Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Through the wormhole with flippers and fins: Jamila Gavin, The Wormholers (London: Egmont Books, 2003)

And by this time I can't help noting how many of the sf books come from small presses even where--as with Jamila Gavin--the author's fantasy is with a mainstream house.

The Wormholers is interesting for what it doesn't do. It doesn't explain much. It is dull exactly in those moments when it takes time out to give a little lecture because those lectures are not about the science of wormholes (that's done pretty well) but about morals--caring for your stepmother/handicapped neighbour/the earth.

Chad notices the baking powder trying to hide itself on the shelf one day. He ignores it. Then the next day the condiments move in front of his eyes, the kitchen looks huge and he passes out. A chap comes by and asks him about things disappearing. He denies it. Then two pieces of lego fall down a sudden chasm in the floorboards. Knowing that three experiments makes proof, he calls his disliked step-sister over. Natalie disappears and Chad panics. He calls the strange chap back by inserting the calling card into the computer as if it were a disk. Strange chap reappears and offers to take him into the wormhole to look for Natalie. Chad agrees but--and here is one interesting difference--the wormhole closes too late to take him, but leaves him with the chap's wormhole dousing equipment.

With Natalie gone Chad finds himself filling in for her in entertaining their neighbour Sophie who has cerebral palsy. But today Sophie has been given a computer which can be operated by a tilt of her head, and it turns out that Sophie is a genius.

From here there are three plot lines. Chad's search for his step-sister which takes him through the interstercise of space and time to a meeting with his half-brother in Australia. Natalie's experience living in a backwards dimension in which her father is once again alive. And Sophie's experience in another body--one we eventually realise is a whale--as part of an overmind which tries to protect planets from humans.

The bit I liked least was that Sophie opts for her crippled body over freedom (home is apparently best) and there is some mawkishness for Chad with a teddy bear. But surrounding all that is some very interesting discussion of the science and theory of wormholes and time and space, and a fair bit of philosophy too, all disguised in a rather interesting portal fantasy. There is no consequence at all at the end (except some personal reconciliation) but interestingly, I felt satisfied.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

What the Cat Told Me: Nicholas Fisk, On the Flip Side (Harmondsworth, Mdx: Puffin, 1983)

Another by Nicholas Fisk.

Lettice can speak with animals. If she looks into their eyes she can see images that tell her things, and what they tell her is that the world is threatened by Blobs.

Fisk's On the Flip Side is a humorous horror story in which the mad scientist cracks jokes but is a genius, television produces "Rasters", waves which produce the blobs which -- first unthinkingly, then with malevolence--attack animals and humans.

What makes the story interesting--and it took me three goes to get past the first chapter--is that Lettice isn't very nice and is not in the least bit redeemed by the world's eventual realisation that she is telling the truth (she hates it in fact) and that the animals and humans eventually flee Earth for a Victorian analogue where they forget their old world almost totally.

It's an odd book--sf-horror with a rite of passage in which the moment of passage brings with it not growth but forgetfulness.

To be a Fan Writer or Not to be a Fan Writer...

Coalescent has been saying very nice things about me, but in doing so described me as a fan writer. This (and his references to Paul Kincaid) has triggered some debate about what a fan writer is. After some thought I posted the following:

I honestly hadn't even thought of myself as a fan writer, and was terribly chuffed to find my name here. But that made me think:

There *is* a difference between my blog and the rest of my writing. I use the blog for initial thoughts, general rants and unsubstantiated sidesweeps. Whatever else it is, it isn't criticism and I'd be in deep trouble if I tried to publish it professionally. The eventual book for which the blog is a research diary will look very different.

So given all that--that the blog is a diary (if of a very specific kind)--and that it's meant for a fannish, not a professional community....

Dammit, I have become a fan writer.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Epic Complexities: Conor Kostick, Epic (Dublin, O’Brien Press, 2004)

(Apologies, one day late, but this is a 300 page book).

First of all, ignore the mildly clunky writing of this novel. I promise you, it’s well worth your time.

On an unnamed planet a group of colonisers play the interface game of Epic. Once a mere past-time for bored star-travellers, over the centuries Epic has come to be the arena of the economy and of law. Prizes and monies won, given or traded transfer as points accumulated in the real world. Victory in the graduation tournaments can bring a university place. Armour bought with the pennies stolen from kobolds become tractor allocations or books for a school. Presiding as a referee over the system is Central Allocations. Made up of the most prestigious and victorious players this Committee ensures fairness in everything from hip replacement operations to luxury goods.

The difficulty is that over the years, the colony seems to be doing worse, although CA is forever talking about improvements in the future. Equipment is degrading, people’s lives getting harder, and the gap between the rich and poor in the game seems to be growing.

