I’d read a million words like one of your nerds…

Fi and Jane were talking and Fi mentioned she’d read about 4 or 5 books over the summer, and Jane was impressed. At around 80,000 words per, that’s about 400,000 words, so, yes, very good.

At a rough estimate, I read just over a million words over the summer holiday. Three quarters of them were Gardner Dozois science fiction anthologies from the 80s and 90s, three of them that I’d previously not purchased. They’re a bargain on the Kindle at around €4 each.

So I read the 5th, 6th, and 10th Annual Collections, with stories from 1987, 1988, and 1992 respectively. Now, as any fule kno, science fiction often purports to be about the future but its really always about the present. Because when you ask what if…? you are always starting from here. In recent years, I’ve been finding science fiction to be a bit of a drag. There are too many post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian novels set five minutes from now, and it has been grim reading. To the point that I’m starting to avoid certain tropes. And this is before we get to the infestation of so-called “literary” science fiction novels, with the likes of Jeanette Winterson muscling in on the field and reinventing the wheel.

(Here’s the first sentence of the blurb to her recent Fran Kiss Stein:

In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Try not to get any vomit on the toilet floor.)

This is not to suggest that there weren’t grim visions of the future in 1988 or 1992. There were, and much of it even centred around climate change. Science fiction has been on the climate train since the 1970s at least, which is why it’s so infuriating when literary writers pretend they’ve come up with an original idea for their latest genre crossover Waterstones front table bait.

But here’s the thing.

There were better writers in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the 10th Annual Collection, the 1992 edition (published in 1993) is so fucking good: it’s hit after hit by all the big names. In fact, the absolute worst story in that collection was written by Arthur C. Fucking Clarke.

As a palate cleanser between these anthologies, I read a few Cadfael books, plus a Tana French, the new Becky Chambers, and Ironclads, a novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky. All of which adds up to somewhere North of a million words.

And now I’m back to reading for 10 minutes every night before falling asleep.

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To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.

So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?

Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.

The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.

The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?

The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.

Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.

The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.

So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.

Year’s Best Science Fiction, 7th Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

Yes: 30-year-old science fiction.

I’ve been pondering lately the future of the Year’s Best collections, as published by St Martin’s Press and edited by Gardner Dozois for 35 years until his death last year. Will they continue? I think the answer is probably not. By now, you would usually be able to pre-order the latest edition, and there’s no sign of it. Dozois would be hard to replace, anyway. The monumental achievement of maintaining consistently high quality over the best part of four decades of changing fashions in science fiction was all due to his experience and expertise; I can’t imagine anyone wanting to step into those shoes, to perhaps be the one to kill the franchise.

Meanwhile, what will replace it in my summer reading virtual pile? One likely candidate doesn’t even get a Kindle edition. Others mix fantasy with science fiction, and I’ve a low tolerance for fantasy, so I’d feel like I was wasting half my money.

Yesterday, I had one of those reading emergencies. I’ve had a couple of duff downloads, books I gave up on because they weren’t grabbing me, and I was casting about desperately for something to read. In this situation, pre-Kindle, I would usually end up in Fnac looking at their paltry selection of overpriced books in English. Because I can instead just download something from Amazon, I ended up, after a long and uninspiring browsing session, buying a 30-year-old edition of the Year’s Best, volume 7, which I think I haven’t already got (there were a few early in the run that I didn’t have and I’ve been slowly catching up with them through digital versions).

