It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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May book haul

Not too many this month, so I appear to be getting my habit a little under control. More work still needed, however. On the plus-side, it’s getting harder to find irresistible bargains on eBay; on the other hand, it’s getting easier to find obscure books that look interesting…

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Three first editions. Amritvela is actually signed and was a couple of quid on eBay. It’s not sf, but I need to read more world fiction anyway. The Zanzibar Cat is Russ’s first collection. Arabian Nights and Days was given me by my mother. I’ve read several books by Mahfouz, and I have a couple more on the TBR. But I’ve yet to read his Cairo trilogy, as the only copies I have of it are in Arabic. That’s a project for one year – get my Arabic up to scratch so I can read them…

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The Novel To-day was a lucky (and cheap) find on eBay. It goes in the Anthony Burgess collection. Exploring the Deep was also from eBay (and also cheap), and is a pretty good overview of its topic. Useful research material, should I ever decide to write some hyperbaric sf…

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A pair of Tor doubles – No 12 He Who Shapes/The Infinity Box by Roger Zelazny and Kate Wilhelm, and No 15 The Last Castle/Nightwings by Jack Vance and Robert Silverberg. I started collecting these after a bunch of them appeared in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi, and over the years I’ve managed to find 28 of the 36 Tor published. Some of them are quite good, but many are rubbish. The Invincible is more Lem. The Leopard and My Struggle 1: A Death in the Family were bought as a birthday present.

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For The Women’s Press sf collection – Across The Acheron I found on eBay, but Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, Women as Demons, A Door into Ocean, The Judas Rose and The New Gulliver were all from Brian Ameringen at Porcupine Books.  I recently updated the list of The Women’s Press sf titles on the SF Mistressworks site – see here.


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2014 reading diary, #6

Despite the number of books I read, I don’t think I’m putting much of a dent in the TBR. I must stop buying books for a month or two. Of course, that means publishers must instantly stop publishing books I want, and booksellers must remove all the books I might desire from their shelves… Then I should be able to do it.

ride-with-the-devilRide with the Devil, Daniel Woodrell (1987) Originally published as Woe to Live on but retitled when a film adaptation was made, this is Woodrell doing McCarthy. The narrator is a German immigrant (referred to, of course, as ‘Dutch’ or ‘Dutchy’) and a member of Confederate band of irregulars. They’re bandits in all but name, displaying little or no military discipline, wearing patchwork uniforms (and often masquerading as Union soldiers in stolen uniforms). They are brutal, not particularly smart, callous, and appear to be motivated chiefly by revenge against the depredations of the Jayhawkers. One of their number is black, but he’s not a slave - he and the narrator, Roeder, become good friends, in fact – which does sort of confuse the whole issue of the war. After an attack by Union cavalry, the troop scatter and Roeder, the black guy, and two others hide out on the land of a sympathetic Southern gentleman landowner. One of the other two, Roeder’s best friend, enters into a relationship with the landowner’s widowed daughter-in-law. Soon after, the troop reconvenes and stages a raid on the home town of the Jayhawkers. By this point, Roeder has lost his taste for violence, and has belatedly recognised that his fellows are far from noble freedom fighters but violent psychopaths. I really liked Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, but this felt too much like McCarthy-lite. I’ll keep an eye open for more books by Woodrell, but if I’d read this one first I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

diverDiver, Tony Groom (2007) I think I was a little hungover – or rather, I was feeling insufficiently motivated to do much of anything – when I picked this book off the shelf for a bit of light reading. It proved a good choice, at least initially. The first few chapters, describing Groom’s training and early years with the Royal Navy, are very funny. He signed up determined to become a diver, made it through all the courses, got into a bit of trouble on his first posting to a minesweeper, was then sent to Tuvalu to help clear WWII mines from the waters around the atoll… before flying out to the Falklands as part of the UK task-force. The chapters on the Falklands War are quite harrowing. The Fleet Clearance Diving Team was in the thick of it, defusing bombs that had fallen on British ships but not exploded (pretty much all of the bombs were British-made, incidentally). After leaving the Royal Navy, Groom became a commercial diver in the oil industry, saturation diving in the North Sea. He makes it clear quite how dangerous an occupation it is – not just because of explosive decompression, but also because the divers are dependent on so many other people. They’re trapped inside their decompression chambers, and should the ship or barge suffer some sort of calamity there’s no escape for them. And on the sea floor, they’re totally dependent on their umbilical – though they carry ten minutes of emergency “bail-out” heliox, the umbilical also pumps hot water into their suit and should that fail they’d soon develop hypothermia. Groom has a readable chatty style, and cheerfully admits at times he may have got some of the details wrong – especially when discussing the Falklands War, as he bases his narrative on his diaries. Interesting stuff.

