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Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015) 466 p.

There’s a famous quote by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky which is inscribed, among other places, at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington:

“The earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever.”

Yet the stars are too far away. Even if you approach the speed of light it will still take hundreds of years to get there. Thus the old stalwart of science fiction: the generation ship, an enormous self-contained ark in which multiple generations can live and die while their descendants carry on the voyage. The science for a vessel like this is far more feasible than stuff like wormholes or warp drives or hypersleep, so it’s no surprise that the modern master of hard science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, chose a generation starship as the setting of his latest novel Aurora.

The ship is unnamed. It consists of two rotating wheels around a central spine, split into twenty-four self-contained environments each a few kilometres long, containing plants and animals from all of Earth’s different biomes. The population hovers around two thousand. The ship has been travelling for 160 years, or about seven generations, and is soon to arrive in the Tau Ceti system, where probes have identified an Earth-like moon suitable for human colonisation.

Given my mixed feelings about Robinson’s Mars trilogy and his more recent novel 2312, I was surprised by how much I was anticipating this one. I spent a lot of time hunting through English-language bookstores while travelling through south-eastern Europe, to no avail, and eventually picked up a copy back here in Australia. I think the reason I looked forward to it so much, despite Robinson’s patchy record, is because it promised to continue to push the envelope. The Mars trilogy focused on the colonisation of our nearest neighbour; 2312 ventured further out to explore the entire solar system; and I was interested, as always, to see Robinson’s imagination take on a voyage out to the next frontier.

What’s fascinating and surprising about Aurora – and I’m going to try to talk about this while avoiding two critical plot twists – is that in many ways, it’s a complete repudiation of Robinson’s previous optimistic, utopian narratives, and even a rejection of the long canon of science fiction space exploration entirely.

Humanity’s expansion to the stars being both desirable and inevitable, as exemplified in the Tsiolkovsky quote I opened with (which also features in the book), is a rarely challenged orthodoxy not just in the science fiction community, but in the broader scientific community as well. It’s an orthodoxy I believe in, one which I thought Robinson believed in, and one which I can safely bet most people picking up a novel about a generation starship by Kim Stanley Robinson believe in. And it’s this orthodoxy which Aurora questions, challenges and entirely re-evaluates over the course of the story.

Robinson is a hard science fiction writer, interested in everything from astrophysics to biology to human sociology, and he attacks the expansionism orthodoxy in ways which are scientifically grounded – within a hypothetical framework, of course. I can’t discuss all of them without spoiling the plot, but one of them is “island biology” or “zoo devolution:” the issues the ship’s inhabitants face in managing such a tiny, cut-off ecosystem, especially given that viruses and bacteria mutate and evolve faster than larger organisms like humans. Another concern, from a social standpoint, is the ethical quandary of condemning thousands of unborn future generations to live their lives sealed inside a small, inescapable environment – an environment which must be tightly controlled in terms of reproduction and freedom of movement, and which inevitably tends towards a dictatorship.

Robinson is, as always, wedded to ideas rather than characters; I can’t remember a single name from 2312, and only in the Mars trilogy, where he had room to properly stretch out, did I feel he managed to write some memorable and well-drawn characters (albeit only about five of them). Aurora doesn’t break this trend – there’s not a single well-sketched human character. There is, fortunately, the best character Robinson has ever written, which is the ship itself. Tasked by the chief engineer with writing a narrative of the vessel’s voyage, the ship effectively has to learn how to tell a story, how to properly understand humans, how to sort relevant information from irrelevant information, and – by the end of the book – how to make decisions without human input. So as well as being a generational spaceship novel, Aurora is a story about an AI gradually becoming self-aware. When problems with the voyage and political schisms within its human population force it to take an active hand in managing their affairs, referring to itself as “the rule of law,” it’s hard not to cheer for it. The ship’s changing narrative voice as it learns, grows and develops into something similar to a human intelligence is a deeply satisfying character arc, and its final monologue towards the end of the novel, in which it reflects on what it has accomplished and how it has found the meaning of its existence, is one of the most affecting and emotional (and terribly sad) passages I’ve ever read in science fiction.

