Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
Eating your Pie With a Fork: James P. Hogan, Outward Bound (New York: Tor, 1999).
Outward Bound is an awful lot like Charles Sheffield's High Society. with a touch of Card's Ender's Game. Bright kid from the slums gets into trouble with the law and is offered a second chance, but isn't told precisely what that chance will be. He ends up at a reform school that you *can* opt out of (although the alternatives aren't exactly an incentive) where he learns to be co-operative, to manage his temper and his desire for vengeance, and finds he's both well co-ordinated and with a bent for engineering design. Eventually he ends up in High Orbit on the way out to the Outerzone, anarcho-communitarian colonies which know that Earth will start taking an interest as soon as they make money. Linc fails his final exams, but later we learn that an enemy substituted false exam samples. It all ends up with them kissing and making up, and also with Linc beginning to think about marriage--homosexuality never even gets a mention in this novel.
I sound disparaging but I actually enjoyed it thoroughly. It's a classic pedagogic sf novel which considers what it is we bring our children up to believe. In this book, the training is intended to break the habit of individualistic libertarianism and instead to inculate the idea of independence as an extension of duty. Linc is believable, not perfect, not a superman--he reminds of Matt in Heinlein's Space Cadet. Part of the philosophy of the Outerzone in fact is to take anyone who wants it badly enough--even if their skills are only in filing or in carpentry (which actually turns out to be the equivalent of diamond carving in the new world). The idea is to build a society and engineer the behaviour, not select individuals as supermen. This is not utopia, just a different place, a different way of life.
We mostly stay in Linc's head in this book, which means Hogan uses Linc to make the reader think. Again this is a classic manipulative technique, but Hogan doesn't make it obtrusive. Linc's friends are different enough from him that we see a range of ways to make decisions acceptable to the new society.
Sunday, September 25, 2005
Dumb Patriotism, Blind Rebellion: Robert Silverberg, Revolt on Alpha C (New York: Scholastic, 1963)
Oh dear. Do you remember my assertion back in January that most of the best children's and YA sf of the 1940s-1950s was written by writers of the adult sf genre? Well, this "proves" my rule. Bob Silverberg, one of the finest writers in the field, has this absolute stinker to his credit.
In this book Larry Stark finishes his cadet training for the Space Patrol., passes out first and is invited to take a berth on the overdrive ship the Carden, headed for Alpa C. There turns out to be a revolution brewing, and Larry ends up picking the side of the settlers and staying.
In the hands of Heinlein, even with exactly the same plot, and exactly the same nauseating reminders that "You're from America, and this revolution doesn't mean anything to you!...(88) and the use of the slogan, No Taxation Without Representation*, this would have been a rivetting novel, instead one just wonders that anyone as stupid and racist as Larry (whose name turns out to be Lao Tze by the way, which is a nice touch) could have got into space.
Larry is the son of a Commander and lot of the justification of Larry is centered around what his Dad has told him, and an injunction to stay away from politics and from greasemonkeys (or tubemonkeys as they are called here). Only the brutality of his commander actually drives Larry to the revolutionaries. There are constant injunctions on him by his roommate to read revolutionary literature, but he never does, and he simply moves from swallowing Earth propaganda about independence being on the way when the colonies are read, to swallowing colony propaganda about autarky.
Just to add to the problems, everything is delivered as a download. In one case Larry actually asks for help with his homework.
One final stupidity: Larry wrecks the ship's radio and steals the valve. OK so far. But in the very last scene he smashes it, as a symbol of giving up Earth. That valve may very well be the only spare for several million light years.
*a note to the successfully propagandized... the Boston Tea-Party happened after the tax was cut.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
What if Animals Could Talk? The end of Kate Thompson's Missing Link trilogy.
I blogged Kate Thompson's Missing Link back in July, and was very much looking forward to the sequels.
The following is more of a book report than any real thoughts. Of the two, the third-and-final book is much more interesting sf. The second is, well, a middle book. I can't remember which critic it was who said that the middle book in an sf/fantasy trilogy will move the plot on precisely as a far as a glacier has moved in the same time...
In Only Human (2002) Christie sets out with Bernard (Maggie’s husband), Bernard’s son Colin who has apparently dormant fish genes, Danny who has Dolphin genes and Sandy who has frog genes and who Bernard dislikes looking at. The part is off to find the Yeti. Tina stays at home with Maggie.
This is the weakest of the three books just because it’s obvious that they will find the yeti, something important will happen, and they will return home. On the way Danny meets merfolk, and once home Sandy and Bernard come to terms with each other. Christie mostly learns how to deal with his brain damaged dog Loki, who is a lot smarter than they ever realise, in any of the books.