godstalkerGod Stalk, PC Hodgell (1982) I picked up a copy of the Baen reprint omnibus edition, The God Stalker Chronicles, containing both God Stalk and its sequel Dark of the Moon, at the World Fantasy Con last October. I’d sooner have bought them as individual paperbacks, rather than one humungous hardback, but it was all I could find. God Stalk is in almost all respects an ordinary epic fantasy, set in an epic fantasy world with a complex history and pantheon, and featuring a special snowflake protagonist. It’s a very likeable book, as indeed are a number of books of this type; and there are some nice touches in Hodgell’s world-building. I’d been expecting it to be a tad literary, but it’s not – it’s written in precisely the sort of prose common among books of its ilk, although it is somewhat smoother to read than most. However, where I think it fails – and this may account for its apparent obscurity – is that the learning-curve is among the steepest I’ve come across in fantasy. It doesn’t help that protagonist Jame is apparently unaware of her own history – it’s never stated that she’s amnesiac, but she was banished from her home keep by her family, spent several decades wandering, and has no memory of that time. There’s an extensive back-story to God Stalk, but Hodgell is parsimonious with the details – until they’re needed… which often results in a wodge of exposition thick with the names of gods and lords and races. The plot takes a good third of the book to get going, so it’s a bit of a slog for the first few chapters. Eventually, things start to come together – some of the foreshadowing is a little too obvious, however – and you need to refer less and less to the dramatis personae at the front of the novel. I’ve still got the second half of this omnibus to read, and I’ll decide after that whether I can be bothered to continue with the series (the seventh book is published next month). Incidentally, Jame is mistaken for a boy on several occasions – with that cleavage she has on the cover? Baen. Sigh.

high-oppHigh-Opp, Frank Herbert (2012) Despite his success with The Dragon in the Sea, Frank Herbert had trouble selling another novel, and it wasn’t until Dune, published by Chilton, a publisher best-known for car repair manuals, that he had another book in print. During that period, he wrote a number of novels, all of which were eventually trunked. High-Opp is one of them. And, to be honest, it’s easy to see why no publisher back then would go for it. It’s also the book which contains the “fap gun” – Herbert should probably have considering renaming his future firearm. The world of High-Opp is run by opinion polls, although they’re presented pretty much as global referendums. Of course, the entire system is fixed, with a political class (all related to each other) holding all the top spots. A fast-rising star is brought low as part of a plot to overthrow those in charge, since he’s been identified as an ideal candidate to lead a rebellion by the head of BuPsych, who wants to effect a change of leadership. But he’s no tool to be used, and decides to actually smash the system. He wins the day and they make him emperor. This book is a curiosity and little more. I’m not surprised it’s taken more than half a century to see print.

persepolisPersepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003) This was made into an animated film in 2007, which I’ve not seen. That must be an odd experience, pretty much as if the graphic novel itself had suddenly come to life. Satrapi was royalty, her great-great-grandfather was the shah of Iran overthrown by Reza Pahlavi in 1921, but she grew up during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and its her childhood during those turbulent years, and her family’s coming to terms with the new regime, which forms the first third of Persepolis. The Satrapis were Westernised, secular, well-off and political – and lost a lot of friends and relatives, first to Pahlavi’s secret police, then to the Ayatollah’s regime, and to the war with Iraq. Marjane Satrapi rebels, which puts her at risk from the authorities, so her parents send her to a French-speaking school in Vienna. There she experiences both friendship and racism, and at one point ends up living on the streets. She returns to Iran several years later, and once again has to learn to live in a fundamentalist Islamic state. There’s a telling scene when her friends ask her if she ever had sex while in Vienna, of course she replies, after all she’s nineteen and it’s not unusual in the West… but her friends, for all their secular views, are horrified. Persepolis is, of course, autobiographical, and while the art may be deceptively simple the story is not. Recommended.


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Science fiction under pressure

As a species, we have little experience with naturally hostile environments, a century’s worth perhaps. By “hostile”, I don’t mean environments such as the Arctic, which are uncomfortable, or could prove fatal without basic survival tools. I mean environments which are pretty much instantly lethal without complex technological assistance. Human beings have to date visited two: space (including the lunar surface) and the sea deeper than 200 metres below the surface (it’s actually shallower than that, but the depth record for free diving currently stands at 214 m).

A scene from Luc Besson's The Big Blue

A scene from Luc Besson’s The Big Blue

Science fiction has covered the first of these in countless stories and novels, with varying degrees of accuracy. But no reader of sf doubts the hazardous nature of outer space. While all too many science fictions present magical technology allowing human beings to live and work and make war in space, there’s still a background of ever-present danger. In fact, it’s almost become a cliché.

But what of the opposite extreme? High atmospheric pressure rather than vacuum? Certainly the former have been covered in science fictions, though the genre tends to treat it as much the same as the latter – ie, both are survivable when wearing a spacesuit. But spacesuits are actually just personal spacecraft, designed for the same environment as spacecraft – ie, space. (If that’s not belabouring the point a bit much.) They provide a self-contained atmosphere and protection from radiation. A spacesuit wouldn’t work on a planetary surface with a datum pressure of, say, 50 atmospheres. It would be unwearable, constricted by the gas pressing against every square centimetre, its joints locked since they are designed to maintain a constant internal volume. When submarines get squished when they sink too deep in the sea? That’s what would happen to a spacesuit… and the person inside it.

