A New Jurisdiction

When a favourite author appends another book to a beloved series after a gap of ten years, I guess it’s OK to have doubts.  Thus I approached Blood Enemies (2017), Susan R. Matthews’ seventh novel in her stunning Jurisdiction cycle, with no little trepidation.  Of course I had a few minor misgivings as to whether the quality of her writing might have dipped after such a long break in output, but mostly, my apprehension stemmed from the fact that the first six books formed such a coherent whole that Andrej Kosciusko’s story was complete, and that any move to open a new chapter on him was doomed to seem forced and be anticlimactic.

Reading the author’s recap did little to sooth me.  What?  Were they? Did that happen? Was it like that?  Of course one’s recollection of stories read long ago (the sixth book, Warring States, came out in 2006) start to play tricks, but maybe Matthews also straightens out narratives that were more elliptical, and clarifies things that were rather more hinted at, back in the day.

It has always been a constant source of amazement to me that the Jurisdiction, indisputably one of the greatest galactic settings in all SF, is not better known.  Beginning with the perfectly titled An Exchange of Hostages (1997), the series chronicles the travails of tortured torturer Andrej Kosciusko, as he strives to beat the system and provide a better life for the people around him.

Civilised space is divided into a number of ‘Judiciaries’ sponsored by corporations of powerful families.  Kosciusko has the misfortune to be born into one of these (the Dolgorukij Combine) and thus, having graduated from medical school as an incredibly gifted physician, is forced by his martinet father to enrol in military torture school (Fleet Orientation Station Medical aka Fossum). From here, he will emerge as an ‘inquisitor,’ holding the writ to investigate transgressions against the state and enforce the rule of law.

This is the overall arc of the first book.  Naturally Kosciusko excels in his new studies, due to his medical knowledge.  Privately he oscillates between agonising over the position he finds himself in and drinking to forget that he is starting to enjoy the work.  It’s a remarkable debut novel, one of the best.  The whole thing is drenched in the politics of military rank, social caste and race within a milieu dripping with homoerotiscism, slavery and graphic torture.  The only misstep is a ludicrously coy (heterosexual) group sex scene that (unfortunately) is pivotal to the narrative.  Whilst one might charitably assign this to first-timer failure of nerve, what was her editor thinking?

An Exchange of Hostages is followed in rapid succession by Prisoner of Conscience (1998), Hour of Judgment (1999), Angel of Destruction (2001) and The Devil and Deep Space (2002).  There is also a self-published chapbook Jurisdiction, that deals with events between the first two books.  These volumes introduce many memorable supporting characters including Bench Specialist (= Jurisdiction special agent) Garol Vogel, a wonderfully loose cannon amidst all the rigidity, Jennet ap Rhiannon the straight-laced captain of the JSF Ragnarok and Andrej’s cousin Stanoczk, a Malcontent (= one of the order of gay monks that constitute the Dolgorukij intelligence service).  The chronological order of these tales is a little blurred, but sorted out by the two omnibus reissues (Fleet Inquisitor and Fleet Renegade) that preceded publication of Blood Enemies.

As I pen this piece, I’m two thirds of the way through that book.  Matthews deftly finds the one logical strand that could continue Andrej’s story – namely the dissolution of the Jurisdiction into a confederacy on foot of the failure to appoint a new judge (as detailed in Warring States) and the subsequent weakening of the rule of law.  This in turn creates threats against Gonebeyond space, where Andrej is in hiding.

Having given his benign but stifling guardians the slip, Andrej has inadvertently walked in on a covert Malcontent operation to smash the terrorist ring run by one of his younger brothers.  He’s forced to play for time by (slightly) faking the torture of captured cousin Stanoczk, working at his evil brother’s behest, while he tries to find a way to rescue the situation.  Meanwhile, a third brother is poised with five Dolgorukij warships on a separate mission at the edge of Gonebeyond, waiting for word to invade and drag Andrej back to his homeworld.  In other words, Matthews at her convoluted and conflicted best – I needn’t have worried at all.  And another book, Fleet Insurgent, is in the pipeline.  Joy!


