My life in outer space

Posts tagged “Politics

The Transhumanist Wager – Zoltan Istvan (2013)

The Transhumanist Wager

I’m in two minds about this novel, stylistically and thematically.
Structurally, it suffers in the main from a wobbly beginning since we have in the first few chapters a severely unnecessary amount of infodumping, consisting of pages of personal biographies and descriptions of the major characters. I’ve never seen the need to know the colour of characters’ eyes for instance, and here we have complete descriptions of their bodies, clothing choices (down to their brand of underwear in one case) and personal histories. This is the sort of thing one should discover in the course of the narrative, if at all, since much of it is unnecessary. I suspect, to the average reader, much of it is soon forgotten.
However, having got that out of the way, the narrative picks up and rattles along at a fair pace.
So, Jethro Knights is a committed and dedicated Transhumanist who, almost singlehandedly, transforms the Transhumanist Party into a more radical beast.
This draws the attention of the deliciously evil Rev. Belinas, leader of The Redeem Church, a body dedicated it seems to the destruction of any science capable of improving on God’s handiwork. Belinas is grooming young Gregory Michaelson – an ex-classmate of Jethro’s – to be his puppet senator and sets him up as head of a new enforcement agency, the NSFA, specifically created to oppose and destroy any Transhuman initiatives in the US.
Jethro, while travelling the world working as an overseas journalist, met and fell in love with a feisty and intelligent young doctor, Zoe Bach. Jethro, who appears to exhibit Vulcan-like powers of sexual suppression is worried that the force of his feelings will interfere with his cause, which is to push Transhumanism to the point where Death is conquered, and beyond.
He leaves Zoe to pursue his dream of a Transhuman world.
Much, much later Zoe, finding that her new job is about to be targetted by one of the Rev Belinas’ terrorist cells, contacts Jethro. With the aid of spycams and WiFi the raid is transmitted live to newsrooms across the country and Jethro, hiding out alone, gives a running commentary on the action while the bombers, not realising they are live on TV, implicate Belinas in the attempt.
Belinas escapes any investigation but Jethro becomes a hero and Transhumanism develops into a presence in the public consciousness. The battle between what is essentially rational thought and entrenched religious and social dogma escalates. The NFSA (The National Future Security Agency), at the behest of an increasingly desperate and murderous Belinas, is given additional powers to make Transhumanism illegal and to arrest anyone connected with the movement and seize their assets.
The battle escalates and, with the aid of a Russian billionaire and a revolutionary architect, Knights builds a floating city, Transhumania, where the final battle between reason and superstitious belief will be fought.
Istvan is one of my Goodreads friends, and I hope he forgives me for being somewhat critical of his work. He himself once worked as a National Geographic journalist and it is clear that he is drawing obvious parallels between himself and Jethro Knights. I have watched some of his speeches which are entertaining, very inspiring but somewhat at odds, however, with the views of Knights in this novel.
Knights is a fascinating character, if a tad sociopathic, totally focused on his goal to kickstart the Transhuman revolution and gain himself immortality.
The question I need to ask is how much of Istvan’s psyche is contained in Jethro Knights? It’s an important question simply because I do believe that this is an important work, despite its flaws. Unlike most genre novels this is based on current reality, or at least on a real political movement. Istvan is the leader of the US Transhumanist Party, and a Presidential candidate in the last election.
I am a supporter, in principle, of Transhumanism, as well as being a somewhat militant atheist. One would imagine then that I would be on the side of Jethro Knights in this novel, and yet I am struggling to get there. I recently read ‘Nexus’ which is also a pro-transhumanism novel, and in both works there is a tendency to paint the mundane humans as evil Luddites, desperate to hold back the progress of technology at any cost. There have to be some shades of grey here. Not all atheists or Transhumanists are good people. Not all religious people are evil or stupid. A little balance goes a long way.
My mind, while reading this. kept drifting off to AE van Vogt, another author who pushed a philosophy – albeit somewhat obliquely – via his work, which was at that time Dianetics. The interesting thing about about this is that van Vogt’s heroes generally solved their problems with logic and non-violence. Dianetics subsequently became subsumed within L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology ‘religion’ and we all know how well that turned out.
Transhumanism – or at least Jethro – is unconcerned with solving problems in a non-violent way and Knights feels perfectly justified in bombing churches across America. If Istvan is attempting to sway the average reader to his cause then this is counter productive since one would assume that those wishing to evolve or transcend would surely wish to abandon irrational violent instincts. It also places them on the same level as those who mount attacks on abortion clinics and gay bars. It’s a childish act.
The Transhumanists take the world by force, having destroyed the NATO navy ships sent against them and taken control of all world banking and military systems, insisting that the population of the world adapt to the New World Order or face extermination. To make the point clear, they destroy a number of major religious and political sites around the world including the White House, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace (to be fair, the latter, a relatively modern and decidedly ugly building, would not be a great loss) which draws obvious parallels with the recent ISIS destruction of historical sites.
There are some good aspects to the new rules. Education is free but compulsory, with citizens being required to learn something new throughout their lives. Religion is outlawed and the population strictly controlled.
However, this is nothing less than an enforced dictatorship and, I would suggest, unmanageable. The Soviet Union sought to eradicate religion but following its fall saw religion flower again like weeds in an untended garden.
It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy that fails to address many issues and is, as many of these political systems are, predicated on a policy of freeing people while denying them a good many of the freedoms they had enjoyed under the previous regime.
However, if we look at this as merely a work of fiction, it’s an enjoyable journey somewhat flawed by a good deal of unnecessary text.
If Istvan chose to revise this novel and make the movement seem more of an enlightened organisation rather than a terrorist group it would go a long way toward getting readers to identify with his aims.
It is, having said all that, an important piece of work given the author’s place in US society and in a sense refreshingly honest. Writing this review within a week of Donald Trump’s election as US President somewhat takes the edge off my criticism. One wonders whether a Transhumanist President might, after all, not be a bad thing.

