Buffer Overflow

Apologies for the near-total silence around these parts; work on the survey is eating up most of the brainpower not allocated to the day job, and I don’t really have anything left for the blog posts I know I want to write (such as the one about Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge). I keep meaning to at least pull together a links post, but (a) I don’t really have the time to do that, either, and (b) my personal fatigue seems to be translating into a more general exhaustion with the sf blogosphere, where so many discussions seem to just be re-runs.

What does still pique my interest, as ever, is discussion of specific work, so don’t fear that the short story club will fall by the wayside. (Even if, er, I failed to post my own thoughts on last week’s story. Must get round to that.) And io9 has started a book club, for which the first subject is The Quiet War. I’ve never actually tried to read a comment thread on io9 before, and hadn’t realised how ludicrous the comment-ordering system there is, but it’s interesting to see how much antipathy there is for the novel, more than you might expect from the general critical response when the book was published last year. There are many sentiments along these lines:

i agree with what so many others have said – this book was a challenge. when i saw the author’s former career listed on the inside back jacket (of course when i was finished) it all made sense – the book really reads like it was written by a research biologist.

Which is similar to the problem some had with that passage about Europa I posted the other day; though I would tend to give McAuley rather more credit for deliberateness than io9’s commenters do, I think.

Bonus fact: one of my friends recently read The Quiet War and strongly disliked it in part because she is a research biologist, and felt that McAuley’s science wasn’t up to scratch; that is, she objected to detail of lab techniques that she wouldn’t use now because cheaper and better options are available, without any explanation as to why those options might not be available in the future.

Writing About Europa

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War (2008):

It took Sri and Alder more than a day to reach him, travelling in stages down a series of elevator shafts, a vertical journey that on Earth would have taken them to the edge of the discontinuity where the continental plates rafted on molten lava. On Europa, it delivered them to a canyon cut into the underside of the ice and filled with air. 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 dwarf pines and furs, jutting out above a silverly 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 citizens had been cut to give them thick, lustrous coats of fine hair and insulating layers of fat — seal-people with human faces and human hands and feet, clad only in shorts and many-pocketed vests. (125)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream (2009):

To one side of the white towers, an arc of pale aquamarine appeared across the whiteness. The stranger led him to this arc, which proved to be a broad rampway cut into the ice, dropping at a very slight angle, down to where it cut under an arch or doorway into a long wide chamber.

They descended; the chamber under the ice roof had broad white doors, like white gates. At the bottom of the ramp they waited before these. Then the gates went transparent, and a group of people dressed in blouses and pantaloons of Jovian hues stood before them, in what seemed a kind of vestibule. The stranger touched Galileo lightly on the back of the arm, led him into this antechamber. They passed under another arch. The group fell in behind them without a word. Their faces appeared to be old but young. The space of the room made a gentle curve to the left, and beyond that they came to a kind of overlook, with broad steps descending before them. From here they could see an entire cavern city stretching to the near horizon, all of it tinted a greenish blue, under a high ceiling of opaque ice of the same colour. The light was subdued, but more than enough to see by; it was quite a bit brighter than the light of the full moon on Earth. A hum or distant roar filled his ears. (51-2)

I’m working on a review of Galileo’s Dream at the moment, and posting these here because I probably can’t justify including two quotes this long, certainly not when one of them isn’t even from the book at hand. But I’m fascinated by them, and how differently they describe what is essentially the same thing — a traveller arriving in an under-ice city on Europa; how they get down, the quality of the space they find themselves in, the nature of the people there. The difference, of course, is the viewpoint character. Both are scientists, but Sri is native to the time, and knows what she’s looking at, whereas Galileo has been whisked forward hundreds of years, and doesn’t. I can’t help feeling you shouldn’t be able to get away with the second one in a work of twenty-first century sf — it’s a tour of utopia (except it’s not utopia); how quaint! — and yet in a sense it works because it’s a work of twenty-first century sf, because we can sense (or impose, if you don’t believe Robinson did the research) the detail beneath the surface that Galileo sees.

Out of interest, which do you prefer?

British Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Panel

As noted in the original post about the survey, one of the panel’s at last week’s BSFA/SFF AGM event was a discussion of some of the questions it raises. For those who weren’t able to attend (and indeed those who were), here’s a recording — you can download the mp3 direct from here, or listen to it on the BSFA site. The panelists were Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Paul McAuley, Juliet McKenna, and Kit Whitfield, with me moderating.

Notes on a Shortlist

It has not been hard for me to decide which novel I think should win this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are, for starters, two nominees I neither particularly admire nor particularly like, one that I like more than I admire, and one that I admire more than I like. But differentiating the two nominees that I both like and admire isn’t hard, either: for there is one that lives more vividly in my mind, that I am more eager to reread, and more evangelical about pressing into others’ hands. So my preference is clear. But here, for the record, in advance of the announcement of the winner this evening, is a summary of my opinions of the whole shortlist.

I don’t think it’s a bad shortlist, per se; there are several books that spring to mind when I think about books I would rather have seen listed, but on the whole Adam Roberts’ judgement that “Solid is one word for it, which is another way of saying safe” is right, I think. It is a shortlist whose values are predominantly the core values of genre sf. There are a lot of spaceships; for all the talk about New Space Opera, only one other Clarke Award shortlist this decade has had as many.

