ORBzine - 1999.05 Book Reviews

ORBzine Book Reviews May 1999

by John Kane

Only Forward

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Michael Marshall Smith's first novel. Hey, let's introduce another spurious categorisation system, for fun. I know this kind of approach is going out of fashion, but let's look at the process closely; if you use rigid categories, of course you will have problems, unless you encounter something the maker of which is trying to make it fit into the same system. Works beautifully, even indispensably, with bricks, nuts and bolts and suchlike, but for works of the free imagination it falls flat on it's face. The secret is to use flexible-walled, ambivalent categories, and disregard them even then.

The very worst thing a writer can do is to try to write in accordance with literary theory. At best- if it is a good, descriptive and accurate theory- the writer will be lost in the crowd; at worst- a politically inspired, fundamentally wrong-headed theory- the writer deserves to be lost in the bin. It is the proper place of theory and criticism to follow art and explain the motives behind it to it's public. So what kind of category system can we come up with for science fiction? Remember that once you have your categories- which can announce enough in itself- the place within your personal continua in which you place any given piece of work says at least as much about you and your outlook as the work itself. So fixed works of art become media of communication of opinion- become shorthand for your own mindset- and why not?

And why the hell am I rambling on like this? Simple. Only Forward is so good, I'm slightly afraid of it. Something like Stapledon's work is really too big to be worried about. In terms of life changing metaphor, it, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, simply overpenetrates; you can point to the ways it is telling you it is good to live in, and be excused any attention to them because they are simply too much, too close to the genuine ethical and philosophical considerations you read science fiction to avoid. Despite it's rather more complex, better realised, and better grounded setting, this is entirely too close to home.

A friend of mine, a medical student, read this on my recommendation, after much prompting, a few years ago; he said that if he had read it the first time, he would never had to go through the series of psychiatric evaluations that nearly resulted in his being thrown off the course. Not a bad testimony, or a bad person, really... so I promptly gave him Brian Aldiss' Barefoot In The Head. Which sent him right back to the psychiatrist. Oops. Actually, there is a double connection, because the world of Only Forward is very much like something that the citizens of Aldiss' psychedelic- bombed Europe might build in the immediate aftermath.

In terms of genre classification, you have to call it Grand Cyberpunk with major mystic elements. In terms of story modality, part Special Person, about three eighths genuine What If. The central character is called Stark, and he does a job no-one else can do; in addition to being a private eye of a sort, he helps them come to terms with their dreams. You might think that any psychotherapist might be able to do that, but not in this society, and certainly not in this way; he literally walks them through their subconscious minds made conscious metaphor and allegory. It is not as simple as it could have been; Smith clearly knows something about the unconscious mind, and jeamland is classic. If you always knew that following from the amount of wierdos our rational, logical civilisation throws up, a genuine mystic civilisation would be far worse, far less psychologically stable, far more looney-ridden, this is the book for you.

The society itself is certainly in need of all the therapy it can get. There are some wonderful sequences of parody in it, and some genuinely eerie landscapes, but for the main, I have to turn to Donal Graeme; Aside from the inefficiency, It strikes me as unhealthy. What's the point of technological development if we just split in that many more factions - everyone hunting up his own type of aberrant mind and living with it? That's no progress.

True enough, but of course, here it isn't meant to be progress. That is exactly what happened; the Britain of approximately 3000 AD (I think) is broken down into Neighbourhoods, each organised by it's denizens on a theme; highly socially improbably- this couldn't have happened by accident or the stream of half- guided accidents that make up normal life. It is, of course, a good thing that the book is close enough to reality to warrant such a criticism, rather than relying on total suspension of disbelief. Of course, there are elements of parody in what must surely be the ultimate hole-and- corner society, the scientists, the actioneers - and we always knew that management was futile, and a well aimed shaft that one - and elements of horror, with the gangland scene when you start to wonder about just who has what. Ji must be the last word in four- colour characters gone bad. This is the best way to treat an intrinsically ridiculous situation; with gusto. He and Snedd are a great double act. The gangland fight had better be intended as parody, but of what, of the impulses that go into making it so?

Stark is from the present; came there with his best friend, via Jeamland, and integrated- after a fashion. Stark as a psychic surgeon, Rafe- his closest friend, his mirror image - as a psychic terrorist. These are not cardboard characters; past they have in abundance, which despite the first- person narrative format, Stark reveals wholesale; the weight of eventful lives if anything should make him even odder than he is. Rafe is probably dead; because Stark, along with Ji, hunted him down and killed him, to stop him murdering people from the inside out. This was eight years ago. It's starting to happen again. On reading so far, you shouldn't expect it to be that simple. It isn't, of course. Many and painful are the ways of the subconscious mind. I feel an irresistible urge to quote PKD again; a bit which I'm sure Smith is familiar with. Later, when my personal life became complicated and full of convolutions,[...] I became educated to the fact that the greatest pain does not come zooming down from a distant planet, but up from the depths of the heart. Of course, both could happen; your wife and child could leave you and you could be sitting alone in your empty house with nothing to live for, and in addition the Martians could bore through the roof and get you.

