Speculative Fiction

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?

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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).

 

In Praise of Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights was Lionel Davidson’s last novel, a work of speculative fiction that, thanks to its uncommon setting and his choice of the thriller milieu through which to tell the tale, has much in common with many a classic Bond movie.

At its heart, it’s the tale of a conspiracy between three academics who bond whilst pissing up against a wall, at the fag end of a boozy Oxford conference.

Years later, the Russian member of the trio, Rogachev, who in the intervening years has accepted a one-way ticket to an ultra-secret institute in northeast Siberia as a means of coping with his wife’s untimely death, turns whistleblower and sends a series of coded messages to the second, tweedy Oxford don Lazenby aka ‘Goldilocks,’ exhorting him to persuade the third, Jean-Baptiste Porteur aka Johnny Porter or ‘Raven’ – an ethnography polymath of the native Canadian Gitksan tribe – to clandestinely infiltrate this same institute in order to reveal a great discovery to the world.

Other than a violent bosun whom Porter encounters early on whilst disguised as a Korean seaman, Kolymsky Heights is a tale without bad guys.  The adversary is really just a hangover of the Soviet system that dictates that secret work done in secret institutes shall remain secret because it’s, well, secret.  This being the case it’s to Lionel Davidson’s utmost credit that he still manages to craft such a mesmerising page turner.

Part of the reason for this rests with the utterly compelling central character of academic-turned-agent Johnny Porter, very probably the greatest spy creation in all of thriller fiction.  Part of the reason is the marvellously drawn characters of the two Siberian women Porter crosses paths with; blowsy shopgirl Lydia and Medical Officer Komarova.  The rest of it is down to the mind-boggling amount of research Davidson must have had to do to bring what for most of us is such an alien corner of the globe, replete with Evenks and Chuckchees, bobiks and kamas, so vividly to life.

Having used Siberia as a setting for some of my own fantasy stories, I can attest to the effort involved even today, when we have the Internet.  It must have been a thousand times more difficult when Davidson was embarked upon the writing of this, thirty or so years ago (when Kolymsky Heights was first published in 1994 it was Davidson’s first novel in sixteen years.  A Lionel Davidson tribute website, maintained by his son, says the book was completely rewritten three times).

The plot’s MacGuffin is brilliantly established in a gloriously cinematic[1] prologue but if the book has one slightly underwhelming aspect it is the rather ho-hum secret that somewhat cumbersomely evolves from the initial discovery. This, however is a very minor gripe amongst all that is masterfully wrought, as outlined above.  And the tale has a killer romantic payoff too!

[1] On which topic, I believe there was once mooted a film version, with Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Edward Norton as the three academics but it appears to have fallen through.