Follycon Follies

Ah, so the second Follycon has come and gone, thirty years after the first and what a magnificent folly the Majestic Hotel was!  What con-goer would not want to spend the weekend in the company of W. Anderson’s Grand Harrogate Hotel and its idiosyncratic crew?  What’s not to love about a place where the downstairs gents – dark wood panelling, acres of chequerboard tiles, a conference table and a six-seater banquette -exuded more grandeur than a pie, mash and liquor joint; a place begging for LARP campaigns and guerrilla tourism, since half the bedrooms remain out-of-bounds after a mysterious fire, several years ago; a place where every other space aped the throne room at King’s Landing (just don’t get stuck behind a pillar during panels); a place where the lounge bar’s coffee machine had demised and the tea was even more toxic than the insane levels of citra hops in most of the offerings from the real ale bar.  I do hope Eastercon returns to the Majestic soon!

Harrogate is an attractive town, on foot of its Regency/Victorian spa heyday.  Who could forget the sweeping staircases of the Wetherspoons, ensconced in the Winter Gardens, or Betty’s iconic tea rooms – all cast iron and olive brown sandstone.  The excellent Colin Fine guided a walk through the Valley Gardens and Pinewoods on the Friday morning – a welcome opportunity to get some pre-con fresh air and testament to the con’s ambition to offer new and different things.  If I was initially a little taken-aback by the glorified shopping mall that was RHS Harlow Carr; overflow car park no. three heaving with the great and good of God’s own county as we arrived, I did find much to enjoy in the less beaten tracks at the wilder extremities of the site and in the alpine house.  Heck, I even relaxed enough to buy some sweet cicely seeds in the shop.  They’ll tub up nicely – I can almost taste the tempura style fritters already.  Fantastical highlights of the place were the wicker Ferengi gardener and the steampunk bug-hotels.

An area of decline in recent years has been the amount of second-hand books available for sale in the Dealers’ Room.  One can no longer rely on a con for filling a gap or two in one’s collection.  In general, Follycon did nothing to reverse this trend though to be fair, I did snare a few of the original Man from UNCLE tie-ins I was missing.  I had considerably more luck in Harrogate’s excellent Books for All, up on Commercial Street.  Still, at least Follycon had a dealer selling tea – that was a plus.  I should also plug the small and pretty Imagined Things bookshop in the arcade, which hosted SF and Fantasy readings on the Saturday afternoon.  I attended the former and was delighted to meet Christopher Priest for the first time: one of my lifelong literary heroes.  He signed a copy of The Gradual for me.

Another highlight of the con for me was the poetry ‘open mic’ on Sunday lunchtime – I seldom have opportunities to read any of my poetry in public, so I leapt at the opportunity.  I chose The Shrill Carder Bee to read, as it is probably my only poem containing SF imagery.  It seemed to go down well.  And in fact the event was more of a general poetry thing, so I could have brought a few others to read: next time.  This was the only thing I did on the programme this Eastercon: all of the ideas for programme items that I had pitched to the organisers, fell on stony ground.  In general I didn’t mind, if there’s enough new blood coming into our hobby that I’m not needed, then great.  Nevertheless, on seeing how underused the Majestic’s fabulous billiard room was over the four days, it made me a little sad that my offer to run a fiction ‘open mic’ had been passed over.  The space, where passers-by could have dipped in and out as they liked, was tailor made for one.  A similar event I compered for Mancunicon a couple of years back was a runaway success, in far more difficult conditions.

I had high hopes for the Pointless quiz on Saturday evening. Regrettably, Witless, it might better have been called, or Toothpull.  I like the Pointless format on TV but the creators of this panel never satisfactorily solved how to adapt the format to accommodate the live audience participation which they sought.  To be fair, some of the questions were engaging and fun (I particularly enjoyed the ‘fictional religions’ and ‘third books of series’) but the hour could neither overcome the shortcomings of the format devised nor recover from the creaky start, the unconvincing score-keeping and the fact that the man bringing the buckets of saline containing the contestants’ brains, only showed up around half-time.  Still it’s one worth persevering with for the future, if the format can be better adapted to the requirements of a con.

Lastly, am I the only person to wonder if Follycon’s most egregious folly was to allot programme space for TAFF (Trans-atlantic Fan Fund) fundraising?  Our hobby has made great strides in recent years to, for example, provide a safe and welcoming space to people of all genders and sexual orientations, embrace diversity and to be helpful and accommodating to those with disabilities of all kinds.  Why the Hell are we continuing to raise money to subsidise travel to/from a country that seeks to ban the entry of ordinary citizens from several countries on account of their religion?  The least we could do in solidarity, is to freeze all TAFF activities until such time as the US ditches its Fascist policies and returns to being the open democracy we once knew and loved.

