Natural History by Justina Robson

natural.jpgI’ve been wanting to read Justina Robson for a while. Through novels like Silver Screen (1999) and Mappa Mundi (2000), Robson has developed a reputation for writing cutting-edge SF while still paying attention to the characters and the idea that the future is based on our present. That’s why when I finally picked up Natural History (2003), I was a little disappointed.

Natural History begins with an incident in space. Voyager Lonestar Isol collides with debris, which she soon realises is really the remains of an alien ship. But there is something else here as well, an artifact left drifting for thousands of years. It is a jump engine and allows Isol to return home… only, it is not Earth it takes her to first, but another planet, a planet Isol has longed to find – a place that could become home for the Forged and the rest of her kind.

The Forged are another form of human, who have been engineered to serve the Unevolveds; the first Forged were given the forms of terraforming starships that brought life to Mars and other planets, and now their forms range from scout ships (like Isol) to animal-like Forged who perform menial tasks on Earth. Isol is one of the most senior Forged, and a heated debate is raging on whether the Forged should be granted independence from the rest of humanity. Isol wants the planet, called Idlewild, to become a homeplanet for the Forged if they secede, but the Unevolved (and several Forged) are uncertain… they don’t trust this engine technology Isol has found, and want to know that Idlewild is safe and devoid of life before making a decision. Isol reluctantly agrees to take an archeologist to Idlewild, to discover its secrets…

Robson is often described as the future of British SF and you can see why with Natural History. She paints a vivid landscape of a future far-removed from our own, tossing around theories about the essence of humanity and transcendence. So its being a bit of a mixed bag is disappointing. The premise for NH is solid, but I found that too much of the story becomes bogged down in politics and unnecessary detail for it to be truly engaging. It’s 200 pages before archaeologist Zephyr reaches Idlewild, the most interesting storyline; the rest is filled with the politics of the Forged and the Unevolved. Many of the character arcs feel largely underdeveloped as well; one character, Corvax, undertakes a journey of transformation in Uluru, an artificial universe only Forged can access, while another, Gritter, engages in petty crime and seems pointless. Robson utilises so many character perspectives that it seems to swamp the story; the most interesting characters are often neglected for long periods of time, particularly Zephyr, who has nothing to do until she reaches Idlewild.

Probably the biggest complaint I have with NH, though, is in not believing it. Robson goes to extreme lengths to convince the reader that her Forged are human, if unlike any kind of human we know… yet I didn’t find that convincing. They’re all supposed to be Forged, but Isol and Tatresi are so far removed from Corvax and Gritter as Forged that they could be different species, not different classes; they just don’t feel real. Also, while Robson tries to draw parallels with our own times to make her work accessible, in many ways that doesn’t work either; the idea that these giant human starships would use the same language, the very same expressions as we do now, seems ridiculous, thousands of years into the future – not to mention Corvax’s journey through Uluru, trying to be Unevolved and “normal”. And the ending is abrupt as well; for a person like Zephyr, who treasures being human so much, to give that away so willingly doesn’t seem like a natural conclusion, given her suspicion of the alien Stuff and Isol.

Still, it’s not a bad novel. Robson’s talent is there and the science is cutting-edge, particularly when dealing with 11-D and creating a decidedly alien race. And in many ways Natural History pays homage to vintage SF; a story of humans struggling to find themselves amidst a strange future and the mysteries of an alien world. It’s just a pity then that the rest of the novel is weighed down by its pace and characters, and ultimately feels hollow.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Springfield anymore…

chris_simp3.jpg Not sure about you, but I feel like I’ve been dodging spoilers all month. First there was Harry Potter, then The Simpsons MovieHP was easier as most people read it at once, so you just had to avoid anything online. The Simpsons has been harder. I meant to see it opening day but got sidetracked – and then of course everyone I know wanted to talk about it. Seriously, it was starting to feel like something from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Spoilers to right of me, spoilers to left of me, spoilers in front of me, volley’d and thunder’d…

Anyway, I finally managed to see it over the weekend. Really enjoyed it. I was a little dubious going in; I’ve been a fan of the series since it started (I’m getting old, lol) but I haven’t been watching it as much over the last few years. The stories have been more about putting The Simpsons into strange situations than having any real plot. The movie though is much more like what I remember; quirky, but more about the relationships between Homer and Marge, Homer as a father to Bart. It was nice seeing the writers get the formula right after such a long wait.

