Monday 25 May 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian was recommended to me by Sarah and Michael during the last meeting of the Cardiff Scifi & Fantasy Book Club. I'm hugely grateful for the recommendation - it was a superb read! The book came up because we were discussing Ringworld, and hard / credible SF. The Martian was given ass an example of current / recent hard SF.

The book starts as Mark Watney, our hero, regains consciousness and discovers that his crew mates have abandoned him and flown back to earth without him. It's unintentional: there was a storm, he had an accident and they were convinced he was dead, while their own lives were in danger, so they took off. Alone on Mars, with only the limited resources left behind by their abandoned mission, he has to find a way to survive.

What makes the Martian so readable is that it is completely and utterly convincing. It's a tale of overcoming one crisis after another by limited means that would be available on this kind of mission. Comparable to the movie Apollo 13  in some regards, only with a much larger scope and a much heavier reliance on one man's ingenuity rather than the thinking power of huge teams on Earth.

It really helps that Mark Watney has a sense of humour and an indomitable disposition. He might curse and (briefly) panic, but whenever disasters strike, he always finds a way to break down the problem into steps and smaller tasks, until he can solve each task in turn. Retaining his sense of humour throughout is a massive help - this could just as easily have been a novel of utmost seriousness and grim determination. Instead, it is a fun novel about a man stranded on Mars.

Other characters by and large also have a sense of humour and mischief. Basically, they're all hugely intelligent and most can be quite witty. It's easy to like and identify with everyone, because everyone is united in common purpose and almost everyone is funny: like the Scooby Gang in the heydays of Buffy.

That said, if you're after complex character studies and a new perspective on the human condition and deep and meaningful literature, this is not the book for you. It's a superb, fun, thrilling read, but it does not go out of its way to chase literary merit. Characters don't learn valuable lessons about life. There might be some gazing out of windows forlornly going on, but it happens off-stage.

There were a few times when I was a little perplexed - Mark talks about liters of gases when calculating chemical reactions, but surely they have different densities and it's mols of gases he should be calculating with? That aside, the book is superbly believable. It is full of spirit and many a "hooray!" moment, and a good few "OMG!! Noooooo!!!!" moments.

I can't wait for mankind to shoot someone to Mars, and I'd be mighty curious what would happen if someone got abandoned there by accident...

Rating: 5/5

Monday 11 May 2015

Next book club meeting - update

I just sent out the following email to those who signed up for Cardiff Speculative Fiction Book Club email updates:

Thank you to everyone who turned up yesterday - record turnout, good discussion about Ringworld, plenty of exciting book recommendations... on the whole a great meeting with a really nice group of people!

The next meeting of the Cardiff Speculative Fiction Book Club will take place:
  • on Sunday 7th June at 3pm in A Shot In The Dark, a coffee shop on City Road in Cardiff (next to the Ernest Willows Wetherspoons pub)
  • The next book will be Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (suggested by Nikki)

After that, the planned books are:

See you in June!

Saturday 9 May 2015

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld is the Cardiff Speculative Fiction Book Club selection for our May meeting, which is taking place tomorrow. I haven't read Nikki's review yet, but I'm sure tomorrow will offer opportunities for lively discussions, especially if any of the book clubbers are feminists... ;-)

Ringworld is a Hugo winning novel. Published in 1970, it's also a remarkably old-fashioned book. It doesn't read like post-New-Wave science fiction. It reads like the sort of book I'd expect from Golden Age 1930s-1940s pulp science fiction.

Louis Wu, our hero, is 200 years old. He's celebrating his birthday when Nessus, a two-headed, three-legged alien, approaches him and hires him to join an exploration mission. Humans have been interacting with different aliens for a while, but this particular species, a Puppeteer, was thought to have mysteriously left the galaxy in a mass exodus, many years ago.

A second alien is recruited into their team: a Kzin. Called Speaker in the common tongue, he's basically an advanced kind of tiger. His purpose is to be the muscle of the expedition. The final member of the team is human - Teela Brown.

After a brief stint visiting the puppeteer exodus fleet, they make their way to their destination - the Ringworld. This is an ancient artifact, an artificial world that encircles a sun, with five artificial internal moons to create nights on the inner surface of the ring. A thousand miles thick and hundreds of thousands of miles wide, the ring has millions of miles in circumference - it's millions of times bigger than Earth or any known planet, with a surface area big enough to sustain every known life form many times over. So, naturally, our explorers are interested in who created it, and why, and whether its creators pose a threat.