A JIM suit

A JIM suit

Which doesn’t mean hyperbaric environments would necessarily be out of reach. One solution would be to use an Atmospheric Diving Suit, which is much like a spacesuit but designed to keep pressure out rather than in. The current depth record in an ADS is 610 m (2000 ft), which is 61 atmospheres. Perhaps with the advent of new and stronger materials, or some sort of force-field, environments with much higher pressures would be accessible to someone in an ADS.

Chief Navy Diver Daniel P Jackson in the Hardsuit 2000

Record holder Chief Navy Diver Daniel P Jackson in the Hardsuit 2000

The only recent example that comes to mind of a sf novel set (partly) on a world with a hyperbaric environment is Alastair Reynolds’ On the Steel Breeze (2013), the second book of his Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Several chapters take place on the surface of Venus, which, as well as a mean surface temperature of 462° C, has a surface pressure of 92 to 95 atmospheres. In the novel, some of the characters go EVA on the surface, an apparently not uncommon pasttime, in “surface suits”:

The suits were essentially ambulatory tanks. They were glossy white, like lobsters dipped in milk. They had no faceplates, just camera apertures. Instead of hands, they had claws. Their cooling systems were multiply redundant. That was the critical safety measure, Chiku learned in the briefing. Death by pressure was so rare that it had only happened a few times in the entire history of Venus exploration. (p 128)

Clearly – refrigeration aside – Reynolds’ surface suit is much like a beefed-up ADS, and in no way resembles a spacesuit. Which is as it should be.

But what if a closer interaction with the environment is required? Perhaps there’s a need for something more dextrous than “claws”? Or human beings must be as unencumbered as possible in order to live and work in this hyperbaric environment. Obviously not the surface of Venus, but perhaps somewhere less extreme…

Theo Mavrostomos at a simulated depth of 701 m

Theo Mavrostomos at a simulated depth of 701 m

You can saturate a human body up to pressures around 70 atmospheres – that’s the current record, set during a simulated saturation dive by Theo Mavrostomos in 1992. He spent two hours at a depth equivalent to 701 metres (2300 feet). The term “saturation” means the person’s tissues have absorbed the maximum possible partial pressure of gas. A sudden return to normal atmospheric pressure would result in explosive decompression. A too-quick return would cause the absorbed gas to bubble out of the person’s tissues – the “bends”, or decompression sickness, which can be fatal. There are other hazards associated with hyperbaric environments. At pressures above 5 atmospheres, nitrogen causes nitrogen narcosis, or “the rapture of the deep”; and at pressures higher than 15 atmospheres High Pressure Nervous Syndrome can affect people breathing helium-oxygen mixtures.

A pair of North Sea saturation divers

A pair of North Sea saturation divers

High pressure air is extremely difficult to breathe – not just the physical act of drawing it into the lungs, but also the lungs diffusing it into the blood. By using a less dense gas, such as helium, to maintain the correct partial pressure of oxygen (too much oxygen is poisonous), the human body can handle greater pressures. But this also presents its own set of problems – there’s HPNS, but also helium’s excellent conductivity of heat, not to mention the shortening of sound wavelengths resulting in the infamous “Donald Duck” voice (at the limit of saturation diving, this can make divers pretty much unintelligible). HPNS can be mitigated by adding some nitrogen back into the mix, and “unscramblers” are used on the radio links to divers but these are not wholly effective. There is no solution to helium’s conductivity other than bloody great heaters scattered throughout the saturation system.

At present, we’ve about reached the limit possible with saturation diving. In the oil industry, working at depths of 100 to 250 metres (320 to 820 ft) is routine. Deeper than 450 metres (1500 ft), ROVs are used. Greater pressures than 70 atmospheres may be possible – perhaps by using hydrogen, which has half the atomic weight of helium. Unfortunately, hydrogen is extremely flammable, although some helium could be added to render it safe. French diving company Comex consider it possible to reach depths of 1000 metres (3281 ft), or 100 atmospheres, using a hydrogen mix, but no one has tried and there’s currently no impetus to do so.

A still from Ridley Scott's Alien

A still from Ridley Scott’s Alien

Where this gets interesting is that, as far as I know, no one has used this in science fiction. While hyperbaric environments, or dense atmospheres on high-gravity planets, perhaps even gas giants, have undoubtedly been used, it’s either been with some science-fictional equivalent of a ROV, or magical spacesuits which operate as well in 100 atmospheres as they do in a vacuum, or perhaps even a kind of armoured suit capable of withstanding great pressure like a souped-up ADS. Dense atmospheres seem mostly to appear in science fiction only as settings for winged aliens or humans, such as in Vonda N McIntyre’s ‘Fireflood’ (1979) or Wings’ (1973; see here). Gas giants are quite common in sf, though mostly the action takes place in their upper atmosphere. One that doesn’t is Poul Anderson ‘Call Me Joe’ (1957), in which a disabled operator “drives” a ROV on Jupiter’s surface – James Cameron used a similar idea in Avatar (2009).