The thing which surprised me was the number of families seeing the movie. The cinema was about 3/4 full and a lot of them were fathers and sons seeing it together. I’d not really thought about it before but The Simpsons has been around long enough to transcend 3 generations; if you were 14 when it started, it’s possible that your parents liked it and now you could have a child yourself who’s grown up with the show. And everyone seemed to get something different from it; the kids found the gags funny, while the parents sympathized with Homer trying to do the right thing (and failing).

My favourite parts were Bart’s nude debut (I almost choked at Flanders’ “Thank you, Lord, for this bountiful… penis!”) and Cargill’s manipulation of President Schwarzenegger, but I really enjoyed the scenes with Bart and Homer as well. The writers walk a fine line with Homer; make him too stupid and he just seems retarded, but by exploring Homer through Bart, we see him differently – we see he’s not perfect, but he’s trying, and that’s really the heart of the story. I also thought Hans Zimmer did a good job with the music. He captured the spirit of the show very well, something I thought only Danny Elfman could do.

My only real criticism is the length; 87 minutes is okay, but they cut out material with characters like Sideshow Bob which could have made it longer. Perhaps the scenes just didn’t work, we won’t know until the DVD’s out. Other than that I thought it was great fun, one of the few films this year which hasn’t disappointed. If there’s anyone else who hasn’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth it. Just make sure you bring donuts. And yes, that’s a Simpsonized picture of me; click it if you want to do one of your own. 😉

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Springfield anymore…

chris_simp3.jpg Not sure about you, but I feel like I’ve been dodging spoilers all month. First there was Harry Potter, then The Simpsons MovieHP was easier as most people read it at once, so you just had to avoid anything online. The Simpsons has been harder. I meant to see it opening day but got sidetracked – and then of course everyone I know wanted to talk about it. Seriously, it was starting to feel like something from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Spoilers to right of me, spoilers to left of me, spoilers in front of me, volley’d and thunder’d…

Anyway, I finally managed to see it over the weekend. Really enjoyed it. I was a little dubious going in; I’ve been a fan of the series since it started (I’m getting old, lol) but I haven’t been watching it as much over the last few years. The stories have been more about putting The Simpsons into strange situations than having any real plot. The movie though is much more like what I remember; quirky, but more about the relationships between Homer and Marge, Homer as a father to Bart. It was nice seeing the writers get the formula right after such a long wait.

The thing which surprised me was the number of families seeing the movie. The cinema was about 3/4 full and a lot of them were fathers and sons seeing it together. I’d not really thought about it before but The Simpsons has been around long enough to transcend 3 generations; if you were 14 when it started, it’s possible that your parents liked it and now you could have a child yourself who’s grown up with the show. And everyone seemed to get something different from it; the kids found the gags funny, while the parents sympathized with Homer trying to do the right thing (and failing).

My favourite parts were Bart’s nude debut (I almost choked at Flanders’ “Thank you, Lord, for this bountiful… penis!”) and Cargill’s manipulation of President Schwarzenegger, but I really enjoyed the scenes with Bart and Homer as well. The writers walk a fine line with Homer; make him too stupid and he just seems retarded, but by exploring Homer through Bart, we see him differently – we see he’s not perfect, but he’s trying, and that’s really the heart of the story. I also thought Hans Zimmer did a good job with the music. He captured the spirit of the show very well, something I thought only Danny Elfman could do.

