ORBzine - 1999.07 Book Reviews

ORBzine - Book Reviews

by John Kane

The Rediscovery of Man

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Cordwainer Smith's stories in one fat, comprehension-boggling collection, the tenth Science Fiction Masterwork. Have you ever had the feeling - while thinking about local government, for instance- that while you understand something perfectly in itself, you have a perfect grasp of the nature of the beast, you cannot fathom why it is that way or what the hell it is doing there?

Cordwainer Smith's stories strike like that. They are very good - they ought to be, if writing from experience has anything to do with it; the man himself has a very interesting biography. Godson to Sun Yat-Sen, expert on psychological warfare in several post-colonial campaigns, the man certainly has a great deal to draw from.

One thing I do use as a distinction; I think there is a real, and massive, gulf between 'speculative fiction'- what science fiction nearly ended up being called anyway, before Guernsback saved us - and Science Fiction proper. It's a quality rather than a genre issue. Social Science fiction, you could conceivably say. Wondering what is actually going on in the human head while confronted by all these trappings of the future or the credibly other. Or you could call it as simple as science fiction with a genuine talent for and deployment of actual characterisation. By no means the case in the vast majority of science fiction novels.

Let us be honest here; I mistrust psychology. Partly sour grapes (and why not?), partly that I feel that any mind drawn to the possibility of learning how the inside of other people's heads work should on no account be allowed to do so, but mainly historical grounds. You look at the crises successfully surmounted by the citizens of the past and at what we consider compensation-worthy degrees of trauma today, and you tell me whether the general level of mental health has risen or fallen. The very worst thing you can do for someone's mental health is to take the responsibility for it away from them, because to be helped is to become a dependent, losing all of your own integrity. All psychology is psychological warfare, in the Hobbesian sense in which no two individuals can even be said to be on the same side.

All of the above is less of a digression than it sounds when you try to understand the psychonomy (an exceptionally useful term invented by David Gerrold, much less clumsy and more true to the discursive-combative nature of a community than 'Psychic Ecology') of the future government, the Instrumentality of Man. It does feel right but I do not know why. There are really no Everymen here, so that avenue is closed. What the hell do the ordinary citizens do all day? Don't know. Not lives of quiet desperation- the instrumentality has outlawed desperation- or work- most things are automated- or, well, not much of anything really. It's not even the Culture; they don't apparently indulge in total mindless hedonism. I think we have a major failure of storytelling here. There are 'underpeople'- animals given enough sentience to carry out all the dirty, scummy jobs people prefer not to touch- but they are 'bioroboots' in the strictest sense of the term, living machinery with no rights, replaced when broken, terminated when unruly. The biggest jarring point is a story which is essentially a reprise of the tale of Joan of Arc; I mean, why? Waste of trees? Unless you can do so with more skill, retelling an archetypal story is pointless, if not memetic vandalism - an act against civilisation. Then again, everyone pulls boners like that from time to time. Does the rest make up for it? Yes. I think it does.

Of course, the stories are very strong on psionics, and I wish I knew whether it was just an idea he played with or that he actually believes it. They are rather powerful- not planet destroying, but reasonably powerful, certainly. One beautifully elegant story concerns mutant mink bred for self- and everything else- hatred, and used as a psychic weapon in defence of the richest world of the Instrumentality, in a story that is one carefully executed con after another.

The Lords of the Instrumentality that we meet do not make sense. These are more of the ultra-virtuous impossibilities Heinlein was so fond of, and ultimately descended from the platonic Guardians I spent several enjoyable tutorials ridiculing. I think Salman Rushdie actually hit the nail on the head in Midnight's Children; Only fanaticism can save us from corruption.

Unfortunately, we rely on corruption to save us from fanaticism. How exactly does one live up to an ideal? Will, self- discipline are necessary, but far from sufficient. The idea has to have touched something in you- some streak in your character that may be inherited or a matter of upbringing, and you or the people around you have to have enough of a stake in it for there to be social penalties against turning back. Necessarily more profound in terms of psychological effect than the benefits of indiscipline. When it's too tempting to steal a march on the other fellow - well, there you are. Of course, I believe, ultimately, that one's fellow sentient being and their good outweigh any likely personal gain, and I even have a couple of characters who can make a convincing pretence at that themselves, but they are all quite badly bent in other ways. Why a master of all he surveys should feel so, in the absence of a benevolent paternalistic culture to shape such tendencies, which the Instrumentality does not seem to be if their personal actions are anything to go by, beats me. In fact, the Instrumentality is reasonably self-indulgent; and it accepts that among its Lords as the price for living the way they do - a decision we see too little of the roots to judge. Other stories in the collection include events before and during the formation of the Instrumentality, and Smith is one of the few writers who worries about how his characters are feeling.

