Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War (2008)

This book is quietly brilliant. It will probably prove to be—quietly—the best science fiction novel of the year; certainly it’s the best I’ve yet read.
It tells a simple tale, parsing four main characters and half a dozen minor ones, through the run-up, outbreak, prosecution and into the immediate aftermath of 23rd-century solar-systemic war. In the green corner we have Earth, dragged back from the brink of environmental collapse by radical measures, governed by essentially feudal power blocs, most of the population penned in the cities and the countryside given over to reclamation projects aimed at undoing centuries of environmental damage. In the purple corner are those humans who have colonised myriad sites and arcologies in the Jovian and Saturnian moons, not to mention Uranus and various other places. Unlike the radical ‘nature’ conservatives of Earth these colonist revel in genetic modification, of plants and animals and of humans too, the better to adapt them to the extremes of their worldlets. To the Earth such genetic modification compromises the Outers' humanity: they are a kind of freak people existing under the chaotic and unpredictable governance of democracy. To the Outers Earth is a backward-looking tyranny pursuing a nakedly imperialist project to grab the wealth and genetic innovation of their scientists. These latter ‘gene wizards’ (I presume ‘gene genies’ was a touch too aladdinsane for McAuley) are key players in the political, economic and culturals worlds of the future, and one of them—Avernus, two hundred years old and responsible for many of the most important innovations—is a sort of demigod.
It is superbly, and often exquisitely written; for despite (or who knows, because of) his academic background in the hard sciences McAuley is simply one of the best prose stylists working in the genre today. To an extent his writing shows the balance of clarity and considered poeticism also found in William Golding—both McAuley’s blog, and the epigraph to this novel (it quotes the last line of Free Fall) suggest that Golding is one of his influences. It is also, as it says in the blurb, a ‘scrupulously realised’ novel: every aspect of the worldbuilding, from science and technology to sociology and psychology, has been carefully worked through, and the result is a fictional environment that has the absolute smack of verisimilitude. There was only one detail, in the thousands of expertly pitched details, (and a bogglingly minor one at that) that struck a dud note to me. [Which one? Oh, Macy, a key character, is working to help quicken the biome of Rainbow Bridge, a huge tented settlement on Callisto; and in the sixth chapter we learn that ‘after a restless night, Macy got up early the next morning and ate a bowl of microwaved porridge and sipped lukewarm coffee.’ Why lukewarm? The narrator adds a parenthesis: ‘(atmospheric pressure in the tent was five hundred millibars, significantly reducing the boiling point of water)’. That last detail gives us a sense of how such tents will probably be, but I baulked at the lukewarmosity of the coffee, for it implies that the 23rd-century has forgotten the principle of the pressure cooker. I for one, projected into that world, would insist upon hot coffee, even if I had to drink it out of a specially adapted mug. I'd call that a trivial point, except that coffee is anything but a triviality to me ...] Otherwise the worlds were superbly rendered: vivid and believable and wonderfully immersive.
The most impressive feature of the whole, I’d say, is that it works its quietness through its whole aesthetic in a superbly controlled manner.
One of my favourite environments McAuley describes is on Europa, beneath the layer of ice (30km thick) in ‘a canyon cut into the underside of the ice and filled with air’ [132].
Huge biome chambers had been excavated on either side of the canyon and its walls were hung with tiers of platforms gardened with alpine meadows and dwarfed pines and firs, jutting out into above a silvery halflife membrane that flexed and undulated with the heavy wash of currents beneath. Despite the elaborate seals along the edges of the membrane, a faint curdled-egg odour of hydrogen sulphide leaked in from the anoxic ocean, and although chains of sunlamps brightened the air and panels of ice were tinted with bright, cheerful colours, it was very cold. The older citizens wore long fake-fur coats and tall fake-fur hats and many of the younger people had been cut to give them thick lustrous coats of fine hair and insulating layers of fat.
Sri (an Earth character) is on a fact-finding tour, and she visits a scientist called Tymon Simonov, who ‘lived in a pressurised, triple-skinned can that hung in black water to the west of the canyon, beneath a sold ceiling of ice that stretched away in every direction … undulating in long smooth swales … no end to it, a ceiling wrapped all the way around the world ocean. And below was a yawning plunge of freezing, oxygen-free water, black, salty and acidic; a fish would drown in it as quickly a human.’ [132-4]
How cool is that?
Not everything about the novel is perfect; and one particular problem in The Quiet War is that this application of carefully chosen detail in the service of spine-tingling worldbuilding teeters constantly on the edge of indigestible infodumping. For instance: Tymon is genengineering seaweeds to live in Europa’s ocean.

