Minerva Century by James E. Parsons

Minerva CenturyIn the future, humans have left earth and settled on the planet Minerva. A race of cyborgs found their own planet; Cycle One. However, the humans control the cyborg population. They are easily reprogrammed when required. There is also a mutant planet, humanity’s fail first attempt at colonisation, and a few space stations floating around. Sometimes a story is enough to carry a novel. Sometimes the style or prose is enough to keep a reader interested. In Minerva Century Parsons unfortunately fails on both counts, but not for the want of effort. This is the story of patrol cyborg Dale and his friend Cathy. They have secrets and mysterious history together.

Parsons has populated his universe with a wealth of characters and Minerva Century has several plot strands to accommodate them. As well as Dale and Cathy’s story, there is a captain of a cyborg patrol ship (Nero), human leaders (Sir Blake, Sir Alex, Lady Amy and Lady Amelia for example), a band of female called Vessels, and the mysterious Klasp Cult Tech-Watchers, among many others that have moments from their point of view. But Dale takes the main stage. He finds his body dismantled so makes his way to a space station, where three businessmen pay for him to get some patch-ups so he can participate in fly-races. Events conspire to bring Dale and Cathy together, and they decide to work out who they really are. Meanwhile, there are some human-shaped space craft appearing, as rumours of the tech-watchers begin to escalate. A tech-watcher called Torch appears to be interfering. Dale and Cathy separate and Dale decides to make himself human. Cathy trains as a Vessel but has her own agenda. On Cycle One, the Brutal Games are approaching – competitive fighting among cyborgs.

Parsons spends a great deal of the first quarter of the book – and it is a dense book, 400+ pages of small text – world-building. However, it is often repetitive and confusing. His prose fluctuates from imaginative and poetic, to clunky and just plain odd (“casual galactic space business deals”). Sometimes, the oddness works in the dialogue as it gives the characters an almost alien perspective (“I’m a driver, sometimes a racer”). I’m not sure what the purpose of having so many characters in the story has, other than to give it the feel of being a diverse universe – many come and go in a blink of an eye, and still others are not named yet have dialogue. Which brings me to the naming of the characters. It felt particularly jarring to have the book populated with the likes of Amy, Dale, Cathy, Roy, Daphne, Jess, John and others, alongside Nero, Sil-Mah, Doorstep, Jax and Torch for example. All feels a little 1970s in execution. In fact, along with ideas like the Brutal Games and the Vessels, Minerva Century reminded me of sci-fi exploitation cinema of the 70s and 80s, when cyberpunk gained popularity and cheap films featuring Michael Ironside were common. The Vessels in particular could be the Bene Gesserit sisterhood from Dune. The have visions of the future and they are a sisterhood.

I think that Parson’s story has some interesting elements. The usual cyborg v human trope of this type novel works well, primarily because the paths Cathy and Dale choose to take. However, the prose is off-putting, and needs a great editor. If Parsons had a little more faith in his readership and cut out a lot of the exposition, it would read a lot better. Many of the secondary stories and characters are superfluous to any enjoyment too. The three businessmen who originally hire Dale, Nero, and the human council members (the Ladies and Sirs) in particular brought little to the story. Early on, Parsons says Minerva is a ‘new human planet’. However, he repeatedly says things happened decades ago. In fact, he seems unsure of how long the histories should be. “Years and decades ago” is a reoccurring phrase throughout the world-building. Cathy and Dale had been apart for more than a decade or decades, although they are both written as if they are quite young. Cathy has memories of living on Cycle One in some hazy past. Amelia and Warren have known each other since they were teenagers, for “over twenty years” but it seems they knew or even lived on Earth. And he’s very vague about things. Phrases exemplified by “some local colony” pepper the text while sentences frequently end with “and more” or similar.

I’m sorry to say that I was confused about the narrative structure of the universe Parsons has built, which is down to the multiple character arcs which don’t seem to have much purpose, a bafflingly vague timeline and some overwrought prose. A tighter plot featuring just Cathy and Dale’s story, some rigorous editing and less exposition might lead to Minerva Century being a half-decent book.

This book was kindly donated by the author in exchange for a fair review.

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

The Somnambulist and the Psychic ThiefThe fantasy and science fiction written in Victorian times has a very male bias. Often, novels only feature women as cooks or maids or worse. In modern, more enlightened times, much of the fantasy and science fiction set in Victorian times are a whole let misogynist. Which can only be a good thing. In The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle, the protagonists are female and male detectives, and while some characters within this novel act surprised by Miss Lane’s chosen profession, the fact that she’s a woman is not a barrier to a cracking page-turner of a mystery.

Miss X is a leading light in the Psychical Society and Miss Lane is her friend and collaborator, until the latter discovers the former is a fraud. She ups sticks from Scotland and heads to London, not at all convinced she knows what tomorrow might bring. En route from the train station to an employment bureau, she finds herself swiftly in the employ of Mr Jasper Jesperson, detective, and with a room alongside the same and his mother. Times are tough, and cases aren’t so forthcoming. With some imagination and charm, the detectives almost conjure up a case out of nothing, from their landlord in exchange for rent. They are to look into a somnambulist and to find out why after many years the sleepwalking has returned. Soon, the detectives are investigating the disappearance of several mediums while a new star in the spiritualist world, America’s Mr Chase, is taking London by storm.

Tuttle’s story is a genuine mystery, set against the backdrop of the London’s society being fascinated with all things spiritual; mediums, ghosts, ectoplasm, disembodied heads and other psychic phenomena all get a moment to shine in the novel. The mystery itself is not really the point of the book. It is a who-done-it, but the point isn’t to figure it out so much as to enjoy the company of the story. Tuttle sends us on a clever misdirect for most of the book, with the re-introduction of Miss X and her replacement for Miss Lane; Signora Gallo is a psychic who can ‘read’ a person from personal objects, especially jewellery.

