The Rift by Nina Allan

The RiftIt’s always exciting to discover a genre voice with a different perspective. I read Nina Allan’s 2014 debut The Race last year which I thought had huge potential. On completion of her new novel The Rift I knew that potential had already been reached. Allan, of course, isn’t new to the scene, being critically acclaimed for her short stories. Indeed, The Race has a short story structure to it. So with The Rift, Allan presents her most complete long form fiction. And boy is it worth the wait.

The Rift begins with an unusually disturbing aside before we’re properly introduced to the life of teenager sisters Selena and Julie. But it’s not long before Julie disappears. And returns again to tell her story. The plot doesn’t go much further than that, but then this isn’t really a story of other planets or the search for missing people, but it’s a story of truths and emotions. Most of the novel is Selena’s story from the third person. The middle section is Julie telling Selena about what happened to her all those years ago, life on the planet she went to, and other details about her life that Selena didn’t know about.

Of course, this is a story about the divide between adolescent sisters and how life diverges when they are no longer close. It is a story about a family coming apart. Selena is sure that the Julie of now is her missing sister. Their mother is not so sure, while their Dad, who suffered from terrible grief and obsessions after that fateful day, is no longer around. Allan uses a wide range of writing styles and story-telling techniques to play with the reader’s perceptions. The story is interspersed with letters, police and newspaper reports, fiction and non-fiction from Julie’s planet (a nice concise way of world-building that doesn’t detract from the human stories), interviews and other devices. All these ideas plant various ideas of what may or may not have happened to Julie.

So, is Julie telling the truth? Is Nina Allan telling the truth? Does it matter? I’m convinced that there are clues laid about, but they may just be coincidences – deliberately so. Mis-directions if you will. Names on the planet and on Earth have similarities (Lila and Lisa for example). Meanwhile, not long after a mention of Marillion’s 1980s hit Kayleigh we learn that there is a place called Marillienseet and a character called Cally. Allan even alludes to her own playfulness: “the written word has a closer relationship to memory than with the literal truth, that all truths are questionable…”

There is a term used in psychiatry; confabulation. It is, essentially, the ability to mis-remember or distort our own memories to fit within the truths of our own existence. The Rift could be said to be Julie’s confabulation as a reaction to what really happened to her, or she might have really spent many years on another planet. Allan doesn’t hand you answers on a plate. Or at all. What is reality and does it have any significance other than how we deal with the relationships in our lives?

Allan’s writing is so engaging. With everything that is happening between the characters you come to enjoy spending time with them. With all the puzzles that surround the book, Allan never fails the reader. She uses small details and a plethora of pop culture references to ground the story. There isn’t any requirement for pages of complex world-building. Is The Rift science fiction, or even genre? Each reader will have to be their own judge of that. All the same, this is a book that gives the reader so much to think about and so much to enjoy, it should be read by any audience. Allan’s voice is a triumph of mind and writing and imagination.

This review was originally published on the Geek Syndicate website here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-the-rift-by-nina-allan/

A Kurt Vonnegut Reader – Vonnegut’s novels ranked and rated

vonnegutWhile Vonnegut’s individual novels are not amongst my absolute favourites, as a writer, he reflects my politics more than any other. I’m not sure why that is. As a collected body of work, I feel it’s pretty much spot on; matching my own world view. Last year, I decided to read all his novels in publication order, so I can see how his style progressed and why his writing resonates so much with me.

Was Vonnegut a cynic? He was cuttingly critical of many aspects of society for sure, and found failings in most aspects of humanity. Wealth, democracy in particular and politics in general, war (of course), art – both writing and painting – and the very nature of existence came under his critical glare. He wouldn’t have been surprised at the events of 2016, but I think he’d have been horrified all the same. So it goes.

Previous to this little adventure, I’d read The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Timequake and his non-fiction book A Man Without a Country (2005).

And so to his novels:

Player Piano (1952)

Player PianoSynopsis: In the near future, all labour is carried out mechanically, so that humans don’t need to work. However, there is conflict between the higher classes who are the designers and engineers and managers, and the lower classes, who no longer have a place in the world. Set after a third world war, Dr. Paul Proteus is a middle manager type who is becoming deluded with his factory and life. Meanwhile, the Shah of Bratpuhr – a kind of future Dalai Llama – is having a tour of America, trying to understand how it works.

Comment: Written not long after WWII, where Vonnegut served, this debut novel has classic SF tropes, while not really written in the style of science fiction of the time. Is a life worth the cost of war? Where’s is humanity’s place in a world of increasing mechanisation? Prescient themes even today. An average man finds himself increasingly at odds with the world he’s forced to live in. Vonnegut is struggling to find himself in post-war America. As I said in my review, “Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia…and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction.”

This is a startlingly brave piece of debut fiction, with wit and bite. It is fairly different in style to much of his later work, interestingly, having an almost traditional prose style, and none of the characters feature in subsequent books. It harks back to the likes of We (1921) and even Brave New World (1932). We now live in the future that Vonnegut feared!

3/14

The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Synopsis: Despite being a fairly short novel, a lot of plot is crammed into The Sirens of Titan. A lucky and rich man – Malachi Constant – is involved with a potential interplanetary war, and travels to Mars, Mercury and Titan. This is the story of his downfall at the hands of Niles Rumfoord. Another wealthy man, and another space explorer, Rumfoord enters a phenomenon called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum: “those places … where all the different kinds of truths fit together.” He exists as a quantum wave and can appear in multiple places in both space and time. When earth crosses his existence, he appears. He also meets a Tralfamadorian on Titan.

