Convergent Space – Good title but what about the book?

As with most things, there is good and bad. Let’s be generous and start by acknowledging the good points of Convergent Space by John-Paul Cleary.

It is reasonably entertaining. I allowed myself to buy into it, got fairly well hooked and stuck with it to the end. It is after all space opera on the grandest scale, dealing with a far future where Earth is blamed for the Great Wave, a galaxy spanning cataclysm that killed trillions, and has spent the subsequent two hundred years sending its archeosoldiers in all directions across space in search of proof of Earth’s innocence. The Great Wave destroyed the old Guild of worlds, while its successor civilisation, The Renaissance, is a disorganised mess and the galaxy is under threat from a massed invading warfleet.

Convergent Space is fast-paced, packed with intricate plot points and the odd pearl of wisdom rises to the surface here and there. I read the Kindle version and noted other readers had highlighted a few sentences or paragraphs that offered cogent social commentary. And I like the title. So many SF books have really corny or cliched titles that I felt I should give Cleary the benefit of the doubt, and read his book, just for coming up with a decent moniker for it.

But …. and I’ve already given you warning that a “but” was coming …. taken as a whole it is not a desperately good book. It lacks the sharpness of writing style or wit that marks out the best contemporary SF. And its SF credentials are themselves suspect. Space opera, yes, but there is no hint of science, fictional or factual. Convergent Space is at best very soft or even lazy SF. I think there may be one mention of fuel somewhere in the text, but spaceships flitter about the galaxy with no constraints distance-wise or time-wise. Relativity has been excised or vanquished by unspecified means, and ships run forever without fuel stops or maintenance. There are a myriad humanoid races in the galaxy, but no rationale for their similarities – they did not all evolve from earthmen. Sometimes Cleary remembers not all races speak the same language, other times the protagonists encounter peoples who have been living in isolation for centuries in other parts of the galaxy and strike up a conversation as if chatting down the pub. A lot of the plotting is weak – lucky outcomes and coincidences abound. I had to keep suspending and re-suspending my disbelief. And a space-adventurer heroine with wise-cracking floating bot helper did rather smack of the late Iain Banks’s Culture series.

I’m giving it two stars out of five and will probably not bother with the Shadow Ship.

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Lilith’s Brooding Sociology Treatise

Spoiler Check: Contains spoilers for Dawn, Book #1 of the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler.

Another lemming. Barely half an hour into a ten hour audiobook, I lemmed* (in other words abandoned) Adulthood Rites, the second book in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, collectively known as “Lilith’s Brood”.

I had read the first book “Dawn” back in March, largely because it was a well-liked book pick on the Sword & Laser podcast. And there is much to be said in praise of Dawn: the dramatic early scenes where main protagonist Lilith discovers she is a prisoner of the alien Oankali race, the Oankali themselves as a concept, the ideas around the genetic merger of humans and Oankali. Some aspects were less appealing, not least the sociological examination of human group interactions. Interesting up to a point but ultimately overdone.

Having broadly enjoyed the book, I added the second in the series to my “to read” list. Not that enthusiastically, I have to say. Even at the time I had doubts about whether the follow up would be the sort of book I would enjoy. But when it came to the top of the list I dutifully spent my Audible credit and downloaded it, and my worst fears were confirmed almost from the first sentence. It was never going to be able to repeat the impact of Dawn – we already know all about the Oankali’s physical appearance and use of sensory tentacles, their three genders, their technological advancement centred on biology, and particularly genetic manipulation, as opposed to say physics or chemistry and their modus operandi with other species involving “gene trade”. So all that was left for book 2 was the inter-species sociological consequences of the Oankali’s deal with the humans. It came over as a sociology treatise and started to rankle straight away.

Getting my credit back was no problem at all. All I had to do was invoke Audible’s “Great Listen Guarantee” from their website.

I have now downloaded Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. And instantly it is altogether more readable, or listenable-to, or whatever. I’m hoping this one will give me 32 hours of listening pleasure and no cause for another lemming.

*One of the hosts of the Sword & Laser podcast, Veronica Belmont, once gave up on one of the show’s book-picks, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem. Since that time, the show has used the made-up verb “to lem” to refer to the act of abandoning a book part way through.

