It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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All That Outer Space Allows teaser

Back on the 1 March, I read out a piece of Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows at the second SFSF Social. It seemed to go down quite well. And since the release of the book has been a little bit, er, delayed, I thought I’d post the text from my reading as a taster. So here you are. It’s from chapter two. Enjoy.

Walden says nothing about the physical at Brooks AFB or, months later, the interviews at the Rice Hotel in Houston; but for a week after his last trip to Texas he swaggers more than usual. Ginny knows this unshakeable confidence is as much a coping mechanism as will be, should he fail, his subsequent realisation he doesn’t really want it anyway. But she hopes he succeeds, she wishes she could go into space herself. But she knows that, at this time, it’s an occupation reserved for men— no, more than that: reserved for men of Walden’s particular stripe, jet fighter pilots and test pilots. She calls him “my spaceman” one night, it just slips out she is reading the latest issue of If, there’s a good novella in it by Miriam Allen deFord, and Ginny’s head is full of spaceships and spaceship captains; but Walden turns suddenly cold and gives her his thousand-yard stare. He starts to explain the competition is fierce, he won’t know how he’s done until he hears from NASA… but he breaks off, scrambles out of bed and stalks from the room.

Ginny puts the magazine on the bedside table, but her hand is shaking. She sits silently, her hands in her lap, and waits. He does not return. Fifteen minutes later and he’s still not back, so she rearranges her pillows, makes herself comfortable beneath the sheets, and reaches out and turns off the bedside lamp. She has no idea what time it is when he eventually slides into bed beside her, waking her, and whispers, Sorry, hon. She rolls over, closes her eyes and tries to re-enter the vale of sleep, where marriages are blissful, life itself is blissful, and she is as famous as Catherine Moore or Leigh Brackett.

They wake at 0430, the shrill ring of the alarm dragging them both from sleep. While Walden goes for a shower, she wraps herself in a housecoat and heads for the kitchen. There is breakfast to prepare—coffee to roast, bread to toast, eggs to fry, bacon, beans and hash browns. She does this every day, sees off her man with a full stomach and a steady heart. Here he is now, crisp and freshly-laundered in his tan uniform, hungry for the day ahead. He takes his seat, she pours him juice and coffee, slides his plate before him, and then sits across the table and watches him eat as she sips from a cup of coffee. She should be getting up before him, making herself ready, dressed and made up, to greet him when he awakes—but countless past arguments have won her the right to make his breakfast and see him off to work without having to do so. The housecoat is enough.

They kiss goodbye at the door, and he strides off to the Chevrolet Impala Coupe in the carport. Though she wants to go back to bed, there is too much to do, there is always too much to do.

After clearing up the breakfast things, she makes herself another coffee and settles down to catch up with her magazines, she is a couple of issues behind with Fantastic, and this issue, the last of 1965, features a novella by Zenna Henderson and stories by Doris Pitkin Buck, Kate Wilhelm and Josephine Saxton.

Later, she will get dressed—and she will dress for comfort, not for appearance’s sake—and she will get out the Hermes Baby and she will work on her latest story. She made the decision years before to incorporate elements of her own life—and, suitably disguised, Walden’s—into her science fiction, so she feels no need to visit libraries or book stores for research. She has a stack of issues of Fantastic Universe, If, Amazing Stories, Galaxy, World of Tomorrow in a closet—they are all the research material she needs. Galaxy, for example, runs a science column by astronomer Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin; Amazing Stories has featured science columns by June Lurie and Faye Beslow since the 1940s. Walden, of course, has a library of aeronautics and engineering texts in the bedroom he uses as a den, and Ginny has on occasion paged through them—not that Walden knows: his den is for him alone and she allows him the illusion of its sanctity; naturally, it never occurs to him to wonder how the room remains clean.

Ginny is feeling lazy today. She likes to think she has an excellent work ethic when it comes to her writing, but some days she finds it hard to muster the enthusiasm to bang on the keys of her typewriter. Especially when she has just read something she thinks she can never approach in quality—and that, she sadly realises, is true of the Saxton story in the magazine she is holding. Josephine Saxton is a new writer, from England, and this is her debut in print. Ginny only wishes her first published story, just four years ago in Fantastic, had been as good.

