Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia Emerging

October 21, 2021

         One of the problems with many utopian novels is that they are very good at showing us a much better, an ideal world even, but not so good at leading the reader there: how does one get from the horrendous present to the wonderful future? Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) portrays a secessionist state on the West Coast of America, running along green/ecological principles; it’s set in the late 1990s, as I recall. And in the prequel here, he sets out to show how it all came about. This book has sat on my shelves for many years; I’ve read it before, but forgotten from whom I must have borrowed it and failed to return it, as it does not bear any of my library accession information…mea culpa.

Although there are characters who are well-developed and to whom the reader may warm, it does strike me first and foremost as a didactic novel: there’s an awful lot of 1980s ecological information spliced into the narrative at almost every turn, reflecting the concerns of all those years ago: dangers of nuclear power, chemical pollution, power of big oil and car corporations. The only thing missing from our present-day world is global heating and climate change. I found myself wondering, well, if the situation was that dire back then – and having lived through those years, yes it was – why didn’t anything actually get done about it all?

Callenbach is under no illusions about the opposition that there would be to any threat to the integrity of the United States. And in the back of my mind there’s the thought that, depending on what happens when that country tries to have its next presidential election, the threat to the unity of the nation may actually never been greater than it currently is…

So here’s a novel firmly rooted in its time and place – 1980s USA – and yet in some ways never more relevant than it is now. An idealist environmentalist party may perhaps have been a plausible prospect back then; forty much more cynical years later, it sadly feels much less so. Its political programme still makes eminent sense today, but the odds are far more strongly stacked against success.

Arguments for degrowth are carefully presented and evidenced, but depend on a large enough audience willing to pay attention for long enough to take in, process and accept those arguments, and this seems far less likely in the reduced attention-spans of the current social media era: divide et impera has never been more fully implemented. Seeing the car as the ultimate enemy was logical in the US of the 1980s, and it was possible to consider rejigging transportation, workplaces and living spaces to accommodate alternative ways of being and doing; now we are told to think that electric cars will be the solution to everything…

I’ve written elsewhere about my discovery of ecology over half a century ago, as a schoolboy, though reading Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1970 polemic The Doomsday Book. Now there’s an awful lot more sound and fury about what we have done to the planet, but still precious little effective action, I fear. The culprit is capitalism, pure and simple: money still has to be made so that the rich can accumulate it; governments are in hock to business and we are told it’s up to us as individuals to save the planet. Quick, buy that bamboo toothbrush…

Callenbach’s two novels are an addition to dreams, prompts to think about the future, instances of the ‘what if?’ that good science fiction can do. But why hasn’t anything happened?

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

August 27, 2021

     Various friends have recommended this novel highly over the years; someone selecting it as their choice in our book group has finally got me to read it, and I’m glad I did, despite finding it annoying and frustrating at times.

It’s another of those late 20th century, very long and rambling novels, almost shaggy-dog stories really, with enough varied subject-matter to arouse one’s interest and more than enough narrative skill to keep one hooked, although early on I did wonder where on earth Mitchell was going with it. At times I was reminded of Anthony Burgess, at others of Neal Stephenson’s astonishing Baroque Cycle. Sequentially in time we work our way from the early nineteenth century through six stories, to our present and then into the future, and then cycle back through them to where we began; there are various links and connections skilfully woven in between the stories, too. If you realise early enough that this is what will happen, you do also then begin thinking about Mitchell’s overall plan and direction.

For me the most interesting sections were a sort of future utopia based on current North Korean society, which was a real tour-de-force, a variation on the innocence/ experience trope, and I could see many traces of ideas from Daniel Keyes’ excellent Flowers For Algernon, as well as passing acknowledgement of Huxley and Orwell, in terms of unpicking the differences between utopia and dystopia. I remember from my teaching days being rather surprised at how many students said they would be quite happy to live in Brave New World. They had a point, sometimes unshaken by my next question, ‘OK, but would you be human?’ The recycling of the fabricants recalled both quite a few of Philip Dick’s SF novels, and also Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room, which was the source of the cult 1970s film Soylent Green

The central, post-apocalyptic future world is really well-conceived and described, and finally convinced me about how good the whole novel was. Again, there are echoes of earlier novels, particularly Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker which I found reflected in Mitchell’s narrative style and use of language.