Postscript 04/04/2018

A friend of mine has commented to me that there were significant accessibility issues at the hotel.  Indeed, she knew of two attendees who had to leave the con early because of it.  This is not good at all, given how inclusive our hobby strives to be and rather makes me doubt my fulsome affection for the hotel.  If I was oblivious to it all, it was because I was heeding the signage to keep the lifts free for those who needed them and use the stairs; thus I built up no picture in my own head over the weekend as to how accessible (or not) the various zones were.  My friend related the story that accessible access to the Dealers’ Room required a golf-buggy ride right around the hotel’s vast bulk that might take twenty or thirty minutes, if one included the time needed to locate an insured driver from the hotel staff.  Not great at all; though it would be remiss of me not to mention that a programme of renovations/improvements  is underway at the Majestic, so hopefully this wouldn’t happen again.

My First BristolCon

I’ve been aware of BristolCon for some years; the word-of-mouth that it’s a small, happy, friendly convention having reached even the Atlantic shores of Munster.  Having been unable to attend Belfast’s TitanCon earlier this year, a slot in my annual con-going roster had opened up and I was able to break my BristolCon duck as a result.  I’m very glad I did.

It’s nominally a one-day event but a BristolCon Fringe open mic the evening before pleasantly extended the con vibe, even if attendees at that were a little sparse because the local Waterstones had arranged a competing event, offering free beer.  Nevertheless, I was able to read the scene from A Coarse and Violent Gesture, in which the King of the Fairies gets an unwelcome visit from the local paramilitary commander.  It’s one of the stories in my Irish Tales collection, due out next year and seemed to go down well.

One of the best things about BristolCon happened well in advance of the event itself.  A great long list of possible panel topics was sent to attendees, who then voted on the ones they wanted to see at the con.  Whoever came up with this, deserves a medal.  It’s become the norm in recent years, for cons to solicit volunteers for panellists on-line, which has too often resulted in platforms being given to the worst kinds of egregious self-publicists, axe-grinders and authoritarian bigots. Who has made it to the end of an EasterCon in recent years, for example, without wanting to slash their own wrists, having been assailed from all directions by three-and-a-half days of relentless, po-faced negativity?  Giving the members this sort of control over the panel topics is a great way to mitigate the worst excesses of this trend and to celebrate instead the very many positive aspects of our hobby.

The things I enjoyed most about my first BristolCon were the following:-

  • Some actual second-hand books in the dealers’ room (yay!);
  • The brick-out room – a throwback to the old ‘fan room’ which used to be a staple of every con but which has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent years.  This one had lego and free coffee.  How about adding an MC next year, to orchestrate impromptu stuff?
  • The free book swap table – every con should have one;
  • Making some great new acquaintances.  This is one of the best reasons to move outside of your regular fandom orbits and go to a new place;
  • The wild west panel, which covered loads of ground but still managed to leave a lot uncovered – ample evidence of the richness of the topic – thereby engendering much discussion in the bar later.  I can feel a blog post coming on to recap some of this, plus to air some of the angles the panel didn’t have time to cover.  On thing I was mulling over was whether there was any (near) contemporary wild west writing containing fantasy, horror or SF elements.  The opening yarn in Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895) came to mind and also some Verne, notably The Mysterious Island (1874), which opens with an American Civil War balloon-hijack prison break and The Golden Volcano (1905), set during the Klondike gold rush.

Did BristolCon live up to its friendly brand image?  Most certainly.  Would I recommend it to anyone else?  Absolutely.  Will I go again?  Definitely; indeed next year.  Apart from anything else it was significantly cheaper for me than attending Octocon, due in no small part to the cost of accommodation in Bristol being around 50% of that for a comparable room in Dublin.

Returning to the wild west theme, here’s a quiz question for you: which SF writer, whom I have previously featured in my blog posts, died from wounds received during the American Civil War?

Liege-killer: 30 Years on, Still the Greatest ever SF Debut?

Liege-killer is the title of Christopher Hinz’s stupendous 1987 SF debut, set amongst the orbital colonies of the inner solar system that house the remains of humanity.  It tells the story of Nick and Gillian, special agents of dubious provenance (a sort of SF equivalent to Vizzini & Fezzik), who are thawed out after two centuries of peace, following the re-emergence of a paratwa (a binary gestalt killer); a grave existential threat to civilisation as we know it.

As atrocity piles on atrocity, Nick and Gillian pursue the cohe-wand (as iconic as any lightsabre) wielding paratwa, the eponymous Reemul, across the colonies.  It develops into one of the great SF rollercoaster rides.