In the vast and lightless deserts of Europa’s ocean only thrifty chemolithrophs survived by splitting hydrogen from scanty molecules of metal oxides. But just as green plants on Earth used light energy to drive reactions that transferred hydrogen ions and electrons from water to carbon dioxide, forming the simple sugar glucose with oxygen as a by-product, forming the simple sugar glucose with oxygen as a by-product, so Tymon’s weeds used light to reduce inorganic compounds containing sulphur and iron. They soaked up carbon dioxide and nutrients from the water and grew at ….
Enough of that. To be fair, it’s kept in better control than is the case in some of McAuley’s other fiction, and only occasionally slows the whole; and I can imagine readers for whom it is a positive delight (not me, though). I had a couple of other problems with the novel, more to do with its overall storybuilding construction. So: much of the momentum of the narrative revolves around Avernus, attempts to protect her (by the Outers) or seize her and her knowledge (by Earth). For this to work we need a sense that Avernus is special; a sense of her worth, so that it matters profoundly whether she escapes or not—and this we do not have. We’re told plenty of times that she’s special, unique, a genius etc.; but telling isn’t showing. Since [(in the voice of a whaler) spoi-LERS!] the novel’s denouement depends largely upon whether Avernus manages to escape or no, this contributes to the slightest sense of anticlimax about the book, the more so as it has spent 400 pages expertly and compellingly ratcheting up the tension as the system slides along the inexorable rail-gun of its path to war. I cared about Sri, and I cared about Macy; Avernus was a blank to me.
But having finished the book a week or so ago, and had that much time for it to mulch into my mind, I’m wondering whether ‘anticlimax’ isn’t the wrong word: what’s going on here is not that the book lets the reader down, but rather that it fulfils it promise of relating a futuristic interplanetary war—something other SF novels style crassly as a! FUT-ur-ISTIC! IN-TER PLLLLANETARY WARRR!!—precisely quietly. It is, for all the sense of wonder the book cultivates, an example of literary understatement. There have been other novels published recently on the subject of a war between a powerful, dominating neo-imperialist earth and a scattered group of ideologically-rhizomatic spacers in the near future; but such novels have been more (if you like them) operatic, or Jacobean, and (if you don’t) melodramatic. McAuley’s treatment is very far from that; and to the extent that less is more (which is a large extent) it succeeds much more completely than any earlier novel on a similar theme. It’s not that the book lacks excitement, for there’s lots of that: hairs-breadth escapes, spectacular scenery, massive SFX explosions … it’s that McAuley mutes his representation of these, like a virtuoso jazz trumpeter holding his bowler over the mouth of his horn. This is an Earth attack on an Outer settlement:
Sparks flared high in the black sky as kinetic weapons aimed from somewhere beyond the horizon used boosters to kick themselves towards their targets, plunging down and striking trenches and blockhouses and throwing up fountains of dust and white-hot debris. A tug dusted off from the far edge of the spaceport and was struck by a missile fired from the marine’s position. Its upper part was blown away in a brief flare of red flame; the remainder, motor still lit, rolled across the plain in a vast pinwheel of dust and flame. Lumpy shapes dropped straight out of the sky: battle drones inside protective impact bags. The machines tore open the bags even as they bounced and rolled through vacuum-organism fields, raising themselves up on tall tripod legs and running forward. Several were struck by missiles fired by the city’s defence force and disappeared in brief clouds of dust and machine parts. The rest raked the slope in front of the city with miniguns and heavy-calibre kinetic weapons and rockets as they galloped along.
All this in the utter silence and clarity of hard vacuum. [368]
It’s that last line that seals the deal—renders what could have been cheesy Phantom-Menacesque CGI into something haunting and powerful. It’s simple physics, of course, but that’s not the heart of its appeal; it works because it focuses a broader thematic of the novel. Amazing things happen quietly. Less is more. People with grandiose ideas of their destiny, or technical expertise, or importance, are smaller than they think; war, though it involves real misery and real death, is quieter than we think; the best way to tell a marvellous tale is unobtrusively. And this is a marvellous tale.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

WALL-E (2008)

Very sweet, visually gorgeous (actually I think I mean: texturally gorgeous ... texturally one of the most interesting films I've seen in a long while) and perfectly serviceable entertainment. WALL-E himself does indeed look like that robot from Short Circuit; and as I sat in the cinema with my six-year old daughter until the bitter end (ME: Can we go now, please? LILY: No Daddy, we have to wait until the credits have all gone past) I bethought me that Short Circuit was a Disney film too. Checking facts subsequently I discover that it wasn't, which is a shame for my theory.