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Chung Kuo I – The Middle Kingdom – David Wingrove (1989)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo, #1)

‘How many billions lived in the City that filled the great northern plains of Europe? The two men crab-scuttling across the dome that roofed the city neither knew nor cared. They thought only of the assassination that was their task.

Chung Kuo. For three thousand years the world-encompassing Empire of the Han had endured. War and famine long banished, the Council of Seven ruled with absolute authority. Their boast: that the Great Wheel of Change itself had ceased to turn.

Yet at that moment of supreme strength and confidence, Chung Kuo was suddenly vulnerable. A challenge had arisen from men who dreamed of Change – although Change would mean war and a return to all the old half-forgotten savageries of the past.’

Blurb from the 1990 NEL paperback edition.

In the 22nd Century, China has control of the Earth and has turned its continents into seven enclosed cities, each ruled by a Tang, one of The Seven; the rulers of Chung Kuo, the Middle Kingdom.
Each city consists of many levels, socially and physically distinct and each citizen’s behaviour determines whether they rise or fall from their level.
The Seven control everything and impose Edicts against technological progress, seeking to keep the peace by maintaining a social status quo by halting the great wheel of change.
In this generation, however, there appear several individuals whose effect on society, for good or ill, will herald change.
Chinese are known as Han, and compose the majority of the ruling classes. Europeans or ‘Hung mao’, have been assimilated into Chinese culture to a large degree but there is a faction of Dispersionists who wish to build starships to colonise other stars, creating a society outside of the Tang’s control.
Major DeVore, originally a high-placed officer in the Tang’s forces, is part of the Dispersionists’ terrorist wing and organises the assassination of a Minister, which sets in motion a chain of political events; events which DeVore strategically controls and exploits for his own ends like a round of his favourite game, Wei-Chi.
This is the first volume of a very under-rated (although possibly ultimately flawed) epic. From Nineteen Eighty-Nine, it was ‘The Wire’ of its age, with its multi-character viewpoint covering all sectors of society from the wretched cannibal society of The Clay (the lightless bottom level) to the Tang himself.
Over the preceding century the Han have rewritten Earth history to suggest that Chung Kuo has always been the dominant civilisation and a ministry exists to ensure that any other historical alternative theory or account is treated as treason.
In this volume we follow several key characters; DeVore, Li Shai Tung, the Tang of City Europe; Li Yuan, the Tang’s son; Kim Ward, a scientific prodigy refugee from The Clay; Ben Shepherd; a cloned advisor to the Tang administration; Karr and Chen, trained fighters from the lower levels who now work for the Tang’s security forces.
It is certainly far more than an SF blockbuster thriller. The complex political manoeuvring and the interweaving individual storylines are handled very well, and the writing occasionally approaches the profound.
On its first publication there were complaints in the journal of the British Science Fiction Association about its sexual elements and one section in particular of extreme sexual violence, although one has to say that the section needs to be looked at in context. Is this merely an apt demonstration of DeVore’s methods of controlling people and the depths of his depravity?

The original series which ran to eight large volumes was marred by the publisher’s insistence on ending the series with volume eight, when the original plan was nine books. The original ending was therefore, somewhat unsatisfactory. Wingrove has recently revised and expanded the entire series which is being released in twenty shorter volumes, the first volume of which is ‘Son of Heaven’ (2011).