The villain of the piece is fairly clear as is the role of the somnambulist, and the climax no huge surprise. Victorians loved a show; a big climax, and Tuttle doesn’t disappoint. Said climax, set in a theatre has a few surprising turns but with the expected conclusion.

Some things don’t add up or are glossed over. The original case of the somnambulist was meant to pay the rent, but that issue is never mentioned again. When Miss X joins the case, mid-way through the story, there is some initial trepidation from Miss Lane, but the whole abandonment issue from the prologue and associated psychic fraud is barely acknowledged. The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is told in first person by Miss Lane. It works really well as we only know what she knows and understands. We deduce clues pretty much as and when she does. However, in the last quarter of the book, events take an unpleasant turn for Miss Lane. Tuttle must explain what is going on to the reader so introduces diary entries ‘from the personal notebook of J.J. Jesperson Esq.’. This felt a little shoehorned, and might have worked better if introduced earlier.

However, these are minor issues within the book which don’t really dent the enjoyment of the story. Tuttle is as skilled in prose as she is in characterisation. Spending time with Mr Jesperson and Miss Lane, and the rest of the characters, was a delight. Their relationship – a bit of a Mulder and Scully – is expertly drawn. They are both flawed and they both know it too – Miss Lane admits she has to work on many elements of her personality and skillset. There are hints of further developments which need to be discussed in future tales – see the cat in the tree! The prose was an easy read, with the plot cracking along at a terrific pace. Tuttle writes it in the formal style you would expect in a Victorian detective novel, and it feels effortlessly precise. Tuttle’s skill is that the storytelling appears effortless as the plot moves around London and the cast of characters. I was never bored reading this book. I especially liked the fact that the main character was a female detective and that is wasn’t laboured on that she was a woman in a man’s world. Just an interesting, smart and pragmatic character doing her thing. There were plenty of other interesting characters for Lane and Jesperson to encounter, both male and female, and it was refreshing to see them characterised as just people, some interesting, some good, some flawed, but never made an issue of.  The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is less of a thought-provoking complex mystery, and more of a fun dance through spiritualism and Victoriana with a lot of heart and soul.


Originally published: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/07/the-curious-affair-of-the-somnambulist-and-the-psychic-thief-by-lisa-tuttle/

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Skylark of Space by EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1946)

By Frank R. Paul – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3704097

Originally written as a serial – which is more than obvious from the narrative structure – from 1915 to 1921, and published in 1928 in the Amazing Stories magazine, The Skylark of Space was first published in book form in 1946. Which is interesting.

With a name like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, pulp science fiction author was perhaps the only career that would make sense for Edward Elmer. And with writing this from the period that saw the publication of many of HG Wells’ novels, the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other similar scientific romances, and the boom of pulp crime fiction, it is no surprise that this episodic story feels like it comes from lots of different influences.

I listened to a 2008 audiobook edition, unabridged, and narrated by Reed McColm. I often wonder if there is a difference of emotional reaction when listening to a novel instead of reading it, for the first time. Listening to audiobooks of a novel I’ve already read is one thing, but without a control – which of course is impossible in this situation – there is no-way of knowing. Reading Smith’s novel might not have been as entertaining as listening to it. I enjoyed McColm’s OTT performance, especially the dialogue from Dick Seaton. Would I have enjoyed the book with the voices from my own head?

Smith’s story begins with scientist Richard Seaton accidentally discovering a new type of energy in combining pure copper with a newly discovered element “X” (which is suggested to be a stable element in the platinum group). I love that during the first half of the 20th century, the letter ‘x’ was routinely given to new and exciting fictional discoveries. With his millionaire friend, Martin Crane, Seaton builds the titular space craft. Antagonist DuQuesne realises what Seaton has discovered and wishes to be the first to build a space ship. At any cost. And thus a bitter and deadly rivalry begins. DuQuesne tries to sabotage Seaton’s plans, and kidnaps the scientist’s fiancé – Dotty. Seaton and Crane have a secret and are soon pursuing DuQuesne’s ship. Any more narrative description would spoil the fun for those new to Smith’s universe, but suffice to say that a series of space adventures ensue, with much daring-do and plenty of saving-the-day and getting-the-girl.

Smith’s use of language is priceless – an early example is when Seaton first approaches Crane with his idea of building a space ship: “I’ve got a thing on the fire that will break him right off at the ankles”. I defy anyone not to smile at such use of language. We are in pure pulp science fiction here. The novel’s plot is faintly ridiculous, populated by ludicrous characters. However, science – albeit not altogether plausible science – is front and centre in most of the book. The main characters are scientists and run around with automatic guns and play tennis with incredibly rich brainiac playboys. Seaton, a materials scientist lest we forget, has an impossibly perfect fiancé who just loves everything he does and is. The first third or so is pure pulp – conspiracy, crime and lots of successful leaps in the dark. The rest of the novel is pure science fiction – space ships, mysterious objects in space, aliens and war.

I wonder, and I can’t find any earlier examples (considering the writing period), if Smith is the first person to use the phrase science fiction in a piece of science fiction? Smith also mentions computers in the story, and proving that this is proper science fiction, talks about Einstein, chemistry and gravity in proper context. However, it is the moment when the characters are in space when Smith uses the term Roche limit (a term I’d heard of but didn’t know, and subsequently researched as being to do with celestial mechanics) without explaining what it is, that the ‘properness’ is underlined. It felt like I was reading something that was written by someone who understood science, it’s place in society and how to incorporate it with an adventure story.

The first landing on an alien world is exciting and is perhaps a misleading note of things to come. The visit by Seaton and crew is brief, but they encounter giant monsters, over-sized bugs and dinosaur-like predators in a battle-royal. The next encounter is with a hyper-intelligence that has no material existence. The episodic nature – which felt like a precursor to Star Trek – quickly culminates in an extended stay on the planet of Osnome where the search for copper ends in war and weddings, before they return to Earth heroes, with even more wealth than they started with (which was substantial).

