A Eureka Moment

Today it occurred to me for the first time that I might actually live to see the collapse of civilisation and the ‘End of the World’ as we know it: a eureka moment indeed.

To explain how I’ve reached this conclusion, I can best begin by going back thirty years or so to when I was in Space Policy and Law class at MIT.  Among the policy exercises we used to do, there was one to find justifications for mankind to leave Earth and go out to colonise space and other planets.  Scientific curiosity, the innate human urge to explore, and so as to obtain new raw materials and resources to help maintain economic growth were all taken to be valid reasons, but there was once which was completely taboo, and that was the need to escape from a failing ecosystem.  Anyone in class who dared advance it was immediately subjected to an extreme moral backlash.  The rationale for this was very simple – should mankind not be able to avoid fouling its own nest, then it immediately abdicated the right to leave it and go out and similarly destroy other worlds.

Thirty years on, it seems incredible that this should have been the case.  Today, the Elon Musks amongst us cite escape as one of the most pressing reasons to get on with colonising the Moon or Mars and nobody demurs.  That’s because sadly, they are right.

Back in the day, I cannot emphasise how strongly the taboo against this was espoused, by all the Americans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese and Europeans in the class alike.  In order to understand this, we can of course point to such landmarks as the publication, not long before, of Frank White’s influential book The Overview Effect, but mostly it is because the political climate was very different then.  Thirty years or so ago we were tantalisingly close to getting global agreement on real action to address climate change (as the New York Times recently reminded us).  The prize slipped through our fingers like sand and now the world is going to Hell in a handbasket – there’s going to be no going back.

In 2002, George W. Bush coined the term ‘Axis of Evil’ to pigeonhole certain rogue states whose perceived militarisation, aggression and penchant for global terrorism was a danger to the civilised world.  In 2018, we might equally well identify an ‘Axis of Environmental Evil’ headed, it would seem by the United States and Brazil, for their current environmental policies are going to kill millions of people in peaceable nation-states around the world, just as surely as it was predicted Iraq and the Taliban would do.  And just as was put forward by Bush in 2002, it is equally clear in 2018 that only the collective military intervention, this time of the environmentally responsible nations, is likely to put a stop to it.  But this will never happen, for the military industrial complex of the US is too powerful and the resulting war would just trash the world another way.

One might equally despair of the vast energies of millions of activists frittered-away in recent decades on other issues, like equality and the rights of minorities.  Strangers may castigate me mightily for so daring to say; those who know me, know I would fight until my last breath for true equality between people of every gender, race and sex, but if mankind does ever achieve that, it would really be quite nice to have a world left to enjoy it all in.  I wonder where we might be today if all that colossal amount of effort had instead been directed towards saving the planet first.  Hindsight is a terrible thing.

There now seems to be no good reason not to take even the most catastrophic of the climate change models currently in play as anything other than ludicrously optimistic.  Why?  Well for a start, they don’t take into account things like the United States rolling back all its environmental laws of the past few decades, nor of Brazil razing the rest of the Amazonian rain forest within a few years, both of which are happening already or going to happen.  But the big thing, I think, is the effect of the huge methane releases that are going to come from melting permafrost.  This is a relatively recent geophysical phenomenon which it has not yet been possible to accurately add to the models, and it’s huge.  After that, all that is left is for the dreadful engines of positive feedback to administer the coup de grace.

Can anything save the world?  Frankly I doubt it, but possibly, just possibly there could be some sea change, twenty or so years from now when Miami and Shanghai and dozens of other cities are already under water.  One could not then completely rule out the technological ingenuity of the entire global military industrial complex being re-directed towards the construction of huge machines to purge the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, sequester and store carbon, re-freeze the permafrost and increase the Earth’s albedo, whilst the ordinary men and women of the planet labour to reverse desertification one plant at a time.  What the timeframe for that is, and whether it’s possible to pull it off while keeping everyone fed and with a roof over their heads, who knows?  One thing’s for sure, the elite of Elonville,  living in the shadow of Olympus Mons, will be laughing.



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!

Let’s Hear it for the ‘Sloth Weevil’

In 2009, the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) issued its first ‘Red List’ report, on water beetles, in collaboration with scientists from NI and Scotland. As an enthusiastic amateur entomologist, I often devour such documents for fun.  Gradually, however, it has dawned on me that there was something a little unique about this one: specifically, the rather unusual common names ascribed to a number of the water beetle species covered within its pages.