The blow to her confidence decides her: she will leave her current work in progress until tomorrow; today she will catch up on her correspondence, she owes letters to Ursula, Judith and Doris, and she really ought to fire off a missive to Cele with her thoughts on the issue she has just read…

After she has showered and dressed in slacks and shirt, she finds herself outside on the patio, gazing east across the roofs of Wherry Housing toward the Air Force Base and Rogers Dry Lake, and beyond it the high desert stretching to the horizon, where the Calico Mountains dance in the pastel haze of distance. As she watches, a jet fighter powers up from one of the runways and though it is more than a mile and a half from her, she can tell from its delta wing it is a F-102 or F-106. Its throaty roar crowds the cloisonné sky, there’s a quick flash of mirror-bright aluminum as the aircraft banks, and then the fighter seems to fade from view as it flies away from her. She wonders if it is Walden in the cockpit, she has no idea what he does from day to day once he enters the base; officially, he is a research test pilot in the Fighter Test Group, but she does not know what he researches, which fighters he test pilots. Not the North American X-15, she knows that much, an aircraft which intrigues her because it is also a spaceship—it has flown more than fifty miles above the Earth, right at the edge of space, at over 4,000 miles per hour. And it even looks like a spaceship, like a rocket, as much at home in vacuum as it is in atmosphere. She would like to know more about the X-15 but it’s a sensitive subject in the house. Walden has tried to get on the program but has been refused, and he wears the refusal badly. Perhaps that’s why he was so keen to apply to become an astronaut.

Ginny is a California girl, a real one, born and bred in San Diego in Southern California, not one of those “dolls by a palm tree in the sand” from that song on the radio. She has history in this landscape of deserts and canyons and mesas, though she grew up beside the limitless plain of the Pacific. Here in the Mojave she is hemmed in by mountains, they encircle her world, her flat and arid world, where the small towns are so far apart they might as well belong to their own individual Earths. Standing here, gazing in the direction of Arizona, she finds it easy to believe Edwards is the only human place in the world, a lonely oasis of civilisation—and she knows her husband thinks of it as a technological haven in a world held back from the best science and engineering can offer by the short-sightedness of others. To some degree, she thinks he may be right. But she is also a housewife, and she lives in a world in which bed linen must be changed, clothes laundered, meals cooked and checkbooks balanced. She envies Walden his freedom to ignore all that—he can have his “life in the woods”, but only because she manages his world.

And now she really must get on with her letter-writing… although the lawn looks like it needs mowing and the end of the yard is beginning to look a little untidy…

And here’s the cover art…

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 3.46.35 PM


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Starship Seasons, Eric Brown

starship-seasonsThe four novellas which make up Starship Seasons, titled ‘Starship Summer’, ‘Starship Fall’, ‘Starship Winter’ and ‘Starship Spring’, were originally published individually by PS Publishing (of which Drugstore Indian Press is an imprint) and NewCon Press between 2007 and 2012. All four are set on Chalcedony, Delta Pavonis IV, in a future in which starship travel has been superseded by Telemass, interstellar teleportation. The novellas feature David Conway and the circle of close friends he makes when he moves to Magenta Bay on Chalcedony. While the stories share locale and cast, and each novella references events in the preceding stories, they can be read as standalones.

Conway has retired to Chalcedony, a move partly driven by the death of his daughter and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. While hunting for a suitable property on the shore of the idyllic Magenta Bay, he stumbles across a junkyard of starships, run by an ex-pilot called Hawk. Conway decides to use an old ship as a home, but the one he chooses is of mysterious provenance. He settles into a life of indolence – with a great deal of drinking – and makes friends with several of the locals, including Hawk, famous artist Matt, telempath Maddie, and Hawk’s alien lover, Kee (a native of Chalcedony). Conway soon discovers his starship home is “haunted”… by an avatar of the Yall, an advanced alien race who have long since vanished. The Yall admits his race built Chalcedony’s great marvel, the Golden Column, an impenetrable pillar one kilometre in diameter and thirty kilometres high, and of unknown purpose. Conway and his friends, with the help of the Yall ghost, make Conway’s starship operable and fly to the Column… and so discover the mysterious object’s true purpose.

‘Starship Fall’ is set five years later. The fuss over Conway’s discovery of the Golden Column’s purpose – it is, in fact, part of an instantaneous interstellar transport network – has died down. The appearance in Magenta Bay of holo superstar Carlotta Chakravorti-Luna, however, threatens to upset Conway’s life of indolence and drinking. And then Hawk’s alien companion, Kee, vanishes into the jungle to “smoke the bones”, an alien ritual which allows the smoker to snatch glimpses of the future but has a seventy percent fatality rate. Conway, Maddie and Hawk head off into the interior to “rescue” Kee, but unfortunately are too late to prevent her undergoing the ritual. What Kee sees of the future involves Chakravorti-Luna and also Hawk’s possible death. The holo superstar admits she is on Chalcedony to find an ex-husband who crashed on the planet decades before, and this has something to do with the smoking the bones ritual.

