It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Template, Matthew Hughes

Template, Matthew Hughes
(2008, PS Publishing, £20, 253pp)

Comparisons between Matthew Hughes and Jack Vance are inevitable, because if any writer is a template for Hughes’ fiction then it is Vance. Hughes’ Archonate novels are set on an Earth not unlike the Dying Earth, or on the worlds of a formless galactic polity called The Spray which resembles the Alastor Cluster (in fact, hussade, from Vance’s Trullion: Alastor 2262, is mentioned in Template).

Like many of Vance’s novels, Template is a bildungsroman, and one in which the protagonist is involuntarily pitched into a quest for his true identity. Said protagonist is Conn Labro, a highly-skilled and indentured duellist on the world of Thrais. Despite his abilities, Labro is a naïf and Thrais, with its culture based on contracts and transactions, has given him poor social skills. So when a regular customer is murdered, leaves him a fortune and an encrypted bearer deed to a planet, and an attempt is made on his own life, Labro has no idea how to respond. Happily, there is a young woman at hand to help him. Labro buys out his indenture and determines to discover his origin and the location of the planet he apparently now owns. The young woman, Jenore Mordene, he “hires” as a guide.

It’s in the nature of such a story’s template that the naïf’s voyage of discovery is as much literal as it is metaphorical. Labro’s bearer deed has determined his destination, Earth, and so he must travel there. En route, he learns something of The Spray – which gives Hughes opportunity to discourse on various cultural templates for societies. For example, one character posits a theory of societies each built upon one of the seven deadly sins. Thrais, with its “transactionalism”, is of course Greed. Unfortunately, Hughes makes little of this idea, using it merely as the topic of conversation.

On Earth, Labro sees all social interactions as a form of transaction. Mordene, however, is from a region of Earth which eschews money, and sees something different. This provides some interesting repartee, but does not advance the plot as such. But it certainly sets the template for their relationship.

It’s only when Labro learns what he has inherited that the villain of the piece steps in to the story. Now the template is Gothic. Not only does the villain remain masked but, as is often the case in such fictions, there is a greater enemy hiding behind him. And this greater villain must be defeated if Labro is to win and keep knowledge of his origin, his legacy, and the girl. And yes, the book’s climax does reveal Labro’s origin. It also explains the story’s title – there is indeed a very real template in the story.

At some point reading Template, everyone is sure to ask why we need Hughes when we have Vance. And the answer is: because we can never have too much Vance. And providing it’s done with invention and wit, then it’s as enjoyable as the real thing. Happily, Hughes matches the wit and invention of Vance. He also brings slightly off-kilter philosophical musings to his stories, and they provide a depth Vance sometimes lacks. Having said that, the writing in Template is a little stilted. While clearly intentional, it’s not entirely successful. Further, Labro is somewhat stiff a character, and Mordene is under-written. Neither characteristic is unexpected – at that intersection of bildungsroman and travelogue, where both protagonist and world are mapped, there’s little room for immersion.

This review originally appeared in Interzone 218, October 2008.


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World fiction reading challenge #4: So Long A Letter, Mariama Bâ

The more observant among you will have noticed there’s no third installment in this year’s reading challenge. That’s because March’s book was My Name is Red by Orham Pamuk and I got stuck about halfway into it. At some point I plan to return to it, but for now I’m giving it a rest. I can’t really say why I lost interest so comprehensively in the book, especially since its topic is something that normally interests me: Islamic history (albeit Turkish rather than Arabic). After reading Magda Szabó’s The Door in February, I wrote, “Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done.” Clearly, I spoke too soon…

Anyway, April’s book, which I read late, is So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, a Sengalese writer. In fact, So Long a Letter won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 1980, and was later called one of Africa’s Best 100 Books of the 20th Century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. So Long A Letter was originally published in French as Une Si Longue Lettre, and was Bâ’s first novel. It was also the only one she saw in print. She died in 1981, five years before her second novel, Scarlet Song, was published.

So Long A Letter is a short book of 95 pages. Ramatoulaye is a schoolteacher and the wife of Modou. He has just died and she is now in mourning. During this period, she writes to her closest friend, Aissatou, and recounts her life – much of which involves episodes involving Aissatou. The epistolary structure allows for greater intimacy, but the fact that Ramataoulaye is telling Aissatou of events which her friend herself directly experienced does seem to spoil the effect somewhat.

Though Ramatoulaye is an educated woman – Bâ herself had to fight her parents to be educated – I’m guessing much of her life is not atypical for a Sengalese wife and mother. Such as, for instance, her husband taking up with a younger woman and marrying her – in fact, not a “woman”, but a school friend of Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter. Also, the declaration after the funeral by Modou’s brother that he will marry Ramatoulaye – ie, “inherit” her. She turns him down. Which is not typical. In fact, Ramatoulaye is adamant she will remain single now that she is widowed. When Daouda Dieng,a past suitor from before she married Modou, asks for her hand in marriage, she also turns him down. Neither the brother-in-law nor Daouda take their rejections well.

A lot of the novel concerns the family connections of the cast. Aissatou’s marriage was considered controversial because she came from a less affluent family than her husband. Likewise, when Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter wants to marry an impoverished student, friends of the family try to persuade Ramatoulaye to prevent it. Ramatoulaye, however, knows that her daughter loves the man, and that’s good enough for her.

There are one or two moments of outright racism:

Right from Form One, he had been top of his class in this subject; but this year for every capital letter forgotten, for a few commas omitted, for a misspelt word, his teacher knocks off one or two marks. Because of this, Jean-Claude, a white boy who has always come second, has moved up to first position. The teacher cannot tolerate a black coming first in philosophy. (p 76)

The story is filled with details of life among the Sengalese, both as Muslims and as Sengalese. At one point, Daouda delivers a lecture on the importance of true democracy in a newly-formed nation (Senegal gained independence in 1960), and though he rues the male dominance of the Assembly and admits they need more women in government, his suit to Ramatoulaye seems to expect a much more traditional “partnership”. There is also much about polygamy and its effect on women involved; not to mention their huge families – Ramatoulaye herself has twelve children.

