Thursday, 24 May 2012

Ian Sales, Rocket Science (2012)

Ian Sales, taking his responsibilities as editor of this collection of proper hard SF stories and non-fiction pieces seriously, put it out to a number of people to review. I was one, and being in receipt of a copy -- a professional piece of book production by Mutation Press -- I feel obligated to write a review.  That probably sounds like a set-up for a slagging off, but it really isn't; and Rocket Science does not deserve slagging.  This is a very solid collection of short fiction that does just what it says on the tin. Which tin? Oh, this one:
Rocket Science is a collection of 17 original stories of hard science fiction, accompanied by 5 original non-fiction essays on space exploration. In the spirit of Mutation's mission to add to bibliodiversity, the stories were selected by an open call for submissions. The authors, selected from a range of nationalities, are a mixture of published fiction writers, professional astrophysicists and aerospace engineers. Too much science fiction seems to rely on magical technology or trivialises the astonishing size and wonder of the real universe. Though it is difficult, dangerous and expensive to get into space, the rewards for doing so more than outweigh any risk or cost. It may even prove to be the human race's only hope of survival. Given all that, science fiction's predilection for action-adventure stories set in galactic empires does feel like a squandering of the genre's potential. The stories and essays in Rocket Science are about the real world, either now or in the future. They are about real science - not just rocket science, but also quantum physics, genetics, computer science... They are not just stories of exploration, but family dramas, love triangles, alternate histories, hubris...
This collection is a solid hit on all those counts: it diversifies in terms of contributors (lots of new and new-ish names on the roster, which is good; good gender and international spread) and in terms of the range of approaches to its iron-and-rocket-fuel-hard sense of what the genre ought to be.  It's not a varied collection stylistically, or formally: but it's possible that potential readers will be less interested in such things.  It is, as a collection, strong on can-do; and although the emotional content of the tales is generally more tangled and tricky than I might have expected, and the universe is often shown to be a pig of stubborness, the emphasis is on the ways how empowering a working knowldge of science and engineering can be.  The very weakest form of reviewing is to say 'if you like this sort of thing, then will be the sort of thing you will like'; but there's some point, here, in at least gesturing in that direction.  The writing is full of 'worst-case scenario?' and 'understood!' and 'Godspeed!' and 'whoa! that's way cool!' and characters calling one another 'commander!' and 'sir' and 'buddy' and the like . There's a fair bit of this sort of thing:
The satellites ... are going to the second Lagrange point, L2. This is the point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth where the gravitational field of the Earth and Sun balance
And this:
Because of the high energy requirements of oxygen manufacture, the designers of the habitat has ensured gas leakage was extraordinarily small--hence the triple airlock.
And this:
During my thirty-day stay on the surface I conduct surveys and monitor the life-support aux pod, which captures carbon dioxide and hydrogen so as to replenish our water supply. The in-situ fuel generator inhales Mars's thin atmosphere and is steadily cooking up a fresh batch of methane/oxygen, CH4 + 02 rocket fuel for the long flight home.
I found all this a little dry, over the long haul; your mileage may vary. I enjoyed Iain Cairns edged-with-satire (but at heart a soldly scientifically-realistic tale of asteroid mining) 'Conquistadors', and C J Paget's lively 'The Taking of IOSA 2083'; the non-fiction pieces are all, pretty much, informative and interesting (especially Karen Burnham's 'The Complexity of the Humble Spacesuit').

You're sensing a haver in my tone, here, aren't you. It's me, it's not this collection.  Or it's Hard SF, and the rationale that SF must follow the rules, and those rules are engraved upon tablets of Ultra Stone by the gods of Physics and Engineering. I can see, or I think I can, why a large number of clever people think this is the right way to do SF; but to me this insistence reminds me of the Aristotelian unities. There was a time (particularly in 17th Century France) when these rules were taken almost as axiomatic; and plays that broke them -- such as Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, which flouted all three with insolent abandon -- were accordingly deprecated.  And there's a logic, and in particular an internal coherence, to these rules; they aren't arbitrary strictures; and there's a cosiness to having rules, especially if we're asked to judge works of literature.  Except that Shakespeare's plays are great, and Corneille is dull, and the rules get in the way of writing great theatre rather than anything else.  Ho, I say; and hum.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992)

This Hugo-winning time-travel novel is much better than Connie Willis's 2011 Hugo-winning time-travel novel, Blackout/All Clear; and much much better than her 1998 Hugo-winning time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog; Or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last. I read it because it's being reissued in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, and I've been tasked with writing an introduction; but although, like those other titles, it is lengthy and quite slow (especially in the first half), and like those other novels the mid 21st-century Oxford Time Travel Institute scenes are less plausible than Jedward's hair, somehow this novel works in a way that those ones don't.  If nothing else, it helps explain why so many Worldcon fans keep voting Willis Hugos for mediocre novels: they're still basking in the glory of this one -- the medieval world feels real, the characters' deaths (of the Plague) earned and actually moving.  There's real emotional heft here.