There are also a number of recurring themes. Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets, which would be at the bottom of my list if I got a vote, incorporates a number of them. Like four of the remaining five shortlisted books (which is surely more than the average among the submissions), it is written in the first person, which immediately puts questions of identity front and centre. Like Reynolds’ House of Suns, it explores these questions through multiple narrators who are in a sense the same person (and physical cloning features in The Quiet War, while mental cloning is an important element of Song of Time). It is concerned with ecological questions (like The Quiet War, and to a lesser extent Song of Time); and in that Margaret’s multiple identities spring from her childhood imaginings, it invokes questions of youth and maturity that, I would say, resonate in every nominee other than The Quiet War.

Adam Roberts’ review, I think, gets to the heart of the problems with this book, although for a more sympathetic take see Nic Clarke and Sherryl Vint at Strange Horizons. The Margarets is a book in which the value of life resides in its fecund diversity, but this leads to a number of problems. There is a moral problem: as Adam puts it, it leads to Tepper prioritising forest over humans. There is a structural problem: the diversity, and the divergence, of Margaret’s lives is never conveyed as well as it should be; it’s all too abbreviated, or too clumsy. There is a a stylistic problem, in that Tepper has an absolute tin ear for names. Sentences such as, “We were shortly disabused of this idea when several humans in transit to Chottem from bondslave planets farther into Mercan space were also slain by the ghrym” are, to my mind, at least as wearying as anything Stephenson comes up with in Anathem; there is an absolute profusion of proper nouns, none of which seem to follow particularly well thought-out linguistic schema. (I think Tepper is winking at the reader at least some of the time — more, in fact, than many discussions of this book have given her credit for — but that does not excuse, for example, cat-people called Prrr Prrrpm and Mrrrw Lrrrpa.) And finally, there is the problem that Tepper’s stance seems to me a lie. Were she writing of just Earth — or a fantastical analogue of Earth, which is what she seems to want to be writing for most of the second half of the book, at least — her argument would be sound; but in the vastness of space, life’s value seems to me to inhere in its scarcity, in how fragile it is. The Margarets never conveys that sense; indeed, life in its galaxy is so commonplace that it is hard to care whether humans learn the error of their ways. The book has plenty of other problems — a distressingly Campbellian attitude to alien life, for example, as Edward James points out; and I can’t help thinking that a critique of humanity’s willingness to lean on comforting stories of magic instead of facing up to reality would carry more force if it didn’t co-exist with telepathy as a crucial plot element — and the result is a near-incoherent muddle.

Mark Wernham’s Martin Martin’s on the Other Side spends a good portion of its time being incoherent, but at least it does so deliberately; this, and the fact that it is just over half the length of Tepper’s novel, are the only things raising it above The Margarets in my estimation. It was over sooner. Jonathan McCalmont has noted that the book grew on him since he first read it, but I find it hard to imagine that happening to me; though there is an extent to which I admire, as Adam puts it, “the inadvertent eloquence of Jensen’s ‘fucking fucker’ laddishly limited register”, there is a much greater extent to which I simply found it tedious. I diverge from Jonathan, too, in that I don’t think it’s a novel about idiocy; it’s a novel, as Nic has it, about infantilisation, which is somewhat different. It means, for a start, that there were a few moments where I felt sympathy for Jensen Interceptor, trapped within the role his society has forced him into: the eternal puerile child There is also something inspired about the melding of PKD-style undermining of consensus reality with a cultural drive towards getting totally fucking hammered; but it is never elaborated coherently enough to sustain an entire novel.

The rest of the nominees I have already written about. Reynolds’ House of Suns is the book I like more than I admire, and a book that articulates the idea that we, the members of the human race, are all children, much more effectively than does The Margarets. I liked the expansiveness of the novel, and I found it rather more visual and well-paced than did, for example, Edward. I also think the flashback sequences are more effective, and better-integrated into the novel, than many other reviewers. But there’s no denying that it does have limitations: “Narrative, tick. Widescreen visuals, tick. Other stuff, hmm.”

Unlike the judges, I don’t have the benefit of a second read of the shortlist to give depth to my opinions; however, for the remaining three novels on the list — the three I could live with winning — I do have the benefit of time, in that it’s some months since I read any of them, and my opinions have accordingly had more time to settle. The Quiet War is the novel on the list I feel most out of step with the consensus on; Edward picked it as his favourite, as did Adam, and the Not the Clarke Award panel at Eastercon. But in Liz’s poll, at least at the time of writing, far more people think it will win than think it really should win; so maybe I’m not as out of step as all that.

Still, reading my review of The Quiet War now, I can’t shake the feeling that I didn’t get to the core of the novel, either in terms of its virtues or its flaws. I think Nic does that rather better in her post about the book, although Edward also inadvertently put his finger on it when he compared the book to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: “a cast of well-imagined characters, a mixture of political and scientific speculation, and a complete ease with the occasional infodump”. That is exactly right, and exactly my problem at the same time: I simply never felt the spark of life, in either The Quiet War‘s characters or its landscapes, that so distinguishes Robinson’s work. It is a book with few major flaws — its greatest virtue is its coherence of thought, although as the first volume in a duology, it is not quite self-contained — but almost by the same token, it is a book that never truly excited, challenged, or inspired me.