Which is a good cue for a pause to consider Conor Kostik.

Conor Kostick has designed a live fantasy playing game, a board game, has written political and cultural essays and history books and teaches medieval history at Trinity College Dublin. This proves an astonishingly powerful combination because Epic,which I originally handled rather gingerly, may be one of the most complex political sf novels for children I’ve read so far.

One of the premises in Epic is that CA decisions may be challenged in the arena, and when Erik’s parents feel their village has been treated unjustly in the allocation of solar panels they decide to give it a go. Unusually, they succeed in reducing the CA team to a draw, but in doing so unmask Erik’s father, who it turns out was exiled for the crime of violence—much later we’ll discover that his victim was the more violent man. This one act sets of a chain of political events as the CA becomes increasingly repressive in order to hold in place the economic system they think preserves society.

But there is also another chain of events. Dead once again in the game, Erik, in a flash bravado, creates a new character very different from the norm. The emphasis in the political system on accumulation of prizes and powers as the route to economic success has led to a game world in which avatars are attribute loaded grey pixels, and almost all action takes place in the arena. Eric flippantly assigns almost all his start up points to beauty and wit. In response, the game offers him more opportunities to interact.

Kostick introduces two things here: first, he begins an argument that the game—once a rich exploration—has been subverted. The more it is tied to a crude capitalism, the less interactive, rich and joyous it becomes, By part way through, we learn that the game itself is pretty unhappy here. Second, Kostik begins to argue with the way young gamers tend to respond—and here it will be worth me comparing this book to the 1980s game books and to what I can find on modern gaming (I’m not a gamer myself).

In addition, Kostick also does something so clever it took my breath away. I said earlier that Kostick’s style was a bit clunky, but this does not diminish the skill with which he shifts back and forth from game to real world. The entire story is told third person, one pov, but when in the game Kostick clearly delineates between Erik and Erik’s avatar Cindella in a simple, but perfect way: any action described is Cindella doing. Any thinking described is Erik doing. So “Cindella walked down the street” might be followed by “Erik noticed the merchant by the side of the road, gesturing to him.” So neat, and I almost missed it.

I also said earlier that this is a politically complex novel: one of the things Kostick uses it for is to present a critique of meritocracy. The graduation games, for example, which are supposed to test the mettle of the young, are lies. Not because anyone cheats, but because it is well within the rules of Epic to gift powers and spells, weapons and potions, so that some young people enter the arena with a rich inheritance of armour while others enter with the small pieces of plate that their folks grubbed together penny by penny. In Epic, accumulation is compound not hierarchical, so that the richest have the opportunity to get richer. Not unreasonably, one character advocates “violent surgery”—Kostick neatly paraphrases a number of radical parties—but demonstrating his sophistication above the norm in such novels, Kostick also allows the same character to denounce those who hold dogmatic ideals.

The characterisation is very rich, Kostick grounds individual’s lines of enquiry in their interests and ambitions, which has the laudable effect of leading Erik to fight for others’ goals. He is mostly interested in knowledge, but his friend Injeborg is interested in social justice and it is she who explains the way the study of Epic—much like poetry in the Chinese Empire—has come to undermine the whole economy as it siphons off energy and both mid-directs, and probably misindentifies—the “best and brightest”. This clear approach to characterisation means we are also spared the easy trust so many juvenile protagonists offer. The one time Erik does trust without reason, it turns out to be a seduction.

Amid so many books in which the loss of knowledge seems inevitable and the tearing down of society a given, it was wonderful to read a book in which each movement was part of a set of sane, sensible, but fundamentally unpredictable chains of decision.

More please.

(I'm off to Paragon 2 -- the UK Eastercon-- today and I hav forgotten to pack any books. It's been that kind of a morning. If I buy stuff there I'll blog, but otherwise, my next post is likely to be Tuesday evening next week.)

Monday, March 14, 2005

A short vacation--next post on 23 March 2005.

I'm off to a conference this week (the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts) and this, combined with the fact that I hven't actually read anything worth blogging for a day or two, suggests that a short leave of absence is appropriate.

I get back to the UK on 21st March and there should be about eighty books waiting for me (plus the contents of the British Library) so I'll be able to get back to work pretty quickly. I'll post my next report on 23 March.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Two for the Blog of One: J. Fitzgerald McCurry and Eoin Colfer

J. Fitzgerald McCurry, The Fiire Demons: The Mole Wars Book One (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).

A very well written book but which is essentially an Atlantean type story, and this "lost races" motif undermines both the child's empowerment and the interest in the book.

