All at sea

Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)

This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.

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First contact

Photograph of barrage balloons over London during World War II

Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End
Pan Books 2017 (1954, 1990)

It was on a beautiful summer evening in 1941 …
Scores — hundreds — of gleaming silver barrage balloons were anchored in the sky above London. As their stubby torpedo-shapes caught the last rays of the sun, it did indeed seem that a fleet of spaceships was poised above the city …
In that instant, perhaps, Childhood’s End was conceived.

— From the author’s foreword to the 1990 edition

Childhood’s End is one of many novels over the years to speculate on the end of humanity. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man appeared in 1826, and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) covered a two billion year span. Attempts to predict what may happen within a few generations include H G Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and while Childhood’s End is no alternate future history it postulates a climactic end to humanity as we know it in the first half of the twenty-first century — in fact, right now.

When I read such fictions (these are all titles I’ve completed over many years, apart from the Mary Shelley) I find I have to suspend critical judgement once these latter-day Cassandras get things so wrong, as subsequent history tends to prove their forward projections increasingly at variance with reality. Instead I need to focus on the themes the authors are trying to get across, generally to do with philosophical approaches to social organisation or else the impact of technological, environmental and genetic developments.

In Childhood’s End Clarke is quite clear: when he conceived the novel in the 1950s he was happy to speculate on two possibilities that were engaging public attention, namely contact with extra-terrestrials and the paranormal. By the end of the 1980s his natural scepticism had intensified, to the extent that it’s unlikely he would have written precisely this book, though it remained a novel he was quite fond of. If, at the end of the 20th century, the author had become less convinced by his themes, would a modern reader therefore now find the narrative preposterous?

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Paradise lost

Ursula K Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest
Introduction by Ken MacLeod
SF Masterworks: Gollancz 2014 (1972/6)

A novella I’ve had on my shelves for a couple of years, The Word for World is Forest is one that I was reluctant to begin, having understood that it was regarded as too polemical to be pure fiction. Completed in the aftermath of the terrible Vietnam war it was an expression of controlled rage against wanton killing, defoliation, poisoning and waste by a triumphalist aggressor against a supposedly inferior culture; Le Guin’s motivation was commendable but I’d had doubts sown over whether there was any edification to be had.

Having read it I can see the critical reservations all too clearly, but I can also appreciate its merits: a forward-moving narrative, a handful of clearly observed characters whose thought processes we observe, a sense of hope in amongst the more pessimistic aspects, imaginative touches that characterise both the genre and the universe that Le Guin has created in her Hainish Cycle. I can say that, yes, I was edified by the storyline, despite the darkness at its heart.

And here I must reference Joseph Conrad’s 1899 book Heart of Darkness, which later went on to inspire Coppola’s 1979 anti-war film Apocalypse Now. Similar themes run through both novellas — subjugation, maverick officers, exploitation — which I feel may be more than a coincidence. And, as the author makes clear in her own 1976 introduction, her London sojourn in the late 60s and involvement in protest demonstrations reflected, amongst other things, her own environmental concerns, concerns which I think Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ also encapsulated: “They took all the trees | And put them in a tree museum,” she sang, and “you don’t know what you’ve got | Till it’s gone,” adding “They paved paradise | And they put up a parking lot.”

So, is this a Garden of Eden story as the foregoing implies?

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A Cassandra role

Extraterrestrial organism at high magnification: still from The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Michael Crichton: The Andromeda Strain
Ballantine Books 1993 (1969)

Certainly the Wildfire team was under severe stress, but they were also prepared to make mistakes. They had even predicted that this would occur. What they did not anticipate was the magnitude, the staggering dimensions of their error. They did not expect that their ultimate error would be a compound of a dozen small clues that were missed, a handful of crucial facts that were dismissed.

— From Chapter 24, The Andromeda Strain

Michael Crichton’s 1969 techno-thriller is in some ways an update of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but instead of invading Martians being defeated by a earth-borne microbes (or “putrefactive and disease bacteria” as Wells has it, our “microscopic allies”) here it is the extraterrestrial microscopic organisms that threaten humankind. Brought back to earth by a Project Scoop satellite, they kill human beings by almost instantly clotting their blood. A top secret team codenamed Wildfire is tasked with retrieving, analysing, assessing and counteracting this virulent invader before it spreads to the general population. Holed up in an underground lab, they have a scant few days to come up with solutions; this being a thriller, things do not go smoothly.

Put thus baldly The Andromeda Strain appears to be a fairly humdrum novel, its premise familiar from scores of dystopic novel plotlines and SFF films and TV series. But, bearing in mind the date of its release — at the height of a flurry of manned space missions (though just three years from the last Apollo mission to the moon) and on the crest of a wave of optimism in the march of science and technology in the face of Cold War tensions — its then impact isn’t hard to imagine. The nightmare scenario of an invisible killer chimed in with fears of Russian aggression — remember, the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies had in 1968 invaded Czechoslovakia, a country at the heart of Europe. While the US became more mired in a disastrous Vietnam conflict, despite opposing a technologically poorer nation, on the other hand it had sent a mission around the moon; and computer sciences seemed to be announcing new advances on a daily basis.

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Multi-layered page-turner

Brian Aldiss, Helliconia:
Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter

Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010

The Helliconian trilogy is a multi-layered composition, as long and as rich as The Lord of the Rings, as colourful as a medieval tapestry and as polemical as an eco-warrior’s handbook. Aldiss is a prolific author in various genres, not just in science fiction; but SF at its best can itself include a great many genres, and this trilogy therefore has aspects of romance, epic, fantasy, prose poetry and science writing all flourishing in symbiosis with each other. And, like any great narrative, it is not only a great page-turner but has you caring about its characters. Continue reading “Multi-layered page-turner”

A novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon
translated by Edward Roth
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon. From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched. Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

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Destroying an empire

Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Robert Silverberg Sorcerers of Majipoor
HarperPrism 1998 (1996)

Is it true, as is often said, that there are no new plots in literature? That every story we hear or read or imagine has appeared countless times before? Whether there is just one basic plot or seven or whatever number one can conjure up — and the numbers do vary, despite one theory that there are only seven — it can be argued that pretty much every narrative conforms to an ur-pattern. One might think that there is no need to create new tales when they already exist in one form or another.

Well, of course there are infinite reasons why we continue to invest in narratives, many of them explicable in psychological terms. It’s maybe worth looking in detail at our need for novelty: if there are indeed no ‘new’ plots it’s how we dress them up that creates originality, as when mannequins are arrayed in different clothes and accessories. In any given narrative it’s the combination of elements, often reminiscent of other narratives, that gives it distinction, and this is certainly true for Robert Silverberg’s Sorcerers of Majipoor.

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