Mitchell’s ultimate question seems to be whether entropy is finally drawing the human species on to eventual self-destruction. My feeling now – some twenty years after its first publication – is yes, but Mitchell wants us to examine our thinking and realise that a better world may be possible, despite his not having described one in any of the various strands of his novel. Our response to our world, and the choices we make, depend on how we look at that world, how we visualise things and describe them, and in the end the stories we create about the past and the future, because it’s the stories that persist rather than what actually happened…in other words we create our realities and we could therefore create different or better ones, if we looked at ourselves differently, thought differently and described our world and ourselves differently. At least, that’s my take on this epic at the moment.

It’s a thought-provoking novel at many different junctures, and Mitchell attempts to reflect his thesis in the way he has structured the cyclical stories, but I did think that this wasn’t fully clear, and tended to obscure his meanings… A stunningly good read, though.

Laurent Binet: Civilisations

June 6, 2021

     Here is a fascinating alternative history: in nutshell, the Viking settlement in Greenland does not die out; instead, contact is made with pre-Incan civilisation in the Americas; Columbus fails to discover the Americas; the Incas and later the Aztecs discover and conquer and partition Europe between them; Cervantes and a fellow artist (the Greek, so El Greco?) find themselves exiled to the Americas…

It’s a four-part story, carefully structured to add credibility to the vision. So the first section is vaguely styled like a Viking saga, chaotic, murderous and linking into many of the stereotypes we hold of the Vikings. Cohabitation and then alliance between them and the early North American civilisations is forged through the efforts of a powerful Viking queen whose intentions are peaceful rather than warrior-like, and who is disturbed at the realisation that her people have brought with them illnesses that decimate the local inhabitants.

Columbus’ tale is marked by his cupidity, stupidity and obsession with imposing the Catholic faith on everyone he encounters. He is unsuccessful in skirmishes with the inhabitants of the Americas who have metal-working skills acquired from their encounters with the Vikings several centuries earlier, and so better weaponry; they also have horses, acquired the same way. The Europeans are outwitted by the Incas or the Aztecs – we don’t know, partly because Columbus isn’t interested enough to find out. He dies alone, last of the Europeans in America.

When we meet the Incas, they are beset by internecine feuds and capable of random acts of bloodthirsty cruelty. A small army of renegade Incas do a ‘reverse Columbus’, and sail East, helped by those descended from the Vikings and who defeated Columbus and his men a few decades previously. They land and establish themselves in the ruins of a Lisbon which has been flattened by an earthquake and tsunami, and take things from there. I did find myself wondering how, suddenly, and with no apparent prior experience, the Incas had become quite skilful navigators and pilots…

Columbus’ adventures meant that Atahualpa’s princess understands Spanish, and can converse with the Queen of Portugal: communication is established. The Incas enjoy as much luck in their conquest of Europe as Pizarro and Cortes and their men did in reality, in their conquest of the Americas. This is the central and most interesting section of the novel, and the way that Binet weaves in various characters from history is skilful and enlightening: there’s a fascinating, imagined exchange of letters between Thomas More and Erasmus on the subject of Inca sun-worship…

The final section is the adventures of the Spaniard Cervantes, which includes a lengthy stay with Montaigne in Bordeaux before he ends up being sent across the ocean to work in the Americas, for the Incas and Aztecs have need of artists and writers, areas in which they have limited experience.