Scanners Live in Vain, for instance, is a story abut the early days of space exploration, in which it is found that people go mad when confronted with the void, and have to be braincut and fitted with metabolism overrides to cope, causing a guild of volunteer controllers to spring up; cut themselves, they control the convict crews - until someone comes up with a solution. The Dragon And The Rat is an extremely touching story, if crossing well over into bestiality in spirit, of psychic creatures in the void, and the defences against them; humans cannot react quickly enough, so the basic defence team consists of a man and his telekinetic cat - who are very close.

Other stories include Alpha Ralpha Boulevard - a result for the movement in the Instrumentality towards less bland identicality; restoring all those ugly, complicated divisions like nationality and language. I don't know whether to be more worried by the fact that they were eradicated or that he thinks governments can just turn ideas in the body politic on and off like that. I doubt extremely the truth of this. In the end, there were a few haunting images that stick in the mind, much sound psychology- but the problem is that the closer to reality a piece of science fiction is, the more profoundly it is possible to disagree with it.

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  • Imagination; of the extrapolative kind; B+
  • Science; highly dubious- Applied Clarke's Law; C-
  • Scene- setting; Technique of hinting at externals is laid on with a trowel; realistic sense of people within their own society; B+
  • Characterisation; very sound, but rootless; A-

    Overall; Not a masterwork- he had too much else on his mind- but very good; B+

  • Distress

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    Greg Egan's sixth book, and one that almost makes me regret not picking him up much sooner. It concerns - or perhaps, given Umberto Eco, it absolutely does not concern, much in the way that a tangent touches but never penetrates a circle - the quest for a Theory of Everything and an epidemic of mental illness related to the Observer Effect, in a near future world that is just crying out for a proper state-of-the-nation address. One thing that would make me very happy is if science fiction authors would begin including census data in the back of their books - population, gross domestic product, education, lifestyle, legal data for the civilisations they describe. In particular, I want to see an updated version of the Kinsey Report for this society, because he experiments relentlessly with strange and- no sense avoiding the term- perverse sexualities.

    This is a very fragmented future, in which our sense of who and what we are has died; I do not understand why nor do I suspect there is any psychological grounding to this. Only a basically very prosperous society would be able to afford to shatter in this manner, and a prosperous society would never need to, would it? The results of middle class ennui grown to nightmare proportions. Why is it so many science fiction writers have so little knowledge of how industry and government work now? All of their civic backdrops are plucked out from the Pre- Teen Cyberpunk's Picture Book Of Big Scary Things. For the love of Christ, can they not get it right at all?

    This I still think is not excessive criticism; story telling, which is what has gone on here, and world building, which is what should have, are separate talents. Very few writers have both those talents.

    The centrepoint of the book, the 'Aleph Moment', is of course nonsense; I have a nodding knowledge of physics and broken-spined copies of Hyperspace, A Brief History of Time, Black Holes and Time Warps, and - in a futile gesture, because I could get nowhere - volume one of the infamous 'Red Book' Feynman Lectures on Physics to prove it; also a three- year subscription to New Scientist. More to the point, I have a semi-professional knowledge of exactly how much difference the theories people hold make to what occurs to them in life. I refer you to the Divided Line, Plato's taxonomy of degrees of knowledge as knowledge, true belief, untrue belief, and delusion. (Essentially. Fellow philosophers can argue with this - please do, I'm getting rusty. Post disks.) Every thought you have, corresponding as it does to something- and how to interleave this relational theory of knowledge with absolute Forms is just one problem for the aspiring Platonist, one reason I turned into the nihilistic, grumpy, moody sod you see before you - falls into one of these. Try a brief experiment before I tell you the answer. From the inside of this thought you have, how do you tell what it is?

    You can't, of course. Your own knowledge, belief, delusion look indistinguishable to you. You require external information to sort them out, and for making sense of that you require your intellect, which frames conceptions in thoughts, which are themselves one of the above...vicious and virtuous circles loom. Reason begets reason, and delusion begets delusion....which is the only possible explanation for tabloid newspapers, but I digress. Improvement requires rigour of thought, outside help including destructive criticism of the present bad state of affairs, advice from the knowledgeable. Sorry for that digression, but you can see where I'm coming from.

