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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Richly resonant

Holman Hunt Scapegoat Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (Wikipedia Commons)

Robert Silverberg Kingdoms of the Wall Grafton 1993

This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, who has been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall, who has seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, who has grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and of death.

So begins this richly resonant novel, set on some distant planet — well, all planets are distant, aren’t they? — in a part of that world which is dominated by a inconceivably vast mountain called the Wall. From a community which is made up of distinct villages surrounding the Wall forty youngsters are chosen periodically to attempt the scaling of the mountain. Despite the honour accruing to the chosen ones, few of them ever return, and those that do seem unable to give a coherent narrative. Poilar is determined to be the one who not only achieves the ascent but to return and give an account. Despite the very first sentence providing the most monumental spoiler ever, Silverberg’s novel maintains a very palpable will-he-won’t-he tension throughout: Poilar’s nickname, Crookleg, is just one of the most obvious obstacles to him ever making his dream a reality. Continue reading “Richly resonant”

Mixing genres

the-planet-earth

Robert Silverberg
Tales of Majipoor
Gollancz 2013

“They came from Old Earth.” When a Prologue begins with portentous words like these you might automatically assume you’re reading a science fiction title. Especially when you’re told the colonists have migrated to Majipoor, a giant planet with low gravitational pull, three large continents to inhabit and expand into, an indigenous population to interact with and aliens from other worlds to transplant onto.

And yet, science doesn’t feature too much in these short stories, though fiction of another genre does. Of the seven tales, three are specifically about magic, one implies magic with the ‘sending’ of vivid and detailed dreams and another includes what can only be called magical talismans to call up images of past events. We are indubitably in the realm of fantasy now, albeit fantasy on another planet instead of a supernatural Otherworld, and with intelligent alien life forms instead of elves and fairies.

Then what are we to make of the faintly philosophical themes that Silverberg touches on, themes such as the ethics of restoring historical artefacts, or claiming ‘divine inspiration’ as your own creation, or the nature of sacrilege and how that conflicts with scientific truth? Continue reading “Mixing genres”

Evolution or revolution

Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books
The planet Trantor: Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books

Isaac Asimov Foundation Voyager 1995 (1951)

‘A great psychologist such as [Hari] Sheldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.’ — Salvor Hardin in Part II: The Encyclopedists, Foundation

I was first introduced to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in the 1970s when listening to the BBC Radio dramatisations (probably in 1977 when the 1973 series was rebroadcast). Though I at first liked the concept of psychohistory which underpins the storylines I became less enamoured of it in time after reading other fictional future histories, such as H G Wells’ 1933 classic The Shape of Things to Come which, though it successfully predicted war (beginning in 1940 and ending ten years later), thereafter got it spectacularly wrong in prophesying the demise of religion, the rise of a global benevolent despotism and a subsequent universal utopia. If short-term prediction (albeit by just one individual) could go so wrong, what chance another fiction-writer postulating any more reliably a future history in millennia to come?

And yet — as I had hoped — a re-read, even one as long delayed as this, has helped me revise some of my first hasty opinions.
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