Monthly Archives: March 2009

Time travel done with elegance and intelligence

The place you stand is always the present and that’s all you ever really have — I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Title: A Bridge of Years
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 1991
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

bridgeofyearsI plan to eventually read every novel Robert Charles Wilson has written, and I’m slowly working my way toward that goal. This time I’ve gone back a little in time (yes, that is a pun) to one of his earlier ones, A Bridge of Years. The title is to be taken literally — this is a time travel novel. However, it’s not what you might think of as a typical time travel novel. The book is less concerned with the time traveling phenomenon itself (explanations of the technology, changes to the past, time paradoxes and all that), and more focused on a small group of characters and the way this time bridge affects their lives. When some of them see this discovery as a means of escaping an intolerable existence, they set themselves up for a lesson about past, present, and future; they learn that your life follows you wherever you go, and you can’t escape it so easily.

The novel starts off in the year 1989. After a painful divorce and a period of alcoholism, Tom Winter moves back to the small town on the northwest American coast where he spent his childhood. Looking for some quiet and solitude in which to rebuild his shattered life, he buys a house in the semi-rural area outside of town. The previous owner of the house mysteriously disappeared ten years ago, and as Tom settles in he discovers other mysteries about his new home — such as the fact that it seems to be self-cleaning and self-repairing. Not to mention the tunnel leading out of the basement, a tunnel that ends, incredibly, in New York City and, just as incredibly, in the year 1962.

The house is one of a series of terminals stretching back in time from the far future, each set of stations bridging a gap of several decades or so. The question of who built them, and why, is only addressed in a peripheral way. The story is not about those enigmatic far-future beings, although there are tantalizing hints here and there. No, this is a story about two men who make the mistake of seeing this time tunnel as their salvation, as a way to transform their lives, as a way to leave behind all the negative baggage of their past. Tom sees the Sixties as a simpler, more innocent time in which to live, a place to start over and find new love. But this simplistic dream is destroyed when he finds out he’s not the only person to follow the same escape route. Sharing this earlier New York with him is Billy, a super-soldier from the late 21st century trying to escape the twin horrors of war and ecological disaster. Unfortunately, Billy has been altered by the military technology of his time; he was fitted with special armor that is a part of him, that regulates and controls his hormones, and that he can’t live without. And his armor tells him Tom Winter is a threat, come to punish him for deserting the army….. uh oh.

The book works extremely well on the character level, and the plot is tense and well-constructed. And throughout the book are some interesting perspectives on the nature of time. For instance, Tom wonders about whether or not the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s will play out the same way they did “before,” and eventually is persuaded to this view:

I think the future is something like a big building in the fog — you know it’s there, and you can grope your way toward it, but you can’t be sure about it until it’s close enough to touch.

Tom also comes to realize that the past is not simply a set piece or prop, not some idealized fantasy, but a place with its own gritty reality, both good and bad:

[…] the only way you can own the past is by respecting it — by not turning it into something quaint or laughable or pastel or bittersweet. It’s a real place where real people live. And the future is real because we’re building it out of real hours and real days. No world out of the world, Tom thought. No Eden, no Utopia, only what you can touch and the touching of it.

This is a fine novel, and a unique and mature take on the time travel theme. I’d expect nothing less of Wilson.

13 tales of caution, karma, and revenge, from Brunner

brunnerforwardFrom This Day Forward (1972) features thirteen stories showcasing John Brunner’s discerning style and wit. Correction: twelve stories and a poem. If there is a general theme running through this volume, it is that of poetic justice. Karma. Bad choices and mistakes coming back to haunt you. Evil or unethical people getting their just deserts, their comeuppance, their due. As a word of advice on avoiding such situations and keeping an eye on where we’re headed, Brunner offers this anonymous quote: It behooves us all to be interested in the future, because that’s where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives. Words of wisdom, indeed.

“The Biggest Game” is about a gigolo con-man on the hunt for his next rich widow target; but the tables are turned when the hunter becomes the hunted. “The Trouble I See” presents a man who has a special skill to sense danger to himself and uses it to manipulate others and become wealthy. Eventually, though, he is fooled by his own talent. In “Factsheet Six” a clairvoyant takes his revenge on a rapacious businessman whose unethical products caused the death of his family.

Two of the best stories are “Wasted On the Young” and “Judas.” The former presents a future social system in which the young, up until age 30, are allowed to live at society’s expense, charging any extravagance they desire to the state, after which they must repay that luxury with years of service. One young man thinks he can outsmart the system, living a life of such utter gluttony and overindulgence that he accumulates a service-debt of 300 years. He believes the state will never be able to collect on this debt, but he turns out to be wrong about that. “Judas” is an excellent story built on two concepts. One is over-reliance on technology and, in fact, the worshiping of technology to the extent that it becomes a god; the other is the lengths people will go to in order to hang on to their beliefs, even in the face of evidence against those beliefs.