Whether or not Robinson totally agrees with the message he lays down in Aurora is questionable; I don’t believe someone who has devoted this much of his life and work to promoting the colonisation of outer space could have such a road to Damascus conversion. Nor do I agree with the black and white dictum he makes about other worlds and the inability of human enterprise to overcome them. (Again, this is hard to discuss without spoilers.) I, for one, have a certain level of faith in the technological curve and human ingenuity, and in Arthur C. Clarke’s old quote about magic.

But all science fiction novels are products of their time, and we’re no longer in the shiny and optimistic future of the 1960s or even the 1990s. As well as being deeply scientific, Robinson’s writing has always been concerned with questions of ecological, political and social morality. Aurora presents a moral conclusion which, though I might disagree with it, is being put forward because of the situation on Earth as it presently exists, and the problems currently facing the human race. Aurora aims to make us re-evaluate our goals as a species, our attitude towards our lived present, and our position on the spaceship we all occupy already. It’s an excellent book, a very original book, a deeply important book, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

But for now it’s goodbye to the beaches, and indeed many a celebrated island of yore now lies deep under the waves. An entire world and way of life has disappeared with these fabled places, a lifeway that went right back to the beginning of the species in south and east Africa, where the earliest humans were often intimately involved with the sea. That wet, sandy, tidal, salty, sun-flecked, beautiful beach life: all gone, along with so much else, of course; animals, plants, fish. It’s part of the mass extinction event they are still struggling to end, to escape. So much has been lost that will never come back again, that the loss of the joy of the relatively few humans who were lucky enough to live on the strand, who combed the beaches, and fished, and rode the waves, and lay in the sun – that’s nothing much to grieve for, given everything else that has been lost, all the suffering, all the hunger, all the death, all the extinctions. Most of the mammal species are gone.

Still, it was a way of life much beloved, and still remembered in art and song, image and story – still legendary, still a lost golden age, vibrating at some level below thought, there in their salty blood and tears, in the long, curled waves of DNA that still break inside them all.

– From “Aurora,” by Kim Stanley Robinson

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014) 405 p.

Harry August is born on New Year’s Day in the women’s bathroom of Berwick-upon-Tweed railway station, the bastard child of a wealthy landowner and a maid. His mother dies in childbirth and Harry is raised by the landowner’s groundskeeper and his wife, taking their surname, forever unrecognised by his true family. He fights in the Second World War, returns to the estate to take over his adoptive father’s job, and dies of cancer in 1989 after a thoroughly ordinary life.

Then he is born again, in the railway station bathroom on New Year’s Day in 1919, and within a few short years he gradually remembers all that happened in his past life. Harry is a “kalachakra” or an “ouroboran” – a person fated to forever relive his own time upon the earth, becoming thousands of years old while he inhabits the same body and the same century over and over again. He is not alone; after a few repeated lifetimes he becomes acquainted with the Cronus Club, a network of kalachakra across human history who assist each other monetarily, most importantly by extracting fellow reborn kalachakra from the “tedious years of childhood” by endowing mysterious scholarships upon them, Citizen Kane style. Rescued from a few lonely, confused lifetimes of madness and religious solace, Harry soon finds that in the company of the Cronus Club, all the world – and all the 20th century – is his oyster.

This is not uncovered ground in sci-fi; Ken Grimwood wrote a novel in the 1980s called Replay and Kate Atkinson wrote Life After Life in 2013, both stories along similar lines, both of which were already sitting on my to-be-read pile. (I also have to mention here that the Cronus Club most strongly reminded me of 2014’s other novel about a society of constantly-reborn immortals, The Bone Clocks, although in that case they’re born into fresh bodies and are as constrained by linear time as the rest of us.) But of course it’s not an uncommon fantasy – I know I’d certainly thought of it long before I heard of any of these books. What would we do if we could go back to our youth as intelligent and mature as we are now? What would we do if we had literally all the time in the world, to accumulate all the knowledge and experience and wealth anyone could ever need?

