Monday, 22 May 2017

Odyssey, and Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt


Odyssey, and Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt

Odyssey and Cauldron are the fifth and sixth books in the author's Academy series, following on from Omega. This effectively ends the main sequence of this series, although there is a 2013 prequel, Starhawk, featuring a much younger Priscilla Hutchins (Hutch) at the start of her career.

Odyssey continues the tale of Hutch, the former starship pilot and now deskbound administrator, and includes some other characters we have met before; most notably Gregory MacAllister, the cynical and irascible iconoclast who owns and edits a no-holds-barred periodical. In fact, he is arguably the most important character in this story, along with a newcomer, Valentina (Valya) a Greek starship pilot who is, of course, gorgeous, like most of McDevitt's heroines.

This time the plot hangs on the mysterious "Moonriders"; groups of black spheres which have allegedly been spotted by space craft from time to time. They seem to belong to an advanced alien civilisation but no clear evidence exists that they are real, and MacAllister among many others believes they are a myth, with the occasional video footage being faked. This attitude changes when Moonriders are observed to move a large asteroid in such a way that it would eventually strike one of the few life-bearing worlds discovered, with devastating effects. Not long afterwards, a partly-built space hotel is also threatened.

The ability of the Academy to respond to these threats is hampered by constant budget cuts and its survival has been doubtful, but with an unknown and apparently hostile alien civilisation on the loose, a warfleet is planned. This will be too late, however, to help the Origins project – a giant particle accelerator in space which also comes under threat, and whose fate forms the climax of the novel.

The author's writing quality and characterisation continue to improve, and while the viewpoint hops between various individuals there is no problem keeping up with who everyone is. However, the story is less ambitious and exciting than the earlier books; it doesn't have such a "widescreen baroque" appeal or the associated "sense of wonder". There are some loose ends, too: an initial mystery concerning a spaceship lost in transdimensional space is left unresolved, as are some more important issues.

An amusing aspect of the story is the series of quotes which begin each chapter, many of them caustic observations from MacAllister's publications, which provide a good flavour of the character. For example:

"The term congressional hearing is an oxymoron. No congressional hearing is ever called to gather information. Rather, it is an exercise designed strictly for posturing, by people who have already made up their minds, looking for ammunition to support their positions."

And:

"There are few professions whose primary objective is to advance the cause of humanity rather than simply to make money or accrue power. Among this limited group of humanitarians I would number teachers, nurses, bookstore owners, and bartenders."

Finally:

"Certain types of decisions can be safely ignored. Some issues will go away with the passage of time, others will be so slow developing that the decision makers will depart before the results of their neglect become manifest. Which brings us to the environment."

Despite a certain lack of excitement in the story by comparison with the earlier books, this is still a fast-paced and intriguing tale which is well worth reading.

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Cauldron is set some years later, when the Academy has closed down as a result of a general withdrawal from space exploration as humanity focuses on winning the battle to correct self-inflicted environmental damage to the Earth. Hutch is retired, only emerging to give fundraising speeches in support of the Prometheus Foundation, a private organisation which is the last to be carrying our interstellar research. Everything is shaken up when a scientist approaches her with information about a new type of superluminal drive which is many times faster than the existing one: fast enough to reach the galactic core in only a few months.

The rest of this review contains some spoilers; if you don't want to read on, I'll just add that it is, as usual, a gripping story which I finished in a couple of reading sessions, despite it being not without flaws.

After various trials and tribulations the new drive is made to work and a party of explorers, including Hutch, sets out to reach the galactic core. The reason is not just research for its own sake: they are searching for the Cauldron; the source of the vast, civilisation-destroying Omega clouds (featured in the first and fourth books of the Academy series: The Engines of God and Omega). On the way, they drop in to two other solar systems of interest: one is the source of the vast alien spacecraft (the subject of Chindi, the third in the series); the other the origin of the first ever alien message received by SETI when Hutch was a young girl. Both episodes have a certain familiarity about them: the first an alien contact story reminiscent in some respects of that in Omega; the second has a landing party in trouble on a frozen world, which reminded me of Deepsix, the second book of the series. The climax of the story, as they reach the Cauldron and discover what the Omega clouds are all about, is certainly different, but I found it rather unsatisfying. On the other hand, the author had rather painted himself into a corner; what reasonable explanation could there be for the existence of such incomprehensible artifacts as the Omega clouds? Maybe it would have been better to leave their origin and purpose a mystery.

