My life in outer space

Archive for September, 2013

Idoru – William Gibson (1996)

Idoru (Bridges Trilogy, #2)

The late Bob Shaw coined a phrase for the small details of Science Fiction that he (and other writers) used to bring some flavour and verisimilitude to their work, and this was ‘the wee thinky bits’.
If there is one other author whose work is brimming over with ‘wee thinky bits’ it’s Gibson.
There is a sense of ‘Design’ that colours every Gibson book which begins in this novel with Sandbenders; computer console containers made by a craftsman from natural materials such as wood or stone, with keyboard keys made from reclaimed piano keys inlaid with silver. And then there are the Japanese nanobuildings which one can watch and observe growing.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a teenage American girl, Chia, a member of an obsessive fan club of a band called Lo-Rez Skyline. Chia is sent to Japan by the club to investigate rumours that the lead singer Rez plans to marry a fictional construct singer called an Idoru.
Chia meets a woman on the plane who puts contraband nanotechware in her case. When Chia finally escapes from her company once in Japan she finds herself being hunted by the Russian mafia.
Meanwhile Colin Laney has a drug-induced talent for intuitively seeking out digital information. He is able to spot ‘nodal points’ in data records and extrapolate to make an assessment of an individual’s life and current state.
After being fired from his previous position with a gutter-press gossip company for becoming too involved with a ‘subject’, he is offered a job by the management of Lo-Rez Skyline while being pursued by his ex-boss who wants revenge.
Their tales converge around the mysterious figure of the Idoru, a self-aware presence within the net.
Gibson breaks very little new ground here, although the novel is unusually upbeat and full of tasty nuggets of SF cleverness.


Heroes and Villains – Angela Carter (1969)

Heroes and Villains

Carter’s post apocalyptic fantasy is one of the novels listed in Pringle’s ‘100 Greatest SF Novels’ and has been well-received by critics, academics and readers since its first publication.
Carter’s own desire for this novel was to create a gothic novel, albeit set in the future.
Structurally it is pretty standard fare. the Campbell model holds up well here. Marianne is a young girl, living in a post-nuclear disaster America in an enclave of academics. Outside the fence, tribes of feral humans lead nomadic lives, while Marianne’s life is fairly comfortable, punctuated by occasional attempted raids by the tribes.
One day, having been punished for some minor transgression by being locked out on a balcony of the enclave’s tower, she witnesses a raid by outsiders and sees her brother killed by a wild boy around the same age as herself. At this point their eyes meet and the boy flees.
Some time later a servant goes mad and murders her father, the professor, and when another raid is in progress, she hides one of the raiders and later escapes with him to live the nomadic life.
One must invite comparisons with, for instance, ‘Riddley Walker’, Edgar Pangborn’s ‘Davey’ and Stewart’s ‘Earth Abides’
This novel concentrates on the relationship between Marianne and Jewel, her kidnapper-cum-rescuer, and their relationship with some archetypal figures within the tribal community.
This, like ‘Riddley Walker’ is a dense and literary work, about which much has been written on the style, structure and the archetypal figures which the characters represent, but the novel at its heart is a complex love story. The central relationship begins and ends with death and has a fair degree of drama inbetween.
From my point of view it seems that many of the characters exist in insular worlds, unwilling or unable to engage in listening to, or taking advice from, others.
The ‘mystic’ figure in the tribe is isolated by personal choice, since he is the Spiritual leader of the tribe and can conjure ‘magic’ so a certain distance would be more or less expected.
The overall effect is one of bleak poignancy. Other post-apocalyptic novels tend to give some kind of hope for the future but here there is a pervading sense of nihilism. The tribe move from deserted ruin to deserted ruin, littering the building with detritus and human waste, before destroying the building and moving on. Perhaps this, if anything, is the metaphor for humanity within the novel.