Life is about choosing doors. Open one, and others become closed to you. I had any number of things I wanted to do when I was going out into the world after university: travel everywhere, crew on a yacht, teach English overseas, live in New York, drive a Kombi around Australia, et cetera ad infinitum. I also, one day, theoretically, want to have children, and I know that once you take on that responsibility an enormous number of doors are slammed shut. I still wonder, as I approach my 27th birthday, about which kind of 30s I’d like to have: the family and career-driven type, or the freewheeling vagabonding type. I try to avoid describing myself as a “writer,” because I think it’s pretentious, but let’s settle on “daydreamer:” I often put myself in other hypothetical shoes, and think about other imagined lives. And this means I naturally think a lot about about my own life trajectory, about my story, about why I did the things I did, about what I could still do and what I could once have done. Sometimes I forgot that not everybody else is consumed with an anxious appraisal of the ongoing narrative of their own life, and of the closing of doors with each passing year. This is also, I suspect, why I’ve fretted about my age throughout most of my 20s, to the irritation of my older friends and colleagues – not so much out of vanity or fear of mortality (though there is some of that) but about a sense of loss, a fear that maybe I haven’t lived my life to its fullest or been everything that I could have been.

And so the concept of reliving one’s own life, but with all memory intact, is quite alluring. Harry is a religious guru, a doctor, a physicist, a secret agent, a mob boss and more: he has literally unlimited time to take his life in any direction he pleases, secure in the knowledge that he has an infinite supply of do-overs. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an irresistible wish fulfilment fantasy.

But it’s also a sci-fi thriller. It kicks off with Harry dying of cancer in his twelfth life, visited by a young girl who is actually, like him, thousands of years old. The Cronus Club uses overlapping lives as a conduit for messages between the past and the future, left engraved in stone or whispered from the young to the old; dying in the 1990s, Harry is able to deliver messages from recently-born kalachakra back his own youth in the 1920s, to people who were born in the 1840s, and so on. The young girl’s message is that the world is ending – and it keeps ending “sooner than it should.” One of the kalachakra, somewhere in the world, is tinkering with world events – a terrible crime in the eyes of the club – and Harry takes it upon himself to find out who and stop them.

So as well as a leisurely exploration of an intriguing concept, North gives us a potboiler mystery and adventure to go with it, and she does it very well. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is unusual for a sci-fi book: an excellent concept which is actually backed up by good writing and plotting. It’s a shame to say it, but it seems far more common in the genre to see a good concept poorly executed. Which is not to say that North doesn’t try and fail to induce a sense of philosophic weight to it all; more that her prose was quick and breezy enough for Harry’s semi-regular ponderings about the nature of infinite life to not take any weight away from the quick, exciting plotline. It’s good airport fiction, and in fact I read most of it on a very long flight from Europe to Australia. It won’t be nominated for the Booker any time soon, but the novel’s flaws are certainly outweighed by its strengths, and if the concept sounds interesting to you, I can promise it’s well worth your time.

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brien (1972) 528 p.

Following the events of Master and Commander, a ceasefire has been declared. France and Britain are at peace. Returning from their successful cruise in the Mediterranean, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin settle down in the English countryside and begin wooing the local girls: Sophia Williams, a sweet and good-natured woman straight from the pages of an Austen novel, and Diana Villiers, a fiery widow from British India who chafes against her social constraints and longs for freedom. (And that’s not respectively; there’s quite a love trapezoid going on.) Alas, Jack soon finds that his prize agent has absconded with his money, and he must go on the run to avoid debtor’s prison. Jack and Stephen soon find themselves in France, only to be forced underground once more as the brief peace treaty is broken and they are once again in hostile territory.

I would argue that I’m only about 60-70% sure of what’s going on in an Aubrey-Maturin novel, which is quite understandable during the long and complicated naval battle scenes; but even in Post Captain, which is at least half-set on land, I found myself puzzled by the social mores, customs and laws in place. Maybe if I’d had a proper British educational background in the history and literature of the 19th century I’d be better off. It helps that Jack himself is not quite up to speed with the finer points of debt law in Regency England, in which bailiffs must touch the fugitive with their staves to claim him, and in which there are certain safe areas, such as the Savoy Hotel or onboard a King’s ship. One of the finest moments in the story comes in a seaport when Jack escapes an attacking group of bailiffs by calling for his crew to defend him, and then orders the subdued bailiffs to be press-ganged onto his own vessel. (A close second is Stephen’s relaxed attitude to bringing a hive of bees onboard Jack’s ship during a long voyage.)