One aspect of McDevitt's writing that I enjoy is the way he takes the opportunity to pass (often sardonic) comment on social attitudes in both human and alien societies, as mentioned above. In this instance, his target is personal immortality: if everyone could live forever, he postulates that the end result would be a society totally fossilised, with no new thinking or development, and possibly even abandoning many technological developments as being unnecessary. That adds another wrinkle to my own thoughts on this issue, as expressed here: http://quarryhs.co.uk/OnImmortality.htm


Overall, the Academy series is a significant contribution to modern space opera. It has its weaknesses, but these are forgivable in the light of the widescreen imagination and gripping storytelling.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Fantasy assortment


Three different novels this time, with nothing connecting them except that they all fall (more or less) into the fantasy genre:

Three, by Sarah Lotz: 

Four passenger planes, in the USA, Europe, Japan, and South Africa, crash almost simultaneously. There are no survivors, except for one young child from each of three of the planes – survivals which seem inexplicable given the devastating nature of the crashes. An adult on one of the planes lives just long enough to leave an ambiguous but chilling message on her phone – apparently about the surviving child. And the children are changed; they have become far more knowing than children of that age should be. The debate soon rages – are they changelings of some kind? Aliens? Harbingers of the Apocalypse?

Sarah Lotz's novel follows in detail the lives of various characters connected with the children as they struggle to understand what has happened to them, under the intense scrutiny of the media and with religion and politics becoming increasingly involved.

The story is told by an author, Elspeth Martins, who has written a book about the three survivors – a book which forms the greater part of Three. It consists of a series of interviews with the characters, news reports and other sources, occasionally interspersed with (and concluding with) sections in which Martins follows up the consequences of having written her story. 

This is an unusual tale, rather slow-paced because of the considerable detail concerning the lives of the characters. It remained intriguing enough to hold my attention, but I'm unlikely to want to read it again.

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Silverheart – a novel of the multiverse, by Michael Moorcock and Storm Constantine:

This fantasy has a richly baroque feel, being set in the legendary, ancient, somewhat decrepit and apparently isolated twin city of Karadur/Shriltasi, in which the two parts are separated by being located in different branches of the multiverse. Travel between the cities is possible, but only a few know how. The social structure of Karadur (where nearly all of the initial action is set) is based on clans led by hereditary lords, each specialising in a different metal; with Iron, Copper, Gold and Silver being the four most important. Stirring up trouble in this ossified society is Max Silverskin, a talented young thief who decides to steal a huge diamond which is the symbol of the city – and possibly rather more. Meanwhile, the strange people of Shriltasi seem to have their own agenda, but it is unclear what it is.

All of this sounds intriguing, but for some reason I was never fully engaged. Perhaps it was trying too hard to be different and bizarre, but I found myself increasingly uninterested in picking up the book and continuing with it, so I finally bailed out after getting almost a third of the way through.

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Chronicles of Empire: Gathering, by Brian G Turner:

This newly published book is, from its title, clearly intended to be the first of a series. The second half of the title also suggests that this might be a quest type of story in the Tolkien tradition, with an assorted group of adventurers gathering together before setting off to fulfil some vital task. This is indeed more or less what happens, although the group members arrive in an unplanned fashion at different times. While the medievalesque setting is conventional enough, pairing it with time travel from a very distant future is less common, giving the tale a flavour of SF as well as fantasy. There is no magic here, only some (very) advanced science which, as has been pointed out before, might be argued to be more or less the same thing depending on your viewpoint.