That leaves the two novels I both like and admire. Stephenson’s Anathem is an extraordinary book, there is no doubt of that; as Martin Lewis put it, “one part hubris to one part taking the piss to one part gnarly geek awesomeness.” As a vehicle designed to explicate and demonstrate a set of mind-expanding ideas, I have difficulty thinking of a recent, or even not-so-recent, work to match it. When I wrote my original review, however, I think I was perhaps too impressed by the overall architecture of the novel, that Stephenson had written something that worked as a novel, rather than (as I see The Baroque Cycle, or at least as much of it as I’ve read) an epic mess. It has not worn well in my mind; it’s still a book I will have no hesitation in recommending to (some) people, but I feel absolutely no need to revisit it. I am also, now, rather more sympathetic than I was initially to Abigail Nussbaum’s criticism of the novel for installing an intellectual homogeneity in its invented world. Or rather, it’s not the intellectual homogeneity per se that troubles me — I don’t want there to be a range of theories about how gravity works, or time works, or consciousness works; I want there to be single theories, that work — but that, as Nic explores, in setting up that intellectual homogeneity, Stephenson does away with cultural diversity. Perhaps the most telling indicator of this flaw is that while there are nods to equality of gender and sexuality — even if they are absolutely tokenistic — there is no equivalent nod to cultural diversity.

Which leaves Song of Time — or rather, doesn’t leave, since it is emphatically not the case that MacLeod is my preferred winner by default. Once again, and gratifyingly, I find that on the evidence of Liz’s poll, more people feel the way I do about the book than I expected. I think I came rather closer to getting to the bones of it in my review than I did with either The Quiet War or Anathem; although I have to say, although Nic’s review and Tanya Brown’s review are both very good, I don’t think anyone has yet fully captured what makes Song of Time so compelling. Adam Roberts’ criticisms of the book are largely reasonable, but don’t seem that significant to me when weighed against its virtues. On a shortlist which emphasizes the value of personal, subjective, human experience (as opposed to the kind of distanced perspective found in, most obviously of the novels not shortlisted, Flood), Song of Time offers unambiguously the best realised, most fascinating character; and for all the detail of McAuley’s colonies, for my money MacLeod offers the most vivid settings of any of the nominated authors. (Particularly, as Nic notes, cities; not because they are particularly “authentic”, but because the versions of their subjects that they construct feel so convincing.) It is the book that most productively challenged my sympathies; it is a novel saturated with science-fictional speculation, grounded in the emotions those speculations generate; and it is the only novel on the list, I would suggest, that engages with what it means to write science fiction in the early twenty-first century, both on a literal level, through the reflections of its characters, and stylistically, in how its voice refracts our understanding of some of contemporary sf’s common images and ideas. There is an irony, I’m aware, in asserting this in a week when YA novels have been awarded Nebula and Tiptree awards; Song of Time is about as far from the concerns of most YA fiction (and certainly as far from the narrative propulsivity of most YA fiction) as it is possible to get. But it is, I think, the best book on the list, and one of the best novels published in 2008. I hope it wins. Whatever does, I will post here as soon as I can, with a full update tomorrow. Let’s see, eh?

BSFA nominee: “Little Lost Robot”

And last but not least (yes, I know I got my order mixed up), we have Paul McAuley’s “Little Lost Robot”: read here [pdf] or listen here. The roundup:
Martin Lewis:

This is very much the winner by default. There is nothing massively interesting about it – a giant robot flies around the universe exterminating humanity before being confronted by its origins – but at least it isn’t completely bloodless. The stories by Chiang and Rickert are icily perfect and pointless, the story by Egan could have done with being a bit more abstract, out of all of them only McAuley is having fun and being serious at the same time.

David Hebblethwaite at The Fix:

In his notes on “Little Lost Robot,” Paul McAuley says he was aiming to subvert the usual template of the killer-robot story by telling the tale from the viewpoint of the machine. So, here we have a “superbad big space robot” dedicated to roaming the universe and destroying all life. It’s nigh-on invincible—so good at its job, in fact, that it’s running out of targets. The robot is keen, therefore, to chase after a new signal it picks up far away, even though it seems naggingly familiar for some reason. By the time the robot arrives, the signal is gone, but then the machine notices an apparent infiltration into its own programming, and then…

As may be anticipated, this story is rather dense with information; it’s a mark of McAuley’s skill that the tale drags so little. The beginning is especially striking, as the author weaves language evocative of space opera movies (”Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you, and it will rock your world”) into prose of a more literary style, which has the effect of anchoring this impossible creation into the fictional reality—it’s an aid to suspending disbelief. As for the rest, good prose can only take “Little Lost Robot” so far; its ultimate success depends on its ideas. And, though the ideas were interesting enough whilst I was reading the story, sadly I didn’t find them striking enough to think about them much afterwards.

James Bloomer:

Paul McAuley has written novels and stories that I love, Fairyland and Gene Wars are both stories that I often think about. And I really enjoyed this story too. Little Lost Robot starts with fun big robot prose. Boy’s toys stuff perhaps. I loved it. A quick quote from the opening:

“Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you, and it will rock your world.”

Nice. The story is fast, fun and entertaining and yet ends on a thoughtful note, suddenly casting the story in a different light. With a chunk of hard science thrown in too. Great stuff. My favourite of the nominees.