    The universe simply does not give a damn. I'm sorry, but there is Evidence - on the order of Hawking's assumption of non time travel, to wit that it doesn't insofar as a great number of strange thoughts have been thought and nothing happened - that it can't. There is more and more sound evidence, on the practicalities of abstract thought and the nature of the brain, that it could not. If it did, it would be a far odder place. Go read The Lathe of Heaven to get a flavour for what the wild imagination thinks can be made to happen. If you can play silly games like that- and there is no practical mechanism whatever for it- you can change whatever fundamental constant it is that dictates just how far you can go. Eventually you would reach one of the extremes, a state of total pliability which should dissolve into one giant chaotic blur or a state of immobility in which the universe had been dreamt into a state in which dreams can have no effect. Which happens in The Lathe of Heaven, actually; I think it might be worth putting up a full retrospective review of it. There are so many of science fiction's best works, particularly those originating from the supposed desert of the seventies, that no-one seems to have noticed.

    Very well; having destroyed the core of the book, on to the periphery. The political structures of the year 2055 are pretty much what the ecoloons expect. If anything, far too optimistic. Almost at the very start of the book we meet a mad multibillionaire - named after Homer Simpson's next door neighbour, incidentally - who has decided to recode himself with an alternative genetic system. This, too, is utter bullshit - has to be done in the womb at the very latest, better in the vat, complete virgin birth. By the end we find phase two of his plan, which is to release a bug that will wipe out the rest of the human race, taking 'I want to be alone' to rather brain- damaged lengths. This isn't even a subplot, but he comes within an ace of success. If things like that can happen so easily, why the hell is everyone still there? There are nations, and none of them has a civil service worth a damn - they can't keep track of anything. The central character is a science journalist - hardly freelance; objectivity in science appears to have departed into metaphysical limbo, there to await better days. Everything he writes is nakedly biased, one way or the other. The fact that the characters themselves make a standing joke of it does not count for very much in mitigation. Anyway, the way the organisation works- why is it near future news gathering organisations always seem to resemble Max Headroom ? Look, it's not my paradigm, but it does. This is one of those horrible futures in which no-one is in command of the contents of their head; Ned Landers had a point - both of them. Either neighbourly religion or a dose of the De Montforts - the first but by no means the last man to say Kill them all; the Lord will know his own - would be better. The actual action of the plot - who cares? My God, look at what praise can come to. I set out intending to be nice, intending to praise a story that left powerful afterimages; but on picking it up to find quotes realised that it was gibberish.

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  • Imagination; sadly below his usual standard; D
  • Science; Star Trek syndrome - jargon dropping incoherently and wildly out of context; C-
  • Scene-setting; boiled down from dozens of other Cyberpunk dystopias; D+
  • Characterisation; sound individuals, but how the hell did they get that way? C+

    Overall; much sound and fury, no heart to it; D

  • The Diamond Age

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    Neal Stephenson's neo-Victorian oddity, notable chiefly for a stylised, unusually smoothly forced cast of changing societies and one of the best realised and most workable nanotech economies in any SF novel.

    The time is some period in the 21st century; disgruntled with the almost total moral collapse of the society of the day, a small group of skilled professionals hive themselves off into an essentially Neo- Victorian subculture. The total collapse of the present infrastructure in the face of industrial nanotechnology and the disintegration through overload of the telecommunications system leave everything wide open- with the only certainty being that the old power players are hideously ill equipped for the new world and whoever is in charge, it will not be them.

    A generation later, the New Victorians, through dint of technical skill and superior professionalism, are the leading phyle- physical location has almost ceased to be meaningful- but all is not well. Like the original Victorians, the Neo- Victorian movement was basically reaction. Like the original Victorians, the first generation has first hand experience of living in a corrupt, dead society; ample evidence of the hell that results from a collective failure of self control. The second generation, the up and coming young, have never known the reasons which impel their parents- and one very powerful Equity Lord is sufficiently worried by his child's future that he commissions a brilliant young bespoke nanoengineer to build him a teaching device, an illicit magic book, to teach his young lady the arts of self- determination and self- defence. John Percival Hackworth is the nominal hero of the book, the engineer, who cannot quite leave well enough alone; he has a daughter of his own, and makes an illicit copy.

    Enter puppetmaster number two. Complex plots are much easier to keep track of if all the characters are well drawn; you can identify the wants and needs of them, keep track that way. Doctor X is certainly different, despite the generic name; we first encounter him as a collector of strange nanites. They are all self- modifying; there are assault nanites designed to do bad things to the human body and it's immediate environs- in fact, one of the characters we meet is a consultant in nanotech warfare, a mercenary of the microminiature, and an ex-Scot, incidentally. As there are offensive nanoids, there are defences against them; the arms race has gone far beyond the ability of humans to keep up, and doctor X collects the fallout, paying bounty on unusual nanoids. He is also a fully paid up Confucian. Hackworth contacts him to make a second, illicit copy of the Primer, for his own daughter. After doing so, he is mugged, and the Primer stolen- to order, by doctor X, who has three hundred thousand abandoned orphans on his hands, although we find both these things out much later.