Here, amidst the sparse distribution maps and dry inventories of hundred year old sightings, one can meet such fine fellows as Little Nobby, The Upland Frenchman, The Dinghy Skipper, The Chummier Australian, The Orangeman (‘typically associated with large tracts of brackish water’), The Artist (Gyrinus urinator), sundry sloth weevils and many more.

I particularly enjoyed The Turlough Long-Claw.  It put me in mind of a Robert E. Howard and George R.R. Martin mashup – A monstrous avenger, yomping through marsh and mire, to right the wrongs of reclusive crannogmen.

I have no idea what one is looking at here.  Surely no serious scientific publication, before or since, has whipped up common names out of nowhere for so many obscure species all in one go like this.  Are they translations of names from elsewhere in Europe? (I’m reminded, for example, that the common longhorn beetle Rhagium mordax, sometimes, thanks to the wonders of online translation, goes by the moniker of Black Spotted Pliers Support Beetle).

Perhaps we’re seeing a laudable attempt by the NPWS to kindle some public interest in a group of endangered insects.  Maybe it’s an attempt to leaven a dry tome with some welcome humour or, shock horror, could it be a wee prank that may have so far gone unnoticed?

My favourites are the sloth weevils (Bagous sp.), be they short, broad-beaked or miry.  The name creates an image in my mind’s eye of one of these lugubrious insects, hanging upside-down from a bending plant stem, looking goofy.  That the name fits its owners well, is reflected by how far it has propagated since 2009.  A quick google, shows ‘sloth weevil’ to have reached numerous Irish and NI sites (including an appearance in the October 5th 2012 Hansard for the NI Assembly),  Buglife and the RSPB in the UK, The EU-wide PESI species directory portal, Fauna Europaea in Berlin, and the swedish-hosted Naturalist portal covering Sweden, Finland and Estonia.

Many of their fellows have not fared so well.  The Chummier Australian and The Upland Frenchman net respectively four and five records and nothing beyond our island.  I do wonder who coined all those names in Red List No 1 and what the process was behind it.  Maybe someone from the NPWS will read this and comment 🙂



Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney

I’ve been to some great stuff at the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival (CJAF) over the years: the puppet show The Man Who Planted Trees, and 3epkano, live playing their soundtrack to accompany The Golem, particularly spring to mind.  So it was with high hopes that I went to the world premier of Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney last night, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I didn’t know quite what to expect.  The festival programme billed the piece as a …unique blend of new music and spoken word… …commissioned by leading uilleann piper David Power, and written by New York-based composer Dana Lyn… [and] …performed by Power together with acclaimed string ensemble the ConTempo Quartet. Interwoven with the music, actor Barry McGovern reads excerpts from a translation of the ancient story… This sort of mélange could go several ways; what was served up was very much a straight contemporary music concert and none the worse for that.

Bookended by two other short works, the 45 minutes or so of Buile Shuibhne consisted of seven passages read from the poem, each followed by a musical recapitulation of the action described.

The story of Sweeney was new to me.  In summary, Sweeney, the pagan King of Dál Riada, offends Saint Ronan the Fair, who is erecting a church in his territory without permission.  As a result  Ronan, curses Sweeney to wander about the world naked and in madness until he should die by spear point.  And so it transpires, with much blood letting along the way, giving the lie to the notion that in Ireland the transition from paganism to Christianity was bloodless, as David Power noted in his introduction.

The one jarring note in the tale is Sweeney’s death-bed embrace of Christianity at the end.  Presumably this is the authorial propaganda of the time.  It is rather the implacable Ronan, with his lack of compassion and his cursing, that radiates the evil as the action is unfolding; Sweeney is merely headstrong.  There seems to be no good reason why his repentance should be accompanied by a spiritual cost.

I found the full text of J.G. O’Keeffe’s 1913 translation of the poem on-line.  I’m not sure if it was the same text used for the performance, but it seems very similar.  Here’s an excerpt of the story contained in the opening movement:-

Suibhne was greatly angered and enraged, and
he set out with the utmost haste to drive the cleric from the
church. His wife Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht,
in order to hold him, seized the wing of the fringed, crimson
cloak which was around him, so that the fibula of pure white
silver, neatly inlaid with gold, which was on his cloak over
his breast, sprang through the house. Therewith, leaving his
cloak with the queen, he set out stark-naked in his swift
career to expel the cleric from the church, until he reached
the place where Ronan was.