The author has apparently being working on this concept for a long time, planning the story arc over a whole series with Gathering seen as merely the first volume. There is a problem with this, however, in that the story develops slowly; the first really exciting action scenes which gripped this reader did not occur until about a third of the way through. After that, the pacing is fine, but I nearly didn't get that far. There are a couple of other consequences of taking such a long view of the plot: the purpose of the quest is never made clear, nor is the identity or motivation of the principal character that obvious (hints are dropped, but nothing more). To return to Tolkien comparisons, for all of the variety in its characters and events, there is never any doubt from very early in The Lord of the Rings that the principal character is Frodo and that the purpose of the quest is to put the magical ring out of Sauron's reach.  Such clarity is missing from Gathering, which appears somewhat inchoate in consequence.

I would also have liked to understand more about the setting: the geography and politics of the world, subjects which are mentioned frequently but never in a way which allowed this reader to get a firm grasp of the overall picture. The author undoubtedly knows exactly what is going on and how everything fits together, but he doesn't always make that clear; and at the end of the book I was still trying to sort out which characters belonged to which factions, and what each faction stood for. This is always a problem in creating new worlds: you don't want to slow down the action by putting in too many infodumps about the setting, but you have to give the reader enough to understand what is happening. Some writers get around this by including an explanatory prologue or appendix, or just extracts from a fictional encyclopedia (or some such) at the start of each chapter.


Once you get into it, this story is engaging and it might well be the start of a worthwhile epic. But as the first volume of a series, this should do more than just introduce the characters and include some initial action; it also needs to capture the reader, by working as a stand-alone novel while being tantalising about what happens next – which means providing more clues as to what the series is all about, and hitting the ground running, not strolling.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Judgment on Janus, and Victory on Janus, by Andre Norton


These 1960s books form a duology (with links to other stories as well). I first read Judgment on Janus as a youngster and was delighted with the story, which pressed a lot of my buttons. So much so that I bought a copy decades later, and discovered that it had a sequel which I also purchased. This is the first time I have read them for many years. Warning: there are spoilers in this review.

The story starts off in a dystopian fashion with a young man, Niall Renfro, trapped on the dumping ground of the Dipple on the planet Korwar, having been made homeless by an interstellar war. He signs up with the Labor Agency and is despatched to a harsh frontier planet largely covered by forest – Janus. The owners and only settlers on the planet are a fundamentalist religious group, the Sky Lovers, who refuse to use technology and impose a grim, patriarchical rule. They only occupy a small area around the spacecraft landing field, living in small family groups – garths – each of which slowly clears the area of forest around them using hard manual labour. Imported workers, like Niall, are effectively slaves.

One of the warnings given to new arrivals is to avoid the forbidden "treasures" which are sometimes dug up and must be reported and destroyed immediately.  One is found by Niall; a collection of miscellaneous glittering objects which he finds irresistable, so he keeps one when the rest of the cache is destroyed.  Shortly afterwards, he falls ill of the dreaded "green sick" and, as the Sky Lovers' law dictates, is abandoned to die in the hostile forest.

Except that he recovers, only he is no longer entirely human. He has acquired memories of a distant time in which his people – the Iftin – lived in giant trees deep in the forest. They were attacked by the barbarian Larsh, who were aided by a mysterious, hostile power. At this point the tone of the story slips from SF to epic fantasy in the Tolkien mode as Niall (now Ayyar), and the other revived Iftin he encounters, desperately try to recall what they need to know to survive, from the fragments of memory of a glorious past that each possesses.

The ending is clearly no more than a temporary pause in hostilities, until the sequel comes along.

Victory on Janus is that sequel, and follows on directly. A new threat to the Iftin has emerged, powerful enough to destroy the last of the great trees in the forest. The old enemy – the hostile power of the first book – is re-emerging in new forms. Renfro/Ayyar and his fellow transformed Iftin have to combine their human knowledge with that of the Iftin to stand any chance of survival. As the story develops, so the flavour changes again, from high fantasy back to SF.

