It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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From the Sublime to the ridiculous

The Gzilt are unusual among all galactic civilisations in that the holy book of their religion has proven to be demonstrably true. It predicted scientific advances long before they were made. There was other stuff in the Book of Truth, of course – the typical moralistic posturing, the usual self-serving self-importance around which religions accrete, all that sort of stuff. But people took it seriously because parts of it actually became true.

Now, the Gzilt are about to Sublime. This means they are about to leave this universe en masse for another where everyone lives in– Well, no one really knows because those few who have returned have been mysterious and enigmatic to the point of uselessness. But Subliming is good. And the universe to which races Sublime is apparently infinitely large and infinitely wonderful and everyone there feels infinitely uplifted.

Subliming calls for celebration, so various other races are descending on the Gzilt worlds to wish the Gzilt well and to, hopefully, if given permission, loot what’s left for themselves. A representative of the remnants of the Zihdren, the Gzilt’s original mentors, who Sublimed thousands years before, turns up with some unwelcome news. But before it can be revealed the Zihdren-Remnanter ship is callously destroyed by a Gzilt battleship. This could upset things. As could the news the destroyed ship was carrying.

Also, the Gzilt were one of the original races – they’re humanoid; very much so, in fact – who agreed to band together to form the Culture ten thousand years earlier. But, for whatever reason, they chose to go their own way. There is a person in the Culture who was there at those original negotiations, and he’s still alive and it seems he might know something about the news the destroyed Zihdren-Remnanter ship was carrying. So the Culture ships hanging around to see the Gzilt Sublime are keen to find out what it was…

It doesn’t take long – less than a third of the way into the book, in fact – before Banks reveals the secret carried by the destroyed ship. The Book of Truth, it transpires, was a put-up job. By a group of Zihdren academics. For reasons of their own – which are alien, no doubt – they decided to plant a holy text which could be proven true on the primitive Gzilt. And for more than ten thousand years, that the Book of Truth might not be precisely what it claims to be has never occurred to those who take it as their creed. Even though they are allegedly civilised enough to Sublime.

But, well, they’re not really civilised at all. And Subliming doesn’t appear to be a reward for being a good bunch of highly civilised people either. Because the Gzilt response to news of the Book of Truth’s, er, true origin becoming known is to go on a berserk murdering spree. The politician in charge during the last days of the Gzilt sends one of the Gzilt Regiments to massacre another who had got wind of the destruction of Zihdren-Remnanter ship. Said politician had also promised scavenger rights to one alien race, the Liseiden, but when the Ronte win the rights instead, he causes a situation in which the Liseiden destroy the Ronte fleet.

And the final action-piece of the novel is an all-out high-bodycount attack on a blimp full of partygoers by a single-minded special forces colonel and his band of lethal attack robots.

Somewhere threading her way amongst all this is Vyr Cossont. Who has four arms. Which she needs to play a piece of music on a preposterous instrument called an Antagonistic Undecagonstring. The piece of music, which was written thousands of years before and is allegedly unplayable, is called…

The Hydrogen Sonata‘.

This is the tenth Culture novel and even before it appeared The Hydrogen Sonata was being heralded as a “return to form” (which is quite a good trick) after the disappointing Matter and Surface Detail. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. In fact, I think Matter was a much more interesting novel.

The Hydrogen Sonata is pacey, Vyr Cossont is an engaging protagonist (though she’s somewhat at the beck and call of events), there are one or two nice bits of invention, and there are a number of conversations between Ship Minds which are fun. But. The secret of the Book of Truth is revealed early, which robs the rest of the novel of all tension. You keep on reading expecting the other shoe to drop – but there is no other shoe. The way the violence mounts is stupidly cartoonish, particularly for a people who are days away from Subliming. In fact, the second half of The Hydrogen Sonata reads more like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film adaption of a Culture novel than an actual Culture novel.

