Monday, June 30, 2008

The Gone-Away World - Nick Harkaway

One underused trope I'm very fond of is the concept of a world out of synch, where the laws of reality don't quite work any more. Often this is restricted to short stories such as Robert R McCammon's Something Passed By or Jack Vance's* The Relict, but here Harkaway has gone for a book-long attempt at the idea. Not far in our own future, something terrible has happened to the world, and our nameless protagonist now spends his time in a nameless bar on the fringes of reality. Called out to deal with a suspicious fire in the vital pipeline, it looks like his past may be about to catch up with him...

Get more than twenty miles from the Pipe and you were in the inimical no-man's land between the Livable Zone and the bloody nightmare of the unreal world. Sometimes it was safe, and sometimes it wasn't. We called it the Border, and we went through it when we had to, when it was the only way to get somewhere in any reasonable length of time, when the alternative was a long drive around three sides of a square and the emergency wouldn't wait. All the same, we went in force and we went quickly, lightly, and we kept an eye on the weather. If the wind changed, or the pressure dropped; if we saw clouds on the horizon we didn't like, or strange folks, or animals which weren't quite right, we turned tail and ran back to the Pipe. People who lived in the Border didn't always stay people.

Following the dramatic opening chapter is a lengthy flashback covering our hero's life so far. The first-person narrative crackles along whimsically enough, in the manner of a Tom Robbins wannabe writing a quirky autobiography, but at first it's hard to see what the point of it all is, as we follow our protagonist through school, college and martial arts lessons. The relentless banter is rather wearing at first, until we hit the war zone, at which point the comic mixes with the horrific to create something quite special, and we find out exactly why we've had this extended diversion into the past. As soon as we catch up with events, the story takes yet another turn, and Harkaway presents us with a very clever twist that throws the whole book into a completely different light.

The lyrical and rather breathless style takes a bit of getting used to, but beyond that, this is a very good book. It's dark and it's funny; there's a doomsday weapon and some astute character dynamics; there are ninjas and there are pirates. And, glory of glories, it's not the first part of a trilogy, so you can read this and get the whole story without needing to wait an age for part two. This is a step to the side from traditional SFF, and so may be a bit much if you're after a standard space opera or epic, but I enjoyed it immensely.


*Not actually certain that it was Vance, as Googling has brought no joy, but trust me, the story's a corker and worth looking out for in older anthologies.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Super Powers - David J Schwartz

Superhero Movie is hitting our screens right now, promising 90-ish minutes of (probably) lame gags and deep unfunniness; superhero fans all over the world are clutching their heads in despair. For anyone who actually wants a decent superhero story, I would instead recommend this book, which was surprisingly good. Debut novelist Schwartz has managed the tricky feat of combining a rather sweet and comic superpowers tale with the real-life events of September 2001 without fluffing it; the final result is a little rough around the edges but still works very well.

Madison, Wisconsin; the spring of '01. The morning after a drunken student party, and five housemates wake up with more than just a hangover - for reasons unknown, they all find they have acquired super powers. Much of the story that follows is a very down-to-earth exploration of exactly what ordinary people would do if, for example, they were suddenly able to fly or turn invisible; their attempts at maintaining secret identities are rather inept, their crime-fighting skills are somewhat limited, and the population isn't as grateful as they expect. Much of this is amusing, but it's not really written for belly-laughs - there's also a lot of poignant detail about the characters' own problems and back-stories, which are generally well realised. And all the while, September is approaching.