A couple of things about this choice. First, the uninspired browsing session is largely the result of the current fashion in SF publishing. I’m just not that into the stuff coming out at the moment. Even with a willingness to buy, I’m just not finding books I love to read. Part of the problem, too, is that there is so much dross on the Kindle store, thanks to self-published authors like myself. Mind you, my two duff downloads were both well-reviewed, properly published, nominated for awards etc., but still didn’t speak to me. Jade City by Fonda Lee was an urban fantasy in a Hong Kong like city in which the magical properties of Jade give crime families superpowers. And I just didn’t care. Meanwhile, Claire North’s 84K is a kind of 1984 de nos jours, just stretching the Tory mania for austerity and privatisation a little further into a nasty dystopian vision of Britain. My problem with it is the same as the one I had with Ricky Gervais’ The Office. I didn’t find that show funny because my then-boss was exactly like that, and I was living The Office every day, depressed and feeling bullied at the same time. So I couldn’t enjoy 84K because I already feel as if I live in a nasty dystopian version of Britain. Another issue I have with current publishing is the trend to put hyperbolic marketing messages and blurb into the book title on Amazon. It smacks of that terrible trend on YouTube for people to hype videos with such titles as, “The Most Incredible Version of this Song Ever”. It’s all part of the dystopia we live in.

Meanwhile, what is 30 year old science fiction like? Because SF is always about the here-and-now, of course, and the human condition under what if…? conditions. Which is why it has always been my favourite genre, and why I’d rather read science fiction than mediocre lit-fic by the likes of Ian McEwan whose appalling comments about SF in an interview gave lots of people the rage this week.

So, the second thing about my download choice is this: what were SF writers obsessed with in 1989? I’ve only read the first four stories so far. As you might expect, Gardner Dozois’ selections are superb, but I’m still noticing stuff. Cast your mind back to 1989. I mean, it’s recognisably the modern era, post-PC, post-space shuttle, early days of the internet and so on. But mobile phones haven’t become ubiquitous, climate change hasn’t become an obsession, and we’d only experienced 10 years of neoliberal economics.

The first story in the collection, by Judith Moffett, is ‘Tiny Tango’, a novella about the AIDS epidemic, genes, cross-dressing, indifferent alien visitors, and nuclear meltdown. It covers a hell of a lot of ground, but the thing that surprised me the most was the attempt to lay out the possible future of how HIV/AIDS would develop. It was a shock to remember how terribly urgent and present the disease was back then. The other interesting trope was the visiting aliens who, it turned out, didn’t seem all that interested in humans and their problems. Watch this space for that theme and what it might mean.

Charles Sheffield’s ‘Out of Copyright’, on the other hand, could have been written yesterday. He merges the idea that humans can be cloned with issues of intellectual property, and suggests that 75 years after someone’s death they might be cloned by anyone willing to bid for the rights. So who would get cloned and why, and how much would corporations be willing to pay? A brilliant story that still seems fresh. The identity of ‘Al’, the narrator, is the punchline.

Mike Resnick’s ‘For I Have Touched the Sky’ was probably a bit controversial even in 1989, but if published now might face accusations of cultural appropriation or similar. Resnick imagines a space habitat constructed for a throwback Kenyan tribal culture, a society deliberately harking back to a pre-contact state of innocent primitivism. There’s even mention of female circumcision, which these days gets called FGM and is extremely problematic.

Which brings us to Gregory Benford’s ‘Alphas’, which is the human nickname for another group of indifferent alien visitors, who arrive in the solar system and start messing with Venus using technology so advanced it looks like magic. In 1989, Benford was at his peak, having published the groundbreaking novel Timescape, which I remember reading and re-reading shortly before going to university. It still holds up as a ‘difficult’ hard science text, using concepts that come straight out of the research labs of top universities.

That’s it so far. So what about these indifferent aliens? What was happening, culturally, in the late 1980s to cause science fiction writers to imagine that they might not care about us very much? In the 50s and 60s, the aliens had been all about stepping in to steer or guide humanity in some way. In the 70s, they wanted to eat us. Probably. But by the end of the 80s, they just didn’t care. I wonder: was this the result of the Thatcher/Reagan years? A general feeling of uncaring individualism, loss of social cohesion, indifference to wider social issues, being content to leave people to their abjection?

And here come the aliens, who are merely, of course, a mirror held up to an uncaring society. They don’t care about our petty problems, our obvious suffering, our urgent need for kind intervention.

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.