If you wanted one simple phrase to sum up this novel, that would have to be it. Sorry about the extended quote, but it is a more than fair summary. The sting in the tail; it's not a mysteriously alive Rafe doing damage at all, it's Stark's memory of him and the trouble he might have caused. A very nasty, very beautiful invention, underlining the point- dubious but plausible- that beyond a point you're your own worst enemy. He has done other work, much of it in the same basically gritty but superstructurally mystical vein, but nothing so fresh or so extreme.

Imagination; a little postmodern inevitability, but thoroughly exercised on a sound footing; A-
Wierdness; high- the science is distinctly pseudo, the mysticism is much more inventive; B+
Scene- setting; damned if I can work the social dynamic behind it, perhaps too parodic, but basically sound; B
Characterisation; excellent handling of a basically absurd situation, superb character depth under the circumstances; A

Overall; dubiously trivial choice of topic knocks the top grade off; B+

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I want to look closely at Larry Niven's Ringworld, because it is as much a study of a case as of a novel. It raises important and rather ugly questions; chiefly, what it is that makes good science fiction?

The idea of a Ringworld, the astroengineering of it, has attracted immense interest, including that of Freeman Dyson himself. The writing and literary side... Life is neither fair nor simple, as most people who have managed to look up from their paperbacks will probably have noticed. There are excellent novels which have not reached a fraction of the interest they deserved, and very popular novels without a trace of literary quality. As you notice when you look back down again.

I can state my opinion of the Ringworld in one phrase; justifying it will take longer. As engineering, extremely impressive; as literature, grossly overrated.

The novel subsists on the science- fictional capital of the idea behind it. The characters are forgettable cardboard cutouts. Look closely at them, form images of their personalities, try and get inside their heads. If the writer is doing his job properly, you certainly should be able to, and be at least mildly interested by what you find there. Of course, there are limits, and scepticism, which doubts the possibility of knowing any mind including your own, is fundamentally unassailable, but you have to go a long way in murky philosophical waters before you come up against it... let's not bring an insoluble but partially evadable problem any closer to home than we absolutely have to.

On the other hand, skepticism is invaluable as a tool for the maintenance of good faith; you can always pretend the writer had something coherent in mind, even if you can't for the life of you work out what. Which is the problem here. How can such a magnificent theory rest on such a slender character foundation? Then I recall that he was educated as a mathematician and everything falls into place.

The novel is actually set in the long- standing Known Space universe, and this was in fact Larry Niven's alternative to tearing it down in flames on the instigation of Norman Spinrad. He was just plotting how to destroy everything when he heard about Dyson Spheres, realised he had an alternative, and wrote it up. I'm not sure if this was the sound thing to do; I think I would have enjoyed reading Down In Flames.

The novel is actually best read as a showcase for the technology, and the characters as not much more than eyeballs on strings. A Ringworld is a ribbon around a star, spun to provide artificial gravity - a figure of 770 miles a second is quoted- with sidewalls to keep the air in - relief mask style terrain, at the distance of Earth's orbit roughly, and with a surface area of three million earths. A great deal of work has been done on the Ringworld since it first appeared; it was taken as a serious suggestion in astrotechnology, by people as luminous as Freeman Dyson. The debugged version was presented in The Ringworld Engineers. This is the meteor- vulnerable, imperfectly shadow squared, unstable version, but it's still a hell of a construct. The plot is gifted with the complexity of a long standing, evolving universe - which is just as well, because you have to wonder how successful a dry run at this would have been.

Depressingly, the Ringworld is not populated by a full advanced technological civilisation; that would have been far too easy, and too difficult to work up a plot for. The ringworld is populated by a dizzying collection of fantasy-feudal like mutant descendants of a civilisation that collapsed, whose ancestors - the Pak - were essentially our own, Homo Habilis. The characters are more or less kidnapped into reconnoitring it by an alien - a Puppeteer. The species' name is well chosen, and if you ever need a real alien to drop into a Cyberpunk game to surprise the players, then they could very well be it. Never mind predator; these creeps will terminate your bank account - and possibly, as here, the future of your civilisation - with total efficiency, every time. They're an excellent construct - even if they are the dismal science made flesh - but I'd rather not have to have dealings with them.

I don't think I'm giving much away by saying the decayed condition of the Ringworld is their fault. They virus-bombed it with a plague designed to eat the biological superconductor that was the backbone of the Ringworld's technology, intending to clean up by selling a cure. They never quite got around to that part. Remorse? Nary a trace. This appears to be fairly typical. Actually, he doesn't make them behave nearly as manipulatively as the tendencies he assigns to them ought to.