Steele (the names are ridiculous) notices that children are being stolen away. One of them is Dirk, the boy who has bullied him viciously--this is one of the most effective parts of the book, but after Dirk is stolen it comes to nothing.

Steele is found by Maddie Fey and told that he is really an alien and a mage. He is part of an ancient race who long ago buried evil creatures they have called Terrorists into the lava of the earth. There the beings have mutated into fire devils and are now breaking through to attack the earth.

Periodically we get little missives about how the nice aliens nurtured Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens.

At the end Steele and his friends Riley (a girl) and Mac, rescue some of the kids who have lost their memory and are now vicious, and they all head further into the adventure for the next book.

The one moment that is truly glorious is that Steele sees the future in the scarf his Grandmother (also an alien mage) is knitting. Against all of this though is the sense that Steele is merely a checker to be pushed from square to square. He seems to have even less intellectual independence than Garth Nix's Arthur Penhaligon. And of course, the fact that he is "born" a mage also tends to undermine any sense of a learning curve.

Eoin Colfer, The Supernaturalist (New York: Hyperion Books, 2004)

I enjoyed the Artemis Fowl books, but at the level of "there are lots of funny bits" rather than the story as a whole.

The Supernaturalist is clearly sf, but reading the book is a little like looking at a painting and realising that the best bit of it is the frame. Colfer does a really excellent job of creating a future world of poverty, pollution, genetic engineering and welfare orphanages where companies test their products, but this never quite gets integrated into the adventure, which is about gang of kids "ghostbusting" blue creatures who appear to be sucking out the life from people, but who actually take pain. Towards the end the novel deteriorates into a by the numbers wicked-corporations-and-their-exploitative-inventions riff, and the genetically engineered character--the brilliant Bartolli baby Ditto, turns out to have mystical healing powers and empathy. [someone, somewhere, needs to write an essay on compulsive mawkishness in "politics fit for children".

I think there are going to be sequels, and despite the cool comments above, I'll look forward to them, as this was clearly a "setting up" book of the kind we have become used to in series films (X Men for example). There was a clear sense of a dissonant world (this is one of the few books I've found to really try to imagine a new future), and a sense that changes in science and technology leads to social change. If Colfer can pull his world closer to his adventure, then I think the next book should be very good indeed.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Ear-rings and Flashing Eyes: Nicholas Fisk, Ecape from Splatterbang (New York: Wanderer Books. Simon and Schuster, 1978).

This is one of those "too much technology makes us soft" books. Fisk strands his young teen male on a dangerous planet. Mykle's parents have been mining there when the "flamers" attack and they scurry off accidentally leaving him behind (he has strayed out of the ship.

Mykle takes refuge in the sealed Settlement, with only Ego, a computer, for company. He gets restless, goes for a walk in his eco suit, and finds Amina, the daughter of one of the Romni miners with whom Mykle's parents are working.

Now call me stupid, but at first I read the girl' name as Anima. Then I realised I'd misread it. Then I realised that I had been right in the first place.

What I like about the book is that it begins with real dissonance (the world is not our world) and there is a genuine puzzle to resolve, what are the flamers and how does the world function? And I like the fact that it is Amina who works it out (heaven knows how Fisk expects a boy to respond to this book, Mykle is rather sad). But I didn't like that at the end, when Mykle's mother says it was Amina who discovered the life cycle of flamer-eat-metal, animals-eat-residue, Mykle responds, "Not discovered...she just seemed to know about things like that. The animal, hte plants...".

I've given you less clues than I had. The phonetic spelling threw me at first, but we get lots of hints of swarthy skin, cooking pots made of fabulous new material but still making stew, the reputation of the Romni as thieves.

What Fisk has done, almost certainly with the best of intentions, is used racial prejudice as the *point* of the novel, but rather than having Mykle come to realise that Amina is clever in the same way as Mykle is clever--or perhaps even cleverer than him--Fisk gives us all a way out. Amina is not precisely clever, she has the senses of the gypsies, she is sensitive to animals. She didn't think about it (even though we do see her engaging in observation and experimentation) she does sort of knew. She is the anima after all.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

In Flux

Beth Goobie, Flux (Victoria, BC: Orca Books, 2004).
The sequel is called Fixed.

I don't know what's wrong with me but I had a great deal of trouble following the details of this book, partially because Goobie managed what is quite a neat trick of talking about material changes in the world in spiritual terms and still managing to make it sound scientific. But I also had a terrible time trying to work out the Interior to the Outbacks--were they geographically placed? Did they reside in and out of the possible worlds through which Nellie moves? Only at the end, when its clear Nellie will have to walk to the Interior, did I become clear on the geography of the book.