Market Forces – Richard Morgan (2004)

Market Forces

‘ ‘All over the world, men and women still find causes worth killing and dying for. And who are we to argue with them? Have we lived in their circumstances? have we felt what they feel? No. It is not our place to say if they are right or wrong.

At Shorn Conflict Investment, we are concerned with only two things. Will they win? And will it pay?’

Chris Faulkner has just landed the job of his life. But Shorn Associates are market leaders in Conflict Investment. They expect results, they expect the best. Chris has one very high-profile kill to his name already but will have to drive hard and go for kill after kill if he’s to keep his bosses happy.
All he has to do in the meantime is stay alive…’

Blurb from the Gollancz 2004 paperback edition

Abandoning Takeshi Kovacs for this novel (although Morgan ironically refers to a TK novel within the text through the thoughts of his main character, describing it as ‘a little far-fetched’) the author takes us to a near-future Britain, controlled by media and big business. It’s a Britain where rich and poor are separated geographically, the disaffected being confined to ‘the zones’.
Chris Faulkner is a hot-shot rising star in the world of Investment, but this is a Britain where boardroom battles are conducted on the road. Road rage has been legalised and is now the preferred method by which executives battle for promotion.
It is a mark of Morgan’s persuasiveness as a writer that this rather ‘far-fetched’ and farcical idea is made entirely convincing.
Chris is head-hunted for a post at Conflict Investments, a company specialising in profiting from the destabilisjng of foreign regimes, usually by selling weapons to their opponents, and immediately comes into conflict with almost everyone. From this point on, Morgan drags us into a relentless Shakespearean tragedy in which Faulkner is gradually pushed down a road where paradoxically, through doing what he thinks is the right thing, he is gradually dehumanising himself and transforming into a man numb to the feelings of those around him.
What lets the novel down is the dialogue which, for some reason, never rings true. Maybe it’s because the major characters, particularly Chris Faulkner and his new best mate, fellow executive Mike Bryant, are interchangeable in terms of dialogue. There is no real difference in their speech patterns and although Morgan has written Bryant as a wise-cracking wit, it never really comes off the page that way.
In some ways it is Morgan’s best book so far. Certainly he has done his homework on Politics and Commerce in a Capitalist world and has served us up a horrifying vision of what our society could grow into.
Oddly, it also owes a debt to Zelazny’s ‘Damnation Alley’ via its spiritual descendant, ‘Mad Max’. The film was an early and powerful influence on Morgan and some of its scenes were no doubt in the back of his mind as he set about creating this.


Iron Council – China Mieville (2004)

Iron Council (New Crobuzon, #3)

‘It is a time of revolts and revolutions, conflict and intrigue. New Crobuzon is being ripped apart from without and within. War with the shadowy city-state of Tesh and rioting on the streets at home are pushing the teeming metropolis to the brink. In the midst of this turmoil, a mysterious masked figure spurs strange rebellion, while treachery and violence incubate in unexpected places.

In desperation, a small group of renegades escapes from the city and crosses strange and alien continents in the search for a lost hope, an undying legend. In the blood and violence of New Crobuzon’s most dangerous hour, there are whispers…

It is the time of the Iron Council.’

Blurb from the 2005 Pan paperback edition

One feels one is betraying Mieville by criticising his work, as even this, perhaps the weakest of his New Crobuzon novels, is infinitely superior to the work of 95% of his contemporaries. Corruption and revolt are rife in New Crobuzon and the destiny of several people become intertwined when Juda Lowe, master golem-maker, sets out across the world with a band of misfits to seek out The Iron Council.
Meanwhile, back in New Crobuzon, Ori, a young militant, tired of political rhetoric, is desirous of joining up with Toro, leader of a band of what might be termed ‘terrorists’, whose ultimate aim is to kill the Mayor.
He becomes friends with the half-mad Spiral Jacobs, and eventually fins himself part of Toro’s inner circle. Things are never simple in Mieville’s work, however, and like the ubiquitous spiral graffiti which Spiral Jacobs paints around the city, there are complex twists of intrigue and plotting.
In flashback we follow Judah’s life from the time he worked for the owner of the railway company which is sending tracks and a train further out into the world than anyone seems to have explored.
These sections are interspersed with Ori’s journey, from his disillusionment with the underground revolutionary newspaper with which he is involved, an organ which is heavy on words and low on action, to his final act of revolutionary madness with Toro; the assassination of the Mayor. Here, however, he realises that the whole political movement which surrounded Toro was a means to an end, and that the death of the Mayor was motivated solely by personal revenge.
He is also betrayed by Spiral Jacobs, an apparent madman who was in fact manipulating Ori all along for completely different motives.
As is common in Mieville’s work, people are seldom what they appear to be on the surface, a message echoed in the concept of the masked rulers of the city. Toro also is masked, a fabulous bull-mask of weird technology, which allows the wearer to slip through space. Perhaps to prove a point about assumptions, both the Mayor and Toro turn out to be women. Nothing in the text suggests otherwise, but their actions automatically lead the reader to attribute maleness to them.
Motives, in fact, are an important feature of the novel. Cutter, a young man who has followed Judah across the world, is not motivated by any form of idealism but simply because he is in love with the charismatic golem-maker.
Having reached the end, one feels that New Crobuzon is far far closer to our society than it superficially appears. In it is reflected our dated Imperialistic tendencies, our complacent (and sometimes faceless) government, our innate xenophobia and above all, the way in which we can so easily slip into a war with an enemy we neither know nor understand.


