Reviews of BSFA Nominees

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British SF Association Nominees 2008

NOVEL

 
  • Alice in Sunderland – Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape)
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  • Black Man – Richard Morgan (Gollancz)
  • Brasyl – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
    Nothing conjures up a sense of dread quite like the thought of having to read an Ian McDonald novel. His previously nominated "River of Gods" has sat in my pile of books to read for at least a year and not moved any closer to the top. But I was determined to read this latest offering, if for no other reason than it's shorter than River of Gods, and there's always the chance that a writer whose shorter fiction is consistently inpenetrable, diffuse and ultimately disappointing will find the space in the longer form to let his ideas expand more naturally, and have time to actually include a plot also. This was the case with Charles Stross, certainly. Sad to say, the extra length accorded to Brasyl does not do the reader any favors. McDonald's strength is his imagining of an utter alien near future in a less familiar culture, recently India but here the eponymous South American country, not quite sure why it's spelled differently here but never mind. In Brasyl there are actually three parallel stories being told, only one in that requisite near future. In that one a guy named Edson encounters a young woman named Fia who seems to be on the run from something in a parallel universe, and her best defense seems to be the possession of a quantum blade, whatever that is. The only interesting story takes place in the present, where a reality tv producer named Marcelina slowly realizes she has a doppelganger who is undercutting her authority and causing great consternation amongst her co-workers. This takes longer to figure out than it should, but there's a great setup for a final confrontation with her alternate universe self, which then basically fizzles out. The third story takes place in the past, where Brazil was still uncharted territory, and a priest has been charged with seeking out a renegade member of the clergy, sort of like Apocalypse Now without the Ride of the Valkyries. These three tales will obviously intertwine, but they do so in a completely unsatisfying way, not really coming together so much as crossing over each other, and circumspectly enough that it hardly matters. The only nugget of interest here is the physics principle that is underpinning the entire premise, that there are an infinite number of parallel worlds, that things that happen in one could happen slightly differently in others. This is not an original idea, but the present day story also involves a disgraced soccer star who, it is felt, cost his country the World Cup long ago and was basically never forgiven, sort of the Bill Buckner of Brazil. There's some allusion made between this parallelism and our own deterministic fates and how much free will we truly have, but it comes and goes rather quickly. McDonald conjures up a richly detailed background, too rich by some measurements, as the constant bombardment of unfamiliar foreign words makes the narrative that much harder to follow (there's a lengthy glossary in the back for the intrepid). But the book reads like a bad dream, and at the end you really have very little clue as to what just happened, and the interesting bits of conflict that were set up here and there along the way aren't resolved convincingly enough to make this a satisfying or memorable read. Looks like River of Gods could stay in the to-read pile for a while longer yet.
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  • The Execution Channel – Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
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  • The Prefect – Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate)
    Chabon is a well-regarded mainstream writer who, like Jonathan Lethem has embraced the sf genre and allowed himself to be claimed by it also. His broad respectibility is the only reason I can think of why this book would be nominated for a Hugo, since while it uses alternate history as a backdrop, it's not particularly interested in diverging into alternate reality. Alternate history is one of my least-favorite forms of sf to begin with, often it's not really sf at all, just a made-up milieu in which the author can usually pit a number of historical characters and see what happens, which is typically not that interesting. Chabon dreams up the alternate universe, where the Jewish state of Israel failed and all the exiled inhabitats ended up in Sitka, Alaska, and then tells a Jewish detective story that has very little to do with any of that. The prospect of Sitka's impending re-unification with the US and what will happen to all the refugees is alluded to occasionally, but it doesn't seem to really weigh on any of the characters and certainly doesn't drive the plot. And while the story takes place in Alaska, the surroundings of that part of the world, the weather, the topography, the isolation, don't seem to be that interesting to Chabon either. It could be argued that he is purposefully avoiding these types of references, to downplay the alternate history angle as secondary to the story he is trying to tell. Meyer Landsman is a policeman who is called in to a routine investigation of the death of another tenant in his building, and is able to discern that he was in fact murdered. Various events lead him around in circles without really peeling back the mystery, and eventually he solves the case by naming a peripheral character that we don't really care about who didn't really have a very good reason for killing the guy. There's a generally gloominess to the proceedings and to just about all of the characters, which doesn't make for a page turner, and the overall lack of narrative drive hampers the effect. Chabon certainly has skill with a well-turned phrase, without being showy or too cerebral, I would be interested to read something else of his, but this book is a slog and I would think even alternate history fans would be disappointed. Maybe this belongs more with hard-boiled mystery afficianados, in that the background would give them something out of the ordinary, but for the rest of us we're left scratching our heads.
  • SHORT FICTION

