ORBzine - 1999.08 Book Reviews

ORBzine - Book Reviews - August 1999

by John Kane


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One of Gregory Benford's; not part of his spinal menacing- robot Galactic Centre cycle but, like Timescape (a novel whose date we have already passed, like so many, but which remains well worth reading), a novel of contemporary science coming across the extremely unusual. An experiment in a cyclotron- the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which actually exists, apparently, and surely on those grounds the events of the novel constitute a giant lure set out to bait Fate?- goes drastically wrong. Or right, possibly; at any rate far more than was thought of. An experiment involving smashing uranium nuclei- the heaviest available, and the ecofreaks who hang around the fringes of science do object- together goes supercritical. Entirely apart from blowing out an incredibly expensive section of the detector, it generates something.

The something, after the hero absconds with it back to her own university, for reasons of sheer scientific greed ('No! Mine! I get to publish on it first!'), turns out to be a wormhole. A window into another universe. A crucial opportunity- but is it actually a creation in itself? (The book does end up suggesting so, at the end.)

A large part of the book follows the social lives of the scientists involved; the black particle- physicist heroine, Alicia Butterworth, is wedded to the job in a way that I am sure Benford is familiar with, and that everything else I have read of the lives of scientists seems to validate. Nothing is wrong; it fits, and between her and her friends there are some searchingly cynical observations on what it is like to be a very intelligent woman looking for a potential partner. She ends up with the man she turns to for advice on the thing, a theorist- and as if the Two Cultures were not bad enough (although as anyone from the working class can prove to you, either is better than the alternative) the split between experimenters and theorists gets a very funny airing. He does throw an overfriendly date out of her apartment in a scene that might as well be subtitled 'hey, scientists have real problems too'.

The incompetence of administrators to support their scientists is another problem. Baxter in Voyage says in so many words that the failure of NASA to move on after Apollo was due to a failure of administrators to hold up their end in public; the faculty dean comes out of this with no credit at all, an officious power- dresser with no feel for front- line science any more.

This is primarily a domestic novel; the ultra- large-scale weirdness is, while falling well under Bethe's 'not even wrong', strangely plausible. There is some clumsily-done spy stuff; you get the feeling that, while well at home in the lab, Benford is far from being able to share the mentality of the intelligence agent. A band of born- again nuts try to kidnap her; this is poorly done, and by far the most hair- raising aspect of it is that he seems to regard it as a matter of course that something of the sort could take place. There is an entirely plausible resentment that anything of the sort should be necessary, any guile on her part, from Alicia; and they do end up absconding with the thing at the end, as an alternative to having the project shut down. I liked it; science fiction with real science, if the characters are a little exaggerated at times.

Imagination; more assembled than cut from whole cloth; B-
Science; let us hope it is not quite true- A
Scene- setting; If it was pure SF, it would be very good, but it is partially in the real world- B-
Characterisation; feels slightly out of proportion with itself; C+

Overall; very useful nearly- straight hard SF; B


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Iain M. Banks's latest (unless he has written another while I was not looking (which, between this review is being started and finished, he had)); bought a while back, I am just getting round to it now; it is a multiple viewpoint tale, alternating between two characters- never in their own voices, one looking over the shoulder, one first person by someone close to the other character. The technique does in essence work, particularly in view of the past connections between the two. The setting is a basically feudal world that has clearly known more prosperous and advanced days. One has to suspect that the two central characters are in fact Culture agents,Special Circumstances people sent down to this primitive world to make changes. One is a doctor, the other a bodyguard, both to their respective monarchs- close to the top, the way SC likes to work. On a much smaller scale than the last Culture novel, of course, which was bigger, wilder, and more fun than this story- which is nearer to his operating without the 'M'. Both stories, by and large at least, pass through long periods of exploration of character and explode in action at the end. Vossill is the King's Physician of Drezen, and cannot quite resist being mysterious and enigmatic- her part of the story is told through the eyes of her half- besotted apprentice, who has also been appointed by the master of the guild to spy on her. DeWar has invented a background and is sticking to it, with such rigidity that makes you wonder if he is not playing it a little too well. In the course of the story, while the good doctor jousts with palace politics and the King's affections, as well as simple curiosity- many questions are asked and a few fables told in return about precisely where it is she comes from- he spins a longer and much more coherent myth that is a virtual third story in its own right. the book is actually rather bald; far more rich in things that do not happen than things that do. I cannot help wondering just how intentional this was; the backstory always seems more than the story. The hazards of giving things too much past. In a way, you come to prefer the gloriously tacky, precisely because it is so other; perhaps the people and things here- Vossill uses a dagger that I am pretty sure is a disguised knife missile, and there is a rather horrific children's game that stands comparison with Douglas Adams' take on cricket- have so much background it gives them inertia, makes them harder but perhaps more worth it for a writer to maneuver them for his purposes. I like it, I do have to say, but It's getting almost out of it's pond into straight fiction, and if we wanted to read that, we would all be fans of William McIlvanney, would not we? The ends are disparate. DeWar's charge is killed, in what suddenly turns from a tale of making the best of things into harsh revenge, by his own chief concubine. If he encouraged her, he did a very subtle job of it- which I am sure he did. Alternate endings are given, in which he kills her on the spot or takes her with him when he runs away to the hind country. Vossill survives- narrowly- and steers her man in the right direction, before disappearing presumable for the GCU. A new side to Culture operations and a good tale.