I would unreservedly call Liege-killer the greatest SF debut novel of all time.  My reasoning here is that it stands stratospherically higher than anything else that Hinz ever produced.  Its two sequels; Ash Ock and The Paratwa are poor (more on that anon) and his only other work, the stand-alone Anachronisms, is instantly forgettable (or at least, I’ve read it and I don’t remember a thing about it).

So what makes Liege-killer so mind-bogglingly good?  First of all, it has all the basic ingredients in place; fabulous worldbuilding, a pair of compelling leads and a villain to die for. The existential threat of Reemul; a potential catalyst for regression into the debilitating wars that preceded a fragile two-hundred year peace, is beautifully wrought.  On top of this, Hinz manages to get into the heads of the one mind, two bodies monster and really works out how this sort of binary killer could optimise its assets, giving the set-piece killing sprees a ferocious verisimilitude.

The master stroke of the story, however is the Promethean nature of Reemul.  This is a monster that mankind has visited upon itself and it is this which gives the tale its real punch and resonance.

So what happened to the promise, and to Hinz?  I can only speculate.  I imagine him crafting his first novel for years in some freezing garret, getting it pitch perfect and wowing the first commissioning editor that saw it into drooling submission.  Perhaps a three book deal followed and Hinz faltered, the delays ultimately trying his paymasters’ patience.  Ash Ock was the result – half a novel that ends nowhere, like as not, rushed out to meet a contractual deadline.  It’s a mess.  While this book and The Paratwa do conclude the story after a fashion, Hinz threw the baby out with the bathwater by deciding that it was aliens all along, totally undermining the power of the first book.

I imagine that after Anachronisms, Hinz decided that writing SF novels wasn’t for him and gave up, though he did do some comics work including Helix’s Gemini Blood series in the 1990’s.  There’s a happy coda to the story.  In 2013 the graphic-novel version of Liege-killer, called Binary, was released, penned again by Hinz and drawn by Jon Proctor.  If nothing else it shows that you can’t stop the cream rising to the top.  What the world really needs, though, is a Liege-killer movie.  I hope we get one soon but with one caveat, if it does well and becomes a franchise, get someone to write some fresh stories for the sequels and leave Hinz’s other two books in the dustbin.  Everyone should experience Liege-killer – just resist the temptation to touch the rest.

Postscript, 21/10/2017

It seems that Hinz returned to SF novels in 2012 with the well received Spartan X and also wrote a new paratwa novel in 2016, Binary Storm.  It’s the prequel to Liege-Killer, set in the 21st century and presumably dealing with the events that culminated in Nick and Gillian being frozen.  Someone should update his Wikipedia page, which says none of this 🙂

And I for one will be delighted if he’s exorcised the novel writing demons after an hiatus of twenty years or so and is coming back big time.  If he can re-discover his Liege-killer mojo on a regular basis there could be great things to look forward to.


The Replicant in the Room: a Few Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is marvellous to look at, does fantastic work in the scenes imagining people’s struggle to survive amidst the environmental wreckage of our planet but is ultimately undone by a totally ludicrous plot.

Everything that’s wrong with this movie is encapsulated in the opening act.  Blade Runner K shows up to retire Sapper, an old Nexus-8 replicant, doing his best to keep his head down as a protein farmer.  In 2049 the Earth’s a basket case – no wildlife, no trees, freak weather, vast industrial graveyards, a ten-day blackout that destroyed most records and data, sky-high radiation pockets – and this guy’s doing sterling work as an upstanding citizen, feeding people and he gets retired?  Yeah right.

The film never recovers because it’s quite impossible to make any suspension of disbelief concerning the plot that’s supposed to be driving it.  Yes, one can believe that thirty years before, Deckard would have had to go into hiding to escape being hunted down but the notion that the need for Blade Runners endured across the next thirty years of environmental and technological reverses just doesn’t hold water.

In 2049, despite a feeble and futile attempt to drum up an ‘old replicant coming rebellion’ subplot, the old replicants clearly represent no kind of existential threat (why? See thirty years of environmental and technological reverses that have brought our planet to its knees).  The main old replicants that we meet are either retired in the more usual sense; Deckard, or else are good people; Sapper and the Pris-a-like hooker.