Comment: This was my first ever experience of Vonnegut, many years ago. I figured at the time that he was just a SF author. I didn’t really ‘get’ the book as more than just a bonkers space adventure. This time around, I enjoyed it less as a tradition science fiction adventure but a whole lot more as a satire on wealth and power. Of course, it was written during that golden age of SF when not much was known about the planets of the solar system and therefore aliens were often found living on planets such as Mars and Mercury. Most of the characters are pastiches of the rich, but don’t have a free will of their own. They are clearly puppets of Vonnegut’s and perhaps his first dalliance with metafiction, albeit disguised as a traditional SF adventure.

There is so much to admire about Vonnegut’s imagination here, especially his embracing of the burgeoning field of quantum mechanics and his bleak vision of free will. Some might say he is a misanthrope, but what liberty do we really have? I say he’s onto something here. The Sirens of Titan also marks the debut of reoccurring characters and ideas.

4/14

Mother Night (1961)

Mother NIghtSynopsis: Vonnegut finally nails his signature style in this complete turnabout from his previous works. This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. and is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This literary trick dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. Campbell is awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he is recounting his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested.

Comment: What is it about bleak I like so much? Or is it only when utterly black but clever metafiction comes into play that it resonates? Campbell is a terrific character and the classic unreliable narrator. You sympathise but are sceptical. We never really know how truthful his accounts are. After all, he was a propagandist.

Vonnegut is now into the full swing of his re-occurring themes and motifs. He understands both writing as an art, and what it takes to keep the reader interested. He is a student of humanity and that’s why his misanthropy works throughout his oeuvre. “So it goes” makes its first appearance; his famous phrase – a musing on fate. Campbell reappears in Slaughterhouse-Five. War is a major theme, and harks back to Vonnegut’s own service. War is stupid (my naïve opinion). War is horrendously stupid (Vonnegut’s more learned opinion). It is a fake autobiography, as many of his later works will be. Vonnegut isn’t shy about telling the reader that this is metafiction as he deconstructs his characters from his ‘editors’ point of view.

6/14

Cat’s Cradle (1963)

Cat's CradleSynopsis: Author John wants to write a book about what some significant Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. Felix Hoenikker is a fictional Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. John contacts Hoenikker’s children to interview for the book. John finds out about something called ice-nine, created by Felix and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine can turn water into ice on contact. If it ever gets into the planet’s ecosystem, all rivers and oceans will freeze. Meanwhile, John ends up on a fictional island of San Lorenzo, which has a nihilistic faith and a very unusual society.

Comment: Back into a more traditional narrative plot here, Cat’s Cradle still managers to rings all Vonnegut’s literary bells. And boy is it bleak. It is an incredibly complex novel – probably Vonnegut’s most challenging in terms of concepts and plotting despite its short length. Hence why I love it. It pushes all my buttons. A proper narrative, delightfully satirical prose and all of Vonnegut’s themes. I love the idea of the researched book as a plot driver and the characters are all cool. Vonnegut’s confidence in his ability and his handle on his beliefs are fully formed and that’s why this is such a delight. Discussions on free will (the artificial religion that delights in the inevitability of everything) and the nature of humanity’s relationship with science (the development of the apocalyptic Ice-9) make this proper science fiction satire.

While Slaughterhouse Five is a better book, Cat’s Cradle is a more complete work of fiction.

2/14

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

Synopsis: Eliot Rosewater is a millionaire who develops a bit of a conscience. He establishes the Rosewater Foundation “where he attempts to dispense unlimited amounts of love and limited sums of money to anyone who will come to his office.” He is, of course, a veteran of WWII. He basically spends the novel trying to help people while a lawyer tries to prove that Elliot is insane so he can take a cut of the Rosewater fortune by diverting it to a distant relative. Eliot spends a year in a mental institution after having a proper breakdown. He is then visited by his father, the lawyer and Kilgore Trout, his favourite science fiction author.

Comment: And now it’s time for Vonnegut to savage the rich and their class. Or more importantly, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, and the damage wealth can do to both the individual and society. Greed corrupts, obviously.

And welcome to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s fictional alter-ego. And the lawyer visits the Rumfoords in Newport, from Sirens of Titan. However, there’s not much else about this novel that stands out for me. It has all the satirical bite and humour that you’d expect, but the plotting is a little uninteresting and the theme, while important, is as one-dimensional as Vonnegut gets. Not saying it’s bad, but not his best in terms of story and ideas. The characters are interesting enough, with altruistic Elliot being a particular standout across all Vonnegut’s fiction (and indeed features again as we shall see). I suspect Vonnegut sees his as the human ideal; generous, incorruptible and compassionate.

9/14

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Slaughterhouse 5Synopsis: The greatest of Vonnegut’s novels. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death to provide the full title is the story of Billy Pilgrim. But it’s really the story of Vonnegut’s experiences during WWII in Dresden. Although Billy might be an unreliable narrator as he also recounts the time he was kidnapped by aliens and held in a zoo with a film actress named Montana Wildhack. He also claims to have travelled in time; or at least experiences flashbacks of his life as a prisoner in the Dresden slaughterhouse. While under psychiatric care he meets the aforementioned Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the novels of Kilgore Trout. It is a this point that Vonnegut introduces the alien Tralfamadorians, who experience all time simultaneously and see death as nothing particularly important.