Origins is an utterly transparent story if you’ve read Tepper’s The Family Tree or Emshwiller’s The Mount but to be honest, I like this better than either of the these adult-reader books. Two strands:
In one the world closes in on Fourth World as the human world begins to die. The coup de grace is administered by an alien, trapped on earth for millennia, who needed a species to develop sentience and industry. Now it can leave, it takes the gift it had once given—the missing link gene Bernard had identified. Colin is the first affected but by luck the family is not, and crucially, because Bernard had hidden his work on the animals, the alien doesn’t work out that there are speaking animals (it cannot hear, so has not heard the evidence).. The family hide out and wait for it all to pass.
In the other Nessa a Cat and Farrell a Dog run from their communities when war breaks out. What they find out about themselves will complete the story of the missing link.
Monday, September 19, 2005
Sherlock Holmes We are Not: Maggie Pearson Omega Seven (London: Hodder Headline, 1999)
On the planet of Omega Seven, all is perfect. All the animals are herbivores and each of them eats only one kind of plant. Luke is bored. His parents are on Omega Seven to work for the Company which thinks a perfect planet will look after their scientists beautifully, remove all their worries and leave them free to be creative.
Things are a bit weird tho’. First items go missing and then are returned, then people go missing.
Finally Luke, a geek named Sam (recruited by the company when he was a kid—the politics of the society is glossed over but it sounds pretty horrific) and an independent scientist named Pavel are all taken. They find themselves facing Romans, then Vikings and Medieval castles. All three quickly work out they are being tested but Sam thinks its b y the Company. He sets out making the war the castle is fighting more efficient.
Eventually first Pavel and then Luke figure out that aliens (or indigenes) are creating the hallucinations in order to find out why the world they built is not developing intelligence and the humans did. The answer of course is struggle and conflict.
What I found irritating about this book was the way Pavel kept telling Luke to think without actually telling him what to think about, and was awfully smug about keeping the answer to himself. As an adult reader I was irritated that on the one hand the answer was obvious from the start and there weren’t enough clues to actually work it out if it hadn’t been obvious.
Friday, September 16, 2005
What if We All Had Demons?: Karen Traviss, "I Gotta Get Me One of Those".
in Navigating the Golden Compass: Religion, Science & Daemonology in Philip Pullman's
This is not totally off topic: one of the reasons I'm no fan of Pullman is that I think he's sloppy, and nowhere more so than in his failure to think through the implications of his daemons. My favourite rant is about a line he drops about the man in the kitchen with a daemon the same sex as him, who everyone thinks is odd and avoids. Because folks, in a world where daemons displayed your sexuality for all to see, either the Church would cull homosexuals at birth (given that for all the child-daemons' changeability, sex seems to be a given) or, while there might be hostility to a minority, there would certainly be no closet culture (and there's a thought, never having to worry that the object of my desire might be straight).
Karen Traviss, having never heard my rant, was asked to write a piece for this book, and wrote one on what our world would be like if we all had demons. It's hysterical, and utterly brilliant sf: because of course parents would pay for therapy to try to make sure their child grew up with the right kind of demon. Tough men would buy accessories for their "inner kitten" who is now embarrassingly on display. Cross-cultural prejudice would ensure that while a dog was a perfectly acceptable daemon in one culture, in another it doomed you to shovelling shit for the rest of your life.
[And just think what it would do to politics! George Bush would be accompanied by a small, anxious looking Jack Russell. Bill Clinton would have a bonobo.]
The rest of the book is ok, but I promise you faithfully, if you shell out the requisite tenner, Karen Traviss's chapter will reward every penny.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Louise Cooper, Mirror Mirror: Breaking Through, and Mirror, Mirror: Running Free (London: Hodder Children's Books, 2000).
Cooper has produced two books which are supposed to be one book really, but actually they aren't. OK, I know that doesn't make sense.
In Mirror Mirror: Breaking Through Angel lives in a nasty super-commercial world, her mother is shallow and wants to her to Partner a boy at 15 so she doesn't have to pay for Angel's education. Running away from this, Angel falls through a mirror sculpture into a bronze-age world, and meets Winter, a boy with the same names as the fantasy boy in her virtual reality game. Eventually, disease hits his village and they escape back into Angel's world where her mother tries to make her a celebrity. Angel and Winter run back through the sculpture.
This first book rather over-eggs the pudding: the world is so horrible, Angel's parents so uncaring. This is a teen view of the world but it doesn't offer much solution, In some ways it's a lot like N.Roy Clifton's The City Beyond the Gates in that although Cooper makes some sardonic comments about it being a good thing Angel doesn't ask the villagers what the cute bunnies are for, there is a lot of wistfulness for a simpler way of life.