It’s an alternative history, a piece of total fantasy, as are all novels of this kind; it’s a ‘what if?’ which reminds us of the chance nature of a good many developments in our world. It entertains, as well as makes the reader think, and it showcases an excellent imagination. Binet has conceived the work well, and for me the open, incomplete nature of the four-part structure, and the use of associated styles and mannerisms, added a vitality and a sense of conviction (if that makes sense!) to the novel for me. Thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking, and I’m really pleased to see it has been translated into English now…

György Dalos: 1985

May 10, 2021

     So, here is a novel that purports to be a sequel to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, in which Oceania is defeated by Eurasia and reduced to only the British Isles, and it turns out that the country resembles our current picture of North Korea in comparison with its rivals…

It’s based on the writings of O’Brien, Winston Smith and Julia, and annotated by someone who is allegedly a historian, fifty years after the events. And it’s poor, it’s shoddy, it’s unconvincing.

There’s nothing of the utterly broken and defeated Winston and Julia from the end of Orwell’s novel, no sense of the boot having stamped on the human face forever. There’s no Newspeak. Big Brother’s regime has collapsed in the wake of military defeat, is followed by reform and then revolution, both of which fail. Neither events nor characters convince; the events are necessarily chaotic but, aided by the strange Historian figure comments and ‘analysis’, verge on the comic, and the characters are mechanical, cardboard cutouts who strive to survive on the coat-tails of their namesakes from Orwell’s novel.

The new world of 1985 fails to hang convincingly together as Orwell’s did, and the novel fails to add anything of value or significance to the idea or the message of Nineteen Eighty-four. Clearly, Orwell’s novel is now rather dated – it was interesting living through the actual years preceding that ominous date, and then after them, with the speculations and the comparisons in the chattering press – but the overall messages about totalitarianism, manipulation, power, and the urge to control are as valid now as they were back then, even if the methodologies and the technologies are different. Dalos never really engages with any of this.

I found myself wondering why I had kept this book since I bought it, way back in 1985. Maybe I felt differently then; I never went back to it. Dalos was Hungarian, and although Janos Kadar’s regime was one of the more successful and liberal in the Eastern Europe of that era (within the limited meanings of both those terms in that context), he will nevertheless have been very familiar with the machinations of such regimes and their manglings of the language. But perhaps from inside he was not really capable of looking outside with any real insight. It’s a maddeningly superficial novel, trivial and not worth eyeball time.

Karel Čapek: War With The Newts

April 28, 2021

     I came back to this well over forty years after first discovering it, and it had me realising just how much a small country – that was Czechoslovakia – has punched above its weight in literary terms in the twentieth century. As well as Čapek’s RUR which I wrote about here, there was Franz Kafka (although I know he wrote in German) and the incomparable Jaroslav Hašek in the inter-war years, and then during the communist era the country produced writers such as Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klima and the wonderful Josef Skvorecky.

War With The Newts is a curious piece, a mixture of many genres, science fiction, satire, mock documentary and a lot more besides. Initially it has a Conradian feel to it, partly because of the Java setting and the sea-captain who starts the whole thing off by discovering an intelligent race of newts who can learn, and who boost his wealth by fishing for pearls for him, in exchange for things they want. The captain is a well-developed character, who tells a humorous and rambling tale about how he has taught, trained and armed the newts as he develops trade with them; he eventually makes a deal with a rich businessman and we are on the road to disaster…

The story is interspersed with all manner of pseudo-scientific documentation, and news reports, board meetings and accounts of the greed of businessmen who ultimately end up selling the entire human race and its future in the quest for profit, in a version of capitalism that is as crazy as anything currently going on.

It becomes evident that the relationship between human businessmen and the newts is a replication of the slave trade of past centuries, as a craze develops for building new continents and land-masses to make money. Ultimately we move into similar territory to that which the author also explores in RUR: are the newts intelligent, human almost? Do they have rights? How ethical a species are we in the ways we treat them?

At this point the story does move quite definitively into satirical territory; it is evident that despite the profits to be made, humans are creating a problem for the future. Eventually there is confrontation: the ever-expanding newt population needs more shallow sea in which to live and this is directly in conflict with what humans want, so war ensues. It helps to remember that Čapek was writing at the time when Hitler was demanding more lebensraum for the German people…

Of course, as profit is to be made from selling machinery and weaponry to the newts, businessmen continue to do so, and the newts rapidly defeat human attempts at limiting and containing them, and begin systematically to demolish entire countries and continents to create their living space. And even when there are peace negotiations between the two sides, it transpires that human beings represent the newts.