    ‘Lighting Out’ – Ken MacLeod (disLocations)
    ‘Terminal’ – Chaz Brenchley (disLocations)
    ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate’ – Ted Chiang (F&SF, September 2007)
    Chiang has always been more about quality than quantity, several of his previous works have been Hugo nominees and they have always been a unique take on sf by injecting a specific measure of fantasy. This story, while perfectly servicable, and after all the winner in this category, to my mind doesn't measure up to its predecessors, not because it isn't well told, but because it doesn't seem to reach forward, or even attempt to reach forward, to bring that same unusual perspective to the table. The merchant of the title encounters a shop in some historical period of Baghdad run by the alchemist, who demonstrates his invention, a gate that allows people to be transported forwards or backwards in time. The alchemist demonstrates the device, and tells a few stories about previous users of the gate and how they were able to see something from their own past or future, but without the ability to change anything. Given this authorial restriction, the alternative is that causality takes hold and they cause things to happen which have already happened or were going to happen anyway. The merchant, who is narrating this entire exchange to some unnamed king, hears these stories and decides to use the gate to go back in time and try to save his young wife, who died in an accident after they had had an argument many years ago. Up to this point the story is well told (bearing in mind also that the narrative is a couple of levels deep), but nothing special. The merchant's trip into the past takes a few twists and turns, the sort of thing you'd see in a Shyamalan movie, maybe, and clever enough, but nothing revelatory. Chiang creates an interesting juxtaposition in this story of an Arabian Nights type of setting with some time travel physics, although nothing at all technical, just the basic rules themselves and their application to cause and effect. Certainly a worthy nominee, not on the scale of "Seventy-Two Letters" or "Hell is the Absence of God", but maybe I'm just setting my expectations too high.
    ‘The Gift of Joy’ – Ian Whates (TQR)
    ‘The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter’ – Alastair Reynolds (Interzone #209)

    BEST NOVEL OF 1958

    A Case of Conscience – James Blish (Ballantine)
    It took Blish five years to expand his novella of the same name into this short novel, and he did it just by adding a second half that takes places a year after the events of the original. I had read this book several years ago and it didn't really stick, and then I read the novella when it was nominated for a retro-Hugo and wasn't that wild about it either, so I had some trepidation about revisiting this story yet again. The first half deals with a Jesuit priest, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, who is one of a team of four scientist-types sent to evaluate the planet Lithia. What they find is a paradise, the geology of the planet is such that is has no major natural disasters, and the temperature is constantly temperate, although on the humid side. The native Lithians are an intelligent reptilian species who have evolved into some sort of utopia with no conflicts, and no concept of religion. Blish is fascinated by the implications of this on Catholicism in particular, but not being religous myself I'm still at a loss as to what all the fuss is about. Ruiz-Sanchez ultimately concludes that not only should this planet not be colonized by humans, but that it should never be visited again, as the prospect of this paradise seems to contradict thousands of years of religious teaching. But then at the end of the first half, his Lithian friend Chtexa gives him a Lithian egg to take back to Earth with him, so you know that's not going to turn out well. It would seem the logical conclusion to his line of reasoning would be for the priest to destroy the egg, to my mind that would be a real case of conscience, but that isn't the path that Blish takes. The second part of the book finds the egg all grown up as Egtverchia, after just a year, and stirring up trouble. He's become something of a cult figure and stirs up trouble at his first public appearance at some sort of high class party. Within a matter of days he's started his own political movement and encourages the general public to rise up and overthrow their oppresive government. The backdrop for this is the most interesting part of the book, particularly as extrapolation from the time it was written, where much of the world's population lives in vast underground cities built to withstand the impending nuclear war. But the war never happened, and there's been such an investment in this infrastructure that there is no consensus on moving back to the surface. Although Egtverchi has no direct memory of Lithia he knows enough to realize this isn't how people should live, and takes over the airwaves to foment dissent amongst the populace. As a result of this he's on the run, and is found to have stowed away on a spaceship back to Lithia. In the end, it would seem that Catholicism wins, but with an ambiguous sense of what was really gained. Blish confronts the clash of science and religion head on, that would seem to be the main thrust of the book's appeal, and there certainly haven't been many books since to follow up on this theme so starkly. Some events happen a little too fast to really get caught up in it as a reader, though, and Blish assumes a level of understanding of Christian dogma, and Catholicism in particular, that I think limits the profundity of the issues with which he's trying to wrestle. Egtverchi is part celebrity and part rabblerouser, an improbable cross between Oscar Wilde and Lyndon Larouche. I think the story of this type of figure's rise to power is potentially a compelling one, but not enough space is given here to see it through. Heinlein would revisit this same idea a few years later to much greater effect in the person of Valentine Michael Smith. Still a classic for what it tries to achieve, though.
    Have Spacesuit, Will Travel – Robert A Heinlein (first published in F&SF, August – October 1958)
    Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss (Faber)
    The Big Time – Fritz Leiber (Galaxy, March & April)
    1958 saw the last Hugo winners to not come from a voted list of nominees, and it was also the last year where the candidates were published that same year rather than the previous one. "The Big Time" is a stage play in prose, focused on the outpost outside of time and space, known by the locals as "the Place", where soldiers pass through for a little down time during the eternal struggle of the Change War. Extrapolating the Cold War to an extreme, Leiber conceives a future war called "The Big Time" that is fought by two sides that have been distilled to the nicknames of Snakes and Spiders, with no indication of who the good guys, how the names came about or even what the origins of the conflict were. Not only have other alien races been pulled into the fray, but the war is being waged throughout history, with battles taken into the past with the goal of changing the future to give the attacking side the advantage later on. Leiber's law of cause and effect in time travel is more resilient than most, where profound changes in the past may end up only having subtle repercussions in the future. He even ties this into the present day by explaining that any sort of perceived mis-remembering of the past is an effect of the Change War.