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The Unglamorous Glams

Spoiler Check: This post is about The Glamour by Christopher Priest and is packed to the gills with spoilers 

Books There is something hideously unsettling about Christopher Priest’s works. He has a way of getting in under the reader’s defences and wreaking havoc. I first read his collection of short stories “Real-Time World” as a teenager and never quite recovered from one of the tales, “The Head and the Hand”, about a man who chops off one of his own fingers as the result of a dare and goes on to become a performance artist who mutilates himself in front of huge audiences.

More recently I read “The Glamour” which dates back to the mid 1980s although it was updated in the 90s. I read the book on Audible and assume I was listening to the revised version. There is much to say about the book but I initially found the final twist hard to make sense of. Apparently I am not alone, going by some of the discussions in on-line forums. I think I have more or less now understood it, but more on that in a moment.

For the most part, the book is easy to digest and written in a relaxed, deceptively understated style. It concerns a BBC cameraman, Richard Grey, who at the start of the story is convalescing in a West Country rest home having survived a terrorist car bomb. He has no memory of the weeks preceding the bombing and is beguiled when a young woman he has no recollection of shows up at the rest home and claims to have been his lover briefly during the period in question. The woman, Susan Kewley, is reluctant to explain why they broke up but mentions her attachment to another man, Niall, who seems to have some kind of hold over her.

The book is split into a series of parts and deliberately changes point of view and perspective. The first short chapter is narrated in the first person although the narrator is not explicitly identified. The next section is narrated in the third person by Richard, and there are clues to suggest Richard was also the “I” who narrated the first chapter.

Prompted by treatment under hypnosis, Richard starts to recall (as he thinks) the romance with Susan (“Sue”); how he met her during a holiday in France and how the influence of the unseen Niall led to the eventual breakdown of their relationship following an argument at her flat, once back in London, very shortly before the car bomb. There are hints that Richard’s memories of the time are at least partly his own mind playing tricks on him. To reinforce that, we then get an alternative account of the same events, as told by Sue, in which they had never travelled to France, having instead met in a London pub before going on a trip around England and Wales together.

In both accounts, Niall is unseen but a continuing threat to the relationship. To try to counter this, Sue reveals her big secret, that she has “The Glamour” which means she is naturally invisible to most people. Not optically invisible, rather it is a psychological invisibility, a form of delusion akin to how hypnotised subjects can be induced not to see or notice a person in the room. It is an extension of the idea that some people are naturally conspicuous whereas other tend not to be noticed. People with “The Glamour”, or “Glams”, are a very extreme case of the latter who so inherently escape everyone’s notice that they are effectively invisible. Sue described an underclass of invisible Glams who can steal what they need at will, sleep in other people’s houses and travel without paying fares, but cannot book medical or dental appointments so decline into early ill health.

Sue herself seems able to turn her invisibility or or off by an act of will hence her visibility to Richard and nearly normal lifestyle. Niall is so Glamorous he can never be seen, sometimes not even by Sue. Richard can also sometimes become invisible although he is not aware of it. Sue and Richard are haunted by the fear that Niall can follow them everywhere, unseen, that he knows what they are doing and is able to mess with their lives and relationship at will. There is a horrific scene, during Sue’s retelling, where she is raped by Niall while in bed with Richard, the latter oblivious to Sue’s predicament.

There are a number of themes explored in The Glamour: how much can we rely on our memories? Have we unconsciously made some of them up to fit what we believe or wish to be true? How true are we to ourselves? Do we change our behaviour to “play a role” so we can present ourselves to others the way we wish to be seen? And the psychological horror of the notion that there may be malicious, invisible people around us all the time, messing with our lives, with our minds, and against which we have no defence.

Throughout the book, Priest is playing tricks with the reader. We know we have at least one extremely unreliable narrator, just from the differences between Richard’s and Sue’s versions of events, and some suggestions of clues as to which might be the real account (e.g. a mysterious postcard sent to Sue from St Tropez). He is though just softening us up for the final killer punch, the confusing twist I referred to.

What it boils down to is that the Richard-Sue-Niall love triangle, and the fact of the Glamour, are essentially true but the story has been narrated all along by Niall. It was Niall who was the “I” at the start and again at the very end. The reader thought they had to choose between Richard and Sue as unreliable narrator, but now realise that there is just one voice, that of Niall, and there is no way to be certain how much we can rely on any of it. Niall uses his narrator’s voice to gloat about his power over other people, his ability to force Richard and Sue apart.