    His daughter does end up with a copy, as part of a special school - along with a young orphan girl, the daughter of an executed criminal (the judge who sentenced him, incidentally, later becoming an active colleague of Doctor X), who has a very great deal to learn. Nell is probably the real heroine of the novel, and her relationship with the book runs all the way through it. Also with the woman on the other end. It is an interactive book; someone, some thing, has to serve as the animating principle. Most 'television' is interactive in some form or other; tactile rigs require a person on the other end, a ractor, to act it all out, to create the master sensation, plotline, which is fed to the viewer. Miranda, a promising and profitable actress who went to great expense to get the best possible rig, ends up performing the majority of the motivating for Nell's copy of the Book. Effectively, an electronically separated mother-daughter relationship, with Hackworth's central genius- his design, his Book-making him the absentee father.

    Doctor X has a great deal in mind. Entirely apart from the book, and the orphans, he is also at work on the salvation of China from domination by western ideals. To this end he sponsors, at the end of the book, a rebirth of the Boxer Rebellion in order to have enough chaos for his long- term plan to take effect.

    In telecommunications, centralisation died and went to hell, taking a large part of the global economy with it, some time ago. Decentralisation is the mode, everyone being their own web server, passing on messages as they come to them in the manner of some hyperactive bush telegraph; but not in nanotechnology. The general consensus is that decentralisation is collective suicide. The technology has too much weapons potential. Feed systems are the rule; giant molecular sieves that can process out individual breeds of atom for nanoassembly purposes with high efficiency, but which are far too large and far too complex for any one person to have. Seed technology- the true Von Neumann capability, self assembly from naturally occurring materials without pre-processing, everyone has a construction plant in their back pocket level technology - is only theoretically possible, and research is forbidden - the hunter-killer nano come and flush your brain out of your ears kind of forbidden.

    Doctor X has other ideas. He is not a westerner to whom the idea of the big stick comes naturally - but a Confucian, with respect for peasant culture, a reverence of learning and a more pragmatic but still non-violent approach to life. Seed technology could turn the poor, destitute and immiserated citizens of inner China's lives into something much more closely approximating paradise. Nanopeasants? Wild thought- but try and poke a hole in it. You can't.

    His only problem is that it is impossible to research and produce. So he needs a brilliant but very hard up engineer - and disgracing Hackworth, with a little help from the judge, serves that purpose - and a safe site to get the project off the ground, which is where Nell, who is receiving a virtual training designed to mould her into a latter-day (but hopefully more successful) Boadicea, and his three hundred thousand orphans who are receiving a watered down version of the same, come in.

    Shows you just how much there is to the plot that it took me this long to get round to the abstract stuff. The plot is outstanding, the science terrifyingly plausible, the characters - well, one would not be a Neo- Victorian without self-control, now would one? Although to be fair it is not a novel about people in society, primarily, (despite comparisons with Pygmalion, the trend is in the other extreme) it does take it into account well. The characters do genuinely belong to different cultures when they chose to, at least far more so than usual. Description does not serve adequately the brilliance of the book. It is complicated but worth keeping up with - at least it is used complexity, all leading somewhere in the web. A sadly undernoticed, offbeat gem that desires attention.

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  • Imagination; excellent extrapolation- a novel set in the real world of the future as it ought to be; A-
  • Science; very practical, very sound; no real flaws, much prophecy of good seeming - A
  • Scene-setting; Little bit reliant on readers knowing the place already, not really descriptive; B
  • Characterisation; Elementally sound, wooden in parts but only because it ought to be; B+

    Overall; brilliant tongue-in-cheek nanofiction that deserves a far bigger place; A-

  • The Colour of Magic

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    All right...I know I said that I intend to review the new, the interesting relics and the books which the Editor is too cheap to buy himself, but this does demand explanation. The fact is, I have had a very ambivalent relationship with Pratchett as a fan over the last decade or so. I know at least one person whom he himself, Pratchett, demands be removed from his presence whenever they come into contact; I have bumped into him myself at conventions, and in person he's a dour, unfriendly sod.

    Back when I was an amateur writer and amateur thinker - I'm still an amateur writer in the sense of unpaid but I'm as good as at least nine tenths of the books on any SF bookshop shelf, and I would have proved it long since but for the fact that the submitting process is designed to reject, not accept, and don't you bloody dare tell me otherwise, I know too many other unpublished authors - I really enjoyed Pratchett, bought everything right up to Men At Arms, but when I sat down to the first year of my degree and the first (unpublished) novel, some of the fire went out of him from my point of view, and now, post-graduation and post very bitter experience with the unpublishing industry, I am actively looking for a corner to hide them all in and wondering whether my paper loving conscience can take the stress of binning them all. For all the chance of my rereading any of them, it would be no great loss, but there's a point of principle at stake.