The plot of ‘Starship Winter’ is driven by Matt, the artist, who puts on an exhibition of works which use “empathy stones” from the world of Acrab IV. Visiting Magenta Bay is Darius Dortmund, an empath, who is not only unduly interested in Matt’s showing, but is also accompanied by an alien from Acrab IV. Dortmund is arrogant, secretive and a nasty sort. He annoys and upsets Conway and his friends, spoils the grand opening of Matt’s art show, but at a big party in his rented property later is found murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on Conway and his circle, who had stayed over at Dortmund’s house for the night. In this novella, Conway’s circle expands by one: Lieutenant Hannah van Harben of the local police, who becomes Conway’s love-interest.

The final book of the quartet is ‘Starship Spring’. It is six years later. Conway and van Harben are now living together in and have a young daughter, Ella. Their friends are busy off-planet – Matt and Maddie touring Matt’s latest art show, and Hawk and Kee flying rich tourists to some galactic wonder. But soon they will be returning, so all six arrange for a fortnight away at an expensive Chalcedony holiday spot called Tamara Falls. Part of the charm of the place is that it’s apparently haunted… and the ghost makes a number of appearances in front of the six friends and Ella. It also seems to be trying to tell them something. Matt admits that the holiday is being paid for by Dr Petronius, a famous art patron, who insisted on it as a condition of his offer to tour Matt’s art show. Millennia ago, the Yall fought and defeated an evil alien race, the Skeath, who managed to hide a vast army beneath Tamara Falls, ready to be awoken one day to conquer the galaxy. Petronius wants this to happen, and needs Conway and friends and family to be on-hand to trigger it…

There’s something very… comfortable about the stories in Starship Seasons. There’s nothing edgy or outrageous about the world described, nor about the concepts deployed in the stories. That the characters are well-drawn is a given – Brown has been writing sf since the mid-1980s, and he’s very good at it. But each of the central quintet has a secret, and that five damaged people should become such close friends occasionally feels somewhat banal. Except that feels like too harsh a judgement – these are four polished novellas, firmly located in genre heartland, thoughtful and considered in tone, and very much character-centred. They will not disappoint a dedicated science fiction reader even if, in these days of immersion and jump-cuts and “blowing shit up”, these four novellas do feel a little old-fashioned in affect. Entertaining, thoughtful and put-together well, certainly, but… The fate of the galaxy is several times put at risk, the lives of the central and supporting cast are frequently in danger; and yet once the dust has settled, Conway’s life returns to normal. There is progression – the Golden Column supersedes Telemass, Conway and Hannah have a child, the characters grow and heal over the years – yet the victories won in each of the novellas still feel small scale and personal. Sometimes, that’s all science fiction needs.

Starship Seasons, Eric Brown (2013, Drugstore Indian Press, £7.99, 978-1-848636-02-6)

This review originally appeared in Vector, No. 274, Winter 2013/2014.


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Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle

seoul_survivorsSome time in the near-future, an asteroid is detected on a collision course with Earth. Its existence is denied by media and governments, but hackers find evidence of the “truth” in military and governmental computer systems. Damien is a slacker who believes in the asteroid. His plan is to find the safest place on the planet and then move there, but to do that he needs money. So he agrees to smuggle drugs into Korea for a friend; and then he stays on in Seoul to earn more cash by illegally teaching English to the kids of rich Koreans.

Sydney is a Canadian prostitute who has been taken to Korea by her boyfriend, Johnny Sandman, and is now working as a model. Johnny, an ex-gangbanger, works for ConGlam, which is some sort of shadowy transnational. One of the projects he is overseeing in Korea is VirtuWorld. This is the brainchild of genetics genius, Dr Kim Da Mi, who also plans to build a faux-European mediaeval theme-park village in the mountains north of Seoul, where her genetically-engineered “children” will survive the impending catastrophe.

Lee Mee Hee is a North Korean villager who has had herself smuggled out of the country. By ConGlam. She is taken to China, where she meets a number of other women from North Korea. After they have recovered from their ordeal, they are taken to the purpose-built village in South Korea, where they are to become surrogate mothers for Da Mi’s “children”. Sydney will be the egg donor and Johnny the father. But Johnny proves to have some genetic abnormalities which rule him out. Damien, who resembles Hugh Grant, is a much better candidate. When he learns of this, Johnny is not happy; he’s also losing Sydney, first to a Korean artist and then to Damien, and he’s not happy about that either.

