It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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This Blog and Books…

When I started this blog back in November 2006, it was never intended to be a review blog. I still don’t plan for it to become one. I already review books for Interzone, and I’ve no desire to write a review of every book I read.

But. I have posted book reviews here. There are my annual reading challenges, of course. Others are of books I really like, or books I think are important. One or two have been reviews I wrote years ago, and I’ve posted them here because I thought people might like to read them. I might dig out some more of them.

And I’ll continue to do that. I’m currently working on a post on Gwyneth Jones’ latest novel, Spirit; or the Princess of Bois Dormant. Next month I’m going to work my way through L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, and I’ll be writing about those – a single post on all five books, rather than one per book, I think. I’d like to do the same for Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos Archives, but that’ll have to wait until much later in the year.

Christopher Evans’ Omega will likely be worth a post, as will Lewis Shiner’s Black & White. Then there’s Lawrence Durrell’s second novel, Panic Spring, originally published under the name Charles Norden. And, from the sublime to the, er, slightly ridiculous, there’s Child of Earth by EC Tubb, the recently published 33rd and perhaps final book in the long-running Dumarest Saga.

I’d also like to write about the Beacon Books I’ve managed to collect – but I read during my commute to work and, given their cover art, I’d be too embarrassed to read them on the tram. But we’ll see.

And, of course, whatever other books I read which inspire to me write something about them.

As a reminder, here are the books I’ve written about on this blog to date, in alphabetical order by author. It doesn’t include my annual reading challenge posts. Click on the title to go to the review.


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Here’s An Interesting Idea…

When mismanagement by the chief executive officer of a public limited company results in that company losing billions of Pounds Sterling, how about not rewarding him* for his years of service?

Fire him. Don’t give him his benefits. And since he’s quite clearly incompetent, don’t give him a consultancy clause. Other companies should steer clear of him too, unless they want their company to make a massive loss.

I’m boggled that we might need to make laws to ensure this. Surely it’s common sense? Oh wait. Early in his career, a public auditor suggested Robert Maxwell should never be put in charge of a public limited company again. No one listened. And look what happened. So maybe we do need laws then.

Welcome to the 21st Century, where we need laws to protect us from terrorists… and the rich.

(* or her, of course)


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From Page to Screen

There has been some discussion of late in the blogosphere about film adaptations of science fiction novels. Everyone has a favourite they’d like to see on the silver screen, but it’s a process that usually results in failures. After all, how many good, faithful film adaptations of sf novels are there?

David Lynch’s version of Frank Herbert’s Dune was a bit of a mess. Stanisław Lem wasn’t happy with Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of his Solaris. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner doesn’t actually bear much resemblance to Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?. There are notable differences between François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – not that Truffaut’s film was all that successful. And Paul Verhoeven deservedly took the piss out of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, although that didn’t go down too well with many sf fans (myself not included).

And those are films I happen to think are very good.

The quality of the original novel is almost immaterial to the quality of the film adaptation. Yes, a good novel can make a good film, such as A Clockwork Orange. But even a dull novel can make a good film, like The Children of Men.

If there’s one common factor to successful adaptations, it’s that they take great liberties with their source texts. Faithfulness simply doesn’t work. Which makes you wonder why anyone would want to see their favourite sf novel on the silver screen. Because the end result won’t bear much resemblance to the book. I like David Cronenberg’s films of JG Ballard’s Crash and William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – both “unfilmable” novels – but they’re more like addenda to the novels than adaptations of them.

So when people put forward sf novels they think will make good films – as io9 has done here – it’s axiomatic that most choices won’t make the transition unchanged. Or appear in any form much resembling the source text. It’s not just the size of the story; a 600-page novel can’t be squeezed into 120 minutes. It’s also the structure. Films have three acts – it’s the ruling story paradigm in Hollywood. A novel’s story has to be twisted and bent to fit this. A movie also demands a romantic subplot. And clear character arcs – very clear character arcs, because there’s not going to be much room for deep characterisation. The story also has to have strong narrative impetus, because it needs to keep bums on seats.

With these factors in mind, here is my list, in no particular order, of five science fiction novels which I think will make entertaining films.

Ringworld, Larry Niven
The setting itself is impressive enough. The sheer scale of the ringworld will keep people watching. But there’s also a very simple story buried in the novel, and it lends itself well to adaptation: Louis Wu and his comrades crash on the ringworld, and then they manage to escape. This can easily be slimmed down to 120 minutes. Throw in the romantic subplot between Louis and Teela Brown, and you have perfect adaptation material.

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
This novel is essentially The Count of Monte Cristo in space, and they’ve made plenty of film adaptations of Dumas’ book. It has everything you need for a good movie – an arresting opening sequence (Gully Foyle left to die on a wrecked spaceship), Gully Foyle’s character arc, arresting visuals (the burning man), and romance (Foyle and Olivia Presteign).