If the plot is readable, it's because it's something of a logjam. If you can't do a simple idea well, throw in a whole bunch of others until the reader starts wondering what the hell is going on- and thus fills in the blanks for you. Humans for generations have been evolutionarily selected, by Birthright Lotteries, for luck, one of them being the female lead; the ultimate character's psionic power; Author Control, in Larry Niven's words- meaning that whatever she did, because of her luck, had to turn out well. This presumably means that Niven composes by the first- draft method, a startling change from the meticulous planning of The Mote in God's Eye, which was subsequent to this, so are we talking about experience gained? In any case, it turns her into a monumentally irritating character, self- righteous beyond belief. She wanders off with a local primitive barbarian, and good riddance. The Kzinti- forgive me for being so tawdry, but they compare unfavourably in cultural soundness to the Kilrathi. Niven himself would be the first to acknowledge that, on the general principles involved in the Moties for one. You try and work out the pressures upon them, the threads of the fabric of their society, and I tell you it can't be done. If they are anything like us at all, their rhetoric is a good deal more bloody than the facts- and they cannot sustain such bloodshed without placing a value on life that seems too low to support a complex civilisation. No social force mentioned is enough to hold this mass of contradictions together. The Puppeteers are radically more feasible. All in all, it seems a little churlish to diss such a classic of SF - but the cult of total honesty does have it's advantages.

Imagination; huge in scope, but perhaps rips off a few too many fantasy elements; B-
Science; see the sequel for the one without all the bugs, but a genuine new idea- A
Scene- setting; inevitably contrived, but well put together; B
Characterisation; eyeballs on strings; C

Overall; classic idea novel, weak on traditional narrative qualities; B

Against A Dark Background

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Easy to understand why this, but why now? Well, This would make the third copy of AaDB I've bought. Two given as birthday or Christmas presents previously. In a way I love it to bits; in another way it worries me deeply.

On any cold-blooded assessment, Banks as a science fiction writer of the larger shores is not as scary as the aggressive cornering of all available cosmic wierdness of Larry Niven; Banks's stories are large and loose, and there's always room for a parallel universe or two. Despite the skill - and he has some stunning imagery - you get the feeling that he is something of an E.E. Doc Smith for the nineties; he will come close enough to be hugely entertaining, but never actually write the definitive story of anything. Part of this- criticism intended- is because he's just not odd enough; the motivations behind his stories are entirely too mundane. His people are too much like we would be, taking advantage of the opportunities their society offers them to satisfy desires and impulses not sufficiently different from those of you or I to be convincing as those of children of so radically different a culture.

He is simply not searching the wilder shores of psychology in anything like the way he expands huge and powerful technologies- Culture vessels have actually become less and less powerful in every novel of the series. And a good thing too - we were on trans-Star Trek levels here, and with something of the same comfortably normal social blandness. Special Circumstances is really the only part of the Culture interesting enough to be worth setting a story in. There's something wrong with such a flat civilisation- but at least it's an alternative to middle class marriage.

Perhaps because I'm secretly a Puritan Independent at heart, his strange sexualities do not really move me; they're entirely too much like the dysfunctions of the present. Which is really the problem. His science-fiction work is entirely too reminiscent of him without the M; which is excellent work indeed, but not what science fiction at it's best and most characteristic is supposed to be about. The Player of Games, for instance, has strong links with John Brunner's The Squares of the City. Radically different modality, same point and intent.

This is not a Culture novel; the setting is a small solar system in the cosmic middle of nowhere, between galaxies, trapped and condemned to fouling it's own nest, building on the rubble of the previous generations. It is nearly the decimillennium, and wild things are expected. The mundanity is very largely redeemed by his great skill at mundanity - like many of the oddities on Golter, the Logjam was basically a tax dodge being one example.

The central character takes quite an effort to like. The plot is essentially messianic; there is a lunatic cult who want to kill off the line of a certain family of which she is a member, to prevent them spawning someone who will undercut them all. The family helps out by conveniently disgracing themselves, and Sharrow is something of a rogue anyway.

How this actually happens, Banks drops a very large hint, but there are no shortage of dark passion undercurrents between Sharrow, her half-brother Geis, and her sister, a hostage of the Cult, who agree to let her alone in exchange for her finding one of the last of the Lazy Guns, a probability gun that kills it's target in the most entertaining manner its AI circuitry can dream of. A lot of stuff has got lost in the Golter system over the millennia, a good deal of it deliberately, and there is a job opportunity there, for people capable of ferreting the stuff out. In her younger years - Sharrow is a university dropout - there was a war, over a Five Percent Tax - and to anyone who is aware of the causes for which the European nations have gone to war over the last four centuries, this is not a joke- and she joined up on the Anti-Tax side, where along with her fighter group she was dosed with a synchroneurobonding virus to make them function effectively as a team. There are emotional consequences, and she becomes pregnant by her second in command, just before the disastrous attack that kills three of the team and leaves her sterile; the child is extracted, force grown, and becomes, unknown to her, the new messiah-orchestrated by Geis. He also bugs her with an implanted growing crystal virus, which he uses to keep track of her and ... things do get very weird. A planet-wide lifeform (essentially ripped off from James White's Major Operation, but without the sentience) much odd hole and corner stuff. The plot is basically a chase scene. It's at this point that you begin to sense the awkwardness of a one page review. I do have a few quibbles about it; first of all, the admirable and intelligent sense of restraint displayed by the inhabitants of the Golter system in structural and economic matters is inexplicably out of phase with their personal lives.

