Saturday, 20 September 2008

Review: "Let the Fire Fall" by Kate Wilhelm

Having read and enjoyed "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" by Kate Wilhelm, I was pleased to pick up "Let the Fire Fall" on a recent trip to Leakey's bookshop in Inverness. I've always enjoyed used bookstores as a source of books that are no longer in print, and Leakey's did not disappoint in this case.

"Let the Fire Fall" is a novel about an alien ship landing on Earth, and about a single survivor making his way in a world gripped by Millennial hysteria. The fear and paranoia of the age are fueled by an evangelist, who amasses power and influence through a blend of showmanship and gut instinct.

I'm reminded of "The World Jones Made" by Philip K. Dick. Both feature fear, spawned by an encounter with aliens, and an evangelist rising to power. I'm also reminded of "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein. The main character in "Let the Fire Fall" is not a human with an alien upbringing, but an alien with a human upbringing who strikes out on his own and becomes a self-made individual, yearning to learn about his past.

This is a good book. Not quite as classic as "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang", but still well worth picking up at a library or used book store.

Review: "More Than Human" by Theodore Sturgeon

I sat down to write this review after reading "More than Human" by Theodore Sturgeon and "Cryptozoic" by Brian Aldiss within a day of each other. I had thought at first that "Cryptozoic" was the older work, and had hoped that might explain the somewhat dated feel of "Cryptozoic" and the apparent modernity of "More Than Human". In fact, "More Than Human" was printed in 1953, and "Cryptozoic" in 1967. I suppose what makes "More Than Human" the more timeless work is in part the fact that it tends to show rather than tell. In reading "More Than Human", we experience the evolution of a new communal being as a series of experiences, with words that seem to come naturally from those experiencing it. Rather than telling us about the technology involved through one or more characters, Sturgeon shows us an extended example of evolving human potential and the impact of that evolution on ethics (personal rules for conduct) and morals (societal rules for conduct).

This is, in short, a classic.

Review: "Cryptozoic" by Brian Aldiss

After reading the flawed but compelling "Against a Dark Background", it was refreshing to read an older work, with a straightforward central premise. In "Cryptozoic", humans have discovered that they can (through the aid of drugs and mental discipline) project their consciousness back to visit the distant past. They can observe but not interact with the past, thus avoiding any number of paradoxes. The main character is an artist, who intends to exploit the past as inspiration to express the spirit of the time-travelling age that is his native time.

I won't give away the ending of the book, but will say that my experience of the climax of the book was somewhat dimmed by my particular copy of the book, which had pages 17-32 printed a second time in place of pages 161-176. I thought at first that the character had backed himself in some kind of time paradox, and was reliving past events with an increased awareness of their real meaning. On closer inspection, it was clear that the text was repeated without variation, and that it was unintentional. I'll have to find a better copy of the book at some point, but honestly, the plot was straightforward enough that it was easy enough to fill in the gaps.

Anyway, this is a good book, but still firmly a part of the older and simpler school of Science Fiction. The novel's central conceit is like a single diamond in a simple setting. Tasteful, easy to appreciate, but not quite as appealing to the jaded palate as a glittering and ornate Ken MacLeod or Iain M. Banks novel.

Review: "Against a Dark Background" by Iain M. Banks

"Against a Dark Background" is the first of Iain M. Banks' novels I've read that is not set in the "Culture" universe. If nothing else, he easily demonstrates that he doesn't need to fall back on the established conventions from those novels to spin a good yarn. This is a book with invention and narrative detail to burn. Ideas that would have been the central premise of a science fiction novel written in the 1950s are tossed around like confetti.

As the title suggests, this is a darker work than "Player of Games" or "State of the Art" (I'd say it's on par with "Use of Weapons"). Sharrow, the central character is haunted and hunted by her past, and pursues her destiny as everything and everyone she loves is methodically stripped from her. In this sense, it is a punishing novel, establishing a raft of characters at length only to make their absence that much more painful.

The culture in which she and her team travel is space-faring and has progressed to peaks of scientific achievement and then descended into relative savagery. The star system in which the story is set has been shaped by conflict bred of isolation, similar to "The Mote in God's Eye". There is advanced science left over from earlier ages, which includes the "Lazy Gun", the MacGuffin for this particular journey. The "Lazy Gun" is a weapon that is almost cartoonish in its effects, I'm surprised the author stopped short of having it drop anvils on its victims. This makes a nice change from the usual doomsday device, all deus and machina, with very little humor.

I finally found a copy of "Trillion Year Spree", the sweeping history of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss, and even in the first few pages, it's provided some relevant insights regarding gothic novels as the forerunners of Science Fiction novels:

"Other planets make ideal settings for brooding landscapes, isolated castles, dismal towns, and mysterious alien figures; often, indeed, the villians may be monks, exploiting a local population under the guise of religion."
-- "Trillion Year Spree" by Brian Aldiss (with David Wingrove)

This is indeed a gothic novel, full of moody environs, steeped in protracted mysteries and eventual revelations. On that level, it's straightforward enough, and in fact just a little disappointingly so. Where the novel really shines are in the details, the set pieces established along the way. Parts of the novel, such as the boat heist, the android city, and the train heist are compelling and enjoyable. The overarching plot is just the excuse the author gives himself to progress from set piece to set piece. I would urge anyone who enjoys compelling ideas and descriptive detail to just enjoy the individual squares in the quilt, and not to think too much about the overall design.