The second book is much more interesting. When Angel and Winter go through the sculpture they find Winter's world isn't quite as they remember it. They end up running again, and this time they end up in a not-quite-Angel world where there is an Angel but it's the daughter her mother would actually have liked (pliant, not too bright). They try again and end up ricocheting between different worlds until rescued by Pye, who they had thought was threatening them but is actually the scientist who made the sculpture. He asks to take them on as apprentices. Winter agrees, Angel declines. She goes back to her own world, can't cope with it, and is rescued by her own ingenuity (she builds the sculpture anew in virtual reality) and by Winter and Pye.
The book is about leaving home and growing up, about refusing the socialisation cues. Although Winter is clearly a love interest, it isn't forced on the reader (ie I could ignore it). And there is a very cute electronic cat who also makes its own little feline decisions by the end of the book. What more could you ask?
Monday, September 12, 2005
Can We All Say Allegory?, N.Roy Clifton The City Beyond the Gates (Richmond, Ontario: Scholastic, 1971)
Janey-Ann lives in a peaceful enclave where everyone is at one with nature, they wear woollen clothes, uses horses, eat seeds and home made bread and apples. Beyond the Fence the trees are all dead and the earth parched.
Janey-Ann decides to go beyond the Fence and plant a tree. When she has done this she finds the gate has disappeared, and she decides this is because she doesn't want to go home enough. She walks on and comes to the city of Fair-Look where the Giant fulfills all wishes, and the Kemark controls the people and takes one in twenty for the Giant's tax.
You can tell this is allegory. The people in Fair-Walk eat flavoured mush, the people on the other side eat "Sunseeds" which are a mixture of all seeds together. Allegory can never be bothered with world building, it tends to have only one kind of everything and to point at it with large signs, In this case the signs are very real, in the windows of shops. Janey-Ann is very clearly the Pilgrim, seeking salvation only to be distracted by the bright colours around her.
The people of Fair-Walk are trapped by their Giant who provides "everything" they want, and everything they want is a weak parody of capitalism in which there is multiplicity of choice which all resolves into new and shiny things which all look the same. Men wear denims, girls where transparent clothing. Everyone chews gum. And all of this is discussed in the syrupy-iest of tones and mysticism. Capitalism is turned into a religion, Janey-Ann's solution is a back to the earth socialism.
Eventually Janey-Ann escapes with a boy, who has to give up all his clothing and possessions to pass across the fence to salvation.
The funny thing is that the book I'm blogging tomorrow has a very similar plot but manages to reduce the allegorical insistence of this book merely to over-intrusive metaphor.
Friday, September 09, 2005
Adolescents really do suffer a brain dysfunction, for a while
From the Independent, Sept 09 2005
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
The inability to penetrate the minds of stroppy, angst-ridden teenagers is an accepted part of parenthood. Now it appears the feeling is mutual. Scientists believe a regression in the brain at puberty could explain why Harry Enfield's character Kevin finds life so unfair. Young teenagers begin to lose the ability to discern emotions in adults' faces, causing them to behave temporarily like younger children.
Professor David Skuse, of the Institute of Child Health in London, told the British Association for the Advancement of Science that hormonal surges at puberty may cause a rewiring of the brain of adolescents which interferes with their ability to interact socially with their elders.
"There is a temporary deterioration in children's capacity accurately to interpret emotions from facial expressions around the time of puberty," he said. "This may go some way to explaining the 'Kevin' phenomenon described so perceptively by Harry Enfield."
Six hundred children between six and 17 were studied to see how good they were at recognising facial expressions. There was a gradual improvement with age, interrupted only at puberty when both sexes began to regress. They recovered later.
Sadness and anger expressed in a face were emotions pubes-cent children seem to have great difficulty understanding. "For parents trying to manage their unruly adolescents - and this is as true for boys as it is for girls - one wonders whether they are understanding anything you are saying to them," Professor Skuse told the Festival, in Dublin. "It appears this is a function of the development of their brain at that time. It's not a cultural phenomenon, it's a real biologically based phenomenon from which fortunately they recover.
"There is that age of about 12, 13 or 14 when they seem completely oblivious to nuances of facial expressions but these same brain circuits are processing tone of voice. At six, there is a substantial difference between boys and girls. At school entry, 70 per cent of boys are worse than 50 per cent of girls."
Teachers trying to control unruly boys using subtle expressions, such as raised eyebrows, or a tone of voice may fail because boys are unable to read such signs, Professor Skuse said. "We're talking about a fairly substantial proportion of boys. One in five boys is worse than [most] girls."
(I'm trying to clear a stack of small jobs before term starts so that I'm only juggling research and my paid job, not research, my paid job and a journal. Reading for pleasure does not figure in this week's plan of action. I'll try to be back to regular blogging on Monday.)
Sunday, September 04, 2005
A Voice for the Voiceless: Susan Price, Odin's Voice (London: Simon & Schuster, 2005).