To some extent that last twist undermines the rest of the book. It was done mainly for shock value and detracts somewhat from the nicely poised doubts and uncertainties about what is and isn’t true. What the twist achieves is to drive home that the book is after all a horror story at its heart, as was the case with The Head and the Hand. The postcard was a misdirection, a red herring. The fact that a lot of readers are left bemused indicates that the twist was more clumsily handled than the author was trying for. Looking back at the book the background machinations, the set-ups are there to see. Despite those flaws, it is still a beguiling book and one to haunt the reader for years to come in true Christopher Priest style. 

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Not so dark yet

Spoiler Check: I am up to Chapter 3 “Summoned to oppose” of Part Two of The Last Dark by Stephen R Donaldson

Books There is no point pretending otherwise. I embarked on The Last Dark, the final instalment of the seemingly interminable Thomas Covenant series, more out of a wish to see it through to the bitter end than out of any real prospect of deriving any pleasure from it. The previous three books in particular have been so plodding, mired down in self-recrimination or relentlessly bleak as to suck any vestige of enjoyment out of the experience.

It has come then as something of a surprise to find that I am finding the book “a good read”, at least thus far, which is about 58% of the way through according to my Kindle app. It is maybe not quite up there with the best of the first two trilogies, but certainly a huge improvement over the other books in the Final Chronicles. There are still tragic and shocking events, and plenty of fearful dilemmas, self-loathing and soul-searching. Otherwise it just wouldn’t be a Thomas Covenant novel, would it? But these aspects are not overindulged as has been Donaldson’s wont in the previous three books, so the story is allowed the chance to flow.

The book is explicitly broken up into two parts. I have completed the first, which ties up some of the loose ends, brings a partial resolution and some pay-offs. And the neatly reassembled party is now heading off for the inevitable big showdown deep under Mount Thunder, or maybe some of them will have to switch destination to Melenkurion Skyweir to stop the Worm drinking the Earthblood. Or something like that. There are still enough loose ends left for Donaldson to weave something interesting out of.

And we have had yet another foray into the deep past, another encounter with everyone’s favourite Forestal, Caerroil Wilwood, not to mention the conversion of yet another blind person into a new Forestal. The one let-down is that Donaldson couldn’t come up with a more imaginative name for the Forestal than Caerwood ur-Mahrtiir. Well I suppose it had to start with “Caer” but I’m sure he could have come up with something more interesting.

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When is Sci-fi not Sci-fi? When it’s Inversions

Spoiler Check: I have completed Inversions by Iain M Banks

Books Inversions by the late Iain M Banks is regarded as a novel in his science fiction Culture series. But would anyone reading it as a stand-alone book recognise it as science fiction? It is set on a world which is clearly not Earth, not least because it has two suns and umpteen moons, but is populated by humans living in a pre-industrial age society, maybe the equivalent of sixteenth century Europe. Does that setting alone make it science fiction? Any more than say Utopia, Narnia or Oz?

All of the Culture novels can be read as self-contained works, and Inversions is no exception. It can be enjoyed as a quite excellent book in its own right, requiring no familiarity with the other books in the Culture series. Taken on its own it is an engrossing story, actually two parallel stories, about political intrigue with a lot to say about society, morality, the human capacity for barbarity and how people deal with its consequences. The familiar trappings of sci-fi are however entirely absent. No spaceships, time machines, technological marvels, or at least none in plain view.

Inversions

It all comes down to the perspective of the reader. Anyone who has read at least a few of the other Culture books will have no trouble reading between the lines. There is no shortage of clues dangling before the noses of the Culture cognoscenti. To them, Banks’s intentions are clear and obvious.

The respective protagonists of the two interleaved stories, Vosill and DeWar, are incognito off-worlders. They are humans but of the Culture, an advanced, benevolent multi-world society which is continually enlarging itself through discovery and integration of less technologically developed worlds. Vosill is the female personal physician to Quience, king of the chauvinistically male dominated state of Haspidus.  DeWar is bodyguard to UrLeyn, Protector of Tassasen, effectively emperor over a sizeable chunk of the planet.  The stories are narrated from the point of view of Oelph, Vosill’s doting and faithful apprentice, who is indigenous and has no idea that his mistress is an alien.