But things don't quite go to plan, and their spaceship crash lands. Now they have to find a way to either leave or contact someone to request help...

Ringworld is really a novel about imagining a world. As such, I would expect it to be a complex, staggering world. full of fascination, originality, aliens and wonder...

Well, the main innovation of Ringworld is that it is... wait for it... a ring!

The book goes into lots of detail in imagining how a ringworld would be different from a spherical planet, but that's about as far as the thought experiment goes. It's an artificial world, without geology and with slightly different climate effects due to having no coriolis force. But it's got all the same sort of things that Earth has. Forests, mountains, deserts, oceans. There are curious sunflowers, but other than that, it's a surprisingly, disappointingly mundane world.

The explorers, meanwhile, are fairly simple characters. Louis Wu is there to theorise and figure things out. He talks to himself quite often, so we can hear all the exposition being spoken aloud in automonologues. The Kzin is a barely repressed fierce warrior. Think tame Klingons from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nessus, the Puppeteer, is cowardly and risk-adverse and manipulative. And Teela is there for sex and luck.

Yes, you read that right. The main female character is only brought along for sex and luck. She has been bred for luck, she's naive, wide-eyed, child-like, kitten-ish and in constant need of protecting and regular need of shagging: little more than a cutesy cardboard cutout of a glamour model.

In fact, there are plenty of quotes that could make people who prefer female characters to be even vaguely like human beings cringe. Or anyone who likes good dialogue, or a vaguely respectful attitude in men.

In fact, let's go on a bit of a quoting spree...

He was sure now. Teela Brown had never been hurt; had never learned caution; did not understand fear. Her first pain would come as a horrifying surprise. It might destroy her entirely.
 She'd be hurt over Louis Wu's dead body.
The gods do not protect fools. Fools are protected by more capable fools. 

Louis decides that Teela is a fool who must be protected at all cost on page 108 or 109. Then, by page 151, he decides she needs to be taught a lesson about pain and lets her walk on hot lava without protection, for her own good. In fact, he tells her as much, on page 157/158...

"You wanted me to burn my feet!"
"That's right. Don't look so surprised. We need you. We don't want you killed. I want you to learn to be more careful. You never learned before, so you'll have to learn now. You'll remember your sore feet longer than you remember my lectures."
"Need me! That's a laugh. You know why Nessus brought me here. I'm a good luck charm that failed."
"I'll grant you blew that one. As a good luck charm, you're fired. Come on, smile. We need you. We need you to keep me happy, so I don't rape Nessus. (...)"
Yeah, the quote goes on, and he makes another few 'jokes'. I guess people in the 1970s must have been different. For some strange and mysterious reason, few of the women I have come across these days appreciate 'lectures' by men, nor 'being taught lessons', nor indeed rape jokes.

But then, Teela Brown is a special kind of woman. Here's a little gem from page 220/221:

He had realized a thing about Teela Brown. She had never learned how to resist. She could not say no and make it stick. She could not deliver reproofs of calculated intensity, humorous or jabbing or deadly vicious, as other women could. Teela Brown had not been hurt socially, not often enough to learn these things. Louis could browbeat her until doomsday, and she would never know how to stop him.

How good to hear that she's not as calculating and vicious as other women. Fortunately, Teela is not the only female character. There is in fact a second one in the book...

"Certainly, she could have done nothing complex nor crucial to the wellbeing of ship or crew. She is not very intelligent, Louis."
"Did you think to ask about the ratio of sexes aboard ship? How many of the thirty-six were women?"
"She told me that. Three."
"You might as well forget about her profession."

Yup. the only other woman we meet in this book is a "not very intelligent" space whore. (If the word 'whore' makes you uncomfortable, I should say that I am using it because Louis calls her that, to her face, later in the book. Not as an insult, of course. Just casually.)

Fortunately for Louis, she, too, decides to seduce him. Fortunately for her, she never finds out just what goes on in his mind during foreplay...