“Even Chance” points out that just as it might matter to the crew of a plane where they get shot down during a war, the outcome of an alien crash-landing might also be highly dependent on the location of that landing. “Planetfall” is a boy-meets-girl story with two young people from different cultures (one Earth-based, one space-based) who each think the other’s culture is the answer to their dreams; but after learning more about each other, they realize those dreams are far too simplistic.

There are a few more stories that I didn’t care for all that much: one about intrigue in ancient Rome, one about reincarnation, one about fairies with a warning for humanity, one about a Viet-Cong terrorist in New York. And then there’s the poem at the end, which also didn’t impress me at all — or maybe I just couldn’t figure out what it was all about.

All in all, a successful story collection, meaning I liked at least half of the stories.

Dancing the Space Opera Two-step

januarydancerMy second taste of Michael Flynn’s work is his 2008 interstellar thriller The January Dancer, a fairly decent adventure tale that doesn’t fail to entertain, but does fail to rise above a typical novel of its type. Tor’s marketing campaign called the book “a triumph of the New Space Opera,” which — typical of marketing campaigns — is something of an exaggeration. Don’t misunderstand me, I liked the book well enough for what it is, and it does have a few things going for it. It’s just that in the overall scheme of things I think it falls much closer to being “average” than to being “a triumph.”

The basic elements will be familiar to anyone who has read any kind of space opera before. Interstellar intrigue. Space battles. The heroes traveling from planet to planet. A future humanity spread out on many worlds. Ancient and powerful alien technology. You know the kinds of things I’m talking about. Flynn does it well, but not really well enough to counteract that “been there, done that” feeling the reader will inevitably have.

A few more specifics might be in order. When the tramp freighter New Angeles finds itself orbiting a remote planet while making emergency repairs, its crew finds a a stash of artifacts made by the Pre-humans — an alien species gone from the galactic scene by the time humanity arrives. The freighter’s captain, Amos January, carries away the only removable artifact, a small block of stone that constantly changes shape: the Twisting Stone, otherwise known as the Dancer. This artifact changes hands multiple times throughout the story, and becomes highly sought after as the characters discover its incredible effects, which could alter the balance of power in the galaxy. As we follow the fate of the Dancer, much space-operatic adventure ensues — hardly a surprise, right?

Flynn can write very well, but for some reason that skill shows itself in this novel more on the small scale than in the grand scheme of the overall story. A piercing insight into life or human nature here, a keenly clever bit of dialogue there, lots of incisive little details, that sort of thing. The story is engaging on a page-by-page basis and keeps the reader interested at a local level. But once the book is finished and you consider it as a whole, it feels a bit unsatisfying, like a meal that doesn’t quite fill you up.

The world-building is somewhat uneven; in some cases the settings and background history are tantalizingly believable, but in other cases are unconvincing. Flynn has his interstellar travel accomplished via the “Electric Avenue,” a network of natural hyperspace-like pathways between stars. I see no good reason for this ad-hoc invention; it’s basically taking FTL out of a ship’s engine and putting it into nature instead, and I don’t see how it benefited the story at all. Also unconvincing is the status of science in this future society, which sees Newton and Einstein as mythical Gods. Engineering is respected, but science has fallen by the wayside, with no progress in centuries. I find that just a little hard to believe.

From the experience I have of FLynn so far, it seems like he’s very knowledgeable about languages and this adds a level of linguistic richness to his writing. However, I can’t say those effects are entirely to my liking this time around. The heavy use of Irish brogue quickly gets annoying, but what might you expect when the standard human dialect is called Gaelactic? That wouldn’t have been so bad, I suppose, if Flynn hadn’t carried the Irish fascination entirely too far with the planet New Eireann; a general cultural resemblance (whether inherited or designed) I can buy, but not the idea that there is an inherently tragic Irish nature that persists over time and recreates that people’s conflicts on a distant planet hundreds or thousands of years in the future.

One thing I really like is the frame story around the main story. The frame takes place in a seedy spaceport bar, with a scarred storyteller relating the events of the Dancer’s discovery to a traveling harper who comes seeking the tale. The interactions between these two, and the storyteller’s penetrating commentary, made these chapters my favorite parts of the book.

There are plenty of items on both the “pro” and the “con” side here. Don’t look for anything amazingly fresh or groundbreaking in The January Dancer, but if a bit of enjoyable space adventure is on your agenda, you could certainly do worse.