Gridlinked – Neal Asher (2001)

Gridlinked (Agent Cormac, #1)

‘it’s not only humans who know the meaning of hate’

Blurb to the 2002 Pan paperback edition

In Asher’s glittering future galaxy, Earth is at the centre of a ‘Polity’ of AI-governed worlds, connected by various ‘runcibles’ (portals which instantly transport matter to another portal elsewhere in the galaxy) so called because the interface adopts the shape of a reflective spoon.
Outside the Polity are other human-colonised worlds which have been supplying Separatists with arms and explosives. Ian Cormac a ‘gridlinked’ ECS (Earth Central Security) Agent, has infiltrated a Separatist cell run by the Pelter family. He is forced to kill Angelina Pelter when his cover is blown, leaving her vain and psychopathic brother Arian vowing vengeance.
Meanwhile, on the planet Samarkand the unthinkable has happened. A runcible has exploded, destroying most of the AI controlling it, and consequently, the weather control system. Ten thousand people are killed immediately or in the consequent temperature plummet.
Cormac is recalled and advised by Horace Blegg (a strange Japanese and apparently immortal human) to relinquish the augments and AI links which he has been relying on for the last thirty years. Cormac has to regain his humanity and his emotional responses since he has become over-reliant on cyborg mental extensions.
In an interesting inversion/reflection, Pelter (one of his eyes having been ruined) fits peculiar and ugly augmentations to his once handsome face and awakens Mr Crane.
Mr Crane is one of the joys of this novel; an android serial killer, Mr Crane was one of the Golem series of androids, but was robbed of his moral protocols by having the memories of a serial killer downloaded into his mind. He is a two and a half metre tall metal creature who wears a long coat, a wide-brimmed hat and – a neat twist – takes trophies from the victims he spares, raising a cold metal finger to his mouth, enjoining them to silence before leaving them.
Arian Pelter and the runcible accident which Cormac is sent to investigate are actually connected via the anomalous Dragon, a possibly artificial lifeform composed of four spheres, each a kilometre wide. Dragon is enigmatic, manipulative, and may well be extra-galactic.
It’s an extraordinarily impressive debut novel, one of those you wish was longer. Most novels of 500+ pages tend to be inflated with extraneous fluff. This however, is dense, tight and wastes not a word.
Asher handles the multi-character viewpoint well and makes excellent use of pre-chapter ‘quotations’ from publications of the future which tell their own story and shed some light on the background to the action.
It is clear however that the story will have to continue in another novel, since several questions are left unanswered and the situation with the Dragon is left unresolved, as is the relationship between the Dragon and the energy entity which was – one assumes – imprisoned on Samarkand. Asher has indeed subsequently published mostly Polity novels, and only a couple of unrelated works, such as ‘Cowl’.
It’s also refreshing to see that British SF seems in the throes of a renaissance with the likes of Peter F Hamilton, Asher and Ken MacLeod producing work of high quality and holding their own against American SF which, of late, has produced little that is groundbreaking.
It might also be interesting to examine a ‘post-cyberpunk’ trend in recent years where there seems a distinct ‘gothic’ or ‘entropic’ quality to Science Fiction from both sides of the pond (and presumably elsewhere). Alistair Reynolds is perhaps the most distinct voice of this trend in which the future is seen quite at the other extreme from Star Trek’s ‘Happy Clappy’ Galactic Democracy.
Asher’s ‘Polity’, which is in effect a benign AI dictatorship, is seen in the novel as a safe, happy place to live, although the ‘quotation’ chapter prefaces gradually make us aware that AIs are capable of the manipulation of data and have, in effect, rewritten history to suit their own purposes. No system is perfect, as Asher subtly and cleverly points out.
The gothic elements here are few, but Mr Crane is perhaps the example at the forefront. A man-made Frankenstein monster with archaic clothing, we first see him when he is released from a room where he has been sat motionless for two years while his clothes rotted on his body.
Then there is the Viridian orbital ring, falling into disrepair while the adapted humans who live in it continue their lives as best they can. A very impressive debut novel.


Mars Crossing – Geoffrey A Landis (2000)

Mars Crossing

‘By the middle of the 21st century, humanity has finally landed men on Mars – only to watch helplessly as the first two missions end in catastrophe and death.
With resources running out, a third – and perhaps final – mission to Mars is hastily mounted, with a crew of four men and two women. But from the moment of their arrival on Mars, everything begins to go wrong. The fuel tanks that were to have supplied their return trip are found corroded and empty. Their supplies are running out and their life support systems are beginning to fail. And any rescue mission won’t reach them for months, or even years – if at all.
The crew’s only hope for survival lies in a desperate plan: an agonising trek halfway across the surface of Mars to a ship designed to carry only half their number. Torn by conflict and dissent, and troubled by secrets that endanger them all, they must embark on an ordeal that will test them to the limits of endurance.’