But sf typically treats alien worlds – what we now call exoplanets – as either extensions of space, or Earth-like, or near enough Earth-like not to make any difference. Those hardy explorers of countless science fictions often have little more to deal with than inclement weather, although perhaps one or two might need a breathing mask… No one has ever thought of the Earth’s surface as remotely like space – it’s an environment entirely distinct, and although it covers a wide range of conditions they’re all survivable. So why no variety in alien worlds? Ignorance initially, almost certainly; but then it becomes about the story, about some “alien” aspect of the exoplanet which drives the plot, as in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Endless Voyage (1975; see here). Yet, allegedly, science fiction is about science and technology, and how we use it…

Mars Arctic Research Station

Mars Arctic Research Station

Surely it would be more interesting to explore the techniques and technology that might be used to explore, or perhaps even colonise, an environment that is neither Earth-like nor vacuum? A saturation system strikes me as a perfectly suitable method to use in a hyperbaric environment; and one that is filled with dramatic possibilities. Just think, you could murder someone by knocking them out and them putting them in a balloon’s gondola… Too much science fiction, to my mind, fails to get across the true experience of the strange environments in which it takes place. It’s passed off as “setting” using a few incidental details, but in all other respects treated as if it were, say, middle America, or the Wild West. A more rigorous approach to such things would be far more interesting.

Of course, it’s not just exoplanetary environments. There’s certainly science fiction set underwater at great depth (see my earlier blog post on the topic here), but most such sf imagines that human beings have been physiologically engineered to survive in that environment. But, as far as I’m aware, no one in sf has made the mental leap from deep sea to hyperbaric planetary surface.


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Moving pictures, #3

More culture splashed across the silver screen… although it’s a pretty loose definition of “culture” for some of the films I’ve seen over the past few weeks. More and more, I find myself avoiding recent Hollywood product (and I use the term “product” deliberately) in favour of arthouse or classic Hollywood films.

Rio Lobo, Howard Hawks (1970, USA) I freely admit Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) is one of my favourite films, and certainly my favourite Western, and I was aware Rio Lobo is often considered to be little more than Hawks having another bash at that earlier film. Like Rio Bravo, it stars John Wayne as a sheriff, who must defend a town against a cattle baron’s henchman and… The difference here is that Wayne was a Union officer and the film opens with an ambush by Confederate troops on a gold train he’s responsible for. Later, he meets the Confederate captain who commanded the ambush in a POW camp and the two become friends… and later allies against the evil cattle baron. A solid Hollywood western, but not a patch on Rio Bravo.

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Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) I forget why I put this on my rental list, possibly I’d seen it on some list of top films or something. I’d seen a few by Denis before, and while they were good I can’t say they’d blown me away. But Beau Travail… It’s set in Djibouti among soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, and is framed as the memories of a sergeant after the fact. A new recruit joins the troop and the sergeant becomes envious of his looks, ability and popularity. He tries to kill him by sending him out into the desert with a faulty compass, but the legionnaire survives. The film ends with the sergeant dancing, representing his suicide after failing to adjust to civilian life. It is quite brilliant. I’m pretty sure Beau Travail is going to make my best of the year. It’s also the third film I can think of that’s lifted from good to near-genius by an unexpected dance scene, the other two being François Ozon’s Water Drops On Burning Rocks (2000) and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009).

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 (1993, USA) So I finally got around to watching the final season of Next Gen, and now a week or two later I have very little memory of it all. I think I spent most of the time marvelling at how much make-up Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden were wearing. The plots of the individual episodes were, I seem to recall, rather dull and it all felt very formulaic and “the [tech] does the [tech] with the [tech]“. There were, as usual, some totally cringe-worthy episodes and, surprisingly, one featuring Lwaxana Troi that didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out (it was a bit barf-inducing, though). Ah well, seen them all now. Seen all of DS9 as well. Voyager next, I guess. Sigh.

Outpost 11, Anthony Woodley (2012, UK) The Second World War is apparently approaching its centenary and three men at a listening outpost – listening to Russian radio traffic (er, they were our allies during WWII) – are slowly driven mad by something strange out in the ice and cold. Everything looks a bit steampunk (er, the Victorian Age ended nearly forty years before WWII), the acting is terrible, and the pacing is abysmal. A film to avoid.

Gilda, Charles Vidor (1946, USA) Glenn Ford is a gambler in Buenos Aires shortly after WWII. He ends up working at an illegal casino – though you’d never guessed it was illegal from all the glitz – as floor manager. Some months later, the casino owner goes away on a trip and returns with Rita Hayworth, his wife. Cue smouldering hatred between Ford and Hayworth. Meanwhile, the casino owner is neck-deep in a cartel among tungsten mine owners. A quality Hollywood noir this one. Hayworth is mind-blowing. Definitely worth seeing.