Still: there's no getting away from the question of the anachronisms and historical howlers. Now, I'm not saying these matter terribly much; which is to say, I'm not sure they do matter, especially. Shakespeare’s historical plays are full of anachronisms—chiming clocks in Julius Caesar’s Rome, a character actually called ‘Pistol’ during the strictly arrows-and-crossbows warfare of Henry V—and those don’t matter. Or we can be more precise, and say: they matter only to pedants. Pedantry is not the best frame of mind in which to enjoy a novel like Doomsday Book; because, like Shakespeare, Willis's skill is in capturing the mood of a time, the feel of medieval England, and this she does with impressive vividness. Nonetheless, there is a tiny pedant living in my head, and it could not help itself as I read through Doomsday Book. Viz.:

  • The 14th century was ravaged ‘by not only the Black Death and cholera, but also the Hundred Years War’ [8]. Cholera? Not such a big killer in the 14th-century.
  • And here we are in a modern-day NHS hospital: ‘the waiting room was in an entirely different wing from the Casualties Ward. It had the same spine-destroying chairs as the waiting room in Casualties.’ [63]. A British person would say ‘Casualty’, not ‘Casualties’ and never ‘the Casualties ward’.
  • When the epidemic breaks out in 2054, the UK police instruct people to ‘contact the National Health for instructions’ [71]. No British person would say this.  'Oh lordy, I appear to have broken my arm. I must immediately hurry along to The National Health.' No. Really.  No.
  • Kivrin falls sick when she arrives in the 14th-century and is put to bed in a manor house as an act of charity. ‘There’s a rat under my bed,’ she notes. [164] Under? Unlikely: tester beds do make their first appearance in the 14th-century, but only for the very richest and highest-born.  Most people slept on mattresses laid on the floor (perhaps with a wooden rim or lip around them), or on bolts of cloth or on straw, depending on how much money they had.
  • Kivrin uses a chamber pot on p.173. 'Chamber pots may have been in use at palaces by the late Middle Ages, although there is little evidence for this practice' [Paul B Newman, Daily Life in the Middle Ages (McFarland 2001), 142]. These pots become common later on; if you need a wee in the middle of the mid-medieval night, go piss outside.
  • ‘It really is 1320. The hearth in the middle of the room glowed dull red with the banked coals’ [189] This should be a wood fire. 'Seacoal' was much too expensive to be burned in domestic fires; it was used in industrial processes that required high heat, ironsmiths and lime burners in particular (It was called 'Seacoal' because it was shipped by sea; the wharf where the material arrived in London was known as Seacoal Lane, so identified in a charter of King Henry III granted in 1253. Underground mining of coal was in its infancy in the 14th-century).
  • ‘“Rosamund is a churl,” Agnes said’ [283] I doubt she did: churl means low-born peasant, but more importantly it means 'man'.
  • Would a British person of 2054 really say ‘I’m afraid I’ve an important trunk call coming in’ [300]? Would a British person of 2012, or 1992, say it? No. No they would not. Not unless they had time-travelled directly from the 1930s.
  • ‘Inituim sancti Evangelii secundum Luke’ Father Roche said … [364] The ‘inituim’ should be ‘initium’, though I’m prepared to chalk that up to a typo. But ‘Luke’ should be ‘Lucam’—that’s just sloppy Latin.
  • Kivrin meets ‘a clerk’ wearing ‘a shift and no breeches … the shift was yellow silk.’ [425]. Silk? Such a shirt would cost more than a clerk made in a decade. The first serous attempt to establish silk production in England was not made until the time of James I, who purchased and planted 100,000 mulberry trees adjacent to Hampton Court Palace (these trees were of a species unsuited to the silk worms, and the attempt failed). Actual silk production in the UK was not successfully begun until the 1730s. Prior to that, the only silk in Britain would have been imported from Lucca or Genoa (Lucca began manufacturing silk only in the late 13th-century; Genoa even later), and it would have cost more, weight for weight, than gold.
  • ‘The Steward came in, carrying his spade … His cap and shoulders were covered with snow and the blade of the spade was wet with it. He has been digging another grave, Kivrin thought.’ [561]. Not in frozen ground, he hasn’t; not unless he has Hulk-like strength. To dig a grave in frozen ground you need first to build a fire to soften the soil, and if he’s done that he wouldn’t have snow on his spade.
  • ‘“Mwaa,” the cow said from the anteroom.’ [605] This isn’t an historical error. I just like the idea of an air-kissing cow.
  • After heavy snowfall, two more time travellers arrive in 14th-century Oxfordshire. ‘A rolling plain lay below them, covered in snow almost too bright to look at. The bare trees and the roads stood out darkly against it, like markings on a map. The Oxford-Bath road was a straight black line, bisecting the snowy plain’ [615]. This is lucky for them, since the Oxford-Bath road is the arranged meeting point. But although it looks anachronistic, it isn’t, see? There’s nothing anachronistic about tarmac-covered roads that have been swept clear of snow by big snow ploughs. Not even in the height of the Black Death when roads were mud, snow ploughs have not been invented and more than 80% of the population are dead or dying. See?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)

Apologies for the sluggish tying-up-of-loose-ends going on hereabouts. But I did say (in this post, on Awards) that I would 'report back' on this Booker-winning title after I'd had the chance properly to read it; and whilst I don't fool myself that anybody's hanging on the edge of my seat waiting to hear my verdict there is an active enough Imp of Pointless Completion living in my skull to prompt me to post someting here.

Post what, though? It's a thin novel, literally and figuratively.  It's not a novel, actually: it's two linked short stories.  The first of these is pretty good; Tony is a callow undergraduate with blue balls, at university before Permissiveness became the norm.  He is priggish and unlikeable, but that's the point; the milieu is well drawn. and the Drama! of the story (his girlfriend Veronica, she of the 'I'm not putting out for you', leaves him for his friend Adrian; he writes a pompous, aggrieved letter to them both; Adrian later commits suicide), though melodramatic, is appropriately so for the world described.  The second short story picks up the events after grown-up Tony has become a father himself, divorced and retired.  This second half is drek.  You see that link I included, up there, on the word 'Drama!'? The cat in the Erasure pop video at the other end of that link could write a better short story than this: stiff, implausible, clumsy and crap.  It is, in addition, contrived, tedious, wet, smelly and meagre.

This title won the Man Booker Prize for 2011.  My heart fills with gloom at the very thought.