, RCW’s protagonist is (often, not always) a somewhat detached outsider who finds (usually) himself caught up in momentous, world-changing events, often involving the technological sublime (that which Arthur C Clarke said was indistinguishable from magic).

The Affinities follows this pattern. We already live in a world governed by algorithms. We get (sometimes not very good) music and movie and book recommendations from them; many people sign up to dating sites and apps that try to match people up using them; the financial system is dominated by them; the security services surely rely on them; Twitter and Facebook suggest who we ought to be following/friending based on them. Algorithms are everywhere. What if, asks The Affinities, someone designed an algorithm so effective and accurate that it could put people together into mutual interest groups that could become a powerful replacement for family, alumni association, old boy’s network, whatever?

Our hero, disdained by most of his own family, takes the test and finds himself a member of one of the largest affinity groups, Tau. His problems fall away. He finds work, accommodation, friendship, love. He is constantly expected to put his affinity associations ahead of his other relationships. Affinities seem stronger than blood, stronger than the nation state. But what happens when these groups become so large and so powerful that their only true rivals are other groups, other affinities?

So our hero finds himself caught up in events which spiral out of control and test his loyalties.

This is good: beautifully written (as ever), fast-paced, fascinating. My one complaint is that it seems a bit short. I’ve been reading George R R Martin, so maybe it’s a problem of perception, but I wanted more, much more. I wanted more time away from A Song of Ice and Fire. I might have to go and re-read The Chronoliths. Again.

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson – review

16059400 A new RCW novel is always welcome, though his chances of matching his form on the likes of The Chronoliths and Spin are slight. So I approach his work with anticipation and trepidation, knowing I will enjoy the read, not want it to end, and yet still be slightly disappointed overall.

I’ve tried to avoid actual plot spoilers, but if like me you prefer to approach something totally cold, you should definitely avoid parts of this review. What I’ve tried to do below is indicate, using italics, aspects of the novel you might prefer to work out for yourself.

Burning Paradise is set in an alternate 2014, 100 years after the Great War ended in Armistice – not after dragging on for years – but in a few months. The 20th and 21st centuries have played out differently: more peaceful, it’s true, but also with a much slower pace of technological development. There are no digital communications, no smartphones, no satellites.

World communication still depends upon the ionosphere (also known as the Heavyside Layer), which reflects radio signals around the globe. For a small group of people, however, radio and other electronic communications are out of the question. This apparently eccentric group, known as the Correspondence Society, are aware that the ionosphere is not what it seems.

Rather than a natural phenomenon, the properties of the radiosphere are sinister and alien. It is a parasitical “hyper colony”, surrounding the earth and deliberately altering communications to create the conditions it needs to thrive. Imagine if in today’s satellite communications, a slight delay allowed for digital pictures and messages to be subtly altered, manipulating events and responses to prevent unwelcome outcomes.

 World peace,  other words. Or, in the case of our reality, capitalist hegemony. In this secret world lives Cassie, teenage daughter of a murdered scientist, whose world comes (further) unravelled when a road accident indicates that their cover is blown.

Whereas Tim Powers (in Declare) imbued the Heavyside Layer with supernatural properties, RCW’s take on it is closer to traditional science fiction tropes concerning pod people, free will, and the true nature of humanity. If not quite pod people, Wilson’s “sims” are like plausible psychopaths, who can act human while feeling absolutely nothing.

As with many RCW novels, we have protagonists with family issues, we have long road trips, and we have a technological sublime that surpasses human understanding. There’s nothing here that RCW hasn’t done before in other ways, which is not to say that this isn’t an enjoyable read with pleasurable sentences and a plot that grips at times. The focus here is not on the alt.historical backdrop, which is merely sketched (much is left for the reader to work out), but on the characters and their relations with each other. Not as meaty or thought-provoking as Spin or Blind Lake, this is still intelligent speculative fiction, packed with ideas and calculated surprises.

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The 10 best science fiction films that haven’t been made

Cover of "The Chronoliths"

My daughter just published a list of the best science fiction films, and I told her she should publish another list: of films shouted out by my dad after I hit Publish; but that’s another story.

Older readers will know that I generally disdain what passes for moving image science fiction. It all tends towards fantasy, really, which is the world’s favourite genre. There are some good sciency fiction things out there, but that wouldn’t generally be filed under SF. For example, I love Pleasantville, in which a brother and sister end up living inside a 50s TV show; by the same token, something like The Truman Show tends to have more in common with some of the SF I’ve read than, say, Star Wars.

But my daughter got me thinking about great science fiction that has never yet become a film – maybe because the narrative arc would’t work for Hollywood, or because the state-of-the-art in visual effects isn’t there yet. But it’s getting there, I think. And there are plentiful rumours concerning the first two on my list.