Surely, surely Banks should have more of a sense of the dynamic interactions of a society than this. There's always the possibility that he, like the vast majority of us, is just copying down from reality without wondering what the pressures are that are making all this happen. It probably had to be like this, for the sake of the plot, but the characters have strong doses of cyberpunk in them, lives formed by a disintegrating, corrupt world, which does not resonate with the political structure of Golter- an interestingly incoherent place, which must have rather a British constitution; traceries of aristocracy, libertarian separatism, aristocracy, theocracy criss-cross one another; you would expect, and get in abundance, tangled remnants from a culture like this, as long as it had a reasonably soft or uncoercive centre. The problem is that it has lasted a good deal longer than we're likely to, especially if we go cyberpunk. People are much more victims of society than we like to believe or let on - the alternative is worse in any case- and the characters... although certainly unusual, and every society has it's rogues, the minor figures and background characters are too much like this. Sometimes you have to throw away credibility to get a good story.

Imagination; less than the best, but so very much better than the worst- B+
Science; very soft SF, derivative, cribbing; C
Scene- setting; Little inconsistencies, but suspension of disbelief is well worth it; B+
Characterisation; strong if skewed and very dark; A-

Overall; Excellent on it's own terms, but not in the grander scale- B

Stranger In A Strange Land

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Supposedly his magnum opus- I'm sorry, every time I think of that I think of Berke Breathed's Bloom County cartoon strip- offers an interesting light on everyone's key question about Heinlein; was Captain Bob really a fascist?

Maybe not, but if this is anything to go on at all, Norman Mailer's Long-Lost Brother was one good act of spin control away. Opinion is divided about Heinlein; the older science fiction writers and their fans, who hail him as a near deity, and many of the more raw, fresh, close-to-the-bone crowd who view him as a dangerous lunatic.

From Higher grade history, you should recall the eight point checklist originally devised by I think Hugh Trevor-Roper, the instant guide on how to spot a fascist; satisfyingly Moorcockian, also. If you can, you're doing better than I. Make no mistake, Roper was a great historian, and not as formulaic as I have inadvertently made him sound. Actually, I can only remember six of them;

  • lack of faith in the judgement of the people,
  • great use of propaganda,
  • compromises with the existing establishment,
  • belief in a firm hand,
  • search for an external enemy,
  • search for an internal scapegoat,

    to which I can personally add

  • lack of all artistic taste and
  • extreme intellectual banality in person.

    While Heinlein was not guilty on the last, probably, and to a large extent actually was the science- fiction establishment or at least a pillar of it, the rest either in person or by character in proxy...

    Stranger In A Strange Land is supposed to be biting satire about modern - at any rate near-future - America. An aside on definition; the near future is whatever period the characters retain approximately present-day attitudes and motivations and are trying to come to terms with the future, the future is once they have done so and are faced with a merely operational problem, the far future is once they have very little if anything left in common with us. Valentine Michael Smith, the hero - earth boy brought up on Mars - is from the psychological far future. (So what does this have to do with us?) He actually has a very, probably excessively, complicated parenthood.

    It simply doesn't feel as sharp as I suspect it was intended to. There are elements of total utopianism in the society he is supposed to be satirising - the Witnesses, observing officers of the court, who are incorruptible; maybe you'd need a hard core of virtue around which to build a working autocratic civilisation - but authority corrupts, invariably, and I don't think he noticed. Smith's surrogate father figure, the wise man Jubal Harshaw, has entirely too much of David Khoresh about him. He's too knowledgeable, too saturnine, and knows his way around the system far too well; he seems - like Heinlein - a sanctimonious old fraud.

    That aside, there are many real- world commentators who do a better job. It's hard to do satire in science fiction, which is at least part escapism; you can of course attempt to point out how we will always take our problems with us - C.S. Lewis does this, which is commenting on the futility of progress, not of the status quo, or you can allegorise, or run in parallel; but then how are you supposed to give the work an internal dynamic of it's own? Something has to go. Here it's the satire. The whole god bit - and Heinlein is no theologian - reads like the worst excesses and idiocies of modern America, part of the problem rather than the solution.

    Here's the problem with satire in general; once you've comprehensively insulted the way we do things now, you may be faced with people asking you if you have a viable alternative? This has been a problem for satirists ever since Aristophanes. He had an answer, but damned few people since have. And it wouldn't have worked anyway. Stranger In A Strange Land offers no meaningful alternatives, because like virtually everyone since the dawn of time, Heinlein misunderstands the human character. (And non- human- Smith is basically a messiah. Another one? What's wrong with the one we already have?) Then again, we all do. There is no complete, experimentally established, thoroughly tested Official Version; we'll have to wait for psychology to mature for that. Give it until 3000CE. The most you can really do, now, is be right as far as you choose to go. He vastly overestimates the choice spirit's ability to hold themselves above the herd without being driven a little mad by isolation, and to avoid being at least partially tarnished anyway.

