Friday, September 21, 2007

Alien Contacts: Arthur C. Clarke, Dolphin Island. Gollancz, London, 1963.

Johny runs away from home, stows away on a hover craft which is then damaged in a storm. The crew, not knowing he was there, leave without him, and he jumps into the sea. He manages to get onto a packing box and is drawn to an island by dolphins where he finds a research community who are working to understand and communicate with dolphins. The sf plot is then about teaching killer whales not to eat dolphins.

But more interesting is that most of the Island is Black, and Johnny's best friend is a local boy (black). Clarke handles this incredibly well in that Mike is just Mike: clever, and bigger and stronger than Johnny so although he is "the protagonist's friend" he never feels like a sidekick. The island economy is dependent on the work of everyone and Clarke does a really suberb job of blending the different peoples (as I had just read a K. Bulmer book in which a handsome, clever man was declared "clearly not really a Negro! There had to be some other blood in him! Clarke came as a breath of fresh air.

Shame the illustrator of the puffin edition ignored Clarke's descriptions of the boys. In the picture opposite p. 39, Johnny is drawn as his age (16./17), but Mike is drawn to be about 14. Someone, somewhere, clearly couldn't handle the idea that a Black friend could be older, smarter, physically fitter and better looking than the white protagonist.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Thinking Books: Terry Dear's Classified

These aren't sf but I can see them appealing to kids who like to puzzle things out. Each fictionalizes a real life mystery/case history, and then takes the reader through various possibilities. I rather enjoyed them.

All were reprinted by Kingfisher in 2004.

Break Out (1996): investigation into the disappearance of an imprisoned spy.
Discovery at Roswell (1996): young FBI man investigates Roswell.
Vanished! (1996): Investigation into the Philadelphia Experiment.
The Nuclear Winter Man (1996)--investigation into the disappearance of a Russian scientist.

Restoring the Natural Order: John Christopher, Empty World. Hamish Hamilton: London, 1977.

Neil Miller's entire family is wiped out by a car crash and he is still numbed when the Plague hits, killing the elderly first but rapidly moving on to the young. The disease ages you in four days. You die of old age.

The first part of the book which deals with Neil's numbness in disaster is fantastic. The section where he moves through an empty world was also pretty good.

But I had completely missed the really nasty homophobia.

When Neil finally finds people, he finds two girls living together. Billie is boyish. Lucy is sweetly feminine. Billie is hostile. Lucy welcomes him. Getting the picture? There is increasing rivalry betwen Neil and Billie. Billie tries to kill him. He gets Lucy on his side and locks Billie out of the house, at the mercy of the winter and wild dogs. At the very end, at the very point where Lucy comes completely on to his side and awards him the victory by suggesting that they not let Billie back in, he "relents" and goes to let her back in.

I must have been young when I read this, because I don't remember it at all, and I'm fairly sure that by 15 or 16 I'd have picked up the sub-text. Billie shared Lucy's bedroom until Neil comes along. She "plays boy" while Lucy keeps house, even finds Lucy a sewing machine. But when a "real" man comes along, the Adam and Eve mythos can play out for real, and there is no place for Billie.

Empty world: Molly Brown, Virus. Scholastic: London, 1994.

Starts well in a depopulated world where most of the world is sterile. Amanda is a rare 16 year old who has secured her first job as a temp at a computing firm. When she arrives she discovers that the programmers are suffering from fever and then dying. Amanda discovers that Carol, the owner of the firm, was the daughter of a women who developed organic computers (they are in all in fact her brothers and sisters). They survived a purge many years ago [when Carol had discovered they were responsible for the plague] and are out to get her.