The other thing I find difficult, aside from the fact that (as I’ve mentioned before) these books feel like they very well could have been written in the time they’re set, is O’Brian’s sense of narrative structure, which flows into itself with little concession for breaks. Very often, for example, Jack will mention to somebody that he’s going to the Admiralty later that day, and the next line of dialogue will occur with Jack at the Admiralty speaking to somebody else entirely. That’s a sort of page structure I can’t remember seeing anywhere else. But there’s a reason I said “difficult” rather than “off-putting” or “irritating;” I respect an author who expects his readers to keep up, and makes no concessions to their lack of attention. The Aubrey-Maturin books are perfect in their own specific way, and somehow it would feel churlish of me to point out aspects of them which might not be to my liking.

In the same sense, I have to decline to say whether or not Post Captain is better than Master and Commander. It’s certainly different, with much of it set in England (I don’t think any of Master and Commander was), with much more in the way of romance and personal lives, a certain Austenian slant, and a definite suggestion, with the introduction of love interests, that O’Brian is beginning to set this story up for the long haul. Post Captain feels much more like the second chapter in a story rather than the second book in a series, and I suspect I’ll say that about most of these books.

The Dog Said Bow-Wow by Michael Swanwick (2007) 256 p.

A fairly eclectic anthology from Michael Swanwick. The last thing I remember reading by him was the ultimately forgettable Vacuum Flowers, which must have been before I started reviewing in 2007, since it’s not in my index, and wow, 2007 was eight years ago now.

This collection gathers some of his more notable stories from the 2000s, the most prominent of which are the first three entries in what you might call his “Darger and Surplus series,” featuring the titular partners in crime – an Englishman and an anthropomorphic American dog – as they travel around Europe in a biopunk future. I didn’t particularly like them at first; they take place in an ill-defined world which largely seems to serve as an outlet for Swanwick’s overactive imagination, resulting in a kind of anything-goes setting which inevitably emphasises style over substance. But by the third story I was starting to warm to the characters, and I wouldn’t be averse to reading the novel-length story Swanwick has apparently written (or is writing?) about them.

Other stories of note include “’Hello,’ Said The Stick,” about a wandering soldier who finds a piece of advanced technology which may or may not have his best interests at heart; “The Bordello in Faerie,” about a mill worker who ventures across the river every night to a brothel in the faerie realm and finds himself increasingly enchanted by it, even as he realises he is the prostitute and not the customer; and “Legions in Time,” a creepy sci-fi mystery story which reminded me at first of the early works of Stephen King. But the anthology’s standout is the novelette-length “Urdumheim,” a really fantastic reworking of the Tower of Babel legend, in which a group of people who have escaped an evil, inhuman kingdom find themselves assailed by their old enemies once again, who appear as beasts and steal the words they have invented to communicate. Keep an eye out for the insane king who sometimes quotes Bushisms, a reminder that 2007 was really not so long ago after all…

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss (1962) 263 p.

The Earth’s revolution has slowed. The planet is now tidally locked with the sun: one face shrouded in darkness, cold and ice, the other eternally pointed towards the heat and light. After thousands of years of evolution, half the planet is covered by a single enormous banyan tree, within which hundreds of species of carnivorous plants vie for domination. In the eternal hothouse of Earth, a tribe of humanity’s weak and devolved descendants attempt to survive.

It’s a compelling image, and I haven’t even mentioned the moon spiders. Unfortunately, a compelling image is pretty much all Hothouse has to offer.

The novel begins with a tiny tribe of a dozen adults and children, the adults deciding to split themselves off as they grow too old, passing leadership to one of the nearly-mature kids. The adults climb to the tips of the eternal jungle, seal themselves inside special gourds, and then attach themselves to the webs of the great “traversers,” all as part of a misguided religious ceremony. But they nevertheless end up unwittingly carried along the world-spanning threads to the now-terraformed moon by the gargantuan vegetable spiders, where new knowledge awaits them.