So Long A Letter is, unsurprisingly, a very reflective novel, and it is likely it is partly auto-biographical. Though only a slim book, it does an excellent job of painting Ramatoulaye, her life and the society in which she lives. It’s a classic for good reason. I’m not so sure the story quite leads to the final paragraph – various incidents recounted in So Long A Letter demonstrate that Ramatoulaye has both witnessed the happiness of others, actively worked towards it for yet more, and even experienced it herself during the early days of her marriage:

The word ‘happiness’ does indeed have meaning, doesn’t it? I shall go out in search of it. Too bad for me if once again I have to write you so long a letter… (p 95)

So Long A Letter was a good choice for my reading challenge. I’m glad I read it. I might even one day have a go at Bâ’s other novel, Scarlet Song.


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Words Beyond the Veil

I don’t normally post my fiction on this blog, published or otherwise, but this one is a bit of a one-off. It’s the first death metal hard sf story ever to see print – or at least, I think it is. I’m pretty sure it’s the first to ever quote the lyrics from an album by a real death metal band – the excellent Mithras. I originally wrote it to submit to Mutation Press’s Music for Another World anthology. I’d wanted to write something incorporating my favourite genre of music for a while, and the anthology gave me the perfect opportunity. But death metal and sf doesn’t mix very well – death metal and horror, yes; in fact, that’s almost a cliché. But not sf; and especially not hard sf. Then the idea of metaphors for communication occurred to me… and I knew exactly the album whose lyrics would work in that regard. I wrote the story, emailed it to the band, and they very kindly gave me permission to use their lyrics.

Unfortunately, after all that my story didn’t make the cut for Music for Another World. So I sold it to Jupiter instead, and it was published in Jupiter XXXIII: Euanthe, July 2011.

WORDS BEYOND THE VEIL
Ian Sales

There comes a point in many death metal songs when the down-tuned guitars begin to play a simple mid-tempo riff—it’s almost a chugging noise—and the music turns… visceral. Standing there, shoulder to shoulder in a crowd, the volume near-deafening, the music seems to beat a sense of unity into those present. A single organism, at one with the music—those with their gazes fixed on the stage; those too in the maelstrom of moshers, spinning and colliding and roaring together.

Then the riff abruptly shifts into something far more complex. The time-signature alters. The drummer hammers out blastbeats at inhuman speed, and the singer attacks his lyrics in a guttural growl.

Something like that came over me as I put my gloved hands to the alien artefact’s side.

I can’t explain it. I knew I floated a hundred metres from the Orion crew module, and yet I could feel myself back at one of the many gigs I’d attended during my twenties. The memory of that concert was over-powering.

I pulled my hands away. A click sounded in my earphones, followed by a voice:

“Hey, Mike? You okay?”

It took me a moment to respond. “Fine, Val; I’m fine.” I shook my head, as if to dislodge the ghostly riff I could still hear. “Why?”

“You kind of zoned out there for a while,” she said.

“I did?” I blipped my Manned Manoeuvring Unit through ninety degrees to look at Stone, but the sun reflecting off her visor made it impossible to see her face. “For how long?”

“Nearly a minute.”

According to my Helmet-Mounted Display, everything was in the green. It wasn’t a fault in my spacesuit then, some sort of hallucination brought on by an interruption in the oxygen supply. I focused a moment on the hum of the pumps in my backpack—which both reassured me and reminded me of the spacesuit’s comforting protective embrace. As I calmed, I watched the graph of my heartbeat on the HMD slowly subside. And that, in a positive feedback loop, relaxed me further.

So I reached out again, and laid both gloves against the side of the artefact.

Once more, I felt that sense of one-ness, an alignment with, and brought on by, the pummelling assault of the musicians. After no more than a handful of bars, the tempo changed, the singer growled out his words, and the complexity of the guitar parts hinted at sense, yet still seemed to elude it…

I lifted my hands.

I knew that song. I recognised the band, and I still listened to them. In fact, I had all of their albums on my phone in the crew module. And yes, I’d seen them perform live a number of times.

I can’t explain why death metal appealed to me, or why I still listened to it. I’d imagined that as I grew older my taste in music would mellow with the years. Instead, the reverse happened. After a childhood listening to radio-friendly rock, at university I’d discovered extreme metal—black, death, doom… Death had drawn me in, and I’d been introduced to its various sub-genres: technical death, brutal death, melodic death, progressive death, death/doom…

But what did my taste in music have to do with an alien artefact found in the Kordylewski Clouds at the Earth-Moon L5 point?

###

When the artefact was first detected, everyone thought it was an alien derelict. Telescopes showed a cylinder some five hundred metres long and thirty metres in diameter, with a rough unfinished appearance. It had no visible means of propulsion, no visible anything. Spectrographic analysis hinted at exotic matter in its construction. Which was why I’d been included in the team sent to investigate it. My field was exotic physics. I was also a qualified astronaut, having spent two tours on the International Space Station performing experiments with inconclusive results.

I remember peering out one of the Orion CM’s horizon windows as we closed on the L5 point after a three-day trip from Earth, and feeling a crushing sense of disappointment. The mysterious object in the Kordylewski Clouds wasn’t an alien spacecraft. The cylinder was hollow; it was a piece of space junk. This mission wasn’t going to be humanity’s first contact with an alien species. True, the artefact’s presence implied the existence of another civilisation somewhere out there; but it seemed we would not be meeting its builders.