The Black Cloud – Fred Hoyle (1957)

The Black Cloud

‘A cloud of gas, of which there are a vast number in the Universe, approaches the Solar System on a course that is predicted to bring it between the Sun and the Earth, shutting off the Sun’s rays, causing incalculable changes on our planet.

The effect of this impending catastrophe on the scientists and politicians is convincingly described by Fred Hoyle, the leading Cambridge astronomer, so convincingly, in fact, that the reader feels that these events might actually happen.’

Blurb from the 1980 Penguin Science Fiction edition.

This engrossing and peculiarly British work by Sir Fred Hoyle FRS (“astronomer, writer, broadcaster and television personality”) draws heavily, one presumes, on his experiences working within the astronomical communities of both Britain and the US.
A combination of observations by astronomers in the UK and the US lead to the discovery of an immense black cloud due to intersect with the Earth’s solar orbit in sixteen months time. A sceptical Dr Chris Kingsley is finally convinced and travels with the Astronomer Royal (addressed fondly as A.R.) to America where they compare notes with fellow-scientists. Narrowly escaping benign internment in the US in the name of security, Kingsley takes his findings to the British government and cleverly manoeuvres the security forces into setting up a secure ‘Think Tank’ in the Cotswolds comprised of astronomers and related scientists.
Despite some rather stilted dialogue and occasional tautology Hoyle deftly captures the spirit and nature of the political machine and those who exist within it.
With the arrival of the cloud, widespread panic is accompanied by the discovery that that the cloud is driven by an intelligent gaseous agency with which they are eventually able to communicate.
Ironically, the scientists find it easier to communicate with the alien than with their own politicians who, fearful of the destructive power which the cloud can command, fire atomic weapons upon it.
The nature of the cloud being is interesting and well thought out. The cloud creatures normally exist in deep space but return to suns to employ the Sun’s energy to effectively ‘recharge their batteries’ before heading off into space again.
It’s interesting to see a Nineteen Fifties novel in which the alien is both superior and benign, reflecting a view of Humanity as aggressive, arrogant and not a little stupid.
The catastrophic effects of the Cloud’s impact are – perhaps due to an innate habit on the part of Hoyle – reduced to a mere statistical report. It’s not exactly a ‘cosy catastrophe’ in the sense that ‘Earth Abides’ or some of John Wyndham’s work is but the horrific consequences of the Cloud’s arrival are certainly downplayed.
Extreme heat, freezing conditions and ensuing floods wipe out a hefty percentage of the world’s population but the author commentates – perhaps wisely – on the scientific and political aspects, this being ultimately a portrait of the uneasy relationship between politicians and scientists.
Like Asimov, who made the point in his Foundation trilogy, Hoyle advocates a political system which is in essence, a technocracy.


Dune Messiah – Frank Herbert (1969)

Dune Messiah

‘A holy war has made Paul Atreides the religious and political leader of a thousand planets. The malign sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, unable to dominate the man they have made a god, set out to destroy him.

Paul, who is able to foresee the plans of his enemies, resolves to adapt and shape them to a goal that is as shocking as it is unexpected.