Seoul Survivors is a readable pacey near-future thriller but it seems a little confused as to what it is actually about. Mee Hee’s narrative is wholly about the village of soon-to-be genetically-engineered children, but Sydney’s story chiefly concerns her love-life. Damien is living the life of an illegal immigrant, saving up for a false passport and an airline ticket to Canada. When Da Mi recruits Sydney to the VirtuWorld project and Sydney persuades Damien to donate sperm, he’s not told the true reason. And the objective of the Virtuworld technology is initially presented as the ProxyBod – real-life avatars put together from corpses and various electronic systems. (Only one ProxyBod appears in Seoul Survivors, and it is used by Da Mi.)

Despite having been published by a genre imprint, Seoul Survivors doesn’t read much like science fiction. The near-future it describes so closely resembles the present, it’s hard to determine exactly what are meant to be genre tropes and what are simply setting. There is a vague move in the direction of one or two science fiction ideas – Da Mi introduces Sydney to a therapeutic VR tool; there’s the ProxyBod; and then there’s the asteroid itself lurking somewhere in the background (or not). The world-building is almost wholly reliant on depictions of present-day Seoul, although there are one or two mentions of climate-crash elsewhere and there’s a terrorist attack offstage in London two-thirds of the way through the story.

Foyle has chosen to present many of her Korean characters as speaking pidgin English throughout – in fact, the first line of the novel is: “‘Ni-suh, Sy-duh-nee – Omhada – look at camera – thank you – better – pro-fesh-ional – Now, play with Hot-Cold, plea-suh!” Though this may give the narrative some verisimilitude, these days it’s a difficult trick to pull off without causing offence. And, annoyingly, Foyle refers to the mobile phone throughout as a MoPho rather than mobile or cell or the actual term the Koreans use (which translates “handy phone”, apparently).

None of this, in and of itself, prevents the book from being readable and entertaining, but the cast are something of an obstacle. Sandman is racist, sexist and violent, thoroughly unpleasant, and responsible for several incidents of sexual violence which leave a sour taste. Damien is passive and not very interesting. Sydney is none too bright, while Mee Hee Lee is unworldly and naive. Even Da Mi is self-centred and arrogant and far from likeable. It’s not a particularly edifying group of characters on which to hang a story.

There’s a feeling throughout Seoul Survivors that it’s a book whose whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. While there are some well-handled set-pieces, the story-arc is sign-posted far too blatantly, and the violent climax comes across as somewhat cartoonish because it tries to resolve all of the narratives at once. The advance publicity calls Seoul Survivors a “cyber thriller”, and it certainly feels more like a thriller than science fiction. Whether this is a strength or a weakness… is hard to say.

Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle (2013, Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99, 978-1780875989)

This review originally appeared in Interzone #247, July-August 2013.


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Postscripts Far Voyager

My contributor copy of Postscripts 32/33 Far Voyager landed with a thud on my mat this weekend. I’m especially pleased about this one, because my story provided the anthology’s title. (I didn’t get named on the cover, though.) ‘Far Voyager’ is another of my alt space stories, based around the premise that one of the Voyager probes was manned. There are a few clues to the identity of the astronaut, although he’s not actually named.

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Also in the anthology are many excellent writers, including Paul Park, Ian Watson, Michael Swanwick, Alison Littlewood, Richard Calder and Angela Slatter.


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Welcome to An Age of Discord

What is this, I hear you cry. A space opera? But, Ian, you write hard sf, literary hard sf, the sort of hard sf that needs two pages of bibliography! How can you write a space opera?

Well, it sort of happened like this…

I first started work on A Prospect of War back when I was living in the UAE. I’d previously completed two novels, neither of which were especially good. One was a sort of Dickensian space opera, and the other a first contact novel with a time-slipped narrative. But after working my way through the first seven books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and failing to understand why they had proven so successful, I decided to write a space opera trilogy which used the structure of an epic fantasy. It took several goes before I was happy with the universe I was building (early versions probably owed a little too much to science fiction role-playing games such as Traveller).

So, I would have a “peasant hero”, a young man of common birth who proved to have some magical ability which resulted in him leading the forces of good against an attempt by a “dark lord” to overthrow the existing ruling dynasty. But I wasn’t quite ready to throw magic into my space opera. In fact, what I wanted was a relatively low-tech civilisation that had managed to build an interstellar empire using only a limited number of pieces of handwavey technology. I didn’t want it all shiny high tech because I needed to justify the rigidly-enforced social classes. You need those class barriers in place for a peasant hero to break through (and to provide yet more jeopardy to justify his eventual victory). And I wanted an atmosphere of fading grandeur and deep history.