In the end, sadly, Čapek’s message is one that echoes today: human beings really aren’t a very intelligent species. There is no hope where there is greed, capitalism and profits for the few. Evidence of human stupidity abounds…

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five

April 19, 2021

     Vonnegut uses a folksy, chatty narrative tone throughout this novel, which deceptively undercuts the seriousness of the plot, allowing for occasional very powerful effects on his reader. The story is framed around Vonnegut’s personal experience of the Allied firebombing of the undefended city of Dresden in February 1945, which killed more people than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It quickly becomes evident how powerfully Vonnegut was affected; he makes it clear that there is no possible rational explanation for what happened, in what gradually shapes up into a very strong pacifist novel.

The events are narrated through the life-story of a naive young American POW, Billy Pilgrim, who is also a reluctant time-traveller; his shapeless and rambling tale begins with his capture during the Battle of the Bulge. All is complicated by the notion of simultaneity: that everything, all events in what we call time, co-exist rather than follow each other sequentially, and Pilgrim has learned this through his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. One might imagine this way of framing a story rather gratuitous given the subject-matter, but the jumbled juxtaposition of so many moments of Pilgrim’s life-story, weaving in past, present and future wars, and evident mental disturbance too, increases the effectiveness of Vonnegut’s message.

Imprisoned in a zoo on Tralfamadore, with a fellow-captive movie starlet as companion, Pilgrim the time-traveller can be at any point in his life whenever he chooses. For the Tralfamadorians, there is no such thing as free will or freedom of choice, given that all events already, and always have, existed.

There is a great deal to unpick in this unconventional narrative, and much food for thought and reflection on the human condition, as well as warfare in all its forms. Within this frame, considering all the supposed justifications and excuses for war, means that it comes across as utterly deranged, and destructive of the sanity of the participants. And obviously, the playing around with time allows Vonnegut to remove any suspense in the story, any fixation on the sequence of the plot, meaning that his reader must focus on, be driven by something else as they read…

The laconic, low-key style, almost throwaway at times, has a cumulative effect as we work our way through the novel – which of course would not be possible on Tralfamadore, where the novel is not a big literary form – and the combination of the disjunctures in time, the time-travelling and the innocence of the central character all conspire together to make Slaughterhouse Five one of the classics of science fiction, in my humble opinion.

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth revisited

April 4, 2021

     It was time to revisit The Secret Commonwealth, which was published a year and a half ago; I’m looking forward to the next and possibly final novel, which may come out in the autumn, if Philip Pullman and his publishers stick to the existing schedule…

This time around, I was struck by just how much this book is about daemons, the relationships between humans and their daemons, and, for those of us living in the world without them – at least without the separate, visible companions – quite deep reflection on what the daemon may symbolise. In Lyra’s world, as she grows older, it becomes apparent/ she learns that quite a number of humans can separate/ be separated, voluntarily and involuntarily, from their daemons: we are a long way from the horrors of Bolvangar in the first volume of His Dark Materials. Lyra and Pan have fallen out; she changes as she grows older, becomes more cautious, less adventurous, and he leaves her, to try and find and bring back her imagination…

Lyra has read a novel set in a world in which humans have no daemons (and yet, curiously, she does not seem to make a clear connection with Will’s – ie our world), and she has read a philosophical work which argues that daemons are a figment of the imagination; in my terms, she’s struggling with the relationship between the material and the spiritual, a struggle which many manage completely to avoid in our world. But the secret commonwealth, a sense of hidden but real connection in mysterious ways between all sorts of beings and creatures, which does not exist on a rational level, keeps impinging on her as she pursues her adventures.