Comment: So it goes. Mortality, war, free will, metafiction, re-occurring characters (Rosewater, Campbell from Mother Night, a relative of the Rumfoords, Kilgore Trout), humour, death, satire, religion, American life. This is peak Vonnegut. But throwing everything at this story isn’t the dog’s dinner it might have been. Vonnegut skilfully takes the reader on a journey through the horrors of war and been held against one’s will. Having really been beaten in a Dresden slaughterhouse, it is remarkable that he writes this tale with such humour and verve. It must have been painfully difficult to fictionalise the horrors he went through. Yet…Vonnegut’s fatalistic ‘so it goes’ brings both a wry smile and a shiver of bleak inevitability regarding existence – in an entertainingly witty science fiction romp.

1/14

Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Synopsis: Described as the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast”, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday puts Kilgore Trout front and centre for the first time. Not the success he’d hoped to be, Trout is invited to speak at an arts festival where businessman Dwayne Hoover is kingpin of the city. Hoover might be losing his mind but takes an interest in Trout. After reading one of his novels, Hoover believes he is the only person in the universe with free will, thinking the novel to be factual and goes on a rampage! The book has a typically Vonnegutian piece of metafiction as a code, with the narrator bestowing freedom on Trout.

Comment: This is another complexly plotted satire from Vonnegut that dabbles in his many familiar themes. It is a dark as they come, with death and mental health at the forefront, along with of course, the idea that humans are not as free willed as they think. Are we nothing more than biological machines destined for nothing more meaningful than death? Probably. In previous novels, there has been a focus on bigger picture stuff (war, the universe, big business, wealth, etc) while Breakfast of Champions is a more personal story.

As it essentially features a couple of white men, this is as close to Vonnegut’s viewpoint portrayed in characters as you’ll find. Oddly, I found it less engaging than many of his other works because of this. While the themes resonate, and its ace to read a story with Trout as the main character, I was less interested in Hoover and his family than many of Vonnegut’s characters. Trout is an optimistic trier…always writing and always hoping for that great science fiction novel. More re-occurring characters pop up, including Francine Pefko, who was a secretary in Cat’s Cradle.

7/14

Slapstick (1976)

SlapstickSynopsis: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! might be described as science fiction but only in the loosest sense of the term. Set in a near future when New York City is somehow in ruins, this follows Vonnegut’s now traditional style of being a fictional autobiography. This time it is by Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain. He lives in the collapsed Empire State Building with his pregnant granddaughter and her partner. Swain is cut off from the rest of society due to his ugliness. He has a twin sister, and they have an unusually creative bond; as if they were two halves of a superior brain. Eventually, Dr. Swain becomes the President, devolving the government as global oil runs out, while the Chinese miniaturise themselves.

Comment: I didn’t really warm to Slapstick and I’m not sure why. I didn’t buy the science fiction elements, especially the Chinese plans, even though I like that Vonnegut depicts society collapsing as oil runs out. I found this one a bit too scattershot, and failed to engage with the characters. Maybe that’s the point, however, as the main themes are loneliness and isolation.

The religious satire elements are fun, however. The Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped is a nice creation and allows Vonnegut to explore is fatalistic view of life with no afterlife.

11/14

Jailbird (1979)

Synopsis: Walter F. Starbuck had recently been released from prison after serving time for his “comically” small role in the Watergate Scandal (1972). It follows Vonnegut’s standard fictional autobiography trope. There’s not a whole lot of plot in this one. Starbuck spends the whole novel pontificating on both American history and on how he ended up in prison in the first place, talking about paranoia and politics in the 1950s and 1960s.

Comment: Jailbird was as close as I’ve come to losing patience with Vonnegut. There is almost no story here and I felt little sympathy for the character of Starbuck. Of course, Vonnegut’s ideas and rants and gags still make this a worthwhile read, but I just wish that like his earlier novels, he’d stuck to the idea of exploring them here with a decent narrative and interesting characters. His exploration of big business – exemplified through his fictional corporation, RAMJAC, which owns almost every other business in the book – is as cutting as ever. And there’s not enough bite in the buttocks of the Watergate affair either. It needed more comment and criticism of the whole debacle.

Interesting, a character in prison with Starbuck claims to be Kilgore Trout. But it probably isn’t, just someone claiming to be him. However, many of Vonnegut’s other traits are missing here. There is no science fiction or absurdism. In Vonnegut’s other novels, Trout is a great storyteller with wondrous ideas, but you never get any exerts of his writing – almost the opposite of Vonnegut here. There aren’t any characters of note that can be seen in other works. There’s a lack of black humour in the prose. It is, perhaps, simply not Vonnegut enough.

12/14

Deadeye Dick (1982)

Deadeye DickSynopsis: Poor Rudy Waltz. Having committed accidental manslaughter as a child – he kills a vacuuming, pregnant woman by shooting a shotgun into the air – he lives his whole life feeling guilty and trying to make amends. Perhaps as a result of the guilt, he spends his life sexually neutral. Now, as a middle-aged man, he tells of how his hometown, Midland City, has been destroyed by a neutron bomb.

Comment: At least Vonnegut is back to storytelling and sympathetic characters here. There’s a lot to like about Deadeye Dick but the sympathy you feel for Rudy is perhaps the standout. It’s rare in a Vonnegut novel that the main character is more memorable than Vonnegut’s themes or satire.

Midland City is the place were Trout and Hoover meet in Breakfast of Champions and represents the blankness of middle America. Not a place Vonnegut has a lot of faith in. Or maybe it’s American society as a whole. I suspect you need a relatable character (not that we’re all accidental murders) if your sub-text is that society is so pointless we may as well nuke it. I do think that the plot gets a little meandering in places and loses its way towards the end, but I enjoyed spending time with Rudy as he tries to make up for his mistake.