    What actually happens during the course of the book in the Place is a bit of a muddle. Told from the point of view of a resident "entertainer" (presumably prostitute) Greta, the drama is a Pirandelloan rumination of postmodern self-awareness. Some soldiers arrive, then a few more soldiers come along, one of them has a bomb that somehow gets armed, they set about to disarm it, and then everyone goes away. As in a play, the war is the main topic of conversation, but takes place offstage. The characters' interactions are informed by the conflict and their individual roles in it, but in the end the endless war takes on a greater meaning as the next step in evolution, not just of humanity but of life itself, and Leiber coins the term "time binders" to describe man's unique viewpoint in remembering history. Those who work at this recuperation outpost are "possibility binders", and they are the ones who can actually shape the future.

    Although there has always been time travel in SF, I wonder if the standard tropes that we associate with it today were not so well codified in the 1950's, such that Leiber could put forth a completely different perspective on time travel that could resonate well enough within the community to earn this story a Hugo. What I've read of Leiber's longer work is typified by this book, told as an abstract, almost mystical depiction of an otherwise tangible setting, with lots of references to classical literature and mythology to both elevate the context and put it outside a particular time period. Everyone thinks this book would make a great play, such that someone must have already done it, but I didn't see any evidence of it on line. Alternately challenging and frustrating, Leiber refracts a conventional sf premise through his own unique lens, and the result is still something worth pondering 50 years after publication, and probably for quite a while beyond.

    The Triumph of Time – James Blish (Avon)
    Who? – Algis Budrys (Pyramid)
    Cold War paranoia is in full cry in this classic story of the good guys vs. the commies. Government agent Shawn Rogers is responsible for sending spies across the border and simultaneously on the lookout for Soviet infiltrators in his own ranks. One of their top scientists, Lucas Martino, is working on a super-secret project implausibly close to the Russian border, when a lab explosion sends the bad guys over the line to take him away with them., only to return him a few months later sporting a metal head and robotic arm. Is it really Martino, or a devious Russian plot? Arguably Budrys's most accesible novel (if you don't count Hard Landing), there's really not much sf in this story. Although in this reasonably near future such sort of bionics are unheard of, none of the other characters seem to dwell on the technical aspect of it because they're all focused on the true identity of this man. As with much of Budrys's other work, the centerpiece of this story is the nature of self and identity. How far does a person have to go to prove who he is? If he is cut off from everything he knows for an extended period of time, to what extent is he really the same person as he was before anyway? Rogers can never really know for sure, so it becomes his life's work, and Martino's own life is turned upside down as the years go by with no resolution. Parallel to this story are a series of flashbacks to Martino's previous history and how he got to be where he was when the accident happened. But the last part of the story starts to muddy the waters a bit. Rogers finally extracts an admission from Martino, but it is contradicted by further information about how Martino was captured and the time he spent behind the iron curtain in the hands of a man named Azarin. This Soviet apparatchik wants information on the project for which Martino was working, code named K-88 but not really explained in any detail. Azarin himself doesn't know exactly what it is, and arranges for another man to undergo the same transformation, coincidentally Martino's old college roommate Heywood. Ultimately, while seemingly clear what happened to Martino and Heywood and who really made it back to the good guys, this goes against what Martino tells Rogers at the end. So is he lying, and if so why? Budrys's signature taut prose and long stretches of dialog don't provide a lot of details to surround each scene, but for the story he's telling they're not missed. The flashback scenes inform what is happening in the present, up to where the two stories converge just as they should, so it doesn't feel like padding. Beyond all this, Budrys's most significant achievement is how he conveys the mentality of the time, where no one can be trusted, and the dehumanization on both sides that this causes, such that not only do the characters question one another's identity, but even their own.