Vosill is the most enjoyable character in the book. Her knowledge of medicine is clearly at a highly advanced level, totally out of line with that of her peers, even if her circumstances prevent use of modern medical technology. That’s certainly one clue. In fact she is very knowledgeable all round, confident and composed with remarkably modern social attitudes. Again seriously at odds with the society around her, making her a favourite of the king and a target of suspicion and resentment for a number of the nobles at court.

She is aware of plots against her by some of those nobles. Oelph discovers she has transcripts of conspiratorial conversations she could not possibly have been able to overhear. Interesting that. And the conspirators all meet unexplained premature deaths involving bladed weapons that are never found. To top that, when the nastiest dukes finally frame her for a murder, and she is shipped off to be questioned by Ralinge, the torturer, the latter gets sliced to bits, along with two guards, just at the point where she is strapped naked to a table and about to be raped. Oelph, who was present, could not bear to witness the rape so missed the manner of her escape, remaining puzzled about it to the end of his days. The reader is aware that the resourceful lady doctor has an old dagger with her at all times. Not hard for Culture aficionados to guess that said weapon is probably a knife-missile or drone, a miniaturised technological powerhouse, quite possibly sentient and certainly capable of independent action to defend its owner.

In the other story thread, DeWar tells a child a story which is obviously a reference to the Culture, at least to anyone in the know. The story indirectly identifies Vosill and DeWar as two Culture operatives (Sechroom and Hiliti respectively) who are close friends but have different views on how the Culture should handle newly discovered civilisations. Sechroom has the distinctly more interventionist philosophy, as evidenced in the book’s intertwined narratives.

There are a couple of other clues. One of Quience’s dukes describes Vosill as being “of a different culture”. And her eventual disappearance from the world, presumably via a Culture spacecraft, is preceded by her apology for missing a dinner engagement due to “special circumstances”. Readers of the Culture series will with a wry smile recognise that as an oblique reference to the undercover operations arm of the Culture’s Contact division.

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The Forgotten Covenant

Books It is fun to listen to Veronica Belmont mangle names of  authors on the Sword & Laser podcast, even if she only does that for effect. Most S & L episodes include Veronica and her co-host Tom Merritt reading out, or stumbling over, a list of the coming week’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy releases. Despite the amusing mispronunciations, that segment of the podcast comes over as a tedious litany of unlikely titles and unknown author names and  I tend to tune out fairly rapidly.

My ears did though prick up this week when Veronica mentioned “The Last Dark” by Stephen Donaldson, or rather unceremoniously gabbled it along with all the other titles on the list. I had honestly forgotten that the very last instalment of very long-running (and unnecessarily extended) Thomas Covenant series was finally about to be with us. This will be book 10. I read book 9, “Against All Things Ending”, in December 2010 and distinctly recall that it was an absolute pig to get through.

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I will obviously read The Last Dark. I can’t abandon the series now, having stuck with it this far, but neither could I say that I was positively looking forward to it.

I read the original trilogy, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, while at University and found it to be captivating. From the off it had the anti-hero, angst, self-doubt, unbelief, agonising over past and future deeds, battle with despite and all that. But the dark aspects were counterbalanced by positive characters, rewarding relationships and delightful flights of imagination and use of magic.

The story had truly run its course with the conclusion of the second trilogy, and I was frankly surprised when The Runes of the Earth, the first book in the Final Chronicles, came out in 2004 after a gap of close on 20 years. I wondered if it was just a belated effort to cash in on the success of the earlier books. Maybe Donaldson has not managed to come up with that big a hit since. Either way, I’d have been perfectly happy if the Final Chronicles had captured the same magic (no pun intended) as the first six books but I’ve found them all pretty turgid so far. The pace tends to be ponderous and the atmosphere has become relentlessly bleak. The protagonists are either in extreme peril from which they escape by doing awful things, or tearing themselves apart over whatever the awful things were that they had to do. There is no relief from it. It would be nice if The Last Dark were a tiny bit cheerier but I rather suspect there is a clue in the title.

Incidentally, history is repeating itself in a way as I only knew that the second book in the Final Chronicles, Fatal Revenant, was out because I spotted it in a bookshop at Boston Airport while waiting for a flight, back in 2008, by which time it had been out for about a year.

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The Great North Road away from Hamilton

Books If ever again I get tempted to try another Peter F Hamilton novel, I need someone wise and avuncular to gently talk me out of it.