I invented a world which reached an early industrial level of technology, and promptly discovered three satellites in orbit. A space race led to one nation – the most socially conservative and repressive of those on the world – getting into space first… where the astronauts found three ancient wrecked starships. And from them they reverse-engineered: a Faster-Than-Light drive, a cheap energy generator, anti-gravity, a powerful directed-energy ships’ weapon, and a force-curtain. (They actually had a little surreptitious help… but that’s a story for another day.) These five things gave that nation first the planet, and then an interstellar empire.

But my story would be set millennia later, after the empire had declined and a new empire, catalysed by a successful war against another interstellar polity, had been carved out of it. The dark lord would be only the latest leader of a conspiracy which has been harbouring a grudge since the defeat of the old empire…

This was getting bloody complicated. I took some time out from writing to do some world-building… and eventually ended up with a couple of hundred MB of spreadsheets, documents and text files giving details on everything from the imperial government to its military to naming conventions to ancient history. I even built a wiki, with the eventual aim of either publishing it online or in book-form as an encyclopaedia.

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

Then it was back to writing the story… which never quite went as planned. This was partly because I’d been too clever for my own good. For reasons which now escape me, I decided that FTL travel entailed journeys measured in weeks, but in the real universe the length of time the journey took was longer, on a logarithmic scale. So a journey which for a ship’s passengers might take a week would see them arrive eight days after their departure; for two weeks, it would be seventeen days… and so on. Since I decided to use four main viewpoint characters, and I’d have them travelling about on different journeys… I had to create a giant spreadsheet in order to keep the chronology straight. It was a major headache.

And that epic fantasy template I’d planned on using… that was getting completely bent out of shape too. I had my four protagonists meeting and then separating and then meeting again, just so I could get them all into position for the end of the first novel. To make matters worse, every time I reached for a space opera or epic fantasy trope to incorporate, it would never quite fit, so I had to either rip it apart or subvert it.

Anyway, I eventually finished the first book, after many years of writing and polishing. It was good enough for John Jarrold to take me on as a client. I started work on the second book of the trilogy. This was a mistake. If you can’t sell the first book of a series, what’s the point of writing the second book? A few years passed. I wrote a few treatments for novels, but no one bit. I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It won the BSFA Award. I discovered I much preferred writing the sort of literary sf that requires lots of research. I wrote the remaining books of the Apollo Quartet (well, was working on the fourth book). Then a small press – Tickety Boo Press – asked to see my space opera. What to do? I’m not writing that sort of science fiction any more. Won’t its appearance confuse readers who have come to expect the likes of the Apollo Quartet from me?

Decision time.

Now, I still stand by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders. I think they’re good work. And now actually seems like the right time for them to appear. Publishing has changed, the sf market has changed, space opera has changed. Which doesn’t mean I don’t intend to do a little wrangling before they see the light of day. At 200,000 words, A Prospect of War could do with being made a little tighter and punchier. And I changed some background details when I wrote A Conflict of Orders, so I need to retcon them in A Prospect of War. A Conflict of Orders’ 170,000 words will also receive some rewriting. And I’ll finally get around to writing A Want of Reason – which will please some friends, who have been demanding I write it for years.

Space opera is a more commercial, and commercially successful, subgenre than literary hard sf. If An Age of Discord sells well, and encourages people to buy the Apollo Quartet, then it’s all win. There are space operas currently available on Kindle – badly-written and derivative ones – which sell several thousand copies a month. In three years, I’ve sold 1,300 copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Granted, novellas don’t sell as well novels, but all the same…

An Age of Discord does not mean I’ve permanently decamped to space opera. I still have a number of hard sf projects planned, both at novella and novel length. But I see no reason why I can’t write big fat space operas and literary hard sf. But we shall see how well the trilogy does. Perhaps people will hate it, perhaps no one will buy it. Perhaps its time has not come, after all…

 


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The Race, Nina Allan

I first came across Allan’s fiction in Interzone, and while her stories always struck me as well-written, there was a vagueness to some of the details in them which never quite rung true for me. ‘Flying in the Face of God’, which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2010, is a case in point. The relationship between the two central characters is handled beautifully, but the story is also about a space programme for which one of them has been selected. And something about that space programme felt unconvincing. A recent reread of the story in the collection Microcosms did not change my mind.