These books contain one continuous story, so must be read in the right order. They are very much of their time: short, fast-moving page-turners that keep the reader so caught up in events that there is little time for the characterisation or deeper plotting which we have since become used to. I finished each one in a single sitting and enjoyed them due to nostalgia as much as anything else. Do they still have a place on the modern bookshelf? Yes, they would make a great introduction to SFF for younger readers, to enthuse them and give them that sense of wonder and possibility, before they are ready to move on to the modern heavyweights – literally as well as literary!


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Fractured Europe series, by Dave Hutchinson


There are three novels in the Fractured Europe sequence, which is probably all that we are going to get as the third volume rounds off the story nicely and there is no hint of any more.

The first is Europe in Autumn. To paraphrase the back cover, this tale is set in a dystopian near-future in which multiple economic crises and a flu pandemic have fractured Europe into countless tiny nations, duchies, polities and republics. Among these is The Line, a nation consisting of a narrow strip of land enclosing a trans-European railway. I was mildly amused to note that while the failure of the EU and the fracturing of Europe remain possibilities the author has already been overtaken by recent events, in that his England is seen as the strongest supporter of what remains of the EU!

The story focuses on the life of Rudi, who we first see as a chef in a restaurant in Kraków but then becomes recruited by Les Coureurs des Bois, a secretive but powerful organisation which is primarily concerned with transporting packages (live or otherwise) through Europe's complex maze of customs barriers and passport controls – but they have also become involved in espionage.

We see Rudi in glimpses over time, as he tackles missions of ever-increasing complexity and danger. The final one is the most intriguing as it introduces a new concept – a Europe which exists on, and apparently was brought into existence by, fantasy maps drawn by a British cartrographic family in the past, indicating a parallel world – the Community – which could be entered by those who knew how.

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The second volume, Europe at Midnight, starts with a 50-page sequence in the Campus – a strange, enclosed land some two hundred miles across, surrounded by mountains – and also by booby-traps which prevent anyone from leaving. The land is entirely occupied by a huge, dispersed university previously run on hereditary lines, at which a revolution –The Fall – had taken place a few months earlier. The story follows the new Professor of Intelligence as he investigates the crimes of the Old Board and also the various attempts to escape. The rest of the book intersperses the first-person viewpoint of the unnamed Professor with third-person viewpoints of others.

The plot then returns to the Fractured Europe universe with the focus on Jim, an English secret service agent who is roped into investigating incredible reports concerning a parallel world called the Community. His scepticism is soon dented when a real live escapee from the Campus turns up, at which point the two plot threads come together. And – halfway though the book – Les Coureurs des Bois make a reappearance.

The third setting for the story, the Community, features in much of the rest of the book. This is a strange version of Europe, basically like 1950s Britain throughout, and very well-controlled. The tension rises as various plot threads tying together Fractured Europe and the Community head towards a conclusion.

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The third volume, Europe in Winter has, rather oddly, more in common with the first volume than the second, as attention again switches to Rudi and we hear the rest of his story against the background of the competition between the Community and Fractured Europe. One of the giant, high-speed trains of the trans-European express is destroyed by sabotage – but who did it, and why? And what is the Community really up to?

Various other characters appear, some from the previous volumes, some new, although unless you have a more retentive memory than mine it might be hard to work out which ones we have met before. This meant that I was struggling to understand the context of many of the scenes, but I still enjoyed the read as the author spins such an intriguing tale.

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The paraphrase which popped into my mind with these books was "this is SFF Jim, but not as we know it". Full marks for originality, and for high-quality story-telling. I did find it a little confusing at times due to the number of characters and the switches of viewpoint, but it repaid the effort involved. I hope to revisit these three before too long, but without any gaps in between and making notes of the main characters when I first encounter them!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Films: Europa Report (2014), Star Trek Beyond (2016), and Warcraft (2016)


I had heard good things about Europa Report, but found it difficult to get hold of a copy. Eventually I bought a DVD which turned out to be from a German company. Clicking on the "Spracht" link on the opening page gives a choice of German or English, and also whether or not you want subtitles. At first I assumed that the film had been made in German and that English speakers had a choice of viewing subtitles or hearing a version dubbed into English, but after experimentation it turned out that the actors were actually speaking English and the optional subtitles were in German!