Karen Burnham:

Paul McAuley’s “Little Lost Robot” is just about the Exact Opposite of the Asimov story he references in the title. Asimov’s lost robot was simply a man-sized robot trying to get away with something, trying to escape. McAuley’s is a planet-sized solar-system-killing war machine… that finds itself with not much left to kill. It finds its way to a solar system and has a conversation with what may be a remnant of humanity. McAuley has done an interesting thing in giving the “robot” four distinct functional avatars: Librarian, Philosopher, Navigator and Tactician. However, the Philosopher got damaged somewhere along the way, and that lack gives and extra frisson of tension to the story.

Lois Tilton:

A superbad big space robot, bigger than an asteroid, smaller than a moon. A self-aware, heavily-armed killer machine on a mission of no return, seeking out the enemy wherever the enemy may be hiding and destroying every last trace of the motherfuckers. It’s a midnight rambler.

But after wiping out all traces of life in this side of the galactic disc, it has run out of targets. Driven by its prime directive, it sends out radio telescopes to search for any signs of life elsewhere. But it is not prepared for what it encounters.

McAuley is clearly re-imagining the sort of autonomous killer machines epitomized by Saberhagen’s Berserkers. But this encounter seems rather anticlimactic and lacking conflict, after all that has gone before.

And my original thoughts:

This is a fun story on several levels. For starters, it’s about an immense civilization-killing robot, travelling from solar system to solar system, carrying out a prime directive to wipe out The Enemy, which basically seems to be any organic life. It’s not hugely pyrotechnic, but there is a sense of intoxicating power hanging over the story. The style is rather droll; the robot is described simply as “the big space robot”, and the narrator says things like, “Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you and it will rock your world”. And although the dilemma that ultimately faces the robot – it uncovers evidence that it may be about to destroy the civilization that birthed it; can said evidence be trusted? – is familiar, McAuley finds an angle on the dilemma, and a resolution, that feel fresh. It’s big, clever fun in five pages.

So perhaps the most varied reception of any of the nominees — to which, of course, you are invited to add your thoughts. And, since this is the last of the four nominees, feel free to give your opinion on the shortlist as a whole …

The 2009 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

Forty-six from seventeen publishers have become six from four. There are two previous winners among the nominated authors, and two first-timers (one with their first novel); one woman, and two Americans. One novel also appears on the BSFA Best Novel shortlist. There are, this year, quite a lot of spaceships.

Yes, the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist is upon us! This year’s judges — for the British Science Fiction Association, Chris Hill and Ruth O’Reilly; for the Science Fiction Foundation, Robert Hanks and Rhiannon Lassiter; and for SF Crowsnest.com, Pauline Morgan — have deliberated, and decided.

Paul Billinger, Chair of the judges, reports:

“It was a long and intense meeting to decide this year’s shortlist, with passionate debate from all of the judges. Although at times it seemed almost impossible, they eventually concluded that these six books were the ones that demonstrated to them what was best about the science fiction novels published in 2008.”

And Award Administrator Tom Hunter says:

“Speculation and active debate have always surrounded the announcement of the award shortlist, and earlier this year we took the unprecedented step of releasing the full long list of eligible submitted works from which this final shortlist was decided. Our aim was to highlight the strength and diversity of current science fiction publishing and to show the awesome task that faces our judging panel every year. I think they’ve risen to this challenge admirably and I’m greatly looking forward to the full range of reactions and conversations to come and, of course, to finding out the eventual winner at the end of April.”

That winner will be announced on Wednesday 29th April, at a ceremony held on the opening night of the Sci-Fi London film festival. They will receive £2009, and a commemorative engraved bookend.

Let the debate begin! I’ll be updating this post with links to additional reviews as they appear, but for now, here are the nominees:

Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod (PS Publishing)

Reviewed by Adam Roberts for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
An appreciation by Helena Bowles
Reviewed by Tanya Brown
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Niall here

The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid for SF Site
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Duncan Lawie for The Zone
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
Reviewed by Annalee Newitz at io9
Reviewed by Lisa Tuttle for The Times
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by Niall here

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Dan Hartland for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Rich Horton for SF Site
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid for SF Site
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by Charlie Jane Anders at io9
Reviewed by Lisa Tuttle for The Times
Reviewed by Eric Brown for The Guardian
Reviewed by Jonathan Wright for SFX
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Niall here

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic)

Reviewed by Martin Lewis for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Gary K Wolfe for Locus
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum at Asking the Wrong Questions
Reviewed by Michael Dirda for the Washington Post
Reviewed by Laura Miller for the LA Times
Reviewed by Tom Shippey for the TLS
Reviewed by Andrew McKie for The Telegraph
Reviewed by Jakob Schmidt for SF Site
Reviewed at The Complete Review
Reviewed by Niall here
Reviewed by Liz here

The Margarets by Sheri S Tepper (Gollancz)

Reviewed by Nic Clarke and Sherryl Vint for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Andrew McKie for The Telegraph
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by Annalee Newitz at io9
Reviewed by David Langford for SFX
Reviewed by Cynthia Ward for Sci-Fi Weekly
Reviewed by Adrienne Martini for Bookslut

Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham (Jonathan Cape)

Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Edward James for Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria
Reviewed by Jonathan Gibbs for The Independent
Reviewed by Cathi Unsworth for The Guardian
Reviewed by Saxon Bullock for SFX
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Andrew McKie for The Telegraph