‘Dune Messiah’ – long awaited successor to double award winner ‘Dune’ – is an epic of imperial intrigue that spans the universe, rich and strange in its evocation of the history, institutions and people of a far future age. ‘

Blurb to the 1972 NEL paperback edition

The second book in Herbert’s ‘Dune’ sequence takes us forward twelve years to where Paul Muad D’ib Atreides is now undisputed Emperor of the Galaxy. The Fremen have adopted him and his sister Alia (not, it has to be said, without their implicit consent) as Godlike figures which has prompted a jihad in which the Fremen have pillaged and occupied most of the worlds in the Dune galaxy.
Unlike the first novel, which was undeniably an epic and featured varied exotic locations around the galaxy, this book is much shorter and keeps its narrative firmly rooted on the planet Arrakis.
Muad D’ib finds the burden of Empire a heavy one to carry, particularly in view of the fact that his prescience (boosted into full awareness of the future due to the effects of the spice melange) seems to allow him no way to stop the jihad which is sweeping across the galaxy in his name, killing billions in a wave of religious fervour. He thus becomes something of a Shakespearean figure, locked into a destiny in which the concept of free will loses all meaning.
We are immediately introduced to the Bene Tleilaxu, a Guild similar to that of the Bene Gesserit, in that they are dedicated to selective breeding and the manipulation of genetic material to a specified end, but their methods are far different.
The Tleilaxu believe in directly modifying themselves and have become ‘Face Dancers’ (shape-changers) who pride themselves on their ability to reshape their flesh and mimic people to such an extent that their closest friends and family can be fooled.
They are also masterful cloners who are attempting to perfect the art of creating a ghola; a cloned copy of a dead individual which retains not only the original’s physical attributes, but their memories and personality. As part of their scheme to destroy Muad D’ib, the Tleilaxu, conspiring with both the Bene Gesserit and the Spacer’s Guild produce a copy of Muad D’ib’s old friend and mentor, Duncan Idaho, reborn as a mentat philosopher and offered to the Emperor as a gift.
Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda though, and the Tleilaxu are hoping that if the ghola does not destroy Muad D’ib, then the psychological pressure imposed upon him will in any case awaken the real Duncan and make their experiment a success so that they win either way.
‘messiah’ for me fails because it tries too hard to be a different sort of novel. The original was a triumph of contrasts, from the intensity of the Bene Gesserit disciplines through to the moral solidity of the Atreides and then the gross and decadent mores of the Harkonnens. There was the contrast with Caladan and Arrakis, between educated society and the Fremen, between water world and desert world. It was a riotous mixture of tastes and flavours.
Herbert, in concentrating on a somewhat claustrophobic and, has been suggested, Shakespearean sequel, has lost a little of what made Dune such a marvellous novel.
One cannot fault the plotting. Herbert has a mastery of the use of political intrigue, double-bluffing, double-crossing and paranoia.
It does seem, however, that the Bene Tleilax – who as far as I recall were not mentioned in ‘Dune’ – were brought in to add that flavour of spice (for want of a better word) to what is a rather cynical view of Humanity and religion.
As in ‘Dune’ religion (or rather the concept of belief) is used as a political tool, but by this time Muad D’ib has realised that the Godhood which has been bestowed upon him is merely a monkey on his back. It now controls him and he seems powerless to control the religious mania which has taken over the galaxy, or indeed his own future since he walks into traps fully knowing the consequences but also cogniscent of worse consequences should he take another path.
One suspects that this was meant to be a longer novel. The philosophy and the aims of the Bene Tleilax for instance are never fully explained and much of the colour and spectacle of the original are missing.
Some characters are underused. The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam was, in ‘Dune’, used sparsely but to great effect. Here she is simply used, and might just as well have never appeared in the novel at all.
Similarly, the Spacers’ Guild, who in the original are an exotic and mysterious human mutation are here reduced to the status of ‘man in a tank’.
The relationship between Alia and Hayt (the cloned Duncan Idaho) could have made a fascinating sub-plot but failed to materialise into something of solidity.
The Tleilaxu are the most fascinating element and the character of Scytale is the only one of the conspirators whose behaviour and actions hold any dramatic interest. The Tleilaxu were instrumental in the plot against Muad D’ib since they produced the resurrected body (and possibly soul) of Duncan Idaho. This is another Shakespearean motif in that Hayt can be seen as performing the same symbolic and dramatic purpose as Banquo’s Ghost, or that of Hamlet’s father, a former close associate returned from the grave. It may be significant that the Tleilaxu gave the reborn Idaho steel eyes which would naturally reflect the face of anyone he spoke to. Is it then his function to make the Mahdi Muad D’ib see himself for what he is?
Essentially, this novel reads as a first draft. Although well-written and packed with Herbert’s stylish inventiveness and his talent for designing societies and institutions, one can’t help feeling that the main characters are under-developed and are never given the opportunities (rather than the space) to show us their personalities the way they did with such panache in ‘Dune’.
The denouement in particular seems very rushed, as if Herbert were under pressure to bring the novel to a satisfactory conclusion.