The construction of the depopulated world is brilliant, but when Brown "reveals" that it has all been caused by computers the book flags. All of this has to be explained because its essentially an imposition on a different kind of sf novel, one which is about living in the future. The result is far too many pages of download, a segue into a rather predictable Frankenstein narrative and a rather too simplistic solution. A shame because the first half of the book is really excellent.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Creationist Science Fiction: Michael Coleman, The Cure. Orchard Books: London, Australia, 2007

Up until now my nomination for "most poisonous book in my collection" would have been The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson, a libertarian fantasy from 1975 which is utterly dishonest in its ideological plotting ie it twists notions of intellectual property ownership to justify the redevelopment of feudalism.

I have a new nomination, The Cure, by Michael Coleman. The only Creationist Science Fiction novel I've ever read.

Michael Coleman is a Catholic (he says so on his website and it is clearly part of his general sales pitch so I don't feel awkward mentioning it here). The purpose of the book is to preach belief in G-d and I don't actually object to that. What made my stomach curdle was the way in which he did it. Michael Coleman is of the "aetheists can't be moral" brigade, a position I find repellent even when expressed by people (such as Jasmin Alibhai Brown) whom I otherwise respect.

As it's relevant to this discussion let's put my cards on the table: I am a lapsed Jew, who joined the Religious Society of Friends in 1992. I believe in G-d. My G-d exists in the spaces between us. I can feel it. I have no need to worry about whether G-d is compatible with science or evolution, because for me, any argument seems to reduce G-d to "like us" and surely that is the point. G-d is not like us.

Ok, on to the book but with lots of diversions in square brackets where I "reacted".. It's the far future and it seems a bit backward which is rather odd, because this is a pro-science, secular society. This is the first indication of "stacked decks" because the implication is that a pro-science society without religion will stagnate. Yeah. Really.

But it is a society in which "Blesseds" are regularly created, and our hero, Raul, rather objects to the making of celebrities Blessed. He argues that there are now far too many and they are soon forgotten.

Aside: I wasn't at all sure whether this was an attack on celebrity culture or not. Given the rate at which the Catholic Church now makes saints, either it's pot-calling-kettle, or Coleman is attacking the Church as well,

Back to the book. Raul gets done for blasphemy for smashing a statue of the latest blessed his sister wants to send money on. [again: an attack on celebrity or on the Catholic Church's tradition of selling tchotckes of Christ and Mary? I don't know).

Raul and his sister Amry have been living in a refuge for abandoned children. For some reason this is made out to be a bad thing but although the regime is harsh, it doesn't seem cruel--and sorry to keep harping on this but it *will* be relevant, it's not as if the Church homes currently have such a wonderful reputation.

One thing about Raul: we hear his locker has been searched, and in it he keeps the instruments of science such as a telescope. Again, this is relevant.

So, the two kids end up on an island asylum where, through their "therapy" we learn about the world.

Three hundred years before there was a rebellion against superstition and religion. Darwin was set up as Our Saviour from Superstition, and all the religions were dismantled. Anyone who still believes in God is an unbeliever. The Writings, the book of this society, is a combination of science, and stories used as metaphors from various religious books. All the moral teachings are identical with the major religions (although this society is a lot more merciful with thieves than many religious societies have been).

Ok, so far I'm not too bothered. But then we get to the other kids in therapy and why they are there, and this is where Coleman begins to stack the deck in some very unpleasant ways:

Sarih (female) is probably borderline autistic in that although she is obsessed with numbers, she doesn't like large numbers so can't really be called a savant. When they are discussing the likelihood of life on other planets, one of the therapists explains that the numbers of planets are too big to think easily about, as are the number of mutations which created humans.

Sarih responds: "How big? If it is too big then it becomes an impossible." (102) And through this thought she comes to the conclusion that "Science tells lies. The Writings tell Science. The Writings tell lies." (112). Sarih uses the probability theory derived from dice to "prove" that mutations can't work as a means of development.

"What is easier?... To turn a frog into a bird or to throw forty sixes? Sixes of course. But if sixes can't be done in time how can mutations? Scence lies! There must have been a Creator-God!" (114)

Doron does explain, "Nature throws its dice more than once a second." but somehow this is less convincing, and as Sarih will be lobotomised, her maths skills taken away to make her happy, the impression left is of someone silenced to lock up "the truth".