Even the discovery that two old replicants had a child doesn’t alter this dynamic.  In fact, the film undermines the motivations of Wallace, the new Tyrell, and his henchwoman Luv by having this discovery arise from the actions of a Blade Runner.  Their quest for this holy grail would have been more credible if they had learnt of the existence of this child from elsewhere – a pre-blackout data fragment from Tyrell for example.  Indeed this could have better driven the whole movie without there being any need for a Blade Runner at all.

There are other things I could gripe about; the ease with which Luv penetrates the inner sanctums of LAPD HQ at will, for example and the colossal misstep of Wallace trying to turn Deckard with the offer of a new Rachel.

I enjoyed the movie and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone else but everything I got out of it was in spite of the plot.  I’ll watch anything with Ryan Gosling and he’s great in this – especially the scene where he unwinds a little with his boss (played by Robin Wright).  The visualisation of what our planet is probably actually going to be like in the real 2049, or thereabouts, is phenomenal.  The long scene where K goes to the orphanage and the Mad Max like scene where K’s spinner is brought down in a wasteland, were probably my two favourites in the whole film because they focussed more on this aspect than the plot.  Oh and the music’s great.

There are shout outs to the original Blade Runner all the way through – the sort of reverse Voight-Kampff test that K has to periodically undergo – the clamouring neon ads (but Peugeot, really?!?!) – and, most originally, the opening overflight of the solar farms aping the one over the petroleum flares.  Overall 3.5 stars.


On Scientific Fiction

When Hugo Gernsback was first casting around for a pithy term for the new genre fiction he was featuring  in his pulps, he opted for the portmanteau ‘Scientifiction.’  It didn’t catch on and, rather reluctantly, he tried again, this time with ‘Science Fiction.’

The earliest of his magazines, with titles like Electrical Experimenter (founded 1913), featured both stories and science journalism.  By the time Amazing Stories – his first magazine solely dedicated to SF – arrived, in 1926, the genre had already settled down into the standard form for the Golden Age – stories set in the future, often on distant planets featuring extraterrestrials, speculating, more or less wildly, on how the technologies of the time might one day have advanced.

Tales which particularly closely adhered to the known laws of physics, became known as ‘Hard’ SF.  This sub-genre is exemplified by Hal Clement’s classic short Dust Rag (1956), in which a lunar explorer out on EVA, has to figure out how to clear away the statically-charged moon dust covering his visor, or die.  The story is both satisfyingly scientific and, by virtue of its future lunar setting, classic SF.

Which is all a roundabout way of broaching the question; is all scientific fiction, Science Fiction, or does there arrive a point where the science component of the story is so rooted in the known and the present that it becomes something different?

I recently read Those Who Seek, Daniil Granin’s 1954 novel about the lives and loves of staff at a Soviet electrical power transmission research institute.  It’s a thrilling and absorbing tale, in part because of the window it opens onto how (relatively) ordinary people lived their lives under the Soviet system, in part because of what the book has to say about that system itself (and it’s not in any way a propaganda piece) and in part because of the gorgeous translation by Robert Dalglish (mine is the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, edition), which brings the story alive and makes you care about the characters.

The overarching story focusses on new laboratory head, the aloof and unworldly Lobanov.  At work, he battles conflicting resource demands, Party politics and bureaucratic inertia, to try and get support for the development of his baby – an improved ‘locator’ for finding breaks in transmission lines.  Off duty, the reader follows the course of his unsatisfactory affair with the enigmatic Rita.

There are scenes that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in science and technology.  The heartbreaking one where engineer-turned-housewife Liza first attends, the flees her class reunion after suffering the disdainful disappointment of her former professor.  The joyous epiphany via which the fading Chief Engineer, Dmitri Alexeyevich first grasps and then decides to back Lobanov’s project.  And of course you want to slap Lobanov around the head a few times, when he rebuffs force-of-nature Nina’s interest in him at the annual Komsomol outing.

And there are some fabulous throwaway references, notably to the finest poetry on scientific themes being that written by the great Lomonosov.  Granin, the author, would doubtless have been very familiar with his works.  Now I despair of ever finding any in English translation, well apart from this one.

Is Those Who Seek SF?  My heart says yes, my head says no, even given the MacGuffin of Lobanov’s ‘locator.’  I have another Granin in my ‘to read’ pile: Into The Storm about weather forecasting/control – let’s see how that turns out!

In western SF, the works of William Gibson are an interesting case.  Since his debut Neuromancer (1984) and its off-planet denouément – undeniably SF, he’s slowly been creeping back towards the present and reining-in the tech to the point where Spook Country (2007) is almost better labelled a techno-thriller.  Maybe that’s one way we reclassify fiction dealing with the known science of the present.