Blurb from the 2001 Tor paperback edition

Landis can be – as one might guess from reading this book – justifiably credited with the title of Mars expert since he works for the NASA John Glenn Research Centre, has had 150 scientific papers published and carries far more outer space credentials than anyone would have thought necessary.
There is therefore a taste of authenticity in the scientific and hardware aspects.
The novel tells the story of the third Mars Mission, a US-led venture which follows the initial Brazilian landing at the North Pole (where the astronauts mysteriously died) and the second American mission which also ended tragically and ironically when Athlete’s Foot began to infest not only the crew but the machinery.
Now four men and two women (one of them the wife of one of the dead Brazilian astronauts) have reached Mars safely, only to discover that their return craft – which should have been manufacturing fuel and oxygen for the return trip – has been compromised by the Martian environment and is useless.
Their only hope is to travel across Mars to the North Pole where the Brazilian ship might still be capable of getting them back. The only flaw in this plan is that the ‘Jesus Du Sol’ is only large enough to take two of them home.
Comparisons have to be made with Ben Bova’s 1992 ‘Mars’, particularly in terms of structure. The narrative, like Bova’s, is interspersed with events from the pre-Mars lives of the crew.
Although this device is a useful way of putting flesh on the bones of a character, it can be over-used, and here it might have been better to have the crew learn of each others’ ‘secrets from the past’ through discovery or conversation. The Mars journey is real, exciting and compelling, while the past life dossiers are a little dull.
Landis’ Mars is a far more real place than Bova’s. This Mars is beautiful, cold, deadly and holds hidden surprises, like the fluorescing rocks which appear to glow for a few minutes after sunset, obviously something which Landis researched or studied, and for which he gives a rational explanation. It is also made clear that the gravity and atmospheric differences have consequences and side-effects (both positive and negative) that laymen – and some other novelists – would not consider.
Landis demonstrates – at least on paper – that it is possible to fly an aeroplane on Mars, although the construction and fuel considerations have to be vastly different.
If one asks ‘What is this novel a platform for?’ one can only say that it is demonstrating the capacity within individuals (and therefore with Humanity) to not only rise from the gutter and reach for the stars but to struggle on against the odds to survive. It’s an old theme and although Landis has created an informative, exciting and entertaining thriller, exploring this theme, he brings nothing new in the way of illumination.
It’s a solid and workmanlike piece but one can’t help feeling that something is missing, that Landis, like Bova, fails to capture the atmosphere of the vast sterile wasteland.


Tactics Of Mistake (Dorsai Trilogy #1) – Gordon R Dickson (1971)

Tactics Of Mistake (Dorsai Trilogy #1)

‘Planets were the pawns in their quest for power.

The men of the Dorsai were the finest fighting soldiers in the universe, mercenary troops without equal.

Their talents were devastatingly employed on Kultis, where a bloody little war raged between the Western Alliance and the Eastern Coalition. But not even the Dorsai could anticipate the dramatic effect of Cletus Grahame’s brilliant mind and the galaxy-shaking theory he called ‘the Tactics of Mistake’.

The story of how Cletus Grahame risked his life, the fate of three worlds, and ultimately the whole of the Dorsai to prove that a mistake may remake worlds is a classic of science fiction.’