Another child, Jack, is clearly being "therapied" for his empathy with animals which is somehow "unsecular" [because gosh, there are no atheist vegetarians, and some religious people don't think the Bible gives them mastery over animals]. Micha receives a lecture that "We are not special. Humans are highly developed animals, that is all. We are not special in any way--not even in this puny world, let alone in the universe." (103) but this is again undermined by the passion of Jack and Micah and the firm belief of Emily in the afterlife.

I'll skip ahead now to the next stacking of decks. Raul discovers the journal of a monk who had dwelt in the building they are in when it was still a monastery and realizes that some of the history he has been given isn't true. Well gosh. Apparently they got a few dates wrong. Raul's discovery of this journal inspires him to go looking for the Brother who he finds, and who insists that his "real" name is Paul and the name has been messed with by the Republic (Arym is "really" Mary). Raul uses this inspiration to deny the catechism of the Republic , gets lobotomized, dies, and inspires Arym to go out in the world having abandoned her "faith" in the Secular Society and having acquired Raul's belief that humans are here for a purpose and that God exists.

I could have handled an argument that "people tend to ritualize and make faith out of anything" but that's not what's going on here.

So to summarise:
Scientific society will stagnate intellectually without God.
Scientific societies will lose all interest in actual, you know, science.
The belief that humans are no more important than animals will lead to the death of empathy.
Probability theory can disprove the evidence of evolution and prove the existence of God.
That telescope in your closet is there to look on the works of God and and wonder.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What Fran Did: Vivien Alcock, The Monster Garden. London: Methuen, 1988.

Frances Stein gets teased at school because of both her name and her father's involvement in the bio-tech lab up the road, Then her brother sneaks home some cell samples. She coerces hm into giving her some, and while his die, she grows a monster.

Fran is not, at least at the start, very interested in science, partially because she is always being told she is too young, but also because she has a poor relationship with her father (her mother died when she was very young and he can't communicate). Her interest is awoken however by the "monster's" reactions to her. Considered "soft" by her brothers she is kind to it and it grows.

This book could be read as midly anti-science with feminine qualities of caring more important than science, but actually I anger is a consequence of rejection, Alcock shows what kindness can do to them monster.

At the end Fran's dad is exonerated -- a colleague he doesn't much like may have created the cell samples-- and Fran is growing into her heritage and getting interested in science. She is also getting on better with her Dad but there are, thank goodness, no miraculous cures for bad relationships (one of the friendships sours and stays sour also).

One small point: Fran has three brothers. This is a rare "modern" book with siblings.

The Changes Trilogy by Peter Dickinson

The Weathermonger, 1968.
Heartsease, 1969.
The Devil's Children1970.

Too famous to really be worth describing I have only two things to say:

1) If anyone out there read them in publication order first, and remembers doing so, I'd really like to talk to them.

2) Someone *please* reprint them! They are as fresh and brilliant as I remember, and astonishingly they haven't dated at all. The last imprint is 2003 in the UK. They need a US imprint and glossy new covers.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The metaphysics of time travel: Richard Parker, The Old Powder Line. Thomas Nelson Inc., Camden, New York, 1971.

A very Geoffrey Trease feel to this book which may be as much about period as about style (although I would never have guessed it was American).

Brian wanders to the old station one day and ends up on a steam train which takes him to watch his own past. He tells his father's secretary, Miss Mincing who tells her brother Arnold. Arnold is in his forties and in a wheelchair. One of the nice things about this book is that it presents friendship between a fifteen year old and a forty year old plausibly and without sentimentality. Arnold gets stranded in the past and Brian, with the help of his sister's friend Wendy, goes back to try and rescue him/persuade him to return.