It’s no good getting angry. I just have to remember that no matter how enthusiastic Steve Gibson gets about Hamilton on the “Security Now!” podcast, or how easily Leo Laporte may be swayed, the fact remains that Gibson has lamentable taste in SF and Hamilton is to be avoided at all costs.

Great North Road is my second full foray into Hamilton’s oeuvre, the first having been Fallen Dragon. I say “full” foray because I did once make a start on “The Dreaming Void” and rapidly found myself utterly lost. Only later did I discover that there are a couple of prequel books I would have needed to read to be able to make any sense of the Void books and, in any case, it seems even devout Hamilton fans don’t much rate them.

I hadn’t really enjoyed Fallen Dragon. Too much pandering to the adolescent male. Fancy guns, gear and other militaria, with a side helping of wish-fulfilment schoolboy sex, and all of it uncomfortably counterbalanced with some space era politics and lumpy excursions into scientific lecturing that proved as dry as dust. So I should have known what to expect from Hamilton’s latest megatome. But to my shame I weakened.

The-Great-North-Road-book-of-2012

Great North Road is not an awful book. It’s just that it’s really very average and, as it’s also very long, I found myself resenting the hours I gave up to it. And its flaws actively grated on me. It shares some of Fallen Dragon’s hormonal male obsession with gear and sex, but my biggest gripe is the lack of coherent world-building.

Hamilton sets GNR in the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne of the 2140s but it’s not any vision of the mid 22nd century I could take seriously. It comes over as a discordant blend of today and some date in the far distant future. To begin with, our protagonists are a bunch of Geordies who in terms of culture, outlook, behaviour and language are 100% mired in the Newcastle of no later than 2013, as if social norms will not change a jot in 130 years. You only have to ponder for a moment on how society has changed since 1880 to see how unrealistic this is. Then Hamilton overlays a limited number of specific technological advances, some of which are jarringly unlikely. I really cannot swallow a 2142 in which humankind has created interstellar gateways offering instantaneous transport to many other worlds. Newcastle itself has a gateway to St. Libra, a planet orbiting Sirius. The craziest part of this is that the gateway is used to import vast quantities of bio-fuel from St. Libra which has a tropical environment rich in plant life.  Now am I supposed to believe that a civilisation which has developed instantaneous interstellar travel would not also have the technology to solve its energy needs? Without the need for (of all things) bio-fuel, let alone importing it from the Sirius system!

The only other advances of note factored in by Hamilton are on the data/networking and bioengineering fronts. These are more credible but still don’t feel like they form part of a rounded, internally-consistent vision of life in 130 years’ time, taking into account the social impact. I’m thinking of the fact that everyone has eye and brain implants that allow them to hook up with a future version of the Internet over a future much improved universal wifi, able to exchange data between network and brain at will, effectively providing the basis for technology-enabled telepathy. Yet people still sit in bars and chat to each other in 20th century dialect.

The biotech advances include human cloning and lifespan enhancement, the latter restricted to the very rich. One of the book’s main characters, Angela Tramelo, is a so-called “One in Ten” who still looks like a teenager while in her fifties and can expect to live to age 1,000 because she was the daughter of a mega-wealthy biofuel market magnate who could afford the bio-engineering treatment for her. It is not made clear how life expectancy has changed for the general population, given that there must have been wider progress in medicine, but it is intimated that most people age “normally” by the standards of today. What is not explained is how the population would stand for the technology for huge lifespans being available but hogged by a privileged few. I’d have expected riots, but people just seem to accept Angela as one of the lucky ones, and the men are in any case more interested in shagging her because she is (of course) stunningly attractive, as are many of the women in the book, and correspondingly oversexed.

There was something else that bothered me. Cars and taxis with human drivers. Even now Google is showing us how we are not far away from driverless cars, paving the way for dispensing with private cars and switching to a ubiquitous fleet of on-call taxis. Hamilton does refer to putting cars “on auto” but he has not really made the mental leap to how transportation is likely to change – leaving aside the interstellar portals and light-speed spaceships which go far too far the other way. 

Other gripes include extremely cliched conversations and an ending which relies on the sort of infantile moralising that would make a Star Trek fan blush. Interestingly, at one point Hamilton includes a self-referential quip about the standard of dialogue. I’m not sure if he was deliberately poking fun at himself. Maybe it was intended as a swipe at the critics.

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