Roundups and miscellany
Edward James
Adam Roberts
Nic Clarke
Niall’s roundup
A poll
The winner

Previous shortlist roundups
2008
2007

Story Notes 3

The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen (The New Yorker, March)
“Surely,” the nameless narrator says near the end of this tale, “our world obeys rules still alien to our imaginations”. She’s ostensibly talking about the possibility of time travel, though the larger point “The Region of Unlikeness” is structured to make is that she may as well be talking about the impulses of the human heart. From the start, the story emphasizes what is unknown or uncertain: describing how she fell into an intellectual pose of friendship with two ostentatiously erudite older men, the first thing the narrator admits is that she doesn’t actually know whether one of them is a philosopher or a physicist; nor does she understand the relationship between them, although now she suspects it may hide “a scientific secret, that rare kind of secret that, in our current age, still manages to bend our knee”. If that sounds like the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this; the story is brim-full with carefully observed quotidian (New York) detail, the contours of the relationships between the three characters are finely delineated, and the tension between the story’s science fictional and mundane explanations well balanced. I do like this sort of thing, and I did like this, particularly the last, caught as it is between an evoked longing for the conspiratorial explanation to be true – for there to be rules still alien to our imaginations – and a recognition that its truth is potentially horrifying. It’s made me bump Atmospheric Disturbances a few notches back up the reading stack, anyway. It also reminded me of Justina Robson’s “Legolas Does the Dishes“ at some points, though Galchen’s tale is more conspicuous about guiding its readers; but then, the narrator is the sort of person who thinks playing a video game is de facto evidence of childishness, so it makes sense that she’d be proud of her learning.


“The Kindness of Strangers” by Nancy Kress (Fast Forward 2)
Kress also sets up a balance between the human and the science-fictional, but of a more traditional kind, telling a story about an implacable but literally incomprehensible alien visitation contrasted with an implacable but all too comprehensible human story. For it to work the aliens must be impressive, and they are – they start removing Earth’s cities, in decreasing size order, made retrospectively even more impressive when their appearance afterward in human form has the feel of a more simple magic – and the personal crisis be affecting, and it is. Jenny is the other woman in an affair that she knows can’t go anywhere – or couldn’t, before Eric’s family were apparently obliterated by the aliens and they were trapped, with a small group of others, between invisible barriers. Several stylistic and structural choices on Kress’ part maximise the story’s effectiveness; it’s told in the present tense, and notably Eric is kept almost entirely off-screen, placing the emphasis on Jenny being drawn into interacting with one of the other families. The answer for the aliens’ actions obtained in the inevitable final confrontation isn’t new – none could be – but it reaffirms the chill contrast in perspectives that’s at the heart of the story. Likewise, the story as a whole isn’t new, but it’s done with satisfying skill.


“The Sun Also Explodes” by Chris Nakashima-Brown (Fast Forward 2)
A story which is clearly trying to be new, and depending on your reading is either caught between its utopian and satiric impulses, or productively exploits the tension between those impulses; being charitable, I lean towards the latter. The tension is there in the setting, a desert micro-state advertised as a haven for artistic, cultural, political, sexual and interpersonal experimentation – where topics of conversation range freely from new planets to comics – if you can afford the entry fee. You suspect a wink when Nakashima-Brown describes his characters as a “posturban hipster crowd”, and the relationship/collaboration that develops between the narrator, a kind of literal landscape artist, and Elkin, a bio-artist, has the kind of casualness (at least on the surface) which that characterisation suggests. But it’s also a bond informed and altered by the new biological and cybernetic technologies that infuse their work and bodies. The terms of success the story sets up for itself are ambitious, and more met than not; the major disappointment is that there is not, in fact, an exploding sun.


“Little Lost Robot” by Paul McAuley (IZ217)
This is a fun story on several levels. For starters, it’s about an immense civilization-killing robot, travelling from solar system to solar system, carrying out a prime directive to wipe out The Enemy, which basically seems to be any organic life. It’s not hugely pyrotechnic, but there is a sense of intoxicating power hanging over the story. The style is rather droll; the robot is described simply as “the big space robot”, and the narrator says things like, “Sooner or later it’ll be coming to the star next door to you and it will rock your world”. And although the dilemma that ultimately faces the robot – it uncovers evidence that it may be about to destroy the civilization that birthed it; can said evidence be trusted? – is familiar, McAuley finds an angle on the dilemma, and a resolution, that feel fresh. It’s big, clever fun in five pages.


Divining Light” by Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s, August)
A perhaps slightly overlong, but very proficient, sf story about quantum mechanics in the classic mode, which is to say idea-driven and didactic. As with Kress’s story, it’s a piece that does what it needs to do to work – three things, in this case. First, it makes its chosen idea – the famous, although apparently not as famous as I thought, given that the story includes a diagram, two-slit experiment demonstrating the wav/particle nature of electrons – parsable, both in terms of a literal clear explanation of the experiment and in rendering the experiments and their implications human-scaled and easy to grasp. Second, it gives its new idea (an implementation of Wheeler’s Delayed Choice thought experiment) human weight: this in part flows from the voice of the narrator, Eric Argus, a researcher driven to bitter existential despair by his work on quantum computers, who faces down drink and the solace of a gun every day at his “new start” job in Boston, and is prone to saying noir-ish things like, “I learned this: there is no bottom to see” of his experience with Scanning Electron Microscope scans, or “the more research I did, the less I believed in the world”. (Just as well, since he’s the only half-way real character in the piece.) And third, “Divining Light” brings the idea and the human story together with appropriate elegance. The story’s last ten pages spin off implications of Eric’s work rapidly in several directions (animal welfare, the nature of faith, human evolution), such that the world begins to be changed; but ultimately the story comes down to one devastating moment, rendered comprehensible by the explanations that have gone before. A very nice performance, and one that handles the slide between the real and the speculative expertly.