Of course, many people will say I’m missing the point of the story – or rather, by focusing on that one aspect, I’m missing what the story is about. And that’s almost certainly true. But a story is more than the sum of its parts, and a failure in one of those parts can throw the whole out of balance. It’s entirely subjective, of course – I can admire a story like ‘Flying in the Face of God’, without thinking it as good as everyone else seems to. And one thing I do admire about the story is Allan’s facility at creating worlds slightly off-kilter from ours, ones just strange enough to unsettle without seeming completely unfamiliar. Which brings us to The Race, her first piece of novel-length fiction.

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The Race comprises four novellas, titled ‘Jenna’, ‘Christy’, ‘Alex’ and ‘Maree’ after their narrators. Jenna lives in Sapphire, a town on the edge of Romney Marsh, in a future that is plainly not our own. Her brother, Del, manages a dog track, where smartdogs are raced by “runners”, people with an empathic connection to the smartdogs mediated by implants. ‘Jenna’ is essentially a family history and an exploration of Jenna’s small world (we learn very little of the world outside Sapphire). Jenna becomes a maker of handmade gauntlets for the runners, and Del gets married and has a baby girl. A few years later, the girl is kidnapped, and it transpires Del was involved with drug dealers and owes them money for a missing shipment.

Christy, on the other hand, lives in our world. Her father and brother run a house clearance firm. ‘Christy’ focuses on Christy’s relationship with her brother, Derek, and his girlfriends. First Monica, and then Lin. Derek is a thug and a nasty piece of work. After he sexually assaults Christy, she leaves for London and university. She becomes a writer, and ‘Jenna’ is revealed as one of her stories. It is during one visit home that she meets Lin, who Derek tells her he will marry. But then Lin disappears, and Christy fears her brother may have murdered her.

Alex is the ex-boyfriend of Lin, and a journalist based in London. He is contacted by Christy – several years have passed since the central events of ‘Christy’ – who asks him to come and visit her in her home in Hastings. She asks him about Lin, and he describes an incident when Derek assaulted him because Lin had come to talk over her fears about Derek. Alex also reveals that Lin is alive and well, as he saw her in the street several years later but she blanked him.

The final novella is set in an alternate UK. Maree is an orphan and an empath, and she leaves her home in Scotland to cross the Atlantic to work on a secret project in Thalia (which seems to be a country in South America). This world also has smartdogs and shares some elements with that of ‘Jenna’ – in fact, it may be the same one but the narrow focus of ‘Jenna’ concealed the parts in ‘Maree’ that are invented. And the invention in the novella is… odd. Some places – London, Inverness – have the same names as real places; others do not – Lilyat (Lisbon?), Bonita (Buenos Aires?), Kontessa… And then there are the whales. Much of ‘Maree’ takes place aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic. This is considered a hazardous journey as convoys of whales sink ships when they come across them. And chief among the whales is the “baer-whale”, which is bigger than most ships. Maree discovers during the journey, from a fellow passenger who admits he is a private detective who had been hired to find her, that she is Del’s missing daughter from ‘Jenna’, and that she wasn’t kidnapped because of the drugs but because she is a natural empath. In other words, she doesn’t need an implant. This also means she is gifted at acquiring languages. The secret project she is joining is trying to translate alien messages from outer space.

The things that are good about The Race are the things that Allan is good at. The mosaic structure plays to her strengths in that it allows for a tight focus over a relatively short wordcout. However, it also reveals a weakness: the links between the novellas are not quite strong enough to hold the novel together. Take the murder which appears in ‘Christy’ and ‘Alex’. Christy is afraid her brother killed Lin, but the truth is revealed in passing by Alex. Which makes the resolution of it, and the relief Christy must feel, completely secondhand, robbing it of any emotional impact. It’s not central to either novella, of course, but it feels like one of those details which never quite rings true. Which is not to say that every detail rings false. One of Allan’s strengths as a writer is the off-focus lens she shines on the worlds of her stories, and she does this by changing some details, such as the names of places, so that everything feels slightly off-kilter, and by keeping the relationships between the characters firmly at the centre of the narrative and the plot beats somewhere to the side. This is something that is more obvious in The Race than other works because each of the novellas exists at the edges of the preceding one.

The writing throughout is, unsurprisingly, very good, and the characters are drawn extremely well – although if Jenna, Christy and Maree seem a little similar that’s an artefact of the structure, I suspect. As is the novel’s lack of, well, plot. The two science-fictional novellas wrap the real world ones, when you’d expect the reverse to be the case; but Christy’s life – since ‘Alex’ too is about that – doesn’t really provide a key to ‘Jenna’ and ‘Maree’. The mystery which exercises Christy for years does sort of map onto the disappearance of Jenna’s brother’s daughter. And Maree does end up with a completely new life, much as Alex reveals Lin to have. Even then, revealing what happened to Del’s daughter doesn’t really resolve anything, as ‘Maree’ only catapults her into a new, and unsolved, mystery. I’m also not really sure what role the dog racing plays, or why it provides the title, since it only appears in ‘Jenna’, which is Christy’s creation anyway.