And who knew how old this piece of junk was? It might have been drifting through space for billions of years before being captured by the Earth-Moon L5 point.

Neubeck—Colonel Ed Neubeck, USAF; mission commander—was as disappointed as the rest of us. More so, perhaps. I could at least investigate the properties of the material from which the “space junk” was constructed. But Neubeck thought of himself as a throwback to the heady days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. He’d been a test pilot at Edwards AFB before joining NASA. As far as he was concerned, he was the living embodiment of the “Right Stuff”, and he wanted his page in the history books. It made him insufferably arrogant. Since launch, he’d been dictatorial, brooking no disagreement to his orders, and sublimely uninterested in discussion.

Admittedly, he was good at his job—more than that, he was a gifted pilot. If there was a crisis and Neubeck was in charge, you actually stood a better chance of coming out of it alive. But I didn’t like him, and the feeling was mutual.

Val Stone, the other pilot, scared me a little. She brought an unnatural, and frightening, focus to whatever she did. Often, she treated people like pieces of equipment. She also had an annoying habit of always being right—although she took her time figuring things out.

The final member of the crew, and the reason why for me the four of us didn’t qualify as “amiable strangers”, was Xiang Yu, a computer science and communications specialist from San Francisco. He and I had shared a tour on the ISS, so we knew each other. It was a “space friendship”—we didn’t mix on the ground, but in LEO we’d hung round together. Figuratively and literally.

The four of us were the first humans to leave Low Earth Orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972.

###

Stone and I returned to the CM, where Yu and Neubeck waited. We parked our MMUs in an open bay of the Service Module, and worked our way hand over hand along the cable, past the wing-like solar arrays, to the inflatable airlock. I entered the tube first, landing feet first on the inner hatch, and then pushing shut the inflated plug which served as the outer hatch. I waited patiently for the airlock to fill, while the song I’d heard ran round and round inside my head. I even found myself nodding in time to the beat—although not too much, or I’d bash my chin on the lip of my helmet.

The inner hatch swung out…

As soon as I saw Neubeck’s face, I knew Stone had spoken to him on another channel. He was furious.

I unlocked and pushed up my visor.

“You’re a goddamned flake, Ross,” Neubeck snapped.

He might be commander of the mission, but that didn’t give him the right to speak to me like that. I was a civilian, even if he wasn’t.

“Oh shut up,” I replied.

Yu quietly helped me get out of my spacesuit, undogging the rear hatch so I could squirm out.

“I didn’t know it was going to do that,” I continued as I pulled my legs from the spacesuit’s hard upper torso. “We know the bloody thing’s alien, so how can we know what it would do?”

Neubeck opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. He glowered at me. “Do what?”

I took my spacesuit from Yu, pushed it across the crew module’s interior to the storage lockers below the mission specialists’ seats. Behind me, I heard the hatch open and shut to let in Stone. Neubeck followed me to the lockers.

“What the hell are you saying, Ross?” he demanded. He had a habit of looming over people, and he did it much more effectively in zero gravity. He made sure everyone was in his shadow.

“I felt something,” I told him, as I carefully pushed my spacesuit into its coffin-like storage. “When I touched the artefact. That’s what made me trance out for a moment.”

I moved across to my personal locker, yanked open the door and began rooting around inside it.

“What are you doing?” Neubeck asked.

“Looking for my phone.” I’d put it away before getting ready for the EVA.

“The hell you are. I want to know what’s going on.”

I looked back over my shoulder at him. “I heard music, all right? And I recognised it. I need to figure out what it was.”

Yu and Val drifted across to the storage lockers. It was a bit cramped with all four of us.

“What’s this?” asked Yu. “You heard music?”

So I explained that when I’d touched the alien artefact I’d been overwhelmed with a memory of a concert I’d attended years before. I’d recognised the music and wanted to identify it. I brandished my phone, which I’d just found.

###

“Tell me more,” Yu insisted.

I described the sense of unity I’d felt, how death metal always affected me in that way and how the artefact had seemed to mimic the same sensation.

“Wow,” said Yu. “That’s so weird.”

Neubeck swore. “His mix was wrong. He hallucinated. If that’s really an alien out there, it’s not going to use some goddamn devil-worshipping rock music to communicate!”

“Death metal’s not about worshipping Satan,” I said, affronted. “That’s black metal. Well, some black metal bands.”

“You’re a grown man, Ross, and you listen to that crap?”

Grown men, I thought mulishly, didn’t follow their childhood dreams and become astronauts. The whole space industry was a glorified—and hideously expensive—adventure. And I loved every minute of it.

I knew full well that Neubeck did too.

“Look,” I said, “I think I know what the song is. Maybe that’s not a piece of space junk out there, maybe it is the alien. And it’s using music to communicate. But I want to check the lyrics, to see if the song I heard was a deliberate choice.”

Yu pulled his phone from a pocket of his constant wear garment. All our phones could access the Deep Space Network and, through that, the Web. “I’ll see if I can find the words on-line,” he said.

Neubeck and Val looked at each other. The only thing missing from their expressions was the finger twirling at their temples. Still, they were pilots, and we pencil-necks had a reputation to uphold.

I plugged my comms carrier’s cable into my phone, and scrolled through my album collection. “This is it,” I told Yu, holding up the player so he could see the artwork. I identified it for him: “Worlds Beyond the Veil by Mithras. They’re a British band.”

“I prefer stoner myself,” he said, shaking his head.

It didn’t take me long to find the stretch of music that had been running through my head since I’d touched the alien artefact. The song was called ‘Psyrens’. I tracked back and forth through it. Yu held up his phone and I read through the lyrics displayed on its screen. I pointed.

“There,” I said. “Those lines.”

On stellar waves I’ve travelled
And will so again

“What does that mean?” Yu asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. The artefact is an explorer, perhaps?”