    Anyway, who the hell are these people, and what use do we ordinaries have for them? The vast majority of the herd he's rubbishing are people like you and me. There is good natured satire - like some of Tom Sharpe's backhanded compliments to the English aristocracy - and there is not, the alternatives running the gamut of degrees of understanding of the inner ways of the target and bad temper directed thereto; I do not think Heinlein comes off particularly well, as this is smallminded, mean-spirited stuff. Granted, much of the America he is trying to savage is small minded and mean spirited, but as confirmed an elitist as he should put far more effort into being one of the elite. He makes a lot of good points, but they are aphorisms, and no aphorism carries more weight than it's author. Also none of it is unique. It's a grab- bag of definitely if not definitively conservative reactionary complaints about modern society, all of which has been said by better and more serious people.

    It is, in any case, far too long. I have the unabridged edition, and wish I didn't. Satire should be sharper than this. It's so long that I can't help wondering if he was writing a book or a doorstop. An aside; American books often mushroom like this, and writers who actually have that much to say are few and far between. Is this some kind of conspiracy to give those who no longer read an excuse to keep on not doing so? If this is the alternative, they may not need much encouragement.

    Actually, to be absolutely honest, I keep confusing this with Frederick Pohl's The Day The Martians Came in my subconscious mind. Pohl is shooting himself in the foot- how would the civilisation that keeps him and his readers fed, clothed and employed, and supplied with books and writing paper (electricity by now, but not at time of writing), hold itself together if everyone were to behave as his Martians indicate we should?- but they are rather similar in theme and intent. Except Pohl is better, less overblown, much more to the point and compressedly distinctive. There are other, better modern messiahs - this actually reads like the vomit of a literary stomach unable to digest Philip K Dick's Valis - to say nothing of the deadly serious and infinitely more skilled Gore Vidal. In two words; don't bother.

    Imagination; audacious, but at right angles to reality; C
    Science; I don't think there is any; D
    Scene- setting; at least it follows, but follows what?; C
    Characterisation; character psychology is vapid make - believe, no serious message can be grounded in this; D+

    Overall; vastly overrated, fascist drivel; D

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  • Dorsai

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    Although this, too, is far from new - I did Heinlein because someone brought it up in conversation - it is at least somewhat relevant, first of all because I quoted from it, and secondly because I just got around to thinking about the rather interesting juxtapositions the three volumes of the Dorsai cycle I own find themselves in.

    One of the advantages of relying on a stack-them-as-you-buy them shelving system like mine is that, in addition to at least partially freeing you from the curse of anal retentivity, and ensuring that any section reached into at random is as likely as any other to contain something that will satisfy your mood, it can produce interesting and thought- provoking combinations. Naturally, there are people I can't help stacking in a unified manner, but the only ones totally in the same place are Philip K. Dick- a measly twenty- four of his novels, all the short stories, and a biography- Gore Vidal, with one stray, Michael Moorcock with one and a half stacks, one heap for Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon and Carl Sagan combined, and Charles M. Schulz in two very large piles of his own. Of course, more often than not there is no ready, unforced point of contact. Mary Gentle's Grunts on top- keeping the pages flat, in other words- of The Secret Pilgrim. Different worlds, which is the wonderful thing.

    Of Gordon Dickson's Dorsai series, Tactics of Mistake is resting atop Keith Laumer's posthumous anthology Dangerous Vegetables. Which is itself immediately above a Leninist biography of Mao-Tse Tung. Hmmm. Dorsai itself is next to Alistair Maclean's debut novel H.M.S. Ulysses, with Tom Shields' Diary- a collection of the more absurd or ridiculous passages found on the desk of or actively hunted out by the Herald's columnist- beyond that next to Sun Tzu, and Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo stories on the other side of it. Soldier, Ask Not is resting on Patrick O'Brien's Desolation Island, the fifth Aubrey- Maturin novel. Even more interestingly and more to the point, it has on top of it The General Danced at Dawn and the other two volumes of George McDonald Frazer's stories of life in a Scottish infantry battalion during the breakup of Empire. That is much more to the point, because it was the random thought of wondering how even Donal Graeme himself would have coped with 14687347 Pri'te McAuslansah! that prompted me to speak more fully on the subject.