I'll quote part of the plot summary on the iTunes preview page as it gives a fair description:

"A unique blend of documentary, alternative history and science fiction thriller, EUROPA REPORT follows a contemporary mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to investigate the possible existence of alien life within our solar system. When unmanned probes suggest that a hidden ocean could exist underneath Europa’s icy surface and may contain single-celled life, Europa Ventures, a privately funded space exploration company, sends six of the best astronauts from around the world to confirm the data and explore the revolutionary discoveries that may lie in the Europan ocean."

The structure of the film is unusual, interspersing interviews with staff back on Earth, face-to-camera recordings by the pilot looking back on what had happened, and both flashback and live scenes aboard the spacecraft.  Some concentration is therefore needed to follow the story, and the structure is cleverly used to mislead viewers as to what happened, until the finale. The scenes on board the spacecraft are deliberately variable in quality, and the interactions of the crew seem far more genuine than the usual carefully polished cinematic dialogue. The pace is slow and deliberate throughout, the appeal of the film being in its realistic feel and in the gradual build-up of tension as the crew struggle with a sequence of problems.

Most of the cast were new to me, the exceptions being Michael Nyqvist and Sharlto Copley. Two key cast members were the pilot (played by Anamaria Marinca) and the team leader back on Earth, played by the American actress Embeth Davidtz - who I was amused to note spoke the kind of flawless, cut-glass, highly-educated, upper-class English which no native Brits speak any more!

This won't be enjoyed by those expecting the feel-good escapism of films like Gravity and The Martian, but Europa Report is a much better SF film than either, and is well worth watching – if you can find it.

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I read recently that the quantity and quality of dialogue in blockbuster films have been declining steadily in recent years, for the simple reason that to maximise the takings the films have to be successful around the world. So they have to be as easily understood in China as in  the USA. Which means simple plots and a strongly visual, action-orientated viewing experience with a minimum of chatter. Which leads me neatly into Star Trek Beyond. Once again, the only vaguely interesting character is the villain (in this case played by Idris Elba) – and he's not all that interesting. Most of the film consists of fighting, chasing, and lots and lots of the 'splosions beloved of the target audience, but is there anything of interest to adults? Well, there's the odd flash of humour – including in the very first scene a good visual joke about relative size and perspective – but that's about it. The rest is completely forgettable and, as I indicated in my review of the first film of this series, the old TV series and films of Star Trek: The New Generation are, by comparison, positively Shakespearean.

One curiosity: the MacGuffin in this film is a supposedly civilisation-destroying secret weapon, yet on the two occasions it is deployed the effect is little more than, and significantly slower than, a typical hand grenade.

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Warcraft is not a film I would ordinarily think of watching – I have no interest in computer games – but I was prompted to do so by two things: it was directed by Duncan Jones (Moon and Source Code) and received a surprisingly favourable review from the BBC's film critic, Mark Kermode.

I hesitate to try to describe the plot, as a quick check on the Warcraft game world showed that it is of bewildering complexity, the plot of this film only being a small extract from it. I will just briefly summarise it as: orcs – huge and belligerent humanoids – have created a magical gate which enables them to pass from their own ruined world to another (Azeroth), occupied by humans (in a medieval stage of development, as usual); the humans fight back; and much of the conflict depends on a contest between the magical powers of a few of the participants. I was amused to note the collection of high fantasy tropes – not just orcs, elves wizards and dwarves, but also in the names, such as Anduin (one of the characters) which I recall from Tolkein, and Azeroth, from a book in the 1970s Morgaine cycle by C J Cherryh (Fires of Azeroth).


Overall, I think that this film is a pretty good example of its type. It suffers somewhat (as do all such fantasy films) in comparison with the Game of Thrones TV series, which is much more grim and adult, but represents a couple of hours of good entertainment. And it includes a very buff Paula Patton whose good looks are hardly spoiled by a small pair of tusks!