We’re also engaging with Pullman’s view of our own world, as reflected at one remove in Lyra’s. Pullman clearly does not like many things about the ways we live – and I’m happy to agree with him there – and we see characters engaging in that struggle for the Republic of Heaven that was formulated at the end of His Dark Materials, working beneath the surface of society in numerous ways for decency, and a sane and sensible attitude to life for everyone, against superstition and power games. Pullman’s message is a subversive one, especially as he engages with the blurring of the lines between truth and lies which is going on even as I write. For Pullman, the rational approach alone is not sufficient, and furthermore seems to be being used to reassure people that it’s OK to be selfish… which it’s not (within limits).

I’d have expected the cataclysmic events at the end of His Dark Materials to have made more of a difference to Lyra’s world even ten years later, than they actually seem to have done; the Magisterium and its religious fanaticism seem as strong as ever.

I think Pullman is also writing about what happens to us as we grow up, grow older, hopefully mature, certainly as we become adults. Lyra’s journey isn’t an easy one, as she reads and argues, and tries out new ideas for size. Many people do this, and are perhaps radically transformed, or develop along quite unexpected paths; her conflict with her daemon is at one level an obvious externalisation of a process a good number of us experience internally as we grow older. Pullman wants his readers to stop and reflect, I feel: back with Socrates’ idea of the unexamined life not being worth living. And beneath it all are the important values of decency in our own behaviour, and care for the less able or less fortunate than ourselves, very Christian values expounded by an author who at the same time is ferociously challenging the mind-controlling structures of established religion. Subversive, as I said before, and very good stuff.

You may feel I’ve said precious little about the novel itself. True, and I invite you to read what I wrote first time around, here.

George R Stewart: Earth Abides

March 31, 2021

I suppose this counts as another ‘plague’ novel, though the virus – a kind of super-measles – which largely wipes out humanity (at least in the US, where the novel is set) is largely a device to permit a post-apocalypse story. And although I first read it forty-five years ago, I was surprised to notice that it was written seventy years ago now, and so falls clearly into that category of post-Second World War speculative fiction which explored the end of our species, a notion obviously triggered by those cataclysmic years.

Our hero is isolated and immobilised by a rattlesnake bite during the crucial period where humanity is wiped out. He is moved to survive, explores the empty vastnesses of the continent, and eventually meets up with a few other survivors who form a small tribe in the San Francisco Bay area and survive largely by scavenging on the remains of the old world. The story follows him from his twenties to the end of his life, and thus covers the development of the tribe and their struggles for survival. The focus is on what is of value, of worth, really useful, and encourages some reflection on our current world.

The exploration of an empty, half-familiar world is well done; we get a clear sense of the hero’s character and attitudes emerging, perhaps echoing the author’s own sentiments about our species and our world. He eventually meets a woman and they settle in together and fortunately are very compatible; I had a moment of deep shock as I realised that, although this was the fourth time I’d read the book, the fact that she was not of pure white descent was so deeply concealed in the text that I’d not clocked it before (I think). And yet, Stewart – writing in 1950s America – wanted at least some of his readers to know this, and thus its implications for the future…

The growth of the tribe leads the hero to reflect on what knowledge from the past is actually useful to the new future, and what can realistically be preserved. Answer, not very much. He painfully learns that the old ways cannot be re-established: ‘civilisation’ was much too complex for a small group of survivors to replicate, and those who never knew the past are the future and have different ways of thinking and doing: the fracture between then and now is much greater than one suspects.

The most thoughtful – and shocking – episode is possibly when some of the younger members of the tribe return from an expedition with an outsider, who is immoral, apparently riddled with STDs and clearly posits a major threat to the community. They take the decision to kill him, and do so. But he has brought a strain of typhoid with him, which has devastating effects. And yet, the tribe needs new blood to escape the dangers of inbreeding.