To be sure, this is a proper writer’s fantasy. The nerds are heroes who have anything and everything their heart’s desire, both professionally and romantically, and get even more of the good stuff as the novel progresses. The bad guys all get their comeuppance or turn out to be heroes too. You can’t take anything seriously, or the whole universe falls apart. Just one, ‘yeah but hang on’ thought and your enjoyment of the story would end.

Which brings us to Smith’s depiction of women. As with most of the male authors of the time, and despite the fiction of Virginia Woolf in particular, the depiction of the female characters is deplorable. Dotty, and the other female character of significance, Peggy, are little more than eye-candy and fluff. They have no agency. They are victims. They are captured so Seaton and Crane can go after them. They have no intelligence. Dotty doesn’t like scientific jargon and is only interested in the kitchen and bedrooms within the space ship. Her only moment of significance is in actually naming the Skylark. Meanwhile, Peggy is ‘only’ a secretary and only ‘good for making notes’. Of course they are both perfectly beautiful, and can’t resist their men (Seaton and Crane respectively). It is such a shame that the enjoyment of the pulp adventure is spoiled by the depiction of women.

Listened to not read

There is a lot of joy and significance in Smith’s The Skylark of Space. It is unsurprisingly episodic and doesn’t flow too well. The creation of the space ships comes too easily. There is little time spent in space and on the first discovered planet, and too much on the war on Osnome. The wedding section at the end was way, way too long and pointless.

You see. Once you pick at a hole, the entire fabric unravels. My enjoyment becomes tainted. The fun becomes blackened, as if burnt. On the surface, The Skylark of Space is an enjoyable romp and decent science fiction (in the sense that scientific principle drives much of the narrative, and Smith doesn’t shy away from proper science), but scratch that surface and there’s nothing but misogyny floating in a hollow shell.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis (1938)

Out of the silent planetCS Lewis is best known for being the author of the Narnia series of novels (written between 1949 and 1954) and also for being a Christian apologist. What is not so well known outside of the science fiction fraternity, if such a one exists, is that he wrote a highly influential trilogy of science fiction novels, starting with Out of the Silent Planet in 1938.

It is alleged that Lewis decided to write the story after reading David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), but must surely also owe a debt to A Martian Odyssey (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum and A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912). However, in the edition I read, the 2001 Voyager Classics edition (which is combined with the follow up – Perelandra – which I haven’t read as yet) the introductory note from Lewis indicates that the debt of creativity belongs with HG Wells. Which unfortunately gives the game away regarding the plot, to some extent.

The story of Out of the Silent Planet begins with a gentleman walking in the countryside. Before long he has found himself, significantly via his own acts of kindness, in the house of a scientist, and intervening on behalf of a poorly educated boy. The gentleman is Professor Ransom, a middle-aged man on a walking sabbatical. The scientist is Weston. With him is an old adversary of Ransom’s, an adventurer called Devine. Before he realises, Ransom is drugged and aboard some kind of space-ship, somehow in space. He finds himself on a planet known as Malacandra. Apparently he is an appeasement or sacrifice for the natives, known as sorns. On arrival, however, Ransom escapes his human captors. He then has a series of short and almost perfunctory adventures where he meets two other intelligent races of the planet; the hrossa and the pfifltriggi. Each of the species has particular characteristics.

The sorns are very tall and very slender humanoids, and which are surely the origin of the pseudo-scientific aliens in modern culture known as the Greys. They are the scientists and thinkers of the planet. The hrossa which resemble stretched otters, with their love of water and boating. They are poets and musicians; the creators. The final race, the pfifltriggi, are the builders. The resemble insectile frogs. Ramsom is introduced to another race, while being pursued by his erstwhile captors, the Eldils – who are beings apparently made of light. They have a prime, or leader, called Oyarsa who summons Ransom to explain himself and his presence on what we by now know is Mars.

So not much of a plot, it would seem. However, the making of this story is the writing, the characters and the allegory. It certainly has a place in the pantheon of respected and influential science fiction stories for a number of reasons.

Despite only brief appearances, Weston is a reasonably interesting character and symbol of the scientific and potentially godless world that Lewis perhaps foresaw. Devine is less so, more of an in-between character. While Ransom is the decent everyman, explaining to the reader the morals and dilemmas of the story. Oyarsa, towards the conclusion of the novel, describes Weston has having “the mind of an animal,” and his mind is filled with “fear and death and desire”. And this is perhaps key. Weston, fearing for his life, argues that the advancement of human civilization justifies any action that would conventionally be termed “immoral”. Even his death would be fine providing it would eventually lead to the conquest of Mars and the eventual population of space by humankind. Lewis is possibly showing that the blind following of scientific progress is immoral and salvation is found in a god, or spirituality at least. For it is a thinly veiled symbol that Oyarsa is an angel, and a high one too. Oyarsa describes space as heaven and that all the planets have a guardian angel such as he. Only Earth does not, as there was once a battle between the ‘bent one’ (Satan) and the ‘old one’ (God), and that since Maleldil the Young (Christ) no-longer rules. So now Earth is the Silent Planet, with no god, but amoral man who will take another’s life as easy as he would take some food.

The allegory is an obvious one, especially from the viewpoint of history. The good follow a spiritual, inclusive path, while the immoral pursue science at any cost. Lewis wasn’t shy about promoting Christianity and morals. Out of the Silent Planet is possibly the first true science fiction story to address the issue head on. Certainly, the giants that Lewis’ stood upon almost always avoided it, with the exception of those describing religious systems within potential utopias.

And it definitely is science fiction. Unlike the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs on Barsoom, there is no fantasy or mystery here. The human travellers arrive on a space-ship, which while it is not specifically explained, is the product of science and not magic. Even the angels are just another species in the heavens and not supernatural beings. What is interesting, however, that even now, even in an established genre in the late 1930s, and almost without exception (Lindsay, Voltaire and Stapleton notwithstanding) the science fiction writer’s imagination had not escaped the terminal velocity of Mars.