Two Reviews

The Quiet War coverThere is a sense in which the true subject of Paul McAuley’s latest novel is revealed by passages like this:

Working in the vacuum-organism fields, Macy learned to trust her pressure suit’s bubble of warmth and air and to appreciate the still silence of Ganymede’s naked and unforgiving icescapes stretched cold and still under the infinite black sky, and there were blessed moments when her consciousness sank into her muscles and time melted into an eternal now and everything around her, the awkward casing of her pressure suit and its whines and hisses and whirrs, the fields of vacuum organisms and the stark plain beyond, flowed into a single pure experience. (185-6)

This example is particularly striking, because most of the time one of Macy Minnot’s greatest virtues is her alert, pragmatic engineer’s mind, but each of the novel’s main characters experiences at least one comparable moment. For clone soldier Dave #8 it comes the first time he experiences a universe beyond his barracks: at first “everything was new and exciting and charged with significance and the high resolution of reality”, and then “the connection between what he had learned and what he saw struck a bright snap of pleasure” (148-9). For space pilot Cash Baker (no, naming is not McAuley’s strong suit), it comes in the middle of a mission that involves diving into Saturn’s atmosphere: “The sky was deep indigo and seemingly infinite, the sun a tiny flattened disc that glowered at the hazy horizon, the centre of concentric shells of bloody light that rose towards zenith … He felt like the king of this whole wide world, an emperor of air, and told Vera that this place was definitely made for flying” (222). And for Sri Hong-Owen, scientist and (I would argue, against her protestations to the contrary) politician, it comes at home, in the part of Antarctica she has remade after the environmental upheavals of Earth’s recent past: “Facing into the cold, clean wind and thin flurries of snow, she could survey the entirety of her little kingdom”. Tellingly, however, Sri is the only one of the four characters to look beyond the immediate moment. She sees impermanence, “a mirage” maintained in the teeth of the second law of thermodynamics. “The world,” she muses, “must be free to find its own point of equilibrium” (168). Aside from often being vivid, clear writing, what I think all these moments do well is to give a flavour of what it is like to be human in this future: to be a fragile member of a fragile species, maintained by technology in the face of ancient, often empty, fundamentally inhospitable landscapes, and yet to find something resembling a moment of peace. An equilibrium between the noise of being human and the quiet of the universe.

Unfortunately, most of the time The Quiet War struggles to maintain this balance. Set in the relatively near future, it combines a semi-Grand Tour — that is, a plot which systematically navigates between half a dozen of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, plus a couple of other locations — with an attempt to depict two societies sliding towards war. Almost all of it is notionally told from the perspectives of the four characters mentioned above, all of whom are subjects of one of Earth’s feudal mega-nations (Greater Brazil), and caught up in some way with the plot to initiate war with the democratic Outer colonies. I say “notionally” because although most of the narration sticks relatively close to its subject (close enough, as Abigail Nussbaum notes in her review at Strange Horizons, for the narrator to be able to explicate exactly what a character is thinking or feeling at any given time), there are big wodges of context inelegantly but liberally sprinkled through the text. Sometimes these are history lessons; sometimes they are technical explanations, as one or other of the characters goes about some particularly high-tech part of their job; often they read like background information from a sourcebook:

East of Eden, Ganymede, occupied a narrow crevasse at the southeastern edge of the dark and cratered terrain of Galileo Regio. The floor and sides of the crevasse were insulated and pressure-sealed with layers of fullerene composite and aerogel, and it was roofed with the same material … The settlement had been founded some fifty years ago by a group who believed that the other inhabitants of Jupiter’s moons had grown too soft, too bourgeois. Although there home was pleasantly bucolic, East of Eden’s citizens were austere and close-minded, keen on conformity, custom and civic duty, and they prized the acquisition of scientific and philosophical knowledge about all else. … Their government, a form of direct democracy similar to that of the city-states of Classical Greece or the early years of the Roman Republic, involved endless discussions (156-7).

I think it’s clear that these sections are intended to be as important to the overall aesthetic of the novel as the character-focused moments I described above, in that one of The Quiet War‘s central goals is undoubtedly to build up a picture of a future solar system, one that eschews romanticization for verisimilitude. And in that goal, it is largely successful. The Quiet War is from that tradition of sf which is unabashedly didactic, devoted to political, technical and geographical detail, and while there are inevitable familiar elements (Dave #8’s tale, in particular, reminded me variously of the future-war parts of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee sequence, and the clone workers in David Marusek’s Counting Heads), the range and coherence of imagination on display is impressive. The societies on Earth, which have turned environmentalism into a form of religion, and in the Outer colonies, which have started to embrace the more radical possibilities of fully participatory democracy and genetic modification, are convincing (although we see much more of Outer cities like East of Eden than we do of Earth). The technical innovations woven into the plot, from self-sustaining biomes to the “vacuum organisms” that support the colonists, are fascinating; and the stubborn insistence on portraying the various moons and planets as they really are (as we currently understand them) gives the whole enterprise a solid foundation. There are moments and passages when the sense that it really could be like this can make The Quiet War utterly absorbing.