###

“You’re making this shit up,” Neubeck accused.

He gave me a look of disgust, and then pushed himself to the pilots’ seats and the instrument panel. He went straight on the radio to Mission Control but he spoke really quietly and I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I could guess, however.

Aliens using death metal to communicate… It sounded completely insane. And, I suppose, Neubeck could well be right: I might have been making it up. How did I know it wasn’t confabulation on my part?

But the feeling of experiencing that music live had been overwhelming, more so even than I remembered from the Mithras gigs I’d attended all those years ago.

“So what do we do?” Yu asked quietly.

I shrugged—and had to put out a hand to prevent myself from drifting. “Go back out and listen a bit more,” I replied. “I don’t see what else we can do. It’s the only way we have of finding out what the artefact really is.”

“Neubeck will nix that in a heartbeat.”

“I don’t care.” And I didn’t. I wanted to hear that alien music again. I wanted to put my hand to the side of the artefact. I’d come here to learn what the artefact was, and I couldn’t do that cowering inside the crew module.

“I agree,” said Stone slowly. “We can’t know what Mike felt is real unless we repeat it.”

“You could try touching it too,” suggested Yu.

Stone shook her head. “No. Only Mike. We don’t know what’s happening here, and we shouldn’t risk more than one of us.”

“But I’m expendable, right?” I said, a little annoyed; but also perversely happy because it meant I’d be first. I’d be in the history books, not Neubeck.

“But how do we know if it’s real if no one else confirms it?” pointed out Yu.

Or perhaps I’d be in some psychiatric journal as a case-study.

###

Neubeck reluctantly agreed to a second EVA. So Stone and I suited up, exited one by one through the inflatable airlock, and jetted on our MMUs across the hundred metres of open space separating the CM from the alien artefact.

This time, I put both gloved hands to the side of the artefact. My head was immediately filled with blastbeats. I could hear the spacey sounds of a synthesiser, evoking galactic vistas, furious guitar-work suggesting the secret workings of the universe… I felt as though I was seeing, and had seen, other suns and worlds. Great towering columns of nebulae, tens of light-years high. The fractal swirls of galaxies. The leaping prominences of a star’s corona.

Accompanying those visions, I heard music of an intensity I’d never experienced before; and a sense of unity which made me an integral part of the sights and sounds to which I was being subjected.

I pulled my hands from the artefact’s side, and swore loudly.

Once I’d calmed down, I asked Stone how long I’d been out.

“About two minutes,” she said.

“What song did you hear?” asked Yu. “Could you identify it?”

I thought a moment. “‘Beyond the Eyes of Man’,” I replied. “Same band, same album.”

Moments later, the familiar sounds of the song came over my radio. It sounded flat and distant, despite the high fidelity of the comms channel, compared to what I’d just witnessed. I listened carefully until I recognised the part the alien artefact had played me.

Yu stopped the music and read out the lyrics:

“You hear my song
It enchants your souls
You are in my power
I shall take you away.”

“Wow,” he said. “That’s pretty explicit.”

“In what way?”

“It’s like a galactic siren or something,” he explained. “It entices you and then sucks you in.”

“Assuming this isn’t all in Ross’s head,” said Neubeck.

“No,” I insisted. “It’s too intense, too visceral. I suppose dreams can sometimes feel real, but this is different. There’s this amazing sense of unity, like you’re at one with the band, with the audience, with everyone who’s listening to the music. You can feel it—like the way at a gig you can feel the kicks on the bass-drum as blows propagated through the air.”

“You took too many damn drugs, Ross, when you went to see these bands,” sneered Neubeck.

“Drugs weren’t part of the scene,” I snapped. Booze had been, though. But I wasn’t drunk now.

“Describe it again,” Yu asked. “I just had an idea.”

So, as I floated there in deep space, my hands no more than a metre from the grey flank of the alien artefact, lulled by the quiet comforting hum of my backpack as it pumped air and water about my spacesuit, as I hung in the void, I tried to get across to Yu and the others what death metal meant to me, how it affected me. That sense of belonging, which was purely an artefact of the music as it was played. There was no life-style attached. If fans of the music comprised a tribe or clan, it was a loose and individualistic one and its only common factor was a love of the music. But at a gig, standing before a stage while a band played, that tribe became welded into a single organism. And with music that loud, with vocals so guttural the words were often lost, a new kind of meaning was carried in the guitar parts, in the interplay of the instruments, in the sudden changes in tempo…

I let my explanation stumble to a halt, slightly embarrassed.

“Yeah, I thought so,” Yu said. “It’s sort of like networking. That sense of oneness, that could be a handshake. You know, like it sends the music as a challenge, you accept it and respond to it, and that establishes the link. And then the tune, riff, whatever, that would be the actual content of the message packets. Because they’re alien, you can’t interpret them. It’s like your brain has found a metaphor for a communication from the alien.”

“So he’s not making it up?” asked Stone.

“The music, yeah, I think so. The artefact is communicating with him, but this is how he hears it.”

“Hey, folks,” I said. “I’m still here, you know.”

I wasn’t sure I believed Yu’s explanation. Admittedly, when you study exotic matter and the like, you’re dealing pretty much with metaphors and acts of imagination. It’s not exactly a “hands on” science. But I couldn’t decide how I felt about what Yu said, if only because it meant my brain was wired in such a way that it used death metal as a metaphor for communication.

Which was sort of scary.

###

Another laying on of hands resulted in a snippet from Worlds Beyond the Veil’s title track:

Open your eye
Awaken your senses
This I show you—now you shall see
And it will change your world forever

There was definitely a message there. Yu had been through the album’s entire libretto, and had expressed his worry at precisely what message the artefact was transmitting.

“This is pretty martial stuff, Mike,” he said, referring to the album’s concept. “It’s like a rebellion and they call on some higher being, and he sucks them all in.”