Lewis is an eloquent writer, as his subsequent success perhaps proves. The characters, both human and non- are interesting. There is a complete lack of female characters of significance, which is always sadly to be expected from the male authors of this time. Perhaps Lewis and others simply didn’t know or understand enough about women to write about them properly, or perhaps I’m being too much of an apologist for outright sexism. The descriptions of the Martians and the planet itself are noteworthy. The three main species find themselves in other stories by other authors in time. Meanwhile, Ransom’s descriptions of being on a strange planet and how he felt about the aliens are unusual and evocative.

On reflection, the world building and universe mythology that Lewis creates, while thinly disguised, is complex and engaging. The language and writing draw you in. It is only the simple and to be honest, not very interesting, series of mini-adventures that Ransom undertakes (albeit rarely of his own choosing) that really lets the story down. Lightweight narrative clashing with heavy moral preaching leads to an unbalanced and unsatisfactory literary science fiction meal.


Telling stories: Favourite re-reads – Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, or What’s life without magic?

AmmoniteI could have come up with a dozen titles for this remembrance, but all of these seem most appropriate, because while yes, this book is a favourite of mine, it is about the very nature of stories and it is about magic, despite being science fiction. In hindsight, this book was the start of a fiction reading journey that now means I read books across and that defy genre.

First published in 1992, Ammonite by award-winning Nicola Griffith, is the story of Marghe, an anthropologist on Gershom’s Planet, or when shortened to GP, pronounced ‘Jeep’. She is employed by the Company, an organisation we learn little about. Jeep has a virus that kills all men, so all Company employees use a vaccine against potential threat. We’re in the far-future. Jeep is inhabited by tribes and townships of women, with only vague stories of their origin off-world, and the mysterious goths who may be the origin of both the virus and the mysterious standing stones – too ancient to have been erected by the human population.

I remember being blown away when I first read Ammonite, probably about 1993. I picked it up for two reasons: I was a geology student and was therefore attracted to the title and the cover of my copy; and I’d read a short story by Griffith in an Interzone anthology, and was intrigued to read more. I’d not read much science fiction by women at the time, I’m sorry to say. I’d not read anything that contained a cast of female-only characters. It was this political stance that the book takes combined with Griffith’s beautifully descriptive prose that drew me in. Today, I’m much more familiar with female authors and fiction featuring female protagonists with their own agency. If I read Ammonite for the first time now, I doubt the content would be so affecting. That’s not to say it’s not a terrific book, just not so impactful today. Which is a good thing.

I love speculative fiction that defies genre. Ammonite might have been the first book I read that falls into that category. It begins in science fiction – all space ships, distance planets, viruses and the nefarious Company. Great stuff. Once Marghe has left the Company’s planet-side base, however, the narrative feels more like a questing fantasy, more in common with Tolkien than Clarke. There are potential magics and mysteries, but are they to be explained with science? I think Griffith pushes the reader in that direction, rather than anything supernatural. But the feel of the novel is certainly less science fiction in most of Marghe’s narrative. Only when it follows Danner, the Company commander on the base, does it feel like a first-contact science fiction story. And so it is tough to label Ammonite, despite a clear science fiction premise.

Griffith’s style aids to the magical feel. Her attention to detail, both in Marghe’s narrative and her actual journey, is stunning. You can flick through the pages of this book and stop at almost any page to get a wonderful description of the planet’s geography, biology or history; human myths or human emotions. And also because it is about stories and their power. Marghe, and her eventual partner, become journeywomen, trading their stories for goods and services. The women of Jeep value stories above most things – as should we all.

“What’s life without magic? Turn your magic into a song – share it with others”

Ammonite follows a fairly typical science fiction narrative, in which a character travels to a far off planet only to find herself and what she needs. I wish I could travel as far. Thankfully, I have Griffith’s imagination in print as compensation. As with Le Guin’s more famous but similarly themed The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), this is classed as feminist science fiction. However, to me, it is so much more than that – it is a proper story (which you might not be able to say about The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ for example) about proper stories with proper characters fulfilling satisfying character arcs. It might be said that Marghe’s journey is an obvious one, but it is thorough. Sadly, however, there is very little palaeontology, although the ammonite metaphor is a success. Marghe becomes complete, as does the story.

CC BY-SA 2.0 by craiglea123
CC BY-SA 2.0 by craiglea123

The cross-genre style and the female-only cast have had a big impact on my subsequent reading. I don’t think I would be as enamoured with the likes of Sarah Pinborough, Ruth Ozeki, Claire North, Tricia Sullivan, Frances Hardinge, Sarah Lotz and Lauren Beukes and more if I’d not read Ammonite. Despite all that praise, and the admission that I really enjoyed reading this book for a second time, it lacked a certain emotional wallop that would have elevated this to an all-time classic for me. But then I tend to enjoy pizza more than a fine cut of meat.



Image credit: Some rights reserved by craiglea123

The History Of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)

"Portadaorlando" by Worthing art gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
“Portadaorlando” by Worthing art gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Virginia Woolf might seem an odd name to crop up in a series examining the history of science fiction in literature. But I’d heard rumours of time travel so it deserved my attention. Orlando: A biography was first published in 1928 and was Woolf’s 6th novel. It is said to have been inspired by the writer Vita Sackville-West.

Without knowing anything about it, other than it begins as a fictional biography of a man called Orlando and the 1992 film starred Tilda Swinton in the title role, I read the 2012 Canongate edition, without reading the introduction.