Blurb from the 1976 Sphere paperback edition

Slightly Asimovian in its technique of presenting problems to be solved with ingenious tactical solutions, Dickson’s Dorsai novels are set in a galaxy where the burgeoning Earth colonies are being fought over by the Coalition and the Alliance.
When tactical expert Cletus Grahame is sent to the planet Kultis to assist the Alliance it sets in motion an inevitable sequence of events, orchestrated by Grahame, designed to break the stranglehold that Earth has on the colony worlds via the Alliance and the Coalition, and also to transform the mercenary Dorsai into an elite fighting force.
Grahame’s nemesis is the coldly ambitious Dow De Castries, whom Grahame meets in the first chapter while on his way to Kultis. The entire novel, in fact, is a kind of elaborate game of chess, with Grahame employing his theory of ‘Tactics of Mistake’ to goad De Castries into retaliating against his every calculated move, making bigger and bigger mistakes until he ultimately destroys himself.
This novel at least stands the test of time very well and is interesting in that there is (as in ‘Dune’) an oddly mystical slant to proceedings.
Kultis is one of the colonies of the Exotics, a quasi-mystical community who are both scientifically and philosophically advanced. They wear blue robes and are dedicated to the ongoing evolution of Humanity. There seems to be a slight Buddhist element to their beliefs and it is suggested that they have powers above and beyond the normal range of human capabilities.
Mondar, a high-ranking Exotic who becomes friends with Grahame, recognises something within the mercenary and invites him to join the Exotics. There is an odd yet powerful scene where Grahame, arriving at the Exotic’s private office, appears to go into a trance and sees various possible other universes with alternate versions of himself and Mondar.
Later, Grahame employs various hypnotic meditation techniques to train his Dorsais to exploit their bodies to their maximum potential (reminiscent of Paul Atreides and the Fremen of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’) and they subsequently become in demand among the indigenous populations of worlds where the Alliance and Coalition are in control. Grahame’s elaborate chess game with De Castries is masterfully plotted and leads logically and inevitably (if not necessarily predictably) to a satisfying endgame.


Orbitsville – Bob Shaw (1975)

Orbitsville

‘When the young son of Elizabeth Lindstrom, the autocratic president of Starflight, falls to his death, Vance Garamond, a flickerwing commander, is the obvious target for Elizabeth’s grief and anger. She is not a forgiving employer and Garamond has no choice but to flee.
But fleeing Elizabeth’s wrath means leaving the Solar System behind for ever and hiding somewhere in deep space.
Pursued remorselessly by earth’s space fleet, the ‘somewhere’ that Garamond discovers is an unimaginably vast, alien-built, spherical structure which could just change the destiny of the human race.’

Blurb from the 2000 Gollancz SF Collectors Edition

In the first of a rare trilogy from Shaw he examines the theory of the Dyson sphere, a theoretical construction which is, as might be imagined, a sphere, but one which whose diameter is the same size as the orbit of the Earth. It is believed that such a sphere would be able to contain a star such as our own, and given sufficient orbital rotation, would provide a habitable area on the inner surface equal to several hundred million Earths.
Vance Garamond is a Starflight Captain reporting directly to Elizabeth Lindstrom, President of a starfaring society in which only one other habitable planet, Terranova, has been discovered. Earth is overcrowded and Lindstrom, a psychotic and psychopathic dictator, is parcelling up the new planet and selling strips of it off to the highest bidder.
While awaiting his audience with the President before a routine assignment Vance is asked to entertain her nine-year old son. Distracted by his thoughts, Vance does not see that the boy has climbed up into the arms of a statue and before he can react the boy falls and cracks his head on the pedestal, killing himself instantly.
Realising that his life is now forfeit when the borderline-insane Elizabeth discovers her son’s death, Garamond collects his wife and young son and smuggles them aboard his spacecraft. Along with his crew they head out for the stars, knowing that their chances of finding a new habitable world and so being able to escape the President’s wrath is minimal.
Garamond has one hope in that he has what amounts to a treasure map; ancient research consisting of a chronological series of alien stellar maps in which a star apparently disappears.
Setting off for this point in space, Garamond discovers that the sun has been encased in a sphere of indestructible material, with an entrance at the equator. Inside, the inner surface has been terraformed and its surface area so large that it would provide the same space as several million Earths.
Radio and radar do not work within the sphere, and it is suggested that its creators meant it as a honeytrap for intelligent life, as the alien races which are discovered living within the sphere have reverted to an idyllic pastoral existence.
It’s a gloriously retro novel for its time. Elizabeth’s Presidential position has regal overtones quite apart from the symbolic relevance of her name. Other critics have seen the influence of Van Vogt here, and certainly the tone and the scope is redolent of novels such as ‘Empire of The Atom’ or ‘Mission to the Stars’ although the characterisation exceeds anything Van Vogt produced in either work.
It is also maybe a response to the ‘Big Dumb Object’ trend which arguably began with Niven’s ‘Ringworld’ and was followed most famously by Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’. Certainly, it would appear that Shaw’s novel was the first major use of a Dyson sphere, the concept of which was later used by other authors such as Stephen Baxter in ‘The Time Ships’ and on TV in ‘Star Trek – The Next Generation’.