In Irish writing, John Banville’s biographical trilogy of works on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton (Doctor Copernicus (1976) (which I read this year), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982)) is sometimes loosely referred to as science fiction.  The three books are, of course, first and foremost historical fiction about scientists but Banville infuses them with enough reflection on the nature of the cosmos, that treating  them as forward-looking speculative fiction is not unreasonable.

Scientific fiction is a without question a topic that grows in the telling.  I can see myself returning to it again in the not too distant future.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction

As soon as I heard that this new exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre (running June 3rd – Sept 1st 2017) was being curated by Patrick Gyger, it became a ‘must attend’ for me. I’d met Patrick a few times during his decade-long tenure at the Maison d’Ailleurs, while I was still active in the space industry and every time been bowled over by his knowledge.  He provided me with useful and welcome advice while I was putting together the space strand of the Earthwake science in television forum, held in Strasbourg in 2007.

The first thing you notice about the main exhibition is the extraordinarily broad range of things it brings together – ample testament to Gyger’s pull.  There’s a strong emphasis on material on paper (books, pulp covers, collectors’ cards, Soviet-era publications, film & TV concept art), again consistent with what I know of Gyger’s interests and priorities.  Display cases show off key books on each of SF’s main themes.  As a book nut, this was a joy to me; I had my pencil and paper out, noting down titles that were new to me (eg; Alexander Beliaev’s The Amphibian, Plutonia by Vladimir Obruchev) and I started to play a game – two points for a book on my shelves at home, five for the exact same edition (I scored 201).  It was nice to see that the Barbican shop had made an effort to stock the titles on display, even if most of the lesser-known ones were absent.  However I did pick up a copy of Ayn Rand’s dazzling Anthem, and read it on the flight home.

As already mentioned, the breadth of exhibits was impressive.  Ray Harryhausen was very well represented with extensive concept art from a several movies (my favourite was the unrealised man-eating plant from The Mysterious Island) and a clutch of latex dinosaurs including Gwangi himself.  I saw the actual H.R. Giger Harkonnen capo chair created for Jodorowsky’s Dune.  There were several gorgeous, painstakingly accurate models of vehicles out of Jules Verne (I think lent by the Éspace Jules Verne of the Maison D’Ailleurs) including the Nautilus, the Albatros and the Lunar train.  There was the original Spindrift, which took me back to Saturday mornings as a kid and the submarine from Fantastic Voyage.  I could go on.

Modern movies were well represented.  There were props from Interstellar, Moon, Alien, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, various Godzilla’s, Star Wars, to name a few and, my favourite of all, the quite beautiful Horus and Anubis masks from Stargate.  To accompany the props, there were clips showing at various points ranging from iconic SF moments (Rover’s first appearance in The Prisoner), through early, historically important films (some fascinating Soviet stuff here), to quirky curios like the Turkish Star Wars (think space-suited actors in the foreground with a bootleg Star Wars space battle backdrop, the aspect ratio tweaked to make it look original – the rugby-ball-shaped Death Star is a hoot).

I had a number of gripes with the exhibition.  First off, the narrow, crescent shaped, high-ceilinged exhibition space being used was a disaster, for several reasons.  Some of the major movie props on view were too high-up to be easily studied and there were several points in the walk-through, where display cases were blocked by other attendees standing to watch film clips projected onto an adjacent wall.  I was there at a quiet time too; this issue would have been far worse had it been full.

Attendees were encouraged to take their own photos but the display of items was not photo-friendly, due to reflections and glare.  More attention could have been given to this aspect.  The catalogue (yes I bought one – £35.00) was both impressive and disappointing.  What it covered was great but it was very much slanted towards books, magazines and paintings.  There was sparse attention given to the movie and TV props on show in the exhibition.  I don’t know if this was due to a copyright conflict or what but the practical consequence of all this was that I had stopped taking photos, assuming the objects would be featured in the catalogue only to discover afterwards that they were not.  This annoyed me greatly – I would strongly recommend that anyone attending, intending to buy a catalogue does so (and looks through it) before walking around the exhibition.  That way you can ensure that you can photograph the things not featured in it, if you want a record of them.

There were a few satellite exhibits elsewhere in the Barbican.  I don’t think I located them all; the signposting was not great and in addition, part of the building was cordoned off for a ‘private event,’ which meant detours.  Standout of the rest was the half-hour movie In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain, by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind.  This was a none-too-subtle allegory on the Palestinian conflict, with a glorious central premise.  It came across to me as a Terry Pratchett-like idea, reflected through the philosophical prism of a Stanislaw Lem (think a female Ijon Tichy, dodging wackers in the world of Strata).