The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt. If it doesn’t quite match another 2014 genre mosaic novel, Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines, that’s probably because Park goes full-on metafictional, and Allan sort of nibbles at the edges and never quite commits. Or perhaps it’s just that Allan’s form of metafiction is less overt – it lives within her stories rather than providing the stories’ building-blocks. Having said all that, I won’t be surprised if The Race appears on one or two shortlists next year.


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Hollywood does near-future science fiction

So I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which some have been saying is the best sf film ever made. But, of course, they always say that about a new film, probably because they’re just shills for the Hollywood marketing machine. But if you wait a bit – or a week, as I did – then a few more honest voices begin to appear… And they gave mixed reviews. Thing is, just because Hollywood decides to have a go at near-future sf, just as they had a go at a space movie last year, there’s no need to scream about how good it is… Having said that, I’ve now seen the trailer for the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending twice and it looks proper awful.

interstellar

But Interstellar. It is supposed to be a rigorous and accurate vision of interstellar space travel – handwavy vastly superior aliens who create the wormhole notwithstanding. Matthew McConaughey plays NASA test pilot turned farmer Coop, since a global famine has resulted in anything remotely scientific being shut down. As one person puts it, “We’re a caretaker generation, we don’t need engineers, we need farmers”. Except the farming on display is some sort of pastiche of early twentieth century farming, with a small wooden house in the middle of a sea of maize. There are no equipment sheds, no garages, no silos, no storage. Just a house. And even though various events in the film take place at different times of the year, the maize is always just about ready to be harvested – in fact, it is being harvested by robot combine harvesters on a number of different occasions. Makes you wonder why there’s a famine if they can grow maize so quickly 365 days a year…

A “ghost” in the bedroom of Coop’s ten-year-old daughter, Murphy, causes books to fly off the shelf, but Murph works out there is a pattern to it. It proves to be binary, a set of coordinates. Murph, incidentally, was named for Murphy’s Law, “What can happen, will happen”. Except that’s wrong – Murphy’s Law, as popularised by John Paul Stapp, is “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. This is not the only little “joke” in Interstellar. At a parent-teacher meeting, Coop is told the Apollo missions were faked in order to bankrupt the USSR, which they did successfully. No mention of the arms race. Or the fact the Apollo missions ended twenty years before the USSR economy crashed. Or that by the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Russian space programme was the only one flying human-rated spacecraft.

Anyway, the coordinates lead Coop and Murph to a secret NASA facility, where kindly professor Brand, Michael Caine, helpfully explains the whole plot. I should note that it’s taken an hour to get to this point – Interstellar is a film in which very little happens for the first third. Thirty years earlier, NASA discovered a wormhole near Saturn, which leads to twelve habitable worlds in another galaxy. Ten years ago, they sent a crew of twelve to explore three of those worlds. Now they want to send a supply mission. And Coop just happens to have test-piloted the spacecraft they’re readying for the mission. So even though he has literally just walked in out of the fields, he’s the best man for the job. Murph doesn’t want him to go, because she thinks he won’t come back. Coop, of course, hates farming and immediately signs up. Also on the mission is Brand’s daughter, played by Anne Hathaway, and two spear carriers, Wes Bentley and David Gyasi. Oh, and a pair of AI robots that look like tourist information kiosks.

endurance

The spacecraft launches, rendezvouses with the Endurance, NASA’s last remaining interplanetary spacecraft, which has been parked in orbit. The crew go into hibernation for the two-year trip to Saturn – in a room which is apparently tiled like a bathroom, something I’d have thought too expensive weight-wise for a spacecraft. The shuttle craft too was unfeasibly large – not to mention a strange and not very aerodynamic shape. At Saturn, the crew wake up, the Endurance enters the wormhole (cue demonstration of how a wormhole works with a folded piece of paper; sigh). On the other side, they discover a planetary system orbiting a supermassive black hole, with three habitable worlds. The previous mission sent teams to all three of these planets. One world orbits inside the event horizon of the black hole, so that time dilation means seven years will pass for every hour spent on its surface. Which is just… WTF. Any such planet would have long been swallowed by the black hole, and radiation would fry everything on it anyway. The planet proves to be completely covered in about half a metre of water, and the previous mission did not survive an encounter with a giant wave – and, in fact, Coop’s mission only just makes it out alive. But they do stay far too long on the planet, and when they return to the Endurance, twenty-three years have passed. The chief effect of this, of course, has been to estrange Coop even more from his daughter… who is now Brand Sr’s protegé and helping him to complete the equations which will marry the theory of relativity with quantum mechanics and somehow or other lift a giant concrete spacestation built on the ground into orbit.