He was on fire. If she pushed him away now, he would use force; he must have her-

Ringworld has not dated very well. It's infused with a view of women that would not be considered very healthy these days, if ever. They exist for sex, to be protected, to be lectured, to be taught lessons, and for more sex. And that's the good ones - all the others are vicious and calculating and say "no" to men too often. They are foolish or not very intelligent. Their main skills and sole purposes are sexual. In fact, late in the novel, after Teela has learnt some lessons and undergone what the author seems to think was character development, we get this little gem, in the middle of a battle:

Seeker was a dangerous, skillful swordsman. The natives knew about swords. Teela stood behind him, safe for the moment in the ring of fighting, looking worried, like a good heroine.

...Because that's what a makes a good heroine who has finally grown up: LOOKING WORRIED AND BEING PROTECTED BY MEN.

No wonder I thought Ringworld had been written in the 1930s or 1940s. I was vaguely impressed with the liberal sex lives alluded to early in the book, thinking it was quite a liberal outlook for something written in the Golden Age. Then I saw it was published in 1970, after the hippies.

This sort of stuff didn't raise eyebrows in 1970? Who am I kidding. In Hollywood, this sort of characterisation still happens now. And probably in lots of contemporary books I don't read.

Thinking of recent events, I guess Ringworld is exactly the sort of book that Sad/Rabid Puppies feel should be winning Hugos in 2015. Personally, I'm a little disappointed that it won one as late as 1970. Flat characterisation, casual misogyny, and, to make things worse, a single-gimmick world, with a gimmick that is given away in the title and never really used to deliver the wonderment I would hope for in a book about a mission to explore a world.

On the bright side, some of the thought experiments as to what a ringworld would be like are plausible enough.

Rating: 2.5/5

Saturday 2 May 2015

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book is a book about time travel. It's not time travel as we know it from the movies: no time travelling cops and robbers, no cyborgs or DeLoreans, no secret organisations...

Instead, time travel is controlled by universities. The time travellers are academics, using time travel as a tool to learn about the past. Practical historians, so to speak.

Time travelling academics? What could possibly go wrong... ;-)

Our protagonists are Kivrin, a graduate student on her first time travel trip, and Professor Dunworthy, a mentor who is worried about her. He's staying behind in the future, while she is sent to the 1300s alone.

The book follows Dunworthy to begin with. He's clearly gotten a bit protective over Kivrin, but he has good reasons to be worried. It's the first trip going that far into the past; it's taking place just before Christmas and only going ahead because of some departmental power-grabbing and politicking while the man in charge, Basingame, is away; the entire trip is rushed without taking all the preliminary precautions that they usually do; and sending a young woman to Medieval times on her own is far riskier than sending a man, as young women were not generally allowed to live independently in that time period. In short, everything about this trip is ill-considered. The only thing to give him confidence is Kivrin's competence, and the years of hard work and academic preparation she has invested into getting ready for such a journey.

Kivrin, meanwhile, arrives in the middle of a forest. Right from the start, some things have gone a bit wrong: she should be on a road, not in the middle of the woods. The headache she has been promised quickly escalates into disorientation and, after a few hours, full on hallucinations, until she realises she is feverish and ill. When she finally encounters contemporary people, she can't understand a word they are saying, despite having spent years studying the language of the time period, and despite having brain implants that should be translating everything for her...

I'm not going to give away any more plot points. In fact, I'd urge you not to read any blurbs, not to read the back cover, not to read much about this book at all. If you haven't read this book, just buy it and read it: it'll  be a rewarding experience.

Doomsday Book excels at connecting the reader with the characters. It is written with empathy and love for the people in this book, and they are each complex and sometimes complicated people, totally authentic and believable. There are some characters who are not likeable, but even those are authentic. No evil villains in sight, just selfish, callous, petty people with small minds and little concern for others.

There are some things which the book does not get quite right. Published in 1993, it envisions a 2060 without having foreseen mobile phones and the internet. Instead, it imagines video phones on landlines. This gives the book a slightly quaint feel. The other thing which may hiccup the reading experience a little is the circular and repetitive way that characters think. It's perfectly authentic: people really do churn over the same mental ground over and over and over again, but it can also be a little annoying. In the moments of slower plot movement, this can chip away at a reader's patience.

That said, both are relatively minor flaws in a novel which is otherwise an utter masterpiece. It's not just a wonderful work of complex characters that the reader connects with: it's also a fiendishly intelligent work about the Middle Ages, and, better yet, it's a thrilling read that packs real emotional punch. It's an impressive novel - the sort of book which makes me think, with a tinge of sadness and a dollop of envy, I will never write anything as great and real as this...