10/14

Galápagos (1985)

Synopsis:  This is the story of a motley crew of souls collected in Ecuador, about to go on a cruise to the famous islands. The narrator is the million-year-old spirit of Leon Trout, Kilgore’s son. Having died on a ship that is converted into a cruise liner, he has unique viewpoint as a global financial crisis sends everyone into a panic. The mismatched band of travellers eventually end up shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia as a pandemic renders Earth infertile. Their descendants evolve into seal-like creatures.

Comment: An odd one this, and my least favourite, although still with plenty of merit. Most of the novel, in which the characters are introduced and come together before the fated cruise, reads like a farce, or a series of blackly comic misadventures. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, so when various tragedies strike, they have little impact on me as a reader.

Of course, it is the main theme that is the redeemer. Vonnegut’s main issue throughout his career might be called the stupidity of humanity, despite the big brain of the species. Here he addresses it directly. The last remaining humans evolve into swimmers, who have a suitably small brain. Nice. Kilgore Trout makes an appearance again. He tries to get his dead son into the afterlife (he fails, which leads to the narration), an unusual role for the elder Trout. Less is made of his writing career than in his other appearances in Vonnegut’s novels.

There is an interesting literary device which again elevates this book above the ordinary. Vonnegut puts an * before any character’s name if they are about to die. So it goes.

14/14

Bluebeard (1987)

BluebeardSynopsis: Fictional abstract expressionist Rabo Karabekian describes his later years while writing his autobiography, at the insistence of a strange woman who inserts herself into his life some time after his wife dies. Karabekian sees himself as a failed artist, although with great talent, after an incident with some paint that faded to nothing. He describes his apprenticeship as he’s writing his autobiography, while defending his secret project from Circe, his new and annoying house guest.

Comment: Vonnegut versus art. Something a bit different and all the more enjoyable for it. Bluebeard goes all meta on meta. Not only is this a fictional autobiography, but it’s about the writing of a fictional autobiography. What’s not to love? Vonnegut is his usually forthright self, but unusually focused. While he touches on war and death, this is Vonnegut’s change to critique the art of creation; both painting and writing. How important is perspective when judging talent? And what about commercial or other success? The relationships between characters are perhaps Vonnegut’s most inciteful too.

This is also Vonnegut’s statement that it is men who have screwed everything up, and now maybe the women should have a go.

Rabo Karabekian previously featured in both Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick, keeping up the traditional through-thread, tying all Vonnegut’s work into a complete piece of fiction.

5/14

Hocus Pocus (1990)

Synopsis: Hocus Pocus, or What’s the Hurry, Son? is the non-linear story of Eugene Debs Hartke who is a Vietnam War veteran. After being recorded being jokily un-American by the daughter of a right-wing commentator, Eugene is sacked from his job as college professor. So he gets a job in a prison. There is a breakout and the inmates take over his former college. The college becomes a new prison, Eugene becomes warden and then an inmate. These events occur mostly because of serendipity, or by hocus pocus.

Comment: The usual themes of Vonnegut’s earlier works all come together in this oddly unengaging non-linear narrative. Through Eugene’s ponderings and wanderings, the Vietnam war, class, prejudice, sexuality, freedom and social exclusion are all covered. This is really Vonnegut speaking in this fictional autobiography (again, Vonnegut is editing the notes and writings from Eugene for this text). Vonnegut tries to make it interesting by using some familiar meta elements, such as talking to the reader, repetition of phrases, and the adding of coughing noises, as Eugene has tuberculosis as he writes. Perhaps Vonnegut was sensing his own mortality.

13/14

Timequake (1997)

timequakeSynopsis: From the outset, it appears that this is the story of a timequake, when the universe decides to have a moment and sends everyone back in time 10 years. Forcing everyone to relive their lives again but having no control over the actions until the moment time catches up with itself in 2001. In reality, it is a thinly veiled autobiographical polemic. There is no plot, other than Vonnegut describing events leading up to, and resulting from, a celebration that features his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout. Apart from that, there’s nothing to describe. He alludes to many of his other novels and the first draft of this book, which appears to have more of a plot.

Comment: While this is as sharp and black as most of Vonnegut’s books, it lacks any coherence. As there’s no true plot, it is much harder to engage with it than any of this previous novels. There is no thread to follow as such, other than Vonnegut’s own life. The fun is to spot the themes and smile knowingly when he mentions is previous works in particular contexts. His playful language and running gags are a joy as ever. In lesser hands, this would have been a terrible book. Obviously, free will is the key theme, as everyone must live 10 years again, and then deal with their actions as the first moment of free will kicks in. People are forced to watch their bad choices again, which is as black as it gets! This is an intriguing idea, but I wish it had been carried though with an actual narrative or characters you’d cared for. I think that this is a lost opportunity for another masterpiece.

8/14

 

Final thoughts

As a body of work, these 14 novels are remarkable in their consistency of thought and voice. The themes of social injustice and the futility of human exist resonate strongly with me, which is an odd dichotomy. Life is pointless, Homo sapiens are stupid (or at least the male half of the species), and we don’t have the free will and liberties that we think we do, but while we’re at it, can we all be nice and fair to each other and stop having wars?

While I love the reoccurring characters, themes, gags and phraseology, I feel that towards the end of his career, the fictional autobiography trope becomes a bit tired. The brilliance of Cat’s Cradle shows that a decent narrative works well for the messages Vonnegut has.

His reputation is deserved, of course, and I shall be returning to most of these books again, later in life. And again.

So it goes.