The complete plot itself is difficult to describe, due to the nature of the style. Orlando begins telling the story of a nobleman in the court of Elizabeth I – so we’re in the mid to late 1500s. The teenage and male Orlanda had been a favourite of the queen. He soon falls for a Russian princess; but he has obligations. They plan to run off to Russia, but she betrays him, just as the ice of winter melts in London. He returns to a poem he is trying to perfect, but a writer he meets (Nicholas Greene) pours scorn on it. Greene then mocks Orlando in a work of published fiction. Depressed, he seeks a new challenge and is sent to Constantinople as an ambassador. It is now it now sometime in the mid 1600s. Orlando hasn’t aged much and no explanation is given. One night, while performing his ambassadorial role in a time of riots, he goes to sleep a man and wakes up a woman. No explanation. She is the same person, but in the body of a woman. Orlando now escapes Constantinople with some gypsies and heads back to England, where she embarks on various relationships with writers and marries a sea captain. He is potentially non-gender specific too, albeit portraying himself as a man. Greene is still alive and hasn’t aged either. He now helps Orlando publish the poem he once ridiculed. The novel concludes in 1928 when Orlando’s poem wins a prize and her sailor husband finally returns form a voyage.

There’s not a lot to say about this book. Sentences are brilliantly written, while paragraphs go on for pages; which proves challenging at times. Meanwhile not a lot seems to happen for huge chunks of the book with the ‘biographer’ procrastinates on this and that – including the nature of writing a biography. There are lists that seem to go on forever.

There is nothing in Orlando that gives a clue as to why the gender of the protagonist changes, other than it gives Woolf license to discuss gender roles. There is nothing in Orlando to explain how or why the eponymous character and Greene can move through time, other than for Woolf to make comment on the various societies she wants to comment on. I would have thought a more successful way of exploring these issues would have been with a more realistic plot devise, as shown by Wells in The Time Traveller. I spent most of the book wishing the lists would end and some explanation of the events would eventually appear, rather than enjoying the narrative or being interested in much of what Woolf had to say.

OrlandoWhich is a shame because sometimes I was really taken with Woolf’s imagination and wit. Sometimes, the post-modernism or metafiction or whatever really works, as Woolf’s biographer asks to consider this, or ignore that because it is boring or irrelevant, or asks to pause just before a moment of significance. Individual sentences and passages are to be admired, but that classes with confusion over the narrative.

There is plenty of worthy discussion of gender roles and the place of women in society in which is totally commendable; except the fact than in almost 100 years since it was written, not much has altered in the attitudes of many men, which is dreadful.

Sadly, Orlando is not an enjoyable read, taken in totality. It is not science fiction, despite the time travel. It barely registers a traditional fantasy. No magic is deployed. At best it is a metafictional magic realism (a genre I really like) and maybe an early example of post-modernism. It might be said to have a vague science-fiction-ness, in the sense that it is about what it means to be a man and a woman at various points in history, but the narrative contrivances take away whatever pluses that conceit brings. Orlando should have no influence on science fiction other than the feminism aspect and the inspiration provided by Woolf herself.

Image credit: “Portadaorlando” by Worthing art gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Being Accepted: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Long Way to a Small Angry PlanetSome might say my interests are very narrow, in terms of reading, comics, films, music and TV. Throughout the majority of my life, I’ve not been able to share my interests with friends. Mostly because I don’t have many. I’ve always thought that it was because no-one relates to me and I don’t relate to anyone else. No-one gets my obsession with Buffy. How can I love Casablanca and Eraserhead and The Crow and Princess Mononoke. I’ve never read a Harry Potter book and I’ve no interest, but I’ve read all of Lev Grossman’s Magicians books. My favourite book is Brave New World. One day I’m listening to Consolidated and Ministry, the next it is DJ Shadow and Lamb, the day after Motley Crüe and Little Angels, the next Pearl Jam and Pixies. The people close to me in life don’t share my interests.

I am a middle-aged, middle-class, white straight male.

The plot of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is fairly straight forward, in terms of far-future space opera. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit, Rosemary (how science fiction is that name!), joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet; which might mean a new alliance.

Humans are in the minority within the galaxy.

After reading the first 50 pages of this book my thoughts were that a. this was far from the greatest story I’ve ever read and b. I was enjoying this far more than I thought I would. It was fun. I don’t do hype (and yet I’m a huge fan of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe). I tend to run away from hype as if it was poisonous and there to harm my sensibilities. Or my sense of self. Hence then not reading Harry Potter. I’m sure they’re brilliant books and I’m also sure I’d enjoy them, but I can’t bring myself to read them – mostly because when they were the Big Thing, everyone on the London Underground was reading them; the same everyone who would dismiss me for my tastes and interests. I remember going to see David Cronenberg’s Crash in the cinema. I overheard someone in the row behind me saying that they hated science fiction. FFS.

Outsiders tends to attract each other. Tribes form. Goths and punks. Cosplayers. Comic book fans. Sometimes, the tribe turns its back on its own.

I really like Chambers’ world-building in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I thought it was well handled and not too much was narrative exposition. It revealed itself naturally and sometimes there was no explanation. Aliens have handfeet. The crew use SoberUps after a heavy night. The kind of descriptions that you’d expect in a good way. A drink called mek is never explained in detail. The universe is populated by aliens not from Star Trek where most are humanoid, but from Farscape, when evolution plays out differently. The brilliant evolutionary palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould once said: “If you could rewind the tape of life, erasing what actually happened and let it run again, you’d get a different set of ten each time.” What he meant was that the way life is today is as unlikely as any other form, so theoretically, on other planets that support life, other body forms might become the dominant intelligence. He also said that “Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview”.

Chambers’ book tackles diversity in many forms: class, sexuality, individuality, parasitic-relationships and just being plain different. It celebrates diversity and that is something so very important. Stand a middle class white man next to me and I struggle to relate to him. How can I relate to a transgender from Argentina? I can’t, but fiction reminds me that inside, we all bleed and hurt and laugh and love. Chambers rejoices in this.

The world would be better if everyone tried to be nicer. I try to be nice, although I often fail. People frustrate me.

All good science fiction has a warning and this book is no different. Judge not lest you be judged. Also, humanity is stupid and it messed with genetics and things went bad. Fair enough and a standard SF trope. But well handled. It takes confidence in your own writing to pull something like this off. It has elements of the old-fashioned romance of Star Wars, the mischievous adventure of Firefly, the normalcy of Alien; and the camaraderie and humanity of all of the above. I’ve not read a book where aliens buy soap, or revel in cooking.