My only real criticism is the length; 87 minutes is okay, but they cut out material with characters like Sideshow Bob which could have made it longer. Perhaps the scenes just didn’t work, we won’t know until the DVD’s out. Other than that I thought it was great fun, one of the few films this year which hasn’t disappointed. If there’s anyone else who hasn’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth it. Just make sure you bring donuts. And yes, that’s a Simpsonized picture of me; click it if you want to do one of your own. 😉

Air by Geoff Ryman

air.jpgThis is the first review I’ve posted for awhile, mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read as much recently as I’d have liked. But I’ve been looking forward to reading Geoff Ryman’s Air. It comes with extremely good recommendations and has swept most of the major SF awards; it won the British SF, James Tiptree Jr. and Arthur C. Clarke Awards and was on the short-list for the 2006 Nebula. Perhaps more importantly, it’s regarded as one of the few recent SF novels which is highly literate – beautifully written and as much about character as science. So with these recommendations, I was curious to read Air. Unfortunately I didn’t have the reaction I expected.

The premise of Air is that in the near-future, a new information technology is developed. Called Air, it promises to link everyone around the world without concern of power or social status. When the world decides that Air will go live on a set date, it’s up to Chung Mae, the fashion expert of her tiny village in Karzistan, to try and ready the villagers for the immense changes approaching. But during a testing of Air, Mae is accidentally trapped inside Air… changed by the accident, and turning against the traditions of her village, it’s feared Mae may destroy the village before Air even reaches them…

There’s no doubt that Air is a beautiful novel. Geoff Ryman is a gifted writer; his prose is elegant, understated in the way it reflects the changes in Mae’s village – the novel begins with brief, sporadic sentences, the way an illiterate villager might speak, but changes as Air comes to the village, the dialogue and prose becoming more esoteric with new-found knowledge. It’s also a beautifully structured novel. Every part of the novel is multifaceted and, much like the prose, reflects the changes happening within their society; Mae’s pregnancy represents the new children to be born after Air, the Flood wipes away the last vestige of opposition, the poor in the Third World become equal through knowledge…. it’s a mirror of change, and there’s no doubting the strength of Ryman’s commentary on developed nations and their exploitation of the Third World. My problem with Air, though, is that a lot of it seems exploitative as well.

I’m referring in particular to Mae’s pregnancy. The first 150 pages or so of the novel are interesting, but past that, once her pregnancy starts to become more apparent, the tone of the novel shifts. The pregnancy is just not believable. The whole idea that a person could sustain a pregnancy outside of their uterus (bringing a foetus to term in their stomach) is a stretch to say the least – but that someone would give birth through their mouth is simply hideous. It’s not physically possible… and so the only explanation we’re left with is that it happens because it’s simply meant to happen; it’s a metaphor for the new age Air is ushering in. Even on that level I object to it. During the course of the novel, as Mae’s mind is trapped within Air and bonds with her dead neighbour, she becomes half insane and her village begins to disown her. She goes against their traditions, and this mythic pregnancy should serve to further ostracise her from them… but it doesn’t. They’re unsettled, yes, but they don’t turn against Mae; if anything, the women seem to accept her even more, and that just doesn’t feel right. Getting away from the believability of the pregnancy, the symbolism of it just feels too heavy-handed. Mae says to her child on page 389 “You are blind, but you will not need to see, for we can all see for you, and sights and sounds will pass through to you from us. You have no hands, but you will not need hands, for your mind will control the machines, and they will be as hands. Your ears also burned away, but you will hear more in one hour than we heard in all our lifetimes.” There’s nothing subtle about this; I found it extremely exploitative, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

My other problem is that at times Air seems at odds with its own ideas. What starts as a clash between worlds, the ideals of the old and new, descends into a cleansing. Half the novel is spent with Mae trying to convince the villagers of the benefits of Air… but it doesn’t matter. In the end the people who don’t believe are washed away, and the others are scared into opening their eyes. I also didn’t quite grasp the idea of how Air is supposed to be spread. It’s this idea of the Internet in your head, making everyone equal… but it’s not something people can choose. Air is forced upon everyone whether they would choose it or not, and I can’t see the Western world promoting that, or the UN implementing it.