 

kurt_vonnegut_1972The books in order:

  1. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  2. Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  3. Player Piano (1952)
  4. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  5. Bluebeard (1987)
  6. Mother Night (1961)
  7. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  8. Timequake (1997)
  9. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
  10. Deadeye Dick (1982)
  11. Slapstick (1976)
  12. Jailbird (1979)
  13. Hocus Pocus (1990)
  14. Galápagos (1985)

Image credit By WNET-TV/ PBS – eBayfrontback, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38530410

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

Amazbuck
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.

A journey: Favourite re-reads – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowI’ve read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell twice before. I remember vaguely picking it up when it first came out in 1997 – I suspect as a result of a review from SFX which was one of only a handful of sources of science fiction book reviews at the time – and about 10 years ago. It seems like it will be one of the books I need to come back to every ten years or so. So I picked up my smelly, dog-eared and stained Black Swan paperback edition and settled back with a smile on my face.

The Sparrow is, at a fundamental level, an alien first-contact novel. However, when you consider that this story is about Emilio Sandoz and a mostly Jesuit party who are party to the discovery of alien life, and who subsequently travel to the planet Rakhat, you realise that this is about God, religion, faith, colonisation, acceptance and more. The narrative has two time-streams. The first is on Emilio’s return to Earth, a physically and emotionally destroyed man. He is facing charges of murder and prostitution on the alien planet. He is the only survivor. The Jesuits are also under scrutiny for his behaviour. The second stream starts with the pulling together of the core group of friends who eventually find love and the alien signal. They travel to Rakhat where they make contact with two sentient species. Russell skilfully plays the narrative time streams off against each other, as you warm to the characters and feel their joy and pain and tragedy.

The first 100 pages

It was remarkable how easily I recalled all the characters and the plot within the first few pages. When Sandoz is helped by Brother Edward and John Candotti and has his braces fitted, I started to recall the trauma of the journey to come. The story flooded back to me. And when he meets Ann and George, and eventually Jimmy and Sophia, the initial warmth and comfort of the characters was replaced by dread, as I recalled their fate. It is a testament to Russell’s writing that in the opening chapters of this book, you fall in love with the characters (again, for me) and really enjoy spending time with them regardless of the story. The characters in the ‘after-the-event’ time are perhaps less well-rounded and while not cyphers, you never connect with them on any emotional level.

Within the first 100 pages, there are hints of tragedy and signposts to much worse, but the actually science fiction and alien elements are largely missing from the story (Sophia’s AI work excepted). While clearly and proudly science fiction, it only dwells on these certain elements in passing. This is a story about people and their love.

100-200 pages

The next 100 pages opens with a litany of abuse against the Jesuit church. I wondered if this was Russell’s personal attack on religion, but then I remembered that it is fiction and the views expressed in any book aren’t necessarily those of the author. And then…

Then Russell writes the warmest and loveliest description of friends becoming a family, even with what happens to poor Jimmy (I’d not fully recalled the plot towards the end), I have ever read, just before they are all brought together before god and alien contact. Although there is the duel narrative structure, this line in particular is very linear storytelling and fairly obvious in hindsight, but so wonderfully written it does matter?

An interesting parallel comes to light in this section. All the characters from the time of discovery of the alien signal have the correct experience (astronomy, linguistics, engineering, computer programming, medicine) and relationships with each other. Sandoz and others start to believe this is the work of god, bringing them together. Is any author, god, then? In all books, characters and plots must have the required coincidences to make the story work. Life isn’t a story because it isn’t full of these coincidences but all fiction must. Is Russell acknowledging this? I think so. Turtles and fence-posts.

There is a scene on p188 of my copy when the crew first board their vessel, where Anne and George attempt to complete a mission of their own in zero g. Rarely does a book make you smile at the dialogue and interaction of a bunch of fictional characters as The Sparrow does. It is so convivial and warm. It is like a favourite pie in winter or ice cream in summer. And yet Russell signposts the tragedy ahead a few passages later. Perfect storytelling.

And at this point, 2/5 of the way into the book, we still don’t know why the book is called The Sparrow.

200-300 pages

As I passed the half way mark it occurred to me that there can’t be many alien contact novels that can get to this point without actually contacting the aliens. [Spoiler alert] Around this point, one of the main characters dies. However, he was never really one of the main, main, characters so while the method of his demise was unexpected, the fact he was the first to go wasn’t a surprise. Bit of a red shirt moment, and doesn’t really add anything to the story. In fact, it counters the rest of the narrative. When others die, there is deep and prolonged grief. While this character who dies was never core, his death appears to be too quickly forgotten.

300-400 pages

And now to the main course. Russell explains the alien cultures as experienced through Sandoz and the team. It made me consider how tricky it must be to invent an alien culture in fiction. It needs to be alien yet comprehensible to the reader. It needs to be plausible but different enough to be interesting. It was fun when Russell includes the Star Trek reference to make that point. There is no point in having aliens who all speak English and act like us. Russel takes proper zoological and ecological theory and weaves a believable yet alien civilisation. Of course, many, many other science fiction authors have also achieved this, but still, it can’t be easy.

And then, when DW – Sandoz’s father figure – falls ill the dread returns. Having read the book before I know he dies, but I couldn’t recall quite how…

As the 400th page approached, one of the main issues with re-reading a novel comes to the fore. You  know something bad is coming – there are still 6 of the main characters to die – but you can’t quite remember the precise moment, or page. Every event, every new chapter might bring death.