I feel like an alien.

“Nobody should be alone”, Sissix – a dinosaur-like being – says. While not alone in life, some of us are always alone in our passions. “She’s just different.” The character continues. Different is good. Different is something to be proud of, but it can be lonely.

I loved the descriptions and imagination behind the alien species Chambers has in her book. I won’t spoil the enjoyment of discovery for future readers, but my favourite by far is Dr Chef. It is interesting that the main negative character is a human male, even though he has plenty of demons to blame. And it’s nice to see a space-ship crew which is not full of flawless hero types full of daring-do.

There are 2 reasons why this isn’t the perfect story. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel a great emotional empathy with the individual characters. Rosemary and Sissix, and Ashby and Pei have terrific relationships. The most gut-wrenching twist in a fictional relationship is when Lyra and Will realise their heart-breaking destiny in The Amber Spyglass. The closest The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet comes is Jenks and Lovey, which doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. The second reason is the slight episodic nature of the plot. It almost feels like it was written as short episodes of a TV show (Farscape for example), with mini-pickles and world-building diversions (which is a better way of doing it than narrative exposition). The narrative didn’t flow as one book.

There is a lot of fun and joy to be had in this book. The quality of the writing is great. All the characters are multi-dimensional. The pay-off is worth the read. It’s the relationships; the warmth and family the crew have for each that makes this story better than it otherwise could have been.

I’ve longed in the past to be part of Mal Reynolds crew. I’d happily join the Wayfarer too. I’d love to find that kind of acceptance. Tribe. Family.

This review is thanks to a ePub edition from NetGalley

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)

320px-Princess_of_Mars_largeThe definition of science-fiction, and pretty much any genre, is purely subjective. Boundaries blur and as said by Kazuo Ishiguro, are all but marketing artifice in any case. So why I am exploring what is and isn’t science fiction throughout the history of the genre? Well, because it means something to me. It awakens my consciousness to certain aspects of reality and it sparks my imagination in different ways than say horror or fantasy. Science fiction is about what it means to be a human being living in a particular instance in time. It is something tangible.

Norman Bean published a serial story from February 1912 through to July that same year. Called Under the Moons of Mars it was printed in The All-Story. It was later revealed to be A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs when it was finally published in book form in 1917. My copy is the 2003 Modern Library Edition. It includes 4 – which I think is a very disappointingly small number – of terrific illustrations of John Carter by Frank E Schoonover. All introductory passages and notes, as is routine, were ignored.

Who is John Carter? He describes himself as a Gentleman from Virginia. He is no gentleman by my understanding of the word, but then, this was written in 1911 when the world was ever in conflict. It is set just after the American Civil War – Carter is a Confederate veteran. When prospecting in Arizona he strikes gold but immediately runs into trouble in the form of Apaches. Hiding in a ‘sacred cave’ he witnesses his prone body (some form of out of body experience) before being mysteriously transported to Mars.

Once on Mars a series of adventures ensues as Carter meets the various races of Martian, learns the language and culture, beats on everyone he meets to get his way, and falls in love. Even when the inevitable barrier to true happiness is raised by Burroughs, it is only by death and violence can Carter win the maiden’s hand. Indeed, the thing that stuck me above all else when reading this is the violence! Carter finds that he has great strength and superhuman agility on Mars, or Barsoom as the natives call it. He meets the green Tharks – a nomadic warrior tribe. He essentially fights his way to respect and friendship of the chief (Tars Tarkas). The Princess of another land, Helium, is captured by the tribe but Carter falls for her. She is a red Martian. As he rescues her he becomes involved in the politics between the two races, but things are never easy, which is good for a story. The solutions to Carter’s issues, punching and killing, however are very one-dimensional. You never relate because you know whatever happens: he will fight his way to victory.

There are a few interesting characters with motivating asides to the main tale. Sola and Kantos Kan prove that Burroughs can write, has imagination and knows how to tell an interesting story about people. Shame he finds violence so fascinating. For me, at least. Sola, who has a little of her own agency (unlike the titular princess) is the reader’s way into the history of Mars, which is a nice touch, as she has depth. The world building is a little perfunctory, but nothing like the utopian visions of More, Swift, Wells and others. Any exposition felt like it was part of the plot, if a little heavy handed. No political rants here.

Is the book about Native Americans? Some signs are there. Nomads and city dwellers of different colour, while the brutal, mindless apes are white. Is there some satire buried beneath the adventurous romp? Interesting, it is the red Martians that are more civilised, and Carter needs to red-up to survive a particular encounter.

Everything that occurs to Carter on Mars can be transported to a fantasy realm. Simply remove all mention of Mars and Martians and keep Barsoom. Change the few references to the Martian moons, and Lowell’s so-called canals, and A Princess of Mars is a fantasy novel, swords and sandals no less, riding on the back of previous science fiction books concerned with Mars (War of the Worlds for example). There is no science in Carter’s travel to Mars. In fact, the framing device of the magical cave removes any hope that this is science fiction. Is the adventure not but a dream in any case? The science on Mars is dubious at best. How did these indigenous creatures evolve in such as stark environment? How did the white apes find enough food? How can they all live in an atmosphere created by a single factory that can fail and kill all on the planet in a few short days? Carter learns telepathy within a short time of arrival. Shocking. The Martians also know about earthlings (including their tradition for wearing clothes) but it is not explained how.

The imagination is present and correct, and as opposed to previous efforts of science fiction, this is a proper story with character development (some) and narrative progression (albeit pulp). I wish this had been science fiction as it would have worked so much more. However, I felt a disconnect with it – probably because of all the violence. When released, A Princess of Mars was known as a planetary romance, which is as good a description as any. Only in more recent times has it been classed as science fiction. Sorry Burroughs, but this a mildly entertaining pulp fantasy story.