One warning: it's not called 'Doomsday Book' for nothing. It does get absolutely devastating at times, and the story pulls no punches.

Rating: 5/5

PS: Now I now where Just One Damned Thing After Another got its central ideas from. It's basically a light entertainment reimagination of Connie Willis' Oxford Time Travel books.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell / Interview with Susanna Clarke

Back in 2004, a startup science fiction and fantasy magazine called Orbital was looking for contributors. I was a student, I signed up, and the first thing I wrote was based on an interview with Susanna Clarke. Sadly, Orbital failed to launch. I found other outlets for the interview, in student newspapers.

As Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is soon coming to the BBC in a TV show that looks very promising indeed, I thought I'd use this opportunity to revisit the feature I submitted to The Cambridge Student back then (with minor edits)...

The revival of English Magic

"I think my expectations were pretty low. I’d never completed a novel before."  Well, for a writer whose Booker-Prize-longlisted novel is getting book collectors and investors so excited that one edition shot up in value from £30 to £300 within days of being published, Susanna Clarke is quite modest. Her novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, has been compared to the works of Tolkien. It has been compared to Harry Potter. It has been compared to anything and everything successful in the fantasy market. And, of course, most of these comparisons are quite wrong: This book is rather unique.

She explains: "I tried to make that as accurate as I can, a sort of blend to ground the magic. I find that magic becomes more believable when you put it next to something which is quite mundane, and quite ordinary."

Mundane and ordinary? Certainly not the words I would use to describe her story. Let’s begin by describing the premise: At the start of the nineteenth century, British magic is in decline. It is strictly a theoretical science, with no practical application - like advanced maths with a twist. Two magicians aim to reverse all of that, to revive the ancient art of English practical magic. These two magicians are Mr Norrell, a paranoid eccentric, and Jonathan Strange, an adventurous younger  man. Mr Norrell brings his magical abilities to public attention and proposes to help out in the war against Napoleon. And so their adventures begin.

It is perhaps the notion of magicians that causes a lot of the comparisons. Any newcomer has Harry Potter, Dumbledore and Gandalf to measure up against. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are quite a different breed. They don’t grow long white beards. They don’t wave around any wands. Neither of them could be described as being particularly wise. In short, they aren’t the archetypes we are used to. Mr Norrell is studious, but paranoid. Strange is adventurous, but easily distracted. These literary magicians are amply supplied with flaws, depth and individuality.

But to focus on just the two magicians is to do this story a great injustice. There are fascinating and enchanting characters aplenty. We meet ministers and prophets, wives and servants, fairies and generals. Indeed, the struggles of servants and wives are probably easiest to identify with. And their struggles are dominated by the time they live in: "It is a male book, because it’s... it’s this thing about being accurate. Women were not powerless in the regency period. But the world of action belonged very much to men."

Susanna Clarke certainly takes realism quite far: Places are accurate, historical events are correctly portrayed, and even real life historical people turn up. The Duke of Wellington appears to have seriously caught the author’s fancy: "When I researched him, I just got more and more entranced by him. He just continually formed himself into the person he wanted to be. He turned the army into the army that could do it (beat Napoleon), and himself into the general that command that army. And that is impressive. Plus, he was very witty, and always wore cool clothes."

Reading this novel is quite a delightful experience. It starts out playful and witty. It’s the written equivalent of a comfortable stroll in a beautiful, enchanted landscape. A few hundred pages later, it is a tale of magical adventures in the war against Napoleon. And yet another few hundred pages later, the story becomes much darker, almost heartbreaking. I found it impossible not to connect and identify with the characters.

So, how does one go about writing a story like this? Does Susanna Clarke have any hints for aspiring writers? "My world is publishing, where lots of well-read people would read lots and lots of novels, and I would read  the comics of Alan Moore...  and I couldn’t talk to anyone about that because that was completely... out-of-field. But nevertheless, it’s fed my writing. So I would say to go with your own taste is the important thing."

In that case, I can’t insist that you go out and buy this book. Just be aware that there is a very enchanting novel out there, full of beautiful, witty prose and delightful characters for any reader. It’s not like Tolkien or Rowling or Feist. It’s a different beast, and I am glad it has been discovered.