The other reason Air has been talked about recently is that it’s one of the more high-profile Mundane SF novels. Mundane SF is a sub-genre of science fiction which attempts to focus on stories featuring a believable level of technology and science. I’m not knocking Mundane SF, but Air to me actually doesn’t represent its tenets in a lot of ways. The pregnancy is not based in any science I know of, and the cleansing is symbolic; while it follows the manifesto in some ways (Air itself), there’s still more of a fantastical or mythical feel to Air than I expected.

Still, I can see why many people have received Air so well. It’s beautifully written and structured, and the concept of the novel is intriguing. If you can accept the pregnancy, then you’ll probably really enjoy Air. The literate nature of the novel may even make it accessible to people who wouldn’t normally read science fiction. For me, it didn’t work, but it’s definitely a book you should read for yourself and make up your own mind.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

demolished.jpgI’d heard a lot about Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, but I’d never had a chance to read it before now. It’s a classic of science fiction, the winner of the first Hugo Award and the novel that inspired a generation of young writers into science fiction. But it’s been 50 years since TDM was first published; does it still hold up today? I found that it both does and doesn’t, for different reasons.

At its heart The Demolished Man is a science fiction mystery – only it isn’t a mystery in any conventional sense. The reader knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning; the twist is that Ben Reich lives in a society which has made murder virtually impossible due to powerful telepaths. So when Reich decides to murder business rival D’Courtney, the mystery is more how he can perform the murder and why he would want to. When Reich finally commits the murder, police prefect Lincoln Powell begins to investigate. If Reich gets away with murder, it will irreversibly change their society, and perhaps the universe itself…

I must admit, I had a strange reaction reading TDM. The novel itself I didn’t like much. Maybe a part of that was because I hadn’t read it previously and now it feels dated, but the concept of the novel seemed flawed to me. Reich has obvious motive, the most to benefit from killing his rival, and he was in the same place as D’Courtney when he was killed; the idea of him having this supposed anonymity for the crime just isn’t believable. And his later distractions for the police (opening charities, launching competitions, sending people offworld), likewise seem juvenile. But one thing which really troubled me was Bester’s depiction of women in TDM. The women are caricatures, depictions of male feminine ideals; socialites, clairvoyants, prostitutes, timid girls. I’d always thought TDM was an advanced novel, but in its attitude towards women, at least, it didn’t feel that way.

Perhaps I’m looking at TDM too much from a 21st century perspective, but I just didn’t find the story convincing. Nor could I grasp its Freudian undertones. Bester suggests that their society is unhealthy because they’ve stamped out the killer instinct, something they should learn from; but if you take this idea at face value, then how can you completely ignore that Powell is in love with Barbara as a perverse father/daughter relationship? He’s a man in love with a child, not a woman; but it’s never mentioned. In many ways TDM is a reverse morality play, but anything meaningful it says is overshadowed by the tone of the novel.

What I did find interesting, though, was seeing how much TDM has been used as a template for other works. I can see how at the time it was written that The Demolished Man would have influenced many writers with its blend of pulp fiction and ideas; its combination of low-life characters and run-down locations undoubtedly played a part in inspiring cyberpunk, and Bester’s use of italics and his structuring of psychic conversation (“basket weave”, etc.) was one of the earliest uses of graphologic layouts in science fiction. Bester’s influence is apparent in writers as diverse as John Brunner, Robert Silverberg and John C. Wright, due to the thematic diversity of his work, and it was that sense of experimentation that I found interesting in TDM; its blend of styles, Bester’s obvious love of language. That’s why I had a strange reaction; while not enjoying the novel, I appreciated the impact it had had and found following that more interesting than the story itself.

Overall, The Demolished Man is a mixed read. I don’t think it holds up as well as other novels from its time (Earth Abides, Childhood’s End, The Man in the High Castle), but the impact it’s had on the genre is unparalleled. If you’ve never read The Demolished Man before, maybe now is a good time to check it out; or if you have read it, maybe it’s time to revisit TDM and see for yourself how it stands up today.