A Review of Linda Nagata’s ‘The Red’ Trilogy

I’ve been a fan of Linda Nagata’s work for quite a while.  A whole swathe of her novels came out in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s and I devoured them all eagerly.  The relentlessly strange first half of Vast (1998), the culmination of the loose tetralogy that had begun with The Bohr Maker (1995) is still one of the best things I’ve ever read.  Of course a new writer always has missteps – I found Deception Well (1997), the third of the tetralogy, to be an incoherent slog, redeemed only by the magnificent abseil down the skyhook and the second half of Vast, once the protagonists arrive, is a bit of a let-down after the thrill of the journey.  But there was always enough great stuff in her books to keep me interested.

So far as I could tell though, Nagata dropped off the map after about 2003, the year Memory came out, or at least my map, until I found a copy of The Red: First Light, the first book of an eponymous trilogy, earlier this year.  The blurb to that filled in the gaps – that she had gone big into self-publishing/e-publishing in the meantime.  No surprise then, that to an old-fashioned die hard like me, who still gauges a writer’s activity by what is in paper, on shelves, she should seem to have vanished. [UPDATE August 8th.: Via Twitter, Linda has told me that she did in fact give up writing for about ten years and having used self-publishing as a route back in, is gravitating back towards traditional publishing.]

The world of The Red: First Light, The Trials and Going Dark is a near future of technologically enhanced soldiers – Linked Combat Squads – operating in small, self-contained wars, where the battle lines between nation states, ‘dragons’ (oligarchs) and corporations, with their ‘mercs’ have become blurred.  Into this, emerges ‘The Red,’ a rogue AI which can manipulate situations, even to the point of hacking into some of these soldiers and using them for its own ends.

The focal point of the story is one such soldier, James Shelley whose journey goes from regular US army grunt, to quasi-secret agent for The Red, neutralising ‘existential threats’ with his squad.  Nagata’s great coup is to give The Red a consumerist corporate origin, implying that the primary goal of neutralising these threats is to benefit ‘the market’ and that saving the world for humanity at the same time is just happenstance.

The plot arc of the first two books focusses on tracking down rogue nuclear weapons, some of which are successfully used by a dragon to obliterate a lot of the Internet (through EMP) in an attempt to destroy The Red.  These are the two best books.  I found the third, Going Dark, weaker, possibly because with its by-line of ‘No real allies, no fixed enemies, no certain battlefields,‘ the reader is no longer certain of who or what they’re rooting for.  Of course this is a perfectly logical development of Nagata’s initial premise but it makes it harder for the reader to stay engaged.  And of course as a European, I might baulk at the ‘happy ending’ of Shelley’s last mission failing, thereby handing the means to control The Red to the US govt.

Nagata’s writing style has improved immeasurably since her early novels. What is really striking about the trilogy is the way the tautly wrought, narrow and rigorous world of military tech in which most of the story is set, is realised.  This is deeply impressive.  In fact it’s done so well that the parts set in the ‘real’ world with Shelley’s father and girlfriend Lissa are quite jarring; so much so that I cheered when Lissa became collateral damage at the end of book one.  Probably the author did not intend this!

If the trilogy has one drawback, it is that it’s full of coincidences.  These are explained away logically enough as the behind the scenes manipulations of The Red.  Nevertheless a few do seem over the top.  I particularly disliked the way that Delphi and Vasquez are dragged back into the narrative in book three through a totally random encounter in the Arctic, having been given an out with the heist at the end of book two.  Even once you concede that they’re part of the bigger story, Vasquez’s decision to return to military action seems unconvincing.

Overall though, these are small gripes in what is a superb story.  One hopes someone like HBO will snap it up and bring it to our screens.



A Review of Planetfall

I first became aware of Emma Newman at the Olympus convention a few years back; I was attending a panel she was on and she seemed to be talking more sense than all the rest up there with her put together; made me sit up and take notice and I’ve ‘followed’ her since.

A highlight so far was last year’s Octocon, where I got to sit in on a live Tea and Jeopardy and where she was interviewed and talked a lot about her upcoming Planetfall.  Now there’s a thing about me and new authors – considering starting on someone new, I’m like a hobo deciding where to invest his last nickel.  I’m picky, I know what I like and it takes a lot of time, a lot of critical mass for me to take the plunge.  Anyhow, Planetfall was that plunge moment for me.