The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell (1996)

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)

“After the first exquisite songs were intercepted by radio telescope, UN diplomats debated long and hard whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to reach the world that would become known as Rakhat. In the Rome offices of the Society of Jesus, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send. The Jesuit scientists went to Rakhat to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm’

Taking you on an extraordinary journey to a distant planet and to the very centre of the human soul, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is an astonishing literary debut – a powerful, haunting and exciting novel about the nature of faith and what it means to be ‘human’.

Blurb from the 1997 Black Swan paperback edition

Emilio Sandoz is a Jesuit Priest who, by a series of coincidences which those involved consider to be divinely inspired, finds himself voyaging through space to the planet Rakhat. Rakhat was located following the discovery of radio waves transmitting sublime music from a star only a few light years distant.
The novel however, in a dual timeline structure, begins after Emilio has returned alive from Rakhat, his hands mutilated by having the connective tissue between the bones of his hands removed from wrist to knuckle.
The Jesuits need to interview Sandoz in order to discover what happened to his colleagues and so Sandoz’ ‘confession’ and slow recovery in interspersed with the story of the voyage to Rakhat and what happened there.
It’s admittedly a beautifully written novel and though heavily dominated by Jesuits it makes no attempt to espouse or attack this particular Christian sect although Russell addresses many questions and issues surrounding the concept of Faith.
Initially, First Contact with the aliens of Rakhat in the form of the Ranu – an anthropoid race with a great gift for trading and the creative arts- goes well. However, it transpires that there are two intelligent species on Rakhat, the second being the Supaari. They are similar in form to the Ranu, but stronger and more intelligent, and it is these creatures who have created the music which reached Earth.
The story is at times funny (all Russell’s characters seemed to be possessed of formidable wit. It is sometimes over-witty, but that is a small quibble), at times deeply moving, deeply disquieting and on occasions, simply brutal.
Overall, the tone is a romantic one. For me, the Jesuits found it absurdly easy to construct an interstellar starship from a sequestered asteroid, crew it and launch it without attracting the attention of the world at large.
The planet Rakhat seemed to hold no bacterial perils for the crew, and like colonials of old, they saw no harm in polluting the culture’s social habits; at one point disastrously which ultimately leads to Emilio’s chilling punishment.
Comparisons have to be drawn with Sherri Tepper’s ‘Grass’ which also sees a slow unveiling of the true relationship between two alien species on a world which Man has invaded; another book which coincidentally features religious politics as a central topic.


Cosmonaut Keep – Ken MacLeod (2000)

Cosmonaut Keep (Engines Of Light, #1)

‘After the conquest of Europe, the Russians quit stalling. Their troops reached the Atlantic, their cosmonauts reached the asteroids. Now the stars await them.

Something else got there first.’

Blurb from the 2001 Orbit paperback edition.