... which is that WALL-E is all about Disney. WALL-E himself is not quite, and yet more than, Walt-D. He is what has become of Walt-D: old fashioned, square and out of tune with the wizzy computer-generated future. The step from the visually painterly landscapes of wasted Earth to the trademark-Pixar shiny surfaces of the spaceship Axiom is the step from old-school animation to that newfangled computer animation that so rules the animation roost nowadays. Of course WALL-E is himself computer generated too, but he has less of that look, and his world is more 'realistic' and less stylised and futuristic than the Axiom: it's a world of, amongst other things, actual live-action footage (Fred Willard's cameo). The film is partly a lament for the passing of that older style of animated moviemaking, and partly an ambivalent love-letter to the new technologies of animation ... ambivalent in the sense that, whilst of course WALL-E does fall in love with EVE, nevertheless that glossy high-tech futurist idiom looks awfully high-calorie and rather unhealthy: all those floating fatboys and fatgirls.

In other words, the film is not really about pollution, and it's not really a dystopia. It's a self-reflexive piece of visual art about visual art (hence the closing credits, through which my daughter made me sit, which cycle through series of pastiche images in the style of Egytian Art, Renaissance Art, Van Gogh and so on). Or more to the point, it's a film about its film-maker. Disney, despite its extraordinary backlist of titles, found itself in the noughties dying, in thrall to its past, clogged with inferior product: Dinosaur (2000), Atlantis the Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002), Brother Bear (2003), Home on the Range (2004). There were some hits too, of course, during this period, but the balance sheet was rather dominated by costly and damaging flops like these. 2003 saw the resignation of the company's chairman, the charmingly decayed, old-school robot ROY-E Disney [this photograph captures him in the process of shrinking himself down into a cube], and in 2005 Michael Eisner resigned too. You can judge for yourself the extent to which Eisner physically resembles Fred Willard.

What could ROY-E do? Everything was in the past for his world; recycling old Disney product, shitting out crate after crate of double-disc special edition Cinderellas and Lion Kings and stacking them into great commercial ziggurats. Then along came PIXAR. Here's a photo: you can see the sleek white lines and inquisitive eye of the PIXAR robot, adopting the position of the 'I' in the company's name (a sort of I-VE). I-VE is the future; stylish, successful, seemingly out of reach of ROY-E. But all ends happily: despite being elderly and clapped out, Disney acquires Pixar (2006; $7.4 billion) and suddenly it's all Hits Hits Hits: Ratatouille! WALL-E! The future is bright!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Baxter, Flood (2008)

What do I think of Steve Baxter's new one? I think it's a floody good novel, that's what.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Greg Bear, City at the End of Time (2008)

Bear is such a superb science fiction writer that even his not-so-good novels are better than most of the stuff shelved in the colourful section of the bookshop. City at the End of Time is too long; or to put it more precisely it’s long in the wrong places and too short when it could have unpacked itself. But it held my attention right to the end, and I came away if not wholly convinced then at least dazzled by the jewels embedded its suet-texture. Some portions are dull, some of brilliant, and only one aspect is unforgiveable. Unfortunately for me the novel ends with this aspect, but others may be more forgiving. I’ll come to that in a moment.
So, yes, there is, as the book’s title leads us to expect, a City at the End of Time: the Kalpa, it is called. It’s a nicely presented conception, actually: a cool 1930esque-futurist giant edifice protected from the surrounding chaos, or unreality, by ‘an outward phalanx of slowly revolving spires, blurred as if sunk in silt-laden water: the Defenders, outermost of the city’s reality generators’ [8]. This is a likeable fictive notion, I’d say; that reality can be generated and maintained, like an electromagnetic field, against the entropic assaults of unreality. In this city we meet various elevated godlike beings, and a couple of ordinary coves, who, it transpires, after a good deal of novelistic throat-clearing, must leave the city and trek through the unreality outside to another city, for complicated reasons about which I remain slightly hazy.
Then there’s the other half of the novel, set in our world at our time (more or less). Three youngsters, Ginny, Jack and Daniel, each in possession of a mysterious stone in a box and each with unusual abilities w.r.t. the fifth dimension, gather in a Library against the encroachments of the Chaos that is devouring the cosmos—the same Chaos that the Kalpa’s reality generators hold at bay. Chaos in this novel is called Typhon, and is marshaled by the White Goddess—the Chalk Princess, Bear calls her, which I don’t think will please her (a princess is hardly the same rank as a goddess, after all):

Her face [was] illuminated from within like a lantern. Skin white as ice, eyes silver and gray and green, her body lost in something that wrapped her like a map of golden rivers and green fields—limbs long, graceful [504]

There’s another force at odds with Chaos, creative rather than chaotic, and this Manichean cosmos of branching realities provides the environment in which our three protagonists hop from fate-line to fate-line. Libraries protect against the chaos because … well, because of various involved explanations dumped-in at various places, but actually because Bear really likes books. That’s OK. He’s a writer, and reader, and is entitled to like books. I like books too. Books are one of two things, actually, that Bear really really likes. I’ll come to the other thing in a moment; but for now it’s enough to say that these two things that Bear really likes are the two things most widely prized amongst science fiction fans. Which may well endear the book to Bear’s natural constituency. Anyway: the books in Bear’s book shift and shuffle their meaning, with word-spiders crawling between the lines.