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Queen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA) This was actually a rewatch, but it’s such a good film it’s worth mentioning again. It’s another US movie cobbled together from footage from two Soviet films – мечте навстречу (Mechte Navstrechu) and Небо зовет (Nebo Zovyot), with additional US-filmed material starring Basil Rathbone, John Saxon, Judi Meredith Florence Marly, and, yes, that is Dennis Hopper. Alien crashlands on Mars, Earth sends rescue mission, they find sole survivor Marly, but during journey back to Earth she proves to be a vampire and kills all of crew except Meredith and Hooper, who kill her. Marly is astonishingly good as the titular alien, Meredith is treated like just one of the crew (a gender-equal future society, in a 1966 film!), and the footage from the Soviet movies is weirdly beautiful. I love this film.

My Neighbours The Yamadas, Isao Takahata (1999, Japan) The cartoony Studio Ghibli film, in other words. The title pretty much says it all – the film is structured as a series of vignettes about the eponymous family. I quite enjoyed it, although the best Ghibli I’ve seen so far is still Only Yesterday, like My Neighbours The Yamadas also directed by Isao Takahata.

Project A, Part 2, Jackie Chan (1987, Hong Kong) When I was living in the UAE, I watched quite a lot of Jackie Chan films – they were readily available there on VCD. It’s nineteenth century Hong Kong and Chan is drafted in as police superintendent in charge of a notoriously corrupt district. With the help of the Marines, he cleans up the  district, battling the local kingpin, an Imperial Chinese spy and his henchmen, and the previous superintendent who has been promoted to a position where he can allegedly do no harm. Also involved are a bunch of Chinese revolutionaries  - which is who the Imperial Chinese spy is after. There’s lots of cleverly-choreographed action, including a brilliant sequence with some chilis, and it’s pretty much a pure hit of Jackie Chan comedy-action. Definitely worth seeing.

20 Million Miles To Earth, Nathan Juran (1957, USA) This was on Film4 one weekend afternoon, so I plonked myself in front of the telly and watched it. My expectations were low and it still failed to meet them. A spacecraft on a mission to Venus crashlands in the sea off Sicily on its trip back to Earth. Some Sicilian fisherman rescue the sole survivor, but a young local boy also finds a specimen jar from the rocket containing a blobby thing, which promptly grows into a Godzillary-type creature and subsequently terrorises the island. This is a B-movie, with a B-movie script and B-movie talent, and notable only because Harryhausen animated the ersatz kaiju. Eminently avoidable.

Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan (1947, USA) This was a surprise. I forget where I stumbled across mention of it, but it was a good call. Gregory Peck plays a journalist who’s just landed a top gig with a New-York-based magazine. He proposes an article series on anti-semitism, but initially finds it hard to present the subject in a way that will really get it across to readers. Eventually he decides that he will tell everyone he is Jewish, and experience anti-semitism for himself – he’s new in New York, so there’s no one around who’ll know different (except his editor, of course, his mother, and his WASP-y fiancée). And experience it he does. Both conscious and unconscious. The topic is handled intelligently and sensitively. Sadly, I doubt a film like this would be made today.

sonsofthedesert

Sons of the Desert, William A Seiter (1933, USA). Also, by various hands, We Faw Down (1928), Their Purple Moment (1928) and On the Wrong Trek (1936), which were all on the same disc. Sons of the Desert sees Stan and Ollie pull a fast one on their wives in order to attend the titular organisation’s annual bash in Chicago, which their wives have forbidden. Ollie fakes an illness, and the pair are allowed to travel to “Honolulu” to recuperate. Everything goes as planned… Except the ship the pair are allegedly returning on sinks. Just after they’ve lied their way out of trouble on that, the wives sees a newsreel about the Sons of the Desert parade in Chicago… and there are Stan and Ollie whooping it up. We Faw Down is a silent with an earlier version of the plot – Stan and Ollie want to attend a poker game so lie to their wives… only to get caught up in various shenanigans and consequently caught out. I thought it funnier than Sons of the Desert. Their Purple Moment is another silent – this time Stan & Ollie are out for some fun with some of Stan’s saved cash, they end up having dinner in a club with a pair of women (not their wives), but it turns out Stan’s wife has replaced his cash with coupons. Also a good one. Laurel and Hardy only make cameos in On the Wrong Trek, which is actually about another actor back from holiday telling his office mates about the disastrous week he’s just spent on the road to California with his wife and mother-in-law. There’s a quite good musical number, but that’s about all.

Red 2, Dean Pariscot (2013, USA) A bunch of oldies run around like twentysomethings, committing implausible mayhem and I completely forget what the actual plot was about. I’d dismiss this as complete tosh, but the script was pleasantly witty and though it trod a fine line it actually managed to avoid falling into stupid. It felt more like a European action thriller than a Hollywood one (amusingly, it featured a Russian aircraft masquerading as a USAF one, the precise opposite of all those Hollywood Cold War films…). For a beer and pizza night, you can do a lot worse than this film.