400-501 pages

Re-reading an old favourite is a mixed blessing. I must have read a fair few hundred books since I last read The Sparrow. I’m 10 years older. You always bring something of yourself to every novel you read. Different experiences in real life and in fiction. I was glad I’d forgotten (even mis-remembered) how DW had died. However, as everything really tragic happens in the last section of the book, this time round his and the rest of the crew’s demise felt a little rushed. Even though the plot demanded it, the explanations of how the contact had changed the aliens, and how the aliens had changed Sandoz could have played out a little longer. I was still gutted by the finale, although due to my years of reading, the dramatic conclusion was a little less shocking than it was 20 years ago. And as for the title, it is only revealed on page 499: Matthew 10 v29. Apparently.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading The Sparrow. It every bit as good as I remembered. The characters every bit as warm and the writing as engaging and as thought-provoking. I only wish Russell had continued writing SF (sequel aside). There is so much depth to her story, although it didn’t make me think much about god and religion, or faith. It did make me think more about how our actions affect others, even the seemingly harmless ones. Even when we think we’re doing a good thing. We cannot know how other people think or will react to us. Russell seems to understand this both personally and culturally.

The Sparrow won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award, which it thoroughly deserved.

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.

 

The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

The Thing ItselfIn 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi, asked the question, if Earth is a typical planet and the galaxy is so vast where are the aliens? In 1982, John Carpenter directed one of the best science fiction horror films of all time: set on an Antarctic research base, The Thing climaxes with two paranoid men waiting to see what happens next. In 2015, Adam Roberts writes a brilliantly composite science fiction novel that begins with those events in mind.

The story within The Thing Itself begins in 1986: two men at odds with each other in an Antarctic research station. One is missing his life back home. One is lonely and obsessed by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. They are meant to be watching for alien signals. There is an incident with a letter and some brilliantly observed paranoia about its potential contents. What happens next is shocking!

Without giving away the plot – remember Fermi? – This is not a novel that is easy to classify, or discuss, without spoiling the adventure of discovery for the reader. Despite appearances, this is not the story you might expect. It is difficult and complex, and if you put the effort in, you are rewarded. In abundance.

Before long, we’re taken back to Germany in 1900. Two men are exploring various towns and cities. One seems oddly affected by HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. This chapter reads like an old-fashioned Grand Tour story. With bonus extras! Now we’re back to Charles: our main protagonist from the first chapter, who is now telling the story of what happened to him since the Antarctic incident. Then we’re in a bizarre chapter with no punctuation – almost a stream of consciousness. Again in the past, and again, new characters. This continues throughout The Thing Itself. Each intervening chapter is a different time period, including some in the future. Those in the past are written in the appropriate style, while those in the future are given styles of their own too. My only criticism is that the chapter featuring Thos was too long in relation to the rest of the novel’s length.

Meanwhile, Charles continues his tale. He’s recruited by a mysterious Institute who have been experimenting with AI and are also obsessed with Kant. They want to speak to Roy, Charles’ nemesis, who is now locked up in Broadmoor. Roy might just hold the key to their research. Even though he is more dangerous than ever. Charles has lost a lot (both physically and mentally), but in the hope of regaining something, agrees to confront his demons. Now, the story begins to come clear. The various narrative threads – past, present and future – begin to come together in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine from the outset. How Roberts manages such a feat of spaghetti-like narrative weaving is remarkable enough on its own. Considering the various writing styles he employs, it makes the experience of reading even more rewarding. However, this is much more than a science fiction adventure story, and the themes Roberts addresses take it to the next level.

Within the novel, themes of sexuality (gay men when it was illegal), gender (a non-binary gender future is offered), the nature of consciousness and the structure and perception of the universe (via Kant – where the title comes from – and AI), government conspiracy, aliens, child abuse by those in privilege and power, mental health and alcoholism, the existence of God, the potential power of love and more are all explored. [Ed: Phew, Ian, is there anything that isn’t in there?] None of it feels forced, or cause célèbre. Roberts wraps The Thing Itself up in some basic tenets of Kant’s ideas such as categories of quantity or quality, and adds some ideas of his own.

And through all this, it is still a thoroughly readable and enjoyable book. Surprising, quirky, fantastic. I won’t pretend I understood all the philosophical arguments, or all the science. Roberts’ skill however, is that he doesn’t make you feel stupid for not getting it. He brings the reader along at whatever level is comfortable.

We see the events through Charles’ bemused and sceptical eyes. But have the events in his life given the quality of the unreliable narrator? Is he deluded? Only further exploration leads to answers. There are some incredible ideas and boundless leaps of imagination. The plot strands that seem to be disparate all appear to eventually make sense. You’re left wondering about the nature of reality and our place in the universe – themes of all the best science fiction. You’re left reflecting on the book long after you’ve finished. Roberts is one of the best contemporary writers of original science fiction in terms of technical skill, vision and storytelling. The Thing Itself is a brilliant book for many, many reasons.

First published: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/2016/01/the-thing-itself-by-adam-roberts/ 

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapleton (1930)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg#/media/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg
“Lastandfirstmen firstedition”

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapleton builds on the work of past authors and leads to the ideas found throughout science fiction literature since. That sounds like a statement that could be made of an academic journal article. Deliberately so. This is a novel unlike anything else in the sense that it is presented as an academic’s popular history book. Only the author is from millions of years in the future.

Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, to give it its full title, was written and published in 1930. My edition is the 2009 Gollancz Space Opera Collection. Which is a tad mis-leading. This is no space opera. Space opera requires characters, journeys, cultures and such like. In fact, in this there are barely any characters at all, and those that are written about are architypes, examples or occasional unique individuals.