The Dispossessed – Ursula K LeGuin (1974)

The Dispossessed

‘The Principle of Simultaneity – a stupendous concept which will revolutionize interstellar communications between the nine Known Worlds. it is the life work of Shevek, a brilliant physicist from the anarchist world of Anarres.
But Shevek’s ideas are being stifled by jealous colleagues. So he goes to the authoritarian hell-planet Urras from whence his ancestors fled, seeking a different kind of freedom – and finds himself embroiled in deadly intrigue and bloody revolution…’

Blurb from the 1979 Panther paperback edition

On the cover of my seventies paperback is a brief quote from a Science Fiction Monthly review which says ‘destined to become a classic,’ which it undoubtedly did.
Set against the backdrop of LeGuin’s Hainish universe (in which Earth is just one of an unknown number of planets which the Hainish seeded with Humanity over a million years ago) we follow the life of scientist Shevek, a citizen of the anarchist moon Anarres, which orbits the parent world of Urras. Anarres has survived as a communist/anarchist state – based on the teachings of Odo – for a hundred and seventy years, and has had little contact with the parent world. Now, Shevek, on the verge of discovering a Universal Temporal Theorem (which will, among other things, allow instantaneous communication throughout the universe) finds his work hampered by jealous colleagues and the very nature of Odonian politics.
In fact, lack of communication is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Some of the young scientists face stiff opposition from the other anarchists when they begin to engage in radio dialogue with scientists on Urras.
Shevek, realising that the scientific community on Anarres will never allow his work to be published, arranges to travel to Urras in the trade freighter that occasionally lands on the moon, at the risk of being labelled a traitor and never allowed to return.
Thus, we then see Urras through the eyes of Shevek, a man unaccustomed to the concept of money or class systems. Ultimately Shevek’s presence gives impetus to the downtrodden masses of Urras who have already staged uprisings against the military government in another part of the world.
There are deep flaws in both of LeGuin’s societies. Shevek’s world, ostensibly an anarchist/communist state without laws, has evolved its own innate laws of rigidity. Avante garde composers are withheld teaching or composing posts, for instance, because their work doesn’t fit an acceptable Odonian aesthetic. Shevek himself finds it impossible to work at pure scientific research without political considerations and his colleagues’ rather selfish motives getting in the way. One feels that the Odonian dream has only survived on Anarres because resources are so scarce that no one could get rich even if they wanted to.
The story alternates between Shevek’s experiences on Urras and flashbacks of how life brought him to the point of leaving Anarres. The contrast works very well and LeGuin skilfully paints a dual portrait of the younger and older Shevek.
The societies are exquisitely realised and rendered in such believable detail one is drawn immediately into the dust and sweat of Anarres and the decadent pomp of Urras.
It’s a wonderful book, and one that will stay with you.


Children of Dune – Frank Herbert (1976)

Children Of Dune

‘Old Paul Atreides, who led the Fremen to domination of the human galaxy, is gone now, and Arrakis itself is slowly changing; ecological change has brought vast areas of greenery and even open water to the desert planet. But all is not well; the altered climate is threatening extinction to the sandworms which are essential to the planet’s economy, and the continued rule of the Atreides family is being challenged by fanatics and their worst enemy, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

These are problems potentially far more deadly than any Paul had had to contend with. How the Children of Dune faced up to them creates an impressive climax to one of science fiction’s greatest achievements.’