The Undercover Aliens, AE van Vogt
This is one of my favourite novels, and one of the reasons I like it so much is because it has such great cinematic potential. It’s certainly not one of van Vogt’s best novels. It’s an appealing mix of California noir and pulp sf, although the plot is just plain silly. A small town lawyer, Allison Stephens, stumbles across a conspiracy run by a group of people centred around the big house owned by the family which founded the town. These people turn out to be immortals – a gift from a robot ship which has beeen buried beneath the house for millennia. Stephens’ first introduction to the group is via the beautiful Mistra Lanett – so there’s your romantic subplot. Throw in a penthouse apartment which turns into a spaceship and the mystery surrounding the identity of the late family patriarch’s nephew, and you have perfect film fodder…

The Santaroga Barrier, Frank Herbert
Like The Undercover Aliens, this is another sf novel set in a small town in which all is not as it appears. In this case, a psychologist is sent to Santaroga to find out why its inhabitants appear to be immune to marketing and advertising. There’s the conspiracy running the town to unravel, several attempts are made to kill the hero, and he runs across an old flame and rekindles their romance. No great visuals, perhaps, but then there weren’t any in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Equator, Brian Aldiss
This is essentially a spy story tricked out as science fiction. It opens with a secret raid on an alien base on the Moon, but ends in the jungles of Malaysia. The opening alone should keep the audience glued to their seats. But when the raid goes wrong, and the hero has to figure out what happened… There is, of course, a romantic subplot. The aliens are humanoid, but different enough to stand out; and the final scene takes place at an enormous automated pumping station. It’s also a short novel, so there’s no need to leave great swathes of the story on the cutting-room floor.

Looking at the books I’ve chosen probably says quite a bit about the sort of films I like. None of the above require huge amounts of special effects. But then films dominated by special effects often suffer in other areas. Like story. And acting. And direction.

Yes, there are many spectacular scenes and/or artefacts from sf novels I’d like to see on the silver screen. But. Either the stories would lose so much in adaptation I see little point in trying. Or there’s not enough story there in the first place. I’d love to see the eponymous alien artefact in Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, but there’s no real story in the novel. A team explores Rama. They fail to discover who built it. Or why. Rama leaves the Solar system. The End. If Rendezvous With Rama ever does appear in the cinema, that story won’t survive the transition. At least the five novels I’ve chosen above stand some chance of being faithfully adapted. Mostly.


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Guessing Games

Niall Harrison on Torque Control has posted the long list for this year’s Arthur C Clark Award. It’s the first time they’ve done this. I think it’s a good idea.

I’m not going to repeat the list, nor am I going to turn it into one of those “memes” – you know the sort, the titles you’ve read in bold, those on the TBR pile in italics. I will point out that, of the list, I’ve read Matter, Iain Banks (blogged about it here); Kéthani, Eric Brown; Template, Matthew Hughes (reviewed it for Interzone 218); The Night Sessions, Ken MacLeod (blogged about it here); Debatable Space, Philip Palmer; and House of Suns Alastair Reynolds. Sitting on my book shelves and waiting to be read are The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness; Going Under, Justina Robson; Halting State, Charles Stross; Necropath, Eric Brown; and Omega, Christopher Evans.

What I thought might prove an interesting exercise would be to try and predict the short list. That’s six from the forty-six on the long list. And here are my guesses…

I’ve not chosen these titles because they’re the ones that would make my own personal short list. I’ve picked them because they’re the ones I think the judges will choose – based on reviews I’ve read of the books, comments on various blogs and sites, my general feeling of each book’s reception, and previous short lists for the Arthur C Clarke Award.

We’ll find out how close I was in about a month’s time…

EDIT: by “long list”, I mean the list of books submitted by the publishers for consideration. These are not novels the Award jury has chosen.


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2009 Reading Challenge #2 – Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C Clarke

There’s a fitting synchronicity to my choice of Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke as the second book of my 2009 Reading Challenge. Like Larry Niven’s Ringworld, it is a book that’s dominated by a Big Dumb Object. It also won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, and is in the SF Masterworks series. So, another highly-regarded science fiction novel. In fact, it’s probably considered Clarke’s best novel, and he’s one of the “Big Three” of the genre, with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

The plot of Rendezvous With Rama is not complicated. In 2131 AD, an object – named Rama by Spaceguard – is detected entering the Solar system. It is determined to be artificial, and the nearest spaceship is sent to investigate. The crew of Endeavour discover that Rama is an alien artefact, a cylinder fifty kilometres long and sixteen kilometres in diameter. Its interior is hollow, and it is roatating fast enough to provide gravity on its inside surface. Endeavour‘s crew explores Rama as it travels through the inner Solar system towards the Sun. They find no clues to its makers or origin. In fact, it is deserted but for a wide variety of “biots”, or biological machines. Eventually, the explorers abandon Rama, and the artefact uses the Sun to boost itself on a path out of the Solar system. End of story.