The structure of this novel is interesting in that it consists of a dual timeline in alternate chapters. The first – in first person narrative – follows Matt Cairns, a freelance software expert in a near-future Socialist Republic of Scotland.
The second strand follows his descendant, Gregor Cairns, a marine biologist on the planet Mingulay.
Both become involved with one woman, and then, by circumstance or fate, find themselves involved with another. Both are also fated – or so one presumes – to travel as Navigators on the same ship to another world.
MacLeod can sometimes be hard work and forces the reader to solve certain mysteries for themselves. It is clear quite early on that the future planet Mingulay is somehow connected to Matt Cairns and what happens to him in a past Socialist Scotland.
This book deserves and rewards concentration as much for hidden jokes and comic moments as for the clues which are strewn here and there like cast-off pearls.
Essentially, just as the EU (Eastern Union) announces that it has discovered alien intelligent life in an asteroid, Matt is given a data-disc containing plans, purportedly from the aliens – for a space drive.
He defaults to the US and is persuaded to travel to the asteroid (whose workers have overthrown their EU masters and declared a form of independence) where a motley collection of characters decide to build the space drive.
We know that they succeed as the asteroid crew and scientists are the forefathers of the people of Mingulay who travelled to the planet in a ship called ‘The Bright Star’ which now orbits the planet, but MacLeod cleverly keeps us enthralled as to how the voyage initially came about.
Simultaneously (at least to the reader) Matt’s descendant Gregor resolves to complete his father’s Great Work, reclaim the ‘Bright Star’ from orbit and fly to another human-settled world, Croatan.
Amongst all this, as added spice and mystery, we have various alien races who exist in a hierarchical system similar to that in Brin’s ‘‘Uplift’’series. It transpires that human tales of alien ‘greys’ were based on the Saurs, a reptilian race descended from dinosaurs who have been transplanting groups of humans to other worlds for quite some time.
Above the Saurs in social status are the Kraken, mysterious giant squid which communicate through coruscating displays of bioluminescence. They navigate ships through space, are highly intelligent and enigmatic, but are themselves subservient to the aliens of the asteroid, ‘The Gods’ who are paradoxically some form of microscopic hive bacterium.
Macleod’s aliens succeed where Brin’s fail, since Brin tends to be rather oversentimental and anthropomorphic, assigning many of his aliens with human responses and emotions.
Apart from the extremely long lived and cannabis-smoking Saurs, who have adapted to human society reasonably well, the other aliens in this book communicate via interpretative media or – in the case of The Gods – an interface which reveals such beauty and ecstasy in the microscopic societies that the process of mere communication is addictive and not often very meaningful.
In his earlier series of ‘Sky Road’ books, MacLeod also contrasted contemporary (or near future) socialism with a society centuries hence and – as he does here – used a process of longevity to carry a character through into the future,
It’s difficult to say by how much Matt Cairns has changed over centuries on Mingulay since it is only in the final chapters that his descendant catches up with him. Matt and the other passengers of ‘The Bright Star’ it transpires were treated with a one-shot longevity drug, the secret of which has been lost, and have learned to live in hiding amongst their descendants from interstellar traders who might want to kidnap them to learn the secret from their bodily tissue.


The Unlimited Dream Company – JG Ballard (1979)

The Unlimited Dream Company

‘From the moment Blake crashes his stolen aircraft into the Thames, the unlimited dream company takes over and the town of Shepperton is transformed into an apocalyptic kingdom of desire and stunning imagination ruled over by Blake’s messianic figure. Tropical flora and fauna appear; pan-sexual celebrations occur regularly; and in a final climax of liberation, the townspeople learn to fly.’

Blurb from the 1990 Paladin paperback edition.