A very good novel indeed with a tantalisingly fuzzy and well realised future. And no, that's not a contradiction in terms. What makes this book so effective is that Price neither pauses to let us know how we got "there" from "here", nor does she ever really stop to explain where here is. It is, for example, only a small comment about "indigenous gods" suggests we might be in the old UK, or maybe Scandinavia.
"Kylie" is the bondwoman servant of Freewoman Perry. She isn't quite a slave: in theory she can buy her freedom from the agency who rents her out, but as this requires earnings associated with high skills (which she doesn't have) and as the agency charges training to a bonder's bill, it's all a bit unlikely. But Kylie is lucky; she seems to chanel Odin, one of the local gods, and the temple worshippers club together to buy her freedom. "Kylie" becomes "Odinstoy" having chosen to give herself to Odin, and becomes the Godspeaker of the temple.
She is replaced at Freewoman Perry's by Affroditey, the daughter of a bankrupt who bonded his own daughter to the bank and then suicided. Price does a brilliant job of showing what a nice spoiled child is like, and follows it up with an effective portrayal of separation trauma. Affroditey gets called "Kylie" and has to look after Freewoman Perry's little boy. She hates him. She has no idea how to look after children. One day in a park she is approached by a woman in black who offers her love. Love just for her. The love hungry Affroditey takes up the invitation to the temple.
This is where the book gets interesting, and ties into Mary Harris Russell's interest in what divides children's books from juvenile, and juvenile from adult. The plot continues onward: the woman in the park is Odinstoy and when she gets the opportunity to go to Mars she proposes to Affroditey that they run away together, but the child (Apollo) is part of the deal--he is really the son of Odinstoy and Freeman Perry. This isn't a romance tho', so Affroditey (and the reader) have to quickly take on the notion of rape, without the word ever being said. Affroditey also has to accept that Odinstoy--at least initially--regarded her as an adjunct to Appollo.
Then there's the sex: I'd love to be a fly on the wall when an eleven year old reader asks Mum or Dad "what's a phallus?" There's cross-dressing too, and while some of it is part of the escape plan, quite a lot is joyous and rather sexy, and more than a hint of lesbianism, and quite a bit of happy promiscuity.
Odin's Voice is pretty brutal in its portrayal both of bondage and the hypocrisies of bondage, the dissonance between what bondholders think of themselves and their bonders think is dealt with particularly deftly. Price also does a really excellent job and delineating the bitterness of poverty and the use of slavery to keep the poor at bay. If I have a qualm it's that Price's Odin is just a little too close to Jesus in her portrayal. By the end there was enough deviation in theology -- along sfnal computer randomised runes--to let it work, and Price never sinks into the naff religious orientalism of too many quest fantasies, but I think it could have done with one more twist of dissonance.
At the end of the book, even though I knew what the outcome had to be (there's a sequel after all) I was hanging onto the edge of my seat. Price creates a very quiet tension which has you reading semi-reluctantly, desperate but terrified to know what comes next.
NB: note to parents considering gen-enging their children. If you give your daughter hair that changes colour with her emotions we will know you are heartless control freaks who want to make sure your daughter is never able to lie (and thus control her own life).
Friday, September 02, 2005
One for Michael Levy: Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill (London: Harper Collins, 2004)
Very early on in this work I had an argument with Michael Levy who felt that my objection to books in which sf formed the metaphor for a kid sorting out his/her emotional relationship with parents or lovers "failed" books which succeeded in their own terms. I still stand by what I am arguing, that many of these books aren't sf, that they aren't about the impact of technology but about something else, but in Be More Chill I've found a book that is about relationships and is also science fiction. The crucial difference is that the technology is not a metaphor for anything but a facilitator that tackles what being a teenage boy is like, head on.
Jeremy is terminally uncool. He keeps printed sheets where he records all the slights he receives, he doesn't know how to dress, and he can\'t even get as far as asking a girl out, never mind being turned down.
One day a colleague (not a friend) talks him into buying a squip, a nanocomputer in the form of a pill. He swallows it, and the computer begins to give him advice on how to be cool. The book is funny, and sensible. Vizzini has done something both very simply and very clever--found a way to make an "agony" book, hip. When things go wrong it's partially because Jeremy ignores the chip at crucial moments, partially because the chip is only a computer after all, and Jeremy's girl of choice turns out to be a bit smarter than the chip realises. At the end Jeremy chooses to flush the chip, because it's degrading, but there is no sickening "lesson" about how one should just be yourself. At the end, Jeremy has learned, had grown wiser. The chip helped him get started and from there he can work out who he wants to be and how to go about achieving that. Be More Chill is a book about how technology can help us: no hysteria, no fatalism no metaphors.