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Writing, creativity and the internet

So apparently George RR Martin writes his novels using some 1980s software running on a computer that has no internet connection. Because obviously Game of Thrones needed to be mentioned again in the national press and this seemed like a good excuse. But seriously, I don’t see what’s news-worthy or admirable in someone who continues to use thirty-year-old technology when far more sophisticated and useful wordprocessors exist today. It has nothing to do with “creativity”.

As for the internet being a “distraction”. Well, okay, Martin doesn’t exactly have to check his facts or look things up because he’s writing big fat commercial fantasy and where do you research that sort of stuff? (Other than the history the author is ripping off, of course.) But some of us do a lot of research, and the internet is pretty damn useful for that. Sometimes it’s just a first port of call, before moving onto more detailed books on the topic; other times, the internet provides more than enough information for the purpose.

380z_1

I’ve often wondered how writers – especially science fiction writers – managed before the invention of the Web. I remember James P Hogan on a panel at the 2005 Worldcon talking about the various contacts he had made during his career – he admitted he was quite shameless at approaching people he thought might prove useful and blagging their contact details – and how he’d telephone them if he needed their expertise. So that was one method. And, of course, there are libraries. But reading some Golden Age science fiction, it’s plain a lot of sf authors didn’t even bother – they just made it up and assumed no one would catch them out. Nowadays, given that readers have access to exactly the same tools as writers, getting caught out is almost a certainty. (And it’s not like authors before the Web weren’t pulled up on their mistakes either – cf Larry Niven having the Earth rotate the wrong way in Ringworld; or indeed the design of the ringworld itself.)

There’s no such thing as too much research, although it’s certainly possible to put too much of the research into the narrative. Unlike Kim Stanley Robinson, I don’t consider the info-dump just another narrative tool in the sf writer’s toolbox - so no, I don’t think it can be used freely without embarrassment. Exposition is a speedbump, or a pothole, in the reader’s journey through a story. However, I do think a writer can make a virtue of the research. Some, in fact. do. But there are those, on the other hand, who do it really badly – like this one:

“Ready, Barn,” the lunar commander replied.

“Okay. TIG 142034700 NOUN 67 5530000370 plus 0002, need A 47 in plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955, needle 465 is plus 00370, needle 546 is NA. Ignition 1 Rev late is 1440209, toug weight 10789. Over.”

“Roger. Copy 142034700 55350000370 plus 0002 plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955 plus 00370, NA 1440209, tug weight 10789. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Kathy. P32 CSI PAD follows. NOUN 11 143015060 NOUN 37 14438 all zips NOUN 81 0492 all zips. Need A 473 is 01818, 275 is 02780, AGS DELTA Vs plus 0492 all zips plus 0010. Over.”

No, that’s not from Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s actually from Space Station Friendship by Dick Lattimer, published in 1988.

Of course, not all science fictions require research. A style that has become quite common over the last few years – I’ve seen it labelled with the horrible term “sci fi strange” – seems almost completely made-up. Nothing requiring research there (unless you include the frequent references to other science fictions, that is). Still, it’s not for me  - don’t like reading it, have no intention of writing it. I like my research, it’s often what motivates me to write a story. And finding a way to use it in a narrative that works is, for me, part of the fun of writing.

Also, the shit that I look up is usually just plain interesting.

(Incidentally, the picture is, as the front of the machine states, a Research Machines 380Z, the first computer I ever used. The school I attended had two of them. These days, most of my colleagues at work are younger than that computer…)


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Apollo Quartet review copies

It’s been two years since Adrift on the Sea of Rains was published, and reviews of it continue to appear online. Which is very gratifying. But for some reason books two and three of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, published sixteen and six months ago respectively, haven’t been reviewed to the same extent. So this is just a note to say ebook review copies of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above are still available. If you fancy one, either leave a comment or tweet me at @ian_sales. I can do epub, mobi or pdf. At a pinch, I can even do paperback.

Meanwhile, of course, work continues on All That Outer Space Allows. I’m at that stage where I’m reading research materials to get a feel for the period and place and cast, and getting some early words down on paper. The story opens in 1965 at Edwards Air Force Base and ends in Florida on the evening of 16 April 1972. It will be about astronauts and it will be about science fiction.

E-USAF-X-15-2

Here’s the opening paragraph. As you can see, it’s going to be a bit different to the preceding three novellas…

Ginny is at the table on the patio, in slacks and her favourite plaid shirt, hammering away on her Hermes Baby typewriter, a glass of iced tea to one side, a stack of typescript to the other. Something, a sixth sense, she’s developed it during her ten years as an Air Force wife, a presentiment, of what she can’t say, causes her to glance over at the gate to the yard. And there’s Bob, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lincoln Hollenbeck, cap in hand, his movie-star profile noble with concern. Ginny immediately looks over to her right, across to the Air Force Base and the dry lake. Her hand goes to her mouth. Oh my God my God my God. There’s a line of dark smoke chalked up the endless sky. My God my God my God. She pushes back her chair and lurches to her feet.