On finding that this story would involve 9/11, I was rather worried that it would end up with the heroes beating up Bin Laden and saving the day, which would have turned an otherwise pretty good book into a big pile of shit. Luckily, nothing of the sort happened, though I won't give away how it actually turned out; in fact, it was a sensible, adult and rather moving approach to the event and its aftermath. So, despite a slight clunkiness in some of the character constructions (notably the annoying conspiracy-theorist reporter who is "editing" this account), I'd say this book is well worth a read, and Schwartz is an author I'll be looking out for in future.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Flood - Stephen Baxter

How much science do you like in your fiction? This is a topic that's been up for discussion recently, and your answer may form a good chunk of your opinion on Flood. Starting in 2016, we follow the fortunes of a group of ex-hostages, released from a 5-year imprisonment in troubled Spain to find a world in environmental meltdown. Sea levels have risen by a metre or more and are still rising, weather patterns are disrupted, and no-one knows how bad it's going to get. Over the course of the next 35 years or so, as the continents are swallowed one by one, we get their various perspectives on the drowning world and their own personal struggles for survival...

If you think this sounds like a cheesy Hollywood disaster movie, you wouldn't be far wrong - that's exactly the tone that this conjures up. It's compelling reading, and is full of action-packed setpieces (for example the first direct flooding scene, where an unseasonal storm devastates London), but at its heart contains a core of deep stupidity worthy of Crichton himself. For all the scientific references cited in the afterword, the whole concept behind the flood seems highly unlikely, and a lot of the other pseudo-scientific touches are just as dodgy (case in point - the portable music player which "beams the music directly into your brain", used by the kids of 2016). Using real-world near-future settings carries an extra burden of reader expectations with regard to realism, and, for me at least, it failed to deliver sufficient plausibility. I'd even have preferred Wyndham's Kraken Wakes deep-water aliens as an explanation; at least that's a decent bit of handwaving.

Another drawback was the rather uninspiring set of characters. They were nominally given personalities and motivations, but all of these felt strangely flat; their main purpose, really, was to be in key locations to observe the aforementioned setpieces. This involved a number of coincidences and deus ex machinas even dodgier than the science, as our hostages chummed up with billionaires, revolutionaries and research scientists, none of which I was remotely interested in. I suppose this is the much-vaunted "human angle" that journalists like to include in their disaster reporting, but I just wanted to see what was happening to the Earth, not some boring hunt for an abducted baby.

As with 28 Days Later, where the best bit is the pan shot across the deserted London, almost all the good parts of Flood are the ones describing the state of the world. Unfortunately my copy of the book was an ARC and so lacked maps, but the published version promises to start each section with a map showing the extent of the flooding when the sea level rises 10, 100, 1000 metres, and Baxter shows us many of the key events, from the loss of Bangladesh to the moment the Black Sea breaches the Bosphorus. What was missing from this, alas, was a convincing picture of the human scale of the disaster - with billions displaced or dead, I would have expected a much larger global economic or social upheaval, but the flow of consumer electronics appeared to flow unabated until the very last days, and everyone's satellite phones continued to work surprisingly well.

It was certainly an enjoyable read, but the devil is in the details, and these were dubious at best. If you like to read about great global catastrophes, then it's certainly worth a go, and dodgy science certainly hasn't hurt Crichton's career, but don't expect anything too convincing. It may make you look askance at high tides and rainstorms for a few days, but a believable prophecy of doom it's certainly not.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Queen of Bedlam - Robert McCammon

This is the sort-of sequel to McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird duology; it doesn't follow on directly, but contains the further adventures of Matthew Corbett, young legal clerk and detective in the making. Set in the late 17th century, Corbett has left the South and now finds himself working for an embryonic detective agency in an embryonic New York, still a small but busy port town huddled at the bottom of Manhattan Island. A serial killer known as "The Masker" has been murdering a string of respectable gentlemen, and when the town's inept volunteer police force prove themselves singularly incapable of solving the murders, Matthew's natural curiosity impels him to start his own investigations. Through rumours of brutal crime syndicates and dodgy dealing among the town's worthies, the trail leads him to a new-fangled mental institution outside the city, where a distinguished old lady sits in silence, her past a blank slate. Where did she come from, and how could she be connected to the crimes?