    There's also no really possible exception to reviewing the long past. As Clarke said - and he too is, incidentally, a writer who had retreated from human contact, who except to a select few whose names are already made chooses not to exist; even including a jibe in a fan letter about his advice to read Somerset Maugham's notebooks, Maugham being a definite homosexual and pederast, being a probable source of awkwardness during the recent accusations - that he was a homosexual and pederast - went unremarked. I don't know whether to admire or despise the man for having become about as communicative as HAL after Bowman unplugged him. See how Pratchett sends me off on tangents? Anyway, Clarke claimed that his generation was the last that were able to read everything. Which may in line with Sturgeon's Law be just as well, as it could be argued that no-one would really want to. Which sentiment I thoroughly agree with. After all, someone has to protect your sensibilities.

    The way I buy things is simple enough. One of everybody I think I can stand (sometimes two, just to be sure), read that, see if I like it, go back and collect the rest if I do. I go through phases of reading one writer's work, one after the other. In February it was, for a reason even I find hard to explain, Gerald Seymour. (Who is far and away in advance, in the field of human understanding, of the vast majority of SF authors I could name, despite hardly being great literature himself, so don't you get on your high horse.) March, rounding off Stephen Baxter. April, Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels.

    At one point, on secondment in London, Rebus is upbraided for being too soft by his colleague George Flight, who reminds him how nasty some of the people can really be out there with the memorable line Ever see a thalidomide porn film? Rankin is, at least now, a meticulous researcher who works closely with the police, so I have little doubt that somewhere... I bring this up because I had intended to use that as counterpoint to the saccharine, suicidally misguided libertarianism of Orbital Decay, but now I come to think of it Pratchett certainly deserves such harsh counterpoint. Where is the night side of human nature? Not to be found here. Ankh-Morpork's being an ugly, dirty city - well, yes. It's the nature of the beast. Any damn fool could tell you that, several have written it. No special insight required. Trying to the contrary, Pratchett is, certainly at this point in his career, a descendant of the 'tea and biscuit apocalypse' school of writing.

    There are at least two sides to Pratchett; the high-falutin' intellectual stuff, which to be honest is really much later than this, and the low comedy. As a dabbler in low comedy and an arts graduate, I share part of that - and I'm damned if I can fathom the thought processes necessary to put them together. I'm starting to suspect he doesn't. I talked about Banks 'cribbing from reality'; I'm starting to suspect that Pratchett does exactly the same, taking snatches of life, with no idea how they actually relate to one another. Whether he does this with his eyes open - whether he is careless or merely shameless - is an interesting question. Shameless primarily, although whether he or anyone would have the sheer skill to investigate well enough to find out is an open question. (What I'm really using as a model is the sociological work of Norbert Elias.) Why it is even remotely necessary for the progress of western civilisation to have someone around who writes cannibalistically like this is another problem.

    I strongly advise anyone to read Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, recently reissued. Pratchett owes this man at least as much a debt as Tony Blair owes John Major, for instance - or AB-CD owe AC-DC. So much is very nearly the same that you have to doubt his originality. It seems deliberate. Bravd and the Weasel are a 'tribute' of sorts. In which case, why bother retelling what were, when you come down to it, excellent fantasy stories, far and away above Pratchett's coreless, erratically driven, magpie-derivative character psychology? Good question. There are a few decent ideas in The Colour of Magic, but so few of them are new ideas. The basic plot has a failed wizard from a college of magic which was much scarier in the early novels shanghaied by the civil government into looking after a tourist, Twoflower, and having all kinds of horrible things happen to him on the way. The best I can say is that parts of it read like early Michael Moorcock; echoes of Wheldrake in Twoflower, although he bears no resemblance to the Chinaman he later became. Pratchett here stands guilty of theft and vandalism against the historical process, guilty of treason in the first degree committed against the Chinese people who suffered for their country and were - are - made to suffer by it.

    Overall, then, it does not seem so good in retrospect as it did at the time. It was very funny fantasy, from which no-one really expected originality; Pratchett has since become a genre of his own, almost, and the moment of departure looks rather confused. The Krullians, demented dwellers on the Edge, display flashes of what could have been - a literate, intelligent, rather wicked story, told entirely on it's own terms. Alas, it was not to be.