What distinguishes, if anything, a book from a novel? A story from a narrative? These questions jostled around as I read First and Last Men. This book begins with the fictional introduction from one of the ‘last men’, setting context for what is about to come. Beginning then with the First Men, not long after what is known to us a World War I, with nods to the likes of Jesus and Socrates, the book describes various rivalries in Europe and between America and China. Interesting foresight or extrapolation and logic? The latter, if the rest of the book is taken as the whole. Humans eventually use up all the natural resources, leaving only a Patagonian Civilization, some 100,000 years in the future. A huge natural disaster leaves only 35 humans alive, on a science ship at the north pole. And so begins the cyclic future of humanity, where phoenix-like, a new species rises out of the ashes of an old, only to fall into the fire once more.

The scope of Stapleton’s work is extraordinary. It literally gives historical detail for most of the future races of man, plus some sub-species, lasting to the Eighteenth Man 2 billion years hence. Frustratingly, he uses ‘man’ throughout the work, suggesting that blinkered view of Homo sapiens being a maternal species is one thing that is fixed in stone. There is no suggestion of a paternal or non-binary gendered future for ‘mankind’! Thus ‘man’ has adventures along the way of course. There is the seemingly obligatory invasion from Mars (from much of the SF of this time), although an original take on the alien threat. Also, the only time there is any levity in the book, as the Martians misunderstand the nature of Earthly intelligence. As humanity moves forward through its history, there are obsessions with youth, with flying, with war, genetic engineering, music and more. Man changes appearance and size, and in the case of the Fourth Men, becomes giant brains that use the Third Men as lab rats. Oddly, something happens to the moon’s orbit and the surviving members of humanity venture to Venus for more alien encounters. The Seventh Men of Venus can fly. The Ninth Men relocate to Neptune where they eventually develop the ability to move the planet, as astronomical events threaten and then bring about eventual doom for all of mankind(s).

As mentioned, there are no characters in this book, with a few minor exceptions. It is written as a history book with academic analysis and some speculation. However, although dense with concepts and future facts, it reads like a novel. Life of humanity is the main character, and it undergoes a narrative journey, as a fictional character might in another story. It develops, grows, make mistakes, sometimes learns from them and moves on. Each time Stapleton dwells on a period, it is a different type of humanity. Which brings me to the past works mentioned earlier.

Last and First Men features utopic visions, reminiscent of More and Swift, dystopias of Shelley and Jefferies, Wells’ alien invasion, and the blatant generic manipulation as mentioned. There is so much depth to Stapleton’s ideas that as times they are both overwhelming and somewhat repetitive. He dwells on some areas and skips others, which is interesting. He often suggests that the reader can’t understand some aspects of future science and philosophy. And disappointingly, despite the huge time span of some of the species, and the development of ‘ether-ships’ which transported the species to Venus and Neptune, extra-solar flight is never achieved.

First and Last MenA key theme throughout the book is evolution, and genetic manipulation. I suspect that this is the first science fiction work since Frankenstein to address these concepts to blatantly. There is a great page towards the end of the book, when man is recently moved to Neptune. Stapleton describes the evolutionary progress of a sub-human rabbit-like species, and how natural selection works in its simplest form so this species would eventually give rise to the Tenth Men. Of course, for this to work, Stapleton had to give the book the immense time-scale required for the evolutionary process to work. He clearly knew the subject well.

There appears to be a couple of deux ex machina moments, when survival miraculously occurs, such as the 35 humans on the boat at the north pole. This might suggest that mankind is not destined to survive by its own agency alone. I can’t decide if this is (and also perhaps the ‘reader can’t understand the future’ sections) is lazy storytelling or a deliberate comment on man as an animal species. Stapleton does write at one point that ‘by accident, almost one might say by miracle, a spark of human life was once more preserved’. Maybe Stapleton thought man’s agency impotent? The mind-reading dénouement and the cultural effects on the moon are the weakest ideas in the narrative, meaning this book can’t be considered to complete success.

Last and First Men is a hard book to enjoy, reading as it does as an academic history book. Fascinating, yes. A novel with a narrative, yes. A story, maybe. Despite having no real characters to empathise with, for the most part I was engaged. A remarkable work of science fiction, definitely.

 

Image credit:

“Lastandfirstmen firstedition” by Derived from a digital capture (photo/scan) of the book cover (creator of this digital version is irrelevant as the copyright in all equivalent images is still held by the same party). Copyright held by the publisher or the artist. Claimed as fair use regardless.. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg#/media/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg

The History Of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Fate of the Poseidonia by Clare Winger Harris (1927)

18303194Clare Winger Harris might be called a pioneer of science fiction. In an era when most science fiction was male-led dystopian or utopian, Harris wrote space opera and pulp sci-fi, often published in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories publication. Indeed, The Fate of the Poseidonia was the first of her short stories within that magazine, published in 1927.

The story, as presented in the digitized version of Amazing Stories is structured in 6 short chapters, following on from the announcement that Harris is the recipient of the $100 Third Prize. The short synopsis is the tale of a woman aboard a captured space liner – the Poseidonia – is taken to Mars during “a clandestine campaign by Martians to steal Earth’s water”.

The story begins with the narrator meeting a mysterious man called Martell at a meeting of an astronomy club, and the immediate dislike that sprung up. The meeting, of course, focuses on Mars. The story begins in 1894. Our narrator is dating Margaret. Trouble brews when she meets Martell. Human relationships, in a science fiction story. Published in 1927…not since…well, not for many a book within this list of review and comment has a woman written this type of story. Now the tale moves to 1945 when the ocean is discovered to have fallen by several feet. What could have caused this loss of water? What has this to do with Mars? How is the relationship developing between the 3 main characters? And then, the transatlantic passenger plane – the Pegasus – disappears. So a lot happens in a short space of time. Meanwhile, the narrator is spying on Martell’s apartment and spots a mysterious mechanical device. He dupes his way in when Martell takes ill and is being looked after by Margaret. He tries the device and discovers Martell’s secret. It’s not until chapter 5 when the waters fall again (seismologists report no earth tremors) and the Poseidonia goes missing, reporting a “great cloud of flying objects”… Margaret is aboard the fated vessel. Will the mysteries be solved?