While lacking the swampy Southern atmosphere of Nightbird, this is still a cracking mystery, and McCammon has really developed the character of Corbett. He has a nice balance between the young and idealistic innocent, and the stubborn, intelligent crime-fighter he's growing into. The other characters here are a little more clichéd, but generally still fun to read about; there's a good comic turn with Corbett's tutor, Hudson Greathouse, a Bond-like swashbuckling rogue with little time for the more intellectual side of detective work.

I'm not particularly well versed in the early history of New York, but the town McCammon describes certainly feels authentic - a cheerfully grimy working port, full of colourful characters at all levels of society. There's not quite as much small-town quirkiness as in the previous books, but there are still plenty of entertaining side-stories to support the main plot thread, and the town becomes almost a character in itself. While the mystery is all wrapped up by the end of this one, the rather poignant conclusion makes it clear that young Mr Corbett will be back for more, and I for one am certainly looking forward to it.


Monday, June 02, 2008

The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has mostly now become famous as a champion of atheism, but of course his original and main job is as a biologist and specialist on evolution. This marvellous book gives an interesting new perspective on the usual evolutionary tale - instead of the traditional method, starting with bacteria and climbing the ladder via fish and dinosaurs to us fantastic mammals, it does the whole journey in reverse. Dawkins has taken his concept from the Canterbury Tales, where various pilgrims (species, orders, phyla, kingdoms) are heading to a single destination (Canterbury/the origin point of all heredity), meeting each other at various points en route and exchanging tales as they go. Starting off with homo sapiens, we head back through the immediate human ancestors, then get our first rendezvous with the apes, then the monkeys, and so on, right back to the 39th rendezvous in the furthest depths of prehistory.

As well as providing information about the species themselves (including some good bits of pub trivia), the various tales are also used to illustrate particular facets of evolutionary theory. To pick a few examples, The Howler Monkey's Tale shows us the different ways that colour vision has evolved in primates; The Seal's Tale explores the evolutionary pressures that cause sexual dimorphism and different mating patterns; The Redwood's Tale looks at different dating systems, from tree-ring counting through core sampling to carbon dating; and The Marsupial Mole's Tale looks at parallel evolution in geographically separated populations, where the marsupials of Australia evolved to fill the same ecological niches as their placental cousins elsewhere, and often ended up looking extremely similar. Obviously, they're not "tales" as such, but short essays, and together they combine to produce one of the most comprehensive accounts of evolution that I've read.

If you should be so incautiously affectionate as to stroke a shark, you would find that its whole skin feels like sandpaper, at least if you stroke it "against the grain". It is covered with dermal denticles - sharp, tooth-like scales. Not only are they tooth-like, but the formidable teeth of a shark are themselves evolutionary modifications of dermal denticles.
Sharks and rays almost all live in the sea, although a few genera venture up estuaries and rivers. Freshwater shark attacks on humans used to be common in Fiji, but that was when humans were cannibals. All but the choicest cuts were discarded into rivers, and it would seem that sharks were attracted upstream by the smell of leftovers from cannibal feasts.

Dawkins writes in his familiar style, with occasional flashes of acerbic wit and barbs aimed at idiot creationists, and only the odd moment of annoying self-congratulation. Some of the technical bits are hard going in places, but he does a good job of making the trickier statistical points as clear as possible without dumbing down. I've been reliably informed that his computer-based analogies are a little iffy, but in general this is an accessible, entertaining and informative account that really gets into the meatier details of how evolution works, and how it all happened. Because of the structure, Dawkins only really has room to cover the creatures (and other organisms) whose evolutionary line directly connects with our own, so dinosaurs don't get much of a mention, but he still elegantly sends them off with the eerily appropriate Ozymandias; otherwise, it's ancestors all the way, with a handy graph at each chapter to show how long ago they diverged. One minor quibble I'd have is the number of times Dawkins refers to his other books, though I can quite understand his desire not to repeat himself when covering much the same ground - and in fact it's not that much of a quibble at all, because now I'm quite inspired to go out and read more of them. Very good stuff.