It all sounds a bit batshit, and it is, but Aldiss is a skilled enough writer that he makes it seem believable, in a pulpy ‘60s sort of way. The problem is that he doesn’t have much else to tell us. No sooner have we grown accustomed the the trials of the adults in the jungles of the moon, we’re whisked back to Earth and the fate of the children, and there we stay for the duration of the novel. The majority of the book revolves around the strong-willed child Gren and the adventures he has after an intelligent, symbiotic fungus called a morel attaches itself to his brain. But Hothouse was originally published as a serialised string of short stories, and it shows. It feel disjointed and disconnected, with the random addition and removal of characters (such as they are – as in most classic sci-fi, they have no discerning attributes and their names will fade from my memory in a day or two). Hothouse, in the manner of most fascinating sci-fi stories set in the far future, lures the reader on with suggestions of an explanation, of how the world came to be in this radically altered state. It’s actually quite readable – unless that’s just because I happen to a be on a beach holiday and can lap anything up – but it ultimately leaves you wondering what the point was.

Since this is 2015 and I’m a card-carrying left-winger I also feel compelled to point out the weird case of the “tummy-belly men,” a group of humans in a symbiotic slave relationship with a certain type of tree. Gren and his companions free them only to regret it; the former slaves follow them around as simpering supplicants for the rest of the novel, constantly launching into simpleton speeches in which they both praise and damn their benefactors. Given that Aldiss has openly said the book was inspired by his travels in India in the 1950s, and given that the obligatory piece of old technology uncovered by the protagonists reveals that the book takes place in what was once India, I couldn’t help but hear their gibbering, childlike speech patterns in the voice of a native in a 1940s adventure matinee set in British India. “Oh how clever you are master, please no hurt with the big bad monster, oh glorious sir please no kill us, sahib!” That sort of thing. If it was there for a chapter or two I could ignore it, but they’re present for most of the book, and Aldiss even boasts about defending their cut by his American publisher. It seems odd to cry racist over a fictional group of people, but it’s pretty clear who they represent, and it’s off-putting. (More broadly the novel is also par-for-the-course sexist, despite the matriarchal tribal societies.)

Ultimately, Hothouse is pretty much the definition of classic science fiction: a fabulous idea propped up by weak characters and a non-existent plot, which came to life as a series of short stories in the pages of retro sci-fi mags and probably should have stayed there. I found it engaging enough to read while lazing on a beach, but wouldn’t recommend anybody else bother.

Mort, by Terry Pratchett (1987) 304 p.
Discworld #4 (Death #1)

And so we pass through the funny but slapdash novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, and the flawed but taking-its-first-wobbly-toddler-steps novel of Equal Rites, and arrive at the fourth Discworld novel, Mort: the first one I believe is a genuinely good, well-rounded novel, and also the first one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a new reader. (Although it wouldn’t be my first recommendation – more on that later.)

Mortimer, or “Mort” as his family appropriately calls him, is a gangly misfit in a remote village in the Ramtop Mountains. As he comes of age, his father takes him to the village square on Hogswatchnight as the various craftsmen, artisans and traders pick their apprentices for the new year. Mort stands in the freezing cold watching other boys picked for their exciting new careers, like a modern-day kid watching as everybody else is picked for the baseball team, until at the stroke of midnight he’s the only one left. Reminding his father that it’s not midnight until the final stroke of the clock, he stubbornly remains in the square to find that there is indeed one last professional who has yet to take on a protege… and he rides a pale horse.

Death has been a background character in the Discworld books from the very beginning, transforming from an outright malicious figure in The Colour of Magic to the more benevolent fellow we meet in Equal Rites, always happy to have a pithy chat with a departed soul before ushering them into the next world. It’s the latter characterisation that Mort settles upon, and indeed, this is the Death we will become familiar with for the remainder of the Discworld series. As far as walking, talking skeletons who lack a human brain and soul go, he’s quite a likeable person. He speaks IN ALL CAPS, an easy but surprisingly effective trick, and has countless great lines:

“How do you get all those coins?” asked Mort.
IN PAIRS.

“My granny says that dying is like going to sleep,” Mort added, a shade hopefully.