“But the bits I’m hearing seem to be about exploring,” I pointed out.

“Or joining the artefact,” added Stone.

“Joining? How?” demanded Neubeck. “The goddamn thing’s hollow. There’s nobody in there you can join.”

He had a point. If the artefact was recruiting, it couldn’t be looking for physical recruits. Not unless what we saw here at the Moon-Earth L5 point was only part of an alien spaceship—a whole spaceship. Perhaps the rest of it existed in other dimensions?

There was only one way to find out.

This time it was:

We shall embrace the sanctity
of these distant planes

The song was ‘Voices in the Void’, and the lyrics did sort of answer my question.

But if the alien ship wanted us to join its crew, how did we do so?

Where was the entrance?

###

Back aboard the crew module, I stared out of the horizon window at the artefact while in my head reverberated pounding drums, lightning-fast arpeggios, hammers and slides and pulls, the insistent growls of an invitation to travel the galaxies… I had my phone plugged into my comms-carrier and was playing the album, but it wasn’t the same. It was like looking at a photograph of a loved one who had recently died.

I have to go out again,” I said.

I could feel it calling to me. It wanted me to join it. I only had to scroll through the lyrics of Worlds Beyond the Veils to see the message:

Come to me
Children of Mother Earth

There it was, in ‘They Came and You were Silent’. I had no intention of remaining silent.

“I need to go out again,” I said.

“Not going to happen, Ross,” said Neubeck.

I looked back over my shoulder at him. He hovered at the far end of the instrument panel. Yu and Stone were across by the storage lockers. I was reminded of a photograph I’d seen years ago, taken inside the Apollo command module during one of the flights to the Moon. I forget which astronaut it had been. He had seemed a part of the machine, an integral component of the spacecraft, carefully fitted in amongst the switches and readouts and equipment. Without him, the spacecraft could not have operated; without the spacecraft, he had no function.

That was Neubeck, that was what he looked like as I gazed across the pilots’ seats towards him.

And then I knew what I had to do.

I had the hatch into the inflatable airlock pushed open before Neubeck noticed what I was doing it. I darted through and slammed it shut behind me. The outer hatch was a problem. It was an inflated plug, and air pressure within the airlock kept it sealed. It was made of Kevlar and Nomex, and to tough to pierce with a knife. Besides, I had no knife on me.

Fortunately, the atmosphere was not at sea-level pressure but at 8.5 psi. I managed to force one arm down the side of the outer hatch. It was enough to crack the seal. Air hissed out. Soon, I was gasping for breath, and the pressure was low enough for me to haul the outer hatch open.

I wasn’t wearing my spacesuit. I had about three minutes before I died. But I had to reach the alien artefact. I exhaled, emptying my lungs and directing my breath at the CM. I could feel the intense heat of the sun on my face. Rolling onto my front, I put out my hands. The moisture in my mouth, on my eyes, in my nostrils, was boiling away. My fingers and hands had swollen to twice their normal size, were turning black with burst blood vessels. I would not survive this.

I didn’t care.

My hands hit the side of the artefact.

###

The band has been playing for about ten minutes. Behind them, the backstage area is dominated by a giant holographic screen. On it, I can see, with supernatural three-dimensional clarity, a blue marble alone in the blackness of space. I know it to be my home, the home I am leaving. As I watch, that small blue planet recedes from view and disappears. Then the sun, an intense white dot, swings across the screen. It grows larger, ever larger, turning yellow, orange, red. I can see its corona, the prominences climbing up and falling, great arches of seething matter at colossal temperatures.

The alien spacecraft is leaving the Earth-Moon L5 point and falling towards the Sun for a slingshot manoeuvre. I will see the wonders of the universe on that screen, I will visit other star systems and they will be displayed up there behind the band.

The audience and I are one, brought together by the music. I feel unity and peace and expectation. The music—those inhumanly fast blastbeats, the complex guitar, the intricate bass-line, the growls of the vocalist, the abrupt changes of tempo—make me a part of something greater, an intellect vast and conjoined. A synergistic organism.

An organism of many disparate parts. I look to my left and right, and see creatures that are so strange I have no words to describe them. Aliens. Hundreds of them, hundreds of different races. And all at one with, and in, the music. A congregation of souls brought together by the band on stage, witness to the wondrous vistas displayed on the giant screen.

###

I can’t explain why death metal appeals to me, but I can explain how I knew that death was the only way to gain entry to the alien ship. It’s there in the lyrics of ‘Transcendence’, the penultimate track on the album:

The call has come to return
To leave this mortal coil
Return to the eternal
Become as one again
To remove back to spirit
I cast off these chains so binding

Ends

(All lyrics taken from the album Worlds Beyond the Veil by Mithras, and used with the kind permission of the band)


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The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling
(2009, Del Rey, $25.00, 297pp)

In 1930, Hugo Gernsback wrote, “Not only is science fiction an idea of tremendous import, but it is to be an important factor in making the world a better place to live in, through educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life which, even today, are not appreciated by the man on the street.” And yet in the decades since then, the genre has ceased to be either didactic or predictive. A science fiction may have something to say – and most certainly do – but any such conversation will most likely be about the present.

Bruce Sterling, however, is not just a science fiction writer. He has also been a “Visionary in Residence”, at both the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. He has eleven science fiction novels to his name, and five collections of short stories. He has also written non-fiction, such as Tomorrow Now and Shaping Things. His last three novels could be described as conversations with the future: in Zeitgeist, it was the commodification of entertainment product and the feral capitalism of the ex-Soviet client states; in The Zenith Angle, it was the War on Terror and ubiquitous surveillance; and now, in The Caryatids, it is the collapse of the earth’s climate, of the global economy, and of nation-states.