That said, this really is very good, and is one of the few books I've read which uses a girl as protagonist who is not a facsimile of a boy--although ironically it creates a few problems in the smooth telling of the story--then again, that may be my own sexism [g]. I found the discussion of periods, breasts and under arm hair just not quite what I wanted to read.

Nellie lives on a world with two moons. Her mother is dead, she is living in the cracks of the world, and she is being harrassed by a gang of boys. Nellie is a devoted follower of the goddess and the goddesses' gift to her is the ability to move between possible worlds.

When the boy gang catches Nellie they discover scars on her head which frighten them. After her escape Deller their leader, begins to enter her life and when they are both caught in a church she takes him into a possible world to escape. From here Deller pulls her into his world of home comforts, a loving mother and a missing brother. Deller's mother is a tough cookie who has a lot to say about Deller's behaviour to a girl and one of the book's messages seems to be that nice boys do terrible things.

Nellie and Deller try to look for Deller's brother (who Nellie has seen in a laboratory) but Deller's revolutionary cell has been infiltrated by the police. Nellie barely escapes, but meets up with Deller and they both rescue his mother (who has been arrested).

In the course of all this Nellie discovers three things: one of her doubles seems to have even more movement through the worlds than she does, and begins to teach her to move between the Levels (and through the skins) without hurting the universe (here I found myself thinking of Philip Pullman's rather phallic Subtle Knife, Goobie seems to be saying in response "anything that you cut, that is alive, will scream"); that there is some sort of experiment going on to fix the series worlds' probabilities (shades of Pullman again) and third that the world Nellie lives in may be controlled by creatures from another dimension. This last is the least successful because it hints that Goobie will abandon the engineering, pure physics thought experiment of "what if movement through parallel worlds has consequences" and will opt for the old adventure chestnut of "the parents are evil aliens, let's over throw them and all will be well".

Fingers crossed.

I'm only reading one or two books a day at the moment. As it was taking four or five each day to produce one book interesting enough to blog, I may only be blogging every second. Hopefully you'll have the patience to keep faith with me.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Vaccuum Proof Brooms: Don Freeman, Space Witch (New York: Viking Press, 1959).

From the Osbourne Collection in Toronto, where I touched down for the afternoon.

Tilly the witch decides she wants to scare aliens for Halloween so she brews up a spell to make a sort of plastic to make a space broom, stitches a space suit from inner tube tires and crams her cat into the broom.

The broom hurtles into space, past the moon, which hasn't a single creature to scare. They miss Mars and hurtle around saturn and into the Milky Way: " But not a single drop of milk did they see in all that field of twinkling stars/And even a cat could tell they were lost."

Eventually they crash and see small Martians. They follow them into their doorway, only for the Martians to jump out on them with a "Boo". They have landed on Earth and the children are trick or treating. As Kit curls up in his basket he purrs, "There's no space like home."

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A quest fantasy in a sf world: Vivian Vande Velde Heir Apparent (New York: Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt Inc.,2002)

Giannine accepts a gift certificate from her rather neglectful father which takes her into the virtual reality shop of Rasmussen Enterprises. The intelligent bus she takes refuses to let her off at her stop because there is a protest going on outside, CPROC (Citizens to Protect Our Children) but gets off later and double backs. She decides to play Heir Apparent, a game in which you are the hidden prince or princess and must fight for your right to inherit the throne instead of your legitimate siblings.

Once in the game Giannnine/Janine finds herself frustrated in her quest, replaying the same early scene and quickly being killed at the castle. Then there is a lightening storm and Ginannine is told by a ghostly scientist that CPROC have damaged the equipment and her only way out of the game is to win it. If she gets stuck, she is likely to experience severe brain damage after a couple of hours (or three days of game time).

What follows is Ginnanine's attempts to play the game and work out how to use the people and objects around her. The first nice twist is the realisation that her decision not to wait for her peasant father to say goodbye is a mistake, based in her own experience of her father. But this is not a reconciliation novel, itís a book about questioning the decisions you make. Ginannine movesófor exampleófrom reckless mercy/generosity through to a growing sense of how to rule a kingdom and other people. She moves from giving orders which are not obeyed to learning how to command loyalty through respect and listening to the knowledgeable. The entire structure is about growing up as a moving outwards, gaining new horizons. Some of her decisions turn out to be the kind of rational, rather than mystical, decisions we associate with sfóie using the magic crown to turn the dragon to gold.

One of the reasons the book is so successful is that Velde uses the repetitive structure of the game to gain pace: as Giannine has to retrace her steps she narrates it to us in an ever more abbreviated and impatient form, so that as the novel moves into its final phase, it seems to speed up even as we are being given far more detail about the virtual world in ways which should slow it down.