    Now, the Dorsai saga is about a highly fractionalised vision of the human future, of warring and distinctly specialised human cultures- each clustered around a facet of the human personality, a single group of tasks, if you like. Almost a caste system. Now, that can be castigated as monumentally inefficient and not the kind of thing any culture would resort to if it had all it's wits about it- and how rare a state is that? - but it can't be accused of being unrealistic, because the human race has resorted to caste systems from time to time. It can work, provided you don't want it to work very well- and Dickson knows it, has the Exotics point it out. They are the meditators, the philosophers, the habitues of the long view. They also have a very shady past in a cult of nihilism that, surprisingly, actually grew up. The Dorsai are the warriors. Because of the way the contract system works - each splinter culture survives only by trading skilled personnel with the others, a trade that does, on some particularly centrally controlled worlds, extend to treating people like cattle, and if there is a fault in the universe it is primarily this; how do you treat your skilled professionals like that and get good results out if them? It didn't work east of the Iron Curtain. Anyway, the Dorsai sometimes do find themselves on opposite sides. They are, in a sense, already supermen. The Friendlies- a horribly misnamed pair of worlds, the home of the fanatic element of the human race- turn out the cannon fodder. The long term plot and goal is reunification; the blending of these diverse splinters into a much greater coherent whole. Dorsai training is already concerned with stretching the abilities of the normal human beyond the previously possible. Donal Graeme, a descendant of the man who made the Dorsai what they were, is something special even by those standards. Part- Exotic, his abilities, which even he takes some time to understand, lead him into great affairs.

    McAuslan, on the other hand, is the real thing. Nine tenths based on a real soldier of the author's acquaintance, the rest on somebody else in the same battalion, he is a perpetually dirty, scruffy, illiterate, barely sentient Glaswegian caveman- but good enough to fight in the North African and Italian campaigns, and God help the German who got in his way, for I'll bet his bayonet was rusty. The gulf in character between the superpolished hypermen of Dickson's future and Private Piltdown is almost too large for even imagination to bridge. I have to side with McAuslan. Soldiers are not paragons of virtue - or when they are, there is something deeply wrong with your society. Which there is supposed to be, but still ...

    Dickson is talking about a genuine change in the human character. I would have liked to have seen that brought off by less characteristic means. The connection between ends and means is more complex than he supposes, and the character necessary for the most utterly ruthless means will not be able to turn them to peaceful ends as a rule. He also has a very strange- civilian?- view of war. Almost all high tech weapons are too fragile to use, everyone is a light infantryman. I don't buy it for one second. It follows on very well in a world where skill is the primary determinant of success in a soldier, but it is totally out of step with the current and foreseen trends, technologically and sociomilitarily, in the way fighting units organise themselves. If this is the way things are, the rest follows, but to be forced to swallow such an if casts the rest in doubt.

    In a way, it's a shame to have to demark this. The sociology behind it is at least as good as The Stars My Destination, the characters- Dickson's female characters are a weak-sister lot with one honourable exception, Anea would have been better named Anaemic - are otherwise intelligent men acting capably in their circumstances. it's just that, in a novel about war and warriors, where war is a crucial tool for changing the fate of the universe- and the ordinary citizens seem remarkably if not totally supine, a Marxist revolution is long overdue- there should have been much more of the dishevelled and farcically disorganised side of war, as well as the cold blooded ferocity of the new way of fighting, like the Gulf- and one or two of those monumental misjudgements that serve as such convenient landmarks in military history, like Kosovo (as of writing) and Somalia. McAuslan, Frazer says, Is always with us. He was probably at Cannae and Pharsalia, and hasn't washed since. And you can bet that he'll be there, more or less at attention, with his rusty rifle and his buttons undone, when the ranks fall in for Armageddon. Not in Dickson's army. Which is a flatter, poorer and less inclusive place for it.

    Imagination; more follow- through than swing; C
    Science; soft and dubious; C-
    Scene- setting; where have all the normal people gone?; B+
    Characterisation; good in parts, a little four colour touch; B-

    Overall; excellent by standards of future history, fails to connect totally with the real thing; C+

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    Orbital Decay

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    I do have several of Allen Steele's novels, but I have to start somewhere. It is in fact rather galling to have to report that this is in fact one of his best.

    You have to wonder why that is. It is a noticeable phenomenon, a writer making a splash with the first few novels - something genuinely disturbing and thought provoking - and becoming just another hack by the fourth or fifth, all the distinctiveness gone in a stilted, formulaic, unremarkable read. I'd go so far as to suspect it happens more often than not. I don't think it's a jaded, saturated audience; considering some of the things that people are prepared to read and re- read, I don't think that enters into it. The author running out of ideas? Not really- first of all it's seldom actually the case, and there is always a new twist on an old idea or a story so archetypal as to still be worth hearing to be told; secondly running out of ideas is not necessarily a barrier to success even in science fiction. Two words; Star Trek.

    Pigeonholing by the literary establishment? In science fiction? Oh, come on. It is to laugh. If you ever find a coherent set of pigeonholes, let me know. There are instances of railroaded writers- but it has to be remembered that you create your own public. If you start off creating a legend- lying about who you are and what you can do, in other words- then find your fans refusing to accept anything else, as is supposed to have happened to Cap'n Bob, then you have been hoist on your own petard and shouldn't have been so damned silly in the first place. It's a trap authors make for themselves; no outside help required. It also underestimates the fan. Don't tell me that the mind capable of keeping up with the plot and the ideas behind, say, Babel-17 isn't capable of understanding a little publishing history.