Since water planet was a bust, and it took so long for them to learn this, the Endurance only has enough fuel remaining to visit one of the other two worlds. Brand Jr admits she is in love with the leader of one of the missions – leading to a cringe-worthy monologue in which she declares “love is the only thing which transcends time and space”. But Coop over-rules her and they head for the other world instead. Where they find Dr Mann, Matt Damon. On a world of frozen clouds. Which is just as silly as it sounds – although it does look quite impressive…

interstellar_clouds

Damon admits that Brand Sr solved his equations years before and there is no solution possible without “quantum data” from inside a black hole. So the supply mission is actually a blind – the real plan is to seed the most suitable of the three worlds with the frozen gametes carried aboard Endurance. But ice-cloud world isn’t really fit for colonisation. Cue fisticuffs between Coop and Mann. Coop loses, and is in danger of asphyxiating in the ammonia-heavy atmosphere. Fortunately, he finds the doodad from his helmet that Mann removed which allows him to radio Brand Jr for help. Why he has a little thing on his helmet for long-range comms makes no sense. Brand Jr jumps into the lander and flies to his rescue. Despite Coop and Mann only spending about ten minutes walking away from the base, it takes the lander over five minutes to fly to where Coop is. Mann meanwhile steals the shuttle and heads for the Endurance.

But Coop remotely locks the Endurance, and Mann tries a manual docking but cocks it up – destroying himself and part of the Endurance. Which spins away. So Coop pilots the lander manually into a docking with the Endurance by rotating the lander to match. I’m not sure why he and Brand Jr were shown spinning with their heads pulled to the sides when it had already been established that their seats pivot so their heads would in fact have been toward the centre of rotation. Unfortunately, they’re now too close to the supermassive black hole, and the Endurance on its own can’t pull free. It needs the engines on the lander and the remaining shuttle too. But because plot reasons those spacecraft have to be piloted manually. One is taken by the surviving robot and the other by Coop. Both manfully sacrifice themselves so Brand Jr can head for her lover and take him the frozen gametes to found a new human race. However, the robot is going to try and get the “quantum data” from inside the black hole and transmit it out, so who knows? Maybe Murph will be able to solve Brand Sr’s equations after all…

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Interstellar. The world-building is terrible, despite its claim of scientific accuracy science is sacrificed to drama numerous times, as is plausibility, and its central message about love is the sort of puerile twaddle that Hollywood all too often mistakes for metaphysics. There are some neat ideas, and on several occasions the plot took turns I wasn’t expecting. Although the spacecraft look weird, the film-makers have made a serious attempt at presenting technology that looks plausible and fit for purpose.

lander

But the pacing of the film is awful – that first third is apparently an entirely separate movie that Nolan bolted onto the front of his… and it shows. Some of the concepts are simplified to the extent they come across as handwavy nonsense. And the ending is a complete let down. Part of the problem is, I think, that the movie bounces from the personal to the bigger picture without any kind of logic or pattern. I suspect it’s an attempt to humanise the big concepts, but it doesn’t work. It just shows how badly shored-up they are by the world of the story. In parts, Interstellar also feels like too much was crammed in, so much that it no longer knows where its focus lies. Clearly it’s meant to be Murph’s story, as we see her entire life through the eyes of her father, Coop. But Coop spends the most time on-screen, as if he were the star of an adventure film. The two stories don’t quite fit – you can certainly have a short linear narrative looping in and out of an episodic story spread over decades, it’s an interesting narrative structure; but for it work you need something to anchor the crossover points. Interstellar tries for this – but the ones that make emotional sense are too few and so Murph’s narrative ends up having to fill in too much story in between breaks from Coop’s adventures. It makes for a third act that is badly unbalanced… which is one reason why the ending has so little impact.

I like that Nolan made an attempt at a serious near-future sf film. And visually, Interstellar is quite impressive. But it’s certainly not the greatest sf film ever made – nowhere close to it, in fact. I’m reluctant to even classify it as a “superior” sf film, as scoring highly on visuals is hardly difficult these days. It has some interesting ideas, but it handles them badly, throws in a helping of philosophical twaddle, and badly mangles what could have been a clever narrative structure. Disappointing.

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