Blurb from the 1980 NEL paperback edition

Herbert’s saga moves on in this disjointed sequel which suffers from its political complexity more than anything.
Paul Muad D’ib has disappeared into the desert, presumed dead, leaving his unstable sister Alia to start a religion in his name, although her sanity is being undermined by the memories and personalities of her ancestors. Paul’s children, Leto and Ghanima, also became aware of themselves and their ancestral memories while in the womb, but determine to devise a solution to combating the threat of ‘possession’.
Paul’s mother, the Reverend Mother Jessica Atreides of the Bene Gesserit, is sent back to Arrakis by the sisterhood to check the children and the rumours of Alia’s state of mind.
A preacher has appeared, one who speaks out against Alia and her Muad D’ib based religion, and who may or may not be her brother, Muad D’ib himself.
Meanwhile on Salusa Secundus, the daughter of Shaddam IV, the previous emperor, is grooming her son Faradin for the throne, and devising a plot to kill the Atreides twins.
Frank Herbert must have felt a lot of sympathy for Muad D’ib since, if one considers it in that way. the Dune universe constrained him to his own form of preordained destiny and I do not doubt that publishers put a lot of pressure on him to continue producing sequels. Essentially, in the real world there’s nothing wrong with that, and a working writer is obviously grateful for a success like this, but as Conan Doyle discovered, it can very quickly become an albatross.
‘Children of Dune’ is compelling enough, but for my money it reads like a first draft. There’s little of the poetry, panache and descriptive beauty of the original novel and some puzzling plot-holes and dubious character actions which no doubt puzzled other readers long before myself.
For instance, House Corrino’s brilliant plot to kill the Atreides twins is to train genetically modified tigers to attack children wearing a particular style of clothing. Then, several sets of this particular fashionwear is sent to the children as a gift and the evil tigers (who are remotely controlled in any case) are smuggled onto the planet.
For the plan to succeed one has to guarantee that the children a) will wear the clothing and b) will go outside while wearing the clothes, alone.
One also has to guarantee that the tigers are in the same area of the planet as the twins and ready to kill.
It seems a ludicrous plan, flawed by indeterminable variables.
Similarly, later, when Leto goes to the lost sietch of Jacurutu, he is held captive by Gurney Halleck, apparently under orders from lady Jessica, but in actual fact this is Alia. If Jessica and/or Alia believed Leto to be dead why send Halleck to the sietch? It’s all very woolly and (unless there were some plot elements I misread) not very well thought-out.
It suffers therefore from a surfeit of factions and subterfuge. The reader, after all, is expected to keep track of who is lying to who and why, and this gets very wearing after the first two hundred and fifty pages.
Bringing back the dead is seldom a good idea. Duncan Idaho had already been cloned, turned into a mentat golem and returned to Paul Muad D’ib as a murderous gift.
Muad D’ib himself has returned, somewhat figuratively, from the dead as The Preacher, and now from the ashes of the original novel comes Baron Vladimir Harkonnen to posses and control Alia. We don’t see enough of him, however. as Alia has to keep his possession a secret, the fat Baron’s role is a drastically minimal one.
All in all, a decent enough read, but as one of the sequels to ‘Dune‘ it should have been so much better.


Dune – Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune

A novel which broke the mould, reinvented the concept of Space Opera and begot a minor cult, as groundbreaking novels are wont to do.
It’s rather spooky to look at Dune again in the light of the events of September 11, since we have in this book a situation where a desert people are militarily outclassed and dominated by a Superpower which wishes to retain control over the desert’s vital resource.
It’s not a realistic comparison, since in no way can I compare the revolt of Herbert’s Fremen with the cowardly actions of certain terrorists, but there are no doubt conspiracy theorists who will find the comparisons attractive. In this case it isn’t oil which is being fought over, but the melange spice of Arrakis, just as vital to transportation between stars as oil is for transportation between cities.
One could possibly compare the USA with the Evil Empire of Shaddam (even that name has a spooky resonance, but with the wrong side) and the planet Arrakis with the Middle East, but one would have to examine Arab-American relations in the Nineteen Sixties to get much mileage from that.
Undeniably, the Fremen are essentially Arabic in flavour, but the rest of Galactic Society is based around a feudal aristocratic system of powerful Houses, presided over by the Emperor Shaddam. It is an aggressive and brutal system in which assassination and treachery are rife.
Interlacing this network of families is the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, an organisation which has its own reasons for an intense interest in the melange spice, a strange organic substance which can endow its users with a form of prescience and telepathy.
Another major player in the politics of the galaxy is the Spacer’s Guild, a professional group of mutated humans who use the properties of the spice to sense changes in space and steer ships through hyperspace across the galaxy. They are also bound into the political web which is battling for control of Arrakis, since without the spice, which can only be found on Arrakis, the guildsmen would be useless, and traffic throughout the galaxy would come to a halt.
Herbert skilfully stage-manages the political manoeuvring and chicanery which may or may not be being controlled from behind the scenes by the Sisterhood. Thus it seems as though politics itself conspires to set in motion the events leading to the fulfilment of a Bene Gesserit prophesy.
Ironically, the religion which is integral to Fremen life contains elements implanted centuries before by the Bene Gesserit in order that the Sisterhood would be welcomed by their society. Thus, the Fremen, like the Sisterhood themselves, also know of the prophecy of the Kwisatz Hadderach.
It’s a clever trick on Herbert’s part, as the coming of the Superior Being can be seen simultaneously as the unexpected culmination of a long term Bene Gesserit plan and the true fulfilment of a long religious expectation on the part of the Fremen.
It’s not by any means an anti-religious book, although it is realistic about the nature of organised religion. It shows that religious systems are, by their very nature, political systems, or at least are tied into the political structures within which they exist.
Herbert’s universe of techno-feudalism is so well realised the reader feels quite at ease with the absurd and anachronistic ideas of Dukes and Barons wielding power over dominions of planets. There is a pervasive atmosphere of decadence and unhealthy opulence (particularly with regard to the House Harkonnen whose Baron is a corpulent gay monster who revels in the sexual gratification derived from the dying throes of his young victims) which is contrasted with the simple yet disciplined lives of the Fremen.
Gorgeous, complex, multi-layered. It’s a work of genius.