And that title? What relevance exactly does that have to the story? I know Banks’ Culture novels usually boast titles peripheral to the point of irrelevance, but Cossont’s attempt to play a piece of unplayable music has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Perhaps the title is a joke, perhaps it needs to be decoded… and since hydrogen’s symbol is H and a sonata is a word for a type of musical piece, it could read as…

The H(ot) Air.

Because as Culture novels go, The Hydrogen Sonata contains far more bluster than the other books in the series.

(Sorry, could not resist the title to this piece.)


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Wanting to be normal – Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine

I forget where I saw mention of Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on one of the many blogs I read, nor by one of the people I follow on Twitter. It certainly wasn’t recommended to me by Amazon – I forget the last time I bought a book by an author unknown to me because it was recommended by Amazon. Wherever it was, the précis of the plot was enough to pique my interest, as the blurb says: “This is the story of an astronaut lost in space, and the wife he left behind”. Since the fourth book of my Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, will be about the wife of an Apollo astronaut, I was both intrigued by Shine Shine Shine as well as having a “professional interest” in it.

Happily, it was on half-price promotion in Waterstone’s, so I bought a copy. The cover is,um, very pink, and it doesn’t look anything like a novel featuring an astronaut. Nor did I recognise any of the names who have blurbed the book. But never mind, the story still sounded like it might appeal.

UK cover

But, oh dear. The novel opens:

Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the spaceship and see the Earth.

This doesn’t bode well. The novel is set in the very near-ish future, though it’s depicted as the present day for all but the fact of mission to the Moon, but that’s language straight from the science fiction of yore. In fact, everything in the novel about the Moon mission is, well, wrong. Plainly Netzer has done no research on it – her prose has zero authority when discussing the astronaut husband. She gets the physics wrong, she gets other details wrong. One of the crew, for example, is a lieutenant commander in the US Air Force. Except lieutenant commander is a naval rank. The USAF equivalent is major. That’s shoddy craft.

And yet, there are things to like about Shine Shine Shine. It’s very “creative writing class” in places, but Netzer has created an interesting protagonist in Sunny, a young pregnant Virginia housewife with alopecia and a son with Asperger’s, whose decision to not hide her alopecia kicks off the story. Her early childhood is not especially convincing, but the sections set in the foothills of the Appalachians in western Pennsylvania, where Sunny and Maxon, her husband, meet as children are good. Maxon, the roboticist turned astronaut, also has Asperger’s, and is depicted throughout as very close to a robot himself. He’s also a genius, a Nobel prize laureate, and a millionaire. While Maxon is handled quite well, all this is just over-egging his character.

US cover

In fact, the entire story is a little over-egged. It opens with Sunny involved in a minor car accident. Her wig flies from her head. So she decides to no longer wear it. Her Virginia housewives circle, of course, did not know she was bald. Sunny has tried so long to be “normal” – hiding the fact of her baldness, using her husband’s genius to excuse his inability to interact with people, organising her neighbours and becoming a pillar of the local community.

Meanwhile, she is heavily pregnant, her husband is on his way to the Moon to oversee the creation of the first robotic colony there, their son, Bubber, has severe Asperger’s but is likely a savant of some kind, and her mother is on life support in hospital, her body riddled with cancer. A meteor strikes the spacecraft Maxon is aboard, stranding the crew in cislunar space (I think – the astrographics is nonsense throughout). Back on Earth, Sunny tries to hold her family together in the face of these threats, and attempts to find the person she was before she subsumed herself in the role of Virginia housewife. Her story is interspersed with flashbacks, describing her birth and early childhood in Burma (her father was a missionary), and her life as a child in Pennsylvania, living next door to Maxon and his hillbilly family of – I think – meth-makers.

Shine Shine Shine could have been an excellent novel, but it’s let down by a lack of research and a consequent lack of verisimilitude. True, not every reader is going to be as critical of the spacecraft-set parts of the novel as myself, but writers should always strive for verisimilitude. Research, research and then research some more. They say “write what you know”, but that’s complete rubbish. If everyone did that, literature would be very dull indeed. But that doesn’t mean you can make shit up when it’s easily checkable. Doing that only makes you look a fool – cf Dan Brown. If Maxon’s career had been in any way convincing, Shine Shine Shine would have been greatly improved. As it is, the novel reads like a thesis for a Creative Writing MA. Disappointing.