    So if it's not the reading public, and it's not the publishing establishment, there seem few other elements in the loop other than the man behind the keyboard. Everybody has a book in them- and most have no more than one? No, that would be a more total failure of talent. Many different authors have written the same book - a consequence of overapplication of literary theory - but to write the same book twice yourself takes wilful blindness, if not positive sleazy cynicism; or at any rate unreflectiveness which should prevent you from having done good work in the first place. Familiarity breeding contempt? Well, the experience of trying to be published in the first place should do more harm than that.

    I do think that's it, in a way- with the audience, not the process. You lose all sense of wonder in your own skill; you lose all sense of having to push yourself to the limit. You no longer try so hard; you find yourself resorting to things off your own personal back burner; you're just not turned on enough by your own talent to chase it as wildly as you used to. Some writers mature; increasing skill and professionalism balancing decreasing fire. There are a few- how few can be determined by a look at the bookshelves of our nation- addicts who become glued to the writing process and just can't stop, and thank God for them. Steele isn't one. He thinks he is, but on the evidence of the quality of output, I doubt it.

    Orbital Decay is set in Ralph- Steele's (apocryphal, but worth wishing it was true) response when anyone asked him if he had a name for his set of near future stories of which this is one - on board a privatised space engineering firm's main construction platform, busy building the power satellites that will light America's future. The date is wildly optimistic- 2016; anybody with a notion of official laxity and incompetence should find that the biggest joke of the book. Steele - and I'm sure many of you - are space enthusiasts; the NASA administration are not. So often you see this elementary, stupid, bone- headed mistake in American science fiction. The tendency to ask what would make the future a place like we want it to be? rather than the more responsible British Given people as we know them, what is the future likely to be like? Granted, there are elements of dirt and grit about it. Anyone who remembers the crew from the Dark Star should find Virgin Bruce, Popeye, Doc Feelgood and the crew- an essentially sophomoric White- American sense of character, please note- familiar enough.

    In theory, the platform is Olympus Station. Everyone calls it Skycan. Refreshing irreverence, the first time. Not the hundredth. Life on board, though...boring beyond belief. No facilities worth the mention. (Worthy of note for utter irresponsible high-spirited lunacy is the short story Free Beer and the Bill Casey Society about the party that takes place after the events of Orbital Decay when the construction run is finished.) High risk, high pay, low orbit blue-collar work with a strange collection of characters to do it. One of the characters, who turns out to be pretty much a gosh- darned hero, murdered his wife back on Earth and has been a dramatically unstable introvert ever since. Steele seems to be saying that anything is all right, as long as you atone for it. Fine. Everyone who died, raise your hands in agreement. A marginal advance over anything is all right but this is the twentieth century. Let me rephrase that...this is the second, soon -to-be-third millennium. Why do companies and nations not behave in remotely as civilised a manner as individuals? Because they have no sense of guilt, and no-one holds them to account. Granted, Popeye (for it is he) - his wife was a slut, a junkie waster, but then we get into the thing that the world really is better off without some people, which in the hands of the state is at least less questionable than privatised rights to termination. You have to start wondering on those grounds if the Big Ear - the civil liberties endangering surveillance platform being installed next orbit over- is actually such a bad idea. When faced with a life like most of the station construction crew apparently have downside, hell yes I want the state to protect me- from them.

    The climax of the plot is an attempt to sabotage it. Organised by the replacement hydroponicist- who gets everyone necessary on his side by growing pot for them. I'm sorry but I do not accept the internal dynamic of this scene. Steele's critique of society, like that of Heinlein whom he worships, is based on a notion of human nature that any look at a census - or daytime TV- ought to disprove. Basically, talent - professional competence then - is far too easy to come by, you can safely turn your back on everyone except the bad guys, all decisions offer a clear choice between good and evil when you get down to it, and even the sleazebags have hearts of gold. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Simple- minded twaddle, as you would expect from one of Heinlein's WordStar Troopers. It is a good story; I'm far less fond of the thought that went into it or the implications involved in it.

    Imagination; some, mostly concrete, derivative stuff; C+
    Science; the Big Ear couldn't possibly work- PGP et al- the non computer science is tomorrow's hardware, hopefully; B
    Scene- setting; iffy, far too much a made thing, doesn't follow implications through- C
    Characterisation; insufficiently complex to seem part of the real world, simplistic, way too cheerful; D+

    Overall; Scientifically hard, sociological blancmange; C-

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    The Fifth Head of Cerberus

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    Another SF Masterwork, and one I am, for one, less confident of. There are two kinds of complex plots; those that succeed in drawing you in and those that do not. Any fool can follow any plot, in principle, if prepared to read and re-read carefully, think, and in extreme cases take notes. Capability is never a problem. Perceived return, on the other hand, is. There are very complicated, sprawling plots out there that simply do not yield enough intellectual, emotional fruit to seem worth paying much attention to. Plots involving continual doublecross turn me off, for a start. It's futile, intrinsically evil in the first place, and does not make rewarding reading. Wake me up when they finish going round the mulberry bush. (Not a problem here, although you suspect it is so only from want of opportunity.)