Language is as fundamental as energy. To be observed the universe must be reduced—encoded. An observable universe is a messy place. Language becomes the DNA of the cosmos. [257]

There are infinite libraries in this novel, which of course makes us think of Borges; neatly, Bear sets the novel in a reality in which Borges is an imaginary character known only from his name in a bookplate in a rare edition held in the British Library.
So these three characters, Ginny, Jack and Daniel (there’s a rather Enid Blyton vibe about those names, don’t you think?), chased by sinister agents, get themselves caught up in some rather-too-leisurely adventures. They meet up with some frankly disposable other cast-members—a coven of twenty-first century wine-bibbing middle-class sort-of-witches is particularly wincing. We realize that their fates are intimately connected with the characters in the city at the end of time. There’s a lengthy build-up to these latter characters’ trek through the Chaos outside the city; and although, when it finally comes, it’s fairly cool, the weirdnesses Bear describes is a little anticlimactic. I was reminded, and not to the novel’s advantage, of the Beatles ambling through Pepperland, or—indeed—of Spongebob and Patrick trekking through the oceanic trench and past one-eyed Cyclopes (‘Bigger Boot!’) to recover King Neptune’s crown. It is very much enormous faces looming up over the horizon, weird lifeforms scuttling past on many towering legs, buildings made-up of lots of bits of famous buildings, museums where a million iterations of yourself are trapped inside a vast block of Perspex, and so on. It only intermittently generates a properly estranged mood. To be honest, I began to lose interest in what happened to Ginny, Jack and Daniel a way before the end of the novel. But there are plenty of redeeming touches of genius. I was, for instance, very struck by this account of the infinite-branches of alternate reality lines:

An infinite lattice of branching and debranching lines, each capable of producing another lattice—you’d think that would be totally intractable, but the secret is, the branches don’t last—they sum to the least energy and greatest probability, the greatest efficiency. [Daniel] said something so utterly brilliant it was stupid. He said, “Dark matter is stuff waiting to happen…”

Isn’t that last statement lovely? I also loved the way Bear can focus the sense-of-wonder that is, otherwise, too diffusely spread through the novel into smart, dazzling little future-histories.

Once … humans had thought the universe might last no more than a few tends of billions of years. No one in the brightness—the warm, brilliant womb of the last trillion centuries—could have guessed how long history would drag on … As for the late Trillennium, in the shadow of the Chaos: broad legends described the age of the Mass Wars. Bosonic Ashurs had returned from their mastery of the dark light-years, seeking ascendance over all—and were subdued by the mesonic Kanjurs, who in turn were defeated by the Devas, patterned from integral quarks. Devas were then forced to give way to the noötics. Noötic matter was hardly matter at all—more like a binding compact between space, fate and two out of seven aspects of time. The noötics—calling themselves Eidolons—gathered survivors from the last artificial galaxies and forced nearly all to convert. [213-14]

More of this, and less tedious faffing around a disintegrating Seattle, and I would have fallen properly in love with this novel. As it was I hovered on the edge of inamoration. But then I read the end of the book, and my face fell. The book left a very unpleasant taste in my mouth—or, perhaps not taste exactly; but certainly texture. The texture of furballs.
I mentioned earlier that there are two things that Bear, evidently, loves deeply; and that these two things are passions he shares with most of science fiction. One of passions I share: books. The other I have a violent and increasingly deep-bedded antipathy towards. Unfortunately—for me, although probably not for most SF fans—the second of these passions dominates the novel’s end. I can’t go into too much detail, because it involves one of the book’s major reveals; but suffice to say one word: cats. The sum of all civilization, the hope of future life, the romanticized mystery, magic, possibility—the shimmer of the uncanny, the possibilities of genuine weirdness, the flashes of brilliant speculative physics, the glimpsed-at sense-of-wonder trillennia … it all boils down at the end to, ugh, cats. Ugh! Cats cats cats. Spoilers: cats. I hate cats. Cats, the Nazis of the animal kingdom; cats whose fur and spittle causes life-threatening asthma and other histamine responses in perfectly decent human beings … humans entitled, as is everybody, to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So I was compelled, upon finishing the book, to go: ugh! Cats!
Enough said.