I often read books concurrently and at the time Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise was the bedtime doorwedge and slim, compact Planetfall became the travelling volume.  Both have a major character called Mack – which caused me no end of confusion. Don’t think I’ve ever had that happen to me before.

Anyhow, to Planetfall.  It’s an effortless read, beautifully written.  Some writers’ prose you just fly through (I always finish Christopher Priest’s books in two or three days) and this was right there with them.

The basic premise of the book is 2001 with plants instead of monoliths, leading to an expedition to colonise another world.  A succession of bad things happen in the early days of the colony; some colonists are lost and abandoned, presumed dead during the initial planetfall, then the leader of the expedition vanishes.  Cover ups for both of these events occur and then the colony gets on with the business of existing, next door to a strange organic ‘city.’

It’s a slow burner of a book that kicks into overdrive for the last quarter as the colony is simultaneously visited with a savage retribution and narrator Ren gets her transcendent David Bowman moment.  Ren is a brilliantly drawn character – part of the colony management and their 3D printing guru – she has an OCD that requires her to hoard stuff; the ultimate sin in a place where everything is 3D printed and waste needs to be assiduously recycled to feed the printers.  Emma Newman’s greatest coup in the book is to find the perfect McGuffin to fit; just what is lurking beneath the tons of hoarded junk that stuffs Ren’s home to the gills?

Planetfall has flaws, chief of which is that the other characters never really get to come out of Ren’s shadow.  One never really comprehends, for example, how Suh-mi was so charismatic as to attract people to follow her and to back and man the expedition in the first place.  Then the chief antagonist in the book, the returned wanderer Sung-soo, apart from being mind-bogglingly, relentlessly irritating, is such a clear existential threat to the colony that you really wonder why the previously ruthless Mack hasn’t printed a gun and shot him dead by chapter 20.  Is Mack trying to atone for past deeds or has he just gone soft; it’s never really clear.

The size of the colony is never really clear either; the events at the end of the book made it seem much larger than it had been, to me in my head up until that point.  It’s rather sketchily drawn too – I wondered about the apparent absence of young children to the point where I thought it might have plot importance; similarly there appears to be no functioning police force in a place that definitely needed one.

Planetfall is very much worth reading despite these flaws.  Ren is one of the great modern characters of SF and probably counts as one of the best OCD studies in all fiction, done with honesty and not a little humour.  The exploration of the scope and scale of 3D printing in this sort of expedition is bang up to date and right on the button.  The last quarter of the book, with the themes of retribution and transcendence really works too.

World War I: Some Fantasy and SF Connections

A few days ago a nice copy of Talbot Mundy’s Hira Singh, illustrated by Joseph Clement Coll, dropped onto my mat. Published in 1918, it’s a novel inspired by the true story of some Sikh troops who were captured by the Germans in Flanders in 1915, imprisoned in a Turkish PoW camp and who then escaped that, to trek overland back to their depot in India.

As it’s the 100th anniversary, this set me thinking about what other fantasy and SF connections to WWI I had come across. What follows is not intended to be exhaustive; it’s just a survey of a few things I’ve come across over the years.

Mundy, of course, did not see active service, having a few years before emigrated to the USA. His most direct connection with WWI was with its aftermath in Palestine, which he visited in the early 1920s. He became a friend of Faisal I, who featured in his novel The King in Check (aka The Affair in Araby), one of several works Mundy wrote to try and expose British and French duplicity towards the arabs.

One of the most eminent genre writers to die in WWI was horror master William Hope Hodgson who was killed by a shell at Ypres in April 1918. Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, whose output included a number of mystical and mythological works also died at Ypres, in July 1917. Lord Dunsany was his patron. Dunsany himself served in the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers, spent time in the trenches and later wrote propaganda for the War Office. His experiences fed his 1918 collection Tales of War, which included the short story The Road, written as a tribute to Ledwidge.

One of my favourite WWI works is Letters to Helen by Scottish artist and illustrator Keith Henderson, who later did the marvellous illustrations and decorations for Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. The work intersperses the (often extraordinary) paintings he made as an artist serving on the Western Front, with the letters he sent home during that period.

A very eminent SF writer who took part in WWI was Olaf Stapledon. As a quaker, he objected to combat and so served as a driver in the Friends Ambulance Service. He later wove these experiences into his episodic, visionary novel Last Men in London.