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  • Imagination; well built world, but he subcontracted the bricks; B+
  • Weirdness; no real system to it, very derivative; C-
  • Scene-setting; No better than most farce, strange but far from new; C
  • Characterisation; no obvious connection between the people and their world- nice in themselves, but hold on here...C+

    Overall; could and should have branched out into something very different from what he eventually became; C

  • Contact

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    I bought a copy of this recently, and I have to say that it was a major disappointment. Clarke is at least partially wrong. You can read everything, at least everything of sufficient quality to be worth reading - provided you do apply fairly rigorous standards and freely available semiotic technique to evaluate the story. Which, oops, means reading it, or having some damnfool journalist do it for you. This is not among that number. Clarke is particularly important here, because Contact can be summarised in one number; 2001. It is a clone, pure and simple, and what is left over when you subtract everything that Clarke said with greater fluency and efficiency, and far greater storytelling talent, is a ramble on the mechanics of SETI and some unspeakably paranoid-moronic politics that deserves to be conspired against.

    Well, that was a short review. I have to go into more detail. Unfortunately.

    The novel opens with the heroine, Ellie Arroway, in a brief sketch of childhood. Part of the point of the book is to display that science is as much a matter of humans interacting with the universe as it is humans measuring the universe. Now it may - determinism ahoy - be absolutely true that what your intellect finds itself drawn to is a matter of character and upbringing, and that we are all less flexible and intellectually wide-ranging than we like; but there are ways and ways of pointing it out, primarily the polar opposite of coming totally from the inside of the character - a fully novelistic approach - or from the inside of the psychology textbook and the sociological study. Sagan's approach is neither fish nor fowl, and not particularly well executed; this actually reads like at least very good talent, if not quite great, shying off from the mark. There is too much of the Whiffle Ball American here; it does not reach the soul searing depths of something like, say, Yury Dombrovsky's The Faculty of Useless Knowledge. That is not science fiction, but a historical novel; a team of archaeologists trying to survive and work under Stalin's Russia. It affected me very powerfully, for it's sheer humanity more than the descriptions of science and humanity interacting; also as a reminder to science fictioneers that there is much of the human character that is still alien to us.

    Unfair perhaps to compare Contact to a masterwork of that order, but why? Another part of the problem is that Arroway has entirely too much of Sagan in her for him to be entirely clear headed. Past, no, but their characters and careers are rather similar; you never, ever, unless you are very good, use yourself as a character in your own novel. What you have to go through to hold your character clearly up before your own eyes is more than I would wish on anybody. I think you need the shellshock or the five marriages and three failed suicides to write well about yourself. Sagan has none of that.

    The actual plot starts when an American SETI scheme, project Argus - a real scheme aborted for want of money - detects a long, complicated signal coming in from Vega. Instantly there are problems. I do not quite share Sagan's view of politics. I vary between liberal and nihilist; always conscious of human failure, ready to forgive or not depending on my mood. Sagan has the deep dissatisfaction and ill regard for politicians usually found in someone who has singularly failed to get what he wants from the political process. If it really is this bad- and no historian of the modern political process has yet managed to convince me that it is- why are we all still here?

    The portrayal of the characters is deeply depressing, also. I'm sure there are people like the religious fanatics he describes as enemies of the project out there, and I'm equally sure that a species, a civilisation, cannot long survive dragging such dead weight behind it. Their xenophobia is logically inexplicable- these are entities who do not in most circumstances get on well with their friends, even. How are these bible beltists supposed to understand the stars? More to the point, what are we supposed to do with them? As corrupt as they are, they are of no social value.

    The plot has much mystical humming and hawing, even by the aliens - who adopt a convenient device, which I have to admit I have never seen the logic behind - that of appearing to the human visitors in their own guise. Clarke did it with the hotel room, more to the point it happened with a vengeance - a whole imaginary girlfriend - in Stanislas Lem's Solaris. I'm sorry, but from a noted exobiologist I expect more than rubber suits inside white coats. The aliens have no identity of their own. Even Clarke's highly abstract aliens are made very memorable indeed by chapter 35 of 2001. '... And sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed.'

    Sagan's aliens are in that sense are a complete failure. What's a first contact story supposed to do? Show how we react to the unknown. Which doesn't really need science fiction at all. There has to be something out there. Something for us to interact with, not these mirrored masks.

    The most interesting thing about Contact, when all's said and done, is the research Sagan talked his colleague and very big shot physicist Kip Thorne into doing as to the possible practicality of wormhole transit. It happened something like this; Sagan, actually having finished the novel but worried about it's accuracy, took the manuscript to Thorne and asked him to check to see if it was possible. As it was the end of the academic year, and to help a colleague, Thorne agreed. It quickly turned out that the original proposal - direct insertion into a full blooded black hole - is most definitely not possible. In fact, passing though a black hole in anything resembling an intact state is as close to a perfect example of a physically impossible proposition that you're ever likely to be able to find. Tidal pull, spaghettification, infalling debris, radically blue shifted light - hell, being trapped at the bottom of a torn off bubble universe - any number of mechanisms that can and invariably will kill you. An alternative was clearly necessary. You hear a lot of people waffle about wormholes; this is where it happened first, and best. Thorne was the first man to thoroughly investigate the mechanics of nonlinearly macroconnected space. (He admits that Ulvi Yurtsever and others came to his basic conclusions before he did, but very quietly, and basically only as an oddity.) I recommend Black Holes and Time Warps for more info.