In other words, very little actually happens in the book. There is no explanation, no resolution. Rama is presented as a puzzle, but there is no solution. It is alien.

Rendezvous With Rama is a strange book in many ways. Not just the complete lack of narrative closure, or the way it resolutely fails to answer the questions it poses. It is also a book which has aged both gracefully and badly.

The framing narrative, which introduces the world of the future and then describes the deliberations of the committee overseeing the exploration of Rama, reads as though it’s taking place in the 1950s. Even in 1972, it must have seem dated. In 2009, of course, it reads even more out-of-date: for example, “when he was able to get computer time to process the results” (page 14). In 1972, perhaps, when mainframes were prevalent, this might have seemed plausible. But the novel is set in 2131. One hundred and fifty nine years later. One hundred and twenty-two years in our future.

The main narrative details the exploration by Commander Norton, captain of Endeavour, and his crew. The emphasis is on Rama itself, which helps distance the novel from its time of writing. The characters are also so bland they could be from any age. Admittedly, it’s also very Anglophonic Americo- and Euro-centric – far more so than any vision of the future written now would be. But their concerns are immediate, direct and almost entirely related to the story, so nothing especially jars.

However, like Ringworld, Rendezvous With Rama is over-shadowed by its eponymous BDO. It’s Rama that stays with you. There’s not much in the way of plot, anyway. And the characters aren’t remotely memorable.

But.

Should a science fiction novel be remembered for its furniture or for its story? Both Ringworld and Rendezvous With Rama have been lauded, and are held in high esteem, for the invented artefacts their casts discover and/or explore. Not for their story, or their writing, or indeed any of their characters. It’s little wonder the genre is held in low regard, when the fans themselves apply such reductive appreciation to the works they deem “classics”. After all, Dickens’ Great Expectations is not notable for Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion.

Rendezvous With Rama is an odd book. There’s a timelessness to its story, but its narrative firmly dates it. Its refusal to explain itself makes it more interesting than, by rights, it actually should be. If science fiction were only about “sense of wonder”, then Rendezvous With Rama succeeds as a science fiction novel. But it has not aged as gracefully as memory might insist it has. It’s the product of an imagined world, which in turn created imaginary worlds, which never really existed. And that tells against it.

In the final analysis, Rendezvous With Rama is, I suppose, another partial success. I’m glad I reread it. I may do so again one day. While it’s certainly not a very good novel, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a good science fiction novel and if “good science fiction novel” means it doesn’t have to be a “good novel”…


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Gods and Robots – The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

According to John Clute, every science fiction novel has three dates: the date it was written, the date it is set, and the date it is about. For all that it may be set in the future millennia hence, the best time to read a science fiction novel is in its year of publication. And if the novel is set in the near-future, this is even more true. After all, the near-future is seen as an extension of the present, with the present’s issues and concerns…

All of which may well have a sell-by date.

So, a decade or two from now, will we look back at the rise of creationism as some bizarre atavistic aberration? Will we look back in relief at our narrow escape from religious domination? Or will we, as Ken MacLeod posits in The Night Sessions, go to war and in the aftermath completely secularise society?

The Night Sessions is a near-future sf novel masquerading as a crime novel, much as The Execution Channel was a near-future sf novel masquerading as a thriller. It’s set in Edinburgh a decade or two in the future. The world differs from ours – and perhaps what ours might be – in several ways. There was a war, the “Faith War”, fought in Israel with tactical nuclear weapons, and the forces of the West lost. Society has turned its back on organised religion and everywhere is now entirely secular. By law. Churches and priests are no longer officially recognised. There are also robots, and some of them have developed artificial intelligence.

The novel opens with a fundamentalist Christian from New Zealand visiting Edinburgh to meet with the members of an underground Scottish Christian sect. The fundamentalist works in a “creationist science park” in New Zealand which has become a refuge for sentient robots. He has been preaching to the robots, and the Scots intend to broadcast his sermons to their own congregation. These are the night sessions of the title.