The key to Harris’ short story within the pantheon of science fiction is that it is scientific (to a point). Like Shelley before her, this was no romance or other similar genre aimed at a woman’s market. There is of course, romance between the characters, but this is a driver of motivations, not the means to the end itself. Harris writes proper science fiction. Life on Mars of course has been explored by Wells and Burroughs, but this is the first exploration of non-Terran life by a female author. There’s no overt feminism in this story, but that in itself is important. This is a short science fiction story about aliens and science as told by a woman. It marks an important step in both the development of the science fiction concept – proper story-telling – and the emergence of a female voice in a male-dominated genre.

{74C0A667-7340-4F01-B14E-F8C2D363A22D}Img400The writing itself is great, albeit of its time. You believe the characters and the scenario. Harris had a fertile and inquisitive mind and gets a lot of ideas and plot down into a relatively short word-count. This is a tale that could have been told over a novel length. Oh, and as for the Martians, their description leads the reader to think that Harris was concerned with diversity in US culture, and the suppression of the native Americans. So a bit of sub-text too.

There’s not so much in the way of science fiction warnings, or what it means to be human, or live in an advancing technological society. After all, this is a short space-opera style science fiction mystery. Not an alien invasion story, but certainly, the seed of many a future story where the aliens covert our most abundant of resource.

Harris’ The Fate of the Poseidonia should have a wider audience and respect from the modern science fiction fan. Thoroughly enjoyable and a proper science fiction story!

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

Favourite Re-reads: Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse 5“All this happened, more or less.” I decided to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. I’d previously only read this one, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions and Timequake before this particular mission. While I’d thoroughly enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five previously, it was only on this re-read, following on from Vonnegut’s first 5 novels that I’ve come to really appreciate it as part of a body of work.

Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim. He is a survivor of the infamous World War 2 attack on Dresden, as was Vonnegut himself in February 1945. Back in the US, Pilgrim is an optometrist and is the only survivor of a plane crash. Billy insists he can travel through time; witnessing key moments of his life out of sequence. And after the crash, he reveals that he has spent time on the planet Tralfamadore. He was kidnapped by aliens and exhibited in their zoo, along with another human – an adult film star called Montana Wildhack. They are to mate. The aliens are to watch. The Tralfamadrians explain that they can see all of time at once, and that everything that happens, happens at the same time, so you can visit events at will.

Of course, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war novel. And how! But being anti-war, especially considering Vonnegut’s personal history, is only half the story. Most of the tale is the journey of Billy as he is captured by the Germans and sent to Dresden where he survives the firebombing in the titular slaughterhouse. The storytelling, wit and intelligence is what elevates this novel. It is even metafictional – the narrator clearly identifying himself at occasional key points. Of course, as Vonnegut experienced many of them himself, he must be the narrator, manipulating the reader and the events he portrays.

For me, Slaughterhouse Five opens with one of the best and most memorable lines in fiction. There is so much meaning to those 6 words. Autobiographical. Fiction. Metafiction. Satire. Horror. Science fiction. An indication of what’s to come. The books brings together many of Vonnegut’s ideas, phrases and characters. The most common, of course, is “so it goes” whenever some passes. A harrumph at destiny? The Tralfamadrians, of course, are fatalists by nature. Other familiar areas are Ilium, New York; displacement in time; the fictional science fiction author Kilgore Trout; the planet of Tralfamadore (first mentioned in The Sirens of Titan and then in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). And fairly blunt attacks on religion. Reoccurring characters include war veterans Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (from Mother Night) and Eliot Rosewater (from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) and the time shifting Bertram Copeland Rumfoord (from The Sirens of Titan).

With all that in mind, Slaughterhouse Five is such an easy and enjoyable read. More than almost any other writer I’ve read (especially social satirists and science fiction authors), Vonnegut is a terrific storyteller. He understands his audience and he understands people. In the hands of any other author, some of the writing would seem ludicrous, especially in an anti-war novel (“Billy had liked Spot a lot, and Spot had liked him” sounds like it comes from a beginner’s reading book). However, it moments such as Billy watching the war film backwards that whack you over the head with poignancy and meaning, especially the moment describing the women who hide the materials taken from bombs in the earth so they’d “never hurt anyone every again”.

There might be some doubt, narrative-wise, that what Billy recounts is real. Are his encounters with the aliens and his ability to travel through time real, or the results of the trauma of war (and the plane crash)? Is this simply a device Vonnegut uses for storytelling? Is Vonnegut (as himself or as Kilgore Trout) an unreliable narrator? And if so, does that mean we aren’t meant to take the aliens and time-jumping as anything other than metaphor? I don’t think it matters. You can read it either way – real or all in Billy’s mind – and the book still wallops you in the brain.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five says plenty about the horror and humiliation and dehumanisation of war. Much of the plot that happens in Billy’s later life occurs while the Vietnam War is ongoing. Despite the undeniable horrors of Dresden, America in particular never learns. Billy says: “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does”. A very bleak outlook indeed. According to the Tralfamadrians, everyone who has died and suffered terribly because of war, is still alive somewhere and always will be. Which is something, isn’t it?