The time travel is sort of metaphysical, but there is a lot of explanation that works very well on p. 103. Also endearing is that Wendy, who gave up science in the third year, follows it all.

"I did, but you don't have to hand in your head with your physics and chemistry books."
Brian hadn't come across any really intelligent girls before. He was a little bewildered and would have liked to explore further. (p. 104)

Such is young geek love, 1971 style.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Protect and Survive: Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl. Faber and Faber: London, 2007

Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl is exactly the kind of competent, well written, complex sf book I expect from an author of this calibre.

Laura is moving back to Liverpool with her Mum. It's 1962, her father is in the Airforce, her Mum is obsessed with how life was in the War, and her parents are splitting up. There is an American "lodger" in the house who seems to be an old flame from the war. And far, far away, Russian ships are approaching Cuba.

At her new school Laura hooks up with Joel, the one black kid in the class, with Bernadette, mouthy and scarred by poverty and with their friend Nick. Nick and Bernadette introduce Laura (and the reader) to 1960s Liverpool with its grime, the fading docks and the vibrant musical culture. But all is not quite right in Laura's world. Her father has given her a Key which turns out to be a key to a Vulcan, the bombers that are meant to carry a nuclear payload. People seem to be hunting her: Miss Wells and Agatha, both of whom look enough like Laura for people to comment, and the Minuteman, who seems to be a relative of Mort-the-American-lodger.

And suddenly we are into alternative history as the Government declares emergency measures and begins rounding up dissenters. Laura and her friends go on the run as the world around them collapses and they begin to realise that something very strange is going on. Miss Wells and Agatha both come from the future but different futures and Laura has a Choice to make.

Which is where the book nearly came unravelled because the Choices offered are so damn unattractive that there is never any temptation.

Luckily Baxter gets himself off this plot hook with a little deus ex-machina as Dad arrives with Joel, John Lennon and a bunch of proto-Beatles fans, and All is Revealed. The Military Industrial Complex plot to take over the world is scuppered and we return more or less to normal but with "Beatle John" as a hero of the people. That sounds flippant but it's well executed.

The book works pretty well in sf terms with enough hints to aid a child/teen to work out what's happening without wrecking the book and Baxter shows more social courage than most of the writers I've read. There's a single mum, comments on the pressures created by the Catholic Church, the horrendousness of racism and gay bashing. This is the first proper sf book in my collection which has a real, honest to goodness gay character.*

I do find myself mildly worried that despite the explanatory note quite a few kids will be asking their parents about the riots in Britain in 1962.

I have one, and only one argument with Baxter about the world he creates: whatever a random British monarch would have done, the daughter of George and Elizabeth would never have evacuated to Canada.

*The one slight problem is that Nick, the gay kid, opts to go to the future in the hope that it is better. One's first thought is "Yes!" but one's second thought is "hey, but that's not *our* future, and it may not be better, plus, even if it is ours, he's missed out on Gay Liberation, and the wonderful, fabulous backlash against Clause 28 which changed all our lives.

Government Work: Rash by Pete Hautman (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2006).

I should have blogged this one ages ago but I left my copy on the bus when I was barely half way through.

Bo has grown up in the United Safer States of America. He runs in pads, and has therapy for his temper. When he loses it one too many times (and triggers a psychosomatic rash among his classmates) he finds himself making pizza for McDonalds in a forced labour factory in Alaska. The only escape is the football team, until his liberty is regained by the AI he accidentally created for a school project. There are two things going on in this book: the first is an argument about over-protection and feminising society. Fortunately it's ambivalent. B's temper is never regarded by anyone, incudling himself as a good thing. The response is linked ot the second argument where it becomes convenient to the government to describe more and more things as a crime, so that free labour is displaced by convict labour until it makes more sense for Bo's father to "voluntarily commit" since at least he will get paid, and there is a 99% recividism rate for all convicts.

I like this one: the story is clearly "a sliver from the world". The protagonist is not terribly important, his is just one story among many.