The above may change as I get further into the story and things start to come together. But for the time-being at least it gives a good idea of what I have planned.


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2014 reading diary, #5

The alternate genders thing got thrown a little out of whack, first by deciding to put Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to one side for a bit (because it is fucking enormous), and then by reading a couple of trashy male-authored books while on the way to, and back from, Glasgow over the Easter weekend. But I then made up for it by reading two successive books by women, er, twice. So far this year, I’m running exactly 50:50 male:female writers, so it seems to be working…

PirxTales of Pirx the Pilot, Stanisław Lem (1979) I decided I should read more Lem, especially as I’ve been finding the concerns of much male-authored US science fiction of last century somewhat tiresome; and there are these attractively-packaged Harcourt Brace Javonovitch paperbacks of some of his books available on Amazon… But they’ve already fucked up the “collection” as the only two I’ve bought so far – this one and Imaginary Magnitude – are sized slightly differently. Argh. Anyway, Pirx is a space pilot and sort of an Everyman, although he typically wins through using a combination of common sense and accidentally doing the right thing. In the five stories in Tales of Pirx the Pilot Pirx starts out as a cadet on a test-flight to the Moon, solves the mystery of the death of two scientists at an observatory on the far side of the Moon, solves another mystery which resulted in the disappearance of a patrol spaceship, witnesses an accident in space while travelling aboard a space liner, and manages to survive a flight in a spaceship that shouldn’t have been declared flight-worthy. They’re an odd mix of made-up science-fiction rubbish and realistic space travel. For example, in ‘The Conditioned Reflex’, Lem goes into a great amount of realistic detail about the lunar observatory, and the story reads like a piece of nearish-future hard sf. But ‘The Albatross’ features space liners and feels like a totally different setting. Pirx, on the other hand, is a pleasingly common-sensical hero, with a faint streak of cynicism, and he wins through as often by doing the wrong thing as he does by puzzling out what’s needed. There’s a second book of Pirx stories titled, with a great deal of imagination, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. I think I’ll pick myself up a copy…

the-red-tape-warThe Red Tape War, Jack L Chalker, Mike Resnick & George Alec Effinger (1991) Ever read a book knowing it was going to be shit but you read it anyway and guess what it was total shit? The clues were all there – the cover-art, the names of the authors… And yet, against my better judgement – well, against any judgement whatsoever – I went and read the book anyway. The Red Tape War was conceived as a jolly jape by Chalker, Resnick and a third author. That third author, who they do not name, had the good sense to drop out, so Effinger was drafted in as a replacement. The idea was to write a book where they’d pass the narrative from one to the other, hopefully leaving it in such a state the writer picking up the story would have their work cut out keeping the whole thing stumbling along. Dear Tor, this is not a project that should have ever seen the light of day.

sphereSphere, Michael Crichton (1987) The movie adaptation of this has always struck me as one of those films that has all the ingredients necessary to make a good movie, yet manages to be actually quite bad. The underwater aspect fascinates me, and the central premise – a mysterious spacecraft is discovered on the ocean floor – is certainly appealing… So I read the book to see if it was any better than the film. I can now confirm it isn’t. In fact, it’s probably worse. It doesn’t help that Crichton gets some of his details wrong. The team sent to investigate the spacecraft descend to the US Navy habitat on the ocean floor, 1000 feet deep, in submersibles. At that depth, the pressure is around thirty atmospheres, so saturation diving is required. Compression would take around five hours, not the length of the ride in the submersible. And at thirty atmospheres, the heliox in a tank carried on the back would last only minutes, so the breathing mixture would be provided using umbilicals. Given that, it seems churlish to complain that the rest of the book makes little or no sense. The spacecraft proves to be from a century or so in the future, but crashed several centuries ago… after entering a rotating black hole or something. Nothing about the spacecraft is at all plausible – its design (heavy lead shielding! wtf), huge cargo bays containing, um, food, no crew… yes crew… no not really crew… But it’s the titular, er, sphere, found in the spacecraft which forms the focus of the novel, as it gives who ever enters it super powers. Or something. Which each of them uses to terrorise everyone – including themselves; and destroy the habitat which is keeping them alive at the bottom of the ocean. Stupid book. Avoid. I should have done.