S is for Splendid, Superb, Super Stories (by Bradbury)

bradburyspaceYou just gotta love Ray Bradbury. Even beyond and above his skill with the written word (which is considerable), there’s such a vibrancy that comes across in his work, an appreciation of the wonder and awe of the universe and the joys of living. The stories found in this 1966 collection, S Is for Space, are no exception; there is no shortage here of Bradbury’s sense of wonder and his exuberance for life. But several of the items here also serve a cautionary tales, dealing with themes similar to those in his masterwork Fahrenheit 451: knowledge replaced by ignorance, individuality replaced by strict social conformity, the simple life and simple human warmth replaced by a cold, antiseptic future and a confused sense of what’s really important. Of course it’s not all bleak futures. There are also plenty of glimpses into the rural small-town America of Bradbury’s childhood — the sunshine and white picket fences and kids playing ball at the park. Indeed, more than once children are central characters of these stories, and on display is both their depth of imagination, and the consequences when adults take them and their imagination for granted. So we have here both snapshots of a more innocent age, as well as warnings about what a less innocent future might look like.

Gathered here are sixteen stories chosen by Bradbury himself, most of them quite short indeed, averaging around ten pages or so each, with a few longer entries. Bradbury’s introduction is also highly enjoyable, and he tells us a bit about some of his influences while growing up:

Jules Verne was my father.
H. G. Wells was my wise uncle.
Edgar Allen Poe was the batwinged cousin we kept high in the back attic room.
Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were my brothers and friends.
There you have my ancestry.

Who wouldn’t want relatives like those?

By far my favorite story here would have to be “Pillar of Fire,” which transforms the “last man on Earth” trope into “the last dead man on Earth.” In the 21st century, all the graveyards are dug up and the bodies burned in incinerators, which is the modern way, all neat and sterile and futuristic. Before the completion of this project, the last corpse wakes up and begins a one-man campaign against this desecration by blowing up the incinerators, all the while ranting against the loss of tradition and other modern evils . It’s great hilarious fun, but with a serious edge underneath.

I also really liked “Chrysalis,” a nifty “next-stage-of-evolution” tale about what humanity might turn into. In the future world of “The Pedestrian,” a man is harassed by the police for walking alone at night and for not owning a TV, both of which people simply don’t do. “Zero Hour” has a frightening message: if you don’t take your children seriously, maybe alien invaders will. “Hail and Farewell” is about a man who doesn’t physically age, stuck in a boy’s body, and the problems that go along with it.

Time travelers, lonely witches, colonists to other worlds, alien invaders, and other strange characters populate these rich tales of imagination. “S” is for Space, but it’s also for the Satisfaction you’ll get from this lovely collection.

Some recent blogroll additions

I want to mention a couple sites I’ve added to my Blogroll in the last few weeks, to help send them some of the attention they deserve.

First is a relatively new one by none other than Frederick Pohl, called The Way the Future Blogs. He describes it as a sort of continuation of, or sequel to, his 1978 autobiography, The Way the Future Was. It promises to be full of fascinating insights into science fiction (both the literature and the business) from Pohl’s many years as both author and editor. I’ve been meaning to mention this one for a while, and now I have.

The other site is a reverse discovery, meaning I found it by following back a link to someone who found and linked to this blog. And when I visited, I liked what I saw. The Great Gnome Press Science Fiction Odyssey is a classy looking site and a nice homage to science fiction, especially older science fiction, and particularly editions from an old publisher called Gnome Press, which the blogger collects. I think it’s going to be fun reading about his experiences in pursuing his collection, and his reviews of some great SF from way back when. There’s also some good information on book grading.

I hope you’ll take a look, if you haven’t already.

Wilson goes weird — Perseids doesn’t quite work for me

perseidsThis is going to be a rather short review, because I just don’t have much to say about Robert Charles Wilson’s short story collection, The Perseids and Other Stories (published in 2000). Don’t get me wrong now, Wilson is one of my favorite authors, but as much as I’d like to be able to tell you great things about this collection, I just can’t bring myself to do it. Based on this volume, it appears I’ll have to put RCW into that category of writers who write awesome novels, but whose short stories don’t do much for me (a category he shares with Vernor Vinge, as I discovered a while back).

I should try to explain my lack of enthusiasm. It’s not that this material is badly written; no, it is competent in terms of descriptions, characters, plot structure, and all the mechanical aspects of writing. Wilson is far too good a writer to fail in such an obvious manner. Where most of these stories fall short is in the ideas and concepts they are built upon, and their general atmosphere of strangeness that I just couldn’t connect with. There’s too much of a bizarre occult slant to many of them, too much magic or supernaturalism or just plain weirdness to suit me, and not enough SF of a stricter sort (the kind that provides at least some sort of rational or scientific background for what’s happening). There was also a nagging feeling of insignificance or smallness; largely absent here were what you might call Wilsonian Big Ideas — the kinds of big, bold, world-changing premises that he tackles in his novels.