The Caryatids of the book’s title are the four surviving clone sisters of a group of seven created by a female Croatian warlord (what is the female equivalent of warlord? warlady? bellatrix?). Vera is a member of a recovery team on the Adriatic island of Mljet (known to the Ancient Greeks as Melita), which has suffered toxic pollution. Radmila has married into a powerful Hollywood family and is now a media star. Sonja is a medic, living and working for the Chinese in a space city in the Gobi Desert. And then there’s Biserka, who is insane.

I suspect it’s no accident there are seven clone sisters – that’s one for each continent. It’s equally telling that only four have survived. Vera is Europe – technological, non-authoritarian, looking for new ways to live. Radmila is the US – technology-backed spectacle, a self-imposed role as the guardian of the planet, and wielding capitalism as a weapon with the clinical precision of a scalpel. Sonja is Asia – undefeatable, strong, and finding a way to live that neither Europe nor the US would ever contemplate. And poor Biserka is Africa – the dark continent, forever at war with itself.

There is also an eighth clone, a man. His name is Djordje – AKA George – and he is a Viennese businessman. He has a nice Viennese hausfrau wife and dalring children. He is successful, and makes more than enough money to keep his family safe and secure. He’s not above bending laws, or ethics, when making deals. He has just started using the latest business tools and he thinks they’re wonderful. George is perhaps the world as it used to be.

And the “mother”? She is the climate disaster which created the world of The Caryatids. Once she’s done her bit, she’s hustled off to a space station in orbit, out of the way of story and history.

Each clone has her story – and The Caryatids is a story. And shown to be a story about a story in the afterword “interview” with Radmila’s daughter, Mary Montalban. There are three sections to the novel: Vera, Radmila and Sonja. An epilogue sees all four meet for the funeral of their mother. They are burying the world’s past as much as they burying their own.

The world as it is in The Caryatids is not the world we know. The climate has crashed, billions have died, and most nation-states have failed. The world is now dominated by two supra-national societies – the Dispensation and the Acquis. The Dispensation is Californian and supremely capitalist. Its members talk like the flakiest of Hollywood “business” people. The Acquis are European.

As a writer or a visionary, Sterling has never been short of ideas, and there are plenty in The Caryatids. Most of them seem extrapolated from his arguments in Tomorrow Now and Shaping Things – ubiquitous computing, and complex devices created from simple components using unsophisticated techniques. This is a “spime”-dominated future.

Conversations can change minds. They can alter opinions. When conversing about the future, wiggle-room for such changes is built-in. The Caryatids is not going to be “educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life”, but it may well prove a catalyst for conversations which will do that. Gernsback might not recognise the 21st century version of his “scientification”, but for those of us living in the 21st Century and gazing into the abyss of the future, The Caryatids provides a thought-provoking, entertaining and perhaps important roadmap for the decades ahead.

This review originally appeared, with an interview with Bruce Sterling, in Interzone 221, March-April 2009.


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Science fiction is dead, long live science fiction

You can almost set your watch by the regularity with which claims that “science fiction is dead” appear. Except, of course, that wouldn’t be a very science-fictional metaphor in these days of atomic clocks and NTP. The latest iteration of this moan appears here. Certainly it’s true that fantasy outsells category science fiction, but to also claim that “half … of what is being sold as sci-fi is actually fantasy with some sci-fi elements” is risible.

Science fiction still lives but, more than that, it has also colonised the mainstream. In the cinema, sf is the genre of choice for tentpole releases. On television, it may have a less successful track-record, but many sf series have proven popular with non-genre audiences: Dr Who and Life on Mars, for example. Literary writers have in the last decade quite happily appropriated ideas from the sf toolbox for their novels – just look at this year’s Clarke Award winner, The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. (Though Roger’s usual publisher refused to take the book because it was sf; I bet they feel like complete plonkers now.) But even this is hardly new: John Fowles did it back in 1985 with A Maggot; Lawrence Durrell did it even earlier with Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970). There are plentiful other examples.

Science fiction is changing, that much is true. But it has been doing that since Gernsback published that first issue of Amazing Stories back in 1926. For one thing, he called it “scientifiction”, which happily never caught on. The genre has undergone numerous irruptions and make-overs during the course of its ninety-year history, and the fact it is now so widespread and so varied only demonstrates its rude health.

True, we’re not living in a science-fiction world. If we were, we’d have food-pills and jet-packs, there’d be a colony on the Moon, and most people would be wearing tinfoil jumpsuits. Or something. Instead, we have a dozen tin-cans strung together in Low Earth Orbit, only robots have gone further than cislunar space, and pills invented to replace food tend to get repurposed as recreational drugs and then criminalised… On the other hand, we do have smartphones, the internet, digital cameras, cars that cost as much as the turnover of a medium-sized company, pre-cooked bacon available in supermarkets, a climate we are slowly destroying so that multinationals can continue to make profits greater than most nations’ GDPs, and television shows more fatuous than anything George Orwell at his most cynical could ever have imagined.

The problem is that the dreams of science fiction from past decades have proven either unachievable or unsustainable. Is it any wonder then that the genre has turned increasingly escapist? This doesn’t make it fantasy, by any stretch of the, er, imagination; it does mean, however, that sf is no longer predicated on dreams of a better tomorrow created by science and engineering. Genre writers now – and those literary writers who dabble in genre – are putting the tools of science fiction to other uses.

Samuel Delany once said that one of the beauties of sf was that it could literalise metaphors. The example he used was “her world exploded”. You won’t find much in the way of metaphors in sf of the 1950s and earlier. Those so-called classic stories are pretty much straight up and straight down. WYSIWYG. But that doesn’t work anymore. What was designed to be plausible has become implausible. Such optimism in scientific solutions is now unconvincing. We know that science is only a tool, and not always used with the best intentions. “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, so to speak. We also know that even the laws of nature are apparently open to interpretation when there’s enough money involved.