He found the cleric at the time glorifying the King of
heaven and earth by blithely chanting his psalms with his
lined, right-beautiful psalter in front of him. Suibhne took up
the psalter and cast it into the depths of the cold-water lake
which was near him, so that it was drowned therein.

And this from the second movement:-

Thereafter, at the end of a day and a night, an otter
that was in the lake came to Ronan with the psalter, and
neither line nor letter of it was injured. Ronan gave thanks
to God for that miracle, and then cursed Suibhne, saying:
‘Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord,
that even as he came stark-naked to expel me, may it
be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying
throughout the world ; may it be death from a spear-point
that will carry him off.’

The playing of the ConTempo Quartet was impressively lively and inventive.  I particularly enjoyed the musical depiction of Sweeney leaping across the land, pursued by five severed heads.  The one weak moment was the one weakness of the piece itself, the unpromising opening of the first movement, which doesn’t immediately snare the listener, drawing them in, but rather threatens a difficult evening ahead.

David Power’s pipes surprised me.  I enjoy uilleann pipe music, but most that I’ve listened to has had a more ringing character.  Here we had a lower and more plaintive sound – I kept thinking of the shepherd’s pipes in the third act of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  I know nothing of the technical capabilities of the instrument, so presumably there are variations of chanters with other pitches and different tuning methods one can apply.  Perhaps this was a choice made so as not to swamp the string quartet.  That certainly never happened, though there were a couple of passages where the quartet threatened to overwhelm the pipes.

The readings were nicely done by Barry McGovern.  I found the overall narrative somewhat disjointed, but O’Keeffe, in the introduction to his translation, suggests that this is an inherent characteristic of the poem.  If so, it’s a good reason to structure the piece the way it was, with seven passages and seven movements, rather than trying to have the words and music flowing more into each other.

I think the performance is touring to other venues over the summer.  If so, it’s well worth catching up with.  I hope they make a recording.


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.

Science Music

I’m the least musical person I know.  I don’t play an instrument, I can’t read a note of it and when I overhear somewhere that the most scientific form of music is the fugue, I have no idea why.  If I were to investigate further I would discover that fugues are celebrated for their mathematical intricacies, so yes, maths and science – brothers in arms – I can relate to that.  Then the importance of the perfect fifth to Pythagorean tuning rears its ugly head and I’m cast adrift on an open boat once more.

Music plays a significant role in SF&F, as a particular kind of theme music, of course and also as a plot device.  As far as the former is concerned, whenever a tune pops up on Lyric FM we usually know immediately if it’s from an SF&F movie, even if we can’t place which one.  They almost all seem to draw from the same pool of tells that Dmitri Shostakovich first began to tap in the 1950’s  (well apart from Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes (1968) soundtrack, which is a class apart; the absolute acme).

As an example of a plot device, I’ve always had a soft spot for Captain Jocelyn’s keyboard recruiting technique in Hubbard’s brilliant To the Stars (aka Return to Tomorrow).  It seems I’m not the only one: Chick Corea created a highly regarded jazz fusion album inspired by the book and with the same title.

Original musical works of science fiction that draw on no other artistic source, are few and far between.  There’s Joe Meek’s I Hear a New World, of course, Stockhausen’s stunning Sirius and one of my personal favourites, The Intergalactic Touring Band.  The latter features such classics as Arthur Brown’s Universal Zoo, Annie Haslam’s Reaching Out (‘…our guidance control lies aloof and dismembered, our ship has forgotten but we have remembered…’) and last but not least, my occasional karaoke staple Space Commando by the incomparable Mister Snips (from where I suspect Dredd’s catchphrase ‘I Am the Law’ was adapted).

But what about science music: music about science?  Composer Michael Nyman wrote an opera based on Oliver Sacks’s neurological treatise The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  As an opera though, it narrates its source material rather than celebrating science for itself.  For me, as creators of science music, one group stand alone, Ireland’s post-hardcore math rockers BATS.  I picked up a copy of their first EP, Cruel Sea Scientist from Bell, Book & Candle in Galway about ten years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since.  Their first album, Red in Tooth and Claw had one absolute standout track, Andrew Wiles, penned to celebrate the man who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem.

BATS last album The Sleep of Reason, is a tremendous thing however; to my mind the best rock album to come out of Ireland ever, bar none.  A veritable tidal wave of astonishing science music; tracks like Stem Cells, Heat Death, The Sleep of Reason and Creatures Collecting.  There’s no weak link.  For anyone who cares about science music, it’s a must listen.


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.