Ballard plunges us headlong into a Messianic fantasy which begins when his hero, Blake, steals a Cessna aeroplane from an airfield and crashes into the river at Shepperton.
The setting is important as Shepperton is a place famous for its film and TV studios and stands symbolically in the British consciousness as a media Mecca.
Blake escapes from the plane, collapses, and is revived by the amazed townsfolk who tell him that he had been dead for about eleven minutes.
Following his ‘resurrection’ Blake begins to entertain sexual fantasies as tropical birds and flora start to manifest and transform the town into a jungle paradise.
The symbolism of the plane could be read as that of a cruciform, emphasised by the fact that the crippled children whom he befriends, collect pieces of the dead plane like the relics of a Saint.
Blake is involved with four people in particular:-
Miriam St Cloud: Miriam is a doctor. Her scientific scepticism is damaged immediately by Blake’s apparent return from the dead. Later she becomes – at least in the eyes of Blake’s followers – his bride.
Mrs St Cloud: Miriam’s mother. Blake engages in a feverish act of sex with her which transforms into a symbolic act of birth with Mrs St Cloud giving birth to Blake, born anew. Thus she becomes a mother figure. The father figure is the Reverend Wingate, a ‘father’ in the religious as well as symbolic sense, filling the role of father to Blake. Wingate is the first to see Blake’s ‘divinity’ and hands over his church to him to do with as he wants.
Finally, there is Starks. His role seems to be as a Judas and to oppose Blake. Indeed, some aspects of his life are the antithesis of Blake’s. he cages or kills animals or birds. Blake seems to generate animals and birds which are far happier and healthier than Starks’ caged specimens.
As Blake’s powers increase, Shepperton is transformed into a jungle and in his dreams Blake himself turns into a bird or whale and in turn transforms the townsfolk into appropriate creatures to accompany him. When he awakens it appears that the townsfolk seem to remember having the same ‘dream’.
The Messianic drama continues. Blake begins to heal people. He absorbs people into his own body (symbolic cannibalism) and, in a kind of orgiastic carnival, teaches the entire town how to fly.
As with many messiahs, his followers – led by Starks – eventually turn on him and he is killed again, his body left in the strange shrine-cum-grave which the disabled children have been building from dead flowers and Blake’s ‘relics’.
Then, by absorbing the life-forces of the creatures of the forest, he rebuilds his body, acquiring aspects of the various creatures of the woodland and rises once more, this time transforming the entire population of Shepperton and releasing them into what Ballard terms ‘the true reality.’
As in ‘Concrete Island’ the hero finds himself trapped in a specific environment, and is forced to either adapt himself to it or fight to escape. In this case, as escape seems impossible (the landscape recedes whenever he tries and he can never pass the barrier) he is forced to transform the environment to suit himself.
There are other Ballard motifs. We have the low-flying aircraft; his obsession with modernistic public architecture (a multi-storey car-park is the venue for Blake’s marriage to Miriam); the exotic landscape which permeates most of the book, and sexual fetishism and transference.
It is not an easy novel, but then Ballard’s novels are never easy to understand, but unlike other ‘difficult’ books Ballard’s work can be read for the sheer poetic beauty and the imagery alone.


The Years of Rice and Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

The Years of Rice and Salt

‘A vanguard of the Mongol horde rides west across the steppes into an eerily silent world. People lie dead in villages and in the streets of towns. The Black Death has struck Europe. there are virtually no survivors.

Into this empty land pour merchants, warlords and refugees, and from that day forward history is shaped by the East instead of the West. Japanese ships cross the Pacific ocean and Chinese ships cross the Atlantic to colonise the New World, while a scientific revolution is begun in Samarkand. And the destinies of a cast of unforgettable characters weave a bright new pattern through seven hundred years of history as it never was, but might have been.’

Blurb from the 2003 HarperCollins paperback edition

Robinson takes as his basic premise that of Christopher Evans’ ‘Aztec Century’. There, the plague devastated Europe to the extent that social progress was halted, allowing the Aztec civilisation to progress, explore and develop technologically. In Robinson’s alternate world the plague rampaged through Europe in the 14th Century and wiped out virtually the entire population. Thus, when the Mongols began exploring from the East, they discovered an empty land.
This history, divided into exquisitely written episodes set sometimes hundreds of years apart and in different parts of the world, is a romantic, joyous and uplifting work. Often the tales told are set on the borders between cultures, religions, classes, even between sexes, and profound debates are conducted, often to no great effect, although the point Robinson seems to make is that any examination of the nature of life no matter how trivial has a cumulative effect on the society of the world.
There are some interesting social developments in America where the Native Americans, inspired by an adopted Japanese, form a league of Tribes which resists any incursions by Chinese or Japanese invaders.
Christianity has all but disappeared, and Europe and Asia are composed of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
In his Mars trilogy Robinson managed to create a continuity of narrative over about three hundred years by the device of the longevity serum which kept his main characters alive from the first landing on Mars through its terraforming to its independence and beyond.
Here, as a linking thread through the centuries he employs the unconventional device of reincarnation. Souls travel in groups, we are told, and are often reborn in the same area or reconnect in life. The souls here are recognised in the narrative by their initials since they return with names beginning with K, B and I. In the intermissions between chapters they return to ‘the Bardo’ able, as they were not in the flesh, to recall their past lives. It’s an effective device, as it’s a metaphor for the evolution of the soul of society as a whole.
The souls cross the boundaries of gender and race, and even at one point, of species, as when the K soul, having murdered in her last life, is reborn as a tiger.
It’s a beautiful and poetic novel, and shows once more Robinson’s versatility and flare for sheer style and characterisation, ending, as always with KSR books it seems, with hope for the future of humanity.