One exception to that is the title story, “The Perseids,” which provides a mind-warping change of perspective on just what a human being is. Also of some interest is “The Observer,” which also involves a different perspective, this time on the universe and its expansion. This one has Edwin Hubble as one of its characters, and asks whether the universe is actually expanding, or whether we are shrinking. And “Protocols of Consumption” presents some alarming consequences of our society’s overuse of chemicals and medications. However, that’s only one-third of the collection; the rest didn’t leave much of an impression on me, or at least not a positive one.

I can understand Wilson wanting to do something different from what he does with his novels. Something smaller, more intimate if you will, with a different kind of atmosphere. I’m sorry to say it just didn’t work for me, for the most part. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, just a difference of taste between the author and this particular reader. As the saying goes, your results may vary.

Consider getting some Culture

phlebasI have decided it’s time for me to become more cultured…. umm, make that Cultured. In other words, I have embarked on a journey into the world of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, which I’ve been hearing good things about for a long time now. It’s a journey that is sure to continue since I liked this book quite a bit and there are something like six more, if I’m not mistaken. Consider Phlebas was the first installment in the series, published in 1987, and so I thought that might be an appropriate place to start. Actually, I’ve been told it doesn’t really matter what order they’re read in, as they’re only loosely connected; but I read the first one first because, hey, I like it that way. This is a big gripping space opera that manages to be both fun and thoughtful at the same time.

The protagonist of the story is Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer — a member of a shape-changing species trained in the skills of infiltration and spying. The story is set againt the background of the Idiran-Culture War, and follows Horza’s individual part in that conflict. The view we get of the Culture is filtered through Horza’s eyes, and since he’s an enemy of that society, the view is probably incomplete and somewhat biased. Horza works for the Idirans, a race of giant tripedal warriors engaged in a holy war to spread the truth of their religion. Horza sides with the Idirans against his fellow humanoids primarily because he sees the Culture’s symbiosis with its AI Minds as a perversion of nature; and while disagreeing with the Idirans’ religious motives, he sees them as being on the side of life.

On one level, the novel is unfortunately a bit too light-hearted, too adventure-driven. Horza gets himself into a series of unlikely situations that are sometimes not very realistic, and sometimes downright comical. These mostly occur while he is part of a Free Company of (take your pick) mercenaries and/or pirates and/or opportunity-seekers, led by a captain whose incompetence is almost cartoonish and frequently leads to trouble. There are some moments that are almost painful in their silliness: the reflecting laser-bolts during an ill-fated attack on a crystal temple; the landing on a sea vessel, not knowing it’s just about to strike a huge iceberg; the ignition, in a fit of rage, of a nuclear bomb that a company member just happens to carry around in his space suit; and Horza’s lucky last-minute escape from cannibals.

On another level, though, the novel is an insightful exploration of war, the reasons societies go to war, and the way individuals get caught up in the violence for their own reasons which may or may not align with those of the larger entities in conflict. Neither the Culture nor the Idirans are interested in wealth or material resources. Rather, they both fight for principles; and that, depending on your view, might be either the best or the worst reason for war. There is certainly some ambiguity in this book about the justifications for war, about who is “right” or “wrong.” This ambiguity also exists at the individual level, as both Horza and his nemesis Balveda (an agent of the Culture) have a hard time treating each other in a ruthless fashion, as true enemies, as their superiors might expect of them. They also both display a level of uncertainty about the war, about whether it’s the right thing, about whether or not it’s worth it. They both exude a sense of regret at being spent and used up in a war that ultimately may mean nothing.

Even considering the whimsical adventure scenarios, overall there was something compelling and almost irresistible about this book. The world-building was excellent, both the physical environments and the whole social and political background behind everything. The characters were vivid and complex. And there were some cool ideas throughout; as one (rather disgusting, I admit) example, I liked the concept of the sewercell, a watertight chamber in which a prisoner is executed by drowning in the bodily wastes of guests at a special execution banquet, channeled down from upper-floor restrooms. (So OK, I have a dark and twisted mind, but so does Banks, it seems.) I also liked the idea of the Planets of the Dead, which are worlds on which their inhabitants made themselves extinct, and are kept in their destroyed condition by a super-race called the Dra’Azon as grim reminders to everyone else (sort of like galactic Darwin Awards, I suppose).

Consider Phlebas could have been better, but as it stands it is still a very rewarding read, and fairly impressive as Banks’ first science fiction novel. It certainly makes me want some more Culture.