Imagination; thorough rather than hyperactive, B+
Science; um, nonexistent, as is the weirdness- this is not what it is about; C
Scene- setting; much inferred, odd details given, the right spin to suggest depth; A
Characterisation; refreshingly immersed, especially believable in their mistakes; A

Overall; A needed worm's eye view- B

A Confederacy of Dunces

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Once, I gave a friend a copy of John Le Carre's The Naive and Sentimental Lover, on the grounds that he was very likely to grow up into something resembling the central character. If you recall Shamus from this- it is good, but ought to be heavy going for most- you will realise that was not entirely a complement. Then he sent me a copy of this, on much the same grounds. Score 1-0 to him, and rather spectacularly at that.

This is certainly not science fiction- it is set in the the real- world seventies, in New Orleans- but it may well qualify as fantasy, and considering just how cracked and removed to their own little worlds everyone is, it is definitely speculative fiction.

The central character is Ignatius O'Reilly, a mediaevalist, a working class child made very bad indeed- he went to university, did very well, got his Master's, and found it completely unfitted him for twentieth- century life and, more to the point, employment. In the course of the novel he holds down two jobs, briefly; in the first as a file clerk- essentially the same job I am doing at the moment- he costs his firm a half- million dollar lawsuit by answering a business letter off his own bat in addition to turning the place upside down with sheer strangeness, and then finds himself working as a hot dog vendor dressed in a pirate costume, which seems an entirely fitting kind of thing to happen to a man of his stamp. He is grandiose, melodramatic, prone to very strange enthusiasms and overall, if he were not so intrinsically ridiculous, about as safe to be in the vicinity of as a bubbling volcano. His mother is, depending on which way you want to look at it, a tragic figure or a raddled alcoholic old trout. They are both, in their way, very sound characters, and both extremely funny.

Both intensely disapprove of one another's lifestyle, especially when she shows signs of considering remarrying the poor, hapless Patrolman Mancuso on the freak- patrol. His duties involve dressing eccentrically and pretending to be one of the crowd in order to trap them into something illegal- this at the end of the hippie era. He is a character who can both excite sympathy and schadenfreude on the grounds that he deserves nothing better. The rest - the stripper, the local bar owner, the wisecracking union-rule-quoting underpaid black who ends up sweeping floors for her - colourful is an understatement. This is part farce, so they are all exaggerated, but the flaws they are exaggerated from are masterful.

Lurking in Ignatius' background is Myrna Minkoff, a nymphomaniac who could hardly be said to be more at odds in terms of basic position; she wants to revolutionise the world by getting everyone to love each other. I am sure he would have and probably has argued that that is precisely the wrong term, 'f*ck' being far more appropriate. What is even worse is that he actually starts to agree with her, and forms a plan to organise the local freaks into a revolutionary political party; which goes hideously wrong, as you might expect from total cultural opposites. This is a wild, hilarious ride, which has attracted favourable comment from such luminaries as Burgess- apart from this of course. It serves as a salutary warning to staid formula SF just how odd reality can be.

Imagination; more audacity than anything else- B+
Weirdness; ideology and pragmatism in conflict; much strange consequence; A
Scene- setting; New Orleans was never like this before, or ever I suspect; C+
Characterisation; A wickedly accurate description of an extremely improbable type of person; A

Overall; I will get Ben for this, I swear; A-

The Death Guard

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Lord knows where I managed to get this from; it is long out of print. Melodramatic title, maybe, but my god, what happens justifies it.

It was the only science fiction novel of a man named Phillip Chadwick, was written on the eve of the second world war, and promptly, for reasons of civilian morale, banned. It is actually quite easy to understand why.

Immediately after the first world war, a biologist has an idea. He served in the trenches, and sees no reason why anyone should ever be put through the horrors of the front line again. There has to be an alternative. There must be some way to rearrange war to reduce or remove the human burden of it. In all the novels and articles of artificial life, I do not think it has ever been spelled out quite so clearly why it might turn out that way- why a civilised, intelligent man might work for it to become so. The clarity and terror of the vision is incredible and could only have been written in such circumstances. It becomes impossible to work on in the controlled circumstances of interwar England- far too much danger of terrifying the neighbours- so they move to Africa. Remember, this was written in colonial days, so is a little raw in its treatment of relations between the races- although I am sure Chadwick disapproves, in order to draw local labour the experimenters resort to a highly racist cult of white greatness. He could, I suppose, have made a counterpoint between black constancy and hard work and white professional slime, and in fact at the very end of the book he does. There in Africa they develop an artificial life form, slowly, painstakingly, and gruesomely. The result has no mind as such, and no musculature and central nervous system. It is a kind of mobile mass of cartilage, that can take bullet hits with no more chance of death than if it were a tree, that sees in the infra-red with no visible eyes, that cannot engage in ranged combat but uses something very like a pike, called a quadrifane, at close quarters.

The slow nervous escalation to open conflict through fear is masterful. It did not happen like this, and could not, but it very nearly did. Increasing military tension leads to increased trigger happiness, and soon there is full scale war. This is the part that it was banned for more than anything else. The portrayal of the devastation that would result from a preemptive invasion, using all the horrors of modern war- well, our navy and air force are wiped out and half the country rendered uninhabitable through gas and blast- and neoblasty, when the material of which the Death Guard are made does not quite lie down and die when killed. ~The counterstrike threaten to force the continental enemy to damage himself quite as badly. Despite the times, this is not a preachy book- at least it does so from very graphic illustration- that rather than trying to make war more viable, we should try to make war no more.

Imagination; less than the guts it took to write like this; B
Science; very much neo- near world of the time, chosen to make a point, but well experienced; B=
Scene- setting; terrifying clarity of vision of near- doom with entirely believable politics and psychonomy; A
Characterisation; a little facile and extreme particularly in those we are not supposed to like, but sound enough; B-

Overall; definitely an underground classic; A-

And as a special bonus...

Reply to Gert's response to the review of Star Wars 1; The Phantom Menace !

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