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300 years from now is 2312

I’ve been saying for a while now that science fiction doesn’t need improbable spaceships and magic technology in order to generate sense of wonder. There’s plenty of wonder in the universe as we know it, once you accept its vast size and implacable hostility. So the prologue of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 comes as a real pleasure to read. It is set on Mercury, and describes a sunrise as seen from the terminator. The world is in fact inhabited, and most of its inhabitants live in a city, called Terminator, which travels around the world on rails, forever staying within the twilight zone.

Mercury is not the only planet in the Solar System that has been settled. Mars not only has a thriving colony but has also seceded from Earth control. As indeed have the many moons and asteroids which have been colonised – and which now form the Mondragon, named for the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of workers cooperatives in Spain founded in 1956. Venus too has also been settled, and it is the fate of the human settlement of Venus which partly drives the plot of 2312.

Such a near-ish future scenario, with its strict adherence to realistic science, and plausible and clever extrapolation of technology and society, seems guaranteed to appeal to me. So it feels a little churlish to complain that 2312 falls a smidgen short of being a truly great science fiction novel.

Alex, one of the Mondragon movers and shakers, has died (of old age) and it is up to her friends to see that her plan continues. These friends include Swan Er Hong, Fitz Wahram, Inspector Genette, and others. The nature of Alex’s plan is only gradually revealed to Swan, though she is happy to involve herself. This initially requires travelling to Titan with Wahram. As they travel about the Solar System, the two fall in love, despite not seeming to suit each other particularly well. As they travel, Swan learns that Alex’s plan is a response to a secret conspiracy with unknown aims.

2312 is a novel comprising episodes spaced along a timeline in which a mostly-hidden conspiracy gradually reveals itself and its objectives. There is, for example, the destruction of Terminator. There is the discovery of qubes (quantum computers) in human form – rather than surgically-embedded qubes in humans, such as Swan’s companion Pauline. (Qubes are not artificial intelligence per se, though something like it emerges from their complexity.) There is the destruction of a travelling asteroid terrarium (a common means of transport about the Solar System) and the deaths of all those travelling within it. There is the reseeding of Earth with the fauna which had populated the terraria. There is a covert civil war on Venus.

In truth, the conspiracy is the weakest element of 2312, and not every event seems linked to the story it powers. The reseeding of Earth, for example, is clever and exciting, but doesn’t feel like part of the same narrative which sends Swan and Wahram gallivanting about the Solar System. And the resolution of the conspiracy, when it’s revealed in a disappointingly offhand fashion, feels like an after-thought rather than the resolution of a dramatic narrative.

Yet the Solar System of 2312 is a fascinating place. It feels like a valid extrapolation in ways that many nearish-future science fictions – such as James SA Corey’s poor Leviathan Wakes – do not. To some extent, this emphasis on world rather than plot does make the novel feel somewhat like a travelogue. But 2312 is not a plot-driven novel. It is dramatic in discrete moments, and it is sense of wonder, the continuity of the characters’ perceptions and the deepening relationship between Swan and Wahram, which chains those moments into a linear narrative. 2312 is like its terraria, it is a small world put together from elements of the real world, and in which a life unlike those we can experience ourselves can be lived. It’s no surprise then that the conspiracy which opens with the destruction of Terminator feels like a feeble counterpoint to the journey on which Robinson takes the reader.

As a genre novel – ie, a narrative reliant on plot for its backbone – 2312 is somewhat unsuccessful. As a science fiction in a more general sense, a personalised exploration of an invented universe, with its Dos Passos-seque “extracts” and “lists”, 2312 is superb. It may well be Robinson’s strongest work since the Mars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on a few shortlists next year; and I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t nominated.

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