  1. Ringworld. Larry Niven‘s 1970 science fiction novel has seen prequels and sequels a-plenty, enough to keep a Hollywood franchise going for a decade. It has been rumoured but never made. Narrative arc: it’s a road movie, so deal with it. Visual effects: biggest problem would be not the Ringworld itself, but Niven’s imaginative alien species: the cat-like Kzin (who are aggressive but always attack before they’re ready) and the three-headed Puppeteers (who are cowardly and very manipulative). They would tend to look too much like Farscape-style muppets. Probably.
  2. Rendezvous with Rama. Arthur C Clarke’s superior version of 2001 from 1973. The technological sublime, the mysteries of alien technology; and, with its sequels, enough for a franchise (the Ramans did everything in threes…). Narrative: yeah, apart from awe and mystery, what is there? Only a ticking time-bomb deadline of getting too close to the sun and a touch-and-go escape to safety. Visual FX: I can’t think of a problem here. Spoiler: no goofy aliens required.
  3. Unto Leviathan/Ship of Fools. I’ve written before about Richard Paul Russo‘s superb and disturbing novel about a generation ship whose crew has forgotten its original purpose. It has everything you’d want for a gripping science fiction yarn, and, for a standard-length novel there’s an amazing amount of material – enough for two films. The first would be the discovery of the abandoned colony on a planet; the second would be about the encounter with the empty alien ship. Narrative: has everything. Space opera, mystery, scary aliens, the horror, the horror. Visual FX: I would very much look forward to the stained-glass-window-in-space sequence.
  4. The Chronoliths. The first Robert Charles Wilson novel I read. All of them, probably, would make great films. In this story, giant monuments to a great leader start appearing all over the world – sent from the future. Narrative: at the centre of this immense vision of mind-bending self-fulfilling prophecy is a very human story of love and loss. Visual FX: the chronoliths themselves would present no problems. The biggest challenge would be the ageing of the main characters over time.
  5. Spin. While we’re in the Robert Charles Wilson department, this one is another perfect film in the making, and has two built-in sequels. Earth is suddenly isolated from the rest of the universe. Time outside the isolation passes much more quickly than on Earth itself. Society falls apart. Then a gate opens to another world… Narrative: huge, bewildering events anchored down, Wilson-style, with a story about human beings, politics, and friendship. Visual FX: easy, plus super-evolved humans from Mars, just for fun.
  6. The Holdfast Chronicles. Suzy McKee Charnas‘ classy series about a post-apocalyptic world in which men are mired in intergenerational conflict and keep women as slaves is a lesson in feminist SF for Margaret Atwood fans. There are four volumes, so it’s another built-in franchise. Volume 1 is Walk to the End of the World, in which one of the slaves escapes the city and discovers the free women living in the wilderness – without men. Narrative: huge adventure story with a powerful message. Visual FX: post apocalypto. With horses.
  7. Bears Discover Fire. Terry Bisson’s short story could easily be adapted into an indie-style film, with a subtle message about climate change and humanity’s relationship with nature. Narrative: a simple story about people and generations, with a backdrop of extraordinary events. Visual FX: bears who can make fire.
  8. The Forever War. Ridley Scott is rumoured to be working on an adaptation of Haldeman’s story about war and alienation, the mindlessness of the military and the psychological effects of time dilation. Again, a number of sequels, but let’s make it so, Ridley. Narrative: human soldiers in a conflict they cannot possibly understand. Visual FX: space, aliens, distant planets, time dilation, military hardware. (Alternatively: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.)
  9. Spirit. Gwyneth Jones’ space-opera version of The Count of Monte Cristo is an excellent story (obviously) of revenge told against a backdrop of her fully-realised future world of interstellar travel and alien encounters. Narrative: Count of Monte Cristo, yeah? Visual FX: Buonarotti faster-than-light travel, space stations, alien prisons, aliens. Lots for the make-up department to do.
  10. Beggars in Spain. A future world of genetic modification,  and social divisions between those who have it and those who don’t. What if we could engineer ourselves not to need sleep? What might we achieve? And what if we were immortal. Nancy Kress’ original novella and its various add-ons would make a great film. Narrative: human stories and huge social impacts. Visual FX: what does the world look like in 2091?

Ship of Fools / Unto Leviathan by Richard Paul Russo

Ship_of_Fools,_Richard_Paul_Russo_(book_cover)I don’t know why exactly, but this book always haunts me. It’s one of the few novels I like to re-read, and I’m currently on my fourth go at it. Here be spoilers, by the way. So read no further if you want to read the book in innocence.

Russo is not as well-known (nor as prolific) as the likes of Stephen Baxter and Charles Stross, writers I also admire, and he hasn’t produced excellence as consistently as Tim Powers or Robert Charles Wilson, but there’s something about this particular book.

It won the Philip K Dick award in 2001, which is a good pedigree. Tim Powers won the same award for his Dinner at Deviant’s Palace and The Anubis GatesConfusingly, Russo’s book is published under two titles: my copy says Ship of Fools on the cover. Others you might see have Unto Leviathan.

It’s a First Contact story, and it’s a deep space opera story, and it’s a derelict ship story. I particularly like derelict ship stories. The crew of a generation star ship, centuries into a voyage, come across a planet which once had a colony but now has ruins and bones. The Argonos is a huge ship which has been in space so long that nobody knows what its original mission was, due to a past event which saw ship’s records destroyed. Another event follows the discovery of the planet of bones: an attempted mass breakout by the ship’s underclass, the workers who do all the drudge work. This fails, and the ringleaders are jailed, including the captain’s right hand man, and our narrator: Bartolomeo.

Some time later, Bartolomeo is released from jail because another crisis is brewing: the Argonos has followed a signal from the dead planet and discovered an apparently derelict (and even bigger) ship. Several crew exploring the ship have met with unusual “accidents” and rumours are circulating that the ship is evil.

Bartolomeo is awarded the poisoned chalice of taking over the exploration. Meanwhile, power struggles on the Argonos make everyone unstable and jumpy. The too-powerful religious leader of the Argonos, the Bishop, is making power plays and insisting they abandon the evil ship. But is he up to something, or is he actually right?

After months of finding nothing, they stumble across a survivor. An old woman in rags, living in a pressurised corner of the ship, living off paste from a wall dispenser. She’s incoherent, but human, on a ship clearly not built by humans. They take her back to the Argonos for medical care.

After a while, she wakes up and says a few words about being rescued from the planet of bones by aliens.

But the name she gives for the planet is that coined by the Bishop himself. Too late, Bartolomeo realises that she’s not human and that they have stumbled into a trap.

It’s a tremendous read, full of danger and tension, power struggles, and a strong sense of mysterium tremendum and awefulness.

Worth reading again and again!