Monday, October 20, 2014

Review of The Embedding by Ian Watson

At its worst, science fiction is cheap, shallow entertainment on par with mainstream popular fiction that fails to induce anything in the reader save the thought ‘time wasted’.  At its best, however, science fiction can be a powerful tool for exploring the human condition and supply deep-reaching questions for thought.  Done right, it expresses aspects of existence that literary realism can (literally) only dream of.  After all, the opportunities for comparison and contrast, profundity and insight are exponentially myriad when the universe, not just the world, is your canvas.  Taking full advantage of the possibilities, Ian Watson penned The Embedding in 1973.  Using linguistics as a bounce point, humanity’s chances/willingness/ability to merge toward a common understanding are examined under a genre light that features aliens, political intrigue, jungle tribes, and language experiments in intelligent if not hackneyed fashion.

While there are several side stories, The Embedding can be divided into three main flows.  The first is set in the deep jungles of Brazil where the Xemahoa tribe live.  Pierre is a French anthropologist observing the tribe, taking particular note of their use of language.  Rather languages: everyday speech is in a format readily translatable into other known languages, while in their religious ceremonies another language, a language which combines fungal psychedelics with embedded words and phrasing, is used.  A controversial dam project threatening to force the Xemahoa away from their ancestral home and fungal grounds, it isn’t long before politics ad violence interrupt Pierre’s research.  Meanwhile in the UK. a highly experimental language study is underway—one that would certainly be illegal were it performed today.  Linguist Chris Sole teaches brain damaged children using embedded language, experimental drugs, and physical techniques that occupy the gray area of abuse, all in the hopes of not only better understanding human communication, but perhaps unlocking something deeper in the brain.  Appearing about a third to halfway through the novel is the third storyline.  Passing through the Milky Way is an alien ship, returning to its home world.  Its mission to understand reality deeper than known reality, they come looking to barter knowledge for knowledge in the hope humanity may offer some piece to their reality puzzle.  They, of anyone in the story, find the unexpected.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

I once taught a Business Ethics course at a Chinese university (not that the West is any better).  One of the exercises I did with the students is to ask them to list the things they would do if they could be invisible.  I did it enough times that the answers were generally predictable.  There was always the tiny number who had wildly imaginative ideas, followed by the minority who thought to become superheroes or super-policeman of some variety to stop evil doers.  But inevitably, the majority thought to use it for material gain or personal interest, usually involving robbing a bank.  Thus reading The Invisible Man (1897), it was a intriguing to discover H.G. Wells examined the mindset behind the desire.

Though Wells thought to use chemistry and biology to make a man corporeally transparent in order to test his limits, it was in fact the Greeks who first came up with the moral barometer. Called Gyges Ring, the wearer was rendered invisible—in pure fantasy terms.  Both triggers for ethical discussion, Wells uses the device in his story of Griffin, a man who has discovered the formula for invisibility.  Shifting immediately into reverse, he seeks to escape his fate by isolating himself to research the antidote.  Arriving at an inn in the small English village of Iping at the beginning of the story, the curious owner is mollified by Griffin’s willingness to pay without haggling in advance, and asks no questions why he is covered head to toe in cloth.  Baggage arriving shortly thereafter with all manner of bottles and vials inside, the owners believe they have a scientist as a lodger—a strangely accoutered scientist, but a scientist nonetheless.  But when strange events begin happening in the small village, most noticeably a burglary under near impossible circumstances, more and more questions start coming Griffin’s way.  The questions becoming drama, the little town is never the same after.

Review of "Finisterra" by David Moles

David Moles’ 2007 novelette “Finisterra” is the story of Bianca Nazario, a young woman recently arrived on the planet Sky from Earth.  Hired as an aeronautical engineer, her unwillingness to follow her family’s wishes and marry according to arrangment has pushed her to find work on the distant gas giant.  Employed by a group of poachers, her first few days are spent helping Valadez and his team capture and kill massive floating zaratanes—sentient creatures so big that communities of the poor and independent are able to eek out a living on their beings, and likewise so big their bodies can be chopped up and sold as commodities.  Her engineering skills intended to help design better air vehicles to aid in capture, Nazario finds herself in a moral delimma when Valadez asks her to the scene of an accident one day.  The politics of Sky unraveling in the aftermath, Nazario’s aeronautical knowledge may be the most useful talent she has as violence erupts.