    Texture, also, can be a problem. Some people make much heavier weather of aspects of writing than others; things balloon out of all proportion. This is one of Gene Wolfe's novels, and his specialty, it seems, is inventing colourful, detailed local customs and jargon and never, ever, with a constancy that borders on obstinate insolence, bothering to translate for the 20th (early 21st?) century terran reader.

    This is a problem. You start wondering if there is anything allegorical behind it, and if so why is he going to such pains to avoid easily drawn parallels? Then you broaden the question by asking again in general terms, what is he trying to say, what is the point of this tale, what is the message, the import... and you realise that there really isn't one. He's just telling a story, with no more bite to it- in fact, substantially less- than Hans Christian Andersen. Now I don't want all literature to have some kind of political purpose, but I do so solely on the grounds of practical results; the end product of writing that way is disgustingly tacky and insulting to it's readers. I do, however, have a sneaking feeling that a man with no opinions, with nothing to say- no core outlook to write around- would be doing better service to the world by helping save trees.

    Yes, this is slightly unfair. But only slightly. I have several times mentioned being a gamer. That's roleplaying. Extremely Amateur Dramatics. There are lots of different kinds of gamer, but the quote I want to appropriate for the purposes of this review should clarify things and make you doubt my sanity. ...I just can't help it if I'm an impossibly anal retentive fool for numbers, I keep thinking Sure this is science fiction, [....] but I just don't see how mankind fucked up this bad given any amount of time perceivable.

    The bad syntax, bad semantics and bad language are all entirely characteristic- of the game, HOL (Human Occupied Landfill- otherwise referred to as the Conservative vision for Scotland), that is, not the book. Which is actually more fun; it has at least one far more interesting and constructive suggestion than Wolfe's book, which doesn't really mean anything at all; all societies, all civilisations look very much the same once you reach the lowest common denominator of personal taste. There is a further connection, as all the characters from the first part of the triptych should be shipped there at once. It would make them better people. What a bunch of sick puppies.

    The Fifth Head of Cerberus is divided into three parts - fore, mid and hind brain? - each a semi-independent story set on the same world, with the same problems. There are twin colony worlds, French colonised - shades of 2300AD - on which lived aborigines, and before anyone mentions that Wolfe only put them on Saint Anne, there could have been. There is a theory that the aborigines were mimetic; Wolfe runs though all the extremely sound standard arguments against it - growth spurt from hell and all that - but with nary an iota of conviction, and the theory itself is put in the mouth of someone who has as much scientific credibility as Billy Graham. With writing like this, where nothing is given as such, how do you find the truth? You can't, it's nowhere.

    This is a running problem. As soon as one of the characters suggests something, the book suddenly loads itself with evidence for it, only to contradict itself in the next passage. There's no heart to it, no reliable viewpoint. The uncertainty principle embodied in brilliant fiction Ursula LeGuin called it. Uncertain, wildly. Brilliant, depends what the author actually had in mind. If you can work it out, let me know, but I very much doubt it.

    The colonies were invaded- he never mentions who by- and in fact the separate camps of invaders are now eyeing each other warily. Probably. The French are effectively the new aborigines. One of the worlds was governed more liberally than the other. Doesn't quite follow. If difference provoked hostility the entire universe would be up in arms. This is a worm's eye view of politics, of the ordinary citizen caught in it all who neither knows nor understands what is happening and probably wouldn't care if you explained it all. Well, yes; there are a lot of people who go through life like this, for want of time to think or ability to find out. There's absolutely no reason why an author should inflict that kind of incapacity on his readers, except maybe sadism. Granted, I occasionally complain about science fiction novels where the action occurs at so high and esoteric a level the readership could have little or nothing in common with the characters, and I still think it's a complaint worth making - but this total alternative is ridiculous. The first part of the triptych concerns the son of a brothel keeper with a taste for genetic engineering and reconstructive surgery, who is an identical copy of his father, who was an identical copy of his and so on back for as many generations as they have been here- and does exactly as he did by murdering him and taking over. A distinction without a difference, presumably. There's something wrong with you if you only care about sympathetic characters, but we have here a clear illustration of the banality of evil. The second part is a story of aboriginal life, I think. So much he doesn't explain. At one point he suggests that the terrans are all so intoxicated by native plantlife they have no judgement left and couldn't recognise a state of affairs if it ate them, which puts the rest in a dubious light. Whether they psychically took our place is secondary to the fact that we literally, physically took their place- their planet. I'm sorry, but I didn't follow the story; I couldn't. Not worth it. I just looked at the words and waited for things to become clear, and they never did. The third part has a terran anthropologist, met in the first, in jail as a spy. He thinks in his cell while a police officer reads his journal. Is he- well, the book tries to have it both ways. Barefoot In The Head was easier to follow. I'm by no means sure that this is worth your reading.

    Imagination; overused if anything, but totally undisciplined, could have been better served by much less; C-
    Science; very little science, way too much fiction; D
    Scene- setting; Murky liquid, no roots at all; C-
    Characterisation; utterly unreliable, and not engaging; D

    Overall; the various elements add up to zero in the end; D+

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