Cover: “Princess of Mars large”  by Frank E. Schoonover, photographed by “Mars book covers: Science Fiction & Fantasy”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Image: “Thuvia Maid of Mars inside5” by James Allen St. John –  Con licenza Pubblico dominio tramite Wikimedia Commons

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback (1911)

ModernElectrics1912-02According to some people, for example, Gary Westfahl[1], Ralph 124C41+ (henceforth Ralph) is one of the most significant science fiction books of all time. Given its context – the year it was written, what had come before – I can understand why it’s thought of in that way. Is it one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time? Far from it!

Gernsback originally wrote and published Ralph as a 12-part serial adventure in Modern Electronics magazine beginning in April 1911. It was first published as a complete text in 1925. My copy is a reprint of the 1958 2nd edition as published by Wildside Press. I didn’t read any of the introductory elements, and this was my first reading of the story.

With the exception of Shelley’s Frankenstein and much of Wells’ output to this point (A Modern Utopia excepted), most full science fiction novels had been attempts at nailing down utopian visions. At the start of Ralph the over-riding impression that this is to be a futurist adventure. It almost has a pulpish-ness to it. Ralph saves the life of beautiful woman, even though she is in another continent. She flies to New York to find him and they fall in love. However, Alice, for it is she, has unwanted attentions from 2 suitors (an Earthling and a Martian), and she is kidnapped and taken into space. Ralph must save her!

Let’s rewind a bit. Ralph 124C 41+ is one of the ten most brilliant ‘men’ onRalph the planet. Hence the + designation. We are in a technological future where he invents almost everything (so it seems) that drives human civilisation. Those who invent or create other elements of society are mostly only referred to by their numerical name. It is 2660. Humans have inhabited the inner planets and encountered Martians too. One day, while working in his lab, Ralph rescues Alice by remotely directing energy from the top of his building in New York. He manages to melt an avalanche in Switzerland. Alice and her father fly to New York to thank him in person. He then spends much of the middle section of the novel showing her the sights and marvels of the modern world, explaining in detail how each thing works and how it benefits society. Of course, many of the inventions are his, including a new one, which features a dog. He also uses the phrase “as you know” quite a bit. So, despite Alice being a smart woman who knows stuff, and despite living for 20-odd years in this world that Gernsback has created, she needs everything explaining to her. Ah, so this is a thinly veiled utopian rant after all. She is the theatre for the reader. Shame. Even the final section, when Ralph chases his enemies across the solar system, Gernsback is more concerned with describing his ideas for the future rather than telling a story.

A concession: Ralph has some minor character development – from focused scientist to heartbroken, vengeance-seeking lover – but everyone else in the book is a one-dimensional foil for Gernsback’s imagination. But to be fair, what an imagination, considering the early 20th century. To be sure, technology and scientific development were snowballing during this period, but the list of Gernsback’s/Ralph’s inventions and modifications is impressive in anybody’s book. Which is the key to Ralph’s perceived significance.

Some of the ideas are disappointing. Especially the reliance on the ‘fact’ of ether which is used to explain much of the world Ralph lives in during the early chapters. Quite early after Ralph starts showing Alice and her father around, the prose takes on a tedious tone. At one point, it seems that even her Dad is explaining electromagnetic travel to Ralph, who is one of the 10 greatest minds on the planet, remember. When Ralph explained to Alice how restaurants of the future worked, my faith in Ralph as a story disappeared.

Unsurprisingly for its time, Gernsback shows his misogyny throughout. Ralph smiles patronisingly at Alice’s “feminine” remark. Alice shows little agency. She is shown around, captured and rescued. It is hard to accept such characterisation, especially in a significant text. Women, as demonstrated by Alice’s suitors and even Ralph, are still little more than possessions. Another trait made it to Ralph (and Gernsback’s) utopian future: violence. Ralph resorts to threats of punching Alice’s other suitors. Not much of a utopia if all this great technology hasn’t evolved the human mind-set or ideas of equality and social justice. At least discrimination against Martians isn’t there. They and their technologies are looked up to; or at least Alice’s suitor’s mind is.

Gernsback spends a lot of time describing in great detail how some of his ideas work, and this is the novel’s only saving grace (although the writing itself is competently enjoyable). Even electronic packing machines have a page and a half of description. I enjoyed the idea of the “gravitational circus”. Nice for a society to make science an entertainment. But chapters such as “The End of Money” which is pretty much all Ralph explaining to Alice, drive the final nail in the coffin of Ralph as an adventure novel and nothing more than another dull utopia. Shelley would be spinning in her grave, realising that no-one except Wells seems to have grasped the idea of telling an actual story is the point of a novel, a work of fiction to be enjoyed, in 100 years of the evolution of science fiction. And this despite a flourishing literary world. There are brief diversions into story, interrupting the tract more than anything. Distractions rather than interests. The use of Ralph’s own invention against him (the Magnelium ship) is about as good as the plot gets. Which is more than a disservice to the idea of a story.

Ralph becomes the first human to create a “heavenly body” towards the conclusion of the story and then uses what can only be described as Gernsback’s version of Chechov’s gun to save the day – see the earlier mention of the dog (although I suppose any one of the unnecessarily described inventions could have been used). Is this all about Gernsback’s ego? I know nothing else about him, other than the shambles awards named after him. So credit him with his ideas. Don’t talk of predications and failures of scientific description (unless that was his original intention, to predict the future) – that’s not what science fiction is about. Don’t talk about utopias that treat women as objects and possessions with no agency. Don’t call Ralph a great work of science fiction when it is a failed utopian rant. Science fiction, yes. Significant, to a point. Any good, not really.

Image credit: “ModernElectrics1912-02” by Published by Modern Publishing Company, New York, NY. Hugo Gernsback Publisher. – Magazine Art Website http://www.magazineart.org/main.php/v/technical/modernelectrics/?g2_page=3. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ModernElectrics1912-02.jpg#/media/File:ModernElectrics1912-02.jpg

  1. [1] The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction by Gary Westfahl, Liverpool University Press, 1999, page 135.