“Finisterra” is a story that so desperately wants to be more than it is.  Featuring an equivocal ending, strong environmental and cultural themes, and elements that seem to speak to a strong socio-politcal agenda, its reality, however, is superficial.  Unable to escape the simplicity of its good and evil characterization, the strength of the novelette’s message fades with every contrived scene.  Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest possessing a similar premise (evil commercial interests invade the placid order of a benign alien group), her characters, however, are the center point upon which the ensuing agenda hangs.  Moles’ story lacks a similar focus.  This is not to say “Finisterra” should have an unambiguous ending or tone down the main thematic elements, rather that the characters should have been more subtle, more realistic, and more fundamental if it were to have fulfilled its ambition.  I will not say Le Guin’s characters are presented in purely realist terms, but there is a marked difference to the manner in which their plausibility affects the integrity of the story compared to Moles’.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review of "Black Amazon of Mars" by Leigh Brackett

While there is certainly credit due to the originator of an idea, iterations which better the original are likewise deserving of recognition, and in some cases, perhaps more.  Edgar Rice Burroughs gets a lot of attention for pioneering the Martian hero story, as does Robert E. Howard for Conan, the barbarian with honor in a strange land of beasts and magic.  But they may not be the writers who best presented the ideas.  Similar in name to John Carter, Leigh Brackett’s hyper-masculine hero Eric John Stark features in some of her Sea Kings of Mars stories.  More consistent in quality, described in a more practiced, fluid prose, and existing in a fantasized version of Mars comprised of more than just uber-heroism exists, her 1951 novella “Black Amazon of Mars” is a good example of how the student may sometimes outshine the master.

Accompanying the native Martian Camar the Thief to his home, the opening of “Black Amazon of Mars” finds Eric John Stark camped in the snow, the pair getting ready for bed so they can hit the trail early the next day.  Camar dying from injuries, however, he is unable to travel further, and passes away that night.  But not before bequeathing to Stark the lost talisman of Kushat.  Having to set out on the trail alone, it’s not long before Stark is accosted by barbarians and taken prisoner.  Thrust before their leader, the masked Ciaran, he is given a choice: join or die.  Chaos unraveling in the aftermath of his decision, Stark is swept up in a whirlwind of sabotage, battles, and a journey that ultimately decides the fate of the talisman and Camar’s home.

Review of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Today’s citizen thinks nothing of hopping on a plane and arriving on the other side the world later that day.  Though it requires a bit more planning, it’s possible to fly around the world on commercial jets within a period reasonably measured in hours, rather than weeks or months.  There is/was (?) even a reality tv show The Amazing Race exploiting modern global transportation for entertainment.  But of course, this was not always the case, and as a result we have the dramas of the great explorers—Cook, Tasman, Columbus, Cortez, et al.  But with European empires established and transportation infrastructure in place, traveling around the world as a paying tourist became possible in the mid 19 th century.  Taking advantage of the possibility, and throwing in a pinch of mystery and a sprinkling of humor, in 1873 Jules Verne penned Around the World in Eight Days, creating one of the world’s great adventure stories—literally.

Around the World in Eighty Days is the story of the rich aristocrat Phileas Fogg, and the test of honor he places upon himself.  Spending his days playing cards at the Reform Club in London, a discussion of travel one day brings about a wager for £20,000 that in eighty days he can traverse the circumference of the globe.  The bet immediately taken by fellow club members, Fogg does not set out alone.  His valet, the Frenchman Passepartout, comes in tow, but with all of the bumbling, it’s uncertain whether he will be a greater help or hinderance toward Fogg winning the bet.  The stakes not high enough, a massive robbery has recently taken place in London, and Scotland Yard are on the lookout for anyone carrying large sums of cash—something Fogg indeed has in his baggage. And, as they say, the chase is on.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review of The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

In his wonderful breakdown of the genre in The Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Atterbery devotes an entire chapter to the sub-genre of science fantasy.  His view polarized, he states that of the “works that mingle the rhetoric of science fiction with that of fantasy, nearly all can be classed as either humorous or mythological.”  Though citing a scene from A Princess of Mars wherein love develops between a human male and an egg-laying Martian, what Atterbery is too coy to say directly is that humor and absurdity go hand in hand.  But he does not mention Poul Anderson’s 1960 novel The High Crusade, which may, in fact, be the poster example of science fantasy silliness.

How does this look on a genre wall: medieval English knights are one day attacked by ray-gun wielding, blue-skinned aliens.  The knights push back the attack, and in the aftermath are able to take an alien hostage.  It learns Latin in the time it takes Anderson to write a paragraph, and soon enough the knights are taught to fly the ship and embark for France to destroy their sworn enemy.  Trouble is, the alien tricks the knights.  Instead of France, the ship is on autopilot.  Destination: the alien’s home planet.  Upon landing, the group of knights lay waste to the technologically advanced aliens with nothing more than spears, bows, and arrows—the beam weaponry and power shields they encounter no match. And that’s only the first 40 pages…

Review of Nomansland by D. G. Compton

There is a scene very near the beginning of D.G. Compton’s 1993 Nomansland that directly informs the reader what kind of novel will unfold thereafter.  A woman, who is being pressured by government not to publish a controversial research paper, receives a visit from a secret service agent.  The woman and the agent settle down nicely in the living room for tea, and amiable banter ensues.  But things suddenly go… cheesy.  The agent whips out a knife and slices the cat’s throat.  Blood stains the sofa as a word of warning what will happen should the woman decide to publish her paper.  Such literary tricks in existence for ages, I thought perhaps writers might try to move beyond…  I guess not.