Perdido Street Station – China Mieville (2000)

.Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon, #1)

‘The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of the world. Humans and mutants and arcane races brood in the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the river is sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years the Parliament and its brutal militia have ruled here over a vast economy of workers and artists, spies and soldiers, magicians, junkies and whores.

Now a stranger has arrived with a pocket full of gold and an impossible demand. And inadvertently, clumsily, something unthinkable is released.
AS the city becomes gripped by an alien terror, the fate of millions lies with a clutch of renegades and outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crimelords alike. The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground. Battles rage in the shadows of uncanny architecture. And a reckoning is die at the city’s heart, under the vast chaotic vaults of Perdido Street Station’

Blurb from the 2000 Pan edition.

A masterful piece of work which to a certain extent defies genre classification. I’d call it Science Fiction but the style is fantastic, gothic and not a little weird.
The independent city-state of New Crobuzon is situated at the junction of two rivers on the planet of Bas-Lag, whose moon has two moons of its own.
Home to a variety of races, but dominated by humans, it’s a sprawling gallimaufry of diverse architectural styles, ruled by a corrupt government who run a lottery to determine who is eligible to vote.
Eccentric and grotesque characters abound. The style is reminiscent of Mervyn Peake, and redolent of the films of Jan Svankmaer and The Quay Brothers. Then there’s the Remade, criminals who are surgically and ‘bio-thaumaturgically’ transformed – often in grotesque and apposite ways – as punishment for their crimes.
The narrative follows Isaac – a research scientist, and Lin, an artist. They are conducting an illicit affair, since Isaac is human and Lin is a female of the insect Khepri race who has rejected her own culture to pursue her vocation.
They are both offered secret – and somewhat dangerous commissions; Lin to sculpt a three-dimensional portrait of Mr Motley the grotesque and aptly named crime-lord, and Isaac to find a way for Yagharek – a wingless garuda (a race of large intelligent avians) to fly again.
The commissions have repercussions not only for themselves, but for the entire city.
The linking narration is provided by Yagharek, a poetic and melancholy view of the city from the perspective of an outsider.
Throughout the novel runs the theme of transition and metamorphosis, represented at various points such as the metamorphosis of Isaac’s caterpillar into the dark and terrible slake-moth at the same time as his clockwork ‘robot’ (after an encounter with a virus) undergoes a data-metamorphosis and achieves a form of sentience.
Motley seems obsessed with the theme of transition, since he has commissioned the khepri artist Lin to sculpt a statue of his body. Like the city itself, his form is a mongrel construction within which various organic shapes and textures merge from one state to another.
Mieville has created a complex and completely believable society, colourful, exotic, decadent and dangerous, in which strange scientific processes are conducted with arcane and primitive equipment.
The author was the Socialist Alliance Party Candidate for North Kensington at the last election, and the cynical reader might have expected to find a certain amount of agitprop. It exists, but is used only as a backdrop to the main narrative.
The nature of the political structure is not clearly explained, although it is clear that New Crobuzon is not a democracy but has an entrenched political structure in which the right to vote is determined by lottery.
The Parliament enforces its rule via the Militia and its network of informers, either blackmailed or enticed into reporting on sedition and dissent. A dockworkers’ strike is at one point ruthlessly quashed, shockingly reminiscent of Thatcher’s treatment of mineworkers in the 1980s.
Mieville has been wise to leave certain aspects unexplained, such as how humans first came to Bas-Lag, or indeed, the exotic and brilliantly depicted mix of alien races, who are very much portrayed as the underclasses.
In some ways, New Crobuzon could be any modern city, divided along lines of wealth, cultural status or ethnic background. Small ghettoised areas of lawlessness exist, such as the Garuda sector which, tellingly perhaps, is in a tower-black on an abandoned half-built housing complex.
The book is also pervaded by images of decay and corruption, from the toxic effluvia of the rivers into which the factories dump their waste, to the abandoned houses upon which the Khepri have moulded their own form of organic housing.
Mieville manages to weave all of these elements into a deliciously rendered cityscape, conveying the vastness of the city body itself, its cultural architectural and financial diversity, and also focusing in on the characters as unique and well-rounded individuals with depth and flaws who inevitably pay the price for some of their actions.
It’s a wonderful inspired piece of work, and destined to be recorded as one of the first classics of the new century.
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