There will never be a great superhero novel pt 3: Thoughts on Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

TigermanThere’s a slightly troubling element to the making of gritty realistic portrayals of superheroes, which Christopher Nolan’s Batman series just manages to steer clear off. Mostly down to the selection of the villains in those films. However, as soon as you think about the rest of the DC canon, especially the rest of the Justice League members (aliens, mystical princesses et al), a realistic Batman is ludicrous. Realism and superheroes just don’t mix. The concept is ridiculous. But then, how can you portray superheroes, at home in the visual medium of comics and on the big screen, in 300 or more pages of black and white; words in a book. I don’t think you can.

Nick Harkaway’s third novel, Tigerman, is the real deal. His first novels were interesting starters – full of flavour but with way too many ingredients and an uncertain and confusing final dish. Tigerman is a main course worthy of fine dining. A few high quality ideas executed with near perfection.

The title and the branding of the book suggests that we’re in the land of superheroes. While the novel is a fantasy, it could almost be real. Because it is the story of a man and a boy; an ex-soldier lost in the world and a child looking for friendship in a world dominated by American pop-culture – comics, music, film and YouTube. The boy speaks in brilliant hybrid dialogue: “Emote later. Right now: Voight-Kampff FTW”. The story is set on the island of Mancreu. Our hero is Lester Ferris. Mancreu is a fictional island in trouble. Located ‘somewhere’ it is a cocktail of African, Asian and Arab influence. The cocktail is about to blow: pollution from chemical companies have led to semi-regular ‘discharge clouds’ which have some interesting effects on the local wildlife (fish changing sex) and people (brain damage causing language and memory defects). The UN and other bodies have populated the island with various representatives, all of whom play a part in Lester’s life. The big one is coming and the island is to be evacuated. Officially, an ‘Interventional Sacrifice Zone’. Lester is the impotent yet dutiful British Brevet-consul. Single and childless, has befriended the comic-book literate boy (who has no name). He is serving his time as the friendly bobby-on-the-beat. Meanwhile, as Mancreu is effectively a non-place, lawless, there is a mysterious fleet of ships just beyond the horizon. All sorts of illegality might be found on the ships. From extraordinary rendition to whore-houses and more, anything is possible.

Lester wonders if there is a future for him and the boy. Maybe he could adopt him? There seems no sign of a family. They usually meet in a local bar where the boy talks of superheroes and comics. Until the day bar-owner, Shola, is murdered and our heroes are almost killed too. Lester begins an investigation which uncovers more about the island and the fleet than he expected. When visiting Shola’s grave, he has an encounter with a tiger. Later, he discovers that he must create something powerful and frightening (and to disguise his identity so he doesn’t get in trouble with the bosses back home in London) to get to the truth about Shola, and the boy. He takes his cue from the tiger and a superhero is born.

Except he’s not a real superhero. He’s not even Batman. He’s a skilled fighter who uses surprise and fear as a weapon. No real superpowers or billionaire’s playthings. No magic or science. There is a passage about half way through when Harkaway is discussing the philosophy of his hero (and one echoed by Nolan’s version of Batman) that Lester can’t fight the bad guys, but Tigerman can. He can do anything, because he isn’t real. Beautifully observed. There are many myths on the island, such as the eternal Bad Jack, so Lester and the boy create a demon. The international cast of supporting characters (Dirac, Lester’s French counterpart, the Japanese scientist Kaiko, Jed Kershaw from American intelligence, the Ukranian and others) all play their part in what is more like an empirical spy thriller, set in some darkest Africa. Of course, the set-up is pure superhero – the boy being Robin to Tigerman’s Batman.

The key to Harkaway’s writing is the textured depth and imaginative characterisation. It is one of those books who’s character are so rich than by the climax, you feel like they’ve penetrated your reality and you want to keep them close, even after the book is over. Many of the supporting cast are fairly one-dimensional but the two leads are so well-written you can empathise with Lester’s every emotion and smile at the boy’s cultural references. The writing is terrific and the plot is as complex as any novel: fantasy, superhero or familial drama. Which is what this really is. Tigerman might be magic realism dressed up in a 4-colour comic-book costume, but at its heart is story about a lonely middle-age man looking at his single, parentless life, and the boy who he hopes might think of him as a father. It is Lester’s flawed paternal desire that drives him to dress up as Tigerman, not a sense of heroism. There is plenty of that to come, mind – fights, rescues, plans and such-like.

When the denouement arrives, I almost didn’t buy it. I couldn’t decide if Harkaway has been too clever or not clever enough. On reflection: Goldilocks. Just about right. To his credit. There are so many ideas to the novel, and like his previous novels, I kept expecting a stumble. It never came. For example, the island’s overseers are an organisation with a name shortened to NatProMan. I’m sure this is deliberate, hinting at an evil adversary for our hero. But it doesn’t descend into cliché. NatProMan is a red herring. Even the secret James Bond baddie-base isn’t hackneyed and is portrayed with affection.

Throughout the book I kept wondering if the goo-soup of a volcano that had doomed the island would somehow go off and turn Lester into a real unreal superhero with proper fantastical powers. I’m glad it didn’t. Tigerman isn’t really a superhero novel, and only just a novel about heroes, even though it has affections for comics. I never really equated to other superhero books I’ve read. I didn’t imagine Lester’s costume as a comic-book creation at any point (although I might have if my expressed fear had come true). Tigerman is an entire novel about how Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider. Except it turns out that bite has no after-effects. It’s also a novel about the Gwen Stacey decision on the George Washington Bridge (Lester has to make a choice – be a hero or be a father). It is not a great superhero novel but a great novel about superheroes. Real ones.

Original review published here: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookchap/2015/03/30/tigerman-by-nick-harkaway/