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977) I needed something to cleanse my palate after the last two books, so grabbed this off the book-shelves. I’ll be reviewing it for SF Mistressworks.

underwaterwelderThe Underwater Welder, Jeff Lemire (2012) I’d seen a few positive reviews of this, and the title suggested it would appeal to me, so I sprung for a copy. A mistake. It’s rubbish. The artwork is not at all attractive, and the story is a banal daddy issues plot. Son of wastrel drunkard dad, who was a diver in the oil industry, returns to his childhood town and follows in his father’s footsteps. On one dive, he sees something strange, something to do with an old pocket-watch that used to belong to his father, and when he surfaces, everywhere is deserted. But by this point I was so bored, I wasn’t really following the story, so I’m not entirely sure what happened. Something to do with his father, something to do with starting to treat his wife better because whatever daddy issues he had were resolved. Or something. Not worth the money. Avoid.

dancinggirlsDancing Girls, Margaret Atwood (1977) This is Atwood’s first collection and, to be honest, it’s actually a little dull. The contents were originally published in a variety of Canadian literary magazines. No dates are given, but I’m guessing the stories date from no more than a few years before the collection appeared. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Atwood’s fiction. I find her novels much more successful than her short fiction, but I’ve yet to read one of them with as much power as her Alias Grace – though The Handmaid’s Tale is really very good, it’s let down by a sketchy background - and while I’ve enjoyed her other novels I’ve read, I usually feel vaguely dissatisfied by them. Her short fiction strikes me the same way – it often seems like it’s missing something. But I’m not entirely sure what it is. There’s a vagueness there that… it’s not a failure of imagination, nor a lack of writing chops; it’s part of her voice… but I’m always expecting a thicker broth so it reads as thinner than it should be. I’ll continue to read her, she’s an important writer after all; and perhaps eventually I’ll work out what it is about her fiction that leaves me so dissastified… Perhaps she’ll write something else as powerful as Alias Grace

famadihana-on-fomalhaut-iv-signed-jhc-eric-brown-2075-pFamadihana on Fomalhaut IV, Eric Brown (2014) I bought this at the launch at Satellite 4, this year’s Eastercon. It’s the first of the Telemass Quartet. But that title is a bit of a misnomer. While tt’s a novella set in the same universe as Brown’s earlier Starship Seasons Quartet, there’s nothing in its plot which is predicated on “telemass” itself (a near-instantaneous interstellar matter transmission system). That strange word in the book’s title – no, not Fomalhaut, the name of a star, which is actually Arabic, fom al-haut, فم الحوت, and means “mouth of the whale” – but “famadihana”, which Wikipedia describes as “a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. Known as the turning of the bones, people bring forth the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts and rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music.” And the indigenous aliens of Fomalhaut IV practice a similar ritual – not that protagonist ex-copper Matt Hendrick discovers this until midway through the novel. He is on the planet to find his ex-wife and their daughter, who has been drawn there by the local church which has incorporated some of the alien rites into its creed – and promises that it can “cure” the daughter. Hendrick takes up with a local young woman – the world’s colonists are all Malagasy – and with her help, and that of her anthropologist sister, track down his missing family, and witness the titular ritual performed by the aliens. It’s solid Brown stuff, and much like the aforementioned quartet. If there’s one change I’ve noticed over the years, it’s that sex – easy sex – seems to appear more often in Brown’s stories than it did before.

Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) She was bloody good, wasn’t she? It’s a shame this is all she wrote. I’ll be reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. (Shame about the crap cover art, though; also by Zoline.)

Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1987) Another SF Mistressworks book. Wasn’t too sure initially what to make of this, but the further I got into the novel the more I liked it. Saxton also had a distinctive voice, and I have to admit I find it fun to read.

hhhhHHhH, Laurent Binet (2013) I bought this early last year as a lot of people were talking about it at the time. I don’t think otherwise I would have bothered – I mean, the title doesn’t exactly inspire, even once you know it means “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich”, and is about Reinhard Heydrich, who was possibly the nastiest Nazi of them all (and who features in a (sort of) country-house murder in Philip Kerr’s eighth Bernie Gunther novel, Prague Fatale, which I’ve read (see here)). And yet, I’m really glad I bought HHhH – it’s an excellent novel, and more than that, it reads in part like a manifesto of my own writing. Because it’s not just about Heydrich – or rather, Operation Anthropoid, a secret mission by a pair of British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, to assassinate Heydrich, who was “Protector” of the Czech Republic at the time. HHhH is also about writing about Operation Anthropoid, about Binet’s attempt to do justice to the history and the people involved, and his own response to the story, to fiction, to history, to writing about the real world. While HHhH may read like history and autobiography, and Binet makes a point of his need for verifiable facts about Operation Anthropoid and the people involved in it, we’ve no way of knowing how much of the authorial voice, and the author’s story, is actually true. Did Binet, for example, really have relationships with the women he names? Or are they invented characters? It doesn’t, of course, really matter (and HHhH has been marketed as fiction, for what it’s worth), but that concept of nailing fictional story into place with verifiable facts is something I’ve been exploring in my own fiction. I’ve yet to explore the act of writing such fictions in, er, such fictions – although many, many years ago I did have a meta-fictional sf story published in a small press magazine (it’s an apprentice work; if you’re interested, see here). Anyway, HHhH is excellent… and has certainly given me much food for thought…

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