Although it has dated rather, in some of its attitudes to race and sexuality in particular, it remains a very good and very powerful novel, sometimes surprisingly so, because Stewart is not content to remain with mere story; his character, the last American as he comes to see himself, is a thoughtful and reflective man rather than a man of action, and we follow his ruminations on where the human race will go, as we see it descending into semi-stone age scavenging. His initial concerns about keeping ‘civilisation’ alive are reduced to basic practicalities, and his legacy to the future is not preserving the university library, but teaching the next generations to dig a well, make a bow and arrow, and make fire using a bow, rather than matches…

The power of the writing can occasionally surprise, for example when the hero must say farewell to the son who is most like him and who dies in the typhoid outbreak, and equally when he makes his final visit to the university library and realises that all that accumulated wisdom of the ages is for nothing in the future.

John Christopher: The World in Winter

March 23, 2021

     I thought that Rolfe’s novel was the worst I’d ever read, but this one gives it a run for its money. To be kind, it’s horribly dated – casual racism and even use of the n-word acceptable in 1962 – and I can’t see for the life of me why, having read it over forty years ago, I bothered to keep it…

It’s marketed as SF, so that’s probably the reason: a new ice age moves in, and Britain (for that’s the sole concern of the writer, really) is uninhabitable. But this is merely a backdrop for a silly tale of domestic affairs and infidelity between barely credible cardboard characters, along with the casual assumption that Brits can just emigrate to warmer climes, the ex-colonies, to escape the worst of the global cooling. Chaos and anarchy in the UK are described briefly in this very sub-JG Ballard catastrophe tale, and the only slightly entertaining aspect is the Brits who decamp to West Africa finding that the boot is very much on the other foot in terms of relationships between the races… However, all the tired old tropes about the inefficiency, disorganisation and corruption of those countries are peddled ad nauseam. Of course, a clever white man can soon sort them out, although the power dynamics are somewhat different.

It really is that bad. I don’t usually get cross with a book, but I wanted real SF: the initial premise is interesting enough, even if barely credible nowadays. Instead there was maudlin tosh involving unconvincing characters. It reminded me of the Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes adventure fiction I devoured in my early teenage years – only they devised better plots and wrote better yarns.

So Britain is abandoned by its government and eventually a Nigerian expedition sets out to establish a claim to the territory, in an expedition in hovercraft, helped by our token white hero who makes the Nigerians’ incompetence clear, as well as their barely-disguised savagery. The ending is utterly predictable.

I won’t go on. You get the idea. One to avoid.

James Blish: The Seedling Stars

March 21, 2021

     Found this one that I bought in 1977 and apparently hadn’t read. It’s a set of four loosely linked tales about adapted humans, with the basic premise that finding habitable earth-like planets is pretty unlikely, terraforming planets is very long-term and costly, and therefore the way to go is to manipulate humans so that they can live in radically different conditions. And yet Blish’s adapted humans think and emote just like us ordinary humans in hard SF… I found this just a little unconvincing, really. The novel dated from the mid-1950s, and yet already there is the notion that humans are outgrowing, and wearing out, their own planet.

As I read this moderately interesting novel of ideas – for that’s basically what it is, nothing plot-wise to sustain a reader’s attention here – I was struck by the progression from Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, where humans modify themselves in order to colonise planets, in the sweep of a story of humanity across several billion years, to Blish in this novel, exploring a similar idea, but focusing on smaller groups of individuals in a more limited time-frame, with the similar idea of humanity ‘seeding’ other worlds with intelligent life. And then I realised what Ursula Le Guin had done, picking up the same idea in a much more sophisticated manner in her Hainish novels and stories. In those, the Hainish, in the distant past, seeded many worlds across the universe with variations on the human form; these eventually re-discover each other and form a loose association called the Ekumen, and homo sapiens here on planet Earth is merely one of the results of the Hainish seeding. And then, with her background in anthropology, she can put homo sapiens under the microscope.

It’s good to see how writers play with each other’s ideas, develop and vary them, and provide us with more food for thought in different ways. I can acknowledge Blish’s part in this sequence, and I liked the final twist at the end where the racism that had always blighted humanity’s time on Earth, re-appeared as the different human types re-connected with each other, and the ‘original’ Terrans demonstrated their innate sense of superiority once again… But ultimately Blish is too much hard science, and unconvincing would-be humans for me.

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