But I’m not sure the sourcebook stuff is necessary. Admittedly, I haven’t read many of the original “quiet war” stories which preceded the novel, and of those I have read most, such as “Second Skin” (1997) and “Making History” (2000), are set after the war; but I don’t remember them requiring such encyclopedism to make their point, and while a novel obviously has more space to play with, I don’t know that this was the best use for it. I’m not even arguing that the information needs to be woven into the narrative more elegantly; the problem is that most of the time, it already is. There’s nothing in that description of East of Eden, for instance, which Macy Minnot does not subsequently experience first-hand. She sees the colony’s buildings with her own eyes; gradually learns about its history and the temperament and interests of its citizens; and gains first-hand experience of living in a democracy – albeit negative experience, as the system is manipulated against her.

You could perhaps construct an argument in favour of the lectures that has to do with pacing and tone: they help to maintain the measured pace and sober tone that drain the sensationalism out of the novel’s more action-adventure elements. Adam Roberts’ review acknowledges the limitations of the novel’s style but finds, ultimately, that its “quietness” is its great strength. There’s something to that: the implied narrator is native to this future and thus takes moments such as, for example, the scene in which Macy is subjected to casual torture as unremarkable, enabling them to be presented with powerful understatement in precisely the way Roberts describes. A less utilitarian perspective, or one that sought greater historical distance, would lessen this effect. No matter how carefully, how impressively the knowledge that went into The Quiet War was orchestrated, however, I found myself missing the wit and irony that distinguished the other Paul McAuley novels I’ve read recently (the Arthur C Clarke Award-winner Fairyland, and last year’s Cowboy Angels). Things do improve in the novel’s punchy closing stages, which bring the question of how humans can live in the solar system to a pivot point, and slingshot most of the characters onto interesting new trajectories; a subplot that sees Dave #8 infiltrating an Outer colony is a particular highlight, as is a climactic encounter between Sri and an Outer “gene wizard” she’s been seeking for much of the novel. But too much of the quietness of The Quiet War is a lifeless quiet, which could have done with a bit more human noise.

Song of Time coverThe same can’t be said of Ian R MacLeod’s new novel. Indeed, as Faren Miller notes in her review for Locus (August 2008), Song of Time is a book that could be accused of melodrama, and accordingly it adopts a rich, storybookish tone that would seem alien in The Quiet War. Roushana Maitland, the aging classical violinist who narrates the tale early in the twenty-second century, is a classically MacLeodian protagonist: a third-generation Indian immigrant on her mother’s side, of Irish extraction on her father’s side, but, at least to start with, reservedly English in her demeanour. As the novel starts, two significant things happen. One, she finds a strange, amnesiac young man washed up on the beach outside her Cornwall house and gives him shelter, and two, having recently been implanted with a crystal that will gradually record her personality (shades of Greg Egan’s 1990 tale “Learning to be Me” here, although again the tone is radically different) for later upload into a digital afterlife, she begins to relive various memories. The earliest are of her brother, Leo, of learning to play the violin, and of growing up in the suburbs of Birmingham:

Forgotten, tired, sticky, I drifted out into the back garden. In those days, in that lost summer of that lost century, scarcely any stars hung above Birmingham, there was so much light and smog. The French windows still hung open, and it seemed for a moment that Leo and Blythe and I could still be playing inside. Not struggling in fits and starts through the Brahms, but making music which shaped itself like the cool flow of a midnight river. I could almost hear that lovely, inexpressable sound over the boom of next door’s television and the drone of evening traffic on the Alcester Road. (16-17)

Roushana’s voice, here and elsewhere, is typical MacLeod, cool purposefulness pitched somewhere between the lushness of The Light Ages (2003) and the stuffiness of The Summer Isles (2005). But whereas the voices of those novels dovetailed exactly with their periods (both are historical fictions, of one kind or another), in Song of Time there is a mismatch between a near-future backdrop that is as dense with technological and cultural change as we demand from modern sf, and the foregrounded voice. Ultimately, I think it works to the novel’s advantage; indeed, control of tone is one of its great strengths, with, for example, the dissonance between the intensity of nostalgia that Roushana displays – “lost summer of that lost century”! – and how we expect the near future to be written about used to powerful effect. Similarly, when Roushana lets the mysterious stranger (whom she calls Adam) watch the news it unleashes a sudden torrent of images, familiar as an extrapolation of our own increasingly media-saturated lives, that is all the more viscerally powerful for its incongruity. Moreover, Song of Time is as much about what the future means to us as what it might actually be; and MacLeod is unarguably good at investing this sort of style with a cumulative power. Slightly earlier in the same reminiscence, a stoned Leo talks about the future:

How Mars would cease to hang red in the sky and turn verdant green, and Venus would shift from white to oceanic blue. Soon, long steel ships will dart from existence to existence, probability to probability, world to wondrous world. It’s there for us, Sis, waiting ahead in this century in which we’re so lucky to have been born. Leo certainly knew that such visions were already outdated, but that didn’t matter: what mattered on that afternoon was the dream, and the way he said You and I, Sis. What mattered was lying beside my brother on that frayed rug, and I think that Leo, for all his drawling know-it-allness, really did imagine then that the world was a place of endless possibility, a ripe fruit which he would soon reach out to possess. (13-14)