I admit I am fascinated by the optimism inherent in science and engineering of past decades. That’s why I put up my irregular The future we used to have posts. I’ve explored that optimism in some of my own fiction – Adrift on the Sea of Rains is perhaps the best example so far. I am fascinated by the achievements made using raw engineering in the twentieth century: putting twelve men on the Moon, sending two men to the deepest part of the ocean in a steel ball, the numerous attempts to go faster and faster in wheeled vehicles or boats…

The one thing science fiction initially refused to acknowledge, and which we’re only belatedly beginning to accept, is that there is no escape. The universe is too vast and too inimical. We can only populate it using our imaginations. The fact that sf now uses more and more imaginative and fantastical inventions to do so doesn’t invalidate the genre. Sf may not reflect the real world as often as it should, but by ignoring the limitations placed on us in the real world the genre is responding to those limitations. Sf hasn’t forgotten the science, it’s just finding different ways to incorporate it into its stories.


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Whippleshield on the web

Well, the website for Whippleshield Books has now gone live and can be found here. I’ll be tweaking the design for a while yet, but at least now the books are available to buy. PayPal only at the moment, I’m afraid, but hopefully that may change.

You’ll notice there’s a section of the website selling secondhand books. I only have a couple of titles up at the moment, but more will appear during the next few weeks. I have several boxes’ worth of first edition genre novels I no longer want, so I’ll be selling them through the website. Some of them are even signed.

And then there’s the “submission guidelines”… Yes, Whippleshield Books is open to submissions. But of a very specific type of science fiction. Of a specific length. And I only plan to publish a very small handful of books a year. I wrote in the introduction to Rocket Science:

But if there’s one truism about editing a themed anthology, it’s this: the story you have in your head which perfectly illustrates your theme… you will never be sent that story.

… but I live in hope that Whippleshield Books will be sent exactly the sort of sf novellas I have in my head – and I don’t just mean those written by myself. And if some of them – say it quietly – are not even really science fiction as such, I won’t be especially bothered. I guess we’ll just have to see what gets submitted…


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Looking backwards to the future

Science fiction is an American mode of fiction. It was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for technology which prevailed in the electronics and mechanics magazines of the US during the 1920s. A prosperous future was imprinted on every page as new devices, new inventions, new scientific breakthroughs improved the standard of living of the USA’s technophilic middle class. It was the beginning of the age of the mod con, better living through engineering. The centre could not only hold, it was invulnerable. Even from internal threats. External enemies were defeated by technological mastery (and overwhelming force).

The American Dream was the only desirable and sustainable narrative of the future.

Even then, sf’s visions were problematical. The hopes and aspirations of these Americans, the mores and sensibilities of the US middle class, provided the culture in which sf blossomed and grew. Achievements were embodied in those who were first, not in those behind the scenes who made it possible. Neil Armstrong conquered the Moon, not NASA. Indeed, NASA was seen as a brake on the exploitation of space – private industry was the best vehicle for progress. And it was powered by the most powerful engine of all: the profit motive. Profit led to riches which provided the freedom to self-actualise – and so profit came to trump all other considerations. Riches became an end, not just a means to an end. Since governments curbed such headlong growth in the name of society and not individuals, they were characterised as obstacles. Humanity – well, man – could not reach his true destiny unless his growth were unfettered.

And yet…

Progress should lead to a world which is fairer and more just. The futures we narrate should reflect this. If we look back at the history of our world, we see a clear, if somewhat irregular, progression toward a more moral and socially-improved present day. So why should we base our visions of the future on the sensibilities of the past? Why should we embody in our science fictions the aspirations of a generation ninety years ago? Their present is not our present. Some of their dreams have already been achieved, some have already been discarded as unattainable, some of them have been determined to be undesirable.

These are not thought-experiments, stories in which the world itself provides some object lesson to those unable to look up from the page. These are action-adventure stories set on alien worlds, in galactic empires, in corporate-dominated futures, in urban wastelands and plutocratic societies. And in every one, many of those freedoms and rights painfully won over the past 250,000 years have been reversed to give us… Sexism. Racism. Slavery. Endemic violence. Brutish behaviour. Rape.

Of course, science fiction is the fiction of the privileged. It’s the culture of the privileged displaying their mandate in the most naked form imaginable. Only in this way can civilisation be wrested from savagery – or so their carefully-doctored history books tell them. They have the right to kill and maim and rape and impoverish those who do not accept their dominion because they will better off for it… whether they want to be or not.

This dominion extends into the realms of the imagination, into the worlds of the yet-to-be and the never-to-be. New science leads to new forms of life and, almost universally in sf, such new people are treated as non-people, as slaves, as property. Though our science fictions demand we present them as human as ourselves, their origins tell them against them. New science leads to new scientific bigotry.

Even worse, it’s not just these new people we have invented whom sf mistreats. Women are often no better off in sciencce fictions than they were during the genre’s golden age. Other cultures are blithely ignored, or pillaged in a quest for the “exotic”. Invented worlds are always monocultural – and that culture is the culture in which sf was born and grew to squalling infanthood. But then sf is designed to explore the desires and concerns of this culture. The only Others who appear are either aliens or enemies. Foreigners need not apply.

Too many of us refuse to look too closely. We are blinded by the wonder, our gaze is captured by the shiny toys. We privilege the “idea” and forget it is only one aspect of the stories we tell. We allow our assumptions and preconceptions and prejudices to validate our fictional futures. We forget to challenge. We want our future to be comfortable for us to visit, even if it is a dystopia. So we populate it with things we will unthinkingly accept, and never question its likelihood, its rigour, its plausibility, or the effects it might have on others.