Nomansland is the story of Dr. Harriet Ryder-Kahn, a prestigious researcher working on the MERS problem; humankind is no longer able to conceive male children.  No cure in sight, male embryos are rejected upon conception.  Only forty years having elapsed since MERS first hit, the generation in power remain elderly men—and they are bent on keeping power until their time is over.   Dr. Ryder-Kahn having made a major breakthrough in discovering the root cause of the syndrome, it’s her research that is causing the cat-killing reaction.  But getting her research into the public’s eye is her life’s work—and humanity’s if no male is ever born again.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne

I had an idea bubbling slowly in the back of my head that Jules Verne is the grandfather of entertaining sci-fi (fraternal side) whereas H.G. Wells is the grandfather of the maternal, soft side.  Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has rightfully taken me to task on the puissance of the idea, forcing me to adapt it: Verne may be the grandfather of hard sf.  Where Wells displays focus on social, political, and humanist aspects, Verne often integrates wild plots into info dumps and extrapolation on science.  This is not to say Verne was not a humanitarian, as obviously he was, only that the content of his novels is more abstract.  One of the strongest reasons backing my burgeoning idea is Verne’s 1870 classic 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.  The story of a man made prisoner aboard a marvelously advanced submarine, the adventure he’s taken on, and the knowledge imparted during, are certainly some of the first explorations of the unknown using the tools of science fiction.  It is undoubtedly hard sf 19th century style. 

20,000 Leagues under the Sea is the story of the French biologist Pierre Aronmax.  Tasked with helping an American ship locate and capture an immense and elusive sea animal that has damaged one of the British Queen’s prize vessels, what they come upon is not a beast but the most advanced water craft the world has seen, the Nautilus.  Electrical engines powering the luxurious ship, its captain, the mysterious Captain Nemo, proves even more dynamic.  Dark, brooding, and driven by demons none can see, he is reluctant to take Aronmax onboard, and does so only on the condition that Aronmax and his two colleagues, the faithful valet Confeil and Canadian harpoonist Ned Land, never leave the Nautilus as long as they live.  The wonders of the sea unveiled before their eyes thereafter, it takes the three time to begin coming to terms with the idea the remainder of their lives will be spent aboard the mighty submarine, and when they do, the wonders are only beginning. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review Look into the Sun by James Patrick Kelly

Though known better inside the field than out, James Patrick Kelly remains one of the most dynamic writers of science fiction.  Writing in a range of styles, many of his stories have been nominated and received major genre awards.  But only at short length.  For reasons that entirely escape me, Kelly’s novels, despite being just as engaging as his short work, go virtually unnoticed.  In fact, a couple are fixups or expansions of his short stories.  One of the latter, the novel Look into the Sun is a work that, while not earthshaking or singular to the point of ecstasy, remains a well-written, interesting sci-fi story that has all of the imaginative ingredients of the genre with a personal story of redemption at its core.

Look into the Sun is the story of the troubled architect Phillip Wing.  Just as his greatest design is about to be unveiled, it’s revealed his wife has been cheating.  Coupled with the self-doubt regarding his ability to create real art, Wing falls into a depression of self-loathing, drink becoming his escape.  Meanwhile, on the distant planet Aseneshesh, a humanoid people prepare to send their goddess to death and introduce a new god to oversee their culture and religion.  Aware of the universe beyond via a third alien group called the Messengers, the reigning Asenesheshian goddess Tiagua requests that a human design her tomb, and settles in to wait their arrival.  Wing eventually brought to the planet, not only are his talents as architect put to the test, but likewise his sanity as he attempts to come to terms with the bizarre religion on the planet, physical changes, and what, precisely, are the stakes the Messengers have in the tomb. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review of "Outnumbering the Dead" by Frederik Pohl

Looking through my wife’s Angora today—a magazine offering a literal smorgasbord of articles from around the world—I was struck by one of the photos.  It was a close up of Melanie Griffith, an actress I remember from when I was young.  The makeup unable to hide it, the cosmetic surgery she’s undergone has, to some degree, kept her looking younger than she really is.  Age, however, still peers undeniably through the artifice.  And it got me thinking about many things, including the haves and the have nots, as well as the mindset regarding old age that brought about such anxiety as to warrant surgical defiance of time.  It was a nice segue into the novella I read this evening: Frederik Pohl’s 1990 Outnumbering the Dead.

Outnumbering the Dead is the story of Rafiel Gutmaker-Fensterborn, a movie star who takes rejuvenation treatments, but for reasons better left to the reader to discover, remains mortal.  Unlike his fellow actors, groupies, and the majority of humanity, Rafiel knows his time will pass long before others.  The pain of a recent breakup still heavy on his heart, at the outset of the story Rafiel accepts a role as Oedipus for a song-and-dance remake of the classic Sophocles play.  A couple of important surprises revealing themselves during the shoot, not the least of which regards his health, Rafiel is forced to reevaluate his life and career.