I WOULDN’T KNOW. I HAVE DONE NEITHER.

A WHAT? said Death in astonishment, sitting behind his ornate desk and turning his scythe-shaped paperknife over and over in his hands.

“An afternoon off,” repeated Mort. The room suddenly seemed to be oppressively big, with himself very exposed in the middle of a carpet about the size of a field.

BUT WHY? said Death. IT CAN’T BE TO ATTEND YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S FUNERAL, he added. I WOULD KNOW.

Death is most importantly a loveable character because he is not malevolent; he does not take lives, but merely ensures that people die as fate has appointed. The first time Mort accompanies Death as his new master reaps a soul, the boy instinctively but fruitlessly attempts to intervene and save the murdered man’s life, and later assumes he’s in trouble:

YOU TRIED TO WARN HIM, he said, removing Binky’s nosebag.

“Yes, sir. Sorry.”

YOU CANNOT INTERFERE WITH FATE. WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE WHO SHOULD LIVE AND WHO SHOULD DIE?

Death watched Mort’s expression carefully.

ONLY THE GODS ARE ALLOWED TO DO THAT, he added. To TINKER WITH THE FATE OF EVEN ONE INDIVIDUAL COULD DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?

Mort nodded miserably. “Are you going to send me home?” he said.

Death reached down and swung him up behind the saddle. BECAUSE YOU SHOWED COMPASSION? NO. I MIGHT HAVE DONE IF YOU HAD SHOWN PLEASURE. BUT YOU MUST LEARN THE COMPASSION PROPER TO YOUR TRADE.

“What’s that?”

A SHARP EDGE.

Why Death has decided he wants an apprentice is never entirely clear, unless perhaps it’s in some vague hope that Mort will fall in love with Death’s adopted human daughter, Ysabell. But the concept is great: how many fantasy or young adult novels, how many bildungsroman, have covered the notion of being slowly trained up as a wizard or assassin or ruler? Being trained as the grim reaper is a pretty fresh idea, which is perhaps why I think this is the first really good Discworld novel: because it’s the first to combine humour with a genuinely interesting, exciting story. The plot properly kicks off when, entrusted with THE DUTY on his own for the first time, Mort falls for a beautiful princess and kills her assassin instead. This sets off ripples in space-time, the universe attempts to correct itself, and Mort has to figure out what the hell he’s going to do – including whether or not he’s going to fess up to Death.

I enjoyed Mort as much as I did when I first read it many, many years ago, and I was actually surprised by how much I’d forgotten. There are some unforgettable settings and inventions, some of which will remain part of the series for many books to come: the library with billions of books constantly writing the story of everybody’s life, the hourglasses or “lifetimers” that measure out a person’s lifespan, the invisible magical circle tightening around the princess and course-correcting her altered history, the black but homely realm of Death’s Domain, and the true identity of Death’s millenia-old manservant Albert. But there was much that I’d forgotten: Death’s own jet-black skull-and-bones lifetimer which contains no sand at all, the duel in the lifetimer room with accidentally destroyed hourglasses corresponding to real-life deaths, Mort’s amusing habit of constantly discomfiting people as he forgets his developing Death-like powers and walks through walls, trips to Bes Pelargic and Klatch (because we will see far less of the Disc as the series increasingly focuses on Ankh-Morpork and the surrounding countryside), and a cameo appearance by Rincewind, which I’m frankly surprised didn’t happen in Equal Rites.

Mort is a really good book. It’s funny, it’s creative, it’s original and it’s deeply engaging. As a Discworld book? Well, it’s the first really good Discworld book – not even the first great Discworld book. It’s the beginning of the Death story arc (one of the series’ shorter ones) and, as I said, it’s a great book in and of itself. If you’re interested in reading the Discworld series for the first time and, of the Recommended Starting Titles™, your library only has Mort? Go for it. If, on the other hand, you’re perusing Amazon and have all the world’s literature before your credit card, then go ahead and buy #8, Guards! Guards! I’ll explain why when I get there.

Next up is the Discworld #5, Rincewind #3, Sourcery – a book I remember absolutely nothing about except an all-powerful wizard and a half-brick in a sock.

Rereading Discworld index

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