Were such Randian technowank fantasies what Hugo Gernsback had in mind when he first published Amazing Stories?

I keep on finding myself circling around a pair of genre movements from recent years: Mundane SF and Optimistic SF. I was a fan of neither when they originally appeared. They seemed unnecessary restrictions – in fact, Mundane SF felt like it was throwing out of sf all the best toys. But when genre becomes defined by its toys, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate their usefulness.

And what should we replace those toys with?

The real world of the twenty-first century, of course.


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the future we used to have, part 9

I want a time machine so I can go back to the 1960s and then go forward to the future they thought they were going to have. You know, the one with moon bases, jumpsuits, jetpacks, foodpills; where capitalism actually worked and everyone was happy and prosperous; and the only thing spoiling the clear blue skies were the sonic booms of supersonic bombers and airliners crossing the Atlantic in two hours…

Until someone actually invents that time machine, feast your eyes on these:

Aeroplanes

Convair XB-46

Artwork of the Convair XB-42

Convair XB-43 (a jet-powered version of the XB-42)

Buildings

Kamzík TV Tower, Bratislava

Kamzík TV Tower, Bratislava

Slovak Broadcast Building, Bratislava

The Memorial and Museum of the Slovak National Uprising, Bratislava

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Niterói (Oscar Niemeyer)

Liberty Pantheon, Brasilia (Oscar Niemeyer)

Fashion

In the future, everyone will wear beige (Space: 1999)

In the future, everyone will wear string vests (UFO)

In the future, everyone will dress like humbugs (Pierre Cardin)

In the future, everyone will wear black– no, wait… (Raumpatrouille Orion)

In the future, everyone will wear high-heeled waders (Pierre Cardin)


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A mountain of words

It’s been a while since my last book haul post – two months, in fact – which goes some way to explaining the number of books which appear in this one. Someone needs to put more hours in the day so I can actually get around to reading some of them…

This year, of course, is the Durrell Centenary. So I’ll be rereading The Alexandria Quartet at some point, and I thought I’d buy myself the new paperback edition so I could do so. The CD is a collection of poetry readings, interviews and, er, Durrell singing.

Ballard is not a young man’s writer – not enough shit gets blown up, for a start; and then there’s that cynicism – so while I’ve read many of his stories and books over the years it’s only in the past few I’ve come to really appreciate his fiction. As a result, I’ve been building up a small paperback collection of his books – and they are attractively packaged paperbacks, these 4th Estate ones.

I am not, it has to be said, a particularly big fan of all the titles that have appeared in the SF Masterworks series, and most people don’t spend money on books they know they don’t especially like… but… they make a set. They’re packaged to look the same – or they were until they revamped the entire series. And some of them really are genre classics: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, certainly; and much as I loathe Harlan Ellison and his works, I have to admit Dangerous Visions was an important anthology.

From my trawls through various charity shops some books from the would-like-to-read list. I’ve been working my way through Litt’s alphabetical oeuvre, though none have especially impressed me so far. McCarthy should only be read when you’re feeling unaccountably cheerful and would like to torpedo your good mood. The Satanic Verses is infamous, but I’ve never read it. The Mailer was a swap from readitswapit.co.uk, and I’m  not sure why I bought The Apple.

So Long A Letter is May’s book for this year’s reading challenge (see here). Cyclonopedia has been repeatedly recommended by Jonathan McAlmont, and Berit Ellingsen is one of the contributors to Rocket Science (plus, the cover art of The Empty City is the National Congress building in Brasilia – see later).

A pair of 2012 hardbacks: I pre-ordered Ison of the Isles as I was so impressed with its preceding volume, Isles of the Forsaken (see here). And Stonemouth is Banks. Enough said.

The Steerswoman’s Road is an omnibus of The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret. I’ve read the first, but not the second. The other three books are ones I want to read. Palimpsest was a charity shop find, The Godless Boys was from Richard Palmer in payment for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and The Dervish House was from an unmentionable and unmentionably large online book retailer.

Three genre titles for the collection – both Remaking History and Moon Dogs are signed (and those two authors pretty much describe the two endpoints of the type of sf I like best). The Ice Monkey is really hard to find in hardback but I lucked out.

I collect first editions by Anthony Burgess, and I’m interested in the works of DH Lawrence, so Flame into Being neatly covers two of my literary interests. The Nylon Pirates is one of Nicholas Monsarrat’s potboilers – he managed to write potboilers and literary fiction with equal facility if somewhat variable results. A Division of the Spoils is the third book of the Raj Quartet, and Disguise for a Dead Gentleman is DG Compton in his initial guise as a crime writer. I expect good condition first editions of those early “Guy Compton” books are extremely difficult to find, so this tatty one will have to do.

I spotted mention of these chapbooks by Michael Swanwick from Dragonstairs Press somewhere and decided to take a punt on them.

If I ever visit Brazil, it won’t be for the carnival, the beaches, the cocktails, the culture… it’ll be to see the buildings in Brasilia. I love the fact that even unfinished, or badly weathered, they still embody the optimistic future past decades imagined we’d all share. The man chiefly responsible, of course, was Oscar Niemeyer. Eastmodern is more Warsaw Pact architecture, a collection of photographs of modernist buildings in Slovakia, and some of them really are quite skiffy.

The giant book on ekranoplans was research for a story, honest. Or it will be when I’ve thought of an idea for story which has ekranoplans in it. Well, I managed it for flying boats (see here), so anything’s possible. Besides, if Sebastian Faulks can include one in his 007 novel Devil May Care, why shouldn’t I? Marswalk One is one of several Mars book I now own and which I will use as research while writing the second book of the Apollo Quartet (I got it very cheap on eBay). Dark Moon is one of those fake Moon landing nutjob books, and I thought it might prove entertaining. The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning is also research for Apollo Quartet book 2.

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