    At the last, then, it is a disappointment, of infinitely less value than The Demon-Haunted World also authored by him - or almost any of his other works, or for that matter anybody's. A competent effort, but derivative, not followed nearly close enough to the bitter end, and with a falling action that defies sense.

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  • Imagination; sadly short of true spark, extremely dry; D+
  • Science; done by others for him, accurate but deserving of no credit for that; A-
  • Scene-setting; numerous political- industrial impossibilities, personal overwrought unlikeliness; C-
  • Characterisation; some grade A whackos, sham 'depth', ersatz crises; C+

    Overall; a wasted opportunity; C-

  • The Cassini Division

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    Ken MacLeod's third novel, which has been out for some time although not in softback. This seems to be a month for great oddity; nanotech economies, deviant sexualities, and now one of the very few, if any, works of any quality that purports itself to be socialist science fiction. Yes. Our very own Red Ken. God help me, I love it.

    I bought my copy at a book signing he was doing with Iain Banks in 'M' Mode - McLeod was touting this, Banks had Inversions, review of which to follow - basically a Special Circumstances sting from the mark's point of view, with strong reader baiting elements; rather good, really. Everyone was queuing up for Iain Banks, and poor Ken was just sitting there. So I bought a copy to help cheer him up. I'm actually lying. I have the previous parts in the trilogy, and intend to buy the Sky Road - the fourth volume- as soon as it appears in softback. I'm starting to notice a problem about this. If you have to think of a work in the context of criticism (a fancy phrase that essentially means the same as Pilate's washing his hands), you soon find yourself being critical of it - nitpicking, really. A great work is one that sweeps you along at such an intensity that you choose not to be critical until long after it is all over.

    The circumstances also help- late at night or first thing in the morning is good for helping to escape critical notice- but by and large it holds true across the spectrum. This, well, I'm far from sure that it's that good, and it would have made much less sense without the previous parts of the trilogy. (At least it's not as bad as Gene Wolfe's New Sun quaternary, which I could only find, and had to read, in reverse order.) it is good enough, though.

    To summarise the universe; once, long ago, there was a fascist empire - otherwise known as an American-dominated United Nations, prepared to beat and whip anyone into line for the good of the metropolitan united states. We have seen this in embryo in Kosovo, remember. Hell, we saw it in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan...do I have to go on? After a sufficient time, socialism actually seemed like a credible alternative. The lesser of two evils, for the first generation, with a few dynamic nutcases (central characters, one of them) for charismatic leaven. This is the point of least departure from the world as we know it. They and their wild plans - I suppose with nanotechnology everyone really can own the means of production, but I refer you to Neal Stephenson for an analysis of the problems therein. The Movement always had plans for space, and the climax of The Star Fraction can pretty much be described as a heroic defeat for both sides- but one that exhausts the forces of repression and leaves Our Heroes in a position to try again. The second novel begins on the Trans-wormhole colony they do establish, which has gone very wrong indeed, and it is another struggle for freedom- an unsuccessful one, this time, relieved by some legal rights and escape.

    The Cassini Division is set several years after the end of The Stone Canal. The situation; Earth is a rather techie socialist republic. The Solar Union stretches out from there to embrace the rest of the system, except Jupiter - which is the holding of the rogue AI units that built the wormhole, and then went down onto the planet and bred. They radiate computer viruses (modulating Jupiter's natural radio noise?) as a defensive system; also brain hacking viruses, something simply not possible without a very carefully and expensively prepared brain; but this is fiction, after all. The centrepoint of the book is a mission to the side branch of the wormhole by the Solar Union, a colony run by capitalists who still rely on electronics - and who are not really very nice people at all. They kidnapped the central character's parents for use as slave labour building the wormhole, for one thing.

    McLeod does admit that he's a sloppy scientist, that the only discipline of physics he really tries to get right is good old-fashioned Newtonian; which is just as well, because I'm damned if I can work out why his wormhole works. Not how - he details all the practical considerations, but it very much has the feeling of a logic problem, starting with a 'given that...' so far outside ordinary experience that you only have internal references to go on. Compared to the meticulous number-crunching, text-fathering Contact wormhole, this is very poor, almost definitively wrong science. The wormhole collapses as the result of an altruistic act at the climax of the book - no more details - when so much weight moves from one to the other that the other side would have to have negative mass to exist, and so collapses in on itself and ceases to do its wormy thing. Any damned fool - well, and gravity specialist - can tell you that wormholes only function if they have negative mass, not the other way around. Major cockup there. The electronics, the ultraminiaturised artificial intelligences on which the plot turns, are on much surer ground- but this is a quantitative, not a qualitative, problem. Also a highly dubious plot element - surely it's the information the hardware controls which is the target and the medium of infection?