Altered Carbon

Altered-Carbon-2

Is it time to talk about preposterously unrealistic punching? Because there’s an awful lot of it in Altered Carbon, a show that seems to revel in fight set pieces to the point of tedium. In each of these fight scenes, it appears to me that every single punch and body blow would be enough to kill, or render unconscious, the punchee, and break several metacarpals in the puncher.

This Netflix show has been trumpeted as a possible multi-year juggernaut ratings winner, Game of Thrones style, not that Netflix ever talk about viewing figures. If they make another series, and another, I guess we’ll know. It’s been well-reviewed: by Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter, for example, and it’s one of a string of high profile genre shows that seem to be taking the TV world by storm. We’ve moved on from Cops and Docs and Lawyers to time travellers, space pirates, and cyberpunks.

I should be pleased. And I am, to an extent. Travelers is a great little show, full of human warmth and twisty plot lines; Star Trek Disco is a fairly triumphant return for Trek, give or take the last two episodes of the season; and Stranger Things is interdimensional MK Ultra-tastic fun. On the other hand, The Expanse, while glossy, is beset by plot pacing issues and dreadful dialogue; and the returning X-Files is mostly pathetic and confused.

So what of Altered Carbon? The premise is straight out of 90s cyberpunk: people are more or less immortal, if they can afford to keep growing new bodies, and their memories and personality are stored in “stacks”, solid state drives essentially, that live in a strangely vulnerable position in the back of their heads. The series is based on a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan, which I haven’t knowingly read, but the premise is familiar enough to someone who’s been reading SF for as many decades as I have.

It’s a dystopian, Blade Runner-alike world, and the series production design is a straight rip-off of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic film. Furthermore, the jargon bandied about by the characters is similar enough to sound familiar: stacks and sleeves vs. replicants and skinjobs. But whereas the extreme fights in Blade Runner were a result of the replicants’ exceptional strength, the bodies fighting in Altered Carbon are supposed to be human (though one of them gets a bionic arm).

Anyway, super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs is woken from a 200-year hibernation by a rich immortal in order to investigate the murder of one of his skinjobs sleeves. Turns out, he’s been dropped into a cop’s body, and this cop’s partner Kristin Ortega wants him back. There’s your set up, and there are other interesting elements: a hotel run by an AI that thinks it’s Edgar Allen Poe; interrogations taking place in virtual space; naked clone fights like something out of an 18-rated Matrix movie.

But the parts are greater than the sum, and I did not ever warm to this show. For a start, I find it hard to understand who benefits from this dystopia. I mean, it’s a horrible fucking world, and the rich people live in the sky above the weather and all, but they don’t really seem to be enjoying themselves. Yes, a minor point, but the main thing I couldn’t get past was all the fighting. It seemed as if there were about three set pieces per episode, and though lots of minor assailants get their stacks blown out, and our main characters seem to get horribly beaten up on a regular basis, their powers of recovery are so remarkable that it seems they can bounce back from anything without any ill effects in a day or so.

Sure, it’s ridiculous to get uptight about unrealistic recovery times in a show about people who live in floating houses with their personalities stored in hard drives, but it just felt like there was nothing at stake.

So, my request to Netflix is as follows: if you want a Game of Thrones style fantasy drama to hook and enthrall people, consider throwing some money at some Tim Powers properties. Something about romantic poets beset by vampires, perhaps?

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?

 

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

mcdonaldi-luna1-newmoonukAccording to its Wikipedia entry, this novel has been called Game of Thrones in space. You can see what is meant by that: this is a novel about near-future industrial dynasties on a commercialised and privatised Moon. It’s about a murderous and deadly frontier where there is no law except contract law and where there are a thousand ways to die.

So yeah: a bit like Game of Thrones. But not necessarily in a good way. I’ve said before that while I love the TV series (occasional pacing issues notwithstanding), I did not enjoy reading the novels. The novels seem soulless to me, written in an affectless style, as if put together by a committee.

And I did not enjoy reading Luna. There are sections of this novel I have in fact read before, in short story collections, and the novel seems to have been constructed around these fragments. But here’s the thing: I don’t care about any of the dynasties, any of the people, or their business ambitions. I’m not particularly interested in their polymorphous sexualities, their fashions, designer drugs, or much else about this society.