For all its datedness, there surely can’t be many sf readers for whom this first sf longing, the sense of easy destiny implied when the final image of “ripe fruit” recalls those planets hanging in the sky, will not strike a chord. But a couple of hours later, Leo has already changed his mind, adopting a more contemporary attitude — “The future isn’t something waiting ahead of us any longer. We’re living with it. It’s with us. It’s everything. It’s here” (17). Anyone who’s read MacLeod’s superb novella “New Light on the Drake Equation” (2001), which portrayed an old man living in a future science fiction hadn’t prepared him for, could at this point be forgiven for thinking they know where Song of Time is heading, but though there are similarities, the novel goes further than the story. The future in Song of Time is a shifty, uncertain thing, sometimes promising, sometimes malign, always bound up with the characters’ sense of themselves. When Leo becomes sick, for instance, infected by a modern plague – an engineered virus that causes increasingly severe food intolerance in people with caucasian heritage — he becomes increasingly bitter about the dream he shared with his sister. A planned trip to a Venice afflicted by subsidence and rising sea levels becomes totemic; “What do you think the future holds for me?” (41), he demands. Later, after a family tragedy, Roushana’s mother insists to her that “The past’s gone, darling. The hopes and the theories mean nothing. All we’ve got left is the future” (77). In Roushana’s present, an avatar evangelising about the benefits of a digital afterlife claims that “The future isn’t the Earth” (159), but belongs to a form of life that can become “the breath of the sun”, and travel to the stars. But perhaps most definitive is Roushana’s assertion, when worn out by the process of remembering, that “The past is gone. So is the future. All that remains is me” (275).

Earlier, the doctor who explains to Roushana how her memory-crystal implant should work puts it even more plainly, in the course of reassuring her that not to worry if some memories are biased, or painful to recall: “This isn’t supposed to be some impersonal history — it’s the reflection of your true nature which counts” (153). And MacLeod holds true to that credo throughout the novel. This is not to say that Song of Time is a story in which the sf elements are window-dressing — although on the surface it seems less essentially sfnal than something like The Quiet War, it ultimately turns on a choice that only the sfnal elements could enable. But the narrative is grounded in a different way, in emotion rather than fact. And it’s quiet in a different way, too. Inevitably, Roushana and her family are caught up in some of the century’s notable events, but just as many happen off-screen, and there are tantalizing references to “the sink cities of Southern Europe” (5), or “machines which mine the distant planets” (45), or other such details. Together with the ways in which the technological advances in medicine, computing and other fields are unobtrusively worked into the background, this teasing gives MacLeod’s future history a sense of depth and solidity; yet the closest we get to a lecture or a panorama is the occasional paragraph in which Roushana describes a place and time in the course of describing how it felt to be there, then.

Initially, it has to be said, that the flashbacks are by far the more compelling aspect of the novel, describing with precision and force everything from the suburbs of Birmingham to a devastated India to a baroque Paris in the throes of artistic and political ferment. (This last is a tour-de-force.) The present-tense episodes which punctuate these reminiscences keep the novel moving, but for a while seem as though they will not move beyond mere functionality. But perhaps I was more resistant to them than I should have been, given that I was utterly convinced I knew what was going on with Adam, and utterly wrong. Certainly, as we get to know Roushana better — in her determination, her sometimes coldness, and her passions — and as she comes to know, and increasingly to confess to, Adam, the present-tense sections come into their own. The final fifty pages or so bear down on the relationship between Roushana and her exuberant, performative husband Claude, to unearth how Claude’s death still shapes Roushana’s present. In spite of their melodramatic qualities (a great raging storm underlines the emotional intensity of the climactic scenes), they build to a piercing, haunting conclusion.

And through it all, inescapably, there is music. Although we don’t get much detail about Roushana’s career – on the grounds that it’s a matter of public record, and that she thus needs to spend less time remembering it – what we do get renders the emotional stresses and rewards of a musical life as viscerally as anything I’ve read since Michel Faber’s The Courage Consort (2002). Moreover, the novel as a whole is marvellously inclusive, even inspirational, in its appreciation of “high” culture, although when it comes to describing music directly, MacLeod perhaps falters; describing a mid-21st-century genius’ work “as if Beethoven had written trance”, for instance, seems to be trying a bit too hard. But in the same way that Song of Time is less about the reality of the future than the idea of it, it’s less about the specific character of music than the feelings it inspires and the atmosphere it evokes. The “song of time” within the narrative takes advantage of various technological innovations to constantly evolve: any copy of the score which is ever opened will be subtly different to any other, according to rules laid down by the original composer, growing and changing (as memories grow and change). It’s a grounded sfnal speculation – the music of a culture in which access to recordings is ubiquitous – but also serves as a hymn to the power of the present moment, and a reminder that nostalgia, whether for the past or the future, can be a trap. It’s a truism to say the same of the best novels, that they change not just from one reader to the next, but from one reading to the next, demanding to be revisited, so perhaps the most generous praise I can offer of Song of Time is to say that the act of reading it feels just as ephemeral, and essential, as the music to which Roushana Maitland devotes her life.