The story proper begins with the murder of a priest by a letter bomb. Detective Inspector Ferguson is in charge of the case. Clues suggest an underground Christian group, the Third Covenant, are responsible. Then a bishop is assassinated by a shot to the head. Ferguson’s investigation soon focuses on a robot called Hardcastle, who has been masquerading as a disfigured war veteran with extensive prostheses. And from there it cascades to take in a host of other Christian denominations, various youth subcultures in Edinburgh, more robots, and the Atlantic and Pacific Space Elevators…

Unfortunately, as a crime novel The Night Sessions mostly fails. Fortunately, as a science fiction novel it mostly succeeds. The problem is that the world of the book requires explanation – it’s neither the reader’s world, nor part of the reader’s history. The story requires its background – it cannot progress, nor be resolved, without those background details MacLeod has created. Which means that the crime novel is frequently interrupted by info-dumps. And because this is a crime novel, they seem horribly out of place. The Night Sessions asks to be read as a crime novel, but it cannot be because it is as exposition-heavy as the science fiction novel it really is.

As science fiction, however… The world MacLeod has created is both clever and interesting, but the requirements of the crime plot have led to a withholding of story information – something not normally found in science fiction. Science fiction novels are open – they lay bare their workings as they progress. The reader can see the rods and gears which drive the plot. And has to in order for the resolution to make sense (not doing so can result in the sin of deus ex machina). A crime novel, however, operates with a different mechanism, and part of the reading process involves the reader’s discovery of those rods, gears and linkages. The reader must build the mechanism in their mind in order to understand the book’s resolution.

Where The Night Sessions is especially good is in its depiction of life in this near-future Edinburgh, and in the tools used by the police of the time. As a near-future novel it convinces, and there’s an impressive inevitability, given MacLeod’s invented history, to the society depicted. Which makes it seem such a shame that Ferguson’s investigation seem to be mostly driven by authorial sleight of hand. Science fiction is essentially a logical genre – all sf stories follow an underlying logic. The same is true of crime stories. There’s a similar implacability to the end of a crime novel as there is to the end of sf novel. But in the crime genre there are no shortcuts on the route there. Ferguson seems to stumble upon the conspiracy at the heart of The Night Sessions more by serendipity than by methodical police-work (he has a number of neat tools, and they do help, however). This is not helped by the Columbo-style prologue. This names the villains of the piece, and means we must watch Ferguson and his team stumble through the clues to reach a destination we already know. Except that destination is a blind – because The Night Sessions is actually more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit, and the real why remains hidden for much of the narrative.

Because The Night Sessions is a crime novel, the resolution of the plot should be the identity of the murder and their motivation. Because The Night Sessions is a science fiction novel, that is not enough. The motivation for the crimes has to be science-fictional. And it is. But again not quite enough. Like The Execution Channel, the final plot-zinger in The Night Sessions happens off-screen – it is in fact recounted by one character to another.

The Night Sessions is one of the novels shortlisted for this year’s BSFA Award. It’s certainly one of the most interesting depictions of the near-future I’ve come across in science fiction. But I don’t think the engine of its plot is geared correctly to the wheels of its story. I also suspect it appears too prophetic to read well a decade from now. Its concerns are too specific – unlike, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four – and it’s not pure enough science fiction to weather the years. Read it now and it’s very good. Read it five years from now…?

Ken MacLeod writes bloody good science fiction novels, but we’ve yet to see his best.


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Dumb Idea of the Week

Various genre magazines are suffering in these credit-crunched times – Realms of Fantasy has ceased publication, F&SF has gone bimonthly, and both Asimov’s and Analog have reduced page counts. It looks very gloomy…

There have been several calls for action, but the dumbest solution to this situation I’ve heard so far is this one:

“Maybe what’s needed is for the genre to get down to one magazine. Refocus the field of science fiction. And since the magazine publishing and distribution industry is so screwed, maybe the short story market should move to a different format. I’d suggest a trade or mass market paperback series published quarterly to start with edited by team of editors to get the very best and diverse kind of story.”

Right.

If you search for science fiction markets on Duotrope, a writers’ resource web site, you get 342 hits – ranging from the professional magazines, such as the aforementioned Analog and F&SF, to the amateur online zines which don’t pay contributors. For a reader, there’s a wide range of fiction of varying quality available there. For a writer, there’s ample opportunity to get into print.

But James Wallace Harris thinks we should chuck all that. Instead, the only outlet for science fiction short stories should be a single quarterly paperback anthology. About 100 published stories a year, then. It’ll make picking a shortlist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards easier. That’s about the only good thing I can say for the plan. But it will also make it impossible for anyone except an established name to get a story into print.

It will kill science fiction.

The genre needs a constant input of new talent. That’s how it grows and evolves. Choke off that talent, and science fiction will stagnate and die. There’ll be no books by new writers, just more tired old crap by the old guard. And when they’re gone it’ll be… reprint after reprint after reprint. The sf shelves of your local book shop will start to resemble the Penguin Classics shelves – full of multiple editions of the same canon of books by long-dead authors.

So what if a few magazines go to the wall? It’s happened before, and it’ll no doubt happen again.

And science fiction is still here, still growing and still evolving.

I have to wonder if the same can be said for some of its fans…

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