The main focus here is the Corta family, of Brazilian origin, who are competing – in some unspecified way – with other corporate families who originate from Russia, China, Nigeria, and Australia. Each family has a monopoly of some particular resource, but the Cortas and the McKenzies are at each others throats because their businesses overlap in some way.

There are arranged marriages, court cases, secret societies, and more – but I wasn’t interested in any of it. The thing about business, for me, is that it just isn’t very interesting. It’s worse, even, than playing Monopoly: it’s watching other people play monopoly. And though the stakes are meant to be high and lives are at risk, the fact that it’s so easy to die on the moon lowered the stakes.

There are lots of names: sons and daughters and second sons and more sons and daughters, and arranged marriages and custody battles over their kids, but it all ends up a big wash of interchangeable people who have walk-on parts, or pop up here and there, but not so much that you start caring about them. It’s another science fiction menippean satire, a series of meetings between characters who exchange views, but there isn’t much of a plot, and the climax ends up being both rushed and boring, with nobody to root for and nothing much to care about. If a meteor shower had hit every habitat and killed everyone, I wouldn’t have been bothered.

I have a horrible feeling there will be sequels. Ironically, like Game of Thrones, this might indeed make for good television, so I’m not saying don’t watch it, but don’t feel bad about not reading the book(s).

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice was a tour de force, a book that shifted your perceptions and blew the genre/gender cobwebs from your mind. It had 517FZqyUbGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_multiple points of view (that were all, ultimately, the same point of view) and it had multiple time-lines. And its narrator/s called everybody she, even if they were male, causing you to picture every character as a woman, even the men.

The first sequel, Ancillary Sword was a continuation of the story, but in a different way that disappointed some readers. Gone was the widescreen, galaxy-spanning, time-shifting space opera narrative in favour of a small, contained (confined, even) story of local government and politics in a single, temporarily isolated system with one planet and one space station. Another tour de force, in a way, like an unexpected reboot. Many of the same characters were involved, but this was a completely different sub-genre within the genre of contemporary SF. Throw in an alien ‘translator’ who appeared to be human but was anything but, and you have the makings of a slow-motion diplomatic train crash that will have repercussions for all and leave you impatiently anticipating the conclusion.

Which brings us to Ancillary Mercy, the final novel in the sequence, which is best understood as a little bit from box A and a little bit from box B. Here, both the local politics and the galactic empire civil war come to a head, with a fish sauce guzzling alien wild card. The narrator still calls everybody she, and you, the reader, still read every character as a woman. Ann Leckie doesn’t remind you who is actually male. If you want to read the first novel over again and be reminded, here and there, of which character presents as anatomically male, you can. But I didn’t, because who cares. I still think the female pronoun thing is a stroke of genius, something that makes me want to trumpet this trilogy from the rooftops for all to read. The simple power of the overlooked pronoun is a shotgun blast to the face of people who think that language choice doesn’t matter.

The story comes to a somewhat satisfying conclusion. You can see how the future is going to go. What I particularly love/hate about this trilogy is that each volume isn’t 1000 pages. The trilogy itself doesn’t even add up to 1000 pages. Instead of the weight and heft of A Song of Ice and Fire or any number of other genre series, the Ancillary trilogy comes in light. Comes in light but shines very bright: it has more ideas and more food for thought than just about anything I’ve read in recent times. If Sword felt like something lesser after the triumph of Justice, Mercy takes you back to the feeling you got reading the first. Being on the short side (or of average length, in other genres), the trilogy is more accessible for the casual reader. But when you get to the end, when you read the final 75 pages or so in one sitting, with your late night self screwing the next day for your morning self, when you do that, you immediately regret it. The following day you feel a deep sense of loss because you no longer have Ancillary Mercy to read.

(Annoyingly, my copies of the first two in the series are digital, dating from before my decision to abandon screen reading and go back to books, so if I want to read this again I have to suffer the indignity of reading off my iPhone screen. Like an animal.)

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.

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.