    As for the characters...I have extreme doubts about the psychological plausibility of their society. It feels as if a little brain hacking has already gone on. Their socialism is based on a theory of human nature that makes it a last resort; it does not follow- if there ever was a structured, political theory of man, socialism is it, or have we forgotten Homo Sovieticus so soon? Their total nihilism is both not socialist and not compatible with civilisation. It also does not even remotely approximate the behaviour of the characters with respect to one another. One is left with the conclusion that they are all bullshit artists to a very large extent, especially as they really cannot be said to open up for the reader. When someone has a dark secret, it is only good manners for the author to foreshadow, lay down markers, and give the reader some hint that Something is Up. There are numerous flashback sequences - well done, but they are an intrinsically clumsy thing to attempt, a device of a writer informed by film rather than print and therefore out of place at the best of times. It is an advance on the bare mention, but not much of one. In the last resort, when people can remake themselves according to whatever demented desire was uppermost at the time they did so - as is the case with the technology here - the writer has to cover a hell of a lot of personal ground, an end which cinema gestures do not serve. He also has one of the lamest, least convincing scientist characters in science fiction. Everyone is a little too laid back for their own good. Wasn't it the rather great Martin Amis who said that he felt motivation was something of a spent force at the end of the 20th century - people no longer did things for reasons anymore? Given the political-ideological premises they start with, 1984 would be a much more plausible result than this socialist utopia. There's a big blow-up at the end, anyway, and the good guys win, sort of.

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  • Imagination; daring at least; B+
  • Science; extremely soft, no better than Star Trek ; D+
  • Scene-setting; relies on hitting buzzwords; C+
  • Characterisation; no connection with their society, but decent in themselves; C+

    Overall; different, but could have stood much more polishing; B-

  • River of Dust

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    A minor work from an almost unknown author that infuriated me deeply. I really cannot keep silence on this matter; it is repugnant, a failure of characterisation beyond the bounds of the imbecilic. This is postmodernist science fiction, written by the kind of weevil so wound up in politically correct wholesomeness and mushbrained quasi- intellectualism that he never quite got around to looking at his fellow being. Alexander Jablokov is the name, and I wish you could give you an address and a promise of a decent sum of money for delivering me his head, because people like this really shouldn't be allowed to write.

    It is set on a thoroughly remade Mars - why, I can't tell you. Cashing in on the boom, I expect. It is fumblingly done - Mars appears to have been colonised by religious fanatics, who have gone about naming townships and the like after all kinds of religious icons, according to personal preference; all very well and good, but rather improbable- and Jablokov doesn't seem to know any; the post-modern, generation-X, rather harsh and lawless life of the ordinary Martian is as utterly alien from the fervour and simplicity of true religion as you or I am from life as a Melnibonean noble. Any damned fool who has even as much knowledge of people as comes from totting up the record would know that it doesn't work that way.

    All the characters are ridiculously randy. Sexual tension yes, but you cannot lard it on this thickly while retaining much of any moral framework. Long term pair bonding should be obsolete. They bounce from bed to bed in a way that, while turning this Puritan's stomach, seems to require at least a happy-go- lucky approach to life, a hollowness at the heart of the psyche, that I can't see the the politics of the novel- and it is a political novel, whose plot if anything is of terrorism and revolt- running in tendem with. I don't think the revolution has any ideology, as such; it's simply a matter of idiosyncrasy, outcast hate and personal feeling coming to a head. Charismatic leaders should at least be charismatic, although this mysterious process is very hard to explain in print; and a man seen through the eyes of his enemies loses much of his appeal.

    This is also one of those novels of double-cross that I fail to see the charm of. It can be an interesting headgame in the hands of someone like Ian Rankin or Colin Dexter, but any science fiction author has trouble filling in enough background to give you a feel for what the characters' options and moulding influences are; only the very greatest can do it convincingly at all. In the last analysis, there is nothing here that you should devote any time to finding out about. There are far better novels of Mars and of high-science revolution.

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  • Imagination; borrows so much from past and other authors of Mars, none was necessary; D
  • Science; only in the vaguest terms; D-
  • Scene- setting; vastly cluttered set with many unused props- more than properly used or usable; D
  • Characterisation; shoddy, stereotypical, rather highly dubious- no pshrink he; E-

    Overall; I wonder why he felt he had to write this? Goes no good where; D

    And as a special bonus...

    Star Wars 1; The Phantom Menace

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